Writing is akin to acting. You have to put yourself in the place of the character you’re writing about and view the world and events through that character’s eyes. Only then will the character begin to become “real” for both readers and author.
In the past, authors could understand their characters and settings through interviews and travel to other places. Oral accounts and books where people relayed firsthand experiences in different cultures helped as well. Historical documents (e.g. birth and death certificates, rosters, church and census records, etc.), and diaries also gave insight. Newspapers, photos, letters, postcards, and relics could fill in additional details.
Nowadays, a writer has even more tools available. In Fragments, Claire is the victim of significant sexual abuse, has lived on the street for many months, and has pierced and tattooed herself in ways that even Phoenix can’t understand. She’s also bifurcated her tongue. Phoenix is the child of a hoarder who’s chosen to rebel against that tendency through an austere lifestyle. To understand what drives people so different than myself, I accessed some rather impressive sources that required no more than my laptop computer from the comfort of my own home and office. These included reality television show, blogs, Wikipedia, Facebook groups, Google images, email, and YouTube. A simple search for “why do women get tattoos and piercings?” led me to photos of tattooed and pierced women as well as the reasons some have for altering their bodies in these ways. A quick YouTube search on “how to bifurcate a tongue” yields 1,790 results (although I have to admit that I couldn’t make it through the actual tongue-cutting). An added bonus with YouTube is that I was able to not only see what people looked like, but also to hear them explain the methods and reasons behind such alterations. In order to understand Phoenix’s perspective on growing up as the son of a hoarder, one of the resources I used was
Facebook. There I asked to be invited to the group, “Adult Children of Hoarders.” Through blogs, I learned why some people choose to strip the possessions in their lives down to the bare minimum. Because of such resources and the story they helped me create, I was able to both empathize with and also grow to like Phoenix and Claire. Quite a bit, actually.
Blogs, email interviews, and Google images have provided great information for some of my other stories as well. When I wanted to know what a Ugandan bus station looked like, I found multiple pictures on Google Images. News, medical sources, and victims’ rights sites helped me to understand the plight of acid attack victims. For another story, I needed information about downtown Syracuse, NY in 1965. Pretty specific, right? Emailing people I knew who lived there during the 1960s helped with some of the specific details. Wikipedia also filled in gaps. Although not the source of choice for academic research, Wikipedia is a great place to go to begin research. Many entries include “See also,” “Notes,” “References,” and “Further reading” sections at the end of the main articles. (The entry for “Vikings,” for example, includes 163 notes, most of which include clickable links.) By employing such tools, an author can potentially help readers to understand and even appreciate people who are different, whether they be fictional or real.
All these wonderful resources aside, today’s author still needs an active imagination to tell a tale so that it will be authentic, accessible, and interesting to readers—and to herself during the long process of writing a story or book.