A recent shit show on the Twitter-machine about a certain anthology elbowing into space barely gained by #ownvoices authors, and “writing what you know” made me sit down and ponder this standard bit of writing advice.
Most beginning writers are told this, but I think the meaning behind it is largely misunderstood.
First of all, it’s not meant to be taken literally.
While some authors like Stephen King can make a killing writing about creepy shit going down in the same town for YEARS, most of us would probably get bored with that. Along those same lines, I’m almost entirely positive that all of your characters won’t work the same job or have the same family dynamics as your own family. Fiction writers, and especially genre fiction writers, routinely write what we don’t know. I mean, none of us is expected to commit a murder, fly a spaceship, captain a crabbing boat, or run an organized crime syndicate in order to craft a compelling narrative, but somehow we manage to depict these things convincingly. And we do so by reading every book and article we find on organized crime, binge-watching The Deadliest Catch, allowing our minds to go where no man has gone before, and Googling far too many ways to murder someone without leaving a trace.
We do the legwork to find the information we need in order to flesh out the story.
My question is, why doesn’t this same curiosity extend to writing people of color?
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m kind of a stickler for character development, especially when it comes to romance. When you write in a genre that leans so heavily on tropes and themes, its the characters that help the story stand out. The characters are why we’re here. At best, poor representation is just bad character development and you're going to have a hard time convincing me that it isn't.
Not only that, I'm really tired of talking about it. We've been going around and around on this same topic for no less than ten years.
But...just this one last time... let's have a chitty-chat about this, yeah? So here we go, 4 ways to write what you don't know.
*Small aside—I’m only tackling race in this post. Yes, I know that gender fluid, queer, disabled, and larger bodied folk have their own journeys and issues with their portrayal in media and literature. I’m not speaking for them because I believe in leaving space for them speak for themselves.
1. Research, Research, Research
Lemme tell you a lil' story. An anecdote, if you will.
I recently wrote a feature for a local magazine about a chair caning company in Asheville, North Carolina. I freely admit to being somewhat intrigued by the subject matter when I received the assignment, but I probably wouldn't have sought out Silver River Center for Chair Caning on my own. It just wasn't on my radar. Yes, it's art, but not the sort of art I usually consume. However, the moment I began researching the craft to prepare for the interview, I found myself deeply intrigued by the beauty and skill of chair caning. I found myself diving deeper to discover the origins of rush and splint weaving, a tradition that was once taught at the knee of an elder. I wrote that article a few months ago and I’m still saving little snippets to a file that may possibly become a novel. That research triggered a path of inspiration that I would have never discovered if I had never bothered to do the work.
All right, so maybe my little freelance writer, homespun story didn’t hit home, but here’s a pop culture reference that may be a bit more familiar.
We all know Fifty Shades of Grey, right?
It’s kinda hard to move in the romance and erotica writing community and remain completely ignorant of the phenomena that is this trilogy. If you’ve been around and writing before, during, or after it, you’ve most certainly been asked “Like 50 Shades?” when you told someone that you write romance. It’s hard to escape and those of us who write in the genre have probably learned to grin, nod, and move on—but that’s not where I’m going with this.
How many of you feel a way when someone compares your writing to the one pop culture reference out there to describe it? How many of you have been in an interview and had to field that question in a congenial way? Does it make you feel uncomfortable? Does it make you wish you had time to run down all the wonderful romance and erotica stories that you feel are so much better than this uber-popular trilogy? Do you feel the need to separate yourself from it in some way, whether it be big or small?
Hold onto that feeling.
And now imagine that they aren’t talking about your work, but how you’re perceived as a person. In your body. In your skin. Imagine there’s a whole book about it. A community. A fucking industry, even.
That feeling where you wanted someone to do a very simple Google search to find out the good works in your genre and possibly in your backlist? Same feeling BUT BIGGER.
And no doubt, the interview, book, or short story could have been better if that bit of research had been done.
I said all of that to say that research can and does trigger inspiration if you let it. It can open a door to something you may not have even considered for your story. Too often, us westerners tend to latch onto the parts of a culture that we like and fetishize that without diving deeper to find out the origins of that bit of culture. It astounds me how often someone on social media will state—with conviction—that this or that thing originated in western culture when a simple Google search can easily disprove it.
Do your homework.
Google and then read and then Google some more. If you can’t find what you need on the internet (which is highly unlikely, but I’ll play along) we still have these things called libraries.
It sounds like a lot of work, and maybe you want to say fuck it and write the story the way you want to write it. *Kanye shrug* that’s fine. But if you really you care about it how your work will be received when you’re done, you will dedicate a bit of time to research.
2. Melinate your timeline.
Some of y’all (#notallwhitepeople) have timelines as white as the driven snow. You don’t “see race.” You’re “colorblind” and you wish the rest of us would “stop bringing it up because it’s ruining your fun.” You just want to "read and write stories, dammit! Stop bringing race and politics into romance! It doesn't belong there!"
Check it out.
YOU’RE RUINING MY FUN WITH YOUR SHITTY STEREOTYPICAL STORIES—
Oop! My bad. You’re right. That was a bit aggressive.
*Shoulder roll* *Reset*
The way you tell stories is important. How you depict people who are different from you in stories is important. More than one study has been done to prove that how a particular social group is depicted in news and fiction can change how they are perceived in reality. I’m not gonna pull up all the statistical data. If you want that, see step one in this tutorial. But what that statistical data has revealed is a thing that we already know; children as young as five or six are already absorbing negative perceptions from the constant deluge of bullshit stereotypes embedded in media. It’s also been proven that children who experience a more broad exposure to folks of all nationalities and cultures become more tolerant and accepting of people who don’t look like them. I’m of the mind that we should be striving toward the latter and not the former and the only way we do that is by knowing and interacting with as many people of different nationalities and cultures as possible.
So! How do you do this, young Padawan? Where do you begin?
Let's just narrow it down to social media. Where do you hang out everyday? Is it Facebook? Is it Twitter? Instagram? Look at your timeline. Check the people you follow. Are they all fair complected? And by fair I mean WHITE? Are you comforted by the fact that you’re rarely ever challenged by differing ideals of beauty, status, and intelligence because your timeline is so goddamn white?
Maybe you might want to consider integrating that timeline, yeah?
Listen. I know it’s hard. You’re gonna feel uncomfortable and probably even fatigued by the shit that we talk about when it comes to publishing. But we talk about it because it’s still an issue and the only way we can get beyond that is to fucking acknowledge the problem and genuinely try to fix it instead of just paying it lip service.
3. Details, details, details
Even if you do your best to research, and befriend people of different cultures, the details might still trip you up. You’ll be happily scrolling through Twitter someday and someone will reveal things that you never even considered like the magical mammy character in your story who’s only purpose in the narrative is to coddle your heroine. Or things like referring to a character's features as ”Asian” when Asia sweeps from India all the way to goddamn Japan. Your first instinct will be to ask someone to explain it to you in 280 twitter characters and I’m going to ask you to resist that urge. Why? Because something as complex as race shouldn’t be discussed in a Twitter thread! If you really want to discuss race and get a firmer grip on topics that might arise if you’re writing a culture other than your own, seek out a critique from a sensitivity reader.
With a little effort (see point #1) you can find one specific to the culture in your book, or find one who is willing to do the research that you don’t want to do.
Know that this is a service and that no one owes you their time or their knowledge simply because you request it.
4. Focus On What You Do Know
We all know that no culture or nationality has a monolithic experience. Everyone is different. I count that as a good thing. But if what you do know is grounded in problematic narratives, seek to change that first, and then engage and find out ways to know more. There’s always an exception that proves the rule. But you, dearest writer-friend, make the rules in your writing world and because you’re the rule maker, you determine the exceptions.
Our differences make us beautiful. Embrace them.