NaNoWriMo's Grant Faulkner shares a great technique for adding a ring of authenticity to your story—an imaginative scavenger hunt to gather details, sensory information, and character insights.
The following is excerpted from Pep Talks for Writers by Grant Faulkner, with permission from the author.
One of the mistaken perceptions of writers is that all of their writing gets done at their desks, that plots, characters, and the telling details that make a story blossom into life just flow out of a writer’s mind and onto the page. As much as I hesitate to lure you away from maximal word production (because most of my chapters chide you to chain yourself to your desk in one way or another), one of the wonderful side benefits of being a writer is not just the places you get to go in your imagination, but the real places you get to go to explore your story in all of its nuances.
It’s time to go on a “story field trip”—an imaginative scavenger hunt to gather details, sensory information, and character insights. It’s just like the kind of field trip you went on in elementary school, except you don’t have your parents sign a permission form and you don’t have to travel on a bus with a lot of screaming kids (unless your story takes place on a school bus, that is). There’s nothing like venturing out to an actual place to experience it so you can write about it with the ring of authenticity. The location of your story can function almost as a character in your story, so know it well.
Is your main character a doctor? Go to a hospital one day and sit in an emergency room and observe all that is going on—the people waiting in pain, discomfort, or boredom; the nurses bustling about; the out-of-date magazines in the waiting room; and, yes, the doctors. How does your doctor character relate to the pain in a patient’s eyes? How does your doctor view an impatient nurse? How does he or she wear a stethoscope?
Spend some time walking the hospital’s halls and attune your senses to all of the little things you might not think about when you’re there as a patient. What does the hospital smell like? How is it decorated? Where would your doctor eat lunch? See if you can even do a brief interview with a doctor. How many patients does he or she see each day? What thoughts does he or she carry home from the day?
I once went to a cemetery at night to see the moon’s chilly glow on the tombstones. Another time I drove from San Francisco to Reno, tracing the road my main character was fleeing on. I ate tacos in Chowchilla and drank a Coke by an irrigation ditch for one story, and dressed in my suit and went to a Pentecostal church on a Sunday morning for another.
A story field trip can take many forms, and sometimes we have to make do with our limitations. I once wrote a novel that took place in Thailand, but I didn’t have the time or money to go to Thailand. I knew I couldn’t go deep into my descriptions of it by looking at it on a map. What did I do? I ate in Thai restaurants. I watched Thai movies and soap operas (even if I couldn’t understand them). I listened to Thai music and read Thai books. I discovered that the clerk at my dry cleaning shop grew up in Thailand, so I asked her questions about her childhood. It was one big virtual Thai field trip that helped me shape my novel.
Sometimes I take story field trips without any research purpose, though, just to get the creative juices flowing in a different way. One of my favorite field trips is to sit in a train station and simply observe the people. People reveal themselves in different ways when in transit. They’re in that odd state of suspension, between places, carrying high expectations of the pleasures ahead or dread of what’s to come. They’re fleeing a place or running home. Some travel in packs, and some travel in what seems like a perpetual solitude. I watch to see how they reveal themselves; I eavesdrop on their conversations, and try to surmise their stories. They carry questions that stir my imagination, and in observing them, I bring a deeper sense of humanity to my characters.
There are some downsides of a story field trip. It can be tempting to twist your characters and plot into illustrating your research instead of letting your observations serve the characters’ stories. It’s easy to fall so much in love with all that you’ve gleaned that you force details where they don’t belong. Focus on imparting the telling details rather than a random inventory of your notes.
In the end, perhaps the biggest purpose of the story field trip isn’t just for information, but for confidence. By spending a few hours in a hospital, you’ll write much more surely about the hospital. You’ll trust your words because you’ve grounded them with a foundation of experience.
Try this: Inhabit your story world
How can you design a story field trip? If your main character is a carpenter, spend a day on a construction site. Record the sounds, the smells. Watch to see when workers take breaks, and record what they do on their breaks. If a character is a painter, spend a day in a museum and view every piece of art through that character’s eyes. Go to an art store and choose the things your painter needs for his or her studio. Smell the pastels. Feel what it’s like to have oil paint on your fingers.
Grant Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and the co-founder of 100 Word Story. He's published Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo; Fissures, a collection of 100-word stories; and Nothing Short of 100: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story. His stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines, including Tin House, The Southwest Review, and The Gettysburg Review, as wellas in anthologies such as Best Small Fictions and Norton's New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction. His essays on creativity have been published in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. He also hosts Write-minded, a weekly podcast on writing and publishing.