Why Characters’ Traumatic Experiences Sometimes Feel So Real

Imagine planning your vacation for months, counting down the days. You set your alarm bright and early, take an Uber to the airport, check your bags, and settle in to wait at the gate. The flight’s a bit delayed, but then you board. The pilot comes on and says, “Folks, there was a lot of weather at the Orlando airport yesterday and they’re having some traffic issues. We’re trying to get a landing time, so we’re sitting tight for the moment.”

So you wait, sitting in a middle seat between a six-year-old child at the window and his dad in the aisle. The dad comments to you that the kid was nervous about someone sitting between them, and you wonder why he didn’t just sit next to him. Twenty minutes later the flight attendant comes on and says the flight is delayed more than an hour and you all have to exit the plane. You can leave your things if you want. No thanks.

You exit the plane and find a seat in the terminal. Fifteen minutes later you receive a notification that your flight has been rescheduled to the following day–arriving at 9:36 P.M. That’s not okay. You immediately make a beeline for the desk, but so does everyone else freaking out about the flight. How are you going to get to Orlando without missing another whole day of your trip? It would take 14 hours to drive there (arriving in the middle of the night), but it might be your only option.

Okay, I’m going to stop the story here.*

*Short conclusion: We found another flight, but our luggage did not come with us. Pictured here on the monorail the next day, wearing clothes purchased at Disney Springs. Our luggage came in the middle of night two.

But if you guessed this story actually happened to me, you’d be correct. It’s still pretty fresh in my mind, since it was only a month ago, when my daughter and I traveled to Disney World for spring break, but I know that as time passes, the details will fade. From the aspect of it being a really stressful time that impacted the beginning of our vacation, I want to forget it. But on the other hand, I learned all kinds of new details about how airlines handle things when your bags get separated from you, what you have to do to stock up on essentials on vacation when you don’t have access to a car, etc. So… I wrote down every single detail of how it played out. Why? Because you never know when I might decide to make a character go through that exact same scenario.

Like Maggie in My Second Impression of You. When I first conceived the idea of reliving a best day, there was no broken foot in that scenario. But then it happened to me. It was truly horrible and painful, but as soon as it happened, I started documenting. I took photos of how my foot looked at different stages, asked my doctor questions about how a teenager might heal differently, and took extensive notes about how I reacted to the surgery and medications.

No matter how sure you are that you’ll remember an event or experience, the details will never be so clear as when they’re first happening. Five years out from breaking my foot, I (thankfully!) no longer remember how many weeks I wore the surgical shoe versus the walking boot or the color/shape of the bruises. But if I needed to describe those things again, I could pull out my notes. It just turned out I wrote that story pretty soon after the experience happened 😊.

Writing down your emotions, the dialogue surrounding it, descriptions, and even taking photos/videos as applicable will help you recall everything more clearly if you decide to include a similar incident in the future. Of course, you’ll never need all the details (I deleted so many broken foot details in MSIOY 🤣), but the important thing is to have the information.

And in case you think I’m only talking about traumatic experiences, I’m not. Cool and exciting experiences are also opportunities. Say you go skydiving and want to capture your emotional reaction or visit the Grand Canyon and feel you have to document it. If you don’t write it down soon, the details will begin to fade.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but here are a few other things I keep notes about, from the big to the small:

  • Everywhere I travel, including descriptions of excursions, unique locals, people I meet, how I get around, etc. (pictures are great but don’t fully capture your impressions or interesting encounters)
  • That time I forgot my ID and credit card and learned how the airport verifies your identity without them
  • Sitting in a McDonald’s and hearing the weirdest playlist ever
  • Strange interactions with people (like once being nicely but condescendingly heckled at an event)
  • Childbirth (I mean, probably not going to write a book that includes it, but I’ve got the details!)
  • Kid stuff – like stages at which my kids mastered different tasks or became interested in certain activities
  • Practical jokes I’ve observed
  • Medical stuff in general (for me and close friends/family)
  • All about quarantine

There are more, but you get the idea!

In other news, my April newsletter is out today! In addition to this feature, it also includes a writing update and what I’m currently reading and watching. Subscribe here!

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