Writing What You Don’t Know

Here’s a not so secret fact: I have virtually no sense of smell. I can only smell the strongest, closest odors, and since the strongest odors are usually the most unpleasant (gasoline, ammonia, the baby who’s just filled her diaper) I tend to think of my sense of smell as an enemy. What’s more, my brain often translates what I do smell into other smells, or sends me phantom scents that no one else can perceive. All perfume smells the same to me. All flowers smell the same. That aforementioned diaper, about half the time, smells like peanut butter. (The reverse is thankfully not true.)

This affects my sense of taste, too. There are a lot of flavors that other people love that to me are just—empty. They taste like a cup of hot water. That means I like strong, spicy flavors like chipotle, or bittersweet like dark chocolate. Even more do I like lots of flavors mingled together, so if one is missing, I don’t notice it. My favorite dessert is English trifle, chocolate and custard and berries all mixed together…and now I’m hungry.

So what does this have to do with writing? In my book The Smoke-Scented Girl, the senses of smell and taste are essential to the story. Taste, because one of the side effects of each magic spell is a phantom flavor; immobilizing someone is like biting an ice cube, clairvoyance tastes like strawberries. Smell, because the spell Evon creates to track Kerensa enhances his sense of smell. And about half the things they smell and taste in that book, I have no personal experience of. I had to be able to write convincingly about those things because my readers would know what charred toast smells like.

Probably the most famous piece of writing advice is “write what you know.” I’ve always thought that was both true and incredibly limiting. On the one hand, if you write about things you don’t know anything about, you’re going to sound like an idiot to the people who do know about them. On the other hand, our experiences in living don’t allow us to know and feel and do absolutely everything in the world. That’s one of the reasons for literature: books give us a window on other lives and encourage us to understand, even in our limited way, what other places and people and times are like. If writers take that advice in the strictest sense, we might as well give up on writing anything that doesn’t reflect our own narrow experience. For those of us who write speculative or historical fiction (or in my case, speculative historical fiction), it might as well say “don’t bother.”

But I think “write what you know” contains a wealth of advice beyond the obvious, and advice that broadens the possibilities of writing rather than shutting them down.

  • Research, study, learn. There’s nothing that says you can’t expand what you know and then write about it. Thanks to the Internet, research is easier than ever before (though also more perilous when it comes to establishing the veracity of a source). Libraries that participate in interlibrary loan are an author’s friend. I spent three weeks collecting information on the Bow Street Runners before I came across a book via interlibrary loan that had everything I’d struggled to learn, plus about a hundred more things I never thought to investigate. These days, you can become an expert on virtually anything if you’re willing to take the time.
  • Talk to experts. This isn’t just a variation on the above. People who are experienced in the things you want to write about can not only give you knowledge, but also a sense of what it feels like to have that knowledge. They live what you’re writing about and you owe it to them to do your best to reflect that experience in your writing.
  • Expand your own knowledge. Everyone has things they’re good at; getting better at those things gives you more material.
  • Talk to people. Writing what you know isn’t just about facts, it’s about people—about how they think and feel. Learn what motivates others, what they love and hate. Getting to know others makes for better characterization and a solid emotional basis for your story.
  • Read for pleasure, both inside and outside your genre. Share the experiences of other writers. Explore character motivations. Look for ideas you might want to pursue. And above all, remind yourself why you got into this field in the first place.
  • Be consistent. If you’re making up a world, you know everything about it—make your readers believe you’re writing what you know by keeping the rules logical and consistent. And if they’re not logical and consistent, have a reason for that, too.
  • Learn to fake it. Some things you’re never going to be able to experience. That’s where everything above comes into play. Compassion, empathy, imagination—all of that bridges the gap between what you know and what you can only guess. Then get your writing into the hands of someone who knows, and see what they think.

I will never be a secret agent, a warrior woman, or an ageless, deathless queen. I don’t have any personal knowledge of what those lives are like. In that sense, I can’t write what I know. But with some study, empathy, and a lot of imagination, I can write what I don’t know. And that opens up far more worlds than my limited one.

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