A Journalistic Approach to the Apocalypse
When one is trying to end the world, there are many practical matters to consider. The basic journalistic questions apply: Who, what, when, where, how, and why?
When Naomi and I started writing Barbarossa’s Bitch, I didn’t have those in mind. All I had was the first line: “When the settlement delegation entered the encampment, Kane was being fucked.” I didn’t know much of anything about the world, or how it had ended, who Kane was, or even how he was being fucked.
The When of the story wasn’t important. It is near future, close enough to our own time to be recognizable, close enough that people have living memories of the 20th Century. White graduated from seminary in 1990, so he was born in the late 1960s.
How and What:
Eventually, the rest of the apocalypse became more clear. I decided no one really knew how the world had ended. Kane woke up one morning to bodies in the street and a few people walking around looking stunned. Many carried on out of habit, going to work because there was nothing else to do. (This is based on my husband’s assertion that he would indeed go to work the day after an apocalypse, even if I’m lying dead in the bed beside him.)
We later see a night nurse, dead on her paperwork, and hear from a trucker whose co-driver dropped dead between one breath and the next. Nobody knows. Nobody really cares because they’re too busy picking up the pieces. The apocalypse is not the point of the story. It is a McGuffin, to set the plot in motion. In short, I’m not Stephan King and don’t spend 300 pages destroying the world.
Who and How Many:
The biggest problem was determining how many people got to live through it. I killed off 95-99% of the world. (Nobody’s taking census anymore.) Even so, that means University City, aka Manhattan, Kansas, which currently has a population of 52,000 would have between 500 and 2000 people still alive. There will be attrition, as medically fragile people, which would have a broader definition after an apocalypse, die from lack of medicine. There will be accidents and disease. But, the birth control will be useless inside of 5 years, and unless someone figures out how to make it, we’re back to sea-sponges dipped in vinegar and the attendant baby boom.
It sounds heartless to say, but you’re going to lose your AIDS patients, who depend on drug cocktails, your insulin dependent diabetics, most of your onocology patients, and the rest. Even someone like me, with sleep apnea, is going to have problems when there is no electricity for a CPAP machine and we’re constantly fatigued and trying to do heavy labor.
The “how many survive” question plagues every apocalypse writer. It’s held me up writing a post-Rapture novel for a couple years. Of course, there you get into theologically sticky questions, too. Do you want the entire population running around, squabbling over the last scraps of civilization, as in S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse? Do you want almost everyone gone, as in King’s The Stand? Is there a middle ground? I opted toward the latter, because I wanted small towns that would depend on the wildpacks for protection and trade, and occasionally new material in the gene pool.
The who of it is vital as well. If you have a bunch of farmers and country folks who have older skills, they’re going to weather the apocalypse better than a bunch of city kids who aren’t sure what’s edible and what’s not (and who don’t have the sense to promptly loot their local library). When the apocalypse strikes, Kane is a computer programer and former Boy Scout. He knows about camping, he knows what he needs to survive. He says he is too soft and too urban for the life, but he’s actually got enough skills to get by for a number of years, even with being run out of settlements because he is gay.
I’m percolating a zombie apocalypse story starring a romance writer. I’m trying to figure out her skills and how she’s going to survive when she can’t shoot a gun and can’t hit anything with a bow. There’s not likely to be a lot of call for witty banter and comedic romantic misunderstandings when one is trying to survive.
I set the book in Kansas, because it had a military base near an agricultural college. It had a number of small towns, rendered even smaller, and a few mid-sized towns that would be miserable to live in if they couldn’t get things cleared up. I set Power in the Blood in Memphis because it’s small enough to be taken in a few days by overzealous vampires; it’s mostly ignored by the rest of the country, so nothing would be noticed, and it’s a transportation hub, three days to anywhere in the states, by land, which meant the vampirism could spread more quickly. Your mileage will vary.
The easy answer is because I watched Road Warrior too many times and crossed it over with “Sons of Anarchy”, David Brin’s “The Postman” (I read the novella, much better than the movie) and swiped the costuming from Adam Lambert’s Sydney Mardi Gras costume.
The real reason is because I wanted to go ahead and bring down the apocalypse and watch people pick up the pieces. I averted the vampire apocalypse in Power in the Blood. This time, I wanted to see how things went afterward. Not immediately, but after folks were more settled. The next one is going to be well after the apocalypse, and feature the oddities that happen when people forget the time before.
There’s nothing wrong with taking an apocalypse by the seat of your pants. Your characters will have to. But it really does go more easily if you approach it from the basic journalistic questions.
Angelia Sparrow has been telling stories for almost 40 years, and writing for nearly that long. She traded a library paraprofessional position for ten in the wind and the hum of the highway. She drives a semi for a living and writes on the side.
Her home time is spent refereeing four kids, two cats and a husband. She crochets and gardens to get past writer’s block.
She has been publishing professionally since 2004, mostly GLBT romance, and has been nominated for several awards. Her bibliography includes eight novels and over fifty short stories. She can be found on her website and on Twitter.