This writing exercise challenges the notion of “write what you know.”
If everyone wrote what they knew, we wouldn’t have popular fiction such as The Sookie Stackhouse Novels, also known as The Southern Vampire Series, also known as those books True Blood is based off of. Because, certainly, Charlaine Harris is not a vampire, nor has she likely met one in real life.
And yet, she writes about them, along with an entire spectrum of supernatural beings, and she does so quite well.
If you’d like a more official, classic example, simply look at Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
Writing about something you don’t know intimately surely poses a risk of some degree. But as they say, with great risk can come great rewards.
Page 29 in the book.
“The exercise: Using the first person, describe an event or action you are fairly sure you will never experience firsthand. Be very specific – the more details you incorporate the more likely it is that your reader will believe you. Include your feelings and reactions.
“The objective: ‘Write what you know’ is all very well but it restricts most of us within narrow confines. You must also be able to write what you don’t know, but can imagine. This is what your imagination is for. Let it fly.”
Their student example begins with: “I’ve been a missing person for ten days and the novelty is starting to wear off. My wife is on the eleven o’clock news and my girlfriend’s losing her patience.”
Here is mine:
I was the first to arrive at the scene, since the suspect lives two houses over. I felt something like a kid playing dress up at Halloween, making my way over in my SWAT team uniform.
In fact, ever since I got promoted to the SWAT team I have felt like a person in costume.
The outfit is all black, with spots of silver and gold here and there. My pants are tucked into my boots, laced up all the way and tied according to SWAT team standards. My bulletproof vest – my security blanket – rests underneath my jacket. There is a revolver at my foot, and another one at my waist. I have a helmet on, with a full shield protecting my face.
I move swiftly through the suburban neighborhood. I try to duck under the shadows maple and elm trees provide. I think I am virtually unseen as I find a poplar to duck behind, but then I hear, “What is that, Daddy?” and I know I’ve been spotted by civilians.
In my peripheral vision I can see a family outside on the front yard of their lawn. I don’t have to turn my head all the way to know for sure that the grass is cut symmetrically, there is a mother and a father and at least two kids, and they are playing fetch with a dog.
I keep moving.
I see the house now. At first glance, it appears to be not unlike any other house in the neighborhood, but then at closer inspection it is revealed to be just a bit smaller. It’s just a bit dingier too.
There is the layer of dirt on the already off white shingles, the large spots of dead grass littered among the lawn, the rusty tricycle on the side of the house. It looks like it could give some three-year-old hepatitis. And, the roof is clearly caving in.
I see fellow SWAT members approaching in the distance, driving the customary black van. They’re traveling at the speed of an elderly lady returning from church in her Oldsmobile.
A small branch separates from a tree above the house. The roof caves in just a tiny bit more under the weight of the wood.
My instincts, my years of training, are telling to me crouch down by the chicken wire fence, or duck behind the maple tree – anything to get out of the line of sight.
But I see the suspect now. He’s in the living room window and he’s looking at me from behind thick, dark drapes. He has deep, black, wide eyes and a thick mustache. He looks at me and I can feel his terror as surely as if it were my own.
I look back to where the black van is approaching. After a quick survey of the area, I point towards the suspect’s backyard. Realization sweeps over him and he is rushed outside, through the backdoor, and into the next yard. Beyond that, there is a dense wood.
I see another black van heading down the street behind the first one. This SWAT member is driving more like an aggressive teenager late for an important date.
When they pull up to the house the tires are screeching and neighbors are beginning to look out their windows. Lawn mowers stop. Children are silenced.
I give the signal to proceed with caution. We surround the empty house.
Okay, confession. This was a really difficult writing exercise to do. I actually started over twice.
Clearly, I was writing from the point of view of a SWAT team member who lets a criminal go – something I’ve never experienced fisthand – and it was difficult. I don’t know what they wear or what the correct procedure is for surrounding a suspect’s house.
My initial thought was that the policeman had been a drug dealer in his prior life, felt sympathy for the criminal, and thus allows him to escape. I found it was too difficult to clearly establish that back story in such little time, without doing some ridiculously long flashback. So, I ex-nayed that whole background story, but kept it in mind as I was writing.
When it comes to things like vampires, aliens, and fantastical creatures of that nature, it’s almost easier to write about them, as them, knowing that you can make it all up. You have to stick to the rules of your story, of course.
But in my case, there really are SWAT team members and were I going to write about one seriously I’d have to do substantial research to ensure a realistic tone.
At this point in What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers we are done with the Part One – Beginnings – and we shall begin the next exercise with Part Two: Characterization.