Thursday, June 4, 2009

Who do you want to be today?

By Kim Dare.

The advice every new writer is given is to write what you know – to stay inside your own skin.

If I followed that advice…

I would never have written The Gift. Strangely enough, I don’t actually have any personal experience of Spirit’s of Christmas past visiting me on Christmas Eve. I’ve never indulged in time travel. I’ve never spent years trying to convince someone I loved to believe in Christmas, or had someone else spend the same amount of time trying to teach me what the spirit of Christmas really is.

I couldn’t have written Secret Service either. I’ve never believed there is anything the least bit wrong with being kinky. I’ve never fallen in love with anyone who believed there was either. I’ve never acted as a service submissive in the club the way Sheridan does – and seriously, me and body paint hearts – it’s not going to happen.

Likewise, while I’m not particularly squeamish about blood, I’ve never submitted to a vampire, as Charlotte does in Whispers. I’ve never read anyone’s thoughts the way Zachariah can. I’m probably not going to learn how to do that any time soon either.

I couldn’t have written Turquoise and Leather if I was trying to “write what I know”. I’ve never been a geologist or a property developer. You won’t find me dancing on top of a table. Eric’s kinks are a lot of fun to write about, but they don’t match mine.

I’m generally a pretty good judge of people – so I obviously have no business writing Matt’s story in Gaydar. And I’ve never worked behind a bar – so Flynn’s out of my experience too. And even if I could get behind a bar – I never have been able to do a passable Irish accent.

I’ve never suffered from the same problem as Luke does in You First. I’ve never hooked up with the same person every Wednesday and Saturday for months. I’ve never fallen in love with that person and panicked when I realised that I’d fallen damn hard. I’ve never practiced law. I’ve never taken a shower while wearing most of my clothes either.

I am (I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear this) neither a werewolf nor a vampire. So obviously I’m not going to be either Hayden or Stafford when I grow up. Since I’ve never been involved in a threesome with those species either, I probably shouldn’t be writing about Jasmine either. Come to that, what makes me think I can write about an older woman getting together with two younger men? All in all, I'm never going to live what I write about in Between Tooth and Paw.

As for Hannah in Silent Night. Silence has never been my strongest point. And I certainly can’t claim to be tall, blonde and muscular as Vincent is.

I suppose my point at the end of it all is this – if all you write is what you know then all you’ll ever write is your own biography over and over again.

Fiction is all about writing things that aren’t true for you – a lot of the time it’s about writing things that you haven’t/wouldn’t/couldn’t/have no inclination to do in the real world. It’s about writing someone else’s story – about letting that character have their say without you interrupting and telling them they should share your ideals, your aspirations.

It’s about slipping into someone else’s point of view and lingering there until the end of the book. My characters don’t agree with my own take on a lot of things. They don’t agree with each other either. If you put two dominants from different books in a room together they’d be far more inclined to want to throttle each other than become best friends, simply because they won't find they have much in common.

Everyone always seems to focus on “big” things like women writing about gay men. (Although, strangely enough, far fewer people seem to object about women writing characters who are straight men – that doesn’t require an equivalent imaginative leap?) But that’s not the whole story.

Every time one of my characters drink of cup of coffee, they are doing something I wouldn’t do. Every time they drive a car, or speak a foreign language or go to work doing a job I’ve never done, I have to step outside my own skin to write it. I’m using my imagination for pretty much everything – regardless of if I’m writing a character who is male or female, straight or gay. I have to do my research for any particular character regardless of all those same issues.

My characters aren’t me – I am not my characters. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

As far as I’m concerned whoever writes a book, or a particular character, they fall into one of two camps. They are either a good writer or a bad writer – they either do a good job portraying the character or a bad job portraying a character.

I don’t write vanilla because I’m bad at it. Simple as that. It’s the one imaginative leap that I can’t – or possibly more accurately, that I have no interest in, making. If I could do it convincingly, I see no reason why I shouldn’t do that just because it doesn’t reflect my own view of the world.

Just as I don’t limit myself to characters who are like me in other ways. If I think I can write them, and I enjoy writing them. I’m going to keep on doing that.

You’ll often hear openly gay actors saying they don’t want to be treated like a gay actor – they want to be treated like an actor who happens to be gay.

I’d like that sort of ideology to be extended to writers. Does it really matter if the person who’s sitting behind a desk two continents away from you is a man or a woman? Does it matter if they are black or white? Gay or straight?

Seriously? Does it make the slightest difference to your ability to enjoy the book?

For my money – the people who wave the “write what you know” flag are sort of missing the point, and certainly missing a hell of a lot of the fun!

What do you think? Do you like being someone else for a while? Tell me, who do you want to be today?

Kim Dare.
Kink, love and a happy ending. Do you dare?


  1. Kim,

    I think you made your point very well when you say: "if all you write is what you know then all you’ll ever write is your own biography over and over again."

    I've never been raped by a member of the Yakuza: there goes "Gaijin". And I'm a staunchly atheist Jew: bye-bye "The Splinter."

    However, I think the real meaning of the advice to "write what you know" is that it is closer to Hemmingway's "write the truest thing you know."

    We may not write biographies, but I know I model most of my characters on people I know, or hybrids of people I know. Also, I tend to avoid writing about places I don't know because although you can find out about the geography of the place, it's the mood of a place that can really inform a setting in a story.

    And usually, I'm pretty hesitant to write about people from cultures I don't know well, because there is always the danger of stereotyping, when you don't know the complexities of another culture.

    I think, what Hemmingway ultimately meant was, write a TRUTH you know. It was more of an exhortation to indulge your imagination, but know when it doesn't ring true, in your gut.

    Hugs and thanks for your wonderful post.

  2. >>I don’t write vanilla because I’m bad at it. <<

    I just about hosed down my computer screen with ginger ale when I read this line.

    I recently had a similar discussion with Nobilis and Ann Regetine about writing what you know vs. making stuff up. In the end, we have no choice but to make stuff up because we're FICTION writers, not non-fiction writers or researchers or biography.

    Reading RG's comments above, I suppose I must ask, what is the difference between fact and truth. You see that same dichotomy in how people view the advice of "write what you know." Write about actual facts and experiences, or about ideas you believe to be true? The first leads to the problem you mentioned of writing biographies over and over again. The second leads to damned good stories.

    Thank you for the thoughtful, inspiring post };)

  3. Hi, Kim,

    Excellent post. What I'd like to know is, where do your character ideas come from? What tickles in the back of your mind make you create people so different from yourself? And how do you know who they are, how they'll react? If you have so little in common with your characters, where does the intuition come from that guides their actions and emotions?

    I have some of your problems writing "vanilla". Every story that I write tries to twist itself into something that involves power exchange, if not overt BDSM. I have to take myself firmly in rein, sometimes, to do non-kinky sex. I let it be a challenge...!


  4. Hi remittance Girl :)

    I think there's a lot in the idea you should be writing a truth - the truth from that character's perspective. It has to ring true - it has to make sense for them.

    I can't say I've ever based a character on someone I know. I pretty much prefer to start from scratch when I'm building a character.

    As for places. I invent fictional places for a reason :) I also have a habit of inventing slightly different versions of real things if I don't think I can get the details of reality right. So, I don't tend to write stories set in X prison. I'll chose a new privately run prison that has just been created after... etc. It'll be close to what my research says the real thing is like, but at the same time, it still lets me make up quite a bit.

    Thanks for commenting :)

    Kim Dare.

  5. Hi Helen,

    Writing about ideas you believe to be true makes more sense. At least for the large scale things.

    Everything stays SSC/RACK between my characters because it reflects my beliefs about what kink is/how it should be practiced.

    At least that's when everyone involved is one of the good guys. Sometimes, writing villans, it becomes more complicated. They often believe the opposite of me - on big things as well as details.

    Of course, the good guys win in the end. I suppose that's one of the big ideas I always have in there - some sort of light at the end of the tunnel.

    Thanks for commenting,

    Kim Dare.

  6. Hi Lisabet,

    I'm not usually aware of where the chracter's first come from. I think I usually get a snippet of dialogue in my head - sometimes it's something I would say. Other times it's either not my style or it's something I would never have occassion to say.

    Then it's a case of working out who would say it? Who would they say it to? Why would they say it? And it all grows from there.

    I thing I thing that helped most when I was looking for ways to make characters different from each other as well as myself - I don't let all my dominants set the same rules or believe in the same form of kink.

    For example - one would insist on being called sir by his submissive. Another would be called Mr. Surname. Another would order he was to be called by his first name.

    Why sir? Why a surname? Why a first name? Each sets a different tone - each implies a different form of dominance. Each gives a different starting point to the character.

    Maybe the dom who wants to be called sir is used to playing out formal scenes in club and he's used to the rules and rituals that apply in a lot of clubs - maybe he's a traditonalist in every sense?

    On the other hand, maybe it's the one who wants to be called by his name who's the one that's seriously into the formal scene - maybe it's important to him that in a room full of "sirs" his submissive is only focused on one man?

    At the same time, I don't let my submissives have the same reactions/desires/anything else. I try to keep a mix of scene/lifestyle/casual players running through different stories.

    And again it comes down to why does a submissive want someone to control them 24/7, and why doesn't a submissive prefer to leave his submission in the bedroom? What does it say about them?

    By the time you have a whole host of personal decisions the dom or sub has made, and by the time you know why they made each of those decisions, and then when you've added in what does each character need to be like in order to lead to a realistic happy ending with the other, I think it's hard not to have a real person inside your head.

    So for everything my character does, I try to work out why they do that, why they like that, etc. It's one of my favourite parts of writing - really getting inside the psychology of the character :)

    Thanks for commenting :)

    Kim Dare.