This week’s topic is all about what you (and I) don’t know. And no wonder it’s a topic of conversation for writers. If it weren’t for what I don’t know, writing and reading wouldn’t hold nearly the charm they do for me. I find not knowing something–how a sweepstakes works, how to make a forced out in baseball, how to shuck an oyster–the most inspiring part of writing. Of course Liberal Arts Writing 101 has told us all to write what we know, but what fun is that, either for the writer or the reader? Writing what you don’t know feels a bit like walking on one of those playground shaky bridges, unstable, discombobulating, sometimes downright scary, undeniably fun.
In GOOD LUCK GIRLS there is so much I didn’t know going in. I love to cook, but not like my main character Janey who is an honest to God foodie with a passion for the hardest recipes she can get her hands on. Janey’s exploits in the kitchen had me constantly stopping what I was working on to try my hand at some culinary skill or to pester someone else who had already mastered that skill. Likewise, Nean’s (other main character) gift with kneading and baking fresh bread stopped me short time and again. I came away from the writing of GOOD LUCK GIRLS with a feeling I could cook anything I set my mind to, at least on the page. It was a self-taught semester of culinary school, without all the dangerous knife work. (Which is why I am still damnably slow on the julienne-ing front.)
As I look forward to future books I might want to write, the list of ideas in my notebook reads like a brochure for a university extension program. Camping. Beekeeping. Minor League Baseball. Mobsters of Chicago. Lepidoptery. I know just enough to be dangerous about all these things, but not enough to write about them with confidence and authority. When I think about books set in those worlds, I imagine myself becoming a masterful fire-builder, suiting up in a white hat with mesh veil to gather honey, spending a day at a batting cage, tasting prohibition era cocktails… and can’t believe my luck that those things are all truly part of a day’s work.
And the best part is, there’s no fear of failure, no embarrassment at being a beginner, no stakes at all when you are learning something in the name of research. You can dabble to your heart’s content, ask your teachers to indulge you, and never once worry that you are making a fool of yourself. You’re a writer! It’s all for the book!
At the end of the day, though, I do end up writing what I know. For all I don’t know and want to learn, what the story really comes down to is my characters, who, no matter their day jobs or passions or circumstances, are humans, like me. So while I may know next to nothing about their lives (yet), I know quite a lot about their emotions, their joys and their sorrows. We all do, which is why we read books. And if we learn a little something new about bees or baking along the way, all the better.
So what pursuit would you like to chase in the name of reading or writing? Would you join me with the bees and the gimlets… or is there something else you’d be eager to try if you could work it into a book, or if a good story was told around it?