Write what you know? Or create what you can imagine?

Mask of the Anonymous Author

Writers love dialogue and the same is true for my blog. That’s why I love hearing from all of you and that’s why I’ve asked my good friend, Kate Naylor, to chime in as my guest blogger on topics near and dear to her heart. Not only do I appreciate her perspective as a woman and as an avid reader, I also love her distinctly UK spin. So join Kate and me as we knock things back and forth. Can’t wait to hear from you!

Write what you know…?

Write what you know. It’s one of those glib throw-away observations that sounds great on first examination. But look closer and it gets suspiciously frilly at the edges.

Human first or sex first?

Take the sexes. Male writers create believable female characters and female novelists build convincing male characters. They do it all the time. An avid reader, I can count the number of times I’ve been taken aback by a character whose thoughts, actions or words didn’t ring true on one finger. It happened recently and, oddly, I was tripped up by a weirdly blokey, completely unconvincing female character created by a female author.

The ‘write what you know’ thing begs another thorny question: are the sexes really that different? If authors’ creations are anything to go by, basic humanity is more important than the shape and arrangement of your genitals. We all feel sadness, fury, joy and fear. Do we feel them differently depending on our sex? Maybe not as much as we’re often led to believe.

Can straight writers create believable gay characters?

Do you have to be gay to write about being gay or make gay characters come to life? It depends whether you believe gay-ness is about more than sex. My gay friends seem very much like my straight friends, the only difference being what they like to do with their dangly bits and lady gardens. But maybe I’m missing a trick – does being gay go further than groin-deep?

Either way, I’ve read plenty of books whose gay characters come across with absolute conviction. Take Joel’s crime novels. His marvellous lipstick lesbian journalist character Rachel Firestone rests my case – the argument for only writing what you know in a gay context just doesn’t seem to stand up.

Having said that… I’ve read one book I don’t think could have been written by a lesbian, straight man or woman. The painfully gritty, frank and poignant Brutal by adult film legend Aiden Shaw could only come from the pen of a gay man who’d been immersed in the sharp end of the scene.

Location, location, location…

Then there’s location, in time and space. If authors had stuck to what they knew, there’d be no such thing as science fiction. Ray Bradbury would never have written The Martian Chronicles and The Golden Apples of The Sun, with their iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove mix of silvery, lyrical language and hard-edged commentary on human dysfunction. And what about war novels? William Wharton, born in 1925, wouldn’t have written A Midnight Clear, set in a distant war that raged through his early childhood. Ian McEwan wouldn’t have written the harrowing and multi-award winning Atonement either, much of which takes place during Word War Two.

Do you need to experience an emotion to write about it?

Can you only write about emotions you’ve experienced? Clearly not. Authors have woven beautifully expressed, heartbreakingly real novels about every flavour of raw tragedy you can imagine: recovering from addiction, losing a child, contracting Bubonic plague, dying from AIDS, having a breakdown, killing someone, post traumatic stress disorder, being zapped in the goolies by aliens or abandoned in outer space to whirl, forever-silent, across the infinite and effing cold universe. But most of them probably haven’t experienced it up close and personal.

How do authors do it?

Perhaps authors have a heightened sense of empathy. They’re certainly keen observers of humanity, and a fertile imagination obviously plays a key role. Otherwise they’d just write textbooks about the things they safely know: choosing the right socks, sitting in traffic jams, mowing the lawn, lying on a beach in ill-advised budgie smugglers. Wouldn’t life be dull.

I’ve argued myself into it: I reckon ‘write what you know’ is nonsense. But what do you think? Have you ever come across a character who left you uncomfortably unconvinced? If so, why? How do you think writers manage to express emotions and situations they’ve never experienced up close and personal so beautifully? You might think most of them do a rotten job of it. If you’re a writer, how do you do it?


Image source: wolfgangfoto