Getting the Lowdown on Big Equipment

I recently completed a first draft of my fourth novel, set in the Canadian oil fields. The research had an appeal all its own and might have gone on for weeks, but I finally called a halt and simply pushed out the draft. Bitter experience has taught me that you can make research the end rather than the means—you can go on and on and on researching the background to a story before you know where the story’s going or how it’s going to get there.

Writing a draft gives you boundaries. You learn how much you still have to learn about a given procedure or setting, and what you can dispense with. My novel is partly set on an oil rig, and for the first draft I was able to conjure up some issues, some problems, a couple of incidents and a suggestion of the day-to-day routine on a rig. This information was sufficient to allow characters and plot to develop.

Now the research goes to the next level. I can rule out all the areas where my surface knowledge was sufficient, and concentrate on those where I really need some detail. How and when is a well cemented? How long does it take to drill 30 feet (the length of a piece of pipe)? What can go wrong with the drawworks? The catwalk? What, oh what, is invert? It’s some sort of drilling mud and you get bonus money for working with it (which suggests that it’s unpleasant) but exactly what is it? Can a rig do both vertical and horizontal drilling? Can you trip pipe on a horizontal bore? Do rigs ever stay in one place 6-8 weeks?

The most important thing I learned from writing the draft is how hard it is to convey the size, weight and danger of the equipment used in rig work. Roughnecks work with heavy equipment—iron tongs, steel pipe and pipe collars—and injury lurks around every corner. I watched hundreds of hours of videos covering the processes involved, yet conveying a sense of this on the page is not easy.

That’s why I’m off to see the wizards: the rig wizards who work in northern BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan. I’m going to explore the oil fields, look at rigs, talk to rig workers, and get a sense of life in the oil world. No matter what we think about this stuff, we need it if we want to drive cars or heat our homes. I’m off to talk to the men (and I’ve learned, women) who produce the oil that powers our world.