Wilderness Survival, Corporate Style

Novel ideas spark from the unlikeliest places. My original inspiration for The Unexpected Hostage came from a corporate retreat I attended years ago in London. During a leadership team-building exercise, my colleagues and I played Survival, a simulation game. The premise is you and your teammates survive a plane crash over Northern Canada and must rank twelve items salvaged from the wreckage in order of importance to your survival.

It’s forty degrees below zero, and the nearest town is twenty miles away. Divided into small groups, we focused on ranking the top five items. More importantly, we all needed to agree on the prioritization. Then, we compared our top five list against the prioritization defined by military survival experts. The team closest to the expert list survives, but everyone else dies on the tundra.

In a nondescript conference room, we embraced the challenge with zeal. Quickly, the game came to life as we formed alliances and fought over each item’s relative merits. Tempers flared. Some colleagues bulldozed others with their will, while some negotiated and built coalitions to prioritize their preferred items. The experience, while simulated, revealed much about us and how we’d behave in a crisis.

Wilderness Survival, Corporate Style

A few days later, on my flight home from London, I chatted with a colleague while admiring the snowy landscape below. The plane was passing over Northern Canada’s Nunavut territory, which forms the largest part of the Arctic Archipelago. This remote, frozen region could easily have been the same plane crash site mentioned in the team’s survival exercise.

A shiver traveled up my spine as I considered what would happen if our flight went down and we found ourselves stranded. In an actual crisis, would we manage our shock and emotions well enough to remain calm and save ourselves? Suddenly, the simulation became more real. Factoids jogged my memory, and I remembered to choose a cigarette lighter over whiskey and a gun before a compass.

Back in my seat, I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea of a business event turning disastrous and what a great plot device it would make if I ever wrote a suspense novel, a long-held dream of mine. The generating event didn’t have to be a plane crash; any dangerous ordeal that threw talented people together worked. Their ability to collaborate determined whether they’d survive or perish.

On the back of a British Airways cocktail napkin, I scribbled the following words: If a team of executives was attacked, how would they survive? I tucked the note into a pocket of my laptop bag and held onto it for many years.

Somewhere along the way, I lost the napkin, but the idea of a corporate meeting plunging into disaster stayed with me. Ultimately, the Cedarcliff event and the wilderness ordeal unfolded differently from the Survival game. However, the story still features endangered people figuring out how to dodge human-inflicted violence while surviving nature’s perils. I became curious about how different characters might react to a crisis. Whose bravery would surprise everyone, and who would stay calm despite the terror? How much would someone risk for a chance to survive? Eventually, these musings formed the framework for the opening chapters of The Unexpected Hostage.

Photo by Matheus Bertelli.