The detail adds an element of unexpected something. All fiction is false; what makes it convincing is that it runs alongside the truth. The real world has lots of incidental details, so a painting also has to have that element of imperfection and irregularity, those incidental details.”
It’s only natural that a person who has spent sixty years of life writing stories meant to entertain others would have a hard time stopping that process, and I am certainly no exception. Regular readers will have followed my struggle for many months, more than a year, maybe. I’ve been vapor-locked for longer than that, even, perhaps dating back to my long hospitalization at the beginning of 2014, but it took me a while to get to grips with it, and I have conceded that I am probably through writing. That’s my brain talking; my story-telling soul has yet to be convinced, so I’m going to stop fighting that particular battle, and just let what’s going to happen, happen.
You know that I have half a novel, Stingaree, tabbed for you to read at the top of the page. I’ve taken it down several times, but every time I have, someone has asked, “Where did Stingaree go?” So it’s up, and will remain up. Furthermore, in intend to get the materials out several times a week, spread it out, and immerse myself in the action. If nothing comes, I’ll be right where I am now, but what a wonderful thing it will be if it carries me to a completed story! After that, we’ll have to see what happens, but one step at a time. In the meanwhile, if I can impart a lesson that I learned thirty years ago, why should a beginner, or someone who is lost in the sometimes overwhelming process, have to reinvent the wheel when I can hand him or her the blueprint? It may not be the template for the style of wheel you prefer, but it’s a good starting point for your own design, so I’ll continue to bring it in the hope that someone who’s reading this will find the solution to a writing problem by perusing my old notes. Believe me, I know how difficult and rewarding crafting a tight story can be, and if I can help even one of you accomplish that lofty goal, I’m more than happy to do it.
Now to get into this week’s post. In every story you write, nature exists. Whether your characters revere it or exploit it, it is a factor in how those characters approach the world, and more than that, how the story is even told. There is always a conflict between different characters’ views. To some it’s wondrous and beautiful, to others it’s an annoyance, or a source of wealth. Bring that tension to life to bring life to your stories.
In Beyond the Rails, set in the early 1880s, nature is defined by the setting, which is Kenya in East Africa. The Kenya of the time was largely veldt, or grassland, with patches of forest, but nothing like, say, the jungles of the Congo, populated by wild animals and wilder people. The ensemble cast flies a small blimp, the Kestrel, over this landscape, serving the needs of those farmers and entrepreneurs who have need to move cargo over the vast, untamed landscape. There is seasonal weather that grounds the colony’s half-dozen airships twice a year, and unexpected storms that play havoc with the flimsy gasbags, as in this scene from The Explorer, the last story in Beyond the Rails II.
It would have been dusk, except the storm clouds had swung down their way, and blotted out the setting sun entirely. The sudden cold rain had driven everyone, even the intrepid Blaine, to cover, and looking down from the Kestrel, all Monroe could see were the shapes of tents lighted from within by lanterns. Only Hobbs and Bakari were aboard with him. Doctor Ellsworth had spent the afternoon with his new friend Forbes, and Monroe had already decided that he’d best look into that development. Smith was down there somewhere. He had been on and off the ship all day, and had gone down ostensibly to check the anchor mooring when the wind had started to freshen. That had been a half hour ago, and Monroe hadn’t seen him since.
In fairness, he couldn’t see anything but the lighted tents, and the squat shapes of equipment boxes, and those only because he knew where they were.
“I don’t like the look of this wind, Captain,” Hobbs said, coming back from the bow. “There’s no useful cover all the way to the horizon in any direction, and it’s still picking up.”
“I’d make it stop for you, Patience, but I don’t have that sort of pull anymore.”
“Of course. Didn’t you know that when you wear the Badge of Victoria on your cap, the weather bends itself to your will?”
“Really? I had no idea. Well, lacking complete control, then, you still must have an opinion. Do you think this will break soon?”
They both grasped at the rail as Kestrel took a sharp dip in a sudden gust.
“I certainly hope so. Obviously, this isn’t storm season. If it was, we wouldn’t be out here. You don’t see weather like this outside of the Long Rain.”
“Apparently, you do, Captain. I’d suggest we make preparations.”
“I’ve told Bakari to keep steam up all night. What else do you suggest?”
“We should lengthen the anchor line.”
Another blast of wind hit them, sending the ship into a lurching swing around her tether.
“That will increase the pull on the anchor.”
“Maybe, but if one of these gusts slams us into the ground and damages the motors, well, it’s a long drift to India!”
“You’re probably right. What do you recommend?”
“As long as possible. A gust will push us down like a pendulum swinging, and the farther we have to go, the more time we have for the gust to slacken off.”
The gusts were getting more violent even as she was making the statement.
“All right, I’ll pay out some line. You’d better stay near the pilot house just in case.”
“I plan to, but if things go really wrong, there’ll be sharp limits on what we can do about it.”
“Patience, there’s no one I’d rather have on the wheel than you tonight. That includes all the military pilots I’ve ever led. This ship’s like some dogs. I own it, I feed it, but it likes you best.”
“Why, thank you, Captain . . . I think.”
Monroe went forward to pay out more line, grabbing hand-holds all the way against the freshening wind.
“David!” he called through cupped hands toward the ground below. “Doctor!”
His voice was blown away by what was quickly becoming a howling gale.
“David, you need to get back aboard!”
There was no reply to this, and he hardly expected one at this point. He released the ratchet that held the anchor cable drum, and Kestrel shot up and back like a child’s kite. Immediately, Smith’s shout came from below.
“What the devil are you doing?”
“David! You need to get back aboard!”
“Never mind that, Cap’n! Did you pay out more line?”
“Yes! Patience says she needs a buffer to ride out this blow!”
“Well, that’s Jim-dandy, but this tree we’re tied to ain’t gonna hold against that much pull!”
“That may be, but if we hit the ground, we’re afoot!”
“Yeah, and if you uproot this tree, we’re gonna be scattered all over Africa!”
“All the more reason for you to get back aboard!”
“Sorry, Cap’n. You’re too high for the hoist, and there ain’t no way I’m climbin’ the Jacob’s ladder in this!”
“David, we need you up here!”
There was a sharp CRACK! followed by a sick groaning sound, and a second crack.
“Cap’n, she’s breakin’ loose! Cap’n!”
With one final, sickening lurch and a snap, Kestrel was free and running out of control before the wind.
“Captain,” Hobbs shouted, powering up the engines, “what’s happened?”
“The anchor’s loose! We’re adrift!”
“Well, you’d best get in here, then! We can’t spare you!”
Monroe, realizing there was nothing else he could do on deck, was happy enough to take refuge in the pilot house.
“Sweet Jesus! What do you need, Patience?”
“Close those windows for a start.”
“You won’t be able to see with the rain on them,” he said, already starting the process.
“Can’t really see with it in my face, either. Where the hell did this blow come from, anyway?”
“Hell is as good a guess as any.” He got the last window swung into place against the wind, and latched it. “What else do you need?”
“A minute to think. I have the motors at full power, and every time you see a landmark, it’s moving from back to front. My best guess is that we’re being blown backward at close to thirty miles per hour, and that’s with the motors full ahead. I can steer a little, not much else.”
“What are you saying, we can’t go forward at all?”
“You’d have a better chance of paddling a canoe up a waterfall!”
“Missy Hobbs,” came Bakari’s voice through the speaking tube, “what has happened?”
“We’re adrift,” she answered. “The anchor pulled loose.”
“What can I do?”
“Just make sure we’ve full power to everything.”
“Yes, Missy, it shall be so!”
“The anchor’s trailing,” Monroe said. “Maybe if you lose some altitude, it will catch on something.”
“At this speed, we have the momentum of a freight train. The best thing that could possibly happen would be that the line would part. Of course, if we back into a tree at this speed, that opens up a whole new range of possibilities.”
“Damn! What could happen in our favor?”
“The only thing I can see would be if we happen to find a wind shadow, a ridge or a cliff where we can anchor in the lee. If we don’t get out of this soon, it’s going to tear the fins off. Once that happens, we’ll go broadside-to.”
“You can’t hold it bow-on with the helm?”
“Get serious! This is turning into a bloody hurricane! The only thing keeping us bow-on is the weathercocking of those fins, and if they go . . .”
“We turn sideways in this, and it shakes us to pieces. I’m going to go aft and watch for a spot we can put down.”
“All right. Lash yourself onto something. I can’t come back for you, even if you survive the fall.”
Monroe opened the gear locker at the back of the pilot house and pulled out an oilcloth jacket which he donned before heading out into the storm. At the controls, Hobbs eased her motors back to three-quarters power, and settled in for a long fight with a twisting, jerking wheel that seemed to have taken on a life and will of its own.
Overlooking the wide plains of Kenya, there is a mile-high plateau in the western part of the country. One of their regular stops is little trading post (soon to be great city) of Nairobi, which sits atop this plateau. I could have simply said “they went to Nairobi, and while they were there, this thing happened,” but that would have been extremely wasteful of the nature of the place, and we would have missed out on scenes like this one, from the third book, Slayer of Darkness. We join the Kestrel, badly overloaded on her captain’s orders, as she attempts to dock in gusting winds at Nairobi’s aerodrome.
The prevailing wind in eastern Africa blows from south to north, and every chart so indicates, but that’s just the big picture. Every point on the ground has its complications, Nairobi not least among them. The wind gathers momentum crossing the plains of Mombasa before being thrust into the first roiling swirls by the sharp foothills of the Central Highlands and bounced from the shoulders of various crags and peaks to come blasting up the Thika Valley, as confined and focused as any river of water. The wind on a blustery day can arrive at Nairobi in twin streams from south and east, with vertical components that defy prediction. It was this that had worried even so gifted a pilot as Hobbs, and the Spirits of the Highlands did not disappoint.
“Jesus Christ!” she blasphemed as the bow swung toward the dock, using the motors to drive the stern dangerously close to the ground in order to lift the bow above the scattering longshoremen.
“This one’s botched, Captain! I’m going around again.”
“You’ve been around three times already, Patience!”
“Would you like to drive? This is exactly what I told you would happen. You weren’t worried then, so don’t worry now!”
She already had Kestrel climbing out over the aerodrome, wallowing like a scow, beginning a broad circle back for another run at the dock.
“Do you have any other ideas?” Monroe asked, holding onto the pilot house door frame.
“It isn’t up to us, I’m afraid. The line crew has to get both lines at once. If they hook up one, we’ll weathercock over the dock, and the Stokes Derrick will come right through the side. We’ll all be picking out new careers then!”
“All right, whatever you need to do, then, just get us landed!”
It took three more tries, but eventually Kestrel was safely snuggled up to the dock, spring lines made fast, with an anti-roll line to the ground bollard opposite. When Monroe came into the pilot house, Hobbs was leaning back against the engineering console, rolling her shoulders to work out the tension. Monroe turned her away from him, and started to massage her shoulders.
“Another great job, Patience,” he said.
She shrugged his hands off, and took a step away from him.
“Now, you see,” she said, rounding on him, pointing an ominous finger at his face, “that’s your problem, right there!”
“What problem?” he asked, holding his hands up disarmingly.
“What problem? Are you serious? You constantly put us into situations that by rights ought to kill us, then I spend the whole trip fighting with the helm and making up circus tricks, and when we finally survive by getting luckier than any group of humans has any right to expect, it’s, ‘Great job, Patience!’ Then you turn around and put us into a worse spot!”
In fairness, young Miss Hobbs, Captain Monroe’s crackerjack pilot, had warned him that they were overloaded when they left Mombasa, and based on his confidence in her remarkable skills, he had dismissed her concerns and almost learned a lesson at the cost of their lives. But the point is that if you just describe the surroundings, but don’t let them become an organic part of your story, you’re throwing away countless opportunities to enrich the tale; a story is much more than just a 300-page contest between hero and villain. Immerse your reader, and make him feel it!
And I’m going to wrap it up there. That’s plenty to absorb in one session. Be back Thursday for the latest collection of Interesting Reading that I’m even now gathering, and until we meet again, read well, and write better!