How Do People Behave?

Alright, y’all, I’m about 28,000 words into my first work of fiction and it has become clear that I have never met any people in real life. I don’t know how they talk, or how they engage with other people, or even if they’re still in the room halfway through a scene.

When I first started writing after college I remember thinking I could never write fiction because it’s just too many moving parts. When I record things that happened in real life, I don’t have to make it up or imagine how one exits a room, I just write down what I saw or how I felt. Now, while making my first attempt, I’m deviating from the outline, adding a ton of tedious detail to stall before a big scene I’m worried about writing, and I could really use another character or two but I’m pretty sure I’d get confused and leave them standing in the snow while everyone else is inside around the fire.

I’ve watched my husband play approximately eleventybillion hours of video games and writing this book makes me think of the RPGs he plays where there are randos standing around motionless that you can go up to and have them say, “something is happening behind the mill” over and over again and then they just keep standing in the same spot, never learning a new skill. A lot of my character interactions are working out like this. I needed a character to make an announcement, but then I forgot about him and he’s just standing on a grassy knoll somewhere muttering the same announcement to himself. I am the character with the glitch walking into a corner she can’t back out of.

I am going to finish the book. I really, really am. I told myself I would. But I’m also not sure I can edit away all the mistakes I’ve made and still have a whole book at the end. When I get stuck I’m just repeating all writing is good practice as if I won’t be so horribly dejected at the end of this process that I’ll want to try again.

When I read something like Harry Potter, a book that takes place entirely in another world that has to be built from the ground up and maintained throughout seven books, I get totally overwhelmed thinking about the work that would entail and the mental focus required to keep it all coherent. So for my first fiction project, I went with historical fiction. I picked a time period different from my own, because for every tiny thing I know about how humans act, I know far less about how people act today, in 2021. I don’t know how people date or chat or even talk to people on the street because even before the pandemic I was a homebody and I’ve been in a serious relationship for 16 years so unless my main characters meet in a foreign language class in college, I don’t know how that would work. But at the same time, I couldn’t pick a really well-documented time period or famous characters because I had a crippling fear of getting things historically wrong.

Instead, I chose to write a story that opens in 1894 in a village outside St Petersburg, Russia. Now, I have been to St Petersburg and I lived in Moscow for four years, but obviously I still had a lot of research to do since I was there about 110 years later than my characters. There are historically accurate things happening in the background, but my characters are not real people, so its easier to make decisions that won’t fly in the face of recorded history. This is my happy medium for now: I can research the time period and get inspiration, but if I get things wrong it’s not like I’m writing a story where the Tsar is never removed or, you know, brutally murdered. Unless you’re a Russian history buff (or perhaps a Russian person with knowledge of the time period passed down from relatives long dead) you’re not going to read my book and say, “hey! that’s not how it happened!” My main character doesn’t have a microwave or a cell phone, so I think I’m doing okay so far.

So, friends, I’m here to tell you that you should try that new thing you’ve been wanting to try. You don’t have to be great at it, just try it and then decide if you want to try it again. Complete the cross-stitch project, build the bookshelf, or finish the play, and then go over your work and decide what comes next. If the books slide off the shelf and onto the floor, do you want to try again or throw it into the sea? If you don’t finish, you won’t know whether or not it could have been something, anything, to you someday. Maybe you try and bake that cake a few more times before you give up, or maybe you learn that you’d much rather buy a cake from a bakery.

Finish the book. (Someone please remind me of this in a couple weeks, k?)

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