Is Your Story a Disaster? Should it be?

Something you don’t want to see out your window!

Well, not that I mean your story should be a disaster but maybe it can include one! I’m writing a class for the Kiss of Death chapter of RWA and thought it might be fun to share some of the intro with you.

Disasters come in all sizes, from the personal issue of losing a loved one to an event that gets worldwide attention. How would your characters respond to being in the middle of a disastrous event? A story with the backdrop of a natural disaster or (gasp) even a terrorist event can show what your characters are made of. Heroes are born from ordinary people in the midst of chaos. Like any complex story backdrop, the scenario and the facts within must be realistic.

In my twenty years with the American Red Cross Disaster Services in Southern California, we responded to house fires, earthquakes, floods and other events that displaced people from their homes. As a member of a federal medical disaster team, we deployed to tornados, floods, hurricanes, tsunamis, ice storms and heat events. In September, 2011, our country was rocked with the terrorist event at the World Trade Center that changed all our lives. Our Disaster Medical Assistance Team was one of many federal assets assigned to do patient care for the responders at Ground Zero. It was a life changing experience. Today, man-made disasters like active shooter scenarios, apocalyptic human-caused wildfires and national security threats are almost as common as acts of nature. On that note, acts of nature have become record-setting in magnitude and damage to human lives.

Who responds to these incidents? Who are the agencies that respond on a local, regional, state and national level? Who’s in charge and how does it change if more agencies are added to an event? How well do they work together? Does the role of law enforcement and other emergency services change during disaster? Under what circumstances does the National Guard get involved? What’s the role of Homeland Security? What are the roles of nonprofit and volunteer agencies? Do the role of universities and hospitals change during disaster?

The main goal of all involved agencies is to prepare, save lives, mitigate the disaster as quickly as possible, then help with recovery efforts. There are also other issues that no one wants to think about: Who manages the dead? What happens to vandals and looters? What is the personal cost to the responders?

As you can see, there are countless opportunities to include a disaster in your story – as the main theme, a backdrop, or an opportunity for a hero to be born. Could your story include a grocery store clerk at a concert who foils an active shooter attempt? An off-duty firefighter trapped in a gas station when a tornado hits and needs to rescue a number of terrified people? An introverted teenager on her post-graduate vacation when a tsunami hits and she must choose to help the injured people around her. A new EMT is sent on a post-hurricane disaster response with her ambulance company. A nurse in the ER is faced with having to move and manage patients when flood waters overtake her hospital.

Is there opportunity for romance? Absolutely. What if a librarian (whose only adventures come only from books) is trapped after a tornado with a number of frightened children and a gorgeous off duty cop? What if a paramedic suffering from PTSD is suddenly faced with a number of injured people after a hurricane? What if your young lovers are separated after an earthquake and are trying to find their way back to each other? Then again, what if your protagonist (or antagonist) is a looter, arsonist or terrorist?

Just for fun … maybe add a little disaster to your book!

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