Writing What You Don’t Know

03/11/11 6:00 AM

The best compliment I’ve received about What Happened in Granite Creek is this: “you write as if you were a mother yourself.”

I’ve received this compliment from a number of people, and not just with this book, but also Forgotten April and some of my short stories, most notably “Crush” and “A Touch of Charlotte.” One person went so far as to ask, “Are you sure you’re not hiding some kids in your apartment?”

I can’t tell you how happy this makes me. I’m deeply grateful and humbled and appreciative of those who’ve taken the time to share these kind and generous words with me.

When it comes to writing, the prevailing wisdom is to write what you know. And I absolutely agree with this because we writers need to start somewhere. But I think most writers go beyond this adage: we write what we’re curious about. We write what angers us. We write what scares us. So, in essence, a lot of what we write is about things we don’t know or don’t have first-hand experience in…but it’s stuff we take the time to research or to learn about.

I’m the youngest of six, and I have thirteen nieces and nephews (ranging in ages from five to 31), so I’ve been able to witness a lot of mothering first-hand. My own mom helped take care of one of my nephews, Dylan, from the time he was two months old. I was in my early twenties and still living at home, so I was around Dylan a lot when he was a baby and toddler: I changed his diaper (not often, mind you, but I did it), and I have a vivid memory of taking care of him when he was sick (because my mother was as well) and having him puke all over me. THIS IS NO WAY COMPARES TO BEING A FULL-TIME PARENT. I’M NOT SUGGESTING THAT FOR EVEN A MOMENT.

What I am saying is that I’ve been around a lot of moms and kids all my life. And, of course, I’m at the age (38) where most of my friends have kids (I was my best friend’s birthing coach and was one of the first to hold her newborn son). I listen and steal borrow from my family and friends all the time as they share tidbits about motherhood. I hoard these tidbits and take them out when I’m dealing with a mom character. Whatever I’m unsure about, I ask about. It’s as simple as that.

Again, this is nothing new. Writers have been doing this since the beginning of time. One of my favorite stories is from Stephen King’s book On Writing where he talks about how when he was drafting Carrie, he decided it stunk and threw it out. His wife, Tabitha, saw the balled up paper in the trash, read it, and told him that she thought he was onto something. King asked her how he could possibly write from a high school girl’s perspective, and Tabitha said she could help him with that stuff. Carrie, of course, was King’s first published novel, and it launched his incredible career.

Another book that comes to mind: She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb. It’s one of those books that when you’re reading it, you keep turning to the back cover to look at the author’s picture because you’re convinced a guy couldn’t have written it (the story is from a young girl’s perspective). Ditto Room by Emma Donoghue (who writes from a five-year-old’s perspective, and not any five-year-old, but one who was born into captivity in a backyard shed and who has no working knowledge of the outside world).

Can you think of other books that surprised you in this way? Share in the comments.

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4 Comments on “Writing What You Don’t Know”

  1. Martin Dugas Says:

    We writers are very much like movie actors. We can’t possibly have experienced everything in life to be able to write about it. Several months prior to the beginning of the actual shooting of a movie, some actors try to “live” like their character in order to better prepare themselves and to deliver a better performance. I believe it’s the same for us writers. We compensate our lack of specific life experiences by doing our own personal research (through our relatives and friends, books we read, movies we watch, by interviewing other people, etc).

    One of my favorite novels is Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. It is about a human test subject whose intelligence significantly increases after undergoing a special surgery. The entire novel is written through personal progress reports written by Charlie, the main character (the mentally disabled man). The first few reports are full of spelling/grammar mistakes and are written in somewhat of a childish manner; the reader can “feel” how the main character sees the world around him. As we read on (and after Charlie undergoes the special surgery), readers can experience the transformation that occurs inside him as he becomes extremely intelligent. Although the author has never been a mentally disabled man himself, he based his writing on a few personal experiences and also on one encounter he had with a real mentally disabled man. Keyes managed to write an awesome science fiction novel which is still part of many school curriculums today.

  2. Robyn Says:

    Excellent example, Martin. (I’ve never read that book — another to add to my ever-growing TBR list.)

  3. Ruth Madison Says:

    I agree, we all have to write things we don’t know first hand. Otherwise not a single character in my book could be anything other than a white, unmarried, childless woman. 😀

    Just having a male character is outside of my first hand knowledge, right?

  4. Robyn Says:

    @Ruth 🙂