That, in a nutshell, is my writing advice to you for the day. Or the week. In fact, it’s my writing advice for your whole life. Because if you already know all about something, you’ll get bored right quick. Or anyway, I get bored right quick, so I find writing what I don’t know works way better. When I wrote for newspapers, my favorite subjects were ones I knew nothing about. When I started writing fiction, I knew dead people and guns were going to keep cropping up in my stories, so I went out and took a course in handguns at the local firing range. Way more fun than the advice well-meaning friends kept giving me, which was to write an autobiographical work about the challenges of raising a son with Asperger’s Syndrome. Screw that! I’m living that! I read books to escape! Well, sometimes I read them to escape. I do read them for other reasons too. But I definitely write them to escape from real life.
Now, writing what you don’t know does NOT mean you only write empty-headed, shallow, escapist romance and detective fiction. Although I do. But that’s just me.
You can write what you don’t know and create something brilliant and lasting and amazing, such as Ian McEwan‘s incredibly vivid chapters about Dunkirk in his brilliant book, Atonement. I am still blown away by how amazing those chapters are. I don’t see how anyone could write scenes like that when he wasn’t there. But then, on a far more modest scale, people who’ve been to Capri are sure I’ve been there too when they read Love Capri Style. Nope. Just Google maps, YouTube videos, some travel brochures, and an earnest desire to escape from the bedside of my dying mother—that’s how I wrote about Capri.
I was thinking about the whole “Write what you don’t know” philosophy and then this week on The Writer’s Almanac, Garrison Keillor shared this little bit of trivia. I already knew it, but I had forgotten. Sometimes you need this reminder, though.
It’s the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Stephen Crane, born in Newark, New Jersey (1871). As a young man, he considered becoming a professional baseball player. He played catcher on his prep school team. At the time, baseball catchers wore almost no protective gear, and the catcher’s mitt was basically a gardening glove with a little extra padding. Stephen Crane became famous within his prep school league for being able to catch anything, even barehanded. One of his teammates said, “He played baseball with fiendish glee.”Crane had started cutting classes to spend all his time in New York City, and he was fascinated by what he found there. He began writing for New York City tabloids while he was still a teenager. His first novel was Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893). Booksellers wouldn’t stock it, so he gave away about a hundred copies and burned the rest. He said, “I cannot see why people hate ugliness in art. Ugliness is just a matter of treatment.”
Then, after reading a series of reminiscences of Civil War veterans published in newspapers, Crane decided to write a Civil War story himself. The result was his novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895), the story of Henry Fleming, who signs up for the 304th New York regiment, hoping to experience the glory of battle that he’s read about in school. The Red Badge of Courage made him famous. It was called the most realistic war novel ever written, and no one could believe that its author was a twenty-four year old who’d never been in battle himself. Civil War veterans wrote in to newspapers claiming that they knew Stephen Crane; they’d fought beside him in various Civil War battles. When the writer Hamlin Garland asked him how he’d conveyed the battlefield scenes so vividly, Stephen Crane said he’d just drawn on his own experience as an athlete. . . .
Now, if Stephen Crane and Ian McEwan can write what they don’t know, so can you. Go ahead, give it a try. You know you want to.
- Author Ian McEwan speaks about one technique for finding novel ideas (onewildword.com)
- Atonement: A Handbook On Writing (101books.net)
- War is Kind- by Stephen Crane~ Poem of the month~ (ericasatramentum.wordpress.com)