I’m going to reveal my geek roots here—and perhaps my age—but in the Second Edition of the Dungeons and Dragons rules one of the skills a bard can have is called “Know a little bit of everything”. This was a useful skill, not just for the person playing the bard character, but for the Dungeon Master trying to present the story. It could sometimes provide a little shortcut to providing the players with knowledge they might not normally have without having to go through the difficulty and time (and boredom) of finding it out.
We, as storytellers, are bards after a fashion. While it’s not essential to “know a little bit of everything”, it can seldom hurt, either. All those years you spent soaking up knowledge hoping to get challenged to another game of Trivial Pursuit are not wasted just because the game has gone out of fashion! Anything you learn can be used in a story—much of it regardless of genre!
One writer who I find a fine example of this is William Gibson. His series of books, “Pattern Recognition”, “Spook Country”, and “Zero History”, are a great example of ways writers can work in just about any bizarre little factoid. In his case it’s often to increase the “cool factor” of his books. You find out obscure little facts about manual calculation devices, fashion, or outdated and bizarre Russian military craft and you can’t help but feel a little bit cooler for knowing it. It also helps him sell a lot of other details that may be fictional, but we believe because he comes across knowing so much about everything. All of it comes together to create present-day fiction that turns our own world inside out and reveals it to be stranger than fiction. Gibson is known as a science fiction writer, but no particular love of science is needed to be transported to the oddball world we already live in.
As writers we can be well-served by an innate curiosity. Even if we don’t try to soak up everything we can find, going just a little farther into a topic than the average person can help us both surprise our readers and build our credibility. If a factoid or an image stick in our heads there’s a good chance it’ll stick in our readers’ heads, too. Michael Crichton did this very well, too. He would take known science and extrapolate from there. He was also good at explaining science to the point that it not only didn’t interfere with the plot, but we could feel ourselves getting smarter just by following the story. The only danger was that it was never easy to tell where the established science ended and the speculative science began. You could end up “knowing things that just ain’t so!”
I’ve been trying to find a genre where the idea of learning something about everything wouldn’t be helpful and I haven’t thought of one yet. No, it’s not necessary to throw new and unfamiliar things at your readers—the familiar has its own appeal—but it’s a handy resource. For example, if you’re a romance writer, there is a certain segment of the potential audience who may never get tired of stories about doctors and nurses. But there’s another segment who might find it kinda cool if the heroine is the art director for a video game development company, or if the hero composes background music for movie trailers. Just knowing those occupations exist can freshen your characters and story without much effort on your part—or may even introduce new elements to your story.
Being well-versed in a variety of subjects, even slightly versed in a wide variety of subjects can really provide a solid foundation for writers. Knowing a little bit of everything is not just a good skill for a role-playing game. For writers, it perhaps should be a way of life.