The adage write what you know works well for how-to manuals, cookbooks, auto repair guides or medical text. With such topics, writers need a certain level of expertise. When it comes to speculative fiction, however, it’s another story. No one on Earth can know what a were-beast, off world portal or post apocalyptic witch is really like until the author creates it from the blank page. Sometimes that process can be a challenge so I’ve put together four quick tips for writing what you don’t know.
Tip #1: Research. If you have a world that is primarily desert, you don’t have to live in the Sahara to write it convincingly (just ask Glenda Larke!). You do have to ‘know’ what it is like to have three millimetres of rain a year and dust storms so blinding you can get lost between your camel and your tent. In other words, research the ecology of desert life. You can’t have bright green grass and furry platypuses, unless you explain a turf that goes eleven and a half months without water and a river mammal that swims in sand.
Tip #2: Savvy proofreaders. Research can take the place of direct experience, especially in world building, but there are exceptions. Horses are one. If you don’t know horses, you can learn about them, but if they are going to do more than graze in the paddock, you’ll need a proof-reader with horse sense to check your work. Readers who are also riders will spot ineptitude a mile away. Jolt! If it’s going to be a feature in your novel, get an expert to proof and/or offer technical advice.
Tip #3: Hands on. If you’re going to give some art, animal, dance, ritual, music or machine a big role in your script, immerse in it, hands on! As a bonus, your life will become richer for the experience. In my first two series, I researched quantum computing, physics theory, geo-engineering, bio-engineering and were-animal mythologies. I joined a local dojo and learned to wield a sword. Already on board were things like felines, horses, witchcraft, magic, astrology, gender studies and astral travel. I wove together the elements that were second nature to me with the ones I studied and learned. Anything else, like falconry, was proofread by an expert in the field.
Tip #4: Start with a grain of truth. No matter how wild and farfetched your story becomes, that grain of truth is what you build on and what will give your prose more weight. In my most recent series, Quantum Encryption, a main character takes my love of the Gray Wolf, an endangered species, and comes up with a solution to their looming extinction. I also look at possible results from geo-engineering projects that might do more harm than good. It’s all about the speculation, but begin with something real.
Any other tips? Favourite fantasy worlds or beings? I’d love to hear about them. Comments always welcome.
Kim Falconer is the author of the Quantum Enchantment and Quantum Encryption trilogies, set in the worlds of Gaela and Earth and exploring all manner of ideas, people and places. The latest in the series is Road to the Soul, which will be published 1 March. Visit Kim’s website and find out more about Kim and her books!