Article by J.J.Brown
Have you ever had a real knot you couldn’t untie, that was driving you mad? Or have you heard about an issue that seems impossible to solve? Try writing a story about it.
Story telling is good for you.
One of the ways I cope with difficult issues is by writing stories. I had a brain-splitting conflict worse than a migraine, about an environmental issue recently–called “fracking”. Fracking is a method of gas drilling, and is short for “hydraulic fracturing”. Literally means using water to break apart rock. Sounds clean. The parts not implied by this name are dark and dirty:
- Adding hundreds of chemicals – many poisonous – to the water
- Exploding the water with sand and chemicals deep under the earth’s surface
- Contaminated, poisonous, and sometimes radioactive water coming back up
Fracking has become wildly controversial in the US, in the United Kingdom, South Africa, Ireland, Poland… Although fracking is going on in 34 states in the US, this industrial process is banned in all of New York State where I live, because of serious health concerns. That ban is about to expire. My goal was to do what I could to make a difference in this issue before that decision. And so from July to November 2012, I worked on writing a novel to help me deal with the issue of fracking. I made it, only just! I published the new book Brindle 24 in December. Our governor’s decision is expected February 27th.
After going through the process of writing a novel around an issue, I would like to share the experience. Here are a few tips on writing fiction to deal with an issue.
Get the facts.
Do your research. Read what the experts in the area are saying. I have a science and medical education background, and so I researched what scientists and doctors were reporting on the issue of fracking. The facts were horrifying, and made the idea of writing a book seem ever more important to me.
- Watch documentaries and news programs about the issue
- Talk to people to see what they are thinking about the issue
I watched the documentary film from Josh Fox, GasLand, on the effects of fracking in his family’s home state of Pennsylvania. Even farmers who have been fracked are talking about effects on farms and dairies. Many short documentaries have come out, like Kirsi Jansa’s Gas Rush Stories. I watch all of these that I can find. I collected the research and added links to a website for my book.
Find a role model.
Search out similar literary works that tackled issues successfully. I chose Upton Sinclair as my role model, for his amazing work, The Jungle. Some call it a novel, others investigative journalism. Whichever way you see it, the book made a tremendous impact on policy in the US on workers’ conditions. I was required to read this novel in high school, and the story stayed with me. I read the book again, this time as an author myself. He framed the brutal story of abusive working conditions with a delicate love story. For me, this made all the difference. As a young reader, I could not have read a long book about dangerous – and frankly disgusting – working conditions of urban meat packing. But the love story Upton Sinclair told in this setting was as gripping as Romeo and Juliet. I admit it, I read Shakespeare’s plays. I read that classic play again, while writing Brindle 24, which helped me come up with the opening scene.
Based on the issue, ask: what is the biggest conflict? Write about the conflicts. For Brindle 24, I begin the novel with a fight between rural residents and outsiders from the city and from industry. I have experienced rural vs. urban conflict first hand during childhood as a rural resident of the Catskills upstate, and as a New York City resident now. But the biggest conflict I saw with fracking was the internal conflict, a crisis of conscience. How does a person do work for a job that could be poisoning others down the road? The “man against himself” conflict was a big one for me, in trying to understand the issue of what scientists were doing – or not doing – about fracking. I created a scientist as a main character in Brindle 24 to go through this crisis.
We solve issues is not based on isolated facts, not out of conflicts either, but through love. In working on fracking issues in my story line, I explored how deep loving relationships among family members changed their choices. Their love for one another made the chemical contamination risks they each faced more significant. Losing a loved one is tragic. Losing a loved one from a preventable accident is even worse. I also included love of nature as a central theme in my story, to support the environmental views of central characters. In fracking, contamination, pollution, and destruction of nature have roused contentious debates. Nature herself becomes a character we love.
The next time an issue has your mind in knots, don’t get a headache. Tell a story.
- Get the facts
- Find a role model
- Create conflict
- Add love
I can’t wait to read what comes out of the process!
J.J.Brown is the author of the short story collection Death and the Dream, novels Vector a Modern Love Story, and American Dream, and the poetry book Natural Supernatural Love. Born in the Catskill Mountains, J.J.Brown lives in New York City. The author was trained as a scientist and completed a PhD in genetics.