by Steve Steinbock
All writers and most non-writers know the old adage, write what you know.
Most writers are smart enough to ignore it.
But when trying to write faithful to a particular age or generation that is not one’s own, that foul old rule often hits us right where it hurts. Good research and sharp eyes and ears can help. But as is was so aptly put by Ringo Starr, it don’t come easy.
I think it’s easier to look backwards, i.e. to write about people older than, or from an earlier time than, the writer. My first published short story (which, not to confuse things too much, probably won’t appear in print until early 2010) is written mostly from the point of view of two elderly women, sisters-in-law in their eighties. I’ve been told that I captured their voice pretty well. If so, I owe my success to years of witnessing my mother arguing with her mother, and watching my grandmother argue with her older sister. The incessant bickering of these women, God rest their souls, was a steady source of entertainment throughout my formative years.
I’ve tried my hand at writing a story set in New York in the 1930s but never finished the project. (I think I was too caught up in the research and got mired in detail. A big risk when writing period pieces).
My friend and the Master and Commander of Criminal Brief, James Lincoln Warren, has a masterful command of Eighteenth Century London society, culture, and language, evident in his Alan Treviscoe stories. I don’t know for certain, but I’d guess that Jim has spent more hours reading old copies of The Tatler than Messrs. Addison, Steele, and Swift combined. He pulls off dialogue, details, and even typography so well that you have to wonder if he was really born in the early 1700s.
Writing faithfully and effectively about younger characters is a beast of a different color altogether. I don’t know how it’s done. People can do it. Based on sales figures, James Patterson has pulled it off. He’s a man in his sixties, but his Maximum Ride series has been a huge success, largely because his characters resonate so well with the tween-age set.
My parents and grandparents were products of the Great Depression. Although both my parents were born during the period of recovery, their outlooks and attitudes were shaped by it. I was born at the tail end of the Baby Boom, when the US was in the midst of a Cold War, when Eisenhauer was still president, and when NASA had just been established. That period, running through the Summer of Love and into the birth of personal computers, is what shapes my social and cultural outlook.
These generational distinctions I admit are artificial. They are a set of generalities that don’t take into account personal, economic, educational, ethnic, or psychological factors. But for me at least, they represent a series of chronological boundaries that separate people.
I have friends and cousins who belong to the Gen-X age. But because I once knew and lived through a time before Sesame Street, before video games, and before Starbucks, there are ideas and attitudes that I have a hard time getting my head around. I’m not sure what – if anything – distinguishes my children from Generation X.
I suppose the bottom line is that as writers, writing about times and people from different ages than our own provides certain challenges. Research, whether by reading or by observing, can help us get a grip on people of other ages. I’d love to hear what challenges you’ve had writing about other ages, and how you’ve surmounted the generation gaps.
ATTENTION DEFICIT and COMMUNICATION GAPS
As regular readers of Criminal Brief know, our Master and Commander James Lincoln Warren recently traveled to southern Africa. He was able to stay in touch with us. It’s amazing when you think about it. Even while wandering through Mma Ramotswe‘s Botswana and dancing with lion cubs in Zimbabwe, Jim was able to reach us by internet.
In JLW’s absence, the role of Criminal Brief editor fell on our communications officer, Leigh Lundin. Ironically, weather conditions in central Florida made it especially difficult for Leigh to perform his duties. Several times during that three-week period, Leigh was left without electricity or an Internet connection. And NOT, I should add, because he forgot to pay his bills. Our man in Orlando had to resort to driving around town with laptop on passenger seat, searching for a WI-FI signal at all hours of day and night.
A week ago, at about the time I was trying to submit my column about Father Brown, Leigh was having connectivity issues in Orlando. So Leigh and I – along with Leigh’s pet raptor – held an impromptu meeting via cell phone so that he could direct me through the process of accessing our Criminal Brief control center and posting my column.
Leigh had to do this both blind and deaf. Without Internet he couldn’t see the menu screens and had to do it all from memory. With his pet Raptor screeching in his ear, he couldn’t hear what I was saying. Leigh’s pet may be a Macaw or Cockatiel; he never even told me its name. But from it’s fierce noise, I was sure it was a hawk or falcon, or to be poetic, a raven. I owe a debt of gratitude to Leigh for all the blood, sweat, gas, and raptor scars he suffered in order to keep Criminal Brief up and running.
And welcome back to James Lincoln Warren.