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
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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.

Dear Santa (from a writer)

Dear Santa,

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I’m too old to believe in you, yet I persist because of Pascal’s wager (“But what if Santa really exists? I have nothing to lose”.)

I’ve been good — within reason. I admit overindulging in coffee and sweets, often at the same time, and sometimes I get cranky. But my cats think I’m a good person, and I think my husband does. I hope that counts for something.

I have a list. It will make sense to you if I first explain: I am a writer, and to say I’m unknown is perhaps an understatement of exponential proportions. My Christmas list will reflect this. So there will be no choo-choo trains or dollies on this list.

Enough. Here is my Christmas list:

  • The secret to getting followers on social media (for someone who wants to do it themselves)
  • A readership for my novels, particularly Gaia’s Hands (which is nearer to my heart than the Kringle books, to be honest.)
  • Inspiration to write on the three partially-written books I have on this computer
  • The courage to publish another book (the one that Gaia’s Hands is the prequel for)
  • Lots of good coffee

It might be a lot to ask, but I figure I have to be honest about my situation to someone.

Love, Lauren

The Things I Love and the Things I Do Well

Sorry I haven’t written the past couple of days, but I was setting up for Missouri Hope, our big disaster training exercise. Then I was doing moulage for Missouri Hope, which means making up 185 volunteers in two-hour stretches (with two other moulage artists). Then I was recovering from Missouri Hope. It’s the most intense weekend of my year.

So, it’s Tuesday, and I have a spare few minutes to write my blog in-between grading and an online meeting that shouldn’t go too long. I have time to think. Today, I’m thinking of the things I love and the things I do well, which are not necessarily the same things.

I enjoy doing moulage, and I do it well. I know I do it well because I get a lot of compliments and attention for it. Doing moulage gives me a boost. I get high from the attention.

Trigger warning: Below is a simulation of a crushed hand:

















Back to writing:

I enjoy writing, too. I’d like to believe I do it well, but I get little feedback from publishing my writing. Few people have read my three Kringle novels, my fantasy romance novel, or my Vella serial. I’m not sure this has to do as much with my writing as the whole struggle to get the word out about my writing. I’m not good at putting myself out there because I feel insecure about my writing in a way I do not about my moulage. A vicious cycle, apparently — no praise means insecurity; insecurity means I don’t push myself forward; not pushing myself forward means no readers; no readers means no praise.

I need to find a way out of the vicious cycle, because I want to have the relationship I have with my moulage with my writing, something that I both enjoy and which feeds my need for recognition (which is a small thing, actually). I’m willing to entertain ideas …

Progress on the Work in Progress

I have been working on preparing the Christmas romance novel Kringle on Fire with Richard, and we are way ahead of our goals. We are adopting a variation of the method I use to plot a book:

  1. Use a Scrivener template (Romancing the Beat or other variants on the Save the Cat method). I do this because I want to make sure the story develops as expected by the reader.
  2. Write character sheets for each character with appreciable dialogue (Scrivener has these).
  3. Use the writing template in 1) to lay out descriptions of action at each plot point.
  4. Write the book using these plot points as guideposts.

This is the writing method known as plantsing — neither as structured as planning, nor as free-form as pantsing (aka flying by the seat of your pants). We’re planning a bit more than usual because I want to make sure that Richard has enough input into the book to justify co-authorship. (In other words, I want to work his butt off.)

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The goal: a decent plan by November 1st so that I have a foundation to write this book. And an enjoyable November listening to Christmas music and writing.

A Development I Couldn’t Have Predicted

Well, here’s a development I couldn’t have predicted — my husband is coauthoring my latest Kringle romance.

It’s an annual tradition (i.e. something I’ve done more than twice) for me to use NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) to write a novel in the Kringle Chronicles, a set of light, quirky Christmas romances with the Spirit of Christmas in the forefront. You can read about this year’s in my latest posts.

Yesterday, my husband was presenting ideas for the coming novel, and I told him that if he wasn’t careful, I was going to have to give him a writing credit. He said “Ok.” After twenty minutes of interrogation, I discovered he wasn’t joking, that he wanted to co-author a romance novel with me.

If I don’t seem like the typical romance novel writer, he seems even less so. A bookish-looking guy, greying at the temples, stocky, librarian. But he wants second billing on this romance novel I’m writing.

He spent a little while this morning blocking out the first five chapters — not so much an outline as chapter synopses — and helping refine characters. He didn’t do too badly. I think this is going to work.

I’m plotting!

I’m doing more plotting on November’s Kringle book (now tentatively called Kringle on Fire) than I have done on any book up till now. This is evidence that it hasn’t truly grabbed me yet, so it concerns me. The process is usually easier than this, with my characters and plots developing organically during discussions with my husband.

There are benefits to plotting a book, especially if one uses a framework like Save the Cat! or Romancing the Beat. You can find information on these online. One can also find derivatives of Save the Cat! and Romancing the Beat as Scrivener templates. The templates have significant advantages for writers and readers. Writers use someone else’s research to develop the story in a way that makes sense and the structure takes away a big concern when editing. Future readers can find the peaks and troughs of the plot where they expect.

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Because I want to write this book for NaNoWriMo this November, and be part of a worldwide group of writers, I’m going to have to write however I can. That, in this case, means plotting.

The Next Book (for NaNo)

I am laying out the next book, which will give me the opportunity to avoid set aside Avatar of the Maker for a little while. I hope those ideas ripen in the meantime and give me insight on how to edit the document to wonderful effect.

The reason I am starting on another novel is that NaNoWriMo is coming up in November, and I have an annual ritual attached to that. Every November I write the next Kringle romance so that I’m inspired by the holiday season. It’s now part of how I celebrate.

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This year’s, which I don’t know if I have a title yet, involves a single mom/student/barista and a firefighter. These are common tropes of romance, but I’m hoping to make them uncommon. I’m trying to figure out what quirky elements to include in the story. In the past, I have included medieval reenactment and Krampus. I know that the Human Society is involved and the male protagonist is going to be a cat person (somewhat unusual, and something that gets voted down on dating sites, if you can believe that.) Maybe that’s enough, but I like to write for nerds, so maybe I get inspired.

There also needs to be a dance involved, in homage to regency novels. Where would a firefighter and a single mother dance? They don’t have money to go to the hospital Christmas gala. Is there a dance in the fire station? A Christmas party?

If you’re reading and have any ideas on these, let me know!


My day has periods of silence. Silence in my office hours, silence when I walk to the Student Union for lunch, lots of silence when I work at home on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

In the silence, I ruminate about my faults, about whether I am a good person. I think this is not necessarily a bad thing, because I remind myself that I don’t want to have those failings, and I decide to think a different way. In fact, I decide I’m a pretty normal person in the good/bad continuum. I come out of this feeling pretty okay.

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Perhaps my reflections are excessive, because they impede my progress revising the first third of a novel. (They don’t keep me from doing my day job, of course. Nothing keeps me from doing my day job.) There are things I would rather do in the silence, such as plot this darned book better. Why can’t I ruminate about Leah’s decision to act upon her visions?

My ruminations might simply be a procrastination tactic, preventing me from tackling some pretty hard work. I know I have to move parts of the novel and rewrite other parts eventually, and I don’t want to. I haven’t figured out what the book is yet. Reflecting on my pettiness is easier work.

I need to do something new to move my mind to the doing work rather than ruminating. Maybe working with pen and paper for a while. Maybe red fountain pen. Perhaps going out to coffee. Anything but this ruminating.

Considering Big Audacious Goals again

It’s my birthday eve-eve-eve

It’s three days before my birthday. I’m almost 59, or almost-almost 60, so I don’t have a “birth month” any longer. I have an extended celebration, bits and pieces here and there.

This last weekend my husband and I traveled to Kansas City, in part for a writing retreat and in part for my birthday. I got to see a Studio Ghibli double-feature and spend quality time in coffeehouses. We postponed the visit to the classic, elegant steakhouse until the future when we could get reservations in on time, but we ate Middle Eastern and Indian food.

My actual birthday is on Sunday. I’m expecting more coffeehouse time and maybe dinner at the local steakhouse (which is not as fancy as The Golden Ox in KC). Maybe a Kris and Kates’ Birthday Cake twister, although I’m off sweets right now.

Making Big Audacious Goals

What I really want for my birthday is a good day, a calm day with a little joy. A day with a little surprise, hopefully pleasant. Hugs and kittens. I don’t ask for much. Besides, Sunday is not a day for Big Audacious Goals to be met.

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I will make the Big Audacious Goals for the next year on my birthday, because it seems to be the right time, avoiding the treachery of the New Year and the spookiness of Halloween. (There’s also Asian New Year and Rosh Hashanah to select from for New Year, if we want to get more complicated.) But instead of correcting bad things (resolutions) I’ll make Big Audacious Goals.

What are Big Audacious Goals? The name spells it out — they’re gutsy and magnificent and perhaps harder than we expect them to be. The idea is to use them to push ourselves beyond our notion of ourselves.

A Big Audacious Goal is best when it specifies the action you’ll make rather than the result you will get, because we have less power over what results from our actions. For example, writing this blog twice a week (which I have only done consistently lately) is a better BAG than getting 100 followers, which is something I have no control over. Coincidentally, I have over 100 followers. I didn’t get to my goal exactly, but close enough to celebrate.

Choosing Big Audacious Goals makes us feel more powerful, as if we have chosen something heroic to perform. I read somewhere that dogs define themselves by what they do: “Hank, fetch!” Now the dog’s name is Hank, fetch! I argue dogs become heroes in their own minds by what they do. We do too by adopting Big Audacious Goals.

What if you don’t succeed? It was a Big Audacious Goal; attempting it in the first place puts you a great deal better than before you adopted it. One of my BAGs was to indie-publish Gaia’s Hands, which I did. Not too many people have read it, though, which was the other half of the BAG (I should have known better). But look at the BAG of indie publishing it. Gaia’s Hands is a highly personal novel, and the one which I found hardest to write, so publishing it is a grand step. Putting it in front of readers, even if they don’t read it, is a grand step.

I don’t know what I’m going to adopt as Big Audacious Goals this year; I’m going to talk about that with my husband. Writing something I’d already planned for writing is not a BAG; the goal should be above the ‘do’ level and into the ‘dream, then do’ level. If it’s another book, it has to be something I think is beyond me. Maybe it’s doing something dramatic in marketing like better TikTok or a podcast (if only I had something to talk about!) A few cups of coffee and I’m sure it will come to me.

Glorious Break

I’ve missed a couple days writing this blog, but that’s because I spent a couple days in Kansas City on a writing retreat. Writing retreats consist of soaking up coffeehouse atmosphere, eating good food, and writing. This writing goal was to clean up some formatting and language on Gaia’s Hands that I missed the first time around. Luckily, uploading corrected versions on Kindle is so easy that I did it in half an hour, and 20 minutes of that was tweaking the cover.

I have editing to do with Avatar of the Maker, especially as I’ve separated it from the Maker’s Seeds plot. That’s something I’ve learned over my years writing, that there is such a thing as too much plot. As I have one-third of the book written, this will probably be painful. Maybe I will rescue it later. I have another book, although a fluffy one, waiting in the wings.

I get intense focus on writing retreats, even though I’m writing in a crowded coffeehouse. Or, as it so happens right now, writing in a quiet hotel room while my husband snores. (Oh yes, Richard, you do snore).

Today, I will write my newsletter and get caught up on my promotion tasks. And feel rested for the week to come.