Drones: How writing about this technology can create some exciting new stories

Published on: 28 August 2019 Author: Danny Rurlander

Danny Rurlander's Spylark is all about a character with a mobility impairment who uses a drone to solve a tense mystery in the national park where he lives. The author explains how thinking about this bit of kit unlocked the entire story, and could do the same for you.

From the front cover of Spylark by Danny Rurlander

My action-adventure thriller Spylark opens with 13-year-old Tom Hopkins winging his homemade drone over the Lake District fells, hurrying to get home in time for school. From this aerial vantage point, he stumbles across a criminal plot that catapults him into the world of global terrorism.

The opening scene thus quickly orientates the reader to one of the key narrative devices of the book. While Tom soars, unseen, over the peaks and islands of the Lake District, the reader flies with him. But – and here’s the unique narrative opportunity presented by UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, otherwise known as "drones") – he does all of this from the safety and anonymity of his garden shed.

Part of an inner journey 

Exploiting drones for this storytelling purpose (which, as far as I am aware, had never been done before), is what excited me most about writing Spylark. Fantasy, an all-knowing narrator, and even science fiction can all easily enable someone to be in two places at once, to switch the protagonist’s point of view between locations instantly, and to view another character’s actions without them knowing he or she is watching. The beauty of drones, however, is that you can do all that in the real world, from a single character’s point of view.

Not only did this give me a unique and original narrative tool to play with, but for the main character, Tom Hopkins, it opened up his life to an entirely new world.

However, there is one piece of information, only gradually revealed to the reader, that makes this ability paramount to the story. The main character, Tom, by nature a physically adventurous, outdoor-loving teenager, has suffered a horrific accident a few years earlier and is now disabled and walks with a severe limp, with the help of a stick.

While his flying therefore helps Tom overcome his mobility issues, catch the criminals and end up the hero in the best traditions of the genre, it is also connected to his inner journey as he faces up to the emotional scars and fears of the past. If there is a lesson to be leant from the adventure, it is that it will take more than machines to heal this internal damage before the story can come to an end.

Through the eyes of another

A number of influences and experiences found their way into Spylark. Because I grew up in the Lake District and spent much of my spare time in and around Lake Windermere (which itself plays a "character" role in the novel), I have used my knowledge of the setting to build what I hope is a convincing sense of place. I was also privileged to gain first-hand knowledge of flying aeroplanes through my time with the RAF.

But there is plenty in the book that I had no direct knowledge of all. Before I started, I knew nothing at all about drones. Most importantly, I do not have any first-hand experience of coping with a physical disability, as the main character does. But rather than see these as barriers, they are opportunities to research, explore and imagine the world from someone else’s point of view.

I often say that good writers have to be the nosiest people on the planet! They learn to listen in on other people’s conversations on the bus; they observe the world around them in fine detail; they tune into the stories of other people’s lives.

If you can do this, the aspects of your writing that come from what you don’t already know, will be even more vivid and fresh than those that come from your experience. And, in the process, you will have come to understand the world – just a little bit – through the eyes of another, and, in a world full of conflict, this can only be a good thing.

A freedom beyond dreams

I wanted to explore the dangers of the cutting edge technology in the story (apart from those represented by the criminal mastermind who harnesses it for terror). While Tom uses his drones to explore his world, spy on the boys who bully him at school, and catch criminals, he also uses them to hide from interacting with real people in the real world.

His fleet of homemade UAVs, piloted remotely from his control centre at the bottom of the garden, is the equivalent of the social media platforms and compulsive computer games that draw many young people into a parallel universe. Like drones, these technologies can be harnessed for good and for harm, but they all have a potent ability to lead young people away from relationships with flesh and blood human beings, and from taking responsibility in the real world.

Just as Tom can sit alone in his garden shed while at the same time pretending to be someone else on an island or at the top of a mountain, young people are able to project their perfectly curated Instagram persona or Facebook profiles onto the world from the safety of their mobile phones and tablets.

In any age and culture, the desire to escape the pressures of life for a while is normal. But because these technologies provide a perfect retreat from reality and responsibility, there is a thin line between healthy fun and a destructive denial of who you really are. And I can’t help wondering if well-meaning adults have made matters worse by constantly teaching children that ‘if only you follow your dreams, you can do anything at all,’ by which ‘anything’ usually means something in the realm of career, sporting success, fame and fortune, rather than, say, helping others or making the world a better place.

On the contrary, what Tom must learn – even in the process of being the hero and catching the criminals – is to face reality, discover the importance of friendship, forgiveness and self-sacrifice, and to make the best of the hand he’s been dealt. In that way, he finds a freedom beyond his dreams.

Read our book review of Spylark

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