DOING THE ADVENTURE STORY
By Leonard H. Nason
[Originally appeared in How to write for a living, Trentwell Mason White (Ed.), published ]
THE adventure story is probably easier to write than any other kind of yarn. The action to be followed by the narrative is already there, or there would be no idea in the first place. The most difficult part is getting the background — it has to be authentic. The majority of adventure stories are read by adventurers themselves — men living in the far places of the world, with no motion-picture houses, no bars, no friendly homes to welcome them — nothing to take their minds off their solitude and their loneliness except the reading of stories of men like themselves. The pulp magazines which specialize in that sort of material have a far-flung circulation. Adventure, for instance, is (or was) the only magazine in English to be had in Spanish Morocco. And, in Manchuria, a friend of mine, who was prospecting for oil there, once told me that each month they used to borrow “a pound of pulp” from their local supply merchant who himself selected the magazines that went into the pound. The bright author who happens to write some burning tale of Cossack and Tartar must bear in mind that Cossacks and Tartars are likely to read it — English being a much more universal language than we who speak it realize — and write violent letters to the editors if they find mistakes in the story. For some curious reason adventurers are much more prone to write in to magazines than are other kinds of men. Perhaps they have more time on their hands.
With this little exordium, let us move at once to the demonstration table. From this point on I am going to have to use the pronoun ‘I’ a lot, but, after all, I wrote the story, and it is my thoughts that are wanted in this brief script, else the editor would have asked someone else to write it.
So then, once upon a time I wrote a story of adventure called Hunger. At that particular period I had been living in Chicago writing poetry — for nothing — for the Chicago Tribune. And among the poems I wrote was one about the sea, I being interested therein. The poem appeared in due course, and one day shortly after, as I was riding down in an elevator from an upper story in some office building, the elevator-man informed me he had read the poem.
“I ‘been to sea,” said he, “years ago when I was a young feller. I was shipwrecked, too. Ship burned up. I made two thousand miles in an open boat!”
What ho! Here was a story. If this man had been on a ship that burned, that was part of a yarn. If he had made two thousand miles in an open boat, that was all of one. That very day, when he was off duty, I happened to be nearby, and, meeting him quite by chance (as he thought), I suggested that we pause and refresh ourselves after the day’s labor; and when the refreshing was over, I had his yarn. Of course, he didn’t know it at the time. Had I stepped up to him and said, “That’s a wonderful story. Tell me all about it, and I’ll write it up and sell it to some magazine!” he would have ducked like a rabbit into some nearby hole. Either he would have been so self-conscious that he would have been unable to remember anything that had happened to him, or else he would have tried to write the story for me, embroidering it himself in places where he thought it needed it.
Now, then, this was a synthetic plot for several good reasons. In the first place, I had never been on a ship that caught on fire, and, next, I had never spent more than an hour in an open boat, and that not in mid-ocean. But — and this is important — I had been thirsty. I had also been hungry. And, therefore, I knew what it felt like to be on short rations — to be able to eat just enough to sustain life. And I knew what it felt like to lie unprotected all day under a tropical sun and to shiver all night in spray-wet clothes. The knowledge of these sensations at first-hand is a requisite of all would-be adventure-story writers. Such sensations can also be used for color, but they must be properly described, for the adventurers who read have experienced them and know what they are, and will accordingly demand an accurate picture. It was Captain John Smith who said, “Wayfaring men must expect to go hungry, in strange places of the world, whither their unrest leads them.”
Well, I started the outline of the yarn, knowing, in general, the course of its action. Next, I had to decide who the principal actor was going to be, and how the action of the story would affect him. Of all this ghostly ship’s company who would be the man I could be closest to? As a matter of fact, I did not know any of them very well; so I decided the simplest thing to do would be to attach myself to that ship, put myself in all the situations of the narrative, and note how I would react to them. It would sound authentic, because the hero would be me, and God knows, I knew what I would do if I saw a hatch cover go sailing up from a hot air explosion, while I felt the planks begin to sizzle under my feet. Now, then, who for a friend to talk to? My elevator-man! Who for a villain? Well, I’d make my boss at the office the captain of the ship. I could draw a very convincing picture of a loud-mouthed, bullying, roaring — but very competent — man in his own field, and make him a sailor instead of a branch-office manager.
And so the ship set sail. I knew what happened first: she was a hungry ship. What would I do in a case like that? Well, the hero of the yarn consulted with his watchmate (the elevator-man), and they went aft and complained to the skipper, who chucked them out bodily after a long flow of scathing bitterness where the expression “sell insurance” (my occupation at the time) was changed to, “do a sailor’s work for a sailor’s wage.”
I had a lot of fun writing that yarn, and let me say that a story that is not fun to write might just as well not be written, because it won’t be fun to read either. I had fun, I say, writing that yarn. And then one day, shortly after, I was called into my office — all the way from Oak Park — and given complete hell, including a spare set of grids and a gross of pitchforks, because of some minor infraction of Home Office Rule 205. That night — by then my dream ship had burned, and the crew had taken to the boats — the skipper was thrown to the sharks; my hero had leaped up, banged him over the head with an oar, and overboard with him! Good for the hero!
The story sold and presently it appeared in print. It turned out to be a long one — a novelette. I had had to fill in a lot of gaps, sometimes by accounts of the food; sometimes by accounts of the progress of the ship; sometimes by writing a page or two about setting and taking in sail. Such details I used to check with the elevator-man, and again with another deep-water, square-rigged sailing-man I knew. Then came a day when I got a fan letter from a reader. He was a captain of some transatlantic greyhound, but he had done his time in sail, and had been around Cape Stiff fifteen times — out and back. My two sailors were right as far as they went, but the man who wrote that letter to me had been a ship’s officer, and he knew better.
Said he, “That was a nice story you wrote about a ship burning up. But it would have been better if you had left the sails alone. You had a squall come up to port with a ship running with the wind on the starboard quarter. You had the crew stand by the braces, which any ass would know enough to do, but you didn’t say anything about filling the head yards, shivering the after yards, putting the helm hard a-port, brailing in the mizzen, and letting the ship go off before the wind. All these dumb authors do the same thing. They hear a catch phrase, and stick it in their story, and haven’t even got sense enough to know what train of events they may have started. My advice to you and to them is not to try to write sailing-ship stories after a long contemplation of some painting of the Constitution.”
Well, how could it be said more neatly than that?
— Leonard H. Nason