You are lying on the floor, on your back, and a villain is looming over you. Someone stabs him from behind with a sword, and the blade goes right through his chest. Blood sprays over your face.
How does it feel?
Everyone associates the taste of blood with pennies, and the smell of a large quantity like that can be found by looking up witness reports from old crimes. The feel of it showering down onto your face, though, is somewhat harder to research.
Someone once asked me for advice on how to go about writing that exact scene, but in the most realistic and detailed way possible. My suggestion was to put some glycerine in a large glass, mix it with warm water, then lie down and ask someone to throw it over their face.
Foolishly, they did it.
Perhaps foolishly is the wrong word. The scene that they wrote afterwards was visceral and immersive, and the description of the spray of blood was particularly graphic. In that sense it was a complete success. They still threw warm glycerine over their own face, which I found rather funny, but the end justified the means.
That’s basically the point of method writing. Try something out so you can accurately describe it later. You can be creative with this; combining different things into one or undertaking a comparable activity that gives insight. The principle comes from method acting, and applying the same sense of living the experience to writing, so you really can write what you know.
How would you write a first person account of injecting heroin, and the subsequent high, if you have never taken it? The injection part is easy; almost everyone will have been inoculated or given blood at some point. As for heroin induced euphoria, we best ask John Travolta.
Whilst preparing to film Pulp Fiction, John Travolta wanted to understand how it felt to get high on heroin. He was informed that getting drunk on tequila whilst sat in a hot tub would induce a similar sensation, albeit not in the same league as heroin. John Travolta, and his wife, then sat in a hot tub and drank lots of tequila. So if you want to know how it feels, it’s more advisable to be like John Travolta, rather than just injecting yourself.
How would you write about suffocating in the vacuum of space?
I’d approach this by doing the obvious and holding my breath. Not with a lungful of air, but with empty lungs. I would refuse to let my body inhale for a few moments, and during that time I would focus on the stress and pain that my muscles and organs would feel, along with the panic and fear that would fill my mind. That would give me enough of an insight to start writing. Throw in a little research into the effects of a vacuum on a human body, and some imagination to fill in the gaps, and I would have a scene that was both immersive in the description and accurate in the portrayal.
Why would you do this, though? Why not just imagine it all, or research it? Why do you have to feel it?
My response to these questions is simple. When I can imagine, when I can research, I do, but to accurately portray something I like to put myself in that situation. If I’m writing about a tribe living in the jungle I remember that holiday where it was really hot and humid, add in a recollection of being in a forest full of bugs, and then use the images of jungles I have seen in film footage, as any writer would. Perhaps a bit of looking-up for things like rain times, temperatures, local wildlife, and so forth. Just because I’m not going to the jungle to experience it does not mean I cannot write about it effectively, and by using memories I am relying as much on my own experience as if I were to get drunk in a hot tub, or have a cup of warm glycerine thrown in my face.
Every writer has imagined grief and pain, sorrow and love, heartache and fear. It comes with the territory. How do we know what these emotions are like? We use past experiences and build upon them, manipulating our memories to create details for new stories. Method writing is simply taking that idea, but then seeking to experience those things we wish to write about but are yet to undertake ourselves.
Of course, be sensible with method writing. Please do not undertake anything illegal or unsafe in the name of research. You can achieve any feeling or sensation through simple means, and then just scale it up in your mind to the volume you feel is suitable. Remember, you do have an imagination.