Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Live outside your own head

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 31•16

I’ve met way too many reclusive writers, especially science fiction and fantasy writers, who spend all their time obsessively plugging away at a 200,000-word manuscript and reading only stories in the genres they’re writing. Or their idea of a night out is hanging out in a coffee shop with their laptop.

It would seem that an impressive page count might also equal an impressive story. Alas, this is rarely true.  And it’s so disheartening when a rambling tome is thin and undistinguished.I’m not just talking about a sputtering storyline. Writers need a bigger life so their readers can enter a specific, enticing and sensory world. When a world isn’t fully rendered readers never feel the characters’ emotions. Never smell the air or feel the pebbly ground under the character’s feet.

This lack of sensory participation happens because the writer spends most of his or her time looking inward, when a trip to Scotland or just some fresh air, is needed.

It’s difficult to write about castles if you’ve never visited one. Touching the centuries-old stone walls is so inspiring, especially if you’re in a tower room gazing down at a river where humans have traded and paddled past since the Vikings arrived.

Now, lots of writers write strictly from their imaginations and never leave home. It can be done. But if you can manage travel, do so.

I interviewed Diana Gabaldon a few years back. She’s the author Diana Gof the mega-selling Outlander series set in the 1700s. The series is a meticulously researched and racy portrait of life in the 1700s and seems to have it all: a great love, epic battles, political intrigue, smugglers, time travel, pirates, and men in kilts.  She’d just returned from a trip and had spent a delirious afternoon wallowing in battlefields.”

JM: Do you walk around? Take photos? Buy postcards?

Claire and JamieDG: I almost never take photographs of any place because I find that stops me from actually seeing what I’m looking at. I just look and develop a strong sensory portrait, not only of what I’m seeing but how the air feels. Am I hearing trees in the wind? I have a very vivid memory of being on the Yorktown battlefield late in the evening. The light was failing and the trees were just beginning to move overhead as the sun set and this deer came out of the field on the far side and stood there looking at me for awhile. That deer will turn up in the next book, but probably not in Yorktown.

You develop all these things that stay with you if you’re paying attention in a more concrete way than just looking at a photograph. Now sometimes I’ll buy postcards because they’re often historical paintings of people who were present at this or that battle. Because I find it very helpful to look at the actual faces or at least a simulacrum of the actual faces of the people who were there. I go to museums whenever I can. Artifacts are extremely moving, especially seeing an actual object that was handled by a person of that time.”

If you can meet new people, do so. Interact with someone besides your mother and your few mega-nerd friends. If you cannot travel far, a walk in a park or forest or visiting a waterfall will bring your senses to life.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

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