Behind the Scenes: Writing Beyond Your Experience the Rumsfeld Way

I’ve got a guest poster today, and my own words of wisdom on time management are located over at The Lucky 13’s!

Shawn Proctor received an MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College, where his fiction was nominated for Best New American Voices and received the Creative Writing Award for most outstanding thesis. His work has appeared in WragsInk’s Philly Fiction Anthology, Our Washington PastimeThink Journal and Storyglossia, among others. He is currently seeking an agent to represent his novel The Sugarmaker’s Son, which is kind of like A River Runs Through It… except with geek heroes and maple syrup farms and bohemians. Shawn can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

Remember that time you first heard “Write what you know”?

It most likely came from a writing instructor, peer writer, or wizened voice in the corner of the fiction workshop. Best case scenario, the person was ignorant.

Paranoia and sabotage aside, the person is wrong. Not maybe wrong either.

If writers stuck to what they know H.G. Wells, Edgar Allen Poe, and Stephen King would have had to spin their bizarre tales in some other medium. Good bye, science fiction and horror. Later, magical realism. (Hear that? It’s a billion geeks shrieking in unison.) Let’s not even talk about British icons Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who, or Frodo.

Writing what you know won’t get you too far, unless you had a career as a spy, ninja, pirate, or assassin. And don’t get me started about writers who write about writers. (John Grisham, just stop doing it already.)

So how do you prepare yourself for writing what you know—probably family relationships—before leaping into the wild blue yonder of imagination? For the answer we turn to an unlikely source: Former Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld. Really.

Known knowns—Look, you know what you know. You can use any experience, place, hobby, job, relationship, or memory as material for fiction. I’d suggest concealing the identities of real people, but otherwise everything is fair game.

Known unknowns—You know you don’t know about police procedures or magical tricks or boxing. The trick here is to find a resource to that will make it a known known.

Try reading. Writer’s digest has a series of amazing books, including ones on forensics, name origins, and technology. Or consult newspapers, magazines, and online forums.

Talk it out. Ask your buddy about his job or hobby. Find a resource on Profnet or at a local college.
Worst case scenario, fake it until you can find the right resource. You’d be surprised how far you can go only fueled by imagination. If you never rode in a race car, perhaps you can extrapolate the experience from a teenaged joy ride or that time you fled from that state trooper. (Hey, maybe you’re more interesting than I thought!)

* Special note: science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, and other genres rely on rules and logic specific to that world. As long as you remain consistent, the rules of our reality can be bent, broken, or constructed anew.

Unknown unknowns—We know what we know and know what we don’t, but how can we know what we don’t know we don’t know? (Got all that?) This is the need that becomes obvious as you write, something that you never saw coming. Not when writing the outline or possibly the first draft. Surprise—you need to learn about marine biology or Zen to make a story work.

Take a step back and assess whether you absolutely need it. Does it serve the story? If so, decide whether you can jump past the section or must stop and work on it immediately. In any case, once you have identified an unknown unknown it moves up into the second section, and eventually becomes a known known.

Rest assured you’ll never know everything you will need to create a gripping narrative, especially one that goes beyond your experience. Don’t let the fear that you will hit a speed bump keep you from writing the first draft though. The good news: your stories will be better and your life more interesting because of what you find.

3 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: Writing Beyond Your Experience the Rumsfeld Way

  1. Not that I am an expert in this field (or in any other rice paddy of writing) but I wrote a sort-of opposing view not too long ago:

    If you tried to learn something that you previously didn't know, and then in the process did learn it well, won't that eventually be writing something that you, in fact, do know?

    I kinda see your point, though – not to restrict writing something based on something you're familiar or comfortable with, and keep exploring, pushing boundaries. That's always great advice whichever way you look! 🙂

  2. As a fantasy writer, I love this post. I like to push my boundaries and explore genres, and I'd be bored outta my mind if I had nothing to write about but my own life experiences. I've never done anything as exciting as fleeing a state trooper, that's for sure.

  3. Rin – True, not restricting yourself is key, I believe. If we only ever operated under what we knew, we'd all go around in circles. Crawling, nonetheless.

    AM – Well.. er… I mean… who HAS? 🙂

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