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Writing What You Don’t Know

June 15, 2018

creature from the black lagoonWhen I was a kid, I wrote almost exclusively about what I didn’t know. Fantastical stories of superheroes, ghosts, and space aliens – I loved writing about space aliens. On the more down to earth side, I wrote about lonely, disaffected people who lived outside of the mainstream. People with strange deformities or frightening delusions who didn’t quite know where they fit in out there in the world, so they created their own.

In every case, I was writing about myself.

creature from back lagoon mask off

Growing into adulthood, I did start writing a little bit more of what I knew, sourcing from a rich catalogue of family mythology that had mostly been passed down orally – at the dinner table and such. Since I came from a pretty dramatic, war-torn family background filled with spies, lovers and rebels, that seemed like a good place to start my actual writing career.

So, I sat down and started relating what I knew… sort of. At least what I’d heard a lot about and experienced in an in-through-the-out-door-way when I packed up and moved to my parent’s home city of Prague, after the Iron Curtain was finally ripped down.

From there, I certainly was able to paint a picture and portray a culture. I wrote two full length historical novels, a collection of short stories, and a bunch of essays chronicling Eastern Europe during the 1940s, 50s and 60s. a time when my grandparents and parents were clashing with political and historical forces I could only daydream about. To them, the word cold conjured so much more than the winter. It was a state of mind and heart and war that still gives me chills.


Because there was so much to draw on, I would sometimes find myself fitting non-fiction events – stories told to me by my grandmother, for instance – into my very fictionalized accounts of World War 2 and Cold War Europe. And paradoxically, those are the very stories that some reader or another would always call out as “not ringing true” or “so obviously fictionalized.”

Other parts of my war stories – most of which are completely made up and never, ever, as far as I know happened to anyone – stay uncontested. I’ve always found that curious, but I think I get it.

One of the shortfalls of writing from our own experience, or our particular group experience (whatever that means), is that we know the story so well (or at least think we do) that we might take a lot for granted.

It’s easy to miss important themes and snap a fragmented picture when a person or event is too close. So familiar that we’ve made up our minds about it, and stopped learning. Without realizing, we get complacent, smug about our knowledge. Repetitive. The new angles, though so tantalizing, simply slip from our fingers.

creature from black lagoon legs

That’s why I’ve set my sights on writing a new series that’s way outside of my sphere.

This is not a goodbye to my other genre as much as it is a well-needed break. I was finding myself getting stale and craving something that would wake up and shake up my imagination a bit. An endeavor that’s on this side of banzai and will not only bring me back to the unfettered joy of writing completely from the land of make-believe, but also bring me home to my beloved Cold War with more to offer. Infuse a desperately needed element of outside perspective into my storytelling.

As a human being, I’ve learned much about myself from outsiders. I can give a short and not even close to finished list of some of those things right off the top of my head:

That I’m at least in part of Jewish ancestry

But love like a Catholic

I look good in red

But awful in yellow

I’m a conservative

I’m a liberal

Kinder in my actions than my thoughts

Better on paper than in person

An American patriot, for sure

One who seems more European than American to Europeans, though

I won’t bore you with any more of these, but you get the picture.

creature from black lagoon swim

Fiction is a radical reframing that helps us grasp such perceptions about ourselves and others. In training our creative impulses on wildly divergent people, cultures and worlds, we gain an opportunity to look at things anew, with the cold eye necessary for a true insight.

The kind of divination that only dawns on a person who steps over the divide, invites an oddball for coffee, buys a ticket to somewhere for something with someone. Who risks the raised eyebrow, the whisper, the Twitter troll.

That leap into a different story, another struggle, doesn’t have to take place across an ocean. Nor does it have to be for writers and artists alone. It can happen in your own backyard, spent among the people next door, who you might think you know. Who you may be wrong about.

creature from the black lagoon happy

Or damned right about.

creature from black lagoon scream

It’s an ethos my husband and I are at pains to instill in our children, so they’ll feel comfortable around peasants and kings, artists and actuaries, Republicans and Democrats. We hope it’ll embolden them to hesitate before they condescend, place on a pedestal, vilify or otherwise distort their own view of a mere fellow human being.

Because we know full-well how easily this intention can fade away as we dig-in to our habits, get busy and distracted. As we grow up. It’s an essence I often find myself feeling drained of when I dip my toe into all the fighting and tribalism that’s going on right now.

But I hope to get a great, big infusion of it while exploring a brave new world – and without hardly stepping out of my home office. The world I’m mixing up from scratch for this brave new story.

One of deserts and ancient civilizations. Love and war. A world I can only understand through fantasy, and is only possible if I throw out all accepted wisdom. A world like this:

Dozing in and out of sleep, I awaken for the last time at least an hour before dawn. The storm is over and it’s so quiet that I can even hear my brother, who still sleeps with the feathered breath of an infant. I cradle him, laying him softly on his side and kissing his ear before getting up to tip-toe to the mouth of the cave.

The moon casts an icy glow over the sand and there isn’t even a breeze left over from the violent winds that lashed us only a few hours ago. The stars twinkle and I feel the sort of peace that comes after a good, hard cry.

On the heel of my own deep breath, I hear a rapping sound, rhythmic, like two sticks striking to a musical beat. I can almost recognize the song.

Out in the distance, a shadow splays across the dune. It’s the form of a man, slender, his arm stretched out in Salan – a gesture that means to be, to endure, always. I bite down on my lip. The man – an archer – steps into the pale of the moon, the skin of his face aglow like a pearl. His beard as black as a raven. Even at a distance, his eyes kindle, lit by some trick of the desert. I step closer to the edge and hold out my hand, and he raises his, though not in Salan this time. He waves his fingers in a gesture of voyaging. The one the god Mazal used when he set his wife, the moon, into orbit around him. Forever. –BREATH, Book 1

Click this link to buy your copy of BREATH:


And please have a look at the newest Love at First Write vlog entry! It’s about uncovering the secrets of world-building and fits right in with this Cold post today!

  1. nice article, pls can u help me with my blog

  2. The honest answer is: I don’t know. I’ll tell you how it happened for me. I didn’t listen to what anyone else said about what a blog should be and just did what I do best in the most authentic way I could. A WordPress editor picked up on my blog and put several of my posts on Freshly Pressed, which got me a lot of followers. Then WordPress singled out COLD as one of their recommended blogs. I also promote my blog on Twitter, to my mailing list and everywhere I get a chance. I’m consistent and treat my blog as part of my job, too, so readers know they can rely on me and that I won’t go dark on them for 6 months 🙂 It takes work and a vision, but over time the benefits outweigh the costs. I hope this helps.

  3. so what your new article about

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