I would like to make it very clear that I'm very young (just graduated to a teen) and only an amateur writer. I have recently become seriously involved in writing in preparation for my IGCSE English Language exam. Part of the exam is to be able to whip up a sufficiently creative and unique piece (on a given topic/title) in under a hour. They are not grading us as teens; they are looking for actual writing quality at a level akin to that of a professional writer.

What I'm just doing is practicing writing short stories on many different topics and themes. This way I keep my creative writing skills fresh and in good use. Also, I get to experiment with a variety of ideas/themes, effectively preparing me for tackling whatever topic the exam board might throw.

Now the examiners are looking for something fresh and mature—pieces that deal with inherently deep issues (the likes of slavery and gender inequality) in a similarly sophisticated manner. But when it comes to sensitive topics like drug addiction or prostitution, how do I write about the theme convincingly and accurately enough without coming across as the naive kid that I am?

These are things which I don't have personal experience in and cannot connect with on an intimate level, and I'm afraid no amount of literary techniques or inspired writing can mask that. Yes, I could read up on writings by people who do have that experience, but I don't believe it would help make my writing any more genuine. It simply won't be the same as writing from personal experience.

Take the theme of a teen high on drugs for example. While I do have somewhat of an idea on the effects of drugs and how they could make you feel, I do not have any real experience with anything of that sort.

Any attempts at coming up with anything decent about drug use have resulted in something like this:

I sighed when I plunged the syringe in. Bliss and bliss. And yet more bliss as the honey liquid trickled into me. I sighed once more as I let my arms ease onto the steel-cold handles. A warm, fuzzy feeling enveloped my insides.

And then it hit me, an urge that refused to let me off its crazed hold. I needed to spin, spin, and spin. My skin was prickled all over with lust as I gripped the handles and positioned my feet. So I did. I spinned around in the chair.

Once. Twice. Thrice until I lost count. It was all a blur. The whole of my office: socks all over the desk, the battered laptop on the couch, soggy chips strewn all over the rug.

My eyes fell on the curtains. A deep, clear blue against the deep, clear black of the starry sky beyond. Even the dull grey couch had worked up a texture.

It was all so much more warm and wonderful this way. So I thought, jumping down from the chair which had been quite entertaining. I dropped with a thump onto the woolly, scruffy rug, the impact crushing quite a few of the chips that had been lying about.

And that is ridiculous prose.

How do I get around my lack of knowledge on certain points and not let that affect the quality of my writing? I'm asking in general, not specifically about drug use.

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Authors have to write about things they haven't experienced all the time. Just look at crime authors writing for TV or Movies: They must show characters being raped, murdered, burned alive, mugged and shot. They must show characters committing those crimes against others. They must show children being kidnapped and forced into child sex and porn rings, they must show criminals, male and female, perpetrating those crimes.

They must write about characters caught in floods and tornadoes. Abducted by aliens. Fighting a war in space. Being a master criminal. Being a ruthless hitman with a soft spot for a kid.

The authors doing this have no such experience, most have never committed a crime more serious than shoplifting a candy bar.

Heck, as an author, to be convincing, I must write from the POV of both males and females. Also, gay and straight. Also young and old. Also very evil and very good, devoutly religious to devoutly atheistic, conservative to liberal, risk takers to very cautious. If I restricted all my characters to just versions of my own self and what I have actually done I will have a very boring story, because those characters won't get into very many arguments with each other, and will always make sense to each other.

The same argument applies to actors, that must portray all these things. An actress of your own age, with no more experience than you, might have to portray a teen that, by chance, witnessed a brutal murder, and is being hunted by the killers. I doubt Julia Roberts was ever really a prostitute, I doubt the script writer of "Pretty Woman" was either. I doubt Denzel Washington has ever killed any mobsters, and I doubt the writer of "The Equalizer" has either.

A minor point: Reorient yourself. This isn't about you.

Try writing a story with characters that aren't you. Or, if that is difficult, write from the pov of a main character that is definitely not you, and reduce the character that is you to a friend, a neighbor, an observer of some kind, and don't write about her experiences.

The Major point: Describe vicarious experience.

Your solution is to watch TV and movies analytically.

Don't read (not yet), just watch and listen. The music is designed to evoke your emotions (they are good at that in most movies with 3+ stars out of 5), so is the imagery. This is the closest you can come to personal experience without getting wet. I say "analytically" because I don't want you to get immersed in the story. First, find scenes of things you have NOT experienced that seem realistic to you. Drunk scenes, consensual sex scenes, romance scenes, crime scenes, rape scenes, murder scenes, etc.

Pause the movie, note the time, rewind and watch it again. NOW describe what that character is feeling; step by step throughout the scene. Write it out, or type it out. How does the scene progress, and how does the character feel, and what is the character thinking?

This is why I say don't read, a book will be too specific in conveying these things. A film cannot be, it won't have subtitles that say "lust overwhelmed her". You have to figure that out by carefully watching the scene and coming up with your own written description of what is happening, what they are thinking, and what they are feeling. That description will be your own in your own voice. You can write that whole scene, and save it.

I can see you are an obsessive editor of your own work; take these scenes, and try to tweak them until you think your written scene is a faithful match to what you saw on the screen.

You can do that with romance, fear, grief, rage, intoxication by alcohol or drugs, being old or feeble, being mean or hateful. You can be a wife driven to plan and commit the murder of her abusive cop husband.

That is the exercise. By analyzing a film scene that strikes you as reasonably realistic, and doing the work of writing that scene, you learn the emotions that go into it, and how those emotions progress, and how they change or intensify to drive the characters through the scene, to each action that advances the scene.

There is no cheat sheet by cribbing from the book. There is no book! And this exercise, after you have done enough scenes, will also force you to write characters that are not yourself, and will teach you to write all sorts of characters doing things you would never do.

If you get stuck on a scene, then you can hit the Internet, searching for the psychology of some things (love, grief) or what exactly intoxicants like alcohol or other drugs do, and then see how those apply to the scene you are trying to duplicate. Perhaps the writers of the scene did something unrealistic for the sake of the scene; or perhaps they know more about it than you did. Not necessarily because they experienced it, but because they have done more research. For example, most writers have not experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from being in horrific war situations, but professional writers distill the public reports of many soldiers that have, and the clinical reports of psychologists describing the characteristics of PTSD, and can turn that into a "model" for how to write about PTSD realistically.

You can teach yourself, and learn vicariously. You can also, on sites like this or actual books on writing, get advice on portraying emotions, or writing various kinds scenes, like sex scenes or fight scenes. You can also get good advice from books on acting, how actors are taught to convey various emotions or states of mind.


P.S. Of course, for any underage readers of this answer, I am specifically recommending you only view content you know is fictional and acted in the form of TV and movies that you are legally permitted to watch.

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    THANKS A GAZILLION! Made all the sense in the world. Just the kind of advice I was looking for! – Soha Farhin Pine Sep 27 at 11:55
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    Is it appropriate to advise someone who has made it very clear that they are ‘very young’ to watch rape, sex and murder scenes? – Spagirl Sep 28 at 9:48
  • @Spagirl I've added a disclaimer at the bottom. To be on this site, she must be 14. The movie "Taken" is rated PG-13 "for intense sequences of violence, disturbing thematic material, sexual content, some drug references and language". Prime time TV shows murders, kidnapping, torture, suggested rape, death scenes, and violent criminals all the time; on NCIS people get shot, beaten and tortured fairly regularly. There is plenty of appropriate material for her to use in becoming a writer. – Amadeus Sep 28 at 11:26
  • @Amadeus Well, I did turn 14 this month. – Soha Farhin Pine Sep 28 at 13:41
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    @SohaFarhinPine Congratulations! Now don't do anything illegal and say I told you to do it... :-) As always, my advice on this site is tailored to the question but also intended to be helpful to a wider audience than just the questioner. So you need to adapt, not only my answers but all answers, to your own situation and what the law and your guardians consider appropriate for you. – Amadeus Sep 28 at 19:30

Research is your friend. Most of the (fiction) books that I enjoyed the most show how thoroughly researched they are.

On virtually every topic you can find first-person accounts describing the experience. Read them, compare them, distill the essence from them. And yes, this includes death experiences, look for people who were revived after being almost dead.

A lot of writers keep extensive notes and libraries on virtually every topic imaginable. I'm writing a short story placed in WW2 right now, something I haven't experienced, and I've made extensive use of online resources as well as my library including a 2000 page volume on WW2 that I bought and read two decades ago. The war was long before my time, but I can fill my story with details up to the type of wood used in the dining room of that passenger ship my characters are taking at one point, and I can write about the experiences and thoughts of my characters in this time by drawing the driving thoughts from the many eye-witness accounts available.

  • Extremely on-point! Thanks for taking the time to answer. – Soha Farhin Pine Oct 10 at 12:43

The short answer is: you live. You gain experience over time. Some things you'll never experience and some you already have. Knowing a drug addict is still personal experience, it's just from a different angle. Reading about different experiences helps but you'll be best off just meeting a lot of different people. I'm not suggesting you go hang with junkies but there are plenty of life experiences out there that aren't illegal or detrimental. For example, I've taken a lot of tests in my life (including AP tests and SATs in high school) but I was never 14 taking a huge test where I had to respond at an adult level. You've had an experience I never had.

After you've built up a bank of experiences you can extrapolate. For example, I'm in the middle of writing a novel set in Ancient Egypt, a place I've never lived in, will never visit, and will never meet anyone who's been there. But I've researched the heck out of it.

I recommend you tackle topics that aren't things so far off from your experience like drug abuse and prostitution. There are still plenty of things teens live with that are deep and emotional and make great writing. Divorce. Death of a parent or sibling. Uprooting your entire life to move elsewhere. Failing at something very important. A complete change in circumstances (for example, going from being middle class in a big house to being poor in a rundown apartment). Watching age or disease take its toll on someone you love. Maybe none of these things have happened to you, but I bet at least one has happened to someone you know well.

Talk to people and learn their stories. Read. Read some more. Volunteer in places where you see people in different circumstances from you. Get to know people of all ages, races/ethnic groups, genders, sexual orientations, social classes, political views, etc.

Good luck with your test!

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    It's funny because one of these things you mention actually happened to me. One of the more traumatic ones. I would rather not talk about it. But your answer was incredibly helpful and eye-opening---you helped me realise that my naivety lies in the very fact that I'm even attempting to go for topics beyond my experiences just for the sake of sounding mature. – Soha Farhin Pine Oct 15 at 20:07
  • I'm so glad it was helpful. I peeked at your profile after writing my response and saw you live in a country I've never been to (never been to Asia). Things that are everyday life to you would take me extensive research just to get mostly right on the page. You have a wealth of experience that most people in the English-speaking world will never have. You might be my daughter's age, but I could definitely learn from your writing. – Cyn Oct 15 at 22:52

It depends a lot what you are trying to achieve.

Some things are very specific and you are going to need very specific research to convey them properly. Take drugs for example, different drugs have different effects and for obvious reasons writing about the inner experience of taking them is not going to be an easy task without a lot of detailed and specialist knowledge.

Having said that it may be a lot more accessible to write by shifting your perspective a bit. You can start with your own perspective and look at your own attitude to drugs. Would you ever use any drugs ? If so under what circumstances and if not why not ? Can you imagine any circumstances in which you might be tempted ? If not what do you think makes other people use them ?

A big part of the value writing is to give the reader a new perspective and allow them to visualise themselves in a situation they might not normally experience. A huge part of this is understanding motivation. As writer this involves putting yourself in somebody else' shoes.

So certainly in terms of exercises to challenge yourself it make sense to deal with subjects which don't require a vast amount of technical research but force you to see the world from a different perspective.

Conversely one of the best ways to convey this is to tap into common experience. There are certain things which most human beings can relate to on one level or another and again this comes down to motivation. Writing, even great writing tends not to do well at describing entirely novel or purely sensory experiences, you need to find ways to tap into common experiences which most people can relate to.

For example if somebody asks you what it it is like being a young creative writing student how do you even begin to answer that ? It is something that you have direct experience of but isn't a very meaningful question as there is no basis for comparison. For you it is normal. You can't really describe what it feels like to be you until you establish some common ground.

This is a pretty fundamental feature of language. Words are essentially symbols which have an agreed meaning and written and spoken art forms tend to be very much centred on commonalities and differences of experience.

One interesting exercise might be to write from the preservative of someone you know. SO you have a reasonable amount of factual information about the but need to see that from a different perspective to your own. Maybe try a few different people.

At the most basic level maybe a friend or classmate, perhaps describe some reasonably notable day or incident from their perspective, perhaps as a fictionalised diary for a day. Even better pick someone you don't always get on well with perhaps someone you had an argument with. Try describing that argument with them as the 'hero'. If you can do that well you are well on the way.

The first answer to your question, as everybody else is pointing out, is research. Anything you don't know about, research. Read about it to get a general picture. Look for first-hand accounts (people you can interview, youtube, written accounts). In particular, note when first-hand accounts differ one from the other - you want to know what's always true, what's true most of the time, and what's rare but can still sometimes happen.

In your research, take note of small details. It's the little details that make a story come to life. For example, if I write about two glass-wearing characters kissing, I might have their glasses collide, creating a moment that's awkward and human, and particular to my characters, rather than being yet another couple kissing. Or, if a character is nervous, I would consider what they're likely to have in their hands in the time period I'm writing about, and have them play with that. (I've done my research - I've observed nervous people, myself included, play with pens, bracelets, etc. when they're nervous. Now I cast a character in a similar situation, and convey their nervousness by way of the detail.) And yes, research includes observing yourself. The fact that you've experienced something doesn't necessarily mean you've actively observed yourself experiencing it. Though that's not exactly on topic for you. :)

Research alone is not enough, however. Try to put yourself in your character's shoes: what would you do in their situation? How would you feel? How would you act? Not just in a momentarily situation, but having lived their life, their background, how would that be affecting your worldview? Notice how background affects the kind of choices a character could reasonably make - that's going to help you. When you read a book or watch a movie, roleplay the scenario in your mind - how would you feel and act? How is the characters' backstory affecting their choices and their feelings, their perception of the situation? (Are they, perhaps, acting "out of character", in ways that serve the plot, but do not represent the way they would reasonably act? Being a critical audience is also helpful and interesting.)

You speak of specific experiences - drunkenness, drug use. But the thing is, a barely-legal boy who's never been drunk before getting stupid on free beer is going to be very different from an adult who's down on his luck and drinks to forget his sorrows. Their whole experience of the situation, and of drunkenness, is going to be different.

Alcohol reduces inhibitions. But what happens next? That depends on the character - what kind of person they are. What is it that they would have liked to do, if it weren't for inhibitions? Go talk to that girl, or go rape her?

Same with drugs - different drugs, different reasons people take them, different effects those same drugs have. The "down" after the "high" is also different, and so are the consequences.

In fact, I'd say the "trip" isn't all that interesting, most of the time - coloured blobs, bunnies, whatever. It's the before and the after that are interesting. That's when the character is making decisions and facing consequences. With research, that should be easier for you to imagine than the actual sensation of drugged weirdness.

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