Writing what you don't know

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction and Writing Resource' started by Thumper09, Jan 1, 2010.

Thread Status:
Not open for further replies.
  1. Thumper09

    Thumper09 Force Ghost star 4

    Dec 9, 2001
    Hi, everyone.

    We've probably all heard the saying "Write what you know". Well, what happens when you want or need to write about something that you don't know? What do you do? How do you approach that?

    I've reached a point where I feel stuck on every WIP sitting on my hard drive, and that's really frustrating for me. After thinking about it, I realized that they're all stuck at the same place: where the characters have to do something in detail that they know how to do but I don't. So I'm blocked by this big wall of "I don't know." While before I could continue on blissfully unaware that I was botching everything up, now I know enough to know I'm showing those details incorrectly. I want to get it right, but I don't know how.

    I realize two solutions are to research and/or to get a knowledgeable beta, and those have helped me a lot in other areas. Those aren't working for my current issue, though, since what I need to figure out isn't something written down and published, and it's too in-depth and nuanced for someone to try to explain it all to me.

    Does anyone have any tips or suggestions beyond those? How do you describe or present details of items, activities or procedures you don't know about, especially when the story doesn't allow you to generalize it or gloss over it? If you read a fic that shows something related to a job or activity you're familiar with, does it bother you if the details are shown incorrectly in the story?

    I'm very interested in hearing how people approach this in general. :) Does it concern you when you're faced with writing something you don't know, or do you just dive in and let the chips fall where they may?
  2. Thorn058

    Thorn058 Jedi Master star 3

    Jul 28, 2008
    Thumper- I think there are several things you could try. The muddle through or wing it approach could work especially if your audience is more wrapped up in your characters and the story and not weighed down by detail upon detail. The unfortunate part about that is as the author will you yourself be satisfied with it? I have several WIP's that I don't progress with because I am constantly going back and trying to make something better in my own mind by editing and reworking. I am totally in awe of those who can compartmentalize their writing. Writing a scene here and then one there and finally assembling the whole story. I have to progress from one point to the next logically because as the story plays in my head it runs like a movie.

    If you are going for some vivid detail to give the piece that realism such as a detailed description of taking apart an engine. That to me isn't something that can be easily researched or faked into a story and can lead you astray alot of times. Spending so much time getting it right that you lose the audience. If it is something that you really feel your story needs and you just can't write it maybe try looking for someone to collaborate with if only for that one scene. Often times get even a paragraph of help from someone can break the floodgates.

    As far as what I do, like you if I don't know something I research as much as I can then I watch TV or Movies. Almost everything you ever wanted to find out can be explained to you in some form usually in fairly easy ways by those two forms of media. Infantry combat and small unit tactics I got from the history channel and band of brothers. Political intrigue from West Wing and Law and order. Romance and character interaction all from Tv. If that doesn't work I try practical application. I found describing fleet tactics and fighter combat much easier using toys to visualize it(thank you nieces and nephews)who am I kidding I would have toys even without them.

    Bottom line if you can't make it work scrap it or at the very least ask someone in the know to demonstrate it for you and then make several runs at it till you are comfortable writing one and then getting feedback.

    I hope that is what you are looking for.
  3. moosemousse

    moosemousse CR Emeritus: FF-UK South star 6

    Oct 3, 2004
    In my diary fic last year the character had a baby. I've never had a baby and I didn't know anything about what it'd be like. One of my friends was pregnant at the time and she wrote about it a few times, so I used her experiences and a useful website to describe what was going on. From the comments I got it seemed like I did a good job.

    In another fic I had a character building a lightsabre. I don't know anything about how to make one so I just glossed over the details and described around the process. I couldn't describe what he was doing but I could describe how he was doing it.

    If it's an action I'm trying to describe, I tend to look at related videos. If it's a fight scene and I know the style I'd look it up on youtube and see if I can write down what I'm seeing or I might look for pictures.

    I don't know if that helps much, you're being a bit too vague.
  4. NYCitygurl

    NYCitygurl Manager Emeritus star 9 VIP - Former Mod/RSA

    Jul 20, 2002
    What's the situation? Knowing it might help us help you.

    I agree with Thorn and moose, and add that if it's complicated and technical and you don't know anything about it, it's likely that your readers won't either, and won't be upset if you get something wrong. Like Thorn said, if you're okay with doing that, it'll probably be fine.
  5. earlybird-obi-wan

    earlybird-obi-wan Chosen One star 6

    Aug 21, 2006
    Wikipedia is very useful and for me drawing and painting the scenes and writing them as they come up. After that comes the editting.
  6. Exeter

    Exeter Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Feb 2, 2005
    Obviously, without knowing any specifics about your topic, I can't really say much more than what's been said. But there is this:

    Never underestimate the value of setting a story in the GFFA. This is a universe that, on the surface, regularly violates many scientific principles as we currently understand them.

    There's sound in space. Fantastical physics-defying psionics. Atmospheric-style dogfights in vacuum. Lightsabers. Faster-than-light travel.

    Some people see that as a criticism, but it's actually incredibly liberating because it goes far beyond science itself. It's a wholly alien universe, with often very different political, economic, and cultural systems and structures that interact in ways that are practically limitless. Sure, we see a lot of Earthisms because of what you pointed out?it's hard to write what you don't know, and very few of us writers know galaxies far far away or a long time ago?but when it comes to this kind of writing, there's not much to tell your imagination "no."

    Even relatively mundane things might gain unknowable qualities in the Star Wars universe. For example, we know a great deal about human anatomy & physiology and in the movies we're shown humans who look and act a lot like us, but we know they possess at least one thing that we don't (or at least can't yet detect :p): midichlorians; who knows what else is going on inside those crazy GFFA humans? What about the innerworkings of a speeder?basic vehicle maintainence is something the majority of us are at least somewhat competent in, but nobody really knows how twin-ion engines or fusion drives or inertial dampers would work; that is, until you tell us how in your story. In one story I had to decide how an autopsy would be done in the GFFA, despite the fact that I'm not even exactly an expert on the craft here on our own planet. So instead of crippling myself by agonizing over my knowledge blind spots, I just moved forward with my own take on the whole thing.

    This is one of the great things about the fandom?not even the sky is the limit. There are no experts to tell you that you're wrong (Wookieepedians aside, and even they are explicitly bound by what is evidenced in the canon, forbidden to speculate in any official capacity) or rigid research tomes to study for this stuff. The only standards you're going to be held to are those of the audience; if you can sell your interpretation of things to them, then that's all that really matters in the long run.

    Everything old really is new again. It's all a mystery to me?why body armor seems mostly useless, how GFFA women shave their legs, where a young senator from a backwater planet gets her dominatrix outfits, who cleans up the body parts that Jedi sever on a daily basis?and that means that if you can give me a halfway plausible answer, I'll believe you.

    Go wild and don't sell your imagination short.
  7. kataja

    kataja Jedi Master star 4

    May 4, 2007
    I think you rise a very good question, and I think there are as many solutions to it as there are matters rised.

    First, I think, it's important to "take the story seriously", in other words to try to find a solution to the problem that's rising, not just skip it. A problem is always more than a problem - it is also a possible opportunity.

    Second, I believe it's as important to remember that reading and writing fanfiction should always be for fun and shouldn't be taken too seriously. After all, already OT shows to perfection that George is a big fan of easy solutions too. If you just don't manage or bother, then drop it by all means, find a way to sneak around. No one accuses you for not doing something they didn't know you intended.

    Third, if the plot or events are complicated, the readers will most likely have problems getting it too. You will come a long way with "namedropping" facts and concentrating on the part of events that you can get working. If it gets too weird, let the story comment itself. I don't know whether you've ever seen the movie "Shakespeare in love". When plot is growing too complicated an unrealistic they offer the following dialogue: (quoted loosely from remembrance): "How can that be possible?" "I don't know. It's a mystery." And mind you, they offer it as an explanation! This works as a reminder to the audience/ readers that this is fiction - other rules count than in RL.

    Myself I always start by searching Wookipedia for answers and ideas - and as long as my patience allows it, I search RL facts too. Often a deeper knowledge of facts can open up for new and better plot solutions than I thought of in the first place.

    If nothing of that helps ( and I've tried to get a beta or friend's help without success) I either make up my own rules, reminding myself that all of this is fantasy anyway, or I try to simplify the matter as much as possible. Sometimes you can avoid facts by going into the characters feelings instead or even move the POV to another character. If f.eks. a ships's broken has has to be repaired (of which I have no understanding whatsoever!), I might follow the repairs from a passengers POV who has no idea of what's going on. That approach often gives a new and more fresh angle that I could possibly create with technical data. I thin oe of the classical examples of this is in the Tintin cartoons where thry're plannign a space tripp: the comic book is full of technical boring data but basically you can just jump it and read the comments on it all by one of the main characters (Captain Haddock) who doesn't get it either.

    Finally, I try to get a second opinion to tell me whether the result is eadible or not.

    And after this long answer, I guess you can tell that my answer to your question is; yes, it bothers me not to get it right, but I try to sneak around and get somehting good out of it so it looks better than it is.[face_whistling]

  8. ardavenport

    ardavenport Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Dec 16, 2004
    My absolutely favorite dodge for getting through a scene about something I don't know much about is to write it from the POV of a character who doesn't know anything about it either. It's quick and dirty and gets you through the scene -- though you STILL need to do your background research to even do that well.

    Other than that, time, research and the kindness of friends who do know something about it are always your best options.
  9. Thumper09

    Thumper09 Force Ghost star 4

    Dec 9, 2001
    Thanks so much for all of your answers and insights. :) I really appreciate it!

    I do have trouble remembering that there is no All-Inclusive Manual to the GFFA that spells out exactly how everything works there. I need to keep that in mind more. I also need to convince myself that I'm writing a story, not a documentary. With as much artistic license as Hollywood can give itself, I should let myself do it too when needed as long as I can figuratively sell it to the reader.

    I didn't originally include any specific details on my own little issue, but since some have asked here it is: I have trouble properly showing military courtesies, activities, planning and procedures. I'm kinda embarrassed to admit that since I almost exclusively write Rebel/Imperial stories. [face_blush] I have several close friends with military backgrounds, and every time I've asked them for assistance they've always, always been helpful, encouraging and supportive. But so many times the answers to my questions seem to boil down to "it depends" with all these different factors involved, so to me it seems like there's a secret military flowchart for every aspect of that culture that I'll never be able to figure out, and I'm getting it wrong more often than not. In turn they come away with a very different interpretation of the characters and plotlines than what I'm trying to convey. If I'm confusing people who know better, then I'm not telling the story properly. It also doesn't help that I can't strategize worth squat. :p So my characters, who are supposed to be good at their jobs, get saddled with my own incompetence in that area and look worse than they should.

    The argument can be made that the Rebel military especially (and to a lesser extent the Imperials) don't necessarily follow all the rules of the real-world militaries. I've tried that approach, but it's been harder than it sounds. I've also done a lot with the "rookie who doesn't know any better" approach, which is wonderful most of the time, but then I run into trouble with the non-rookie characters who are smarter than me.

    Looks like I need to take more time to do more basic research (including some of the sources listed in this thread-- thanks for the ideas!), and then just go for it and try to shape the story with the best of my knowledge... and convince myself that it's okay to do so.

    Thanks for the help! :D
  10. Flowerlady

    Flowerlady Jedi Master star 4

    Dec 14, 2005
    We've probably all heard the saying "Write what you know". Well, what happens when you want or need to write about something that you don't know? What do you do? How do you approach that?

    Well, the best way to approach this dilemma--and it is a to do research...either by reading about it or asking people who know the area of expertise. If it is in the realm of science fiction then you, as the author, can make a lot up, invent things. I did this in a story when I needed a method to contain a Jedi and didn't want to use the old usual methods...I wanted to make it more practical and unique. But if it is something that can't be invented or world-built, then the best method for this is to research it, unfortunately. I'm trying to become a published writer and belong to the writer's association Romance Writers of America and they have tons of articles about how important research is when writing a fictional story. I've had to do months of research for every novel I've written, usually before I'm even completely done with plotting and outlining the story...I've written 3 original fiction stories that I plan publish... The first book I wrote was about a 430 yr old vampire who was of the old English-Irish nobility, who just happened to be an FBI special agent, and the heroine was a former Philadelphia homicide detective who during the telling of the story was a small town police chief. The whole plot of the story was based around investigating murders of a serial killer... anyway, I had to learn A LOT to pull the story off...everything from Ian's (the vampire hero) speech patterns to FBI and Police procedures to learning about serial killers. It truly was a daunting task and took me almost as long to research as it took to write. My second book is set in a Texas small town... I've never been to Texas, so I had to research everything about the town where the story is set. Then my hero is a Country music singer. I had to learn about the music industry...and I can't even sing. There is a scene in which my hero discusses singing and voice range to his lover's teenage daughter, who has a great voice but doesn't think she does, anyway...I had to read about voice types and ranges and octaves and so forth...very dry reading at that!!! But for the scene to accomplish what I wanted it to, I had to figure out what my character would already know. My next book has a ex runaway-striper as the heroine...well, again I don't know a thing about Los Vegas stripers and strip clubs...never been to I'm researching...reading articles about former strippers and runaways to learn everything I can so I can make her a deeper character.

    Hope that helps

  11. Thumper09

    Thumper09 Force Ghost star 4

    Dec 9, 2001
    Thanks for the info, Sara! Wow, that's a ton of research you've done on lots of different things. :)

    Best of luck with getting published!
Thread Status:
Not open for further replies.