Nothing Like the Real Thing

Tuesday’s Scribe, PJ Sharon here. One of the things I love about my writing life is all of the fun new experiences I get to have while researching for my books. Last month, I took a day and drove the back roads to Albany so I could get a feel for the landscape, the drive time, and the city.
I’d never been to Albany, but it made sense for my dystopian story to have the main trading hub in the Northeast be located there with the Hudson River and the Erie Canal being so accessible. I had used tools like Google Earth, Google Maps, the Chamber of Commerce for Albany, and Wikipedia, but nothing gave me as much of a visceral experience as really being there. I wanted to feel what my characters might feel, see what they would see, and go where they would go. I wanted to know what the Hudson smelled like and how depressed the economy was. Overall, It was a great experience. I even got to meet the lovely ladies in the Tourist Information Bureau who asked me to make sure to contact them when the book is finished so they can schedule a book signing on site.

Along the same lines, I’ve thought about taking a gun safety course for quite some time. I’d taken one many years ago and done my share of shooting when I was younger, but at the time, with children in my house, I decided I wasn’t willing to take the risk of owning any firearms, so I never got licensed. Now that my kids are long past the age of living at home, and I’m writing about hill folk who own guns, I thought it was a good time to revisit firearms training.  

When I first began writing fiction and I needed to know some details about guns and how to use them, I turned once again to the internet. I began studying types of handguns to determine what size and firepower would best suit my characters, what type of holster they might wear to conceal their weapon, and most importantly, what it would feel like to fire a pistol. Hundreds of YouTube videos later, I had the information I needed, but I was missing the most important parts of the experience. The tactile, visceral experience I vaguely remembered from my youth. The anticipation as you focus the front sight of your pistol on the target down range, the adrenaline rush as you begin to squeeze the trigger, and the sensation of power that kicks back as the gun discharges. Or even the pride you feel when you reel in your target and see how well you did.
You can’t experience that sense of satisfaction from a YouTube video. Gun enthusiast or not, every writer who crafts stories about gun-toting heroes and heroines should try firing a handgun at least once…with supervision of course.

 In my effort to get some real hands on experience, my husband and I sat through a torturously steamy gun safety course this past weekend. That’s right, twenty-five people in a tiny room with no air conditioning for eight hours on a 96 degree day. Ick! It’s a miracle that the only shots fired were down range at the targets. Despite the less than comfortable conditions, I learned a lot about the law, (Massachusetts has some of the strictest gun laws in the country), and did quite a good job on both the written and practical exam, scoring 100% and making some nice tight groupings in the black on my target. Like any new skill though, I have a lot to learn, and since I plan to continue writing stories about kick butt heroes and heroines, I plan to continue my training. I’ll be taking the next level course in a few weeks and will be looking into getting certified as an NRA “Refuse to be a Victim” instructor where I’ll actually be able to teach courses in personal safety and crime prevention.  

Even though I started this new adventure as an adjunct to my research, I realized that I’m going to these lengths in part because I’m passionate about personal protection, but also because I believe that everyone should be informed and prepared. In case you missed my series on Self-Defense for Teens, Marian Lanouette has asked me to re-post it to her blog next week. Whether you are a fifteen-year-old girl or a fifty-year-old woman, it’s never too late to learn to defend yourself.

Aside from adding to my arsenal of personal experiences from which I can draw for my books, gun safety and personal protection have practical application that I hope never to have to use. But the reality is that there are dangers we all face every day.

If I can be a part of making the world a safer place for women by training them to be prepared to protect themselves, I’m all in.


And in response to Jamie Pope’s post yesterday about the steamy hunks of the big and small screen, I went home after seeing Magic Mike and gave my hubby a big smooch and told him how much I appreciate him. Because when it comes down to loving our heroes, don’t you agree? There’s nothing like the real thing.

What’s the most outrageous thing you’ve done in the name of research?

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26 thoughts on “Nothing Like the Real Thing”

  1. Funny – the cardinal rule – was the first thing my father ever taught me about gun safety and it was the first thing I drilled into younger son’s head when he started his airsoft/air gun obesession. And I totally agree, watching something only gets you so far! There is no substitute for real experience when you can get it!

    1. We didn’t learn gun safety rules as kids. My brother got a BB gun when he was twelve and shot me with it at least twice before my mom took it away. Then a few years later, he got a shot gun (a 410) that we would take to the dump and shoot at old record albums, throwing them into the air like skeet. His friends had 12 and 20 gagues so I got to feel what it was like to get knocked on my butt and have my shoulder nearly dislocated form the recoil. The 20 wasn’t so bad, but a 12 gague shot gun can really kick! Later, when I was a single mom living alone in a bad neighborhood, I took a gun safety course and realized all of the things we had done wrong and felt very fortunate that we hadn’t killed anyone. Oh, those were the days…

  2. No, there’s nothing like the real thing, whether it’s research or our husbands! And that’s crazy about your bro shooting you 2x with the bb gun! Shame on him!

  3. Thanks, Tamara. My brother was a bit of a handful. Once was a “ricochet”, the second time…well he was just a dumb twelve year old with no common sense and a bad temper–a terrible combination for anyone with a gun. I’m still amazed that we lived through our childhood and are now the best of friends.

  4. History nerd alert! Growing up in New York State, we studied the Erie Canal fairly intensively as part of the history/social studies curriculum. The Canal (and its various feeder canals) was dug by hand from Albany to Buffalo using the the Hudson (running north to south) and Mohawk (running east to west) Rivers. New York State is full of large bodies of water (Lake Champlain, the Finger Lakes, Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, and the St. Lawrence River) that made it easy to move goods and people around. The Erie Canal (and its smaller, sister Barge Canal) is still navigable in many spots, and there are bike paths along stretches of it if you wanted to get a really up close sense of the landscape. I LOVE the idea of your characters using the canal system a few years into the future! All that water is still going to be there, and if they have to travel any distance (say to Buffalo and on to Chicago or the other Great Lakes Cities, that’s going to be the best way to get there if there are no motorized vehicles. Fabulous job of world building, PJ! I can’t wait to read this one.

    1. We must chat about this, sister! I had no idea you knew so much about my “Albany research.” Maybe you and I could take a road trip together. I’d love to go back again. I was there right before the tulip festival. Washington Park was beautiful.

      As I wrote some of my waterfront scenes, I made reference to the bike trails and how all of the vendors have their tents lined up there. Lily and Will also make use of a cargo ship heading down the Hudson to escape the city when Industry guardians are hot on their trail. Ooops…spoiler alert!

      Interestingly, my future brain tells me that people will negotiate through the city on Bikes and Segways (2-wheeled upright motorized scooters-solar powered of course). Fun, right? Sadly, In my future world, although Albany fairs pretty well, LA, NYC and DC…not so much.

  5. I treat life as though it’s research for the next book. The weirdest thing I’ve done (so far) is study that stages of decomposition. The most neurotic thing I do is record my feelings when something distresses me or when something physically hurts. ;)

    Cool on you for sitting through the gun safety course. My husband is a firearms coach and instructor. He says a gun safety course is a huge benefit to just about anybody, even people who have been around guns their entire lives.

    The most interesting experience I’ve had with a gun is shooting a shotgun. My husband took me all the way from birdshot to a shotgun shell that has two large slugs in inside it. The birdshot shells caused very little recoil and peppered the paper target with tiny holes. The backside of the paper target was shredded from the birdshot. The shells with slugs knocked me backward several steps and left holes the size of a silver dollar in the paper target. It was an interesting lesson.

    1. Neat, Catie. I like your idea of journaling about strong emotions. I can see where that would be a great writing tool. As for studying the stages of decomposition…brilliant…and ewww!

      Shot guns are a whole other game. No matter how tight I hold the butt of the gun to my shoulder and brace myself, a 12 gauge always hurts and pushes me back a bit. After a few rounds, I can bet my shoulder will be bruised the next day. The only benefit is that accuracy is not so much of an issue:-)

  6. Paula, research is fantastic. It’s stimulating and an incentive to writing my story. Because my characters come from real life, I have read letters written by them, visited sites they were involved in. Spoken with people who knew relatives from the past. And yet, still, I recently discovered more about the artist and his adventure in Yosemite. I am thinking about visiting the park sometime in the near future. The deeper I venture into my story, the more exciting my characters seem to be. Thanks for this great post.

  7. I spent a day at a gun club in MA with Sisters in Crime and handled all types of guns. The shooting part was fun (are you scared now!) And I learned a lot about gun safety and laws.

    1. Very cool, Marian. I’m hoping to get the instructor, who is a former ATF and Swat member, to come talk with us and answer questions for a CTRWA meeting in the future. He was extremely interesting and knowlegeable.

  8. I totally agree that you have to personally handle the fire arms to appreciate all that’s involved–ifi you’re a writer. Every few years LCRW(my local chapter in Rochester, NY) shoot on the shooting range with the FBI–we shoot numerous different guns, even a muzzle loader. It’s great fun, not expensive, and we learn so much. As far your brother goes–what a naughty boy, but I’ve heard several others have had similiar situation so it must be a sister/brother thing. As far as my most daring thing I’ve done in the name of research–well, years ago on one of my short Fall vacations fto Maine(that time to Bar Harbor) with my husband and our friends–well let say I wanted to interview a sea captain. I did interview one–oh my–he was tall, broad shoulder, a trimmed beard, and the most incredible blue eyes. I stil have the napkin from the bar with all my hen-scratchings on them–and yes I can read them with a bit of eye strain. You got it! We’d had a before cocktail, and with supper imbied some lovely wine, then completed it with a Kalhlua coffee. Well, let me tell you, I’m not a big drinker, I enjoy a glass of wine or a drink as well as anyone, but I was far over my limit. I do remember the interview, I can read my sloppy notes, but I have know idea what kind of impression I left with that handsome hunk. He most likely has told that story over and over to friends and mates aboard his ship and has had as many laughs as we did in telling of that evening. I should maybe jump out of writing Historicals and put all that into a contemporary. To all–Happy Fourth of JUly!

  9. Very cool, PJ. When I bought my Glock, I tried out several different guns. The 9mm was the one I shot with the best. It was the first I tried and scored in the high 80’s. Not bad for the first time I ever picked up a gun. I’ve had it several years, but have never gotten my concealed license. That’s on the to do list. I think you’ve inspired me to move it up. I like Catie’s idea of journaling about emotions. Wish I’d thought of doing that myself sooner.

    1. You had me at “When I bought my Glock,” Rhonda. LOL. I like the 9mm, too. Very smooth, not too heavy, but certainly no pea shooter. I won’t be carrying a weapon strapped to my bra on a daily basis, but I like the idea that if I needed to, I could have it on my person for protection. I do a lot of solitary activities in remote locations and it would be ideal for that.

  10. Very good, Paula. I remember my experiences with a high-school friend who kept a small-gauge rifle. I would shoot paper targets in his basement.
    My personal trainer is a retired NYPD cop, keeps guns, and wishes I would have one as well for my own protection. So far, I don’t feel capable of taking that step. I will have to compensate with good home security and a heightened awareness around me as I travel. I’m working on it!

    1. You are right to trust your instincts, Susan. Guns aren’t for everyone. No one should own a gun who is not comfortable and confident with using one. One of the courses I will be taking, “Refuse to be a Victim,” has nothing to do with weapons or self-defense. It is a course that teaches personal safety, home security, and crime prevention. I’m anxious to see what tips they teach and will be sure to pass them on. Thanks for stopping in and have a great Independence Day:-)

  11. I think it’s sweet that the ladies at the Tourist Information Bureau asked you to contact them when the book is finished so they can schedule a book signing.

    i agree that experience is key. My daughter asked me if I wanted to learn how to throw an ax ( she knows someone who teaches it) and I said hell yeah. This should be interesting. :)

  12. An ax, huh? That sounds fun…or scary. If it was me doing the throwing it would be scary. I’ve got a terrible throwing arm. Dangerous even with a frisbee.

    The tourism ladies were very excited that I was writing a YA dystopian and that Albany would be a key piece in the plot. I guess not many people writing fiction about Albany, LOL.

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