Most people have heard of method actors – those actors who get so into their roles they live, eat and breathe them, to the point where they even walk around talking like their character, or working in the career the character has, so they can get the ‘inside’ view of who they are. The attention to detail these actors put into their work shines through on screen, so the performance they give is authentic and compelling.
I wonder, though, if I’m the only method author. Well, that might be an elaboration, I don’t try to become a character I’m writing, but I have been known to go to extremes to furnish my background with experiences that will make it easier to write a better story.
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was around 11 years old, so all my life, really. Certainly all my adult life. In that time a great many of my life choices were geared towards giving me an in-depth background for future stories. I call it research.
I had this idea for a book when I was 19. It was some kind of post-nuclear apocalyptic survival thingy. Can’t remember the details. The setting was underground, because that’s where we’ll all have to live after the nuclear holocaust, right? So I joined the local caving club and pottered off to the Mendips to get a first-hand experience of life underground. 18 months later, I’d abandoned the book, but I knew a hell of a lot about caving, sump-diving, climbing and belaying. In fact, to this day, I know what it’s like to be down a cave in real life; what the dangers are, how dark it gets without any lights, how quickly a dry cave can become a watery tomb. If ever my characters end up down a cave (and they have) I know how to write about it.
Know how to splint a broken leg? Treat a sucking wound? A burn? Know the BBC (Breathing, bleeding and consciousness) and which to tackle first? I figured if my characters were ever injured it might be a good idea to know what their chances of survival were, how their fellow characters could help them and what after effects there might be. So I took a first-aid course. Sure, it was a long time ago now, but I still know about hazards, injuries and major trauma and how it might be dealt with. Bonus – if I ever come across someone who’s choking or having a heart attack, I might be able to save their life. Or faint. There’s always that.
The Final Frontier
Because of the upheaval of moving around a lot during my school years, I didn’t get to take science as a qualification. I was always a bit miffed about that, because I write sci-fi and it’s a good idea, if you’re writing about sciency stuff, to know what you’re talking about. Or at least know a bit. Stuff like how gravity works, what isotopes are, Newtonian physics, and quantum mechanics. So, without any intention of ever getting a degree, I took a basic Open University course in science. And a second level one in astrophysics. Okay, the astrophysics one was a bit beyond me. I had to do sums for that one. Big sums. Sums which took up a whole side of A4 each. Sums that took me a whole weekend – yes ONE WHOLE WEEKEND! – to work out the answer to. And I still got wrong. But I now know about the life of a star, what an astronomical unit is, how gravity affects light and all the other cool stuff I was missing before I started out. So I failed. So what? At least I know how big Titan is and the mineral composition of a chondritic meteor, should I ever need to write about it. Just saying.
I have to confess I’ve never had a clue about fighting. It doesn’t come naturally to me and I’d rather avoid it, thanks. But any novel which has action scenes in it has to come across as convincing, even if the writer’s female.
I’m the girl who ran round pointing her finger and shouting ‘piew, piew’ at the boys, who were, in turn, making awesome machine-gun noises with their fingers and ‘thacka-thackaing’ as they swooped in in their imaginary helicopters. If I was ever going to write a decent action scene, I needed to do some real research. This was a two-fold endeavour.
- Tae Kwon Do (close quarters combat)
Yes, I did. For four years. I can smash an inch of wood with my hand and can hold my own against a guy. Almost got my black-belt, too. At which point it all started feeling a bit serious and I quit. Well, actually, I replaced it with something else
- Army (fire fights and survival)
Well it was the territorials, but it worked for me.
That was me, running up a hill with a too-big back-pack and boots that didn’t fit a woman’s legs. I learned to field-strip and fire an automatic rifle, transcribe morse code, read a map, use a compass, Blue Peter the ass out of a bungie cord and a poncho and pick up my poop with a plastic bag. Great fun.
At least now, if my characters are stuck in a jungle escaping psychotic aliens, or surrounded by robot ninjas, they will have some idea how to survive. Convincingly.
So what happens if my character’s a prostitute? Or a heroin addict? Or serial killer? Erm… I’ll read up on those. There are limits to my shenanigans.
I think my next bit of research should be experiencing space travel. I’m not holding my breath on that one, though. Or maybe I should. Since it’s space. And, errm, there’s no air.