The writing experts tell us novices that we should write about what we know. If I were take this literally, I’d be in big trouble. I write about mythical worlds and fantastical creatures. I’ve never been to a mythical world (if you don’t count my happy place) and I’ve never met a fantastical creature (if you don’t count my family). How can I ‘write about what I know’ when the topic is something that I’ve never experienced?
Obviously, the statement, “Write about what you know” can’t be entirely true. Or can it?
While writing the Anaedor series, I used my imagination, a lot. That means I made stuff up, a lot. That’s what fantasy is all about. But…and here’s where the experts are right…I didn’t rely entirely on my imagination. I used my own experiences and knowledge of people and places to help me write my story. For example, my characters have traits and quirks and issues similar to the many humans I’ve observed over my lifetime. I take a little bit of behavior here, a little bit of appearance there – and voila! – I have a character, one that people can relate to.
The same goes for creating my settings. My imagination comes first, but then I use enough of reality to make my worlds seem more vibrant and attainable. To get a better feel for where I wanted Anaedor to take place, I traveled to another state. This little trip was also a nice excuse to get a break from my two-year-old. “Research, darling. Must go!” Unfortunately, I was newly pregnant with baby number two and was rather nauseous the whole time. But the main point is that I put in the work to make my book a better one. It was very hard driving around that gorgeous New England countryside, staying in a lovely B&B, eating at sidewalk cafes and taking notes. But I’d do it all again, I’d even sacrifice my own well-being, for the sake of my art.
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, however, so I also did a lot of research in books and on the internet to create my Anaedorian world. I read about myths and lore and caves galore. The internet is a beautiful thing. Use it! The library and bookstores are just as great. There’s something written on just about everything under the sun, and about the sun, too, I imagine.
To write fantasy, using your imagination and doing your research is pretty much all you need to do. But what if you want to write about something more real, like being a CIA agent? Have you ever been an agent? Well, most of us haven’t, or only in our dreams, so thinking like one is going to be hard. Obviously, you can still use your imagination. It’s a great place to start, anyway. First, you could pretend that you are an agent yourself. How fun would that be? Just don’t spy on your neighbors. There are laws against that…or so I’ve heard. Ask yourself questions. What’s your day-to-day life like? Is it mundane and boring most of the time, or action every moment? What do you eat on the run? Cheetos and Coke? Do you have a family? Do they know you’re an agent? Are you a good agent or terrible at your job because you care too much about others?
Next, you need to do some hard-core research – on the CIA, on agents, on the agency, on weapons, on training, and so on and so forth. Any time this research can be hands on, go for it. Consider the actor who is playing a barber, so spends a day or more actually doing the job. That’s what you need to do. If you’re up for it, try to do some target shooting. You might note an interesting reaction in yourself after you make your first target hit. Perhaps a power surge that you never expected. Experiencing what your character might can make your book that much more real.
After you’ve done all that imagination and research stuff, think about consulting an expert on the subject. Writers do it all the time (read their acknowledgements page). This final touch lends that element of believability that will give credence to your work. Plus, it might be fun!
In sum, when you are told to ‘write about what you know’ and feel like you don’t know all that much, don’t panic. Use your imagination, do your research, talk to people. Best of all, get out there and do things! Even if it’s something as simple as sitting in the mall and watching all the people go by. Who knows what might inspire you?
And maybe, if you’re watching closely, you might actually see what isn’t meant to be seen…the elusive Anaedorian.