Hemingway said it succinctly, and seductively: “A writer’s job is to live life, and then to write about it.” How romantic is that? Hard to resist, I admit it.
Judging by the fruits of his labors, it’s easy to think that he meant that advice literally. No! We should reject any such narrow understanding.
Tonight at work, another slow night, I had time to spot-read one of an admired series of detective stories, full of (seemingly) factual description of a locale. It was fun, but it quickly felt like a device, enlivening stretches of conversation. Sitting around in diners necessarily involves a good deal of yakking. The author creates a rhythm (tight shot/wide lens) with abundant attention paid to decor, street scenes, etc. I try to break up discussion also. I use interior monologue in the same way.
Reportage of observations and journalistic-style research is one approach to storytelling. (Isn’t that what Truman Capote did?) I think it works best when it has a strong emotional component. And I grant that recalled sensory information would certainly include terrific stuff that we probably could not concoct, that simply wouldn’t occur to us. I don’t worry about that in my thing. I’m not writing that kind of a story.
I lean on psychology, relationships, motivations, reactions to circumstance, and, most of all, as much as all the rest combined, on what my characters make of it all. I am big, not on what my fools do, but on what they think. I give very little physical description (Hey. A cat is a cat is a cat. It’s his intellect that sets him apart), something I’ve worried about, but not enough to deal with it. In one spot I interrupted, admitted my snub of scene-setting, and banged together a castle from here and there in my history books, and made a joke of it: There! Some description for you. Happy?
Nuts-and-bolts detail can be a welcome, wind-in-your-sails patch in the midst of the struggle that is birthing a captivating fiction. Me, I like my physical to be short and stylish, I save on-and-on for foibles and flaws. That’s the real that I luxuriate in. The loving depiction of the design of a landmark diner in old Quebec doesn’t enthrall me.
What fascinates me is who people are, not what junk they hang on their wall. Psychology, even though I mangle it for comic effect, is my stab at experience-exploitation. I write, not textbook stuff, I write the street-level neuroses that I, sadly, possess in abundance.
You’ve heard of method acting. I do method writing. I inhabit my critters. Some aspect of every one of them mirrors my own unfortunate ways of dealing with the world. I write my own tics and squirms into every damaged soul. That’s my smooth-sailing, territory well known to me, while I try to figure out what comes next. When I can coast a bit, I do, gladly. I buy time with a variety of strategies, while I wait for answers to assemble themselves and tumble onto the page.
Use experience of whatever variety you possess to enrich your down-the-rabbit-hole, to make it so buyable that readers are willing to swallow whatever you throw at them.
*Bear Grylls is that guy who roams the world, wrestling pythons, eating bugs, Hemingway-esque adventuring on the cheap. (I don’t believe you’ll be dragging a camera crew with you.) Invest in a backpack and a sleeping bag, you’re good to go. Live off the land, for zilch!**
**Grubs are a first-rate source of protein, says my husband. Roasted, delicious. (He spent a couple years as a short-hop pilot on the Ivory Coast.) He’s the one with the extraordinary experiences. But he doesn’t write.