I don’t think I have hidden my love of reading and writing. I never go anywhere without something to read, and when I finish a book I have a tendency to wander around, slightly lost as if I don’t know what to do with my life anymore. Usually when that happens, it is because the writing itself is magnificent. I’m not talking about the story, or the characters, but all of the small details that make you feel as though you are there. I’m talking about knowing how something feels in the characters hands, knowing how something smells or tastes or sounds. I’m talking about the writing that turns the novel into a full sensory experience.
This is usually my goal as I set a scene, particularly if I am making up a place or time. It is one thing to say my character lives in San Francisco and can see the Golden Gate Bridge from their house. Many people have been to San Francisco, and even those who haven’t are very likely to know what the bridge looks like. There isn’t much else to say. However, if I am making up a magical land, the reader would not have an idea what anything looks like. Is the grass still green? What do their houses look like? Do they have indoor plumbing, or is there the stench of unwashed bodies and sewage? These are details that can either bog down the story if over done, or draw the reader into the world of the novel if contained at the proper levels.
The question is, how do writers do it? How do other writers create descriptions of things they have never seen or done? I’ve never lived in a magical land, and (fortunately) I have always lived in a place with wonderful modern sanitation practices. I could describe the smell in the same way I would a teenagers bedroom; one part sweat, two parts dirty socks, and one part rotting food. It might not technically be the same thing, but it is slightly close.
I imagine there are many things where I could draw on other experiences to fill in the blanks. I run, I cook, I clean. I fell in love, and I have had my heart broken. I took kickboxing classes in the past. It was more for fitness, but I know how it feels to hit the bag and meet resistance. I have never been in a knife fight, but I do have a small collection of daggers. I sharpen them with a stone once a week, and am well acquainted with the feel of the knives in my hand, or in their sheath on my hip. I have a set of throwing knives, and while I am not great, I know how it feels to aim and release the knife, waiting for it to hit its target. I took archery lessons briefly; while it was long enough ago some of the memory has faded, I can still remember the pull of the string. I can describe these things easily, because they are familiar. I have experience here.
But how do I write about that which I haven’t done? I have always wanted to learn to sword fight, but I have never held a sword, and wondered if this was the battle I would lose. I’ve never held a gun, or had a gun pointed at me. I’ve sat on a horse before, but I’ve never ridden across an open field, wind whipping through my hair. I know the feel of my knives well, but I don’t know the feel of slicing through flesh, and knowing this was the cut that would end a life. I’ve never jumped out of an airplane and hoped that the parachute would open, or even worse, hoped I could catch the person falling before me who has a parachute when I don’t. There are so many things I just haven’t done.
Some of these things are not experienced for practical reasons. I don’t really want to have my life in someone else’s hands if I can help it. I don’t want to spend the money to buy a gun just to know how it feels in my hand. I want to try skydiving, but I have a paralyzing fear of heights and do not want to risk falling through any substances that may come out of my body when fear overtakes me in the air.
And what is my alternative? To describe things based on someone else’s words? What if they don’t know any more than I do? I can only assume that not every mystery or horror writer has killed someone, just to know how it would feel. Does that mean I don’t need experience to create an authentic feel?
I know I like having something real to draw on, but I think I have written good descriptions without it. I’m really wondering how you feel. How important is personal experience in creating fictional experiences?