Go anywhere online and ask for writing advice and one of the first things you’ll hear is, “Write What You Know.” Easy, eh? Write about where you work, where you lived as a child, your family, etc.
But what if you want to write about fluffy pink arthropods that live on floating rocks? Or the crew of a spaceship heading for the outer rim of the galaxy? It’s not like you can book a vacation there to do research, and you certainly don’t know what it’s like to spend decades in a hibernation pod. How do you write what you know when you’re making everything up?
The answer is to apply what you do know to things that you don’t. Let me give you an example. It doesn’t matter if you’re sitting on a floating rock, a cold metal deck plate or a wooden buckboard of a wagon – if you sit on something hard for long enough, your butt goes numb. You know this. Everyone knows this. So what if your character is driving a steam-powered battle clank? They have a butt, it will go numb.
It’s these little, universally understood details that will let your readers connect to a fantastical location. You know what it feels like to walk into a room where there’s been an argument. You’ve been angry enough to clench your fist, or to throw something in frustration. Use these common reactions as touchstones for your readers.
I can hear you say it now though – what if your character isn’t human? What if they don’t share our emotions, or react the same way we would? What if they don’t have a butt! The good news is; every living thing wants something. The pink fuzzy things may only say “plorp” and turn purple at the full moon, but if you throw a meteor at them and burn off their source of food, they’ll react. They want dinner, and everyone understands that things get desperate when starving. It’s universal, something we can relate to, and that will gain sympathy for your mono-syllabic protagonists.
Same thing goes for computers. All a computer wants, in a broad sense of the term, is to complete its task as programmed. So toss in something that stops it from finishing its task. The computer won’t get angry, it doesn’t have a head to scratch. But your readers can still connect because they understand what it’s like to get something completely new tossed at them, something they were never taught to deal with.
Now, let’s circle back to the folks writing stuff about the real world. These same principles can work for them as well. For example, your piece is set in Chicago. You lived there, you know what it’s like and anyone else who’s been there will understand what you mean by a Chicago summer. But what about everyone else that picks up your book? Do you really want to limit your audience to locals? And what if you’ve never been there yourself, but want to use the city as a backdrop?
Here’s an example of how you make it work – we all know the feeling of sweat prickling at our collar and armpits, of having fabric stick to us. And who hasn’t swiped a hand across a cold glass and then pressed that hand to their neck to cool off? If your character does this, your readers will know what summer there is like, and can relate. Add in the smell of diesel as a bus rumbles past and sound of a radio playing too loud, the sound coming out through windows left open to catch a stray breeze, and Chicago has just come to life. I’ve never been there, but I’ve been in other cities. I can apply what I do know to what I don’t.
Make sense? It really is that easy. I hope that helps, and have fun writing!