This interesting bit of taxidermy is part of a 19th century sea captain’s cabinet, now on display at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA. Just looking at it tells you two things: one, the taxidermist had never even seen a penguin; and two, neither had the sea captain. They obviously made it look the way they thought it should due to what they knew of other birds, and got it hilariously wrong.
I often think of this bird when I write about an experience I haven’t had, things I’ve never seen, people I’ve never known. “Write what you know” is a cliche, but no less true for its overuse. On one hand, it can be interpreted too narrowly. I may only have first hand knowledge of a small sphere of human experience, but empathy, extrapolation, and imagination allow my knowledge to be much broader. Still, when writing about something that necessitates a stretch of knowledge, I need to remember the penguin, do my research, and be careful of my own preconceptions. For one thing, I don’t want to look foolish. But more importantly, I don’t want to mislead people who might be basing their own perceptions on my work. It’s important that I do right by the metaphorical penguins, and by the people who might look at my atrocity and be convinced that a penguin is really just a goose that can’t fly.
There’s a certain amount of tension when writing a character that has a strong, defining experience that you yourself have not had. One of my protagonists in the Haunted series is a woman who lost her father to suicide. I have not experienced that tragedy firsthand. Sometimes I wonder if I should even be writing about it. How could I possibly do justice to that?
My friend and mentor Paul McComas (I’m constantly calling him that, I should make an acronym or something) likes to talk about a period he went through in college that his writing teacher called “The Earnest Young Man Stories.” Told “write what you know,” he produced a series of stories about a sensitive college aged guy interacting with the world. After a number of these stories, his teacher told him “You know…you know people other than yourself.” Point being, when we write fiction, we don’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, limited to the strict area of our own personal experience. Our personal experience informs our writing, but so does our relationships with other people. So does the things that we read, the things we watch, the things we observe , the things we deduce.
I do need to be careful, I think, because despite the fact that my work is fiction, it will still inform my readers’ understanding of that experience, the same way the things I read inform my own. (This, incidentally, is one of my issues with things like The DaVinci Code and 50 Shades of Grey. People base their views of theology or of how to properly go about BDSM on what they read in these books, and both are irresponsibly, and, in the case of 50 Shades, dangerously inaccurate.) But that doesn’t mean I need to, or should, limit my exploration of the human experience based only on my tiny slice.