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Writing about an Unfamiliar Topic
By Glenda K. Fralin
We have all heard that we should write about what we know. That is good advice, but it doesn’t need to limit us. We can add, or even write about something we know little or nothing about through other resources.
I did some writing for an online magazine a couple years ago. The assigned topic in this case was poisonous reptiles of Central America. I have never been to Central America, but I love to do research about things I’ve never experienced. I see it as a learning exercise not a chore. I see myself looking at the bright yellows, greens, and even reds that make some of the snakes distinct. It is amazing how a small poisonous snake can disappear along a path as people walk by. By researching through various sources, I possibly could identify more Central American snakes than the people who live there.
We can also write about what we know and add elements to the story from topics that are unfamiliar with it. I have found that, for me, the best method is to research as much as I could possibly need and then to keep the focus on the plot of the story rather than getting hung up in the detail of the unfamiliar. For instance, I’m writing a story about a woman who starts out in her twenties traveling with her husband into Egypt following a Bedouin tribe. This section takes up only a few chapters. I have studied about the Bedouin peoples, how they live, Bedouin tents, and about Egypt. I don’t include a lot of the information in the story, but the flavor of the rich goat’s milk, the yellow sands, the dress of the Bedouin women and their hospitality leaks into the weaving of the tale.
I focus on the people, relationships, the trials of my heroin, and the antagonists. I don’t include what I can’t describe or define either through my imagination or research. Of course it is a fiction story and it leans to science fiction or even fantasy, but never the less it needs authenticity. I’ve found that getting interested in the research for the details makes the story more interesting to me, and hopefully to the reader as well.
Become invested in the research, look through the goggles of curiosity, fall in love with the smells and textures. Yes, that too can be done. I can close my eyes and imagine the yellowish sand of the Sahara, the arid dry winds and heat of the sun on my neck. I can feel the soft, airy, loose woven blue lined dress of the Bedouin women that in spite of its multiple, draped layers is insulation against that hot sandy wind and sun. It keeps me amazingly comfortable and the ornate scarf around my head and neck is keeping the sands out of my mouth and eyes when the wind blows toward me as it constantly shifts direction.
No I’ve never been to Egypt, but I’ve been to a desert, I’ve seen sand and felt the heat on it. I’ve felt the advantage of light colored, loose clothing in the hot air of the Nevada desert.
We use what we know, research what we don’t and put them together to feel, taste and become a part of our story.