The biggest falsehood told to new writers is the phrase, ‘Write what you know.’ If I was to follow that maxim you would read nothing from me but boring tomes about small town, small minded middle class Canadians – or rather you wouldn’t be reading them since such books would bore even me to tears. If writers didn’t stretch their literary wings past the realms of what we know or have experienced over half of the great and not so great literature of today wouldn’t exist.
I very much doubt Stephanie Meyers ever met a vampire, let alone fell in love with one. Or that Douglas Adams ever had dinner at the restaurant at the end of the universe (though it sounded like fun) I doubt Isaac Asimov traveled to distant planets or knew any humanoid robots, good or bad. And I certainly hope no one thinks Thomas Harris ever dined on anyone’s body parts. And does anyone believe that Laura Baumbach and Josh Lanyon were major drug dealers in Mexico before they wrote Mexican Heat? If they were, I’d like to hear that story!
I’ve never killed anyone, brutally or otherwise. But I write about it all the time. I’m not a cop, I’m not a medical examiner, or a serial rapist/murderer or a gay man, but I write about all of those things. My books are full of dead and dismembered corpses and the people who pursue them. At one time in my past I used to write Science Fiction, but I’m pretty sure I never made a Jump in hyperspace or ate at a restaurant on a space station circling an alien planet light years from Earth but they were both featured in a trilogy called Flight of the Necromancer I wrote years ago.
My point? The world would be a much drier and less colorful place if writers had to experience something before they could write about it. I’ve never killed anybody but I know I’ve had moments where I wished someone would die – have even gone so far as to savor a fantasy about it, but I know I’d never do it. I imagine most people have felt similar urgings. We are all human, we share emotions and needs that cross racial, sexual and geographic bounds. Somethings are universal, some are cultural. I can explore the universal ones in many forms and with a wide open, exploring mind. The cultural ones are less open to me. I’m quite sure I couldn’t write about a Hindu untouchable kid growing up in Calcutta and I wouldn’t try, though Arthur Golden didn’t feel those restrictions when he wrote the critically acclaimed Memoirs of a Geisha, so I supposed I could try.
What I do write about are gay men and their relationships and lives. To date I think I’ve been fairly successful, judging by the comments I get from reviewers and readers alike. They like and believe in my characters Chris and David and hopefully will feel similar things for Alexander Spider and Jason Zachary in Geography of Murder to come out soon from MLR Press.
Mostly I write what I like and what I want to read. I think that’s a better maxim than write what you know. A whole lot more fun, too.