While you probably already know that I love doing all the talking, I am going to step aside to let speculative fiction author, Christopher Hoare tell you all about not writing about yourself.
When I went into oil exploration as a young man it wasn’t just for the money, it was also for the image. I’d always wanted to write and how better to prepare for fame and fortune than by being an explorer? Didn’t quite work that way.
I surveyed in both the Libyan Desert and in the Canadian Arctic Islands – plenty of meat to make a banquet of a novel based on personal experience, one would think. While I worked in the desert that movie about the survivors of an airplane crash building an aircraft out of the wreckage to fly to safety hit the screen. I think it was called Flight of the Phoenix, based on a novel by Elleston Trevor. Quite apart from the complete disregard for engineering reality, the crash supposedly happened quite close to where we happened to be and the area was portrayed as being filled with hostile tribesmen and a Foreign Legion fort. What rubbish – nothing could have been further from credibility.
Do you suppose the author was embarrassed about knowing nothing about the area – or having never set foot in the desert? Or knowing nothing about engineering? Not on your life. The suckers bought it and the movie and book made lots of money. Case closed.
I thought I might one day write a novel about the real desert, and about real oil exploration, but this nagging feeling – summed up by another writer as, “there’s a big difference between writing fiction and writing history” – always stalled my efforts before chapter three. How much exaggeration can I take before I begin to feel ridiculous? How little exaggeration will a reader accept before tossing the story aside as too boring?
Take the Arctic. I surveyed there on seismic crews through two winters in temperatures that went on occasion below -60 Fahrenheit. I led moves across country and from island to island across sea ice. That’s getting close to being an explorer, although in the 70s I had some aviation backup and good radio communications. But two facts interfere with my working on a fiction plot. The primary characters who make decisions and move affairs never set foot in the Arctic, except perhaps a few hours of flying visit. If I’ve carried out a few journeys on the ground in conditions that sometimes degenerated to ground blizzards with zero visibility and a good chance of my becoming an ice cube – that’s just my stupidity. The big boys that one needs to cast a plot around are home and warm.
The second fact actually depicts a fantasy – that the lead characters in oil exploration are the oil drillers. In the Arctic, the drilling rigs followed years behind the seismic crews providing the geophysical data that mapped the potential oil bearing structures. Not only that but the rigs up there were boarded in to keep out the wind and blowing snow; the rig camps were located a short distance away with ropes strung between the two to keep roughnecks from wandering astray. No tougher than drilling on the winter Prairie – they didn’t even have to drive a highway in a Saskatchewan blizzard. Between flying in and out all the way from Edmonton, and making the trip from camp to airstrip in warm trucks and tracked vehicles, they never actually set foot in an arctic wilderness.
I did write a collection of stories gathered over my years spent in the business – the kind of tales guys tell around a campfire or a mess-hall table littered with empty beer bottles. They consisted of stories I heard, stories I saw unfold, as well as stories that happened to me. They were all about the seismic crews, the unsung explorers who forged into the wilderness cutting swathes of knowledge and roads for the drillers to follow. The book almost found a publisher. But according to the senior editor my stories were not appealing enough to the reading public because there were no roughnecks in them. He was firmly of the opinion that the real explorers were oil drillers and no public would accept a book that left them out.
Once, despite all my reservations, I decided to start an arctic novel. It would only feature one perilous journey through a whiteout, perhaps some tension between the bosses down south and the guys on the front lines – and even some dangerous interpersonal conflicts that I might make up. Chapter one started with a difficult approach to an arctic airstrip in an Electra. Aircraft we often used, having sat in the cabin myself while planes descended through storms and zero visibility to primitive airstrips on several occasions. Always a dramatic moment when the undercarriage goes down, the engines throttle back, the plane lurches and yaws, the cabin lights flicker, and everyone sits waiting for the bump – or perhaps an awful crash.
Then PanArctic Petroleum’s Electra, CF-PAB, that I’d flown in and out with many times, undershot the runway at Rae Point in a snowstorm. Crashing onto the sea ice, it broke through and sank in seconds. Of thirty-three aboard only three got out, and one of those succumbed to hypothermia before help arrived. I was stunned into a writing block – what could I add to that reality? Besides the aircrew, the men aboard were a drilling crew – so my opinion that the drillers never experience the real arctic was also shot to hell. They had one short, horrible experience of the arctic waters under the ice.
So that novel ceased to develop and I put aside the idea of writing the ‘great oilpatch novel’ – at least until I’m established enough that know-it-alls can’t presume to correct my knowledge. There’s a good Buddhist aphorism I know, “He who walks with fools suffers a long way.” So I write speculative fiction, and keep clear of writing novels about the life I really experienced.
My latest speculative fiction is the alternate world SF novel “The Wildcat’s Victory”. It can be found on at Double Dragon Publishing and on Amazon.
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