10 April 2022

5 Things every Disaster Story must have!

FLU SEASON - a pandemic novel, part 2

I grew up during the decade of the disaster movie. They were all the same: meet a cast of people who would become victims and watch them fight to survive or, if less popular, to die trying. What changed was the source of the disaster: overturned cruise ship, burning skyscraper, airplanes, comet/asteroid strike, volcano, earthquake, tsunami, or some disease.

With the exception of the 3rd book of my DREAM LAND trilogy in which our heroes deal with an incoming comet on another world than Earth, I have not tackled a novel with an on-going "disaster" until my current FLU SEASON, which follows the misadventures of a boy and his mom and her tuba across a lawless, pandemic-ravaged rural landscape, a trek eventually to a despicable island community that was supposed to be a sanctuary but has its own challenges.

I started to write a pandemic story in April 2020, right after the first lockdown, believing it was a great time to hunker down and get some writing done. I quickly learned I couldn't just sit down and start writing - especially when the subject of the story was so real at the same time. But by summer 2021, I'd found the way into the story of people surviving in a viral pandemic and went with it. The result is a contemporary story of regular people handling the crisis.

That premise isn't so sci-fi as most stories about pandemics tend to be. Usually we find the situation well advanced and the Earth mostly uninhabited, a kind of post-apocalypse scenario. That does make the cast smaller and easier on the movie budget. In my novel I tried to play it close to the daily news. The story (in my mind, the pandemic already going on for six years) could start for real next week. Even a couple months from now it still might start the following week. (I avoided firm time references, not wanting to be tripped up like I was with my vampire trilogy, written in 2014 and set in 2028 but failing to mention the 2020 pandemic.) That factor was crucial to the story; nothing fantastical could be a part of it, just real people acting in real ways to solve real problems.

In thinking back over the story, I realize what I had to do, what I had to come up with, to make it work. And I think all disaster stories must have the same.


Of course the place where the story occurs is a crucial element. It makes a difference whether it's a modern suburb, a medieval castle, or a space station. However, how the disaster happens must fit within the limits of that setting - obviously. An asteroid could take out any of those places but how it affects the people in those places would be very different. The people involved must have the knowledge typical of people in that setting or else they would not be able to handle the crisis; they wouldn't know what to do and be killed quickly, leaving us no story to follow.

In the case of FLU SEASON, my main characters leave their home in a modern city that is already suffering a breakdown of social norms - hence the reason for them to flee. We've all seen such situations play out in recent movies: traffic jams, people pushing grocery carts, people hijacking a kind driver's car, and most important of all: fuel, or the lack of it. Are gas stations empty? Are we at the stage where most drivers use electric cars? How does that play out with supply chain issues? And food? Same thing: supply chain issues, no products on shelves, looting, money apps not working due to the network being down, or - think conspiracy theory - the government restricts your banking app to your own neighborhood as a way to keep people under control. And nobody touches cash because it's covered in viruses.


As a young writer I focused on the "cool" what-if situations and little on who was involved, but in my MFA writing program I learned one thing: readers want to read about people (or dogs, robots, etc.) doing things, not so much the things themselves. So who is the story about? Who tells the story? Why that person? In other words, what does that character bring to the story that makes readers want to follow? Is it the character's expertise which is useful in the crisis? Or is it the character's innocence and lack of expertise which makes the story compelling? Will they survive? If so, how will they survive? If not, how far can they go before finally succumbing to the crisis - hopefully with some heroic self-sacrifice? 
How do they handle adversity? 

In FLU SEASON, I randomly chose a boy and his mom...riffing off that 1975 post-apocalypse film A Boy and His Dog based on a Harlan Ellison story...which itself is a riff on the innocent childhood tales of any boy accompanied by his pet dog. So, rather than a dog, I adding the boy's mother, thinking that would set up a quirky, awkward dichotomy; they could play off each other in an entertaining fashion. Of course the mother has to be a unique individual, interesting in her own right, ultimately with a dramatic back story. And the boy isn't really a boy but a teen, a young man, but he has autism - another element which comes to bear on the crisis: what might seem a hindrance is at times a benefit. And the mom insists on bringing her tuba, a precious family heirloom with its own back story, further complicating their journey. Neither of these characters is a doctor or medically trained but they run into people and everyone has an opinion or a personal story to tell so we get multiple views of the crisis. I focused on the Mom character - made her a tuba player, just to mess with her - but had her teen son tell the story, and his view is exclusively focused on what Mom does. (I explain the origins of this novel in a previous post.)


You have a disaster, so what are you going to do - assuming you're a character in the story? Only two choices, depending on what kind of disaster it is. You can stay put, build a fortress, hoard supplies, keep locked and loaded, and wait it out, hoping the crisis will end before you do. Or you go: you flee the bad situation with the hope of finding a safe place to...hunker down and wait it out (or perhaps you would be safe enough that a new life can begin). If the disaster is a viral pandemic, as in FLU SEASON, it's everywhere so where can you go?

Already we are getting accustomed to wearing face masks and some may go full hazmat suit and air in a tube to get through a dangerous area. Where can you hide, though? What will you encounter along the way? Think of the geographic challenges: everything from a road being washed out or getting a flat tire, or coming upon vagrants looting a store and they turn on you...to bad weather, to questionable shelters, to the ever-present need for food and water. Are your characters knowledgeable about surviving without modern conveniences or are they just quick-witted ordinary people from a city where everything is available (or used to be)? In such a story, detours to get supplies or to avoid trouble are inevitable.


If your characters choose to leave wherever they are when the story begins, where do they go? Do they arrive or do they die trying to reach the place? Or, perhaps more interestingly, what do they find when they reach the place? People leave a disaster zone to seek safety, either short-term (until the problem is finished and everything goes back to normal) or long-term (it will never go back to normal). We have adopted the term 'new normal' in our real lives, and a contemporary story like FLU SEASON, uses that concept, too. The main characters (boy and his mom) constantly compare their present moment to what's been the norm prior to their escape and to what they hope they will find at their destination.

Two kinds of stories: stay or go. I decided to write about both as two sides of the same coin: the journey and what happens when they arrive. (Is that a spoiler? that they do arrive? Forget that.) Actually, in the early stages of writing, I was only going to cover the journey - with all the incidents that happen along the way (Note: like any quest story in a fantasy novel, things happen and must be planned for or else the quest is a boring walk.). However, simply arriving there - after what they had been through - didn't seem a big enough way to end the story. So I felt I had to write on to tell what they found at their destination, which becomes a new story.


Disaster stories are meant not to bring us down but to illustrate and affirm the strength of humanity to survive anything (in theory). We like them because someone will survive in the end and that gives the rest of us hope. So in every disaster story, people must change, must learn something (e.g., tricks to get by, or something in their moral make-up), must find something (e.g., the one tool needed to solve the problem, or a realization within themselves) that helps them rise above the disaster. The main character(s) must change from going through the experience.

In writing FLU SEASON, being a "pantser" (i.e., writing by the seat of my pants; i.e., not outlining and planning first), I actually did not know what would happen next until I wrote it. Hence, I had no particular arc in mind at the start. However, as the characters became real to me and started to act on their own, they led me through their moral development and plot arcs. In revision I worked to highlight some moments which made their ultimate change more relevant, more plausible, and more satisfying to readers. In some ways, like real people everywhere, they change for the better but also change in some not so good ways. In the end, either the dominant traits present at that moment will lead them or else they can rationally analyze themselves and choose the righteous path, so to speak.

I've probably given away more than I should, but I'm keeping the details close to the vest. I recommend listening to as much tuba music as you can, in preparation for Mom's recital in chapter...which one was it? 

More juicy details next time....

(C) Copyright 2010-2022 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

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