The goddess needs a slang term for heroin

“When you create stories, you become gods of tiny, intricate dimensions.”             –Metatron, Supernatural

Will somebody please tell my characters I’m the god—er, goddess, whatever—of their tiny, intricate dimension? I don’t think they got the memo.

All joking aside, I do understand that when push comes to shove, I’m in control of the world I create. It may require me to step away from the project for a while, reaffirm my goal for the story, rediscover my characters, but I’m ultimately in charge. I can make characters whatever I want. They can be male, female, sane, crazy, soldiers, attorneys, candlestick makers, anything. Well, maybe in theory.

The problem is, I don’t know the first thing about being a soldier, an attorney, or a candlestick maker. In fact, I don’t know the first thing about most things in the world. My knowledge base of first-hand experience is limited. The only thing I know that most people probably don’t is how it feels to get kicked in the face by a horse. Therefore, writing characters who have done and seen things I haven’t done or seen can be problematic. Exhibit A: drugs.

Embarrassing story time! In the first draft of a short story I wrote for class, I wrote something about a character “snorting crack.” Yeah.

That wasn’t the first time Carly’s lack of drug knowledge was an issue. In my failed NaNo project, one of the first people to die was a drug dealer. My friends and I joked about Googling “street names for heroin” and how I was probably put on a federal watch list (something something NSA something something irony), but even though I got my answers, it didn’t make the scene any more convincing.

There are some things you just can’t Google, but there are some things you may not be able to experience first-hand either. For instance, how do fabulously wealthy people live? Unfortunately, I can’t answer that, and I can’t very well contact someone who lives in the Hamptons and say, “Hey, mind if I hang out with your family for a bit? Just, you know, observe how you interact with each other, what your children are like, maybe take that Aston Martin out for a spin? It’s research for my book.”

Now, if you’ve never done drugs and you’re not fabulously wealthy, my best guesstimate of how drug dealers and rich people act may not seem noticeably out of place to you. However, the guesses will be brutally obvious to someone out there. It could be the deciding factor in whether someone finishes the book or tosses it aside, whether they recommend it to a friend or give it a two-star review. Exhibit B: horses.

I’ve been riding horses since I was four years old. I’ve had just about every kind of trainer out there. I’ve ridden a wide variety of horses. I can clean a stall more efficiently and automatically than I can vacuum a room. Absolutely nothing can pull me out of a story faster than an inaccurate portrayal of horses, and oh boy, are they everywhere. Do not ask me to watch a “horse movie” because, from The Horse Whisperer to Hidalgo, Hollywood does it all wrong. Horses may not be central to video games, but nothing reminds me the game is all fake better than seeing reins connected to browbands. Thankfully, most people who write horse books actually know what they’re talking about, but once in a while you get someone who just wants to throw a riding scene in there and positively butchers it. The point is, the little details you don’t think are important could leave a mighty big impression.

So, if you’re writing something with horses in it, feel free to ask me questions! Since most of you probably aren’t, that’s a useless offer but it stands nonetheless. However, what to do about those things you can’t Google? What if you can’t take lessons? I think the answer is to get interviews.

So here are my questions for all of you writing gods and goddesses. Have you done interviews as research? How do you get them? How do you get attorneys and doctors to take time out of their day to talk to you? How do you ask addicts or victims of crimes questions that could be painful to them? I have yet to do any interviews as part of my research, so I’m curious as to how more experienced people manage it and how well it works.

One more question. Have you used TV shows or movies as “research” and gotten away with it? Obviously I’m not talking about borrowing the physics (or lack thereof) in the The Fast and the Furious, but what about Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of a person with autism in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Charlize Theron as a serial killer in Monster? Does Hollywood do anything right?

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3 comments on “The goddess needs a slang term for heroin

  1. robakers says:

    I would like to answer as a writing god, but I am afraid you would soon find that I am a pseudo-god. Please take my comments at surface level only.

    I struggled with this very question for a long period of time. About a year or longer, before I came to the conclusion that I am not trying to re-invent the wheel here. My current work is set in the present time, and is more or less a spy/thriller, my point is that I am not trying to describe a new and different world to a reader. They already have a good working knowledge of how this world behaves.

    It is my job to take the reader up to a point, where they will fill in the gaps with their own imagination and knowledge. Consider this sentence, “Blah, blah, blah, the bad guy grabbed the gun and fired.” Your mind filled in the details about what the bad guy looked like, what the gun looks like and what it sounded like. If it is important, I can be more descriptive by saying pistol, shotgun, rifle, assault weapon. Your mind already knows what these look like and I don’t have to do anything else.

    If I want to be overtly accurate I might say 1911, Springfield Arms, iridium night sights, double action, chrome plated, pistol, with a double stack, 15 round, hollow point, man stopper rounds. The gun guy gets everything I said, does a reader really care? Is it important to the story? I don’t know, if so, keep it and make sure it is important. If not, make it simple and say pistol. The writer’s job is to keep the story moving, not get bogged down in the details.

    I have never been shot, most people haven’t. But everyone knows that it would not be a pleasant experience. I have never been in an ultra-wealthy home but I have a mental image of what that might be like. Connect my image with your scene and you have done your job. The same with the crack house, just make the connection and I will do the rest.

    Trust the reader to bring the details of their life to the story. They will fill in the important details and you don’t have to worry about being the expert of everything. If you are a horse person, you will automatically fill in those details. I am not a horse person but I can also fill in the details about Paul Revere riding down the street.

    Hope this makes sense. I have three young kids circling me like sharks.

    • Carly says:

      I definitely agree that too much detail, regardless of how accurate it is, can be distracting. There’s always that temptation to say “Well I’ve spent six days researching how to shear a sheep, so I’m going to shoe-horn it in here, damn it!” and it’s usually brutally obvious to the reader (one of my friends felt this way about the paper-making bit in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife). As far as connecting the writer’s words to the reader’s images, I suppose that’s really what my last question was. Can I get away with describing a place or a lifestyle I’ve never experienced because you’ve never experienced it either, we’ve just probably seen the same TV shows, movies, or photos? It sounds like I can, at least if it’s done carefully and in moderation.

      Thank you for sharing! I do hope you escaped the sharks!

  2. b.h.quinn says:

    I do an insane amount of research for things that I don’t know much about. I tend to read more books than watch them on television and in movies (I live in Hawaii, so I know how incorrect that can be in regard to making the place “real”). The only “real” way to learn about things is to do it or go there yourself, or to have someone who has look over your work. Fortunately, since many people know that’s hard to do they’ll forgive small mistakes as long as you get the big, easily-researchable ones right.

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