Being a Better Writer: Writing Outside Your Experience

This post was originally written and posted April 7th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

I have a confession to make: I’ve never faced down a magical golem in my life.

Surprising, I know. If you’ve read my work, it certainly sounds like I have. But the truth is, never once have I faced a magically animated, humanoid construct, much less on the roof of a moving train. I’ve never faced down an eldritch abomination of stitched-together body parts, either. Or suffered a post-traumatic event related breakdown. Or even used magical conservation of inertia to move myself around a room.

But I’ve written about all of these things.

Today’s topic comes by way of request, asking how I write about things outside of my own experience and make them work? Because let’s face it, readers know I’ve never taken on a golem in hand-to-hand combat before. First of all, that’d require … well, actually, I’m pretty sure I don’t need to go into all the reasons why I haven’t. Although I must say, it’d be dang cool if I could lay claim to that one in addition to everything else I’ve done! But even though I haven’t, the mass of readers who have enjoyed the fights from Rise have shown that while I may have never personally gone through such events, I can still write about them in such a way that readers find them not only enjoyable, but believable.

This is, after all, the crux of writing fiction. While we know in our heart that what we’re reading isn’t true and didn’t happen, we want it to have happened. We want it to be believable, to seem real in the moment—even if it isn’t—so that we can experience it in some way. J.K. Rowling never faced down a dark wizard. George R.R. Martin probably hasn’t beheaded anyone. Dan Wells isn’t a serial killer. So how did they each write about those things?

Knowledge, a little bit of imagination, and extrapolation.

Knowledge is going to be one of your greatest allies as a writer. Make no mistake, if you thought that as a writer you’d just be able to sit down and write whatever came to mind without regards to logic or reasoning, then you’re headed for a career working for CNN or Fox News. For the rest of us, good old fashioned knowledge is going to be your standby. If you want to write a story that takes place inside a steel plant concerning an employee that’s using the equipment to kill people, then you’d better know how steel is made and what goes on inside a steel plant. You’d better know what the safety regulations are, so you can figure out how to circumvent them for your characters. What kind of safety equipment they wear. What it’s like to work there.

In other words, when writing a story, you’ll want to do your research. When writing Carry On, I made use of my internet connection to research all sorts of information about PTSD, making sure that I knew the various types, causes and symptoms so that Sky’s experiences were as close to accurate as I could be. This was “textbook” research. For any story you write, do a lot of this to fill in any gaps you might have in the area. Over the course of writing Dead Silver, I did a lot of research into silver mining operations, New Mexico’s history, even the US national rates for missing persons. Crud, I even ended up on a dealer site for heavy-duty commercial mining equipment so that the equipment the characters encounter in the story is accurate.

However, textbook knowledge isn’t enough on its own. It can only get you so far. So, after textbook knowledge, go for second-hand experiences. Talk with people who have experience with or similar to what you’re writing about. With Carry On, I read blogs and online accounts of people suffering from PTSD attacks. With Dead Silver I actually called a sheriffs department in rural New Mexico to ask some questions about criminal procedure and jurisdiction, looking for answers I couldn’t get elsewhere. In other words, when writing outside of your experience, talk to those people who have experience with what you’re writing about! Read their published accounts! You might not have ever been an astronaut, or gone up in a space shuttle, but there are those who have, and are all too happy to share the story. Often, when you look for research in this manner, you’ll find a lot of people are usually willing to talk about their experiences and answer your questions, and you might even find new angles on things that you didn’t know about or comprehend beforehand.*

*One caveat I will add, however, is to remember to be polite when talking with someone who has this experience. Nothing kills the mood faster than a writer who “informs” the person they’re talking to that they’re “wrong” about their job/experience. They’re the expert here, not you. Pay close attention to how you phrase your questions. “Could you explain that a little more?” or “Interesting, my research led me to believe this, is that not correct?” is far more appealing to someone than “Well, I think you don’t know what you’re talking about.” And yes, I’ve heard that last one.

There’s one final thing you can do to get some of the knowledge you’ll need: Firsthand experience. I’ve never fought a golem on a train, but I’ve been on a train.  And I’ve been in hand-to-hand fights (both spur-of-the-moment and sparring). Firsthand experience with things similar to what you write can really help you put yourself in the shoes of your character. This is one way writing can be one of the most liberating and open experiences: It can be a vehicle to experience the world around you. Tour that steel factory! Take a trip to a desert so you can see what the beating heat is like. Go fire a gun at a shooting range so you know what the recoil does to your hands. You don’t need to do what your character does exactly, but a similar experience can help set the mood and the context in your mind. Plus, hands-on research is fun, and a good excuse to try new things and pick up new skills!

So, once you have your research, now what do you do? First, figure out which elements are important and which aren’t. Thinking back on firsthand experiences in your life, you’ll notice that what you tend to remember are highlights rather than all the details. Likewise, when you write out your story, you’re going to write the highlights. In Dead Silver, for example, while the characters pass realistic mining equipment, they don’t go into much detail on the smelting process at all, even though I did some research on it. Things are glossed over, while others are brought to the attention of the reader.

Much like cartoon animation focuses on key visual aspects, when writing outside your experience, pick the things that will stand out and make the scene/event iconic to your reader and your character. Keep your character in mind (what will they notice and think?) and then choose your details accordingly. The ones that you do present? Make them accurate (and fact check).

But there’s still one more key here: Imagination. Imagination is key because it allows you to extrapolate. Your character is skydiving from a mile up. You have the details from research, and a firsthand experience jumping from a forty-foot high dive. Now, use your imagination to meld the two and extrapolate what you would feel and think during that jump. Writing about magic? Fantasy is really just an extrapolation of events you understand and experience. I may not be able to move things with telekinetic magic like Nova, but I can imagine what it would be like (and what would go into it) based on my knowledge of physics and personal experience moving things.**

Extrapolate from what you know. Take your knowledge and have fun with it. You might not get everything perfect, but that’s why this is fiction, and that’s why we practice! Use your imagination to expand the perspective.

**And when it comes to fantasy, be consistent. All fantasy, in some way, has a grounding in a science, even if it is a “science” created entirely for the story itself. Once you’ve established some rule, keep that rule. You’re building a world, and making it real even when it isn’t means keeping things consistent with the rules you’re establishing, even if you don’t tell the reader what they are directly.

So, there you have it. You can easily write about things you’ve not experienced if you do the research and then extrapolate that and your own similar experiences into your characters.

Good luck.

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