Write What You Don’t Know . . . Sort of

internet research photoWe’ve heard it so many times: Write what you know. It’s good advice. But don’t we usually interpret it as, write what you already know? Of course, that’s a good start for any writer—sit down and write something you’re familiar with. But what if you have this great idea for a novel that involves mutant sea life and a brave oceanographer who has the brains and courage to stop the rogue whales from attacking kayakers? (I’m almost certain this nearly happened to me while kayaking off Victoria Island two years ago. True story.) Anyhow, you’ll probably need to brush up on your marine biology, not to mention deep sea diving, in case that’s not your forte either. In this day and age, with information at our fingertips, it’d be hard not to find what you need to write that future bestseller. 

A few years ago at the Jackson Hole Writer’s Conference, I got a chance to hear bestselling author, Margaret Coel, whose novels take place on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. She said that twenty-some years ago, she didn’t know a lick about Arapahoes, but with a desire to know, she hit the books (pre-internet! *GASP*). She is now considered an expert on Arapaho culture. With this, comes a word of caution from author, Anita Diamant, who incidentally, spoke at the same writer’s conference. She said that it’s easy to get caught up in incorporating everything you learned into your manuscript. She writes historical fiction, and when she got a little heavy handed with the details, her editor said, “Your research is showing,” as in, “Psst . . . your slip is showing!” Your job as a writer isn’t to tell your readers everything you learned; it’s to give them a vivid picture and general understanding of the details in your story. At the same time, leaving them with unanswered questions and fuzzy math isn’t good either. You don’t want anything to distract your audience from the story you’re trying to tell.

When writing the book, you don’t have use everything you learned, but you should know it. You may not describe in detail the impact mutant whales may have on mankind, but you should at least have a damn good idea, so that you understand which details you can leave out and which ones are crucial for the reader. 

A few days ago, I came up with a novel idea that involves a teeny-tiny thing called physics, specifically, quantum physics. Since childhood, I’ve had a fascination with physics, but the right side of my brain won out and I took a much different path. The interest, however, never went away. But interest in a subject, doesn’t equate to knowledge of said subject. Plus, understanding quantum physics isn’t enough; I need a grasp of the fundamentals of physics. Via a Nova special on YouTube, I came across Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos and it’s been off to the races since. 
ResearchI also found the online courses that Greene teaches (for free!) at World Science U. Because it’s something that has always fascinated me, I’m enjoying it (although I don’t exactly comprehend it very well at this point). But even if I decide to not write this particular novel, hopefully, I’ll retain a few things about quantum physics that I toss around at my next dinner party.

How have you used research in your writing?

4 thoughts on “Write What You Don’t Know . . . Sort of

  1. Jerry Eckert

    Of course! The best part of writing what you don’t know is the learning that goes with it. I’m currently working on a nonfiction piece on the future of college teaching in the Internet-driven world, a rebuttal of sorts to The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. And the real, glorious ride has been digging into the digital universe, reading, interviewing experts, thinking… I’m learning so much while thinking outside the box, which, after all, is where true creativity lies.

  2. Gordon MacKinney

    This makes me think of that old joke of the two guys being chased by a bear. One stops to put on his sneakers, not with the intent of outrunning the bear but, as he says to his friend, “I only need to outrun you.”
    When writing about a subject that’s new to us, we don’t need to out-knowledge experts in the field, only the average reader. If we’re able to provide just enough insight to make it interesting, which isn’t difficult in the Internet age, we’re serving our readers well. But if we’re writing for the experts, we’re boring the average reader.
    This reminds me of a too-long technical explanation I’ve got to delete from my latest manuscript.

    1. April J. Moore

      That’s funny, Gordon, I just heard that bear joke a couple of days ago! You said it perfectly regarding experts vs. the average reader.


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