Monday, July 2, 2012

On Writing — How Much Do You Have To Know To Write About What You Don’t Know?

The Other Bridge: After 20 years, I believe I can write about San Francisco

Write about what you know.  This comes up a lot as advice from experienced writers to new or aspiring ones.  There are those who are adamant that this is foolish advice. I’ve thought a lot about this.  As writers, we would be paralyzed if we couldn’t walk out on a limb and create characters beyond the people we are, or devise characters who act in ways beyond our personal experience. I write murder mysteries, but I’ve never killed anyone that I can recall. That doesn’t mean I can’t relate to various motives for the act — far too often.

But how far can we go?  Can a twenty-five-year-old write about a seventy-year-old?  Men about women?  We can and do.   But I think we write at some peril if we don’t understand that there are limitations if you expect your reader to believe you. 

Given all that makes me who I am (born a white, lower middle class male in a Midwestern city, for example) and the experiences I’ve had and haven’t, I can only go so far. I wouldn’t undertake a novel about life from the perspective of a woman born in the Sudan unless I spent a number of years researching what that might be like. I doubt if someone with my relatively narrow cultural credentials could, certainly not in the time I have left.

On the other hand, I can write about a woman born in the Sudan if I’m not pretending to be inside her head. It is possible, depending on how central she is to the story, write from the perspective of a narrator with knowledge roughly equal to the writer’s.  And/or I could do so by doing research comparable to the breadth or depth of the role she would play in the story.

Many of the best spy novelists — Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, for example — were spies.  Many of the best police procedurals are written either by real cops (Joseph Wambaugh), or by reporters (Michael Connelly) who had at least some years on the police beat.  Lawyers (Scott Turow, John Grisham) do pretty good jobs with legal thrillers.  There’s a toughness and a sense of authenticity in George Pelecanos’ work that is astounding.  He writes about gangs in D.C and Baltimore in ways that only someone who has had more than a glimpse or peformed Google search into that reality — or he is a true magician and I have fallen for the tricks.  I have neither the time, nor in this case, the courage to gain that level of knowledge in that world. 

My personal background is broad in some ways and stretches now over quite a few decades. Factory (assembly-line and foreman), construction, military, restaurant, banking, advertising, newspapers, government and politics.  So I do not write police procedurals, legal thrillers, or spy novels.  My world of crime fiction is smaller and less dependent on specialty. What I do is write from the point of view of an ordinary guy who is, by age and disposition, a bit out of his league as private detective in contemporary America, but doggedly determined, dealing with the crimes of other ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances.

In another example, I write about Indianapolis — and still do — because that is the
San Francisco At Night
city I know.  Born there, reared there. But I must be careful if I write about that city today. I must check back, understand how it has changed and is changing.  It took me the twenty years I’ve lived here in the City by the Bay to consider writing a series set San Francisco.  So even though I might not get the San Francisco, it is definitely a San Francisco. I have a strong enough sense of place to do it now.  I’ve never been to Boston. I think if I tried to set something there it would ring false — even with the help of Wikipedia and Google maps.

I try not to write too far outside the world I know or can reasonably discover.  Research can fill in some gaps, but only up to a point.  To add to the earlier point, when one of my main protagonists, Shanahan, goes to Mexico in Bloody Palms and later to Thailand in Bullet Beach, I don’t try to provide the cultural depths of those countries.  I’ve been to both places.  And my main character’s (Shanahan’s) view, as a visitor, mirrors mine as a visitor. What he sees is honest and what is rendered in the book is honest in that it accurately reflects what the narrator — a visitor — observes.  There is no attempt to create the same rich Thai worlds that Timothy Hallinan, John Burdett and others provide so well, having spent years there soaking up the environment.

I did venture into the mind of a serial killer once for Good To The Last Kiss, but only after saturating my brain with hours upon days upon weeks of tapes and books and articles by serial killers, psychiatrists, profilers, etc. I dug in pretty deep just to get the small glimpses I needed for a pivotal character in a book.  The downside was that it took a little while to climb out of that hole.  On the positive side, if you can call it that, is that the reprehensible character is treated with some level of understanding — not necessarily something every read appreciated.  So it is possible, in my mind, to go, at times, well beyond our own experience if the writer is prepared to invest in the venture.   For now and for me there is enough to draw upon for the stories I wish to tell in the experience I’ve picked up as I’ve lived a life and hopefully imagine a clever, hard-to-solve crime.

It has been said before, many times, you don’t have to die to write a death scene.  That’s true, of course, but as a writer you have to have at least some sense of it. I think a fiction writer cannot write the truth, but a good fiction writer can write in the spirit of the truth, provided he or she is grounded in their fiction.  In fact, a good fiction writer, in the same way a poet does, often gets closer to that sacred but impossible place where the truth resides than those who believe they are just reporting the facts. 

What do you think?


Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp said...

Some of this might depend on how much the city is a character in the novel. For your Deets Shananhan novels, though, I like the setting, familiar references, which provide a sense of place, but the city is not actually a character. Michael Connelly's novels, especially the Harry Bosch stories, have LA as a character and they take me right there — the lights, sun, heat, grit, streets and neighborhoods.

Ronald Tierney said...

Interesting. I am a fan of Connelly as well. I've read them all, with the exception of The Drop, which is on my table. But I don't get the LA character so much, except when Bosch is up above the city. Great to hear from you.