Writing what you know is advice beginners often get. You want to write something that seems real to the reader, so you need to really know it to write it correctly. Beginners sometimes think the advice means they can only write about something they've experienced personally. Only somewhere they've been. Only a job they've done. There's a funny old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon in which Calvin says he's writing a novel about a guy clicking through TV channels with his remote control; he's writing about what he knows. With time, however, writers usually realize that they can know anything well enough to write about it if they do enough research.
Or can they? Is the answer different when you're talking about voice?
I found myself wondering about this before I wrote my newest story "James." My main character, Nick, is a rock star, and that's something I definitely am not. Sure, I could do research about rock stars, what their lives are like, about touring and writing music and all of that. But could I understand the persona well enough to bring my character to life in an authentic way? The way he'd think. The words he'd use. When I write, I basically become that person in my head. Could I become a big bad rock star? (Those of you who know me in real life, stop snickering!)
It worried me at first, but eventually I realized that I did know something about who Nick is, something important. Deep down, he's a person with a heart. And I know how to write that.
|The big bad rock star|
who inspired the story
What does Nick care about? His family and his friends. He cares about letting down his grandmother and wanting to make things right. He might be a big bad rock star, but he still has feelings. And these specific ones, I'd think all readers can relate to them. By tapping into them as I wrote the story, it made Nick relatable too.
That was a point I tried to make with the first line: "Even big bad rock stars can feel nostalgic." It's Nick's nostalgia that kicks off the chain of events in the story. It's his heart that drives the plot from there.
That all said, while knowing a character's heart helps you understand him or her deep down--what pushes his buttons, how she'd react to pressure, for instance--to really bring the character to life, to really get the voice right, you also have to get the words right. And getting Nick's words right, in his thoughts and in his dialogue, wasn't easy. Nick might have been acting believably based on who he is deep down, but in the first draft, he didn't sound right. He didn't sound like a rock star.
He sounded too much like me.
My friend Tim reads a lot of my work before it goes out in the world. As he said to me after reading an early draft of "James," Nick sounded too grammatically precise. And he didn't use enough idioms. When I revised, I worked on that. I also worked into Nick's vocabulary some words that I would never use, words I find too off-putting, but they're words a man, especially a rock star, might use. So Nick uses them.
Making the right word choices also took due diligence in my next short story coming out, "A Tale of Two Sisters." In that story, my main character, Robin, is a twenty-four-year-old lesbian. I could relate to who she is deep down, and her personality is more like mine than Nick's is. But to ensure my word choices for her (and other characters) were right and that I didn't have the characters do or say anything that seemed off, I not only did research while writing the story, but I also used a subject-matter expert--a sensitivity reader--after I finished it.
Getting a character's voice right isn't always easy, but when you put in the work, you can make that character come alive off the page. That's what I tried to do with Nick in "James" and with Robin in "A Tale of Two Sisters." I hope you'll read these stories and let me know if I succeeded.
"James" appears in Only the Good Die Young: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Billy Joel. The anthology came out last month from Untreed Reads Publishing. You can buy it in ebook and trade paperback wherever books are sold, but you can get the best deal at the publisher's website. Just click here.
"A Tale of Two Sisters" will appear in Murder on the Beach, which will be published on May 28th in ebook form and in trade paperback sometime this summer. The ebook version is on sale for 99 cents until the publication date. To pre-order the anthology, click here. It will take you to a landing page with links to nine retailers that are selling the book, including the usual suspects.
Before I go, a little BSP: I'm so happy that my story "Dear Emily Etiquette" has been nominated for the Anthony Award for best short story published last year, along with stories by Alex Segura, Art Taylor, Gabriel Valjan, and James W. Ziskin. People attending Bouchercon in August will be eligible to vote for the winner. In advance, you can read all five of the nominated stories through the Bouchercon New Orleans website. Just click here. The title of each of the nominated stories is a link.