Write about what you DON’T know

Every writer has heard the adage: write about what you know. It’s sound advice. It gives your words confidence and credibility.

But what if you want to go beyond your expertise? I’ve met aspiring writers who want to do this, but they limit their scope to what they do for a living. As a result, they get stuck figuring out how and where to start exploring new territory. This isn’t a problem for everyone, but if you’re glued to the starting blocks, I’d like to help.

Over the next few posts, I’ll share some things to keep in mind as you dive into writing something new. These insights helped me with my first novel, Partners in Crime. After reading it, people who don’t know me usually think I’m a cop. Yet, I’ve never been in law enforcement. They ask me how I captured the emotions of a homicide detective and vivid forensic details without living in it every day. Here was my first step:

Read and accumulate data

This screams “no-brainer”, but many people don’t do enough of it. Fiction must read as truthful as non-fiction. So if you include a terribly inaccurate detail in your story (such as having a positive DNA match convict someone years before DNA was actually used), readers will hate you. Okay, they might not really hate you. But you’d better believe someone will know you’re wrong and you’ll lose credibility.

  • Comb through the internet, articles, and reference materials

For Partners in Crime, I studied forensic investigation, reviewed Georgia statutes, ordered criminal law textbooks, and even watched autopsies online. But how did I know what I needed to research, if I never worked as a homicide detective?

It’s an easy answer but not an easy task. Let’s say you want to write a legal thriller with corporate espionage, but you know nothing about that world. You can just start with Google search terms, such as “legal information” or “corporate espionage”, and you’ll find information about trademark and patent laws, sites with free legal information like http://www.nolo.com, actual examples of companies stealing secrets and how they did it, etc.

Easy? Yes, but the key is to keep searching, to keep reviewing things beyond the first page of results, and to keep tumbling down that rabbit hole. This generates more questions and subjects to investigate. You’ll come across things you never considered but need to know. In another post, I’ll talk about actually finding people you need to meet, but before that happens, you need your facts. Folks are more likely to help if you’ve done your work.

  • Prepare for the long haul

It took me almost eight years to complete my book and I had to discipline myself to research even minor details for the entire time. Some days, I spent 100% of my writing time on it. In fact, I gathered data for months before I even started the book. Depending on your subject, your data will likely change from when you first reviewed it to when you write about it. For that legal thriller, you’ll need to be up-to-date with the law if your story is set in the present day. So don’t expect to surf Google for a couple of hours and think that’s enough.

  •  See what other writers are doing

You should be reading other books in your genre already. It will help you understand what works and what doesn’t.

  •  Don’t go 100% Hollywood

Never rely solely on movies or television. While they can be good resources, theyre notorious for fudging real-life authenticity to appease audiences. If you want to write about things outside of your realm, you’ll need to be as authentic as possible to stay credible to readers.

The more data you come across, the more it sparks those creative ideas for your story. These are just things I’ve found helpful. For those who’ve broken through their boundaries, what are some things you’ve found helpful when gathering data?

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3 Responses to Write about what you DON’T know

  1. Jewel Brodie says:

    You’ve stated some very helpful tips for new writers like myself.


  2. Pingback: Don’t know much? Write about it! | jamesreidauthorblog

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