My last post was about what it meant to be an “expert”, i.e., did our readers expect us to be “experts” in the things we write about? I’m guessing if you are writing a cookbook; well then, yeah … it probably would be good if you knew your way around the kitchen. Or the “Five Easiest Ways To Perform Open-Heart Surgery” probably should be written by a doctor, preferably a heart surgeon. But a reader can hardly expect a writer of vampire novels to be a vampire (i.e., a “real” expert). Or everyone who writes a thriller about the CIA to be an undercover agent in Iran.
But the fact is we all have to write about something we know about … at least some of the time. And we don’t even have to be expert “experts”. Like in horseshoes and hand grenades, being close counts. Maybe “expert” in this context is too “exacting” a word. “Familiar” would be better. For example, I grew up in San Francisco so I am “familiar” with the City. I tend to use it as a backdrop for my novels. (As an aside … being “familiar” doesn’t give you an excuse to be sloppy. In my first novel, I had a major San Francisco street going one-way in the wrong direction. Oops! I fixed it, but not before what seemed like a gazillion people called me on it.)
Besides “place”, what seems to me to be most “familiar” to us (at least to those of us who have characters in our books) is how people interact with one another, and interact through the entire range of human emotion. And that is where, for good or for bad, our readers meet us. Because they, too, have experience interacting with other human beings. We might pull the “expert” card when it comes to a CIA agent because we hope the reader knows marginally less than we do. But when it comes to human interaction, the reader probably knows just as much as we do. That’s why our characters have to be so compelling. Our insights have to be just a wee-bit more refined and explained in language the readers can connect with. If your characters are unrecognizable or completely unbelievable in either speech, or habits, or emotional make-up, or response, the readers will tell us by either not buying the book or giving us really bad reviews, which will stop potential readers from buying the book.
It’s within the shared experience context where we, as writers, can find pushback in our readers. Even though we all may write in different genres, most of us will be writing about human interaction and human emotion – love and war and peace and hatred and kindness, and their consequences. And it’s at this intersection that we’ll meet our readers personally … because now we are talking about “shared” experiences. Now we aren’t quite the “expert” anymore. I’ll give you some examples of what I’m talking about in a minute. Let me go first to “assumptions.”
We all assume. Assumptions come from within us when we take our own experience and read it in such a way so as to explain some other experience. An example: I just finished reading a mystery novel by J.A. Jance. Even though I had heard about the author for a long time, this is the first of their novels that I’ve read. (I’m kicking myself for waiting so long, and I urge you to run right out and read anything by Jance.) It was a great story wrapped in unbelievably good characterization and dialogue. The reason I’m mentioning this, though, is because of the assumptions I made about the novel, the author and the characters. I said to myself, if I could assume these things about this novel, look what people could assume (and have assumed) about mine … or yours.
First of all, I assumed that J.A. Jance was a man. Why? Experience told me fewer women than men choose to be known by using initials for their first and middle names. The first of many assumptions I made. Another assumption I made about the author: the book starts with the main character going into the hospital to have both his knees replaced. Experience again told me that knee replacements happen to people mostly in their 50s and 60s and, therefore, the author was probably at a similar age. I know. I know … my bad. The author’s mother or father could have had knee and/or hip replacement, and she was channeling that experience to become the “expert”. Again, an assumption without any factual basis vis-à-vis the author. I made a ton more, as will readers to your works, so be aware. My assumptions were benevolent. Some are not.
When we intersect in the emotional and behavioral sphere of our readers, strange things can happen. I was once accused by a reader (a friend of mine) of using her daughter as one of my characters because I used her name spelled the same way. She assumed – incorrectly, I might add. It didn’t help that the female in my story carried on a PG-13 relationship with the protagonist. To tell you the truth I was stunned that anyone could have made that connection. But they do because they are with us on the same emotional and human interaction plane.
How many times have you been asked by your readers, is this “you” in the novel? (especially if you write in the first person) Those people closest to you are going to wonder the most. They see you and hear you and your mannerisms (or “assume they do”) in the main character. You are speaking through a voice they may recognize. I got so paranoid that I started getting all my character names by mixing and matching first and last names of people who appeared in the obituary columns of the newspaper.
And this is the moral of the entire post. We all have to use our own experience in our work. Is there some of Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Wolf of Wall Street”? Well, of course there is. Is he that character? Of course not. And so with us. Everything we write has some of us in it (that’s why, sometimes, writing is such a wrenching experience), but not all of us is that character (unless we are writing an autobiography, which I’m “assuming” we are not), or even most of us. And we have to be cognizant of that when we write/tell our story. Experience is a great teacher, but my caution is, don’t get too caught up in your experience (your “expertness”) and forget the role your imagination has to play. Speaking just for me, the more I remember that, the better stories I write.
Click here to read the first chapter of my new novel Kissed By The Snow. I expect a publishing date around October 1, 2014, in print and eBook formats. As soon as it’s out, you’ll be the first to know if you click “Follow” in the sidebar menu of this page. Not only will I be grateful, I’ll even send you the second chapter of my novel free.