From Dreams to Novels
I had a dream where I was walking on an island of trash.
Have you read or seen pictures of the huge accumulations of trash floating on the world’s oceans? The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an area in the Pacific Ocean between the west coast of the United States and the Pacific Rim where currents have brought together a hundred million tons of floating trash, mainly plastic. The trash typically comes from landfills that have been washed out by rain, floods, tsunamis, or typhoons, or ships throwing trash overboard, or oil rigs, or commercial fishing boats, or from countries dumping trash into rivers that then run into the ocean. The Pacific Patch has parts where trash floating from horizon to horizon is thick enough that you can’t see open water.
Unbelievably, the most concentrated areas of trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch are twice the size of Texas. No kidding. Go to YouTube and type in “ocean trash” and watch some of the remarkable videos. Imagine emptying your kitchen trashcan into your aquarium for a week. Lots of things don’t sink, so don’t imagine that happens. The situation is devastating to the ocean wildlife: besides getting trapped in plastic containers and discarded fishing nets, the birds and fish actually eat the tinier stuff. It affects fish and whales and birds and the tuna that ends up in your tuna salad. There are similar garbage patches in the South Pacific, North and South Atlantic, two in the Indian Ocean, and they just found a new strip of trash in the Caribbean a couple of weeks ago.
In my dream, someone had surrounded enough trash with a gargantuan net to create their own floating island. Not a small island either – they had built a runway on it to land small jets. There was some kind of industrial plant on the island, with big upright tanks, lots of pipes, metal walkways, and monitoring stations. It reminded me of the Phillips Petroleum refinery near the town where I grew up. There were several engineer-type people walking around with hardhats and clipboards, looking at various gauges and meters on large outside panels.
As I watched them, I was given a revelation: it was all fake. The engineers were actors, the control panels were dummy panels, and the whole industrial plant was just a prop. Nothing was as it seemed.
That’s when I woke up.
The dream was as vivid as any dream I’ve ever had. I felt the sponginess of the surface of the confined trash, I smelled the ocean air as well as the stink of the trash, I heard the engineers talking to each other, I even saw the marks on the papers in the clipboards. It was unreal and engrossing, and I was left with these thoughts: why was it all fake? what was being hidden? what was going on that needed such an elaborate façade to cover it up?
That was five years ago. I used Wikipedia to learn the fundamentals of ocean pollution, and then went to YouTube to actually believe it. I also began reading the articles on ocean pollution that appeared in online news. Ocean trash (as well as river trash, beach trash, harbor trash…) has received a lot of attention within the last two years, and it’s slowly being recognized as the global disaster that it actually is.
From that information, I used the vividness and the conflicts of my dream to develop new plots for novels. So far, I’ve written three stories centered around an ocean facility far from land that is cleaning up the trash: one is a thriller where a good guy barely escapes from a bad guy while on the facility, one where two guys battle terrorists intent on using the facility to cause an earthquake big enough to sink California, and the most current is a story about a really bad guy who uses the facility to dispose of not-so-dead bodies.
Nothing like having an unhinged imagination.
People ask me where I get my ideas for stories. Having dreams is one of them, but it’s typically just paying attention to life and identifying what makes it interesting. We are a fascinating species, in a fascinating place, doing weird, wonderful, and awful things, and it’s not surprising to find stories that are worth repeating, even if I do have to change the names to protect the innocent.
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Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.