Writing outside your area of competency

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Writing outside your area of competency

Post by Blackrock on Sun May 15, 2011 3:14 am

I'm sure that, at some point, every one of has been faced or will be faced with this problem: insufficient knowledge of the subject they are writing about. This can relate to pretty much anything, ranging from small details to overall direction and "feel" of what you are trying to describe.

For example when I first started out with play-by-post roleplaying, I naturally gravitated towards the fantasy genre. After all, this was a setting, an archetype, I could claim I was familiar with - thanks to the movies, books and games I had seen/read/played up to that point. However, I soon noticed major gaps in my knowledge base, here and there, I'd stumble upon something which I had never thought I'd face. Arms and armour for one, I had never known what the difference between a barbute and a bascinet was, they were both "helmets" to me. I didn't know how one would wield and fight with a sword, what types of horses the different social classes used and so on.

What's worse, I didn't know anyone who was familiar with these subjects. So naturally, I had to rely on the internet (Wikipedia as a first step, then various blogs, sites, forums and so forth) to help me widen my understanding. Of course, even now that I can claim some layman's knowledge, I'll probably never go beyond that. And one way or another, that will effect my writings, which will always feel stiff and theoretical when it comes to those descriptions. Because, in all honesty, only an incredibly skilled writer could conceal their ignorance and pass on their information as reliable truth. And you can always tell that a person has been there and done that when reading their writings. For example, I'm reading a book now which deals with a tobacco company and how it affects people's lives. During the scenes where the author describes the actual manipulation and handling of tobacco, you can really see he had real, practical knowledge regarding the subject. (incidentally, his father oversaw production in such factories)

Of course, everything I've talked about has been technical difficulties more or less. There are other times when this problem pops up. Writing in an unfamiliar setting or genre, for one. I recently started writing a short fanfic in the Star Wars setting and found myself struggling to portray a believable enough picture. As a result, I had to do a quite some research on political and military organisations at that time period, droid and model types, slang expressions et cetera, et cetera. This can apply to genres as well, as I said at the beginning of the paragraph. When switching from the familiar waters of fantasy, to science fiction (just an example) I'm usually faced with a period where I have to read up on various stuff, so I can steep myself in whatever I'm trying to write.

Naturally, nothing can match first-hand knowledge, but most of the things one writes about are usually unattainable. As such, you are forced to rely on other sources regarding this information. I already mentioned the internet, everything is just a mouse-click away, but is it really that good? A lot of times I see contradictions in people's statements, differing opinions on different sites. Usually this information has lost its first-hand value and has been filtered through at least a couple of sites and view-points. Often enough, what you get is, at best, a hearsay - which cannot be readily backed up with factual information.

This is when the time comes, in my opinion, to turn to someone in real-life. Maybe you have a friend who knows that? A sibling, a relative...someone who you can actually see face to face and know that they really are familiar with what they're talking about. To toss in another example, I often turn to my dad who's got vast amounts of knowledge in various fields. And there comes a time when even those options can't help you. I've been in a few such situations myself, but a couple of times I've asked people here on FOG how to handle the matter. It can be surprisingly effective, truth be told.

So, to sum it up and give this thread a purpose - how do you approach fields you are unfamiliar with, when writing? Do you try to gather information about it or do you intentionally avoid describing those things? What sources do you rely on? And how important do you think first-hand knowledge really is?
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Re: Writing outside your area of competency

Post by Kalon Ordona II on Sun May 15, 2011 8:19 am

This is a wonderful subject for me to join in discussing, because I'm going through this exact thing at every turn in my current novel. I'm constantly facing questions like... "Okay, so what does this new tree look like? You said you can make super-detailed carvings out of it--what does the wood have to be like to do that? What color is it? How tall does it grow? Is it rare?" And I have to go look up all this stuff I never really knew about trees, because if I just make it up, I might--horror of horrors--produce something that doesn't make any sense at all in a supposedly earth-like world.

Of course you don't have to say all this when you find it out. You just have to know it so you don't say something else, something wrong.

That's what I get for creating original worlds with original things in them.

So, how do I deal with it?
The internet, mostly. xD Most of the things I need to know are just a step or two above basic, so all it really requires is some background knowledge I can build off of. The rest is more or less either what I know already or am free to make up without worrying about what Earthlings do. I know a fair amount about animals, for example, because I used to read animal books and encyclopedias all the time--for fun--when I was younger, so when creating new creatures it's easy for me to explain enough so that the reader can believe it.

Every chance I get, though, I do get opinions from people in real life. Also, wherever I go, I find myself examining little things I see or experience and scanning to see if it'll work in my novel setting.

One thing I try to do after having researched something, is to use it in such a way that the reader who hasn't done the research can see or figure out what it means without having to look it up. I might say a horse is wearing a caparison, for example, but then also mention a more mundane synonym for it, or describe what the cloth looks like, things like that. Not all readers even know what a gelding is, or what a "bay" or "roan" colored horse looks like. So since I remember once not knowing those things, I like to have my cake and eat it too--showing those in the know that I've done my homework, while also teaching something to newbie readers without losing them in the process or losing the pace of the story.

A real plus to stories, I think, is when they can incorporate some practical knowledge. I remember a long time ago in C.S. Lewis's A Horse and his Boy, something like, "things always look best when the sun is at your back." I'd never thought about it before when I was a kid, but while I was out playing or on walks I'd see that the little tidbit was true, and it stuck.

Giving that to your readers sometimes happens more when you have to research something yourself than when you already know it. Since you had to research it to write the book, it gets featured in the work. All the stuff you already know is taken for granted.

The other side of the coin, though, is that the reader KNOWS you know the stuff you know, without your having to write about it. It naturally comes through, no matter what you write about.

They say "Write what you know." I think I'd amend that to "Base what you write on what you know." Then take yourself on a journey from there, and bring the readers along with you.

One other thought, too, while I'm here. ^_^
Sometimes it's not just the information that you get from asking people about a question. It's the angle, the perspective, the second opinion. It's like having two eyes instead of one; you see deeper. xD I know what a piece of wood feels like, but what if I ask someone else? They might give me an interesting answer, and that might lead me to look at it in a way I hadn't thought about before. It might not be new information I get from another person but a fresh perspective. I'll no longer take that thing for granted, and it'll come through in the writing.


And, since we're in this handy topic anyway, why not put our heads together and compile some resources for basic knowledge of things like horses, armor, weapons, and wildlife for fantasy authors, and lasers, metals, and space for sci-fi authors, and, you know, other stuff for other authors. xD There's always some collection of jargon we have no idea even exists, the specialized language that deals with our desired subject. That can be a major doorway to understanding the material for your story: looking up the jargon. The trouble often comes in knowing where to find those collections or glossaries or whatever or wherever they are. ^_^

So, Foggers unite!
I can offer a nice resource for world-building, right off the bat. Very Happy
World-Builders.org, as well as a
Pictorial Glossary of Armor Terms

And if any of you FOGgers want to ask me about things for your stories, I could probably give better-than-average-knowledge perspectives on:
Animals
Dragons
Libraries
Lord of the Rings
Poetry
Religion
Sketching
Star Wars
The Legend of Zelda
just off the top of my head, arranged alphabetically. Very Happy Not much, perhaps, but you never know who might find stuff useful. ^^

Great topic, Blackrock! Clap
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Re: Writing outside your area of competency

Post by Blackrock on Thu May 19, 2011 6:04 am

Glad you like it, Kalon Very Happy

You bring up a very good point regarding how the writer presents information to their readers. In fact, I feel that sometimes I too am guilty of assuming that people know what I know, when writing; I always strive to deter myself from that habit. It's a very fine line you have to tread when dealing with such issues, because the chance of flooding your readers with information is present as well. I've been put off by writings that go "so he picked up item a, which is basically like this this this and this; then he saw item b, which is that that that and that, then item c, which is..." you get the point. But of course, I also dislike it when I'm faced with words I'm not familiar with *and* feel that the word is something the general public isn't really aware of.

As for the "knowledge base" - AWESOME! In fact, when I started the thread, I was planning on suggesting something like this, but wanted to see how people felt about the issue in general first. So erm yeah, great minds think alike? Very Happy

I'm in a bit of a rush now, so I can't really sit down and see what lists of topic I feel comfortable enough with, but once I get the time (or when I remember about it...) I'll definitely add my areas of "expertise".
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Re: Writing outside your area of competency

Post by Kalon Ordona II on Thu May 19, 2011 9:30 pm

For areas of expertise, maybe we could divide them between popular and specialized. I'm an expert at Lords of the Realm II, for example, but probably not many people know about that game, and it probably won't affect writing much. Zelda or Star Wars, on the other hand, would be popular fandoms of legitimate depth and scope, in which a lot of people might want to, say, create fanfiction.

I'm sure all of us have better-than-average knowledge or experience in a lot of areas, even ones not centered on writing, and those areas might still be useful somehow, to someone, so a more obscure list--something like a "special collections" area at a library, might be worth providing, if we're going to go all out. xD

We could set up the popular areas by subject and the specialized areas by person, so like...

Animals, talk to Fate or Kalon or whomever else.
Armor ----> Blackrock, and, I dunno, maybe Tempest or whomever, plus we can add links to things like that glossary.

And then further down we can have specializations alphabetically by person, like...
Blackrock --------------
[list of stuff]
Kalon ---------------
Lords of the Realm II
easy ways to cook oatmeal (you never know, someone might do a modern fiction)
GIMP
Shakespearean Sonnets
[list of stuff]


We could put it all in the first post or something, or make a new topic for the knowledge base if we end up having a lot of people joining up. ^^

We all know online resources, too, so we can add those to the subject lists. ^^
We could also recommend books. I see TONS of books on writing at my library all the time. xD
We can just organize it so that it's easy to add things, so we don't have to worry about anything becoming too laborious.

And in the meantime, we can discuss ways of doing stuff here while also suggesting things for the knowledge base. Like a collective brain. xD An expanded consciousness, like a mist. (or a fog, heheh xD)

Kinda got into a ramble there... ^^

Mainly I think glossaries of terms would be the most valuable resource we could collectively come up with. Those often seem to be hard to find.


Oh, here! While I'm at it, here are two more very, very handy links for world-building.
The Language Construction Kit
The Climate Cookbook
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Re: Writing outside your area of competency

Post by Nation on Fri May 20, 2011 2:34 am

I think it's good to step outside of your comfort zone from time to time. I wouldn't really say there is any particular genre or archetype I'm not apt at roleplaying, but I suppose Medieval Fantasy has never been my strong point. I tend to over-think posts within that genre, so as to avoid cliches. It's quite difficult however when the entire genre itself is one large cliche.

However, if I'm GMing an RP and I encounter someone who has perhaps never participated in a Steampunk/Cyberpunk/Futuristic/what have you RP, I am more than glad to explain the intricacies and nuances of that particular genre.
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Re: Writing outside your area of competency

Post by Kalon Ordona II on Sat May 21, 2011 3:47 am

I think avoiding cliches is the same thing as purposefully using cliches. Either way, we're essentially setting limits to our work which don't need to be there. Making elves that can't stand trees just to avoid the elfy tree-hugger cliche, for example, is the same as making elves that love trees because it's all you know of elves. Instead, make your own elves, and if they happen to like trees because of legitimate reasons in your world, then don't let the cliche stop you. ^_^
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Re: Writing outside your area of competency

Post by Gadreille on Sat May 21, 2011 2:49 pm

My entire time at FOG has been one big struggle to work outside my area of competency. I know everyone cringes when I say this, but I am not much of a writer. I am, however, an avid reader, which really opened the door for me role playing.

I love to learn about new things, so I suppose I love to jump into something I am unfamiliar with. It forces me to do the research and learn it. Research can be anything from a book I have at the house or at the library, to cross referencing various websites (I don't ever just use one; but if I find the same information on different websites [and they aren't just duplicated information] I consider it a valuable resource), to documentaries I can find on the matter.

The best thing to do though, is ask questions. And to let those you are role playing with that you are unfamiliar with the setting. My first role play here I was an alchemist. I did tons of research on alchemy and common chemical compounds used throughout history, as well as some herb use and such, while creating my character. I showed others what I learned, that way if something was obviously wrong, they could correct it. But the most awesome part is, since I know so little about that area, I unconsciously have given myself more creative freedom in that area. How could anyone ever think up something new otherwise?
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Re: Writing outside your area of competency

Post by Kalon Ordona II on Sat May 21, 2011 7:02 pm

That's a great point, Ryona! It can be the ignorant people who cause innovation, because they don't know something is impossible. Since innovation is about making the impossible possible, they're the ones who, even inadvertently, end up producing something new! Awesome.

I'll have to remember that. Dream first, research second. xD
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Re: Writing outside your area of competency

Post by Gadreille on Sun May 22, 2011 2:19 pm

Haha, if I just keep on talking, eventually I'll say something wise Smile Glad you liked my point.
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Re: Writing outside your area of competency

Post by Gabe on Thu Jun 23, 2011 4:27 am

First things first:
Ryona, you are an excellent writer.

Now the less important stuff:

I realize today marks one month plus a day for inactivity in this thread, but this thread is definitely worth everyone's time to read.

Anyway, I have generally been pretty apprehensive about stepping outside of my competency. Emoria looked like too much fun to pass up, but before then I had never written a bit of fantasy in my life. Even still I find myself shying away from the fantasy and magical elements and sticking towards what I know how to do. I am still trying to make it a point to sneak in some sort of little trick or bit of interesting (read that as 'useless') knowledge when I can. (For example, my first post in the 'council' thread where I talked about using the sun as a compass)

That said, I am totally on board with the ideas presented by Kalon. I always try to note in OOC's that I am very knowledgeable on military subject matter. My personal experience makes modern/realistic my strongest suit, but generalities and little details are my domain when it comes to military stuff. I am also very particular about engineering and mechanics. I love to know exactly how things work. In general, if I am unable to answer a question about either off the top of my head, I will find out to satisfy my own curiosity.
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Re: Writing outside your area of competency

Post by Artorius on Wed Jun 29, 2011 6:51 pm

Kalon, thank you so much for posting the armor link! Its a great resource. Also, this thread is a very worth-while read for many, if not all members of this board.
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Re: Writing outside your area of competency

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