Pen and Scalpel: Don’t Limit Yourself to What You Know

Ever since I began to write seriously, just about every writer gave the same advice. “Write what you know.” It seemed to make sense at the time. I figured that if I stick to writing what I know, it will be more believable. Boy, was I ever wrong.

Denizen of Oz
If you accept the advice to stick with what you know, we would never have had Middle Earth, Oz, or the Lost World. These places, and many more, were created out of the imaginations of their authors. Did Tolkien visit The Shire? Had L. Frank Baum found something at the end of a rainbow one day? What about those dinosaurs in South America? I happen to know that Arthur Conan Doyle never set foot in South America. How could he then have written about that plateau filled with dinosaurs and those Cave Men?
The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The real answer is, of course, that these writers had incredible imaginations. Their minds operated on a much different plain than those around them. They could walk along the foggy moors of western England and come up with the Hound of the Baskervilles. They see a piece of amber with a mosquito inside it and conjure up the technology and architecture of Jurassic Park. They take Wagon Train, a classic television western, and morph it into an equally famous show set 300 years from now, Star Trek.
Hound of the Baskervilles
The ability to look at an ordinary object or person and extrapolate them into something completely different is something authors do every day. A great author can take a dictator from Romania Transylvania and transform him into Dracula. Bram Stoker had never met a vampire. His job as a secretary for an actor gave him no time to travel to Transylvania. What did Stoker do? He researched the area where Castle Dracula lived. His knowledge of the various locations in and around London and southeastern England is all that he needed to create Dracula. By the way, the book has never gone out of print since 1897.
Castle Dracula
You do not have to write about what you know. You only need to write about something you are interested in. If you aren’t interested or obsessed with, the subject of your writing will be flat and uninteresting. I have an interest in ghosts, and could probably craft an exciting ghost story. I do not know anything about hunting. If I wanted to write a story that had a hunt in it, I needed to do much research if I wish for my forest scenes to have any believability.
Passion makes all of the difference. Without this love, the foods we eat in restaurants would be bland and unattractive. Every book would be 215 pages and have the same characters living another day in their dull, uneventful lives. Every television show would use the same color scheme, lighting, and set designer and be about nothing each week. Do you have some idea now how passion makes the difference in everything?
Here’s an exercise for you to do. Try it once, and if it works, do it as often as you’d like.
Take a setting you haven’t written about yet.
Create three people and give them first names. Don’t do anything else with them.
Throw something unexpected at them that is outrageous. It could be a situation, an outside force, an animal, another person intent on doing them harm or something really crazy like something falling out of the sky.
Give your three main characters last names. What are they doing together? Why have they been there? Are they friends, relatives, or strangers to each other?
Have your three main characters deal with these events. They are in the center of it all.
Three Random Characters
Go crazy with this exercise. Don’t worry about how insane it gets. Focus on your people. How do they get out of the circumstances alive and unharmed? Do they get out of it unscathed? That’s up to you.
The point is to care about these main characters. Breath life into them, and feel what they feel, hear what they hear, and cry when they lose someone. Out of this will pour passion for them. You need to get very creative about keeping these three people breathing until the last sentence. The more you do this exercise; the better and more detailed the finished product will be. Make it as outrageous as you can think of. This chaos will force your brain to become inventive. 
After you do this several times, change it up. Put yourself and two of your family members through the same exercise. Now you’re dealing with real emotions as you do anything to keep the family safe and unharmed. You’ll find yourself getting much more emotional now because you care about these individuals. Soon you will be able to write about characters you invented as much as your family. That’s because the main characters of your story are your family now. You gave birth to them, and you need to nurture them.
You didn’t know them before you invented them. But you know these people now. And that’s the point.

One thought on “Pen and Scalpel: Don’t Limit Yourself to What You Know

  1. I loved reading Hound of the Baskervilles, and yes, without the imagination and without variety, the world would nothing, a flat sheet of blank paper forever waiting for that quick turn of phrase!

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