How Writing What I Didn’t Know Launched Me on the Adventure of a Lifetime by Polly Holyoke

Write what you know and you’ll produce a better story. That’s one of those maxims you often hear as a student in Language Arts class or even as a writer at a conference.

I took a gamble and wrote a book about what I didn’t know. That gamble led to a book contract and started me on this amazing adventure as a children’s author.

To write The Neptune Project, a story about genetically altered teens struggling to survive in the sea, I had to tackle complicated topics such as oceanography and genetics. Those subjects captured my imagination, but as a middle school social studies teacher, I was familiar with little of the science I needed to understand to write a convincing story. How would my Neptune kids be able to breathe? What adaptations would they need to survive in the sea? How would they communicate with the dolphin pod that protects them?

pollykissingdolphinI trusted that my inner nerd would rise to the occasion, and I dove (so to speak) into the research. I read dozens of books on dolphins, whales, and sharks. I even studied tougher topics like climatology and marine geography. Dive masters and NOAA scientists were wonderful about answering my questions. I swam with domesticated dolphins in Florida and wild spinner dolphins in Hawaii. I’ll never forget listening to hundreds of spinners squeaking and whistling as they flowed through the clear blue water beneath me. I loved every bit of my research, even when my brain ached from trying to understand the mechanics of gene splicing.

I have to admit there were parts to my story I did “know” at the start. I knew what it was like to be a shy girl on the social outskirts, much like my main character Nere Hanson, who reluctantly becomes the leader for her group. I also knew what the kelp beds off the coast of San Diego look like because I am a certified diver, and my diving experiences helped me to describe the light, currents and sounds under the waves. But I didn’t really know the science I needed to write The Neptune Project, and I’m so glad now that I took the time to learn it.

I’m learning it still as I do research for a possible Neptune sequel and a school presentation titled, “Our Seas In Peril.” It was appalling to discover how much over-fishing, acidification, pollution, oil spills and climate change threaten the oceans of our world, and I hope The Neptune Project may help some kids care more about the sea. I loved it when a young reader wrote to me and said, “I had no idea all that cool stuff was down there.”

There is so much cool stuff down there, and I had a whale of a time learning about it. So here’s a corollary to that writing what-you-know-maxim I hope you’ll consider sharing with your students. Write what you know, but you can also write what you don’t know, as long as you’re willing to do the research necessary to create a compelling, believable story.



Polly Holyoke is excited to be revealing the book trailer for The Neptune Project here with The Nerdy Book Club. An ex-middle school teacher, Polly currently resides in Texas with her two daughters, husband and sundry cats and dogs. The logistics of making a book trailer for a sea story while living in Dallas, a city quite short on oceans, were a little daunting, but in the end Polly, her family and friends prevailed.