Weekend Wisdom: Sympathy Pains

I’m substituting “Saturday Scribe” with Weekend Wisdom so it can now be dispensed any time during that time. Today, yes, it is on Saturday, but that may not always be the case.

Years ago, I wrote an article called “Duels for Dummies.” It was originally geared towards people writing Star Wars fiction because not everyone who feels the compulsion to “play in George’s sandbox” knows their way around a fight scene. I, myself, have done stage fighting and martial arts, but I have never done fencing. So, what made me write this article on how to effectively write hand-to-hand or saber-to-saber?

Every scene in writing has a basis in something the author already knows. I pointed out that a key ingredient is making scenes a sensory experience. I advised at one point, “This is also where personal experience can be very valuable. Sure, you probably never had a lightsaber whack you in the stomach, but you’ve probably burned your hand on the stove or scorched your hand while ironing a shirt. You can probably remember pretty well something that hurt when it burned you and you can build off of that to describe what a character’s going through.”

This post is not just about how to write a character’s broken arm. It’s about using your experience to write anything. It was inspired by a picture I saw on Twitter about people who wish they could have a “Long-distance phone call” from anyone they desperately wish they could talk to. I remarked that my work-in-progress starts with a text message conversation that turns out to be the last communication between two family members. My protagonist would give anything to have her phone ring and discover that it was a communications problem after all. (This actually plays a major part in a certain subplot of the book.)

That picture reminded me of two things: my ex and my grandfather. With John, I knew him so well after years of friendship and courtship that things constantly reminded me of him. Any time I met someone from Michigan and used my hands as a map for them to point out the location of their hometown, I remembered that I’d first learned that from him. Any time someone talked about racial demographics in a certain area, I knew that it was his passion to study that and he would have been able to discuss it. I often wanted to just pick up the phone and say “John! I met a Laotian immigrant who lives in West Virginia and is married to a third-generation Japanese-American!” because he would have wanted in on that kind of conversation. These are all conversations I can’t have because of the reasons that he’s my ex and not my husband. And part of the difficulty of moving past him was losing the ability to have friendly conversations with him.

On the other hand, I have Grandpa Nelson. He passed away years ago from cancer. Since my dad wasn’t close with his father and his mother died when he was a young adult, I only really knew my maternal grandparents. Grandma was the one who taught me how to type and play Scrabble and told family history stories. Grandpa always offered me peanut butter toast before bed, fixed any mechanical issues in our house, and sang in a beautiful tenor voice. He didn’t serve in World War II because he worked in the diesel industry his entire life. He gave great advice and was a faithful Christian. I still eat peanut butter toast on the anniversary of his death, but I wish I could call him to get advice or talk to him about something I learned at church.

The aforementioned text conversation is part of a story with a family tragedy. I had to tap into the memories of a similar situation that, very fortunately, did not end in tragedy. I didn’t lose that person, but I remember exactly what it felt like to go through it as the person who hoped for news of any kind. I remember how it changed everyone who knew them during that period and who we decided we could trust with the full details. I use all of that to build the family dynamics in this book and to inform parts of the plot.

So, when writing something unfamiliar to you, find what is familiar about it. I’ve been writing a sulking teenager who happens to be a dragon recently and based the behavior both on myself in 9th grade and a dog I owned. It’s possible to find an analog if you think about it hard enough.

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