Environmental Hazards: Five Challenges of Writing Climate Fiction (Part 5)

This post is part five of a seven-part series discussing my experience writing climate fiction in my novel, Blue Karma.

Challenge #4: The Headline Tango

Writing Blue Karma felt like a race against time. Over the year it took me to finish it, more and more headlines about epic droughts , floods, and changing attitudes about water use peppered the news, almost mirroring the progress of the story. You’d better hurry up, I told myself as I typed, before you have to switch genres to non-fiction! Part of climate fiction’s appeal is how closely it flirts with reality. It whispers in the ear of today and makes dire promises about tomorrow. This forces cli-fi writers into a precarious tango with the daily headlines: the performance demands we dance entwined, but make sure you, not the news, lead the steps.

1919 newspaper headline about the Boston molasses disaster

Current events provide critical inspiration for cli-fi, but don’t try to include everything (this, by the way, is a real event that occurred in 1919).

Current events can provide lots of inspiration. For example, after hearing about migrants trapped on ships off the coast of southeast Asia, I incorporated a similar experience into Amaya’s backstory. It fit perfectly into her narrative and developed a part of her history that had previously felt like an afterthought. Hunting for small gems like this can make the news addicting for cli-fi writers, but it’s also distracting. Towards the end of my project, I had to stop reading news about the California droughts because every report temped me to rework my story and accommodate the new development. If I’d tried to update the draft with every relevant news item I encountered, I’d never have finished it. Worse yet, it might’ve ended up reading like a pastiche of fictionalized headlines rather than a creative, cohesive work of my own invention.

Relying too heavily on headlines or cramming too many references into the plot can derail your story: when headlines lead the tango, it’s easy to trip and fall, and lose all momentum. I discovered current events are best used as raw material for broad trends, which the writer can then extrapolate for a portrait of how those things might look in the future. Cli-fi may be realism, but don’t forget it’s still fiction. It’s acceptable to craft your own details….just be mindful of how you craft your own opinions, the penultimate topic in the Environmental Hazards series.

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