Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Writing what you don't know

We've all heard that old adage: Write what you know.

I've read that advice any number of times in books, on websites, heard it muttered by arr-teests beneath their pretty beret from smirking lips.

You've heard it, too, haven't you.

Don't use adverbs. Avoid cliches. Use punchy action words. No passives. No gerunds. Complete sentences. Write what you know.

And all that other parrot blah blah.

How is it a parrot can shit out both ends, anyway?

Beware the parrot. Don't stick your nose too close to either end.

Moving along.

Now what happens when you want to write something you don't know?

Tom Clancy never killed anyone using a sniper rifle or a knife or a pistol.

Anne Rice and that new chick with her Twilight series never raped or went oral on a vampire.

I'm sure of all that. How could they? I'm just as certain that Tom, Anne, and Ms. Twilight all fantasized about whacking, stroking, and mounting their characters, respectively.

That's part of how you write what you don't know -- you fantasize about it, endlessly, walking through the scenes, speaking with your characters, interviewing them, letting them live and act while you watch and take notes.

Add to that fantasy some research, or if it's a pure fiction, get on with some world building like Ms. Harley shows over at Labotomy.

Pack that fantasy on top of some research, tap it down and add a plug, then cock, fire, aim.

Or aim first. Doesn't matter. I'm pretty sure the best writers never aim at all. That's the only way you can hit the moon, see -- when you're not trying to.

Anyway. Here's me not aiming. I'm writing about a guy in, well, you guess where he is, but it ain't East Texas, and it ain't the Gulf Coast, and it ain't Austin or Dallas or Oklahoma or Arkansas or anyplace I could claim to know.

So I fantasized. I researched.

And I wrote what I don't know.

Take that, Parrot Boy.

 - Eric


The Yatiri's Sacrifice

The woman rose with her husband before dawn and while she baked the morning chocolates, he gathered their wares into a llama-skin pouch that he laid on the counter next to her baking rack. He disappeared outside into the morning darkness and when he returned he laid next to the sack two vests of llama fur. He caressed her back as she leaned into the oven. I am ready, the touch said to her, and with towels wrapping her hands she extracted the chocolates to cool on the stone countertop next to the llama-skin vests.

By the flickering light of the baking oven they ate a breakfast of bread and goat cheese while the chocolates cooled and the sun began to rise. They ate in silence, and when they were finished she cleaned his plate and laid it next to the sink with her own.

She wrapped her chocolates in a cheesecloth and twisted the corners around her left hand and took up on her right shoulder the pouch with their assorted stones and necklaces and llama-skin pads and llama teeth and wooden dice and a knitted blanket she had finished the night before. Her husband pulled a Fedora hat onto his head, hooked his left arm through the two llama-skin vests on the counter, and led her outside. She squinted against the morning sun rising, it glaring at her from between the mountains this time of year.

A walkway spanned the front of their house, and she and her husband would sit here in the evenings and blend with their stone house into the desert landscape, silently watching the mountains darken while she knitted or scraped a llama skin or played with her rocks, and he drank and shared his beer with her, passing it over every few minutes for her to sample. From the walkway hung wooden wind chimes and a torn Bolivian flag and three llama fetuses. Her husband unhitched a fetus from its drying hook and threw it over his shoulder. In his right hand he carried a wooden hiking staff topped with half a dozen Fedora hats.

They walked south with the mountains and the rising sun on their left cheek. Her husband removed from his pocket his chuspa, a pouch of coca leaves and handed her a pinch which she pressed between her lip and gum and sucked as they walked. Her mouth and tongue tingled where the bolear juice touched.

She walked near to her husband to share in his warmth, pulling closer to her chest her llama-skin coat. A tin cup they shared for water jangled against her pack. Hard desert rocks crunched beneath their feet. Her dozen necklaces kept time with the tin cup and crunching rocks by ticking against her breasts.

After a while, tin sheds began to rise up out of the desert landscape. A man stood inside his doorway smoking, watching as they passed. The woman and her husband nodded their heads and the man raised his hand.

A Volkswagen appeared and rattled them out of its way with its sputtering engine and turned between the houses and the sound of it bled into the city. Soon a truck passed, carrying men and tools in the flat bed, all of them dirty and cracked. They passed by a series of empty lots where already men and children played soccer, kicking the beaten ball against a wall decorated with wooden goalposts. A painted goalie held his hands to his sides, crouched, an amazing likeness on such a crude surface. The men dodged the boys and passed the ball, none of them laughing nor needing to when the ball slapped the wall inside the posts and bounced back into play and was passed downfield with a high arcing kick that sounded like a faraway gunshot.

They turned left after the parking lot and walked three more blocks, passing by a warehouse with cracked windows and stacks of boxes nobody cared to count or steal. Behind the warehouse in another empty lot stretched a single roof of patched and knitted tents of green and red and yellow and blue, one joined to the the other by tawdry strings, a long row of sails propped on rotting masts stagnant in the desert doldrums.

The woman and her husband nodded to the vendors as they passed, taking note of the empty shops. She glanced at her husband when they passed Huayna's shop and they shared a silent admittance that after all this time she would not return. A wooden cross had been laid on her table, atop a swath of llama fur.

They moved along to their stall, and in Quechua the woman greeted Evita and Julian, and their husbands nodded and Evita said, "I have something for you, my friend."

The woman and her husband took their place in the booth next to Evita and Julian and her husband hung the llama fetus on the hook in front of their shop and balanced his staff with its Fedora hats in front of their station and spread out the two llama-skin vests on the table. The woman slung her pack onto the table and opened her chocolates on the cheesecloth and turned to Evita, who was holding in her hand a necklace of orange and yellow beads.

"This is wonderful," the woman said.

Evita smiled. "From Joaquin and little Julian for their other momma."

"For my other children, my friend," the woman said. She laid a handful of chocolates on Evita's table and turned away before Evita could refuse the offering.

The woman pulled the necklace over her head and showed it to her husband. He smiled his toothless grin and kissed her cheek and pressed his hand to the necklaces on her bosom.



Wine and Words said...

And you wrote it well :)

I came over from Pheonix...just to tell you that your comment there was sweet, born of twenty twenty hind sight, and yes...a costly vision it is...was. I copied it into an e-mail to my husband. Maybe he will understand it better, coming from a man. But you gave good words to the place...the place survivors go sometimes, shoveling through deep shit.

Wine and Words said...

Ha! Eric. Ain't blog to blog communication grand *snicker*. That wasn't my main blog, but I think they both fall under an 'R' rating for language. I got a potty mouth, sailor in another life? Thanks for stopping by. I'll be snooping around awhile :)

Eric W. Trant said...

Truly, WW, it seems I've stumbled across some poets and didn't know it.

- Eric

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Yes, you gotta see it in your mind to write about it!
People still think you KNOW though. Everyone thought that just because I wrote about an Olympic-bound swimmer, I'd swam competitively. Wrong!

Anonymous said...

Well done, Eric.

Nothing wrong with how well you saw that scene. Though I'm willing to bet you know the culture you're writing about.


Kristie Cook said...

Love the post and the piece. Even if you don't know it personally, you've shared something we can all "see" clearly.

Jai Joshi said...

I like your approach.

Some of my best writing sessions come when I step out of my comfort zone and go somewhere in my mind I've never been before. I experience all these new sensations and desires and perspectives and it comes out in such a rush. When I look back on that writing I know that it's not me or my experience but my imagination that had full control.


Charmaine Clancy said...

I agree. When I first heard the 'write what you know' comment, I thought, but my hobby is quilting. Try whipping out a quilt during a tense scene, nothing slows a narrative more than hand-stitching. I prefer to reverse the saying to 'know what you write', with a little bit of googling any topic's available for a plot device.

Theresa Milstein said...

Write what you know is really not useful. It's better to say, if there's information out there and you want to be authentic, research a little.

Your passage seemed pretty authentic to me.

Eric W. Trant said...

Diane: That's part of it -- fooling the readers into thinking you know what the heck you're talking about. I always say, "I have to fake interesting. I'm just some schmuck."

And that's true.

Cat: I'm from Texas, so I have some Hispanic culture around me, quite a bit, actually, but the story's in Bolivia. Gotta make up what I don't know, and research research research.

Kristie: Thanks. Clarity is the point, even if it isn't completely accurate. That's the difference between precision and accuracy, you know.

Jai: I agree that stepping out of my zone helps me get creative. I LOVE the setting. I have to hold back, though, and remember that the setting isn't the story. The story is an estranged father's love for his son back in the US, and the sacrifices he's willing to endure, knowing his son will never be aware of his father's full love for him.

Charmaine: Know what you write! I'll have to keep that one. You're right that a little research goes a long way. I've been reading an article on Bolivian Ethnology, and it's given me a ton of ideas.

Theresa: Thanks! Research. That's a key. Maybe Charmaine has it correct, that you should not write what you know, but know what you write.

Man, I love that saying.

- Eric

Olivia J. Herrell, writing as O.J. Barré said...

I finished reading this with my heart in my throat. While the details are important, the images you build are wrapped in a very powerful elixir. Love. I felt it in every word that I read. You are writing about love, my dear, a subject you know well.

~That Rebel, Olivia

Beth Mann said...

I'm all for sticking it to the man :) Write whatever you want -just make it good! (and you did, btw)

Thanks for the Robocopy advice. I'll be looking into it when I'm a little more coherent - mommy's had a long day:) And for following...I adore new friends.

dolorah said...

This place and these people were real to me. I saw them; their simple life, the moments of intimacy, the joy of friendship, the care they bestow on their community.

An honest, heartwarming couple.

I don't know where the original came from, but the phrase "write what you know" seems to have gotten distorted over the many years of its abuse.

I think the true message is in what you've written here; you know character motivation, and setting, and how to draw deeply hidden emotions out of a reader. That, to me is writing what you know. Taking your strongest skills and crafting a scene to maximum effect.

From your previous writings, and some personal disclosures, I sense you know this lifestyle very well though. You're not the ripened age of your characters; but you've lived among a community that depended upon each other's good will. Taken from the environment what it was willing to offer.

Not exactly in this manner; but close enough, I'd wager, to evoke powerful memories that was used in the development of this story. For it is a story in my mind; it has depth, and progress, and a sense of reaching a goal at the end. Absolutely engaging.

I stumbled into your world during a blogfest, I believe, but I've enjoyed every minute of knowing you, and I always take a bit of learning away with me when I leave.

Thanks for this glimpse of passion.


Eric W. Trant said...

Olivia: Good job in the signature! I know who you are, now. It works, don't it, signing your name.

Thanks for the heartfelt read. I try to maintain a theme throughout the book, and this one is about love of your child.

Beth: Thanks for the comment. Lemme know if you need help on that robocopy. Seriously, I may need to post that as a separate article on here, since it's such a hot topic. Maybe Friday...

Donna: I'm a bit speechless. That's my goal when I write: to reach into the reader and yank out something they didn't realize was there, or they'd forgotten about.

I can say the same about your blog, by the way. It's so spicy! Raw. Energetic. I almost feel like I should be drinking a beer when I'm on your site, and I'm glad to've found you out.

- Eric

Tara said...

Haven't read the snip yet because I wanted to first say:

WOOT!!! to this post. Eff the parrot, I say!

Obviously, I could not agree with you more.

Okay, off to read the piece...

Tara said...

Ahhh, as usual, loved it. This flowed beautifully.

Raquel Byrnes said...

Great excerpt, Eric. The shared, silent intimacy of so much struggle really came through in the gestures and objects.

The plates, the beer, the water cup...all benign, yet telling. They walk though life together, figuratively and physically. Very moving and beautiful.

I am jealous...I struggle to write quiet, loving moments. Learned a lot today.

By the way...great line about the parrot...make me spit coffee all over my papers. Grrr! =)

Eric W. Trant said...

Tara: Thanks! Everyone wants to fry the parrot. Nice.

Raquel: Thanks for the compliment. Like I said in the beginning, I cock and fire without aiming, and then look up to see what falls out of the sky.

I honestly had no idea I'd written a loving scene until las chicas showed up and started telling me what the scene was all about.

I had no idea. I was just writing, you know.

I will say this, though: yall are right. That was an undercurrent I didn't realize I'd pulled up.

See? The best stuff is written when you aren't aiming!

- Eric

Tara said...

No idea? Seriously? It was so right there in front of you ;)

Yep. You proved your point.