You’ve probably heard the saying “write what you know”. Whether it was in high school, university or your early career as writer, it’s a retort that keeps recurring and for good reason. A more motivational reworking could be “get to know what you want to write”.
This is the reason authors spend time on research, immersing themselves in the world they are writing about through information and experience. When South African author Lauren Beukes was preparing to write The Shining Girls about a time-traveling serial killer, she made it her mission to absorb as much information about depression-era Chicago as possible in order to get a better grasp of its culture and supplant the reader in that city. Outlying research could have helped establish the sense of place by referencing some key details, but by giving yourself a chance to soak up the environment like Beukes did, The Shining Girls is much more integrative and nuanced, gleaning the sort of details only a local would know.
This is the reason they say write what you know. If you don’t know something, haven’t been there or truly experienced it, there will be a slight disconnect. Sci-fi authors probably have an easier journey when it comes to their writing because in most cases almost everything is made up, or based on steps of reality. Sure, there’s a greater pressure on them to build worlds that exist in their entirety, grappling with ideas, races, culture and ideologies. However, it does help to have starting blocks and the writing is all the richer when infused with the substance of experience and empirical knowledge.
Knowing something means you’re well versed, understand the finer details and can write with integrity, having been there, felt something, witnessed something or been a participant. When you do this, your writing exudes this understanding, experience and even expertise. Your reader can sense superficial and limited understanding of a subject, which makes the writing seem naïve and unsure. Diving headlong into your treasure trove like Scrooge McDuck just imbues more confidence, allowing the reader to put their complete trust in your writing and suspend disbelief, enabling you to captivate and immerse them in your world. So, the trick is to write about something you’re familiar with, or in the very least use it as a springboard to mount your next book or screenplay. You’ll feel more assured in your writing and so will your reader.
Another way to enrich your writing is to apply the principles of The Three Wells of Screenwriting as described by Matthew Kalil. His book offers a practical approach to writing, which can add layers and depth by leveraging your imagination, your memories and pop culture history. Viewing your writing through each of these lenses can help you unlock writer’s block, give your scene a fresh spin or sidestep genre clichés long associated with the glut of pop culture.
If, however, you’re dead keen on writing about something quite specific yet just out of grasp, there’s nothing stopping you from doing your own research. Why not become an expert in your chosen field in your preparation for your next project. Actors pick up skills to sell their performance, authors should treat their writing in a similar fashion. Knowledge is power in this instance and this power gives you the confidence to keep your reader invested, compelled and completely convinced.