Write What You Don’t Know

(first published August, 2020 by Women’s Writers, Women’s Books)

Many writing teachers tell new authors to write what they know. That has value if you are describing a setting, for example. It helps to know how the place looks, feels, smells, and sounds. But what if you write fantasy? No one knows what it’s like to live on another planet or have super powers. Historical fiction can also be a little tricky. In my novels, I want to accurately portray a historical figure or event, but often there are huge gaps in what I need to know for the story that no amount of research will solve. In my novel The Aloha Spirit (August 2020, She Writes Press), I was able to easily research Honolulu during World War II. No documents or photos, though, could tell me what it was like to live next door to a Japanese neighbor after the Pearl Harbor attack or to worry for someone you loved who worked there. If I wanted to tell the story, I had to fill the blank spaces with imagination.

It is true, no matter what you write, that a plain telling of the events does not make a story. Dates, who was there, and what happened are important, but the story lies in the reactions of the people. When I taught sixth grade, students (usually male) often wrote stories of basketball or football games that sounded like a play-by-play announcer. They were boring. I told them I needed to know how proud the character was to make a three-point basket, how excited to make that touchdown, how anxious to do well, or how devastated at trying hard and losing. The story, I told them, is in the emotion, not the action. In fact, if you ask three people who experienced the same event to tell you about it, you will get three stories because it affected each of them differently. That is why readers can enjoy many different novels about Pearl Harbor or World War II or basketball.

Esther from a more modern perspective
Esther as she has traditionally been portrayed

The genre of historical fiction has experienced an upsurge in popularity because female writers are now envisioning historical events from the point of view of women whose thoughts have been lost or were never recorded. It’s dangerous to project 21st century women’s views onto a historical character, but if the research is done well her voice can be heard. One of my favorite revisionist writings is the story of Esther, from the Bible. Esther has always been portrayed as meek and pure as she persuades her husband, the Persian king, not to annihilate the Jews. More recently, however, novels and bible study guides explore Esther’s confidence, assertiveness, and ability to seize opportunities. The events haven’t changed at all, but the story has. As a result, women can be inspired by a historical character they can relate to.

My advice to writers is to write what you don’t know. Use fiction to explore a subject or character that may be intimidating to you. Create characters that rise above discrimination, bias, ignorance, and entitlement. Find the universal truth that makes us all human by writing the emotion you know. Write about jealousy, betrayal, true love, honesty, perseverance. Research the heck out of what you don’t know and blend that with the emotion you know. There’s always the danger of getting it wrong, of course, but treat the subject matter with compassion and trust your characters. If you create characters with emotions readers can relate to, you can create stories that matter.

Linda Ulleseit is a California native with five published historical fiction novels, the most recent of which is The Aloha Spirit, set in territorial Hawaii. She believes in the unspoken power of women living ordinary lives. Her books are about the women in her family who were extraordinary but unsung.

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