Experience is Research


Florida isn’t my usual comfort zone, but here I am, sitting on the little patio at my hotel suite, coffee in hand, laptop on lap, watching a lizard (I think it’s an anole) try to sneak up on me. He’s not terribly subtle, being the color of a fresh leaf and flaring the little flap on the underside of his neck. The Florida air couldn’t be less like Colorado: it’s not even nine am and I’m already steaming. I always feel a bit greasy here, despite the best efforts of the ubiquitous air conditioning. I can’t believe I need to iron anything. I would think the air itself would flatten the crease in my work shirts.

There’s a lot of swagger in Tampa. Men are bulkier than in Denver, where we all bike, run, hike, something. Women seem thinner, more inclined to wearing as little as possible (and I couldn’t blame them if they went full-on nudist in this climate). My former impressions of this place led me to think of it as monolithic: polluted, traditional, and unhealthy. I’m seeing that there’s more to it than that. There’s a strata of progressive culture and diversity mixed in. I’ve been to Whole Foods and found a yoga studio. The food, which I’d thought of as solidly corporate chain, has proven to have a mix of diversity. Today I’m trying a divey little Greek place and last night I sampled an off the map Thai place next to a head shop.

I’m down here for the day job, but I’ve stolen this morning to do a little writing and catch up with my personal email. When I travel I get a lot of ideas, but few of them are immediately useful. They get stored away, put into the notebook, tucked into the eaves, and hopefully when I draw them out later, I’ll find them useful. They’re research, fodder for the creative compost, and when I need to bring a scene to life, they serve me well. I write a lot of about my theory of craft, and one thing I want to stress again is that experience is research.

Getting out of our comfort zones can be so hard, and unfortunately, it’s often not by choice. The person with the tragic life can share experiences we hope to never have. Yet we crave reading about them. We get a thrill from the vicarious experience. We imbibe a sip of what happens to another, never really able to fully experience what they did. Isn’t this the heart of fiction, possibly of reading? The vicarious experience drives it all. We feel the danger faced by heroes, we empathize with tragedy, feel a twinge of our own romantic longing when we read a good love story. It’s an incredibly powerful contrast: we need the safety of the distance reading gives us to judge or evaluate a story. Yet we also need connection in order to empathize with the character. A fully unlikeable protagonist can’t lure us back for a series’ worth of reading.

Imbuing a story with real experiences can be tricky: after all, so much of what we experience may connect us as people, but it’s also usually pretty boring. Some of the first advice you get in writing is to avoid staring with characters waking up, brushing their teeth, or doing anything too mundane or regular. Yet all of us have unique experiences, witness interesting anecdotes as they happen, get a peek into human nature day by day. These are just experiences that relate to character. As I sit here, in the sun, I feel the air warm. I’m sweating. I never sweat in Colorado. There’s a vegetable smell, like something in sweet decay, lacing the air. Just this contrast with the Denver air is an experience I can use for setting. If I wrote about a tropical heat without having felt it myself, it would likely come across as stilted. Obviously, we can’t experience the bite of a vampire or the prick of a killer’s knife (and we wanted to), but we can fill in the gaps. One reason I think the Sookie Stackhouse novels work so well is that they’re firmly grounded in Sookie’s financial troubles. Not a book goes by without her expending a little energy on domestic issues like cleaning. These experiences are universal and help anchor a story. There’s a balance to using these experiences in your work, as there seems to be so often in writing. You want to anchor without boring, captivate without droning on or worse, taking your readers off track. I’ll work on blogging some more while I’m here, but for now I’m off to the beach.

One thought on “Experience is Research

  1. Sean says:

    As a non-writer but voracious reader I can;t help but agree with your take on the fantastic vs the mundane of the characters we read about. Some of the very best books I have read, PD James, Stieg Larsson, add some of this to their characters, making tea, or eating a pizza, or sleeping or what have you. They fully round out the person and, at least in my case, pull me even closer to that person, help me identify even more with that protagonist. Keep me coming back for more every time. I read many books with the one/two dimensional hero. Never needs to eat. Never takes a simple walk. Never goes to the store. Just saves the day, hops on the jet and whisks off to the next incredible adventure. Those people have their place. But it is the richness of a person-in-full that, in my case, creates an story and a “life” that connects me and holds me. The experiences that we DO have, that we have every day. Riding the bus. Having coffee. Sweating because its too hot. Sleeping badly in an unfamiliar bed. Those are the things we share with billions of people of several thousand years. And will continue to share as the world spins on. We have more in common with the “lower deck” folks than the hero in the center seat. When a writer manages to give us a more mundane connection to those heroes, I think when we can, if not mirror but at least relate to the human side of those heroes, it does make make a difference to a reader.

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