Learning from NaNo: Write What You Don’t Know

Write what you know. It’s one of those truisms verging on clichés that you generally hear three or four variations on before you’ve gotten very far as a writer. Its advantage is that it’s rather hard to mess up something you know inside out; even if your writing has issues, the subject itself will not lack verisimilitude. But one of the side effects of using National Novel-Writing Month as a way to get me to work on one of my back-burner projects has shown me the benefits of applying its opposite: Write (or game, or otherwise create) what you don’t know.

Yes, there are hazards to writing what you don’t know, most of which spring from the fact that you might get it wrong. After all, if it’s people you don’t know from, it can be hard to tell which aspects of what you know are actual facts and which ones are cultural misapprehensions or even outright stereotypes. If it’s an area of knowledge, you have to worry about people who are experts telling you that your plot wouldn’t work because of a factor that wouldn’t work. I’ve had to deal with the latter; you should’ve seen the look on my face when, partway through an attempted undergrad thesis on the feasibility of silicon-based life (let’s just say it’s a long story that involved a slightly unusual set of thesis rules, an attempt to one-up an old friend of mine, and an adviser who served as a professor of both Asian classics and astrobiology), I ran into a chemistry professor who explained to me in some detail that most of the differences between silicon and carbon just happen to nullify the reasons why carbon makes such a good organic base. And yes, these can be disastrous—but only if you refuse to do your own legwork, persist in not listening to people trying to point out where you’ve slipped, and fail to come up with ways to work around or avoid the problems you’ve hopefully found by not doing the first two things on this list.

On the other hand, if you’re writing what you don’t know, and you’re still determined to get it right, that means you’re going to need to learn, and as far as I’m concerned, there is no such thing as too much learning. (Nor is it necessarily going to be wasted; even if the current project doesn’t pan out, something you picked up might come in handy later.) It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, whether it’s a new PC who utilizes a skill you just don’t have, or a world that insists on including a culture you know from nothing; it just matters that you’re willing to fix those gaps in your knowledge before or as you create. I’ve actually had to do a lot of this: it’s one of the reasons why I’m chronically behind on word-count, but it’s worth it. I’d done some preliminary research for this project a long time ago that led to some interesting discoveries (my personal favorite being the relation between algebra and Islamic inheritance law), but as soon as I set pencil to notebook, I realized that I was missing as much as I knew, and all of it was going to matter.

I soon realized that I couldn’t learn one thing without picking up a few more. (This is partly a side effect of having just given up and started with Wikipedia every time I wanted to look into a new topic; I know about its flaws as a source, but this isn’t a research paper, either, and I was in a hurry.) Some of the tangents I ended up going off on were things that helped me develop the characters and world, some were more complex than I expected, and some just made me go wow. Looking into astronomical tools? All right, most of these sextants are too big to be portable, but an astrolabe with a shadow square and a universal quadrant might do the job—and having had to pay for one of those might explain why Khadijah’s been serving as Lady Natara’s personal attendant. Looking up how sandstorms work when minor antagonist Yachne summons one up led to exploring four or five terms for different kinds of sandstorm wind pattern, and that led to one of the voice differences between my two viewpoint characters. And my personal favorite: trying to figure out my viewpoint characters’ city gets its water led to reading about ice storage. In Persia. In the summer. In 400 BC. How cool is that?

So why limit yourself to writing things you understand? Write—or game—what you don’t know, don’t be afraid to mess up a little, and give yourself the opportunity to branch out!


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