This old adage has been bantered around for many years. Some argue about who first said it, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s still good advice. This is why, for example, so many writers of military fiction served in the armed forces at some point. And it makes perfect sense, up to a point.
However, sooner or later every writer will end up writing something they don’t know. It’s inevitable. Even the writer in a tight genera – such as military fiction – will end up writing about some place or person or situation they have no experience with. And of course any fiction that deals with the supernatural, mental powers, aliens, monsters or magic will by its very nature be something the writer doesn’t know about.
To some extent, research helps here. Even the monsters, aliens and magic can be explored by folklore and mythology, so no writer has to start from nothing. Somebody, somewhere has already explored the topic you’re dealing with. This takes some of the pressure off of the writer. I know from my own experience that research is my friend, and even enjoyable when I’m writing something I don’t know. I just like learning new things.
So you can write what you know, and you can research what you don’t know. But what if you just don’t get it?
Now I have a very clear memory of my father sitting me down when I was about 15 and trying to teach me poker. We were sitting at this rickey little folding table in the basement, and he started showing me the different hands. I don’t remember how long he tried, how long we sat there, but eventually he gave up, packed up the cards and told me I was free to go. I don’t remember anything he tried to teach me because I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand at a very fundamental level why anyone would want to know what he was teaching me.
I have never understood the desire to gamble, and I’ve never wanted to compete against others, especially for money. If I have $10 in my pocket, I don’t dream of how to turn it into $30. I just don’t. That’s probably why I’ve been chronically poor all my life, but I can’t help it. Not only do I not know gambling, I just don’t get it! I don’t want to learn, and in those rare situations when I have to sit through something like a poker tournament, my mind isn’t there. It’s thinking of 1,000 other things I’d rather be doing.
Now mind you, there aren’t many subjects where I go glassy-eyed. Gambling, competitive sports, fashion, cars and car repair. So normally most people don’t see me drool when they talk. Even if I don’t know about, say Ukranian Easter eggs, I can keep myself engaged and actually learn something. Since I love history and sociology and psychology and science – yeah, there’s usually something I can latch on to. But not always.
So when I’m writing, if I find myself leaning towards something I really don’t want to write about – something I don’t get – I override my creative impulse. This is probably the only time I go against my instincts, but I can’t imagine how dull a scene would be if it involved something I can’t be bothered to care about.
This troubles me.
I trust my writing instincts. Really trust them. So when I think about it, I’m bothered by going against those natural creative impulses. I find myself wanting to write a scene involving a poker tournament and fashion show that takes place at a drag-racing competition. I don’t like anything to beat me. I don’t like to back down.
But I haven’t been that brave yet. How about you? Ever find yourself reluctant to write a certain scene because you just didn’t care about the subject matter? What was your solution? I’d love to know.
I’ll let you know how it works out!