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.
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.