Tag Archives: Mt. St. Helens

The Story is in the Drama #amwriting

Drama and disaster can and will happen on a wide scale in our real lives. Tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, droughts—the path of a natural disaster is erratic. Sometimes they miss you, and other times, your home is in their way.

modesitt quote the times we live LIRF11012022Lesser dramas might only touch us on a peripheral level, yet they can affect our sense of security and challenge our values.

On May 18th, 1980, my friends and I watched the eruption of Mt. St. Helens from atop a hill in the middle of nowhere. My children had visited their father for the weekend, so my friends and I planned a fishing trip to a beaver pond in the next county. It was a long drive on narrow, dirt logging roads, but the possibility of trout for supper was just an excuse for a day spent in the deep forest.

We loaded our gear into my boyfriend’s Land Rover and set off at about 5:00 am, all five of us laughing and having a great time. The radio never worked, but the cassette deck played Led Zeppelin, Robin Trower, Genesis, and Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow as the soundtrack to our trek through the gorgeous country.

At about 09:00, we came up over the top of a treeless hill. The view was breathtaking, as if all of Lewis County lay before us in springtime glory.

Above it all towered a sight I will never forget, turning the blue sky black.

MSH80_eruption_mount_st_helens_05-18-80-dramatic-edit

Eruption of Mt. St. Helens May 18, 1980 Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Conversations suddenly silenced, and we stopped, turning the engine off. We got out and stared, first at the raging column of dust, rocks, and lightning that dwarfed the mountain and then at each other. Helicopters and airplanes from news agencies and the USGS circled like so many carrion birds. What so many people had thought was just hysteria was true—the mountain had blown.

We never did make it to the beaver pond. The only fish we caught that day were the tuna sandwiches we had packed. Conversations were sober as we picnicked on that hilltop and watched the incredible show.

We had no way of hearing the news, but we knew it was terrible, that some people had died and others had lost everything. We had no idea just how bad it was, that one of our favorite places to fish, the Mount St. Helens Lodge at Spirit Lake, had disappeared along with its cantankerous owner. Harry R. Truman had become famous in the weeks before the eruption for refusing to evacuate.

Toward midafternoon, we returned to Olympia, all of us grateful to have homes to go to. When I turned on the television and found that more than fifty people had lost their lives, I felt devastated for them.

The true story of that day in my life is in disaster contrasted against calm and tranquility.

The story is in the hectic start to the morning, of five friends off on a day trip to go fishing. It is in the peace of the deep woods along those old dirt roads.

640px-St_Helens_before_1980_eruption_horizon_fixedThe camera zooms out and now we see the idyllic serenity of a clear sunny morning on Spirit Lake and Harry doing his morning chores.

This allows us to see what will be lost.

Then disaster strikes. The side of the mountain gives way, and the eruption is on.

Contrast that catastrophe against five people serenely picnicking on a hill, observing the apocalypse as it happens. The drama is in old Harry R. Truman’s stubborn end, and how it didn’t occur to us who watched from a distant hill that we would never rent a boat from him or fish in that lake again.

The bad juxtaposed against the good is the plot, but the experiences of those who witnessed it is the story. Contrast provides drama and texture, turning a wall of “bland” into something worth reading.

Stories of apocalyptic catastrophes resonate because disaster drives humanity to bigger and better things, and those who survive and rise above it become heroes. Readers love the drama of it all.

Disaster isn’t always apocalyptic, though. Dramas regularly happen on what seems an unimportant level to people who have resources. Not everyone has money, and not everyone can surmount the odds. The story is in the battle.

Think about those small daily tragedies people face, deeply personal catastrophes, which only they are experiencing. Love and loss, safety and danger, loyalty and betrayal are the eternal themes of tragedy and resolution. These are the seeds of a good story.

30 days 50000 wordsWe writers must make our words count. We must show our characters in their comfort zone in the moments leading up to the disaster. Not too much of a lead in, but just enough to show what will soon be lost.

Then, we bring on the disaster and attempt to write it logically, so it makes sense.

Contrast is a crucial aspect of worldbuilding and storytelling. In the end, we want readers to think about the story and those characters long after the last paragraph has been read. Drama and resolution are the keys to a great story.

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#amwriting fantasy: creating the landscape

Map of Mal Evol, color full size, no roadsWhen I am reading a fantasy, I can get completely immersed, if the author has been kind enough to use a mix of familiar earthly landscapes to create his world.  Readers do need to have a small bit of “the known” to hang their imaginations on.

In my book, Tower of Bones, I write about a landscape that has been devastated, first by war, and secondly by the slow, deliberate poisoning of the environment.  The God, Tauron, seeks to change Neveyah into a copy of his own desert world of Serende.  At the time of our story, the immense crater Valley of Mal Evol is a wasteland of thorn-bushes and scorpions.  Few people live there, and those who do are slaves to the Legions of D’Mal, the minotaur soldiers of the Bull God.

The World of Neveyah is actually the state of Washington, in all its bipolar glory, but “on steroids.”

The God Tauron carved the Valley of Mal Evol out of the mountains when he imprisoned his brother. That created the landscape that was not unlike that of Eastern Washington, some of which was carved by a disaster. Before the disaster, this land was likely similar to the area around Spokane and toward Colville, prairies with large forests of lodgepole pines.

Drumheller Channels, Washington State

Channeled Scablands, Washington State

The Channeled Scablands are a relatively barren and soil-free landscape on the eastern side of the  state of Washington near Grand Coulee Dam, and Dry Falls. It’s an area that was scoured by floods unleashed when a large glacial lake drained at the end of the last ice age. I took this landscape and magnified it, making it the place where two vastly different worlds touch.

I live 60 miles due north of Mt. St. Helens, an active stratovolcano that has erupted several times in my lifetime. As a teenager in the fall of 1970, 10 years before the eruption, my earth-science class visited the lava-tubes that were popular tourist destinations in those days.  The volcano was considered to be of no threat to anyone, practically dead, really.

Mt. St. Helens from Spirit Lake prior to 1980

Mt. St. Helens from Spirit Lake prior to 1980 via ABC news

As this photo shows, it had a beautiful shape to it, like Mt. Fuji, and was featured on calendars and postcards for its beauty and majesty.  The verdant forests were tall and thick, mostly Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar.  Spirit Lake, at its base, was a playground for summer vacationers.  My family spent many summer holidays at the campgrounds and the lodge there.

PD United States Geological Survey, via Wikipedia

PD United States Geological Survey, via Wikipedia

All that changed overnight on May 18th, 1980, when the mountain erupted.  We could see the ash column quite clearly from the lake in the Bald Hills of Thurston County, where we were fishing that morning, and we knew something really bad had happened at the mountain. Entire forests were blown down and buried under volcanic ash. Spirit Lake was both destroyed and reborn in a different form.

The destruction of the ecology is one of the underlying themes of the World of Neveyah series.

But the miraculous way the land around Mt. St. Helens has rebounded in the last 35 years is also working its way into my World of Neveyah–Tauron’s spell is broken, and the land will recover.  The devastation of Mal Evol looks permanent, and is terrible to those who know what it once was like, but they have hope that it will recover.

In the World of Neveyah series, I created the Mountains of the Moon, out of which the valley of Mal Evol was torn. I understood how mountains can rise high into the sky, blocking the rising or setting sun. Also, I used the climate of the Scablands here in Washington–the climate is typified by large seasonal temperature differences, with excruciatingly hot  summers and severely cold winters, and that is how I made Mal Evol. Remember, dealing with weather offers great opportunity for mayhem in the narrative.

I live on the heavily forested western side of the state, 50 miles west of 14,411 ft tall  Mount Rainier, beneath the Nisqually Glacier. That sight dominates my front-yard skyline on a clear day. The valley I live in was carved by glaciers and eruptions from this amazing pile of rock, ice, and fire. I took this idea, but I made my mountains taller and badder than the Himalayas on a bad Mt. Everest day.

Mount Rainier, Nisqually Glacier, ©2010 Walter Siegmund Via Wikipedia

Mount Rainier, Nisqually Glacier, © 2010 Walter Siegmund Via Wikipedia

We here in our bipolar State of Washington are able to see how the landscape can radically change if you just drive west east (thank you Scott Driscoll!) on I-90 for four hours.

Because  of my good fortune of living in the shadow of two large volcanoes, and between two high mountain ranges, the Olympic Mountains and the Cascade Range,  I have the opportunity to experience a wide diversity of ecologies in one day, going from saltwater to mountain range, to desert.

You may find your inspiration elsewhere. It could be in anything from architecture to ornamental gardens, to cornfields or sage brush.

Never_Cry_Wolf_PosterWhile the window of our own experience is an amazing place to find our inspiration for our fantasy environments, the internet is a valuable tool. Google Earth is a wonderful resource for viewing a real-time image of an area you need to see to understand.

Google Earth is as much of a squirrel as Facebook is, in that I got very little done when researching with it–I’m sure it was all research. Really.

Consider going to the movies–it’s amazing what great scenery you will find in an old movie. One thing I don’t have access to experience in person is wild caribou–for that reason much of my mental imagery for how wild herd animals of North America behave and the environment in which they live comes from a great movie, called Never Cry Wolf. The cinematography and the actual scenery is incredible, and the mood of the land is captured in one of the better films of the twentieth century.

The root ideas are what you hang the fabrication on, just a frame for the canvas you will paint with your words. It’s your world, but if it is to feel solid to the reader, there must be some small familiarity for them to have that  “Oh, I know this place” moment.

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