Sunday, 3 February 2013

Write what you don't know

There is a well-known author’s maxim to “write what you know”. For example, I get very fed up when reading some article about scuba diving where the journalist starts talking about how she went diving to thirty metres with her oxygen tank… because if it was pure oxygen rather than air, she’d most probably be dead. Such errors are a failure by the writer to do the basic research, or in such a case, base it on very limited experience, literally a dip in the ocean. (That's me in the photo, by the way, just before a 57m dive in Mauritius last year).

The simple solution is to write what you know, the most straightforward (in theory) being to write a memoir. But this would lead to a very limited range of fiction if that was all authors ever did. And what about thrillers? Are we to assume that authors such as the deservedly successful thriller writer Lee Child used to be a military policeman habitually killing people? And what about science fiction and fantasy? By definition we don’t know what will happen in the future or in a parallel universe, what jobs and technology and magical artefacts people will have. The counter-argument of course is that neither does the reader, and so if the author can make it all seem convincing, then the reader will ‘suspend disbelief’ and enjoy the story set in apace or in a magical realm. What makes something sound convincing?

For much of fiction, the author can do some research to gain facts, to garner snippets of information that will give the writing a sense of authenticity. But to give it real ‘street-cred’, the author has to dig deeper than textbooks or Wikipedia, and find the tricks of the trade. For example, I am working on a diving thriller. Now, most books on diving will tell you not to rise too fast, in fact, no faster than the small bubbles leaving your mouthpiece exhaust (regulator), to avoid getting decompression sickness (the ‘bends’). But if you are diving deep, really deep, you can ascend faster (and might have to), as long as you slow down in the last thirty metres. I have had to do it twice for real, both in emergencies, once because my buddy and I were running low on air, having been cornered at depth by a school of hammerhead sharks...

But an author can also lie. After all, this is fiction we’re talking about, right? But the lie has to be good, it has to sound credible, and in fact it has to sound ‘smart’. Here’s an extract from something I’m working on, to show what I mean (a ‘glock’ is a make of pistol). Lazarus is interrogating Bill Danton, and has taken Bill’s own gun in order to threaten him:

Lazarus sat down, the glock pointing at Danton. “I’d rather not call in the others, we’ve known each other a long time, They’re young, eager, like we used to be – they don’t know shit, don’t show any respect.”
            Danton had often wondered what his own victims thought about once they knew what was going down. Did their lives flash before their eyes? His didn’t. He watched the glock.
            “I need a name, Bill.” Lazarus fished out a small pad with a pencil attached, and offered it.
            Danton almost laughed, in these days of smart phones and IPads; a fucking pencil and paper. He took it, wrote her name, handed it back to Lazarus, who glanced at the name once then pocketed it away, not meeting Danton’s eyes anymore.
Lazarus walked around behind him, picking up a cheap cushion on the way. Danton knew the glock made no sound before it fired, no giveaway click that the end was coming now.
            “What about you, Bill? Anyone special in all your years?”
Lazarus was right behind him. Danton could almost sense the short barrel aiming toward the back of his head, behind the cushion that would act as a crude silencer. He’d loaded the gun himself with dum-dums. At this range it would blow his face off. All that money spent on facial reconstruction, all for nothing.

Does the glock make a sound before it fires, a click? I don’t know, I’ve never even seen one up close. Would it blow his face off if loaded with dum-dums? According to a paramedic friend who worked in Northern Ireland during ‘the Troubles’, yes, and he showed me pictures I wish I’d never seen to prove it (this was twenty years ago, and I still remember them). As a reader, did the info about the glock make it seem real, credible, and add to the tension? If it did, then it worked. If it didn’t, read Lee Child, as he makes the point better!

For authors, however, the most challenging aspect of ‘writing what you don’t know’, is with characters. Each major character, and even some more minor ones, must have their own ‘voice’. If they don’t, then to the reader they will all seem the same, and in particular their dialogue will ‘sound’ the same. If an author is writing a lot of characters, they may begin to ‘blur’ for the reader unless they all have distinctive voices. But it is not easy to write completely different characters, because to make them convincing, the author has to get inside their heads and values and attitudes.

For example, in my SF trilogy, I have two females who are bisexual. So, obviously I cannot ever really know what it is like to be (a) a woman, and (b) a bisexual one. In book two, Eden’s Trial, a female editor pulled me up on some of these aspects, and I had to do some re-writing, and cut a scene. In the forthcoming book (Eden’s Revenge), however, it seems to be okay, as another female editor was happy with them, to the extent she thought one of these characters (Kat) was one of the strongest in the book. After all, Steig Larsson’s Millennium series did extremely well, and his principal character is also a bisexual female.
One way I try to ‘learn’ different characters, is with short stories. I usually write these for fun, as a relief from writing novels which take far longer, but also as ‘practice’ in exploring new characters or genres. So, recently, I wrote from a middle-aged woman’s perspective. The context could be mystery scifi or fantasy, I leave that interpretation up to the reader. For me it was an exercise in ‘voice’, in writing from the perspective of someone who does not think logically, and who is not particularly intelligent (though is by no means dumb). Some readers might see her as a ‘loser’. But as I wrote and worked on the piece, I really got to like her. So in the end, in a twisted kind of way, she ‘wins’.

The story got published a week ago and can be read here. For me, it only works because of her character, her voice. The rest is interesting, intriguing maybe, but for me the story is not only about her, it is her.

For beginning authors, here’s a suggestion: start off by writing what you know, and learn how to make the points that make the writing feel authentic. Having learned that trick, graduate to what you don’t know. It’s a lot more scary, but also more fun.

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