WRITING WHAT YOU *DON'T* KNOW
As writers, we're often advised to "write what you know." There's definitely value in that suggestion. Experience lends not only accuracy but also authenticity to our writing in ways that research alone can't always match. For instance, since I hurt my foot, the way I write about character injuries and recovery has changed because I have a much better understanding of the pain, frustration, and lingering effects that come with healing from a serious injury.
However, in many cases, we have to write about things we don't know and that are impossible or unwise to try to experience. When writing about historical events, for example, the best we can do is interview or read the words of people who were there; without time travel, we can't experience those events for ourselves. On the other hand, you could theoretically move to North Korea as research for writing about life under a totalitarian government, but it would be an extremely bad idea. Don't do it!
So how can we realistically write about things we've never experienced?
A few weeks ago, I was rewatching The Prince of Egypt and marveling, as I always do, over the sequence that depicts the Ten Plagues. I tried to think of what it would be like for people living through them. I've never dealt with burning hail, a locust infestation, or any of the exact things those people experienced, so I wasn't sure I could imagine it accurately.
But then I started noticing some things:
While most films depict the Ten Plagues as taking place in a fairly short span of time, we don't actually know how long they lasted. For all we know, it could have been months or years.
The average Egyptian living through this probably had no idea why it was happening.
The effects of the plagues could be inconvenient, aggravating, terrifying, or even life-threatening, and no one knew what was coming next.
Many people would have had their livelihoods threatened or destroyed altogether (fish, cattle, crops, etc.)
Political leaders seemed unwilling or unable to do anything about the plagues. In fact, some people probably believed their leaders were making things worse.
No one had any idea when it would end.
Sooner or later, the plagues touched everyone somehow. Even if someone person got through the first nine plagues unscathed, when the tenth one came, they either would have lost someone or would have known people who did.
And if that's not an accurate description of living through COVID-19, I don't know what is!
As I've written before, feelings are both timeless and universal. Confusion over something big that no one seems to understand, fear of illness/death/everything you don't know, anger at ineffective leaders, worries about supporting yourself and/or your family without your usual source(s) of income, wanting things to just get back to normal . . . I think we'd find those emotions regardless of whether the people in question had lived through the Ten Plagues, the Black Death, the Spanish flu pandemic, or COVID-19.
In our authorial toolkits, emotions are one of the most powerful instruments we have to connect with our readers. Even if we don't have personal experience with a situation we're writing about, we can still capture what's happening in our characters' minds and hearts by drawing on our memories of situations that triggered similar emotions. If our readers can feel what the characters feel, we've won the most important battle.
(Thanks to Harlie Raethel for sharing their work on Unsplash.)