Writing about Things You Don’t Know

Do you always play it safe and write about things you know? Hmm. That sounded a little snotty and it shouldn’t. A lot of writers make a living writing about whatever they are an expert in — cooking, decorating, publicity, etc. Honestly? Capitalizing on what you know is a smart thing to do.

But a lot of us end up writing about things that we only know a little bit about. This was the case when I wrote Cancel Culture. I knew what the term meant. I had some idea how cancelling someone worked, but I had no clue about the background or breadth of this phenomenon. So I started reading and quickly worked to gain some level of expertise.

This is that Brandon Sanderson calls the 50% expertise that is fairly easy to achieve. Reading and research will take you to that level fairly quickly. Getting beyond that level is tricky. This is why Red Line Editorial, the company for which I write, employs content experts. A content expert reviews your book and points out the things that you need to change. Often they share information that still isn’t widely known. They are a blessing!

But what about fiction? Even if you write about a topic in which you are an expert, say basket making, you are going to have to populate your story with characters. These characters could all be like you but that’s likely to yield a world that looks flat and two-dimensional. How do you write about someone who is different than yourself?

As with other things, you start with your research. Me? I take a look at the people around me. If I’m not fairly familiar with someone who is a member of whatever category, be it ethnic, national, or neuro-divergent, I know I’m going to have to do even more work to achieve that 50% level of expertise.

Once I think I’ve got it, I face a decision. Do I count that I’ve got it right? Or do I ask someone to review my writing? My family is a wealth of engineers so I can find someone to look at the technical aspects of aircraft, manufacturing and more. I have friends who are trans, Muslim, and African-American. They can read my material and tell me if I’ve got it right or if there is some detail that I messed up.

Whether the people who read your work are expert readers or sensitivity readers, they can be a huge help in pushing your work beyond 50%. But you have to be willing to listen to what they have to say. Do you feel up to the challenge?

–SueBE

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