Friday, October 5, 2007

Writing what you know...

My writing group met last night. We've been meeting for about 5 years now and know each other pretty well. We're an odd group, I write erotic romance, then we have literary fiction, fantasy and inspirational mystery/suspense. So far we've all gotten along well. Apart from that one occasion when I almost burst into tears and left because someone kept picking on my hero :)

Last night we discussed that age old chestnut, 'write what you know' -did it mean you had to write about your life and only the things you had experienced or did it mean something more profound? Perhaps it meant write about what you believe in? We all had to stop and think about that.

For our inspirational writer it was easier, because for her, the faith element is not only what she 'knows' but what she strives to achieve in her life. I can totally respect that. For our literary gal, again she writes thinly veiled memoir so she really writes what she knows in the more expected sense. The fantasy writer weighed in with the thought that she always explores the journeys of women who are weak and how they become strong.

As for me...well, obviously I don't write what I do. I'm a happily married women thank you very much :). I don't need to seek the sexual thrills my characters crave and I still don't know how the hell I ended up with quite this erotic an imagination! So this is my take on the 'write what you know' thing. I write about human relationships because I am totally fascinated by how people relate to each other, the grays of sexual identity, the way people speak, or don't speak, the way they touch, or don't touch, the intricate dance of a courtship or a sexual relationship.

I've always admired authors who write fabulous dialogue-Dorothy Dunnett is one of those writers whom I love to read because her characters are so often at cross purposes and the flaws in their communications just exacerbate the problems. I want to write as well as that when I grow up and I certainly force my characters to talk to each other. The other thing I strive to achieve is honesty between my characters about what they crave or desire or need to be happy-and ultimately, that's what we all want really, isn't it? Someone to love us for ourselves.

So am I writing what I know or simply expressing my view of the world of sexual intimacy? I'm not sure, I'm certainly not trying to preach a way of life or a belief that everyone is sexually blurred. Is it even necessary for a writer to know why she writes the way she does? I'm not sure I have the answer to that one either! How about any of you?


Celia May Hart said...

Well, the same issue is with historical. I haven't lived the time period.... but if you read and so on, you get to learn things. I don't think you have to live it to know it to write it.

Hmm, that's an odd-looking sentence....

Sharon Page said...

In my first fiction course, when I worked on my fledgling books, the one that clicked was based a lot on my past. But better. What that taught me was "underlying truth", which to me is "write what you know." Some stories resonate because I feel the characters are true, and the author expresses things with an honesty that speaks to me.

I was working on my WIP and watching the Canadian version of American Idol (sorry if I've mentioned this before), and one of the judges said: cut the cute crap and be honest. Aha. I saw what was wrong with my WIP. I wasn't pushing myself to be honest with the characters.

Does write what you know mean write about forensics if you are in that field? As Celia said, how do your write historicals? For me, it means trying to be honest to the character, at least as honest as I can with what I know, or can research and then "know".

I loved this question, you posed:
Is it even necessary for a writer to know why she writes the way she does?

Have you every read some of your work and thought: I wrote this? Just because it seems like thoughts you didn't even know you had? Maybe part of the writers journey is exploring that question as they write? Maybe that's what keeps it even more interesting after 10, 20, or 50 books?

Pam Rosenthal said...

I agonize over this question on a weekly basis at least, Kate. Thanks (I think) for bringing it up.

Sometimes I think I don't know anything but my fantasies, but sometimes I figure I must know something -- a need, a feeling, an emotion -- because when I write it my voice (or my character's) takes on some of the depth of where it came from.

When my husband reads my drafts (which he always does), he always recognizes these passages.

There's one in Carrie's Story, where she bursts into tears because she envies Jonathan for having "his life really together" and not having to "worry about stuff like whether he's really smart or talented or just kidding himself."

And one in The Slightest Provocation, where Kit muses that "Perhaps... we owe a debt of honor to our poor, flawed, frightened and deluded younger selves, to become the people we should have been, if only we could have."