If you’re a writer, I’m sure you’ve heard the advice “Write what you know”. As advice goes, it’s not bad, but what do you do when you venture into areas you don’t know? This can easily happen, even if we start with material that draws on our own experiences.
For instance, my novel, The Girl in the Box, originated with a trip I took to Central America back in the seventies. The violent Civil War between the government and the guerrillas was underway, and my girlfriend and I saw things that shocked and disturbed us. For instance, when riding on the second-class buses, we were stopped by government soldiers. The fear in the eyes of the Maya was obvious, and we wondered what was going on. The soldiers took many of the male passengers away, and these men did not return. We learned later they had been killed or taken prisoner.
So we knew something of what was going on, but when I began to write my book, I quickly found I needed to include scenes I had never personally experienced. Part of the novel takes place in Guatemala during the Civil War, where a doctor discovers a mute Mayan girl held in captivity in the rainforest.
I was aware that the imagined sections could sound false. What to do? The need for research was obvious. I read everything I could get my hands on about the Civil War and its aftermath; I read up on the Maya. Then, when I wrote key scenes, I imagined myself into them by recalling times I had felt afraid or threatened, whatever was needed for the work.
From what I understand, this process is similar to what Method Actors are taught. You try to feel your way into a character or situation you have not experienced by using “what you know” in a different way – you draw on your life experience as a human being. Most of us have felt a wide gamut of emotions; we have also seen others in the throes of strong feelings.
Sometimes, I talked out loud to myself, taking on the role of my character. I found this helped me quite a lot. I just had to be careful I was alone, so my family didn’t question my sanity!
The last step, in some cases, was to have somebody read the scene and tell me if they thought I’d got it right. I tried to find people who had been in situations similar to the ones I was writing, but that wasn’t always possible. However, I did manage to connect with someone who had lived in Guatemala during the strife, and a lawyer who had dealt with refugee applicants to Canada at that time. It all helped.
It was not a perfect solution, but I because I believe writers have strong imaginations, I think it is entirely possible to write credible scenes you have never experienced yourself.
Sheila Dalton has written three picture books for children, a YA mystery, two novels for adults, a collection of adult poetry, and many non-fiction works for children. You can read more about Sheila and her books at her website: