If you read the previous post, “Mile 9,” you’ve hopefully written your first line. If so, congratulations! Now it’s time for the second line and to put some serious thought to your characters.
I stole the title of this Trail Notes from James Patterson, one of the world’s best-selling authors. When talking about bringing life to his characters, he uses the phrase “be there,” meaning crawl into the skin of your characters, understand the best you can what they are going through, feeling and thinking, and then bring that to the reader.
The more the reader believes that you know what you’re writing about, whether they are aware of that belief or not, the more they will enjoy and immerse themself in your story. So, if you want your reader committed to your story, you commit to it.
If you’re going to write about a freezing night in the Rockies, spend a freezing night in the Rockies. And if you can’t make that happen, at least step outside for an hour in a T-shirt on a cold night.
Go 24 hours without food or water, and write about what that first sip of water or bite of food tastes like. Maybe even cook it over an open fire and describe the smells and the stomach pains as you wait for it to cook.
Spend a day in a saddle and see how sore and tired you are. Try saddling your own horse, picking its hooves, and rubbing it down with grass or burlap.
Build a fire on a cold night, maybe with the wind blowing hard. Use matches and not a lighter. Share the frustration when it won’t start and what it feels like when the kindling catches. Let your reader know how the fire warms the side facing the fire, but how your back side stays cold.
Walk, alone, for an hour at night. It can be as easy as picking a safe park, but do it after the lights are off. See if you don’t have a heightened sense of awareness, if you don’t jump at unusual or unexpected sounds and maybe even see a thing or two in the shadows that brings you pause. The people you’re writing about — and for — had and have those exact same emotions.
Let the reader smell the coffee boiling and taste that first sip after a long, hard, cold day. Wrap both hands around a hot mug and share how it feels, how you bring it close to your nose to capture every smell, how the steam curls slowly upward until being swept away by a light breeze.
Fire a gun. If your characters, good or bad, do, so should you. Before you write “the gun bucked in his hand,” find out what you’re talking about. And when you’re sighting in on the target, imagine it’s a man, with his gun drawn, ready to shoot at you.
Many, if not most, of these experiences are no different now than they were 150 years ago. The need for food, water, shelter and warmth has never changed. Bring your reader into your world with these shared needs and experiences, and your story will resonate deeply and richly.
Not only will the scenes involving the things discussed above be more realistic and believable, but they will lay a foundation of credibility for your entire story.
And yes, since you’re writing a Western, try eating a plate of cold, canned beans for dinner one night.
I wish you good writing, and if you have a question or something you’d like to share, send me an email at [email protected].
Thank you, enjoy and keep writing!