28 June 2014
Writing What You Don't Know
Wanna know a secret? Most writers don't like to talk about their work.
Oh, we'll glibly babble on about the origin of a story...if it makes a good story. The safe-for-work antics of other people's editors are fair game...so long as we've filed off all the serial numbers. (You never know when you might have to work for that nutjob--I mean, respected senior editor.) Our research is even better.
Notice something about all these things we like to talk about? The farther away the material gets from anything that might make us uncomfortable, the easier it is to talk about. When it touches on our (many) writerly insecurities..not so much.
Which brings us to this month's theme and why it's hard for me to blog about it. I'm a heterosexual female from a relatively privileged background. What business do I have writing from an LGBQT perspective, ever? I can't know what it's like from the inside.
As somebody who goes to extreme lengths to research her fiction, that bothers me. It bothers me that I don't know what it was like to walk the streets of fifteenth century or the corridors of the Hindenburg just before it exploded, too. But in both those cases, the only people who care whether I get it sort of right are other history nerds, and even for them the issues are purely academic. If I misstep in my depiction of LGBQT characters--or characters of color or characters with physical or emotional challenges--people could get hurt.
I hurt my characters. A lot. I challenge them every way I can think of. It's what writers do. I want to challenge my readers, too. But I don't want to hurt them by being an idiot about something I'll never know.
At the same time, the world is not populated entirely by privileged heterosexual females. I'm good with that. I'm boring in real life, and if my stories were only about people like me, they'd be boring, too. So I write about women and men at all levels of society, of all countries, races, and orientation.
Perhaps the most important human character in "Fixed", my story in The Modern Fae's Guide to Surviving Humanity, is a gay vet tech based on one of my favorite coworkers. The original was a retired military officer who was built like The Refrigerator. Seriously, if you just saw this guy's face and his shadow, you would NOT want to meet him in a dark alley. But once the lights went on, you'd find yourself looking at someone with the fashion sense and mannerisms of Nathan Lane. Incredibly nurturing, too. So I could really see him working with lost and injured animals. But mostly I loved the way he talked and his own idiosyncratic way of taking no nonsense from anyone. He brought an incredible brio to the story. I loved writing his lines and how much his presence made everything better.
A lesbian couple were the main characters of "Personal Demons," my story in Hellebore and Rue, the award-winning anthology about lesbian magic users. The story is all about the cost of magic--and how that cost might not be what you think. For Anita, my exorcist, the cost was the alienation of her lover Deborah's affections.
I confess I used a lesbian couple because it made everything worse. Anita is a tantric sorceress, so there is a sexual component to her magic. Her lover sees this up close and personal in the middle of an exorcism. If a man had seen what Deb had seen, he would've felt betrayed, gotten angry and left to get drunk. It would've been nasty. There would've been a cost. But a man never feels soiled--polluted--in the same way a woman does. So his girlfriend has congress with demons. All he has to do is wash himself off and he's good to go. But a woman takes her lover inside her body. It's a whole different level of intimacy. You cannot simply rinse away a demon's touch, even at one remove.
Having made that decision, I tried to treat both characters as if they were me. How would I feel in their respective positions? It's the only way I know to respectfully step in someone else's shoes.
I'd like to think I got their emotions right, especially since sooner or later a story will demand another character who isn't me or anything like me. I want very much to get it right every time, because no matter where we come from, what we believe or who we love, we're all human beings. We deserve that dignity, in fiction as much as real life.