Adventure Writing 101:
By Peter Lourie
Adventure is everywhere. It’s in your backyard, it’s the river behind your town, it’s that person across the street who piques your curiosity. Adventure is asking questions and looking for the answers. It’s getting out of the house to poke around the world.
Years ago, I got married just after returning from Brazil’s Amazonian region where I had documented the burning of the jungle by the pioneers from Brazil’s desert Northeast. Raising kids proved to be the greatest adventure of all.
But one year after our first was born, I needed to move a little, to poke around. The Hudson River flowed by our house in Beacon, N.Y. and, not wanting to go too far afield, I decided to paddle this historic river from its source to the sea 315 miles away. The fact that no one had ever done it before enticed me in a way the river hadn’t before.
Up to that point, I had little interest in the Hudson. To me, it was just a big polluted river from a bygone era of industry. How could I have known that what began as a peaceful trickle up on Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks, passed through miles upon miles of class 4 whitewater before becoming a tidal river at Troy? Only after months of research and three weeks of hard paddling did I fall in love with the river’s beauty, the variety of terrain it flows through, and all the incredible people I met along the way.
From that domestic river trip sprung three of my earliest books: a travel book for adults, a nonfiction book for kids, and a small children’s novel about the pirate Captain Kidd who lived on the Hudson. But it all started from scratching an itch, and having an adventure close to home.
“I’d like to think that any one of my students or anyone on Earth can have an adventure by stepping outside of their comfort zone” —Dave Somoza
Getting out of the house and experiencing the world for yourself is the way I define adventure for students in my college creative writing courses. You don’t have to go to the Arctic or the Amazon. Seeing something new, and engaging with the land, afar or near. Conversing with people who teach you about a subject, that’s what adventure is to me. If we can learn to see the familiar with fresh eyes, then every day can be an adventure.
I just finished a massive undertaking in my new adventure biography Locked in Ice: Nansen’s Quest for the North Pole, about one of the great polar explorers and explorations of all time. I think back on the four years it took to research and write the book, on my many trips to the Arctic that went into appreciating that harsh, beautiful place. To write the best book possible, I had to put myself in the shoes of my subject. I had to get up from my desk and travel across the world.
In 1893, Fridtjof Nansen left his country on an incredible journey to go the farthest north anyone had ever traveled, to within a few hundred miles of a North Pole that no one had ever seen. Only by going to Oslo myself, and to the most northern part of Norway, and seeing the places Fridtjof Nansen saw could I understand a man like that.
“I had to know more about Nansen and his crazy idea, a crazy idea that miraculously brought everyone back alive.”
Locked in Ice is a grand tale, and it took a good deal of travel to research it. But I think of smaller adventures I’ve had during the time I was writing that book. No matter the constraints, there’s always something to be found. You don’t have to go to the Arctic or the world’s deepest caves, or hang off Devil’s Tower in a lightning storm, to have an adventure.
My fifth-grade-teacher-pal and co-author Dave Somoza says, “If you need $50,000 and a plane ticket to have an adventure, then adventures are only for the few. I’d like to think that any one of my students or anyone on Earth can have an adventure by stepping outside of their comfort zone. To me, this is much more appealing, because it’s more accessible, and it has more to do with an individual’s choices than money.”
Dave, who loves travel as much as I do, continues, “Adventures, also, don’t always require planning. My favorite adventures are often the ones that happen spontaneously and unexpectedly. Planning might just water them down, make them seem contrived. Nothing wrong with planning, but taking a walk behind your house and looking at the leaves changing colors or the sunrise might be a far more real adventure for most of us.”
I’ve taken Dave’s advice when I teach adventure writing classes at college. Most of my students find adventure around town, with local hunters, dog mushers, ice fishermen, wildlife biologists, farmers, and loggers. Three students for this coming winter term will be traveling to Patagonia during holiday break. Their tales of climbing and kayaking in Chile will blend wonderfully with local tales of hunting and mushing.
Many adventures start at home, but like many itches, once you start scratching, it’s hard to stop. I’d be fibbing if I said I’m satisfied with staying home all the time. This morning I’m leaving again, this time for the northern Sonoran desert mountains to a jaguar reserve. Scrub thorn jaguars. I have no idea what I’ll find. I don’t have a contract for a book. I’m just curious in the same way I was about polar exploration for Locked in Ice. The way I have been for all my books and expeditions.
“Ask the questions and pull the threads;
there’s no telling where you’ll end up.”
Actually, I’m not sure how that story about Nansen started. I think I read an article in Outside Magazine about Nansen’s North Pole expedition. I love the Arctic and was hooked when I heard everyone thought Nansen was mad to build a special ship (the Fram, meaning “forward” in Norwegian) that he would freeze into the Arctic ice pack so he could drift north. Rather than be crushed, the Fram would lift just above the ice like an eel you try to clutch in your hands, and then on top of the ice it would drift on the polar currents (if they existed; and Nansen believed they did) for years and years toward the North Pole, a mile or two a day, up and over to the other side of the planet. He would start above Siberia and end up near Greenland.
Here was a great scientist as brave and daring as those who came after him–Amundsen, Scott, and Shackleton. Although Nansen is not a name most people know, indeed he was the man who set the example for all the great polar explorers who followed. Nansen’s story is a Shackleton story twenty years before Shackleton. I was hooked. I had to know how Nansen did it, I had to know more about Nansen and his crazy idea, a crazy idea that miraculously brought everyone back alive.
The result is the best book I’ve ever written, a fascinating story spun from Nansen’s incredible story and my own deep research, one that was certainly an adventure to write and is, I hope, an adventure to read.
Adventures begin close to home. Sometimes they branch out, taking us farther afield, and sometimes they never leave the living room. But it all begins with simple questions and a persistent curiosity that leads us into the real world, near and far. Ask the questions and pull the threads; there’s no telling where you’ll end up.
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The spellbinding biography of Fridtjof Nansen, the pioneer of Polar exploration, with a spotlight on his harrowing three-year journey to the top of the world. Before Shackleton, there was Nansen.