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Write What You Know, Research What You Don't
by Kathryn Lay
From the first time I began reading about being
a writer and attending a writers group, I heard that I should write what you
know. It made sense, and for a long time, I limited myself to personal
experience writing, interviews, or easy fiction where I knew all about the
But then I started writing about things I didnt
know about and combined them with what I knew.
Ive never met a ghost, but Im afraid of
heights. The Sneezing Ghost recently won 1st Place in the South Florida
chapter of the National Writers Association. Its the story of a boy whos
afraid of heights, yet must climb a rope in gym class. Along the way, he
encounters and makes friends with a sneezing ghost, who helps him with his
climbing problem and his bully problem. He in turn finds an unexpected way to
help the ghost.
In A Voice in the Storm, a short story
published in Boys Life, I took the irritation I was feeling with my
daughters doll and its repeating voice action and added a boy, his sister, and
a tornado. Id never been in a tornado, but I knew people who had.
Are we limited to what weve actually
experience? Can we write about what we DONT know? Of course. Ray Bradbury
hasnt been in space. Bruce Coville didnt interview subjects in a land of
unicorns. And Im pretty sure that Lewis Carroll didnt step through the looking
glass to experience the oddest tea party ever.
If I wrote only what I know or had experienced,
I dont think it would take long to run out of ideas. Yet, I can experience new
things every day. And my experiences in life and knowledge certainly color my
writing and give it flavor.
But since my favorite genre of writing is
fantasy, I am rarely able to visit my settings and experience the dragon rides,
singing ducks, traveling wizards that I write about.
In the June/July issue of Hopscotch for
Girls, my story Circus Runaway is about a girl who is tired of
traveling with the circus, and instead of running TO it, has run FROM it. Ive
never worked in the circus, but I did interview an eight-year-old circus
performer years ago for a nonfiction article.
Just for fun, try this exercise of idea
1. Make a list of what you know. Hobbies,
interests, areas you are an expert in, experiences youve had as a child and
2. Begin taking the list and paring your
knowing experience with an unknown. What would you like to know about? If
you cant actually experience it, who can you visit or interview? What can you
read about it?
3. Challenge yourself to write about your two
mixed topics. They may be fantastical, historical, or contemporary.
Examples: My visit to an ostrich farm for a
nonfiction article gave me ideas for a contemporary fiction short story about a
boy practicing the clarinet, a fantasy novel about a boy finding a giant egg
near an ostrich farm and hatching a dragon, and a nonfiction article on raising
ostriches. My fear of dark, closed in places was combined with interviewing a
friend who is a professional spelunker for a short story that sold to
Spider. A long-dreamed about experience of swimming with dolphins was
combined with information from a friend whos child is wheelchair bound to tell
the story of such a child and a dolphin, as well as a piece for a quarterly
column I write for an online zine.
Have fun writing what you know. Then, have some
more fun and write what you dont know.
© Copyright 2002, Kathryn Lay
Kathryn Lay is the author of 26 books for children, over 2000 articles, essays and stories for children and adults and the book from AWOC.COM Publishing, The Organized Writer is a Selling Writer. Check out her website at www.kathrynlay.com and email through email@example.com
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