Why You Should Write About What You Don’t Know

I wrote a novel whose two main characters are lesbians.  This confuses some people because I am not a lesbian.  Because I am also not a woman.  And because I am not gay.

When I set out to write my novel, Finding Bluefield, I did not expect my main character to be a woman, much less for that woman to fall in love with another woman. But there I was, a straight man hooked by these two characters, Nicky and Barbara, and their voices, and the story they wanted me to tell.  As I ventured into unfamiliar-for-me- situations, my characters, Nicky and Barbara, found themselves in 1960’s Virginia navigating unknown territory during a time when relationships like theirs were mostly hidden and often dangerous.

ElanBarnehamaFinding-Bluefield-coverColumn by Elan Barnehama who was born and raised in New York City. He now lives in Northampton, MA. He earned an MFA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a BA from Binghamton University. An advocate for diversity and youth, Elan has taught writing and literature at several colleges, led community based writing workshops, been a high school teacher and varsity baseball coach, a radio news announcer, the writer for a university president, and a cook. His commentaries and essays have appeared on public radio, online, and in newspapers. For more info, visit elanbarnehama.com.

I couldn’t be more different than Nicky.  Nicky was a seventh generation Virginian whose family had farmed the same land for over 200 years.  For my part, I am a first generation US, born and raised in New York City by parents who spoke with thick accents and gave me a name other kids found impossible to pronounce.  Add to that a vision condition that alienated others, and I was a poster child for “the outsider”.  But my character Nicky went abruptly from insider to outsider, harshly felt the rejection of her community, the unexpected exclusion from her family, and there we found common ground.  But, while both Nicky and I were angry, a bit surprises, and understandably frightened, she was never ashamed of who she was.  As a child, I was.  But if I had given any weight to specific details of what happened to me as a child I would never have let Nicky have the correct response for her and for the novel.

I’m not sure who started encouraging writers to “write about what you know”.  At first glance it seems to make sense. Why not write about what I know when I know so much?  When I’ve done so much?  When I’ve seen so much?  But the writing process disproves this theory because the story is always better served by the narrative that could happen, that should happen. (Learn how to write about what you know, what you don’t know and more by joining the Writer’s Digest VIP Club—comes with a magazine subscription, Writer’s Market subscription, discounts on books and more.)

At the same time, writing about what I don’t know doesn’t mean I can’t use what I know.  I loved watching the first moon landing and there’s a scene in Finding Bluefield where Nicky, Barbara and their son Paul watch the first moon landing with their neighbors.  It took me a couple of passes to forget the details of my memory and create something new.  Something within the reality of my characters.  Something I didn’t know.

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In Finding Bluefield I wrote about characters who are different from me by gender, race, background, and religion.  There’s that risk of getting everything wrong.  But isn’t that where the fun is?  Making things up?  Finding the truth in the unknown?  It’s not always easy or comfortable, but I’ve learned to trust my characters and I’ve learned that the story truth is found in writing into the unknown.

In an early draft of the novel, I wanted Nicky to name her son Leroy, the name of her co-worker who told her about the bus tickets to the March on Washington—which is where she got pregnant.  It seemed like a fitting gesture, a noble tribute.  But it was a really bad idea and Nicky would never have thought it, let alone considered it.  The mere hint that Leroy, a Black man, was in any way connected to her pregnancy in 1963 Virginia would have been had very bad consequences for Leroy and Nicky.  Naming her son Paul after his grandfather was really the only name Nicky would have considered because she wanted her son to be accepted as a member of the community she grew up in.

When I trust my characters to decide what must happen, I give myself opportunities to stumble onto the unexpected truth, the accidental truth, the story truth, which is so much more interesting than my memory truth.  It doesn’t always go as planned.  At one point, I wanted Nicky to ask her friend Andy to marry her and raise Paul with her in order to allow her stay in Bluefield.  Andy would have done it if I insisted.  Clearly, this would have been a betrayal of Barbara and of Andy of Paul, and most of all, of Nicky.  The novel would have been a different and it may have worked but it would not have been Nicky’s story.  Instead, in that scene with Andy, Nicky portrays her panic, her naiveté, and her unconditional love for Andy.

Maybe the real distinction, and I imagine this is true for many fiction writers, is that all my writing is autobiographical—in that it comes from me—but it’s not biographical, because it’s not about me.

In the end, if readers are able to connect with Finding Bluefield, it’s going to be through the essence of my characters’ humanity and the truth behind who they are and where they are going.

The obvious question is how do I know what I don’t know?  The answer is that I don’t.  I just write into unfamiliar territory and see what happens because I know that’s where the answers lie.  Sometimes I get lost.  Sometimes I get sidetracked.  If I’m lucky I find my way.  But the journey, yes the journey, is always worth it.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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27 thoughts on “Why You Should Write About What You Don’t Know

  1. Sybille

    Thank you for the interesting and thought-provoking article.
    I’m currently developing characters for my first novel and will partially be venturing into uncharted territory as well. It will be fun to let the characters guide me – I had not thought about it that way and appreciate learning about it through your column. Putting myself into the characters’ shoes plus lots of imagination and some research will be part of it. But if our characters go places where no one has been before, research or knowledge will be limited and imagination would naturally take over.
    Thanks again, Elan!

  2. Ale

    This was such a good article. I couldn’t agree with you more, Elan. Writing what you don’t know totally frees the spirit, gives wings to your imagination, and transports you and your reader to places you would have never known had you not ventured into the unknown. After many years of writing what I know, I finally allowed my creativity to drive my writing, and it was the greatest thing on earth. It only confirms that we as writers are only a tool through which the characters that live within us can express themselves. Thank you for sharing this, Elan!

  3. CADPulley

    I have always heard ‘write what you know’, but have always wanted to write what I don’t know. What if I want my character to have boxing skills or I want my character to have a friend who is of another race? I’m not supposed to write about that?

    I held to that old saying until I started writing my current story. I realized I have not experienced everything my characters have experienced. And like you, I let my characters decide the story. Also, I don’t want my characters to be like me. I think I am ok, but no one wants to read about my life. That’s one of the reasons I write.

    Thank you for the article. I knew I was right.

  4. Rebecca05

    This was a fantastic article and it encouraged me to journey into the unknown and to write about what I don’t know. We must let our characters tell the story.

  5. ElanBarnehama

    For me, and likely for many of us, (among the many reasons) we read to go places we’ve never been with people different from ourselves. We read to know people who are like us yet live lives we have yet to imagine, who navigate the world in different ways. We can imagine being other people and sometimes we can learn to be different people. Often, this is the motivation for travel. And isn’t reading like travelling? For me it’s the same with writing. But, I (we) we still bring everthing I know with me to make sense of the unknown.

  6. UKCynthiaR

    Fascinating post–thank you for writing it. I, too, am writing way outside what I know. I also ‘write what I know’ (short stories, poems) but my main project at the moment is a historical fiction novel set during the Crimean War period. Though I’ve lived in the UK since 1999 (and not Boise, Idaho) and even the England-based half ought to be easier, it’s still been quite a journey even to write about places I know but have never actually lived, certainly in another century. And add to that becoming expert on the Crimea (where? what? oh, yeah, the Ukraine, right!) and the Russians, Turks, French, Sardinians and the politics of a century I never lived in. Well, how else would we have all these wonderful books of historical fiction (like Hilary Mantel’s current and last year’s Booker Prize winners, for instance, never mind the millions of others) if we stuck to writing what we know?

    I DO believe that when one begins writing and ‘write(s) what you know’, the new writer is able to quickly get in touch with emotion, character, motivation, feeling, why people do what they do, other fundamentals…and so on…by using personal and family/familiar experiences and stories. All those things, later, can become anything else imaginable in this world (research, research, research) or another, where the sky is no limit.

  7. vtg2260

    Writing about something that you don’t already know or have experienced with, hopefully leads to knowledge of a subject that for some odd reason strikes you, the author, as interesting. As far as a man writing about lesbians, well, it could almost be considered cliché’ as it appears that most straight guys have given more than a little thought to the inner workings of girl on girl – but to take the time to research and question and build a character from something other than libido takes some fortitude and hopefully not a lot of soft porn and a vivid imagination. I guess I like doing the leg work that makes up a good character and I appreciate and read authors who take the time to build a character, as you apparently have, from the ground up. If you want to lose me as a reader of fiction then don’t give me the details.

  8. StefHoover

    I’m a professional researcher as well as an author so I understand the ability to “learn” basic facts about topics with which a deep personal knowledge is lacking. Writing what you “don’t know”, however, seems to present two potential risks:

    ♦ insulting readers who actually DO live, eat and breath a topic about which you can only offer an outsider’s perspective

    ♦ annoying readers who can, with the click of a mouse, double-check your facts

    One of my favorite quotes is this: it’s not enough to write about what you know – you have to know interesting things.

    But the fact remains, you MUST know about what you’re writing about – otherwise you’re just operating on the hope that you won’t reveal the fraud to your readers (who will never give you a second chance.)

  9. jotokai

    When writing what you know, understand the difference between knowledge and information. Our neighbor’s lives are often simple and intelligible, where our own problems, outwardly so similar, behave like the Gordian knot.

    Writing about your own life is NOT writing about what you know.

  10. exdejesus

    I’m a big fan of writing what I don’t know, partly because I know very little and don’t have much choice, and partly because I love writing *fiction*: stuff that isn’t true, but that seems true, and feels true.

  11. Beduwen

    Very interesting article. I have always followed the mantra, “write what you know.” My characters and settings are based on people I know and places I’ve been. Of course, I elaborate and make them unique, but the seeds are definitely rooted in my own experience. I think it’s amazing that you have written about people completely different from yourself and I am definitely interested in reading the book!

  12. Charlie Quimby

    Same thing happened to me, only my main character turned out to be an elderly rancher whose emotional terrain and life experiences were very different from mine. I resisted his pull at first, because I’d conceived the novel around the struggles of a much more familiar character.

    Eventually, the advice of novelist Jonathan Odell made sense to me. He said, in effect, that the stuff you’re resisting because it’s too hard is where the heart of the novel lies. And he also said, when we “write what we know,” we take on the voice of a teacher or explainer. Write what you want to discover.

  13. JulieKWixom

    I like the idea of challenging characters that develop from some place outside one’s own experience base. And if we all wrote what we know, there would be no genre fiction, no Emily Dickinson, no Tolkien, no fantasy at all. One writer cannot experience everything, and writing is nothing if not an imaginative exercise. Thank you for summing this up so well, and giving us all motivation to break out and to break free from those old recommendations.

  14. jalfisher

    I appreciate that somebody has finally made sense of writing what you don’t know. I write romantic historical fantasy, some call steampunk. My characters lead very exciting lives in spite of physical or emotional challenges and I suppose that’s the part that I connect with. My characters are outsiders and as Jevon says, I connect with them through that.

  15. Barbara Kellam-Scott

    I read into this article in hopes of hearing something about research, but it gives me no confidence in the writer’s portrayal of a setting and situation he acknowledges he doesn’t know. I’m also disappointed to find straight-out grammatical errors (“different than,” for starters). Though I completely agree about listening to your characters, I would like to know how Barnehama first got the idea for the book, and I did not find the article at all helpful.

  16. jevon

    Interesting. I guess it makes sense when you consider it from your angle, because in my fantasy novel, King Larsen, I write about a king who has lost his will to rule when his queen dies, and in truth, I have never been a king, and I have never ruled over anything. Yet I am able to portray the character and his experience.

    But I notice you point out that you still need to have some knowledge about the society and the feeling of being an outsider.

    1. ElanBarnehama

      this line “some knowledge about the society and the feeling of being an outsider.” was meant for my novel. I’m guessing that you know the workings of your kingdom and therefor the King is acting according to this new world you created. Does that make sense?

  17. Jeri Baird

    I appreciated your column especially today. I’ve been struggling with feeling inadequate to write about a bi-racial child who discovers her black grandparents. I am white. I was a third of the way in before I knew she was of mixed race. But as you said, this is the story she wants to tell. Thanks for the encouragement that I just might be able to tell it.


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