by Phil Geusz
©2001 Phil Geusz --all rights reserved
I believe writers do not just write, not if they are any good at it, at least. They must live as well. Many of the grittiest and most famous writers of all time also have led very active and even dangerous lives, lives which did much to help enliven their fiction. Robert Conrad, for example, was an accomplished professional mariner. His travels, especially his personal high seas adventures, served to enrich his works in ways that nothing else possibly could. Arthur C. Clarke was an RAF radar man in the early days of electronics; the experience he gained very near the cutting edge of a crucial ongoing research program of vital national importance shows up again and again in his fiction. He knows, first-hand, exactly how scientists behave and work together when everything is on the line. Robert A. Heinlein was a professional US Navy officer and Annapolis graduate before ill health cut his military career short; both the sense of tradition with which he was imbued and exciting fleet exercises he participated in show up clearly in his work. One of my favorite bits of Heinlein prose is when he once described something as being "as subtle as a sixteen-inch naval rifle". Mr. Heinlein was able to come up with that particular turn of phrase almost certainly because of the simple reality that sixteen-inch naval rifles were an everyday fact-of-life for him over many years.
Jack London certainly thought actual adventures were vital to good writing. He wandered Alaska and the Pacific Northwest in search of good tales from real heroes. In his case, from what I have picked up over the years, the adventures came to him second-hand. One of London's great gifts was being able to absorb the essential sense of "being there" from a single chat in a dockyard bar; in getting those who had actually been places and done things but who would never dream of writing about it to open up and share the treasures they didn't even know they possessed. C.S. Forester, on the other hand, was a more genteel kind of adventurer. He was a successful-enough writer that he was able to afford long sea journeys aboard his own yacht. The imagery in his (mostly sea-related) novels is notably intense and insightful. This is because when he describes landfall in the Gulf of Fonescu, he is remembering the actual act as he types, feeling the hot sun on his face and picturing the twin volcanic peaks that mark the spot. When he spoke so eloquently of the difficulties of surviving a Caribbean hurricane in a sailing ship, he was able to do it so vividly because he had actually done it. Even one of his land-based (but most famous) novels, The General, is filled with incredible insight and imagery. Again, this was because he served in the British Army during that conflict.
In my own writing, the few paltry adventures I have known have play leading, if not vital roles. In Transmutation Now!, I describe at great length a scene in which the hero is nearly run down by a barge. This is because I drove the survivor of a near miss with a barge back to her car once -- she was still pale and shaking and -- quite understandably -- gibbering in fear as I did so. I also met the man who saved her and her two younger sisters lives right after the incident, as well. He very nearly died in the attempt, and was still "pretty squirrelly" himself. He has since appeared as a minor character in literally dozens of my works.
My own role that day has appeared too. I did nothing to help, honestly not even being aware that there was a problem until it was over as the tugboat and the barge blocked my view of the unfolding events. To this day, I still feel a vaguely indefinable sense of guilt that I stood by and did nothing that day while a hero and three innocents nearly died. I know that I could have done nothing different, and that I was probably too far away to help even if I had known. This was not at all my fault, but it is true nonetheless and this emotion has, albeit indirectly, found its way into my works.
I cannot say that I've led a particularly exciting life, but the exciting and emotional incidents in it have provided what color and excitement my writings hold, and I don't think I could write anything at all had I not experienced at least a few adventures along the way. Let me give a few examples of how real life adventure can translate itself into fiction.
One of the few works I have ever written that I am truly proud of is Corpus Lupus. The core inspiration for the original work was an incident that seems most unlikely upon the telling. I was wheeled into a hospital waiting room, heavily drugged and prepped for minor surgery. By the purest of chances, right alongside my bed was a child waiting for surgery, a boy about 11. All the nurses save the one actually tending me were clustered around this child, who was wailing in the most chillingly weak and unearthly voice you can possibly imagine. "I'm cold!" he would cry out, then "I want my Mommy! Where's Mommy?" Meanwhile the nurses calmed him as best they could, taking turns walking away to wipe the tears from their eyes. I found out later from my mother, who was out in the waiting room, that this little boy had been deliberately soaked in gasoline and set afire by his best friend. Even the families of the two had been close friends, and Mom described the scene in the waiting room was nigh onto incredible. First the two families would hug and comfort one another, then they would back away for a time as the true horror of what had happened and who had done what to who set in. Then they would start crying again, instinctively reach out for one another once more, and then repeat the cycle over and over and over again. By the way, I do not know if the boy lived or died; Mom said that from what she gathered he had a chance but not a good one. I frankly do not want to know.
Now, if this incident does not have the makings of the purest horror story imaginable I do not know what does. Corpus Lupus was quite consciously written as the result of wanting to write a story and trying to recall the most horrible thing I had ever witnessed at one and the same time. If you have actually read Lupus, note all the details I lifted from real life. The tale was largely about several children who were tortured to death. In the key incident, the peak of horror is reached when a dying lump of mutilated flesh suddenly becomes human again for just a brief moment, far too late to survive, but just long enough to cry out for its mommy. The viewpoint the incident is seen though is twisted and distorted by a drug-like magic, with effects much like those of the actual drugs I was on at the time. Even more, the whole work is about all about the demeaning of life and what happens when it loses its sanctity. The tale was also largely inspired by a discussion I had just had with my wife regarding the moral legitimacy and social role of the military. Anyone who knows me knows that I am very pro-military. Please do not misunderstand me here, but they kill people in a socially sanctioned manner, and, largely as a result of their very special lifestyle and obligations, live in a separate social circle. It is no accident that the necromancers in Corpus all wear identical clothing and that their training center is called an "academy" -- but I digress.
Another very useful adventure for me has been the result of a strange coincidence in my youth. The house where I grew up had a very memorable phone number, so much so that when the local government set up their drug hot line for teens they requested a number identical to ours with two digits reversed. Several times over the years, I listened to my mother attempting to "talk down" high and scared kids who had dialed wrong. A few times I got to talk to them myself, when I was only their age or younger. This shows up well in my "Blind Pig" stories.
Once I was confronted at work with a distraught worker who called in threatening suicide due to some work-related problems. She asked for me, as she wanted me to deliver one last angry message. Her best friend and I tried to talk her down for almost an hour before she attempted -- and thankfully failed -- to take her own life. Not only will I never forget that hour, but I will also never forget the pain and hopelessness of our failure to prevent her last, ultimate gesture of frustration and anger. I have not used this one yet, but I will.
I have also been in close proximity to two tornadoes, the memories of which show up in Winds of Destiny. While young and foolish, I used to regularly get into police chases for purely recreational purposes and many of the escape scenes in Transmutation Now! come from my frantic escapes back then. I have quite a bit of experience with various firearms. I have had American Nazi Party members -- as well as moonshiners and a militarized religious cult -- try to recruit me. I have known heroes, bigots, winners and losers. I have participated in to-the-hilt political battles that have lasted for years and once I jumped a man who had a rifle aimed squarely at me; it was a friend, who was very dangerously joking around with an unloaded weapon, but I did not know that when I jumped at him. I have been roaring drunk and, more commonly, the only sober one among crowds of drunks. I have seen both hatred and love on scales that I would never have believed possible, had I not witnessed the events firsthand. All of these things, all of them and more, have made it possible for me to write with some authority about life and what it means. Without these adventures, I could not begin to write even with what little skill I have despite having read thousands of books detailing the adventures of others.
My father has led an incredibly adventurous life as well; even today I often just sit and listen to him tell of surviving helicopter crashes, working on secret military projects, doing important civilian work in exotic locales and going out hell-raising with the original astronauts during the Gemini program. Many of these tales he only feels safe telling now, long after the cold war is over, and I am sure there are many more that he keeps mum about even today. Anyone familiar with my work can see where listening to these adventures has led me as well. They are perhaps the deepest essence of my work and I have tapped into them over and over again.
As a point of interest, when people write to complain about something in my stories, to say that I have finally gone beyond the limits of credulity, usually what they are concerned about is an incident that actually came from real life. Reality is far more complex and fascinating than anything we can ever imagine. I consider these complaints to be the most convincing possible proof of this, and they underline the need for writers to seek out real experiences even more clearly than anything else I might say. There simply is no substitute!
Stories without a sense of adventure are, to me, much like life would be without real adventure -- pointless and unfulfilling. If you want to write, I strongly encourage you to get out and live, or else at least read about other people living, fighting and struggling to survive and do right in a world gone utterly mad. Mussolini once said that war is what brings out both the best and worst in humanity. I think he was wrong. It is not war that does this, but adventure. War does so only in that oftentimes it is the most intense adventure of them all.
So, turn off your damned computer for once and go for a walk! Who knows whom you might meet or what could happen along the way? Turn off that damn silly television. Stephen King recently said that giving up TV was excellent advice for any writer, and I can but second him heartily. Go rent a boat; boats make for great adventures! Go drive in the country, and stop at the most ragged-looking truck stop you can find. Sit and drink a soda there, quietly listening to the professional drivers and how they talk among themselves. Get a friend to take you shooting. Even if you do not like guns, at least you will be able to write about them with more authority and feeling. Volunteer to work with the political group of your choice, go help sick kids, sit down next to your oldest neighbor and get him or her to tell you about how things used to be. Do not just learn facts; learn how things feel.
Finally, after you have gone and done something, been somewhere and seen something, write about it! You will be amazed at how quickly your stuff gets better as a direct result. Your life will get better too -- or at least more interesting -- I promise, which is kinda the point, isn't it?