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.
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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