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Behind the Scenes with a Fiction Writer
From a Question
This article was born from a question asked in my Mailbag series.
From Linda: “I am interested in your suggestion that writers should appeal to the readers' primal level--excite their senses. You certainly do that, and do it well. When one of your characters was in combat, we (readers) could see, smell, and hear everything he was witnessing as we walked with him through the jungle.
To create scenes like that do you interview people who have had such experiences, do tons of research, or do you have an incredible imagination?”
I decided that a great question like this one deserved its own article, so here we are. I suspect that a great many writers who have never written a novel wonder the same things about written scenes. How did the author know about that place? Did they visit there for research? It seems so real….how did they ever imagine such a vivid scene?
The quick answer to Linda’s question is all three. A writer needs experiences to draw upon, a ton of research, and an incredible imagination in order to “paint” scenes that can come alive for the reader.
I’m going to use my recently-published novel “Resurrecting Tobias” as the backdrop while I go into all three in more depth.
Let me begin with a passage from the book, and then I’ll explain where it came from. Okay?
"This is the underbelly of the monster we call civilization, the side of town you won’t find in the tourist brochures, and it is featured each night in every city across the Red, White and Blue. Take a deep breath and inhale the aroma of piss and vomit, ten-day old trash and fear. Hope flows from the building gutters. Misery pools on the streets below. The politicians ignore it and hope it will go away without affecting tourism too badly. The “decent folks” avert their eyes and drive just a bit faster on their way to Grandma’s house, and the residents sentenced to life without bars just keep on keeping on, waiting for nothing and expecting less."
In this scene, my main character is walking home through a tough part of town, and he’s describing it to you. Yes, this is based on experience. I was homeless for a time, so I’m well-acquainted with the seedy parts of a city. Also in my novel I mention places like New Orleans, Vermont, Charles City, Iowa, and Washington D.C., all places I have visited and experienced firsthand.
For most writers, actually visiting locales for your book is next to impossible. I mean, who has the money or time to go jetting off to gather information? I certainly don’t, and there is no way, even if I had the money or time, to visit a scene that plays out during 1971, as this following scene in Vietnam does.
"The A Sau Valley is twenty-five miles long, one mile wide, flanked by vertical jungles to the east and west. The main vegetation that day was elephant grass, in places chest high, making it damned nearly impossible to see ten feet. A bit eerie that grass, slightly swaying in a gentle breeze, deceptive in its calm appearance, sort of like a rhythmic dance of death. There’s nothing quite like marching into enemy territory and not being able to see further than a drifting fart in any direction, all the while knowing that if the NVA is there, they are having no such problems with sight. Your asshole puckers, your jaws lock, and you swear you can hear every single one of your heartbeats.
Sentries were posted while we all grabbed a breather and drank from our canteens. It was miserably hot that day. Bugs, sweat, dirt, rank body odor….it all added up to a lovely walk in the countryside."
I’ve never been to Vietnam. Never served there during that war, but I have friends who did serve there, and a few interviews with them provided all the information I needed to paint the scene above.
Again with the research:
"I once witnessed a stoning. I was in Iran covering a political story and had just left the Shah’s palace. On my way to the hotel, I noticed a crowd forming in the public square. A woman, dressed in traditional Islamic hijab, was buried to her shoulders, and ten men stood about twenty feet away throwing stones at her. The stones were about the size of a football, or maybe slightly smaller, all with sharp edges. The woman had several cuts on her face by the time I arrived, and the pain was obvious, but she did not cry out. Stone after stone hit her head, and the cuts increased, and as time passed, her skull appeared, and then brain-matter, and her blood flowed down to the dust, turning it red under the scorching sun."
Nope, I’ve never been there or done that, but reading accounts by those who have seen actual stonings was all I needed.
And sometimes, the only thing we have at our disposal, is our imaginations.
“Cold night, Pete! That wind coming off Lake Erie goes right through you. No way to stay warm in the winter. Hell, there are probably summer days here that are cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass Indian.”
We were walking down Buffalo Road about ten blocks from the lake, and the wind was brutal. We stopped at the first café we could find, the Boiler Maker, to warm our old bones and get a late snack.
The waitress wasn’t wearing her years well, but she mustered up a late-night smile and asked us what we wanted.
“I’ll have a cheeseburger, thanks, and a Diet Coke. Petester, what are you getting?”
“I’ll take the same, thanks. Give me a side of whatever soup you have available.”
She plodded off to place our order, filling several coffee cups on the way to the kitchen. She was a nondescript woman in a nondescript café in a nondescript part of town, the same scene playing out in thousands of cities across the country at that very moment. Open twenty-four hours, a refuge for the creatures of the night, the call girls answering the call, the hustlers hustling anyone standing still, the lost, the found and the unsure, they all called the Boiler Maker their home away from home, a way station where no questions were asked and few answers were found.
For the record, I’ve never been to Buffalo, and I certainly have never visited the Boiler Maker Café. I doubt there is one, but I’m quite certain there is one like it. There is in every city in America, the all-night hangout where locals congregate to get away from whatever it is they are running from. I’ve seen enough of them to imagine what the Boiler Maker Café looks like, and so have most of you.
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And Then, All You Have to Do Is…..
Remember the five senses! Your readers are experiencing the scene through your words, and they need your assistance if they are to really see the scene. What does the scene look like? What does it smell like? Taste like? Sound like? Feel like? If you don’t tell them then nobody will, and they will leave your scene feeling cheated.
You all have the ability to do this. You have all had experiences to draw from during your lifetimes. You all have the ability to do some research, and you all have imaginations. In other words, you have everything necessary to write a dynamic scene.
So, what’s holding you back?
2015 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”