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!

Will a Change of Venue Help Writer’s Block?


Well, it’s not exactly writer’s block … sort of. In 2015, my cousin and I took a trip to Scotland to follow some family ancestry as well as for me to do some research for the fifth book in my series, “Partners, Heart of the Phoenix”. For my main character, AJ Donovan, it took years to find the Scots-Irish father he thought had abandoned him. Now a father himself for the first time, he and his wife, Quin, chose to take a trip to Scotland where Ethan Donovan and his family currently lived. AJ was excited to meet his many half siblings and introduce his son, Reilly to his grandparents.

Ethan’s landscaping business had made him quite wealthy and that wealth bought him enemies. Unfortunately, some of his enemies were within his own family. He had to determine which of his children were embezzling funds from the family business. AJ’s siblings welcomed him warmly … except one. This brother perceived AJ as a threat to his inheritance – to the point he was willing to eliminate him.

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At the RWA conference last year I roomed with a friend who was retired military and had spent much of her life in Scotland and Ireland. She pointed out several flaws in Irish-Scottish relationships that made the background for my story somewhat implausible. Changing those details would require changing background facts going back to Book I. So, I pushed the book aside and went on to other things. Not a good way to enhance a successful writing career.

So, one of the annual writing conferences I attend is “20 Books to 50K”, the focus of which is indie authors supporting indie authors. They are in Vegas every year but have also been doing conferences in Europe. This year, in July, it will be in Scotland. I was immediately interested. It’s time to go back and seek my muse. I need to work through the story issues and come back with the ideas I need to fix them. Not to mention that Edinburgh, Scotland is one of my favorite places in the world.

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I’m curious if other writers find new energy when doing research in countries where your story takes place. Do exposure and new facts make you more zealous to get back to your story?

Does Your Story Write Itself?

So, I started my series of books, Partners, the Odyssey of the Phoenix, many years ago. It took way too long to get the first one out, but once I did, the next ones flowed. The story is about AJ Donovan, firefighter-paramedic, who is excellent at his job but his personal life is a train wreck. He suffers from closet claustrophobia and PTSD, the origin of which is unclear. Due to things that happened to him in his childhood he is emotionally shut down, which doesn’t work well when trying to establish a relationship (which he really does wants). Then a new firefighter-paramedic joins the station. There’s an instant attraction to Quinlan O’Leary but she puts him on notice that she’s focused on establishing her credibility as a firefighter, paramedic and a woman. Sleeping with a partner would be at odds to that end (regardless of how drop dead gorgeous he is). One thing AJ never experienced was a platonic relationship with a woman. Quin does things for him because she wants to not because there was sex involved. When the rescuer becomes the victim of a near drowning, it’s Quin who saves him and stays by his side during a life-threatening bout with pneumonia. AJ develops a level of trust in her that tears down his wall and paves the way to love.

In Book II, Partners, the Challenge of the Phoenix, Quin and AJ are starting out life together in their new fixer-upper. A man from AJ’s past surfaces and makes good on his promise to make his life the proverbial living hell. The police are minimally effective at protecting him. Saving his life is dependent on his engaging in a covert police operation. At the worse possible time, a memory is invoked that uncovers the origin of his PTSD. He must work past it to survive. A police sergeant, his partner Chris, Quin, and the father he hasn’t seen since he was three years old, join the fight.

In Book III, Partners, the Sacrifice of the Phoenix, AJ is coerced into going to medical school as Quin feels being an ER doc is safer than being a firefighter and rescue technician. AJ isn’t academically inclined and misses his works as a firefighter. He hates being away from Quin for the better part of four years. Weeks away from graduation, a crisis occurs that threatens his success in finishing medical school. Quin and his friends rally support. He succeeds in getting a residency at the same hospital where he took his patients as a paramedic. His life is finally on safe ground, right? Not. AJ’s black cloud follows him wherever he goes. An abduction, a desperate situation, and a run for his life through a forest upends the theory that working in an ER is safer. He has to use every skill he knows to escape, including seduction.

Book IV, Partners, the Transformation of the Phoenix, starts after AJ’s first year of residency (his intern year) chews him up and spits him out. Communication between he and Quin disintegrates and false rumors threaten to break them apart. AJ faces the issue head on and their strong love prevails. In the meantime, his second year of residency (and being a licensed physician) has him on a helicopter crew and working with a partner, Dylan Jorgenson, who is also a USAR/disaster doc. During a flood, the need for him to jump back into a rescuer role forces him to face his fear of drowning. Dylan is starting a non-profit disaster team and wants AJ and Quin to join them. AJ, who’s never been east of Arizona, finds himself in the Caribbean after an earthquake. It’s quite a culture shock for him. They are warned about drug activity in the area. AJ stretches his skills on a field amputation and a confined space rescue. Just as they’re packing to leave, members of a drug cartel abduct Dylan and Quin and it’s up to AJ and Dylan’s homicide detective wife, Annie, to find them. It engages the HEART team with a federal USAR, DMAT and even the National Guard.

So how did this story go from the trials of an emotionally unavailable firefighter to an ER physician trying to find his abducted wife? I didn’t write the story, they did. Most of the writers I know have had this experience. The characters write the story; we just get to be the first to read it. Being a panster, I work off a basic outline of where we’re starting and where the story might end. In Book IV, I had no idea how it was going to end. What’s interesting is that things crafted into the story early on, or even in previous books as a point of interest, somehow become integral to the plot toward the end. One of those things is how American Sign Language, that Quin teaches AJ in Book I, becomes an important mode of communication in Book IV. When AJ decides to learn police work in Book I, I didn’t see how important that would be in Book II. AJ’s knowledge of wilderness survival established in Book I saves his life In Book III. His tenacity as a warrior established in Book II comes back into play in Book IV.

See what I mean? It makes you wonder if those characters in your head aren’t manipulating the story right from the beginning. The problem is, they tend to send me ideas when I’m driving or wake me up during the middle of the night. We have to work on their timing.

I’d love to know how other writers experience this strange phenomena.

Well, I have to go. They’re calling me with a new plot twist. They’re already working on Book V. Where will it take us? Scotland perhaps?

If I’ve stimulated your interest, Books I and II are up on Amazon and Book III will follow shortly.

Book I:

Book II: