Depending on the hour, Twitter for writers (#WritingCommunity, #WritersCafe, etc.) is either really helpful or a 50,000-car pileup of book promos and follow-back lists. Personal and professional news, writing prompts (e.g., #vss365, wherein a moderator posts a word of the day for participants to use in very short stories; @paul_grealish is among my favorites in this category), and industry tidbits, too. Enough rabbit holes to keep millions of us from using our time wisely.
Then there are quizzes and conversation starters: what’s your favorite [book/author/film, etc.]? Do you think an MFA is necessary in order to write well? What’s one grammar rule you’re willing to break? All fine stuff, provided you aren’t already late to pick up the kids from school and have time to spare.
One question that appears regularly is whether it’s possible to write well about unfamiliar things, or it’s counterpart, should writers stick to writing what it is they know best? In both cases, the answers is yes, sure … kinda.
To the first question—is it possible to write well about the unfamiliar (In this essay, I mean historical fiction. Whether straight writers should write about the LGBTQ+ experience, white writers about POCs, able/intact writers about the differently-abled, etc., is a whole other topic that isn’t addressed here)?—the answer is “with exhaustive research.” I write #HistFic so in a very real sense, the only way I can become intimately familiar with my subjects is through research. I read nonfiction books about everything from events to clothing, social conventions to food, because nothing jolts #HistFic readers from their rapture like anachronisms (well, typos and misspellings, too). I figure my research-to-writing ratio is at least 50:1. By the time I’ve compiled enough background to start writing, I am at least passably familiar with the (formerly) unfamiliar and can catch any mistakes with beta readers and editing.
To the second question, I also use my own experiences in my writing (paraphrased in a character’s own voice, of course), because then there’s no need speculate how something looks, tastes, sounds—those sensations are committed to memory (or at least a notebook).
Physical research—actually visiting a setting before writing about it—is as valuable to me as reading. My forthcoming novel, Widowmaker, is set in Nevada; a relatively short drive from Colorado, so occasionally I can block out long weekends to go there and experience its landscapes in the same way as my characters.
Some of these encounters are pleasant: the smell of sagebrush after rain, the glint of sunlight on a snow-covered peak. Others come from hardship (self-inflicted or otherwise): driving steep, narrow roads on 100-degree days, or hiking across desolate playas in sub-zero weather).
One of these almost-disasters made it into Widowmaker as a brief episode involving my MC, mining company detective Shepard Sunday, and Parker Kiel, a member of the Delamar Miner’s Union and Sunday’s unexpected travelling companion (also, gravely injured in a previous scene):
Stomping the brakes, the car lurches to a stop above a wash, its edge so abrupt that the car’s headlamps shine out into darkness, illuminating nothing but falling snow. I open the door and step down.
Standing above the embankment, my heart drops. For the last mile, the track we’ve followed has grown rougher as it’s dropped and now I see why: the road itself channels water flowing down from this side of the valley. Here at the wash’s edge, runoff surging over a steep gradient has caused the road to collapse; now it’s nothing but a abrupt gash filled with jumbled boulders and uprooted brush. Holy hell, we’ll never get past this.
I lean against the passenger door and tug on Parker’s lapels, partly to keep snow from blowing inside his coat and partly to help him sit straighter so he can breathe. His face is ghostly and his lips are blue, although from cold or a lack of oxygen, I cannot tell. Death may run him to ground no matter what I do.
“Parker?” He doesn’t respond. “Parker?”
“What?” he whispers.
“Gonna go look for a way down this embankment, okay? I’ll be right back.”
My hands are freezing so I jam them into my coat pockets. God knows I’m in better shape than Parker and still I’m none too comfortable. Everything hurts.
Downstream, the embankment grows taller: a sheer thirty-foot drop into the wash. Not good. I work my way back along the edge, past the Iroquois, looking for openings in the sagebrush and kicking rocks away from the likeliest route. I’ve gone twenty or thirty yards when I spot what I hoped I’d find. I’ve seen this elsewhere: cattle, accustomed to following their usual routes, must’ve found this same blowout. Looking for a way into the wash, they’ve trampled the formerly-sheer embankment into a steep, muddy ramp: still treacherous but potentially navigable. Some sections are more abrupt than others; hit one wrong and the car could roll. From rim to wash, I hike this slope twice until I’m sure of the route. Back on top, I take two mullein stalks and thrust them into the dirt as something to aim for as the car goes over the edge.
Another tin of gasoline into the tank and we’re ready. Leaving the road, the car bumps and scrapes along about the way it did when we were following it. I line up the radiator cap on the first stalk, except the snow makes it hard to see. After getting out and checking one last time, I’m confident we’re on the right angle. Still, with the headlights shining out into nothingness, it’s hard not to feel anxious as the hood plunges over the edge.
The Iroquois’ back end skids right but I over-steer, keep my foot off the brake, and after a jolt or three, we’re down. The wash’s floor is mostly sand and mud and while the going is slow, it isn’t the worst stretch we’ve driven today. The exit on its west side is in substantially better shape; merely tapping the accelerator puts us back onto relatively level ground. Within minutes, Parker’s asleep again and then there’s nothing to think about except the road, the darkness, and snow.
The only differences between that story and my actual experience driving a car over an embankment (late June 2007, on a road near the juncture of Rock Spring Creek and Boulder Creek in northeastern Elko County) are the car I was driving (Jeep Wrangler vs. my MC’s 1907 Iroquois Touring Car); the weather (clear morning [albeit after days of heavy rain] vs. snowy darkness); and I was traveling alone. Otherwise, I wrote what I know.
As well, I’ve given my MC one of my own injuries. Back in 2002, I had surgery to remove a brain tumor. In order to saw a trapdoor (not really, but that’s what I call it) into the lower-left/posterior quadrant of my skull to access my cerebellum, the surgeon had to detach my scalp and some neck muscles (the left semispinalis capitis and splenius capitis?). All these years later, everything still functions more or less as it should except that when my scalp was reattached, the nerves didn’t all re-grow and so my head is mostly numb back there. Doing yard work, I’ve managed to cut or scrape my head on branches, bleed all over my shirt, and not realize it until later. My big surgical scar is a great conversation-starter in a barber’s chair.
Having cast Shepard Sunday as a veteran, I’ve given him wounds and outcomes similar to those the neurosurgeon gave me. One such passage:
Early afternoon, I spot a figure on the main road, carrying something and moving fast. Based on height, thinness, and gait, I believe it’s Parker, though I wish I had binoculars or a glass so I could be sure. Turning north, I see a pair of wagons rolling south but these are still miles away and moving slowly. Five minutes and a thousand yards later, I’m positive it’s him. No one’s following. Good.
Soon as he reaches the wash, I walk down to meet him. He’s sweating profusely but otherwise looks none the worse for his long walk. I, on the other hand, must look a mess because as soon as he sees me, he points to my shoulder.
“You’re bleeding,” he says.
I crane my neck so I can see what he’s talking about and, sure enough, a bloodstain about the size of a hen’s egg has spread across my collar.
“How about that?” I feel along the side of my head. Dried blood comes off on my hand.
Parker falls in as I start for the cabin. “What happened?”
“Tree branch or something. I don’t know.”
“Looks bad; you don’t remember doing it?”
“Scalp’s numb on that side of my head. Got slashed when I was in the army. Doctors reattached everything but the nerves never regrew. Don’t worry about it.”
We step carefully around the cabin’s trash-pile—tin rubbish and broken glass, mostly. Parker reaches down, pulls a sharp piece of metal from the heap, and slips it inside the burlap sack slung over his shoulder.
So there you go. Writing what you know doesn’t necessarily have to be macro (a cop writing police dramas, or an epidemiologist writing about plagues)—micro-knowledge counts, too. Thank you for reading. Best of luck with whatever you’re working on.