Write What You Don’t Know

“Write what you know” is trite advice. It’s a good example of my Tools, Not Rules philosophy: it’s useful to draw from what you know to inspire your writing (indeed, I think it’s unavoidable); but you shouldn’t limit yourself to only what you know.

For one thing, that eliminates much genre fiction. None of us know fantasy worlds. Few of us have been to space. I hope that none of you are murderers, and not many of you are homicide detectives.

But there are plenty of things you do know, things that apply across genres: human desires, fears, motivations, relationships. Even if you find the human mind puzzling (who doesn’t?), you can explore it and test hypotheses in your writing. Often you’ll discover things you didn’t know you knew.

And so you can write what you know within what you don’t. You can write about estranged family—an estranged family of dragons! You can write about failed romance—and how it tragically leads to murder. You can write about the trials of aging as seen through the eyes of an android.

And the thought that got me writing tonight: one way to write what you know is to expand what you know. I’m talking about one of the most dangerous rabbit holes: research. And today, if you can read this post, you have little excuse for not doing research (other than the research trap: research can seduce you into procrastinating instead of writing). The internet is like an ever-flowing fountain of research material. I know this is going to sound like a “back in my day” anecdote, but it’s true: authors used to plan road trips to visit university libraries to research for their books. Now more content than you’ll find in the largest library will come to your phone.

I recently made a great start on a book; but 54,000 words in, I realized I couldn’t continue without knowing realistic travel times between the moons of Jupiter. My goal for this book is to make it hard science fiction, to make the reader really feel life in freefall while reading an action-adventure story. If travel between moons were too easy, I would lose that realism.

Back in, say, the 90s, I would’ve had to go to a university library and start digging. I would’ve had to make blind calls to astronomers and hope they would educate me on basic orbital mechanics. (I want it believable, but I don’t need to aim for experts.) Frankly, it would be too much work. I would give up.

But because it’s 2021, I asked questions on Facebook. I read Pournelle. I sent messages to the Launch Pad mailing list. I did Bing searches, and a lot of reading. I discovered Celestia.

And in under three weeks, I knew the basic equations. I turned them into spreadsheets. I can calculate travel times and delta V for any trip in a system. Not with enough precision to actually plot a course, but close enough for fiction. (Remind me to talk about the Second Deviation Sweet Spot sometime…)

So remember: One way to write what you know is to increase what you know.

7 Comments on “Write What You Don’t Know

  1. With respect, I have never heard the “write what you know” statement / rule applied to fiction generally because it makes little sense to do so (as you point out).

    I have always heard this rule applied to non-fiction, not fiction. As a publisher of military and general history, it is easy to spot an author who does not know his or her subject matter.

    Expand what you know? Absolutely. Working on, say, a book about Gettysburg? Don’t try to learn on the fly.

    • Very true. Nonfiction should be factual, with informed analysis of those facts. You can’t analyze without the knowledge.

      Outside of programming, my main writing focus is fiction. And sadly, “Write what you know” is very common advice there. I almost never hear it from working professionals, except when they want to shoot it down or provide an alternate take (as I did); but it’s common from English teachers, creative writing teachers, and well-meaning friends who heard it once and assume it’s good advice. It’s good as a tool, but it’s limiting.

  2. I’d say writing, or teaching, is a most excellent way to learn what you don’t know.

    I suspect anyone that’s done either understands what I mean and that it’s close to impossible to explain to one who hasn’t.

    • The best I can explain it is that when you do something with the information, you involve more and different parts of your brain, and you highlight some details and abstract others. You have to see it from a different point of view.

      I teach software design using models. I use similar models for my writing. It’s another case where making something with the knowledge reveals gaps in my knowledge.

  3. The true rule is not to write what you DON’T know, especially if some of your readers probably will. A mystery writer I know well has two examples:

    If somebody screws a silencer on a revolver, and the gun goes “pew pew” when they shoot it, either the witness is lying or the writer doesn’t know silencers don’t work on revolvers.

    If a witness describes the rising summer sun sending beams of light in through a south-facing window, again either the witness is lying, the window faces southeast, or the writer doesn’t know the summer sun rises in the northeast. (This rule changes for the Southern hemisphere, of course.)

    That’s mysteries, of course. You just performed SF due dilgence by checking orbits.

    • That’s an excellent reformulation! Much better than the original.

      And it’s especially true as regards to guns: gun readers are extremely critical about bad gun writing–and worse, they don’t agree among themselves what the right answers are. They love to argue over these topics. (There’s a reason few guns appear in my stories. I know that I don’t know much.)

      I think there comes a point of good enough; but that’s a topic for another post…

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