Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Living for a Writing

Back when my hair was naturally blond and my idea of dieting was only three scoops of chocolate ice cream drowning in hot fudge sauce instead of four, I went through a stage where I wanted to be an actress.

 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 na├»ve 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:
  1. I thought it would be fun, and it was;
  2. 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.
On the last night, the instructor took the class to the range for us to shoot a variety of guns on the range. When he placed the loaded 32 caliber semi-automatic in my hand, I had a feeling that I didn’t expect: Fear.

 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!


Donna Fletcher Crow said...

Lauren, what fun to read about your acting background. I, too, had flurries in that direction and did teach drama for awhile. I loved acting and writing, hated directing. Drama is a great background for writing because it teaches you to see your story in scenes. I'm just finishing up a romantic suspense A MIDSUMMER EVE'S NIGHTMARE based on some of my flings with the bard.

Lauren Carr said...

Thanks, Donna. I know that theater and screenplay writing has taught me to write tighter plots. I'd love to hear more about A MIDSUMMER EVE'S NIGHTMARE. Maybe when you come visit Sept 27 you can tell us a little bit about how your flings with the bard inspired your romantic suspense.

Donna Fletcher Crow said...

Thank you, Lauren. All my stories grow out of real life experiences--I suppose that's what "write what you know" means. I would love to share how all 3 of my current books have their roots in my own experiences. But fortunately, so far the murders are all fiction!

Carlene said...

I agree completely about a mystery writer learning about guns! I've shot pistols in competition, volunteered at the Sheriff's Department and gone on more than one ride-along with a deputy. I get very irritated at all the bad info in mystery novels!

Re: acting - boy can I relate! I wanted to be an actress as a child and my mother told me, "I don't think that's a good idea. Actresses are very beautiful."

Carlene Rae Dater
author of nine published books