Do I really have to Write What I Know?

by Robbi Hess

The oft-stated adage from experienced writers, and how-to books is to “write what you know.” In theory it’s not a bad idea because you bring authenticity to your writing. But, I believe if you can imagine and feel, and more importantly, make your reader imagine and feel, you can research what you don’t have intimate knowledge of.

Well, I know a lot about some things. I have a smattering of info about others and I am curious about more things than I can shake a stick at. Do I have to stick with those items in which I am an “expert?” I offer up a resounding, no!

Sure I could continue to write about school budgets, town infrastructure rehab plans, legend and lore of the area in which I reside, herbal teas and remedies and the ever-popular butterfly gardening knowledge I possess. (By the way when I started writing about the previously mentioned nonfiction subjects, I knew nothing about them until I began my research). But I long to explore, experience, and write about other worlds, lands beyond my reach (and sometimes my imagination), the euphoric highs of soul shattering love and the devastation of losing the only man you ever gave your heart to. I want to write about hang gliding, hiking in the Himalayas and scouring the countryside in search of the ever-elusive leprechaun, Loch Ness monster or Big Foot. My feet yearn to carry me to the uppermost level of a drafty Scottish castle. My imagination takes me astride the back of a sacred white unicorn or underwater fleeing the frenzied feeding of a school of hungry piranhas while I am rescuing a mermaid from the evil clutches of a talking octopus.

The things I am curious about are the substance of fiction. I can research items of which I have no knowledge. During the course of my life I have experienced enough that I could inject emotions into any character I place in any of the circumstances I have listed above. I don’t think you need to actually swim with the sharks to be able to write about how frightening it would be to be hauled out of your safe universe and thrust into theirs.

Research, my friends, is key. If you are planning to take on the challenge of writing what you don’t know… rest assured, there is someone out there who probably does know – and they will call you on it if your facts don’t ring true.

Don’t describe the blizzard of ’07 that hit Nassau, Bahamas and wiped out the entire population if it never truly occurred. If you are intent on writing about a blizzard that annihilated an entire city, race, or species either make certain that a storm did actually hit the area that you are writing about or have your storm happen in a fictionalized city.

I’ve found that the beauty of fiction is that it is not fact. My characters can gallop along at breakneck speeds on a unicorn. My heroine can be so distraught over the defection of her one true love that she boards an ocean liner headed for Transylvania where she plans to live out the rest of her days cavorting with faeries and werewolves in a drafty castle. (hhhmm, who knows, maybe one of the werewolves will transform in to another love interest for our hapless heroine).

The beauty of a writer’s imagination is that it has no boundaries. Your thoughts can take you where “no man has ever gone before.” Remember though, that if you are planning on taking your reader out of their everyday world and into your fictionalized one, make certain your fictionalized reality is believable. Make the reader believe in your made up world by making your falsehoods ring true. Sculpt a new reality for the reader with the power of your words. They will come along for the ride.

This month’s exercise: Either take a character out of his world and place him in a setting, which to us is mundane (the grocery store, car wash); or take a character out of her everyday world and put her in a completely foreign setting (a space ship, a time travel journey) and see how she acts. P.S. Don’t forget to ask yourself why she is there, how she is feeling and what coping skills he will use to survive in unfamiliar surroundings.

© 2003-2004 by Robbi Hess

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