(Re)building your world: creation of the end of days.

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Building your world all starts with inspiration. It’s that elusive yeti, the underground bunker stocked with food that every wasteland wanderer searches for. Inspiration can be manufactured in the creative mind, in my experience. It’s about knowing what it is that helps spawn ideas in your head.  For me, inspiration comes most commonly from music, strangely enough. The music and the lyrics creates a scenario in my head. The feel of the music creates a theme. My brain goes off and running with the seed of an idea.

Use the idea to create details. Use the details to create new ideas. I think often this process happens organically (at least for me) once I’ve got the proverbial ball rolling:

“Michigan’s in the rearview now. Keep your hands where I can see ’em.” A man glances at his rearview mirror at the Michigan state line. He’s driving with one hand, the other holding a pistol at his passenger. The passenger has his hands on the dash. Both men are terrified. Why does he have this man hostage? The hostage is a veterinarian and the protagonist’s dog is sick. Why go through all the trouble for a dog? The dog is the last member of his family, his wife took his kids across the country to visit her parents the day before all electricity and communication inexplicably stopped. The dog has become a symbol of the health of his wife and kids so he desperately needs it to live.

The death of the dog will lead to the man desperately trying to find his family. To do that he has to find a map of the U.S. and gasoline to get there.  Now, do you want to leave the reader in the dark as to how this all happened? Is this crisis local, nationwide, worldwide?  Has government broke down, or is society rebuilding without technology? Have new borders been drawn, old conflicts between peoples and races and religions created regional conflict where this man goes? Has a rudimentary feudalism been created, or is society fighting to maintain democracy and capitalism?

It started with something used to inspire (a song, in this case) and ended with the potential to deconstruct and reconstruct a country, or even a world. The question, ‘what conflict will this man trying to cling to his family find in the absence of our technological world?’ has given us the platform to create a world around him. This example may be very simple, and I’ve taken the exact lyrics to build off of for illustrative purposes, but it can often be something far more subtle.

Alternatively, one can start with a worldview, a global problem or apocalyptic conflict and build the story of one person or a group of people from there. But I’m here to say, don’t be afraid to start small. You can build an entire world off of one detail or one scenario. Maybe its the beginning of your story. Maybe its the end, or some moment in between. Let your characters help you build the world they’re fighting to survive in.

Death and dying in the post-apocalyptic novel: Easy does it?

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So chances are if you’re writing a post-apoc novel there’s going to be a fair amount of death.Perhaps this isn’t a universal constant of the genre, but in general mortality is one of the prime subjects of such dire times.

It dawned on me pretty quickly upon writing my first apocalyptic short story that one of the main challenges for someone writing in this genre, or really any genre that commonly deals with mortality, is how to not have your audience become desensitized to death. Even  ‘dramadies’ like Shaun of the Dead (a movie, I know boo, hiss) manage to balance the absurdism and satire of the zombie-pocalypse with the tragic losses of loved ones. Despite the satire they still managed to evoke tears (yeah I cried at the end so what) at the tragic deaths of loved ones.

If you go all Mad Max and have everyone constantly blowing people away with sawed off shotguns in spiked shoulder pads, all the bite is taken out of the reality of mortality. But inevitably many characters, usually some key or main characters, will die. (gasp!)

Given that the apocalypse is a brutal world to live in, I feel a certain level of commitment to the reality of the tragedy of death in my writing. But at the same time, you need to afford yourself the room to let your characters and your readers feel the emotional repercussions of loss. You don’t want to get melodramatic with long death speeches and effusive emotional exchanges as someone lay dying, but you also don’t want everything to be bullet-in-the-brain oh we hardly knew ye.

The tragedy must be felt in the minds, choices and lives of your surviving characters. Survival is everything in the end times, but it does not come without its fair share of survivor’s guilt. (Or maybe if you’re going that direction, the lack thereof in a character for whom the ends always justify the means!)

All Quiet on the Western Front is perhaps one of the best written examples of how to make death surround your characters and yet only become more powerful to the reader with time. The scene where Paul Baumer is stuck in no man’s land with the dying french man he stabbed is one of the most reverberating scenes I have ever read about death. A man he killed whom he has never met is probably the most powerful death scene in the entire story (debatable, I know.) Though it is a World War I novel, its apocalyptic in its own way. It certainly feels that way.

Have death change your characters. Be it death of loved ones, strangers, or  new companions. That is the reality of death’s influence on life. make it real in your story.