Friday, November 10, 2017

Writing What You Don't Know

Beginning writers are often advised to write what they know.
Personally, I've always considered that rather limiting advice. Granted all of us have experiences which we might utilize in our writing. But is your experience broad enough to justify a novel? And should a good novel be autobiographical?
A good writer should have curiosity and imagination, two traits which go beyond mere experience. Not that I'm opposed to experience. I believe experience to be a great teacher--if you're willing to learn from it.
But I prefer to believe a writer should write what he wants to know.
As E. L. Doctorow put it, "Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go."
This desire to learn has the power to stimulate your imagination and take you places you've never experienced before, a voyage which can transform your writing and give it a power it might otherwise lack. Your enthusiasm for the subject should shine through and transfer to the potential reader what you've learned about a subject.
For me, research is half the fun of writing and provides opportunity to delve into many fascinating topics. But we need to beware of lecturing to our readers. What you've learned about a particular subject must conform to the story you're telling and contribute to the advancement of the plot. It may please you to elaborate on a particular theme and this is where you need to exercise care lest you stall your story and leave your readers exasperated.
Read Hemingway's story Big Two-Hearted River. One of the things I initially liked about the story when I read it as a boy was all it had to say about the pleasures of fishing. The story isn't about fishing. But there's a lot of fishing in it, which gave me pleasure and also taught me a few things both about fishing and writing.
A powder mill is an essential element in my first novel, Schlussel's Woman, and I read extensively on the process to understand how powder is manufactured. But, in the novel, millworker Isaac Inch's explanation of the process to the artist Titus Kuhns is kept to less than half a dozen paragraphs spread over several pages. My intent was to provide the reader with just enough to understand its importance to the plot.

As with description, a writer  should introduce what's been learned in gradual, digestible supplements to his prose. It's the old premise of show, not tell (though there are instances where tell is appropriate).


  1. Very nice post, John, and I completely agree with you.
    To me, writing is a combination of writing about what you know - and what you don't know. I think the most important thing to remember, especially for beginning writers, is to avoid writing a "fictional autobiography." Fortunately, I got that impulse out of my system in several short stories - before I wrote my first novel. :)

    1. Thanks, Patricia. I believe we all go through that autobiographical phase (some never shake it off).

  2. Excellent post, John. I, too, enjoy research for the most part. And, yes, an author can go overboard with descriptions and explanations. Great advice!

  3. Great post, John! All good thoughts/advice.

  4. Excellent post, John. I love researching 'new' topics, even though I know I'll probably only use 5% of my research in my novels. The other 99% is to ensue I get that 5% correct!

  5. Exactly right, Paula. And get it wrong, guaranteed you'll hear about it. Thanks for commenting.

  6. This is great that you wrote about the opposite of almost a cliché topic - writing what you know. Good job. Interesting.

  7. You're right, John---we're often writing what we don't know. Authors of historical fiction certainly don't write what they know. We need to be careful about blindly following and repeating cliched advice.