Writing as Patchwork Quilt
Partner Pam wrote a powerful and evocative piece about the importance of sensory recall in her most recent post, and her writing, as usual, got me thinking.
First, I have often questioned that old adage, "Write about what you know." I have countered with, "You don't have to write about what you know, as long as you write about what you want to know." What I mean by that is, if a subject interests you but you are not conversant in it then research it until you do know it—which can sometimes include boots on the ground—as much as is practical.
That jumps us back to Pam Beason's post about experiencing widely to inform your writing, and jumps us forward to my point—my novels are a patchwork quilt of my experiences and research. I'm currently rereading my latest work, Rare as Earth in anticipation of the novel's official launch on Thursday, 9/17 at 5 pm MT. (If interested, email firstname.lastname@example.org for the Zoom link.) If I were to take a highlighter and mark every line, setting, action and snippet of dialogue that I had either seen, done, read about, heard about or overheard, my novel would be a blaze of yellow. Oh sorry, if you look at the cover, I guess Rare as Earth is a blaze of yellow, on the outside at least.
Jane Lavino's amazing cover for Rare as Earth depicts Bears Ears National Monument in Southern Utah in the background, but also in the foreground, sits what some would argue has become a character in it's own right, Majestic, Jake Goddard's '59 Flying Cloud Airstream.
That reminds me of a quote from author, Pam Houston (Cowboys are my Weakness). Many years ago, I was the only male in Pam's summer writing class full of smart women. It was a powerful experience and may have helped me craft my strong female characters. On the last day of class we got to pepper Houston with questions. I asked her what percentage of fiction is non-fiction? "About eighty percent," she answered without hesitation. Now, think about that. As a fiction writer you are supposedly making up a story. But in fact, roughly eighty percent of that story is already in your repertoire of experience. Your job then becomes mining those experiences, adapting them and sewing them into the fabric of your narrative. As for the other twenty percent. That is where research comes in.
I'll share two examples. The first involves actions that were familiar to me. The second, not at all. In The Straw That Broke, my first Jake Goddard and Susan Brand thriller, Susan and the young woman she had been trying to rescue, Lyn Burke climb off a high precipitous butte in Nevada and head down a wash toward Lake Mead. Having been a wilderness course leader including leading desert courses that offered some climbing, that for me at least (although not for Susan and Lyn) was a cake walk. Still, because I had never explored that particular section of desert near Las Vegas I make a field trip to the area to make sure I got the geology and flora correct.
Left: Formidable and beautiful desert buttes.
Below: A horse packer mounts up.
For my second in the Jake Goddard and Susan Brand series, Some Say Fire, I had to learn a great deal about forest fires and how to determine what caused them. I accomplished that with the help of a National Park Fireman and an interagency handbook about forest fire that was invaluable. I also had to learn about something I had never experienced, horse packing into the mountains. That I accomplished simply through research online.
In summary, I would say, if your desire is to write fiction then answer these simple questions:
Are you curious? Willing to learn new things.
Are you adventuresome? Willing to storehouse your experiences.
Are you a thief? Not afraid to borrow ideas.
Are you a sponge. Able to absorb sensory experiences and squeeze them onto the page.
Do you have imagination? Eager to enter new territory in your mind.
Are you creative? Able to patch it all together.
If so, try your hand at fiction.
If not, and you still want to write, I would recommend you try non-fiction.
But I must caution you.
When I asked Pam Houston a follow-up question—how much of non-fiction is fiction? She smiled ruefully and said,"About eighty percent." Was she kidding? You be the judge.