Getting the Details


Last weekend I attended the book signing for Faith Hunter’s latest release, Raven Cursed.  Kalayna Price was also signing books at the same time, so when festivities had wrapped up, we all went out for dinner together.  We had a marvelous time, talking and laughing and making plans for upcoming con events.  At one point, Kalayna was telling me how she had to have other people tell her what beef tastes like, because she doesn’t eat it, but one of her characters does.  Take a second and think about how tricky that might be.  “Beef is savory, and tender,” you might say.  “It tastes of dark brown warmth and richness.”  That’s poetic, sure, but does that really describe it?  We who do eat beef know what it tastes like, but how do you express that to someone who doesn’t, in a way that is useful enough to her that she can write about it?   It started me thinking about how much of what we like goes into our characters. 

Sure, there are writers out there whose characters are thinly veiled versions of themselves, liking what the writer likes and doing things the writer wants to do.  That’s not what I’m talking about.  No, what I’m thinking of today is more subtle.  Our characters, handled properly, have their own personalities, their own fondnesses and cravings and idiosyncrasies.  They become real people, and just because we’re writing their stories doesn’t mean they have to agree with everything we do.  Trouble is, it’s easy to assign likes, dislikes and habits to characters when they’re things we already like, dislike or do on our own.  Kestrel, for example, loves dark rum.  And so do I.  There’s nothing so satisfying as a swallow of black rum, the sweet fumes spiraling into my head as the warmth spreads through my belly.  I didn’t include it in Kestrel’s psyche because I liked it, but it was easy to write about because I do.  I can take it in another direction, too.  Kestrel lives on a ship most of the time, and she doesn’t like salted fish.  Wait, that’s not quite right – she despises it.  If she was starving and all there was to eat was a barrel of salted fish, she’d eat it, but she still wouldn’t like it.  Me?  I love it, but it’s a strong flavor, and I know how annoying it could become if that was the only food available, so it was simple to include a dislike of it in my character. 

But what if I realize one day that Kestrel really loves to go cliff-diving?  This is not an activity I will ever indulge in, not even in the name of research.  Standing on the top of a three-foot stepladder is enough to set me shivering.  I could read about cliff diving, sure, but it wouldn’t be the same as experiencing it.  I would have to turn to other people, talk to them about how it feels to stand on that edge and launch myself into the air, hoping I’d miss the rocks. I’d have to watch their faces as they talk about the adrenaline rush of flying through the air, the thrill of hitting the water, the release of tension from landing safely. 

Writers try things.  We’ll order bizarre food just for the experience of it – absinthe or candied lemon peel or wild boar, things we’ve only read about, so that we can know.  We’ll travel to interesting, possibly even dangerous places so we can paint the picture with words later.  But when trying isn’t an option, we start hunting for people to tell us what we’ve missed.  We’ll call medical professionals to ask how long it would take for someone to die from a particularly gruesome wound, or ask law enforcement officers to take us along for an hour or three in their patrol cars.  I’ve told this story a kajillion times, but I once convinced my husband to climb onto our SUV and jump off so I could see what a rolling landing looked like.  Oh, did I mention he did it with a sword on his side?  I’m so lucky that man loves me.  -laughs-

I’m curious – what have you done to learn things for in the name of your work?  And if it was something you could not do yourself, how did you manage to get the information you needed?



18 comments to Getting the Details

  • Great examples, Misty. I love the idea of trying to convey things you really do know but others won’t (like the taste of beef), but–like you–I do a lot of researchy-activities to try and learn new things for myself. For my thrillers I travel a lot, try to get the feel of strange and unusal places (check out the Fontanelle gallery for On the Fifth Day and you’ll see what I mean!:

    But I like the physical testing of ideas too. Once I was writing a sequence when a man was stuck on a high ledge and trying to work his way round onto a piece of roof. Like you I’m not crazy about heights so I laid planks around the outside of my house, stood on them with my back to the wall and inched my way around, pretending I was fifty feet up. It was a great way to see how my body had to work, which muscles I used to stay flush to the wall as I moved. The neighbors thought I’d lost my mind…

  • This is so much fun! Research is the best part of the writing job. Well, okay, it’s up there in the top ten.

    Stuff I’ve done for writing:
    Learned how to white water kayak (and fell in love with it).
    A year and a half of belly dance lessons.
    Learned how to bake bread. (Which took a year to really get right and I nearly burned down the house once.)
    Rode with female cops for a month.
    Spent 6 days in a trauma center’s emergency department main trauma unit. (They had three ED units.)
    Learned basic jewelry making (and still make it).
    Grew a vegetable and herb garden for edible and medicinal herbs. I kept up with that for years.
    Took a basic sushi making class.
    Took a 6 week long firstaid course – part of EMT training.

    I didn’t really use all of this. For instance, Jane Yellowrock never actually made sushi, because the editor had me cut the scene. But the things I learn are always fodder for BIC.

  • MaCrae

    I don’t think going to the hospital and asking to be stabbed would go over well…LOL. I would like to try sword fighting of course, I’ve had some experience with archery, like shooting a styrofoam target from ten feet away, but that’s practically useless. I like to learn more about medicinal herbs like Faith. The effect of trauma and injuries and stuff. I’ve never really researched anything because you can’t trust the google people 😉 and I don’t know where to go to ask all the questions.

  • I’ve stood on a short, sturdy fence, closed my eyes, and imagined I was on the edge of an extremely high building. Then I jumpled, to see what sensations I would feel with the act of jumping. And I’ve been taking sword class for nearly a year now, which I originally got into for writing but which has turned out to be very worthwhile martial art on its own. That has helped me be more aware of my body.

  • … and has helped me envision battles/skuirmishes more accurately.

  • Ken

    I’ve walked through fight scenes, actually performing the motions in slow motion, because sometimes I have a hard time keeping it all straight in my head. Especially if the location of the fight is unusual: a passage 4 feet high when one of the characters is 5’5″…or on a tightrope…or in a two-seater Kayak 🙂
    More often, however, if I’m working on dialogue (especially arguements…love the arguements) I’ll speak it aloud just so that I can feel how it rolls off the tongue and the ears. I *really* try not to do this when other folks are around…at least folks that don’t know that I’m a writer and am apt to do such things.

    I really, really like the steak research idea. I mean I know what it tastes like but a little refresher couldn’t hurt. Yah, that’s it…mmmm, research. Oh, and with herbed taters and…..

  • *grin* I so enjoy picturing all of you doing wacky things to find out they feel like. Emily and I have done that too – conversations like “Hit me. No, no, backhand.” We walk through fight sequences too. I’ve eaten sea urchin too just to find out what it tasted like – NEVER again, let me tell you.

    I think Misty makes a really good point about letting your characters do things you don’t do, even things you wouldn’t do for moral or ethical reasons. Last night I wrote a scene in which one of my secondary characters, who I have a soft spot for, lashed out at not one but two innocent people, one of whom was already bullied. It made my stomach churn because I’ve been bullied, but I had to let Mal do what she was going to do and make the rotten choices she’s going to make to move the plot and her character forward. A part of me would like all my characters, or at least the ones I’m fond of, to be kind and sensible all the time, but if that happened the story would be too short and hideously boring.

  • Razziecat

    I’ve paced out magical rituals and “danced” through a cave full of enchanted, venomous snakes–all in my living room 🙂 Having taken part in real rituals, some of which included dancing, I had some experience to build on, but I’m sure I would have looked pretty strange if anyone had seen me going through the motions for the story.

  • AJ, that’s hysterical! I wouldn’t be surprised if there isn’t a forum somewhere on the internet – “Neighbors of Writers”. They all log in and share stories of their clearly-crazy writer neighbors.

    Ken, I’ve had my son and husband block out fight scenes for me, just so I can be certain what I wrote could be achieved with two hands and two legs. I’m very fortunate that they like doing it, because otherwise my fight scenes would come out a little strange.

    Sarah, thanks for sharing. You’re so right – perfect characters are boring, even though we sometimes hate making them do the horrible things they must. There’s no story without conflict, and there’s no growth without flaws to begin from.

  • Julia

    What a great topic! Because I’m a wheelchair user, there are many times my characters do things that I don’t (or can’t) do. At times, I find that sometimes I pay more attention to physicality than other people — so sometimes I wonder whether my descriptions of embodied experience are made richer by the fact that it isn’t something I take for granted. But it does occasionally require me to “farm out” the research and get descriptions from others.

    I often ask my partner to describe how he would do something, and occasionally I ask him to act out a sequence so I can see it. Hilarious when we parsed how he would climb out of a window and up onto a roof… He decided against trying this out. 🙂

    Misty, I agree with you that there are limits to how far another person’s description can go. But I think the most effective descriptions are often the ones that are evocative of how the character experiences an action or a taste, not necessarily a precise blow-by-blow of the experience itself.

  • Darnit, I always do things backwards.
    I’m one of those people who like to collect experiences first ’cause they’re neat, then possibly drag them out when the time is right

    If you consider experiences to be tools in your writing toolbox, well, I’d be the one who spends all her time at Home Depot drooling over
    the hammer selection, finding that perfect mallet to add to her collection. Some day, maybe tomorrow or maybe in a hundred years, that
    mallet will be just right for some great work.
    (oh, you should see my basement…there are, in fact, many strange tools and devices there for some reason).

    My toolbox of experiences has nifty things.. 7 years of bellydance after a lifetime of sedentary geekdom. Wandering around the back streets of Istanbul, Budapest, and Bankok after years of safe west coast living. Danced in a…er…the pyramid. Airplane lessons. Sailing the Mediterranean. Eatin’ both ‘gater and croc’. I like ‘gater better. croc’ tastes too fishy and is a bit stringy.

    So far so good. I’m even folding some of my experiences into my WIP (and my NaNo project recently as well).

    Now if I can get that darn demon summoning to work, i’ll get unstuck.

  • I once went up into the desert with my father-in-law to learn how to shoot a gun, just because I didn’t know and I figured that some day I would need to for a book or series. I have a friend who is into swords and such, and I spent a good deal of time picking his brain. And living in a university town I have often gone to experts in various fields for information that I don’t have at my fingertips.

  • Vyton

    Thanks for this. Some great ideas. Just driving through the countryside paying attention to signs: Just Endtime Ministries, Jehovah Java, and King Solomon’s Court (trailer park). And one of my favorites: Once a Broken Rose (gift shop). Now pull all these together with an invasion/uprising/apocalypse, and you’re there.

  • Hmm. I’ve eaten rattlesnake after having caught it, killed it, skinned it, and cooked it over an open fire. It does NOT taste like chicken. I’ve fallen off horses (not intentionally, but I’ve done if often enough to describe in detail!). I’ve changed an aircraft tire. I’ve caught scorpions and various bugs and spiders just to look at them and watch how they move. I’ve gone up on high things (and suffered vertigo – I don’t do high well) like Seattle’s space needle and the observation tower at Gettysburg and the edge of the Grand Canyon. I’ve stood barefoot in the snow and on desert sand. I’ve operated the boom on a KC-135A tanker while refueling a fighter and an AWACS and been in the cockpit for takeoff and landing. I’ve given birth and watched, helpless, as doctors put my children back together after normal boyhood accidents and not so normal illnesses.

    I didn’t do any of these things with the intent that they would help my writing, but they’ve all found there way into stories I’ve written.

  • I definitely use experiences that I’ve already had when I write. Good ones, yes, but awful ones too. Years back, my husband put his shoulder out of joint, which was a horrible night for everyone, but led to me rewriting several chapters since I realized I’d completely underestimated how much it hurt.

    And then there was the time my darling bought me a bottle of French absinthe because I’d always wanted to try it. Somehow I’d missed the important detail that it’s made with anise, a flavor I despise. But at least now I know. And we figured out that it’s perfect for knocking out a bad cough. 😀

  • TwilightHero

    Ouch. Misty, I sympathize with your husband. I dislocated my knee a couple years ago, and it remains the most painful thing I’ve experienced thus far. What I remember most is falling on a wooden floor and not feeling an impact at all – the pain from my knee blocked out anything else. On the bright side, I gained a better understanding of how stronger sensations can overpower weaker ones 🙂

    And yes, I too have acted out fight scenes. I have a stick I keep lying around because it’s just the right length for acting out sword fights, and once jumped around our living room a few times to get a better feel for those flying kicks you see in kung fu movies. It was pretty fun.

  • sagablessed

    I see bits and peices of myself in each charater. But as you said, they have there own idiocyncracies. They are seperate from me, and in my mind’s eye, they are alive. One character, my protagonist, likes scotch -perhaps a bit more than is good. I like a wee nip o’ the bubbly now and then, but hate scotch. Also, he has issues with his HIV medications. I have chemo, but know enough people who have HIV to know what the similarities and differences are. I use the similarities to accent his motivations and reactions. I like a nip, but hate scotch.
    Another character is so different from me: protagonist’s BFF. I see nothing of myself in her, but can easily imagine being BFF’s with her.
    I think that we write from within. And doing so helps us see our characters as ‘alive’.

  • I joined the SCA, not exactly for research, but it turned out to be a gem. I fought in large pitched battles and one-on-one tournaments. Both very different. Even fighting with various sized weapons created food for writing thought. For example, long two-handed swords not only take a lot more strength to get swinging, but if you miss they’re tough to stop without opening yourself up to long defenseless moments.

    There are not many things I’ve done specifically for research, but now you’ve got me thinking…

    Thanks, Misty.