“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.”
—Virginia Woolf

Write What You Don’t Know

We’ve heard it over and over: write what you know. But we can challenge our imaginations and think differently by writing what we don’t know.

If you want to break out of a writing rut, take a look at your past and present work. Do you typically write about the same type of character? Do you set all of your stories in the same location or time period? Are the plotlines fairly similar?

I often find myself writing about characters like me: 20-something women living in the Midwest in the present time. Most of the plotlines deal with relationships, either romantic or family-focused. There’s nothing wrong with that, but by getting outside my comfort zone, I open myself up to discover something new and fresh and fun.

grow, garden, imagine

Photo by D Sharon Pruitt

The Tools to Use

You might be wondering: if I don’t know about the person, place, or plot, how do I write about it?

The answer? Use that fabulous imagination of yours, the same one you tap into for any type of writing. And doing a little research never hurt anyone.

For example, I enjoy writing stories that deal with pregnancy, but I’ve never been pregnant. I draw from the experiences of friends and family, from novels and other short stories, from online research, and—I’ll admit it—from TV shows and movies.

When you’re writing what you don’t know, the trick to pulling it off is writing with authority. Don’t worry about making your story match everything you’ve heard, researched, or witnessed. Write with confidence. Write as if you know exactly what you’re describing. Your readers will believe you and go along for the ride.

After all, if you’re writing fiction, it’s totally okay to let your imagination take over. That’s the fun of writing what you don’t know!

Do you write what you know? Have you ever tried writing what you don’t know?

PRACTICE

Think about a character that is unlike you: different age, sex, or background. Or consider a new setting, either a time or place you’ve never been.

Write a short scene that features this character or setting. Don’t worry about what you don’t know—imagine, create, and make it up as you go!

When you’re finished, post your practice in the comments section.

About Melissa Tydell

Melissa Tydell is a freelance writer, content consultant, and blogger who enjoys sharing her love of the written word with others. You can connect with Melissa through her website, blog, or Twitter.

  • Thanks, Melissa. I really struggle with this. I fear the reader who feels it necessary to tell me every detail of my story is incorrect or inaccurate, he never felt that way, and she would never say that.

    Katie

    • Melissa Tydell

      True… it’s fiction and we should have the freedom to create the characters and stories we want. But while I’m still working on a story, I don’t mind getting constructive feedback on how accurate, realistic, or consistent it is… in fact, that often means I’m learning something new, which is one reason I love to write!

      Melissa

    • I think it’s easy to point out superficial inconsistencies, like if a character is from England and says “sidewalk” or “soda pop” (as opposed to “pavement” or “fizzy drink”). But if you resonate with the character emotionally, coming from a similar place emphatically, then I don’t think anyone can call you that your character “wouldn’t feel that”.

      I mean, I just wrote a story about a boy whose father comes out of the closet on the way to his grandfather’s funeral. I’ve never had a gay parent, or even been a child of divorce. But I understand world-shaking news that completely changes your life, I know the many ways people deal with grief, and I have a good idea of what “masculinity” seems to mean and what it actually does.

      I’m sure you could write from the perspective of a Jewish male that hates coffee (just looking at the description next to your name) and still find some common ground 😉

      • Great point, Bronson. And good for you for taking on a challenging situation in your writing. I’m sure I could write about a Jewish male. Not so sure about the hating coffee part. (I’m actually not a big coffee drinker. It makes rent at the coffee shop cheaper).

        Katie 

  • Adam was starving. 
    For sixteen hours he’d driven, the windshield wipers turned to full
    speed, the rain like a river falling on his old Chevy truck.  Back home in Arkansas, the drought was the
    worst in fifty years. Wildfires sprang up, the foundations of houses cracked as
    the ground shriveled beneath them, and roofers brave enough to show up for work
    found stacks of shingles melting on unshorn rooftops.

    He’d passed Beanie’s Diner, the neon sign glowing pink, and
    then turned back. The road was empty here, the whoosh of water keeping sensible
    people at home.

    Inside, a carousel of pies turned in a glass case.  Coffee mugs sat turned upside down on the
    tables.  A smell, like bug spray, he
    thought, swelled around him.  Something
    loud and angry was playing on the radio, some band he should have known if he’d
    kept up with music, although he had not.

    The waitress, a stout twenty-something with a tattoo of the
    cross that started at the dip in her neck and snaked down where he imagined her
    two breasts met, brought him water.

    “What brings you out?” she asked.

    Adam shook his head.  “Just,
    you know, out for a drive.”

    She tilted her head and looked at him, and he felt the way
    he did when his mother accused him of something he had not done and yet he
    still felt guilty.

    “What can I bring you?” she asked.

    “What’s good?” he asked, and he realized he was drumming his
    fingers on the Formica table.

    The waitress nodded to the chalkboard where the choices were
    written in pastel chalk.  Omelet,
    spaghetti and zinfandel were misspelled. 
    “That’s all we’ve got,” she said, and tapped her pen against the green
    pad she had pulled from the pocket of her red apron.

    Adam ordered the lasagna and wine and coconut cream pie,
    something Laurie would have rolled her eyes at. 
    Laurie, the woman he supposed he had loved, though not enough to marry,
    who was back home in Arkansas.  He looked
    at his watch.  It was six at night, on
    the money.  Laurie would be home by
    now.  He wondered if she’d miss him.

    The breakup was a kind of non-event.  He said he wasn’t happy and she asked who
    was.  She folded her arms across her
    chest, a defensive move he’d seen a thousand times, he supposed.  He explained that he was looking for
    adventure, and how she didn’t seem to want anything to do with adventure.

    “Are we going to talk about what I’m willing and not willing
    to do in bed?” she asked, “because that is a closed subject.”

    “No, no,” Adam said.  “Good
    Gawd, no. I gave up on that years ago. 
    It’s just that I’d like to sail, or something.”

    Even to Adam, it sounded lame.  If he sailed it would be on a lake where the
    bass boats would fight him.  You didn’t
    sail in Arkansas, at least not in this part of Arkansas, where folks still
    thought shrimp was an exotic dish.

    “Sounds like a plan,” Laurie said, and turned to walk away.

    Adam didn’t know what to do. 
    His mother used to say, “Every marriage is a mystery.” He thought it was
    a beautiful thing to say, but now he thought better.  She must have been saying, How the hell does anyone
    stay together?  How does any one person
    tolerate another through the mundane days that make up a life.  Maybe that’s why he never married, thinking
    living together would chase away the curse of the ceremony that set you up to
    fail.  I’m thirty-six, and I just had a
    revelation, he thought. 

    “Laurie,” he said, and that’s when he heard her on the
    phone.  She was telling someone on the
    other end how hard it was to live with a moody man.  “Daddy,” she said, “was either mad or
    happy.  That I understand.  This brooding business is for the birds.”

    So Adam grabbed his backpack and stuffed in a week’s worth
    of clothes.  He did it loudly, hoping
    Laurie would tell him to stop, but she only stood in the doorway, looking the
    way you do when you watch the polar bears at the zoo.  Sure, they’re curious, but you’ve seen them
    too many times before.  Nothing new here,
    you think, but you watch nonetheless.

    The waitress brought Adam’s food.  He tore into the pie, pushing the lasagna
    aside.  He drank the zinfandel quickly,
    and asked for more.

    “You got a name?” the waitress asked, and Adam told her.

    “I’m Merrill,” she said. 
    “You look weary.”

    It took Adam off guard. 
    “I believe I am.”

    And then she sat down heavily in the chair across from
    him.  The diner shook when a semi drove
    by.  Merrill lifted her foot and put it
    on the chair beside her.  She had a on
    flip flops, a bad choice for a waitress, he thought, and a toe ring on her pudgy
    middle toe.

    “Woman trouble,” Merrill said, and it was not a question.

    “Yeah,” Adam said.

    “Me,” she said, “I got man trouble.  All the time. 
    Man trouble.  Like serious man
    issues, but I never stop. Just go from one Joe to the next.  At some point, my mom used to say, you got to
    believe some man’s bullshit, because it is all bullshit. That’s where I mess
    up.  I start believing the I love you’s
    and you’re my effing soul mate and I only need the money til payday.”

    Merrill’s eyeliner was smudged.  The ends of her hair were dyed red.  There was a rash around her left ring finger
    in a perfect circle.

    “Married?” Adam asked.

    “Depends on the day,” Merrill said.  “Today, I am not,” she said and shook her
    head.  “I get off in about an hour.  I could show you around.  Nice places around here if the rain
    stops.  I got a friend who’s got a
    sailboat, keeps it down at the bay,” Merrill said, and pointed past the rain-soaked
    parking lot.

    “You sail?” she asked.

    “I been meaning to learn,” Adam said, and he felt his heart
    race.

    “I’ll take you out,” Merrill said, not waiting for his
    consent.  “On the water, away from all
    this, nothing else matters.  Your woman
    trouble, my man trouble.  It won’t
    matter.  If I could marry the water, I’d
    do it in a heartbeat.  I’d do it in a
    second.  No bullshit out on the water.”
    She looked as if she might cry.  “The
    water just is,” she said.

    “And adventure?” Adam said.

    Merrill nodded.  She
    tapped the cross that shown green and red and black on her white skin, once,
    twice, three times.  “Sure,” she
    said.  “Adventure. Mystery.  It’s all there.”

    Adam peered out the windows. 
    The bed of his truck looked like a watering trough.  Back home, the earth cracked, the farmers met
    at the truck stop to bellyache over lost crops. 
    Ranchers were selling off cattle, nothing to feed them.  He needed the sea, he thought.  He needed the sailboat.  He ached for adventure.
     

    • Melissa Tydell

      Marla – Thank you for sharing this story. I love the contrast of drought and water (flooding and the sea), and the way you mixed in dialogue really pushes the story forward. I could envision the diner and Merrill because of the great details you included. You definitely took me along for the ride!

      • Marla

        Thank you Melissa. What a great post! It feels good to write from a different perspective.

    • I think one of my favourite parts of your writing are your characters.  They are so alive – or not, depending…  Great piece. 

      •  Thank you Zoe!  You’re so kind.  I kind of like writing as a man.  Different.

    • Juliana Austen

      I always want more from your stories Marla – to keep reading more!

      •  Thank you, Juliana.  That’s so nice of you.

    • Pretty hard not to keep reading a story that begins with Adam was starving. Killer opening line.

  • Cracks are killers.  Cracks suck your blood like big ticks.  Cracks make your hair fall out and your toes grow hairy.  Mally soars over the cracks as he races Jay Jay to the park bench.  His toe nearly touches a crack – nearly.  The road is empty and night’s chasing them down.  Jay Jay’s whining again, like a mosquito out for blood.  He whines when you’re leading and he scoffs when he wins.  Six year-olds are such babies.  Mally doesn’t like racing Jay Jay, but in a street where everybody else walks their canes or their dogs, there’s no such thing as choice.Mally sucks the air into his lungs so bad that it hurts, and flies the final stretch.  He flips through the air and lands with two strong feet, no stumbling.  The olympic stadium lights go on…..And the crowd roars! It’s Mally Van Niekerk who has stolen this show, everybody!  Ma’s hopping up and down in the bleachers, and Dad’s stumbling towards him, past the policemen with their big sticks and he lands right into Mally’s arms.  Dad picks him up and shoots him into the sky as the crowd roars his arms and he’s a rocket, and he’s exploding and-‘Mally I tripped.  It’s not fair.’  Jay Jay stomps his feet on the grass.  Mally looks around at the deserted park.  The swing sways slightly, creeking in the wind.  They should head home.  Mally grinned.  ‘OK.  Try again.’  His new Adidas takkies hit the pavement like champions, and already Jay Jay is far behind.  This time Mally doesn’t bother about the cracks.  He flings himself into the race and all he hears is the tack tack of his shoes against the pavement and Jay Jay far behind him.  Mally sees his driveway and even though his legs can’t go faster, they do.  And Jay Jay’s downright crying now, but Mally’s laughing because he’s falling down on the driveway and he’s won gold for the second time straight and Missy is barking at him and her paw is in his mouth and all he smells is wet dog.The gravel leaves dents in his hands. Tomorrow the competition will be tight with Le Clos and Phelps in the finals.  

  • Let’s try this one last time!!
    Cracks are killers.  Cracks suck your blood like big ticks.  Cracks make your hair fall out and your toes grow hairy.  

    Mally soars over the cracks as he races Jay Jay to the park bench.  His toe nearly touches a crack – nearly.  The road is empty and night’s chasing them down.  

    Jay Jay’s whining again, like a mosquito out for blood.  He whines when you’re leading and he scoffs when he wins.  Six year-olds are such babies.  Mally doesn’t like racing Jay Jay, but in a street where everybody else walks their canes or their dogs, there’s no such thing as choice.

    Mally sucks the air into his lungs so bad that it hurts, and flies the final stretch.  He flips through the air and lands with two strong feet, no stumbling.  

    The olympic stadium lights go on…..

    And the crowd roars! It’s Mally Van Niekerk who has stolen this show, everybody!  Ma’s hopping up and down in the bleachers, and Dad’s stumbling towards him, past the policemen with their big sticks and he lands right into Mally’s arms.  Dad picks him up and shoots him into the sky as the crowd roars his arms and he’s a rocket, and he’s exploding and-

    ‘Mally I tripped.  It’s not fair.’  Jay Jay stomps his feet on the grass.  Mally looks around at the deserted park.  The swing sways slightly, creeking in the wind.  They should head home.  

    Mally grinned.  ‘OK.  Try again.’  His new Adidas takkies hit the pavement like champions, and already Jay Jay is far behind.  

    This time Mally doesn’t bother about the cracks.  He flings himself into the race and all he hears is the ‘tack-tack’ of his shoes against the pavement and Jay Jay far behind him.  Mally sees his driveway and even though his legs can’t go faster, they do.  And Jay Jay’s downright crying now, but Mally’s laughing because he’s falling down on the driveway and he’s won gold for the second time straight and Missy is barking at him and her paw is in his mouth and all he smells is wet dog.

    The gravel leaves dents in his hands. Tomorrow the competition will be tight with Le Clos and Phelps in the finals.  

    •  OH MY!  Gorgeous writing.  I LOVE this line.

       Mally doesn’t like racing Jay Jay, but in a street where everybody else
      walks their canes or their dogs, there’s no such thing as choice.

      Beautiful.

      • Melissa Tydell

        I have to agree with Marla – that’s a great line!  Thanks for sharing your story, Zoe.

      • Ha ha, that’s pure poetry!

    • mariannehvest

      I love this. You  are really good with action scenes. I find them to be very difficult. 

  • Susan

    Writing taps your creativity and often involves a leap of faith. Thanks for your inspiring post! 

    • Melissa Tydell

      Happy to inspire others! Thanks for your kind comment 🙂

  • Juliana Austen

    Old Bill walked slowly, scanning the pavement and checking the refuse bins just in case. But there was no half-eaten take-aways this morning. He pocketed a cigarette butt and waited with the students and the old biddies on the steps of the Public Library. 
    At 9.00AM sharp the doors opened and they all poured into it’s stuffy warmth. Bill headed down the stairs to the Reading Room where the sun came in through a big window and an old radiator chugged out a decent amount of heat. He pulled over a couple of chairs and settled into one, took off his wet shoes and put his feet up on the other.
    “Ahhh” he thought “this is better”. It had been a rough night out and he was tired. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. He must have drifted off because the next thing he knew the Librarian was looming over him.
    “You can’t sleep here!” she said shrilly. “We have Book Club commencing in half an hour. This is a Library not a doss house.”
    “Frigid old bitch.” he muttered as he put his shoes back on.
    She flung open the windows. “I’ll have to get some air-freshener!” She glared at him and he was surprised by the real venom in her eyes.
    Outside he walked around the back of the staff parking area, he knew her car.
    “That’ll teach you, you dried up old cow.” And he smiled as he unzipped his fly and urinated all over her wheel.

    •  Such strong writing, Juliana.  This is so good, and there isn’t a spare word.  I love it.

    • Melissa Tydell

      I got a really strong image of the library… like it was coming through all five senses.  Thanks for sharing, Juliana!

    • Vivid depictions of character Juliana. Nice job!

  • Mirelba

    I’m not male and have never been inside a church (except in movies and tv), so hope I got this right.  If not, open to corrections.

    The man entered the dark and almost empty church.  He genuflected at the altar, made the sign of
    the cross and seated himself on the wooden seat worn soft by centuries of contemplation. 
    He loved being outside, in God’s forested woods where he could hear His
    voice in the fluttering of the leaves and the creaks of the branches.   But sometimes, one could hear God’s voice
    best in the quiet of His sanctuary. 
    Especially lately, when the woods were full of harsher sounds, the
    crackle of soldiers’ boots punishing the fallen twigs, the mechanical outburst
    of rifle fire so jarring among the forest melodies.

     

    There were other sounds there nowadays as well.  The forest breathed fear and
    desperation.  A perspicacious  man could also discern the soft sound of sobbing trees, and it wasn’t the wind.  He had
    stumbled across some groups of strangers in the past few days.  Distraught bodies, caught petrified in his
    glance,  fear and horror looking out of
    their eyes.  So many of them, all with
    the same hungry, hunted look.

    So he had come to take refuge in his church.  To find answers.   What can a simple man do in times such as
    these?  What does God expect of his children?   His heart reaches out to those fugitives in
    the forest, but he is only a simple man. 
    And a married one too, with four small children of his own to care for.   He has heard the reverberations of his
    thinking in his wife’s heart as well, but do they have the right to risk the
    lives of their children to ease their conscience? 

    His thoughts whirl around like fallen leaves buffeted by the
    wind.    Dear
    God, show me the way.  But there are no
    answers.

     As he leaves the
    warmth of the church into the cold, winter air he heads for his home outside
    the village.   Passing by the forest near
    his home, he stumbles over a log.  Only,  dear Lord, it is not a log, it is one of them,
    lying unconscious in his path.  And
    suddenly, there are no longer any questions.

    •  This is beautiful.  I love the line about the boots punishing the fallen twigs.  Such melody, and you took your character to the brink.  Wonderful writing.

      • Mirelba

         Thank you.  I consider myself bad at description, but this time, it just flowed.  I’m enjoying these exercises.

    • Melissa Tydell

      The feel of the church – that warmth and quiet – pervades your story and gives it a subtle power.  Thanks for sharing!

    • ShelleyD

      For not being a man and having never been in a church, you expressed this scene very well.  It’s interesting how a church connotes answers to life’s questions and a means to reach God.  I like how the man realized he must look outside of himself for the answers.  

      Good job.

      • Mirelba

         Thanks!

    • Nice smooth narrative. Freaky though!

  • i usually write what i know–i never write from the opposite gender’s perspective XD it’s way too hard! but jk rowling wrote from harry’s and james patterson wrote from max’s and scott westerfield wrote from tally’s… but still… i dont know. 

    • Melissa Tydell

      Give it a try!  You never know, it might spark some other new ideas along the way.

  • I am totally behind your exhortation to write what you don’t know. That’s my style! I got stumped for a long time after being taught by a writing teacher who lived by the maxim, to write what you know. She went so far as to tell us, if you want to write about a character who paddles a kayak, go and learn how to kayak. You want to write a character skydiving, then skydive. Inside I was curling up, thinking, what now? As a writer of fantasy (verging on sci-fi at times), how did this teaching pertain to me? It was a sensation of being utterly deflated. I remember I shrank down in the chair, thinking, my characters astral travel, communicate telepathically, they shift shape, how on this sweet earth do I go out and ‘experience’ that? It really wasn’t until I gave myself permission to write what I don’t know that I felt I was able to lift my head again. I say write what comes naturally to you, that’s what you should be writing.

    • Melissa Tydell

      I think your writing teacher’s encouragement was valid (and fun!) but you’re right, you can’t experience everything.  And part of the joy of writing and reading is being transported to a different world.  Besides, sometimes when I write what I know, it gets too tedious, too halting, almost uninspired, because I find myself trying too hard to keep it true to life.  Writing what you don’t know gives you freedom to explore.

      • Excellent response Melissa. I’m with you! Am stealing your last line to add to my Great Quotes file (attributed to you, of course!)

        • Melissa Tydell

          Thanks so much!  I’m honored 🙂

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  • I realize I’m late to the party, but I do want to comment on this. I prefer to write what I don’t know, as what I know is boring to me. I write space travel, adventure, fantasy, men, women, children. The main character in my last story is a gay man, while I am neither; but at the same time he is a white, upper-middle class, well-educated, late-thirties city-dweller in a committed relationship. We have a lot in common for being nothing alike. While his family may be nothing like mine, still they are a family. Where characters are concerned, we are all human; we are all more alike than we are different.
    Writing real places you don’t know might require at least a bit of research, if you don’t want to annoy readers who DO know the places – which is why I prefer to make my places up. No one can tell me my alien planet or my alternate plane ‘isn’t really like that’. But even places have a certain commonality; city streets, cars, winter wind, strangers, animals, these things occur across the spectrum of reality. With some imagining, anything is possible.

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  • Veronika Zárubová

    Thank you so much for this article!:) It made me confident about my decision to write a story based in Oregon, USA, even though I am from the Czech Republic and I´ve never been to Oregon. It was weird, but when I first came with the idea to write a book and with the plot, I didn´t even think about the place, Oregon came to my mind naturally first. My family and friends are sceptical about it, I hope I am gonna prove them wrong!:)