Writing What You Don't Know

“Write what you know.” It’s a common enough writing mantra that it needs no introduction. It doesn’t, of course, mean that if you’re a university student writer who plays music, you should only write about university life, writing, and music. It means you draw on your experiences, your knowledge, the people you know and the situations you can accurately imagine. You inform your writing through the lens that is you.

There are also a lot of writers who will tell you not to write what you know. That if you stick only to what you know you’ll always be writing the same stories, and you’ll never expand your knowledge. There’s nothing wrong with doing a little (or a lot of) research for what you’re trying to write. To step outside the box.

I think both are true, to some extent. First of all, start with what you know, and expand your horizons only from a firm foundation. Write main characters that you can understand, that you can relate to so that you can portray them as accurately as possible, as realistically as possible. Draw on your experience to enrich your writing. Then, step a bit outside the boundaries, use your imagination, do a little research, challenge yourself.

It’s partially the use of what you know in your writing that will keep a reader immersed — they’ll see the knowledge, the depth, the experience. Something you know nothing about could ring false, especially to those who know more about it. Scenes and characters won’t have as much depth. But it’s partially the interest of going outside that that will keep them intrigued — and perhaps more importantly, it’s the interest of going outside that that will keep you intrigued. Exploring new things helps make the act of writing interesting, something you can keep doing and do often for a long time.

And sometimes, even if you’re keeping mostly to what you know, you will come across a situation that you don’t know anything about. By all means, don’t avoid those situations. But go into them with caution.

Do your research. Make sure you have some background knowledge, some idea of what you’re talking about.

Assume ignorance. If you’re not sure about something, look it up or ask someone who would know.

Have it checked. Find someone who has the experience you’re lacking, have them read what you’ve written, and tell you what’s working or not.

I have a storyline through the Nexus from the point of view of a 14-year-old girl. There are scenes of her with a group of other girls, scenes of her in high school, scenes of her around a boy, scenes of her with tentative sexual experiences (don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll leave it at that).

I have no idea what it’s like to be a 14-year-old girl. I think if there’s one thing furthest from my own personal experience of the world, it’s being a 14-year-old girl. I do not know how their minds work. I was never even much of a typical 14-year-old boy, so the age mindset is foreign.

I have no concept of a girl’s mindset, either. Some might think that, being gay, I’d be somewhat similar in mindset, but that’s far from the truth. I think, mentally, I share a lot more in common with straight guys — just with a different object of my attraction. And furthermore, I don’t even have the window into the mind of a girl that a straight guy might have from relationships.

And to write about the sexual experience of a girl? Of a young teenage girl? I was pretty much writing blind, as it were.

So I just did my best, tried to imagine myself in her head, pulled on whatever shreds of experience I could muster — seeing other people, reading female-POV books, watching TV shows — and wrote it. But then I didn’t figure I’d got it right. One of the first things I’m going to want my (female) 2nd-draft-readers to comment on is how well I executed those scenes, how well I found her voice and how well I got across my intent.

I’m relieved to have recently found out that one of my preliminary readers thought I did a decent job of it. But I still want to hear from a few more, see if there’s any changes I can make to improve it, etc.

But I do know that I don’t think I’ll ever write a female Main Protagonist.

Still, it’s important to be able to take that step out of the box of What You Know. Ultimately, it with enrich my work. And it enriches my understanding of the world.

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