September’s Showcases will be introduced by Georgina Smith, Manager of The Wilbur Smith & Niso Smith Foundation.
In my role, I am constantly asking myself whether a story is an adventure story at heart. But is the idea of adventure the same to you and me, even though we come from different backgrounds and privileges? What does it mean in day-to-day life? Does it mean the same in fiction?
For as long as people have been telling stories there have been adventure stories: The Epic Of Gilgamesh, The Twelve Labours Of Hercules, or Homer’s The Odyssey. Some of the most popular authors write adventure stories: J.R.R. Tolkien, Sir Walter Scott, Ken Follett, Philip Pullman and, of course, Wilbur Smith.
The word itself has a fascinating history. It can be traced back to the Latin, ‘adventurus’ which means, ‘a thing about to happen.’ According to the Macmillan Dictionary, it appeared in English initially in the 1200s, referring to something that happens by chance or luck, but its definition has changed somewhat over time. Additional meanings have been added to its arsenal, including ‘risk or danger’, ‘dangerous undertaking’ and ‘remarkable occurrence.’
A possible use that previously caught my imagination most keenly now eludes me, as I set out with the aim of writing about adventure. Perhaps you can find it, or perhaps you will tell me I’ve been dreaming about work, but indulge me, as it does encapsulate what I think of as the spirit of adventure.
During the 15-17th centuries, enough people were setting out on voyages of discovery for the period to become known as the Golden Age Of Exploration. Europeans began exploring the world by sea, bringing knowledge, foods, plants, animals, and massive wealth in the form of goods such as spices and precious metals back to their native countries.
The captains and crew often did not know where, or how far, they were going. When would they next reach land if they sailed west from England? Would they ever return to their families? A voyage of discovery was an expensive undertaking and when a voyage was financed, it also had to be insured. Who would underwrite such a dangerous venture?
The insurance companies who did noted these missions as ad- venture. Ad being the prefix for to, or towards. In this case, the journey towards a new business venture specifically where the destination or outcome was not yet proven. Sailing into the unknown. To me, this idea captures the true spirit of adventure. Whether it’s for fame and fortune, to make a living, or because of an insatiable curiosity, this takes bravery and these adventurers were boldly pushing forward, irrespective of not knowing what lay over the horizon.
Over the next month, I’m privileged to be sharing a number of extracts with you from manuscripts shortlisted for this year’s Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize. You can see our official definition of adventure here and those submitting to Write On!’s current theme of Keeping Going: Writing With Perseverance And Courage. I have selected pieces that capture the spirit of adventure, or challenge the perception of what adventure is. Writing, after all, is one of the greatest adventures we can undertake.
The Errand Boy: North
Dunkeld felt himself visibly stiffen at the thought of not being combat-ready. After everything he had done, everything this man sat in front of him knew he had done, why question his capabilities, his courage, now?
It was not his skills that had led him into career suicide, it was his mouth. Even in this hell of a backwater, disused, air base, Dunkeld had managed to turn every nook and cranny into his training area. Morning runs around the perimeter, heaving 100kg tyres end on end, ropes, ladders up into the rafters of the hangars It was no David Lloyd gym, but with imagination and motivation it had everything an active person needed to maintain physical fitness, build endurance, work in speed and flexibility and, apart from good coffee, it was the only thing that kept him sane.
“Settle down, son. If I doubted you for a second, I wouldn’t be here. I’ve read your logs. You have kept up to date on all your training, your range scores are excellent, and your fitness is 100% field ready.” The General had what passed as a smile on his face, not paternal, not caring, but more professionally satisfied that what stood in front of him was a tool perfectly designed and operationally ready for the task at hand.
“Field ready?” For the first time in months, Dunkeld felt a stirring of hope. The General was talking in riddles, but he was getting at something, and Dunkeld felt the pilot light inside him flick on to full burn, something that only happened when he was ever taken into a secure room and briefed on top secret missions, volatile situations, desperate times. Something was going on, and he realised he yearned for that intense anticipation of action, a mission, and a purpose.
“That’s right. If you want a chance to get out of this place, then I need you to do something for me, an errand, if you will.”
Dunkeld’s heart sank as he felt someone pissing on his flame. One minute he had been a super soldier, the next a night watchman and now a bloody errand boy; trained to disarm, disable and disembowel, and now only fit for errands.
He had always despised those soldiers who had settled for being the driver of an officer in some cushy, warm country where they tootled about between meetings and club houses. That was what taxis were for. Dunkeld contained his disappointment, but in that moment, he wondered if god really was an ironic sort of deity.
“Be ready and at the helicopter in 20 minutes. If you are not, there then I will presume you are not interested.” With that, the General stood and left. Dunkeld saluted and it took him exactly 30 seconds to make his decision.
Twenty minutes, that was how long the General gave him to grab his gear and get to the helicopter. It took Dunkeld 17 minutes. ‘One kit bag, uniform, underwear, toiletries, travel often, travel light’, was one of those mantras his team used to repeat every time they got a new briefing.
Dunkeld spent two of those minutes saying goodbye to the young corporal who had stuttered in the face of the General, and whom he feared was doomed to a life of administrative purgatory. He did not know why the corporal was there, because whatever rank, the men on the base all obeyed the same golden rule – do not ask my shame. Dunkeld had a feeling it was more to do with incompetence than malice, maybe a favour to a well-placed long serving officer who had become aware that one of his progenies had fallen way far from the tree.
Exactly twenty minutes later, the rotors of the Chinook were turning at speed. The wheels were up and the helicopter rose into the wet, grey sky. Dunkeld and the General were the only passengers amongst a horde of military supplies.
They both strapped themselves in and placed their headsets on, but there was no talking. The General had his head buried in official documents as Dunkeld stared out of the window, his mind whirring with the possibilities.
They headed north, and soon the flat farm terrain turned into urban sprawl, then the mountains of the northwest, the Lake District, and on to the lowlands of Scotland. They touched down in Edinburgh, two hours later.
(c) Garry Cochrane, 2021
Prior to this, we’ve seen a very capable Bruce Dunkeld in the field, and have learned that he is a man of integrity. We’ve also seen the enemies he’ll be up against and know they will make fierce opposition. More than anything, however, this extract highlights how the spirit of adventure runs through Dunkeld’s veins. It took him a mere 30 seconds to say yes to his next adventure; 30 seconds or, really, no time at all.
The Errand Boy: North by Garry Cochrane is shortlisted for the 2021 Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize, Best Unpublished Manuscript.
Eat The Frog
Most readers have heard of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain’s journey taking in the people and places along the Mississippi River. Twain was a prolific writer, publisher and lecturer amongst other things and attributed to him is this piece of sound advice:
“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”
Taken now as a productivity guide to do your worst task of the day first, Claire Buss’s wonderful poem, Eat The Frog… must surely be a nod to Twain. With the spirit of adventure in mind, I would add that your classic adventure hero might think twice about eating the frog, but they would do it, in the hope of achieving bigger things next. Let Claire’s light-hearted words be the motivation you may need to keep going.
When you get up each day
Make sure you take a moment to say
Eat the frog!
Don’t let a moment pass by
Because you’ll be asking why
You didn’t eat the frog
It’s a way of making you do
The thing that feels worst to you
By eating the frog
Don’t worry about the slime
It’ll slither down just fine
If you eat the frog
I’m told the legs are particularly yummy
They won’t hop about in your tummy
Get on with eating the frog
I’m sure it will give you a jump
And help you get over the hump
If only you’d eat the frog
So take a deep breath and begin
To slither the amphibian in
It’s time to eat the…
… what do you mean it’s not an actual frog?
© Claire Buss, 2020
If you’d like to see your writing appear in the Write On! Showcase, please send your short stories, poetry or novel extracts to email@example.com. You can read more fiction, poetry, interviews and author advice in the latest issue of Write On! Available here