A few days ago, I was slogging my way through Facebook’s news wall—which if you know anything about Facebook, is loaded with posts by people and pages you’ve liked or joined. So I was looking at a bunch of input from family, friends, peers, and groups I enjoy. Most times I’ll hit ‘LIKE’ to show interest and support, now and then I will make a small comment, but I also just surf to see what’s being bandied about. I do read any linked articles that catch my eye, and my writer’s bump of curiosity and wonder is always looking for something to scavenge as story fodder. Well, I saw a very gruesome picture of a dead tarantula with ‘things’ growing out of it, and while my first reaction was, “Ewwww!”, that wicked little muse said, “Check that out! There’s a story in there!” So I did.
You can see the article and the amazing video that accompanies it here: http://io9.com/5918948/fungal-infection-causes-tarantula-to-grow-antlers. Be warned that it is graphic, so if the sight of dead and dying creepy crawlies being attacked and taken over by fungus is going to upset you, then you might want to skip it. The real surprise for me was that this fungus is not uncommon in some environments and that it has strains that specialize in certain bugs. Plus it takes over the simple brain of the creatures to make them move to more favorable sites for spore dispersal. There is so little we know about the real world around us, it never fails to fascinate me as to what life and death struggles are going on right under our noses.
Now, while my gag factor over such things was working against me, my writer antennae were fully extended and my brain was humming along double time. What if that was a human being and not a tarantula or an insect, and we picked this fungus up on another planet? Say that there were at least months involved in the growing inside the body stage—you could wipe out an entire space colony and when the first responders get there, they could bring back the spores and start a pandemic situation at home. This thing could be sentient, and the mind control it exerts makes the infected seek out other humans. It could go after our food supplies, or become a weapon of mass destruction. It could be the revenge of a mad scientist or sorcerer—do you see the possibilities? When something strikes you as disturbing, there’s a good bet it will affect others similarly. And that makes for great for pulp writing!
As purveyors of speculative fiction, we have to go to unsavory places and poke into dark recesses that others dread to plumb. There is no end to the amount of horrific scenes a writer’s mind can dream up. For instance, as a fantasy writer, I work with plenty of mythological beings and creatures, and a great number of occult scenarios. It’s stuff that makes me want to sit down at the keyboard half a day and get lost in imaginary lands. To get beyond the ‘woo-woo’ factor of all that, I like to throw in a bit of science and realism; hence my excitement over finding yet another atrocious natural monster that eats big spiders. Yeah, realism and fantasy can go together, just like oil and vinegar in a salad dressing. It’s all in how you blend it.
Take for instance, the book I’m currently working on. It has the usual quasi-medieval setting with a heaping helping of magic, set in my own little universe, so I know the rules and limitations well. It has been said there are too many stories about dragons in fantasy, but they are a mythical critter I happen to adore. So this book features dragons prominently, as crafty but non-sentient predators on a large scale; and yep, they fly and breathe fire. One of the things that I love about writing dragons is that overwhelming sense of dread they bring, just because these are basically winged dinosaurs of very large proportions which can easily roast everything in their paths and carry off large beasts. To make them believable, I have given my dragons limitations too, and on a more beastly level, some motivation for being the scourge of the skies. Big animals must hunt big prey, and hunt often; so the ability to fly allows them to cover large distances. Having young to feed who can’t fly yet makes an adult dragon seek out even greater sources of food over a long range. Flaming is both a hunting device and a method of self-protection. So while we’re talking a creature of imagination, some of the aspects are grounded in reality.
Fire breathing as an attack mechanism is what I had to focus on for one particularly hard-to-write scene. That sent me searching the internet for even more ways to add some realism to what I was trying to describe, since dragons are a bit hard to study in the wild these days. I had it set up where soldiers in two outpost guard towers connected by a high bridge over a pass are attacked at night by an enraged dragon. I wanted to pin down for the reader not just the blow-by-blow details of the scene, but the actual feeling of being there. That means adding emotions and sensory material to the description, so that you’re not just reading it, but hearing, smelling, seeing, touching, even tasting what the characters are going through. It’s hard to describe an inferno in the midst of a battle if you’ve never experienced either, but I find that by adding little bits and pieces of information from other sources, I can give a good idea of what that was like. So, I had to get over my ‘creep factor’ again and go Google some stuff like, ‘What do burning human bodies smell like?’ and I looked for pictures of burnt corpses. Oh yes, I found my info, because on the internet, anything goes; and it was disturbing with a capital D! Yet, I got the bare bones of the scene down satisfactorily, and then I saved and shut the file and went on to some editing to get my mind off what I had seen, read about, and wrote.
I’ll admit, that information haunted me for the rest of the day, and made getting to sleep rather difficult that night. I’ve had to go back over that scene a few more times in this rough draft stage, adding to and refining what I have. I’m satisfied with it now, and it feels to me as if what I got across is more than a bunch of interesting little details about dragons and fighting them.
Any genre fiction requires some suspension of disbelief. Whether you’re writing a classic western shoot out, a gangland hit, face sucking aliens, or people turned into cyborgs in some lab; the more human sensory material you can work in, the better. If the huge monsters are fighting each other mere yards from where your character is crouching in hiding, let’s feel that sense of terror. If the zombies are gnawing on your family, or the bullets just ripped open your partner, we need to be there with you. Get realism in there—even with very few words—and you’ll make it riveting.
Now when is realism too real? When the story becomes more about shock and awe than it is entertainment. There is a fine line that has to be drawn somewhere, so that the splatter comes to a halt and we can see a way to something uplifting at the end. That’s absolutely vital in pulp, which is by definition, heroic fiction. Somebody has got to face the evil down and win this thing for the rest of us. That’s generally going to be the main character, albeit sometimes reluctantly and with plenty of outside help. However you write it, keep your eye on the fact that you are moving toward a positive conclusion of sorts, even when things look their darkest. Don’t paint yourself in a corner by getting so caught up in the violence and the gore, you forget to give your character some weapon, insight, help, or motivation that no one else has. Having limits on both the abilities of the bad dudes as well as the good guys makes for a far more interesting read than Superhero meets Super-villain and they duke it out forever. That would be a yawner.
No matter how far-fetched the setting and characters, a good grounding in reality is really imperative. We might be writing larger-than-life champions in bizarre and exotic places, but we’re selling those stories to human beings just like us. If Boromir takes fifteen orc arrows and still comes up swinging his sword, he’d better be established as Gondorian super race because no regular human being is going to get up after even one broadhead hits a vital spot. If Luke Skywalker’s ship goes offline in deep space and there’s no life support system functioning, he’s going to asphyxiate and crumple up like an empty potato chip bag, unless he has some inhuman ability to put his body into a hibernation stasis that can resist the pressure changes as well as the lack of oxygen. There are limits to how bad you can make things and have them remain believable, which keeps the reader tuned in. Yet, within those limits, you can play around a lot with your readers’ minds, keeping everyone enthralled by detailing how it would feel to fly into the upper atmosphere and beyond, wearing nothing more than a glorified union suit and cape.
So yeah, get real; and go beyond that too. Let ideas take you places no human has been able to travel to. That’s the stuff the best pulp stories are made of. But don’t skip looking around at this world for inspiration. As with the tarantula fungus, even nature can be bizarre as heck at times. Just don’t forget that your reader experiences your story in a very human brain. While it can conceptualize all sorts of possibilities, the mind’s understanding of reality is anchored in what the outer sensory organs tell it. No matter how eccentric your idea is, get some of that tactile detail in there as well. Your stories will sing, and your readers will sing your praises.
There’s no such thing as ‘too realistic’ in fiction as long as you recall that you’re telling a story, not making a list of ways to kill or maim. So now, get real, and go write some riveting scenes!