Monday, August 23, 2010

Take a Walk on the Wild Side

ROSEMARY: I spent last week hiking in Glacier National Park in Montana - one of my Top Seven Wonders of the World. Originally my husband and I were supposed to camp for three days.

There's a lovely campsite on Lake MacDonald which no one else seems to know about and I spent hours checking our gear and setting up our tent on the roof (it's flat) to make sure we still knew how and the mice hadn't created any new air vents. We tested backpacks, bladder bags, sleeping bags and inflatable pads.

And then three people were mauled by a grizzly in Montana. One of them fatally. I Googled bear attacks in the US in this century. A shockingly high number of them occurred in Montana. More than a few in Glacier.

I don't consider myself a chicken but listening to one of the survivors desribe how she woke up to find a bear munching on her arm gave me pause. (Paws?)

I hemmed and hawed.
I checked weather reports hoping for an unlikely monsoon which would allow me to legitimately cancel the camping segment of the trip in favor of ma nice warm bed in one of the lodges. At the 11th hour, I pulled the plug and found a cabin to rent. We would not have to hang our food, soap and toothpaste in the trees. I could stop extracting promises from my husband that he would remove all traces of cookie crumbs and airplane peanuts from his backpack. (The man never leaves home without snacks.) If he turned to embrace me or spoon in the middle of the night, he would not get a faceful of pepper spray. I hated to admit it, but i was relieved. We did see half a dozen bears, but not froma vulnerable, horizontal position.

Yet we put our protagonists in all sorts of danger - over and over again in the same book or series. Whenever I'm asked how much of myself is in Paula, I generally mumble something like "she's the younger, thinner, more adventurous me..) but would I really do anything remotely Paula-like?

So how realistic do you feel you have to be regarding the danger to your protagonists? Especially those who are amateurs? Does the reader even expect realism or do they like their heroines to have a touch of the superhero about them?

JAN: Wow. I'm impressed that you still consider camping, even without the bears.

Of course our readers don't want realism. They don't want us. They want superheroes. They have their own fears to deal with, they don't need ours. Think of Lisbeth Salander the most popular sleuth in the country right now (Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and series.) People love her because she has enough rage to annihilate the bad guys - not to mention the abusive background that makes her both a superhero and an underdog.

So back out of your tent with an easy conscience, Ro. Me, I'm worried about shark sightings off South Beach.

HALLIE: I confess, it's not the bears that keep me from camping - it's the dishes, cold showers, and inevitable tent leaks. I'm on VACATION!

We do make our characters much braver than we are, and less princess-y, too. Ro, Glacier is on my list of must-sees, too.

HANK: Glacier is fantastic. Fantasatic. There's no - color. It's all black, white and gray. When we were there at least.

Bravery. Well, huh. In my reporter life I've been around many burning buildings, near shootouts, gone undercover, ridden with cops on assignment, been in tear gas, yeah, I've been in scary places. ButI'm not afraid, because it's for a story. Does that make ANY sense? SO the more dangerous the better.

In my other real life? Show me a spider and I run. I won't ride a bicycle in traffic - too dangerous. When Jonathan leaves, I say: be careful! And he says: of what? So it all depends.

And people don't want their characters to do stupid things. Spunky, yes. Tough, yes. Ridiculously fearless? Maybe not so.

ROSEMARY: Spunky!! Wasn't there a funny bit on the old Mary Tyler Moore Show when Mr. Grant syas "You've got spunk. I hate spunk."

ROBERTA: I am definitely not a physical risk-taker. We were talking about this the other day when a couple of friends expressed an interest in sky-diving. WHY? I don't want to climb Mount Everest or fight off bears or drive race cars. It's a missing gene in my DNA. I used to love to camp. Hmmm, maybe we should set up a Jungle Red camping weekend? Ther's a real cute campground in Provincetown and September's just the time to go. Anyone?

ROSEMARY: I'm up for it..I'll be in Wellfleet anyway, and we know my gear is in good shape. BTW...I will be missing Bouchercon this year because I'll be in Nepal hiking to Everest Base Camp. Not to the top, mind you. That would be ridiculously fearless and I am not that. I do have spunk, though.

Check back tomorrow for my realclosse encounter with danger in Glacier. Not a joke, this one concerns an escaped convict.


  1. As I read this, I'm hearing reports of a worker at a "sanctuary" facility being mauled by his favorite bear. (Don't get me started on people who think wild animals can be tamed--I used to work for the Zoological Society in Miami).

    There have been bear sightings where we live now, and I know I won't be brave if I see one while walking. But I don't walk where or when the bears are.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  2. Since I live nowhere near bears -- I can say, WHAT A GREAT bear photo Ro.

    Now I'm NEVER going camping in the wild. I'm with Roberta on missing the thrill seeking chip. I have friends ardently trying to talk me into skydiving this fall, and my husband (who will go) just shakes his head at them.

    Do you KNOW who you are trying to convince??

  3. Sorry I didn't get to weigh in on this one sooner. By evening I'm still in a jet-lagged stupor.

    I think you were wise. Bears are not to be messed with. I've also hiked glacier (and stayed in lodges)and carried pepper spray and bear bells (which the rangers tell you sounds like the dinner gong to them).

    Oh, and my protagonists are so much braver than me. of course they are younger and fitter and I have tried out some of their stunts to make sure they are possible!

  4. NO bears. Forget it. I'm not hot on camping, I must say. My first adult camping experience (and come to think of it, only) was on the Appalachian Trail, in torrential rain, I mean *torrential*, with a weird firebug, just escaped from prison, loose in the area.

    Really fun, if you like gruesome and terrifying. And I fell I love with the only being on the trip who made me feel safe--oh, I just realied, this is funny.

    The only reason I wasn't utterly in tears was our big yellow lab who accompanied us. His name--was Bear.

  5. Glacier is beautiful. I visited there back in '76. Unfortunately it was only for 2 days. Never saw a bear and I'm definitely with you on getting a cabin. It's one thing to be adventurous and another to be stupid.

    I use to like to camp but that was many moons ago. I totaly understand your "I'm on vacation" statement, Hallie. But I do like a thrill-possibly race car driving and white water rafting.

    I have to agree with Jan about readers wanting superheros. I think we need to see someone overcoming adversity even if it takes extrodinary ability to do so. Maybe it rubs off a little, enough to create a flicker of hope and courage within us.

  6. Hank, a member of my critique group left town a couple of weeks ago to hike the Appalachian Trail. (Yes, we blame Bill Bryson.) We made a bunch of jokes at his expense, but no one has heard from him and yesterday was our submission deadline, which he missed. I'm sure he's fine and having a wonderful time, but part of me wonders: Would bears look at a 64-year-old Buddhist yoga instructor short story writer as a snack?

    I hate camping.

  7. So, if we're all playing it we live through our heroines....?

  8. Ramona? That's let us know when he's okay..