Research, Uncategorized

Writing What You Don’t Know

  • by Peter Thomson

A standard bit of writing advice is to ‘write what you know’. Good advice, but how many of us have confronted vampires or run electricity through patchwork corpses? We create new worlds from bits and pieces of the ones we know – including the ones we know from other imaginings, fishing in the cultural deeps until we draw up the strange and new. How deep can we go?

I am not religious. I do not believe in an afterlife and have no truck with divinities of any persuasion. The closest I come to the supernatural are the feelings anyone of ordinary sensitivity has to places of great beauty or sanctity. Yet when Faithful Service and her sister Loyal Service stepped into my mind, demanding I tell their story, religion was everywhere. These were people and a society where faith was central. Theirs is a fantasy world, so I had considerable latitude. I could make up some analogue of an earthly faith (I studied medieval history; basic theology is part of the package). I could stud the story with prayers and priests. I could have a god or gods step in and out.

The story did not want these things. It wanted people who gave serious consideration to what their faith asked of them, and explored how they resolved their differences. It was about the interior of faith, not the trappings. I have religious friends and acquaintances, and one approved my remark that religion must look very different from the inside than the outside. Here I am on the outside, wanting to write about the inside. As it came out, my characters actions spoke for them, each according to their understanding.

One more thing – it’s a world where the supernatural is everywhere evident, to the point of being commonplace. People don’t believe in the gods in the same way that people here don’t believe in chairs. They are just there. So what do the sisters believe in? What is right, and where does it come from? It’s a question at least as old as Socrates – Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods? (the dialogue with Euthyphro). In The Forked Path the answer is that right is a journey, one undertaken in trust that the dilemma will be resolved in the end. So the story became one of twin journeys, to a reunion and beyond.

Looking back, I think I drew on a melange of medieval mystics and devotional poetry, scraps of theology and philosophy, and both the dogmatic insistence and serenely tolerant certainty I’ve met among the devout. My readers think it works.


On and on they went, slow but never stopping. Villa walls and market gardens went by, the sun rose higher, the puddles steamed away, the earth grew harder. Faithful Service was long unused to going barefoot, and her feet grew more tender as she walked. The old couple went more and more slowly, Right Conduct’s right hand clutching at his side, Proper Support true to her name as she held his left. In one village a boy threw a handful of mud at them, then ran away at the escort’s frown. Travellers made the sign against evil, and a presbyter ostentatiously prayed that wrong-doing might fall from them. All this deepened Faithful Service’s misery, yet on she walked. She had been given nothing to eat that morning and by midday hunger added to her woes. They were permitted to drink at the roadside fountains, where water bubbled clear and cold into stone basins by grace of the Highest’s grant of craft.

Right Conduct and Proper Support kept gamely on, limping and staggering. Right Conduct had cut his foot on a stone and left blood on the ground at each step. By later afternoon Proper Support could hold him up no longer; he sagged against her, they made a few more paces and then both collapsed to the ground.

“By the Highest’s grace, we will not hold this as a falter if you rise within five breaths,” one of the escort told them in a firm tone. Proper Support lifted her head to look him in the face, then clearly made up her mind.

‘My trust has been in the Highest all my life, and I will trust Him still. My husband can go no further, and I will not leave him. If the Highest will not lend us His strength, then we must accept the fate He gives us. I will go no further on my own feet.” She put her arm around her husband’s shoulders and sat firm.

“You have faltered before the Highest. As the Highest decreed, you are not of us. By the Highest’s mercy, you leave the land with your life.” The senior member of the escort intoned the ritual words. Then one was sent to fetch a cart, while another stayed to watch Right Conduct and Proper Support. The other two motioned Faithful Service to go on. She was tempted to join Proper Support on the ground, for her legs ached, her feet were sore and her stomach a gnawing pit of hollowness. Yet she did not; she was young and strong enough to go further, and had not Graceful Deeds always insisted that she do her utmost, told her that there was always one more effort in her? She would honour his memory by going on as far as she was able. Faithful Service set herself in motion, putting one foot in front  of the other in a steady plod.

(The Forked Path is out through Amazon and also – a commercial sale! – Rambunctious Books)

How do you, as authors, feel when the work takes you into areas of ignorance?


27 thoughts on “Writing What You Don’t Know

  1. Little amazes as much as does exploring my own ignorance. Especially enjoyable is when nobody knows the answers and I get to make stuff up.

    Thank you for the enlightening and reasoned blog, Peter! We wish you all the best with “The Forked Path.”

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Writing what you don’t know? That requires wide reading in the particular genre in which you’re working in order to discover how others (whom you appreciate and respect) have done it. Regarding the technical aspects of a device or process you are writing about: The decision to be made here is how much of that information to directly incorporate into the text as an info dump. (Or rather, how to present pertinent info in such a way that it does not stand out as an info dump.)

    Personally, I don’t mind info dumps in a text if the author deems them both necessary and fascinating. (see: Michael Crichton) I’ve always been somewhat amused when writers info dump: It always strikes me as the writer attempting to convince him or herself that they’ve done the necessary research in order to write authoritatively about the subject at hand.

    BTW: Good luck with the novel!

    Liked by 3 people

  3. victoracquista says:

    Peter, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this and giving us a tasty tidbit of your writing. I think there are merits to writing about what you do know and merits to writing about what you don’t know. Either can be done well or poorly and provide readers with a worthwhile read.

    I’ve written fiction and nonfiction. My nonfiction is generally stuff I know about or have researched. There’s a lot of left brain assembly of details that need to be communicated, perhaps give things a unique spin, try to make it interesting when doing this type of writing.

    My fiction incorporates things I know about such as places or medical conditions (I have a background in medicine), or things that I’ve researched that are part of the story. This has a lot of left brain that underlies the writing. Much of my fiction is made up. A lot more of my right brain and imagination go into that. World building is fun, exciting, and engages my creative brain. The things that are different in the world that I’ve made up are interesting in so far as giving the reader a different perspective apart from what the are accustomed to or familiar with.

    As a reader, I am mindful of how writers balance the familiar with the unfamiliar. Fictional storytelling that incorporates things and circumstances that are quite different from the usual often requires readers to suspend beliefs. I think if this is overdone, the reader has trouble processing and following the story. Readers need to tether to the familiar to appreciate the unfamiliar; otherwise they get lost.

    A well-written story that gives me the opportunity to explore strange new worlds and civilizations is absolutely a treat to enjoy. Not only does it afford some escapism and entertainment, it gives me a chance to compare and contrast what is the same and what is different in this story the author has created.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Peter Thomson says:

    Thanks for the comments and well-wishes. I agree with everything said. I was thinking more of interior experience than the details of whatever reality we create – although, thinking on it, some narrative elements are more ‘real’ than reality: our images of cowboys are more Zane Grey/Hollywood than the period itself, which makes for the interesting observation that readers would find an authentic cowboy story unconvincing.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. The image I get is an hourglass. The opening in the center emits a slender stream. This is the story we tell.
    In the hopper above are all the crazy inputs–not smooth and regular at all. Things we know like the back of our hand. Fantasies, cockamamie ideas, Things made up, pretending we know. Things researched, gleaning what little is known, then twisting it. Things overheard, or read on Medium, or in the Times, or Fox. It’s all ground into story-meal, and bits of it go into the story.
    Below, our tale spreads out, enlightening and entertaining readers.
    Eventually the story is done; we turn the hourglass over and begin again.

    Liked by 5 people

  6. DocTom says:

    Internal versus external ignorance of a subject— an interesting concept. I think Michael Crichton’s work offers an interesting example of both. Take Jurassic Park as an example. Crichton had two great talents. He made you believe his characters and he took nuggets of ‘in the news’ science and struck while the iron was hot (please excuse all the metaphors). The science of paleo-genetics was in its infancy when Jurassic Park was published, and there had just been articles in The New York Times and elsewhere regarding the possibility of resurrecting dinos and wooly mammoths, etc., using DNA extracted from the bellies of biting insects preserved in amber. Overall, just enough info to make all this seem credible. He got a sense of field work by visiting the paleontologist Jack Horner at a dig site. Again, just enough to give the story a sense of verisimilitude, allowing you to believe his character is actually a paleontologist. Voila! A best seller. Many loved the book and movie franchise that followed ( Although from my point of view it’s one of the damn stupidest books ever written!). He’d actually done about the same for his original best seller, The Andromeda Strain, parlaying the sudden fear that the Apollo 11 astronauts might bring something back from the moon (remember, they were quarantined when they returned) plus his own background in medicine to write the book.
    External knowledge is important, but can generally be found with sufficient research. For instance, some mystery writers have been allowed to ride along with police, or spend time observing at a precinct. Depending on the genera, as Peter points out, ‘reality’ might be more a matter of cultural myth than fact. Although with sci-fi you can’t have Martians running around anymore (damn you, Curiosity!).
    Internal knowledge, or as Peter calls it interior experience, is the hard part — that’s characterization. Having never been in the military, how do I present a military mindset? Having never been female, how do I create believable female characters (who might also be in the military)? All I can do (like Crichton) is observe and learn through reading, or talking to people with the characteristics I’m interested in. Then it’s up to my skill as a writer to produce a believable world and characters.
    Last thought: in fantasy belief is based on consistency. To use Peter’s analogy, I don’t ‘believe’ in chairs because they just are what they are. But what if some mornings my executive office chair was suddenly a stool, or a Barcalounger, or a couch depending on how it felt? I’d either have to believe in its divinity (plot idea for future story?), or finally admit I drink too much. Either way, I need to choose, because whatever gets made up, no matter how outlandish, is fine as long as it’s consistent.

    Liked by 5 people

  7. I enjoyed reading your comments on Crichton and his novel Jurassic Park, Tom!

    Re: “Although with sci-fi you can’t have Martians running around anymore.” Sure you can! Except now the genre classification would be fantasy. (But upon further reflection–that’s not true, is it? If a fantasy novel chronicled the adventures of Earthmen in rockets battling Martians in saucers, odds are that it would be categorized by publishers as sci-fi whether or not the science behind such a fantasy could probabilistically sustain such a notion. So . . . not “hard sci-fi”, then, to be sure. Anyway, I digress . . .)

    Liked by 2 people

    • DocTom says:

      Well actually, Carl, you’re correct in the sense that the sci-fi genre has kind of atomized over the last couple of decades. Where we used to have “hard science” sci-fi versus space opera, we now also have steampunk, retro sci-fi (I think you’re earth vs, flying saucers from Mars would fit here), and lord knows what else. My point was just referring to the “hard science” sub-genre. All the rest is basically the wild west where anything goes, although I still hold to my point about consistency (see below).

      Liked by 3 people

      • Completely agree! It’s just that–like most hard-core science fiction fans–any time someone tries to define the genre (or even makes passing reference to what it is or isn’t) my mind is off . . . shoom! . . . down that rabbit hole . . . analyzing, classifying. . . . It’s a pointless and irresistible thumb-wrestling intellectual pursuit, heh! I’ve settled on the Damon Knight/Robert Silverberg/Orson Scott Card synthesis: Science Fiction is anything editors who buy science fiction say it is, though (1) it must be scientifically plausible, and (2) plot and theme must take prominence over characterization.

        Liked by 3 people

  8. I see ‘Write what you know’ as meaning ‘read, research, discuss, imagine and empathise yourself into a situation until you do know it.’ William Boyd is often praised for his female POV characters. He says, “The way I achieve it is by forgetting all questions of gender and sexual politics and received wisdom about the difference between men and women and just concentrate entirely on character and personality. All decisions that might seem to be gender orientated are solved by answering the question on a personality level: How would somebody who’s like this react in this situation?” I think that approach is valid for most characters – we have a bedrock of experience as human beings, and the rest (our particular way of viewing the world) comes from the beliefs we’ve accumulated. They are the prism through which we interpret what we experience, but the experiences themselves arouse emotions which are common to us all.
    Sometimes beliefs become obsessional. How do I write a ‘religious’ character if I’m not religious myself? (This strikes a chord with me as I’m currently trying to ‘think’ my way into a religious character’s mindset.) Again, I would say, by not losing track of the bedrock of common emotions; then by deciding how obsessional the character’s beliefs are. The dosage between the two determines the result. What made my character religious in the first place? Will she see everything in terms of religion? If so, there’s a risk of turning her into a caricature. Is that what I want? Maybe – caricatures can be funny. But if I want the reader to sympathise with her, I’ll need to go beyond her beliefs and into her emotions.
    One type of person that fascinates me is conspiracy theorists. I’m not sure I could write a conspiracy theorist that goes beyond caricature. But it would be a nice challenge to try.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Curtis, thank you for sharing that quote of Mr. Boyd’s! Brilliant advice; succinctly and pithily put:

      William Boyd is often praised for his female POV characters. He says, “The way I achieve it is by forgetting all questions of gender and sexual politics and received wisdom about the difference between men and women and just concentrate entirely on character and personality.”

      Liked by 3 people

  9. Peter Thomson says:

    Curtis’ approach is the one I went with – with the caveat that I wanted to show how the personal and political intertwined in a society where religion is central. So all the characters have views on what their religious teachings require – some narrow, some broad, putting different elements first. My favourite was modelled on a very senior public servant I worked under, who combined the strictest of ethics with the political cunning of a weasel. The MCs are forging their own view as they go.

    I’m not so sure about Doctom’s point about consistency. Many books have plot-holes the size of railway tunnels (eg Harry Potter). The art is in keeping the reader from noticing (I like Harry Potter).

    Liked by 4 people

    • DocTom says:

      Peter, I think there’s a difference between a plot hole and a lack of consistency. Lots of stories have plot holes. Another example from the movies: in the original Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom there’s a scene where Indy, while trying to follow the Nazis is seen holding desperately to the side of a U-boat as it begins to dive. In the next scene we see the U-boat entering a submarine pen, the camera pans and there’s Indy in a German guard uniform watching it dock! (This was just a homage to lots of scenes in silent movies where things like this happened.) Now sure it’s a plot hole, but it’s consistent with the fun style of these movies. On the other hand, if Indy, the Devil-May-Care good-guy was observed selling drugs to kids to fund his expeditions…. Plot holes can be groaned at, argued over, or ignored; but inconsistency in world or character characteristics destroys the very fabric of the story.
      Here’s a good character example supplied by our own Carl Reed — imagine if near the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, after carefully crafting Gandalf as a wise, saintly father figure, old JRR had actually channeled Robert E. Howard and written: ““Kill them!” shrieked Gandalf, eyes wide and wild. His blood-matted beard dripped redly. “Kill them all!” He roared and smote with his blood-grooved longstaff, alternately cackling and cursing with battle madness. The corpses stacked up around him.” A bit inconsistent, wouldn’t you say? (And thanks again, Carl!)

      Liked by 4 people

  10. Curtis: “[William Boyd says] The way I achieve it is by forgetting all questions of gender and sexual politics and received wisdom about the difference between men and women and just concentrate entirely on character and personality.”
    YES! Unless I’m writing about something that I cannot experience, I trust that basic human behavior as I understand it is probably understood by the reader.

    Challenges arise when writing about experiences not commonly shared. I try to figure out that connection between the experience and something the reader can be assumed to know. Often, that connection is a feeling, maybe a moral sense common to us all.

    Allen Smith watched the man who had been shot through the brain. He was drinking from the water fountain in the hallway. The man was naturally thin, and he looked frail. He kept the water stream on with one hand and steadied himself by gripping his IV stand. The tubing to his catheter bag looped below his too-short hospital gown. But he chatted normally, on his way to full recovery and then home. The shooter had been a soldier cleaning his .45 auto handgun in a tent at the Tân Sơn Nhất Airport. This man had been shot on arrival, while getting off the plane.

    “At least,” Al joked, “You weren’t in ‘Nam long.”

    The Mid-western face broke into a wide grin and nodded. “About forty-five minutes.”

    Al felt joy at the miracle.

    Liked by 4 people

  11. mimispeike says:

    The way I do it:

    1. Do my research.
    2. Fiddle with it a bit.
    3. Make up footnotes to support my fiddles, if necessary.

    It’s not necessary for my ‘facts’ to be facts. It’s only necessary that my characters believe them, and/or I am able to cobble rational-sounding arguments for them.

    In my story this approach works out fine. In the real world (attention the majority of Republicans), not so fine.

    Liked by 4 people

  12. mimispeike says:

    I am not a fan of High Concept stories. I like characters who muddle through a plot, and show me who they are while they lurch forward (and sometimes backward). These folks sound to me like Stepford Wives. Uh, maybe that’s the point?

    I’ve read the ‘Look Inside’ on Amazon. So far we see her in a legal setting, speaking formally, but why would she not at least have some interior comments in her real voice? This mystifies me.

    I must say, however, that I am really enjoying your style. That alone would keep me reading. I just hope these people start speaking in language I relate to, or I’d suck what I can out of your mechanics and set the book aside at some point.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Peter Thomson says:

    Lots to think about for me. On portraying an unfamiliar interior life, factual research does not get me too far. I have to go to poems, stories, novels…For instance, the Edwardians were probably the last generation that could unreflectively find war glorious, and the attitudes of entrenched social hierarchy are now mostly lost (Lady Catherine de Burgh’s ‘condescension’ to her social inferiors is seen as an admirable trait in Pride and Prejudice).

    Mimi – Faithful Service does lots of muddling through!

    Liked by 4 people

  14. Peter Thomson says:

    A writing example: CS Forester’s Hornblower gets the mechanics of sailing warfare right, but his characters are very mid C20 English. Patrick O’Brien immersed himself in the journals, logs, diaries, poems, and naval literature of the period, and his Aubrey and Maturin are C18 people. Both good reads, one more authentic, perhaps more challenging, brings the reader to a different mental world.

    Liked by 6 people

    • mimispeike says:

      I have several O’Brien novels here, not sure if I’ve read any of them. I have read several Hornblower. I’ll have to read and compare to see what you mean. I read a bunch of Hornblower ten-fifteen yers ago. Got on a nautical kick when I was working on book two of Sly. He has a pirate encounter on his way home to England.

      Liked by 2 people

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