From 1997 to 2009, I spent a lot of time teaching both fiction and nonfiction. I never assigned textbooks on writing to my adult students. The truth is, I have never liked what I refer to as “generic how-to” books. Take grief. Some people heal one way, because they are Jane Smith and Susan Doe; but others, because they are Mary Queu and John Blow, are different human beings altogether, with a different set of psychic and emotional baggage, strengths, and aptitudes. A book on coping with grief written with Jane and Susan in mind will not work for Mary and John. And when one is talking about writing, this truth stretches around a world of particularities; no two creators think the same way, nor do they imagine the same world, even if it’s relatively true that there are only a number of universal themes to explore.
There are, however, ways for each writer to write more easily. Yes, there are some rules. Experienced writers don’t just sit down and “create” with no idea in heaven where this is going to lead them. First of all, our agents require an outline, and a detailed one, in order to sell our work. The structuring part of a book, fiction or non, is its most difficult. You are deciding whether to write about a dog or a flower. Once your ideas have been worked out, you will flesh them out as you progress, and decide whether you’re building a chihuahua or a St. Bernard, an orchid or a blooming cactus. But, before the Prologue or first chapter begins, you do need to resolve what entity you’re going to be developing.
So many clichés have sprung up about the science and art of writing. One of them is “Write what you know.” Now, here’s how I view this “rule.” It’s true. I only ever write what I know. However, what does “what I know” actually mean?
I’ve never written autobiography. Frankly, I just don’t feel that Monique Raphel High’s life has been that fascinating. But I’ve lived a life. In this life, I’ve been blessed with many, many friends and acquaintances, different types of people with a plethora of unusual experiences. When I want to create a character, I think back on the myriad stories I’ve been told by these friends (some of which are not about themselves, but about people they have known or even merely heard about). How did my friend Blanca react when her brother was raped by their stepfather? How did Heloise cope with her mother’s life-threatening illness? Why did Ellen break her brother’s arm after their father’s funeral? Their experiences may not have been my own, but I heard them with compassion. “Com” is from “con,” meaning “with.” “Passion” means “suffering” or “feeling.” I placed myself in their shoes, leaving mine behind. I asked questions that enabled me to see, to hear, the rape, to smell the medicine’s odor lingering around that sick bed, and I could then feel the mounting anger and total frustration of the disempowered sister. I was ready to transfer these felt emotions into my current characters.
Knowing means feeling that you have thoroughly explored a subject and now feel competent to write about it. You need to thoroughly understand, to suspend judgment. You need, as a writer, to forget Monique and literally become Blanca, Heloise, and Jason for enough time to encompass what they felt at the time in question. Writers must never dissociate from the world, for the world provides us with stories and the murky waters above which they float. We need to become conduits for other people’s stories, for other people’s value systems, for other people’s worlds. I’m talking about sensual and emotional authenticity.
The other part of “Write what you know,” for me, is about factual authenticity. In order to write each of my books, I have needed to learn about an aspect of history, culture, art, fashion, politics, and work that lies far outside my own. I’ve written about Paris in the Twenties, the Holocaust, Imperial Russia, choreography, banking, and the film world in its infancy. My current book deals with war-torn France in the Forties, and two complex trials in 1985. Personally, the closest I’ve come to knowing the subject of a novel subjectively (yes, the choice of words is intended) were my years studying and appreciating the ballet. I was never better than an intermediate ballerina in a dance studio, having fun.
Research has always been both a challenge and a new world of exciting discoveries. I don’t go easy on myself when I research a field. I explore it in depth. And I consult the experts. For my current novel, I have a physicist and two lawyers with whom to sit down and talk about what I wish to accomplish, and who have taught me about their worlds in such detail that I now feel I “know” what a physicist might be working on, and how a trial is set up.
Poorly researched books unnerve me. I’ve thrown some across the room. The writer didn’t know, and assumed that because her work was fiction (or, if nonfiction, that he knew just enough to bluff his way past not really knowing), it was “okay” to fabricate. Here’s how to fabricate: know your subject so well that you can combine and mix to form your own truth without losing authenticity. My current example is how I’m combining three actual refugee voyages from Lisbon to New York on the Serpa Pinto, a wartime ship, into one dramatic voyage. Did the voyage in IRREVOCABLE TRUST truly take place? No, but it could have. It possesses all the actual elements of three real voyages. Did the Nazi trial of Jared Brenner actually occur? No; there was no such person. But the trials of a number of other war criminals did take place, and I know how the Department of Justice handled them. I can apply these facts to my fiction.
The bottom line is that we writers can never afford to be sloppy. WE can’t ever take the easy way out. It doesn’t pay off. Confidence comes with knowing. I realized early on that being the widow of a brilliant criminal defense lawyer had shown me the strategies and the broad outlines of my husband’s work; but it had not placed me inside his shoes. I’ve had to go to two attorneys I trust to ask how it was done in 1985-’86. But I would never have gone to them without first doing a lot of research myself. So this past week, I wrote a courtroom scene, and the terror of getting it wrong dissipated. I knew enough to glide in and write. To glide in and create. To let my fictitious characters act as lawyers really did in the Eighties.
Taming the fear is accomplished by learning and knowledge. Once you’ve learned the rules, you can (as I’m doing with the Serpa Pinto) break the rules. And that is the keystone to my own work.