I’ve recently been completely hooked on the Channel 4 television series, The Island, where the adventurer, Bear Grylls drops one group of men and another of women on uninhabited Pacific islands and leaves them to fend for themselves for six weeks. How will they boil the water they find, what will they use to hack through the jungle, what are the essential tools that the groups couldn’t survive without? It’s had me shouting at the TV, ‘bring in the nets or the fish will rot!’ and, ‘don’t lie on the beach, go and get the water!’. It’s pretty compulsive viewing, and even more interesting for me in that I had to make some similar decisions for the characters in my novel, Our Endless Numbered Days.
Here’s a few of them.
Water: Peggy and James live for nine years in a remote European forest. James tells Peggy that the rest of world beyond what she can see has disappeared. But luckily one of their boundaries is a river; easy access to water you might think. I considered carefully about how many buckets they should have: too few and they would spend all their time going back and forth to the river; too many and it wouldn’t be enough of a challenge. With three they are able to have one tied by the river, and two to carry the water. (Later, even one of these is lost.) And to make it harder, the closest access point is a high ledge, so that buckets have to be lowered and lifted, and then carried up to the cabin.
Food: I needed my characters to be able to get through the severe winters and to find enough food, but novels (and reality TV programmes) are all about tension, so I didn’t want to make life too cosy. I wrote them an axe, a knife and a gun. And then I took the gun away (you can do that if you’re a writer.) I think I was quite generous – I gave them a bag of rice to get started, a fishing rod (Bear’s islanders get a few fish-hooks) and some seeds for when the spring comes. But then, since I also controlled the travel arrangements and the weather, I had them arrive at the cabin in late summer, and made their first winter almost impossible. Their food sources – the berries, mushrooms, squirrels, rabbits and fish – disappear. I let them have a month or so of preparations before the really bad weather hit, so they were able to chop some wood and dry some meat. But then, half way through that first winter I have James realise he has miscalculated the amount of food they will need, and they face starvation.
Shelter and warmth: Peggy and James live in a one-room cabin. They might not have to cope with sand flies and scorpions but they do need to keep warm. There is a stove which they use for cooking and for heat, but no blankets. Conveniently you could say, my characters arrive fully dressed in dungarees, coats and shoes, but I couldn’t let them have it quite that easy, so Peggy loses a shoe before she even makes it to the cabin. I love that when I’m writing, the consequences of one scene can be huge. What do you do if you only have three pieces of footwear between two people? Shoes can be shared, but then only one person at a time can go outside in winter, which makes it very difficult to catch large animals, which means you have to hunt or forage every day, and so getting enough food is a continual challenge.
Luxuries: I’m not sure Bear Grylls’ men and women would say they had anything that could count as a luxury, but although they weren’t able to take anything with them, they were able to forage. (Anyone interested in a used toothbrush washed up by the Pacific?) James takes toothpaste with them, but a couple of tubes were never going to last nine years (and the consequences of a lack of dental hygiene was paid for years later). James makes Peggy a comb (but eventually her hair has to be shaved off). Their candles are quickly used up (no head torches for Peggy and James) and so they begin to live their lives by the rising and the setting of the sun.
These are just a few of the decisions I made about how make the lives of my ‘islanders’ difficult; there were hundreds more.
If you’re a writer, how have you made the lives of your characters difficult, or if you’re a reader or viewer, what survival books or television shows have had you shouting at the page or screen? I’d love to know.
A version of this article was first published by Isabel Costello on her website. Image courtesy of Channel 4.