Write About What You Know . . . or Can Look Up

by William Rand
13 April 2013

A recent comment on one of my websites said: “I have wondered if you are into the “alternative” lifestyle? If one is going to write about BDSM realistically it would seem to be a prerequisite.” The question is interesting, but it seems more social than technical.

I write in a couple of different genres, mostly horror and erotica, and such questions of personal experience as a requirement for writing about a topic (or teaching the subject) only seem to arise in particular circumstances, generally related to socially controversial issues. For instance, no one wonders whether working on a starship is a prerequisite for writing a Star Trek novel. In addition, neither the Italian screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni or the Italian film director Sergio Leone fought in the United States Civil War, although they produced successful films about it.

However, neither science fiction nor the Civil War is a socially or politically hot subject now, and no one interested in those two topics (Star Trek and the US Civil War or Western movies) claims the sort of exclusivity demanded currently by some social, political, ethnic or sexual groups. This social exclusivity is not limited to prose writing or film making.

I recall an incident during my graduate studies in which Black university students complained because a professor of African American literature was White. The White female professor was married to a Black man, and she had an interest and advanced degree in African American Studies. That seemed to me sufficient to qualify her to teach the course. Political Correctness and its multitude of followers, however, claimed otherwise.

On the other side, I am not British—I am of African American, Native American and French Canadian descent—but I teach Shakespeare. Nobody has complained or even commented on that yet. In addition, I have had a university Spanish teacher who was from the United States with no Latin or Spanish heritage. However, his wife was Colombian, and he had studied the language to the point of earning a degree in Spanish. He proved a competent instructor. No one questioned his ability to teach Spanish.

To return to fiction writing, I was first impressed by the possibilities of research by a short story in a collection titled, Moustapha’s Eclipse (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988). The author is Reginald McKnight, an African American writer who teaches Black literature in Colorado and has a background teaching in Senegal in Africa. His final story in the collection, “Rebirth,” centers on a protagonist Treadwell, a White racist whose daughter has married an African American man. The conflict begins when the married daughter Maggie becomes pregnant, and the racist father must face the fact of becoming the grandfather of an African American child. The protagonist is believable, neither underdone or overdone in sentiment, and the story is wonderfully written and effective. McKnight did not have to be White or racist to present such a character in a credible way.

To answer the opening question about my erotic novel: Yes, I have dabbled in the BDSM lifestyle, off and on and to a limited extent; I have had friends in the United States who enjoy it, and I like to read the literature. I don’t know if I followed all of the “rules” of the BDSM lifestyle when I participated in it, but I’m not much for rules anyway, especially rules dictated by social groups. In any event, I did not find personal experience to be a requirement to write an erotic novel with a few BDSM scenes, but it definitely helped. In creating fiction—erotica, Westerns, horror, comedy, social protest or any other genre—first-hand experience usually produces a fuller work, but secondary research, combined with personal interest and writing skill, can also result in equally effective, credible stories and films, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, for instance.

If personal experience were a prerequisite for producing fictional or biographical prose or film, we would not have the movies, The Great White Hope, Star Wars, Glory, One Man’s Hero, The Matrix, A Fistful of Dollars, Braveheart, Gladiator, Dracula, Lincoln or Hidalgo (the Mexican biography, not the horse race). Personal experience helps to produce good stories—notably erotica, crime thrillers, war novels and others—but so does research, obviously in the case of historical novels or science fiction.

The best compliment I have received about a fictional story that I wrote involved a setting and event that I had not personally experienced. The compliment came in the form of a question, probably not even intended as a compliment. Someone read a horror story I had written that involved a ground battle during the Vietnam War. Evidently, the scene worked because the combat veteran asked, in genuine curiosity, the year I had served in Vietnam and with which unit. I never went to Vietnam; I was too young.

I found the comment from the veteran intriguing mostly because, although I had friends who opened up to me and shared their wartime experiences, I have seen other people, especially from the Vietnam War, close up, saying that a person who had not been there could never understand. One a certain level, I am sure that is true. Nevertheless, I have written two stories involving the Vietnam War that readers have (according to comments and feedback) found credible and entertaining. How did I do that without the “prerequisite” of first-hand experience?

My father was a WWII decorated combat veteran who sometimes told me of his experiences. I served in the US Army Reserves, and I grew up in a violent city, giving me some practical and emotional material to work with. I worked with three combat veterans of the Vietnam War, and I later had two faculty friends who had been pilots during the war. Two years of anecdotes from my veteran friends, endless questions which they graciously answered in detail and a lot of research to fill in the gaps got me by and got the stories written. So, I have written combat scenes in which I have had no experience and erotic (I hope) BDSM scenes in which I have had limited experience. I guess that may spark further curiosity and questions about my work.

I suppose we can get some practical, personal questions out of the way before moving on to the writing theory. These are questions people have asked me relating to scenes, settings, plot elements or characters in stories and novels I have written in both horror and erotica.

Have you studied Spanish? Yes.
Have you studied Mandarin? Yes.
Have you studied or practiced archaeology? No.
Have you skydived (more than once and solo, not one of those strapped-together, buddy things)? Yes.
Have you spent time in the Chichén Itzá ruins of Mexico and traveled through the Yucatán? Yes.
Have you been to Spain? No.
Have you been to China? Yes.
Have you ever been in a real, urban gunfight? No. Neither, I believe, has Clint Eastwood.
Have you seen someone shot? Yes, more than once.
Have you ever gone to a strip club in Mexico? Of course, more than once.
Have you ever dated a sixteen year old girl? No, not even when I was sixteen, as I recall. I was too shy, skinny and broke.
Have you ever dated a woman much older than you? Yes, more than once.
Have you ever been married to a feminist? Yes. I’m happily divorced from her.
Did you later marry a Mexican lady? Yes and happily, but she was thirty-six when we met.
How old are you? Older than thirty-six and older than my wife.
Have you ever dated an Asian masseuse? No. A masseuse from any country? No.
Have you ever gotten a “happy ending” Asian massage? You can wonder about that one.
Did you study and teach English in United States universities? Yes, for many years. I also taught in Costa Rica and Mexico, which provided interesting and helpful comparisons.
Were you a virgin at twenty-seven? Give me a break—of course not, but, according to statistics, between two and five percent of thirty year old men in the United States are virgins.
Are you Catholic? Yes, born and raised, with nuns in elementary school and everything. A believer? Yes. Practicing? More or less.
Have you ever been lost or trapped in a cave? No.
Have you ever worked as a police officer? No. Have you had friends who were cops? Yes.
Have you ever been a doctor or watched a surgical procedure? No. My sister, a nurse at the time, helped me with that story.
Have you ever worked in building maintenance? Yes. On elevators, specifically? No.
Do you have any relatives who are witches? Not that I know of.
Have you ever witnessed an exorcism? No.

I answered “no” to twelve of the questions. That’s about thirty percent. The information I used for the erotic and horror stories that did not result from experience came from research or interviews.

So, how do you write credible stories if you don’t have experience in the setting or events, but you have an interest in a place or event, or you find the setting or event necessary to the story? You do it carefully. Don’t make it up. Look it up. Take the time to find the information you need—be it some horror legend, something in erotica, the climate of a city, or simply the inner workings of an elevator. However, the story, centered on character, is always first. That is easy to forget if you are researching setting or background. Keep a couple of things in mind when using new information.

First, don’t overdo it. When writing a story or novel about a known place, most practiced writers have an instinct about which details need to be included and which can be left out. However, when research is involved, there is a tendency to add too much because of uncertainty or simply because of a desire to put all of that good work to use. Ernest Hemingway had a theory of writing as an “iceberg,” meaning that the important information is beneath the surface: the details that do not show. Including too much could make a story look like a travel guide book or an instruction manual. I have sometimes done two or three hours of research, resulting in pages of data to give me the material to write one believable and accurate, albeit short, line of dialogue. Remember to keep the story in the foreground.

Second, tell the truth—in erotica, social protest, comedy, horror or whatever—sometimes a difficult thing to accomplish, depending on reader expectations and social politics. Try to get information from two or three unbiased sources for verification. Social conventions now focus too much on political correctness, making that difficult at times. Unfortunately, many readers also want to see politically correct versions of life. At least try to get the whole truth about a place or event before deciding what you want to show. How much of the truth you want to tell will depend on your own standards and on how many books you want to sell.

Third, remember another aspect of reader expectations. Readers come to fiction to be entertained but also to be informed. They want to see places they have never visited. Try to give your readers a reasonably accurate experience of those places (given the needs of the story), whether your information comes first-hand or through research. Writers owe their readers at least that much. When researching a city, for instance, maps are not enough. Upon writing the story, you should if the streets run uphill or downhill, the economic level of the neighborhood, the type of people living there and their opinions and, if possible, the age of the area. You need to know the climate in different seasons, possibly even the cycle of the moon, the condition of the infrastructure, the streets, stores and schools. Are the pavements plain cement, cobblestone, level, cracked, wide, narrow? Gather as much information as possible, and then decide what to include so you can present a full scene.

Personal experience with a place, lifestyle or event (augmented by research) is always preferable, even in erotica, especially if most or all of the story deals with it. However, thorough research can, at times, carry a scene. Don’t let inexperience or social dictates stop you.


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