Write What You DON’T Know (Part One)

by Virginia King, @selkiemoonbooksthe-first-lie-cover small

All new writers are advised to “write what you know” because sticking to your own experience is a recipe for authenticity, for not getting lost in unchartered territory. It goes hand in hand with character profiles and plot maps – nailing your story down so the writing is an exercise in fleshing out the bones. But are great stories pre-formed in the minds of their authors? And is this process fun?

Miles Davis told his musicians, “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.” He wanted them to lose themselves, to let the music take them beyond the notes on the score, carrying their audience with them. Sounds like the same place we want to take our readers.

The Journey of a Thousand Steps

“There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story,” Beatrix Potter said. “You never quite know where they’ll take you.”

This is how I began my debut novel, The First Lie. I’d written a lot of children’s books so I knew how to write. What I didn’t know was how to create something as complex as a mystery for adults. I also had no idea what the book would be about so I couldn’t plot it. I sat down at a blank screen until one sentence came.

All she had to do was jump.

Follow the Energy

Kate Grenville says about writing the prize-winning Lilian’s Story: “I started work each day by glancing through some ‘interesting things’ … I’d allow the bits to suggest something that might have happened to my bag-lady character … and write without a plan, following thoughts and images into the unknown … The criterion was energy. If I felt energised in writing a fragment or a scene, I’d keep going.”

Kate was writing what she didn’t know, but after my own first sentence I started retelling my personal story thinly disguised by the third-person. Three chapters in, I literally fell face forward onto the keyboard – with boredom. Months later I returned because that first sentence wouldn’t let me go. There was a story here. Could I write it if I didn’t know what it was?

Undiscovered Fossils

Stephen King believes that “stories are found things like fossils in the ground … part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. It’s the writer’s job to … get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.”

This is the opposite of fleshing out the bones of a plot map – because with a fossil you don’t know how the bones fit together and you can only uncover them bit by bit. It takes more courage than plotting and it’s more fun. The unfolding story gets an unpredictable edge as you deal with one surprise after another, making connections while you’re asleep and trying to decipher your jottings in the morning.

When I returned to the novel, my first act of courage was to flip to the first person. Suddenly I was travelling with a different view – now I was on the roller-coaster – and it wasn’t long before my hat blew off.

Crossing the Border

Milan Kundera says, “The characters in my novels are my own unrealised possibilities … Each one has crossed a border which I myself have circumvented. Beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about.”

Unrealised possibilities. Crossed a border. Begins the secret. He’s not talking about a plot map, he’s talking about the unknown. There’s no path to follow, there’s a trail to be blazed.

I was now inside the head of my main character, Selkie Moon. Her name took me to mythical places. The selkies are the Celtic seal people who peel off their skins and dance in the moonlight on human legs. The myth has always spoken to me, but Selkie was a modern woman needing a story. Julia Cameron provided guidance. “I don’t create characters,” she says. “I meet them.” It’s another angle on the fossil. I started excavating.

Until Something Pops

In A Novel in a Year (don’t worry it took her ten years to become a published author) Louise Doughty suggests visiting the places in your novel to reconnect with your settings and invigorate a stalled story. It did the opposite for me – it plunged me back into the unknown.

My novel was set in Sydney, my home town. The writing had lost momentum so I set out to visit all the main locations – the house Selkie had shared with her ex, her lowly flat, her favourite Chinese noodle bar, the cemetery where something bizarre happened. It was a long day on the road because I now live two hours out of town and when I got home I burst into tears. None of these places spoke to me.

The next courageous step took a while. The Sydney novel was dead, so in desperation I dropped Selkie Moon into a whole new place. Hawaii. Now she was on the run, a stranger in town, with quirky friends to make and a new culture to discover. Her predicament required much creative research. A Sydney girl with a Celtic name and a Chinese food fetish turning up on a Pacific island steeped in its own mythology. With that much pressure something had to “pop”. It did. I discovered ho’ohihi – interconnectedness – and a complex psychological puzzle started falling into place.

Not Control, Judgement

If you ditch the plot map for the roller-coaster, you’re choosing curiosity over control. The story will need taming – along with your hair – but that’s when you use your judgement and an editor as brave as you are. (The structural edit is another adventure. Not for the faint-hearted but not to be missed.) The resulting story will be bigger, more unpredictable and more satisfying than anything you could have plotted.

In Part 2, Virginia will detail practical tips for writing a book without a plot map.  Watch out for this post  coming soon. 

Virginia King lives in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.  She’s a former award-Virginia King Author Portraitwinning publisher, the author of over fifty children’s books and the creator of several popular writing workshops.   The First Lie is a psychological mystery, the first of a series introducing reluctant sleuth, Selkie Moon. Several reviewers have praised it as “genre-bending” and she attributes this to “writing what I don’t know”.  The First Lie is available on Amazon: www.amazon.com/First-Lie-Selkie-Moon-Mystery-ebook/dp/B00K1VC20Y/

Virginia blogs weekly about writing and publishing in La Bloguette – short newsy posts guaranteed:  www.selkiemoon.com  You can also follow her here: https://www.facebook.com/selkiemoonmysteries & https://twitter.com/selkiemoonbooks

Her editor is Nicola O’Shea www.ebookedit.com.au

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33 thoughts on “Write What You DON’T Know (Part One)

    1. Hi Julie
      Thanks for evoking the adventure. It’s easy to forget that part. It was fun — when it wasn’t full of despair — and I’m now into Book Two in the same haphazard fashion and loving the journey. I wake up every morning wondering what’s going to happen next. Virginia

  1. My characters aren’t me as I’d die of boredom as well.
    While I might try some of those techniques, as it sounds like a good way to shoot new energy into a story, I’ll always need a detailed plot though. Wish I could visit locations though. (Science fiction writer.)
    Congratulations, Virginia!

    1. Hi Alex
      I don’t write sci fi so I hadn’t thought about the problem of visiting the locations! And with the plotting — which I never do — do you find it restricting or does it keep you focussed? And do you ever wake up in the morning and defy your plan? Virginia

    1. Hi Diane
      I must admit that changing locations didn’t feel “smart” at the time. It felt a bit desperate. It’s only afterwards that you congratulate yourself on your insight! I’m more courageous now with the second book in the series. I try things without feeling like my credibility depends on it. Virginia

    1. Hi Marilyn
      Enjoy! I love that quote from Julia Cameron. It’s reminds you that characters are people — you don’t have to “know” everything about them to write about them. I love how they say something or do something you didn’t expect or they have a backstory you only find out later. And that whole thing about being predictable — are any of us predictable? Friends do things we don’t expect — disappoint us, buckle under pressure, let us down, surprise us — and our characters need to have that capacity. In just a few words Julia Cameron says it all. Virginia

      1. Hi Virginia – Perhaps that should be ‘ Virginia and Julia say it all?’ Thanks for a thought-provoking post. I remember the first time one of my characters took on a voice of his own and almost forgot to tell me what he had in mind. An amazing feeling…

        1. Yum. Sometimes those characters forget who’s on the other end of the keyboard! My famous story was from way back when my main character was asking her boyfriend if he’d tried verdehlo (a wine grape grown in Portugal). In the middle of the dialogue I called out to my husband, “How do you spell verdehlo?” to which he replied, “What bordello?” I put his words into the boyfriend’s response and Selkie said, “The one downstairs.” The story has gone through a lot of interations since then but after that moment, that guy still lives upstairs from a brothel. Suddenly he had a backstory I didn’t know about. VK

    1. Hi Jemi
      You know what they say — you need to know the rules before you break them! Dabble in plotting and see if it works for you. I prefer the adventure of not knowing, but it’s not for everyone.

  2. Wonderful post, Virginia (and thanks, Elizabeth, for hosting.)

    Writing what we know is so often misinterpreted. Nobody reads a mystery to get facts and figures, a travel guide, history. We read as a way of having an emotional experience we wouldn’t otherwise have.

    When we realize that we’re sharing, not empirical data, but deep feelings, we can write what we know even when telling the story of a mythical creature in a landscape we’ve never seen. As long as Selkie’s emotions strike a chord with us (which will happen because they come from someplace authentic within you) it will be a fine example of writing what you know.

    1. Hi Joel
      Thanks so much for your thoughts. You’re right about the misinterpretation. I think that’s where I got tied up in knots way back — thinking it had to be “my” story otherwise it wasn’t authentic. But “what you know” is always there in the background, informing the emotional currency of what you write. In a way it was when I let go of my setting that I was free to run what I knew but in a different guise. But I worry about plotting because it’s so tight and for me the freedom isn’t there to explore and find out the story behind the story. It may not be like that for everyone, but it’s serious fun to start each writing session NOT knowing. Then “what you know” seeps out in unexpected ways and the story is better for it.

      1. My non-fiction gets outlined in excruciating detail. My fiction needed a different method ’cause I’m a Supreme Pantser from a long line of ’em.

        What I do instead is lay out the 12 waypoints every novel has to hit, and then pants my way like a connect-the-dots drawing.

        That way, I know my first draft will be nearly ready for the editor because I’ve hit the waypoints, but I’ll still get to swoop and fly and burrow my way according to whatever whim arises from my morning mug of maté.

        1. I like the sound of that — the dots and the swooping sound like a great balance between planning and freefall. Trouble is I couldn’t lay out the waypoints — no idea. I’m into Chapter 15 of Book Two and I’m only now getting some idea of where it’s going. Lots of surprises and dots I couldn’t have predicted.

          1. Once you know the purpose each waypoint serves, you’ll probably discover that you have a good idea of each of them before you start. Most storytellers do. They’ve just never been exposed to them from that perspective.

            It’s not about knowing how the story will go in advance, it’s about knowing how story structure works — and unless you’re writing avant garde experimental stuff, every novel you or I ever write will fit that structure, because it’s just how stories work.

            1. Hmmm. I know what you’re saying but I’m not convinced. I think storytelling can be a gut thing. A structure in advance could possibly guide you but for me it would have to be very loose and I hate the thought of it. My process seems to defy a structure — then I pull it into shape after the creative process has done its thing. It’s 2am in Oz so I’ll sign off now, but I’ll look out something tomorrow that Kate Grenville says in her “Searching for the Secret River” — about the stages in her process. Interesting. Thanks for the challenging thoughts …

              1. Hi Joel,
                Finally getting back about Kate Grenville. In ‘Searching for the Secret River’ (The Secret River won various awards and was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2006) she says: “In writing the first draft I’d been exploring, writing into the unknown, trusting the unconscious and using free association as the mechanism by which it could speak. Once the first draft was down, I’d shifted gear, trying to understand and refine what I’d done. Both processess were necessary.”

                The 12 waypoints you refer to, are they the same as the 12 stages in the hero’s journey?

                Interesting conversation. Thank you. Virginia

    1. Yep, setting can be like a whole new character. Thanks for your thoughts, Teresa. I like the way a place can creep up on you — it’s the unexpected again. I’m going to write about location on my blog.

  3. Elizabeth – Thanks for hosting Virginia.

    Virginia – I like it that your ideas encourage the writer to use both creativity (those shiny ideas and moments of inspiration) and focus to bring a story to life. The spark that gets the proverbial battery going is that creativity. The focus is the battery doing its job, if I can use that metaphor.

  4. Virginia–
    The first writer I’m aware of who stood the cliché “Write what you know” on its head was Gore Vidal. “Write what you don’t know,” he said. “That way, you can learn something.” You are actually saying much the same thing: throw yourself a curve ball by throwing a monkey wrench (in Australia, you may call them spanners) into your story, and see what happens. You did it by switching to first-person narration. I’m doing the same thing in my latest. I’ve always written in third person, but am trying first person, just to see whether I can. It’s not easy, but it’s good “exercise.”

  5. V irginia–Thanks so much for your post today and for getting us thinking! I’ve gotten sort of plot-mappy lately (an abundance of deadlines), but I try to keep in mind that I’ve always got creative override for anything planned out. I love having unexpected ideas that take defy my outlines. :)

  6. Thanks for the opportunity to post my thoughts, Elizabeth. And I love what you say about those unexpected ideas that defy the plan. I do worry that a blueprint can be like a straightjacket on a story, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Virginia

  7. After reading this, I think I more meet my characters, too, rather than create them. Some of them arrive fully formed, ready to chat, and talk a lot. Others are very closed-mouth and secretive.

    1. Hi Carol, Thanks for the insight. I love it when the character says something you weren’t expecting — then you know you didn’t create them! There’s that amazing moment in the middle of ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’, when Fowles leaves the story to talk to the reader about how its when characters defy their authors that they start to live.

    1. Thanks Stephanie. In Part Two of this post I’ll describe in detail what my process looks like. It works for me. In The First Lie it was slow because I was finding my way but Book Two in the series is roaring along – serious fun!

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