Meg asks “What is the strangest thing you have ever gotten inspiration from?”
About 15 years ago, I went on a guided tour of a game reserve in South Africa. It was just me and the guide, on foot. We were strolling away from the hotel when I noticed we’d gone through a gate into the hippo area.
Now, hippos are deadly and unpredictable, and fast when they want to be. In fact, they kill more humans than any other mammal in Africa. So I said, “Um, are the hippos gone today or something?”
He said, “No, but it’s just us two, and you look pretty fit, so I thought I’d take this shortcut. You don’t mind if we have to do a little running, do you?”
To which I responded, “I don’t mind running, but I do mind running for my life.”
There’s a big difference between the two kinds of running, it turns out, which I didn’t totally get until that moment.
We were lucky, though, and the hippos didn’t even notice us. But long minute walking across the space of a potential hippo attack started a tingle inside me.
The tingle returned later that day, when we found some lion footprints. Recent lion footprints, that made the guide frown unhappily. Like, this was much worse than a stroll past the hippo pond.
Now obviously, I made it home that day without being eaten by lions. But the experience of not being atop the food chain, even for a few hours, definitely changed the way I saw stuff like fear and nature and, you know, life. In a way, it was an inspiration to write with the intensity I felt there on the African plain.
We’ve all seen hundreds of car chases and shootouts where life is at stake, so many that the can become routine, almost. They rarely give me the same chill I got from seeing fresh lion footprints in the dust.
So now when my characters are in life-and-death circumstances, I try to do justice to those hours I spent with no barrier between me and nature, and no guarantees. I try to make my fictional worlds a place where you really might have to do some running . . . for your life.
Scott Westerfeld is the author of such novels as EXTRAS and UGLIES. Visit his author page for more information.