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.