Posted by: Kathy Temean | January 27, 2016

Expanding Your Circle of Knowledge – Erika Wassall

erikaphoto-45Erika Wassall, the Jersey Farm Scribe here with

Expanding Your Circle of Knowledge

We all write from experience as much as possible. What we have intimate personal knowledge of, what we’re drawn to.

But, we shouldn’t be afraid to write things outside our natural circle of knowledge. We bring a fresh perspective to our work when we include concepts that we may not have any preconceived notions about, or where we realize there are other experts out there.

Obviously, we can’t go in blind. So the question becomes, how do I bring authenticity to a concept I’m not an expert in?

Talk to the experts! Question them.  Study them.  Read their body language.  Ask direct questions.  Don’t hold back, you’ll often find they enjoy it.

Here are a few great specific ways you can do this:

A Questionnaire:

This may seem overly formal, but the results are both tangible and easily compared for differences across the board. Let’s say one of your lead characters is the first in their family to go to a four-year college (or first not to).  This makes certain things different for them that may not occur to you.  It’s not necessarily something huge or deeply character changing.  But understanding it can add relatable, realistic depth to a personality.

Ask background questions:

Did they realize they would be the first, or was it something they realized later? 

Was it something they were pushed to do (or not do) from a young age?

Ask question about the specific occasion or situation. Incorporate questions that would show how it would relate to the other aspects of their lives or relationships:

Was their animosity among any family members? Preconceived notions or awkwardness about what that means to you or them? 

Did it make the application process harder? Did it add complications to actually being away from home?

Balance both yes/no questions, and some that leave room for them to expand.

A great final question is always:

What question was not on here that you think I should be asking and do you have any additional thoughts or comments?

Send the questionnaire to as many people as you can. Don’t be shy about it.  People generally LIKE to be asked to share their experience.  Tell them you’re a writer and you want to capture a situation, character, experience or feeling correctly without assuming.  

Speak to People In-Person:

Perhaps it’s a few people who gave interesting answers on the questionnaire, or maybe you have specific people in mind. But whoever they are, sit down with them and get them to expand on their feelings.

Notice their body language, their expressions. Take notes about not just what they say, but HOW they say it.

Do not be afraid to ask what may feel like “prying questions”. You can always remind them they don’t have to answer and can stop if they are uncomfortable at all.  But if they agreed to the interview you’re likely to find that they are fueled by personal questions and may even find it a therapeutic, positive experience for themselves as well.


As writers we are almost ALWAYS observing. Set aside some time to try to put yourself in a situation where you can actively observe people in the particular situation you may not be accustomed to.

One tip you may find interesting. Try observing both before AND after you’ve completed the questionnaires and interviews.  You may be surprised at how the body language and expressions people use can mean something different to you after having spoken to them personally.

Not all of these are possible. If you’re writing about a teenager who took a trip to the moon, it’s unlikely you can sit down and talk with them.  But maybe you can come close!  Reach out to a space camp and see if you can get insight from them.

Research isn’t just about hunting for timeline facts, historical references or local landmarks. It’s researching the human condition, how we react to events in our lifetime.  People are the greatest references of all.  And the best part is that with internet and social media there is a HUGE network of people at our fingertips.  A wealth of knowledge, expertise and a boundless opportunity to expand our circles of knowledge.

Expanding your circle of knowledge will expand your power to create.

Remember, our manuscripts are worth it!


Erika Wassall is a writer, a farmer and a liver of life. She is a member of SCBWI and a proud Mad Scientist, bringing science experiments right into children’s classrooms, and hearts. She has a small farm in New Jersey with sheep, chickens, pigs and vegetables. Check out her new website at where as a first generation farmer, she often takes the long way, learning the tricks of the trade on The Farm. On her website is also The Shop page with tips and a free Q/A from her husband’s mechanic shop, and The Writer page where she shares stories, experiences and characters from the heart. Follow her on Twitter at @NJFarmScribe. She’d love to hear from you!

Look for Erika’s articles every other Wednesday on Writing and Illustrating. Thank you Erika for another great post.

Talk tomorrow,



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