Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sprunk on Writing What You Don't Know

Over at Tor.com, John Sprunk (author of Shadow's Son) discusses how to write what you don't know. Excerpt:
I'm sure many of you writers have heard the old adage, “Write what you know.” I have, over and over, but I've always wondered, what about us speculative fiction types? Are we supposed to enroll in NASA so we can experience a spacewalk before writing about life beyond Earth's gravitational field? Should we don suits of medieval armor and traipse across the countryside looking for dragons to slay (and dodging the men in white coats)?

Of course not. Practical experience, where feasible, is a good thing. Knowing how to shoot a bow, load a gun, build a campfire, or catch your own dinner can add verisimilitude to your stories. But writers have a much more important—perhaps even sacred—duty to their readers. They must capture the imagination. Although the inclusion of details can help (in moderation), it's not the whole story, if you'll pardon the pun. A writer must be able to write what she or he doesn't know, and do it so convincingly that ninety-nine percent of the readers will never know the difference. And the one percent who do may forgive you if you tell a good story along the way. ...

So what are the keys to writing what you don't know?
Read the whole thing. Sprunk's ideas include (rather unsurprisingly) a nod towards the need to research unfamiliar topics. Sure, it sounds basic, but I've found it to be a great boon. During my time at The Magazine, one senior writer always delegated research duties to junior staff and simply plugged their data into his prose. His finished pieces usually sounded more than a little like whomever he'd charged with flipping through magazines or scouring online databases. Research may not be the most thrilling task. Sometimes toiling through reams of information, most of which you know you'll never use, feels like trying to start a fire with flint. You work the iron hard as you can, and yet the tinder remains stubbornly inert. But we keep at it, because who knows which spark will cause that first tendril of smoke to rise?

(Picture: CC 2009 by


Chestertonian Rambler said...

I also like his idea of trusting your characters and their social networks. I think most honest (and non-anal-retentive) readers can point out a character who he realizes is clearly inaccurate, but who is incredibly memorable and beautiful because of the way that he or she is located in a social context.

Cherie Priest perhaps does this best. I have no idea if the working-class protagonist accurately reflects Civil War era mentalities, and a sneaking suspicion she doesn't. But her reaction to social ostricization, her love for and irritation with her son, and her believable skepticism and desperation when forced to deal with unsavory characters makes me not care. However unrealistic a representation of her period she may be, she works because she is absolutely true to herself, in a thoroughly non-Hamlet non-Thoreau sense of the phrase.

Loren Eaton said...

... but who is incredibly memorable and beautiful because of the way that he or she is located in a social context.

Beauty covers over a multitude of sins in writing just like love does in life. I'm constantly remined of that fact.

I haven't read anything from Priest yet, but I've got Boneshaker on order right now ...

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Boneshaker is good, though its sort-of sequel Dreadnought is even better. But then, my taste tends to run to more expansive narratives--the limited setting of the first novel might run more to the tastes of a noir reader like yourself.

Priest is a strange author, if only because her protagonists seem far more responsible than she does; she may play fast and loose with history and story, but her protagonists know that their actions have often-severe consequences and behave accordingly.

Hope you enjoy her work!

Loren Eaton said...

As a genre omnivore, I'm looking forward to it. I have been on a bit of a noir kick lately, so Boneshaker might prove a pleasant palate cleanser.

AidanF said...

I recently beta read a story with a protagonist in a band (I've played in bands & therefore have my own view of this) and the author didn't have the background (that I'm aware of), but because the details were only sprinkled and concentrated more on the story and the PoV character's feelings it worked without straying into unbelievability.

Loren Eaton said...

It takes a very careful touch to make something like that work. I'm always impressed when an author manages to pull it off.