Write What You Don’t Know

 

I’m about to burst your image of me. Right here. Right now. I’m going to tell you a secret that you’ll find super hard to believe. Ready?

I don’t know everything.

There, I said it. I, Michelle Lynn, am not an expert in every topic known to man. In fact, there are very few topics I can claim to know a lot about. Hockey. Aunting. Certain book series and genres. Really, the list is suuuuper short.

You know the old saying “write what you know”? It’s a bit limiting, isn’t it? I’m a person who likes to challenge myself because that’s how we improve, how we grow. This doesn’t mean doing gobs and gobs of research to gain the knowledge to write about certain topics. Some genres – like anything historical – need the author to know what they’re talking about.

Well, I don’t write historical fiction. I write contemporary fiction. This means my books take place in today’s world, in settings that are well known and well-loved – but not by me. In my New Beginnings series, there are three settings in the first two books – New York City, Connecticut, and Boston. Would you believe me if I said I’d never set foot in any of those places? Sure, I’ve seen them on TV, but that isn’t the same, is it?

My newest book, We Thought We Were Invincible, features two characters who spend a lot of their time surfing. The book has yet to be released, but one of my first beta readers asked me a single question before going into what she liked (and didn’t like) about the book. Do you surf? She thought I did, but that would be quite the feat for a girl with a disability that makes it hard enough to stand balanced on solid ground, let alone a surf board. Short answer, no – I don’t surf. I’ve never even met a surfer.

So, how do you make the reader believe the author is all-knowing? How do you immerse them in some act or some place without experiencing it for yourself? Without large amounts of time-consuming research?

Generalities – the reader doesn’t need me to site specific buildings or street names to imagine they’re in New York City. I may have never been there, but I have been to places like Chicago. I know the smell of a city. Write about the sound of the traffic, the crowds on the sidewalks, the immensity of the buildings. Mention that they’re in New York a few times and now you’ve created a generic city that your readers believe is New York. Only do this though if the setting is a passive ingredient to your story, not something with a deeper meaning.

Slang – This works for both locations and actions. My first series, Dawn of Rebellion, starts in London and is about two English girls. I had a British friend give me a handful of terms to swap out for the American terms and suddenly they’re believably British.

To add to the surf aura of my main characters in We Thought We Were Invincible, I spent a few minutes online looking up surf slang. Most of this came in the form of different names for waves.

Occasional technical details – I hate books that get too technical. If I wanted to learn how to surf, I’d read a book about that specifically. If I wanted to learn about military tactics, I’d read a military focused book. Especially in the YA genres, less is more. But it still needs to be there – those little details that make your characters seem authentic.

For the surfing, this is as simple as mentioning the board leash or showing what they do to get up on the board, but not every time they surf. Don’t be repetitive.

In the Dawn of Rebellion series, they are in the middle of a war. I have to talk about guns and battle tactics, but leaving it vague is still the way to go. More detail gives more room to make mistakes (especially when talking about guns) and, let’s be honest, large amounts of detail bore the reader.

 

This was an interesting thing to balance in my sports book, Dreams. Hockey is not a well-understood sport. Most hockey romances I’ve read steer clear of describing games. I wanted to immerse my readers in something that I loved, in the excitement and energy of a full arena. So, I made quite a few important scenes happen during games. It took me a while to realize that a lot of readers wouldn’t know what I was talking about when I said things like power play. It actually took a beta reader telling me to quite with the hockey talk to see that.

As writers, we’re told to write from our own experiences, but I tend to go the other way. I learn a lot by writing about new-to-me things, places, and ideas. It’s exciting and challenging. I have a friend who likes to say that writing is just being a fabulous liar and maybe this proves that very thing. Or maybe it just proves that we don’t know any more than you do. We just put everything we don’t know down on paper.

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