Speaking of Disasters


I’m the queen of disasters. I love to write them in books. I love to watch how they play out in real life. I hate what they do to people and homes and lives, but I’m always amazed and astonished at the power of each kind of disaster and how people deal with the aftermath. The heroism of so many people comes to the forefront and I feel humbled.

Writing disasters is a tough thing to do. A lot depends on the nature of it. I’ve written about a plague, a tsunami, massive fires, a magical volcano, a complete morphing of landscapes, and various other unnatural and natural disasters. What makes them tough to write, is that they are large happenings and not only kill significant people usually, but they destroy houses, business, infrastructure, communications, food sources and food, and so on. Usually there aren’t a lot of people to sweep in and help. Even in modern circumstances like Sandy, help can’t get in that quickly. For some, it takes days. For a fantasy world, that help might not show up, and if it does, it may not come with food, water, clothing, heat, and so on. Basic needs.

That means you can count on death. Lots of it. And disease. That means that the ‘help’ that comes might be working more toward containment. Which might not be so great for survivors because they might be presumed dead or as good as and the helpers might not be all that concerned about one or two live bodies; they may be more worried about protecting the larger population.  That’s of course if they understand disease and its spread. Certainly they will understand some of it and tainted water and food. And if there are magical issues involved, they may be trying to contain those as well.

On top of that, will food be readily available? Will clean water? What’s the weather like? Do shelters have to be built? What about clothing? Medical care? The questions are endless. Then you stir in your own characters and the idiosyncrasies of your world and situation, and things get more complex. For instance, depending on the disaster, are there rescuers at all? How far away? How do they get there? Remember rescuers have to be fed, watered, sheltered, and clothed, especially if it’s a long term situation. Now you have to get in goods. Are there roads? Are they still working? What about harbors? Are there wagons? Horses? And what about food supplies? is there food that can be shipped? That will keep? Hunting and fishing takes time and effort and often won’t feed enough people, depending on how many have to be fed.

The point is, that when you’re writing a disaster, you have to think about the broader picture. Because now, who is going to pay for all those helpers and food and ships/wagons/horses? Will the local lord? The king/queen/emperor? The local town? A guild? What if no one wants to pay? Will nobody help? And add into the mix whether that place or those people hold any value in the society. What if they are the poor or the untouchables or the bottom class, whatever class they might be? Will everyone write them off? Think good riddance to bad rubbish? Or think the gods destroyed those people and no one should gainsay the gods by helping them?

And this is where we get into politics, religion, class and social stratification, and societies where worth of a person is judged on what those people contribute or don’t, or how they are valued. By what they contribute? By just being human (or whatever they are)? or something else? How much are they worth? How much is any individual worth? How much will others put themselves out for strangers who need help? So much depends upon the society. Everything depends on your creation and making things consistent.

So for example. With my plague, people try to shut the victims into towns and into their houses. They are willing to sacrifice the sick to protect themselves and their families. They not only lock them in, but burn them alive. Oh, the wealthy try to escape, but of course, money might get you away from it, but it won’t keep you well, and it won’t buy you safety if you get ill and people find out. Mobs will do terrible things. Now food deliveries stop. Sewage becomes a problem in cities. Dead bodies are stacking up and rotting. There’s little wood to burn them, and no one wants to touch them to bury them, and who wants to dig the holes? Who gets paid? Those who can get away do. Those who can’t, stay because they have no choice. But now they have to struggle to stay well and survive. And now there will be fighting over resources and territorial wars. Power struggles.

That doesn’t even come close to all the elements of writing a disaster. But you have to think depth and breadth of how it will impact on your society and for how long, and how that damage and fallout will play out for your characters and plot. Think of the reverberations throughout your world.

A final note: I write this entry with not only Sandy in mind, but Katrina, Irene, and so many other storms and terrible disasters. Yes, each of those have taught me things that have ended up in my books. But one of the most important things they have taught me is both the amazing heroics humans can be capable of, and the terrible depths of evil they can commit in a disaster while others suffer. Fantasy novels are all about great deeds, heroes, villains, and great and small evils. Disasters reveal all those things.So as I watch the news coverage and my heart goes out to those who have lost so much, I also take notes. As Graham Greene said, every writer has to have a splinter of ice in his heart in order to be able to take writing notes (mental or otherwise) in the most dire and horrific of circumstances. And I plan to kill off one particular bastard from Sandy in my next book. Cuz I’m a writer and I can do that too.


8 comments to Speaking of Disasters

  • Razziecat

    MW has such incredible timing, it’s almost scary… 🙂

    All these things are very much on my mind right now, as I head into the second half of my WIP (devoting NaNo to getting this thing done!). The MC’s are fighting a deadly disease as well as magical and earthly forces, and I have to work in the types of complications you mentioned. There are definitely religious factors at work in this story, with two distinct groups blaming each other; and the main bad guy, a powerful mage, uses the situation to his advantage. Need an army? Heal the sick and arm them well, and point them at the opposing forces, who are struggling to survive food shortages as well as the illness itself.

    Thanks for a great post, Diana! Lots of things here for me to take into consideration as I write.

  • Di, this was fantastic! I’ve never written Apocalyptic work, for all the reasons listed. I’d miss somehting seemingly small, but crucial, and have to start over. You’d think after Katrina and the social breakdown we witnessed there, that national governments would have learned to mobilize faster. NYC people did fantastic, in my opinion, (way the heck better than NOLA people did) in getting power and transportation started, but the lack of generators was foolish, and the gas and deisel deliveries are way late. Still, Sandy packed a huge punch. Some lessons were learned from Katrina.
    Kudos to you for this post. And Kudos to NYC!

  • And for certain disasters, there are patterns … like with earthquakes. Aftershocks happen. Lots of them. Sometimes whole areas get active. And sometimes you worry that if it’s happened nearby, when is the big one going to strike where you live? Here in Vancouver we are long overdue for our big one, and the last one three centuries ago generated tsunamis so bad it took out warehouses in Japan. (Geography geek here, can you tell?)

    Here’s a great resource to illustrate my point about aftershocks: http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/map/

    This is a very thorough post, Diana! Thank you for pointing out all the little details to be considered in disaster writing! As my Natural Hazards prof pointed out the first day of the course, they are only considered hazards or disasters because there are humans involved.

  • Razziecat: just don’t forget to feed and water them. Otherwise, grateful for healing or not, they’ll turn.

    Faith: I wonder what would have happened if Sandy was bigger than a 1, the way Katrina was. The potential horror of that is awful, and now a new storm is headed there. I’ve been impressed with the way that help has mobilized this time, and I’m glad that they’ve learned from Katrina. Hopefully they’ll be even better prepared next time.

    Laura: Well, and I didn’t talk about the fact that a disaster in one place can cause a disaster in another. Whether it’s a tsunami or a food shortage or a medical shortage or blocking an important road . . . The domino effect. Earthquakes are fun to write about because of the aftershocks and the fact that they can be bigger than the first quake even. I really don’t like to experience them though.

  • […] for today, I’m posting on disasters over at Magical Words. It’s long, thoughtful, erudite . . . well, anyhow. It’s words […]

  • quillet

    I love all your story-questions about the logistics and details of disasters, because there’s so much potential there not only for great stories but for explorations of human nature — and fiction is fantastic for that. It gives us a lens through which to see our real disasters, and how we can cope…or not. I’m reminded of a TV movie I saw once about the Halifax explosion in 1917 (real disaster, fictionalised story). I marvelled at how people could rise like angels to the occasion in helping each other…or not.

    Also, I got shivers reading about your plague story, because some of the things you describe really did happen with the Black Death — and not just the original, devastating outbreak in the 14th cent, but some of the smaller (but no less devastating to those who suffered them) outbreaks in following centuries. Have you ever researched that? Or any of the weird, morbid reactions people had? (Not suggesting you should, btw. Just curious. 🙂 )

  • Terrific, timely post, Di. And that paraphrased quote from Graham Green is absolutely priceless.

  • Quillet: I do research that stuff. In fact, one of the places I spent some reading was Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault. Now it isn’t about plague per se, but it’s about controlling and containing people and there’s a chapter on the plague and how it was managed. I also did a lot of other reading, but right now, I’m not remembering exactly what.

    David: Isn’t it? I love that. Writers are slightly psychotic I think, because of that shard of ice, but we’re already insane by definition, talking to unreal people and believing in worlds that don’t exist. Which puts me in mind of the intro to Left Hand of Darkness. If you haven’t read it recently, I’m here to remind you to read it again. Really. Trust me. I’m telling the truth. I’m a liar.