Novelists’ Craft: Writing What You Don’t Know

You’re an author. You can write any book you choose. Inevitably, you’ll get ideas for books you wish you could write, but the big rule is “write what you know”… isn’t it?

If everyone stuck to that rule, there’d be very little science fiction, and few mysteries. You can write any book you can imagine, and can research.

You’ve never killed anyone, but you want to write a thriller. How do you get into the mind of hit man? You don’t have children. How do you write from the point of view of a mother whose six-year-old is kidnapped?

Please take this to heart: all writing is discovery.

Let’s say you want to write a thriller about a hit man (or a hit woman.) This will be a real challenge for you if you’re anything like me, and are squeamish about using snail bait, or swatting a spider.

Nevertheless, if I had a great idea for a book, and the main character happened to kill people for a living, I could write it. And so could you.

Here’s why. Fiction is all about emotion. You’ve had every emotion everyone else has had. You’ve been angry — and you’ve gone beyond anger to primal rage. Neither feeling is comfortable. You may want to tap into that when you’re writing about your hit person. Not for the killer, but for the person who’s hired him.

For your killer, you’d want to tap into other emotions: determination, and a sense of confidence and expertise, perhaps. The emotions you’d explore would depend on your hit person’s character.

What about the woman with a kidnapped child? I hope neither of us has had that experience. However, you’ve had similar experiences. Perhaps your child disappeared for a moment while you were shopping. Or from your backyard. Even if you’re childless however, you can imagine yourself into that scenario.

Fiction is all about emotion. You need to trigger it in yourself, and then learn how to write to trigger it in your readers. The emotion is always what counts.

Therefore, since I’m very squeamish, and I wouldn’t like to experience the sheer terror of a child going missing, at this stage I wouldn’t consider writing about the hit man, or the mother with a missing child… not unless I got a great idea, and HAD to write it.

How to write what you don’t know

1. WRITE IT. Write a first draft, before you start researching hit men, or how many children go missing over the course of a year. Just write whatever strikes you in the moment. You can research once the first draft is done. If you research first, I can promise you you’re unlikely to write the book.

Use your imagination, and get into the emotions.

2. Research while you’re writing your second draft. You’ll want to research where your hit man lives, what weapons he has, how he travels, how he’s hired, etc.

For your kidnapped child book, see if you can talk to someone at a personal security agency.

Writing what you don’t know is fun, when you use your imagination, and then research.

Image from Morguefile

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Angela Booth is a top copywriter, multi-published author, and writing teacher. She offers many guides, courses and classes to help writers to enhance their skills on her websites. She also provides inspiration and motivation for writers on her writing blogs. Angela has been writing successfully since the late 1970s, and was online in the 1980s, long before the birth of the Web. Her business books have been widely published.

1 thought on “Novelists’ Craft: Writing What You Don’t Know

  1. The Captcha script made me chuckle, I need to re-remember my times tables again!

    Thank you for these articles, I’ve gone through them tonight and they are gold, as far as storytelling advice goes.

    It gets me, when people say “write what you know” as if historical romance writers need to be recondite masters of lore for every period they write about. What of science fiction? The thing that always divides good books from bad, no matter what the genre, is research.

    And today, with Google Books, all sorts of online databases, and the humble but very useful library (wherein can be found all manners of things not remotely digitized) there really is no excuse, anymore, for slipshod research.

    Again, thank you for the information on this site!

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