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Friday, May 4, 2012

Writing DIfferences

Somewhere, someone once said, Write what you know. I hate that phrase. For many years, I took that to mean Write things that you’ve personally experienced. No one wanted to read about my life – teacher, software engineer, student, wife, mom. Quite ordinary and boring to those looking for adventure. I kept reading.

Jump ahead a few decades. I’d read a few thousand books by now and internalized that not every author had experienced everything in his or her stories, not when someone could make me believe hobbits existed, or that this world was only a shadow of an idealized place called Amber. These writers were fiction writers. It was their job to make me believe in the reality – and yes, the underlying truth of their story. When I took up fiction writing as a hobby, I wasn’t sure I could instill that same sense of belief in other people. But the more I worked at it, the more I learned that I could - by thinking hard, by working hard to know what I was talking about, by considering what it might be like to live in a culture or situation or a profession far from my own experience.

Yet I still heard people saying don’t. Don’t try to write people of a different gender. I got past this one, too. I was not only writing from the point of view of two characters who were warriors, but they both happened to be men. I had certainly observed plenty of men! I thought hard about how their feelings or reactions might be their own, not mine. I worked hard to make their voices, concerns, and behavior right for their characters and the story. And male readers told me I did just fine.

And then I wrote from the point of view of a ten-year-old boy (later sixteen-year-old) and that worked, as well. (It helped that I lived in a house with one - male - spouse and three sons!)

Still, of course, there were other nay-saying voices out there in the aether: Don’t try to write people of a different color or sexual orientation or a disability you don’t live with. How could you possibly know? How could you possibly understand? How could you possibly get it right when you are an American, heterosexual woman of Irish heritage who grew up in the southwest US in the 20th century without anything one would label a disability (except maybe painful shyness)?

But I decided that if I could write men convincingly, and if I could write two very different warriors convincingly when I had no combat training or experience, then I ought to be able to write these things too. I am fiction writer, and I use knowledge, imagination, logic, and reason to make my characters’ behavior and experiences true to the human experience as it exists in the fictional worlds I create, and close enough to the human experience in this world that my readers find them believable and identifiable.

But when the tides of the storyline in one of my series swept my brooding, violent sorcerer hero into blindness, I did feel trepidation. This was new territory. I very, very much wanted to get it right, to avoid TV/film/fictional cliches, to avoid any hint of paternalism or pandering or any other thing that might ruin the story for any reader. And yet I didn’t hesitate. It was the right thing for the story, which was about all about seeing – seeing the truth of magic in a world where it was dying, seeing the truth of a wicked conspiracy, seeing the truth of oneself and of those you could not believe might find you worthy of love or compassion. It was only fitting that this man face the loss of the thing that he valued above all things – the sight that enabled him to work the most complex forms of magic. So how was I going to do this right?

Part of my challenge was physical – how does a man cope with blindness in a society comparable to the early 17th century? Part was emotional – how does a man of a passionate, volatile nature react to an abrupt change that he can only view as devastating? Note that this is his view, not my own—a critical distinction when dealing with such topics. My aim was not to preach about how loss of sight is not a “disability” but just another way of dealing with the world, but to relate this man’s feelings about and reactions to what had happened to him. And part of my challenge was authorial – how do I communicate a vivid sense of a world without using visual images?

So how did I approach it?

First: Research
The internet is our friend. I read medical information about the mechanisms of sight and its loss. More importantly, I found forums and blogs by the newly blind giving personal perspectives – emotional, physical, and how those affected day-to-day life. It didn’t matter that it was 21st century information. I was accustomed to translating human experiences to a less techno-savy century.

Second: Write
I never research too much before I begin writing. Knowing how the story unfolds tells me what I need to focus on in research. As I wrote, I considered every word, phrase, scene, and situation from this perspective.

Third: Network
I was fortunate to know a fellow writer who has been losing her sight for many years. I asked if she would read my early chapters and give me her opinion, as I was trying to get it right. She was pleased to be asked. Not only did she give me a few pointers, but gave me a most invaluable reference – a man who had lost his sight profoundly and abruptly at very near the same age as my sorcerer. He was delighted to help and, as it happened, had done so for other writers. Not only did he vet my chapters (and say I’d done a decent job!!) but answered my every question and offered me some wholly unexpected insights. I wish I could have used everything he gave me! But, as always, one can’t burden the story with all the delicious research.

Hard thinking. First-hand information. Respect. Focusing on the story. I think these things got me through. The result is found in my novel, The Daemon Prism, the third (and final) novel of the Collegia Magica.

I wrote this originally for a series on Bookworm Blues. Check it out.


Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing your process, Carol. I've. Always wondered how you did such a great job writing from other character's perspectives. Though now that I'm thinking of it, you did write from a demons point of view... ;-)

carolwriter said...

Research was harder for that one...

gypsyharper said...

I've never been a fan of that "write what you know" adage either. I've heard Diana Pharaoh Francis say in a couple of panels at cons "Instead of 'write what you know,' write what you can find out." I like that one better.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Daemon Prism. I second Nic's thanks for sharing your process!

Cherry said...

Dear Carol,

Would you consider putting the "Subscribe via email" widget on your sidebar? It just makes it easier for us followers to follow your blog :)

Cherry Mischievous

Juli D. Revezzo said...

Nancy Kress once said Write what you Know is very limiting, and I stick with that. I always go with "write what I'd like to know" and do the research to cover the holes in my knowledge. :) Fills the gap both ways, and learning something new is never a bad thing!

carolwriter said...

Julianne, Exactly so!

Unknown said...

Empathy. I believe empathy is the beating heart of fiction writing, of good fiction. We can 'know' very little, in the didactic sense of know. It's a very wide universe. But when we open ourselves to empathy, as often a difficult, painful, disturbing experience as it is an enlightening, fascinating, wondrous experience, then we can 'know' beyond the limited confines of our own experience.

Andre Norton introduced me, as a second grader, to the concepts of empathy and empaths through her science fiction novels. I am profoundly in her debt for many reasons, a life long love of speculative fiction not the least. Perhaps the greatest debt I owe her is she gave me, as a young grade school child, a way to 'feed my head'.

The concept and the reality of empathy, and empaths, is food from that banquet I've chewed on for decades. Freud said to live fully we need love and work. I would add to be fully human we need empathy. Certainly to write fiction worth reading we must have it.

Speaking of empathy, did you really have to blind one of my favorite fictional characters? Really? I was not a happy reader! I even dreamed he regained his sight.

carolwriter said...

Yes, empathy is critical for a writer. That's how you go deeper.

And yeah, Valli, I did have to do that. It hurt me, too.

Kara said...

Dear Carol,
have you ever thought about writing a pep talk for Nanowrimo? Or maybe you already did since this thing runs for over ten years now and it's hard to find one name in the flood of names of authors who already wrote one or multiple pep talk. This post here tells me that you would be really great about encouraging people by sharing your own experiences. Especially since the advice 'write what you know' is very often taken as you put it down in the first few lines.
Do you know about the essay 'steal like an artist'? Unfortunately it's not online anymore since the author published it. The essence of it though when it comes to writers is: write the book you want to read. And I think that's the best way to interpret 'write what you know'. Because I know about the characters I created and I know about the landscapes in my mind. I know about dragons, and unicorns and so on. :)