I’ve written before about my adoration of C. J. Sansom’s writing and how I particularly appreciate the realism he injects into his medieval detective stories. Sansom’s narrator, Matthew Shardlake, is a middle-aged hunchback, and he battles fatigue and pain from his deformity as often as he battles the bad-guys. When the battles become external, Shardlake gets injured, and has to keep pushing on despite injury and loss. That makes Shardlake an extremely sympathetic character to me as a reader. I’m much more interested in reading about an everyman who rises to the heroic, despite adversity, than a superhero who just does what I expect him to do.
I’ve tried to carry the lessons I’ve learned from Sansom into my own writing. My characters get hurt, fatigued, and stressed. Their struggle to overcome adversity, internal and external, is what makes the story interesting to me to write.
I’ve thought a lot about this struggle, particularly in relation to injury, over the last week. I cut my hand a few days ago (while slicing avocados – never underestimate the perils of Mexican food). It was a pretty bad cut and the NHS solution of “gluing” it (and please don’t try to convince me that’s not superglue they’re using) didn’t take. I decided to let it heal on its own, and to keep a little diary for the next time I have to write about a character’s injury (which my husband dubbed “The Pain Diary”). This is unedited and a little graphic, so if you’re squeamish, stop reading now.
Cut the fuck out of my left hand. Note to self: do not sharpen the good knife before de-stoning avocados. 2nd note to self: wounds are kind of interesting once they stop bleeding. Lots of “stuff” in there – pin-points of capillaries, pinky-white bubbles of fat, and a white stringy thing that might be a nerve. Cut flesh looks like underdone steak. Blood is redder than in movies. Antiseptic wipes sting worse than a hornet. Also, shock? Extremely light-headed and weak at the knees within a minute or two of cut. Child says my lips went white. Took about 20 minutes lying down on couch for feeling to pass. 3rd note to self: avoid the NHS. 45 minute wait so they could spray it with more antiseptic (OUCH) and pour superglue on it. I should have stayed home.
Hand throbbed unmercifully all night, despite 1,000 mg of paracetamol before bed. When I finally fell asleep, banged my hand against the bed frame. Superglue split and cut started bleeding again. Took an hour of holding it elevated above my heart with firm pressure on it to stop. Felt feverish and light-headed while lying down. This morning, hand is swollen and sore. More paracetamol. Started bleeding again when I got hand wet in shower. Stopped after a few minutes with pressure. Getting dressed was a trial. No shoelaces in my immediate future. Typing is out today. Also, I’ve banged it on EVERY available surface. Surely I don’t bang my hand this often when it’s not injured?! Driving one-handed was interesting. Bunnies don’t like smell of blood/bandage and thumped at me when I tried to pet them. Fell asleep on couch before dinner. Got take-out for dinner – no way I’m cooking with one hand and I swear that knife is leering at me from the butcher block. Changed bandage before bed. Cut Day 2 much less interesting: dark red scab and pissed-off flesh. No sign of infection, so maybe the antiseptic wipes that stung so fucking much did their job.
Slept much better but Hub rolled over on hand in middle of night. Pain so sharp I actually screamed. Agreed to swap sides of bed tonight. Feverish again in night – pillow and sheet damp. Ears ringing this morning – probably OD-ing on painkillers. Needed help getting dressed again. Deodorant proved a challenge. Hub had to tie shoelaces. Right hand, arm and shoulder aching. Overcompensating? Took a long walk in the afternoon. Hand swelled and began throbbing. Came home and elevated it until throbbing stopped. Whoever said that big pains prevent you from feeling small pains is a liar. Cut hurts, but I feel the aches on the right side just fine. Hub still feeding rabbits but Boy Bunny let me pet him today. Changed bandage before bed. Cut still oozing blood and clear fluid (lymph?). Crusty. Skin around cut looks bruised – too much pressure? Some of bandage has gotten stuck in scab. Ick. Cut around stuck bit and put fresh bandage over it. No sign of infection.
Slept better but woke several times feeling out of place (wrong side of bed). Going back to own side of bed tonight. Pillow and sheet dry. Pain today much duller – only noticeable when I flex fingers or bang it against something (am I really this clumsy?!). Going to try to go without painkillers today. Dressed myself and tried shoelaces, but gave up after first knot. Able to type a little today. Also faced down evil knife. Noticed several people staring at bandage while doing grocery shopping – have they never seen a bandage before? Took shower before bed and let bandage get thoroughly soaked before changing. No sign of bleeding/oozing but it could have been washed away in shower. Most of bandage came out of scab once wet. No sign of infection.
Slept through. Feel awake and fresh for first time since cut. Smaller bandage put on last night is letting me flex fingers. Still no shoelaces but dressed myself without trouble. Typing and driving without pain. Thinking about avocados for dinner. No sign of bleeding/oozing when changed bandage. Bruise fading to yellow-green. No painkillers today.
Slept through. Cut feels like it’s really healing. Using hand normally. Went for short run and cut throbbed a little, but stopped as soon as I cooled down. Managed own shoelaces (ta-da!).
So, six days before I felt the cut was really healing and I had normal use of my hand again. This was, let me say, not a serious wound as wounds go. It was a long, deep cut, across the side of my hand, over the knuckle and up my index finger, but the NHS didn’t even feel it warranted stitches (do they do stitches anymore or do they just throw superglue at everything?). It was in a place that I use a lot so it probably bothered me more than a similar wound on a less mobile part of my body. I was surprised at how much it hampered my every day activities, and how much the pain disrupted my sleep.
While I wouldn’t advocate injury as a writing tool, cutting myself like this has been really instructive. In creating everyman characters who are thrust into situations where they get hurt, fatigued and stressed, I need to think through every way those factors would effect their lives. It’s not enough to describe the pain – I have to follow the ripples. What does the injury prevent them from doing? What do they need help with and who provides that help? What impact does the injury have on their sleeping and eating patterns? How do other characters react to the injury? The answers to these questions provide richness and realism to my fiction which, following the example of the mighty Sansom, is what I aspire to.