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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Write What You Don't Know

Long ago I remember hearing the writing advice: "Write what you know." And at the time  I thought: "Yes! I shall share my knowledge of the greatest Chicago french fries and Irish singers and old Madonna dance moves and it will be FANTASTIC. Perhaps the greatest book ever!"

Until I realized that only writing about things that I actually knew about was not only really, really boring, but entirely too easy. Both for me and the story itself. Let me explain. No, wait. That'll take too long. Let me sum up.

If I only wrote about what I knew (things I believed in, problems I faced, opinions I had about any given issue, etc.) I am pretty sure that the book would come out sounding like ME and not my characters. Does that make sense? Considering that I write romance novels in deep POV (point of view), I'm afraid that I would be unable to divorce my personal voice from that of my characters and it would come out sounding not only unrealistic, but like I had some sort of agenda to push. That's just not my style.

It's also one huuuuuge lesson I've learned in writing and turning in 4+ books to my editor, and that lesson is: I am not my characters. Thinking that way is limiting and unoriginal.

I also feel like if I only wrote what I knew I would not be challenging myself. That's right. I want a challenge with each and every story, each and every character, each and every plot point. I do not want to write an easy book. I am in this business for as much personal fulfillment and accomplishment as I am for the readers. I would hope that each and every one of us finds a career that speaks to us as such--that is as much related to the heart as it is the wallet--but I digress. I think that if I wrote an easy book, it would certainly come across that way. My readers would see through that and know I phoned it in.

I have made a very specific point of writing what I don't know. My research and interest has led to some pretty wonderful writing moments. For me, research = plot. For example:

Pick a profession for your character. Research its required education and daily activities. What are its issues? What would make it a really incredible day? What would make it the worst day ever? What about the aspects of the job completely contradict your character's personality? BOOM. Plot points, right there.

Other ways to explore things you are completely clueless about (we are all clueless about something) in your fiction:
  1. Think of something your friend/your aunt/a complete stranger told you about that made you gasp in shock, ask questions, recoil, shudder, smile, or laugh about. Why did the story behind that event do that to you? How can you take the core of that event/situation and twist it into your fiction? Think about it: you had a visceral reaction to it, so it therefore must be something new to you. USE THAT.
  2. What is something that scares the ever-lovin' crap out of you? USE THAT. (Case in point: I haaaaaate water. Hate swimming. Have a severe fear of going off a bridge and landing in the water in my car. So what did I do? I wrote a whole series of paranormal books based on a race who wields and reveres water. Thinking about the opposite of my feelings was a total eye-opener and made my imagination branch off in directions I never before considered. It would have felt more comfortable, sure, to write about a woman who fears water as much as I do, but it wouldn't have been nearly as interesting.)
  3. Research, research, research. Did I mention research? Sometimes the stupidest little area of knowledge can spark the meatiest of plot points or character arcs. Do not limit yourself. USE THAT.

Whenever I come across something I don't know (which is a whole heck of a lot), I think to myself: "How would So-And-So-Character see this? How would they react? What would it make them think?" And that, my friends, creates a myriad of possibilities with just that shift in perspective. 

I hope some of his has either helped you in your own writing, or, if you're solely a reader, has helped you understand a little how I come up with my ideas (probably the number one question I get).

This is goodbye, my Lady Scribe readers. This is my final regularly scheduled blog post. I have loved speaking (typing?) to you, and I wish you all the best in the future. 

I invite you to visit me other places on the web.


  1. It's been fun being a Lady Scribe with you, and getting to talk to you more at RT. :)

    I'm so with you on writing what you don't know. I couldn't possibly write historicals if I only wrote what I know, because I've never lived in the 19th Century and without things like cars and planes and electricity. I'm sure there are things I get wrong, but I love the research.

    1. Right! I mean, pretty much every historical writer has to write what they don't know. (Or has to learn through research.) And don't you find that a tiny research morsel can feed a whole plot arc or scene?

      Also, paranormal writers. Except that I really DO know all about that MWAHAHAHA.

    2. LOL! I'm sure you do. :)

      A few years ago, I ran across a news article about a small item that had been discovered from during the civil war. It was something which *could* have happened during the Napoleonic Wars as well, so I took that little item and used it for a character in one of my novels. And I think it made him more real. You never know what you'll run across that you can then use in your writing...but my characters are far more interesting if they aren't all exactly like me. LOL.

  2. Well, I'm obviously in your camp on writing what I don't know. I've never been to England and I've certainly never been to 19th century England. ;)

    What I know is boring to me. Even if other people thought the medical field was interesting, I write to escape. I really don't want to think about my day job when I'm following my passion. Although... I love helicopters, so I'd be all for writing a story about a hot MediVac guy. Maybe my employer would even let me look inside and ask questions. Hmm... Possibilities.

    We'll miss you on the blog, but it has been great having you. I know we'll see each other again. Best of luck!

    1. Thanks so much for having me, Samantha! I'm sure I'll see you, too. :)

  3. Oh Hanna,
    It will be so sad to see you go. You've helped more than you can know. I wish you all the best and can't wait to keep reading your work!

    1. O wow, Christi, thank you. Contact me directly if you ever ever ever need anything. Except cleaning. I'm not so good at that.

  4. Good post. Every day we live, we learn. So yes, research and never stop learning new things and then yes, you will always be writing what you know!

    1. You know ... I never thought of it like that. Look up what you don't know, and then voila you know it! (*BOOM* mind blown) :)

  5. We'll miss you!!! Thanks for all of the awesome posts and best luck for the future!

  6. Wha~ you're leaving too!? :( We'll miss you and thanks for this encouraging post.