What do you think about the old adage of writing what you know?
I was thinking about that the other day when I was out wandering around the streets. There are a lot of things I “know” that have come out in my writing. For instance, if my characters are traveling by horseback, I can easily pull from my twenty years of experience with horses. Or if my character speaks or learns a foreign language, well, I know what that’s like. Some of my settings have been places I’ve lived, too.
But I also tend to write a lot of what I don’t know. My short story, for example, is about an all-female gang in Chicago. Have I ever been in a gang? No. Did I understand the main character’s longing for something better, though? Yes.
Did I have to research? Oh most definitely.
Of course, even after researching, I’m still no expert on gang life, and I probably (surely) had to take some literary license. But well . . . that’s fiction. If you can read it and believe it’s real, then I’ve succeeded.
It’s not always easy, however, to figure out how to handle writing what I don’t know. Especially if the thing I’m writing about is the known but unknown kind of subject. I’ve run into that problem with my current novel. One of its settings is Mars. If we’re speaking honestly here, when I started writing it, the only facts I knew about Mars were those I’d learned in middle school science classes: that it’s the fourth planet from the sun, has a thin atmosphere, two (probably) accidental moons, and a red surface. Not much to go on when I’m planning on throwing a bunch of people on it, right?
Granted, not many people know what living on Mars would be like, but still . . . I’m a perfectionist, remember? Thus far I’ve done the basic research, made up the most plausible situations I can, and left bracketed notes in my draft to remind myself to go back and consider the research later. But still, the questions linger: Will my story be plausible? Will I succeed at what I set out to do? How much should I know? And how do I find the logical answers to questions that probably have no answers?
How do you handle writing what you don’t know? How do you go about your research? Do you do it before or after you draft?