About a year ago, I wrote a blog post on that age-old writing advice, Write What You Know. Basically, I stated that writing what you know comes from your experiences, not from the inability to do research.
Today, I want to talk about writing what you don’t know. And I’m going to use my latest YA novel, ROYAL ROSE, as an example. The story is about an overweight girl who comes from a famously beautiful family, and must deal with judgments and public opinion based on her appearance.
I’ll bet you’re wondering if I’ve ever been overweight. Well, the answer is no. Never. Not one day in my life. In fact, I’ve always been on the opposite end of that scale. Stick. Beanpole. Can’t fill out her pants. That was me as a kid, and, with the exception of pregnancies, I’ve pretty much stayed that way.
So, why would I write about a girl who has far more weight than I’ve ever had in my life? What the heck would I know about it? What makes me qualified to write such a story? To be honest, not much. You could say that writing this story is writing about what I don't know, since I don't have the first clue what it's like to be an overweight teenager. But Rose grabbed me by the throat over three years ago, and wouldn’t let go. I had to either write her story or go crazy.
I chose to write it...which meant I had much to learn.
I started out by researching and interviewing people with weight problems, trying to get an idea of what it was like for them growing up. What they went through, how they felt, what other people thought of them, etc. I googled medical conditions, talked to doctors and personal trainers, and learned all about the Body Mass Index.
I spent a year gathering all of this information and letting everything percolate in my head. Then, finally, I sat down to write the first draft. And guess what? It was terrible. Everything sounded like a regurgitation of all the research I’d done. There was no life, no spark, in my words.
Since I’d had zero experience with being overweight, what was I supposed to do? Give up? No. That’s not in my vocabulary. But I was stuck stuck stuck, so I had to figure out something. And this is what I did.
I looked back at my own childhood and teen years, then cross-checked it with the information I’d gotten from interviews. Guess what? There were some similarities.
I was underweight and teased horribly for it. Overweight kids were also teased in unspeakable ways. I was shy and quiet, and therefore picked on mercilessly. Overweight kids were also picked on mercilessly. I had very low self-esteem. Most overweight kids also had very low self-esteem. My parents were divorced during a time when that wasn’t common, and therefore I had trouble relating to other kids. Overweight kids have this extra weight that the other kids didn’t understand, and therefore they had trouble relating to other kids.
See a pattern here? :)
I laid all this out, using my experiences as a kid to imagine how someone in completely different shoes might be feeling. And it worked. A single spark appeared in my next draft, and I just knew I was on the right track. I kept working, sifting through my own experiences and coupling them with the information I’d gotten from interviews. When I finished my next draft, I cheered!
In writing this book, I essentially took the things I knew and applied them to the things I didn’t know. Which, technically, means I didn’t write what I didn’t know. The heart of this story is very much what I know, and what I’ve experienced first-hand. It’s just been applied to something different. Without my own experiences in it, the story was flat and lifeless. I had to write about what I knew.
This presents another question... If the author’s experiences must be in the story, then is it even possible to write what you don’t know? No, not really. Unless you’re talking about......
But that’s the topic for next week. : )