My apologies if you can’t get that song from Aladdin out of your head for the rest of the day.
This is going to sound like a shameless plug, and it is, but please bear with me: my sixth novel, Beast, released late last month from The Crossover Alliance. It’s a disaster tale set aboard the world’s largest oil rig, nicknamed “The Beast.” My coauthor on this project is a real-life oil driller that I met online after hitting up several oil industry forums to solicit help for the book. I wanted the book and the setting to be larger than life but also grounded in reality. This was a challenging task, because I knew absolutely nothing about offshore oil drilling. Over the course of about one year, my coauthor and I conjured up a relentless, explosive story that takes place among some really outrageous machinery — a lot of which was real and some that was fabricated for the book, because every story needs a bit more pizzazz than reality can offer.
I didn’t want to rely solely on my coauthor to handle the technical stuff, because I was the main storyteller and I was going to have to carry my own weight. Therefore, I threw myself into the mind-boggling world of oil drilling. I watched documentaries, I read articles, I followed industry news reports, I memorized technical terms, I studied diagrams…and then I made it bigger, louder, faster, more dangerous. Beast dabbles in what I refer to as realistic sci-fi: near-future machinery set in our contemporary world, and it may even be possible; it just hasn’t been done yet. I felt out of my element the whole time I was writing, but by immersing myself in this macho world of mega-machinery, I was able to create devices and floorplans and events that my coauthor signed off on. If he gave his stamp of approval, I knew I had to be doing something right.
This book was the most difficult and challenging project I had worked on, but what I learned from the experience went way beyond the writing craft.
We all know that our world is dominated by oil. The fluctuating price of gasoline reminds us every day. The plastic keys that I’m typing on right now used to be some form of fossil fuel deep below the Earth’s surface. But what I never thought about was the human toll. Fortunately, fatal accidents are rare, but injuries are common, and these workers are cut off from their friends and family for weeks at a time, working 12-hour shifts for two weeks straight before getting a few days off to head back to dry land. Of course, they are compensated very well, but that doesn’t console a child who wonders where his father is on his birthday or a wife who freezes with fear when she sees the words “Offshore Oil Drilling Accident” on the scrolling news ticker on TV. It’s an intense job that is not for the faint of heart or body, and one that I no longer take for granted when I fill up my car at the gas station.
One of the most common pieces of writing advice is “Write what you know.” I took a big risk and wrote about something I didn’t know, and my eyes and mind were opened. By stepping out into this unfamiliar territory, I learned a lot and gained a deep respect for a world that I only knew in passing.
So how about you? Writers, did you feel compelled to write a story about something you knew nothing about, but grew to know and respect during the course of your writing? Readers, did you ever pick up a book about a subject that didn’t interest you or you weren’t familiar with, but that changed by the time you were finished? It doesn’t have to be something from the real world; the world of imagination can be just as real.