Writing: What You Don’t Know

It’s classic writing advice: Write what you know.

Unfortunately, if you want to write about a fantastic monster, a human transformed into a dragon, or an alien xenoarchaeologist uncovering ruins of a strange race from somewhere called “Dirt”, this isn’t possible.

In which case, there’s another piece of writing advice that I’ve found much more useful: Know what you write.

Research. Do lots and lots of research. Libraries are fun! Maybe there’s no way to research alien xenoarchaeologists, but there’s plenty of info on archaeology out there. Poke it until you find an approach your alien culture would use. It doesn’t have to be the best, or even mostly scientific. You might have the alien equivalent of Heinrich Schliemann following the works of Homer to find Troy! It just has to be based in reality, so the readers have a solid footing when they suspend their disbelief. Everything else fantastic in the story will be that much more plausible because of it.

Besides, you never know when a little research will provide just the hook your plotbunnies need to go from “okay, another space opera” to “ooo, this is going to change everything that comes next!”

Like that iron knife in Tutankhamen’s tomb. Meteoric iron.

Hey, maybe Daniel Jackson was onto something….


12 thoughts on “Writing: What You Don’t Know

  1. I say Know What You Write (after all that is what research is for) and Love What You Write. Like it doesn’t matter that romance is the biggest slice of the publishing pie, if you hate romantic stories, then you probably won’t be able write a good romance novel. Or it will a chore and that will show in your writing. Yes, sometimes getting through a draft is liking trying to get through a lake of molasses in January but you can always “I love science fiction. I love this setting and characters. And with the stars as my witness, I will finish this space opera! And it will gloriously cheesy and awesome!”

    Like that iron knife in Tutankhamen’s tomb. Meteoric iron.

    My poking-a-hole-in-things bunnies would like to point out that while it was made from iron, it wouldn’t be the first time technology was lost and had to be re-discovered. Like glass-blowing was.

    Side Note: Magi fic. My bunnies have presented me with a way to get my head wrapped around on things like why the Ancient Egypt analog is called Heliophat when that sounds more Greek than Egyptian . . . well, you know how countries are known and sometimes better known not by their native name but what some foreign power named them? There are a lot of places that retained their Roman province name. Or like how we say Japan but to Japanese it’s Nippon or Nihon?

    They think this has potential, like having areas conquered by Kou tend to get a new name in the Kou Language.

    Also they have noted that if anyone tries to crossover Magi and Saiyuki, one might end up with name confusion with the two Hakuryuu running around. Or one might have change one of their names – like since Kou is clearly based on China, maybe Hakuryuu Ren would be Bai Long or something like that . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gloriously cheesy and awesome, yay!

      (Which was what I knew Count Taka would be when the bunnies hit me with the title. I swear, that came first!)

      Well, at the time, working meteoric iron was a known thing; smelting it wasn’t. 🙂

      Heliohapt would mean “sun-touched” in Greek; and in fact a lot of the Egyptian deity names we casually use come from Greek. Isis is Aset in Egyptian.

      And huh, given they’re bent on wiping out other cultures, I’ll just bet the Kou have been renaming things!


      1. Gloriously cheesy and awesome, yay!

        *grins* Yep! Gloriously cheesy and awesome for the win!

        . . .Egyptian deity names we casually use come from Greek . . .

        I knew that – that’s what gave me the idea that these countries probably have more than one name and that some of the less sense making ones probably aren’t the one the natives use. The bunnies are strongly leaning toward making Heliophat’s real name Kemet.

        And while I told them sternly that AU of this scale is quite enough, they keep trying to sneak crossover potential in there. Mostly by conquering just how certain characters’ heads would spin trying to figure the connection and geeking out. Like with the Kemet, they just keep presenting the image of Danny geeking comparing and contrasting Magi Kemet with Earth and such and arggh – I told you to stop that!. Or insisting that one of the analog countries we haven’t seen must be based on India . . .

        And huh, given they’re bent on wiping out other cultures, I’ll just bet the Kou have been renaming things!

        Aye, verily.


  2. I am a reader not a writer (of fiction) but your observation actually explains something I have noticed but never put much thought into past “I don’t like this.” Put book down in discard pile.

    Some stories float in aether. This is particularly noticeable in Fantasy although I’ve seen it in Historical fiction too (especially Romance). It’s where the author has not put a lot of thought into “does this make sense given the times/society/world that my characters find themselves in?” Historical fiction is particularly tricky since you can get a fairly educated reader who will trip over dialog like “His psychology blah blah…” coming from a mediaeval damsel. And, yes, I actually did read this in a book whose title and author I have forgotten.

    Fantasy in prone to what I call incomplete history where the author wants to create a world as real as Tolkien’s (that sense of ages and ages of history in his books!) but hasn’t thought things through. The story just floats. The characters just float. There is no sense of antecedents, or history, or why certain things are what they are or happen the way they happen. No rhyme or reason to magic systems or monsters…I shan’t go on. I think your comment on research is spot on. Ground Fantasy in something real and it’s harder to violate basic premises inadvertently.

    Ilona Andrews at least a year ago answered a question about Nevada’s mother (from Burn For Me). Ilona had written this complete detailed biography (of what is a supporting character) just so she could understand why the character did what she did. Most of that biography will probably never surface in any book. It was background research.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. *Nod* If you have to make up a place, you do it – but if you can make it a real place’s “stunt double”, so to speak, you’ve got stuff to draw off if your characters go completely off script and into the storm drains!

      Whoof. I’m not so sure about writing complete biographies of everyone, but – better to have it and not need it, as they say. 🙂


  3. Thinking on this, I think what gets me the most is lack of engaging all the senses in some books. Then again, I’ve put a book down because the characters never seemed to eat, smell, or touch anything. It was all words and vision. Again, I work with food, but in general taste and smell mean something to a lot of people. Also, it lets you play around with cultures in a way that people don’t think of very often.

    Heck, the one form of culture the Kou likely don’t even notice that would still be existing? Peasant food, because that is there for very, very good reasons.


    1. I read somewhere that a editor remarked that one of the ways you can always spot either the inexperienced writer or the ones who don’t think it through – There is no smell.

      Through obviously some editors don’t think of stuff like that either. Come on, you can make it interesting for them to eat. Firstly, you are telling the audience a lot about the culture of the characters in what they eat, how often, what they consider to be too gross to eat, how easy or difficult it is to obtain food at all or just certain foods, the list goes on.

      And what’s wrong with doing some of your exposition scenes over food? Yeah, depending on the novel, some people won’t consider some exposition topics dinner table talk but it depends on the characters. If you work in certain professions, you learn to handle the gross and still eat very quickly. My brother once told people he knows that tried to gross him out while he was eating that their attempt was cute but he was a nurse.

      Totally agree – food is a big part of culture. There are bunch of cultures where “how are you” is more accurately translated as “have you eaten yet?”

      And food ties in with hospitality. In a lot of cultures, proper hospitality (however they define it) is a Big Deal and Very Serious Business.

      Hey they probably aren’t going to pay attention to peasant food as it could be another thing they have blinders on about since they are the Rens are royalty in a country where it seems that a lot of detail stuff is what underlings are for.

      Then again they have their required “education” period for people. And one of their blinders about things might be that you can’t grow certain plants in certain climates. Like good luck trying to grow rice in Qishan or Imuakkah (sp?).


      1. Actually, there are a fair number, but a lot of them have multiple meanings, which is fair enough, considering that the people who normally use them for scent are chefs, perfume experts(which if you haven’t looked into, that whole world is fascinating! I started with reading about it from a Rex Stout novel, but it’s pretty cool in and of itself. Which isn’t surprising, because cosmetics is one of those things that is pretty ancient.) or competitive plant breeders/growers.

        Also, now I’m pondering if in the future of Magi, that there’s a Kou/Local division in words something close to the French/English division in words for food.


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