You may have heard this common advice to writers: “Write what you know.” Okay. To me, though, it’s more challenging, more interesting, and way more valuable to write about things I know nothing about.
Because I have to learn in the process.
When you write about something strange and unfamiliar, you approach it in that wondering, eyes-wide-open way a child sees the world. “There is nothing,” my mother once told me, “like the immigrant’s love of the English language.”
There’s a hidden benefit to the reader, too.
When you write about something unfamiliar, you have to solve its puzzles and unravel its mysteries as you write so that you can understand it—and that also lets in all those readers who know no more about the subject than you do.
For me, that was the number one challenge in writing Steel Fear.
An aircraft carrier is a bizarre, unique environment. Six thousand souls packed into a steel tube roughly the size of the Empire State Building lying on its side and powering through the ocean for six months straight. It’s like nothing I, or most of us, have ever experienced.
For the story to work, we had to make the carrier come to life—to put you there, living in that strange and alien universe. The ship had to become, in essence, another character in the story.
Which is why, even before you meet the story’s hero, Finn, you first meet the USS Abraham Lincoln:
[Monica] opened the stateroom door, ducked her head, and began threading her way through the labyrinth. The nighttime safety lights provided her just enough illumination to see her way, their faint red glow giving the painted steel passageways an even more claustrophobic feel than usual. A lattice of wires, exposed pipes, and conduit brushed by overhead, like strands of web in a giant spider’s lair.
Eerie how quiet it got in here at night.
If you put all the ship’s passageways end to end, Monica’d heard, they would stretch out more than twenty miles. She’d asked her crew chief once just how big a carrier was. He told her about two brothers he knew who’d deployed at the same time on the same ship. From the day they left port to the day they returned seven months later the two never once bumped into each other. “That’s how big,” he said.
More than three thousand ship’s crew, plus nearly three thousand more with the air wing on board: some six thousand souls packed into this steel honeycomb. Like a small city folded in on itself. She’d heard of crew members getting lost even after weeks on board.
As she ducked through another doorway Monica thought again—for the thousandth time—of the inconvenience her height saddled her with here on the Lincoln. It was like living in a hobbit shire, only this particular hobbit shire was interlaced with a thousand narrow, nearly vertical steel staircases—“ladders,” in Navyspeak, never “stairs”—and punctuated by compact, capsule-shaped doorways with openings raised a few inches off the deck, so you had to remember to high-step through. Look down to make sure you cleared the edge and SLAM! Another whack to the head.
And then you meet another side of the ship’s personality: the flight deck.
The four stood for a moment on the steel catwalk, eyes adjusting to the darkness as their bodies adapted to the heat. Looking down between her feet into the darkness, Monica could hear the ocean rushing by five stories below. Sailors who jumped from here with suicide on their minds might hope to drown, but only those few sorry souls who survived the fall got their wish.
She followed the others up the five steel steps and out onto the Lincoln’s massive flight deck, where every day was the Fourth of July.
WHAM! She was expecting it, but still the sound made her jump. A hundred yards from where Monica stood one of the flight deck’s steam catapults slammed against its stock, sending a fighter jet screaming off the bow end of the deck and into the air with a whoosh and disappearing into the dark.
CRASH! A second jet pounded into the deck’s stern to her right, its tailhook snagging one of the four arresting wires strung across the deck like booby traps. The cable shrieked as it stretched out into an elongated V, slowing the jet from 150 mph to zero in a two-count to stop it from careening off the deck’s angled landing strip.
Goggled and green-jerseyed handlers rushed forward to chock and chain the beast. Monica knew them all by their gait and gestures, had each one’s physical signature memorized. Her crew’s lives depended on these guys.
WHAM! Another cat shot, and whoosh! another jet disappeared into the dark.
CRASH! Another 25-ton beast pounded into the deck.
Her big brother had told her that the contrast between below decks and above was like night and day. That didn’t even come close. Life below was like living in a steel ant colony. Everything was a mass of exploding chaos—yellow-jerseyed “shooters” signaling jet launches with their elaborate ballet; white-shirted “paddles” feeding the incoming pilots chunks of complex data with a wave of their glowing light sticks; green-jerseyed Martians swarming everywhere, checking and double-checking every facet of the machinery before takeoff. The roar of jet blast as the next pilot rammed the throttle forward, sending a blaze of blistering exhaust back into concrete-and-steel blast deflectors raised on their servo motors just in time to catch the inferno. The air boss up in the tower, all-seeing, his amplified voice booming above the din, directing everything like a benevolent Eye of Sauron.
And that smell! That heady mix of diesel fumes, jet fuel, and salt air. Every time Monica stepped off the catwalk and out onto the deck it hit her again, like echoes of a first high school kiss. She couldn’t get enough of it. Wished she could bottle it.
That’s the ship in normal times. But like any good novel character, it shifts and changes—in this case, becoming steadily more and more threatening. For example, when we follow the jet pilot Kristine (call sign BIKER) as she attempts to land her F/A-18 Hornet on the flight deck in the middle of the night:
Up in the empty blackness 1,200 feet over their heads, Kris came around to port, describing a gigantic U-turn in the sky, then circled the boat and began her reapproach.
The boat heaved, bobbing up and down in forty-foot swells now, the enormous brass propellers visible for a few seconds at a time, the monster baring its teeth.
A land-based runway, commercial or military, could run from 6,000 to 12,000 feet long. The Lincoln’s flight deck was one twentieth of that. The length of a few football fields. A dot in the ocean.
A pitching, yawing, rolling invisible dot.
Biker closed her eyes.
In a way, Steel Fear is all about what happens when human beings are sealed off in tight, enclosed spaces (the word “steel” occurs more than fifty times), and the ship slowly dials up that claustrophobic sense as the novel progresses:
There the ship sat, moored some twelve hundred meters from the dock. As far as its population was concerned, it might as well have been twelve hundred miles. For the next two days the Lincoln’s convoy of helos buzzed back and forth, replenishing its supplies, and the ship’s six thousand inhabitants walked through their chores and routines, subdued and claustrophobic, within shooting distance of the shore but unable to go ashore.
The ship had become a floating prison.
Bennett glanced around. He was completely alone. Flight ops had been canceled and only a handful of air crew and pilots were up top. Somehow the rest had already gone in ahead of him.
The fog caught the full moon’s illumination and scattered it over the flight deck, diffusing the light in such a way that despite the brightness, visibility was little more than a few meters.
He checked the chocks on his Greyhound one more time, then began crossing the deck to the catwalk.
The fog seemed to muffle the sounds of his footsteps.
After he’d gone about ten yards he stopped, craning to listen into the murk.
Heard nothing but his own ragged breathing.
He walked another eight or ten yards, then stopped again. Now there was no mistaking it.
A bubble of panic rose up and burst open, and he broke into a run, bolting the last ten meters to the edge and scrambling down the short ladder to the catwalk, his unseen pursuer’s footsteps practically in his ears.
Miscounting the steps, he lost his footing and toppled headlong.
And then the grip tightens until the ship itself starts to feel almost as if it is a conscious instrument of the killer’s design, an accomplice in crime:
The week dragged past like Marley’s chain.
“Nothing like a crisis to bring people together,” so went the popular wisdom—but this particular crisis seemed to work in exactly the opposite way. Every petty conflict was magnified, every rift driven deeper. Fear, withdrawal, and distrust— they became the new normal.
The rain that had dogged them since arriving at Fremantle finally stopped. At first the weather turned sunny and balmy with a warm dry breeze, then the breeze stopped and it grew blisteringly hot.
The AC system failed, was fixed, failed again.
Humidity hung in the air like wet woolen blankets, itchy and pestilential.
An outbreak of food-borne bacterial illness swept the ship, sending sailors by the hundreds through sick bay and back to their racks. Work hours were stretched, nerves frayed. Scuffles and fights broke out, with several violent assaults. All at once the brig’s genpop was busy.
Back in Fremantle Harbour the ship had reminded Finn of a floating prison. Now it felt more like a floating death row, everyone on board wondering when and where the killer would strike next.
I can’t tell you here what ultimately happens—but I can tell you this: The Lincoln made such a wonderfully rich character, it was a daunting task to come up with human characters who could go toe to toe with the leviathan and not be swallowed whole.
Editor’s Note: This piece was written by John Mann and originally published on the author’s website.