Ask the editor: Breaking the “write what you know” rule

Q: I have a terrific story to tell, but it didn’t actually happen to me. Is it possible to write with authenticity about something you haven’t experienced firsthand?

A: Many great books are written by authors who seem to have nothing in common with their character’s experiences. Different gender, culture, time in history, geographic location.

Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage, an amazing description of a bloody hand-to-hand combat and death during the infamous Civil War battle of Chancellorsville without ever having any experience in the military or violent conflict of any sort. The entire Civil War, in fact, occurred before he was born.

Henry James wrote Portrait of a Lady, though he was certainly nothing at all like Isabelle Archer, the spirited young American girl who inherits a lot of money and has a hard time dealing with the consequences.

Tom Robbins, despite bogus rumors to the contrary, doesn’t have hooves, or smell like a goat and dance about playing pipes in the hills of Greece, as happens in his excellent book Jitterbug Perfume, which features the goat god Pan.

Writing vicariously

Most of all, you need authentic passion for the story. Then, you need to plunge into the homework. Your research must be impeccable, every detail dead-on accurate. If you’re recreating an historical epoch, you should read profusely about it, and interview experts or participants if possible. If your story is from the perspective of someone completely different from you, find models and study them as closely as possible — in person, face-to-face.

You may find that your early drafts take you in unexpected directions. Stay flexible and true to the new world you’re creating.

Four writers on how they did it

I’ve worked with many authors who’ve written about something they haven’t experienced directly. Here are four writers and their responses to questions I sent each of them about how they did it.

Jillian Thomadsen is the author of the novel Infiltrate about an idealistic young Fixed Income Analyst at a major investment bank who tries to shift internal policies towards more altruistic long-term goals but finds herself increasingly drawn into a culture of greed and corruption.

Neville Frankel is the author of Bloodlines, a novel about how the struggle against apartheid nearly destroys a Jewish family in South Africa which engages in violent terrorism during the early years of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress.

Kimberley Pettinger is the author of The Quantum Affair, a novel about a strong woman’s struggle for freedom and power in a high tech company with a revolutionary new computer.

David Tomlinson is the author of American Prayer, a novel about the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing in the context of race relations, religious faith, and local politics.

What sparked the passion that motivated you to write this book?

Jillian Thomadsen:

I was reading an article about the Occupy movement, and it seemed like an effort in futility.  How was sleeping in a park going to cause change? I started to think that one angry person working inside an investment bank could do more than hundreds of protesters chanting outside.  And from that moment, the idea of a person who infiltrates and takes down a company she despises started to take shape.

I wanted to write about income disparity, the quintessential American Dream, and the current economic climate in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008.  A Wall Street investment bank seemed like a fitting backdrop for telling this story and I knew it was an environment where people pushed ethical boundaries in pursuit of their personal ambitions for money and power.

Neville Frankel:

I had returned for the first time 38 years after my family had fled South Africa before the end of apartheid when a man I’d never met before threw his arms about me and whispered in my ear, “Welcome home, brother.” I was overwhelmed by the unexpected sense of having come home. That was the  moment when I realized I’d never really left my homeland behind, and had unresolved issues that needed to be addressed.

I was so struck by the fact that the young South African people I met in their early twenties really had no historical perspective on what had happened in their country before Nelson Mandela was elected President. This despite the fact that every one of them had been deeply affected by apartheid, whether they were the children of victims or perpetrators. I thought that a novel about their country’s revolution told through the eyes of fictional characters – blacks, whites, Jews – could be a great way to provide that perspective.

Kimberly Pettinger:

I had a hard-earned eight-week sabbatical at the company where I worked. But I’d just had my second child and was sleep deprived most of the time, so there was no way I was going for a vacation to Paris or anywhere else for that matter.  I was frustrated that my life was rather dull and my career had plateaued.

I’ve always been intrigued with females in positions of power. Who were they? How did they get to the top? What struggles did they have?  In the corporate environment, females – especially technical leaders – are rare and exceptional.  I was also interested in playing out the idea of the next generation of computing which would likely accelerate a major shift in society. And I liked the idea of balancing the corporate intrigue with a love story.

David Tomlinson:

Running on the treadmill in my home office, I was looking out the window, listening to music, watching the sunlight hit the street, and had this image of a guy running along the railroad tracks, lit up by this same light. That guy turned out to be one of main characters in a new story, a Choctaw Indian named Dean Goodnight, who works for the Oklahoma County Public Defender.

I wanted to write a literary novel about the Oklahoma City bombing: an ambitious, political, heartfelt book set in the place where I grew up. And I hoped that people could see and understand and wind up caring about complex, difficult, prickly, larger-than-life characters who at first glance can be tough to love.

What kind of homework did you do to write about what you didn’t know firsthand or hadn’t experienced yourself?

Jill Thomadsen:

I kept abreast of news articles and stories about the 2008 financial crisis, the bursting of the US housing bubble caused by collapsing mortgage lending standards. I asked myself if could it happen all over again, but this time with unregulated and fraudulent student loans.  Since this never happened, and it isn’t a disguised memoir or anything I’ve observed or experienced directly, I allowed myself some creative license as well.

Neville Frankel:

I had to read books on history and  politics, South African fiction, the reports on the Truth and Reconciliation hearings. I also made three trips to various parts of South Africa, some remote, to speak with many, many people about their experiences under apartheid and to write accurately about the geography and natural beauty of the country.

Kimberly Pettinger:

My experience working within a large multi-national corporation and the inner workings of that machine allowed me to write about it authentically.  The one component I didn’t have access to was the underworld of computing.  I did some research online and just imagined what it would be like for one of my characters.

David Tomlinson:

I read a dozen or so books on basketball, race relations, faith, local politics, and the justice system, taking copious notes, reworking my outline the entire time. I interviewed an old college roommate, a Choctaw Indian, who used to investigate capital cases for the public defender’s office, who gave me insight in Dean Goodnight’s life and day job. You, Alan, suggested that I read Phil Jackson’s “Sacred Hoops”, which is fantastic. And my daughter started playing basketball around this time so I spent some extra time watching the coach interact with his players and soaking up the sounds and textures of the gym.

One of the characters in this story is a physical therapist named Aura, a black woman, who winds up having to care for a paralyzed, bigoted patient named Cecil. My wife is a physician, and so if I had questions about medication, terminology, or complications due to Cecil’s condition, she pointed me in the right direction.

It took four years to complete the novel. I felt myself having so much empathy and understanding for my characters, while living the arc of this story from each particular character’s point of view. So in a way, by the time I was finished, I actually had experienced it all.

_____________

What about you?

Have you written a story about a character with whom you had little in common? We’d love to hear more about it.

What was the original source of your passion to write the story? What kind of homework did you do? What was the most difficult part of writing your book?

We welcome any problems, successes, experience or advice on breaking the rule to write only “what you know”.

10 Responses to Ask the editor: Breaking the “write what you know” rule

  1. Donna Everhart

    Hi, I’ve read your posts for some time now, and always found them informative. This is my first time commenting, and I am doing that today because of my current work in progress, and the topic.

    Here’s my thoughts on “write what you know.” I guess if we think about all the books written about crime, murder and torture – by regular people, and then we think about that phrase – write what you know – we have to assume they broke the rule. Or hope they did.

    So, here comes “me,” and my latest endeavor – same deal. The current work in progress is about organized crime – with a bit of a twist that sets this particular organization apart from the ones we’ve heard of. Either way, here I am, trying to write how a criminal thinks, have him murdering, stalking people, being violent in general, and of course, I’m not in the basement by night torturing and killing people. Maybe I’m misinterpreting “write what you know,” but honestly, if we all did – and we all lead pretty boring lives, I imagine, unless we’re rock stars – I have to think most books written wouldn’t be too interesting. We’d all be writing something like our memoirs.

    For me, when the idea to write about this organization came about, it was because no one else had done so – and they really had no rules. I thought that could make for some interesting world building. For research, I learned just enough to get the main facts right, and beyond that, I’ve created their environment from scratch.

    The most difficult part has been to provide realistic reactions and dialogue. To try and get into a “bad” person’s head and know what they might do in a particular moment. I told my husband, I don’t think I’m corrupt enough to write about this kind of stuff!

    I love your blog!

  2. Alan Rinzler

    Donna,

    There are various ways you can approach this challenge. Here are a few ideas to get started.

    One is to tell the story from the point of view of someone who’s not in the organization, someone like you, responding to these criminal minds, a victim perhaps, or law enforcement investigator.

    Another is to do careful research into the way these criminals think by reading “as told to”, pseudonymous autobiographies and biographies of famous criminals. There are plenty of them.

    You can read books about sociopathic, psychopathic, anti-social personality disorders, serial killers – written either for professionals dealing with this kind of pathology and its origins, or as general popular books. Using key words like “anti-social behavior”, serial killers, organized crime, you can find these sources on Amazon.

    And, finally, you can reach down into your secret soul, your “id”, your reptilian mind (which we all have) and see what might lurk there that could be helpful in imagining how it feels to be these criminals.

  3. Greatest story

    I appreciate the editors challenge…

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  5. Donna Everhart

    Thank you for those suggestions! Very helpful…I went upstairs and looked at all my books and interestingly, I have a couple written by FBI profilers, like some sort of weird V8 moment…b/c…how could I forget them? I read them a long time ago…and I have a lot of books, so they were lost in the piles. I think they could be useful along with your other suggestions.

    Thanks again!

  6. Carmen Anthony Fiore

    My novel, SEARCHING,is about a mixed racial (white, black, red) American male who stops being black, Negro or colored and chucks all racial labels after a catastrophic personal event in his life. Soon, he dives down a different “rabbit hole” seeking out a novel way of life for him. It’s a one-eighty. He ends up living in an all-white new suburban community during the so-called liberated 1970′s. He’s on a collision course with reality despite his utopian dreams. The germ idea blossomed one day while working in my NJ civil service office when I overheard a conversation between a white female colleague and a black male colleague. Later the white person said to me: “He doesn’t like being black, does he?” I found it amazing that while mulling over her comment the last line of the yet-to-be-written novel came to me: “Hurry, Sharleen, come save my black ass.” I had to write an entire novel to get to that intriguing last line. So after much research on the Civil Rights movement during the 20th century, and as a white person having grown up in an urban integrated neighborhood in Trenton, NJ, I had the gall to write about something that I wasn’t a part of. I had to use everything I could find out and remember dealing with black people, especially later in my life after I had become a social worker and a schoolteacher in a ghetto area of my hometown, as well as doing face-to-face interviews with all kinds of people. The novel was eventually published in print/paper format and is now an e-book available from Amazon’s Kindle electronic bookstore. It took me years to research and write the novel, but the final result proved well worth the effort. Reader feedback has been positive. Isn’t that what we writers live for?

  7. Tony

    Great post, I definitely need to step out of my comfort zone with my writing more often. Thanks for the suggestions.

  8. Carmen Anthony Fiore

    Tony, stepping out of your comfort zone will help make you a more exacting writer, and it will help you become a more knowledgeable author about all the subjects you’ll be forced to research. You may even find out more about yourself, which just might be not only surprising but rewarding. I believe that writers should challenge themselves. Writing the same kind of book with similar story plot lines from your previous novels within the same old genre book after book has to get boring sooner or later. Challenging myself to experiment creatively has kept me on my writing toes, so to speak. I highly recommend it for new or veteran writers.

  9. Dorothy

    My first novel is about aa injured vietnam veteran returning to the South American island of his birth, a place in turmoil, and putting all his Marine training to good use while falling in love with a young English girl who isn’t what she seems. I knew little of war or the US Marines so I spent many months researching until I had enough knowledge to take the plunge and write a novel totally alien to my own British working class life. So yes it can be done.

  10. Jim Snell

    I had to stop and think about where I got the idea for the story I’m working on. Which seems a bit weird. It was a photo, and I just saw a glimpse of it. An old man, looked about 90, sitting on a bench. He wore no shirt and his ribs were prominent. Couldn’t see his face too well as he looked down, but he had long, white hair hanging limp. He looked nearly exhausted, maybe just from sitting on that bench. And I had a strange thought: what if he used to be a superhero?

    Somewhat close to the “write what you know” axiom is the advice to tell, in a query letter, why you’re the person to write this story. That’s always kinda thrown me. I mean, I’m making this stuff up. So my response is kinda: ‘Cause I’m the one who made this shit up.

    It’s not: ‘Cause I’m 95 and used to zip around the world saving people’s lives. (Did anyone really want to know why Tom Robbins decided to write about Pan?)

    So, yeah, I can figure out how to research the stuff I need to know for a story. I can’t quite figure out how to answer that question in a query letter (without sounding like a bit of a pompous ass).

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