Tuesday, September 16, 2008

My Culture Consultant

My novel includes a lengthy episode (a 27-page chapter) which brings my hero into a mostly poor, mostly black neighborhood of Boston, a neighborhood only five miles from where I live, but which I've only walked through once. When I wrote the chapter I was confident that inserting my main character into this environment (and brushing him against a pair of local gang members) would be both exciting and revealing. I also knew that I was writing about a slice of urban living I have virtually no experience with, which has made me very anxious.

After reading the chapter a sympathetic friend offered to put me in touch with an acquaintance of hers who she felt might be a good resource, a young man who had grown up in the neighborhood and was familiar with exactly the type of characters I wanted to create. When she told me a little about him I grew very excited by the prospect.

That was over a year ago, but it was only last month that I finally got in touch with him, introduced myself, explained my situation and proposed a (I hope ample) consultant's fee.

Talk about money well spent! Perhaps it is because this guy, M, is currently a creative writing major, having his fiction work-shopped every day, that his criticism was so clear and helpful, so forthcoming without being discouraging. We spent over two hours just going through the first nine pages, almost line by line. He kept hammering on the same four or five key points over and over, and continued to give me specific examples, suggesting ways to make the dialogue and dynamic more plausible or more authentic. M's conversational style was probably more sophisticated than mine, but at times he slipped effortlessly into a unique and thrilling vernacular, one I'd wager is quite difficult, if not impossible, to find represented in any movie or TV show, any book (fiction or non-), and maybe even in any song. To my ears, it was an untapped gold mine of language.

The thing I appreciated most about M is that he managed to steer me in the right direction without making me feel like an idiot, or worse, a jerk. M is black, and lived in the actual environment that I subjected to my imagination, and no matter how respectful I tried to be in my first crack, it was probably inevitable that I'd come off sounding ignorant and stereotypical, to say nothing of the quality of the writing itself. I was dreadfully afraid he'd be insulted, but better one person (a fellow writer, no less, who can hear my apologetic voice as I explain myself). If my writing ever offends, I want it to offend because it penetrates at some uncomfortable truth, not because it misrepresents or sensationalizes something I never bothered to understand.

I have a lot of work to do on this chapter, I realize, but who'd have guessed how good I'd feel about it? There's a popular but misleading guideline in writing fiction: "Write What You Know." It's great advice to keep your writing deep and authentic provided you don't feel overly limited by it. Research is the key to making experiences that are not your own, your own. Start with books and articles, but then move to interviews (or consultations) and walking tours. Exploring these uncharted territories, finding your truth in them, might even be more compelling than fictionalizing events, characters and environments you've actually experienced.

When you don't research and explore, you end up with ten stories that have a fiction writer as the main character. You know why that's really hard to make interesting over and over again? Because, mostly, what fiction writers do all day is write. Yeesh. Boring! Time to learn more about cops and how they cope, or Iranian women and what their passions are, or schizophrenics and why they see the world they way they do.

Speaking of consultants, I'm also hoping to connect with my military consultant soon too. Very exciting!

And lastly, after I receive feedback from one more person and work it in, I'll be posting (finally) the first chapter. Before the end of the month, I vow!

1 comment:

Amanda said...

Thought of you the other day whilst digging tatties. I was listening to the radio on my earphones, as is my want, and there was an interview with a successful writer whose name escapes me. I was interested to hear he actually keeps a diary of things that happen that he may at some time use in a book. Real experiences and snippets, like the cab driver explaining a point of English (as opposed to American) to him or a funny incident with is niece. Seemed like a good idea to me.

Looking forward to next week then!