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Wednesday, December 2, 2009


by Jeanette Windle

Your writing can only breathe reality and authenticity if you know intimately what you’re writing about. Is it true, I am frequently queried, that I have been able to write fiction about counternarcotics operations in Bolivia, guerrilla warfare in Colombia, the Islamic militant threat south of the Rio Grande, or today's Afghanistan with enough authenticity to have government sources demanding to know where I got classified information?

Yes, it is, an interesting tale in itself (bottom line, any place on the planet government intelligence can send an agent to dig around, some missionary or humanitarian worker will already be there and know more than they do). It helps to have lived in six countries and traveled thirty or so. But what if one doesn't have those travel opportunities? How to learn to see, hear, smell, touch, taste and understand a wider world to bring it alive for readers? Here's a few principles I've picked up along the way that can be applied by any writer.

1.    Collect experiences: The wider your base of experiences, the greater variety of situations on which you will be able to write with authority. That doesn't just mean how many places to which you’ve traveled.   My life experiences have allowed me to know jungles, deserts, mountain precipices, hurricanes, earthquakes, drought, fire, cold, heat, thirst, hunger, riots, coups, roadblocks, personal assault, and death--with all the sights and sounds and smells and emotions attached. Much was not pleasant at the time, but all are invaluable to my writing.

2.    Collect contacts:  You don't need to know all things about every subject you want to write about. You just need to know someone who does.  I always have my eyes and ears open for people with expertise and experience in a background where I do not yet have contacts. For  my last novel, Veiled Freedom, set in Afghanistan, I tapped Special Forces, private security contractors, counternarcotics, humanitarian aid workers, embassy personnel, bush pilots, and so many more who have been boots on the ground in Afghanistan.  Nor are they as hard to approach as one might think. But that is a subject for another day.

3.    Collect characters: People are not only your best source of on-the ground intel, but of color for your writing. Along with an interesting profession, I always have my ears pricked up for an interesting life story or just eccentricity of character. Again, the wider the sphere of people with whom you allow yourself to interact, the greater the pool you will have from which to draw characters, whether a jungle chief facing off with a condescending environmentalist (The DMZ), a cartel heir racing around in a red Ferrari (CrossFire), or a supercilious Special Forces sergeant determined to intimidate a female civilian--me! (Veiled Freedom).  And don't avoid the unpleasant ones. My motto as a writer when eccentric, annoying or even nasty people cross one’s path is simple and effective. Don’t get irritated or even. Just write them into your next book!

4.    Immerse yourself in your subject: It isn’t enough to collect interesting experiences and interview people. These must be tied together with thorough research so that you understand the implications of what you have seen and heard. Before I tackle a book set in a new country or political environment, I saturate myself in that place. Histories, biographies, political commentary, regional literature, travelogues, video documentary--I will have easily read 20,000 pages material before I ever pick up a pen or computer keyboard.  Now the people I’ve met, the bits and pieces of what I’ve heard, seen on the news, etc. make sense and I’m ready to write the book.

5.    Use the Internet as the invaluable tool it is: The Internet is an invaluable tool—how much information is out there really is enough to make any law enforcement nervous. Want to make that Colombian guerrilla commander in your pages real? Try reading his actual speeches posted to his website. Want to know the weaknesses of Hanford Nuclear Reservation security? Read studies and blueprints posted by environmentalist groups protesting the place. For every place I write about, I keep a Google Alert set for daily news digests. I follow blogs and travelogues of 'boots on the ground' whose lives and professions mirror the characters I am writing about. 

6.    Combine experiences you do have with thorough research to create a reality you can’t experience: The secret is to develop a wide frame of reference in which to fit your research so that you can describe as vividly as though you’d really been there. ‘A jungle is a jungle is a jungle’. So is a desert.  Whether an earthquake, the bitter cold of a blizzard, the vertigo of a thousand-foot precipice, terror of a mugging, the adrenaline tension of a military roadblock, once you’ve gone through any experience, you can use it in any similar setting on the planet. The secret is to research carefully those details unique to the setting in question. Again, those blogs and travelogues as well as Lonely Planet and other tourism guides can be invaluable.

7.    Have experts read it afterwards: On the other hand, I have often had plot holes caught and details corrected just by having an expert on the subject read it—often details I wouldn’t even know to ask ahead of time. On a recent novel, I had Coast Guard, DEA, counter-narcotics, military intelligence, weapons and nuclear experts, fire marshal, experts, clinical psychologists, former ambassador. That they found only a handful of errors was confirmation that I'd researched well. But I'd have hated for the specs of a certain air battle to have made it into print as I originally wrote it, even if few readers would ever know the difference.

The ultimate compliment for an author is to get fan mail from those who are or have been in the field of which we write that say, "You really get it; I can tell from your writing that you’ve been where we’re at." Fiction or not, that should be our ultimate goal as a writer.

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