Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fun with Floods!

Water coming to create my underground pool!
Water leaving to create my moldy basement!

I’ve been thinking about things like earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornados, and forest fires.  Well, actually, I’ve been obsessed with floods lately especially since a recent one in my area turned my basement into a swimming pool, then into a swamp, and now it’s just damn damp with accompanying mold and mildew and bugs, and…  Well you don’t want to know.

I write a lot about disasters in my work.  Since they’re on my mind now, I thought I’d give consideration to why I include them and how I use them.

  1. There’s nothing like a really good wild fire to spice up a book.

Obviously, you say.  But it’s got to be more than that.  Natural disasters do make a read exciting, but they need to grow out of both the plot and the setting.  Since I write about small towns, these cataclysmic events seem to emerge naturally from the setting.  Drought in an area can become a raging wild fire chasing people out of their homes and creating, well, romance for me.  In Dumpster Dying a wildfire chases my protagonist Emily Rhodes along with her friend Donald into an alligator-infested slough.  Should they become shrimp on the Barbie or bouillabaisse with the gators?  Or just kiss before dying?  A writer can use a natural disaster in any setting, as long as the groundwork is purposefully laid so that the disaster works with the plot and/or the writer uses it to say something about the character(s). 

  1. Disasters are opportunities for character development

In my example above, the reader may have suspected Donald was romantically inclined toward Emily although I suspect Donald himself was surprised by his actions (the guy is not too in touch with his feelings).  Put a character in a life and death situation and a flagging libido is set aflame.  For Emily, the presentation of a fire brings out her courageous side, an aspect of her personality she is discovering as the story evolves.  A writer can make the emergence of a personality trait especially significant if the disaster is one the character is particularly terrified of such as heights or fear of drowning.  Using the disaster to throw this challenge at the character produces great tension and will get the reader rooting for the individual to conquer this fear.

  1. Bad guys think they can harness catastrophe

A tornado in one of my manuscripts seems to be just the right moment for the villain to take advantage of the heroine and her lover.  It’s a great writer’s ploy to have the protagonist encounter the disaster paired with the evil workings of the killer.  It gives the killer a moment of glee to think he or she can have their way.  To the reader it seems as if evil will triumph, but Mother Nature can turn in a second.  Not only can one not fool Mother Nature, but one ought not to mess with her either.  A disaster can become the “Black Moment” for the protagonist, but in the hands of a writer who chooses to align the protagonist with cataclysmic events, it can bring down the villain.  My villain couldn’t swim, so his pursuit of the protagonist in a boat damaged by the storm is his undoing.     

      4.  Humor comes after

Don’t think because you write humor that you can’t use disasters to your advantage.  The aftermath of a storm, fire, or flood is the perfect place to let your reader breath a sigh of relief and laugh at the same time.  In the sequel to Dumpster Dying, Emily and her detective friend Stanton Lewis have abandoned their car because a storm has dropped a tree limb on the hood.  They prepare to walk to shelter when Lewis notices Emily is not beside him.  Emily, who is barely over five feet tall, has stepped into water up to her waist.  When he asks her in exasperation what she is doing, she replies, “swimming.”

      I’ll bet you can think of other ways disasters add to the story.  I’d add more but I’ve got to buy another bottle of Clorox and get to the basement.  Now where did I put that bug spray?  Die, you little bugger, Die!

Lesley A. Diehl, author of Dumpster Dying  “I like to put my characters in harm’s way.”


Bill Schweigart said...

Great post! Now this is an interesting blog topic that I don't think has been explored before. Having your characters confronted by something out of their control like this really is a great way to showcase character. Or at the very least, using it as a backdrop really lends mood to the story. I always think of Key Largo, Bogey and Bacall trapped with gangsters as a hurricane bears down on them. A great work that I couldn't help think of is Erik Larsen's "Isaac's Storm," which chronicles the devastating 1900 hurricane that destroyed Galveston. It's non-fiction, but Larsen writes so magnificently that it reads like a thriller.

Patricia Gligor said...

You know what "they" say, "If it doesn't kill you, it'll make you stronger." Great way to spice up your novels and show character development!

Sunny Frazier said...

The photos brought everything home.

We get so little water in my part of the world that it's hard to imagine a flood invading my home (plus, we don't have basements). Tornados freak me out as well. But an earthquake? Yeah, that's a disaster I can work into a plot.

(when we have earthquakes, we say to each other "THAT was a good one!)

G Thomas Gill said...

Very interesting, Lesley. Natural disasters are a part of every day life, so interweaving a tsunami or a mudslide into a plot could add another layer of tension to the story. Thanks for posting.

don Helin said...

Great Post. After just finishing with the big flood in central PA, I can relate.

Dac said...

Thanks so much! Here I am, trying different devices to move a plot - and this comes along! I hadn't thought of a natural catastrophe. A good idea for shaking up the characters, putting them into peril and letting them figure it out!

Melanie Jackson, author, editor, piano student said...

I have never used a natural disaster. I like it! It's kind of variation on the old Raymond Chandler advice, that if you're stuck on where to take the plot next, kill someone off. Why not introduce a natural disaster instead? Seriously, though, I like the idea of a disaster being a backdrop.

marja said...

What a great way to show your protag's character and to let the protag and other characters grow. Excellent post, and I wouldn't be surprised if all of a sudden more books feature disasters. :)

Lesley Diehl said...

Thanks for all your input. I'm glad I titillated your interest. If the next round of books from OTP all feature disasters, we can create a new megaseries that crosses authors. It would be a terrific idea and we could package the books as a set and sell them at a discount!

For those of you with no water and no basements, I'm sending our next big storm your way with an IOU to help you dig a basement if you feel left out.

And, BTW, we had an earthquake here several weeks ago. I thought the shaking at my computer was because of the love scene I was writing.

You betcha I'll insert a quake somewhere in m work.


jrlindermuth said...

Maybe too many of us here in the east have had the flood experience lately for it to be a viable device. But a tornado or quake--yeah, that could work.
Good blog.

Theresa Varela said...

There are so many movies involving disasters that started out as books. The manner we humans act out our dramas with backdrops of epic natural destruction has kept our noses in books and eyes glued to the big screens. Interesting post!

Stephen L. Brayton said...

My thoughts turn to Nevada Barr and that series. Several 'disaster' type of incidents in those books. Good post. Makes you think how you can develop a character with something totally beyond the person's control.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Woo hoo! What a great post! Loved the photos and loved the topic. Congratulations.

(Do hope things dry out around you.)


Anonymous said...

Great comment. I think we're all afraid of disaster, so it raises the stakes of any novel.

John Brantingham

Lesley Diehl said...

I thought of another useful device related to disasters and that is the aftermath of the disaster. Think about the possibilities for your character-sleepless nights, uncertainty over the future of a business, housing, relationship if an individual is uprooted and has to move, financial problems, not as exciting as the event itself, but certainly a good way to show the character's mettle. And there's the ever popular body, washed up in the flood, found in the basement of a ruined house, discovered in an car abandoned after a tornado.