This kind of information sometimes has to be given to the reader. But think long and hard before you step away from your viewpoint character. It can be a very dangerous step, more confusing to the reader than helpful. The best rule is to stay with the protagonist at all times, unless it is absolutely impossible to say what needs to be said.
Use your protagonist's five senses to make certain that the story has as much sensory reality as possible. Check each page of your manuscript to see how many of the protagonist's senses are used. If a page has nothing but what the protagonist saw, or only what she heard, rewrite that page so that the sense of touch or taste or smell comes into play. It is astounding how much more vivid that makes the story.
Where do you find a strong protagonist, and what kind of problems can you give her?
Every story you write will be at least partially autobiographical, and every protagonist you create will contain more than a little of yourself. That is what makes writing such an emotional pursuit: You are revealing yourself, putting your heart and guts out on public display every time you write a story. When a story is rejected or a published story is battered by the critics or it fails to sell well, it is as if you yourself are being kicked, folded, stapled and mutilated. When a story sells or someone tells you she liked it or it wins an award, there is no amount of money in the world that can buy that feeling of elation. Each story you write is a part of you. Writers don't use ink, they use their own blood. And the reason most people stop writing is they can't stand the emotional strain, or they don't have the emotional need to write.
All this adds up to a simple fact: Your protagonists will be you, to a large degree, together with some mixture of people you know. Beginning writers are always advised to write about people and things that they know firsthand. Experienced writers are never told this, because they have learned the lesson thoroughly. No one ever writes about anything that she has not experienced firsthand. Never. It cannot be done.
Really? In a few moments you are going to read "Fifteen Miles," a story about a man trying to walk across fifteen miles of the moon's surface, an astronaut who is dragging back the injured body of a fellow astronaut. I have not been to the moon. I have never had to carry an injured friend through a wilderness for fifteen feet, let alone fifteen miles. So, where is my firsthand experience?
I know the people in that story firsthand. I have lived with Chester Arthur Kinsman in my head for almost half a century. I have written dozens of short stories and several novels about him. Almost all of them were rejected, and even "Fifteen Miles" was bounced by the first editor I sent it to. Kinsman and I learned to write together. Father Lemoyne and Bok, the astronomer, are also people I know, composites of many people I have met and worked with over the years.
"Fifteen Miles" was written before the Apollo program put astronauts on the moon. But it could not have been written before space probes such as Ranger and Surveyor photographed the lunar surface so thoroughly. I wrote the story literally surrounded by photos and maps of the area in which the action takes place. I worked in the aerospace industry for many years and became familiar with the kinds of equipment that will be used when we return to the moon for longer explorations. I have met and worked with the people involved in the space program. I have watched and read volumes of testimony before congressional committees, which is where the quotation that opens the story comes from.
All this is firsthand experience, of a kind. To this experience must come a touch of imagination. That touch came to me when I read Jack London's story "To Light a Fire." As I lived London's story and felt the bitter cold of the Yukon freezing me, somewhere deep in the back of my mind a tiny voice said to me, "If Jack London were alive today, he'd still be writing stories about men struggling against the wilderness but they'd be set on the moon, rather than on Earth."
Immediately the title, "Fifteen Miles," formed itself in my mind. I wanted to do a story about how difficult it might be to walk across fifteen miles of lunar landscape.
But that was just the bare idea. There was no story in my head until good old Chet Kinsman popped up and said, "Hey, this is my story. Remember where you left me last time, in 'Test in Orbit'? 'Fifteen Miles' is the sequel to that story."
He was right. I gave Kinsman the task of making that fifteen-mile walk and burdened him with a set of problems to make the situation as difficult as possible. I nearly killed him.
Which is what good story-writing is all about.
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