Just Call Me Trickster: Six Ways To Write What You Don’t Know

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Write what you know. It’s right up there with “show, don’t tell” as one of the adages that writers hear most often. But what exactly does “write what you know” mean?

When I first heard the phrase uttered by my creative writing seminar leader in my first year of university, I took it literally and wrote about, well, what I knew. Unfortunately, “what I knew” was rather limited, and this approach was greeted with polite derision. Perplexed and frustrated—I mean, what did this mean? Was I not supposed to write at all then?—I reacted by writing instead about obviously fictional subjects. This didn’t go over any better, but at least the snippy remarks and glazed eyes didn’t hurt so much. Then one day, bored in English class, I wrote a poem (see sidebar) that was inspired by the smell of fresh cut grass coming in the open window. It was about a death.

exampleNow at this point in my life, I’d been to exactly one funeral, that of a guy in my grad class who was a friend of friends, i.e. not someone I knew well. And while my maternal grandmother had died when I was five, her death didn’t have a strong impact on me, probably because two years prior we’d moved cross-country, and had only been back to visit twice, and so the difference between death and distance was negligible.

So death? What did I know? Not much. And yet, this poem kicked the folks in my seminar out of their ennui. I could tell that for once they were actually listening, and when I finished reading, they had questions. At the top of the list: “Who died?”

I was probably too quick to admit that no one had, and too flippant when I told them the real story of how it had come about. At first they didn’t believe me—or they didn’t want to—and when they finally did, they acted as if I’d tricked them. Maybe this was because a lot of people think of poetry as being non-fiction. Or because people take pride in their ability to spot the fakes. Or because they wanted to believe I had a deep, dark secret I’d eventually share. I can’t know for sure. What I do know is that the fact that they wanted it to be real meant it had worked.

But why? How? I’d written something that had fallen into a gray area: it read “true” and yet was fictional. If one had to write about what one knew in order to have legitimacy, had I somehow written about something I did know and didn’t realize it?

As it turns out, there’s quite a lot in this poem that I did know. The “I” in the poem was on some level, me. The settings and situations—aside from the internment—were ones I was familiar with, and so the sensory awareness was real. The kicker, of course, was the emotional punch. What I had described was a real reaction to a loss, personified by a death. I had used what I knew to write about what I didn’t know. And that, in my opinion, is why it worked, and is what “writing what you know” is really about.

There are three main things to remember when writing what you don’t know:

  • you know more than you think you do,
  • it’s easier than you think to expand your experience-base, and
  • don’t forget your imagination.

Background Image: Jessamyn West/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Here are six techniques to help you write what you don’t know:

  1. Extrapolate your own experience. All of us have a wealth of experiences. The problem is, most of them seem so ordinary that we don’t think of them as “experiences” at all, and thus we dismiss them or don’t even consider them. But everything is an experience, and no matter how seemingly ordinary, it probably can be used in some way: a person who likes to cook on an amateur level could easily stretch and write about a character who’s a chef. When you’ve decided what you want to write about, take an inventory. Go back as far as you can in your memory and make a list of all the experiences that may assist you. For example, if you’re writing about a character who has to deal with the death of someone close to them, your list might start out something like:
    • death of beloved dog, Spike
    • favorite aunt moving to Timbuktu
    • boyfriend of 5 years breaking up with “it’s not you, it’s me” excuse
  2. Simulate the experience. There may come a time when you want to write about something that you haven’t had an experience even approximating. Say your character immigrates to the New World on a ship and you’ve never been on a boat of any size. In some cases, like this one, it may be difficult or even impossible for you to experience exactly what your character does. You’re unlikely to be traveling across the Atlantic by boat these days, either in first class or as a stowaway in the hold. However, you can get out on the water, even if you’re not near an ocean. A lake or river will do just fine. There are lots of options: hop on a ferry, ask a friend for a ride in their ski boat, go on a cruise. Feel the wind and water spray on your face and get your sea legs. Then write about it.
  3. Do it yourself. While killing someone near and dear to you to “see how it feels” is not an option (no, it’s really not), there are lots of things you can do, you just haven’t. A writing friend once asked what beer tasted like. Why’d she want to know? Because she’d never had one and her character was drinking beer. In a situation like this, the best option is to just do it. Go out to a pub and have a pint, or buy yourself a six-pack to sip while you write. Not all situations will be so easy to rectify, but if skydiving plays a big role in your story, then you should probably skydive, at least once. You don’t have to get serious about the activity; a tandem jump with an instructor will do the trick.
  4. Interview. Non-fiction writers use this technique all the time, but fiction writers often forget to consider it, even though we often get ideas from things that happen around us, things that happen to friends or family, or that we read about in the newspaper or see on TV. If you have a idea for a story based on a real-life event of which you were not a participant, ask someone who’s experienced what you’re writing about to share with you what the experience was like. For example, if one of your characters is pregnant, have a chat with someone who’s actually been pregnant. Not only can a personal interview back up or verify any research you do, it’ll help authenticate your voice, because you’ll pick up on the little quirks that each person has that make their experience unique.
  5. Research. Some things aren’t possible to experience or simulate—and there won’t always be someone around to ask. The further in time or distance your subject is from your personal experience, the more likely it is that you’ll have to do research. Anyone writing historical fiction, unless possessed with the ability to time travel, will need to do some research to get the period details right. Research is all about incorporating just enough recognizable truth so that the fictional elements you introduce seem just as real, and aren’t questioned by your readers: if you’re writing science fiction, your fantastic ideas will become believable if you ground them in legitimate science.
  6. Use your imagination. Sometimes your only option—or your best one—is to break the rules. Start with what you do know and play “what if?” What if that time you car slipped on a patch of black ice, you hadn’t managed to control the spin? What if you hadn’t married your spouse? What if you wrote 500 words a day instead reading blogs? What if you said what you wanted to your boss instead of biting your tongue? What if humans had tails? Scary? Unlikely? Outrageous? Maybe. But characters who lead boring, safe, ordinary lives aren’t very interesting. We want to read about the harried assistant who lashes out at her boss, thereby setting in motion a wacky chain of events, not the one who quietly hates her job for 40 years but never says or does anything about it (yawn!).

So you see, you can write about what you don’t know— and if you use one or more of these techniques, you can “trick” readers into believing you know what you don’t.

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