Write what you know may be the most hackneyed advice out there. And, well, it really isn’t that well informed. Yes, writing the things you know about–especially when you’re starting out–are safe bets. Keeping to the zone of your knowledge means that you’ll likely not be called out as a fraud and that you’ll keep going because, well, you already know about it. And as writers we have a tendency to cluster around the things that inform our existence. It’s why I wrote about New England in the beginning of Pilgrim of the Sky, even though I haven’t lived there in over a decade. It was part of my own origin story, a place I could walk around in the dark.
But getting stuck in what you know will plateau you as a writer. I noticed, in my writing, that I was falling into a bit of a pattern when it came to main characters. Cora from The Aldersgate, Marna from Indigo & Ink, Anna from Queen of None, and even Maddie from Pilgrim of the Sky all have some similar characteristics. They’re smart women who like to talk. They tend to fall in love with strong men. They explore the worlds around them from unusual perspectives. They grow on a similar trajectory in the narrative; most of them discover unseen worlds. Oh, they’re very different in other respects, but they’re characters written in my comfort zone. Not exactly Mary Sue variety, but more in a certain realm. I believe women need their stories told; I’m a woman. I tell the stories of women. (Kate from Rock Revival doesn’t share these characteristics, so I’m leaving her out; but she does share a lot with me in her background story, though our personalities differ greatly.)
One of the reasons Watcher of the Skies has taken a little longer than anticipated has to do with the time I’m taking to create Joss as a narrator. I don’t typically write in first person, and I don’t typically write novels that could be considered coming of age. And I don’t typically write male protagonists. But with Joss I’m not just telling his origin story, I’m building up character page by page. He’s telling the story, yes, but the character of Joss within the tale also changes with each chapter.
Now a couple of things have made Joss a challenge for me, personally. He’s a dude, in as much as godlings are dudes or chicks (which is a complicated post in and of itself). And he really digs the ladies. He’s physically enormous (over six foot three, which for his day, makes him a giant; I’m five foot five). He never asks questions in his dialogue, he simply states facts. He also doesn’t talk much, especially in the first three quarters of the book. Everyone around him does the talking. Here’s a quip from one of the later conversations he has with William Wordsworth, before he goes on his way:
“I was brusque with you, dear friend,” he said, sitting on the bed. I had come in from the roof and was still covered in rain, but he made no mention. He was quite used to my strange outdoor antics by that point. “I don’t know what came over me. I was drawn, almost inexplicably, to Mr. Coleridge. And we shared so much, as poets, that I was rather rude to you.”
“He doesn’t know me at all. I’d never steal from you,” I said.
“This is Londinium, I’m afraid,” William said, “and I worry that I did a terrible job preparing you for it. Samuel lives in a world, here, where there is so little trust between people. The streets are packed with thieves and there’s a swindler on every corner. You must understand, he was simply making a point.”
I nodded, not wanting to discuss it further.
“I just hope I haven’t scared you off for good,” William said, and I could hear the desperation in his voice. “You’ve been such a friend…”
“It’s been good for your poetry to have me around,” I said, voicing my fear for the first time.
William tried to say something and then looked down at his hands, which were still speckled with ink. “Yes, I suppose that’s true. Meeting you has somewhat increased my poetic capacity, but I don’t think…”
“I’ll not leave,” I said. “But I’ll need some space, you understand.”
He sighed like the bellows and agreed, though I could tell it pained him to do so. “Yes. I suppose that’s fair.”
After twenty years he meets up with Wordsworth again, and while he isn’t exactly a chatterer, Joss manages to command the conversation in an entirely different way.
“I’m sorry,” I said, for the first time feeling guilty as I should have. “I met a friend. And he…”
“He was like you,” William said. He held up his finger in a gesture of winking knowledge. “I saw you, that night. The fellow with the golden hair. Quite a picture. And you never looked back.”
“I thought of you often. I followed your career, when I could.”
William gave me a doubtful expression. “At any rate, my heart is glad to see you, though I suspect that I may not have the chance to again. You did come here to say good-bye, didn’t you?”
I nodded. “I did. I’m leaving, soon. For the New World.”
“Ah, you are escaping this den of sin and pestilence. You must leave me here among the mad young poets and crazed politicians.” He said it with mirth in his eyes, but I knew it was deeper than that.
“Don’t get lost,” I said, feeling the pull of tides as Aneirin had for so many years. I could feel what would happen to William. More sorrow, but more of a mental mire. He would get lost among the weeds and struggle to find his voice, his heart, until the very end.
“I fear I already am,” he said, and took my hand.
It’s interesting on a number of levels. The lack of questioning means that I never have scenes where Joss is asking what’s happening. He’s never lost. He, instead, says things like, “I don’t understand,” or, “I don’t know what you mean/where I am.” It dynamically changes the dialogue interchanges in the book, which with some characters (the loquacious La Roche who is the previous twin to Randall Roth from Pilgrim) isn’t terribly difficult. With other character interactions, it is. But Joss is an observer in every sense. And sometimes merely stating what he sees gives him power–more and more as he grows through the course of the book.
Joss is a fish out of water (literally and figuratively). He never manages to fit in with the godlings, most of whom are older and more conniving than he is, and he never manages to get on with the humans in his life, who either die or disappoint him greatly (or, uh, he kills…).
Which is all to say that writing out of my comfort zone has helped me think a whole lot more about the craft of writing this novel. It’s literally opened up a whole new arena for me to improve as a writer in a way that no other project has before. I can feel myself getting better, if that makes sense. And taking the time to make it as good as possible has been both challenging and exciting. I had a huge turning point in character development yesterday, and I could feel it happening. It was truly thrilling.
So, in short, take a chance. (No, I’m not qualifying this as writing advice, rather writing experience… or something… not a “how to” but a “what if”) Bleed over the edges. Step back and look critically at what you’re doing and see yourself in the words (I promise, you’re there even if you try to hide). The best thing you can do it be honest; through honesty comes growth.