Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Further to last week’s moorland misadventure, I have to admit that the incident is still preying on my mind.

Each night as I go to bed my thoughts are filled with deep mud pools and fruitless flailing. As my mind replays the incident the bog is always deeper and more sucking, solid ground further away. The helplessness and lack of mobility recall those common childhood nightmares of trying to run through air that feels as thick and unyielding as treacle*.

I have tried to persuade myself that I was really not in as much danger as I thought. I have researched the subject a little. I even found a video of Bear Grylls purposefully wading into quicksand in order to demonstrate how to escape it. He made it look easy, of course. I struggled to visualise accomplishing the same manoeuvre in my situation last weekend – even if I had known or dared to lie horizontally on the surface.

When I mentioned the incident to a guy in my pilates class he said that he’d had a similar experience – sinking up to his chest in a bog (in the same location). A friend had to haul him out by his rucksack.

None of this reassures me.

But last night a new thing occured to me. If help had immediately come, if strangers had turned up and pulled me out of the mud, I am sure I would feel twice as troubled as I do. Although the memory of helplessness is what frightens me, I was not helpless. I did rescue myself. If someone had immediately pulled me out I wouldn’t know whether I had the power to do it myself. I wouldn’t know if I could keep calm and behave sensibly. The What ifs would be all the more powerful and insistent.

This has led me to wonder about the psychology of the rescued.

Orlando Furioso by Gustave Dore

Orlando Furioso by Gustave Dore, Angelica rescued from the Gryphon

It is of course a common trope in all kinds of fiction that a (young and beautiful) lady is in some terrible danger, but is rescued in the nick of time by a sword-wielding, wise-cracking, solid-jawed hero.

I have never before really considered what the victim/heroine’s feelings on that would be. Relief, of course. Gratitude, probably. But what about later? In the deepest, quietest hours of the night? Would she see again the dragon’s powerful teeth, smell its fetid breath? Would she struggle against the memory of those binding ropes, flinch from the licking flames?

Rather than marrying the hero and living happily ever after, I now wonder if she would go mad with post-traumatic anxiety? If she would become clingy and neurotic, never allowing her rescuing hero to leave her side for fear of some further calamity befalling her – a calamity she had no power to escape herself. Or, at least, no power that she knew of.

Surprisingly few fictional characters ever do suffer post-traumatic stress – despite the heroic amounts of trauma we subject them to. If they do, we quickly become impatient with their self-indulgent whining and moping.

As authors we want to retain the flavour of realism, while filtering out the tiresomeness. After all, our primary objective is to be entertaining; to tell a good story.

With hindsight, it seems I have something to be grateful for. I may have felt alone and forsaken as I stood dripping mud on the edge of that bog. But I have come to the conclusion that self-rescuing is far more satisfying and reassuring than being rescued. I just hope I don’t need to do it again any time soon.

* That wasn’t just me, right?

Due to a combination of naivety and idiocy, my work in progress, Kikimora, is set in the early 17th century in Eastern Europe, and largely concerns copper mining. When I first came up with the idea for the story, I gave little or no thought to the amount of research this would entail.

It’s a fairy-tale-ish, folk-tale-ish children’s story. Such things won’t really matter, I told myself. Then I tried to write it. I finished the first draft some months ago, but the first read through revealed many problems due to lack of research.

Informational image at the Peak District Mining Museum, Matlock Bath

It’s not that I hadn’t done any research. Far from it. I scoured my local libraries for relevant materials, and gave a day in the sun to two unloved books on local copper mining which prior to my interest hadn’t been checked out since the 1980s. Incidentally, the two books mysteriously disappeared from my library record whilst still in my possession. I suspect someone saw the opportunity to rid themselves of stack-balast and gift the books to a loving new home…

I read both books from cover to cover, making copious notes. However, my main research material is the 1000-odd page, translated-from-Latin, 16th century mining bible, De Re Metallica (not about Nordic heavy metal, disappointingly).This is perfect for me. It is the very book my protagonist miner would actually be referring to in his daily work.

However, it is also very hard work. I have had it checked out from the library for over a year. Occasionally I forget to renew it in time, and the fines I’ve already paid on it would have bought several new books – but not this one. This one is hard to come by, and the cheapest I’ve seen it is £40-ish.

And I’ve read… a few pages of it. It is dry as Jacob’s crackers. It is written in impenetrable old-fashioned English and stuffed full of technical terminology that I don’t understand. It is also too heavy to hold comfortably on my lap, so I have to sit at the table to read it. I did find a free PDF copy to download for kindle, but it doesn’t scale well to my kindle screen, and is either unreadably small, or so large I have to scroll across the page to read the end of each line :-/

Finally accepting after a year that I’m probably not ever going to wade through it all, I began casting around for other sources of information. And I remembered a 70s TV series, Poldark, which was set in maybe the 17/18th century, and featured a lot of mining. I knew it was based on books, so I looked them up, and ordered from the library.

I was a little dubious, it has to be said. My memories of the TV series are hazy, and I had a vague idea that it might be quite trashy and torrid, not much of a step up from the Mills and Boon novels my mum used to read (I’m happy to report she’s since progresed to Steig Larsen novels.)

I was very happily surprised. The first novel, Ross Poldark, was pacy and at times very funny* – the tone decidedly earthy, rather than romantic. I have learnt more about mining (18th rather than 17th century, it has to be admitted, but much of the technology is the same) in a week, than from a year’s possession of De Re Metallica. And what’s more, I’ve enjoyed doing it.

* My very favourite passage, “Sir Hugh, the present baronet, was fifty and a bachelor, under-sized, vigorous and stout. He claimed to have more hair on his body than any man living, a boast he was ready to put to the proof for a fifty guinea bet any evening with the port. He lived with his step-mother, the Dowager Lady Bodrugan, a hard-riding, hard-swearing woman of twenty-nine, who kept dogs all over the house and smelt of them.”