Write What You Know

I think every writer has heard this advice. I know when I first heard it at a young age, my response was, “I better not write because I don’t know much.” I’m not sure who came up with the phrase, but it does a a disservice when taken out of context. It’s true that angst-ridden writers seem to take their own wretched lives and turn them into “literature.” I believe that Frank McCourt’s childhood fully informed his memoir. I doubt Bret Easton Ellis is as closely linked to his protagonist, Patrick Bateman of American Psycho. (Actually, I fervently hope not.) As a writer of literary fiction (under my real name) I have no problem feeling like I can make certain things up. The characters, their thoughts and feelings, are all mine as the writer. If, however, I’m going to place the novel in New York, I sure as heck better know what New York is like before I do so. Does this mean I can’t even think about writing a novel in New York if I’ve never been there? No. It only takes research to fill in what I don’t know. When it comes to writing sex, I certainly am not going to go out and try everything I’m writing about. I know there are plenty of “real life” dommes, or “real life” sluts out there, but I am not either. (Sorry guys.) The reality is, I have a very vivid imagination and can figure out a lot by inference. Direct experience is not entirely necessary in writing believable sex. Ah…did I just say believable sex? There’s an interesting distinction. Erotica is not necessarily meant to be believable. Think about it. When was the last time you were reading something that was meant to be titillating and erotic when someone…I don’t know…farted? Or belched? Maybe in some extreme sorts of magazines that’s an on for some folks. Bodily functions like the need to brush teeth, or anything that really gets in the way of the steam is conveniently not mentioned unless it adds to the story. Believable sex, on the other hand, would be filled with stomach slaps, gurgling tummies and the occasional ill-timed hiccup. Writing what you know, when it comes to writing sex is like any other topic. If you don’t know it firsthand, do research and move on from there. And, like most other fiction work, make up what you don’t know. Read what others have written and improvise on the subject. I am female, so writing a male character will always be improvisation because my biology simply won’t even let me come close to experiencing maleness. So, I’ll talk to guys and ask them to describe things to me. Sure, I can’t really “know” what it is to be a man, but I know men who are willing to help me out by answering my questions about the male experience. My job as a writer is to translate that into a character that is believable. When it comes down to it, the notion of “writing what you know” is a call to do research and learn what you don’t already know.