Monday, March 30, 2015

To Write, Live

Could these days have been more idyllic? Spent riding, working with animals, between sloping hills and in fellowship with 13 hearty companions...?

Light fades and breezes fan the cheeks, and the horizon is melting into one shade of earth and sky; the only visible stars are the yellow ones from across the valley in the village, and the only sound is the murmur of sheep. These are the moments that bring a tear of gratitude to a pondering soul on the eve of parting.

(I spent time on a farm this month, helping with lambing and farm chores. It was an experience I’ll never forget, and its facets will undoubtedly come out in future writing projects.)

Writing has a lot to do with putting ourselves in another’s shoes—plunging into a situation, location, or era (or all three!) that we may never have experienced first-hand. The more we practice this mental discipline, the better we get at guessing believable human responses to different types of conflict (internal, external, man vs. man, man vs. environment, etc.)

For the peculiar breed of people called writers, sitting at a desk and staring at the wall can be the most enjoyable part of the job. Imagining the perfect plot twist, the dialogue of characters, the blow-by-blow progression of a fight scene, or a crisp new set of “show, don’t tell” tactics can raise the heart rate and make us scramble for a piece of paper.

But there is a limit to the amount we can generate from our heads . . . and there are some things we simply need to experience to grasp.

If you’ve ever read Ballantyne’s Deep Down, A Tale of the Cornish Mines, you might have been impressed at the way little details transported you into the everyday occurrences in 1800s tin mines. Whenever I think of miners, I think of lobsters and of blinding accidents:

Whatever colour the men might be on entering [the changing-house], they invariably came out light red, like lobsters emerging from a boiling pot.
In Botallack mine a large quantity of iron is mingled with the tin ore. This colours everything in and around the mine, including men's clothes, hands, and faces, with a light rusty-red.


With great labour and difficulty the injured man was half hauled, half carried, and pushed up the shaft, and laid on the grass.
"Is the sun shining?" he asked in a low voice.
"Iss, it do shine right in thee face, Jim," said one of the miners, brushing away a tear with the back of his hand.
Again the gravity of Penrose's countenance appeared to deepen, but he uttered no other word; so they brought an old door and laid him on it. Six strong men raised it gently on their shoulders, and, with slow steps and downcast faces, they carried the wounded miner home.

Sure, I don’t see the book being made into the next big blockbuster, but little glimpses of colour, kindness, and sorrow make his largely-factual novel enjoyable. How did Ballantyne research? By spending three months living with miners.

Even if you can’t do that, and don’t have first-hand knowledge of driving an Alaskan dogsled team, or slicing through rainforest thick with bugs, or tasting the roasted dust of the Outback, can you add little elements of human interaction that you’ve witnessed? Can you slip in a reference, pertinent to the matter at hand, to the smell of garlic when Ma was cooking, or the feel of gloves that were a gift, or the ache of muscles that haven’t been used before?

The point is this: unless we write autobiographies, we will always be applying imagination to research in the process of unwrapping stories. But as much as you can, 1) include experiences you’ve had, and 2) go in search of experiences you could put in your “arsenal” of story elements.

Walking down the street can be a goldmine if you have your eyes open.

"To write, live."

Caitlin R. Hedgcock is a Christian author who aspires to use storytelling for God’s glory. She lives with her family in England's picturesque county of Hertfordshire. Visit her website or Facebook page to find out more.


  1. Awesome post, Caitlin! I really believe in this advice! I love new experiences and the depth they can add to my writing if I can figure out how to utilize them (going to England was chock full of them!).
    On a slight tangent, I've read this advice about crafting believable emotions and experiences: imagine what it would take to make you behave in a certain way. The example used was murdering somebody, which we probably don't want to think about, but I think the advice holds true with other things.
    I love your suggestions! And I'm so glad to hear that you had a wonderful time on the sheep farm.

  2. Thanks for commenting :)

    Yes, that's very true--characters need motives, and we can use what we learn from our own sinful hearts to illustrate moral lessons in our stories. Not all experiences are external. Great point.

    And I'm so glad you were able to come to England. Getting to meet you was awesome!

  3. Great to hear you spent time on a farm, Caitlin... havign grown up around animals I have always marveled at the small things that no one learns without having been around them! :-) There really can be such rich fodder for a writer's soul among the pastures and barns... I feel that even understanding of biblical principles are deepened when you truly understand the meaning of "ninety and nine lay in the fold" but the one missing one is who the Shepherd worries about... :-)
    And experiencing life, especially the tough parts of it, has to be the very best thing a writer can do for one's craft!!! :-)

    1. That farm and animal experience really shows its depth in your writing, Elizabeth! More importantly, it must be a wonderful way to live life, too.
      It's great to try to apply every experience one has to enrich your life and, by extension, writing. : ) Thanks for chiming in!


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