Thursday, May 10, 2018

Staying in Your Lane: Should Authors Only Write What They Know? Guest post by Stuart Neville aka Haylen Beck

Stuart Neville (aka Haylen Beck):
Staying in Your Lane: Should Authors Only Write What They Know?

If you’ve been paying attention to bookish social media lately, you’ll have noticed a topic that’s been drawing much attention: the way men write women. Although this subject has surfaced before, this particular surge was sparked by a hapless author boasting that he was living proof that a man can write a woman in an entirely convincing way. The author posted a brief excerpt from one of his own works, and it was … not good. Given that his supposedly well-drawn female character was little more than a pair of breasts perched atop a pair of skin-tight jeans, the backlash was inevitable.

But some good did come of it. The ensuing discussion went on for several days, including a flood of hilarious tweets where women described themselves as a male author would. Irish author Jane Casey’s was among the best, and most cutting. As a male author who has written several novels with female protagonists, I couldn’t help but cringe. Most writers are all too familiar with Imposter Syndrome, and my insecurities were enflamed as I wondered about my own work. While some of the sweeping generalisations bothered me, I’d like to think that anything that makes me think a little harder about my own work can only be positive.

All of this raised the question, however, of “staying in your lane”. Should an author stick with their own gender, sexual, racial, or cultural identity when writing a point-of-view character? My novel HERE AND GONE, written under the pen name of Haylen Beck, has me leaving my lane with two characters. My protagonist, Audra Kinney, is of course a woman, a mother, and a survivor of an abusive marriage. Another point-of-view character is Danny Lee, a Chinese American man from San Francisco. Neither of these characters has much in common with me, other than them both being parents. But if I only wrote characters who were like me – middle aged Irishmen with shaggy beards and questionable taste in music – then even I wouldn’t want to read my books.

The old maxim of “write what you know” doesn’t stretch very far, particularly when it comes to writing thrillers. The author must inevitably step into someone else’s shoes and we can’t constantly fall back on the default white male character. Diversity is the reality of our world and must show in our work. So how does one stray out of one’s lane with any degree of believability and sensitivity? There is only one answer, and it may be an uncomfortable one for writers used to a solitary existence: talk to people.

When it came to Audra, I didn’t have to look too far to get some insights into things like motherhood: my wife, God bless her, acts as a sounding board for me when I’m plotting and fleshing out characters. Whenever I feel I need a woman’s view on what I’m doing, she’s always there. So much so, in fact, that by the time I’ve finished a novel, she knows it as well as I do. For Danny Lee, I turned to my good friend Henry Chang, author of the excellent Chinatown Beat series of detective novels set in New York. Henry kindly helped me round out the character of Danny: who he is, how he exists in his community, and the way he sees the world. If I didn’t bring Danny convincingly to life, that is my failure, but if I did, I have Henry to thank.

The moral of all this is simply that a writer can write about any gender, sexuality, ethnicity – I could go on – they want, so long as it’s done with care and empathy. In other words, good writers write good characters. It’s really as simple as that.

Internationally acclaimed, prizewinning crime writer Stuart Neville’s latest novel, Here and Gone, was published in paperback by Broadway Books on May 1, 2018, under the pen name Haylen Beck. His Haylen Beck novels are set in the United States and are inspired by his love of American crime writing. The author won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, was nominated for an Edgar Award, and made best-of-year lists with numerous publications, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Globe. 

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