Not Knowing What We Know

One big disadvantage of not knowing what you’re doing is you don’t know what you know. That’s a double-edged sword in that you don’t know where you’re woefully ignorant or where you know more than you think you do.

We all run into this from time to time, which is why college is called the great storehouse of knowledge, for students go in knowing everything and come out knowing nothing. Writing, especially for those of us starting out, is the same thing. What we think we know can come back to bite us, while what we think we don’t know may make us hesitant to take a chance.

This started yesterday as I began work on a bit of juvenile short fiction (the genre, not the humor). The MacGuffin requires information I’ve always considered above my head, and so I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations for construction and found I knew a good bit more than I thought, especially as I began to puzzle out how the characters would make the thing. Or did I? A few quick checks proved yes, it was correct, but I still want to build a mock-up just to make sure it works. Don’t worry; the MacGuffin is completely innocuous – juvenile story, remember?

In any event, I finished a bloated first draft that’s going to take considerable trimming, and settled down for a little mental fluff. That took the form of a program on Tudor England. I have a couple of adventure novels set prior to that era that I need to get out the door, so I stopped to watch.

First problem was not unexpected. It dealt with a relatively new technology in Tudor homes: Chimneys. That was used more often in castles during the period of the novel, so I knew I was bending things and hoped the hand-waving would hide it. Then came other little tidbits, such as the use of rush floor covering, which I was aware of but made me wonder if I needed to rewrite some scenes. The physic gardens, where people grew medicinal herbs, made me think that I at least need to mention this in passing when the main character enters a family’s vegetable garden and sees the herbs used in cooking. That this would include those used for medicine never occurred to me. Ouch. And this is a book that’s visited the beta readers long ago. Simply put, despite the research I’ve already done into that time period, I still had errors.

This is what makes it so nerve-wracking for beginning writers. What if we get some detail wrong? An error can send the reader completely out of the story. I know because it’s happened to me, such as a story in a major publication that had regional geography all wrong, or another in the same magazine that had impossible effects from complete glacier/polar icecap melt. Not as bad as Waterworld, but bad enough that I ran the numbers to see if it was plausible. It wasn’t. How many readers picked up on that? I don’t know. By the same token, how many mistakes have appeared in stories in top-notch publications that went completely over my head, but were noticed by other readers? It’s an unknown, and scary, number, one guaranteed to put you in mind-lock if you think hard about it. But more to the point, how many picked up on those errors to the point that it ended the suspension of disbelief, which every writer must create for an enjoyable story?

We don’t know, and that’s scary for us muddling through. The only thing we can do is to research our story the best we can, whether it’s the science in the science fiction or the events in a historic novel, or the details of day-to-day living in an adventure set in a certain period, and give it to the beta readers. If they find no flaw, release it to the world. Then we keep our fingers crossed that we got the details right.

Now, if you excuse me, I’ve got think up a parts list, and do a lot of rewriting.