5 Tips for Writing What You (Don’t) Know

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Another guest post I wrote in the past (the internet. It's like a time machine) - this time from The Blog Realm in September 2009.


Always, when I stumble across writing advice on the internet, I see the same line: Write What You Know.

The issue for me is that I’m fifteen, and I don't know much at all. Until three years ago, I was a member of the Beanie Kids fan club. I still order off the kids menu at restaurants. I shop in the Junior section of clothes stores (though I am clinging to my childhood a lot more than other people my age). I write realistic teen fiction. Sometimes I write about things I haven’t experienced, or decide to base a novel around something I know nothing about (much research is involved). I’ve written three novels, and I’ll hopefully write many more. My writing is a place where I can get out of my comfort zone.

What I want to say is this: you don’t have to have experienced what you write. Many successful crime thrillers were written by people who were never policemen. J.K. Rowling didn’t go to Hogwarts, and Stephenie Meyer didn’t date a sparkly vampire (no matter how much she may wish she had).. Sure, the rules are different in fantasy, but what makes them ultimately successful is the writing, the characters and plot, the emotional appeal of it all. Here are some things to keep in mind when you’re writing about something that’s completely foreign to you:

1. Research, research, research. Create a file on your computer and browse the internet. The library is also an incredibly useful resource. If the story is busting to come out, don’t tell yourself you have to research everything first. You can research as you go. And don’t research for months on end – the actual writing is the important bit. You’ll know when you have enough information, and it’s worth getting a good book on your preferred topic so that you can look something up when you’re stuck on the novel instead of getting distracted on the internet by your emails and Twitter (I am guilty of tweeting instead of writing. I confess!)

2. If possible, get someone knowledgeable to read your book. Just as important as your beta-readers! Get a doctor friend to read your medical thriller, or a lawyer to read your courtroom drama. It’s even better if you can call up these people as you write, so that when you think you’re completely off track, they can reassure you (and even if you are writing about something you know, a friend to call and talk to when you get stuck, or think you’re terrible, is definitely a must for most writers. In general, we doubt ourselves a lot).

3. Don’t forget about your characters and plot! You can’t support a novel on a theme alone, and way too often I’ve read teen books with little substance – it’s just a book about [insert pertinent issue to teens here]. First and foremost, write a novel that will satisfy readers. (I find it best to imagine myself as the reader, and try and be objective about it.)

4. Make sure there’s emotional pull. You’ve decided to write a story about a mother dying of breast cancer. You haven’t personally known any cancer sufferers, but you know a doctor whose willing to fact check for you, and you’ve done all the research.. The most important thing here is that your novel doesn’t fall flat when it comes to emotion – you don’t have to have experienced that to know the emotions it would evoke, and these should be central to your novel (mainly character-driven novels). The way a novel makes me feel determines whether or not I enjoy it – it doesn’t matter if that emotion is sadness or happiness, it just has to be strong.

5. Above all else, tell a great story. Kind of revisiting 3 and 4 here, but it should be repeated: tell the story you want to tell, with characters that demand to be written. Don’t think about whether it will fit in the market, or whether you should put it off until the economy improves. If you have that passion, and if you have that drive, write your novel, and make it the best it can possibly be. Good luck!
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