Writing: “How do I write fiction about things I haven’t experienced?”

Too many would-be writers allow themselves to be held back by ‘rules’ like ‘Write about what you know’.

If authors would only write about things they’ve experienced, there would be no science fiction; authors would only write from the perspective of characters of their own gender, race, and age or younger; there would be no books from the perspectives of rabbits (like Watership Down) or other animals; all books would be set in the same location the authors have lived in; all novels would feature contemporary times; et cetera.

I’m a white male in his late forties, married with two young children, and write suspense fiction about and/or from the perspectives of:

  • a Dutch white female freelance assassin, specialised in disguising homicide and close quarters combat
  • a Dutch white male blind jazz musician, strategist, and martial artist,
  • a Jamaican black male Rastarian session musician who grows cannabis,
  • an American white female DEA agent with a drinking problem,
  • an American black male DEA agent living in the Netherlands
  • a Colombian male DEA undercover agent,
  • a Dutch white male biker,
  • a Chinese blind man in his late seventies,
  • a Dutch female lesbian sculptor,
  • a Chinese deaf-mute enforcer for a triad,
  • a Japanese male Yakuza posing as a club owner and martial arts instructor,
  • a Japanese male undercover agent for the DEA,
  • a Canadian female professor of music,
  • a French party girl caught in a stifling marriage,
  • a Dutch legless biker running a bar,
  • a Dutch nomadic pickpocket caught in a web of lies,

And that is not all of my characters, just the major ones.

While I do write a lot of stuff from personal experience, I write about shooting guns while being fired at (I handled a variety of handguns at a shooting range, but I’ve only been shot at by Nerf guns); sustaining gunshot wounds and fleeing from the law; being blind and playing saxophone in a full jazz club; dying from drowning in my car at the hands of an assassin; dying from being stabbed in the throat and suffocating on my own blood; being a woman and having sex with a man; detonating a bomb in a parking lot across the water; being interrogated while spreadeagled naked on a bed and tied to the bedposts; being force-fed whisky while held motionless in a vacuum bed; et cetera.

I could go on, but it’s clear that most writers have to write about stuff they haven’t experienced in person. That’s why it’s called fiction. Writers imagine stories and make them as close to the truth as possible, and readers immerse themselves in stories that gives them experiences they could never have, on worlds that may or may not exist.

There’s a necessity on the part of the reader called ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’, where the reader will believe what the writer tells them, as long as the writer fills the story with the verisimilitude necessary to keep believing. The reader has never flown a dragon, but when the writer writes about the main character flying a dragon, the reader imagines themselves astride the broad neck, inhaling the dragon’s sooty exhalations, feeling the smooth scales under their buttocks, the wind rushing through their hair, and the exuberance of flying unprotected miles above the earth through cold clouds that leave a sheen of water pearls on their leather jacket.

But it’s a tough job getting readers to keep their disbelief suspended. One wrong word, one author intrusion, one mistake, and the whole illusion comes crashing down and the book gets tossed in the waste bin. That’s why good writers treated with such high regard for their ability to enthral with mere words.

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