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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The things I never wanted to learn about

But that my characters insisted upon.

No, I’m not one of those writers who insist that characters take on lives of their own. I realize that if they do live at all, they live inside my head, with all the limitations that implies, including my personal knowledge base and what I’ve always thought must be the limits to my creativity. Just because it feels like my characters have taken off into left field doesn’t mean that it wasn’t me doing that to them.

Or so I keep trying to tell myself.

But if that’s the case, then how did I end up learning about 1950s motorcycles, gunshot wounds and gangrene, and childbirth in a cabin on Bonanza Creek in the Klondike in 1898? Not to mention the care of a newborn then and there. It certainly wasn’t because I felt the need to on my own account.

Admittedly, some topics my characters have needed to know about have been fascinating. 19th century eyeglasses, various horse mechanics and equipment, how bricks are made, the early scientific research on geysers and how it was conducted. Courting in the 1870s. And the resulting marriages. The history of photography. Early tourist services in Yellowstone National Park and the people who ran them. The Nez Perce Indians. The process of mining gold in the frozen Klondike. Then there’s the whole basic food and clothing and shelter business at various times in various places, by various kinds of people, which is always interesting.

But I don’t care much for motorcycles, thank you. And while I respect the many, many women who went through childbirth in various primitive conditions, I really didn’t want to know the gory details. Most of all, I seriously did not enjoy learning how to realistically kill one of my characters via gangrene resulting from a gunshot wound to the hip in 1877. But I did, and I hope I did a reasonable job of it, even if judging from the way it turned out it was pretty darned painful. More than even that character deserved.

So, what good stuff, and bad stuff, have your characters insisted that you learn about recently?


  1. Interesting post. Gangrene is nasty stuff. I hope you included the unmistakable stench as a description. lol.

    For my completed novel, I had to research interrogation techniques used by the CIA. How an American enemy combatant is treated, held, their mental state, etc. Considering there are only three that meet that criteria (not the Gitmo prisoners), it was finding a needle in a haystack.

    I read pages and pages of transcripts from actual interrogations, and yet, I had one reader tell me that my character wasn't acting angry enough. *sigh* If I learned anything, it was that the prisoners are mostly docile when in custody.

    For my current WIP, I too, am trying to learn about motorcycles and motorcycle gangs in present day. I've never even ridden on one, but fortunately, I have a very good friend who has. I intend to pick her brain. :-)

  2. Oh, yes. The stench, the agony, the whole nine yards (gangrene is a dreadful way to die).

    As for people who don't believe your research is correct, I could write a book on the subject [sigh].

  3. If not a book, how about a series of posts? I suspect it'd make for fascinating [albeit frustrating, for you] reading.

    I wouldn't say my characters have made me go out & learn new stuff per se; it's more of a general awareness. For example, since getting in touch with the inner hobbit, I take extra good care of my feet. Because of the wood-worker, I notice more details about wood.

    I've been accosted by some grackles recently & looked them up. Of course, I converse with corvids regularly so, if the grackle isn't my totem critter, maybe crows or ravens are. They usually answer when I vocalize at them. You have to be careful with that sort of thing, though. As I told ze spouse just yesterday, "When you claim a thing, it claims you."

  4. I ought to write a post on the things people have questioned my research on, but I don't want to sound too bitter [wry g].

    As for talking to critters in their own language, I'm always dubious as to what I'm actually saying to them (I hope I haven't been swearing at my cats all these years...).