Staying just ahead of your characters

Teachers who are suddenly assigned to teach a course they’ve never taught before, often say that they use the course’s text book to stay just ahead of their students.

Writers often do the same thing. Let’s say my character hitches a ride and is let out next to a Florida swamp when the driver comes to a fork in the road and that’s the end of the ride. What does the character see? I don’t know. Well, I partly know because I grew up around Florida swamps. But that’s been a while. So, I get out a couple of my flora and sauna books about Florida and learn that the character can see. That includes things he can’t see that might hurt him.

So, I’m like the teacher, except in each case, I’m writing my way through locations and incidents that are new to me. In my novel in progress, a major character is at a livery stable, one owners by his two partners in a pack train operation. While I’ve ridden a fair amount, I’ve never run a pack train, much less had to know anything about the pack horse’s harness, how to load up, and what to expect a;pmh the trail.

Pack trains are still used in National Parks and other wilderness areas. However, tracking down working packers seemed like it would be more time consuming than reading books and following up with Google searches to fill in the gaps. So, now you know why there’s a book pictured here.

This book, like the earlier clasic by packer Joe Black, Horses, Hitches, and Rocky Trails: The Original Guide to Packing, Camping, and Getting Along with the Wilderness, has all the detail a neophyte needs to stay ahead of his characters. If the whole novel centered on a packtrain, I would interview people who run them after eading the books.

Both books are written by people who know horses, know tack, have plenty of packing experience, and can draw highly detailed and accurate illustrations. In reading these, I decided to change from mules to horses in the book since the books focus on horses and I’m more comforable staying within the authors’ specialties rather than trying to apply them to mules. Either one works in the novel.

Unlike people taking courses or receiving technical instruction in order to do a specific job, an author isn’t researching the subject in order to go out and do it. S/he just needs to be able to create an accurate representation of the work. Needless to say, this approach wouldn’t work if I were training student pilots and I’d never flown a plane. But for fiction writing, it works fine. And, like a reporter, I always try to find multiple sources. So, I can’t claim to be able to picket break a horse, but I can say I know (and my character knows) why you’d want to do it for horses on your pack train.

Research is always the aspect of the muse what stays with me throughout the writing to make sure I.m not writing without a figurative paracute.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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2 thoughts on “Staying just ahead of your characters

  1. Oh yeah, I do this too, but only in the second draft. Until then, all the parts that need research are [FILLED IN BRACKETS LIKE THESE]. Anyway, it’s interesting reading about the creative process, so thanks for sharing!

    1. I tried using brackets, but they bothered me, so I always stop and find what needs to be there before going on with the scene. Yes, I know it’s “wrong,” but I do it anyhow.

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