Write What You Don’t Know

I’ve heard it over and over again—write what you know. That makes sense, as writing what you don’t know is more difficult in many ways. As an author, how do you get inside your characters, or describe the places where they live or work if you know nothing about the jobs they do, or their communities?

On the other hand, how lovely it is to explore other ways of living, being, working. What a creative challenge it is for the author to get into the mind of someone who has other interests, other goals in life, and gives you a different constellation in which to travel. When you write what you don’t know, you have to let your imagination fly.

It seems best-selling author, Toni Morrison (here in conversation with author Junot Diaz) agrees that it’s often better to to write what you don’t know. 

Though I’ve enjoyed the journey, writing what you don’t know requires not only imagination, but a lot of research. It’s the main reason my novel has taken a long time to write, but I have to underline, it’s been fun.

If you have a peek at my bio. you’ll see that I get bored easily, and as a result changed jobs and occupations often. It stands to reason then that my characters’ pursuits would be different from mine. How else was I going to feed my insatiable curiosity?

Catherine Fitzgerald, the protagonist in A CRY FROM THE DEEP, is an underwater photographer. That’s something I’ve never tried. So not only did I have learn about the business of taking pictures underwater for a living, but also about the ins and outs of scuba diving (without doing it myself, as I’m too cowardly to try).

Chesterman Beach, Vancouver Island

Chesterman Beach, Vancouver Island

However, I do understand something about her passion for the sea, as I’ve snorkeled. I can hear some divers out there guffawing. I know it’s not the same thing. Swimming on the surface of the water has little risk, but at least I can say that I’ve been sufficiently entranced with what lies underwater to delve further.

For research, I went out one afternoon with a group of scuba divers and grilled them about their sport. I also talked to instructors and owners of dive shops, and visited countless web sites for specifics. After reading some of my chapters—which include some diving scenes—a member of my writers’ critique group (who was a diver) expressed surprise that I had never tried scuba diving, as the underwater scenes were believable. What helped my writing was—as I mentioned above—my love of the sea. I am fascinated by what lies beneath, and that love and fascination propelled me to investigate what I didn’t know. Loving the sea as much as I do gave me an in to my character’s passion, her mindset. From there, I wove in everything else.

Here’s another great article published in Writer’s Digest entitled, Why You Should Write What You Don’t Know by Brian Klems.

Have you written about subjects you know nothing about? How far have you stretched yourself? And what do you think about write what you know vs. write what you don’t know? Would love your comments.


4 thoughts on “Write What You Don’t Know

  1. Julia Barrett

    I’m a true believer in writing what you know, even if what you know is imaginary. In order for the reader to sense truth beneath your words, there must be a grain of truth in the words. Just a grain can be enough.

    1. Diana Stevan Post author

      Absolutely, “just a grain can be enough.” Writers write what they know, but it’s delicious to take those side roads. The ones that require your imagination to go the distance. When I write about what I don’t know, I am also incorporating what I do know. Like with my protagonist, who has an occupation I can only dream of, I still have to get inside her head and heart, and for that, I use a lot of my own experience.

    1. Diana Stevan Post author

      Pat, thanks for visiting. I took a workshop on writing, it feels like a thousand years ago. In it, the author/instructor said, “If you can talk, you can write.” I think, school and other experiences in life affect our confidence. Writing takes practice, just like everything else. We all have a voice with something to contribute, each in our own unique way. What’s essential is that we allow our voices to be heard.

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