One of the things we do as writers is continually learn more about the world we live in. We can’t write out of our imaginations without drawing from reality as well.
Even if we write fantasy, we need an inner logic on which to base our characters’ actions. And if we write romance or mystery or westerns or, well, just about anything, we have to understand the world we are writing about.
For me that often means finding the nitty-gritty details about what my heroes or heroines do for a living, where they live, what sorts of places they live, why they live there. It has to do with setting a scene, it has to do with motivation. It has to do with who they are and what made them that way.
Some of the things that I draw on are things I grew up with – beaches, cowboys, volleyball players, artists. Some are things I’ve learned about as I’ve found characters who intrigued me. They did things I’d never have done: rode bulls, designed buildings, worked as models and photographers, built ships, sailed around the world.
So I’ve learned about all those things. I’ve talked to people engaged in those occupations. If I haven’t been there and done that, I’ve talked to people who have.
But this past year I’ve been digging less in the present than in the past. I’m just finishing a course in British military records and I’ve been spending my days – and far too late many nights – reading photocopies of service records from men who were in the trenches in World War I, who fought at Trafalgar, who were Loyalists in South Carolina and barely survived the Battle of King’s Mountain.
It’s been an interesting month. Before that there were months I dug into old mining records, learned about the industrial towns of the British Northeast, delved into records from textile mills and pored over apprenticeship records.
It’s been a break from the usual sort of digging and scratching I do when I come to write a book. But it has primed the pump in a way that contemporary research hasn’t been doing recently. It’s not necessarily a new itch, but it’s definitely a different one to scratch. It started out as an interest in my own family history. It’s gone on to make me interested in lots of peoples’ histories. They all bring the past into the present.
And I find that the past and the present are in many ways not so different. Or, rather, people aren’t. People still hope and dream. They work and they play (though more of the former than the latter). They rejoice and they mourn. And always, it seems to me, I find an undercurrent of a need for connection – a desire for love.
Maybe it’s coming full circle. But at the same time that I’m writing my latest book, I find that my characters’ story is both unique to them, and filled with echoes of other stories, other lives, both real and fictional.
So the truth is, maybe I’m not lost in the past at all. Maybe I’ve looked there and found that what I write about in the present is there as well.
Have you looked into your own family history? Do you get excited about those people whose decisions have had an impact on your life. Or are you like my mom whose eyes always glazed over at the very thought?!
Great War: Richard Caton Woodville [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; St Lawrence Mine, Butte, MT [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons