August 15, 2009

Write What You Don't Know, Advice for Aspiring Writers

My writing career has led me to some fantastic places. For example, last summer I took a helicopter ride at dawn in the Great Smokey Mountains. We circled at the edge of night, west of a shimmering orange glow that crept along the horizon. An invisible hand painted streaks of peach, salmon and gold across the sky, and then, suddenly, the mountains appeared all around us shrouded in their smoky-blue mist. Breathtaking. The thrill ride of a lifetime.

Another jaunt took me to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Very late on a warm moonlit night, I lay in a hammock on the upper deck of a sprawling, white beach house. As I gazed out at the ocean, I saw something that made me shiver. The gentle waves washing up on the sand glowed an eerie iridescent blue. I'd heard of this thing bioluminescence -- simply defined, a phenomenon caused by phosphorous in the water. On moonlit nights, it makes the waves glow. Even the ghost crabs glowed that night as they skittered across the sand. The experience was out-of-this-world incredible.

On a visit to Washington D.C., I was in Union Station at rush hour. The white marble floors in the cavernous building echoed the footsteps of tourists, business people and government workers rushing to and from their trains. Along with that, music drifted down to me from stores on the upper level and blended with travelers' voices, an odd cacophony that jumbled my senses. I opened the big, glass doors leading out to the tracks and was struck by a blast of air soaked with the smell of diesel fuel. A few trains sat idle on the tracks. Another inched slowly into the station. Its silver, bullet-shaped engine pulled six cars, and its brakes squealed when it stopped at the platform. The car doors slid open, and I found myself trapped in the harried crowd, an unwilling tourist hustled back through the glass doors.

Okay, I'll come clean. I haven't REALLY been to these places, nor have I experienced the things that I've told you about. They existed first in my imagination and now in stories that I've written.

Have you anticipated traveling somewhere, imagined what it would be like, and then been disappointed when you got there? That's why I often prefer to write about places where I haven't been. That's not to say that I don't do my homework. The settings in my stories are realistic enough to convince my readers. I read travel guides and online travelers' blogs and reviews. I study detailed street maps and look at scores of pictures taken in different seasons by both professional and amateur photographers. I even search real estate ads and restaurant web sites. By the time I'm done researching, I have the skeleton of a place well formed in my head. Then it's up to me to bring it to life. Oh, how I love this way of traveling.

When it comes to setting a story, I take issue with the piece of advice given so often and freely to aspiring writers: "Write what you know." I say, write what you don't know. Here are several reasons why.

1. Writing what you don't know pulls you out of your comfort zone. It makes you look and write about a place with a fresh perspective. Don't get me wrong, having the geography correct is essential, but when writing fiction, you don't need to hang the leaves on every tree to match the photographs. Let your imagination tickle your readers by showing them hidden places that even the staunchest locals don't know about.

2. Experiencing a place can box you in. You come away with vivid images in your head, and those images can block your creativity. Say you want your main character to meet the girl of his dreams while he's strolling along the riverbank in Milwaukee. But when you visited Milwaukee, all you saw along the riverbanks were factories, parking lots and probably a brewery or two. The important thing is that a river really flows through Milwaukee. From there you can fill in the blanks with some basic research and a lot of creativity. I promise that if you walk a bit farther through your imagination, you'll find the perfect spot on the riverbank for strolling and meeting.

3. Writing about places you know can sometime make you lazy and complacent. It's what you don't know that fuels passion. When driven to explore a place, both through research and imagination, you become more interested in its nuances and nooks and crannies. It's the things that you wonder about that stretch your writer muscles and make for good writing. What you imagine is just over the crest of the hill is usually much more exciting than what you already know is there.

Remember Dr. Seuss? (Of course you do.) In his vast library of fiction, he took readers to some wonderful imaginary places. In his book "Oh the Places You'll Go" he penned some good advice for aspiring writers:

Today is your day.
You're off to Great Places!
You're off and away!

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You're on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go.

Got that? You are the one who'll decide where to go. I'm not suggesting that you never write about the places you've been, but only that you don't limit yourself to writing about them. The whole world is out there for you to explore. Do research until you understand the soul of a place and can make it believable. Then give the rest to your imagination. That's what makes good stories.

Oh the Places You'll Go
text ©1990 Random House Children's Books


Susan J. Reinhardt said...

Hi Jean -

Great advice for writers of any genre. :)


CMPointer said...

What excellent advice! Sometimes our imaginations are held back by what we see with our eyes. This is so important for me and other family historians because many times we've never been to where our ancestors were. This is where the imagination, along with historically accurate details, is needed. As a side note, isn't it fascinating what adults can learn from Dr. Seuss?

Caroline Pointer
Family Stories

Rochelle Spencer said...

This is great advice--sometimes we worry so much about making sure that we've "been there," that we never stretch ourselves as writers!

Robin said...

love it! What's imagination for anyway!
All Things Heart and Home

Margo Carmichael said...

That's fun. Still, it would be wise to have a local reader double-check your work. A writing team wrote about New Orleans, a place I love. They called the levee a dyke. Never. They called Marie Laveau, Maria. I'm pretty sure never. And a famous mystery writer wrote that a character ran into one of the houses beside Jackson Square. There are no houses there. All of these distracted me right out of the story. When that happens a reader may put a book down and never get back to it.

Jean Fischer said...

Hi, Margo.

That's good advice, and I agree that poor research can ruin a story. As I said in the article, it's important to do your homework when using a real setting. (Use street maps, ariel maps, photos, etc.) When in doubt, always check. The local public library in the place you're writing about is another great resource. And you're right -a local reader would be a fine editor.

Thank you for your comment!

Lora & Dr. Julia said...


I am a crazy person... I think.
I write the words down, but I'm telling you, it's the characters that have "been there - done that".

I have a story in which a toad is met by a snake. The toad tells the snake that it would not be advisable to eat him as he would cause the snake an upset stomach.

Later, I found out that toads are indeed poisonous to snakes.

Do you think that I knew that? NO! But the toad did! And that's how my stories go.

I warned you.... I'm crazy LOL

GNRBNR said...

Oh, Lora, we writers are all a little bit crazy. We have to be to do what we do :)

I hope that your frog and toad exist together in peace.