Saturday, May 13, 2017

Writing About Murder (When You've Never Killed Anybody)



           People often advise aspiring fiction writers that the best thing to do is “write what you know.”  Writing about what you know conveys authenticity.  Realism.  It’s one of the so-called cardinal rules of writing.  However well-intentioned, it is not only misunderstood but has somehow become the standard by which many stories are too often judged.  There is a belief that real authenticity in writing can only be expressed by someone who has shared the same experiences as characters in that writer’s story.  But if you’ve never robbed a bank, how do you write a realistic scene involving a bank robbery without first walking into a nearby Wells Fargo wearing a mask, carrying a forty-five, and shoving a note across the counter at the teller demanding all the money in the drawer (except the dye-packs which can be problematic)?
            Writing what you know can not only be boring, but creates an impression that readers should care less about characters and more about their surroundings and the things that inspired them.  The story becomes less about fiction and more about reporting.
            As writers, we use imagination to create worlds populated by fictional characters.  Many of us who write crime, mystery, and suspense have never robbed a bank, spent time in lock-up, or been involved in any number of the violent crimes committed by characters in our stories but it doesn’t stop us from writing.  Most of us lead boring lives.  One day looks like all the others.  That’s not the kind of realism readers want.  The challenge in finding an authentic voice is to be exciting, interesting, and different.   We use imagination to give voice to characters and create not only the realism but the authenticity editors, publishers, and most importantly, readers demand.
            I faced a number of challenges with Still Black Remains.  One had to do with marketing a book that had no clearly defined genre – no vampires or zombies or love-struck college sweethearts doomed by a combination of fate, bad luck, and rare disease.  But it was the story I wanted to write, and that was more important than everything else, no matter what’s popular in bookstores.  That is the true cardinal rule of writing: write your story. It doesn’t matter what your friends, your college professor, or even other writers think you should write – you need to write the story you want to write.
            But the biggest obstacle had to do with telling a story through the voice of characters completely unlike me.  Still Black Remains is the story of a street kid turned gangster named Twist, his drug-dealing gang called the Skulls, and an out of control turf war that escalates with the kidnapping of a mafia capo.  The kidnapping was supposed to provide a bargaining chip in negotiations to end the war; it was never intended to be anything more than that.  But like most great ideas, the plan doesn't turn out as expected.  Most of the characters in Still Black Remains are black, and as any number of agents, publishers, and even other writers pointed out, my characters could not be authentic because I am not black.  According to them, I could not write this story because I am nothing like the characters in the book.
            Really.
            As if a writer cannot write about someone who doesn’t resemble themselves in the mirror.
            The implication was that only a black writer can capture the perspective of a main character who is part of a drug-dealing street gang.  A thug. A killer. How could I know anything about the grittiness of the Skulls’ Newark, New Jersey neighborhood?  How could anyone like me understand the nuances of a gangster’s life, capture their voices accurately, know the ins and outs of street level drug deals, or understand the terror you feel when someone has a forty-five pointed at your chest?  How could a white man write a novel from a black man’s point of view?
That kind of belief not only dismisses creativity but diminishes the skills and abilities writers need to imagine.  I couldn’t “write what I know” because I didn’t know any of the experiences I was writing about.
Which is bullshit.
That would mean that only cowboys can write westerns.  And only CIA or FBI agents could write thrillers and espionage. And that any good zombie apocalypse novel can’t be believable if it hasn’t been created by a zombie writer.  If any of that were true - if authentic writing is truly defined by writing about what you know - how do you explain anything written by Stephen King?
Good writing pulls you into a world where characters live and makes them believable.  Imagination is essential – not experience. Writers bring out the attitudes and feelings of those characters and give them emotional integrity.  Good writers research locations and ask questions – not just of themselves but of the characters in their stories.  They ask “what if” questions, developing their characters realistically and getting them into and out of problems. They listen because authenticity comes from listening to people and how they talk. Elmore Leonard’s writing sounds the way people talk and rings true because he captured the rhythm and cadence of conversations, and I’m reasonably certain he never did half the shit his characters did.  Gillian Flynn effectively told “Gone Girl” from both the male and female point of view.  She understood her characters and knew their emotions, as well as the things that drove them – being a woman had nothing to do with it.
Realism is important even in science fiction, which needs elements of existing life, technology, and culture. But writers can write about things they don’t know firsthand.  Writing requires letting our imagination sprawl into the unknown – not just staying with what we know. Writers have to be open to what we want to know, what our characters understand, and their experiences.
If you’re a writer, it’s never about writing what you know.
It’s about writing what you can imagine.

            Originally published at Sirens of Suspense - April 3, 2017

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