rhienelleth (rhienelleth) wrote,

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Writing what we don't precisely 'know'.

There is an interesting discussion going on at Elizabeth Bear's journal today that started a couple of days ago, with another post, to which this was a reaction, but really this topic has been circulating the blogosphere for some time before that, even. (This post by deepad is also extremely relevant.)

Okay. Wow, where to start? First, let me say this issue has been turning around in my mind for awhile, now, as it significantly relates to my own writing. Also, I don't want to offend anyone, but as this is as much an emotional issue as abortion or rape, it's almost a guarantee of offending someone just by talking about it. Here are a couple in inalienable truths before I dive in to my thoughts:

1. I am a white woman in my thirties, born and raised in the US.

2. As such, you are right - I do not have the knowledge and understanding of your culture, however it differs from my own, that you do! That means anything I write different from my own background, is going to have readers who know more about that background than I do, no matter how much I research it.

3. Ergo, someone is likely to pick up on my mistakes.

4. Which brings me to - MISTAKES in and of themselves do NOT make an author racist. Sorry, they don't. And also - and here is an unpopular opinion - not every nuance of character that can be read as racism or prejudice IS a mistake.

Allow me to explain. Here's a snippet from one of my WIP's:

It was a good, solid hit to the ribs, but not enough to make McClairen wince. Instead, he grinned, a fierce flash of teeth that had Gavin’s eyes widening just a bit. Good. Maybe he’d learn something from this. Like not to challenge his pack’s much more experienced alpha.

Without a qualm, he broke the boy’s arm.

Gavin’s face went white, though he made no sound. McClairen almost smiled for truth at that, but didn’t. Instead, he leaned in, and spoke so that no one else would hear, even with vyusher ears.

“You’ll want to yield now,” he said, “’less you want me to break th’ other one.” He lifted a brow as he said it, and Gavin’s face went even paler.

Mutely, the young wolf shook his head. He cradled his broken arm carefully to his body, and slowly knelt, turning his head so that his throat was exposed, should McClairen wish to rip it out. Which, of course, he didn’t. Not this time. Instead, the vyusher leader turned and walked free of the challenge circle. Pack members yipped and howled and called out their approval, but he merely nodded in response, his eyes searching the crowd. Ah, there.

Arms folded across his chest, the tall, dark skinned man didn’t participate in the excited revelry around him. He watched McClairen; when their eyes met, Tyrell nodded, and started toward him. When he moved, other wolves got out of the way. It wasn’t conscious on their part, mostly. It’s just what lesser wolves did, when one as strong as Ty moved among them. In moments, he was at McClairen’s side, and around them a circle of emptiness formed as wolves scattered. When the alpha and his second stood together, no one wanted to intrude.

“I tried to dissuade him,” said Ty, his voice low as they began to walk side by side. He shook his head, though his face remained implacable. “There seems to be a misconception among the new wolves, that I follow you for mysterious reasons of my own, and not because you’d kill me in a challenge.”

They exchanged a look, the weight of history passing between them in an instant. They didn’t talk about it, not ever. But neither man ever forgot.

It was easy to see where the misconception came from, especially for the wolves newer to the pack: those who had never fought at McClairen’s side in the war. For decades the vyusher and other were-creatures had been persecuted, hunted down by demons and killed – rounded up, used, and destroyed like cattle. Their numbers hadn’t been depleted as badly as the Romani, but then, Zoltan had a special hatred for Gaia’s gypsies.

Tyrell carried gypsy blood in his veins. Not much, but even that little bit was enough. McClairen was too late to save his mate, or his children, but he’d managed to pull Tyrell back from death. The hardest part had been finding the other man something to live for. In the end, the need for vengeance had brought Ty back, as much as any healing McClairen had done.

There had never been any question of challenge. Ty still carried the scars from the Raither demon claws that tried to take his life, that had murdered his family. And he’d fought beside McClairen until Zoltan and his army of demons were defeated. Each man knew what the other was capable of. Even if McClairen hadn’t saved his life, Tyrell would never challenge him for leadership of the pack.

But the young ones didn’t understand. They saw Ty’s broad, muscular frame, his battle scars, and they compared him to McClairen – in human form, there was no doubt who was the stronger. McClairen was half a foot shorter than Ty, and though physically impressive, he would never win at arm wrestling the other man.

McClairen in the powerful half-wolf, vyusher’sedre form, however, was another matter.

He flexed his left hand, the circular brand burned into his flesh there, and cast a look back at the unfortunate Gavin. No, the new wolves didn’t understand. Gaia’s blessing made him nigh unbeatable in both his wolf and half-wolf forms. Easily twice the size of even Ty. But it didn’t matter, not really. McClairen didn’t lose. Not even as a boy, fighting for his life against someone five times his size. Before the Goddess singled him out.

“You didn’t change forms,” said Ty, following his gaze. McClairen shrugged.

“Too powerful. I’d’ve risked killing him.”

“Ah.” Ty didn’t need to add more. The wolves, like the rest of the were-races and the Romani, were trying to rebuild numbers. Killing the upstart pup would have been counterproductive. But McClairen was getting tired of these challenges for dominance. If Gavin made the mistake of challenging him again, he’d have no choice but to make an example of him. Wolf Run had a constant influx of new wolves these days. New, young, full of themselves. Stupid.

He sighed.

“Maybe it’s time for story night again,” said Ty, rubbing a hand over his jaw. McClairen looked up, one eyebrow raised.

“Story night, eh?”

Ty shrugged as he watched a group of four pups tussle and roll, wrestling a few feet away in mock challenges.

“The new ones need to hear, need to know what the pack has been through.” He paused. “What you’re capable of.”

“They’ll either learn, or I’ll have to kill one of ‘em,” said McClairen with a shrug of his own. Tyrell gave him a look.

“Exactly. You don’t want to, cause you’ve got a soft spot for the young. This way they’ll learn, and you won’t have to put down the next idiot to challenge you.”

“You just like telling’ that story, ‘bout me and Zoltan.”

Ty gave a rare smile, a white flash of teeth against the smooth dark of his skin.

“You broke both his arms, and his legs. The most powerful, most immortal moroii to ever live, and you played with him like…like that pup back there.” He jerked his head back toward Gavin. “It makes a good story.”

McClairen shook his head, amused.

“Gypsy,” he accused.

“Stick and stones,” said Ty.

“All right, fine. Do story night.”

His second stopped and executed a low bow. Probably only McClairen caught the bit of mockery in the motion. Probably.

“Thank-you, oh gracious one.”

McClairen barely kept from rolling his eyes. Much as he loved Her, Gaia definitely had some issues. A little bit of gypsy blood went an awful damn long way.


Okay, so many things there, where to start? First, this is a bit from a sequel to a book I wrote, which features the war that's referenced in McClairen and Ty's conversation. I had pretty much every single character cast in the role of "minority". To start, the MC was a young female gypsy - a minority race of my world, so prejudiced against that they were the focus of an attempt at genocide by my Big Bad.

Now, am I a gypsy? No.

Am I a woman? Yes.

Am I a minority that's been persecuted to near extinction? No.

I wrote the book anyway. I'm sure I made mistakes. For one thing, I loosely based my gypsies on real gypsies. They aren't meant to "represent" real gypsies, as much as they are meant to be a fantastical and somewhat romanticized take on them. I CHOSE to do that. ON PURPOSE. Because the gypsies from our world had cultural things I very much wanted my Rom to have. Because the very word, "gypsy" automatically brings to mind an image I wanted readers to have when they read the book. Because I took my vampire myth partly from that culture. Because it fit, and it worked, and I did hours and hours of research to try and do the very best job I could, while making deliberate creative choices that made MY gypsies absolutely different from those in the really real world.

I do not apologize for this, and if the book ever gets published, I'll include a forward explaining some of it, because I feel like I should. Because I've already had one crit reader respond by telling me everything I did wrong with my gypsies, as historically they didn't worship Gaia, etc, etc. (This is a fantasy book, set in a dark fantasy world - it isn't a mirror of our own.)

But the snippet is from the sequel, so let's talk about that. I made Ty black, not because I felt I "needed to have a character of color", but because he came to me in my head as this big black man with scars both inside and out, with a bit of roguish gypsy charm and this tortured past. Because I couldn't envision him as any other race or color. Am I afraid I won't be able to portray him correctly? A little, maybe. But only since this whole discussion has cropped up all over the blogosphere. I wasn't afraid, before.

And how sad is that? That now I worry how many people might be offended by the gypsies I loved writing, or by this black man who serves not as alpha, but as the alpha's second. Will someone see that as some form of oppression? Because the alpha, McClairen, is not only white, but has this drawl to his speech that some might see as southern, and who knows what someone will read into that? I see Ty as one of the strongest characters in the book. He plays a significant, powerful role, and someday I may feature him as the MC of his own story.

And, if you notice, it isn't his skin color that made him a persecuted character. Because in that particular world, being black isn't what people discriminate against - being a werewolf, and being gypsy, though, those are another matter entirely. I can't figure out what people will read into that, though, if anything. Am I insensitive? Progressive? What?

They say you should "write what you know". It's one of the oldest writing "rules" and the most ambiguous. I actually despise that rule a great deal. "Write what you know" - well, if we all wrote about only the things we knew and experienced, there wouldn't be very many exciting books out there. Okay, so "write what you know" - stick to your cultural background, your society, your gender - where do we draw the line? Should I only write female POV characters because I'm a woman? No, I don't thinks so. Okay, one last time, "write what you know" - as a reader, I'm most familiar with fantasy, but I recently completed a space opera, science fiction. That's not "what I knew" up until that point. Hmm. I seem to be breaking this "rule" a lot.

How about "write what you know" - write what you WANT to write, even if it's different and new for you, whether it be genre, gender, culturally or historically, but do your research and be conscious of the creative decisions you make. Know that nothing you write is ever going to please everyone, and that something you write will inevitably offend someone. Just do the best job you can.

That's the only thing I can do. Because I'm not going to stop writing the characters who speak to me.
Tags: discussion, writing

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  • Being Published

    This is going to be a long post. I know it's been awhile, journal. I've been pretty busy. With what, you ask? With this: Yep.…

  • Logline

    I'm reading this awesome writing book called Save the Cat, and it's changing the whole way I approach structuring novels. I have been restructuring…

  • On writing

    So, yesterday I wrote 2000 words. It wasn't anything epic. Just a short ficlet based off a prompt. But I wrote, and I fell right back into the rhythm…