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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 writer’s 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 topic.

But then I started writing about things I didn’t know about and combined them with what I knew.

I’ve never met a ghost, but I’m afraid of heights. The Sneezing Ghost recently won 1st Place in the South Florida chapter of the National Writer’s Association. It’s the story of a boy who’s 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 Boy’s Life, I took the irritation I was feeling with my daughter’s doll and its repeating voice action and added a boy, his sister, and a tornado. I’d never been in a tornado, but I knew people who had.

Are we limited to what we’ve actually experience? Can we write about what we DON’T know? Of course. Ray Bradbury hasn’t been in space. Bruce Coville didn’t interview subjects in a land of unicorns. And I’m pretty sure that Lewis Carroll didn’t step through the looking glass to experience the oddest tea party ever.

If I wrote only what I know or had experienced, I don’t 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. I’ve 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 starters:

1. Make a list of ‘what you know.’ Hobbies, interests, areas you are an expert in, experiences you’ve had as a child and adult, etc.

2. Begin taking the list and paring your ‘knowing’ experience with an unknown. What would you ‘like’ to know about? If you can’t 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 who’s 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 don’t 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 rlay15@aol.com

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