Know Your Stuff
by Michelle Janene
Last month, I wrote about setting scenes in novels, grounding the reader in the sights, smells, feelings, sounds, and tastes of the world we are immersing them in. But there is more than just where the story is taking place that needs consideration. There are the fine details of actions or our character’s occupations, skills, and, interests that can make or break the story for the reader.
If a character is in a fight and a punch is thrown to the liver, what kind of damage can be done?
Can my hero use an elbow to defend himself?
Would the knight of the time period use a saber, rapier, or a sword?
What is the proper police procedure during an arrest?
These are the types of questions we need to research before we write. Or you do it as you go if you are a pantser (you write by the seat of your pants with no plans or outlines) like me.
As my editor reviewed one of my recently published novels, she pointed out some errors in my main character’s behavior. Drew is a cop. I watch a lot of cop dramas and wrote what I’d seen. But her husband is an actual retired law enforcement officer and as it turns out, the TV shows don’t have it right. Did you know, suspects are not read the Miranda Rights, at the time they are handcuffed to go to the police station? There are misconceptions about when these are given and the circumstances which surround the Miranda warnings. So, it pays to do the research.
Having friends is a great resource for things you don’t have the experience to write about. Last fall, while on the week-long outdoor science educational camp with my students (I’m a teacher in the other part of my life.), I sat with one of the parent chaperones. I asked him what he did for a living.
“I set up networks and secure cloud services for businesses out of my home.”
“You’re kidding. I’m currently writing a novel and my hero has that very job. Can I pick your brain a bit?”
He was thrilled to share with me. Most people enjoy talking about what makes up their world.
At one point in my first novel, my heroine hangs by handcuffs. While writing this, my school hosted an event where a number of different departments from local law enforcement made presentations. As the students rotated through the canine unit, undercover unit, helicopter unit and other stations, we came to one where a father of a current student allowed us try on handcuffs. I asked if I could try too, and explained why. The officer was happy to oblige—and the kids thought it was great fun to see their teacher cuffed. I pulled against them to see where they might hit my hand if I were hanging from them. Though I didn’t use much pressure, I could quickly tell where the metal would cut into my flesh. I made note of it and made sure I used that in my story.
Local businesses or visiting experts, are also great resources. A writing club in my area just hosted an expert on medieval weapons, and he brought several examples with him to talk about. When his presentation was over, he invited us up to handle them. It was a great opportunity to feel the difference between a long sword, a rapier, a dagger, and a battleax. All of this will make for great exacting detail in my next battle scene in my fantasy WIP. I’ve spoken with performers at renaissance fairs about long bows.
Earlier I mentioned a punch to the liver. According to expert Carla Hoch, that has the potential to drop a professional fighter, while the elbow can open up a cut on an opponent’s head. Carla has several fabulous resources for writers:
and its accompanying podcast, as well as her newly released book, Fight Write: How to Write Believable Fight Scenes. If you ever have the opportunity to meet her at a conference, she may sit down with you and go over your fight scene, then point out attacks, defenses, and possible injuries.
It doesn’t matter the genre or audience, some unseen reader will be an expert on the finer details of what is on the page. They will call a writer out for not getting it correct. Even if you are an introvert (like most writers are) go visit local businesses and talk to people who have the same jobs or skills as your characters. Do the research. Know your stuff.
About the Author
Michelle Janene lives and works in Northern California. Most days she blissfully exists in the medieval creations of her mind. She is a devoted teacher, a dysfunctional housekeeper, and a dedicated writer. She released her first novella Mission: Mistaken Identity in 2015. God’s Rebel came out in 2016, followed by Rebel’s Son and Hidden Rebel in 2017. She has been published in “Guide Post Magazine” and several anthologies. She leads two critique groups and is the founder of Strong Tower Press—Indie solutions for indie authors.
You can find her at
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You can read Michelle’s “The Writing Life” column on the 3rd Tuesday each month here at Mustard Seed Sentinel.