A piece of advice for writers that I come across frequently is that you should write what you know. It’s good, solid advice. So of course I ignore it completely.
Maybe completely isn’t really a good word. I write plenty of things I know. I know what it’s like to be in love, I know what hate feels like, I know what the sudden loss of a close friend feels like, I know what admiration and excitement feel like. To some extent I even know pain and heartbreak. I know plenty.
Yet I find myself constantly writing about things I don’t know and a story I have been working on somewhat often lately is constantly reminding me just how much I don’t know. I don’t know the oppression and hopelessness a slave feels, I don’t know what it feels like to be beaten within an inch of your life. I don’t know what it feels like to be truly afraid of another human being.
I like to tell myself that my imagination is my only limit, that if I can imagine hard enough that I can get myself to really be my characters and feel their agony. I’m just afraid my efforts are not good enough. This is especially frightening for me because there are so many writers out there right now that really can convince the reader that their characters are beaten down. In Brandon Sanderson’s Way of Kings I never once doubted that his characters that are slaves aren’t at the lowest point in their lives.
I want to write like that.
It’s hard. I’m not giving up though. I refuse to give up. I don’t know how to move forward in any other way but to make poor attempts and keep failing until I finally get it right. Someday I will make people believe that my characters are suffering, that they fear for their lives with every breath. That they try their hardest to do more than just survive and come up short time and time again.
Here’s what I mean in the meantime; this excerpt might be a little confusing without context so please take it as it is. (It’s first draft, it’s sloppy.) It’s the worst thing that has ever happened to this character, and it feels inadequate to me.
Sir snorted and then reached down and grabbed her arm. He dragged her up to her feet and out away from the wall of the pit and the other slaves. None of the others even turned to look. They knew better.
Harlow’s heart thudded in her chest. She’d seen this before, she knew what was coming.
Sir shoved her out in front of him and she stumbled and fell to her knees. She looked up at him, truly afraid of him for the first time since she’d become a slave. What she’d thought had been fear had actually been a wary sort of respect for a powerful man.
Now she was afraid. She began to shake as she tried to climb back to her feet but a look from Sir stopped her. She dropped back to her knees and took deep breaths to try to stop her heart from exploding out of her chest.
Sir raised his arm with the whip uncoiled in his hand. Harlow closed her eyes.
For a moment she thought that maybe he had changed his mind. Maybe something had happened to distract him.
Then there was a crack, the loudest crack she’d ever heard. She was confused, it didn’t hurt.
And then all of a sudden it did. It was like a line of fire had spread across her left shoulder and down across her collarbone to her chest.
She screamed, louder than she’d ever screamed before and leaned forward holding her shoulder. That was a mistake.
The next strike from the whip burned across her back like fire again. She screamed again and again. The next strike crossed over the first on her back and she gasped and straightened her spine again in pain.
The fourth strike hit her arms as they were still crossed over the first mark. She screamed and dropped them to her sides as a fifth strike hit her chin and neck on the right side of her face.
And then everything was black.