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Friday, October 3, 2014

Writing What You DON’T Know

By Kathleen Rice Adams

“Write what you know.” What writer hasn’t heard that sage advice?

Like “relentlessly cut the adverbs” and “avoid clichés like the plague,” “write what you know” is a good rule of thumb. Some writers, though, obsess about the advice until it also acquires four fingers and a palm.

Here’s the thing: “Write what you know” is nothing more than a platitude. It’s the type of advice authors spit out automatically because it sounds profound. Scratch the surface, though, and it becomes apparent the phrase is vague, confusing, and imparts no true wisdom. “Write what you know” can bring authors-in-training to a dead stop because they can’t imagine how anyone could be interested in daily routines that seem humdrum to them. The axiom tempts experienced authors to produce lazy, boring fiction.

Here’s the unvarnished truth: All authors write what they know. The behavior is unavoidable. “What we know” is what we’ve learned through our life experiences: our thoughts; emotions; education; interactions with the natural world, other humans, and animals; spiritual beliefs, and all the other things that make each of us unique. “What we know” makes us who we are. Consequently, “what we know” enters our fiction whether or not we extend an invitation.

To be sure, some authors—medical doctor Michael Crichton and attorney John Grisham, for example—acquire specialized knowledge from their careers, education, travel, or mere happenstance. It’s never a mistake to incorporate that material into a story as long as the information is relevant and can be inserted in a way that doesn’t “feel” forced. Readers are smarter than many writers think, though. They can tell when story elements have been squeezed in to satisfy the vague command to “write what you know.” No matter what you know, if it’s not essential to the story at hand, pretend you don’t know it.

Instead, try writing what you don’t know.

There. I said it. I slapped traditional wisdom upside the head, and I’m not the least bit apologetic. Those of you who yearn to throw rocks at me, now’s your chance.

Why do I encourage writers to commit professional sedition? Because writing what we don’t know is infinitely more interesting and inspiring. Genre fiction is nothing more than a series of “What if…?” strung together by characters, settings, and events. If that doesn’t indicate soul-deep curiosity, I don’t know what would.

Writing what you don’t know gives you an opportunity to attack the unfamiliar; to expand your horizons, your knowledge, and your imagination. When people learn something new, human nature encourages them to share the information. By writing what you don’t know—or didn’t know—you can infect readers with the same wonder, excitement, and enthusiasm you experienced during the journey to discovery.

Not that I’m any paragon of writing virtue, but here’s an example of what I mean: The hero and heroine in “Family Tradition,” my contribution to the anthology Cowboys, Creatures, and Calico Vol. 2, are a bank robber and a carnival fortune teller, respectively. Have I ever robbed a bank? No (although the idea has crossed my mind once or twice). Have I ever worked as a psychic, carnie, or con artist? Sadly, no. I must have missed chatting with those professionals during Career Day in high school.

Did I write about those characters and their challenges anyway? You bet, and part of the fun was researching how outlaws robbed banks and how so-called spiritualists hooked marks in the nineteenth-century American west.

In other words, I wrote what I didn’t know, at least before I wrote the story. Most of us who write fiction are always writing what we don’t know. That’s why folks often hear us griping, in a good-natured way, about disappearing down research rabbit holes.

Don’t be afraid to kick “write what you know” to the curb and write what you don’t know. The effort can be rewarding…but more than that, it’s fun.

Cowboys, Creatures, and Calico 

Vols. 1 and 2
Twelve authors, twelve romances, and a whole herd of things that go bump in the Old West night.

“Family Tradition”
A failed bank robber and a phony psychic find their soulmates after she accidentally summons a pair of dishonest-to-goodness ghosts.

If trade didn’t pick up in this no-horse burg, Pansy Gilchrist would pack her tent and take the first train back east…as soon as Maurice’s Museum of Mysterious Oddities got anywhere near a hamlet large enough to warrant its own railway depot. Folks in New York and Boston threw money at spiritualists. If Mr. Barnum was correct about suckers, Madame Minerva could be in business for a long, long time.

Why had she allowed that nincompoop Maurice to talk her into this traveling nonsense? She and Emile had swindled larger crowds with Dr. Goodbody’s Kickapoo Medicine Show…and found themselves run out of town less often. Kickapoo Indian Sagwa! Snake Oil Liniment! Miraculous Elixirs to Cure What Ails You!

Demonstrating the sure-fire remedies had cured Emile right into his grave. Pickled.

Muttering foul words under her breath, she set a bucket under another leak in the canvas.

When a gust of wind whipped open the tent’s flap, she jerked upright, pulled her shawl around her shoulders, and faced the opening with the cryptic smile she’d worked hard to perfect.

A tall, drenched form ducked inside, and the smile flattened. Well, that was a waste of effort.

Seldom had she seen a more bedraggled man. Water poured from his hat brim in a river, bypassing the mud spattered from his boots to the middle of his chest. Even the saddle riding his shoulder was slathered in muck.

Still, the casual slouch in his posture, the appreciative, half-lidded leer betrayed a calculated gamble on seduction. Perhaps he wasn’t the only mark in the spider’s parlor.

Pansy forced her voice to the bottom of her throat, infusing her words with a gypsy lilt. “You seek Madame Minerva’s counsel?”

A grin just shy of lascivious slid onto his lips. “For now.”

Slime on the hoof. With a dramatic sweep of her hand, she waved him to a chair. The saddle thunked to the ground. His soggy hat landed on the horn. Then, with a half bow, he echoed her dramatic sweep and seated her on the far side of the table before leaning close to her ear.

“My mother was Romany, little lady.” The low, smooth drawl caught her breath in a vise. “That’s about the worst impersonation I’ve ever heard.”

Buy Links: B & N Nook Vol. 1  Vol. 2   Smashwords  Vol. 1  Vol. 2 



  1. Oh my gosh, that sounds so good! I've been considering a Roma character because they are so dang interesting. I cant wait until my CCC books arrive.

    I think you should write what interests you. It makes research so much easier.

    1. I agree, Connie! Wouldn't it be a terribly drab existence if all we could write was what we literally knew at the time we started a story? I think I'd throw myself under a bus. :-D

  2. Oh. My. Gosh....I find myself in the awkward position of agreeing with a Texan wholeheartedly on this subject. Mark that down in red letters.LOL

    I've said this so often, especially in my writing classes I used to teach in days of yore. You're so right--so many would-be authors have heard this phrase and it scares the pants off of them...because they think, "All I know is how to work in a bank where I've worked for 25 years. So how can I write a western/fantasy/YA/whatever?"

    Writing what you know, is as you say, your life experiences that make you up as a person--your beliefs and thoughts and ideas--not your actual experiences in this life. (Although, sometimes some of those can play into your story, as well, but it's not absolutely necessary.)

    The example of NOT "writing what you know" and doing it to perfection is Forrest Carter, who not only wrote the Josey Wales stories, but a wonderful book called The Education of Little Tree that was made into a movie, as well. Forrest Carter marketed his book as his autobiography--a story based on his own growing up years, with a Scottish grandfather and a Cherokee grandmother. As an only child. Whose parents had died. A young boy who grew up faced with white prejudice at every turn because of his Indian blood.
    He actually died fairly young, in his early 50's. When he died, it came to light that not only was his name NOT "Forrest"--it was Asa. He had been a speechwriter for George Wallace, one of the most outright anti-minority politicians who ever lived. "Forrest" was not Cherokee. He had siblings--who were more than ready to talk about their REAL growing up years.
    So it was all a lie.

    But it was one of the BEST lies ever told--one of the most believable. If you've ever read The Education of Little Tree, you'll see what I mean. Carter had a way of putting you right there in that young boy's head, thoughts, feelings, experiences as if he truly HAD lived every second of it. He was a DAMN good writer...but it wasn't writing "what he knew"...

    There are a lot of other examples out there, but that's the one that always springs to mind because it was so opposite. Maybe it was what he WISHED his life had been, or maybe it was to atone for the part he played in George Wallace's political career. Who knows? Whatever, that book is really a masterpiece.

    Another one is One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus--obviously a guy--who writes the book as a woman.

    Great post, Kathleen. And I loved your story in CCC#2--you really outdid yourself with "Tombstone Hawkins"--I just love that name--and company!


    1. Okie, I thought The Education of Little Tree was brilliant, too -- and I was so disappointed when I found out Carter made up his whole life story. On the other hand, I admired that accomplishment and the chutzpah it took. The backstory he created was so much more interesting than the one he actually lived. Maybe that's what all fiction authors do: Write the lives we, on some level, wish we had lived.

      Thanks for the compliment on "Family Tradition." All of us in the two volumes of Cowboys, Creatures, and Calico had so much fun with an opportunity authors don't see often -- take a vague idea and run with it. Forget what your mother told you about scissors. :-D Along with everything else y'all do, you and Livia give PRP authors encouragement to play...and that's so important for creative types. :-)

      (I won't tell anyone an Okie and a Texan agree on something if you won't. ;-) )

  3. I think it's more fun for writers to write about something they don't know... that way, they get to know about what they didn't... Oh gosh! I know, I know. Not making much sense, am I? Think I need my daily dose of Iced Cappuccino... Yep. And, seriously, researching stuff is so interesting, as much as writing the story itself. OK, I'm gone for that Iced Cappuccino now - well, soon. Talk to you, Kathleen.

    1. Liette, I wholeheartedly agree. For me, at least, research is one of the most fascinating parts of writing fiction. I'm a journalist in the day job, so research and interviews are part of my daily grind. Still, I enjoy digging into things I wouldn't encounter except for some wild notion about a story. Sounds like you're the same way.

      Go get that capuccino -- and bring me one while you're at it! :-D

    2. Done... Do you see it? It's right there. :) And if you don't hurry to grab it, I'll drink it all. :)

    3. LOL! Thank you for bringing me the cappuccino. Now get your paws off t. ;-)

  4. Love it, love it, love it! Looks like the traveling Mysterious Oddities show just burst into flame! (And I laughed out loud at "no-horse burg.")

    1. Thanks, Lorrie! I had fun with Pansy and Tombstone, and the research into Old West "freak shows" was fascinating. Talk about rabbit holes! :-D

  5. I guess if I only write what I know, I wouldn't be writing any Wilding stories in Wyoming. That sure would take the fun out of things for me. Research is half the fun.
    I loved this excerpt, Kathleen. I have a fondness for Gypsies and fortune tellers. That your hero is part Romany really intrigues me. I laughed when he let her know he was on to her act. Typical you to include some good humor in a story.

    1. Sarah, I don't know what we'd do if you hadn't decided to go with "what you don't know" and create the Wildings. That is such a wonderful series of stories, and thank goodness you're not done yet! :-)

      I may have gone overboard with the alleged humor in this one. Usually, I'm not half as funny as I hope. :-D


  6. Kathleen,

    I wrote a contemporary cowboy vampire story (that I just got the rights back on and will publish ASAP as a second edition...somewhere). My point is, while I know the cowboy world and write in it with comfort, I'm not a vampire, I don't know any vampires, and I really don't want to meet a vampire. lol But by golly, I penned an entertaining story by "writing what I don't know".

    Confession: I also use adverbs (the horror!!) and the word 'very'. I'm such a rebel.


    1. AHA! I knew it! You're a dangerous subversive who probably ought to be carted off to a secret prison for writers. ;-)

      You and Jacquie Rogers -- mixing genres with reckless abandon. I'll swear. You just can't trust some authors to stick to the manual.

      I sneak adverbs into my writing, too -- but only under cover of darkness. We'll probably both be arrested.

  7. I've always thought the "write what you know" mantra was ridiculous. How many people know from personal experience what life in the Old West was like, or Civil War, or how many of us have lived among fairies, vampires or werewolves (don't answer that). But saying that I think if you're going to write what you don't know you better do some darn good research, because remember you might not know it, but someone else does.

    1. Boy, you've got that right, Rustler. (Oh lord. Here we go again.) When you're writing what you don't know, research is imperative. There's always someone somewhere who'll call you on something -- sometimes something it's obvious they know nothing about. A little knowledge is an aggravating thing. (I've been on the receiving end of a couple of those snipes, and it's annoying. One had the audacity to tell me I should visit Texas, because it was painfully obvious I knew nothing about the state's landscape. :-D )

      Being an honest-to-goodness historian with a masters degree, I'm sure you see more than your share of history faux pas and have to bite your lip to avoid becoming unglued. Thankfully, the Roses have you and several others who are experts in a variety of topics. We can turn to y'all for information BEFORE we embarrass ourselves in public!

    2. I remember you telling me about that little piece of golden advice tossed you're way. If there's a person who knows Texas history, it's you (kind of fits with your nickname).

  8. Thanks for clearing this up, Kathleen. When I use that term, it's usually in response to someone asking, "Why are all your books set in Texas?" Why? Because Texas is what I know, and although I know Texas pretty well, that's always something to research. I think my stories have a Texas feel to them, by the characters, where in the state they reside, and what they're up to--good or bad. In other words, I would never write a story set in Milwaukee or in Carmel, California. Those places might as well be on the moon, for I could not do justice to a novel set in either of these.
    One novel, though I set partially in NM, up around Montezuma, not far from Las Vegas, NM. why did I choose that? Because we lived there once upon a time. I am familiar with it.
    I get your point, though. My characters ride horse all over the place--and I've never ridden a horse. I have made errors, and a well-meaning dear friend told me where and how. Thank goodness, for good friends to keep me from looking stupid.

    1. Celia,

      This is why my stories take place in Wyoming, Montana and Virginia (a couple have scenes there before I quickly move West), because I've lived in each state and I think, especially with Wyoming, it helps my stories ring true. There are some things research or a quick trip, or many quick trips, to a state can't give you. I would never write a story taking place in Texas, because I fear I would be lynched for inaccuracies. :) Your stories ring so true because of your connection to the places where your stories take place.

    2. Celia, you know Texas VERY well, but I hear you about needing to research even those things in which we're well-versed. Your stories give true life to our lovely state, and they're always a joy to read.

      I'm with you, too, about not setting stories very far outside Texas. I don't think I'd have the courage to stray far, for the very reasons you mentioned. I firmly believe intimate acquaintance with the people, the language, the geography, the history and culture, the architecture, and all the other little things that make each area just a little bit different from any other area lend a ring of authenticity it's extremely difficult for "outsiders" to grasp. You are one of the best at that, dear lady. :-)

    3. Rustler, you'd definitely by lynched. We've been looking for a reason to lynch you for years. That one would work. ;-)

      (Your reason for staying out of Texas is the same one I have for staying out of Wyoming. The hero in Prodigal Gun mentions Wyoming a time or two, but thankfully he never suggested a trip back to his temporary stomping grounds. What my characters did on their own time before the story started is their business, not mine. No ma'am, I was not interested taking a risk on a necktie party, either. ;-) )

    4. Yeah, I know there's a rope with my name on it down Galveston way. :) LOL, I have a hero who was born in Texas. He moved North and that's all that was said about that. :)

  9. Sorry so late to the party--but this post strikes right to my belief that stories are chasing after the right person to tell it. We most certainly will filter it through our own life-lense, but I think the most important job of a writer is to hone one's skills. "Write what you know" is just becoming the best we can be as a writer, an ever-changing thing anyway. Because one day the BIG story will come, and we all want to have the skill to handle it, to 'write what we know', which is really just another way of saying that we KNOW how to write. Great post, Kathleen!

    1. Thanks, Kristy! I had a feeling we'd be in the vicinity of the same idea. You're completely right: It's a writer's job, at least IMO, to keep learning, keep experiencing, and keep broadening our horizons and abilities so "what we know" becomes bigger and better all the time. We can't help writing "what we know" -- and until we actually write whatever it is, we may not even know we know it. (Yeah, I realize that made no sense. It's been a long day. :-D )

    2. that's okay...I just realized I spelt 'life-lens' wrong :-) (so ready for the weekend)

  10. Good for you Kathleen. I've never prescribed to the 'write what you know'. I would much rather learn and write about that, less boring. I also get to stuff my brain with such great information, great for parties .

    I also got a kick out of you excerpt. True to form, it lends itself to my wanting to read more.

    All the best, and keep 'writing what you don't know!'. Doris

    1. Thanks, Doris! I've always appreciated your approach to everything you do. You get in there and dig, find facts and people nobody else is aware of, and then share all that wonderful research with the rest of us in all sorts of ways -- including your fiction.

      Keep at it, lady! You surprise me with new stuff every day -- in a good way! :-)

  11. Loved your excerpt, Tex, and I plan to read the whole story tomorrow while we're traveling. Both books are loaded on my Kindle and ready to go. :) You know I've been waiting and waiting for Tombstone. I love the whole backstory idea. You're flat-out demented. LOL.

    Ah, write what you know. To be honest, I fiction is all about, um, fiction. Fiction is not real. But in the "write what you know" category, emotions are real. Somehow, no matter how off the wall the stories and characters get, the emotions have to be something I know. But everything else? Well, I don't know a thing about horse/centaur/unicorn shifters, or beavers of extraordinary size, either. Nor have I ever been blessed with magic, although if I were, the first thing I'd do is put this danged house to rights, and then fix the rattle in my car. Might zap over some more of that fancy chocolate, too. :)

    1. I'M demented? I'm demented?? Look who's talking, Ms. Beavers of Extraordinary Size! :-D

      Emotions are the heart of any romance, and to write them, we must know them. That's one of the areas in which I believe literally writing what you know is important. Sometimes it's the daunting task of putting them on paper that gets tricky.

      I certainly hope you have no personal experience with shifters or scary beavers. And I'm dang thankful you don't have magic! If Tremaine is any indication, we'd all have to go into hiding. :-D

  12. Wow, so many replies to your blog Kathleen. It looks like you hit a nerve with writers. I had to smile when I read your blog. Writing what you don't know is exactly what I do. I know very little about fighting in combat or visiting a whore house, but my characters do. But I d now what it feels like to fall in love, make love and have your heart broken. These are the feelings we bring to our stories and bring out emotions in our readers.