Recently, a good friend asked how difficult it was to write the tough and raw scenes in my historical fiction novel, A Decent Woman. I knew what she meant and it was a great question. My story is about the complex lives of women in turn of the century Puerto Rico and life wasn’t easy for women of that era. I’d never experienced slavery or physical abuse at the hands of a man nor had I served jail time like my protagonist, Ana. So, how did I write those scenes without personal experience?
How do you write believable, realistic scenes and dialogue when you haven’t experienced the tough or raw situations your characters find themselves in?
It’s not easy, believe me. When I wrote the first manuscript of A Decent Woman, I didn’t have a title, but I knew who the characters were and what their roles in the novel would be. The original story was about the friendship of two women-a midwife and a client turned friend in turn of the century Puerto Rico. No real beefy issues except for a philandering husband. I finished writing in six months and then, discovered a book of non-fiction that changed my story forever. I still believe the Universe placed this scholarly book in my hands.
Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico, 1870-1920, written by Dr. Eileen Suarez Findlay, posed a challenge – I knew I had to go deep into uncharted waters or go home with my first novel. The story I had written was interesting, but flat. The characters were one-sided and I hadn’t delved deep enough into their thoughts, motivations and desires. I hadn’t added challenges to their lives, no drama and the philandering husband had no voice. After I readImposing Decency, I began the second draft of A Decent Woman, and the stories of my characters within the story emerged. How?
You go to that place in your heart that you’ve kept walled up and protected. We all know that place we’ve put away and kept hidden so we don’t feel the pain again. No one I know, including myself, has been immune to some type of loss. Pain in pain. We might have lost a parent, a sibling or a cherished pet. Many of us have experienced a devastating divorce, the painful loss of a home or job as a result of the divorce or the economy. Our children may have suffered bullying in school or a heartbreaking disappointment in their young lives.
If you have personally escaped such things, you are blessed. In that case, access your heart and be open to the pain and suffering of others. You’ve certainly read tragic stories in newspapers or television. Sit with a sad or tragic story. Put yourself in the person’s shoes and imagine what that person or family must be going through with their loss and grief. Write down your thoughts and if you never use them in whatever you are currently writing, you might later. And if you never use them, you have learned to dig for emotions and feelings within yourself. You’ve accessed that place of raw truth within yourself and your compassion for others has deepened. Both are beautiful experiences.
For writers, it’s important to access our wounds. This involves being willing to remove the bandages and slowly, pick at scabs as we write. It can be intense. You may find yourself crying as you write which has happened to me many times. You are in the moment. Keep writing.
Use your own life experiences. I worked as a counselor, in a children’s residential treatment center, and in a Belgian refugee center. I didn’t have to look hard. I’ve always known that my life experiences would help me with this book. I just had to start and be willing to access what I’d read, heard and seen which was tough.
When I finished the first draft of the manuscript of A Decent Woman, I hadn’t planned on writing tough, raw scenes. The characters in my story live in a tumultuous time. Writing about the complex women’s lives in turn of the century Puerto Rico demanded writing raw scenes because they happened. The current manuscript is one I’m proud of.
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Ernest Hemingway
After an intense writing session of a difficult chapter or scene, I go to the garden and dig in the dirt or I take a mini road trip in the country or along the river. I admire God’s beauty and I let those feelings and emotions go to a place of peace…until the next writing session.