Monday, June 22, 2009

Write What You Don’t Know, Part 1

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. : )


Eric said...

Great post. This is something I struggle with all the time, writing stories where I really don't know much about the topic. Your ideas here though give me some inspiration to re-visit things and see how I can change my own process. So thanks.

Angela Ackerman said...

You did a great job on your portrayal of Rose in this book. Neat how you took what you knew and married it to what you didn't. It worked beautifully!

Nayuleska said...

Very insightful post :) It's good to see how you went about writing a topic you don't know.

Tabitha said...

Eric - thanks! Glad you enjoyed this post. Writing is so darned complicated, isn't it? :)

Angela - thanks!! This was by far the hardest book I've written to date. :)

Tabitha said...

Yuna - thanks! It's strange where ideas come from, isn't it? I never thought I'd write about something like this. :)

Anonymous said...

"took the things I knew and applied them to the things I didn’t know" -- seems to me that's at the heart of creativity. :) Great post, Tabitha.

Kelly Polark said...

Excellent post, Tabitha. I think your book will touch a lot of people. I tell my kids that everyone has been teased for one thing or another. So many kids will be able to relate to your character in many different ways.

Keri Mikulski said...

Great stuff..

I love how you researched and then combined what you know.

Danyelle L. said...

*hearts post*

The Human Experience is something we all have in common. Research is important, but the characters need to come from the heart if they're to reach out and touch others. :)

Tabitha said...

Shari - so, so true! Thanks! :)

Kelly - thanks! :) I think kids are just trying to figure out where they fall in the chain of life, and teasing is a part of that. It's unfortunate, but it's a easy way to figure out who's got the power and who doesn't. ALL kids go through it in some form or other. :(

Keri - thanks! :)

Danyelle - boy, you said it! I see a novel as a window into the soul of the main character. If there's no depth, there's nothing to keep me there.

Bish Denham said...

I think we can, and must, pull emotional experience from our own lives to give spice to our stories, else they will be tasteless.

Meg Wiviott said...

I think we start with a kernel of truth and the story grows from there. You might not have experienced the torments of being an overweight teen, but your own experiences provided the seed.

Great post.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I often feel drawn to write about experiences I haven't lived through myself, but which somehow seem very relatable to me--probably because of the reasons you describe!

Kelly H-Y said...

What a great post ... fabulous advice!!!!

Galen Kindley--Author said...

I particularly liked how you recognized that, as you wrote, “Everything sounded like a regurgitation of all the research I’d done.” How easy is if for authors to fall in love with the things we’ve written? Especially when, like you did, we’ve invested a lot of time, energy, and probably some cash in harvesting and assimilating the information. Good job on not falling into that trap! The delete key has been, on occasion, my best writing tool.

Best regards, Galen

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Excellent post, Tabitha! I love the ideas you present here. We truly can only write what we know, which for me, translates to just being honest. Once we write something, whether it's from research or not, we own it. Once we own it, it's something we know. My logic may be off, but I'm always writing "stuff I don't know" and it always feels honest once I apply myself to it. Thanks for the great thoughts!