So I’m on the back porch, chasing down the muse. Pen and pad in hand, I’m absorbed in my latest wip, when the wind suddenly rises through swaying trees. An updraft lifts a swarm of whirling maple seeds, and they come toward me like the helicopters in Apocalypse Now.
Nothing to fear. Just a “Fresh Breeze” on the Beaufort Scale.
Admiral Beaufort’s guide enabled British sailors to estimate wind speed from the sight, sound, and feel of the wind, but it’s also useful on land. A “Calm” wind with a speed of 0-1 is “like a mirror” at sea, while on land, “smoke rises vertically.” But if the sea shows “moderate waves with many white horses,” or if “small trees sway” on land, then it’s a “Fresh Breeze,” and the wind speed will be 19-24 miles per hour or 17-21 knots.
What makes the Beaufort Scale useful is that, like good writing, it uses sensory impressions to convey ideas. Cognitive scientists will tell you that abstractions are rooted in bodily sensations, but it’s still a challenge to present ideas in an engaging and entertaining way.
Horace Walpole, in a famous essay on his supernatural novel The Castle of Otranto, wrote:
“It was an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern. In the former, all was imagination and improbability: in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success. Invention has not been wanting; but the great resources of fancy have been dammed up, by a strict adherence to common life.”
The goal is to make the fantastic and improbable palpable and realistic. It’s not easy, but that’s the heart of the craft of writing, something you never really master, as Ernest Hemingway once observed. Of course, as the Stoics taught, life itself is a never-ending learning experience.