05 July 2016

Writing What You Know -- the Hard Way

We've all heard this advice: write what you know. I've had editing clients take this advice the wrong way, thinking if they haven't experienced something themselves, they shouldn't write about it. In actuality, if you want to write about something and don't have enough information to get the details right, then do research. Learn all about it. Then you'll be able to write about what you know.
I got some firsthand experience Friday night about kidney stones. I'd never had one before, and I hope I never go through this process again. It started as a slight nagging pain, as if I'd slept wrong and a small area of my lower back had a knot in it. Within just two or three minutes, the nagging had become throbbing, and I swallowed an Advil. Not ten minutes later, the pain had become so acute that I thought I had really injured my back from briefly (thirty seconds, tops) carrying something heavy earlier in the day. (Last autumn, I aggravated some back muscles carrying home my escaped dog--I had no leash with me when I found him. A diagonal area across my back suddenly began throbbing hours later. This pain was similar.) I found the leftover pain medicine from the autumn injury and downed a muscle relaxer. Ten minutes after that, the pain was still increasing, and with tears in my eyes, I headed to the emergency room.

The pain came and went over the next few hours in waves. Sometimes I had no pain whatsoever. Three minutes later, I was crying for help, my pain a ten on the 1 - 10 pain scale. That is the way with a kidney stone, I've learned, which is what they diagnosed me with. My friend Becky Muth told me that she had kidney stone once. The pain of passing it was worse than when she had a baby, she said, so much so that she said she'd "rather go through childbirth again than pass another kidney stone." Mine hasn't passed yet (I don't think). I'm afraid of what's to come.

I don't know if I'll ever have the opportunity to use this firsthand knowledge in my writing, but I began thinking that perhaps I know people with firsthand knowledge that might be helpful to me and other authors. So I asked friends to share their stories. Here goes.

Having Nearly a Fifth of Your Teeth Pulled at Once

This tooth looks too happy.
I had my impacted wisdom teeth out long ago, and it wasn't fun. But it was nothing like what Becky (yes, same Becky from above) went through when she had six molars removed at once. Her words:

"I had six teeth extracted--all molars in the back. It felt like someone smacked me in the face with a baseball bat. The dentist's office miscalculated when I'd need [[to start]] my prescription, and the anesthesia started to wear off on the way home (about a thirty-five minute drive). I have an okay tolerance for pain as long as I have an outlet for general complaining, but this pain was so intense I couldn't speak. It hurt to nod my head when my husband asked me something. It was the first time I ever used painkillers around the clock. Two more dental visits are required to finish the work, and I'm dreading them. I'd probably choose the kidney stone. At least the medication for that caused me to sleep through a lot of the discomfort."

Experiencing Mysterious Back Pain

My friend author Meriah Crawford had terrible undiagnosed back pain. Turns out it was (is) a herniated disc in her lower back, but she didn't know that at the time. Her words:

"I have a herniated disc right now. It's given me my first real taste of what disability/chronic pain can be. Not sure I could handle it. What has struck me, though, is that it's less painful than the cramps I get (SO HORRIBLE), but I know cramps will pass and won't kill me. The fear (terror, at times) of the back pain gives it a whole other quality, though. I was genuinely afraid of becoming severely disabled or paralyzed through all this. When you don't know what it is, or you know enough to know it can be BAD, that's so much worse, at least for me."

Getting Pinned in a Car Wreck

My friend Diane Hale shares this harrowing tale:

"I was sixteen when it happened. One of those bizarre things; we had a sharp curve in the road, and the rear axle had crystallized, so when Dad thought it was a flat and tried to steer into the desert, it turned out the wheel was bent under the truck. He thought he was steering straight, but the front wheels were turned to compensate. When they hit a build-up of sand, it flipped us. [[The pickup]] flew forty feet before landing on the cab. I was stunned, blacked out when I thought I was pinned, then crawled out. My dad and I walked half a mile before a car came. I still wasn't feeling any pain, but turned out I had a broken pelvis. Perhaps I'm just one who's stunned first, doesn't feel pain until the adrenaline wears off. By the time help arrived (very rural area, a neighbor put a mattress in the back of his station wagon), I was beginning to hurt. I couldn't bend, so they had to pick me up and ease me onto the mattress for the hour-long ride to the hospital. [[It]] was so scary when I first woke up because I'm claustrophobic. Turned out I was sort-of pinned--between my dad and the back of the seat. I still vividly remember crawling out of the truck--both doors popped open--and seeing blood trickling down Dad's forehead. I was more worried about him than about me."

Having Undiagnosed Meningitis

A friend who wishes to remain anonymous tells this story:

"I had meningitis about seventeen years ago this summer. Through a series of horrible bouts of bad luck, I wasn't properly diagnosed and treated for a week. (A small-town doctor diagnosed it as a migraine and gave me pills for nausea and pain, which helped a little). By the time the worst came (I passed out and was sent to the ER), the pain was so intense that ending everything seemed like a wonderful relief. I was young, newly married, and had a six-month-old baby, but I was perfectly happy to accept death if it meant I could escape the pain. I want to stress that that all changed as soon as a neurologist got a hold of me and admitted me into the hospital--within days I felt like a new person who would never trade her life for anything. I've never thought it was a scary or unusual part of my personality, but when I hear of people in intense pain saying they prayed for death, I give a proverbial shrug and say 'yeah, I can see that'." 

Getting Your Nose Broken 

My friend author Alice Loweecey shares this story:

"I got my nose fractured at a karate self-defense class. The brown belt teacher was showing me how to break someone's nose. She made her hand into a stiff chopping weapon and promised to stop short every time. Once--fine. Twice--fine. Three times--WHAM! I literally saw stars and blood GUSHED out of my nose. It started to throb a minute later, and I got a wicked headache shortly after. It took forever to stop the bleeding and the next day my face swelled up and my got a very colorful bruise. To this day that side of my nose crackles a little and I can't rest sunglasses on it."

Being Stabbed

I'll wrap this up with a harrowing story from my friend author CiCi Coughlin, who has been shot and stabbed. Here she focuses on the stabbing, though she mentions the shooting too:

"The thing about an experience like [[being stabbed]] is it's rarely an accident. So, on top of the physical pain and trauma, you generally have a rash of emotions happening: panic, fear, a little bit of anger. There's also a sense of unreality, like it's such an extreme thing to be happening that you almost can't process that it's happening to you. In my case, it was a very unexpected attack when I was 18 and it was a fight for my life situation, so it wasn't just one stab, the end. By the time he stabbed me, I was already pretty banged up and had a concussion, so adrenaline was really high but I was also kinda wonky from the head damage. In some ways, I felt like I was both in the fight and outside watching, wondering who was going to win. 

"Physically, being stabbed was two things. First, it was like a major impact, like getting punched in the shoulder, but with the added issue of a blade. I was stabbed with a very thin, long blade, so that part was more almost a burning sensation, I suspect because the blade was so fine. The other thing is, with a stab wound, there's an in and an out and they are two very distinct sensations. In my case, there was about a five-second delay in between, so it was even more so. Plus, I was stabbed in a joint. The blade nicked the bone, and I had some ligament damage, though not a lot. But I also knew, sort of somewhere in the back of my mind, that it wasn't a potentially fatal blow, and I didn't lose blood as fast as I would have with a torso wound, so I wasn't as woozy as I might have been. Oddly, I'd already been shot in the same shoulder a year or so prior, so I can kind of 'compare.' At least in a shoulder like that, I'd far rather be shot. Might have been different if the shot hadn't gone all the way through, though. The knife actually did, too, so I had a skin puncture front and back. The difference with the knife, again, though, is it doesn't just go in, it goes in and comes out. So it's kind of a double trauma. Also, the bullet was a stray; no one was trying to shoot me, so there wasn't the kind of personal malice to deal with. Even if they had been specifically after me, it still would have been at something of a distance. Someone has to be really in your personal space to stab you, especially from the front. It's very personal and one-on-one -- kind of a twisted intimacy, if that makes sense."

I hope this information is helpful to my author friends. If you have any additional personal experiences you think might help other writers, feel free to share. And they don't have to be bad things. I've never jumped from a plane, for instance, and I never would, but I'd be interested in what that really feels like to do it. And I'd be interested in whether the perspective changes depending on whether the diver was eager or scared before the jump. Readers, please share your experiences, good and bad!


  1. I'm reminded of Nora Ephron's mom's : "Remember it's all copy, dear"

  2. I have done some original research in a couple of these areas. First, if you use as a pry-bar a hunting knife whose edge you have lovingly and painstakingly honed to razor sharpness, do be aware that it can slip and slide right into your belly. Not the best way to spend an evening.

    Then there was time time my dentist discovered she could not deaden my tooth. Thing is, she only discovered this after breaking the tooth in half, so that she had to proceed. She cranked up the nitrous oxide as far as she could, and with tears in her eyes finished what she had to do. They told me I said at one point, "This hurts like the devil, but it's so far, far away." Also not recommended.

  3. Thanks to Barb and the other writers for sharing their experiences of pain. I'll preface my story by saying there's a reason why the bad guys shoot you in the knee cap. I wasn't shot, but my knee cap was broken in a car accident. You can't run or even hobble with that kind of injury. The immediate pain was bad, but not as intense as the pain after the surgery to mend it. I felt as if the lower half of my body was on fire. The only relief I got was a shot of morphine in the leg at night so that I could sleep. If you want your culprit to pay for his crimes, smash his knee cap.

  4. These are very vivid stories, and I can easily see using some of the details. I prefer not to remember the time I nearly sliced off one of my fingers, and the time I fell down the stairs. Dick Francis was known for getting the physical pain and healing exactly right in his books. No one falls off a horse, gets trampled, and is fine in three hours, back to chasing the bad guys. His books are very realistic.

  5. I may have overlooked something in CiCi's account, but I'm assuming she's a police officer. Either that or she needs to move to a better neighborhood.

    I could tell you what it feels like to tumble down a full flight of stairs, breaking my nose in the process, feeling vise-like pain engulf my head and my sinuses fill up with blood while a river of red stuff poured from my nose and all the joints I'd banged on the way down began to scream. My whole face turned black and swelled enormously, and I tasted blood for a couple of weeks as my sinuses slowly cleared. The ER doctor asked if my husband had beaten me. I almost smacked him, but I guess the hospital rules required the question. He also told me I was lucky I hadn't broken my neck and paralyzed or killed myself. I'd already figured that out on my own.

    Half of my face turned black and hurt like hell for two weeks after I had an implant that required adding cadaver bone mixed with my own blood to my jaw to strengthen it.

    Back pain? A lifetime of it, in every variety -- and yes, a herniated or ruptured disc *can* make walking nearly impossible if it pokes out in certain directions. Your whole leg can go numb and start folding under you when you try to stand or walk.

    And of course there are the major back and pelvic fractures. And the knee where the cartilage totally detached and the joint dislocated. Going up and down the stairs was so much fun right before my surgery.

    If anyone needs details about any of this, just email me. I realize I've had an unusual number of major injuries and health problems (including lots I haven't mentioned here), and I don't mind sharing with other writers who need to disable a character. All this misery ought to be good for something!

    Thanks for an informative blog, Barb. I hope your kidney stone won't trouble you much longer. My father was tormented by kidney stones most of his adult life, and I could see how awful it was. I'm glad *that* hasn't happened to me, at least.

  6. I've been very fortunate in never being shot or stabbed. I have had cracked (or broken, never went to the doctor) ribs, which means that every breath gives you a stabbing pain. I also once had a biopsy on my uterus done without anesthetic (long story, but the crux is that I have no idea why the hospital didn't do it, other than the fact that I was dirt poor and had no insurance). I don't know at what point in the procedure they were when I realized that I was being carved from the inside out. I walked into that room; I needed a wheelchair to leave.

  7. Wow. You all have had horrible experiences. I'm so sorry. But as Janice said, it's all useful once you get past the pain. Thanks for sharing. And I'm glad you've liked the blog I hope it proves helpful with your writing.

  8. My father-in-law, now deceased, was born in Poland in 1931 & was captured & kept at Auschwitz for about a month when he was a teenager. A guard there didn't like him & banged him in the knee with a rifle butt. This of course caused a comminuted fracture & he walked with one straight leg the rest of his life.

  9. Good advice, Barb. We all have experience to fall back on, but tapping into another person's experience doubles the benefit. Better to have someone tell you about getting punched in the nose or stabbed than going through those ordeals on your own.

  10. My friend Michaela Shannon-Sank asked me to post this for her about migraines:

    "I suffer from migraines. The first thing I want to say about them is no, they are not just 'a really bad headache.' I have heard a lot of people complain that they had a migraine at work or a migraine so bad they needed to go to the store to get medicine or it was so bad that they almost didn't go somewhere. No. Just no. When you have a migraine, the pain is so severe that for the first few hours you are afraid that you are going to die. For the next several hours you are afraid that you won't. The pain is all-consuming. When I have a migraine, I cannot function. I take my meds (if I wait too long then I have to have my husband use my auto-injector because it's the super-strong med but I am shaking too hard to hold my hand still enough to inject myself), then I lay down in my bed, all lights off, absolutely no noise, with an ice pack on my head. Sometimes I cannot deal with the feel of the bed sheets so lay on the floor. Any light causes agonizing flares of pain, any noise is unbearable. Sometimes I have to throw up, that is the worst. That is when I am convinced that my heart will give out or I will have a stroke. The pain is unspeakable. I panic if I have less than five of my pills left in the bottle and I have tried over a dozen different medications over the years along with alternative therapies like Bio-feedback, pressure point stimulation, meditation and homeopathic remedies. My eleven-year-old daughter also suffers from migraines, and that is worse than any pain I feel, seeing her suffering."

  11. One of the worst pains I ever experienced was caused by getting shingles. Take note here everyone and get the SHINGLES VACCINE immediately if not sooner. It happened ten years ago and I was visiting my daughter in Nashville, TN. I thought I had a kidney stone the pain wasn't too bad at first and seemed to move around a bit. It was right side of my back about where a kidney is located. Pain got steadily worse. We went to an Urgentcare Clinic where they took an X-ray. A stone didn't show up but they set me up for a Cat Scan the next day with a urologist. Gave me pain meds and antibiotic. Next morning as pain got steadily worse I felt a place on my back waist level that felt like skin irritation and little blisters. Thought I was having reaction to antibiotics. Called UrgentCare. Nurse told me to come in. On the way, it dawned on me I might have shingles. Dont know where that idea came from...however I knew stress often brought it on. In the year before, My husband had died, I wrecked my car, wasn't hurt, was diagnosed with breast cancer, had mastectomy and 4 rounds of Chemo. Found out radiation and chemo both can cause the immune system supression and bring on shingles. My case was so severe that I have nerve damage and daily pain. I take pain medicine daily. When I'm tired or stressed it's more severe but most days now the pain is tolerable and I don't hurt all day. But I do have pain every day. This is now 10th year. Once again if you've had chicken pox the virus is in you so get the vaccine. Shingles can breakout on your head, scalp, face, back, shoulder most anywhere. Believe me you do NOT want to have it,

  12. Poor Becky! It can prove dangerous to be your friend, Barb!

    In the spirit of helpfulness, here's my own guide to kidney stones.

  13. I haven’t skydived either, but I had an acquaintance who did until the day her chute didn’t properly open and she crash-landed, breaking her back. She planned to return to skydiving after she healed. She and a friend even skydived nude once!

    Then there’s the story of Miss Clottemans, jealous schoolteacher and a skydiving enthusiast. She murdered her romantic rival by rigging her parachute not to open. At the time, I calculated the victim had a full 1½ minutes of terror as she plunged to earth.

    The women’s web site, Lemondrop, said, “We don’t have our bucket list written just yet, but two things we’re pretty sure are not going to be on it are 1) jump out of a plane, and 2) be involved in a love triangle that ends in murder. Thank you, Els Clottemans, for really (allegedly) cementing our position on that.”

  14. Thanks, everyone, for stopping by and sharing your mostly terrible experiences. I hope your willingness to share can help others create more realistic fiction.

  15. This one doesn't involve pain, just terror. It was winter in Michigan and I was driving on an icy patch of road, getting the kids home from nursery school. I hit black (undetectable ice) and started skidding into the oncoming lane, which was full of cars, our speed was good enough to probably kill one or two of us. I wrestled with the steering wheel, but it turning the wheels didn't stop the skid. Since there was not a thing I could do, I had to give up and accept that we might crash and die. It's an unexpectedly peaceful feeling, the end of the struggle. However, I got off that ice and regained control of the car before we collided. It veered into the right-hand culvert, also full of ice, but now I was back in control. I kept going as fast as I could, so I wouldn't get stuck and have to be towed. Before we came to a cross street, I was able to gun the thing out of there and continue home. After we got home, I shook for hours. My brother reported the same peaceful feeling when his car flipped and he was riding down the highway on the roof at 60 mph, hanging in the seatbelt. It's not something you'd expect.

  16. There's nothing scarier than black ice, Kaye!

  17. If you want more stories I have a few including polio and post polio, epilepsy, misdiagnosis of psychiatric disorder that was epilepsy of the type that Van Gogh and Dostoyevsky had. This is well documented, and in fact, BBC TV sent a team of people over to the Boston to interview and film me and my neurologist twice. It was shown in other countries with BBCTV but not in the US. I can give you a URL for that, but the complete version I have on tape that needs to be converted to disk format. Let me know.


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