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.

Forget About the Rope

ropeSeveral years ago I was in a writing group with a bunch of friends. We’d take turns bringing stuff we’d written and having everyone else critique it. One of mine was a chapter from a young adult fantasy novel I was writing (that will never see the light of day). In that chapter, the two protagonists stop at an inn for the night. I described it as something like “not very high-class, but better than sleeping on a rope.” This was a detail I’d read somewhere about old flophouses and it amused me, so I thought I’d use it as a throwaway line.

Not one person believed it.

Everyone in the group said it was impossible. I repeated that I’d read this in an historical context and no, I wasn’t making it up: in some really cheap lodgings, people would sleep either by sitting on a bench and leaning against a rope strung across the room, or simply hanging on it in flophouses when the beds were all full. They accused me of either misremembering or, yes, making it all up. I gave up and just took the detail out. It annoyed me, because I knew it was clever and interesting and I of course knew better than they did, but I took it out.

Weeks later I got a phone call from one of the people in the group, who was very excited. “We saw it,” she said. “The rope. It was in a movie and people were sleeping on it. You were right.” I forbore gloating. Much.

Now, just because something’s in a movie doesn’t mean you can count on it to be true—often it’s the exact opposite. And the truth about the rope story, historically, is more complicated. Some of the records about it can’t be sourced. Some people who refer to it, like George Orwell who in Down and Out in Paris and London reported this as one of the cheapest lodgings in London (the “Twopenny Hangover”) never actually saw it. I’ve seen a picture of men sitting on benches, leaning up against a rope, dating from the 1930s, and I’ve found a song by Paul Graney called “Tuppence on the Rope” that refers to the practice, and that’s pretty much it. So would I go to the mattresses for this particular detail? Not really. But that’s not the point of the story. The point is that in historical fiction writing, I’ve found that sometimes I have to forget about the rope.

It’s kind of a hard call to make. At one extreme, it implies that you can never, ever write something true that someone without a lot of knowledge about your historical era might not believe. And there’s always going to be someone whose knowledge ends just where your obscure fact begins. This is where good beta readers come in. In researching my Regency fantasy adventure series, I came up with some historical facts I thought were cool that my beta reader said “That sounds too modern. No one will believe you didn’t just screw up.” And she was right. Real experts on the Regency period might know the truth, but the average reader would just believe I was wrong. And I didn’t need those details. So I forgot about the rope.

But that’s not really the point of this story either. It’s not about trying to game the system, working out whether something you’ve written will throw certain readers. What really happened was that I came up hard against the reality that there were some details I was including simply because I was showing off what I’d learned. I wasn’t writing for my readers; I was writing for the experts who would know I’d done my research and, I don’t know, pat me on the head and give me a cookie for Getting It Right. And that’s bad writing no matter how accurate your facts are. It’s one thing to have a visitor to Almack’s in 1812 make a comment about how no one’s going to introduce a new dance there in her lifetime as an Easter egg for those who know the quadrille and the waltz are coming along soon. It’s another to put Captain Gronow in your story solely to establish when that happens. For me, forgetting about the rope is all about examining my own motives. Am I doing it to look cool, or am I doing it to write the best story I can?

The writing group is long gone, but I still have those friends. They haven’t forgotten the story of the rope. For different reasons, neither have I.