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Writing What You Don't
When I first began writing, I was told by other writers that I should "write what you know." It made sense, and for a long time I limited myself to personal experience writing, interviews or easy fiction where I "knew" all about the topic.
But there were things I wanted to write about that I didn't know about. Could I do it? Yes, and I did.
Nearly all of my 12 sales to Woman's Day were about things I hadn't actually done or wasn't an expert in. But I could research books and Web sites. I could interview experts. I could talk with friends and acquaintances who had done these things with their children or in their homes.
My big article for Woman's Day was about safety issues. This required interviews with experts and organizations who deal with safety in a variety of areas. I learned a lot through all those interviews and went on to write and sell a half dozen other short and long pieces dealing with safety issues to other publications.
Sometimes, I wrote about things I didn't know about and combined them with what I knew. I've never met a ghost, but I'm afraid of heights. "The Sneezing Ghost" won First Place in a writing contest and was accepted for a school reading test company. It's the story of a boy who's afraid of heights, yet must climb a rope in gym class. Along the way, he encounters and makes friends with a sneezing ghost, who helps him with his climbing problem and his bully problem. He, in turn, finds an unexpected way to help the ghost.
In "A Voice in the Storm," a short story published in Boy's Life, I took the irritation I was feeling with my daughter's doll and it's repeating voice action and added a boy, his sister and a tornado. I'd never been in a tornado, but I knew people who had. I interviewed storm experts and people who knew how a home might fall into itself in such a wind.
Are we limited to what we've actually experienced? Can we write about what we don't know? Of course. Ray Bradbury hasn't been in space. Bruce Coville didn't interview subjects in a land of unicorns. And I'm pretty sure that Lewis Carroll didn't step through the looking glass to experience the oddest tea party ever.
Not every how-to article was written by an author who actually built or experienced their article subject, but they spent time learning how and interviewing others. When I saw a magazine devoted to antique merry-go-rounds, and learned that our local amusement park had recently refurbished the antique carousel at the park, I spent a lot of time interviewing the man in charge of that job. He showed me pictures of the horses as they were redone, showed me around the shop, and provided pictures. Because of that information, I later wrote stories that involved carousels, armed with words and information to make the details believable and accurate.
If I wrote only what I know or had experienced, I don't think it would take long to run out of ideas. Yet, I can experience new things every day. And my experiences in life and knowledge certainly color my writing and give it flavor.
In an issue of Hopscotch for Girls, my short story "Circus Runaway" is about a girl who is tired of traveling with the circus, and instead of running to it, has run from it. I've never worked in the circus, but I did interview an eight-year-old circus performer years ago for a nonfiction article.
Not everyone who writes about health issues is a physician or medical expert. Not everyone who writes about education is a teacher. If you don't know it, you can learn it, do it, read it, or find someone who is the expert. Your job as a writer is to make it readable and credible.
Just for fun, try this exercise of idea starters:
1. Make a list of "what you know." Hobbies, interests, areas you are an expert in, experiences you've had as a child and adult, etc.
2. Begin taking the list and paring your "knowing" experience with an unknown. What would you "like" to know about? If you can't actually experience it, who can you visit or interview? What can you read about the subject?
3. Challenge yourself to write about your two mixed topics. They may be fantastical, historical, or contemporary.
Examples: My visit to an ostrich farm for a nonfiction article gave me ideas for a contemporary fiction short story about a boy practicing the clarinet, and a fantasy novel about a boy finding a giant egg near an ostrich farm and hatching a dragon. My fear of dark, closed in places was combined with interviewing a friend who is a professional spelunker. A long-dreamed about experience of swimming with dolphins was combined with information from a friend whose child is wheelchair bound to tell the story of such a child and a dolphin.
Have fun writing what you know. Then, have some fun and write what you don't know.
Check out Kathryn Lay's
work-in-progress Web site at
http://www.kathrynlay.com to learn more about her mid-grade novel, CROWN
ME!, her writing book THE ORGANIZED WRITER IS A SELLING WRITER and her online