Thursday, May 14, 2015

You Had to Be There

When writing about the fire service, among the most difficult things for a writer to capture are the nuances of fire service culture.

I recently tried to explain a specific subtlety of firefighter culture in an email to my editor. I wrote and re-wrote that message, let it sit, went back and edited some more before finally hitting the “send” button. The explanation about why something was an issue to me, but probably wasn't to anyone outside of the fire department, was as absolutely clear as I could make it.

My editor still said, “I don’t get it.”

Those four words summarize the challenge for most writers who have never been in the fire service, but try to write about firefighters and firefighting: They don’t get it.

Forget about the technical aspects for a moment. Consider the perceptions and perspectives that are formed by working and living with other people for 24 or 48 hours at a time, and seeing the very best and the very worst of human nature on a daily basis. They extend beyond the paramilitary nature of firefighting or the language of firefighters, and truly fall into the category of “you had to be there” or “if you have to ask, you wouldn’t understand.”

That may sound like arrogance, but stop and think about it. If you’ve never played football, can you truly understand the mentality and emotions of players on the field during The Big Game? Sure, we watch it on TV and we’ve seen multitudes of player interviews, so it’s easy to think we know what it’s like. But unless you’ve put on the pads, and put in the hours in the gym or on the field, and ridden the rollercoaster of a professional career, you will always lack that firsthand knowledge that lends authenticity to your written work.

Now apply that concept to firefighting. There is only so much you can learn by studying the subject. The rest you have to experience.

The best fictional depictions of firefighting that I have seen come from writers who are firefighters. One of my favorite authors is Earl Emerson (http://www.earlemerson.com/), a Seattle firefighter who retired after 32-1/2 years on the job. For me, reading his books is truly relaxing because I know he’s going to “get it right” when it comes to anything fire-related. I don’t find myself gnashing my teeth over poor apparatus descriptions, or mentally screaming, “That’s not how fire behaves!” (Yes, I do a fair amount of internal kvetching when I read…more than I care to admit…)

But that doesn’t mean that writers who haven’t been firefighters can’t create authentic scenes and characters in their books. Somewhere in my collection is a book by an author who wasn’t a firefighter, but in her acknowledgements she credits a number of firefighters (some of them apparently family members) for helping her to get the details right in her arsonist-on-the-loose story. (I apologize that I cannot recall her name or the book title, but I will update this post when I track down the book.) This writer did her research and did it well, and it shows in the story.

That is the bottom line here: Just do your research when it comes to firefighting. Do as much as it takes for the scope of your project. There are numerous resources available in the modern age; take advantage of them. If you have the opportunity to participate in a “citizen’s academy” hosted by your local fire department, jump on it. Even if you don’t write about fire and firefighting, you’ll gain a whole new appreciation for what firefighters do.

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Earl Emerson has many books to his credit, but to see how a firefighter tells a good story about firefighters, check out some of his fire thrillers:

  • Vertical Burn (2002)
  • Into the Inferno (2003)
  • Pyro (2004)
  • The Smoke Room (2005)
  • Firetrap (2006)
  • Primal Threat (2008)
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2 comments:

  1. I'll have to check out Emerson's books... Your comments on firefighting culture reminds me of deployable military units--a camaraderie that's difficult to explain.

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    1. Agreed. Any organization, especially those that deal with life and death situations, is going to have its own cohesion, its own flavor, so to speak, and that is something not easily put into words.

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