Although I don’t consider myself a star graduate of the write-what-you-know school of crafting a novel, I’ve found personal experience provides a firm foundation. Still, a few months ago I found myself on shaky ground, deep in write-what-you-don’t-know land.
When I pounded out the final pages of Through a Yellow Wood back in 2011, I thought I wouldn’t visit Hemlock Lake again. So, in tying up loose ends and leaving the characters looking toward the future, I gave Camille a baby bump.
2014 rolled around and my fictional folks started lobbying for me to continue their lives in a third book. Since the previous mysteries began in the spring and concluded in September—and since I’m a Virgo and can’t resist a pattern—I knew this one would start as winter retreated from the Catskills. That meant Camille would have her baby on the pages of The Devil’s Tombstone.
And that meant I was in big trouble. I’ve done a lot of things in my life, but giving birth wasn’t one of them. What if I got it wrong?
Channeling Butterfly McQueen as Prissy in Gone With the Wind, I raced to my husband’s office (AKA the man cave in the basement) crying, “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies!”
“Pick an evening when I’m out,” he counseled when I calmed down. “Invite your gal pals over for one of those macaroni-and-cheese-fueled talk sessions. They’ll give you graphic details.”
Eeekkkk. That was exactly what I wanted to avoid.
As the oldest of a pack of cousins, I often overheard my mother and aunts sharing their experiences during labor and delivery. I was too young to fully understand, but old enough to pick up on words like pain, exhaustion, intense pain, contractions, endless pain, pushing, screaming pain, etc.
I got the idea—giving birth was a far cry from a walk in the woods or a picnic at the beach. I also got that each woman experiences labor in different ways, and that time and pain could vary greatly.
A few hours spent scouring the Internet and a slew of postings confirmed that I had plenty of leeway. If I wanted Camille’s baby to pop out, that could happen. If I wanted labor to go on for a day or more, that could also happen.
I decided Camille would be in enough trouble already—stranded by a snowstorm miles from medical assistance—so I cut labor short. But being stranded created new problems for Camille. And for me.
Back on the Internet, I scrounged information on home deliveries and problems that could arise. I read about dilation and contractions, umbilical cords and the placenta. My head spun about like it belonged to the girl in The Exorcist.
How much detail would female readers want? What about male readers? And what about my male protagonist?
I couldn’t recall my father or uncles hanging around while their wives recounted birthing stories. In fact, I recall them doing disappearing acts worthy of the greatest illusionists.
In the end, I glossed over parts of the process and left out far more than I put in. After reading the scene a friend told me, “At first I was angry that you didn’t describe the birth. I felt cheated. Then I realized that anything you wrote wouldn’t be my experience and I would feel angry about that as well.”
That doesn’t exactly mean I got it all right. But maybe it means I didn’t get it all wrong.
Did I learn a lesson from my venture into write-what-you-don’t-know land? You bet. I’m close to 200 pages along in No Substitute for Myth and sticking to writing what I know. Um, except for the parts about Bigfoot.
Carolyn J. Rose is the author of the popular Subbing isn’t for Sissies series (No Substitute for Murder, No Substitute for Money, and No Substitute for Maturity), as well as the Catskill Mountains mysteries (Hemlock Lake, Through a Yellow Wood, and The Devil’s Tombstone). Other works include An Uncertain Refuge, Sea of Regret, A Place of Forgetting, and projects written with her husband, Mike Nettleton (The Hard Karma Shuffle, The Crushed Velvet Miasma, Drum Warrior, Death at Devil’s Harbor, Deception at Devil’s Harbor, and the short story collection Sucker Punches).
She grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She’s now a substitute teacher in Vancouver, Washington, and her interests are reading, swimming, walking, gardening, and NOT cooking. www.deadlyduomysteries.com