I was pretty, had been in quite a few plays, and thought I had some potential to go professional at some point. Toward the end of this period, I confided to my acting coach that I dreamed of playing Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, to which she responded with a hearty—and cruel—laugh. “You have a lot of living to do before you can ever play Blanche DuBois, dear.”
My translation: “Don’t give up your day job, child. You ain’t got the talent.”
So I went back to the school paper and never set foot on the stage again except when they called “Author! Author!” for a murder mystery I had written.
At that stage of my life I was a naïve teenager living at home with my mother. I didn’t drink and I didn’t smoke. The character I had dreamed of portraying on the stage was an aging alcoholic Southern belle who lived in a state of perpetual panic about her fading beauty. Her life was completely at the other end of the spectrum from mine. How could I even begin to comprehend the depths of this character in order to portray her convincingly?
I came to realize the source of that coach’s laughter recently when the opportunity presented itself for me to take a gun class. I jumped at the chance for a couple of reasons:
- I thought it would be fun, and it was;
- As the author of murder mysteries in which my main characters regularly carry and shoot guns, I believed it would be good research to find out about these weapons.
I looked down at this thing in my hand and thought: I could kill someone with this.
The weapon wasn’t as heavy as I had expected, but it sure looked scary to me. I went up to the range and when the instructor called out, “Threat!” (He didn’t call out “Fire” because we were to shoot at our leisure, not on command.) I pulled the trigger and emptied the gun of six rounds.
No one was as surprised as I was when I hit the center of the target with almost every shot. I was good!
As I examined the target and all the holes that I had put in it, I looked down at the gun in my hand and felt a sense of power: I could kill someone with this.
Since I write murder mysteries, it goes without saying that people get killed in my books. Detectives with guns go after the bad guys, and bad guys with guns go after the good guys. Even though most murder mystery authors don’t really carry badges and guns and shoot real bullets at real bad guys (but many have), it doesn’t hurt to get out there and take a short walk in their shoes, even if only for play, in order to bring something authentic to the page.
By the time the instructor upgraded me to a 9 millimeter semi-automatic, I was able to put myself in the mind of Archie Monday when a murder suspect attempts to intimidate her in It’s Murder, My Son. As I aimed at the target with the same weapon I had her use, I envisioned the suspect in my sites. I was now present in the scene in a way I hadn’t been before.
I don’t think my acting coach meant that I had to become a lush in order to play Blanche DuBois. She probably meant that I should stay out after midnight at least one night in order to have something to draw on. Even the most talented actor with the vastest imagination can’t put himself in the character of a cat if he’s never even seen one. How can you write about a broken heart if your heart has never been broken? You can’t just imagine how it feels.
Many writers, I’m included, are introverts. They are most content when they’re home alone writing away on an intoxicating wave of imagination. But eventually that wave will come in. Imagination can take a writer only so far. Without some basis of reality to stand on they’re going to sink to the bottom.
That reality comes from getting out of the writer’s studio and collecting a stockpile of life experiences to store away and feed the imagination, even if only to draw upon it at a later time in another project further down the road.
So, put away that laptop. Brush your teeth. Take a gun class! Go bungee jumping or sky diving (that’s another blog post for a later time!). Go out into the world and do some living—then write about it!