I was going to write about writing fiction in a second language, like English is for me. But sometime during the day that plan disintegrated and I decided to rather focus on how I feed own experiences into my writing instead.
One of my main male characters wears a lion tooth attached to a leather band around his neck. It’s a bit out of character for him, he’s not the jewelry/accessory kind of guy, but it’s there, as a reminder of where he came from and how Africa has shaped him. The tooth is from Djimba, a lioness he encountered when he was a novice wildlife photographer, struggling to get assignments and make ends meet.
I’m writing this blog post in a scorching car parked at a waterhole in Etosha National Park, one of the largest and most well known parks in Southern Africa. The glaring midday light forces me to squint to see the words on the screen. Now and then dust devils swirl up white dust and gust it into the car. It gets stuck in the hair and makes the camera equipment squeak in protest. The bottled drinking water could be used for making tea.
I’ve been sitting here for a few hours now, and I have no idea if my patience is going to pay off. I’m waiting for my own Djimba. Her name is actually Petronella (and she’s, contrary to Djimba, a real lion), but that’s beyond the point. The point is, that although I’m far from being a professional wildlife photographer, I still know a bit about what it’s like to be out there on the savanna and wait for Djimba to make an appearance, and hopefully get the work done, whether that means photography or collaring. I know what it’s like to follow a pride of lions and how attached I become to them (even if they’d probably eat me if I stepped out of the car). Today I’m just doing it because I love watching predators, but there are times when the pressure is on and there’s work to be done. There’s a deadline, and you really, desperately, need those bloody cats to show up.
When I started writing my husband said he was surprised that I had vivid enough imagination to develop stories in my head.
The truth is, I don’t. When I started with my draft, I thought of it as the only story I’ll ever tell, and that my available resources and potential for storytelling would be depleted once it’s done. Now I’m not so sure anymore. As I’m writing I seem to be freeing up space in my internal ‘hard drive’ to store more characters and scenes, but I still don’t think I have the necessary imagination to develop a story that doesn’t draw on my own experiences in life.
I give my characters work and interests I can somehow relate to, and I make them live in locations and settings I know. It’s still a work of fiction, not a memoir. It’s not a true story and the characters are not real people, but it’s still based on my own, or my friends’ personal experiences. Apart from the romantic relationships, almost all of the scenes have grains of real life in them. I mix them until they’re no longer truths, but a work of fiction. At the core of them though…there’s an actual event.
It’s not a coincidence that Nick, the wildlife photographer, is hung up on large cats. I didn’t pull Cay’s work as a scuba diving instructor out of a hat filled with random jobs. And they did not drop down from the sky and accidentally land in Thailand either. Oh no, my lack of imagination includes locations as well. I need to know how they feel. It’s the human geographer in me that makes me slightly obsessed with places. I need to know how a place is experienced. The impressions it leaves in my mind. I need my own sensory impulses. I crave them, the same way I still crave the sun-ripened mango from the local fruit market in Khao Lak. Not all of it finds its way into the story and become visible in scenes, but it’s still there, like the spine holding it upright and together.
I could go on, but the honking sounds of a distressed zebra distract me. A giraffe walks toward a thicket craning its neck even more than usual to have a good look from above. The guinea fowls cluck and complain in the bushes, and the impalas stop browsing and turn their ears in the same direction. That’s how I know that the lions have arrived.
And in that moment, when the two youngsters poke their heads out from behind a bush to look at me, I think I know how my wildlife photographer character feels when the wait is over.
With so little imagination I need to compensate with experiences. And as I’m sitting there, watching the lions through the viewfinder, filled with this hard-to-explain exhilarated relief that the wait paid off, I know exactly how I want to write a couple of scenes in the story.