Every writer has had it drilled into them at some point. It’s one of the most familiar bits of writing advice there is: “Write what you know.” And it makes so much sense—it worked for John Grisham and Kathy Reichs, right?
The danger is that it’s safe.
To me, there’s richer territory to be tapped by parachuting smack down into the middle of a world completely foreign to your experience—because then you have to learn it from the ground up. It puts you and the reader on the same side of the table, both asking, What the hell IS this place? There’s nothing quite so electrifying as writing what you don’t know, because in the course of writing it, you come to know it intimately. My father, who fled Germany during WWII, used to say, “No native English speaker ever approaches the immigrant’s peculiar love of the language.”
My first novel, Steel Fear, takes place on an aircraft carrier, one of the most bizarre environments on the planet. My familiarity with aircraft carriers? Zero. Military experience? Also zero. You’d think that would be a disadvantage. It was the opposite. Because I had to learn everything about life on a carrier—from what it smells like, to what they serve for breakfast, to those chain-of-command power struggles no one ever talks about—I was never in danger of talking down to my reader. It was all as new to me as it was to them.
That’s the beauty of writing what you don’t know: the thrill of discovery. The challenge, of course, is getting it right.
In writing Steel Fear I had a secret weapon: my coauthor, Brandon Webb, was a Navy SEAL who’d spent 12 months on two different carriers. Brandon’s military background helped fill in the gaps and infuse the story with authenticity. Even so, we also enlisted the aid of a military doctor, a fighter jet pilot, and the gracious assistance of the current captain and crew of the USS Abraham Lincoln. And that’s the first key to getting it right: surround yourself with those who have inhabited that strange world. Ask questions, dig deep, absorb their knowledge and experience.
For the sequel, Cold Fear, which came out June 7, we parachuted our imaginations into Iceland in the dead of winter. Brandon had spent a few days there, whereas I’d never set foot in the place. This made it a tantalizing opportunity for both of us to discover a wildly unfamiliar universe. We enrolled a lifelong resident Icelander, who spent hours patiently fielding our scores of detailed questions.
Expert guides can take you only so far, though; at some point you have to get your boots muddy and do your own research. Find the best stuff there is on your uncharted world—the best journalism, novels, documentaries—and fall in love. In tackling Cold Fear, I began reading Arnaldur Indridason’s Inspector Erlendur books and fell completely under their spell. I’d planned to read one or two titles, but I inhaled them all—not just for the facts and details but for the spirit of Iceland.
James Patterson has said he is never afflicted by writer’s block because whenever it threatens, he plunges into more research. While exploring Reykjavík I stumbled upon this weird fact: when the pond at the center of town freezes over, they keep the northeast corner heated... for the ducks. That unplanned tidbit set our entire plot in motion.
Yet research, too, gets you only so far. Expert guides and quality reconnaissance will take you up in a plane over your alien territory. Now you have to strap on the chute and jump. And that’s key number three: be willing to hurl yourself bodily into the unknown. There comes a point where the neural impulse has to fly across the synapses for the story to come to life—and that happens only through the magic of unleashed imagination.
A writer’s imagination is not the thing so often popularly portrayed—the fevered fit of invention, the acid trip of a wildly eccentric temperament. It’s far more sober and intentional. It’s more like a state of heightened empathy. Asked how he got the details of his books so right in areas he knew next to nothing about, Donald Westlake said, “I’ve always believed that if you really think about the world and the characters you’ve imagined, you’ll get it right.”
And you will. Consult your expert guides. Do your research. Then trust your own innate humanity, and fly.
John David Mann is coauthor of more than 30 books, including several bestsellers. His latest, Cold Fear, coauthored with Brandon Webb, was released by Bantam on June 7.