Writing Excuses 5.5: Writing the Unfamiliar

“Write what you know.”

Really? What about when we need to write about a relationship with which we have no experience, or about a real-world location to which we’ve never been? How do we go about writing what we most explicitly do NOT know?

Dan discusses writing about a sociopathic teenager in a mortuary. Howard covers writing about the relationships in a close-knit military organization. We talk about research, extrapolation, and talking to friends who have had the experiences we lack. But what separates the amateur from the master in this regard?

We talk about all this at length, discussing our own experiences, where we’ve fallen short, where we’ve excelled, and what we’ve done to close the gap. Because we are, of course, masters, and in this regard it’s EASY for us to talk about what we know.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Mr. Monster, by Dan Wells. This is the sequel to Dan’s first book, I Am Not a Serial Killer. While it is less bloody than the first, it is far, far more disturbing.

Writing Prompt: Watch Ian McKellen explain how to act. Many of you may have already seen this, but watch it again. Then let it inspire you…

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32 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 5.5: Writing the Unfamiliar”

  1. One time in a roleplaying game, the GM started making up a scene involving my hometown. I insisted on rewriting it for him.

  2. Yes, CM was first to parrot a tired internet meme, congratulations!

    Great podcast guys, I’ve listened to them all and have found them extremely helpful!

  3. I think a big part of writing what you don’t nor is playing the “What if game?”a lot. All the time, in your head, and you will grow better and deducting things you don’t know in a believable manner.

    “What if someone was kind a like me but grew up in a big city?”
    “What if that someone came from a poorer family then mine?”
    “What if they just got divorsed?”
    “What if the character were of the opposite sex?
    “What if they were really religious?”
    “And telepathic?”

    A writer or someone use to tell stories, or jokes, or play roleplaying games, or lie a lot is someone who can play the “What if game?”very far and continue deducing something that feels believable.

    But of course someone who want to come up really good answers to the questions do it supported by research.

  4. Interesting podcast. As long as you ground your stories on characters and situations that feel real and familiar such as family squabbles (become intrigues in Court) or loss of close ones (can fill in for losses due to war or severe illness) you’re on the right track.

    Great podcast as always.

  5. Google Earth is a good tool for places you never seen before. I used it a lot in my second book. Also online photo albums (such as Flicker) help as well.

  6. I watched Extras a few years ago and would recommend the entire series, especially if you liked the above clip.

  7. Ouch, best wishes on those vocal chords, Brandon.

    I’m terrified to read Dan’s stuff now! Well, even more than before.

    Thanks guys for the podcast.

  8. Brandon- Talk to Terry Brooks, he used to be an attourney. Don’t make details a reason to quit or put it away, go for it! I actually have a cousin in law who is one as well. I can ask questions if you let me know what yours are.

    Great work gentlemen!

  9. A personal favorite toolchain for me when writing about unfamiliar places is Google Maps (for street layouts), Google Street View (for describing said places) and when I try to write combat tactics, Google Earth’s 3d terrain functions and Google Maps’ terrain setting.

    If for some reason you need really pedantic details (exit numbers, bridge clearances, railroad tracks, etc. etc. etc.) nothing beats an oldschool paper folding road map. Sometimes those details can just make a place.

    Most of the information I pull from those sources never makes it into the word processor, but it lets me build a coherent image in my head.

    I originally started using this technique back when Google Maps was literally just maps. Even then it helped.

  10. @Brandon – Please don’t worry about stating the obvious. People learn through repetition and what is obvious to you won’t be obvious to everyone. That said, your efforts to include new advice in every episode are much appreciated.

    @Dan – Thank you for sharing your struggles writing police officers. Comparing your struggles there to the excellent quality of Serial Killer is encouraging for me.

  11. Tom Clancy is one of the best in this regard. He had many characters from different professional, social, and religious backgrounds. I never found any problems with any of the characters that he wrote, or any of the science or social mechanics that he put in his books.

  12. Sometimes we need to hear the obvious before we can actually use it. If you need to lose some weight, you know, already, that diet and exercise are the way to go… but most of us need to hear it before we’ll actually assimilate that information into our lives.

    For the record, Ian McKellan is the man.

  13. @ gm
    Next time I think I might claim first again, just so that I can efficiently annoy you.

  14. @CM I could have claimed first an hour before you did, I just didn’t want to use all my creative juices writing something so mind numbingly brilliant as “First”. You really showed us. ;)

    I think this was a good topic, thanks W.E. Guys. At my tender young age, quite a lot of what I attempt to write is about something I have no personal experience with or about a place I have not yet had a chance to travel too. Research is the key in that case.

    @Brandon Sanderson, take care of that voice. You still sound like you read The Way Of Kings out loud. BTW, i just finished reading it, that’s one storming good book, thanks. I look forward to book two.

    @Dan Wells, I look forward to getting a copy of your new book as soon as my next tiny pay check is cashed.

  15. I just had a minor technical comment: I definitely prefer the title tag to be “W.E. 5.X – [Title]” like they were for 5.1 and 5.2, as opposed to spelling out “Writing Excuses” like was done in 5.3-5.5–the shorter titles are much easier to see on portable music players with fairly small screens (i.e., my Blackberry). Don’t know if others feel the same, but just wanted to throw it out there.


  16. That’s a case of tagging. If you find a good tagging program (here is not the place to make reccommendations), you can change it yourself. I do it all the time.

    Reason: There is something with the tags that they get weird in my mp3 player. Some integrity problem I think.


  17. Thanks, guys. I think Tam was complimenting me — after all, it seems that the transcript is close enough to the podcast that it’s almost like real talking. Kind of like people looking at a scene and saying that’s as pretty as a picture :-)

  18. I was trying to make a joke about how Brandon says if your writing is too much like real talking, it gets annoying. Since I have to explain it, I have made a humor fail.

  19. Aha! Let’s see… maybe a bit more context? Something like “Ugh! As Brandon would say, that’s so much like real talking that it’s annoying. Good job!” Thanks.

  20. You know you’re a Dan Wells fan if you show up to his first book’s release signing with the second, like my brother did.
    Great podcast, as usual. :)

  21. “He was a Harvard graduate and so he used a lot of big words and would smack me on the head when my grammar was wrong . . .”

    And suddenly I understood the origin of Howard’s speech patterns.

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