Sunday, 4 August 2013

Writing What You Don't Know

I've grown lax in updating my blog with real content lately, and it's all because of this new book I'm writing. Here's why...

There's a misunderstood perception that writers should "write what they know." This isn't to say that that a writer should turn every one of their books into an autobiography. If you're churning out a romance novel and have never experienced love and loss in your own life, it's going to be hard to express authentic emotion to captivate your reader. Actors depend on their emotional history to perform their roles, and so does a writer.

Setting can be just as important as the characters in a book. A failure to adequately portray the atmosphere of your setting, or the mannerisms of its people can be just as glaring a mistake as having a character speaking with the wrong dialect. That's why Stephen King bases the greater portion of his stories in Maine, because he knows the land and its people.

I don't do that. Which means, I need to do my homework before I can even begin to write. 

Like my character from Reading The Dead, Sarah Milton, I grew up on the east coast, but the Pacific always caught my imagination. There's just something about the sight of the rolling coastlines of California, crashing against a tropical-looking land bordered by hillsides and deserts, that appeals to me. When I started writing my book, the setting never once came into question. Since I never set foot on the west coast in my life, I knew I had my work cut out for me to get the feeling just right, particularly since this would be my figurative home throughout the series.

However, since my story is largely focused on the LAPD (with equivalent artistic license, of course), it really was only a matter of time before I needed to delve into one of the uglier aspects of California living that I had heretofore glanced over. Urban street gangs. 

Book three of Reading The Dead is tentatively titled "Street Savior," and focuses heavily on South and East side gangs. Everything, from tweeting to blogging to writing, is taking a back door to absorbing as much as I can about this strange, dangerous, unfamiliar world of theirs. Their sense of honor and propriety, their customs and beliefs, their slang... it's a daunting task to pick it all up, and I'm sure that I'll probably not do it full justice in the end. My California may not measure up to the real thing, but I'm determined to make it the best that I can pull off from my chair on the Atlantic coast.

In the end, it's all about the atmosphere. Taking the time to make sure you nail it is worth the effort. Especially when you're writing about what you don't know.