I was going to make Tuesday’s about writers advice, and start on this past Tuesday. Of course I ran into the problem this week of doing things with my family during their spring break. I love problems like that.
I’ll start with the first bit of writers advice I was ever given. I’m sure I was given plenty in school as a kid, but this one has stuck with me. It’s burdened me at times, and my brain has chewed on it on countless occasions.
#1: “Write what you know.”
I was told this my Junior year of High School. It was during the Spring Playwriting festival, sponsored by my high school Theatre department. I didn’t like hearing this advice and it must be why it stood out all these years. I was fifteen and old enough to know I didn’t know much. It was my impression I was being told to slow down. How I should not expect to have much to impart on the artistic world until years of experience improved me. This seemed unfair and I was somewhat confused. I had read about teenagers and even children who had written and published books. Why were they asking us to write plays if none of us students had works inspired or entertaining enough to stage? I see now age really has nothing to do with it. But oh-boy did this one trouble me back then.
After years of thinking about this advice and weighing it against my own experience and what I have witnessed, I agree with it. If you write what you know, you are giving the work a frame that is authentic, genuine, and rings true with a general audience.
Is this bit of advice all exclusive? Do I forgo details or certain characters if I am not the subject matter expert on their trade or the part of the world they live. Me personally, I’ll give it my best shot. I write what I know, my best guess I get nailed down. Then I flush out the details with those smarter than me in that particular area. The advice was not meant to exclude those who don’t know the ins and outs of a topic they are inspired by. It’s just telling you to be authentic, strive for authenticity. Do research, go do it-find out, or find those who do know and pick their brain. I’m sure many are thinking, “well no kidding”, but I’m not just talking about historical accuracy or periodic dress. It is worthwhile to fact check opposite sex character point of view, language use in dialog based on location, military anything, and cultural implications/nuances.
Opposite Sex Character Point of View: The book Midwives is about a teenage girl who’s mother is a midwife and a tragedy that leads to her going on trail. It’s written by a man, Chris Bohjalian, and his protagonist is a female teenager. Kudos to him for having the courage to write and include details about material no man is going to inherently know without research. The moments where he lost me and I was mentally ejected from the story had nothing to do with childbirth, or pregnant women. It had to do with the mind of his protagonist. She didn’t think like a teenage girl to me. She didn’t even think like a teenager at times. Pass it off as characterization if you will, but I was aware the book was written by a man who never bothered to ask the question, “Is the protagonist acting, feeling, talking, thinking like a girl”.
Language Use: I miss the Author Ed McBain. He wrote detective novels and his dialog was rich with terms, slang, and phrasing authentic to his setting. His attention to these details made the read seamless and real. Sure you can pull off a good read without minding this kind of fact check, but I consider it an area ripe with opportunity. I also never want to be the writer with an American character using the term loo when referencing the bathroom.
Military Anything: Just because I am a veteran does not mean I would turn my nose at fact checking something I write about the military. The military has a unique culture, and each service branch has it’s own culture, and you can even sub divide culture idiosyncrasies into different job specialties. Time served, war time vs. non war time, deployed experience vs. never deployed, male vs. female roles, rank, all of this is complex and interesting. These rules are a pretty big reason why some of the best books about the military stay focused on the authors own unique experience. The few that deviate away from this rule would fall into the category of historical fiction which has been copiously researched, like The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. Don’t be the author who thinks you don’t need to fact check your work because you were in the service for a few years. Float your work by others you served with. Google it, bust out an old manual, or find someone who is in right now and pick their brain. Service members hate inaccuracies depicted in film. Don’t think they’ll miss it or grant you a pass for putting the wrong rank on (The General’s daughter), the unlimited ammo supply (Wind Talkers), or botching the pronunciation of an acronym (Black Hawk Down). We hate these things even more when they are in a book.
Cultural Nuances: Going against culture or conforming to one can be a fascinating plot. However, violating cultural rules without explanation can pull a reader out of a book fast. I’m a big fan of fantasy fiction. As a reader I can’t stand it when an author has created a culture, taught me all about the rules/parameters of this culture, but then proceeds to violate or forget about their own rules. For example, J.R Wards does this all the time in her cult level book series, The Black Dagger Brotherhood. My best example is from book six Lover Enshrined. One of her long established vampire culture “rules” is in order for a vampire to become a member of the Black Dagger Brotherhood their parents must be a mother who is Chosen and a father who is already a member of the Brotherhood. These titles making them the best of the best kind of vampires, who are of the highest rank, behavior, and honor. In Lover Enshrined the protagonist Phury’s mother is depicted as a woman who never looked at him when he was a child. Then his father was painted as a drunk who 5 year old Phury is shown dragging into their family home before sunrise. His mother changed my whole perspective on these perfect chosen female vampires. I was also expecting more to explain the fathers behavior, like when and how he left the Brotherhood. She never answers these deviations to vampire culture and it detracted from the credibility of her story. If your work involves a real culture do your homework and run your work through people who live it. If it is part of your world building as a fiction author-keep your culture strait by keeping a running list of rules. And if you are in the middle of writing book six, odds are you have fans who will happily dig into the cultural details for you.