write what you don’t know

There was a very interesting post over at Laura Stanfill's blog (I've used that phrase before, I know), called "Prostitution, Or Writing What I Don’t Know." The subject was writing things (people, places, times) that you don't know from experience.

As with some other really good blog posts, the comments (26 so far) expanded on the subject and also went off in some other interesting directions (Angela's Ashes, the New York Times, writing to an outline, blocking the internet to concentrate, and others).

One additional point occurred to me, which is that you can leverage the things you do know to bring the readers through the things you don't. For example, why are the monsters and other special effects in the Lord of the Rings movies more convincing than those in the later Star Wars movies? Partly because of all those incredible shots of the (obviously) real hills and mountains and plains. When the monsters appear, you're already accepting what you're seeing as real (since so much of what you've been looking at was real). In the Star Wars movies, everything is fake, so none of it is very convincing.

This is important for mystery writers in particular because, as far as I know, very few mystery writers have ever murdered anybody (of course, and this is an important point, this is true of almost all mystery readers as well). But if you establish the setting and the characters well, by the time you get to the murder you've got the reader on your side (in business-speak, you've got their "buy-in").

Here's an example. This is from "Live Through This," the eighth chapter of my novel U-town. The setting and the events are things that I'm very familiar with, which I hope carries the reader through the parts that are not like anything I've ever experienced.


The Band (Kingdom Come):
   Henshaw (guitar, vocals, songs)
   Pete (bass guitar)
   Carl (drums and lyrics)

   CJ (fill-in lead guitarist, a gang member)
   Jenny (Henshaw's girlfriend)
   starling (Pete's friend, a killer)
   Daphne (Carl's dog)

This post is somewhat of a sequel to my earlier post "What You Know."

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9 Responses to write what you don’t know

  1. Jo Eberhardt says:

    I love the example you give re: LotR vs Star Wars. Very true. If you can set up the world/characters/concept as being believable, it’s easier for people to continue believing. Getting the buy-in is also why it’s so important to have a character and/or situation that a reader will actually care about. (Star Wars prequels are a good example of how not to do this!)

  2. Welcome aboard, Jo.

    Your point is well taken. Why do people put up with all the problems with the writing in the Millennium books? Because they’re hooked by Lisbeth Salander. There are other reasons, too (as I’ve talked about in other posts), but I think that’s the biggest.

  3. Anthony, thanks for linking to my prostitution post and offering yet another insight. When starting this novel, I thought a lot about novels that took reality and skewed it somehow, so it was still recognizable (and believable) but with one fantastic element. Have you read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell? That’s the one that keeps coming to mind. It reads like British history, with proper language and “facts” and even laboriously detailed footnotes, but magic exists in that world. (I’m obsessed with that book, and as a Pynchon fan, no stranger to long tomes, you might enjoy it as well.)

  4. Interesting you should bring this up, because reality that is skewed somehow, and alternative history, is basically what I do. I don’t label it that way (“gritty urban magical realism” is as specific as I get), but that’s what it is. I tone down the fantastic elements in the mystery stories, but they’ve crept in there a bit, too.

    I do need to read the book you recommend. I know people who don’t agree on anything else who agree that I should read it. πŸ™‚

    (Plus, it will give me a reason to postpone reading Infinite Jest, which is quite imposing. 800 pages doesn’t look that huge when compared to 1,000+ πŸ™‚ )

  5. Wow, that’s fascinating, Anthony! I really enjoyed the scene at the recording studio, and I could see how the project as a whole would fit into the “gritty urban magical realism” category. It felt like writing with a bite, and a heartbeat, and yet it had action and thriller-type moments that kept me reading. The details, by the way, back to the point of this post, were entirely believable. I didn’t doubt your storytelling (or the voice of the piece) for a moment, and that’s probably why I felt so swept into the scene despite not having read all the scenes that come before it.

    Yes, definitely read Susanna Clarke! I knew I loved the book when I finished it (a year or so ago), but I’ve thought of it again and again when trying to create my own historical world. I’m not trying to do something similar, but at the same time, it’s my inspiration in a lot of ways for LOST NOTES.

  6. I’m glad you enjoyed the scene so much. There weren’t really any “magical realist” elements in the scene itself, but I imagine it’s pretty obvious it’s from a novel that could include those elements.

    The whole chapter is centered on Jenny Owens, and her frustration with her situation (evident in that scene, I think) comes across somewhat differently in the context of the book as a whole since she’s already dead (the chapter is a flashback).

    If you’d like to read more, you could start at the beginning:
    http://www.u-town.com/text/utown/bridge.htm. The first scene was originally later in the book, but I moved it to the beginning in rewrites because I thought it was a really good hook to intrigue a prospective reader.

    Also, I used a rock band rehearsal room as a setting for one of the mystery stories, too (including a couple of the same characters). That’s here:

  7. Alexis says:

    Excellent points. Our disbelief is further suspended by realistic concepts. If you can write with authority on one subject, it’s easier to slip another in without too many raised eyebrows.

  8. Maggie says:

    Sometimes it’s a lot easier (and more fun) to write what you don’t know, especially for a first draft. Less constraints and you can work out all the details later on.

  9. Alexis: the stories don’t always go in a direction that makes that possible, but when it does I try to take advantage of it. I used a rock band rehearsal space for one of the mystery stories, too:

    Maggie: I agree. First drafts should be as unfettered as possible. That’s the time for experimentation. (Then you can cut or change the things that don’t work before anybody else sees it, of course. πŸ™‚ )

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