WRITE WHAT YOU WONK: How Fiction Writers Can Engineer the Exotic from the Everyday

NB: I am currently on hiatus throughout May so will not be responding to comments until June.

Today I welcome the lovely J.K Ullrich ono my blog, who shares with us her advice on how to reverse-engineer real-world experience into fantastic stories.

Thanks so much to J.K for being today’s guest poster.  Please check out her links and if you have any questions, please leave them in the comment section below.


The antique authorial axiom “write what you know” means well. We write with confidence and authenticity on familiar topics.

But for speculative fiction writers like me, this advice seems incompatible with our imaginations, because what can we “know” about universes that don’t exist? A lot more than we think if we approach it from a different direction.

A quintessential bit of slang in my Washington, DC area is a “wonk”, someone so steeped in their subject, they know it backwards. (“Wonk” is the word “know” in reverse, get it?

Yeah, it’s a little obnoxious, but when you brave the beltway every day, a gimmicky bit of jargon is way down the list of annoyances.) Genre fiction writers can learn from this concept.

Rather than applying facts in a linear way, we can reverse-engineer real-world experience into fantastic stories with four creative techniques.

World-building Worksheet

I’ve never lived on a lunar colony. But I have worked in the basement of a large corporate building. All winter I trekked to and from the office in the dark, barely glimpsing the sun between shifts in the windowless underground.

My world contracted to a maze of grey concrete hallways, populated by the echo of my own footsteps and the weary faces of my fellow troglodytes.

Claustrophobia gnawed at me constantly, like hunger: hunger for horizons, for color, for a breath of fresh air. Without a peek outdoors, my basement office might as well have been a habitat on the moon.

That’s just what it became in my Syzygy novella series. I used those sensory observations and psychological reactions to describe characters living on a ramshackle lunar outpost.

Transplanting details from other experiences—for example, my terrestrial spelunking adventures helped describe the inside of lunar lava tubes—brought plausible texture to an invented setting.

As you go through your daily routes, break down each locale into modular components. Assess the physical attributes and sensory palette. Start building a mental catalog (or written, if you like note-taking) of interesting pieces that you can reconfigure into new landscapes.

This template approach will not only enrich your world-building, but it will also resonate with readers’ experiences and bring the setting to relatable life.

Overhaul the Ordinary

Speculative writers craft a lot of original elements for their stories: magic systems, technologies, supernatural creatures. But sometimes the most powerful illusion we can create is a new perspective on something ordinary.

My first novel Blue Karma took place in a drought-stricken future. Water—something that for most of us simply appears from the tap on command—became a precious, almost mystical substance through the eyes of my protagonists.

Examine the common artefacts in your life and consider how familiar things, placed in a new context, could become exceptional.

Once you cultivate this habit of alternative vision, you quickly realize that you “know” more than you think. All of your every day hobbies, interests, and skills hold potential inspiration.

Your musical ability might develop an interstellar communication mode that relies on the heptatonic scale; your cat’s behaviour could prototype dragon zoology; your petty office manager could become quartermaster for a Mars colony, meting our air and water rations instead of sticky notes and paper clips.

Inventory all the things you know well, no matter how mundane they seem, and see how a little creativity can transform them into intriguing story ideas.

Nuance, Not Narration

A little literary epistemology—how we know what we know—can integrate all this invention seamlessly into your story sphere.

Many world-builders struggle with the dreaded “info dump”, weighing down the tempo with narration and explanation. But that’s not how we learn new environments in real life. We come to know them through interaction.

Let your reader get to know the new terrain gradually, through the character’s activity. Consider the difference between these two examples:

Example 1

The princess stormed into the castle courtyard. The paving stones formed a likeness of the king. Red ivy climbed the stone walls. On the far side lay a large fountain surrounded by carved stone griffins. Water tinted blue from the mountain spring’s minerals bubbled from the spouts.

 Example 2

The princess stormed into the castle courtyard, stomping across the portrait of her father set into the courtyard’s stone. Red ivy on the walls shivered as she passed. She flung herself at the feet of the stone griffin beside the fountain and splashed in frustration at the mineral-blue water.

The second is more dynamic, revealing the world in a subtle way that keeps the reader eagerly exploring through the pages.

Keep Knowing

Writers feeling constrained by the compulsion to “write what you know” should think of it not as a limitation, but an invitation to know more.

When I first heard about DIY biohacking, I immediately wanted to write a science fiction story about it, but didn’t know where to start. Research to the rescue!

I devoured books, medical journal articles, and blog posts; browsed web sites offering materials and instruction; and even talked to some people who’d dabbled in the practice themselves.

By the time I began drafting my third novel, Binary Chop, I could write about biohacking with a reasonable degree of confidence. In the Information Age, there’s no excuse not to “know” anything you want to write about.

Reputable resources—academic studies, technical journals, historical articles—are only an internet query away. Learn voraciously from all disciplines. You never know what spark of information will help you WONK your way to a new story!

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About J.K Ullrich

Photo of author J. K UllrichJ.K. Ullrich explores the future as a technology analyst by day and a science fiction writer by night.

She published her debut novel Blue Karma in 2015, followed by the Syzygy novella series.

When she’s not imagining tomorrow, she likes to spend today running, playing music, and yelling at her sports teams.

Stop by jkullrich.com for more about her work and peeks at her upcoming third book, Binary Chop.

Website   |   Twitter   |

Blue Karma

book cover for Blue Karma by J. K UllrichWater. It covers almost three-quarters of the planet, comprises more than half the human body, and has become the most coveted resource on Earth.

Amaya de los Santos steals water. Orphaned and stateless, she supports herself and her sister by supplying illegal markets.

But when she provokes the law, and the ire of a  water-worshipping cult, she’ll need more than just survival skills to save her family.

Logan Arundson almost dies for water.

Deserting his military post for his drought-stricken hometown, he finds himself back on the front lines when a mysterious new water source turns neighbors against one another. As blood and water spill, he must choose between loyalty and love.

Paul Hayes’ family business empire is built on water, but sabotage threatens it all. Determined to investigate, he defies the company’s powerful CEO—who happens to be his mother—and discovers the industry’s underworld, where liquid is worth more than life.

Amid a maelstrom of climate and conspiracy, these three teenagers determine the future of a blue planet gone dry.

Winner of the 2015 LibraryJournal Award for Best Self-Published E-book and the 2015 New Apple Award for Excellence in Independent Publishing.


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Happy writing

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2 thoughts on “WRITE WHAT YOU WONK: How Fiction Writers Can Engineer the Exotic from the Everyday

  1. Pingback: Guest Posts and Interviews – Spring 2019 – J.K. Ullrich

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