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Finding Inspiration in Fiction

Posted on Friday, January 31, 2014 at 11:31 AM

When considering aim and form, don't ignore fiction.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Asked recently to give a presentation on writing that focused on animals and critters, I engaged in some scattered reading, this to come up with telling examples, so to prove the point that our task as writers (and editors) is to make any subject we deal with as interesting as possible.

To do our work effectively, we look for information/facts/details that might tempt the reader. We consider methods -- narration, description, exposition, argument -- that might work in our behalf. We search for methods, approaches, and perspectives that might provide the right packaging.

Because my audience was to consist mostly of journalists and publicists, I focused more heavily in my readings on nonfiction. But I didn't ignore fiction because, no matter what the aim or form, effective materials gathering is effective materials gathering, effective writing is effective writing, and use of imagination is a requirement for us all.

Graphic Writing, Close-in Details, Gripping Plot

One of the most engrossing pieces of late in Granta, the British literary journal, in an issue devoted to the subject of horror, was a work of fiction carried out in a nonfictional, matter-of-fact manner. Short story writer Rajesh Parameswaran asked us to meet The Infamous Bengal Ming, a tiger, as he tells what's been happening in his life. Here's a sample paragraph, and as you read it, consider not only the author's vivid imagination but his success at collecting facts about Bengal tigers to support his literary conceit:

"I stretched and smacked my mouth and licked my lips, tasting the familiar odours of the day. Already, I somehow sensed that this morning would be different from all the other mornings of my life. On the far side of the wall, hippos mucked and splashed, and off in the distance, the monkeys and birds who had been up since pre-dawn darkness started their morning chorus in earnest, their caws and kee-kees and caroo-caroo-caroos echoing out over the breadth of our little kingdom. These were the same sounds I heard morning after morning, but this morning it was all more beautiful than ever; yes, this morning was different. It took me a little while to puzzle out the reason, but once I did, it was unmistakable. I was in love."

Love will come to mean horror in this outrageous, cunningly crafted story. What I quoted was its second paragraph, but I must tell you that I was hooked from start to finish by graphic writing, close-in details, and a gripping plot. Here was an animal hard to ignore.

Make the Reader Want to Find Out More

Bernd Heinrich, writing of a "Wasp Odyssey" for Natural History, introduced a professor of entomology who, after setting up a trap for insects on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, discovered among her catch "a monstrous wasp -- monstrous compared with the tiny, delicate-green 'gold wasps' that are her specialty. It was two and three-quarters inches long, pitch black with black wings. It had sharp spikes on the underside of its abdomen, and a pair of scimitar-shaped jaws that were even larger that its front pair of legs. She had never seen anything like this and wondered how and why nature would design something so unlike all other wasps."

Sharply descriptive is Heinrich's depiction of the discovery. It made me want to find out more. That's our ever present goal: to make the reader want to find out more.

With 2013 being 17-year locust time for portions of our East Coast, nature writers devoted considerable attention to that invasion. Carl Zimmer of The New York Times wrote of "creatures with eyes the color of blood and bodies the color of coal ... crawling out of the earth ... emerging en masse, clambering into trees and singing a shivering chorus that can be heard for miles." They've spent 17 years "sucking fluid from tree roots. Now, at last, they are ready to produce the next generation. The adult males are snapping rigid plates on their abdomens to produce their courtship song. The females are clicking their wings to signal approval. They will mate and then die shortly afterward. Their time in the sun is short, but their 17-year life span makes them the longest-lived insects known."

Entomologist Craig Gibbs, in a contribution to the Op-Ed page of the Times, added facts such as these to capture the reader's attention: "Their buzzing can reach 90 decibels, equivalent to some power motors. They have been seen in clusters of up to 1.5 million per acre. As if from some horror movie, cicada nymphs have been described as 'boiling out of the ground.' Snow shovels are sometimes employed to clear them away. But there is no reason to fear these insects."

There's amazement in the learning. I cannot resist.

Approach and Substance Hard to Ignore

Karen Lange was on a mission in "Back to the Land," an article written for allanimals, a magazine published by The Humane Society. She sought to shock. Our desire for cheap food, Lange said, has resulted in market compliance. We get shrink-wrapped packages in the grocery store, but for most of us with "no idea of their true cost."

That "cost": "Hens were jammed into small cages, chickens bred to quickly grow big breasts, their bones often unable to support the weight; sows imprisoned in spaces barely larger than their bodies; cattle crowded onto huge feedlots where they stood exposed to the cruelest weather. Farms transformed into CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). To keep animals alive and profitable in the midst of the crowding, stress, filth, and uncollected corpses, farmers cut off beaks and tails, and administered a never-ending regimen of anti-biotics."

Horror of a nonfictional kind. There may well be counter arguments, but Lange's compilation of chosen specifics made me cringe and wonder about personal changes in eating habits. Here was a story hard to take but hard to ignore. Approach and substance merged into a convincing sequence motivating me to react.

Cause and Effect Journey

The publication Outside was honored for an article by Ian Frazier titled "Terminal Ice," a cause and effect discussion about the growing impact of global warming. "We are melting," Frazier wrote, "like the Wicked Witch of the West. Soon there will be nothing left of us but our hat. From Chile to Alaska to Norway to Tibet, glaciers are going in reverse. Artifacts buried since the Stone Age emerge intact from the ice; in British Columbia, sheep hunters passing a glacier find protruding from it a prehistoric man, preserved even to his skin, his leather food-pouch, and his fur cloak. All across the north, permafrost stops being perma-.

"In the Antarctic," Frazier continued, "some penguin populations decline. In Hudson Bay, ice appears later in the year and leaves earlier, giving polar bears less time to go out on it and hunt seals, causing them to be 10 percent thinner than they were 20 years ago, causing them to get into more trouble in the Hudson Bay town of Churchill, where (as it happens) summers are now twice as long."

I was easily prompted to follow this cause and effect journey and to find out when, how far into the future, our successors on this troubled planet are likely to melt down to their hats. It may be a while, I discovered, but the direction is consistently being set, according to the solid flow of information packaged into Frazier's warning of "a warm apocalypse."

My hunt resulted in numerous other samples of compelling stories about elephants, apes, snakes, and dragonflies, but I've more than used my space. So, that's it for now, with perhaps more to come.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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