Everything You Need To Know About Writing What You Don’t Know

Today my guest poster is author Shannon Yarbrough, who’s published three books so far – with a fourth coming out some time this year. Shannon, who is an excellent writer, has also been invaluable to us at All on the Same Page Bookstore, providing us with suggestions and ideas and much-needed moral support.

Especially when we’re searching for a book. A green book.

Without further ado:

There’s an old adage that goes something like: “Write what you know.” I actually agree with that saying somewhat. If a person came up to me and told me they wanted to write a book and they were asking me for advice, I’d probably tell them that for lack of anything better to say. And it was certainly a theme I followed when I started writing my first book twelve years ago.

Since then, I’ve read a lot more. I’ve matured a lot more. I’ve had lots more life experiences. You could say now I know more and could write something much different than I did twelve years ago. And that would be true. I’ve done just that. In fact, I’ve done it twice since then.

But every once in a while, a new idea strikes you that you might like to write about instead. And it’s more than likely you know nothing about that idea and so maybe you avoid it because authors like me gave you bad advice when you were looking for a place to start. Well, I’m here to make amends and tell you that you shouldn’t listen to anyone who tells you to write what you know. That includes me.

So, if you are going to sit down and write a book about something that you know nothing about, how do you do it, you ask? Simple answer: You learn. Now, chances are you might be considering a theme that you really can’t draw experience from by just going out and doing it, right? Let’s say you want to write a murder mystery about a vampire serial killer. Well, you can’t really go out and practice vampirism. And I’d hope you wouldn’t go out and become a serial killer either! If you do, please don’t tell anyone you were following my advice!

But you could study other famous authors who wrote about vampires. I’m sure Anne Rice didn’t know much about vampires in the beginning, but her books are so rich with real life history and intricate details of the worlds in which she put her vampires. So I’m sure she drew those ideas from real life experiences and surroundings. As for the vampires? Maybe she studied other writings, or maybe she just made them up. But if you’ve ever read an Anne Rice book then you get the sense that she knows what she’s writing. She makes you believe, and that is the key to writing a successful book.

Now, I hate research just as much as anyone else does. Even the word research makes me think of those wretched term papers I had to organize on note cards back in high school. So, don’t think of your prep work as being research. Find ways to make it interesting. Like I already said, a good way to start is by reading other books in the genre you want to write in. Read several different authors and then write down what they have in common and what makes each of them different.

If your book is about royalty set in 18th century England but you can’t pack up and go overseas to do your research, seek out history books that cover that time period. Focus on what people wore or how people spoke. Pay attention to what happened in real life history during that time and how it might have affected your characters. As for the holes in between, make them up! Unless you’re writing nonfiction, that’s the reason you have an imagination.

If a particular city or setting is important in your book, go tour that location and take lots of notes. Buy a map and do a walking tour. Eat in local restaurants or visit coffee shops and people watch. Write down what you see or even record conversations you hear. It’s good writing practice, and you never know when you might find something you can use in your book. The point here is that you are absorbing your surroundings. You are making a connection. You are becoming your book.

If you are writing about a cop or a doctor, you might interview a few of them. If your book takes place in the wild, go camping or just go take a hike in the hills. Don’t forget to take along a notebook and pen! The point here is to put yourself in the real life surroundings that you want to write about fictionally.

Recently I wrote a book about Emily Dickinson. My knowledge of Emily was extremely limited, but I was determined to center a book around her as a character. I had read a book of her poetry years before, so I sought out other volumes of her work, particularly ones with lengthy introductions that might have provided other information about her. I also bought a coffee table book filled with pictures of her home which I used as inspiration for settings.

All of my other research was done online. You might say that’s not a very reliable source, and that is very true today. Always fact-check your research if those minor details are important to you! I used the EmilyDickinsonMuseum website as a lead source for information and to check facts that I found on other sites. I also emailed the museum on a regular basis to ask questions. By doing so, I developed a nice friendly relationship with an employee of the museum who was happy to answer all of my questions.

Lastly, I printed lots of information from the web to read and use. I highlighted parts I wanted to reference. After just one week, I had filled a folder with great information about Emily. I was now ready to start writing. Sure, I didn’t know all there was to know about Emily and her life in the beginning, but I knew enough to get started. I stopped and did more research along the way. And in just eight weeks, I had a good first draft of the book I set out to write.

My point here is to not get discouraged by doing research. Put your imagination to work when it comes to the details you can’t find in a library. Don’t be afraid to pencil in a few anomalies now and then. After your book is published and a cranky reviewer calls you out for a mistake you made about the type of gloves your 18th century queen is wearing, you can just remind them the book is fiction!

So now you know all you need to know about writing what you don’t know, and if you don’t, then I advise you try Google. Or if you don’t like doing research, then there’s an old adage I’ve heard before that goes something like…

Dickinstein2 (2)

Shannon Yarbrough is the author of three books.  His fourth, Dickenstein: Emily Dickinson ~ Mad Scientist, is due out in 2013. He lives in St. Ann, Missouri.  Find him online at www.shannonyarbrough.com.


10 comments on “Everything You Need To Know About Writing What You Don’t Know

  1. Hopeannfaith says:

    Reblogged this on HOPEannFAITH and commented:
    A good read and good information! Thanks Robin!


  2. Jim Bessey says:

    Superb advice, Shannon.

    Thanks, Robin, for sharing this. “Write what you know” is fine for a first novel, but would certainly never carry an author for long.

    I love Stephen King’s recounting of his experience writing “Carrie” (in his memoir “On Writing”). At one point he tossed the whole WIP into the trash, chiding himself: “What the hell do I know about neurotic high school girls??”

    When ‘research’ involves reading your favorite authors or delving deeper into your favorite genres, why that’s hardly work at all, is it?


    • Thanks Jim! I almost mentioned SK in this post instead of Anne. Great point! I love “On Writing.” Robin and I often tease each other about beating SK’s daily word count when we are writing.


  3. […] Everything You Need To Know About Writing What You Don’t Know. […]


  4. Hey, Robin, let me know when the green book is back in stock. You know…the one with a woman on the cover…I think. Everyone tells me I should read it. Sorry I don’t know the author or the title. Thanks!!


  5. melindaclayton says:

    Great post, Shannon. Just think – if all any of us ever wrote about was only what we know, there would be a lot of really boring books in the world!


  6. since this is my 1st visit to your website, i simply wished to say greetings! wonderful website incidentally. lista de email lista de email lista de email lista de email lista de email


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