Writing Survival

No, this isn’t about the survival of books, or writing, or even of the writer, although there are days! Instead, this post is taking off on something I’d been asked to touch on with my livestream chat (which you can watch here, although I suggest skipping the first few minutes as I was tired and rambly) and I’ll be blogging about on my personal site. Survival: man versus nature.

It’s been a while since I played at this seriously, and thank goodness, I’ve never been in a situation where I’d need all my skills to survive in the woods. But as a writer, I can tap into what I learned when I was a teen and it was a fun game, and since then as an adult who was interested in gathering wild edibles for the table.

I’ll recap what I said in the video as I began the topic. If you got dropped into the winter woods, the ones I was hiking in yesterday, with what you had on you, life would suck, and then you’d die. Which is why most writers are careful, if they want to be realistic about it, to set their characters up with somewhat more ideal conditions. Because it’s no fun for the reader to have the character lurching about through the frozen woods trying to figure out how to make fire, how to catch squirrels they are probably going to have to eat raw, before finally succumbing to exposure in surprisingly short order.

Let’s give our Hero a shelter, and a means of making fire. We’re being generous. If you crashed into the woods in your, say, let’s do SF! in your flying saucer, and there was no civilization within walking distance, you might be able to use your wreckage to help you stay warm and dry. And you have some kind of way of starting a fire. Nice. Now… what? Do you have any idea what is edible, and what isn’t? Let’s posit you can eat the animals safely. Tasty, tasty meat. Mmm. Now what?

Well, as I talked about in the video, when I was wandering through the woods (Ok, I was moving rather briskly, it was quite cold, below freezing, and I wanted to stay warm) I was looking for green things. We’ve had a mild winter here, and there’s no snow on the ground. So I knew I’d find something green. Even if it were covered in snow, you could dig down and find green things, waiting for spring to grow again. I found, on my short hike, green onions, chickweed, and violet leaves. All edible, all helpful in staving off such deficiencies as scurvy. Had I walked on a different trail, on the verges of a field, I’d have found wild strawberry leaves, which are high in Vitamin C and were once steeped into a tea that helped early settlers and natives stave off the scourge of scurvy, which wasn’t just a thing that plagued pirates. There is a reason, gross as it sounds to our modern sensibilities, that the contents of an animal’s stomach used to be eaten after a kill. The greens were lifesavers.

Man cannot live on meat alone. He needs green stuff, and he needs fat. Wild game is, generally speaking, very lean meat. One source of fats in the wild are nuts. I took a photo of a shagbark hickory while I was looking for forage on this hike. The chances of finding many nuts on the ground, this late in winter here, are slim. Squirrels, deer, insects… there is a lot of competition for nuts, because they are a magnificent food source. So let’s make our character have the advantage of gathering nuts as they fall. What then? Has he got the ability to store them someplace dry (nuts will sprout! They are intended to grow trees, after all, not to be food) and most importantly, someplace only he can access? Mice, voles, and their vermin ilk can penetrate into the most unlikely places, as many a housewife through the centuries has discovered to her dismay. This is how we came to share domiciles with the cat, after all.

You begin to see the scope of the problem we have, then as a writer of survival. There are so many factors that can casually kill our Hero dead, or leave him crippled through nutritional deficiency, or… he’s going to have to overcome many obstacles. Let’s see, he isn’t going to get enough nuts from the frozen forest floor, and although there are a few squirrels scuffing through the dry leaves, they aren’t abundant enough… and how is he going to catch them? Have we given him a firearm? You can hunt deer without one, although I wouldn’t recommend hand-to-hoof combat. He’s likely to reel away from that slashed to ribbons by hooves and antlers. He might even make it back to his flying saucer home before collapsing and dying of blood loss or infection. No, he doesn’t even need to be vulnerable to this planet’s pathogens – he has enough of his own riding around with him that, once introduced to his bloodstream, can take him out.

So, what’s a source of fat and protein that isn’t speedy and clever, or armed with sharp pointy ends? Oh, look, rotten logs. Loaded with small, squishy edibles squirming slowly in the winter’s cold. Our Hero is going to have to lose any squeamishness he might have had. Grubs and pupae will possibly keep him alive. Maybe.

Maybe I need to title this ‘a thousand ways to die’ and muse on how it’s amazing any of us managed to be descended from intrepid settlers and explorers. Most of them, they had some help. You really have to go back far in history to the hunter-gatherers (and most of them stuck to areas with plenty of foodstuffs, and didn’t usually stay in winter woods as they could move around). Isolated incidents of humans lost in the woods largely end tragically. Look at the number of missing persons in the national parks, for an example. There are some stories of survival, but they take a terrible toll, mostly.

Still it’s an interesting thought exercise, and it starts to give you-the-writer new and weird ways to torment, er, plot your characters as they might not have any conflict with other characters at all. It’s hard enough to stay alive in nature! Which won’t care as it kills your Hero. Over and over. Poor sucker, he never had a chance.


  1. Interesting post, Cedar. Thanks!

    I haven’t written anything yet where anyone needs to survive in the wilderness, but I do like to watch those TV shows where people are grappling with the elements, and then wonder how I would survive in the same circumstances. Or even how I would survive if the lights went out permanently here. We did good picking a place to retire to – plenty of edibles and game and fish, and the means to acquire same. I think the biggest problem I’d have, once my basic needs were met, is how to learn to live without my addictions – like chocolate and ice cream and cigarettes. That adds an interesting wrinkle to any story of survival, I think.

  2. Back when brother and I were about grade school age our grandfather would take us walkabout in the woods of northwestern Illinois. In spring to gather Morrell mushrooms for grandmother to fry up, in fall to carry home hickory nuts and black walnuts. Both of those have outer hulls that must be removed before you even get to the hard inner shells. Once that had been accomplished, black walnut husks in particular exude a nasty liquid that stains terribly, grampa would sit at an upturned three foot log with a hammer and crack the nut shells. Then the real work of picking the nut meats out of the shells began.
    Grandmother used some of those nuts in baking while brother and I sold many one pound bags of picked nutmeats to neighbor ladies to use in their holiday treats. Profits were used to buy Christmas presents for the family.
    Black walnuts have a much stronger flavor than the more common English variety, much better for use in cookie recipes.

      1. Also very good for staining wood. A distant relative had a dining set that was made from oak, but stained with black walnut. If you didn’t know grains (which I didn’t when I actually saw it), you would have sworn it was walnut.
        Micro-idea for someone considering a survival story – if you have clothing that is khaki, or a not-quite-really-white color, would you be able to produce camouflage with judicious black walnut staining? I don’t know myself; it does stain fabrics to the point of ruination, but how much bleed would happen and how color fast the result would be, I have no idea.
        (Happen to finally be reading “Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen” – which brings to mind Cordelia and Aral’s “adventure” at the the beginning of the saga. Not a bad example of just enough resources to survive a disaster, and just few enough to make it dramatic.)

  3. Back when the family did a lot of travel on and around the Colorado Plateau, I used to play the “what can I eat, where can I shelter, what do I need to survive” game. This was just in my mind, and the results were mixed. To really hang in there for an extended period, I’d need edged tools, a metal cookpot, and extra clothes. We’re not even talking about first-aid stuff yet, although I’m familiar with some plants from that region that could provide some things, in a truly desperate situation. Around here? The lack of water will kill you. There’s no surface water unless you are really, really, really lucky AND know how to purify it. In both cases, with my coloring, a hat and long sleeves and long pants/skirts are survival equipment. Otherwise I’ll sunburn so badly that I’ll get sick, dehydrate, and the dude who TALKS IN ALL CAPS will show up. 😉

    1. Survival is very dependent on your knowledge. I could (at least, when I was younger) survive quite readily here in the Arizona desert, although I would move relatively quickly to get up into the Rim Country where it is much easier.
      I lived for a while in New Hampshire, though. Where I would have quite soon expired, even in the summer, much less the winter. Absolutely clueless on what, where, how (and NOT – lot of that in every environment).

  4. Raw survival stories are relatively rare for your reasons among others, Cedar. As for reality (what a concept!), the innumerable challenges to the lone human in the wilderness, bereft of handy equipment, are why the overwhelming majority of us stay close to “civilization” and one another — and why we honor the great explorers of whom history tells us. Even the toughest, best conditioned Special Forces warrior, if dropped completely unequipped into a jungle, wouldn’t be able to maintain his body weight.

    Two fictional yet more-or-less realistic stories of man barehanded against nature come to mind. One is a part of Olaf Stapledon’s novel Odd John. The other is a portion of Thomas T. Thomas’s novel An Honorable Defense, which is the first volume in the David Drake-sponsored series Crisis of Empire. Other than those, I’d say they’re pretty hard to come by.

    1. Probably the first “survival” story that I read was Heinlein’s “Tunnel In the Sky.” Some things now strike me as quite a bit lucky. Of course, the unlucky don’t survive to tell a tale, so there’s that…

  5. One reason why they are rare is that most people don’t move far from the situations where they can survive. Someone a thousand miles from civilization probably grew up learning how to live there.

  6. 75% of the planet is water, so he’s going to drown if he’s not amphibious
    8% of the land is desert
    another 8% is pretty swampy
    10% is icecap, split between land and water
    about 75% of the non-Arctic land still goes below freezing some percentage of the time

    Earth isn’t really a place you’d want to be stranded. Practically all of it is infested with humans, most of whom you’d want to avoid. You could wind up on a dissection table at Area 51. Or worse, on “Oprah.”

  7. I’ve written a few survival stories, but, since I want them to survive, I drop them in a nice climate, at a good time of year, and usually let them have a reasonable tool chest. And magic. Because that was in the series.

  8. Cedar, man, or woman, can indeed live on meat alone. I’ve been strict carnivore for three years with no sign of scurvy, or anything else untoward, while taking no supplements except for Vitamin D. And it’s been wildly helpful with the list of autoimmune conditions from which I’d been suffering prior. There is in fact a small amount of Vitamin C in fresh meat, and it is very bio-available. Substantial Vitamin C is indeed needed on a diet consisting mainly of starches, grains, fruit, and sugar. In other words the typical American diet.

    1. Mmm. Indeed, one can survive as a strict carnivore (you wouldn’t need the supplement as a “lactocarnivore,” either).

      However, as with a strict vegan (or “lactovegan”), the diet is only practical in a highly advanced agricultural civilization, not a hardscrabble survival situation.

      Not that I disagree that the “typical American diet” couldn’t use some adjustments for the majority of people (into which I fall, BTW). Both quality and quantity.

  9. Aside from coyotes or snakes or raccoons that might be in residence, you needed to walk somewhere a little less level, to find hollows left by fallen trees or small coves along stream banks, at the foot of hills, etc. Your trees are too small for hollow trees, but an area of older trees would have them. And you can always use fallen logs as the start of a shelter.

    Lots of evergreens where people have been. Lots of Russian olive thickets around old railroads or the edges of some highways. Those would be warmer, and you might be able to make some of that stuff into hedging, a living wall, or add branches and tall grass thatch or reeds.. Sumac berries are still on trees in some places, also rose hips on wild or feral roses.

    Digging for cattail roots is supposed to be pretty easy, but don’t get wet.

  10. Ever watch the Survivorman series with Les Stroud? Each show, he gets stranded in a different part of the world, umder different circumstances, and has to survive with whatever he can, while he tries to get back to civilization.

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