Wednesday, February 01, 2006

When Accuracy Strangles Writing

One of the things I've been yammering on about is this concept that it's a good idea to have one's fiction be faithful to the world as it exists. My main argument revolves around inclusiveness, particularly when imagining supporting (or main) characters' race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexual orientation.

I also think it's great, if one has the expertise, to write settings that are atypical. I'm particularly drawn to this, even though I have in my other life written the excruciatingly familiar cyberpunk in a big city (in fact, THE big U.S. city, New York) and a fairy story that takes place in of all stereotypical places as Kerry, Ireland.

I know someone who, as far as I know never finished, had set a novel in a future Thailand. She was a good writer and, IMHO, probably had a shot at publishing the thing because the setting alone was deeply captivating. She'd spent some time in Thailand and she was a good enough writer that you really felt like you were there. I think you can get a lot of mileage out of that kind of expertise or, as I sometimes like to refer to it, "arcane knowledge," because I think that one of the reasons people read is to go somewhere new and to experience someone else's life. I think that desire is profoundly universal. To quote A. A. Milne’s WINNIE-THE-POOH, Chapter 2, In Which Pooh Goes Visiting and Gets Into a Tight Place, "Well, [Pooh] was humming to himself, and walking along gaily, wondering what everybody else was doing, and what it felt like being somebody else..." [emphasis added.]

A friend of mine and fellow writer Naomi Kritzer has books set in ancient Uzbekistan, and short stories set in WWII Russia and Prague. But, having talked to her, I also know that the amount of research that goes into some of her scene setting can be overwhelming -- to the point of strangling the creative process.

Writing isn't terribly fun. Anything that stops you from writing is EVIL.

So, while I advocate all of this deep thinking and going somewhere different from the norm, I also admonish you to never let it stop you. You also have to trust that your experiences are unique.

I remember talking to a writing class about this. The question inevitably arises as to how much physical detail is necessary. My answer is always -- only as much as the plot requires. But, the plot is more than a simple moving forward; it's often also an expression of character. So, I tell my students that a drive through the boring bits of North Dakota can become a moment of character revelation, even if it's something simple, like, that your character is the sort to randomly turn on the windshield wipers to stay awake while rolling past yet another flat field of tumbleweeds. (If the trip itself is Important. Otherwise, synopsize it at the beginning of the "arrival at destination" scene.)

Anyway, the point is this: when you can, explore the complexity of life, think beyond your own neighborhood, but don't let what you don't know stop you from writing what you do.

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