1. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    "Method Writing"

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by T.Trian, Apr 8, 2013.

    I use the word "method" in a very loose way here: there idea is to discuss drawing ideas from experiences as well as seeking out experiences in order to gain a better understanding of what you are writing about. There's a thread here that's fairly close to the subject, but I thought it best to start a new one dedicated solely on discussing seeking out experiences on purpose to help with your writing, and whether it’s necessary or not.

    When I write with my writing partner, KaTrian, we strive for a degree of realism. To us, it does help to have first-hand experiences. We have found that we can add a bit more realism by including some small details about the subject we have discovered through first-hand experiences. Sometimes these experiences can be even be a bit daunting, but we still try to go through with it. Sometimes it costs time and money, but to us, it's worth it because not only does it help with our limited imaginations, to us, it's fun, and we gain fun memories from the times we've dabbled with some of the things we would otherwise never have tried. Some things have proven so much fun, they have even turned into hobbies.

    Of course at some point you just have to accept you will never gain first-hand experience on some subjects (e.g. if they are physically impossible, too dangerous, or illegal), and you have to rely on your imagination, but that doesn't mean one couldn't experiment with things that are possible and within the boundaries of reasonable behavior.

    We have discussed this subject with many folks and there seems to be some division among authors: some prefer to rely on research and imagination, insisting a true writer needs only their imagination to describe things. Others are more like us: they seek to experience the things they write about to gain new ways of looking at the subject. I believe neither is better or worse, they are just different methods of writing. Which way of thinking is closer to yours? Or do you fall somewhere in-between? I know some authors do: they draw from their own experiences, but don't go out of their way to experience the things they write about but haven't experienced themselves.

    What things have you done? How far are you willing to go to help your writing? How far is too far? Or do you believe our imaginations are the only things we need, and that we shouldn't even try to seek out new experiences if the sole motivation is to aid our writing?
     
  2. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    ...more than you can ever imagine... been poor on welfare and enjoyed a jet set life, for starters... have known presidents, movie stars and world-famous authors, as well as homeless men, women and children... lived in mansions and homeless shelters... traveled first class and hitchhiked... and that's just a few of the 'lives' i've lived in my 74 years... so far!


    ...i don't have to 'go' anywhere/to any length, to help my writing, since it's at its peak, as we speak [please pardon the poesy... can't help myself, as i'm a poet, among many other things]

    ...are your asking about things like committing a murder to 'inform' your writing a novel about a killer?... or what?...

    ...one can't imagine what one has no knowledge of whatsoever... but knowledge can be gained in other ways than personal experience...

    ...one needn't 'seek out' new experiences, but aspiring authors should at least always be aware of everything around them and be ready to take any new path that may present itself, taste any new dish that's put before them, be open to all possibilities...
     
  3. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    In the world of fiction, I don't think it's necessary to experience everything we write about first hand. I do believe we need to research thoroughly, to know a bit more about the subject than will actually go into the book, but I don't think it's necessary to 'live' what we write about. We're not writing books for 'experts' to read, although obviously they may be in the audience; we're writing books for people's imaginations. If your story is set in Pennsylvania, make sure you're not putting it in the Midwest - but don't make plans to move there.
     
  4. Mithrandir
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    Mithrandir Contributing Member

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    Mama, you're making want to buy an autobiography.
     
  5. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    Thanks for the chuckle, Maia. Wouldn't this make for quite an interesting novel, though -- a novel about a writer writing about a serial killer, perhaps, who has to go out and kill people to get the experience to enable him to write about it realistically....


    This issue has been discussed on multiple threads, beyond the one you cited, T. But, I think that's okay -- it comes up again and again because it's a legitimate issue. I'm largely in the camp that says the more direct experience you have with something, the better you'll be at writing it. If you set your novel in New York City, I think you need to have at the very least, travelled there at least once. Better if you've been there multiple times. Even better if you've lived there for a while. Particularly with settings -- that is, with physical places, I think there are nuances that you can catch by being there and that will inform your writing that just aren't possible to get through online visits, movies, and books alone. That said, I don't think it's impossible to set a story in a place you haven't been, just more difficult and more dangerous (in the sense of getting things wrong or putting in things that just don't ring true and a native will sense that immediately). The less important the particular location is to the story, though, the less important it is to have visited there. (Also, it's different if you write about characters living in NYC and at one point in the story go to London on vacation -- it's still immensely helpful if the writer has been to London, but he or she might be able to fudge it easier than if the novel were set in London.)

    As far as vocations/professions, and hobbies, again, I think a writer can never know too much. (He might try to convey too much in the story by over-informing readers of details they might not need, but this is a different issue.) Again, it depends on how important this is to the story. I think the best situation is the writer having direct experience (such as when district attorneys or prosecutors write novels about crimes and the judicial process). Next best is doing a lot of research.

    Relying solely on imagination can be dangerous. What sometimes gets people confused is the idea that the author must have directly experienced every action that he is writing about in the story. What is really needed is that the author has to have experienced the underlying emotion in a situation similar enough to be analogous. Breaking up with a girlfriend *could* enable an author who understands emotions and human behavior to be able to extrapolate that to writing about a divorce. Even though it's not the same thing, an astute writer could be capable of imagining it. I wrote a short story about someone deciding to divorce. I am married and have never been divorced. But I've seen enough differing relationships and experienced different things in my relationships that I can imagine pretty well what it would entail. (There are some days with my husband where I can imagine this more easily than others ;-) Feelings of shock, of suddenly having your life different from how you had imagined it, financial issues that would arise, feelings of betrayal, mixed emotions of residual love -- those are things that man people have experienced for various reasons. You could use those feelings in writing about a divorce, a death, an abandonment, some situation of a job/career loss, so I think it's important for an author to be able to tap into these feelings, and yes, here, imagination is important. But, what's vital is using the imagination to create a scenario for the story, and in creating that scenario, if your story is supposed to take place in the real world, you need to be accurate in the real world machinations that you utilize. In the divorce example, if you write a story about a divorce and for some reason the legal process becomes important to the story, it would be important to get the details right, as far as how a divorce would actually be handled by a court in the area where the characters live. That's the type of thing where solely relying on imagination could get you to a place where a reader who knows how a court would handle a divorce would drop you in a second for making the story unrealistic. But the emotional side, as far as the characters reacting to what's happening -- that's where imagination comes in. (Although it would still be helpful to read about what actual people have experienced as far as divorce -- in books, online, especially in forums where people discuss these issues, etc.) I guess I'd say imagination informed by research and knowledge is what's important.
     
  6. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    If I understood your question correctly, yeah. Murder is probably at the extreme end of such things. How about lesser things, where is your limit: would you join a boxing club and participate in an amateur bout to learn how to better describe how your boxer character feels when s/he is stepping in the ring/during the bout? That would probably take at least a few months/up to a year if you have no prior background in the sport. Not to mention countless arduous training sessions. Would you take drugs to know how to describe their effects on a party animal character if you've never done drugs before? Would you learn an instrument and join a gigging band to discover new insights into writing a character who plays in a band and performs at bars and clubs? This could take several years unless you have some prior experience with said instrument. If you do, you could be onstage in just a few weeks if you're good enough. Would you take up a job as a bouncer to gain first-hand experience of violence? Some hardcore self-defense practitioners do this because 1. it's legal, 2. you can do a lot of good on the side (save some punter from getting his ass handed over to him by a bunch of thugs, for instance), 3. you gain first-hand experience you couldn't otherwise gain, not through legal means anyway.

    I'm sure everyone has different limits to how far they are willing to go, I certainly have mine. Luckily I've led such a life that I have a few bases covered, but I would skip cheating on my partner just to better describe the guilt felt in the aftermath although I would join a traditional European fencing club to learn how to better describe sword fights.


    Here we arrive to the age old question I've encountered lots of time in martial arts circles: can a virgin describe sex in a credible manner? Of course the question stems from another one: can someone who has never been in a real fight teach self-defense to others? There is no clear consensus on the matter, but generally the more experienced instructors do believe you need first-hand experience to be able to provide the best possible service to your students. Hence quite a few of them are ex-bouncers or ex-LEO.

    Naturally anybody can google stuff and gain a fair amount of knowledge on the subject, but will something be missing from the description? Personally, I have no idea. I just feel more confident about writing thing X if I have first-hand experience of it. Sure, I write about plenty of stuff I have never gone through myself, but I do go out of my way to cover as many of these missing experiences as possible (save for the bad stuff I wouldn't wanna experience anyway, like the aforementioned murder and cheating).


    I agree. I also don't feel it's necessary to seek out new experiences to be a good writer, but I choose to because I like it and I feel it helps with my brand of writing. Well, most of this stuff I would do anyway, but some I've done simply because for writing. Some I've done because writing has given me the perfect excuse to do them and at the same time fulfil some lifelong dreams I've been putting off. I've also gained new outlooks in general through some of the experiences and, of course, I have a bunch of good memories I would've missed out on otherwise. Some things are just so different when you first experience them when compared to how you thought they would be. In my case, firing a gun was one such thing: it felt very different from what I had imagined and, man, was it harder! And much more zen: the mind just goes blank, or mine does anyway (not that there's much going on up there to begin with). Those are just a couple of things I hadn't been able to imagine or derive from second-hand sources, but perhaps through more research I would have learned of them eventually, I don't know.
     
  7. AVCortez
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    AVCortez Active Member

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    I like doing stuff. But that's just me, I'm quite good with my hands and enjoy learning new things. I spend a lot of time researching just about anything, so there are hundreds of things I could tell you how to do, without actually having done it myself. But nothing beats trying it for yourself, you pick up on so many little details that are not included in a how-to.

    Point of reference is important though. I've made a bow and arrows, but when I wrote a scene that featured a character doing just that - it had no point of reference for anyone who hand't made a bow and arrows... which is most. So it's all well and good to know that a snake bite hurts like a snake bite, but very few people have been bitten by a snake so you need to compare it something common like a kettle burn... Having never been bitten by a snake (being Australian, I doubt I'd be typing if I had), I have no idea what it feels like... Apparently it hurts a lot.


    One thing I thought I should throw out there is that TV, film and games could prove problematic when conveying realism. People who play Call of Duty all day, could be more inclined to believe that war is a gung-ho kill fest, so if they read What it's like to go to war they may not feel it rings true... In spite of Karl Marlantes being a Vietnam war vet, and CoD being the veteran of 14yr old boys wet-dreams. It's something to consider when targeting a mass market - People are more inclined to believe what they see in pop-culture. Meat-axes walking through walls and killing a heaps of guys... Just look at the success of the Jack Reacher novels.

    Personally I would never write a story about something I didn't know inside out.

    EDIT: Avoid illegal stuff at all costs. Being arrested is not fun - Probably my most expensive piece of research.... But taking a safe trip from time to time is brilliant research, especially for fantasy.
     
  8. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    I certainly hope that the vast majority of writers who've written about murders have not felt a deep commitment to method writing with respect to all aspects of the story.

    I probably would not write a story with a MC who was a boxer. But, if for some reason I had to, I might do this. I'd certainly hang around a boxing club, talk to boxers and trainers, and read anything I could find that was written by or about a boxer and boxing in general. I'd also watch any films (documentaries, how-to's, and even fictional films) that had to do with boxing. I would not likely step into the ring myself, because I'd be knocked out before anything else happened. If I were physically stronger and more capable in that area, I would probably do it.

    No. But again, I'd read and watch as much as I could and if it were possible, I'd talk to people who had done them.

    This would not be feasible for me. I have zero musical experience and no musical talent. But once again, I'd research and interview if, for some reason, I *had* to write about a character in a band. Due to my near total lack of experience and talent in this area, it would be very unlikely that I'd set out to write a story with these sorts of characters.

    Again, not feasible for me, given my physical stature.
     
  9. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Those were just examples I came up with on the spot; it could be anything. I just tried to think of things that would be more difficult to accomplish than, say, trying sushi for the first time to describe a scene where a character eats sushi. That sort of thing isn't much of a challenge and doesn't really require dedication whereas something like the examples takes a lot more effort and even time and money (buying boxing gear or e.g. an entry level electric guitar is about $50-150 depending on whether you buy used or new, not much but still an investment).

    Different locations were mentioned too. That can be an even bigger of an investment: flying from Europe to USA or from USA to Japan is no cheap thrill just so you can describe the milieu better. If I had to write a story in a specific country/city I haven't visited, I'd try to shift the focus to the characters/plot/action even though that's not nearly as good as having been there and being able to write in specific streets and landmarks.


    Btw, just a quick OT FYI: beginner level boxing bouts (usually within a club or between two or more clubs) are pretty safe: the contestants wear helmets and other protective gear, beginners are pitted against beginners, not pros, and they have weight classes, so you'd end up facing someone roughly your size and skill/experience level. And then there's the referee who'll step in if one fighter ends up pummeled (against the ropes, eating punches, unable to fight back).
     
  10. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    I get that. I guess my response overall is that I would not do something illegal or dangerous, or something that is just way outside my experience and skill level. But at the same time if something is way beyond my experience and skill level, it would be unlikely I'd focus on it in a story I write. But I do think that research is very important. It's possible to get pretty knowledgable and pretty close to being able to realistically imagine an experience if one does enough thorough research.

    No matter who I was matched with, I'd lose, and lose quickly. I'll stick to the treadmill and weight machines.
     
  11. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Well, personally I believe there is nothing like first-hand experience to give you confidence in writing about certain subjects. And I've deliberately traveled (overseas, and cross-country) to visit locations I've written about. (Nothing like actually SEEING somewhere you intend to write about. All sorts of aspects appear that might not have occurred to you otherwise.)

    However, the fun of being a writer is that you create experiences, too. So I'd say a mix of first-hand and imagination is probably all most of us can achieve, especially if we write long things like novels. And as Chicagoliz mentioned, you extrapolate your feelings from things that have happened to you, and adapt them into similar fictional scenes. That seems to work for most people.

    Just for fun - challenge yourself to write a short piece on something you currently know diddly-squat about, set somewhere you've never been before. (Not fair, if it's pure fantasy...!) See what happens.
     
  12. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I've read some stories I wrote as a teenager, and comparing them to what I produce now, it's pretty clear that life experience has improved my characterization as well as the "realness" and credibility of my (and T.Trian's) stories (I base this claim on feedback as well as shameless self-confidence). Examples: the male characters were very naive in my early attempts.
    Stereotype-ish, maybe, but in my current writing their sex drive is generally stronger. Then again, females were physically weaker (because I was skinny and feeble) than necessary. Oh, and fight scenes were awful. And sex... ugh.

    When I seriously started practicing martial arts/RBSD (Krav Maga, BJJ, Muayi thai, boxing), I realized how difficult, as a woman, it was to survive sparring with guys--even shorter and skinnier ones. I'm flimsy and feather-boned and will never look like Christiane 'Cyborg' Santos, but against all odds, I have managed to build some muscle. These experiences sure have made their way into my writing, especially when it comes to female characters. They are stronger now than my earlier characters, but they've paid their dues and worked hard to be as strong and skilled as they are.

    I love experiencing the stuff I want to write about, because usually I want to write about stuff I'm interested in, so naturally I'm interested in experiencing them irl. But like people have mentioned here, transference for the win: "from one thing, know a thousand." E.g. I've never ridden a horse Western style, but I'm well-versed with everything English, so with some research, I'm fairly confident at transferring my knowledge to an area I've no experience of.

    Good thing we have the internetz now. Helps immensely! Also with locations.
     
  13. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    It's been done many times in books and movies.
     
  14. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    ...sorry, mith, but there's no autobio on the market... and won't ever be... however, you can read the bio-bits start i made, on my website... for free...

    here it is: http://www.saysmom.com/maia/content.asp?Writing=251

    hugs, m
     

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