Being a Better Writer: Knowledge and Inspiration

Welcome back readers! I hope you all had a fantastic weekend!

So, thanks to Friday’s gargantuan news post—which you should check up on if you haven’t, as it basically announces all my projects for the rest of the year—all the news that’s worth mentioning is already out in the open. So there’s no need to repeat it here. Which means … we’re diving right into today’s post.

Knowledge and inspiration then. Let’s get down to it. What, with a title like that, am I getting at?

Well, probably not what you expected. See, today’s post isn’t about the tiny details of everything, from character to voice, or specific writing techniques. No, today is about a different—but no less important—bit of writing: acquiring knowledge of subject.

There’s an old adage I’m sure most of you have heard before: Write what you know. And while yes, I’ve pointed out before that this saying isn’t entirely true, because we write about things we don’t know about first-hand all the time (like zero-g), or that don’t even exist (such as dragons), there is still an element of truth to the saying as well because we take what we do write about those things from parts and pieces of our lives that we do have knowledge of.

Or, to put it another way, even when we write about things that aren’t real or don’t exist (in many cases “yet”) we do so by taking part and pieces from things we do know about. Hence the city of Sheerwater, for example, being an amalgamation of a city built in a combination of Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon. Or life about a star-cruiser being in many ways similar to a modern ocean-going vessel.

Another way to think of it might be with another adage; The more things change, the more they stay the same. We may travel the stars, we may have a griffon for a neighbor, or we might work at a stellar foundry … but at the end of the day there will be common elements binding those events to the events of today. A neighbor, good or bad, is still a neighbor. A job will still have duties and responsibilities.

Trust, me, this is going somewhere. Taken altogether, this points at an interesting set of required abilities for any author: You need to be able to both illustrate what is familiar while at the same time extrapolating into what is different. What is familiar is the foundation that your reader will recognize and rest on … while embracing what is new and unique about the world, characters, etc, that you have built.

Okay, I may have lied earlier. I guess we have gotten down to some specific details.

Anyway, my point is that in order to write and write well, you need to have both parts of that equation. You need to the know the foundational elements and be able to extrapolate them outward, regardless of what you’re working on. Characters in a fantasy setting? You’ll need to know the basics of how people act and behave just normally before taking the magic and fantastic into it. Ditto for Science-Fiction, from ships to robotics to … well, whatever your story is about.

Because no matter how fantastic your story is, there’s going to be a grounding element of some kind that is similar to the world we know.

Okay, now for the good news. Most of the time you won’t have to think about this. Usually. Because we’re normally ensconced in the familiar. And when we write, it’s fairly natural for that familiar to bleed through.

But then we come back to this old issue of “write what you know” and there can suddenly be a small hiccup. What if … you’re a high-school student who has spent their entire life in a landlocked location like say … central Mongolia? You’ve never even seen the ocean, much less gone aboard a ship. But you have an itch in the back of your mind to write about a star-cruiser that sails the stars. You really want to tell this story.

But … you don’t have the elements of that foundation, and you’re wise enough to know that if you simply go ahead and make up most of it, you’re going to be wrong. You’re also wise enough to know that without that foundation, your readers are going to have good laugh at your expense if they know anything about it you didn’t. So what do you do?

Well, you could sign up for a job on a ship. Hands-on, as it were. Or at the very least take a vacation on one. Definitely couldn’t hurt.

But you know what else you could do? Go to Youtube. Or a streaming site. If you have access to the internet, you have access to the greatest repository of knowledge mankind has ever assembled. The Library of Alexandria had nothing on the internet. No library does. The internet is combined human knowledge. And if it doesn’t have it—after all, not every book is available online—it knows where it is and who does have it.

The internet is a phenomenal source of knowledge and learning … if you choose to use it that way.

For starters, you’re reading this site post about how to be a better writer, hoping to pick up more writing skills. But my site is just the tip of the iceberg. There are documentaries, how-tos, history articles, personal journals … almost anything you can imagine on a wide array of topics.

In other words, if you’re reading this post, then you already have a massive sum of knowledge waiting at your fingertips, ready to be accessed. You just need to go find it.

Now, I’m not saying that hands-on experiences aren’t great as well. If you want to write and write well, never turn down and experience to check out a museum, or a tour of a historical site, or well, anything that can be a learning experience.

But past that, there are an endless stream of sources online you can use to help build that foundational material in your mind. Youtube guides. Documentaries. Encyclopedias.

For example, I’ve been watching a lot of shows during my wrist recovery (I have to do 30-60 minutes of exercises three times a day, six days a week, and one on Sunday). What have I been watching? Oh, I’ve watched a few fun things, yes … but I’ve also watched a number of documentaries, including Planet Earth and Blue Planet. I follow channels like Nat-Geo and Tom Scott on Youtube.

Why? To learn. To see places I’ve never seen. To learn things I didn’t know. Foundational things, from broad concepts to tiny details that may make something come to life.

I’m not telling you this to try and toot my own horn, but as a personal example that seeking out all the knowledge at your disposal can be a great boon to your writing. You’ll learn all sorts of things, from details to broad concepts, that will be useful in your writing.

But there’s another thing to be gained from this sort of “hunt” for knowledge as well: Inspiration. Ideas.

Sure, we’re never at a shortage for them anyway, but does that mean you’d turn down new ones? Especially good ones?

See, it’s hard not to watch a mini-doc on the most extreme railway in the world and not come away with new ideas and concepts buzzing around in your head. Some of them may end up being foundational ideas, or details in another story … but some may end up being chapters, scenes, or entire books all on their own.

Nature abhors a vacuum. And so does the creative mind. The more fuel you feed it, the more ideas and concepts it’ll be able to produce.

So then, the ultimate point? As authors (prospective or veteran), we should always be fueling our imaginations with a steady, feeding supply of new ideas and concepts. We live in the most information-heavy age in all of human history.

Use it. Even without the idea of “I need to know this for a story I’m working on right now!” Educate your mind. Watch mini-docs, or full docs. Read articles on things that sound interesting.

Feed your mind. In turn, you’ll find it delivering new ideas, concepts, and details to make those foundations concrete. Better yet, a well-fed mind will have more at its beck and call when exploring those fantastical elements as well, giving both your grounded foundation and your fiction a greater sense of realism.

So go out and watch a documentary. Learn. Study. You don’t have to dedicate hours each day. Even just a few minutes of new information can keep your mind sharp. Expand your mind’s database. It’ll give you more to build a foundation from, and will often inspire new foundations you would have never otherwise considered.

Start with something that sounds interesting. Or branch out into something you’d never considered.

But your writing will be the sharper for it. New knowledge will give your settings and characters a greater sense of permanence. And … it may even lead you and your writing to places you’d never dreamed of.

Good luck. Now get learning.

Also, if you’ve benefited from the knowledge and learning contained in this post or others like it, please consider purchasing a book to help support the author and keep the site ad-free! You can also support via Patreon!

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