Does Your Computer Google?
Ridiculous question, right? Yet, this post, like most of my blog posts, is based on things I’ve personally seen in the past week. Of course, our computers are all capable of a Google search. The real question is, do you, as a writer, avail yourself of this ability, and how well?
Many writers take the “Write what you know” adage to heart and only write about those things they have personal experience with. Most of those who do, write wonderfully boring autobiographical accounts of deeds and ideas which may be of some value to historians in the far distant future. Some, take a less literal approach to this ancient wisdom, and attempt to infuse their fiction with emotions they have personally experienced. Their prose is far more readable, yet something is still lacking. That something, I believe, is a sense of wonder, of discovery that delights the author and, in turn, the reader.
Some writers discover this. Others only sense or suspect it. Yet, having reached this point, they set out deliberately to write about that which they don’t know. They want to tell tales of giants, and mountain men, of fairies and naval heroes. They want to write of the things they have only dreamt, and here is where they encounter the that step-sister of personal experience; research. At least, I hope they do.
I am a writer of westerns, and yet the Old West was gone long before I took my first breath. I have never been a mountain man, a cavalry trooper, a saloon keeper, or a bounty hunter. I’ve never rounded up wild mustangs or been on a cattle drive, never fought Comanches or spent a winter in a snow-bound line shack. Yet, I write of these things and some even say that I do so with an authority and understanding which the year of my birth belies.
I do so by reading, researching, and reading some more. Over a long period of time, I’ve built a certain imperfect expertise regarding the places and times that I write about. I’ve talked to old-time cowboys, many of whom heard the stories direct from those who lived them, who were there at the time and in the places that I write about. I have read the accounts and researched the customs, the equipment and the techniques. I’ve driven and walked across much of the landscape.
So, when I pick up a book about the Old West and read of a character who doesn’t fit in that time-=frame because of his habits, morals, manner of speaking, dress or equipage, it annoys me. If the errors are consistent and repetitive, it tells me that the author either didn’t care enough to do the work, or that he or she has a computer that just won’t Google.
An example of this occurred this week in a writing group in which I’m a member. A person posted requesting help with their story. They said that the story involved a well-known Native American tribe, gave the name of the female main character, and stated that the character’s unborn child was to be the next chief of the tribe.
When I finished banging my head on my keyboard, I responded, asking where they had found the character’s name. The answer, as I knew it would be, was “I made it up.” Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with a made-up name. However, this name had none of the standard word endings or common consonant sounds of the tribal language, and was more in keeping with the sound and construction of words found in some African languages.
I then provided a link for research specific to the tribe in question, including what tribal leaders were called and how they were chosen. The person asked why I had sent the link and I replied that I thought that they might want to select an actual name which might have been used by the tribe and see how their leaders were chosen. She thanked me and stated that she had fully researched tribal customs and the name couldn’t be changed because “that is her name.”
I did the wise thing and simply walked away. Unfortunately, this person is nearing completion of a book they intend to self-publish. When they do, it is nearly inevitable that a member of the tribe will see or hear of it. This writer has set herself up for one or more scathingly bad reviews as well as fully justified accusations of cultural appropriation simply because she refuses to take advantage of a five-minute Google search. Instead, she will add to the mountain of poorly written misinformation accumulating in this age of easy self-publishing.
As writers, we have a higher calling than this. We should be doing our utmost to get even the details right, especially when dealing with other cultures who have been misrepresented for centuries due to prejudice and outright hatred. So, I ask again, does your computer Google?
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. –Maya Angelou
I completely agree with that statement. As writers, our first, and arguably our most important job is to make the reader feel. Feel what? Fear, hope, laughter, joy, hope, defeat, or virtually anything we wish for them to feel can be achieved. I will be the first to admit that I am a long way from the best at this, but it’s something that we need work on. We need to practice instilling feelings in our work. Fortunately, there are some techniques that any writer can use to inject feeling into their work.
The first thing we must do is to make our character sympathetic in some way. Give the reader a chance to connect with the character. Allow them to care about what this character is experiencing. It can be a grand gesture:
Despite the bitter cold, Raleigh quickly removed his heavy cloak and spread it over the puddle so that his beloved sovereign could be spared the mud on her shoes.
The reader immediately knows what kind of a man Raleigh is. They may love him or think that he’s the world’s biggest fool, but they have made a connection to him.
It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture, though. Sometimes it is some small personal detail that makes the connection and establishes the sympathy. Here’s a short excerpt from one of my own stories to illustrate.
“Levi looked at the unfinished paperwork on the desk. The marshal had been privately teaching him his letters, but he still struggled with keeping the log and reading the wanted posters. Reading and writing intimidated him. Back in Mississippi, it was not only unnecessary to teach a field hand to read, it was illegal.”
Yeah, I know. I need to rework this passage. Too much telling and not enough showing, but the point is, the reader can’t help feeling something for Levi. We’ve all faced challenges that, through no fault of our own, seem overwhelming. The reader can relate to this and begins to like Levi.
Since I already brought it up, the next tool we have for making the reader feel is to write our scenes to show what is happening rather than telling what is happening. For example, I might rewrite the first two sentences of the above passage:
“Levi opened the logbook, staring at the marshal’s neat, flowing script. Sweat beaded on his brow. He picked up the pencil and began to write, his clumsy block letters creeping painfully onto the page. After only a few lines, he tossed the pencil aside and slammed the book shut with a sigh. I jist doan knows if I can ever learn my letters. The marshal tries his best to teach me, but maybe I’s jist slow. He pushed the log aside and picked up a wanted poster. He committed the likeness to memory, before beginning to slowly sound out the words.”
Levi’s struggle and determination draws the reader in, making an emotional connection. Everyone loves the underdog.
There are numerous other techniques we can use to evoke emotion in our reader, but this post is too short, so I’m only going to cover one more. Give your MC real danger and real wounds. The greater the risk, the higher the payoff. Have him walk out into the dusty street and face off against three hard-cases, knowing he’s going to take a bullet or two. Is that realistic? It is if he’s an exceptional man, and what MC isn’t exceptional? That’s why we write about them. No one wants to read about the storekeeper who keeps the town going by selling supplies.
When your hero takes those bullets, make them real wounds with real consequences. We’ve all seen the Hollywood version where he is shot in the shoulder. He doesn’t spin around or fall down or drop his gun. He just takes the hit and keeps shooting. Bullshit! Don’t ever write that crap. Yes, he might fire first and take one of the bad guys down. Yes, one of them may be a little too excited and miss his first shot. But that third hard case is going to be at least reasonably proficient and he’s not aiming to wound. He’s going to be aiming center mass the same as our hero. When that bullet hits, our boy is going down. He may drop his gun. He may lose consciousness. Tell it like it is. Your readers will love you for it. I’ll leave you to figure out how this gunfight ends.