I Am Not an Action Hero

tor_strandedWritten by Bracken MacLeod

As a relatively outdoorsy person and occasional tent camper, I have a few wilderness skills I like to think I could rely on to keep myself alive for a little while, anyway, if the proverbial lights went out. That said, when I began writing Stranded, one of the things that moved me about setting a thriller in the Arctic was the terrifying appeal of an utterly inhospitable environment. If I were stuck in the woods (with a few choice tools) I could manage shelter, warmth, and food for a while. I cannot say the same about my chances in a desolate icescape. While I knew that the lack of resources on the surface of a frozen ocean would certainly doom me if I found myself there, I didn’t realize how I’d underestimated the harshness of even a relatively forgiving icy climate.

But, as they say, nature provides.

It was in the middle of writing the novel—right about the time my characters would have to leave the safety of their ship—that the Boston area (where I live) began to endure the harshest winter since they started keeping records in 1872. In about five weeks, we received more than nine cumulative feet of snow. With a storm coming every weekend, moving the snow, and moving in it, became increasingly more difficult. Drifts buried everything and required constant battle. Eventually, the snow piled high enough that I had to go dig out our furnace exhaust pipes to prevent us from suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Those pipes emerge from the side of our house at about a foot above what they call “highest anticipated snow level.” But then, no one anticipated the snow we got that year, and they were completely buried. To get the pipes, I had to go through a fence opening on the opposite side of the house and cross through the back yard. Hardly an insurmountable distance, I thought.

Incidentally, at this point in writing the novel, I had imagined my cast of characters hiking through similarly deep snow for more than two miles to reach what they hope will be salvation. That was before I had to wade through waist-deep snow for only fifty yards.

Bundled up and with shovel in hand, I shouldered through the fence gate and waded across the wasteland my property had become, trying to avoid the outdoor dinner table and Adirondack chairs I’d failed to bring in at the start of winter, which were now completely buried and invisible. By the time I reached the spot where I remembered the pipes emerging from the house, I was dead tired and struggling for breath. And unlike the characters in Stranded, I was not suffering the effects of a debilitating illness or the physical exertion of having tried to break a ship free from thick arctic ice by hand the day before. I was well-rested, well-fed, and healthy. And I was gasping for breath, forced to lean back against a drift and rest before I could begin to dig out…after walking halfway around my home.

At that moment I realized that deep snow was more of an obstacle than one imagines it is when one is watching it lightly falling outside one’s living room window. And that in order to preserve a measure of believability in a book about to depart from reality, that detail was important. I melted the snow my characters were marching through down to ankle height. Their lives were hard enough, and about to get much harder, without me adding an obstacle that would likely kill them—and more importantly, kill the verisimilitude upon which the approaching speculative part of my speculative fiction needed to rest. They say “write what you know.” I can safely say I never wanted to know what fighting with nine feet of snow was like. But now that I do, I hope it made Stranded a better book.

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One thought on “I Am Not an Action Hero

  1. This is such a great insight into the process that creates interesting and substantial work. Working imaginatively is hard. Sometimes we wish, especially as readers, not to be bounded by certain realities — that is one of the founding dimensions of science fiction and fantasy as genres, a dimension that bleeds over into other genres as well — but that doesn’t mean those realities can’t be used to better effect. I will pick this book up the next chance I get. (I rather like the trope of the stranded sailor, especially as it gets taken up in science fiction.)

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