Posted by: Kathleen Mix | September 7, 2012

Stormy Seas

Last weekend, a couple walking the docks near my sailboat stopped to chat.
The man asked, “Have you ever been out in the open ocean?”
I answered, “Yes. We’ve sailed as far south as Venezuela and spent a lot of time in the Caribbean.”
“Bet you’ve had a bunch of adventures. Any bad experiences?”
I laughed. “Several, and a few hairy escapes.”
The woman joined in. “It must be exciting though. And after the danger is over you probably look back and think the whole thing was kind of cool.”
I hesitated, then said, “I guess cool depends on the circumstances.”
They wished me well and continued on their stroll, but as I finished my painting, I pondered the woman’s remark. Had she ever truly experienced danger?
Looking back at the perceived danger of scuba diving at night in an area where sharks are known to prowl, I might think the resulting adrenaline rush was cool. But the real fear and real danger of finding yourself eye-to-eye with a shark can’t be as blithely described.
In boating, in life, and in writing fiction, a lot depends on the circumstances. An approaching hurricane is less scary when your boat is tied to a dock in a secure harbor rather than anchored alone in an open roadstead miles from the nearest town. A small boat coming alongside causes less anxiety when the occupant is selling T-shirts and souvenirs than when the crew is wearing camouflage uniforms and carrying assault rifles. When I’m writing, the level of suspense in my story depends on choosing the right (or most difficult) circumstances and putting characters in dangerous situations.
I don’t look back and think the scary incidents I’ve experienced onboard our boat are ‘kind of cool’. I’ve been terrified. I’ve felt stomach-churning fear. I’ve prayed the boat wouldn’t sink during a raging storm, worried we’d be boarded by pirates, searched the horizon on a black, moonless night anxious to spot the beam of a lighthouse and know we were clear of a treacherous reef. I was robbed on the street in Venezuela, and frankly, the encounter wasn’t cool. I wouldn’t want to go through it again.
But as a writer, I want to inflict the types of experiences I’ve had on my characters and put them in the worst possible circumstances. Romantic suspense is all about characters in conflict, characters having bad experiences, characters forced to grow while in the clutches of danger. Over the years I’ve learned that, faced with a perilous situation, I can do more than I believed, overcome insurmountable obstacles, and meet and succeed at formidable challenges. My characters have to be placed in situations where they can learn that lesson, too.
The more difficult I make their experiences, the better the story I’ll tell, and the better chance my characters have of undergoing worthwhile growth. They won’t look back and think: boy was that cool! But through overcoming the obstacles I place in their paths, they’ll come to realize they can face challenges and succeed. They’ll discover new facets of their personality and see things clearly that had previously been blurred.
The experiences we learn the most from in life are often the ones we would rather forget. But think back to a time of genuine danger in your own life. Would you describe that close call with death or heart-pounding moment as ‘cool’?

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