Today, I have my first guest blog written by Kim Ablon Whitney. She is the author of The Other Half of Life (review here).
Writing What You Don’t Know
If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class you might have heard this advice: “Write what you know…”
I’ve written three novels for young adults and only one was about something I knew. My book, The Perfect Distance, was about a girl who competes on the national horse show circuit—something I have firsthand experience doing. But in my book, See You Down the Road, and in my newest book, The Other Half of Life, I leapt into subjects I knew nothing about when I started.
It turns out I like writing what I don’t know.
Writing what you don’t know is an adventure where you get to learn about lives and worlds very different from your own. In The Other Half of Life I delve into the true story of the refugee ship, the St. Louis, which left Germany in 1939 bound for Cuba with 937 Jews escaping Hitler. My novel imagines the lives of a 15 year-old boy and a 14 year-old girl, who develop a close friendship aboard the ship. Together Thomas and Priska face the terrible news that the passengers will not be admitted to Cuba and the ship must return to Europe.
I had never heard of the St. Louis when I stumbled across it in a book and I was fascinated by the story. I immediately wondered, “What would it have been like to be aboard that ship—sailing across the ocean with your fate hanging in the balance?” By writing my book, I got to find out.
Part of the way you write about something you don’t know is by doing lots of research. For this book, I researched World War II, the Holocaust, German life and culture, Jewish life and customs, ocean liners, and chess. Non-fiction books and articles gave me a good start and I supplemented that research by talking to experts and people who lived through the events and time period. Writing The Other Half of Life opened my world to these new subjects, broadening my perspective, which is always a plus in my non-writing life too.
After all the research there still comes a time when you have to jump off the proverbial cliff and get writing. It’s a daunting moment, where as a writer, I questioned my ability to write about a subject I didn’t know. But I reminded myself that people are people. Times might be different but if I worked hard at employing my imagination, I knew I could put myself in the shoes of the people aboard the St. Louis.
Or in the shoes of anyone at anytime, for that matter. As much as it’s often easy to feel like no one understands anybody or shares the same feelings, we actually have more similar emotions and motivations than we realize.
So I would encourage any writer to tackle subjects you know, and those you don’t know. Take a leap of faith and imagine yourself in a world different from your own. Imagine yourself living in North Korea, or maybe just in the house across the street. See where a little research and a little creativity will take you.