The ninth in my stories-behind-writing-the-books, which I offer intermittently here on my blog.
In between racing and dirt-jumping their BMX bikes, daredevil fifteen-year-old best friends Jake and Peter discover an astonishing underground maze of old mining tunnels. Equipped with night-vision goggles, they get drawn into riding underground – defying a group of hostile riders and surviving unexpected tremors. As they attempt to race their bikes against time back up to daylight, Peter must come to terms with personal misfortunes threatening to suffocate all that he has come to think of as normal.
I was supposed to be outlining the ninth book in my Extreme series, on BMX biking, when I found myself reading Dean Koontz’s thriller Seize the Night – involving a bunch of guys running around old army tunnels wearing night-vision goggles.
“My BMXers can do that!” I mused.
So I had my characters stumble across a box of military night-vision goggles in a garbage dump, as well as an astounding maze of old mining tunnels.
After reading a few books on mining, I made an appointment with mining manager Terry Johnson of Britannia, British Columbia. My fear was that when I told him my idea for my plot, he’d refuse to work with me. And indeed, he did cross his arms and glare at me a little. So I asked him, “Do you have any grandchildren?”
“You do realize that each and every one of your grandchildren will receive autographed copies of BMX Tunnel Run if you help me?”
Well, after that he turned friendly. He gave me my own tour of the mine entrances, explained rockfalls and tunnel dynamics and also showed me an oxygen meter that miners wear on their belts: It beeps when the tunnels start running out of oxygen. I made sure that Peter, Jake and their friends got their hands on those to go with their night-vision goggles.
Terry read all pertinent aspects of the manuscript; he was an enormous help. And all his six grandchildren got autographed copies of the book the following fall.
Of course, how could I write about night-vision goggles without having some myself? So I ordered a pair from eBay, only to learn that it was illegal for them to cross the U.S./Canadian border. So while I did get to try them out and show them off at a few school talks, I could not do so on both sides of the border. I eventually donated them to a Boy Scouts club.
As research on BMX biking, I hung out at a BMX race course with local English teacher Laura Knowles, who at the time also happened to be a two-time BMX provincial champion racer, BMX coach and mother of BMX racers Russell and Kasey Knowles. (Kasey was a three-time Canadian national champion — and as readers can tell, I like naming some characters after people helping me with a book.)
They helped me with all aspects of BMX plotting and wording. How else could I have written a paragraph like this?
“Micah has the holeshot coming out of the gate, but Braden goes low into the corner. Oh! Chase has been forced up on the berm. Russell pre-manuals the first bump in the rhythm section. Way to go! Kasey completes the whole third straight on her back wheel, Lucas jumps the triple, but Will manuals and squeezes past while Lucas is in the air.”
Other trivia regarding writing BMX Tunnel Run:
- For the opening scene of biking through a corn maze, I sought out and wandered through a corn maze (with my reluctant niece Alyson).
- The mining ghost-town was based on one that used to exist (but has since been torn down) near Britannia Mining Museum in British Columbia, Canada.
- By this ninth book in my series, I was struggling a little to introduce an angle I had not covered before. “Make Peter suffer setbacks,” my husband suggested. It’s true that Peter has always been the privileged one, with his wealthy and intact family. So I took Steve’s advice and had both Peter’s parents lose their jobs, which in turn led them to pull Peter out of private school and put their cabin up for sale. That tension blended well with the weekenders-versus-townies tension in the community where the novel was set.
- There’s a scene where Russell is sitting inside an immobilized military tank. I had my nephew Jonathan, who had recently served in Iraq, help me with the description of the inside of a tank.
- I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the contortionist Houdini really did teach coal miners how to slow their breathing in case of a cave-in, which worked well with my plot.
In retrospect, re-reading the novel all these years later, I’m amazed how much foolish behavior and danger I inserted into the plot. But in the novel’s Acknowledgments, I emphasize with Terry’s help that: “It is extraordinarily dangerous to go into an abandoned mining tunnel. Trespassers in such tunnels frequently drop dead with no warning due to a lack of oxygen. ‘Pockets of oxygen deficiency’ are very real and very unpredictable. They can occur anywhere, anytime underground, including in spaces that had sufficient oxygen just moments before. Air blasts and rockfalls, although less common in hardrock than soft rock mines, are real. Tunnel plugs can be made of a number of materials, none of which implies that one tunnel is safer than another.”
So, readers can be daring and foolish in a virtual way, while growing their passion for reading.
I’m pretty proud of the fact that all mining disasters retold by the BMXers are real historic anecdotes. Who’d have thought that BMX enthusiasts could emerge from reading a sports novel with more knowledge of mining history and dangers than most in the general population?