Monday, May 1, 2017

How to Write What You Don’t Know

By Becky Muth

One bit of advice every author hears in his or her lifetime is write what you know. That’s great, but what happens when you feel inspired to write about something you don’t know? What happens when characters take us to the places we’ve never been and situations we’ve yet to experience? You don’t have to be a science fiction or fantasy writer to build new worlds or put your characters in unfamiliar situations.
Authors write what they don’t know every day. Cozy mystery author Susan Boyer, unlike the main character in her Liz Talbot series, isn’t a private investigator who carries her Sig 9 in her Kate Spade handbag. Elizabeth Spann Craig isn’t an octogenarian retired schoolteacher, but the titular character of her Myrtle Clover Series is. And unlike Vanessa, one of the main characters in my novelette, Screaming Jenny, I’m not a history buff with a dislike for technology.
The more I write, the more I learn to sit back and enjoy the ride when my characters drag me into the great unknown. In the beginning, I fought the characters of my work in progress (WIP) on this to the point where I would stop writing for weeks at a time. Having learned my lesson, now learning new things is one of my favorite parts of the writing process.
When writing what I don’t know, I like to follow my imagination as far as I can. I’ve never run through the woods while clutching a human heart, been buried alive, or hired the Pinkertons. This didn’t stop me from writing about those situations. When I reached the part I didn’t know, then I did the research.
Here are some tips to help you write what you don’t know:
Go to the library. American comic book writer Stan Lee says the library card is the most important card in his wallet. It should be the most important card in every writer’s wallet. Although Google and Wikipedia offer endless amounts of information, for me there’s nothing like cracking open a book and jotting notes down in a journal within the hushed confines of my local library.
Talk to experts who have the information you need. Talking to an expert will often give you more than enough information to add realistic details to your WIP. At the 2015 Mid-Atlantic Fiction Writers Institute conference, keynote speaker Tess Gerritsen spoke about researching her novel, GRAVITY, which included talking with NASA scientists.
Read random Wikipedia articles. Have you ever used the “Random article” feature on Wikipedia? I’m a little A.D.D. so for me, this feature is good and bad. The good news is, you can learn all sorts of things you don’t know. On the downside, you can waste hours learning all sorts of things that are useless for enhancing your current WIP, but that may inspire future plots.
A final word of advice is that if you don’t know something and are unable to research it, don’t lie about it. Authors often walk a fine line between fiction and falsehood. It’s better to omit something you don’t know than to mislead your readers. After all, a reader who loves your book will tell others about it. Word-of-mouth is always more genuine than any type of social media advertisement.
The next time a character drags you into a situation you don’t know, strap into your seat because you’re in for roller coaster ride of twists and turns into new literary territory. What you learn along the way could mean the difference between a mediocre plot and a blockbuster storyline.
Becky Muth lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband and their two sons. She loves attending events where she can interact with other writers and readers. When she's not writing or reading, Becky enjoys spending time with her family, knitting, and drawing pet portraits. You can visit her blog at or follow her on most social media networks under Author Becky Muth. Facebook: Twitter: Instagram: Pinterest:

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