Friday, October 12, 2018

Hot Vents and Dead Whales: Story Prompts from the Deep

October is a month of thrills! Today wraps up Cephalopod Awareness Days, an annual celebration of all those ink-squirting, color-changing critters with tentacles, suction cups, and great big brains. Monsters both real and imagined are all the rage as we gear up for Halloween, and in the candy-fueled haze of enthusiasm to follow, many will tackle the challenge of National Novel Writing Month--stretching the thrills out into November.

Also in October (the 16th, to be precise) a cool new book called Putting the Science in Fiction is coming out, with a couple of my essays in it. As part of a blog tour in the run-up to publication, I'm sharing some new story ideas below. And below those (in the deep!), you can enter a giveaway for a free copy of the book.


I thought I'd talk about the ocean today. Because it's full of cephalopods and lots of other great monsters, because all our stories could use a little more salt, and most of all because we still know so very little about it. Here's my favorite visualization:

It's become an oft-quoted factoid that we know less about the deep sea than we do about the Moon or Mars. We also seem to write way less fiction about the deep sea than we do about those lifeless rocks in the sky. So here's your chance to boldly go where few writers have gone before!

The deep sea is exciting, beautiful, dangerous, and barely explored. What could make a better setting? The seafloor may seem cold and barren, but it also houses rich ecosystems teeming with life. How? Well, an ecosystem always develops around a primary source of food. Think of a forest (and the uncountable stories set in forests). A forest starts with trees using sunlight to make food. All this plant matter supports herbivorous grazers, who become populous enough to feed carnivores, and voila! You have a setting full of trees and deer and bears, a ready-made playground for wood-cutters and hunters and fairies and werewolves.

A deep-sea "forest" of life growing at a hydrothermal vent.
You might think there's nothing like a forest in the deep sea, because there's no sunlight to grow plants. And you would be sort of right. But there are still oases, places where primary food sources are substantial enough to generate ecosystems. Some, like hydrothermal vents and cold seeps, are chemical in nature--cracks in the crust where our planet's gases leak into the water. Bacteria have evolved myriad techniques for turning these "Earth farts" into food, just like trees turn sunlight into food. There are enough bacteria at these sites to support grazers like shrimps and worms, which in turn support carnivores like crabs and octopuses and fish, and voila! Now you have a bizarre setting that's totally different from a forest, but equally rich with possibility.

  • What's is like to live at a hydrothermal vent? Imagine sentient creatures making their home in such a place. What's their day-to-day routine? Do they harvest bacteria or hunt crabs? What predators do they fear, and how do they defend themselves?
  • How and why could humans (or other surface-dwellers) visit a hydrothermal vent? Would they be explorers, scientists, treasure-hunters, refugees?
  • There's no reason you can't introduce elements of fantasy into a setting like this. What would be the vent equivalent of a fairy or a werewolf?


The bones of a dead whale grow new life.
Other deep-sea oases are biological in origin. Even grosser than the methane and sulfur bubbling up from Earth's guts are the carcasses of dead whales that drift down from above. Biologists have given these ecosystems a nice poetic name: whale falls. And from death (cue The Circle of Life) comes an abundance of life. A dead whale is so gigantic that it forms the basis of an entire food web, feeding scavengers like slime eels, worms and sharks and bringing colonizers who then feed on each other and--yup, you got a whole new bizarre setting.

  • What's it like to live on a whale fall? What part of the whale would you eat--or would you dine on other scavengers and grazers instead?
  • No dead whale lasts forever (sad but true) and so competition increases as the whale disappears. Do factions form? Do wars break out? When does an individual, or a group, decide it's no longer worth staying and strike out on their own?
  • How long do your characters live? Most of a whale is consumed in the first few years, but the long-term decomposition can last for decades or more. Short-lived creatures could raise their children and grandchildren all on the same whale, while long-lived entities must migrate often. How do you find the next whale fall if you're the first generation to be looking since your great-grandparents' time, versus if you've done it a dozen times before?


I would be absolutely thrilled to read any stories like these, so let me know if they're already out there. And if you happen to write one, please share any part of it that you'd like to! Or if you have more cool ideas, refinements, suggestions, I'd love to hear those too.

And here's the giveaway:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Putting the Science in Fiction brings together scientists, physicians, engineers, and other experts to help you:
  • Understand the basic principles of science, technology, and medicine that are
  • frequently featured in fiction.
  • Avoid common pitfalls and misconceptions to ensure technical accuracy.
  • Write realistic and compelling scientific elements that will captivate readers.
  • Brainstorm and develop new science- and technology-based story ideas.
Whether writing about mutant monsters, rogue viruses, giant spaceships, or even murders and espionage, Putting the Science in Fiction will have something to help every writer craft better fiction.

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