Keepin’ It Real


My son, champion Questioner and unparalleled Stater of Silliness

As most of you probably gleaned from my complete disappearance from the internet, I am on vacation. (Unless those automated updates had fooled you. Muahaha!)

One of my favorite and most despised things about vacationing is that it gets me out of my routine. This is an absolute nightmare as far as parenting goes. But when it comes to recharging my writing batteries, getting body checked out of a rut is just what the doctor ordered.

As I write this post, I am sitting in the Rocky Mountains, enjoying one of the wettest summers this area has ever seen. I am also enjoying my parents’ indoor pool, a dearth of dirty dishes, and an abundance of cheap watermelon, as well as all kinds of other delights I am unused to. A far cry from my day-to-day in Alaska.

I’m pretty bad about writing when I’m on vacation. I think I’ve written just a couple times in the nearly three weeks I’ve been away. But I still think these few weeks have been fantastic for my writing. I hiked a mountain, toured a candy factory, and wandered semi-lost between jutting crags of red stone. I watched Native American music and dance, wandered around chatting up the reenactors at an 1830s fort, and was nearly drowned by three small children swarming up my spine in the swimming pool. And in the few days I spent in California before coming to Colorado, I scampered in the ocean, nearly got eaten by not one but two giant scary dogs, had the opportunity to buy a medical marijuana license for the scant cost of $25, and went to a massive white-and-gold building that looks for all the world like a fairy tale castle. I watched my baby brother get married!

I have been busy.  Too busy to write, maybe, but not too busy to be inspired. These experiences will still be in my mind when I get back to Fairbanks in just a few more days, and back into my routine of kids and cooking and cleaning. I’ll think about the bull pine and the thin air and the snakes and the hot sun while I walk with my kids through the blueberry bogs, the air thick with mosquitoes and the weak sunlight splintered through the spruce. I’ll draw on how hard it was to breathe when I write my characters hiking through the mountains. I’ll remember what it feels like to have clamoring skinny bodies pushing me underwater when I get to the scene where my MC goes for a desperate swim through mer infested waters.

Our surroundings and experiences help us to fill our stories with reality. No, I can’t travel to Paleithois, and no, unicorns don’t wander the forests ready to help a maiden out. But I can grant my writings believability when I fill my written worlds with realistic details, when I make the characters and situations relatable on a smaller, human scale. If Paleithois was real, what might their customs be and why? If unicorns did kick around the woods, what might matter to them? What might their benevolence cost them? And if I suddenly found myself transported to the peak of a mountain, how would it feel? How would I stay alive? What does it feel like to be drowned?

I come from a long line of people who talk at the theater. We’re horrible, horrible people who you would never want to watch a movie with. We will shamelessly demolish your favorite show while we eat all your gummy bears and take up too much room on your couch. My father is the worst of the clan, especially when it comes to war movies. He doesn’t care if the characters are made up. He doesn’t even really care if the battles are made up, or the towns, or the situations. But if you ever watch a movie with him, prepare to hear all about how they got the firearms wrong, the uniforms wrong, the terrain wrong, the tactics wrong, everything wrong, wrong, wrong. And that’s just on the movies he likes.

People do the same thing when reading books. They are willing to accept that there is magic. They are willing to accept that there are flying cars. They are willing to accept that Queen Victoria was actually an alien robot sent to enslave the human race with imperialism and corsets.

But their acceptance will only go so far. Those fat, lying whoppers are only okay if the details are all in order. If the magic makes sense for the world. If the flying cars mesh with the rest of the world’s technology and setting. If… uh… yeah, anyway, you get the point. We sell our stories when we underpin the lies with truth. When readers can sympathize with the characters, even if they’re a different gender or a different background or a different species. When readers can absorb a section, nod their heads, and say, “Yes. That is exactly right.”

I’ve never drowned. I’ve never fought a bear. I’ve never held my infant daughter. I’ve never gone to Brazil and I’ve never picked poppies in Afghanistan. I’ve never been shot with an arrow or made marzipan or lived in a convent or ridden a dragon. Some of those, I might do some day. Others, less likely. Others still, never. But I can write about those things. I can fill my fake worlds with experiences, some my own, some read about in books, some carefully researched, and some just made up and meticulously thought out.

So never stop wondering about the world around you, and never stop absorbing every experience you can get your hands on (safely, ethically, and legally, of course). Ask questions. Let your nephews dive tackle your ankles. Go for a hike. Do something hard. Learn to cook something new. The more you know and feel and experience, the more reality you can lend your writing. And you can only be better for it. (Again, assuming safety, ethics, and legality are observed. Seriously, please don’t go become a dangerous criminal in the name of compelling writing.)

So when was the last time a real life experience came out in your writing? What can you do to make an improbable situation ring with reality? Tell me about it in the comments!


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