Experience is Bliss

Today’s topic recommended on Christina Katz’s “Prosperous Writer” is experience so I thought if I followed up on my mentions of the topic in two previous two blog posts here I should be offering something others can use.

I mentioned my thought to have some adventures I could use in a writer’s life when I left my engineering studies. I also felt that my lack of success as a freelance journalist stemmed from never having learned enough about the world to be able to offer readers anything substantial. It’s true that a few young people can turn early life experience into sparkling and rivetting prose, but usually what they offer is mundane platitude or complaint. It’s not easy.

But neither is it easy to turn actual experience into good fiction. I exchanged notes with another writer just the other day about the difficulty of turning what we really know into something that can compete with the exaggerated tales on TV that people imagine to be true. He had been in a real CSI police unit and said that 98% of the work is dull routine. I replied that oil exploration is always portrayed as ‘roughneck thrills’, when the reality is entirely opposite. We both agreed that we couldn’t create fiction around our own lives without being too embarrassed to show our faces outside afterwards.

What is a legitimate use of experience? What can be used to craft stories that are both exciting and realistic?

As with the lessons one can gain from travel, experience gives one a deeper perspective. I remember taking a mine clearance expert to some anti-personnel mines I had found in Libya – called thermos mines because of their shape and size. They were employed by being dropped from aircraft, where their first impact with the ground would set the fuses. Thereafter the tumbler switch waited for the slightest disturbance to close a circuit and make them explode.

I say I found them, but that was only because I was the dummy who walked between three of them laying on the surface without noticing them. Old Man Salah, my head Libyan labourer, actually noticed them and alerted me by walking about anxiously waving his arms. Oops, we need to get those cleared before the crew gets here.

The mine expert was German; most were because they ran most of the mine clearance crews in the oilfields. Poetic justice, because their country had sown most of them in the early 1940s. I drove ‘Hans’ to the site in the Land Rover and we chatted enthusiastically about a dozen topics as we went. When we arrived the conversations weren’t over but just toned down an octave or two while Hans took stock.

I was standing about a metre from him talking when he kneeled down, peered at one mine – and gently reached out to pick it up. My conversation faltered as he stood and raised the mine to look underneath. What to do? Should I run screaming away across the desert to, hopefully, put a safe distance between me and the expected shrapnel? Not possible – if it blows we’re both toast.

So after a few seconds of reflection I continued talking as if carrying deadly unexploded mines around at head level was an everyday occurrence. Hans seemed satisfied with what he’d seen and gently set the mine back where it had come from. After that, the rest of the inspection was a breeze. As we were driving back to camp, discussing mine clearance, Hans mentioned that “he didn’t believe in taking chances in this business”. Right – I’d hate to be around him when he was taking chances.

Now, what do I use of that in my writing? I’ve never needed a mine clearance scene in any of my adventure fiction where I could use it. I have a strong suspicion that readers of fiction would think I had gone beyond acceptable credibility – even my Gisel Matah isn’t as foolhardy as that. But it does give me a grounding in facing danger that I can use when crafting my characters’ actions. I know how one’s mind weighs the dangers and options quite cooly at the crisis. I know how pride can prevent one from acting in fear even among strangers. I was going to be the last person to run from anything. What else is there in that scene? Perhaps you, dear reader, who wasn’t there, can see other aspects that are too obvious for me to notice. Men acting as men, perhaps.

I feel confident enough from that experience – and others like it – that I can write battle scenes even though the artillery regiment I served in was never in a war while I was with it. I have never seen instant death, but feel I’ve come close to it. The experience I can use from my working life in the desert, the Arctic, and hopping out of helicopters on mountaintops is not necessarily something to adapt for fiction – it is the grounding that guides my approach to the events.

If you want to see some of this experience in my fiction, you might want to see Gisel Matah setting the demolition fuses on the bridge in “The Wildcat’s Victory”; creeping into an enemy palace in “Masquerade” (not yet released); defying the musket shots to encourage her troops in “Arrival”; or cooly judging how to defeat her armoured opponent in the duel scene in “Deadly Enterprise”. All the books can be found at http://www.double-dragon-ebooks.com/eAuthor.php?Name=Christopher%20Hoare

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