The Importance of Being There
Writers often hear “write what you know.” I have found that to be bad advice for many experts, as you’d be amazed how many knowledgeable people simply cannot explain their expertise to us common folk, so they need a translator, in the form of a ghost writer or a developmental editor. I’ve worked as both. But I digress. I set off to talk about my own field, mystery writing, so I’ll get back to that.
We mystery authors obviously cannot experience everything that we write about. God forbid that we actually embezzle funds, dump toxic waste, set fires, or kidnap, torture, or murder people. We must rely on our imaginations or on accounts documented by others for all those crimes. But I do think it’s important to include sensory details from real experiences whenever possible.
So, when I’m out hiking, I’m always trying to truly experience everything as much as possible so I’ll remember the details when I write my Sam Westin mysteries. I would never wear earphones because I want to plug into my memory bank a wide variety of natural sounds: the low whoop-whoop-whoop mating call of a blue grouse, the groan of tree branches rubbing against each other, the roar of a waterfall, the crunching of my snowshoes on icy snow, the rumble of a distant rockfall. Scents are important, too: I inhale into my memory the grape-juice odor of blooming lupines in hot sun, the tang of broken pine needles, the whiff of smoke from a forest fire on the other side of a mountain range.
Touch is usually the most noticeable sense for me when I’m on a trail: I notice the razor-sharp edge of broken granite as I slice my leg on a rock, the stickiness of tree sap or the dampness of moss on my pants from the last place I sat down, the feel of a breeze drying the sweat on my back in summer, the sting of wind-driven sleet against my bare face in winter, the annoying bite of a blackfly in spring. In the Pacific Northwest, we often even have tastes along the trails: the tartness of salmonberries, the sweetness of huckleberries, the numbing taste of licorice ferns, the crunch of fiddlehead ferns.
And of course, sights are absolutely crucial: the myriad greens of a dense forest, the contrast of gray granite against snow, the awesome grandeur of a volcano, the terrifying crevasses in a glacier, the miracle of simply viewing the ocean or the sea of mountains that is the North Cascades. I try to be equally present, a sort of sensory sponge, when I’m kayaking or scuba diving, soaking up all the sensations the experience has to offer, because details can help readers experience the world a writer creates with words.
Non-natural experiences are important, too. I’ve attended the Writers Police Academy twice. It’s an incredible experience, where mystery writers undergo some of the same training that police officers or forensics specialists or firefighters receive. I’ve learned about the difficulties of getting and matching fingerprints (fascinating), studied cases to distinguish suicides and accidental deaths from homicides (often harder than you might think), studied blood spatter (gruesome), learned how to clear a building in which an armed suspect was hiding (incredibly stressful), and shot an assault rifle (absolutely terrifying), just to name a few memorable sessions.
Seeing the wall built on the US-Mexican border was an experience I’ll never forget, either, and learning from all sides about its impact on the environment and cultures was invaluable. I absorbed so much that I got a whole book, Borderland, from the brief time I was there.
When I sit down to write a new book, I try to incorporate as many sensory details from my experiences as possible.
My next Sam Westin mystery will include a wolverine, an avalanche, and a collapsed building. I’ve never seen a wolverine except in a zoo, so I had to collect that information from books and articles. I’d like to think a wolverine will appear somewhere in my future.
I’ve never been in an avalanche (thank heavens), but I’ve seen a few, and I’ve been through avalanche training. I do know what it feels like to fall through a snow bridge (only a couple of feet in my case, again thank heavens) and I’ve been caught in a whiteout in the mountains when the snow is so thick that you can’t distinguish up from down until you fall. And at the Writers Police Academy, I crawled through a simulated collapsed building in the dark. It’s more difficult and more painful than I imagined, but (yes, I’m still thankful) I didn’t have the danger of tons of debris looming above me, as many victims or first responders might in real-life situations.
I encourage everyone to do as much of what interests them as is possible. Even a frightening experience is enriching. I’m grateful that I’ve had a wide variety of memorable experiences to help with my writing, and I hope to have many more. I have a rich storehouse of sensations in my head. Now I’ve just got to sit down and get them into a book.
Got an idea for a title for a mystery that includes a wolverine, an avalanche, and a collapsed building? My brain may store a lot of sensory experiences, but it often fails me when it’s time to name a book.