How to Write Proficiently About Things You Don't Know

By  Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

As writers, we're constantly told, "Write about what you know."

And yes, to a degree, this is very good advice. When we're intimately familiar or passionate about something, usually that enthusiasm will show up in our writing. We'll be able to write with more confidence. Our work will come across more authentic. And overall, we'll be able to lend more credibility to our stories.

We want to write in such a way that readers feel that they're actually in our story experiencing things right along with our characters. But how can they experience it, if we never have?

For example, a doctor writing medical suspense (like Doctor Richard Mabry), is going to have a much easier time with terminology, medical experiences, and the "can-this-really-happen" questions we all face when shaping our stories.

But does that mean that we always have to write about the things with which we're most familiar or have the most expertise?

I recently got an email from a sixteen year old writer having trouble with this very issue. She said: I have scenes where my heroine rides a horse and swims in the ocean, but I've never done these things. I lack firsthand experience. Do I write first, then edit my writing when I'm older, more experienced?

No matter our age, we will have times (perhaps many times), when we'll need to write about life situations for which we have absolutely NO knowledge or firsthand experience, especially if we want to infuse our stories with drama and life.

The truth is, most of us live pretty boring lives. We don't rescue girls from brothels, get trapped in the wilderness during snowstorms, get kidnapped at knifepoint, or end up in the middle of a bar room brawl.

Yes, all of these things happen in my new release, Unending Devotion. But I've never actually experienced any of them.

Does my lack of experience mean my book has a hollow ring to it or lacks conviction?

No. Quite the opposite. I've gotten feedback from many readers indicating how much they've enjoyed the authentic feel of the lumber era as well as all of the drama—in spite of the fact that I didn't live in the lumber era or experience any of the things I've written about.

So how do we write about what we don't know, especially with believability and proficiency?

1. Research, research, research.

I read as many books as I could about the lumber era in Michigan so that I was intimately familiar with the terminology and the experiences associated with it. During my research, whenever I ran across something interesting that happened to the "shanty boys" as they were called, I made a note of it, like icicles forming on mustaches or the sound that the trees make when falling. All of those tiny details add authenticity.

With the invention of YouTube, we have the opportunity to "experience" almost anything. For example, I've never gone Polka dancing, but I needed to see how it was done for a scene in my upcoming release A Noble Groom. So I watched several YouTube videos of Polka dancing and got a pretty good idea of what it entails.

2. Read biographies.

To get an even better feel for the experience, I read biographies of people who lived during the lumber era. Biographies give us a more subjective view of the experience, how someone actually felt about what they were going through. I keep notes of the various emotions and reactions that I can use with my characters as they go through a similar situation. (Contemporary writers might consider interviewing a real person for a subjective view.)

3. Let the imagination make the experience even more dramatic.

We can't translate real life happenings into fiction verbatim. Fiction is, well . . . fiction. Of course we want to keep the element of plausibility, making certain we have set the foundation, motivations, and setting for all the drama.

But ultimately, we must always have more things happen to our character (usually negative) in the course of 300 plus pages than one person would ever really experience. And then we make those events and situations larger than life as well. For example, if our character rides a horse, it will contain true elements, but if it's an important horse ride, we'll want to make it really scary, or really fun, or really life-threatening.

4. Let qualified beta readers give us feedback.

Sometimes it helps to search through our cache of friends and track down someone who has experience with the subject matter. Then we can ask them to read a selection and check for accuracy of our work. They aren't editing for us, but simply making sure that we did indeed portray the character or situation the way it really would have happened.

5. When in doubt, leave it out.

If I've exhausted my research and can't seem to find a way to authenticate something I want to include, then I'll usually leave out the scene or revamp it to weave in something I have been able to find.

Do you ever have to write about something you don't know? How do you make your story believable and authentic?

Hey everyone! My "Fun Secrets" Blog Tour is still taking place. Don't miss out on the fun! At each blog stop, I'm GIVING AWAY a copy of my newest release, Unending Devotion. Here's where I'll be over the next few days:

Thursday, Sept. 20:  Secret #12: My secret for writing around my kids. Marie Burton’s blog Burton Book Review

Friday, Sept. 21: Secret #13: The house chore I like to do the least. Lily Robinson’s blog

For a list of all my secrets, check out my Events Page!

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