Friday, January 31, 2014

A Lesson from Dystopia

by S. L. Duncan

It's been a strange couple of days; like being thrown into the narrative of a dystopian novel.

If you've paid any attention to the news, you've probably seen the cluster flake of a snowstorm happening in the south. Yeah, I know. Two inches. No big, right? I can actually hear some of you chuckling. We get it, Mindy. Ohio is cold.

But the thing is, we don't get snow down here. When snowstorms are spoken of around these parts, people drift back twenty or thirty years to the nineties or eighties, and recall the details in terms of inches.

And when we do get the occasional few hours of snow, it's usually well predicted and we southerners are granted enough time to shut everything down and retreat to our fireplaces and highballs full of bourbon, to patiently wait there at least twenty four hours until, usually, a forty degree swing in the weather brings around Ray Bans and sun dresses.

That's not even an exaggeration. Saturday's high is 65 degrees.

This time, however, the science failed us. The weather geeks, well, missed. A dusting, they predicted here in Birmingham. Schools were open. People were at work. The snow began falling a few hours ahead of schedule. Pretty, we thought. And then it started falling heavier and heavier. By the time the warnings were issued, it was too late.

All at the same time, this happened: Schools let out. Businesses let out. Snow covered the streets. In nineteen degree weather and in the steep hills of a town without an infrastructure to salt, sand, or plow anything, that was all it took.

Thousands of cars have been abandoned on highways and streets, unable to find traction in the snow to climb hills or negotiate turns. Eleven thousand kids spent the night at their schools. I got lucky. I got my kid and took the flattest route back to my home, which is close to my son's daycare. I passed four wrecks. A friend of mine walked twelve miles to his wife and newborn son to accompany them the remaining two miles back to their home. I wish his story was uncommon.

Birmingham has become a scene ripped from a dystopian novel; a story about surviving when the comforts and systems of society break down. As the snow melts, things are getting better, but I found it absolutely fascinating how quickly and easily our way of life can slip out from under us and crash into a complete and total mess. Yet the stories emerging from this disaster, much like those in a dystopian novel, aren't really about people overcoming obstacles so much as they are about the evolution of relationships, new and old, between people.

Odd that it takes an event like this for us to rediscover our communal humanity. But it gives me heart, I suppose. Maybe the end of the world won't be that bad after all.

Witnessing this unfold has reinforced the notion that I have to, above everything else, write the truth. And what I mean by that is that fiction has to be real. It has to be true, even more so than non-fiction. Seeing this spectrum of human behavior - mostly good - amongst such dire circumstance has exposed what in my writing does not ring true for similar settings in my fictional world.

So my ham-handed tie in to writing is this: Is experience necessary to write truth in fiction?

S. L. Duncan writes young adult fiction, including his debut, The Revelation of Gabriel Adam, releasing August 12th, 2014 from Medallion Press. You can find him blogging on and on Twitter.


Cat Woods said...

It sure as heck helps!

Yet rest assured, even the great Midwest has been devastated by unexpected weather.

The Children's Blizzard is a cool read for those bourbon nights in front of the fireplace.

Susan said...

"Is experience necessary to write truth in fiction?" I think about this a lot and have blogged about the idea of couple of times.

I do not believe that experience is necessary, but I think it can always help. The one thing to keep in mind with experience and with situations where people or communities react differently than you expect is that one experience is not all experience. Just because it happened this way this time doesn't mean it would happen that way every time, you know? Any number of reactions to the same situation can be real, whether it was your experience or not.

So, learn what you can but don't knock yourself or your writing for imagining different happenings!