Most of my adult life I have believed that it’s hard to write about something you haven’t experienced yourself. There may have been times I took that sentiment a little too far purposely looking for some hands on experience. Though it’s probably pushed me to try things I never would have ordinarily, I am not sure it’s absolutely true that this is the preferred method to inject realism into fiction, though it might help.
I’ve read dozens of books in which the author couldn’t possibly have done the things or anything similar to what they’ve written about and yet, it’s utterly believable. So how do they pull off that kind of magic? My guess is that if they haven’t been able to or dared to try whatever it is themselves they are very good interviewers and good at finding people who know first hand what it’s like to, for example rush into a burning building, fly missions over Germany in WWII, or live for weeks or even years with a nomadic tribe in the desert.
I’ve been enough places and done enough things that there are times when I find myself comparing my own experience with a similar setting or experience portrayed in fiction. Often I am surprised by how good authors are at recreating the ambiance the sights, sounds, experiences. For this you must have a gift of paying attention to details and observing things people often miss as they go about their business consumed by their own internal world.
But here’s the rub: I remember seeing someone shot in the back and then hit by a car as they fled across a busy city street. You don’t plan to be a witness to that, it just happens, in seconds. That was 25 years ago but if I think very hard I can break that memory down into snap shots of images. What is harder to recall are my emotions at the time – I seemed to be robbed of them – I remember a couple of nuns nearby crying up to heaven. I remember a shoe flying and nearly hitting someone nearby. I remember my room mate’s ice cream cone falling from her hand onto the sidewalk and I remember getting us the hell out of there.
It’s probably easier to remember premeditated experiences, like getting into a ring with a bull, climbing a mountain or running a marathon. You almost plan to observe and savor and capture details so you can write about them later. But the things you don’t plan for, those are the elusive memories, the ones that come back to you in bits and pieces if you work hard to recall them. Fear or the element of surprise, the adrenaline rush seems to shut off your ability to soak in the details so you can act quickly and live on to tell the tale. What do you think?