One of the classes I had to take for my major was Spanish Literature (hence the quote in the previous entry from Don Quixote). My professor had escaped Cuba during the transition from Batista to Castro, and a long-time friend of his who had escaped the island around the same time (I’ll call him Mr. Know) audited almost every lesson. Most classes were spent listening to the two of them reminisce, but they told very interesting stories, and the pieces we were reading were usually brought into the discussion somehow, so it was hard to mind this unique form of instruction and insist that they stick to the course material.
One day, the discussion turned naturally to writing. Being very old school Cubans, they spoke of the great male writers (in fact our book list was all male…) and how they brought realism to writing through their trials and tribulations. When the professor asked if any of us wanted to be authors, I raised my hand. The professor asked what I was writing and I told him about a short story I was working on about being the first female starship commander. This elicited a genteel snort from Mr. Know. Mr. Know then said that the story would fail because I was not ‘writing what I know’.
Thinking that he meant that space travel was still in its infancy, I told him that, with the space shuttle program newly under way, we would have starships and hyper-drive soon enough. Again he snorted…genteelly (he was a ‘gentleman’ after all) and proceeded to advise me in the most condescending way possible that a female could not write about starship battles or combat or pretty much anything except house-cleaning and raising children and romance because that was all women would ever be able to do.
How I wish I were as comfortable in my skin then as I am now. I had been raised not to talk back to your elders (he was almost as old as my grandfather), no matter what they said, and to be polite. So I shut up and seethed instead of taking him on point for point. After all, by his own argument, that one can only write what one had actually done, the authors he adored could not be real authors for all that they were born with the right body parts. Though he certainly saw service in the Navy, I highly doubt that Miguel De Cervantes ever jousted with a windmill, nor did Tolkien bomb about Mordor and have tea with elves and dwarves to get their opinions on the One Ring. And as for his diatribe on the purpose of women, I would love to have seen Tanya Huff or Elizabeth Moon take him on…
That event has always stuck with me and shaped my journey as an author, both in my “I don’t really give a rip about your opinion of women authors writing about things other than being barefoot and pregnant” attitude, and also because there was a grain of truth in what Mr. Know said that day. If you write something completely foreign to your own experience, you will run into the problem of being unbelievable. So what does “write what you know” mean to me?
I write steampunk and adventure and fantasy and science fiction. But I am not an elf, have never raided that secret lair under the volcano and saved the world as a secret agent, never built an automaton, or even commanded a starship. What I do have is the ability to take events that happened to me growing up and use those feelings and experiences to bring the stories of my characters in other worlds to life. Let me give you an example.
One of the main characters in The Stolen Songbird, Rachel, is an opera singer. She is the daughter of an earl, for want of nothing, a girly girl with ruffles and frills and dresses and far too many shoes, that giggles and, well you get the picture. I, on the other hand, have not worn a dress since my wedding day (thank you J, for being a wonderful husband and not minding), have no fashion sense whatsoever, am much more interested in spending money on books and movies and a nice white mocha than on fripperies and shoes dyed to match, and have been a tomboy all my life. I may snicker, but I Never. Ever. Giggle.
For months I avoided writing her scenes, content to spend time with the other two characters, Harry, a tomboy, and Shay, a scholar, both of which I was able to write as naturally as breathing, because both are different aspects of my own personality. But then I couldn’t avoid Rachel anymore. The scenes needed to be written, but I couldn’t ‘write what I know’ with Rachel, because I didn’t ‘know’ her. I couldn’t seem to get inside her head and make her believable. Instead I wrote caricatures of every diva that ever teased me growing up, which certainly didn’t make Rachel as endearing or sympathetic to readers as I needed her to be.
I walked the hamster trail for days at a time, thinking and mulling, and trying to come to grips with this epitome of femininity that had invaded my life. Until one day, Anuna came up on the iPod and I heard the lead singer with her beautiful soaring voice sing Siuil a Rhun, and it dawned on me. Well, actually, it pretty much hit me like an ACME anvil. How could I have been so stupid?
Rachel is a singer, with a deep and abiding love for music. The dresses and shoes and giggles are all just the packaging. I love music. I’ve sung in choir and in barbershop chorus. It doesn’t matter much what genre it is, any time a song comes on the radio, you can find me singing along with it. Music speaks to me in a way that will make me laugh or cry with joy or sadness, and it fills me up when my soul is empty. And suddenly Rachel and I understood each other. The two chapters I’ve written from her point of view are two of the chapters I’m most proud of. Because I wrote what I knew.
So here’s what I would say to Mr. Know wherever he is today. “Go ahead and scoff, but I do write what I know, and for your information, it’s damn good. See you at the book signing.”