So I had to have emergency surgery two days ago, which I am grateful for (you know for the life-saving aspect, and all the fine methods of modern medicine which keep residual effects to a minimum), but which is frustrating for a variety of reasons. I was supposed to do a long obstacle race in two weeks and that’s not happening, plus I am not allowed to pick up anything over 10 Lb for two weeks, in other words, my six-month-old. I cannot pick up my own child. I have to have my husband gently settle him onto me simply so I can feed him.
I texted my dear friend and crit partner to let her know I had surgery and she said what only a writer would say in response: essentially, “hey, now you know what it feels like to get stabbed!” Obviously, very useful, although I hope I don’t have to experience all, or even most of my characters injuries in order to properly empathize. I would like to use my imagination to cover some of that ground, thank you very much.
But the real-world experience is invaluable, just like knowing about physics is invaluable if you’re doing CGI for an action scene in a movie. If you ignore physics, it looks very, very stupid. If you ignore physiology, same spiel.
Several of my characters suffer some serious wounds and I really try to get this right. I confess that my eyes glaze if I read about “searing pain” and “gushing blood” without being able to connect that to something real. I want to be able to make it real. A vivid description of a paper-cut can make me wince more effectively than a video-game inspired scene of gore, amputation, and gut-spilling–firstly, because I’ve actually had a paper-cut, and secondly because you can tell the difference between a description drawing on experience, and one drawing on media imagery.
I mentioned a while back that labor and delivery is another good school for learning about gore and pain first-hand. Also, Marine Corps boot camp and the first two/three months of being a mom? Those work really well for teaching you about sheer exhaustion and the bizarre ability to fall asleep on your feet for a few seconds at a time.
So now, post-op, as I try to strategize about how to get up off the couch without ripping anything open, I am strategizing about how to realistically apply this experience to my characters so that the things that happen to them matter and resonate…so that it reads truthfully.
Which brings me to (seemingly unrelated) topic two: water.
For a while I’ve wanted to write a post about water scarcity and how its something Westerners don’t often think about because it’s pumped into houses and comes out of the faucet drinkable. Water is life or death in some places. Water is hard work. So I’m tacking it onto this discussion on personal experiences, water is such an integral facet of everyday life, everywhere in the world. But how often do you think about it?
Personally, I think about it all the time, especially when I take a hot shower. Hot showers are like miniature miracles. You turn a knob and, a few minutes later, there is hot water and unless you’re taking what a surgeon I recently met referred to as a “16-year-old-girl” shower (which, hey, sometimes I do), you probably have enough hot water to go for a while. You can still do dishes and give the baby a warm bath in the sink. It’s amazing. I think it’s good not to forget how amazing that is, and to be grateful if you have it. Such amenities are by no means universal.
We didn’t have water problems growing up, but when I worked at a clinic in Mexico for two months (when I was fourteen/fifteen) we had to buy drinking water and there were no hot showers. Some people we knew could not afford to buy water, and their kids were constantly ill as a result. It was a huge problem.
When I was deployed to Iraq, we had these giant pallets of drinking water–usually hot from sitting out in the sun–strewn about the area and you had to be conscious of carrying water with you and knowing how you could get water wherever you went. Also, navy showers, obviously. Or “sink showers” if needs be.
I had to purchase drinking water when in Egypt as well and it particularly bothered me that a lot of the kids there would buy soda/pop when they were thirsty instead of water because supposedly it was cheaper and because if you’re a kid, which would you buy? Be honest.
People who have electric well pumps, like my oldest sister, have to store water in tubs during storms in case the electricity goes out and water cannot be manually pumped into the faucets.
My second sister lives in Tanzania and all her water has to go through a single or double filtration system (locals usually boil or use a single method of filtration, foreigners/westerners, being less accustomed and more cautious, usually have a second level of filtration). She actually wrote a quick, fun explanation of the process here.
Okay, okay, this is probably getting tedious to read about, but water is so important, and so easy to take for granted. My story is set in the desert, so I have to think very thoroughly about the effect of water (or lack thereof) in such a setting. My story has whole armies that have to drink. I don’t have to write (and probably shouldn’t write) in great detail about aqueducts, well-depth, drought, water-borne disease, but I do have to write with all that in mind, because otherwise the story isn’t just fantasy…it’s nonsense. Unless, of course, you invent a world where water is not one of the most basic and essential features of our lives.
Last example? My husband and I, on our honeymoon, backpacking through the wilderness. We had to cache water several miles into the hike (ahead of time) so we could unearth it when we reached that point because it was summer and only a few of the natural springs were flowing. Later we had to hike an arduous side trail, because we were essentially out of water, not sure if the spring would be flowing high enough to draw from when we got there! Luckily it was, but we had to work hard to get it and bring it all back to our campsite.
And that was just two people in a semi-desert filled with numerous natural springs, and a map with all of them conveniently marked in location. Many people have to work hard for their water every day, or else risk illness every day. Just something to think about.
P.S. And if you want to look into an organization to this effect: This is Charity: Water’s mission statement.