I agree with Eduora, that one should always learn. In my case, learning helps me write. I don’t mean learning how to query agents or craft plot points (though those things are useful!). I mean learning about subjects one doesn’t usually study in school — whitewater kayaking, duck hunting, the 911 call center, shore birds, car transmissions. I’m curious about random subjects because I never know when a random fact will get the chance to shine in a piece I write.
The desire to learn recently led me to take part in a Sheriff’s Citizens Academy Class where I live. I write novels that involve characters who often have run-ins with the law, big and small, so I needed to know how the process works, what law enforcement officers are like up-close and personal, and what’s inside the mobile crime lab.
I learned all that and more. I learned that an 85-year old lady in town carries a tiny antique Derringer in her purse, that a Navy-trained dog can fail out of class because she loves to bark, that the coroner has 5 categories to use when declaring the cause of death, and that you’re 70% more likely to survive a gun fight if you move in a random pattern.
I didn’t go into the class thinking I needed (or wanted) to know all that, but my brain is a great storehouse just waiting to be tapped. I never know when I’ll be called on to create a character with shaky hands who thinks it’s a good idea to carry a loaded weapon into Wal-Mart, but I now have a pretty good idea what makes such a person tick.
The idea for my next novel involves trail running, so I’ve been hanging out at races. I recently volunteered at one event (which meant waking up at 4am, but hey, you gotta do what you gotta do) in order to meet athletes very unlike me who wanted to run 36 miles up and down hills at 6 in the morning for 9 hours. Some writers could do a good job writing about such a race without ever having been to one, but that doesn’t work so well for me. I need to see the runners’ faces, I need to hear their accents, I need to ask about their packets of electrolytes, I need to scope out their compression socks, I need to stand on top of a granite mountain and watch the sun make the black sky softly pink at the very eastern edge of the horizon while the race clock adds up its red time while I’m so oddly groggy I can’t figure out what’s happening to the sky for several seconds.
I suppose this all comes back to the dictum “Write what you know.” I feel like I can never know enough. That’s why I take target practice with the sheriff, why I put myself in a kayak on class 3 rapids, why I keep learning, so I can keep writing.
Prompt: Learn something new today. Ask questions about a subject you know little about. Inter view an expert — your doctor, your pilot, your Uber driver. Get facts from them that you can’t get anywhere else. Try and meet the person behind the information. Write a short sketch starring a character like that. Make the information you received less important than the character you discovered. Let the character drive the action. Repeat as necessary.