Being here

I started to write this a while ago, then set it aside until I read this post by Widdershins at the Clarion blog. It inspired me to dig mine back out. It’s nice to find that sometimes the conversations I have with myself are being had by other people as well.

Write what you know is one of those rules tossed about as either brilliantly true or completely ridiculous. On a literal level, it’s simpler to write about things you know. I find it much easier, for example, to write about the life of a midwife, even one in a refugee camp, than to write about a mechanic rebuilding an engine. It’s more than just an understanding of the process–it’s knowing the language and the intuitive responses that aren’t likely to be covered in an instruction manual.

But I’ve never hunted anything in my life, and I still wrote a novelette about a woman who lived to hunt. Everything about her life I drew from things I do know. I’ve tracked and studied animals, I’ve camped in a shelter I built myself, and I’ve worked with dogs and horses. I understand what it’s like to sleep outside at night, to explore the banks of a river, to feel a heavy rain on my skin.

Those details give me confidence when writing about something I haven’t experienced myself. Hopefully that confidence extends to the reader as well, allowing them to believe what they read, even if it isn’t a literal truth.

There’s more, of course. There’s the emotional framework of a story. The tools necessary for building that come from being alive in the world, from listening and watching and feeling. It’s what makes one story about a mechanic different from twelve other stories about mechanics–the motor that drives their particular set of actions.

Why have I been thinking about writing what I know? Because I’m a little frustrated about writing a novel about travel to places I haven’t been. Yes, I can look at pictures and read descriptions and watch videos. The trouble is that visual resources lack other dimensions, and written ones filter place through another writer’s senses. Smells, sounds, how the air makes your skin feel, the pebbles that your fingers can’t help but reach for…these things are deeply personal.

Place is a character that longs to shake your hand, to look into your eyes. I won’t have that intimacy this time around. It’s been forcing me to think about how important place is to me as a writer. My interiors are often weak–the number of times I’ve had to go back and add the contents of a room is embarrassing–but I could spend days writing about the world outside of doors and walls.

I could simply stick my protagonist on a plane or a train, or have her spend her time in chain motels. It’s not what I want for her, or for the story. I need her feet on the ground, the air on her skin. I want her to reach for those pebbles that feel right in her hands.

This will be interesting experiment.

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10 responses to “Being here

  • Widdershins

    “Place is a character that longs to shake your hand, to look into your eyes. ” … what a beautiful description.

    Let us know how the experiment goes πŸ˜€

  • Rose L.

    The sense of place is one of the things I love about your writing.

    I have spent a fair amount of time on trains, on long journeys. Train travel is visceral for me (as is plane travel, though in a much more frustrating way). The sounds of the train as it moves, in rain, in snow, in shiny weather. The smell of the carriage. The smoothness of the wooden rail in the corridor. The scalding hot, dark tea served in glasses in metal teaholders. How it feels pulling oneself up to the upper bunk. What one can see through the window. All the things.

    In the novel I just finished, the characters spend a lot of time in carriages. It’s not quite the same as train travel, but it is an important time for them, a transitional time.

    • cosmicdriftwood

      It is an odd thing to unearth bits and pieces of oneself in one’s writing. For some reason, my need to be connected to physical place hadn’t really sunk in before.

      Ah, trains. My only trips have been on fairly industrial Amtrak routes along the East Coast. Decidedly less romantic than I think train travel can me. Having said that, I’ve loved every trip. My favorite thing is the feel of journeying through the back doors of cities, where few people walk, and few travelers look. I have wonderful memories of watching the egrets and herons in the marshes around NYC while everyone else was preparing for the station.

      I think transitional time is exactly the right phrase for these modes of transportation. I’d love a long trip by carriage sometime.

      • Rose L.

        It would be nice to take a long trip by carriage – but it can also be nausea-inducing. (I am nearing the querying stage and I might as well be on a carriage now :P)

      • cosmicdriftwood

        Querying. *shivers*

        I’m posting an interview with my agent here on Monday, and I’ve been trying to write up something about the whole query process, and the truthful version would be something like “and then I wept and vowed I would never attempt to query again.”

        Though that would have to be amended to “and then I wept, never realizing that 90% of my initial letters had never reached their destinations, thanks to the whimsy of email.”

        Allow me to offer you a drink to wash away all thoughts of queries for the evening. πŸ™‚

  • hollowwell

    I have just read “The King’s Huntsman” and enjoyed it a lot! One particular sentence really stood out for me: “I slept that night beneath a waking moon, her body tipped to fill with the dreams she would spill once she’d grown birthing swollen.” Oh, yes! I like that a lot!

    Thanks for the effort and for sharing!

    –hollowwell

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