Writers of speculative fiction --- science fiction and fantasy --- should especially take exception to ‘write what you know’ (WWYK --- maybe I should copyright that little gem, he opined satirically), because I’d venture to guess damned few of us have any particular experience with starships and dragons and fairies, oh my. But it isn’t just SFF authors who should object to the ethos of WWYK.
Agatha Christie didn’t go around murdering people in all sorts of grisly, imaginative ways (at least, as far as we know…) Elmore Leonard was neither a cowboy nor a criminal. (Yes, you heard me. A number of his early works were Westerns, not the crime fiction for which he was later famous.) Stephen King hasn’t (we hope) had all kinds of terrifying encounters with the paranormal. JK Rowling has no experience with wizards and isn’t a witch (except, perhaps, to her detractors, and the word there is more a pejorative descriptor relating to her character). Yet these are all highly successful authors who created their own worlds and wrote stories in them which have captivated millions over decades.
On a more personal level, the protagonist of my current work in progress is a 19-year-old girl named Areellan… and I’m pretty sure she’s gay. She’s feisty, angry, takes no crap from anyone… and has the wherewithal to defend herself against creeps, bums and the Compleat Dark Forces of Evil. I like her a lot. But… as anyone who knows me or has seen my social media profile picture can attest, I’m… really none of those things. In fact, as a white, straight, male, (retired) boomer (yes, I’m well aware of all the privilege wrapped up in that description, thanks… no need to belabour it), I’m pretty much as far away from ‘being’ Areellan as it’s possible to be.
(In my defence, I WILL point out a couple o’ things… first, I was a secondary school English teacher for 35 years --- AND lived to tell the tale with sanity more or less intact --- so had the opportunity to work with and observe behaviours/emotional ranges of 14-18-year-olds fairly extensively. [Oy. Did I ever.] And secondly, I’ve been told by women who read my first novel, Gryphon’s Heir, that I write female characters believably. There you are. QED.)
So… should I simply write about aging white male boomers with a penchant for sarcasm, occasional brilliant sallies of wit, and dad jokes? To quote Old Major from Animal Farm: “No, comrades, a thousand times no!” (No jokes about the resemblance of this writer to an elderly boar, please. Or puns about boars and bores.) Then what’s a fella to do? Again, a couple o’ things.
First, following Taylor Swift’s advice is a good place to start: as a society, We Need To Calm Down. Let’s dial back the constant outrage and sense of being offended, shall we? About the last thing needed is the shrill invective routinely occurring on social media and every public forum these days --- on any topic. I can imagine someone telling me, “You’re a straight, older man writing about a young lesbian?! How dare you?! How can you possibly capture or understand the subtle nuances of her personality?! What kind of arrogant presumption is this, anyway?!” (No one’s anyone actually told me that, BTW. Yet.) Now, you gotta love a good interrobang or six, but most invective is full of obscenities which would make a sailor blush… and nowhere near as literate as what I’ve expressed here.
Second… as a writer… settings are, at least for the purposes of today’s epistle, just window dressing. You write as honestly as you can about people. Their relationships. The bad (and good) things happening to them. In short, their lives. We all know about those things. And if you write about things you’ve neither observed nor experienced, you PRETEND. Readers will either like the way you pretend, finding it believable/relatable… or they won’t.
In 1976, Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier starred in the film Marathon Man, a thriller with Olivier as a Nazi war criminal who tangles with Hoffman’s graduate student character. As the tale goes, in one scene, Hoffman’s character has been awake for three days, so Hoffman, devout method actor, tried doing that, with predictable results. Shocked, Olivier asked Hoffman, “My boy, why don’t you just try acting?” In other words… PRETEND you’re exhausted from being awake 72 hours… you needn’t actually go to that extreme.
More recently, there’s a hilarious clip on YouTube (everything’s on YouTube nowadays) of a skit between Sir Ian McKellen and Ricky Gervais, with Gervais pretending to be an actor auditioning for a part in a play McKellen is directing. Responding to Gervais’ confusion, McKellen explains how he created the role of Gandalf: “I… pretend to be the person I’m portraying in the film or play…Peter Jackson comes from New Zealand and says to me, ‘Sir Ian, I want you to be Gandalf the wizard,’ and I say to him, ‘You are aware I’m not really a wizard?’ and he says, ‘Yes I’m aware of that, but what I want you to do is use your acting skills to portray the wizard for the duration of the film.’ So I said okay, and then I said to myself, ‘Mmm… how would I do that?’ And this is what I did: I imagined what it would be like to be a wizard, and then I pretended and acted in that way on the day… if we were to draw a graph of my process, of my method, it would be something like this: Sir Ian, Sir Ian, Sir Ian, action, Wizard: ‘YOU SHALL NOT PASS,’ cut! Sir Ian, Sir Ian, Sir Ian.”
Maybe I’m missing something here, but… I really don’t think it’s any more complicated than that, folks.
You’re a writer. Pretend. End of story.
Well, actually… just the beginning.