Writing What You Can’t Know

Got this question in the e-mails:

I thought of this when you said you were going to do a Cupcake with lesbians in an Agatha Christie – like style. It made me think about the process of writing an intimate scene between two women. I have tried writing something like that before but have not been able to. The same goes for something between a man and a woman. My main problem I guess I don’t really have the experience or the feel of how to write something like that. How do you write for intimate scenes like that? Do you have any tips for me?

I have often said that there is no substitute for experience, and the realm of adult fiction is no exception to that. Firsthand experience is invaluable because it allows you to feel and process the sensations yourself, to focus on the details that are important to you or might be important to your characters, to try to sum up the experience in your own words. That said, I also do not necessarily advocate unrestrained promiscuity in the name of research, and there are certain scenarios (the above-mentioned gay female relationship) in which no amount of research will give you (if you are a male-type person like me) that firsthand knowledge (invert the genders if you are a female-type person).

However, the next best thing in this case is to read a lot of accounts from people who are relating their firsthand experiences. There is a good amount of lesbian erotica written by very talented women, and reading that will give you an idea of (a) how those things go, and (b) what different women value and focus on.

You can also, if you know any women (whether gay or not), ask them to talk about sex with you. Not necessarily embarrassing details, but things like “what’s your favorite part” or “what does it feel like when…” You should be prepared to talk about your own experiences for them as well; even if they aren’t writers, they are probably interested in hearing a guy talk about sex without the aim of getting them to participate in it. One of my friends spent an hour explaining erections to women the other day, for example(*). I know, I know. We male-type people who have lived with them all our lives are thinking, “How can they NOT know?”

*I’m reminded of the “Seinfeld” episode in which Jerry and George are trying to explain “shrinkage” to Elaine, and she says, “I don’t know how you guys walk around with those things.”

So anyway. Firsthand research when you can, secondhand when you can’t. Read erotica, talk to actual people, and maybe even let some of those people read your early drafts and tell you what’s wrong with it(*). Dan Savage’s column is another good place to go to listen to people talk frankly about sex, but if you want your own specific questions answered, you’ll need to do some work.

* And it goes without saying that you do NOT respond to their critique with defenses or “you don’t understand.” You smile and you say “thank you so much for helping me out,” and you go make the changes you agree with.

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