write what you don't know

One of the most common pieces of writing advice we often hear as beginners is "Write what you know." But what does that even mean? And is it actually good advice?

If I had taken that suggestion literally, my first novel would have been about a man in his late twenties with a day job as a media coordinator at Lifetime Television who was writing a novel about the action-packed world of file transfers, video conversions, and women's programming. Riveting. Perhaps readers would have been drawn in by the rich cast of characters based on my wacky co-workers, friends, and family--who I'm sure would have been flattered to be included. You see the problem. Worse still, my second novel would have been exactly the same, and my third...

I read fiction for experiences completely different from my own, to see with other people's eyes, so why should writing fiction be any different? I love science fiction and fantasy because in the right hands, an author can make the impossible seem real.

But wait, I write young adult fiction, right? Then I should write about my old high school experiences... if only they hadn't been so dreadfully boring. Of course I do draw on my own memories--especially what it felt like to be a teenager--but in fiction, I can give myself, and other readers, something better. Something exciting. Something different. Something impossible.

So, how do you go about writing what you don't know? Research! This is one of my favorite parts of the writing process, where I buy and borrow lots of books on interesting new subjects, pass off watching movies and TV shows as "work," and talk to people.

The research is most exciting at the beginning, when I may not have written a single word yet and anything is still possible. I jot down notes and stick little Post-Its in the pages and just soak in all the new knowledge and see what my brain comes up with. I blurt out random, esoteric trivia to the people around me and start having conversations on topics they didn't think I knew anything about. Research can be seductive, because there's so much I don't know, the temptation is to just keep reading to find out just a little bit more. If you never start writing the book, it can remain forever perfect in your head. But when preparation becomes procrastination, it's time to start writing anyway, even though I don't yet know all the things. Especially because I don't know everything. After all, I didn't know how to write my first novel, so I thought I'd see if I could do it, and that turned out pretty well.

I'm researching all while writing that first draft and often through multiple revisions. There are always more books on the subject and related ones, and it fosters wonderful moments of discovery where a fact suddenly fits perfectly with the story--or sparks an entirely new idea. I'm also one of those authors who likes to read fiction related to the book I'm reading. I'm not worried about being subconsciously influenced by other authors, but I'm trying to avoid doing what others have done, or perhaps find a new or better approach. Basically, I like to immerse myself in the world of my characters to give my mind as much creative fodder as possible.

So what have I been reading for my work in progress? In Peggy's recent "What Are We Reading?" post, I was reading Ghost in the Wires, one of several books by the infamos hacker Kevin Mitnick. I've been reading various books and articles about social engineering, whistleblowers, and computer hacking, which led me to the marvelous, award-winning fantasy Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson. I finally read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson and Homeland by Cory Doctorow. I spend a lot of time on Wikipedia and Google, and let's just say that I've probably been setting off some red flags with our friends, the NSA. (Hi, guys!) I also may have made some people nervous, like this weekend when I was reading articles about circumventing passwords on Macbooks while sitting in a coffee shop... next to a woman with a Macbook.

The biggest downside to being in full-on research mode is that reading all these books means my to-be-read pile of non-researchy books must wait a little longer--my reading time is finite (as is my time for everything else), and it's important to make sure I'm writing too.

I love being forced to write out of my comfort zone, to write what I don't know, because it makes me grow as an author. I have every intention of challenging myself to make each of my books different from the one before it--and hopefully share something new with readers in the process.

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