Thursday, March 13, 2008

Write What You DON'T Know

(I'm posting for Eli today, and she's posting for me on Tuesday. I'll be taking Tavy home to St. Louis for Easter. Think good traveling thoughts for us!)

Write what you know. It's sage advice that's become a cliche. I've been teaching basic writing for several semesters, and I've certainly found that students have an easier time writing about themselves. When you're struggling for ideas or AN idea, ANY idea, writing about the familiar can be comforting.

It's no surprise that memoir is so hot (to the point that people are trying to pass fiction off as memoir, but I digress)--people enjoy writing about their own lives. Why are so many fictional characters aspiring authors? Because WE'RE aspiring writers who once had boring day jobs. So we populate our books with book editors, publicists, magazine writers and editors, columnists, writers, professors, food writers, critics and others of the literary ilk. A lot times our characters even LOOK like us--or what we'd LIKE to look like.

My first three books were definitely of the write-what-you-know variety. Heroine #1 is a public defender in the Midwest (where I was born and raised). Heroine #2 is a curvy, smart girl who loves sweets. Heroine #3 is an insurance agent working in a small Oregon town. I haven't really had to do research for any of my books. But write-what-you-know hasn't exactly saved me from serious writer's block. Still, my purple idea book is littered with write-what-you-know ideas.

Why then am I currently gripped by a plot and characters that are VERY out of my element? I can't seem to NOT write this story. However, I'm worried that I can't pull it off. Hero is Hispanic, and I don't have a lot of personal connection to this culture. Heroine is a doctor, and I'm clearly not a doctor, although my hypochondria has given me a Google M.D. They live in Chicago, and while I've visited, I've never lived there. Oh, and there's a serial killer--this isn't exactly my usual romantic comedy fare.

Do you need to have a personal connection to write characters of other races? Is it possible to write authentic out-of-your-element stories? I know it is--many NYT bestsellers to back that idea up, but I think I'm worried that I personally can't pull it off and would be better off pursuing a different story.

What do you do? Can you tell when an author is writing outside her scope of experience? What gives it away? Do you write about what you know? When did you make the leap to writing out-of-your-element stories? What do you do to ensure their success? Research? Interviews? Anyone have good resources for a bilingual character?


Paty Jager said...

WOW, Wavy, you are full of questions! LOL

I think if you research enough you can write anything. For my spirit trilogy all in the Nez Perce perspective- I've read many books about them and by them to get a feel for their thinking and word usuage. In the third Halsey brother book, the heroine is Scotch having lived in Ireland part of her life. I've used several different Scots and Irish dictionaries to try and bring the flavor of her to her dialog as well as her thoughts, and reading what I could on the history of both countries.

And if you really want to use a hispanic hero or heroine, make friends with someone of that culture and run things by them. That's what I did with the Spirit book and I'm getting ready to interview a rodeo cowboy to learn what it is really like to go from rodeo to rodeo and their socail skills and connections.

If the story is strong enough to want told, you will find a way to make it believeable and compelling.

Alice Sharpe said...

Wavy, I think every time a woman writes from a male POV she's going outside the field of her own personal experience.

The cultural and ethnic background sound more difficult. I've done these as minor characters, but as a POV character, there's a lot to be considered and the tricky part would be you might not even know to consider it.

In Avenging Angel, I had a character who spoke Spanish once and awhile. I went to websites for translations and did my best, then gave it to my former daughter-in-law who laughed at the translations. I can't remember the examples, suffice to say no decent Mexican born national would never use the words the internet suggested I use. She reworded it all for me. So my suggestion is you think of what you want to say and then find a person for whom the language is very familiar and ask them to tell you how to say it in a believable way.

I see Paty just said the same thing only better.

You know how you've been growing as a reader, becoming bored with what used to entertain you, wanting more as you become familiar? It sounds to me that this is happening to you as a writer, too, and why in the world WOULDN'T you try it? I have complete faith you can do anything you set your mind to.

And for the record, lots of writers write outside their field of expertise and experience. The woman who wrote Secretariat was bed bound if I remember correctly, and I read once about an author who flew to some South American country to write a book about that country and never left their hotel room.

Research, baby.

Good luck. I'll take two copies, please.

Elisabeth Naughton said...

Hmmm....okay, you and I already had this discussion, but I think it's going to depend how deep you're getting into the "things you don't know". And that's a vague answer, isn't it? LOL

The hero in my first book with Dorchester is of mixed Puero Rican/Irish descent. But he was born and raised in America, is very American in every sense of the word. He does lapse into Spanish here and there - but only briefly. And I kept the focus off his culture and more on the story itself. His background is only one very minor part of the whole.

(And I know I said this to you before, but remember when you're writing about Spanish characters, they're not all the same. One word in Mexican spanish might be completely different in Puerto Rican Spanish.)

I think the same is true for any research topic you're going to tackle. At the end of the day, you do the best research you can, but if you don't LIVE that life you can't get everything 100% correct, though we do strive for that. Does that mean those of us who aren't trained in LE shouldn't write about cops? There'd be no suspense books on the shelves. Or if there were, as my OSP friend tells me, they'd be really boring.

I remember listening to Nora Roberts speak at a convention one year and someone asked her how she liked Alaska. (This was just after Northern Lights was released, her RS set in Alaska.) She said, "I don't know. I've never been there. But I went there in my mind and now I don't need to."

My advice, Wavy? Write the book the way you want. Worry about getting all those facts correct later on. And if you want to write a Spanish hero and a medical heroine, I have faith you'll pull it off.

Karen Duvall said...

Ditto what everyone else has said, Wavy. Research is key for getting most of your facts straight, and the Internet is ripe with resources. Talk to people who mirror the backgrounds of your characters and take good notes. You can do eeeet! 8^)

Danita Cahill said...

I don't think "Write what you know" means write about characters just like you. I think it means use emotions you've felt, situations you've been in -- or some spin off of those situations or emotions.

I wanted to write a freelance story once about a migrant worker who was a woman. She spoke little English, so I took along an elderly male acquaintance as an interpreter, and went and got the story anyway. I also interviewed her boss, who said he'd trade another female worker like her for 10 of his male migrant workers. It was a challenging story to write, but fun. (And her male coworkers treated her like a movie star after her picture and story appeared in the paper!)

Before going to China in '98, I befriended a Chinese woman who worked at a local Chinese restaurant to help me learn a little of the language. She had been in the U.S. for six years. When she told me that she and her husband came here to get situated, and make a better life for their daughter, but it had been six years since she had seen her Jen-Jen, who was still stuck in China, we cried together. I couldn't imagine being without my daughter for six years. It was a very eye-opening moment for me -- maternal love bonds all mothers, no matter their nationality. In that way, and zillions of others, you already "know" what you're writing about before you even begin.

I'm sure with all your students, lawyer ties etc. you can come up with someone bilingual to run your ideas and phrases by. If not, go to a Mexican restaurant, or a Mexican store (they have the greatest leather shoes if you have narrow feet) and make some new friends. You have an adorable baby to use as a new friend magnet. Ha!

Alice Sharpe said...

I think Danita made some excellent points. I hadn't thought of it that way, but she's so right about it being the emotions and the experiences and not the details.

Everyone made good points. I'm off to "be" a five year old boy...

Flo Moyer said...

I say go for it. Write what you want. One suggestion is to look up biographies or life stories by hispanic men or women. I'm thinking there have to be at least one or two out there? That will give you a mindset and maybe a model of sorts to start from. I very much agree with what Eli said, about all Spanish backgrounds not being the same, so starting with a model, then changing everything you can to make it your own person, might help.

>>They live in Chicago, and while I've visited, I've never lived there.

---Here, I can tell you a beware--check every detail, even if you think it's not important. I once read a contemporary where the hero pulled up to a self serve gas pump in NJ. They don't exist, not then, not now. I haven't forgotten that lesson. I have tried to check every detail about a setting down to what color lights are on top of police vehicles. I like to make up counties in a state, so if someone says that highway doesn't exist, they'll be right. I probably still have mistakes, but I don't bother to try to find someone from the area to read the book first. If I'm in doubt, I leave out the detail.

>>There's a serial killer--
Fortunately, we don't have personal acquaintance with them, but there are so many nonfiction references with interviews of them, or by cops writing about them. I'd feel safe if I read those and got a good feel for them.

>>...I think I'm worried that I personally can't pull it off and would be better off pursuing a different story.

Try not to worry. One of the most important things for any writer besides focus and perseverance is trusting your instincts. If this story is really bugging you to write it, it could be because an opening or several is going to happen just as you finish it.

>> Do you write about what you know?

Only with the overall mindset of the hero and heroine. I love to write heros and heroines from blue collar or working class beginnings who have pulled themselves up into a better life, sometimes kicking and screaming as they did so. (Me.)

Overall, I would say go for it. :-)

wavybrains said...

Thanks everyone for the good advice. I'm just going to go for it and do my research when I edit (see previous post about how I am writing the first draft by longhand).

Although, I have to say, my idea doesn't sound nearly as much fun as Karen's pole dancing.

Genene said...

Chiming in late, Wavy, to agree with what others have said: if this book is nagging at you, write it! And know the resources you need will come to you.

I wrote lots of articles when I was a newsletter editor about programs I was unfamiliar with -- at least until I talked to the person most invested in that program. In listening to their enthusiasm, I was able to step into their shoes and "know" the program. Just like we step into our characters.

Someone else may have touched on this, but Hispanic people are as different from each other as people from other cultures. Someone born of into a professional family is going to be different than a migrant worker. I've know people of Hispanic heritage who didn't even speak Spanish. I believe he was the third generation of his family born in the United States.

Other people choose not to integrate so fully into our society. My former sister-in-law (who is Filipino) has been in the U.S. for over 20 years and still has a heavy accent and twists English around. Of course, English is one of the hardest languages to learn!

So it might be more of a challenge not to stereotype a Hispanic hero than to write from their point of view.

There are probably some overarching experiences of Hispanics; for instance, experiencing discrimination of one sort or another. But as a woman, you've probably experienced that also. As someone else said, it's the emotions ...

OK, I'm prattling now and procrastinating on other things I need to get done. You've received great suggestions from others, so I'm going back to my list of things to do. Now, dig out that yellow pad and write! :)

wavybrains said...

To all who mentioned it--yes, I know that there are many, many different nationalities that speak Spanish. I used hispanic generally b/c I haven't settled on which nationality to make Hero's ancestry.

Hero was born here, and while bilingual, does not speak English with an accent. His father works construction, as do his older brothers. They are a large Catholic family with 7 children. Borderline poverty. Hero's very close to his family and helps them out a lot. They have a lot of extended family in the area. I've always visualized the city as Chicago.

I'm leaning towards Mexican, but suggestions? I just finished reading a very interesting article about the many different groups represented w/in the Hispanic community in Chicago.

Fascinating. Research may be addictive. Must parcel out like chocolates.

Karen Duvall said...

Wavy, how about a Russian? How cool would that be. Very intriguing. Nothing against hispanics (my sister is hispanic; we're both adopted. My dad was Italian and my mom Norwegian and I'm German-Irish, but as usual, I'm digressing again...), but I think they're not very interesting. Not much new to bring to the table, you know? But Russians are sexy and mysterious, IMO. My neighbor across the street is Russian, and my husband refers to him as "The Axe Murderer." Though his name is Alex.

Genene said...

Wavy, sounds lik you're on your way with this story! That's awesome!

Genene said...

Sorry, my comment should be sounds "like". Lik isn't really a word unless it's connected in some way to Karen's pole dancing story ...