Write What You (Want To) Know

One of the most popular sayings in the writing world is “write what you know.” This is arguably one of the hardest to follow. What if I don’t have a lot of experience in different fields? What if I’m not able to gain those experiences due to varying circumstances? These are issues I ran into. My knowledge was limited, but I wanted to write about big topics. So, I changed the adage for myself to “write what you want to know.”

Me, writing what I know.
(Photo credit: Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes artist)

Research is one of the biggest (and, admittedly, most fun) elements of my writing process. I’ve written books on electromagnetic pulses, robotic tanks, the Amazon rainforest, and serial killers. I’m starting a book on Antarctica and planning to write one that combines a Jewish story and an Egypt goddess. Now, I’ve never seen an EMP or a robotic tank with my own eyes. I currently don’t have the money or time to travel to the Amazon or Antarctica (though both are on my travel list). I am neither Jewish nor Egyptian, nor have I met a serial killer (that I know of, I guess), but I still want to write those books.

Luckily, we live in an incredible time of information-sharing where we have pictures and magazines (#NatGeoFTW) and blogs that allow us to experience them as close to visiting as we can get. And Google Street View and Google Earth (which is FREE)–yes. Just yes.

Here are some tips I’ve learned on how to write what I want to know, once I found a topic I’m passionate about:

  • First step: read Wikipedia. BUT WAIT. Don’t *stop* with Wikipedia. It’s the launching pad for your research. It will tell you what you don’t know and give you ideas to further research from more reliable sources.

  • Use the library. Best thing is to visit the actual physical location, find the section on your topic, and browse the books. This will give you new ideas of what to search for as you’ll find things you never thought of. The library can be used to find books (obvs), documentaries, and informational magazines. Ours also has a partnership with Hoopla, which is a free service that has movies and TV shows online. Most also give you access to scholarly databases like JSTOR.
  • Talk to people. I know, I know. Writers are typically introverts and we don’t like to talk to people if we don’t have to, especially people we don’t know. I get it. But hang with me for a second. Two things:
  1. As you research your topic, look for experts in the field (librarians are great, too!) and contact them. Email them, leave a message at their office, whatever. (Don’t be creepy, though.) If they are near your area, offer to take them out for lunch or a cup of coffee. Ask them questions. Go into the meeting with the mindset of a discussion, not an interview. People *love* to talk about what they’re passionate about, and you’re more likely to find the small details to bring your book to life. And, who knows, maybe you’ll make a new friend. 🙂
  2. If you’re not comfortable doing that or you’re not able to find experts, talk to your existing circle of friends and family and contacts (like the Twitter-verse). You might find that people you never expected have interests or experiences in exactly your field of research. My dad is retired military, so I asked him questions about Special Forces to make my veteran main character more realistic. I met a guy recently who has been in the deep web, which is great, because I have a future book planned about it. A friend of mine was a nurse, so she was able to give me advice on how not to hurt my characters because, in reality, it would kill them. Oops. (Hey, I’m a thriller writer. Give me a break.) 🙂

  • Netflix has documentaries, so check that out. I think Hulu has a few as well. Or heck, YouTube has a ton. Also, if you can spring it, CuriosityStream is a Netflix-style site strictly for documentaries at only $3/month. Only catch is it doesn’t have NatGeo or History Channel movies for now. 🙁 (But the library should have those.)
  • Half Price Books or similar second-hand bookstores can help you find plenty of research material on the cheap. Or go to that weird section near the front of most Barnes & Nobles with the massive-sized discount books. I’ve found a *ton* of research books there.
  • Google is your bestest friend ever. Check for scholarly articles if you’re doing more sensitive or involved topics (scholar.google.com). Or find travel blogs and use Google Street View (this has seriously helped me) for destinations… I’m sure you how to use Google, so I’ll leave the rest to you. 🙂
  • Something new I’m trying for my Antarctica book, since climate change research is coming out so frequently, is to set up a Google Alert (google.com/alerts) for “Antarctica.” Google will send you an email with content that matches your keywords. (I already have one set up for my own name, in the interest of my rampant paranoia.) This can be very helpful for a developing topic.

So now you know: “Write what you want to know” is a perfectly acceptable substitute if “write what you know” isn’t broad enough for you. Just be smart about it and do your topic justice. 🙂

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