“Write what you know.” The quote is variously attributed to Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway. The Hemingway version actually reads “I decided that I would write one story about each thing I knew about.” Tortured English for my two cents, but who am I to argue with Hemingway. He was an ace at covering his bases, and as he matured, he must have realized that writing what he knew might be a tad boring so he decided to ask himself “What did I know best that I had not written about and lost? What did I know about truly and care for the most?”
The last is the money question for me. What do I know about truly and care for the most? What question do I want to let my characters help me examine? The answers have nothing to do with spending months cooking on a boat—when I had no idea how to cook, or spending every weekend in the Caribbean throughout the 1980s. Yes, I know all about those things, but who cares?
What do I know about truly because of those experiences? Gratitude. The men on that boat taught me to cook. Their efforts kept the captain from putting me ashore when he discovered I was a fraud. Because of them I can make a full meal from any three ingredients, and I know the gossamer silk feel of the trade winds when they kiss your cheek in your sleep. Mercy. A woman in Sint Maarten took me into her home and nursed me back to health when I had dengue fever and no place to stay. She taught me that having enough is being rich, sharing it doubles the wealth, and there is always room for one more. Because of her, I know the honey-sweet taste of sucking on a hibiscus flower, the prickly feeling of a bananaquit landing on your arm, and that peas (a type of bean) and rice can extend any meal.
If I’m doing my job as a writer, then each character I write is informed by their own unique blend of qualities that breathes life into them. The gruff sailor can realistically display a gentle side. A woman can follow her heart to defy her family and display Herculean kindness. These are things that I care the most about. The deep well from which mankind draws to form and shape behaviors that are as often ephemeral as they are immutable. Those are the questions I want to examine, how each character, in life and fiction, is the architect of their own story.