by Matt Sinclair
Can a man accurately write a story from a woman’s perspective? Can a woman write in a man’s voice? Can a 20-something Asian American who’s lived in the Northeast all his life write about being a black blues musician from the south? Can a Christian academic write about the tenets of Islam? Can a Muslim write about the politics of Jesus?
In my opinion, the answer to all these questions is yes. Of course, those answers come with at least a couple caveats: Such writers must do their research thoroughly, and they not only need to be excellent writers but also confident that they’ve approached their goal with respect.
Writing about people we are not is one of the joys of writing fiction. In its purest form, it is imagination; to be publishable, it must be informed imagination.
I recall starting a novel too soon. I had a vision of the characters, but before I’d finished my first page, I could see that my understanding was superficial. What did I know about being in my 70s or 80s and looking back on life? About as much as I knew about living and working in Antarctica, which was where part of my story would take place. It was years of research before I felt confident to start telling the tale of those characters, and I still need to do more research.
Of course, most of that research won’t make it directly on the page. Instead it comes through between the lines—in the words chosen and the attitudes conveyed.
In my opinion, it’s not merely about showing respect to the subject matter, which is critical, but it’s also about respecting the readers. We need to always remember that readers are perceptive. Tell an entertaining tale and readers might say nice things about your book, but if you expect them to suspend disbelief, to leave their real world behind for your imagined one, you need to do your homework. Of course, this might explain why so many writers’ early novels seem to be autobiographical.
But you’re writing something original, right? How would your main character react if someone cut him off on the road, or tripped her at a restaurant? These things don’t happen in your manuscript? Doesn’t matter. What I’m getting at is how well do you know your characters and how they’d react to adversity. It shouldn’t matter whether you’re a lapsed Catholic writing about a Sephardic Jewish family or a guy from suburban New Jersey writing about a girl living in rural Iowa. But the identity of the writer and the identity of the characters do matter to readers.
From the first time your manuscript crosses an agent’s desktop, it needs convey an answer to the question that will be on every reader’s mind: Who is this writer and why should I believe what is in front of me?
Who do you think you are? I hope you’re not only an author, you’re also a believable and authentic authority.
Matt Sinclair, a New York City-based journalist and fiction writer, is also president and chief elephant officer of Elephant's Bookshelf Press, which recently published Summer's Edge and Summer's Double Edge, which are available through Smashwords (SE) (SDE) and Amazon (SE) (SDE), and include stories from several FTWA writers. In 2012, EBP published its initial anthologies: The Fall: Tales from the Apocalypse, (available viaAmazon and Smashwords) and Spring Fevers (also available through Smashwords, andAmazon). Matt blogs at the Elephant's Bookshelf and is on Twitter @elephantguy68.