Writing What You Don’t Know
Most times, a budding writer is advised explicitly or implicitly to ‘write what you know.’ I’m not sure which writing guru started selling this idea, but you know what, in my honest opinion, writing just what you know is the most stifling sort of encouragement that I can think of and here’s why I think so.
- Writing what you know’ works, but if you are seeking to grow as a writer, you would find out soon enough that it’s self-limiting.
- The biggest part of the fun in writing is making things up. Learning new things. Approaching an unknown terrain and finding the truth in the unknown.
- Writing the unknown is not easy and comfortable, but it would challenge you. It could probably scare you and you may not even know where you are heading with the story, but the journey into the unknown is always worth it because it builds the backbone of the writer in you.
Pushing Your Boundaries
You may not know everything, but you do know a lot of things. Of course, it is essential to take inspiration where you can find it, however, your experiences should liberate your imagination and not restrict it.
Set your imagination loose. If your personal experience constrains a story to the point of it becoming lackluster, then you must emancipate your imagination and sharpen it. That’s your job as a writer to keep your imagination relevantly sharpened.
A lot of times, a writers discomfort stems from subjects about sexuality, race, gender or class. The writer feels ill-equipped to write on such subjects because they are not familiar, they don’t resemble him, so he automatically keeps to writing what he knows and sticks to safer grounds.
When a writer finds a subject intimidating, that’s precisely when the writer should explore it. Write what pushes your boundary. Write what fascinates you. Write what you can’t stop thinking about even if it’s not a safe subject.
Tips to help write what you don’t know
Organize your work
You need to devise an effective means of organizing the material that you get from your research. There are a lot of mediums and software programs such as Scrivener, yWrite, Bibisco, Plume creator, Manuskript used to organize information.
However, you need to choose and stick to one for your project in order not to waste unnecessary time switching back and forth. I have used Scrivener. It’s inexpensive and well supported by its makers.
Be Prepared to Dig Deeper
Don’t rely solely on online research. Plug into Amazon and get a list of relevant books. Look beyond your local library and check out University libraries. You may have to spend a bit to get some specific materials. Listen to local channels or international channels that talk about your interest, read, read and read some more. Check out documentaries relevant to your search and don’t shy away from contacting a publisher or writer directly to double-check information.
Research the source and background.
Before spending valuable time or money on any material, take the time to research the author and the work on the Internet. Look out for reviews and abstracts of their work, check out their social media platforms Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or website. Your findings would help you decide well ahead of time if the author has the perspective that serves your purpose.
Take note of the little details
You are writing about Africa or India, but you need to know more than the books and articles that you are reading is telling you, use image searches on Google, on YouTube, documentaries and other sources you can lay your hands on. Magnify and freeze-frame the images where possible and study them carefully, the paths, roads, nature, etc. Take note of the date of these images and videos as well as all the publication that you refer to, to avoid attributing something to a period to which it does not belong.
Make your own contacts and tap into others
Google search for related clubs around you and contact them. Consider visiting the place and talk to people. Start asking questions even before you know what exactly you are narrowing down to. People love to talk and they’ll tell you things you could not have possibly imagined. People love talking about their lives, professions, passions and sometimes even their unique stories. This is a free medium that’s fun and offers firsthand unexpected results.
Become an online eavesdropper
Dig into personal blogs, online groups, organizations’ websites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, etc. For a fiction writer, these are powerful resources, however, always cross check critical facts.
Ask for help from far and wide
Don’t restrict yourself to asking for research information from only people you know. Local tour companies and guides are a well of information about a particular place that you are writing about and you can write an email requesting information about the area or better still a phone call conversation could answer a puzzling question even as far as New Zealand.
When you want to break out of a writing rut, remember to take a closer look at your past work. Are your characters typically the same? What of the plotlines, time periods and setting? Are they similar?
If you often find yourself writing about characters who are just like you with plotlines narrowed down to your experiences – though there’s nothing wrong with that – open your mind to discover something new, fresh and fun.
You just might surprise yourself by pushing your pen beyond the edge.
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