Many say that you should only write about what you know, and others say you should write about what you want to know. I’m in the latter group. I do stick with what I know, and know intimately, when it comes to the main character. This is essential for me even more when the story is written in first person, and the narrator is the main character.
But there are other characters, and they often come from other places, other faiths, even other times. Seen through the main character’s eyes-- the narrative voice remains an authentic observation of their “otherness.” But as readers are diverse, I always felt I should run a story with such characters by Beta Readers who would have known them intimately.
One of my novels, set in the South, has a narrator. The narrator is an outsider, lands in the American South, and marvels at the difference of her northern California mind-set and the people and place she finds herself in. I ran many of the southern dialogue lines by a native of the specific area, and, once the second draft was done, I had the whole story read by my first Beta reader, a native of the American South.
This turned out to be insufficient. Another reader objected to the way a character spoke and acted. I revised, again. This time with a reader who was not quite from the same place in the south, but of the same race as the secondary character.
I have done similar things with other stories. I did not know there was a name for such readers, but I’ve learned. They are now called Sensitivity Readers. They will check the authenticity of voices and manners, because they know from the inside. At the same time, they will point out anything that strikes them as pointlessly offensive.
A simple internet search using this term will show not only that it’s established, but there are sites that hire such readers, vet them, and for a fee will connect writers to a specific need. I was ignorant that this was recognized and monetized, and had turned to friends or other writers with an exchange of reading their work-in-progress. I know what I don’t know, which is plenty, and I know feedback is invaluable.
In search of authenticity, I try to remember not to sanitize what real life sounds like. This is not about the PC police waving their badges. At the very least, it is a good idea to run work by people of a different background and weigh their feedback. In the end the process is enriching well beyond the mining of my own mind.