Dressing up Description: Harness the Power of Your Own Experience
The OWS team has done a fabulous job this month bringing you tips and resources to do research to your heart’s content. With the internet and the touch screen, much of the world is quite literally at your fingertips.
But what about those fingertips? They are good for plenty besides clicking through files and finding that one obscure detail you think will help your story come to life. If you want a description to feel real, the best way to do it is to make it real through experience. Your readers will need to stretch their imaginations to “see” what you want them the see, but there is no reason to keep yourself in the dark.
Museums are Invaluable Resources
I have years of experience working in and visiting museums both in the US and abroad. If I could tell you the one key thing I’ve learned, it’s that no copy, no photograph, no matter how accurate, can replace the experience of being in the presence of an object. As a species, we are captivated by three-dimensional objects, especially if they are “the real thing.” They have a presence, a weight, that can’t be replicated and certainly can’t be experienced through a computer screen.
During my college days, I visited Spain. As a class, we visited a history museum that was geared toward children. Many of my fellow students snorted and scoffed, but I knew that this would be an amazing chance to learn. On the whole, children can’t read the labels at a traditional museum. So, children’s museums must rely on the weight, movement, and manipulation of real things.
For instance, this museum had a large section about the medieval history of the area. This included a life-sized wooden horse, complete with tack and a set of stairs leading right up to the saddle. Even the littlest visitor (or an author unafraid of the disapproving glances of prim, Spanish nannies) could climb on up and feel how tall a knight felt on his war horse.
Right next to the horse display, a full suit of armor had been suspended in a net attached to a pulley. The placard on the wall explained the full suit weighed well over 100 pounds. But you didn’t need to know that to pull on the rope and strain against the incredible weight of the suit. The experience of tugging against the rope told me so much more than the label, adding weight (pun intended) to any description I could someday make of a warrior moving around in a suit of armor.
Points of Comparison
I’m sure I lost some of you when I brought up Spain. I’ve been unusually lucky when it comes to the time I have been able to spend in Europe. But that doesn’t mean that a local museum couldn’t help you gain experiences that would aid your descriptive powers.
For instance, my future description of armor doesn’t even have to be confined to the same type. The experience gives me somewhere to begin my comparison. A display at a cowboy themed museum could just as easily have a life-sized horse as one on knights. I just happened to have gained my experience somewhere far away. You will probably be surprised by the number of museums in your neighborhood, and the extent of the things they have to offer.
Other Ways to Gain Firsthand Experience
With the right dash of imagination, the savvy writer can mine anything they encounter for information. I came up with a few ways for you to reach out and touch something, but I’d love to see people leave their own ideas in the comments.
· Schedule a visit to a fire station, police station, or other public works. These government agencies often have at least one day a year that they offer tours to the public. If your local branch doesn’t, they may still be able to point you in the right direction.
· Businesses may also offer tours to the public. Public Relations departments may jump at the chance to help a writer. Especially if that writer says something nice about them in the book or a blog post.
· Museums often charge, but the smaller the institution, the less likely they will be to kill you of sticker shock. Just another great reason to patronize your local establishments whenever you can.
· Don’t forget to check your newspaper for local festivals and demonstrations. Renaissance festivals, circuses, highland games, historical reenactments of battles and crimes—every town has their share of fairs. I’ve spent plenty of time watching blacksmiths hammer and horse drawn carriages clatter past just because I decided to make the effort to drive a few miles.
· In addition to the paid areas of the museum, most public institutions offer research facilities. You don’t have to be some big, important scientist to use the library at the California Academy of Sciences, for instance. They have an entire lounge and staff of librarians to help any member of the public access the records and even objects to help them with their research. Museums have the responsibility to educate the public, so it never hurts to ask to use their resources.
· Want to research physical trauma and potential danger? Go to an amusement park, bumper car facility, or try some laser tag.
· Escape rooms offer a fun, safe way to solve puzzles but get the adrenaline rush of a real crisis. There are kits available to do it at home.
· Host a murder mystery dinner. The most socially acceptable form of cosplay, this sort of immersive dinner theater can be really fun with the right group of people. And give you insights into the ways your friends think and process clues.
· Volunteer! If you are willing to put in the time, there’s a nonprofit institution out there that wants to put you to work. Writing about someone who spends their time outdoors? Try a park. Want to capture the “fun in the sun” vibe, there is probably a public pool with a concession stand just begging for help. With a little creativity and a few hours to spare, you can learn a LOT during a volunteer job. And as a bonus, you get to help other people and refresh your weary writing brain with something tangible.
Last but not Least, You can Write what you Know
When you think about “research,” your mind likely jumps to all the things you don’t yet know about the story you want to tell. There may be tribes to read about, rituals to plan, plot points that hinge on the source material. I’d never tell a person not to take the opportunity to learn something new. At the same time, writers also need to give themselves permission to write something they know.
Don’t Reinvent the Wheel
I was in a writing group recently and ran across a question from a writer. She’d never visited the place she wanted to write about, and was looking for advice from people who had been there. I spent a good minute reading her question again and again, wondering why on earth she was torturing herself like that. Not only was she taking on the task of describing somewhere as distinctive as the Pacific Northwest, but like all writers I am sure she had very high standards for her work. In short, she’d basically doomed herself to an uphill battle.
I went about writing my second novel in the opposite fashion. In 2015, I lived in Northern California. For a short time, I worked as a tour guide at the Sacramento history museum. The drive turned out to be too long, and the hours too few for it to work out. But I did get a chance to go on multiple training tours and gather a binder full of resources during my six weeks of employment.
If I had kept the job, I would have needed a character. The seed of the con woman who held fake seances got planted during my stint at that museum, and when it came to write my book, I already had a huge arsenal of historical material to work with. I let the knowledge inform my fiction, not the other way around. This saved me countless hours of research on topics I knew nothing about. Plus, I have the power of facts behind my descriptions because I walked the streets and felt the clothing my characters would have worn.
If you work at a desk, why not write a story about an office full of people? You don’t have to stick with the mundane if you want to write a crime drama or a fantasy. But there’s no reason you can’t draw from even the smallest real experiences as a jumping off point.
Have you ever drawn inspiration from a real-life experience? Tell us about it in the comments!