Writing What You Don’t Know

A common piece of advice given to writers is “write what you know”, which is why there are so many books about writers. (This suggests to me that we need to get more variety in writers, because I’d like to read something with some detail about wait staff or electricians, but that’s off topic.)

handful of potatoes
Photo by R Khalil on Pexels.com

To grow, however, a writer has to write about what they don’t know. This requires research, not just assuming that you do know. For example, Nora Roberts wrote a novel where, in the prologue, a character in Ireland is cultivating potatoes a long time before potatoes arrived in the Old World, being a New World vegetable. It’s natural to assume “Ireland = Potatoes”, but Ireland didn’t have potatoes till 1589. As much as I like Nora Roberts, here’s a historian’s take on what she gets wrong in one book.

Another example was a Jayne Ann Krentz novel (forget the name) whose male protagonist owned a winery. In this case, she got the details right, but the details were so sparse that the book didn’t have to have a winemaker protagonist at all. In this book, he strolled through the winery, and there was a little detail about a room with big barrels. I, as an amateur winemaker, expected at least a bit about him checking in with his chemist and taking a sample from a barrel to check out the taste. I expected my winery owner to be involved with the winery somewhat, for the sake of romance.

The takeaway is that your reader is going to know the details if you don’t. And the inaccuracy is going to take them out of the story.

Back when I was young, I wanted to write a story based on a long dream I had while sick with a kidney infection. My problem was that it took place “in the desert” and doing the level of research I would need just to show the characters’ interaction with the desert (wherever that was) would have been immense. I didn’t have time for immense research because I was trying to finish up a PhD. So I wrote a couple character sketches and segments of scenes and put it away.

Years later, the Internet made it possible for me to do the level of research I needed to finish the book. I chose the Owyhee desert (alternate future with demise of the US makes it no longer Bureau of Land Management land) and studied the flora and fauna as well as what food animals and crops would do well there for small landholders. I could not have researched that, nor could I have researched experimental underground habitats and water recollection. The book is named Whose Hearts are Mountains, and I’m going to publish it someday.

My advice for writing what you don’t know:

  • Look up basic facts, making sure that your sources are reliable. For the sake of writing, Wikipedia is usually concise enough, and its footnotes carry more information that will be helpful.
  • Provide enough detail that your readers are satisfied. This can vary, depending on who your readers are. But assume they want at least some accurate setting and background to feel engaged with your story. In romance, setting and background are one of the ways novels distinguish themselves with their time-honored plots and tropes. In fantasy, believable setting and background help you build a consistent world.
  • Ask yourself “what are my readers going to poke holes through?” Reinforce those areas with more real information.

Right now, I’m struggling to research the logistics of small town fire departments, fighting fires, and combustion in general. Luckily I live in a small town with a volunteer fire department, but I’m having trouble coordinating with the fire chief. I’ve been reading a lot online, especially things about fire trucks, firefighting gear, uniforms, and mutual aid. I have a couple small details I still need to find out. And this is just background to make sure the firefighting feels right. But I don’t want to write the book that people say “That’s not how it works” about. So it’s time to research.


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