• M.A. Hickinbotham

Write what you don't know

Updated: Jun 18, 2020

When it comes to writing, you have probably heard the following advice: “Write what you know.” It is sound guidance; it gets you to dig into your own experiences and emotions to create a work of art. Further, because it is based on what you know, it may flow onto the page a lot easier than something you have to fashion from thin air. However, consider swimming against that stream for just a moment. Abandon the deceptive mindset that there is nothing new left to create, only new renditions of old material.

Every writer brainstorms during the creative process. But why not allow yourself to really daydream—consider what you don’t know. Break out from the barriers of what is familiar and anticipated in today’s fiction. Think of what might make for a completely inventive plot twist, unique location, distinctive character type…something not already trite and overused. If the Monty Python team can create a hilarious sketch about a self-defense teacher instructing his class how to defend themselves against someone armed with a piece of fresh fruit, why can’t you come up with something just as original?

J.R.R. Tolkien was a trend-setter in writing the kind of fantasy from which modern books, graphic art, games, and movies are based. He may have drawn from variations of mythological beasts concocted long before his time, but his take on such creatures proved fresh and innovative. Tolkien saw things differently and crafted his stories in such a way that caused us to effectively experience Hobbits, elves, goblins, trolls, and the like. Much of what he wrote was based on what he didn’t know.

In the same vein, J.K. Rowling was another pioneer in taking a seemingly mundane adolescent and ushering him into a completely original set of circumstances in a magical environment—something beyond her experience. Naturally, she drew on childhood games, friends, and school experiences for some of her material. However, most of what is so beloved by today’s readers came purely from her breaking the barriers of imagination. As evidence of her ingenuity, following her came several other authors writing similar stories about special schools of magic.

Renowned authors Stephen King, Isaac Asimov, Louis L’Amour, John Grisham, Jane Austen, Anne Rice, Rick Riordan, Nora Roberts, Tom Clancy, Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Piers Anthony, Mary Higgins Clark, George Lucas, George R.R. Martin, Danielle Steel, Neil Gaiman, Jules Verne, Dean Koontz, Carl Sagan, Gene Roddenberry, and countless others caused horror, science fiction, fantasy, western, adventure, romance, political, suspense, and spy novels to indefinitely be in high demand. Many of their inventions became the standard by which other works are now measured. They brought to life characters, plots, and settings that enraptured us and undoubtedly affected how we craft our own art.

Like those before you, who is to say you cannot also write a story that sees life from a completely different angle? What is keeping you from creating a creature, universe, or superhero that has never been depicted in fiction? Challenge yourself—for a story, poem, or even a description—of writing what you definitely do not know. Be silly. Take chances. Defy the rules of science. Try mixing and distorting common tropes until you come up with something you like, something unique you can flesh out into a full work of art. Regardless, do not be afraid to write things you have never experienced before. Who knows, you may just dream up something that immortalizes your name in the pantheon of renowned writers.

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