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.