Reader Question Friday: How do you write about a situation you’ve never experienced?

Hi, guys! I’m going to try adding a new feature to the blog, so we’ll see if I can keep it up. Every Friday, I’ll answer a reader question (anonymously). I’m open to anything (it doesn’t have to be writing or book related), so don’t hesitate to send in a question. Email to brigidmary@gmail.com or use the Contact tab.

Q: How do you handle writing about a situation you’ve never been in, such as having a character live in a different country or have divorced parents, if you’ve never experienced those? What are some tips for researching them and finding people to help you better understand and make your story authentic?
— C

A:

This is a great question!

Have you ever read Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins? It’s a wonderful contemporary YA novel, and it’s mostly set at a boarding school in France. I thought the setting was written so well, I almost felt like I was in France, though I’ve never been there. I could see the foreign theaters, taste the croissants, feel the weather. Heck, there’s a scene where a character (a boy, obviously) licks the crotch of a bronze statue. I could taste the bronze and the scene made me laugh out loud.

Has Stephanie Perkins ever been to France? Beats me. She could have made it all up. What mattered was her depiction of France from the perspective of an American teenage girl living away from home. Most of the research could have been done online: finding the street names and landmarks, reading about traditions, even reading tourism blogs for stories about the location. It all boiled down to the writing. Because it’s not about writing the experience of living in France for every reader, it’s about writing the experience of living in France for that character. 

Let me give you another example.

When I first wrote Storm, I was writing the entire book from Becca’s perspective. An early beta reader told me that I was missing an opportunity, because I had this house full of mysterious boys, and the reader never gets to see what’s going on there. You know what? He was right. (Obviously.) But boy did I stress about writing from a guy’s point of view. I kept asking any guy who’d listen about how guys think. How did they feel about romance? How did they feel about girls? What was their thought process? What stressed them out? I’d struggle and start and stop and start and struggle some more. Would boys worry about zits while trying to control their elemental powers? How would Chris express his feelings for Becca? I probably made my husband CRAZY with all the questions I asked him. And then he said something I’ve never forgotten: “Hon, stop trying to write this from every guy’s perspective. Worry about this guy. How does he feel?”

Get it? I was so worried about capturing every man’s perspective and trying to roll that into one amalgamation of a character, when, really, I should have been thinking about Chris. Once I got that straight in my head, I knew exactly where to go, and from there, his thoughts and feelings just fell onto the page. The same has been true for all my boys.

Bottom line: make sure you’re focused on your character, not how every person in that situation would react. It’s going to be different for every human on earth. Build your characters feelings about their foreign situation, and everything else will fall in line.

But that’s really too easy of an answer, isn’t it? That’s like me saying, “Wave a magic wand and make it all up! It’s just about the feeling!

Yeah, I’m not just going to leave you with that.

If you’ve read Storm, you know Becca’s parents are divorced. Her mom is a night nurse (so was mine) and her dad walked out on her mom for no reason (so did mine, though it didn’t happen until I was twenty-six). Even if your parents are high school sweethearts and still so much in love that it makes passersby want to roll their eyes, you can  imagine what it would feel like if one of them were to leave. Everyone has experienced loss and heartache. While you can probably throw a stone and find someone with divorced parents, you can also read books about the experience. I got a lot of mileage from reading as many YA novels as I could, and seeing how other writers handled the same thing. When I was writing Secret, I read as many novels about gay teens as I could get my hands on. (Some great recommendations: Don’t Let Me Go by J. H. Trumble, Hushed by Kelley York, Kamikaze Boys by Jay Bell, and Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg.)

But that’s where research came in, because this was one area where I had no experience. I had one gay friend, and I asked him about his experiences as a teen. Then I emailed another gay friend. And another. I mentioned to a coworker what I was writing, and she introduced me to her friend, who was gay. I took all their experiences, rolled them around in my head, and created Nick’s story.

For Gabriel’s book, Spark, he walks into a lot of burning homes. I emailed the local fire chief and asked if I could talk to him about what it’s like inside a burning home. He gave me tons of information, and I added to that by watching YouTube videos about firefighting. (The fire chief proved to be an invaluable resource, and he’s helping me with research for Michael’s book, Sacrifice, in which Hannah, Michael’s girlfriend, is actually a firefighter/paramedic.) A friend’s husband is a police officer, and he walked me through the arrest process and taught me more than I wanted to know about guns.

Bottom line: if you’re writing about something WAY outside your wheel house, don’t hesitate to reach out to local friends and experts. Don’t be shy. Be professional. Explain that you’re writing a book, what it’s about, and that you’d like to ask them some questions. Most people like to talk about their profession. Wouldn’t you?

Final thought: It’s okay to wing it.

Here’s a little secret. In Spark, when Gabriel gets arrested, the cops really didn’t have enough evidence to arrest him. What did they have, really? Someone said they’d seen him near a crime scene? And they yanked him out of school? Come on. But I needed him to be arrested, or the book wouldn’t have worked. If you write the scenes with confidence, your reader will go right along with you. It’s kind of like the equivalent of that advice about walking in a strange area. Walk with your head up and purposeful strides, and no one will realize you’re lost and vulnerable. Same thing with your writing: write like you don’t have any doubt that what you’re saying is accurate. As long as it’s not too far out there (like if I put Gabriel on death row in a week), your readers are going to go right along with you. They’re in it for the story, not for a textbook on divorce or France or firefighting, right?

I know, I know, sometimes it’s frustrating when you’re an expert about something and the author gets it wrong. But we’re writers. We can’t be an expert on everything.

We just have to know enough to convince the reader that our characters are. :-)

6 thoughts on “Reader Question Friday: How do you write about a situation you’ve never experienced?

  1. This was so helpful to me. Thank you. I am writing about a police detective and I admit I am winging it. So this really makes me feel better knowing (hoping) that my readers will follow along so long as it seems like I know what I am saying. Great advice. And had you not mentioned it, I never would have known the police couldn’t have arrested Gabriel. Very convincing deception 😉

  2. I find I can usually tell when someone’s done their research or not. There was, a few years ago, a popular book about a ballerina (I think I will not name it, but many readers probably know it). I read rave reviews of the book, but, when I began reading it, I found it flat and unconvincing. The author wrote from an outsider’s perspective of what it was like, not from an insider’s perspective. It was glaringly obvious to me, and I’ve since completely dismissed the book and the author as not worth my time.
    I remember, Brigid, also when you were doing research on dance. 🙂 You did a better job. (Of course, you got to write it from the perspective of a non-dancer, so it worked just great.)

  3. Wow, this is a fantastic question! I never thought much about how much evidence is needed to arrest someone, and its good to know that general research idea is find, and we don’t have to be completely accurate.

  4. Thank you for this, because it’s something that I often wonder about, too. I feel like I could confidently get back to my writing now and not worry as much as I have in the past.

    My photography teacher often says “fake it until you make it”. I never thought that would apply to writing, but it’s starting to sound like it could. =)

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