Walking in your character’s shoes: Writing with authenticity

Bestselling crime novelist Patricia Cornwell inhabits and writes from inside the mind of her lead sleuth, Dr.Kay Scarpetta, the medical examiner in a blockbuster series of 20 forensic thrillers and counting.

To get the details exactly right, Cornwell has hung out in a coroner’s morgue to study forensic corpse dissection and body decomposition. She’s recreated fictional crime scenes in her home with accurate blood spatter patterns. She overcame her fear of scuba diving so she could write with verisimilitude about a deep sea body search. And when Dr. Scarpetta flew a helicopter, Cornwell became a certified pilot and bought her own $3.5 million Bell 407.

We can’t all afford to buy our own helicopter, but every writer can use Cornwell’s technique of walking in a character’s shoes to recreate hands-on authentic experience. Impeccably accurate details and actions go a long way in creating three-dimensional, absorbing characters readers can identify with and care about.

Eggshells on the pedal

Here’s another great example. Author Garth Stein spent three years racing a custom Mazda Miata at the amateur level Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), achieving his greatest competitive success in 2004 as the North West Region Points Champion. A year later he started developing the characters for his bestselling book, The Art of Racing in the Rain.

“Everything Enzo [the dog who narrates Garth’s book] says about racing a high-performance car at more than 150 mph, I learned in my Miata. How to put your feet like ‘eggshells on the pedal’, smooth on and smooth off. Balance and kinesthetics, like driving by the seat of your pants, discipline and patience, like not slamming on the brakes if you go into a spin, but going against your instincts and waiting, giving more gas so the rear end can gain traction and move forward again.”

“Ever scared?” I asked him.

“Never. Too much adrenalin and not enough time when you’re inches from a guy on your right, inches on your left, and only a hair from the car in front of you.”

This kind of detail is a terrific source of authentic character development that every author should seek out whenever possible.

It’s like the characters are coming through you

That’s how author Lawrence Eubank describes writing his epic sea adventure Run Down the Wind. I worked with him recently on this story set in the 19th century with a first-mate hero on a fast-sailing American clipper ship. Eubank was able to draw upon experiences he’d had years earlier.

On one occasion Eubank crewed on a friend’s sloop sailing from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland when the lines got tangled so they couldn’t lower the jib, a dangerous situation requiring immediate fixing.

“They hauled me up so I was hanging at the top of the 60-foot mast, trying to sort out the cables and also change the tri-color light at the top of the mast to make sure other boats could see us in the middle of the night. It was six or seven stories high, and when I looked down the boat itself was tiny.”

Another time he was on the crew of a 96-foot ketch sailing from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean when a sneak storm hit.

“Suddenly we were caught in the middle of an out-of-season hurricane and the waves were 20 feet high, as big as a three-story house coming down on us. It was dead center across the Atlantic Ocean, between the Canary Islands and Antigua in a wind-whipped sea that was 14,000 feet deep, a long way down. I remember seeing fear in the Captain’s eyes and feeling what it really meant to be ‘lost at sea’. They’d never have found us if we hadn’t taken a sharp turn left and, luckily, the hurricane went right.”

Eubank puts it this way: “My writing has a different quality when I’m not making it up but really know what I’m talking about.”

If I were a writer…

My own recent five-day camel trek in the Sahara desert could provide a multitude of first-hand sensory details for creating a character riding over the orange dunes.

I learned to adjust to the rhythmic rolling gait of the great beast, leaning back and gripping the rear of the saddle with one hand when we lurched down steep slopes of soft sand, then crouching forward, coiled tight against the camel’s thick neck on the way back up.

My legs ached from clenching the camel’s sides without stirrups. I got welts and abrasions (known unceremoniously among trekkers as camel butt!)  The intense cold from camping out on the icy night sand chilled my bones. I was grateful when Ali, our camel driver, showed me how to wrap a long blue cheche around my head to stop the desert wind from whipping fine sand into every pore of my face.

These experiences live on in my muscle memory and my heart. All grist for the mill, if I were a writer.

Photo © Cheryl Rinzler

What about you?

What are your favored techniques in building your own authentic characters? How far have you gone for the sake of believability?  We’d all love to hear about your experience with this, and the impact on your writing.

10 Responses to Walking in your character’s shoes: Writing with authenticity

  1. Richard Mabry

    After reading your excellent post, I’m delighted that I don’t write about sailing or race driving. I suppose that’s an advantage I have as a doctor writing medical fiction. Between my own experiences and those I’ve heard related in the surgeon’s lounge, I have lots of material. But even then, I have to do research to make sure my information is up to date, since medicine is changing so rapidly.

  2. Alan Rinzler


    You’re in very good company as a doctor who writes. Anton Chekhov, Arthur Conan Doyle, William Carlos Williams, Walker Percy, and most recently Atul Gawande – all wonderful authors who also worked in medical practice.

    But you’re right about keeping your information current if you’re writing about the present. The latest research and daily changes in prevailing medical opinion are well-documented on ubiquitous online media and websites, so you can’t appear obsolete unless deliberately writing about the past.

  3. Carmen Anthony Fiore

    Part of my jaded past includes being a social worker and a schoolteacher. I have used the myriad experiences of those two professions from time to time in my writing. I have a suspense/amateur sleuth series on the Kindle based on my social work days and parts from my teaching days in a ghetto urban setting school where I was half teacher and half social worker to those underprivileged children that creep into the series and have also been used in some of my social-oriented novels. No experience is wasted with a writer. Every experience is grist for his/her mill. Some of the themes in the series have been pattern around elitism and illegal adoption.

  4. Dawne Webber

    You’ve given me hope that my degree in Independent Studies in Science (which by the way, I have no aptitude for) may be helpful to my writing career. It’s comforting to know that one day I may use it for something other than proving that life is stranger than fiction.

  5. Pete Morin

    Hello Alan,

    Sorry to hear about the camel sores.

    Well, I didn’t go through the body cavity search, but the arrest and arraignment scene in Small Fish was a result of a lengthy interview of FBI and US Marshal officials and a tour of the jail facility inside the federal courthouse. US Marshals processed me like a normal perp, put me into the cell, led me into the secure elevator up to the courtroom.

    It was only a tour, but I sure was terrified!

  6. Walking in Your Character's Shoes | The Passive Voice

    [...] in Your Character’s Shoes 28 January 2013 Goto comments Leave a commentAlan Rinzler at The Book Deal:To get the details exactly right, [Patricia] Cornwell has hung out in a coroner’s morgue to study [...]

  7. Robert Lofthouse

    Ive enjoyed reading this article.
    I have recently submitted my manuscript to my agent, along with a hopefully, credible Foreword for my debut novel, A Cold Night In June. It is written through the eyes of Archie, a young Paratrooper, caught up in the dark, cold, grim battle for Mount Longdon, 11th June 1982.
    I am currently serving as an Infantry Sergeant in the UK, and I found writing first person rather straight forward. In 1999, I was on exercise in the Falkland Islands and attended the Mount Longdon battlefield tour which was a rather humbling experience. Combining my historical interest in 20th Century conflicts, with my own military experience and knowledge, Im confident I can progress onto becoming a more credible writer of military fiction.
    Thank you.

  8. Wendy Shillam

    I always feel a very strong emotional committment to my characters. I’m happy when something has gone well for them and sad when they are sad. This can be counter productive. I find killing off a character will plunge me into a deeply felt mourning for several days!
    But of course characters need to be kept under stress, otherwise the plot may be weakened.
    Camel riding and learning to fly helicopters is research. In my view research is as essential for fiction as non fiction.
    I’m currently writing a (sort of) ghost story on my website and I’m really enjoying the research that is needed for that one. But as an experiment I’m writing in real time, so yesterday I started the chapter that takes place on Valentine’s Day. I must say it helps with the authenticity issue.
    But, nothing can take the place of imagination, which for most of us is infused by experience and memory. It is that leap that turns thinly veiled biography into compelling literary fiction.

  9. Carmen Anthony Fiore

    I think all authors have their favorite characters. One of mine is Preston Towers, who’s the protagonist of my novel SEARCHING, to which I managed to get the publishing rights returned to me from the print publisher some years back, and I quickly put the novel on Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader in order to keep Preston Towers alive in the new book world of digital. I feel good about it, too, knowing that we authors now have the opportunity and the place to keep our favorite characters alive and well after our print publishers have given up on him/her and have left them for dead. Well, not anymore are they dead. Digital equals resurrection.

  10. Mary Russell

    Three years ago I was given eight letters that were written in the 1960′s, some where eight pages in length. The lady who wrote the letters made the claim that she knew the person that committed a murder in 1962. In my research I found that the murder has never been solved and the case remains open some fifty years later. The letters were so compelling that I have spent the last three years researching her claims and the murder. I am writing a murder mystery from the research and the letters and as dumb luck would have it I stumbled upon the killer. The research has been fun and exciting. It has been an adventure and fun weaving all this info into a novel.

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