Taming the Wilderness: Jessica Barry on How to Write Survival Fiction
By Jessica BarryJanuary 9, 2019
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.
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