Write What You Don’t Know, or, Write What You Want to Know

When I was young I was given the old chestnut, “Write what you know”.  Like any other child I could write about my dog, my parents, my room, my friends and other such mundane topics. A brilliant child could write brilliantly about any of these topics and of course these subjects can be needful elements of any good story. The big point is, what any of us know at any given moment is limited. We are dipping into our own personal well of experience and that well runs dry pretty fast.

When Stephen King wrote his first novel, Carrie, I wonder how much he knew about telekinesis (transporting objects by mental will) or pyrokinesis (setting things on fire with angry thoughts)?

The great idea for you to consider is not Writing What You Know, but–Write What You Don’t Know. Which is really to say Write What You Want to Know. What do you want to find out more about? What is your passion? Where does it lead you? In case you hadn’t noticed, your reader wants to learn something new, to be led on an expedition. In case nobody told you, you are that expedition leader.

This leads us to research, an interesting word. What happened to search? Don’t you have to search before you can re-search? What was your original search? I did physical search when I was seeking the location for my novel series, The Goldfinder. I walked through the original site of the California gold discovery at Coloma and I didn’t like it. It was too rugged, too steep. It didn’t call to me. Next I was drawn to gold discoveries that had occurred at high elevations. After several weeks I found a motherlode of beautiful granite peaks and river-laced valleys and hidden blue lakes where a man could walk and dream–and where a bonanza of gold had been discovered in 1850. I knew I was home. After that I got every book I could find on the history and geology of the region.

Every minute of search and research, of draft writing and rewriting was paradise for me. I enjoyed it so much I didn’t ever want it to end. Didn’t want it to be published because it meant the end of being in the story. I was in love with the story–and still am–even though I am in the process of publishing, of letting it go. The Gold Hunter, The Gold Shapers (published 2015 by Amazon/Createspace) and The Gold Soldier, The Secret of Gold Lake scheduled for launch in 2016-17.

The big idea is to write about what you want to know, what you will fall in love with. Because you’re going to spend a lot of time writing a novel. I’m afraid to admit how long it takes me to write a novel. My fastest production was five years, from research to final writing. Because I wanted to know more about the Vietnam War (my brother was wounded in action) I began reading about it–and became fascinated with soldiers called Tunnel Rats. These brave soldiers went down into Viet Cong tunnel complexes to destroy them. I wrote The Black Butterfly Woman/ The Tunnel Rat’s Story completely based on research and then imagination. I did not go to Vietnam because I knew they had turned the few remaining tunnels into a tourist attraction. I didn’t want to dilute my vision with a tourist attraction. The third book of my Goldfinder Series visits three terrible battles of the American Civil War.  I went to Missionary Ridge hoping to charge uphill into imaginary bullets and cannon fire but instead found the valley filled with multi-lane freeways and the ridge filled with modern houses. Progress happens. But as a writer this was very disturbing to me. The truth is, I believe in my last lifetime I died charging up Missionary Ridge with a bullet to my right eye. But that’s a level of research I won’t discuss right now.

Suffice to say, if modern development obliterates history, it’s best not to go there.

Follow your passion. Your heart will guide you. What gives you energy? What excites you? Follow! Follow! It takes great passion to write a novel. It’s like water on the desert. Without it you’ll never make it. Passion will sustain you through the dry places where the others fall away. Keep going. Write what you want to know. What you must know. Then share it with the world.

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