I used to get this question all the time, “What’s a young woman like you doing writing about World War II?” It was said sometimes with simple curiosity and other times with a tinge of suspicion. How could I, a young woman writing about a war that ended more than twenty years before I was born, possibly know anything about battles and prison camps and the struggles of the women back home?
Once I started writing my children’s series, The Home-Front Heroes, those questions stopped. Is it maybe more acceptable to write about a long-ago war if you are “just” writing kids’ books? But I still had a very real concern. In creating a multi-cultural series, I was quite often writing beyond the boundaries of my own experiences with race, culture, dialects, and history.
My newest book in this series, War on a Sunday Morning, (which debuted in March 2018) is set during the attack on Pearl Harbor. I’d been putting off this book because I knew it would be hard to get the cultural details correct, as well as the historical facts. I’ve never lived in Hawaii, but I know the islands have their own culture, dialect, and voice. I’ve never been a child in a military family, like the character in my book. And I planned to include a secondary character who was Japanese American. (I also wound up including one who was Chinese American).
So how do we go about writing respectfully outside our experience? Well, I recently created a webinar on that very topic in which I share a number of important tips to help people find the confidence to write diverse characters and story lines without resorting to possibly offensive stereotypes and imagery. You can find that webinar at Writing Blueprints here: https://writingblueprints.com/p/how-to-write-respectfully-outside-your-experience
Here are my top three tips for writing outside your experience. And that doesn’t just refer to race. You could be writing about people with disabilities, people from diverse economic backgrounds, LGBTQ characters, someone who grew up in an environment or family structure very different from yours, etc.
1. Ask yourself if the diverse character you are writing really belongs in your book. Are you possibly including that character just because you think current trends require you to do so? Are you including him/her in order to preach or prove a point? Are you falling into literary tropes like “The Magical Negro” or the “Fabulous Gay Best Friend”? Is your main character guilty of being a “White Savior”? In other words, do your characters really belong in your story? Do they have back stories, goals, and abilities of their own, or do they exist just to help or enhance your main character?
2. Do your research. Books, reputable websites, articles, first-person accounts, documentaries, etc. Take a research trip. Spend time learning the local language, terrain, and customs. Study the art, music, and plays of the culture you are writing about. Be clear on the preferred terminology used by that culture. For example, it’s preferable to say “people with disabilities” not “disabled people.” This is called People First Language and is important to that community.
3. Seek out the experts. Don’t assume that just because you’ve done your research, you are fluent in a culture. Ask for guidance and review from people who live and work within that culture. Interview them before you begin to write and then ask them to review your finished work and catch any errors, no matter how tiny, in your story.
Given the current climate, it can sometimes feel intimidating to write outside our experience. But we’re writers because we’re curious people and because we love stories and want to add something of value to the world of knowledge and entertainment. If we are working from a place of respect and honor regarding our diverse characters and story lines, and if we do our research and trust the experts, we can stand by our work with pride.
She is also the creator of the Self-Publishing Blueprint and numerous instructional webinars, including, “How to Write Respectfully Outside Your Experience.” Those items can be found at https://writingblueprints.com.
Teresa also writes an inspirational blog called “Bursts of Brilliance for a Creative Life.” You can read the blog and learn more about Teresa at www.teresafunke.com