Taming the Wilderness: Jessica Barry on How to Write Survival Fiction

Jessica Barry, author of Freefall, shares how she researched surviving in the Colorado Rockies, all from the comfort of her home. Comment for a chance to win a copy of her new thriller!

When the idea for my debut thriller, Freefall, first came to me, I knew it was one I wanted to develop: a plane crashes in the Colorado Rockies and the sole survivor must fight her way through the wilderness with the clothes on her back and whatever supplies she can salvage from the wreckage. The trouble was, the closest I’d ever been to roughing it in the great outdoors was a soggy weekend in a Cornwall trailer park. What did I know about surviving in the mountains?

Of course, the ideal solution would have been to buy a backpack and a pair of crampons and set out to tackle the Rockies myself. For a brief moment, I pictured myself as Cheryl Strayed, striking bravely out on my own, muscles turning sinewy with each passing mile, the chirp and hiss of various woodland creatures my only companion, conquering personal demons and popping blisters along the way. Then I remembered that I have a full-time job in London, limited vacation allowance, and an overriding fear of being alone in the woods in the middle of the night.

So I turned to two trusty resources: the internet and the library. For a period of a few months a couple of years ago, my Google search history would have raised all kinds of red flags. YouTube instructional videos by doomsday preppers, articles about how to start a fire and how to cover your tracks, questions about hunter’s blinds, and the nutritional content of dandelions: pretty soon, I had a notebook full of information that would have theoretically enabled me to live entirely off the grid (if I wasn’t so attached to Netflix). I also Google-Earthed the living daylights out of the Rockies and plotted a course for my character to take, zooming in on rivulets and crevices and thickets of trees.

Then came the books. The SAS Survival Handbook gave me insight into the basics my character would need to face the elements. I knew it was unlikely that my character would have military-grade essentials packed in her luggage, so I swapped in the closest plausible substitutions: gym gear rather than Gore-tex, running sneakers rather than hiking boots, a tarp scrounged from the plane rather than a tent. The Handbook made me think about the balance between traveling light and having enough supplies to survive, and I winnowed down the list of what she takes from the wreckage accordingly.

I also Google-Earthed the living daylights out of the Rockies…

I also read a wonderful book called The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs, which taught me all sorts of interesting information like how best to find water in the wilderness (follow the natural downward gradient of the land as water is low-lying) and how to read trees like a compass (branches grow more thickly on the southern side as they enjoy more exposure to the sun). There were tips about decoding cloud formations to predict the weather and about tracking animals. Not all of it made it into the book – I figured my character, while pretty wilderness-savvy thanks to her outdoors-loving father, wouldn’t have quite this breadth of knowledge – it made for a fascinating read and definitely helped me develop a better sense of what it is to exist comfortably with the wild world.

Writing always has its ups and downs. There are days when the words pour out of you and days when you want to give up and throw your laptop out of the window. (I’d argue more of the latter than the former, unfortunately.) For me, research is one of its undiluted pleasures. Filling up a notebook with things you didn’t know before and that – at least tangentially – will help you shape your story and your characters’ lives is really satisfying. The research for this book was particularly so because it felt like I was learning something genuinely useful along the way – and something I very likely would never have thought to learn about otherwise.

I can’t say that I would trust myself to survive on my own in the Colorado Rockies now (I’m pretty sure I’m not cut from that kind of cloth) but I do have a greater appreciation for the natural world, and for those people with the skills and pluck to survive within it.


Comment below for a chance to win a copy of Freefall by Jessica Barry!

To enter, make sure you’re a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.

Freefall Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at https://www.criminalelement.com/taming-the-wilderness-jessica-barry-on-how-to-write-survival-fiction beginning at 5:30 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) January 9, 2018. Sweepstakes ends at 5:29 p.m. ET January 23, 2019. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

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  2. Todd Henson

    It’s amazing how many learning resources are out there these days. Sounds like a fascinating read!

  3. Daniel M

    sounds informative

  4. Heather Scroggins

    This sounds like a great read!

  5. Michael Carter

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  6. Mary Smith

    Sounds like a great read!

  7. Kate Vocke

    I’ve been seeing this one everywhere! it sounds incredible!

  8. Tiffany

    Great article! Thanks!

  9. Gary rejsek

    Sounds great

  10. Caryn Strean

    This one sounds right up my alley. Thanks for the chance!

  11. MM

    Thank you for the opportunity to win!

  12. Dana Damato

    Let your fingers do the walking!

  13. Susan Meek

    I love this kind of story!

  14. Margie Hunter

    I love reading about your research. I’m already looking for the Walker’s Guide in my library catalogue. Thanks for the giveaway.

  15. Burma Turner

    This book sounds so fascinating! Would love to win a copy.

  16. Elena

    I have heard praises for Freefall and I would love to read it. Thanks for the chance!

  17. Susan T.

    I was born and raised in the Rockies so I think I’d be able to survive in most situations. Except in the depths of winter. If it’s -30C all bets are off!

  18. Trisha McCullough

    I live in Colorado. Can’t wait to read this book. I live when books are set where I live.

  19. Angela Walker

    I can’t imagine surviving in the wilderness, I know zero about that but this sounds like a great read

  20. Diane Dicke

    To know you did all the research from home is amazing. Thanks for the chance to win.

  21. ravensfan

    This book sounds so interesting. Would love to win it.

  22. Sandra Collins

    Survival stories are my favorite! I can’t wait to read Freefall!

  23. Jackie Wisherd

    I would enjoy reading this book very much. I love reading stories about my home state.

  24. Jason Carlson

    I would love reading this, thanks for the chance!

  25. Becky Shemeley

    As a reader I can easily forget how much planning and researching takes place prior to writing a book; whether it is fiction or nonfiction! I look forward to reading FREEFALL!

  26. Jenn Swanson

    Would like to win this.

  27. Shirley Evans

    Sounds amazing!

  28. Karen Parisot

    Sounds really good. I find all that survivalist stuff interesting, but like the author, I’m not into roughing it. Sometimes though you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do in order to survive.

  29. Penni Ellington

    Always love to read new-to-me female writers.

  30. Susan Schofield

    Sounds like a great book!

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    I can’t wait to read it. Sounds great!

  32. Jean Feingold

    As a Floridian I find the concept amusing.

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    This book sounds great

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    I cannot wait to read this!

  35. Lana Maskus

    Sounds great!

  36. Paul Gada

    Awesome!

  37. carloshmarlo

    Gee, forget hiking the Rockies, just the amount of research you did would have tuckered me out! Thanks for the chance to win a copy of this great book!!

  38. Sandra Richard

    Always good to read survival information.

  39. Carol Kubala

    This is definitely my kind of book pairing , survival the great Rockies and vicarious adventure.

  40. William Rowell

    Sounds interesting. Worth a read.

  41. Emma Cazabonne

    awesome use of modern technology to do background research for a book! Would love to see the result. Thanks for the sweepstakes

  42. Debi Krogstad

    I love Cheryl Strayed from the comfort and safety of my reading chair. Free fall should do nicely from the same spot.

  43. Steven Bryson

    It sounds like a great read. I hope I win.

  44. Diane

    Wow! How exciting…

  45. Sarah Bowe

    I’m seeing this hyped up on Instagram and I can’t wait to read it!

  46. April

    Fascinating and captivating.

  47. Pearl

    This novel interests me greatly. Extremely impressive.

  48. Katrina Yurenka

    Not one I want to miss!

  49. Indre Vilkas

    Sounds like an interesting read!

  50. Lynn Pallaske

    The cover is beautiful and the story sounds captivating.

  51. lasvegasnv

    interesting research

  52. Stephanie L Nelson

    This sounds like a fantastic read, and something I would love to win!

  53. LAURI COATES

    Already added this to my “to read list”, so learning about your research techniques makes me look forward to getting to it on my list even more. Reading faster!!!!!!!!

  54. Shannon Ellis

    This sounds like a fascinati g read! Yes please!!??

  55. Barbara Raeuber

    I like the plot-line!

  56. bill norris

    yes please, i must read.

  57. John Smith

    Google-Earthing the Rockies sounds cool!

  58. Daniel Weber

    Can’t wait.

  59. Suzanne McMannis

    I am a Native of Colorado, now living in Texas. I need this

  60. Desmond Warzel

    Count me in, please!

  61. Dione Amore

    This sounds Soo good! And it’s on my TBR list!

  62. Joye

    This one sounds interesting

  63. Earl

    I am always amazed at the amount of research writers do when they write about something, even things they know something about. To tackle a story that is so removed from what you do sounds daunting. I wonder how often you considered keeping the basic premise but relocating some place that might be easier to research and/or know. Sounds wonderful!

  64. Susanne Troop

    Love a good book!

  65. Paula Adams

    I would love to win this book!!

  66. Nicole seabolt

    I always wondered how much research a writer does for a book. Thanks for an interesting article….and book!

  67. Rebecca Swanson

    All the details on your research for this book sound fascinating!

  68. nancy burgess

    Sounds like an interesting read.

  69. Lisa Murray

    Sounds amazing

  70. Emily Catan

    The book sounds intriguing! I bet it’s a thriller that keeps one on the edge of one’s seat! Truly appreciate the author has put in so much effort in planning an researching in order to write a good read! Thank you for the opportunity to win!

  71. Kimberlie L.

    I love survival stories so much they have their own bookshelf on Goodreads, and this one sounds awesome!

  72. Terry Pearson

    Thrillers are better than bread and we all know how wonderful bread is!

  73. Carole Knoles

    🛩🏔🆘=🆒

  74. Randy Franco

    Sounds neat.

  75. Janet Gould

    sounds like you’re ready for anything

  76. Louis Burklow

    Great story of how you don’t write what you know but what you can verify. Look forward to reading this one.

  77. Peter W.

    Google and the SAS! Yes!

  78. Cathy Mullican

    Sounds good!

  79. April Shuffler

    Sounds intriguing! I can’t wait to read it! I’m definitely adding it to my TBR list.

  80. Susan Morris

    Wow! Who new the research for your book would be so rewarding. I’m sure there was a lot to learn. Like you, I don’t ever want to spend a night alone in the wilderness.

  81. Kathleen James

    I would really enjoy reading this book. Hope I win!

  82. Renee Nash

    Looking forward to Freefall!

  83. techeditor

    I wonder if Jon Krakauer’s INTO THE WILD would have been another good resource. I would think so.

    I would have done the same as you did, search the Internet. I’ve always been able to learn anything I wanted to know somewhere on the Internet.

    I sure would like to read and review FREEFALL. I do that all the time, read and review books, then post the reviews all over the Internet to places like goodreads.com, librarything.com, amazon.com, bookmovement.com, and bookreporter.com.

  84. Carol

    I agree. Research is the hidden pleasure of writing.

  85. Megan Cunningham

    I would love to win this book, it has been on my to read list and looks very intriguing.

  86. Jodi Scott

    Sounds great

  87. Daniel L Carr

    This sounds like it could be interesting.

  88. Agnes Zelgert

    Thanks for this opportunity! I found your research process very interesting and want to read your book

  89. Marjorie Manharth

    I agree with the author – learning is the best fun! Can’t wait to read the book. Was raised in Utah in the Rockies. Miss them.

  90. Marjorie Manharth

    I agree with the author – learning is the best fun! Can’t wait to read the book. Was raised in Utah in the Rockies. Miss them.

  91. Jenny Collins Belk

    Ever since I saw this new book on FB, I knew I wanted to read it. I enjoy a survival story and this one would be most welcome.

  92. Brooke Vollmer

    Looks like a great read!

  93. DWG

    Lived in Colorado for grad school, but luckily never had anything like this happen!

  94. Jane Schwarz

    Sounds like a great read. Thanks for the opportunity to win.

  95. susan beamon

    I have read many survival stories, both real and made up. Both make me want to stay in my comfortable urban jungle.

  96. Rebecca Mensinga

    This book sounds amazing!

  97. Donna Kilgore

    Sounds like a fascinating book! Would love to read it!

  98. Lori P

    I cringe just thinking about having to endure that, which I suppose means that reading Freefall would have the desired effect on me!

  99. Trisa @ Absolute Bookishness

    Nice post! Thanks for the chance! ^_^

  100. Jill K. Porco

    My in-laws live in the Colorado Rockies so this book interests me greatly. Plus I love good stories in general.

  101. Dawn Byers

    add me to this contest – please

  102. Diane Seitz

    Ahhh! Would love a chance to win this. Sounds fascinating!

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