Difficult Passages: Writing Outside of Our Experience

The underground passages of Znojmo

As writers we all have written those passages that leap out of our minds and onto the page without much effort.  When this happens, there is a thrill that is unmatched by anything we could do or say.  Sometimes we write passages that seem for us to be easily penned, but most of the time, I find that certain types of passages or character narratives cause me scratch my head with my pen…or type random words on the keyboard.  Some passages are simply outside of our experience.  How do we write these passages well and what process could we use to write them well?

I recently wrote the following chapter which occurs somewhere toward the beginning of my first novel, and after finishing it I wondered how in the world I was able to do it.  First of all, it is from the perspective of a 32 year old woman who lost her husband in the war two years previous.  She is falling in love with a man named Mark, who is one of the leaders of the new world government.  Here is the scene:

I couldn’t believe we were on the deck taking a moonlight stroll after all the violence and the lockdown.  It was so strange.  Mark was so nice to me, made me feel safe, spoke to me with a voice like silk.

It didn’t hurt either that he was easy to look at.

I didn’t really see the cruise ship.  I think it had fallen behind because of damage.  I was only assuming this because every time I’d ask Mark about it he would change the subject.  He was kind of evasive about government matters.  I was used to this being married to a Ranger, but Mark was kind enough to deflect my questions politely and carefully so as not to hurt my feelings.  All he would say is “we have matters in hand.”

So confident.

I walked to the edge of the runway on the deck and looked out across the water.  There was a haze in the air that obscured the stars but allowed the light of the full moon to shine through as if it were a flashlight behind a thick piece of gauze.  I felt Mark’s strong hands gripping my shoulders and I melted, longing for that feeling again, falling willingly into his strong arms, tired of these two years of not knowing and then the awful mourning that I wished would vanish from my heart.

“Things are so much better where we are going,” he said, his voice smooth, a beautiful song in my ears.  “You will see.  We have all but eliminated hunger, disease and war, the three things that brought our world to its knees.  We have a strong government under God’s guidance.  He is helping us every step of the way, and has been influencing all of our great discoveries.”

I was never that religious.  I went along with it.  At least he believed in something beyond himself.  It’s what I loved about my husband.

“When will we get there?” I asked, turning to face him, a smile forming on my lips that I could not help, could not hide anymore.  He took my hands in his.  Big, strong, warm hands.

“In about five more days,”  he assured me.  “We will be seeing the lights of the new city as we sail in under a blanket of darkness just as this.  After our voyage, the people will be given new homes and new lives in the government.  No one will have to earn money or make a living because we have done everything to ensure that people’s lives are pleasant and happy.  We will find work for everyone, because everyone has a special service they can offer.”

I smiled wide, and he returned the favor, his beautiful dark eyes gazing into mine.

“What would be my job?”  I asked.  I hadn’t felt this way since my husband and I met so many years ago.

“What would you like to do?” he responded, pulling me by the hand to walk along the edge of the deck, his other hand brushing the railing as we went.  “There are many jobs.  What are you qualified to do?”

“Not much but to be a doting wife.  My husband’s pay took care of both of us before the war.  Thought about going back to school.  I haven’t really considered…”

And he kissed me, held me close to his surprisingly muscular body, and I gave in, my body melting into his embrace, my heart pounding.

“Then you shall be my doting wife,” he said softly.  “If you will have me.”

I did not say anything.  I stood quiet, feeling the guilt of leaving my dead husband’s memory for a moment, but then seeing Mark’s kind eyes gave me solace for that.  It was time to move on.

I followed him down below decks to a door marked “officer’s quarters”, and then he led me to a room with one of those bulkhead doors, but inside was a queen sized bed and personal bathroom.  We stood at the door, kissing, embracing, and I could feel his heart thumping in his chest.

“This will be your quarters from now on,” he told me.  “Feel free to tell the porter if you need anything at all.  These are hard times.  People need each other, and I’m glad you have agreed to be a part of my life.  I would only ask that you stay here as a gift from me.”

“Sure,” was all I could say.

“I have to go to a meeting now,” he told me, lightly kissing my forehead.  “I will come back and we can talk later tomorrow.  Until then enjoy this room.”

He walked away, and I closed the bulkhead door and lay back on the feather soft bed, my heart racing, my head spinning pleasantly.  I didn’t think I would be able to sleep, but remarkably I did.

When I finished writing this passage I wondered how a 41 year old heterosexual male could write this.  The women who have read the passage feel that I have captured what most of them feel when falling for a man, but this was a difficult passage for me.  I wanted to be sure I had the emotions correct.  In this case, I asked my wife to be honest about how she felt when she met me.

Here are some guidelines when writing passages that are out of your element:

1.  Research – If you want to write a passage that is outside of your experience, probably the best thing you can do is research.  People who know me understand that I might ask them the strangest question at any time.  I ask police officers about city procedures if the infrastructure of the nation shut down.  I ask my wife to tell me how she feels when she falls in love for the first time in a long time.  I ask widows how they feel about dating after their husbands die.  This helps me to understand a bit about what I need to write and the rest is embellishment, but I make sure I ground my writing in real experience as much as possible.

2.  Acting – Much of getting inside the head of a character is about acting.  I imagine what my characters think and believe after creating detailed character biographies of each of them.  I always read this character biography before writing from their voice.  I pretend to be them.  This helps to create a more vivid and realistic continuity of character that then translates them over to the mind of the reader in a way that is more static and memorable.

3.  Revision – Sometimes the passage comes out all wrong.  Let’s face it, most times it comes out all wrong.  The important thing is to not give up on a difficult passage.  Go ahead and write it out until the end knowing that you will come back later and revise it.  Most of my difficult passages are solved by spending some time away from them.  My mind eventually works out the kinks of it and I come back the next day or even a few hours later and rework the problem passage until it starts to sing. At first the notes might be a little sour, but after several revisions writers can usually find the problem areas that need smoothing out.

How do you deal with problematic passages or passages that are out of your element?  Please post below.

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4 thoughts on “Difficult Passages: Writing Outside of Our Experience

  1. I think “acting” is great advice. When I write speeches for someone else, I imagine them actually saying it. Imagining my words are theirs makes them ring true.

  2. Great post and advice, Roger, as always. I like your three guidelines, and do a lot of all of them. My ‘conundrum’ in my YA book will be the fact that I never had children, and rarely see my nieces and nephews to get a chance to chat with them. I’ve been ‘eavesdropping’ on kids’ chatter every time I go out, but I know that I need to do more research of some kind on that before I’ll be satisfied with the dialogue parts of my book. I don’t want to simply use current kid slang, though, as I feel that will ‘date’ my book, and I want it to be timeless – it will be a major challenge for me, though, more so than anything else in my book. Thanks for all the tips and advice you share with us! ~ Julie 🙂

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