Writing What You Don’t Know

Here’s a well-worn adage for writers: “Write what you know.” Problem is, I don’t know anything.

That’s not strictly true. I’m an expert software developer. I’m an amateur astronomer and have a long-standing interest in physics.  Although not an expert yet, I’ve learned a bit about the art of bonsai. But most of my skills and interests have little to do with anything I write.

Some regard “write what you know” as cliche rather than solid writing advice, but there is a point in it. When you’re a writer, your knowledge and life experiences worm their way into your stories. Fragments of personalities you’ve encountered in real life show up in your characters, and their lives will mirror aspects of your own.

Here’s a small example. In True Death, one of my characters vents his rage by taking an axe to a downed tree. That tree was, in a sense, a real downed tree, one that fell into my swimming pool during a storm a few years before the story was written, although I didn’t hack it to bits while thinking murderous thoughts.

Regardless, fiction writers of necessity write about what they don’t know, too. I’m writing a detective series, yet I’ve never been a detective or a police officer. Indeed, I’ve only known two police officers, and I’ve talked very little with either about their work. Unlike Rick Peller, my main character, I don’t know what it’s like to learn that my wife has been killed. (That’s an experience I don’t want to have, either.) Unlike Eric Dumas, another of my detectives, I don’t know what it’s like to suffer massive rejection. Indeed, I’ve never lived in Howard County, although I’ve worked there a couple of times.

So how do you write what you don’t know? Research, for one thing. Primarily, I research online to learn about places and things, processes and procedures. But not everything can be readily researched that way. What about characters’ backgrounds and experiences and thoughts and emotions?

Easy! I make it up as I go along.

That may sound dicey, but it works. Maybe I get lucky. Or maybe I actually do know more than I think.