Why Writing What You Don’t Know is Better
I confess: I’m technologically challenged. I like technology, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t LOVE it like my children and husband do. I still remember the year 1990 because that was when my husband got his first computer, heretofore and ever after known as, “The Other Woman.” My son, who was four at the time, now works as an IT guy and seemed to have been born with the same fascination.
Here’s how tech challenged I am: I only learned how to do a “screenshot” a few months ago. *wince* ( my daughter who shares my “utilitarian but not enamored” attitude toward technology showed me how when she caught me photographing Blood Orchids as #1 on my computer screen with my phone camera!)
In spite of this, I was able to write a believable “tech agent” investigator in my upcoming book, Twisted Vine. She is the amazing and fascinating Sophie Ang, MMA-fighting multinational technology specialist. The crime in my new book is primarily investigated online, and for this book I had to get out of my comfort zone and learn some new stuff about how investigations are conducted on the internet and how evidence is recovered from computers.
For years, I dodged having to do this. I did it by having my main character, Lei Texeira, be something of a technophobe. She’s attached to her old flip phone and spurns such fripperies as Facebook. Lei reluctantly learns to use a smartphone when she joins the FBI—about the time I got my first smartphone. All that to say, writing a character so far out of my own experience has felt akin to falling in love.
Sophie Ang fascinates me. Why? because I DON’T KNOW HER.
- I don’t know her world as a half-Black American, half-Thai woman raised in another country with another language.
- I don’t know her experience as a battered woman who had a bad marriage.
- I don’t know her experience growing up wealthy, cared for by nannies and boarding schools.
- I don’t know her “comfort zone” world of technology—except as an observer of those who do (my son and husband)
- I don’t know her world of Fight Club, where she expresses suppressed and disconnected emotions through physical power.
And for all these reasons, she fairly leaps off the page and almost took over Twisted Vine. I had to edit her down and back into her role on the investigation, scenes that were tough to write because I had to imagine myself doing what she does (and that’s just not gonna happen in this lifetime.) Once again, my consultant Jay Allen, internet detective extraordinaire, proved invaluable. He put me onto the process and procedure investigators use, from “phishing” for pedophiles using children’s identities to tracking use patterns on the confiscated computers of white collar embezzlers.
Because increasingly, crime begins and ends online and the internet is the circuitry connecting us to the world.
So I’m very much writing what I don’t know—and finding passion for a character that loves it so much that she makes it a gripping story even for technophobes.
Don’t write what you know. It’s safe and boring.
Write what you want to know more about, through the eyes of characters you wish existed “IRL” and feel them come alive and teach you about their world.
I don’t know if writing about what you don’t know is necessarily better, but it certainly is more fun. Interviewing people and finding out about how different their life experience is in comparison to your own is fascinating. What sucks is not being able to find an expert in the area you need to research.
Writing about things that you do know really well makes it sometimes difficult. I’ve found that I tend skip over things that I take for granted, but a layman might find interesting. Conversely things that I find professionally interesting(outside of writing) might be incredibly banal to a person outside of that industry.
Yes, great points. Unsound, another upcoming book, explores a world I know well, that of psychology. Found myself getting over-explaine-y at times, not sure what “laypeople” know and don’t about thinks like SOAP notes vs DAP notes, for example.
Well, I know SOAP notes well, but that’s because I used them for a decade as a licensed vet tech and another 5 years at the birth center. 😉 I at least know what DAP is because we touched on it when I was in peer support training. But then again, I am definitely NOT the average layperson, so…
Hey, how’s the hand? Infection backing off?
Hi Shalora, alas no. I was “cured” by antibiotics and Prednisone only to have the inflammation recur as soon as that was out of my system. As I type this I’m covered wtih allergy testing swatches. They think i’m allergic to something and that’s what got the other infection going.
What a bummer, I’m hoping to get to the bottom of what’s wrong.
THanks for asking!
Oh man, that’s awful! So sorry you’re having to deal with all of that. 🙁
Can’t wait for your new book to be released? Do you have a release date?
Mid-July if all goes well!
Toby, you said that you leave the research to the side as you write. But what I can’t figure out is how can you possibly do all that research, make it fit in the story and then turn out the book the next day. At least it seems to be the next day:-)
Your right though. My stories in my head and only three characters. They need fleshing out and I keep wanting to make them safe and boring. To change this, which I need to do seems so daunting. It appears that to learn a character totally out of my realm will take as long as it takes to write the book. How do you do it?
By the way. Great post.