Monday, June 13, 2011

The Art of Extrapolation

Some writers can’t write about anything unless they have experienced it first-hand.

If they write about climbing Mt. Everest, they must climb Mt. Everest; if they write about escaping from killer sharks, they must swim with killer sharks; if they write about being stranded in the desert, they must become stranded in the desert, and so on and on. I am not one of these writers. And I’m sure I’m not alone. But take heart fellow cowardly writers, for there is an alternative. It’s called extrapolation. As defined by Webster, to extrapolate is “to project, extend or expand known data or experience into an area not known or experienced.” Or, as my grandfather put it less elegantly, but more simply, “You don’t have to stick your head in the garbage can to know it stinks.” Wise old grandpa.

For example, most moms have experienced losing sight of their child in a crowded airport, train station or department store. The panic, the rush of adrenalin, the icy fear. And they have also felt the dizzy relief, the joy mixed with anger, when the tot shows up, peeking out from a rack of clothing. It is not too hard to extrapolate those feelings into what a mother feels when her child is kidnapped, and later returned.

We have all experienced death in some form, either of a pet or a wild animal—bird or squirrel—in the woods. Some of us have even had the misfortunes of witnessing the death of a relative or friend. The point is, we don’t have to visit a morgue and look at rows of corpses, to know what death is.

Recently, in the novel I’m currently working on, I was trying to describe the claustrophobic feelings of a young man on a submarine. I remembered playing hide and seek as a child when some smart-aleck kid locked me in the closet where I was hiding. Presto! That panicky, trapped feeling came back in a rush and I was able to give those feelings to my character. While working on another novel, I had to describe what it’s like to ride a motorcycle. A kind friend let me sit on his Harley, parked on a busy highway and that was enough. I could imagine the rest—the throb of the motor, the wind in my hair, and narrowly missing an eighteen-wheeler.

So—relax. You don’t have to risk your life to write. Extrapolate. That’s what we have imaginations for.

Robin Hathaway

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