Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Claire McGowan: The Silent Dead Blog Tour - author contribution

Today as part of the blog tour to accompany the publication of her latest thriller, The Silent Dead, we're welcoming Claire McGowan to talk about "Writing the Unknown"....

When I’m teaching creative writing, a question that often comes up is whether people are ‘allowed’ to write something. Can you write a character who’s a different gender or age group to you? What about race or economic background? Can you convincingly use a dialect or vernacular that you don’t know well? Are you allowed to write about things you haven’t experienced?

My answer is usually – of course, you’re allowed to write about anything. You don’t have to ask for permission in fiction and it’s not homework. We can make up whatever we like. But I do understand the anxiety that comes from writing something you haven’t gone through yourself. This seems to be so widespread that authors routinely hide their gender with pen names or initials. I’m writing a series about a forensic psychologist who works with the police. I’m not hugely familiar with these worlds, and sometimes I feel unsure about the details – what colour are the walls in police stations? What do the offices smell like? And so on. However, these details can easily be checked by wangling a station visit or researching the procedural processes.

What’s more difficult is to write about emotional situations you haven’t been in. I feel qualified to write about Northern Ireland and the Troubles (I was sixteen with the Good Friday Agreement was signed and living near the border), as I know I have an experience of that time which can’t be challenged. However, I’ve now taken my character to a place where she has a baby, and I don’t have children. I like to think I can imagine it – but I can also get things wrong. A writer friend who has children recently kindly pointed out a small mistake I’d made, which I wouldn’t have known unless I’d been around small children a lot. So there’s always the option to have things checked. I think this anxiety about permission can really hold writers back – so my approach would be write now, and ask questions later. You can always correct it!

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