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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

Books Are Like Onions Podcast

Filtering by Tag: unknown topics

Episode 3: Writing What You Don't Know

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

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Episode Summary

Whether you’re tackling a new subject matter or are dipping your toes into an entirely different genre, learn a few tips and tricks that can help you successfully execute your story, even if you feel like you have no clue what you’re doing.

Habits and Home (1:14)

Sometimes our ties to an area have a lasting impact, maybe more than we realize. If you live in a different state or country from where you were born, perhaps multiple places offer a sense of home.

Why is that? We humans are creatures of habit. We’re drawn to things and places we’re most familiar with, leading us to eventually adopt routines. In short, we like knowing what’s going to happen. If our schedules are upended, we tend to resist, to hold on to how we think things should be rather than embracing how they are.

Writing habits are a lot like that. We often use our personal experiences to develop plots, and a unique style then emerges from that. Most writers start off that way, and that’s fine. But a dangerous mindset can take over if we’re not careful: If I don’t push myself, I can’t fail. That only leads one place, which is a downward spiral to stale writing.

The Solution: Change (2:46)

Readers don’t just want change; they crave it. In a typical character arc, the protagonist isn’t the same at the beginning of the story as they are at the end. A good book uses that transition to hook readers and keep the plot moving.

As writers, we can’t possibly take our readers on the journey they’re craving if we aren’t willing to take risks ourselves. Sometimes that might mean exploring uncomfortable or uncharted territories.

Writing About the Unknown (3:49)

  • Research, research, research. The more you know, the more prepared you’ll be to write a scene.

    • Interview people who have experienced the topic you’re writing about.

    • Scour books and articles at your library and online.

    • Consider traveling to the area you’re writing about.

  • Look for inspiration—or let it find you!

    Example in the podcast: Personal story about a camel traveling along a local highway . . . in the middle of a snowstorm

  • Read books by authors who write in the genre you’re attempting or who have written about the subject matter you’re including. Doing so can give you a feel for different approaches.

    Example in the podcast: Excerpt from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Berenice”

  • Practice writing your scene. Go ahead and get that crappy first draft out of your system. Don’t expect to get things right the first time; seasoned writers experience this struggle too.

  • Get feedback from others. Even if you’ve properly researched and practiced writing your unknown subject or genre, getting input from beta readers and/or sensitivity readers is a great way to adopt new perspectives.

    • Does the story make sense?

    • Is there any content that could be considered offensive?

    • Are there any cultural inaccuracies, biases, or stereotypes?

    • Could anyone in your target audience read this and have a negative experience?

  • Keep trying! With practice, you’ll improve.

A Quick Note on Comparing Yourself to Other Writers (16:28)

It’s tempting to compare yourself to other writers, particularly those you idolize. But doing so can damage your self-esteem and leave you feeling like it’s not worth trying. Instead, consider this: No one has the same mind you do. No one can tell the same stories you can, because no one has the same experiences or sees the world as you do. By the same token, though your writing is absolutely unique, you can always improve, no matter how good you become.

Quote from George Iles: "Whoever ceases to be a student has never been a student."

Final Thoughts (17:28)

I strongly encourage new and seasoned writers alike to explore the unknown from time to time. If there’s no movement and no growth in your writing, it will eventually grow stale, and you’ll hit that dreaded wall of writer’s block.

It’s good to have a solid foundation in writing by starting with what you know. But sometimes being bold and taking chances can lead to endless new possibilities. Maybe even ones that land you that perfect manuscript and win you an award.

Resources Mentioned in this Episode

Camel Story –

Excerpt from “Berenice” by Edgar Allan Poe –

Quote from George Iles –