Better Advice: Write What You Don’t Know

Better Advice: Write What You Don’t Know

I’ve touched on bad or, at least, incomplete writing advice. There was my editing revelation about slaying your darlings and my mini-rant about using the Becthdel Test as a benchmark when it should be the barest of minimums. Lately, a new piece of writing advice has come under fire and I’m keen to hop on the bandwagon. Because write what you know is only good advice when you’re writing non-fiction.

Case in point, I recently read The Art of Language Invention. It was written by the gentleman who put together the languages for HBO’s Game of Thrones series. He is a linguist. He understands how languages work, their history and how they evolve. He has long been a hobby conlanger and has managed to make a career out of it. He knows his subject well and he breaks it down as best he can for a layman. (In fact, if you’re planning to build your own world from scratch the insights in this book are invaluable.)

If we’re writing about something which exists, it’s generally good to know about it. For instance, I studied information technology in college. Specifically security and networking. During my last two years of school – I kid you not – we learned about hacking. And you’d be surprised how often this information has come in handy as a writer. On TV and in movies, they rarely bother with the details when they depict hacking. In fairness, ‘hacking’ was largely the realm of science fiction until recently. (Just watch the 80’s movie Hacker and you’ll understand). But as technology seeps into our daily awareness, those details become more valuable, because everyone has a better sense of how it all works.

When we don’t know what we’re writing about, we run into trouble. Because inevitably someone, somewhere, is going to know about that topic. One of my hacking teachers walked out of the movie Swordfish because of it’s unrealistic portrayal of hacking. And those people going to tell others how wrong you are. I’ve read book reviews that latched on to the tiniest detail of a novel and presented a dissertation about the mistakes. If you’re lucky, your misinformation is only going to upset experts in a particular field. If you’re unlucky… well this is the age of the Internet.

If you want to portray something in a way that feels realistic and nuanced, you have to know about it. The amount you need to know depends on the complexity of the thing and whether or not it’s based on real life. You can probably do whatever you want with dragons, but if you’re specifically writing about Chinese mythology, you’d better know how the Chinese regarded dragons throughout their history.

So what do I do when I’m not writing about hacking? Because of all my characters, a grand total of three are hackers. It stands to reason that I wouldn’t be a very good writer if I only ever wrote about the adventures of hackers, so I must find a way to write other things, especially considering how fond I am of fantasy. There’s no hacking in the Mystical Island Trilogy so I must have managed somehow.

The answer is to learn. When I wrote Crossroads of Frozen Eternity, I did a lot of research on the many-worlds theory. Like so many scientific concepts, alternate dimensions have been relegated to the realm of science-fiction for most of their history. But as string theory gains more momentum in the scientific community, the idea of alternate dimensions has gained a lot of scientific clout. If your setting just so happens to be a dimension-hopping island, it might be a good idea to know what quantum mechanics has to say about their existence. (If you really want to blow your mind, read about quantum suicide and quantum immortality – trippy stuff.) It plays a small role in my novel and, yet, having information from those theories in the book makes it a lot stronger. It grounds the magic in reality, which gives it a power it would otherwise lack.

One of the reasons writing improves us is because it takes us places we wouldn’t otherwise go. If you want to write about a person in a profession that isn’t yours, you have to go out and read about what they do. If you want to write about someone who grew up in a different economic condition than you did, you’ll have to find out what they experienced. Sometimes you might need to talk to people with the experiences you want to portray. Always you need to learn to think outside yourself, to put yourself in a headspace that’s different from your own.

But what are we to do if our fiction exists entirely outside the realm of reality? Magic, after all, need not be based on history or science. It can be completely random. That’s the glory of it. How do you write something you cannot know? Imagine it. Let your mind take you to places where these things exist. Then ask all the questions you would usually ask during research. How does it work? Where did it come from? What are the long-term effects of exposure?

Unless you’ve traveled a large portion of the world and worked in several different fields, you’re going to have a limited pool from which to write if you stick to what you know. Screw that. Use your imagination to grow beyond your own experience. Figure out what you need to know about the things that are real, fill in the blanks for things that aren’t. Challenge yourself to write outside the box. Challenge yourself to expand beyond your current wheelhouse.

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