This week I had a whole day — yes, a whole day — to spend on research for the next book. I did some walking around town, mooning around the garden, lounging on the sofa making notes on my main character, but what took up the bulk of my time was looking up information on knives. These are the times when a writer’s life can be slightly random with a sprinkling of alarming if anyone was to check their Google history, but in my case they’d also see Survival Skills and Bushcraft come high on the list, so hopefully the writer-turned-psychopath alarm bells won’t be ringing too long.
For some reason the ability to survive in a bleak landscape with just a few bits of twine, a mirror and a packet of condoms (great for water storage apparently) has always fascinated me. Possibly it goes back to a book I read as a teenager, about a couple of boys who become stranded in the wilderness after a plane crash. I can’t remember much about the story, and frustratingly I can’t remember the title or the writer, but I vividly remember asking myself what I’d do if I found myself in that situation. Would I be resourceful enough to find clean water, make a sturdy shelter, or fashion a blanket from leaves and bark? Would I have the where-with-all to distinguish the nutritious from the poisonous berries? And most crucially would I have the ability to start a fire after the sudden cloudburst that struck in the night which provided much needed drinking water (filling up all the condoms) but made my matches damp and useless.
This is one of the things I do when I read stories. I put myself in the position of the main character and wonder what I would do. Would I have stolen food for Magwitch and let Estella push me around? How much personal history would I give Hannibal Lecter in exchange for his co-operation? And recently, while reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, would I have taken the painting, and if so, would I have found a way to give it back without incriminating myself or the saintly Hobie?
Stories enable us to put ourselves in the place of others, to try to see their lives with all the complications and complexities of their experience, making us feel their rage or unhappiness or love or compassion. Ultimately, by seeing a situation through someone else’s perspective and feeling empathy for that character, it throws light on our own experience and helps us to understand ourselves.
I like to think I’d be great at surviving in the wild, just like those boys scavenging for food, building a tree house and skinning rabbits, but for now I’m going to have to be happy with throwing my main character out of her house to see how she deals with it instead.