Tinker, Tailor, Oyster Pirate, Writer

JackLondonCredo500_theartofmanliness

In a recent blog I wrote about my visit to author Jack London’s Napa, CA home, now a state park. I’ve been a JL fan since I was a kid, when I read White Fang in grade school as required reading. He quickly became one of my favorite storytellers with that book. I think it’s because he lived what he wrote, which made his stories all that much richer.

Sci-fi novels are experiencing a resurgence, along with romance novels. I can’t help but wonder: how much of these stories were lived by the authors? My guess? Few to none. We live in a world where fantasy is favored over real life, where digital relationships (texting, sexting, selfies, vlogging, etc.) and its inevitable voyeurism have replaced the human experience. The richness, depth, and complexity of our existence are slowly disappearing as machines distract us from our lives and connections.

Jack had been a sailor, a fish and game warden, an oyster pirate, a gold prospector, a war correspondent, a rancher, and a farmer (the first in America to utilize terraced farming that he learned of in Asia), just to name a few. He was a busy man, experiencing life in the deepest possible way – by living it, then writing about it. How many writers can claim that today? And does writing solely from imagination make one a good writer? Is it possible to become a superior storyteller without living any part of the story? I’ve blogged about how bad decisions make good stories (sometimes the best ones) so I guess I’m old school in the idea that at least some part of the story should come from personal experience.

Maybe that’s what happens as we shape the characters in our stories; we pepper in a bit of ourselves, friends, family members, coworkers. The unusual color of the protagonist’s eyes, the wry smile of your antagonist belonged to a previous lover, the righteous anger of a scorned relative showing up in a minor character. Your pool of character quirks and physical/mental traits can be endless. Dig from your life to build your stories; no one has experienced your life but you, so no one else enrich your readers the way you can.

Here’s a short list of some of the jobs/experiences I’ve had that flavor my writing:

  • Waitress/bartender (upscale restaurants, nightclubs, etc.) – met many interesting characters 
  • Private investigator – some good cases where I found antagonists 
  • Tennis player/state champion
  • Lecturer/public speaker
  • Behavioral/psychiatric technician
  • Doctor/clinician (including time on a cruise ship in the Caribbean)
  • Drug/alcohol counselor
  • Criminal justice system – lots of characters here!
  • Homelessness (personal experience that I did write about)
  • 4 cross country trips –  where I met some great & some odd personalities, and experienced multiple landscapes

Wanna write? Get your ass off the couch. Seek out adventures. Make some bad decisions. Then make a similar list. They’ll make your stories feel more real, even if they aren’t.

Creating Movement in an Action Novel

wildfire

Source: WSET, Virginia

I don’t know why, but I’ve been fascinated with fire since childhood. The duality of its beauty and danger captivate me; flames licking, eating, destroying; yet warming, inviting, even trance inducing. Many years ago, as the first chapters of Rescue on White Thunder formed in my mind, it was very different from the end result. I suppose that’s where the creativity and individuality of the writer comes in to play. Fire has become a running theme in my books and it is once again a large part of the next installation in what has become a series because I so enjoy the characters I’ve created. (And I’ve already got ideas and a premise for a third.)

For a writer who prefers to write a good action story, movement is crucial and including fire made it easy. Fire provides good movement in a story, whether it’s the fire itself or the characters involved with the fire and what they’re doing with it or to it.

In this excerpt, you can see how the characters move into action as a result of fire:

Braddock was already well above the rest of his crew on the fire line when Jim suddenly yelled, “Wind change!” 

The crew immediately stopped what they were doing and ran downhill. When Braddock and Smoke turned to do the same, a flare-up stopped them in their tracks. It was an unexpected blowup – the southeasterly winds, with pressure from the storm overhead, shifted north and caused crown fires to increase rapidly. Flames raged high and hot and separated Braddock and Smoke from the rest of the team. Braddock turned in every direction, trying to find a way out as the flames shot through the loose underbrush, creating a wall of fire around them. Branches burned off trees fell to the forest floor, spitting burning embers everywhere.

In this portion, the fire itself is the action, providing rich imagery as well:

Fires spread quickly over a fresh, loose layer of humus covering the solid ground. Tree trunks caught fire one after the other as flames overran the surrounding brush and now-dead timbers toppled from last year’s big storm. The crackling roar of the fire amplified and they had to shout to hear each other. Braddock knew they would soon be forced to move to higher ground. Some of the firebreaks held but winds were increasing in strength and velocity, propelling fresh embers to other areas. More trees and small brush ignited, creating walls of flames that nearly licked the upper branches of the tall pines.

You can also have both the characters and the fire creating action where one influences the other:

6:30 am: The explosion reverberated throughout the house. Braddock flew out of his chair at the breakfast table and Jim sprung to his feet, knocking his chair to the floor, both of them spilling their mugs of coffee.

Quite a distance away, they could barely make out a thin grey line of smoke over the trees southwest of White Thunder Mountain. Minutes later, the wail of police sirens pierced the air; honks like foghorns from multiple fire engines interrupted the morning’s serenity.

When it comes to action, you have multiple opportunities to create movement in your story when you include an active subject matter like fire or other extreme forms of weather. Track whether the story flows or if it skips; too many changes between scenes may break up the story’s rhythm. Use whatever tools work best for you; have friends/family read portions for feedback, build a story board on a wall in your home office (or where in the house you write), even sketch out the physical layout of the story’s location (this works for me) to keep timelines and movement in sync.

Remember, movement is life in a good action story.