Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Earthquakes - Rocking My Literary World

Okay, this got a little long, but bear with me. I had a total literary epiphany the other day :D

So, as most of you know, we had a nice little earthquake on the east coast recently. And there were lots of west coasters amused at the reactions of the east coasters since to the west coasters a 5.8 earthquake isn't really enough of a shake up to even make them pause.

I know this because I was one of them. Even with my epiphany (which I swear I'm getting to) I was amused at some of the reactions around me. I grew up in California. I spent the first 21 years of my life there and still visit frequently as I have a ton of family and friends there. I've lived through major earthquakes. I will always consider myself a Californian Girl.

We had earthquake drills in school more frequently than fire drills. We were constantly woken up at night by little earthquakes shaking the shampoo bottles from the shelves in the tub - but if it wasn't strong enough to literally shake us out of bed, we rolled over and went back to sleep.

So imagine my surprise when this earthquake hit and I found myself standing in the middle of my kitchen, completely frozen, my mind completely blank as my kids ran to me freaking out and asking what we were supposed to do.

*Cue parallel to writing*ahem*

It used to bug me to no end when I'd read books where the MC would find himself/herself in a situation that he/she was totally prepared for and he/she would freeze up. I'd think, "What the heck!? You know what to do! There is no way you'd just stand there while that [insert whatever you've prepared for] hits! You know this!!"

It always seemed so unbelievable to me.

Now back to the earthquake. I KNEW this. I was prepared for it. I've lived through earthquakes that have demolished bridges and highways and buildings. I've literally seen the ground crack open right in front of me. This little earthquake was nothing (Though it did make my 150 yr old, non-earthquake code built house groan and creak like it was going to crumble, which DID freak me out quite a bit).

Yet I stood there in my kitchen, completely frozen before finally remembering what I was supposed to do and  grabbing my kids and heading for a sturdy doorway about 2 seconds before the earthquake stopped.


Because it was completely out of my frame of reference for where I was living.

Yeah. I knew earthquakes. But I didn't know them HERE. They didn't have them HERE. I was 3000 miles away from California. I'm prepared for earthquakes, but I'm not prepared for them HERE.

It took me several seconds to connect the dots. I kept thinking "this is an't, IS!" And for the first time I understood how a MC could spend his/her whole life training for something only to be frozen when unexpectedly confronted with that something.

Say your MC battles zombies, but has only trained for it in cemeteries where zombies supposedly live. And then one shows up at Starbucks. *Cue the WTH freeze*

Before, I'd scoff. I'd scorn. I'd yell "this is so not REAL!" at the book. But I think I get it now :)

Which will make both my reading life, and my writing life, a little more relatable I think. :)

Have you ever felt this way about reactions of characters in books and then had a real life experience that suddenly made it all click? If so, do you use this now in your writing?


Angela Felsted said...

I felt the exact same way about the earth quake. The house it shaking but, but . . . this is Virginia!

Becky Mahoney said...

You're so right! In self-defense classes they'll teach you the same moves over and over again in the hope that your muscle memory will hold onto it, but there's a big difference between, say, a college gymnasium and a dark alley. (Though thankfully I've never had to make that distinction myself.)

People's initial reactions to disasters in general can be so interesting. A few years ago, I tripped and fell down a flight of stairs, and I knew immediately that I'd sprained my ankle, if not broken it. The first coherent thought I had was, "Oh no! I was going to go shopping this weekend!" Shock and adrenaline do strange things to us - which I always try to keep in mind when I'm writing fight scenes and such!

Katrina L. Lantz said...

This is awesome! I'm like you were Michelle. It always bugs me in a story or movie when the bad guy attacks and the MC freezes like they weren't expecting it. I guess in my mind they should ALWAYS be expecting it. But that's not realistic, either. We all let our guard down in certain places. Very good lesson. Thank you for sharing with me.

Becky, I loved your comment. It's so true that adrenaline and shock make for bizarre human reactions. And the thing is, you can't know exactly how you'll react until it actually happens. I learned this during my car accident this past June. My response surprised even me. And talking to some people a week later about it helped me to realize how it looked from the outside. All good things to think about while writing.

Mark Noce said...

I agree with your epiphany wholeheartedly. I find that this turns into one of those fact being stranger than fiction, and it's a challenge to make readers believe perfectly realistic events sometimes on the written page.

Shari said...

I haven't had one of those experiences, but I loved reading about yours. And also, I love epiphanies. And I loved learning that putting your character in a different place would disorient them and make them react differently. Cool! And very psychological.