This morning I read that Beyond the Margins, the wonderful website dedicated to writing and writers, is closing shop. I've loved reading their articles and essays - funny, smart, helpful, inspiring. In homage to them, I'm reprinting below a guest post I wrote for them three years ago. I'm also reprinting it today because On Hurricane Island, the book I was researching in my travels way out of my comfort zone is just weeks from publication (33 days, but who's counting). So, thank you Beyond the Margins, for publishing this essay and for five years of service to writers.
Out of My Comfort Zone: My Trigger Finger
One night, working on revisions my agent requested on my novel manuscript, I realized that my character had to grab a gun and hit someone with it.
Okay, I could accept that, but I couldn’t write it. I’ve never handled a gun. Never even touched one. Never wanted to. And my imagination was balking at coming up with the necessary physical, sensory, details.
So en route to my optometrist appointment the next morning, I stopped in at a gun shop.
The place was a bit of a cliché: on a potholed street in a seedy neighborhood, heavy grill bars in the door, a warning about videotaping taped in the window. The six men inside had military haircuts and significant body heft.
If only I’d brought someone along. At least I had emailed my friend Liz of my plan. Just in case. Even though no one looked at me, or spoke to me, my skin prickled with their frosty attention. The guy behind the counter, a large fellow with beefy arms, ignored me too.
I admit it; I was intimidated.
I’ve been intimidated before doing research for a novel. For my last book I had to learn about house arrest monitors – how they work, what the systems look and feel like, and how someone might circumvent the technology. I asked a favor of a friend’s husband who made a phone call, and a week later I had a meeting with a probation officer at the federal courthouse.
Like Emily Klein, my main character in HOUSE ARREST, I am not at all comfortable with cops or courts. I was nervous going through the metal detector, even just walking by the courtrooms. I kept thinking that someone would put my name in their computer and my 1968 criminal trespassing conviction would pop up, or the misinformation in my FOIA files, where they had so much wrong – putting me at antiwar demonstrations I never attended and missing the places they should have seen. I worried that they would look at me and announce, “Got you. You’re not getting away this time.”
Way out of my comfort zone. But ultimately I was able to use the details of my discomfort in writing that book. And like most other people I’ve interviewed to get background for fiction, the two probation officers were helpful and gracious. I explained that my character had to get out of her ankle contraption for one night. Not possible, they said, but they explained the system in detail and let me touch everything. And while sitting in their office I had the eureka moment of understanding how the plot would play out.
In the gun store this morning, Mr. Beefy Arms was neither helpful nor gracious. After waiting for thirteen long minutes without being acknowledged, I left. Didn’t want to be late for the eye doctor, did I?
Afterwards, feeling braver knowing that my eyesight hadn’t deteriorated, I returned. This time I was the only customer.
“Can I help you?” His arms were crossed over his white tee.
“I’m a writer,” I said in my sweetest voice. “I’m writing a scene with a handgun and have never held one. May I?”
“What kind of gun?”
“I don’t know. A pistol, or revolver. Something a security guard might use.”
“Which one?” His tone was just this side of insulting. “Pistol or revolver?”
I know nothing about guns. And my character isn’t actually a security guard. But I didn’t want to tell him that she was going to hit an FBI agent. Somehow, I didn’t think Beefy Arms would approve. “A pistol,” I decided.
Shaking his head in obvious disapproval, he unlocked the glass case and removed a gun. He did that clicky-click thing they do on television and removed the clip before handing me the pistol.
It was a Smith and Wesson. I knew that because the company name was engraved on the metal. The gun was heavier than I expected. I held it by the grip, my finger avoiding the trigger like poison ivy. Then I grabbed it by the barrel, in the position I imagined my character would use to slug the bad guy.
“That’s not how you shoot it,” Beefy Arms said.
I smiled. “I know, but she’s going to hit someone, not shoot them.”
“Let me educate you,” he said. “If deadly force isn’t required, a security guard would use a baton to hit someone. If you need to use a gun, you shoot. Just saying.”
At that moment I realized two things: first, Beefy Arms might know guns, but I know my story. And second, I was really terrified in that store and had to leave. I had handled the pistol and now I could write the necessary physical details.
“One more thing,” I said, trying to smile. “May I take a photo of the gun?”
He hesitated before nodding.
I took the photo with my phone and then asked, “How about one of you?”
“That’s not necessary,” he said, turning away.
Hurrying through the rain to my car, I could still feel the tiny bumps of the gun grip, how awkward it felt to hold the barrel, the curve of the engraved Smith and Wesson name. I thought about my fear, and realized I have everything I need.