Friday, July 30, 2010

All In The Name of Research

Apologies for neglecting my blog for two weeks - and falling so far behind with commenting and reading everyone else's blogs! I'm not sure I'll ever get caught up but I'm back to regular reading again now :)

A few days ago, I got the chance to participate in fire marshal training in my day job. It was really interesting, if scary and sobering. I learned a lot of things I didn't know, or rather that had never occured to me. For instance, in a house fire, smoke makes things extremely dark, so if someone (children, say) leave their rooms to find a grown-up, they are incredibly hard to find. You're effectively looking for them with both your eyes and theirs closed. This sounds like common sense, but it hadn't really struck me before. Imagine trying to make your way around your house blindfolded, looking for another blindfolded person. Oh, and you can't yell, or hear their footsteps.

I'm not going to rehash everything I learned here, because no one should be getting their advice on dealing with house fires from a blog unless it's maintained by an expert. It is worth doing some googling though, because I feel a lot more prepared now after getting that training.

At the end of the session, we went outside and were allowed to practice putting out small, gas-controlled fires so we could learn to use fire extinguishers. I learned the following:

1. They are heavy
2. I am a pathetic weakling
3. Getting the tag off and the pin out is a bit of a knack. I managed it no problem the second time, but the first time I couldn't do it at all.
4. If you are a pathetic weakling who can't get the tag off first time (you're probably not, but they do exist. Evidently), don't keep trying. Know when to give up and get out.

How does this link back to writing? This is supposed to be a writing blog, after all . . .

It got me thinking about the things we find out during the non-writing bits of our lives. I now know that carbon dioxide fire extinguishers are really loud. Also you can't hold them by the hose, or your hand could freeze to them and hurt you.

I've had quite a few jobs so far in my life, mostly because I worked during the summers when I was a student. I've sold school uniforms and broadband, I've handed out leaflets on toll bridges and free bags of baby products to new mums outside the National Maternity Hospital. I've worked on directory enquiries for the UK and thus can spell and pronounce Cirencester, Leominster and Leicester. I've temped in software companies and waited tables wearing a red dickie-bow and a ludicrous hat.

And as a result, I have amassed piles of useless knowledge. But you never know when you might want to write about someone who had to put out an electrical fire in their office one day and was surprised by how loud the extinguisher was.

Which brings me to a fun, but potentially very time-wastey, resource for writers - the Character and Plot Realism Forum on the National Novel Writing Month site. You can post any factual question you like and people will try to answer - such as 'My MC is an ambulance driver in Kentucky - is it feasible for him to have every third weekend off?' or (my favourite) 'My book is set in Ireland, what do I need to know?'. It's a great read when you're bored, and a brilliant resource when you need some facts that aren't Google-friendly. It's one to bookmark - but please, use it carefully . . . :)


  1. First, I've had that same training. The part where you use an extinguisher to put out a real fire, was really good. Too bad the state of California banned them here. Air quality they said... geez!

    Second, thanks for the resource. Sounds like an interesting place to dig around...

  2. Definitely all such "trivia" can be useful in our writing. I have in the past been "told" that we should read, read, read, not just literature but science, archeology, astronomy, etc etc. Expanding our horizons can help us write interesting stories.

    I haven't been into your blog for a long time either. I'm glad I came into it today. This is an interesting and useful post. Thanks.


  3. So hard to find the balance between writing and living, but I agree that it has to be done, otherwise what would we have to write about?

    On the fire side of things, my day job is at an insurance company that covers volunteer firefighters for injury...learned quite a few things about the putter-outer business as well.

  4. Elena, it must be satisfying working with people who do such important work :)

    Glad you guys liked the post. It's amazing how much our real life informs our writing. I often find that when I'm browsing the Plot and Character Realism Forum I find I know things I didn't fully realise I knew. I even have a standard response for people who have Irish characters and want to know how they speak.

    1. A front door is a hall door.
    2. A cupboard is a press.
    3. An airing cupboard is a hot press.
    4. 'I'm after making tea' means 'I have just made tea', not 'I wish to make tea.'
    5. We do not say begorrah. I have never once heard this said by an Irish person. Even in jest.

    I didn't realise I knew most of that until I sat down to reply to a thread a few years ago :)

  5. great post -- i totally understand what you mean about all the "extra" information :)

    best of luck with all you do!


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