Friday, June 19, 2020

You Can Use Real Disaster to Create a Disaster in Your Story; or, My Neighborhood has Literally Gone to Hell by Elizabeth Alsobrooks

Bighorn Fire in Tucson
I guess we all know about disasters, whether on the personal, community, national or global level. They certainly make enough movies about them, even having a category for them: disaster movies. Writers need to use disasters of some sort, some degree, some length, with various outcomes and reactions, in their stories. This can be the point where the character(s) reaches that no way out, this can’t possibly end well moment.

There have been so many global disasters this year, from the pandemic, to looting and burning of entire city blocks, and more localized disasters like the one I’m dealing with right here at home, a wildfire that continues to burn and endanger the lives of wildlife and community after community in various ready, set, go stages of evacuation, with an ever-growing number of personnel from multiple states engaged in trying to get it back under control for over two weeks of what they predict will be four before it’s contained.

Hotshot team headed into the fire zone of Santa Catalina Mountain Range
An actual disaster, even an internal one, can be more than a single plot point. It may be an underlying  theme. It can certainly be used to show the moral fiber of characters, by how they react to it, what they think about it, or the way it affects themselves or others.      

Though useful this can be tricky, too. Writing to a broad audience, most authors do not want to become embroiled in politics or controversial current events. That does not mean you can completely ignore a major event taking place on a global or national scale, and especially not within a community or family unit.

A Hero, if ever there was one!
I live in the foothills, a mile from this still burning and smouldering view, to the right of this road.

People always talk about researching current events in historical novels, to make sure they seem authentic. That makes sense. But doesn’t it make sense to also note modern current events when writing a contemporary tale?

How could you write a story that takes place in 2020 without even noting the pandemic? Every person in the county, most of the world in fact, has been affected by it. As the author you get to decide where in the pandemic event your characters exist, how they are affected, if they adhere to guidelines, if they know anyone who gets the disease and if they themselves are diagnosed, and the consequences of it all. It’s quite easy if you set a novel during this time to use it for your ‘disaster’ moment. 

Closed, Catalina Hwy, up to Mt. Lemmon to the Ski Resort and Summerhaven

What about the protests? The realm of possibilities is endless. Imagine a young kid from a poor family, from a wealthy family, whose mom finds a $3,000 purse under their bed the day after they protested with their friends the night before? Imagine a bi-racial couple who have different views of particular events. So many possibilities, but it is still not easy. Many authors won’t touch controversial topics, but there are ways to do so in a non-controversial way. Not even having the characters comment on catastrophic current events, especially those that last for months and affect everyone just won’t seem right, or real, or current.

There are several major wildfires in Arizona right now. How would it look if I set my story up near one and didn’t even mention it? I actually live a mile from one that has blazed to nearly 50 square miles in the last two weeks, and they don’t think it’ll be out until at least July 4, if we don’t get rain. Well, this is the desert and though monsoon season just started there is no call for rain anytime soon, and the temperatures are in triple digits. So much exciting material in a potential ‘setting’ or ‘disaster’. So many possible consequences, characters, etc.   I mean yes, I am still afraid and watchful, but I am also able to view it with an author's lens. These same experiences can be used for many other plot lines and character traits, such as futuristic events, or fantasy adaptations.

There are over 1000 personnel working on the Bighorn fire, and it did start with a lightning strike right across the street from me. To date they've spend 12.5 million dollars combating the flames. Smoke is billowing, firebombs are being dropped to try to prevent the fire from moving toward homes (and then the smoke does look like a war zone). A half-dozen various helicopters (that are able to refill 1200 gals of water in 45 sec.) dropping water, a jet laying down fire retardant to help slow the fire down for the firefighters with hoses, the eight hotshot crews from five states trekking across that mountain’s impassible rattlesnake infested terrain with sweaty soot-covered faces, in full gear carrying backpacks and shovels to create and hold fire lines to save neighborhoods. They call these units of value and all such units must be saved, but we call them homes. The goal of these brave personnel is to save lives and property, in that order. 

The forest service personnel are there, trying to save wildlife, rare species of fish from the tiny lakes, trying to monitor movement of bears and other animals like the bighorn sheep they've reintroduced to the state park. The Catalina State Park and Coronoado National Forest are engaged, thousands of Saguaro cactus (in all the world they only grow here in the Sonoran desert) usually don't burn, but they are exploding due to the invasive non-native buffelgrass the forest personnel have been fighting. An expert from the desert museum estimates that we've lost over 2000 of them. The invasive grass someone thoughtlessly introduced here is also burning hot and bringing the fire faster and closer to homes. 

People with drones illegally flying over the fire have caused ariel support to be grounded at critical times, endangering lives and slowing containment.

So many people are in various ready, set, go stages of evacuation, sometimes occillating between the stages, cars packed and at the ready at all times. They say to write what you know, because it’s easier, and it is. For example, I know first-hand the absolute terror of wondering if the fire is going to be wind-turned back toward me again, of anxiously watching the news and going outside to look over at the mountain, disappointed when I still see flames. 

So don’t forget that you need a disaster and that it often involves the setting, the time, the character’s feelings, motivations and reactions. Is your character a firefighter, a paramedic, a forest ranger, a geologist, a meteorologist, an evacuee who can't find their child, someone who gets injured or loses someone, or who down the line suffers from PTSD and their disaster is internal? You decide.

A better disaster creates a more interesting plot line, story and character. If you are given the opportunity, be sure to observe the details and the people. Stay safe, but have fun being a writer who gathers ideas from real life!

If you'd like to read more about plot points, pick up a copy of my nonfiction book, The Young Adult Writer's Journey, which I'm very proud to say just made the semifinals for another literary contest! 


Nancy Gideon said...

My heart breaks for the mountains having been on its slopes to adore the beautiful setting. Just reading your post started a half dozen plot scenarios. You and those brave souls combating the fire stay safe, my friend.

Elizabeth Alsobrooks said...

Thanks. I love to brainstorm plots, as you know. This is the smallest fire in AZ so far. One in the Grand Canyon area has burned 115,000 acres and shut down the south rim, at only 5% contained. Another is at 55,000 acres, north of Phoenix at 3% contained. 1500 homes have been evacuated at that fire. Arizona is on fire!

Maureen said...

Those pictures are worth a thousand words. Great post. Stay safe.

Diane Burton said...

Your post filled me with anxiety while admiring your teaching moment. The constant fear you and your neighbors must be feeling is heart wrenching. Such a lovely area now being destroyed! Please stay safe.