One of my favorite movies about writing is I REMEMBER MAMA, the story of a working-class family who face the trials and tribulations of daily life under the guidance of a strong and resourceful mother. Mama knows her daughter wants to become a writer, so she sends a letter to her daughter's favorite author and asks if she'll give the girl some advice about how to get started as a professional. Mama also mails a story for the author to critique, so daughter is terrified she's going to say, “You're a no-talent bum! Give it up!” Instead, the lady tells her she has a gift, but she's writing about places she's never been and people she doesn't know well. “Write what you know,” says the author. She explains that when you write what you know, you do so with confidence and authority.
It's great advice, even if you write speculative fiction. For instance, if you don't know much about the daily activities of the President of the United States, it's not a good idea to make him your POV character. If you're not a PhD in Physics, it's hard to write from the POV of a rocket scientist. It's more productive to take your own life skills and experiences and translate them into the world you're creating. This is why people you've known often end up as characters in your books.
But regardless of what sort of fiction you write, sooner or later you're going to run into uncharted territory. Very few of us can write about spaceships, aliens, vampires, princesses, assassins, serial killers, monsters, and/or nuclear explosions based on personal experience. Even if you're making up your own world, from top to bottom, you often have to do some research to figure out how certain things are going to work.
For instance, I'm about halfway done writing a YA fantasy titled The Order Of The Dragon, and I've reached a point where I'm going to have to learn something about horses. Horse aren't just picturesque background creatures in the story; they have turned out to be a critical plot point. So I've purchased a bunch of books (many of which are the For Dummies variety), and I've been asking my horse-savvy friends all sorts of odd questions. In yet another project, I'm going to need to find out about Navajo sur-names, and what family names are likely to be shared among clans who can inter-marry. There's no phone book for that kind of thing, so I'm just going to have to track down a friendly expert and ask the right questions. To some degree or another, every single one of my novels is about things I don't know.
When you interview experts in a particular field of knowledge, that's known as pursuing a primary source. When you look stuff up in books, you're using a secondary source. But if you write speculative fiction, sometimes there really is no expert to ask. The example I can think of for this is writing about aliens. Who's to say what these folks might really be like? Yet, readers will have opinions about it. If your aliens are too enigmatic, readers may say that they felt the characters weren't developed well enough, or they couldn't relate to them. If you make them too Human, they may scoff that the aliens weren't believably alien. The aliens who are the most compelling in stories are the ones that find a balance between those two poles, and you're the one who's going have to decide where that is.
That's the bottom line. When you write a novel, you're going out on a limb. Even if you are a PhD in physics, some readers will argue that you got it wrong. Your elves may not be enough like the Tolkien elves to satisfy some people; your vampires may not be enough like Lestat, or Edward, or even Barnabas. Ultimately you have to commit to being the god of your fictional universe, and take the flack once your book has been published. Flack is not fun, but it is inevitable. All you can do is try to get it as right as you can.
So the lady writer from I Remember Mama gave excellent advice when she said you should write what you know. That's where you should always start. But if you're really going to spread your wings and write speculative fiction, you also need to find out how to write what you don't know. It's an act of courage. But like most skills, even courage gets easier with practice.
Synopsis for SPIRITS OF GLORY:
One morning the people in the North woke up and the people in the South were gone . . .
That's the first thing every child learns on the colony world of Jigsaw. But for one girl, knowing about The Disappearance is not enough. Hawkeye wants to know why.
That's why she spent half her life researching The Disappearance. And that's also why eight Neighbors show up on her doorstep, demanding that she accompany them into the Forbidden Cities ruled by the Southern gods to speak with the Spirits of Glory. Everyone thinks Hawkeye is an expert on Neighbors, these almost-humans who move, talk, and think as if they were born inside one of the Time Fractures. But she can't imagine what they want to ask the ghosts of their ancestors, or why they need her to go along. The Southern gods caused every human inhabitant of the Southern cities to disappear overnight -- what else might they do?
But the Northern gods say Hawkeye should go and her curiosity won't let her refuse, even though she's going into more danger than she can imagine. Pain and puzzlement wait along the broken interstate, along with scavengers who want to kill them all. Questions only generate more questions as they move farther and farther South, right into the heart of the Disappearance, until Hawkeye's questions have all been answered.
Even the ones she was afraid to ask.
Biography for Emily Devenport:
I've been published in the U.S., the U.K., Italy, and Israel. My novels are SHADE, LARISSA, SCORPIANNE, EGGHEADS, THE KRONOS CONDITION, GODHEADS, BROKEN TIME (which was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award), BELARUS, and ENEMIES. Look for my new novels, THE NIGHT SHIFTERS, SPIRITS OF GLORY, and PALE LADY on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, Kobo, Sony, Apple, and Smashwords. I'm married to artist/writer Ernest Hogan and I live in Arizona.
Here is my blog
And buy links:
Barnes & Noble