How Do We Write What We DON'T Know?

Back in January, I had a bad fall.  I broke my collar bone so badly, in fact, that it was smashed into three pieces, and when the orthopedist looked at it, he walked out of the room, whistled to the x-ray technician and said, "Wooh, that's a nasty injury!"  Surgery, right away, was the only way to fix it.  Having never had surgery of any kind, I didn't know what to expect.  The night before the procedure, I told my dad on the phone, "Well, maybe it will be good material for a novel some day!"  My mother, who was with me that night and who has had three major, painful surgeries before, grimaced.  As she told me later, she didn't want to tell me how bad it was going to be.

The pain in the twenty-four hours that followed the surgery, which was, incredibly, out-patient (thank you, overburdened health care system), was unlike any I'd ever known.  It felt like a clamp had been placed on my shoulder, and a sadist with superhuman strength was squeezing it as hard as he possibly could, and then plying it backwards.  There are far worse things, I know, unimaginable things.  But they are just that to me: unimaginable.  I haven't experienced them.  And now I wonder -- having seen the extent of the gap between what I imagined the surgery and recovery would be like, and what it turned out to be -- is it possible to credibly write about something I haven't experienced firsthand?

The answer, of course, has to be yes.  How else, as writers, can we create?  But the first sentence uttered by most creative writing teachers is "Write what you know," and with good reason.  Often the biggest missteps and least authentic passages in a piece of writing occur when an author has strayed so far beyond his or her experience, in either the emotional or the physical realm, that the reader can no longer suspend her disbelief, and the spell that is bewitchingly good writing is broken.  

So I would like to know -- have you had to write about things you didn't know in your own work, and how have you faced the challenge?  Research?  Interviews?  

Or perhaps a better question is -- what kind of truth matters most in our writing?  Is it more important to be able to describe, in exact detail, the physical pain specific to shoulder surgery, or to be able to describe the way it feels to be vulnerable and injured, the way it feels to have your life derailed, the way it feels to fall and crack and depend on the people around you to recover?  

Because those things, I already knew something about.

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  • Deepa Agarwal

    First of all, hope you're feeling much better by now, Kamy. As for writing what we don't know about, I recall wondering how Tolstoy could write so convincingly about a woman torn between two men in Anna Karenina, also about a woman torn between her love for her child and her longing to be with her lover. As women writers we too try to enter the hearts and minds of male characters, even those who may be quite removed from our immediate experience and reality. But here I'm talking about truths which are universal and it is your own empathy for your characters that brings truth into your work.

    For more concrete details research can take care of a lot, if it is meticulous and thorough. Again I feel the author's sensitivity to the character's situation--the pain or heartbreak that is communicated to the reader and adds credibility.

  • B. Lynn Goodwin

    "Or perhaps a better question is -- what kind of truth matters most in our writing?  Is it more important to be able to describe, in exact detail, the physical pain specific to shoulder surgery, or to be able to describe the way it feels to be vulnerable and injured, the way it feels to have your life derailed, the way it feels to fall and crack and depend on the people around you to recover?"

    The answer is obvious to me. I want to read about coping skills. Thanks for putting this in the form of a question. 

  • Oh wow Elizabeth, how DO spiders mate?  And Tammy, congratulations on writing so movingly.  That can only be good.  I love the openness and thoughtfulness here -- and, Yehudit, I that Elie Wiesel quote, I think, from now on will be my guide.  Thanks for the good wishes RYCJ, and everyone else.:)

  • RYCJ Revising

    Not sure if this has already been offered, but my best answer would be 'I can't imagine' because in as far as creative writing, the writer can only write what he or she knows...or sees/imagines, whether 'factual' or not. It's what makes creative writing, creative.

    In your given description however, describing or the telling of an actual event, I as well couldn't 'imagine' a writer telling that event in any other way than the way it was experienced. And btw, I hope you are better. Gosh, I cringed just reading it.

    That said, your experience reminds me of... let's say... child birth. Even a woman who's never given birth could imagine up an experience to plot into a creative work (based on no research whatsoever) and I'd be hard pressed to contradict the character's story, given the uniqueness of this adventure... at least going by the many tales I've heard, not including my own;-) 

  • Yehudit Reishtein

    Several of the posts remind of what Elie Wiesel said a few years ago (and I am paraphrasing here): Some things that never happened are true, and some things that actually happened are not true.

    I think you can get at the "truth" of an experience without going through it yourself by a combination of research, empathy, and finding the emotional metaphor for it that rings true for you. Sitting on a quiet sunny afternoon in a six foot diameter cement sewer pipe which was used as a temporary bomb shelter was certainly nothing near the experience of the people who sat in that pipe at night with crying children while the rocket alert sirens sounded, but analyzing my own disquiet helped me imagine what it could be like for a fictional character. It requires stretching emotional and expressive muscles, but it can be done, and is done well by most really good writers. It's being willing to stretch those muscles and facing one's own disquiet and uneasiness that are the hard parts.

  • Interesting timing for this post! Last weekend I read the first 20 pages of my novel at an art event. The story is about a woman who loses her best friend to cancer. I love these characters so much, after living with them for five years, and I really got into the reading. Afterwards several in the audience came up to me to say how moved they were. Then one woman told me she just lost her sister, so she knew how I felt. I froze. She looked at me and said she knew this couldn't be fiction because it was too real, and my reading of it was so personal. I didn't know what to say! I felt like a fraud. I stammered about how it was a combination of episodes in peoples' lives, which is kind of true, but really - it's fiction! I questioned myself all evening, what right did I have to write about something that actually happens to others, but hadn't happened to me. But then I realized: what's worse - claiming something is real when it's not? Or claiming something isn't real when, actually, it is - if you do it right.  

  • Elizabeth Enslin

    You raise such great questions, Kamy. These days, I tend to have the most fun writing when I write to discover or learn. And some of the most surprising insights come when I stretch my knowledge both inwardly and outwardly: research details I'm fuzzy on (how do spiders mate?) and then dig deeper into understanding my own reactions.

    Hope your collar bone is healing up well.

  • Elaine Kehoe

    I think what you said about writing "the way it feels" is what a writer really needs to do, and empathy and imagination can fill in experience gaps there. I wrote a short short story about a woman who had had an abortion at age seventeen and how it affected the rest of her life. I've never had an abortion (though I have a friend who did), never even been pregnant, but I put myself in that woman's place and imagined what she might be feeling. I received many positive comments on that story, even from women who had miscarriages.

  • First of all, many, many thanks to all of you for your good wishes on my speedy recovery!  I'm doing much better, though I will have to wait until next spring until I join my sons at the batting cages, and I hate sitting on the sidelines. :)

    Olga, I love you what you said about "write what you feel."  I think that is probably the key, in conjunction with the kinds of research others have described.  Julie, I also got a physicist to talk to me for quite a long time about my book when I was just getting started (there is a physicist who is a main character) and was so grateful for his generosity.  It really helps to dig and and *very* importantly to have readers and editors who may know more than you do to consult.

  • Paula Lozar

    Take a look at the article that Natylie Baldwin linked to below -- very good!  I especially liked his comments about the bad effects of "intention" on fiction.  David Morrell (the thriller writer) said something in a talk a few years ago that stuck with me:  Trust your characters.  If you try to get a character to do something "out of character" to make a point, or move the plot forward, the story dies.

  • Elisabeth Kinsey

    Kamy - I'm so VERY sorry about your collarbone and pain. I am no stranger to pain. It's too bad they didn't give you dilaudid. That stuff makes everything okay.  Ah well.  I hope you are healing well. 

    When I write about something I don't know, I try to find something in it that I do know. Like a while back, I had to write my Sex in the Garden column for Greenwoman Magazine, and I wasn't having sex. My husband was out working elsewhere and I was alone. I went to memory of sex and also stated point blank that I was, in fact, not having sex. So, I guess I say what I don't know about it and then what I found out I did know.

  • Jayha Leigh

    Dear Kamy, I'm holding you in the light and sending you well wishes that your recovery goes well and that you're completely healed. 

    Loving this post because as a publisher I drill this into authors, however, since a lot of our authors (myself included) write paranormal, it's not really possible to research shifting into a polar bear, or zip across the universe via wormhole, or time travel.  That's where your serious plotting comes in...when an author dabbles in fantasy, the fantasy still has to have consistency and make sense to readers.  It still has to be plausible and if it's completely different from what we as readers are acccustomed to, the story has to be blazing.  Think, the southern vampire series (Tru Blood).  That was a completely different spin on the vampires I was used to but it worked...and the author made it work.


    Some things such as childbirth, surgery, etc we know of, but may not have experienced.  As you point out one may not have experienced a particular procedure and you will have to research because you don't want to say something that is glaringly wrong....something like having the patient who has just undergone a quadruple bypass running a triathlon the day after...however that vulnerabilty and human-ness you speak of is something an author can know without having to have experienced a particular event.  As a female I write male characters without having been male...I write white characters without having ever been white...however, I've also been priviliged and blessed enough to live in a world where interracting with individuals of different gender/ethnicities/nationalities/sexualities is the norm.  And you learn many things.


    However, saying that.  As a reader, there is nothing that p*sses me off more than to have someone write about me (black/female/southern/American) by someone who not only is not those things but also knows nothing about those things.  To be reduced to a stereoytype in the name of profit is demeaning because the real truth is that many people will only meet different people in books. When I was a TA in undergrad one of my students admitted that before coming to that college she had never met a black person/an Asian person/a Hispanic person in real life...neither had she met a Catholic/a Baptist/a Presybyterian/etc etc in real life b/c everyone in her town was the same ethnicity and the same religion. 

    I have had friends who are well-traveled, smart, wealthy and have the world at their fingertips who have asked me the most insulting questions such as what the ghetto was like, how many baby daddies I had, what it was like to grow up without a father because that is the black woman he most often met via media.  He wasn't trying to be mean...he simply didn't know any better, however a publisher should know better and put a halt to authors writing about real people they obviously know nothing about because it demeans the people, the author and ultimately the publishing company.


    For me, being an author comes with responsibility...but so does everything.  Sometimes, despite our best efforts we fall short...but it shouldn't be for lack of trying.  Thank you for this post.  I truly enjoyed it.  Speedy recovery.  Jayha

  • Leslie Lehr

    I am so sorry , Kamy, what a horrible experience, And no , it doesn't help for anyone to rationalize that this swill give you something to write about. I hope that you forget the pain soon, except for maybe a few choice adjectives, Like childbirth - we may not have more children if we can remember what it really feels like. So those words you can find now are less important than the emotions, as you suggest. I have a minor character in What A Mother Knows who has cancer, yet I didn't get cancer until recently. But it was the feeling of pain that I was going for, but how people react in the situation and how it affects their feelings and motivations. I barely remember how I felt a few months ago, even though I just got home form chemo and radiation..every day is different. And yet that one scene in my novel with that women I made up  (and did research on) rang true and worked for the story. Every person's experience is different and in fiction, each action and emotion is calculated to work for the emotional truth of the story. That is more important than the physical truth. Perosnal experience allow for more empathy and maybe more accurate description for the one moment you describe, but that description is not the most critical element of writing (unless you are writing a nonfiction account). If you were to study to be a doctor in pain management it might help more to know what the pain is like, but as a writer our experience can broaden the depth of our work - but  we have other tools to rely on. And we need those more.

    I hope your recovery goes quickly.

  • Karen Dodd

    I know as writers, we hear that "write what you know," ad nauseum, Kamy. But I'm happy to note a lot of best-selling writers are saying just the opposite!

    While I think it's great to supplement research by doing something in real life as Paula relates, I think it IS possible to be authentic in writing about things you haven't experienced. Recently I was the beta reader for an as-yet-unpublished mystery writer and when I'd finished her MS I really thought she'd been a professional photographer, scuba-diver and historian on shipwrecks. Her story was amazingly real!

    Remember that although you can now (unfortunately) describe in minute detail the pain associated with your collar bone injury, it's likely that the majority of your readers wouldn't actually know that injury intimately. However, what you've experienced with that will help you relate different types of physical and emotional pain that will definitely shine through in your writing.

    I hope you are recovering well from your horrible ordeal, Kamy:>)

  • Paula Lozar

    I'm working on a mystery novel series with a protagonist who's a (female) police officer.  Until about 2 years ago, I had never fired a gun in my entire life -- not even a BB gun -- but, as my character wears a gun and occasionally has to use it, I decided I needed some experience.  I took a one-day class at a community college and fired a whole 10 shots, but it was such a controlled situation that it felt more like a video game.  So I took another lesson from a friend who was trained as a soldier (not in the U.S.) and used to participate in shooting competitions, so he has a little shooting range on his property.  To my surprise, I turned out to be a good shot.  Shortly afterwards, there was a resurgence of efforts to pass gun control legislation, which I wholeheartedly support -- but my gut reaction upon hearing about it was "What?  Will I never be able to shoot again?"  (This in spite of the fact that I don't own a gun and have no intention of ever owning one!)  I could not have predicted that reaction, and it's given me a far better understanding of how it feels to be in a job where you depend on a gun.

    As for my character's being a police officer, when I was first starting to think about what became the first novel in the series, I happened to work with a computer programmer who was a former police officer.  I've never been in law enforcement (my day job was technical writing), but we worked together constantly and had lunch together almost every day, so after a few months I had a good sense of what his job had been like and how his mind worked.  At first my protagonist was male, but, after getting to know my colleague, I realized that I could visualize myself in that job, and that's where my protagonist came from.

  • Kathleen Kern

    I have a lot of friends from unusual walks of life and I can almost always check things out with them or have them check something out with people in their milieu. If a  novel manuscript has a character from that milieu, though, I always want to have them read it, to make sure the character is believable and interacting believably with other characters.  I almost never have people turn me down.  Most recently, I decided I needed to insert a diary of one of my teenage characters into the book to get another viewpoint on my main narrator.  Didn't realize until I started that the Ralph, a serious, kind Christian boy, is also gay.  So the manuscript is off now at a devout Catholic gay friend.  Ralph is Mennonite and becomes active with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church because of their political organizing, but I know that my friend who was seriously considering the priesthood, will understand what it was like to be both committed to following Jesus and in love with another boy at that age. 

  • Natylie Baldwin

    Wishing you a speedy recovery, Kamy.

    I have found this to be an interesting debate ever since a writer friend of mine several years ago admonished me to write what I know.  I didn't really agree with him at the time but didn't argue because I had trouble articulating the reasons why.  I came across an article a while back that deals with this very issue that helped to clarify my thoughts.  (

    I think it depends on the writer.  With enough empathy and imagination (and perhaps some research), some writers have clearly been able to effectively write about an event or from a character perspective that is obviously removed from their own personality and experience.  One example is Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage.  People raved about how he conveyed the experience of war, though he had never been a soldier.  

    I have reflected recently on the fact that many of my protagonists have been males.  I also write often about the traumas of war, although I have never been in one, but my father (whom I was close to) was a combat veteran and I also spent years as a peace activist and, by default, had done a lot of research on the topic.  

  • Julie Lawson Timmer

    Ouch! So sorry to hear about that awful experience, Kamy. I hope you're on the mend.

    My answer is: research until you think you know it cold, then interview experts and have them tell you where you've got it wrong, and (if they're really nice) have them help you figure out how to fix it. And lest this sound too daunting to my fellow introvert writer friends, let me say that I've been blown away by the generosity I've found in experts when I've asked to consult with them about my ms. People who've never heard of me before have been willing to answer questions via email or phone, or even meet in person. One expert signed on long before I had a book deal, even when I warned her that although she *might* see her name in the Acknowledgments section of a published novel one day, the chances were greater that she'd waste her time helping a first-time writer whose ms might never see the light of day. She talked to me for 90 minutes, despite my caveat. Incredible. With people like that willing to help writers--and in my experience, there are lots of these kinds of people--it's not as hard as one might think to plot what you don't know, figure it all out, and end up with a draft of what you now know quite well. 

  • Olga Godim

    Kamy, I'm sorry for your pain. But I disagree with the statement "Write what you know." One very good writer amended it into "Write what you feel." That one sits well with me. You can always extrapolate your experience or even your book knowledge into the situations you've never experienced and write well about it. All the fantasy writers do that: we've never experienced magic but we write about it, and people frequently enjoy reading such books. I write fantasy. One of my recurring characters is a talking squirrel. I've never experienced such a phenomena, but neither has anyone else. So I extrapolate. I write what I feel. The stories come out charming and funny, and they have been published in several magazines. Maybe that's why I write fantasy...  

    On a more serious note: now that you know pain, you can use your knowledge of it in so many situations different from what you experienced. You write what you feel. It works even in fantasy.

  • Kristen Elise

    I have always been a big fan of writing what you know, but I think this is an easy pitfall as well. For example, if I read one more story in which the protagonist is a novelist, I might throw up :) That said, I recently interviewed the author (Susan Froetschel) of an outstanding novel set in Afghanistan (Fear of Beauty). The two protagonists are an Afghani housewife and an American Army Ranger. Susan Froetschel is neither. But her research was meticulous, so it didn't matter. If interested, please check out the book and you may read the interview here:

  • Mark Hughes

    Kamy - thank you for putting this great site together. I've gotten such insight and value from the others here and tried to give back what I could. It seems to me that women are the ones who get that we're all inseparably connected, that the appearance of separateness is one of life's greatest illusions. There is, to my mind, no alternate universe where a couple of guys have set up the male equivalent of your site. Yes, I'm joking to some extent. Well, maybe not so much. Thanks, either way.

  • Mark, thanks so much for this thoughtful response -- and I didn't know that about To Kill A Mockingbird!  I think it's so interesting when we try to inhabit characters of another gender fully, especially, and will be interested to hear more on how it goes for you.

  • Mark Hughes

    Let's see, we can get philosophical here: Kant said we can never know the "thing in itself", a truism that reliably comes back to me at weird times. Opposing him is that which we all write without knowing too well - the opposite sex. As one of the literally odd men out on this site, I'll provide exhibit A: Arthur Golden's book Memoirs of a Geisha, which inspired me to write a female protagonist (with input from my wife and others).

      It seems to me what matters most is the human truth that underlies the stories. Yes, you're right, Kamy, that getting a detail wrong momentarily derails a story and that's not good. But I'll also point out that in To Kill A Mockingbird (one of my favorite stories), Lee and her editors missed a big one - when Atticus shot the rabid dog. He's a great marksman and says afterward that he'd rather have had a shotgun. OMG, what a huge mistake! At that distance a shotgun wouldn't have touched the dog, something Atticus would have well known.

      Do I still love the story? You bet - because she gets the human truth deep and right. Two words: Hey, Boo. How many authors can produce their story's emotional pinnacle in two words? Okay, that's a side issue, but you get my point.

      At any rate, my guess is that what really matters is our understanding of what it is to be human and how we manage to express it. I know I have a ways to go when I read a story or see a movie and don't get the point, when others do. I'll humble myself and say I still don't get Joyce's The Dead. Catcher in the Rye? Yeah. The Dead. Nope.

      So, I go along, trying to learn more about that human truth, and trying not to remember that Carson McCullers dove deep by the time she was 23. Still, what better subject to study and try to dramatize? It has to be one of the slipperiest fish to land. String theory is simple, compared to that :)

      Finally, my condolences on your injury. I hope you're both fully healed and decided to put the roller derby career aside...