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Writer’s Craft #30 – Too Strange for Fiction

July 25, 2011

John Preet appeared on the Writer’s Craft earlier this year on the topic of writing a fight. He lives and writes in Calgary, AB. John is a pilot, a technical writer, a lover of big dangerous animals, and a teacher of martial arts. (Lynda)


One of the odder issues I have faced is translating to fiction some of the experiences in my life that prompt my pieces. We are constantly urged to “write what we know”. What do you do when what you’ve written is so far outside most people’s experience that peer criticism revolves around “this is too unlikely; nobody would believe it”.

Some of my stories incorporate my own life, such as the following excerpt from a bit of military fiction:

The whisper finally penetrated his sweaty sleep and he jolted awake, certain he was back in the Ecuador jungle, with Carey’s weakening voice. The dream faded completely as he focused on the white-grey ceiling and felt the chill that no heater on the planet could beat back. Falling back, he grimaced at the impact of the soaked pillow and the musk of his drenched clothes.

“A dream, only a dream”, he muttered and closed his eyes. “Alone.”

The whisper came again, slithering along the walls and into the infirmary. “Can’t you help me”

He sat up again, listening hard as he swiped his forehead.

“Please . . .” A scratchy whisper coming from everywhere.

“Where are you?”

“Alone . . .”

He swung to his feet and gripped the edge of the bed as his head swam, fresh sweat stinging his eyes despite the chill.

“Help. Please . . .”

Down the hall, maybe. Moving carefully, half leaning against the wall, he followed. The weak cry seemed to retreat as he moved along, wet prints freezing behind him.

“Yes, please. Here, down here.” Carey. Still scanning his fire arc, even as his blood flowed and the rescue helo didn’t come.

“Carey? Hang on, buddy, chopper’s coming. Just hang on.”

“Please . . .”

Breath rasping out in a spray, he leaned on the door, fighting the spinning in his head.

“Please . . .”

He opened the door and the blizzard chuckled, freezing his clothes to his skin, caressing him with a thousand crystal fingers, urging him on in whispering waves of razor snow.

“Please, please. Out here . . .”

He stumbled on, feet already numb, his eyes freezing shut.

“I’m coming, buddy, hang on.”

That was something that actually happened. Only the ending got changed.

Too strange for fiction?

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. Lynda Williams permalink
    July 25, 2011 10:55 am

    Here’s my “too strange for fiction” story: when inventing the Vrellish, I wanted males to be able to share in infant care. But when talking with my sister about the possibility of lactating men, her reaction was so clearly “never could I find a breast-feeding man sexy” that I gave it up. My research had suggested there might be at least one mammal precedent. A type of bat, if I recall.

    • Kari T permalink
      July 25, 2011 11:51 am

      Linda, I agree with your sister :-)

      • Lynda Williams permalink
        July 25, 2011 1:17 pm

        Yes, she wasn’t the only one. Hence no lactation for my Vrellish hunks. But I did get one e-mail response saying it would have worked for her! And she’s read the series and knows we’re talking about characters like Vras Vrel – or “red suspenders” as he is affectionately known. :-) But the majority response was a viseral “no” from women. Never did ask guys.

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      July 27, 2011 1:27 pm

      Received this, by e-mail:

      There is a tribe in Africa where the men eat yams to trigger lactation (they are high in estrogen) so there is indeed a human precedent. I saw a documentary on it once and I’m sure the information is out there on the internet somewhere. Fact is indeed stranger than fiction.

      Kimberley

      PS Wikipedia has an entry for male lactation! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Male_lactation

  2. July 25, 2011 11:18 am

    Totally enjoyed this excerpt..and yes, I write fantasy, both Y.A. and dark . Anything I’ve written in short stories or novel has stemmed from the strangeness of this reality we all share; or from dream excursions. Dreams too, I believe, are valid “experiences”–afterall, it’s our deeper consciousness assimilating/interpreting what it has encountered.

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      July 25, 2011 1:21 pm

      Dreams have been motivating fiction (not to mention religious conversions and scientific epiphanies) from pre-history! So I’d agree. When, as you point out, they bear on deep and significant real life issues.

  3. July 26, 2011 6:36 am

    I thought it worked just fine.
    As far as the lactating men… I have no particular problem with it, though ya gotta wonder if they’d have boobs, then; you have to store the stuff somewhere. But I think a lot of guys might not be so open-minded.

  4. JohnP permalink
    July 26, 2011 7:27 am

    Lynda seems to have kicked off quite a debate :)

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to squeeze some milk into my coffee . . .

  5. Lynda Williams permalink
    July 27, 2011 1:31 pm

    Yes, but people were supposed to share their own “stranger than fiction” items. :-(

  6. Mishell Baker permalink*
    July 27, 2011 5:24 pm

    Most of what goes on in Hollywood would never fly in fiction. I’ve read epic fantasy that was less surreal than Los Angeles/the entertainment business.

  7. July 28, 2011 10:03 pm

    Oh, you mean most of what goes on in REAL LIFE among movie people in LA? That’s ironic. :-)

  8. August 6, 2011 3:00 am

    I alway thought the ‘write what you know’ adage was less literal, more emotional… so that you can bring the reality of that emotion to the story?

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      August 8, 2011 4:31 pm

      Good point EG. Certainly, for me, writing fiction is more about emotional truth than the literal sort. Although I do “know” the Okal Rel Universe pretty well by now, having hung out there so many years, it’s real life emotional experience that animates the characters.

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