Writer’s Diary #3: Into the unknown

Let your writing take you into the unknown. (By the way, I visited this jungle path, at Queen Sirikit's palace grounds on Doi Suthep, near Chiang Mai, Thailand, in November. I didn't realise until I got home that I had been there before, 20 years ago).

Let your writing take you into the unknown.
(By the way, I walked along this jungle-like path at Queen Sirikit’s palace grounds on Doi Suthep, near Chiang Mai, Thailand, in November. I didn’t realise until I got home that I had been there before, 20 years ago).

I’m not the first to say “Don’t necessarily write about what you know; write about what you don’t know”, but I am still in a minority, as conventional advice tells writers to write what they know and what they know about.

This seems strange to me, since writing is a journey of discovery, a journey into the unknown, even if you know your subject matter. There is always something mystical about good fiction writing: it is more than the sum of its parts.

More important to creative writing than knowing about your subject or theme is being passionate about them and being able to write about them in a way that no one has written before.

However, you do have to do your research. While it’s tempting to jump right into the writing, doing some research before you start is a huge help because it enables you to concentrate more on the writing when the time comes.

When I moved to Thailand in the early 1990s, I decided I would write a novel set in 19th-century Siam. I knew almost nothing then about history in that part of the world, except highly romanticised (and mostly incorrect) information from popular western culture.

When I found the Siam Society, a club in Bangkok promoting the study of South-East Asian culture and history, I was on my way. They had a library of 20,000 books, many of them on old Siam. I did six months’ research reading these books and taking notes before I started writing The Occidentals. In those days, research was not generally done on a computer screen or using the internet, and we kept track of our research using an index card system, as I wrote about here last week.

Actually, writing the first draft of my novel took me only three months—half as long as it took to do the research (though when it was accepted for publication, my editor asked me to add 100 pages, so I had to go back to my research, and I spent another three months on the addition). I wrote every day, six days a week, for five hours, 12.30-5.30pm.

The six months’ ground-work had ongoing benefits: I used it as the start of research for my PhD in the 2000s, which in turn became my second book, Imagining Siam: A Travellers’ Literary Guide to Thailand, and which has led to an academic career.

In saying don’t be afraid to write about what you don’t know, I’m in good company. For more on writing about the unknown, see this article in The Atlantic by Harvard Creative Writing Faculty director Bret Anthony Johnston.

I’d love to hear from you about your launch into the unknown for the sake of your writing.

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