Wild Stories: The Perilous Art of Adventure Writing

with Hampton Sides and Douglas Preston

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Course Description

We writers are often taught to look inside ourselves—our lives, our families, our own emotional landscapes—for good material. But sometimes the very best stories are . . . out there.

Best-selling authors Hampton Sides and Doug Preston form a formidable pair for a journey of discovery into their world of wild storytelling. In three presentations spread over three days in early December, Hampton and Doug consider and explore narrative non-fiction writing that focuses on the outside world—including natural science, environmental politics, adventure sports, exploration, and far-flung travel stories.

Drawing especially on the rich tradition of outdoor writing from the pages of Outside, National GeographicThe New Yorker, and other magazines for which Hampton and Doug have regularly written, they explore the many facets of this vibrant field of literature.

What makes a great piece of adventure writing? Why does “wilderness”—in the broadest sense of the term—provide such an endless reservoir of compelling material? How does the writer make a particular piece of landscape come alive on the page? And how can a passage of writing achieve the sort of vividness and immediacy that transports the reader to another world?

Day One – Into the Wild: Adventures Worth Writing About
Doug and Hampton share their own particular experiences going into the wild, what makes for a good adventure story, and how they planned and accomplished the experience they could then transform into an exciting and salable story. Doug focuses on the discovery and exploration of an unknown, pre-Columbian city in the rainforests of Honduras, which he wrote about in The New Yorker and National Geographic and in his bestselling book, The Lost City of the Monkey God. Hampton shares the extraordinary story of the first official American attempt on the North Pole—the grand and terrible Arctic voyage of the USS Jeannette (1879-81), as captured in his bestselling book, In the Kingdom of Ice.

Day Two – Structure and Scope: The Vital Roles of Research, Reporting, and History
It is never enough simply to relate an experience; a great adventure story is almost always enlivened and enriched by historical research, interviews, and careful reporting. Both The Lost City of the Monkey God and In the Kingdom of Ice are works built on a bedrock of wide reading, interviews, archival research, and background reporting. In this presentation, Hampton and Doug talk about how to successfully integrate research and history into a contemporary story.

Day Three – From Wilderness to Words: The Many Ways to Tell the Story
The journey from the adventure to the finished piece of writing is fraught with pitfalls. Numerous decisions must be made on such questions as point-of-view, theme, tone, story structure, and arc. Nearly all encounters in life are messy and confusing, and this can be especially true of a wilderness adventure. It is not easy to find the essence of the experience and draw it out—while at the same time maintaining the factual integrity that is imperative for any respectable work of non-fiction. Hampton and Doug take a close look at these important literary considerations.

In the end, we come away with an enhanced appreciation for the craft of “writing wild” and the abiding irony that underlies it—sometimes we have to go far afield, often to the ends of the earth, to find the stories that resonate at home.

A 10 to 15-minute Question and Answer session follows each daily presentation. Questions from the participants will be reviewed and a few selected during this informal wrap-up conversation.

Additional Information


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Creative Vision
© Kurt Markus
Hampton Sides

Hampton Sides is the author of the best-selling histories Ghost Soldiers, Blood and Thunder, Hellhound on His Trail, In the Kingdom of Ice, and On Desperate Ground. An editor-at-large at Outside and a frequent contributor to such magazines as National Geographic and Smithsonian, he is a member of the Society of American Historians and a recent fellow at the Santa Fe Institute. He lives in Santa Fe and teaches narrative non-fiction at Colorado College.


© Douglas Preston
Douglas Preston

Douglas Preston is the author of 35 books, both fiction and nonfiction, 32 of which have been New York Times bestsellers, including several that reached the #1 position. His thriller novel, The Relic, co-authored with Lincoln Child, was made into a movie; the film adaption of his nonfiction book, The Monster of Florence, is currently in production. His latest nonfiction book, The Lost City of the Monkey God, details the discovery of a pre-Columbian city in the unexplored jungles of Honduras.

In addition to books, Douglas has written nonfiction articles for The New Yorker, National Geographic, Smithsonian, the Atlantic, Harper’s, and New Mexico Magazine. He is currently president of the Authors Guild. He has also worked as an editor for the American Museum of National History and taught nonfiction writing at Princeton University.


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