Picture by Ted Eytan MD via Wikimedia Commons.I
I watched the NaNoPrep webinar a couple of days ago. Late as usual - being in a different time zone to most NaNites makes the recording a much more attractive proposition than the live event. And as a throw-away at the end the two authors were asked what was the worst writing advice they had ever been given. And they both came up with the same thing:
Write what you know.
On first sight it seems an attractive slogan. If you're an expert in something, surely it makes sense. And we all do loads of research, writers of historical fiction especially. Who hasn't lost an entire afternoon or more following threads around Google and Wikipedia, ending up bleary-eyed and knowing far more about historical sanitation than they really wanted to know.
And if you get it wrong, there will be plenty of people out there who will let you know all about it. Including me, I'm afraid. I've been known to email authors pointing out embarrassing bloopers in their novels. All in the interest of getting it right, of course.
But I write a lot of the time from my hero's point of view. I am female, straight, white, middle-aged (I insist on not being old) and educated. Does that mean I can't write from the point of view of say a black male who has been a slave on a plantation in the Caribbean, as I intend to do this November in the shape of my hero's sidekick?
Does that mean that writers may not write about little green men from the planet Zog, far far away in another galaxy? Or witches and wizards, fairies and goblins, demons and angels?
I maintain not. If it did mean that, there would be far fewer books written. And I like reading about aliens, elves and fairies, and so on.
The Published Writers, and I when I thought about it, were not saying don't do your research. But broaden the subject out a bit. Of course there's a place for writing what you know. For example if I wrote a book about electrical engineering it could be a bit of a disaster - be reassured that I have no such ambitions, for the general good of mankind.
I think the answer is to put yourself in the place of your ex-slave, green alien, or fairy. Close your eyes and imagine what it feels like. What's it like to have dangly bits, or wings? How does it feel? How does it affect your thinking? Get into your character's skin and know them deep down, as a person and not a character in your writing. When you know how they, not you, would react in a given situation, then you know them well enough to write their story.
So is this writing what you know, or not? I will never really know what it's like to be male. I will always be seeing men from the outside. But I hope I have enough imagination to feel something of how it is, and I hope that any man reading what I've written will not be emailing me to say that that's not what it's like at all.
... and now I face the final curtain. Said curtain being for my new writing shed in France. Or perhaps a blind.
We went to our French house this summer for six weeks, the longest we've ever spent there. And it was wonderful! The indoor plumbing! The electricity supply that didn't bite! The new kitchen!
Just one little thing, or maybe two. We still had the impenetrable jungle outside the back door, True, we no longer had to hack our way through it with a machete in order to reach the outside lavvy. And the perennial sweet peas were colourful, though sadly unscented. But it had to go.
Our builder met up with us in the town where he lived. His instructions "by the anchor roundabout" were surprisingly quite easy to follow. We went to his builder's merchant and spent a vast amount of money on paving slabs, gravel, cement, and semipermeable membrane. The things one learns when having renovations done.
We also took a trip to another builder's merchant to look at sheds. The old man still kept insisting that my writing shed was a low priority. He isn't a writer, of course. But the builder's merchant was having a sale, which trumped his objections. And in the sale was the biggest, bestest shed you've ever seen. It had double doors. It had a little window. It was big enough to get a double bed in, never mind a desk and chair. It was less than half price!
It had also been sitting in their open hangar for a considerable time, but we only found this out later, of course.
So all was set. Our man called in his son-in-law to help with the heavy lifting. The deliveries were timed to perfection.
Well the son-in-law arrived as planned, on the early ferry, and they came straight to us to make a start. Catching us still in bed. Well, I expect my cup of tea in bed in the morning, and the old man is reluctant to get up, especially as he tends to run on English time still, refusing to have anything to do with nasty foreign time which is one hour in advance. I think this has cured him now, at least temporarily. So while we hastily threw on clothes and breakfast and the essential cup of tea all round (I did say our builder and his son-in-law are English, didn't I?) they went and communed with the old shed.
Within a day the old shed was down - well, you've seen the photo. A hard push was about all it took. That and half a dozen trips to the tip with the remains. A cement mixer was borrowed. The weather was set fair.
No delivery. No slabs, gravel, cement, semipermeable membrane. It was only one day late. I love the French in general, but I have to say they can be a bit nonchalant when it comes to things like that.
And the shed. Well it was supposed to arrive in the afternoon, but the guy at the builder's merchants happens to live not far away, and he thought it would be a good idea to deliver it on his way home after work. We sat, and waited. And waited. Our man looked at his watch and phoned his other half. She was not amused. French working hours last an hour longer in the evening because of the longer lunch break. It came eventually. I just hope our man managed to make it up to his lady.
So the next morning I was presented with a pot of wood stain and a set of brushes. You thought because we were paying to have it done we could get away with sitting in the shade watching? Not hardly. I set up the garden umbrella - it was hot and I burn easily. (Sorry everybody in the UK who had a miserable wet summer. The Jet Stream moved. France was south of it, and you were north.)
I started off doing every plank lovingly and artistically. After two days I was slapping woodstain on as fast as I could. The slabs were criticized - not properly square and even. The wooden planks for the shed had warped and weathered in the builder's merchant's store. Roots had to be hacked out. More slabs and gravel had to be bought. There was exactly enough roofing felt for the roof and not a centimetre more. The second shed had to be done - that's the Man Shed as opposed to the Woman Shed. (Not in the sale. It cost twice as much as the Woman Shed in spite of being half the size. I hesitate to draw a conclusion - well, no I don't.) The sheds had to be fixed down to the slabs, and the fittings sold with them were inadequate. Much eye-rolling and harrumphing.
The slabs went down in the end, some of them twice over. The sheds went up. I moved in my flatpack desk, a garden chair, and my computer, and started writing.
The editing proceeded at an amazing pace, after weeks of slow progress - there's something about that special place just for writing that I can't quite explain. Terry Pratchett would call it headology
There is a heater, so we'll have to wait and see how it works out in November.
And now by popular request, Susana,
I'm thinking of putting Astroturf on the floor.
Doreen lives in the empty bit in the middle of Wales, where since her retirement she has taken up writing. She says it's better than working any day.
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