Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Should We Only Write What We Know?

          Beginning writers are always told to "write what you know,"and the advice is usually taken to mean "write about your own life and experiences." I have even been told by a well respected writing teacher that a woman or a man should never try to write from the perspective of the opposite sex--it simply won't ring true.  For the most part, I guess, I've heeded that advice, and I have done what most new writers do.  I've written about family, as I have known it.  I've written about people, thinly disguised, that I have met.  I've written about things that have happened to me or to others in my life, knowing that the details I can bring to the writing will make it come alive.  And most of it, although not all, has been from a woman's point of view.

          But I have begun to re-think this advice.  If writers only write what we know, we would not have  historical fiction, murder mysteries, science fiction or fantasies of any kind.  The twenty year old Stephen Crane, born six years after the end of the Civil War, would never have been able to write The Red Badge of Courage, which depicted the terror of a young soldier in battle so well that veterans of the Civil War were convinced Crane had been there.  So many bold and beautiful stories and novels have come from writer's imaginations and hard research that if we restricted writers to only write about what they know from first hand experience, it would be far too limiting.

         Why am I thinking about this now?  Because my penultimate story (the next to last one I am writing for my novel in linked stories) started out being about a road trip, camping across the United States.  I have done that twice.  But my main character is a retired cop, a veteran of World War Two and a man--none of which I have been.  He meets a Viet Nam veteran.  I haven't been that either.  I'm a little scared to be writing this story, although it seems to be propelling itself where the characters need to go.  Truth to tell, I'm a little scared posting this blog too and exposing my chutzpah in writing about something I don't know from my own experience.  

          But I'm going to do it anyway.  And if it rings true to my first reader (my husband) and my second readers (the seven wonderful writers in my Monday night writing group) then I will include it in my novel of linked short stories.  Let's see what happens.

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