A fellow young writer once sent me a few chapters from his work-in-progress. In one of the scenes, he wrote something like this: He pulled back the bowstring and aimed the arrow directly at his enemy’s heart.
When I returned his story with my critiques, I made sure to include this comment: If you aim at someone’s heart from that distance, you’ll likely hit his feet—or the dirt. Aim above the target’s head to allow for the curve of the arrow’s flight.
A few months previously, I would have made the same mistake (and had done so, many times, in my past books), but it just so happened that, at that time, I was taking archery lessons. My new-found knowledge of that skill enabled me to avoid a common blunder: describing an activity inaccurately because I had not personally experienced it.
When I was younger, such inaccuracies did not bother me. For example, no one else knew how to use a sword either, so my flawed descriptions were unlikely to draw criticism. But as I developed my craft, I realized that this was simply writer’s laziness.
I learned that, although I could not possibly experience all of the activities I expected my characters to experience, I could, at least, do my research. Rather than bogging down the story with technical details, the realism enriched my stories beyond my anticipation.
You see, when the writer knows nothing of the activity he describes, he has to supplement his lack of detail and color with information about feelings and emotions. Yet, had he been able to write more confidently about the activity, the emotions would have interpreted themselves.
Let me show you the difference. Which scene shows more depth?
If your story is worth telling, you ought to love it enough to be willing to work over it until it is true—true not only to the ideal, but true also to the real. (Henry van Dyke, preface to The Story of the Other Wise Man)
Oberon and Prince Arius faced each other, separated by about ten paces, as the herald retired into the officials’ ring. The two men stood motionless, their swords drawn and ready, their stances relaxed but coiled for action. “See how Prince Arius stands?” Captain Fennen spoke in a low voice to me. “He is relaxed and coiled, like a viper ready to strike. His stance is one of confidence. He intends to strike hard and fast.” “And Oberon?” “He is unwilling to show fear in the face of his enemy, but I know him well. He will be more cautious and guarded, yet he knows his best defense lies in a solid offense. He will, therefore, attempt to strike as early as possible.” (The Scorpion Mark, written March 2012)
Observe: While Example One openly explains the thoughts and intentions of the dueling men, the reader can interpret those same thoughts from the stances described in Example Two. From Arius’ less stable but more aggressive stance, the reader guesses that he plans to offer a strong offense. From Oberon’s more versatile and more cautious stance, the reader knows that Oberon is less confident in his skill and knows that a solid defense is his best chance.
If you can possibly experience the activities you describe in your stories, do so! If you cannot, speak to someone who has done that activity, or research as thoroughly as you can. Even in fiction, this realism lends far more richness to the story than all the sneaky ways in which we writers attempt to conceal our own ignorance.
Do not write out of caution. Write out of confidence!
Oberon and Prince Arius faced each other, separated by about ten paces, as the herald retired into the officials’ ring. The two men stood motionless, their swords drawn and ready, their stances relaxed but coiled for action. “See how Prince Arius stands?” Captain Fennen spoke in a low voice to me. “He has been trained in the Eastern Mountain style. He grips with both hands and he holds his sword high, near his shoulders. He can thrust, slash downward diagonally, or draw back to sweep down and strike from underneath. It is not so stable a stance as others, but it allows much opportunity to attack.” “And Oberon’s stance?” “He is, of course, Sylvan-trained, and I have sparred many times with him. His guard is lower, near his hip. He does not have much power from there, but he has a great deal of versatility at his disposal and a great opportunity for movement. He can strike high or low. It is a cautious stance, but very solid and protects well, while offering many chances to attack.” (The Scorpion Mark, written March 2012)