Versimilitude and You

We’ve all read books and stories where the author…umm…just kinda made stuff up.

My favorite example of that kind of thing is a story I read many years ago that was ostensibly set in Samarkhand.  Now, I’ve never actually been to Samarkhand, but (quite obviously) neither had the writer.  And that ruined the story for me.

Hell, an even better example came from an interview I once read with a former astronaut.  We all think about the space shuttle and the space station in certain ways, as clean and high-tech and aspirational-as-hell.  Basically, thanks to NASA’s quite capable PR flacks, we think of those things in terms of Star Trek’s perfect-world bullshit.  In this interview, however, the all-too-honest astronaut in question — when asked to describe what life was really like aboard an orbiting shuttle — answered, “After a couple of days, it smells like a bus station bathroom…”

I defy you to find anyone who has NOT lived in cramped, sealed quarters like that to come up with such an observation.

In a similar vein, I once — as part of an oral history interview — asked a WW2 USN veteran about everyday life aboard a destroyer in the Pacific.  What was the first thing he thought of, I asked, as he looked at a picture of his old ship?

“The smell,” he answered, with no hesitation.  “We couldn’t produce enough fresh water for showers, and that was in the days before deodorant…”

Oh hell yeah.  As much as we writers like to fake-it-‘til-you-make-it, there is absolutely no substitute for real-world experience and knowledge.  Hell, I still remember — and use as writing inspiration — my ex-Marine brother’s description of the “3-hole rule”* for taking a shit in the field in the Middle East.

*You really don’t want to know the details…

“Wait a second,” I hear you cry, “ don’t you write sci-fi and fantasy?  Who the hell are you to talk about ‘versimilitude’ and the whole ‘write what you know’ thing?!”

Well, shit…here just a few things I think about when I write:

Can you write about carrying & firing a gun if you’ve never so much as handled one?

How ‘bout a sword?

Hacking someone’s bank account?

Living homeless and hopeless amidst a world of plenty?

Walking twenty to thirty miles a day for weeks on end?

Getting stabbed or shot?

Betting everything you have/own on the flip of coin?

The smell & feel of the untracked wilds?

When I can, I answer those questions myself.  I have, indeed, carried a (legally) concealed pistol for days on end, so I know what that feels like.*  I do, in fact, own a sword…if I’m not nuts enough to wear it on the street, I have at least walked around the house wearing it.  Tripped over the stupid thing, too.

*Relaxing in a chair, by the way, sucks donkey balls when said weapon is digging into your damned kidney…I’ll take a shoulder holster every single day of the week, and twice on Sundays…

When I don’t know the truth — when I can’t know — I talk to those who do.  I have been attacked with a knife — don’t ask! — but I’ve never so much as had a gun pointed at me, let alone have I been shot at.  I do, however, have friends and relatives who have experienced that “side” of life…

I’ve never hacked an account — I’ve never actually hacked anything — but before I started writing Connor’s story, I took the time to find and talk to those who have.  In much the same way, in fact, that I spent several months getting to know the homeless street-kids who haunted some of Northern Colorado’s most well-known public spaces before I started writing.

I can, of course, tell you what it feels like to walk terrain untrodden for years, or even for decades.  I can tell you what a grizzly smells like, and how it feels to have a predator “interested” in you for several miles…

43146D41-6026-4050-81CB-1B39F154598BWrite what you know, they say.  And they kinda have a point…

Wait…what?  You don’t know the politics of a medieval kingdom?  Or the internecine struggles of a modern secret society?  You don’t personally know the dynamics of high society, or the struggles and sacrifices of a professional athlete?

If you don’t know, you talk to those who do.  You learn from those who do.  And, when you get right down to it, you use what you do know: you take modern politics and society and culture  and experiences and throw over them whatever concealing shroud your story requires…  

Holy crap, do you think “King Lear” was really about an aging king and his feuding daughters?!?!

Do you really think “Lord of the Rings” was about a couple of hobbits and an evil demi-god?  That “Moby Dick” was about some random dude’s obsession with an albino whale?  That “La Morte d’Arthur” was about some aquatic tart giving a glorified letter opener to a horny adolescent?

Crap, not even the freaking “Tale of Genji”* was about what it purports to be about.

*The oldest extant novel in the world, by the way…

Look, we’re writers…we get to make shit up.

Hell, that’s half the fun of being a writer!

But — and this is the big, inevitable BUT — but, what you make up has to be significant.  It has to mean something, both to you and to the reader.

Oh…and you damned well better have at least some kind of reality behind what you make up!  You don’t have to get shot to write your story, but if you don’t at least go down to the VFW and buy a few drinks for those who do know, then it might be time to consider a new calling…

Sorry, Mom!

Okay, since this is — err, technically — a writing blog, I suppose I have to pay at least some lip service to my writing…but, of course, I’ll come at it from a weird direction…

You live in Yellowstone?  You must get all kinds of inspiration for your writing up there!”

Umm…yes and no.  Yes, because the place really does have an innate magic that can’t help but touch you.  And No because, when I’m out in the Park, I’m…well…out in the Park.  Oh, I bring a notebook and a pen along on most hikes, but let’s be honest here: I spend that time hiking and soaking in the surroundings, not thinking.  As much as I love — and need — to write, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to switch gears from outdoorsman to writer.  Not least because, when I write, I put all of my focus and attention into the words.  To do that when I’m sitting on the top of a mountain?  Or deep in the woods?  Yeah, at that point it’s not quite so easy as it is when I’m sitting at the picnic table at the back of my RV site.

Oh, and because … well … bears.  There’s a now-hard-to-find picture of some girl in F7FFE55A-77D3-4284-A6FA-6F1EBCEFABD3Alaska who was so absorbed in setting up and taking her selfie that she missed the grizzly coming up behind her in that picture…   I’m pretty sure my Mom would prefer it if I didn’t end up an ursine Happy Meal with my earbuds in and a pen in my hand.  Although, now that I describe it that way, I suppose there are worse ways to go!

Sorry, Mom!!

The internet in Yellowstone sucks, how do you keep up with family and news and all that stuff?”

Umm…I mostly don’t.  Look, I’m a complete introvert* who needs to “get away from 543617DA-2735-4F8E-A8AD-F07F478C3355it all” for at least a part of every year.  Okay, okay, I really DO get it — doing so for six months at a time might be considered a BIT more than “part of the year”, but I’ve always believed in the old joke that anything worth doing is worth doing to excess!

*Although I CAN pretty effectively fake being an extroverted “nice guy” when necessary.

My family is pretty used to “radio silence” from me, by the way, so they tend not to get too stressed when they don’t hear from me for a while.  Well, except for that time when my Mom called the cops on me because I forgot to call for … umm … ahem … better than two months …

Sorry, Mom!

As for the news?  It just frustrates and irritates me, anyway.  I give myself one morning a week to read the news, over my coffee and bagel.  At the end of that morning, I usually wonder why the hell I bothered wasting my time and energy.  I then head out to see if I can tempt a grizzly into eating me in an effort to atone for my news-reading sin.  Hell, if I didn’t need my iPad for writing, I’d cover it in peanut butter and try to get the bear to eat that

How many words do you write in a week up there compared with back home?”

Great, thanks a ton for making me feel guilty about my lack of productivity.  I average about 1,000 miles of hiking in six months up here, doesn’t that count for something?!

*sigh*

Fine, here’s the reality: a full, dedicated day of writing will see me put down somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 effective words.  I will also, on a day like that, accomplish a few writing-oriented chores that do not directly involve creating sentences and scenes.  That means that, back home, I can (and hopefully will!) produce anything from 10,000 to 15,000 first-draft words in a week.  Up here, I’m happy to end a week with 4,000 words on the page.  Occasionally — like when the Yellowstone Beer Fest was happening! — I produce zero words.  Such is my cross to bear*.  

*Pun fully intended!

Can I have a free copy of your stuff?”

Can I have your f*@#ing house?  There ain’t many people in this universe getting rich from writing, and I am most definitely NOT one of those few.

Okay, I get it, Yellowstone isn’t really an inspiration for you…so what does inspire you?”

Beer.

Well….beer and coffee.

Oh, and tourists.  Any time I need to write a character who is annoying, ignorant, or stupid — or, better yet, all three — I just study the tourists for ten minutes.

Are you grumpy, or what?  I’m glad you aren’t in public relations!”

That WAS public relations for me.  Get any staff member who has spent more than a month up here even the slightest bit drunk, and we will tell you stories that’ll make you want the supervolcano to go off!

So, on that topic, the supervolcano…  It’s just media-hype, right?  A fake-news thing?”

55D93F29-BCB4-4F24-8034-5BC193432AFCMy RV currently sits all of two thousand meters above an active magma chamber the size of freaking Montana.  Mt St Helens put out one-quarter of a cubic kilometer of
stuff…and that devastated shit for miles.  The last Yellowstone eruption put out A THOUSAND cubic kilometers of shit.  2.1 million years ago, Yellowstone put out 2,500 cubic kilometers!  So, yeah…“fake news”…

Where are you going after this season?”

Somewhere I can do more writing.  I love being up here, I really do.  I love the park, I love the hiking, I love the animals…but I don’t produce crap as far as writing is concerned.  From a real-world, financial perspective being up here is stupid as hell.  Let’s be honest — no one comes up here to work for the money.  There ain’t no money up here.  Pretty much every seasonal employee up here just manages to break even for the season.  That’s it.  At best, you might put away a few hundred.  Which is why 75% of the seasonal staff are either college kids or retired folks.  To be one of the few still trying to make a living while working in the park?  Yeah, that has it’s problems.  I’m going to need the six months following this just to make up the ground I lost being up here…and I still wouldn’t change it for anything.

Okay, with all that said — are you FINALLY going to call your mother?”

No, I’m going to write.  Then I’m gonna lead a moonlight hike through a geyser basin…

Sorry, Mom!

The Squirrel Who Thinks He’s A Bear

I sat outside the other night.  A plate of nuts and olives, a bit of cheese, and a nice glass of Speyside scotch…all to go with a gentle breeze and the blue, blue skies you get only up in the mountains.  Six feet away from me, laying in the tall grass that stretches away from one side of my RV site, were two big bull elk, napping and being generally lazy.

It was the kind of night you get only when you are able to live in a place like Yellowstone.  Even back in Colorado — in the “southern” Rockies — you don’t really get those evenings.  And for those who just visit Yellowstone?  The pace to take advantage of the few days most visitors have in the park is simply too frenetic to allow a true slow-down, let alone a true evening just to sit back and soak it all in.

So, there I was, having the perfect evening…until my neighbor started in on me.  He started screaming at me, cussing me out in no uncertain terms, and letting me know just what he thought of my obnoxious habits.  Now, I’m a pretty big guy, and pretty fearless, so normally that kind of thing just sets me off…but not this time.  This 4A16391E-F17D-4FC6-925A-DA584E599F58particular neighbor, I should explain, weighs about 700 pounds and stands over ten feet tall.

Err…at least in his mind.

1B634BD3-C987-46FB-9C24-801F46481272In reality, he weighs about a pound, and stands about four inches tall…but you’ll never convince him of that.  In his own eyes, he’s the biggest freaking grizzly in all 2.2 million acres of the park.  I’m not joking about this — this damned squirrel is the most fearless, aggressive thing I’ve ever met.  Look, I’ve stood ten feet from a mother grizzly with a cub and been less worried about getting attacked than when this little bastard starts getting pissed at me…

And he’s found his way into my trailer.

Holy shit, this freaking super-villain of a squirrel is bringing the fight to me!

FE904BE8-E452-47A2-820B-8735A7D5C2EBI try to fight back, I really do.  I try to fight back, but I’m quickly turning into Carl Spackler.  I look up “squirrel fighting methods” and they do nothing.  I try something different, and still nothing.  So I pull out the stops and try something more serious, severe even…and Ernest Squirrelfeld just strokes his 9925265B-882E-4606-A168-FB7125BB1F0Dtiny white cat and laughs at me.  “No, Mr Human, I expect you to die!”

Harrumph.

I can hear the little bastard taunting me.  Hell, right now as I write this, he’s up on a branch just out of my reach, chittering at me like a furry little demon.

Anyone have the number for the Acme Rocket Company?A3309762-8C2E-4348-B653-E79448F4B53E

Pop-Tarts and Beer, Vol. II

I spend most of my (public) time here in Yellowstone talking to people about hiking.  What trails they should or shouldn’t use, what kind of gear and supplies they should have, what they can expect to see and do, how best to watch* the wildlife, that kind of thing.

*Rule #1 for wildlife watching, by the way, is to do as I say, not as I do…Me: ”What do you mean, I shouldn’t follow the wolf tracks back to the den?”  My Ranger-Friend: “You know, I’m not coming all the way out there to help when you get attacked…”

Invariably, people — being people, of course — will worry and ask about food.  Oh, they’ll couch it in terms of “energy” and “nutrition” and “hydration” but we humans are just as worried about our stomachs as are your average grizzly and bison.  “What do you eat,” I was asked once by a co-worker, “to recover energy after a tough hike?”

Ummm…

I thought about all the crap I should eat afterwards, about carbs and proteins and restoring everything I sweated out over the miles of the hike.  I thought about it, then I decided to answer with the truth, “Pop-tarts and beer.”

Hell, the only reason I don’t take those two miracles with me on the trail is, well, have you ever actually TASTED beer out of a camelback?  Yeah, not even I’m that committed…

DC88F4A3-9794-4102-BE0C-BA6C932333E7So, okay…now, after my little snack, I’ve ticked the last box on my list and I’m completely content and happy.  It was one of those absolutely perfect days to be out hiking.  The kind of day you have to get out and take advantage of: a day of blue, blue skies and gentle breezes…a day of puffy clouds and vibrant wildflowers still in riotous bloom…a day of nothing but rolling hills and rich meadows as far as I could see…

A mile in and the noise from the road was lost to me…two miles in and all the worries and frustrations of the world were lost, as well…three miles, and I was in my element, looking for someplace new and interesting to explore…

Then I started to wonder.

Dammit, why do I do that?  Why can’t I just relax and take it all for what it is?  But nope, I’m a writer, I always have to think and wonder and imagine.

So, this time, I wondered about those who…well…those who wait.  Wait for someone to tell them where to go, and what to do.  Wait for someone else to discover, to teach, to explore.  Wait for permission and for approval.  Wait, when you get right down to it, to live.

I have this friend, someone I work with up here, who is competence and confidence personified.  He spent a career as a firefighter, for Pete’s sake, finishing as Chief of a department.  This man is no shrinking violet, no weakling and certainly no fool.  But he waits.  He waits for someone else to take him around the park…for someone else to lead he hikes…for someone else to do.

I don’t know if its upbringing, or something more innate, but I just can’t imagine being here in Yellowstone like that.  Even when I was first here, even when I had no idea where the freaking laundry room was, let alone anything in the Park itself, I 1C0D02C4-9662-466A-BDDA-E68D0AAAB310would just head out and find places to go and things to see.  I would, of course, also find ways to get myself in deep shit, too…but that’s part of the fun!  “Oh, hi, Mr Grizzly.  How are you today?”

Beyond the Park, however, I most definitely can’t understand living like that.  For good or for ill, I’m pretty much the embodiment of the whole “better to ask forgiveness than permission” theory of life.  I can’t imagine waiting for someone to tell me to write…I can’t imagine waiting for someone to show me the path.  I said it once before on this blog, a couple of years ago: if you always follow the trail — if you wait — then all you can ever do is walk in someone else’s footsteps.

And that seems a whole lot like living a life of fear.  That, in fact, seems a whole lot like hell.

P.S.

A38151E8-B8AD-42AE-9367-6D55846EDF6ABy the way, I wasn’t actually kidding about following the wolf tracks — I found the tracks of a pup and adult who were scouting for the rest of their pack, and followed those back to where the others had rested after the morning hunt.  From there, the tracks & sign of the whole pack were (relatively) easy to follow for a few miles…