You can learn a lot from reading fiction.
As a reader, I love when an author paints a rich story between the covers of her book, complete with settings so well described you can picture them in your mind, back stories of the characters meted out gradually so I understand why they act the way they do, rich details of the daily lifestyles of the characters. All these factors make the story immersive, difficult to put down.
As an author, it’s always my goal to create that kind of experience for my readers. One area that I pay attention to is what the characters do for a living. What they do every day is important to the story, and it helps shape their personalities and priorities. I like to include at least a few scenes showing the character at work. Thinking back through the many books I’ve written, I’ve included the following professions in my stories: teacher, handyman, wooden furniture builder, innkeeper, masseuse, clothing designer, soldier, lawyer, veterinarian, student, country music artist, daycare provider.
Many of these professions I’m close enough to in my everyday life that I can imagine what day-to-day work is like. But many of them I’ve had to do extensive research in order to get it right.
In my book, Capsized, I bit off a challenge. My hero, Jett Martin’s day job was a personal trainer. But his real passion was for competitive yacht racing. As a side hustle, he’d entered a contest offered by a sailing company soliciting inventions they could invest in that would enhance the sailing sport. Jett’s invention idea was a sunscreen lotion to apply to sails to prevent damage by the sun. In the story, Jett convinces our heroine Sadie to compete alongside him in a sailing race after only a few weeks of training. Winning the race could help tip the scales and earn him that lucrative contest win and start a whole new life for him, so the stakes are high.
The series Capsized falls into is my Murrells Inlet Miracles series, which is very beachy. Of all the books I’ve written that take place at the beach, I’d never tackled boating. I was happy with the opportunity for excitement and adventure that the plot offered.
For the sunscreen invention, I did some research on what were the most common problems faced by competitive yacht sailors. Over and over, it came up: keeping the big tall sails in good shape so they could capture the best wind and achieve the fastest speeds. In addition to twisting and tearing, sun damage was one of the top reasons sails failed. So I came up with … sunscreen for sails! Why not? It’s not a product currently offered on the market, so it made sense for Jett to enter it in a contest looking for sailing inventions.
But what about the day-to-day sailing knowledge and the actual race? I knew absolutely nothing about sailing! I don’t think I’ve ever been on a sailboat in my life! How could I make this sailing story exciting and suspenseful … and accurate? Chances are, people with sailing experience would read my book and I wouldn’t want them to be frustrated by mistakes.
The first place I hit was Google. I uncovered lots of internet resources on sailing — videos showing how to sail, what the different parts of a sailboat were called, all the unique jargon sailors use, some of the real-life races that Sadie and Jett might compete in. I really tried, from my desk chair, to learn to talk (write) like a sailor. But after writing a few scenes, I knew they were clunky. I did my best with the limited knowledge I had, but it definitely needed to be fact-checked.
A writer friend of mine suggested, since I live by the ocean, to go down to the nearby marina and take a few lessons. But I was writing the book in the fall and it was a little cold, not to mention, taking a few lessons wouldn’t put me at the skill level where Jett needed to be!
So I took to Facebook and in a post on my author page, I asked for help from any of my followers who were sailors. I asked for people who knew sailing, to be willing to read my scenes containing sailing content and act as editors for me. Catch my mistakes and tell me how to correct them so the sailing content was accurate. In return, I’d dedicate the book to them and give them an autographed copy of the paperback when it was published.
I got just the response I needed! One of my followers had a friend who actually was a sailing instructor in Lake Michigan! She’d not only taught a bunch of people to sail, but she’d competed in numerous races.
A woman who used to be my neighbor over twenty-five years ago offered up her husband, who was not only a sailor, but a budding novelist! Talk about a great combination of skills, knowledge and help.
And a high school classmate of mine volunteered her husband, who had his own sailboat and sailed whenever he could.
BINGO! Now I had a team of knowledgeable sailors to help me revise and polish and shine the sailing scenes that would be so important in this adventurous story. They were very helpful as I sent them scenes, incorporated all their feedback, sent them the revised scenes and even made further changes. Once the sailors gave their seal of approval, and the book was finished, my copy editor made further suggestions — not to change the sailing content, but to tone it down a little bit when I’d got a little too excited and included sailing knowledge that wasn’t important to the story!
I’m happy with the finished product and I’d like to offer an e-book copy of Capsized to one commenter who tells me: What sailing experiences have you had? Or, if you’re not a boater, tell me what your occupation is and if you’ve ever read a book featuring your occupation. If so, did the author get it right?