In my jaunt to GenCon a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that most of the authors exhibiting there were mature adults, at least in their forties, if not two or three decades older. I have decided that mature adults write the best fiction because we have more life experience than younger generations and because knowing a little bit about a lot of things comes in handy.
For example, I’m ghostwriting a political science fiction thriller that incorporates some supernatural elements. The client’s draft contains myriad inconsistencies and discrepancies that my “knowing a little bit about a lot of things” detected and corrected. Such bits of knowledge arise from a spelunking trip, target shooting, and other snippets of knowledge gleaned from close family members who proudly admit to being “motorheads.”
That’s not to say that I know everything. Not by any degree. On the contrary, what I don’t know exceeds by far what I do know. However, I have realized that my life experiences differ from that of most people. When I’m ghostwriting historical fiction, I know how horses would react to the noisy, newfangled motorcars coming at them. And I know how far the average horse could be expected to travel in one day. (Hint: You’d probably get to your destination faster on your own two feet.) I know that something must propel a bullet from the chamber through the barrel of a gun, regardless of the type of bullet used. I also know that zippers weren’t invented before 1850 and that women didn’t wear panties until the 20th century. I know that guns have a distinct odor before (gun oil) and after (cordite) they’ve been shot. I know that llama and alpaca spit isn’t really spit; it’s projectile vomiting. (They’ve got accurate aim and good range, too.)
Snippets of information. Scattered knowledge. Those add depth and accuracy to my trade as a writer. What I don’t know, I research where warranted.
That’s the operational phrase: “where warranted.” For instance, in my Russian Love series, I didn’t conduct any in-depth research on mafia organizational structure or subculture because the books in the series need to present the criminal heroes in a sympathetic light. Members of criminal organizations don’t enjoy reputations for being kind and gentle people who make a practice of giving rather than receiving. Therefore, I sanitized and softened the organizations and the prominent characters involved. Their morality may be casual and they may perform terrible acts, but it all serves their families and the women they love.
When I send my own manuscript to an editor, I rely upon that individual’s life experience to catch those errors in my stories wherein my research and/or ambient knowledge is lacking. These bits of knowledge add touches of realism to even the most unrealistic fantasy. Those touches of realism ground the story in experiences to which readers can relate even if the reader has no direct experience with that particular sensation or activity.
That can make writing difficult, because my mind tends to dwell on the unavoidable details of life. When writing The Mighty Finn, I felt the need to mention the heroine’s attention to her dog’s physical needs, including trips to pet relief areas. When ghostwriting a murder mystery for a client, I pointed out to the client that his hero never ate and rectified that.
The necessities of life don’t often appear in movies because they don’t need to. However, in the more leisurely progress of a novel, these details help the reader engage. They add depth. A heroine who never pays attention to her body’s calendar except to note that her period is late smacks of a lack of realism. Biology’s huge impact upon our lives deserves acknowledgement in our stories.
That quality of maturity which imbues a little bit of knowledge about a lot of things not only informs and improves my capabilities as an editor, but also as a writer. There is no substitute for life experience.