One of the things I loved about being a journalist was the excuse it gave me to dive deeply into subjects and lives I would never encounter otherwise.
In the name of “getting the story” I did such things as going on patrol with the coast guard (albeit in a relatively tame New England town), signing up with a dating service (long before online dating), and donning an early virtual reality head set (which is, in some ways, like getting inside someone else’s head).
As a writer of fiction, I long ago abandoned the simplistic notion of writing what I know. If authors took that literally, we would never have fantasy, sci-fi, or historical novels. Instead, I interpreted that advice, often given to beginning writers, to mean write what you understand emotionally.
Even that interpretation, however, raises questions. Every experience evokes an emotional response. How similar must two experiences be to evoke an identical response? Is grieving the loss of a dear friend the emotional equivalent of grieving the loss of a spouse? Is red-hot rage that results in screaming into a pillow equivalent to rage that leads to picking up a gun and killing someone?
My characters have committed arson and cheated on their spouses (actions, I hasten to say, I have never taken). But until recently, I felt I could write about those things because I believed I could understand my characters’ emotional response based on my own response to similar, though not identical, situations.
But can I?