Friday, September 9, 2011

Coincidence or inspiration?

My new WIP opens on a Caribbean island with a hurricane that brings the antagonistic hero and heroine together. I had the scenes all outlined in my mind like a movie. I knew my characters. I knew where they came from, where they were, and where they were going. But as I sat down to write this intense hurricane scene, I drew a blank. Something wasn’t clicking. I just wasn’t feeling the hurricane.

You’d think that being from the Caribbean, the hurricane hub of the Atlantic, I would have experienced quite a few hurricanes. The truth is, in the years that I lived on the island of St. Kitts I only experienced one real hurricane. That was hurricane Hugo in 1989. Of course I’d lived through quite a few tropical storms, but was totally unprepared for the fury of a category four hurricane.

I wasn’t the only one unprepared. Most of the island was. You see, it had been decades since the island had experienced a really devastating hurricane. I remember going to the store to pick up kerosene oil and hearing the shopkeepers scoff at the hurricane threat. I remember people were excited wanting to experience a hurricane (myself included). But not my mother. She was prepared with flashlights and batteries, kerosene lamps, coals for the coal pot and lots of non-perishable foods. I remember she filled lots of buckets with water for drinking (that was before bottled water became a fad on the island), and several basins and wash tubs with water for bathing.

I recall the calm before the storm: the full moon on the shore with nary a wave, sparkling ever so gently. I also recalled the boredom as I waited for the hurricane’s arrival. By the time the winds picked up, I was fast asleep. Then early the morning, as the winds tore at our house and the large guinip tree leaned precariously on to the roof, we made the tough decision seek shelter by my sister who lived two blocks away. The problem was, we did not have a vehicle. I was elected to run a few houses away to call on a neighbor with a taxi.

As I ran, I saw the trees bent at the middle, the lamp post leaning as if they were about to be snapped and the electric wires dangling from downed lines. That was when the danger hit me. Well I did make it to the neighbor and he did take us to our sister, where we rode out the storm in peace and safety… and boredom.

Then came the real danger of the hurricane: the aftermath. The power outages. The downed trees. The flies. No potable water on the island for days. When a tap (a single stand pipe at the sugar factory) was finally opened, lines of vehicles with people waiting to fill buckets of water extended almost five miles.

Fast forward to last week, 22 years after Hurricane Hugo. As I sat down to write my hurricane scene, I reflected on my one experience with a hurricane. I realized the problem. Back then I experienced Hurricane Hugo through the eyes of an excited youngster. I didn’t remember the sounds, the smells, the fear, the oppressive heat, and all the discomforts at that time. I saw the excitement of people coming together to clear the rubble with an almost party like atmosphere.

So for a few days I got nowhere on my WIP. Then Hurricane Irene struck the East Coast. And there I was to experience it: the desperation to obtain generators and D batteries; the stores that were cleared of bread and milk; the fervor of the news casters and the dire warnings of the governors and mayors to evacuate; the watchful waiting for the winds to pick up; the howling of the winds; the rain beating down in torrents; and the fear in my daughter’s eyes. It all came back to me then. The sights, the smells, the sounds, the emotions associated with the hurricane. And then the aftermath….

So I was able to write that hurricane scene, with lots of changes. Instead of focusing on the hurricane itself as dramatic as it is, the focus became the aftermath.

Sometimes, you just have to experience it, to write it.


KeVin K. said...

Just out of interest: Was there an earthquake scene that was giving you trouble, too? Y'know, the timing...

The week of my eighth birthday a storm called Donna hit our home in Florida. What I remember vividly was the terrible storm stopping abruptly, like someone had just turned it off. The air was still and the world was full of a bright, brassy sort of light. So of course I went out to explore. I'm told the time between the other eye wall hitting and dad convincing me to let go of the tree I was hugging to keep from being swept away in the torrent was about fifteen minutes. I remember it being days. I've never been in combat, I've never had to rescue someone on the side of a mountain, I've never been chased by wolves. But a lot of what I put into writing those scenes comes from that experience; it's the source of their energy and immediacy.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Lol, Kevin. During the earthquake here my kids and I were in a building that had to be evacuated. It's still fresh enough in my mind to write the scene :). But that said I think one natural disaster is all I can handle writing about at a time.

They say we remember the most traumatic experiences of our lives, even if we are too young to remember anything else. Hurricane Donna sounds just like that for you. It's really great that you've been able to harvest all the emotions associated and use it to creating those scenes.

Experience does equate inspiration...most times.

Charles Gramlich said...

Definitely a big difference in how we experience things as children and as adults. A whole different set of memories.

Lydia K said...

There's nothing like real experience to put technicolor into an imagined idea.

Jewel Amethyst said...

That is so true Charles. And sometimes, when I read some people's writing, some of the things they describe seem to be not from the perspective of the characters experiencing it, but from their own perspective when they experienced it. That's one of things I'm hoping to avoid, which is why I embraced Irene as an inspiration for the hurricane scene and changed my perspective.

And yes, experiencing a disaster as a youngster and as a homeowner are very, very different. I recalled after Hugo being disappointed because I didn't see much of anything at my sister's house, while on my block most of the houses roofs came off. With Irene, I was breathing a sigh of relief that we didn't get flooded out and empathized with those who did.

Jewel Amethyst said...

So true Lydia. That must be why there are more award winning older writers than younger ones. They have more real experience.

Liane Spicer said...

Kittitians sound a lot like Trinidadians. We've never had a full-on hit (in living memory, that is) so we tend not to take the warnings seriously. When the warnings are out some of my countrymen have hurricane parties in the streets. Heaven help us if our luck were to change...

I've written experiences that I haven't lived, including a hurricane short story back when I wrote GCEs, an excursion to a swamp I never visited, and a moonlight walk in Vizcaya Gardens that I've only driven past in Miami. It takes research and more research, allied with imagination. But yes, vicarious experience is a poor substitute for the real thing. You remember the odd details rather than having to invent them.