I nearly died.
It was a few years ago, before I got my first book deal, but I was already a writer, if not a published one. I had an anaphylactic reaction, and it happened like this. I developed a sore throat so my doctor prescribed an antibiotic which I’d taken (safely) many times before. I arrived back home from visiting the surgery, took the first tablet and…wooo… started to feel funny, slightly queasy and just… not right. Then my palms started to itch in that way that said this was an allergic reaction. Luckily my husband was at home. He took one look at me and called the doc, then bundled me into the car. The doc was ready and waiting at the surgery. They laid me out on a couch in the doc’s office and I dimly recall him telling the practice nurse to come in and watch because she might never see something like this again, but she needed to know what to do if she did.
My husband tells me that by this time I had blue lips and the rest of me was actually turning green, especially my ears for some weird reason. There were lumps the size of eggs coming up along my arms, going down again and coming up again in a different place, like I was playing host to an alien under my skin. I wasn’t in pain, just feeling extremely strange and my breathing was laboured (throat swelling closed, but I didn’t know that at the time). I wasn’t scared, in fact I was strangely not-scared even though I knew this was serious. In quick succession the doc injected adrenaline, antihistamine (Piriton), and when that didn’t seem to be working quickly enough, followed it up with a steroid shot. All this while the emergency ambulance was on its way.
Once in the ambulance and heading for the nearest hospital, eight miles away, with the siren going and the blue flashing light, I started to shake. Great, uncontrollable shudders starting in my toes and rolling up my body to my head, one after the other in waves.
By the time we reached the hospital the injections the doc had given me were starting to take effect. I was admitted overnight for observation, but the worst was over. As I was being wheeled to the ward, lying flat on my back on a trolley-bed, I saw the corridor lights flashing over my head, whoosh whoosh whoosh, just like they do in the movies. It felt kind of clichéd, but even while it was happening, I was thinking: remember all this; one day you’ll be able to use it in a book.
They say write what you know.
They don’t, of course, say write only what you know. We are all the sum of our experiences and as writers we should use those experiences to enrich and enliven our narrative.
Imagination is hugely important, but if you want it to feel real, combine imagination with experience. I’ve never fought in a battle or taken part in a cavalry charge, but I have
- ridden horses and mucked about in stables;
- kept German Shepherds;
- had two babies (not simultaneously);
- dislocated my shoulder (which is painful and hurts like hell but not in the place you expect it to hurt);
- run a village post office;
- tripped and bashed open my head (8 stitches), which gave me two wonderful black eyes and a permanent scar. Not one of my finer moments;
- been a librarian;
- broken my wrist;
- travelled the country selling stuff at craft fairs;
- been badly bitten by a dog. Note: don’t pull away when a big dog has his teeth in your wrist or it does more damage. Push instead. Dogs’ teeth are designed for tearing – don’t give it the opportunity;
- had a nasty leg wound which took months to heal and has left a large scar like a shark bite. I won’t show the pics of that in case you’re trying to eat food while reading this;
- given emergency first aid when my husband bashed open his head/gouged his finger to the bone/trapped his hand in a car door. (Not all at the same time, but he does DIY, what can I say?);
- stood up against someone potentially dangerous for something I believed in under difficult circumstances (that’s a long story for another time);
- stood on a large outdoor stage and sung to twenty thousand people as part of Artisan – an a cappella trio;
- Sung to three people and the landlord’s dog in a pub in Kent in a snowstorm. (It’s not all rock and roll and big festival audiences.);
- spent a lot of time in recording studios – 12 CDs – and radio stations;
- had my own (short) a cappella music series on BBC Radio2
- played host to a lot of touring musicians;
- renovated an old house;
- done family history and local history research;
- had someone drill into my jaw bone, not to implant a spying device or a poisoned tooth, but I guess it felt the same.
- travelled many times to Canada and the USA. Also to Germany, Belgium, and Australia (via Hong Kong)
None of these things in themselves would make particularly good reading (except maybe number thirteen), but using the experiences in the right place in your narrative would certainly help to make it real.
Of course, I don’t want to have a Mary Sue character, so I’m not putting myself into my books, just using my experiences and writing what I know.
Cherish your experiences, the good and the bad. Use the feelings, if not the actual event, to make your narrative feel real.