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!


  1. I once had a writing teacher who said, 'it doesn't have to be true, it has to be emotionally true.' ie readers care less about the factual details being accurate (although those are important) than whether something feels emotionally realistic or not. He said if you're writing about someone falling off a cliff it doesn't matter if you've never fallen off a cliff before, you've certainly experienced fear in other situations, so extract the emotion from the experiences you HAVE had, and apply it to the ones you haven't. Then your writing will feel like you have emotionally experienced the events you're writing about even if you haven't in reality.

    1. Great summary! Emotions are universal and we definitely can translate our own experiences of pain, love, fear, etc. into unfamiliar situations. And while we hope to authenticate our books with credible facts and details, you're right in that most readers care more about the story and the emotional connection they have.

      Thanks for sharing your wonderful insights!

    2. I've heard a similar analogy for those who write mystery, suspense or thriller but have never stalked or killed anyone. The recommendation was to remember the last time you stalked a particularly persistent or pesky fly or mosquito. Your concentration. Your determination. The 'thrill of the hunt' and what you felt when you finally succeeded. It was suggested that those are the same things felt by a stalker or killer and that you can incorporate those emotions into his or her character.

      I have yet to put it to the test, but it sounds like good advice.

    3. Carrie Lynn, this makes good sense.

      I've been an avid angler for about 50 years. One of the attractions is sending that lure into the water, out of site, and then feeling it crawl across the bottom. The world fades away, your breathing slows and gets shallow as you feel the line crossing your finger and every little pebble and shell the lure hits sends its signal up the line. Then the electric tap, tap, tap as a fish picks up the lure and turns away. A quick snap of the rod followed by solid resistance, and the rod starts bucking in your hands. The battle is on.

  2. Dear Jody, thank you so much for this post in answer to my email! It has opened up my eyes and made me feel confident about writing again. The solutions are awesome and I will follow through with them, maybe discover some new solutions myself while doing so. Also thank you to Overdue for the piece of advice - I completely agree and am quite ashamed of not having thought of that. After all, emotions play a vital part in fuelling a story.

    Thanks again from the bottom of my heart,

    1. You're welcome, Sherlyn! Thanks for asking a great question! It was great to think through the issue!

  3. Jody, Thanks for the reference. It's interesting that, even though I'm a physician with decades of experience, I still have to research the medical aspects of my novels to make sure I haven't missed something.
    You've given some good advice. Let me share something from my own experience. Sometimes you have to move into the realm of "not-yet-possible." For instance, in my most recent novel, I needed an infectious agent that was resistant to all current modes of therapy. There isn't one in existence, so I invented one. After all, it's fiction.
    Thanks so much for sharing.

    1. Richard, with all due respect, have you ever opened a really old hockey/soccer/book bag that belonged to a teenage boy? I betcha there's an infectious agent or two in there! Especially in the thermos of a certain high school kid who *forgot* to empty the fruit smoothie he made in October.
      Until he found it in March.

    2. Jennifer, I have experienced that exact thing...thermos full of rotten beverage left over from previous sports season.

      I also found a very effective way of dealing with it. Having shaken it to determine it contained liquid, and observed the edges to verify it was rotten matter, not water, I then dropped it, unopened, in the trash.

      No way was I ever going to re-use the thermos, so no reason to open it...

    3. But Joe! It was my Paderno mug!!!! I bleached it really well and de-toxified it. AND I smacked my 6'2' hockey player so hard.... he laughed at me.

  4. You Tube is my new favorite research tool! For a recent novella, I started with a knife training scene. Um, yeah, not in my personal skill set. But MAN are there a lot of you tube videos on the subject.

    We live in interesting times. :)

  5. Being a VERY white, Canadian female posed a *slight* problem when writing from the mindset of a Navajo male. I mean, like, I knew this >< much. Bahahaha!!

    What I didn't know, was that I had access to the Big Guns. I have two friends, well, more than two, but only two who could give me the help I needed. These friends are Mohawk/Oneida/Tuscarora, and members of their family were evangelists throughout North America from the late '40's til the early '90's. They arranged for me to come with them this past July to Arizona and New Mexico. Their Navajo friends treated me like one of the family and told me haunting stories of their ancestors. My friends mentioned several times that what their Navajo friends told me would have never been told to another writer who would have approached them on her own.

    I have held those stories like gold, because they were given in trust and only given because my friends are so loved, and that by some divine appointment, God put us together long before I'd even thought about a book.
    I learned so much more than my online research told me, but I know that my trip was a privilege that few writers will have.
    I got to feel the dirt under a ponderosa tree, see the sap dripping from a pinon and smell what a hogan smells like at sundown.

    But I've also watched someone with PTSD react in a crowd, I've seen the fear when a cup crashes to the ground and memories shoot back. I know what terrified eyes feel like from a foot away.
    I KNOW what it feels like to fall into a deep well of anguish and not know how to get out.
    I feel guilty that I can use someone else's hurt and pain in a story. BUT if I can take that pain and hurt and reach out to someone and let them know they're not alone?

    Then I can bring water into the desert.

  6. "Write about what you know." This is the exact phrase my mom told me when I began writing when I was quite young. I didn't like it at the time because I was too young to have much for life experience and considered my life quite boring. I wanted to write about bigger, more grown up things. But as I got older I did end up writing about what I knew, which turned out to be great advice as I am not to keen on research and like to get away with as little as possible. I write contemporary fiction so this helps, but there are still those things that I have to check out simply because it's not something I've experienced myself. Great post!

    1. Shelly,

      Remember all those Little House on the Prairie books? Laura Ingalls Wilder started out writing what she knew (life as a girl on the Great Plains).

      I've often thought my life is too boring to be told about and that my life experiences too few, but I wonder sometimes if we sell short the lives and experiences we've been given in search of something bigger, faster, better....

  7. Almost everything I write I have to research. I love youtube. Personal blogs have also been really familiar. I've found slang for certain places in my setting, way of talking, attitude. I had no idea what it felt like to be inside an ancient Maya temple until I read that it's an overwhelming heaviness that can make you feel sick after a while. You bet that went into the story to make it more realistic!

    1. What a great idea to read blogs to get a subjective view on a topic, especially for those writing contemporary stories!

  8. When in doubt, make it up and make it sound good. You write fiction, after all.

  9. Jody,

    Thanks for the post! It's certainly timely to my writing schedule, which is about to shift from planning to writing. I now have some cool, new resources for the quick research I need to do.

  10. Oh, this! So much this! I've had to defend my choice to set my series in New York, since I live in Ireland, a couple of times and it comes down to this one simple rule:

    "Write what you know. And if you don't know, learn."

    1. LOL, Paul! My first book is set in England in the 1600's. So I can completely relate to what you're saying! (Our situations are just reversed!)

      Even if I'd been able to visit Bedford, it wouldn't have resembled my story setting anyway! A lot has changed there in 400 years. I had to rely on old biographies and maps.

    2. Sounds to me like the research must have been as much fun as writing the book itself. But I love research. I'll happily lose hours reading articles about history and other countries.

  11. You're right!! I believe research is the key to putting ourselves in our characters shoes during things we've never experienced ourselves.

  12. Hi Jody,

    What wonderful tips you've given - and encouragement for us to be bold, not just with WHAT we write about, but with HOW we write.

    I'm an observer - I saw Jennifer talked about the same thing - and even if I only experience something as a bystander or on the fringes, I listen, I look, and I replay things in my mind a lot. I end up walking through life with a half-glazed-over look on my face most of the time, but contrary to popular opinion, it's not because I'm NOT paying attention, but because I AM! (Does anyone believe me???)


    1. I totally believe you!!!
      And you could totally write about goats and Irian Jaya and dug out canoes WAY better than a whole lot of people.

      And you're very amusing too.

  13. Very good advice, Jody!

    I like the comment above, by Overdue, about the need for it to be emotionally real.

    I often pick up on minor inaccuracies in a novel. I usually find them humorous.

    However, unless the innaccuracy happens to impact a major point in the story, it doesn't usually affect my enjoyment of the novel.

  14. I've just finished a series of historical novels that were beautifully researched, but were let down by the editing and proofreading (too much backstory, repetition, characters acting inconsistently, spelling errors etc.).

    James Scott Bell says "When in doubt, make it up and make it sound good". That's a good one-liner. But he's also written entire books on writing and editing.

    Don't forget the nuts and bolts of the craft in the effort to 'write what you know'. Write, revise, edit, proofread. Repeat.

  15. What excellent straight-forward advice. I really want to write a medieval fantasy novel but lack the historical confidence to do so. SO this post comes at a very timely manner for me. Thanks.

  16. How lucky we are in this day and age when so much of our research is easily attainable on line. Yet, there is nothing like a long day in the library for me!

  17. What a great and useful post. Thanks for sharing!

  18. WHAT??? I thought for SURE you'd been in a barroom brawl ;)

  19. I think your suggestion for beta readers is the best one. If someone is knowledgeable about a topic, they usually love to talk about it! I've had a few instances where I've had to include medical details in my writing, and I will just forward it to a couple I'm friends with--the wife is a pediatrician and the husband is an ER doc. They're always happy to offer their ideas.

    And even if you don't know someone, you can always find one online, or through your friends.

  20. I wish I remember who said it, but someone once made the point that "Write what you know" isn't so much about sticking to your life experience as knowing how to translate your life experience to what you're writing about.

    I've never been trapped in the wilderness in a snowstorm, but my experiences of winter, of woods, of getting lost, all have components that can be translated to a story of being lost in a blizzard.


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