Using Real Disasters in Fiction

disaster.jpgMy current work-in-progress requires a disaster. Hurricane Katrina would work. So would 9-11. But I can’t bring myself to use those tragic events. I’m even uncomfortable using this image from Katrina. It simply feels too soon, with too many of the hurricane’s victims still in pain.

I recently finished reading Wally Lamb’s wonderful new book, The Hour I First Believed. He plants one of his characters inside the library of Columbine High School during the horrific 1999 shooting spree that took so many lives, devastated a community and rattled the sense of security of an entire nation. Lamb uses the real names of the victims as well as the murderers. He uses actual quotes from the shooters’ video tapes (available to the public). He imagines a scene at a memorial service for one of the victims. All of this made me profoundly uncomfortable.

Over the years, I’ve considered using a real tragedy as the backdrop for one of my novels, but I feared that doing so would smack of exploitation. I can’t imagine using someone else’s pain in one of my stories, knowing that I write not only to entertain but to keep bread on my table. I was startled and dismayed by Lamb’s choice at first, but I’ve gradually grown more comfortable with it. I believe that’s because he helped me, and I’m sure many other readers, understand what it’s like to go through such a horrific experience. He illustrated the often misunderstood phenomenon of Post Tramuatic Stress Disorder beautifully and compassionately. Even with all my training as a  therapist, I don’t think I quite “got it” as fully as I did while reading this book. That is a gift to his readers. I hope it can also be seen as a gift to the victims and their families, whose plight may now be better understood, but I frankly wouldn’t blame them if they saw it as an affront and an exploitation of their grief. I’m not sure exactly how I would feel in their shoes.

For the most part, I’ve forgiven Lamb for using Columbine, but I’m not sure I could or would make the same choice in my own work. Right now, I’m planning on fabricating an earthquake in Ecuador for “my disaster.” That may change, especially because I’m torn about setting a portion of my story outside the United States. But I won’t be using 9-11, and I won’t be using Katrina.

What do you think? I’m curious to know how you, as readers and writers, feel about the use of recent, real-life tragedies in fiction.   


  1. brenda on January 1, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    Am eager to hear about your WIP…I agree with you…I do not like to read books that use REAL life tragedies…those books should be totally nonfiction. Now-I don’t mean books (some Christian ones esp.) that use characters who have had spouses who died in disasters-those books don’t really get into what happened. However, I have read many reviews from others who are startled at Lamb’s use of Columbine…although I am still wanting to read the book, I am not thrilled about that either…Good luck-something “made up” might be a good idea.

  2. Lindsay on January 1, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    I do agree with you. I do think that using a real life tragedy is in at least one respect, exploiting that tragedy as an opportunity for yourself. I’ll admit, one of things that made me want to read Lamb’s novel is that he uses Columbine. I was in high school when Columbine happened, and no tragedy has ever had more profound effect on me (an outsider) than that one. I’m not even sure why exactly. Thus my interest in Columbine has been a reason for me purchasing Lamb’s book.
    However, that said, I bought and read Jodi Piccolt’s Nineteen minutes because of its subject matter on school shootings. So I think even if Lamb had used a fabricated school shooting instead of a real life tragedy, my interest still would have been there.
    I guess what I’m saying is I don’t believe it’s necessary to use a real life tragedy in fiction (apart from the typical brief mentions) because I think authors can create a fictional tragedy that would still get the message across that they are trying to make.

  3. Mary on January 1, 2009 at 11:51 pm

    Hi. I haven’t posted here before but I picked Before the Storm off my TBR pile this morning and, being a creature of the internet, immediately logged on to your website, Diane, and have been reading through past blogs.
    I wanted to weigh in on this question because I do agree with you about avoiding real tragedies. I live in NYC and I avoid anything having to do with 9/11 because it’s still too raw. However, it was Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes that came to mind as I read your blog. I’m a teacher and a parent gave it to me to read because she thought I’d be interested in the school bullying theme. Like Lindsay, I found the story compelling, But I was alienated by the similarities to Columbine. It did feel like exploitation to me though I’d like to give Picoult the benefit of the doubt on that. Ironically, I also thought about that book when reading one of your earlier blogs about trust. I did feel like my trust was betrayed by the ending in that book. I just didn’t buy the resolution. I guess you could say I felt cheated.
    Well isn’t that a mouthful for a first post?
    Happy New Year! I’ve been a fan since Keeper of the Light.

  4. brenda on January 2, 2009 at 9:29 am

    Mary-I so agree with you. On my yearly journey to NYC for my son in the Marathon, I get the feeling that 9/ll is still so raw that it is almost unbelievable. I too liked l9 Minutes-but wished it could have been something other than COlumbine. I just started a book by an author I really like, but it is about Hurricane Katrina–fiction…just put it down and avoided it. WELCOME TO THE BLOG…I have a dear friend in Washington STATE, a teacher with your name-and at first–you reminded me of her…We met at The Folger’s in D.C. when we were “doing” and studying Shakespeare for a month.
    Lindsey–the Columbine tragedy certainly changed much in our schools-I was teaching in the South at the time, and we became almost always on lock down…Now…I am back in my home state, and we have so many codes, I can’t remember them all…the bullying-so so so sad..the tragedy…

  5. ronnie on January 2, 2009 at 10:34 am

    My feeling is there are many author’s that rely on real life tragedies to be(Diane taught me this term) “the hook” for the subject of their book. Do I like it? NO. There are many modern day tragedies that have affected all of us and I do not believe an author should exploit that situation for their own gain. The author’s that have been mentioned were Jodi Picoult, Wally Lamb, I can also think of Nelson DeMille’s book, Night Fall which had to do with flight 800, Jeffrey Archer did it with False Impression which focused on 9/11. I am in awe of people who can up with a story and go through the whole creative process to give their reader a finished, original product. I feel that all these gifted writers can use their creative juices to come up with, for lack of a better term, an “original tragedy”.
    With that said I also find it interesting that if it is not something that is still current and raw, many of us like historical fiction. Philippa Gregory is one author who comes to mind, and I for one am enchanted when I read her books about life in Elizabethan times. If she wrote a book about 9/11 I would probably do everything I could to avoid it. I wonder if 100 years from now Jodi Picoult, Wally Lamb and others who use real life situations and incorporate them into their stories will be looked upon like Philippa Gregory is now?

  6. Denise on January 2, 2009 at 11:13 am

    My initial reaction was negative when I first learned that Lamb was writing about Columbine. But based upon my trust in Lamb as an author and human being, I immediately put my doubts aside. I think it must have taken a lot of courage and soul searching for him to decide to write about Columbine, not to mention a tremendous amount of research. This was not a subject for a less talented author. I felt that Lamb treated the event and, most particularly, the victims with the utmost respect and empathy. Had he changed facts to suit his own purposes or not used the victims real names, I would have been sorely disappointed.
    My primary complaint and dislike of real tragedies being written about in novels is that authors so often do change the names and facts to make their stories work. I find this to be disrespectful to the real victims and an insult to their readers’ intelligence. If an author doesn’t want to spend the time, research and soul searching to ‘get it right,’ they have no business writing about it. I don’t feel quite as strongly about this if a real tragedy is only to serve as a ‘backdrop’ to a fictional story, but I still feel that they should get their facts right, no matter how sparse they might be within the story.
    welcome to the blog, Mary!

  7. Denise on January 2, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    Diane, have you ever been to Equador?

  8. Diane Chamberlain on January 2, 2009 at 4:40 pm

    Mary, so nice that you’ve joined us. Welcome!
    Well, it sounds as though many of you agree with my discomfort about using actual recent tragedies in fiction. Yet, both Denise and I loved Lamb’s book despite his use of Columbine, so I return to what I always say about writing fiction–ignore the rules as long as what you write WORKS. I think Lamb made it work — at least he did for me because of the compassionate and realistic way he dealt with PTSD. Would it have worked as well with a fictional tragedy? That’s hard to know.
    Ronnie raises the point of the entertainment value of historical fiction, and she’s right. We generally love reading about fictional people placed in gripping historical circumstances. I’m not sure how much time needs to pass for people to reach their comfort level. I just finished THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY (adored it!), set during World War II, and I loved learning about a place I knew nothing about and how the people there endured a difficult and at times tragic situation. As an example of the more recent past, I don’t have a problem with movies or books set in Vietnam. To me, enough time has passed. To a vet, maybe or maybe not.
    Last night we watched REIGN ON ME, the movie about two old college roommates, one of whom lost his family in 9/11. Maybe it was my mood, but I thought it was a terrible movie except for Don Cheadle, who is one of my favorite actors. In light of the discussion here, I tried to figure out if I was upset over the use of 9/11 as the instigating event, but the movie seemed so far removed (emotionally and in terms of the action) from 9/11 that it didn’t seem to have anything to do with it. Did any of you see it? What did you think? I think the story could have been told as easily without the 9/11 link. It would have lost its commercial hook, though, and I guess that’s what I don’t like. Using a tragedy for commercial gain.
    Which brings me back to Lamb’s use of Columbine. Lamb will sell a gazillion books even if he merely copies the phonebook backwards, so I doubt he used Columbine for commercial purposes. Rather it served the needs of his story, and in my opinion, he definitely made it work.
    Still, I couldn’t blame another reader for squirming as she reads it.

  9. Diane Chamberlain on January 2, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    Denise, no I haven’t been to Ecuador. That’s one reason why I’d love to shift that part of the book to the US. I’m trying to decide. There are good reasons why Ecuador–or another South (or Central) American country would be a good choice, though.
    It’s very possible to do excellent armchair research, and I have two friends familiar with Ecuador who can help me. It’s also the backstory for the novel rather than the current day story. My main concern is wanting the place to feel real to the reader — including any reader who actually HAS spent time there.

  10. Denise on January 2, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    I am going to have to read THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY. I never heard of the book until it was mentioned here. If you liked it, Diane, I’m sure I will.
    I don’t know why I didn’t think of it when I posted earlier, but THOSE WHO SAVE US is a really good example of excellent fiction set during a historic ‘event,’ Germany during the Third Reich. From what I know of the author (Jenna Blum), she is extremely knowledgable about the subject matter…and it definitely showed. She has now sent me off in the direction of wanting to read more (non-fiction) about the German women of this era, as well as a few interesting books about Eva Braun I have heard about (altho’ Braun was not a part of the novel).
    Diane, it’s interesting because Vietnam books/movies don’t pose a problem for me either but only if they accurately depict the era/event/people.
    It sounds like Equador could work for your new novel, particularly since you have friends who can aid and assist you.

  11. brenda on January 2, 2009 at 8:25 pm

    I agree-the historical fiction is different…reading about Vietnam War…WWI, WWII, Civil War, etc…those are wars-all in different countries than us (except Civil War)…not at home…however, I know many Vietnam Vets who can’t read about what they experienced. I recently read that Jackie Kennedy’s memoirs were not to be published until everyone in her family was deceased-not sure about that…but if it is true, I can understand why…911 too recent…Columbine too recent and too much a tragedy…as to Wally Lamb…he is still not one of my favorites…I really liked one of his books-but not all of them…I am sure he did a good job using Columbine, but I still think it is too raw…a note: School tragedies happen much more than the public realizes…just not told about it.

  12. brenda on January 2, 2009 at 8:44 pm

    Movies-My son and I watched a few the last couple of days-some comedies, but one different-l0,000 BC…narrated by Omar Sharif…anyone old enough to remember DR. Zhivago…(spelling???) What a fantastic movie…

  13. Mary on January 2, 2009 at 10:08 pm

    I am, Brenda. My first date was to see Dr. Zhivago. My parents were horrified because the boy wanted us to ride several miles on the back of his bicycle. My dad drove us instead. 🙂
    I loved Lara’s theme and Julie Christie was fabulous.
    Interesting points about historical distance allowing a greater ease. I think the discomfort often comes from our personal connection with the events – either real or emotional. Our conversation made me recall a similar one I had with my daughter about why some “recent” historical movies bothered her more than much older ones. She explained it like this – in the older historical ones, the people would all be dead anyway by now.
    It sounds sort of callous and I don’t think our reaction is always that self-conscious but perhaps that subconscious understanding makes it less difficult to read historical tragedy.
    Thanks everyone for the warm welcome. I’m enjoying the discussion.

  14. Margo on January 2, 2009 at 10:22 pm

    Diane, I may be one of the few commenters who are ok with using recent, real life tragedies in works of fiction…I do not condone exploitation of victims and disasters but I do trust the author to write these painful events with compassion and honesty. If it weren’t for writers, too many people would live their life in a vaccum and not really know or understand what’s really going on in the world around them. I realize we are talking about ‘recent’ tragedies, but had it not been for brave authors thru history to take the plunge and surround their novels by real events I might not be as knowledgable as I am today. I had very poor history and current event teachers while growing up and as a result I did not pay attention to what they were saying…they were very boring. It was after my college years that I actually ‘learned’ the truth of numerous tragedies and disasters that had been discussed in school but which I didn’t understand because of the way it was presented…thru the eyes of great authors I learned about these events because they were woven into the fictional stories I read…I really felt like a whole new world had opened up to me because I did not learn these things in school…I attended exellent schools but had a few poor instructors.
    Gary is EXTREMELY smart in current events and with history because he had teachers who were enthusiastic with these subjects. When I read fiction with true disasters inter-woven, I discuss them with him and I’m amazed at what I learn.
    I have alot of respect for an author who is brave enough to write the truth within his or her fictional story. I think it takes alot of courage to ‘get it right’ and it helps me understand details I might not have known existed.

  15. Gina on January 3, 2009 at 8:36 am

    WOW Margo, you took the words right out of my mouth. I was trying to figure out the way to word my feelings on this topic and everything you said is exactly how I feel. So, no, you are not alone.
    My husband is the same way as yours, he knows everything about history and current events, and when I come across something that I learned in one of my books, I say…”did you know…”
    My history teachers weren’t that great either. So, I hear what ya saying.
    Lamb’s content was ok with me, because I knew I could trust him as a writer. He didn’t let me down.

  16. brenda on January 3, 2009 at 8:45 am

    Mary, I had to have the soundtract to Dr. Z…on an old 33 of course…hard to imagine those are gone. Unfortunately, on one of my many moves-about 30–through the years, my over 300 (45’s) and my many 33’s were “lost” from the truck…I agree with you about the history of the writings though. I am an English teacher/instructor (high school and college) and Humanities Major-study much history-I think once we know the people are not living-so much easier to deal with…I am such a mushy person I guess. (Wonder if Dr. Z. is out on DVD??? Probably…well worth checking out…)
    Diane-I can’t imagine Equador…you have me totally intrigued.

  17. Gina on January 3, 2009 at 8:50 am

    I also wanted to say that it’s nice to see more Diane fans posting here. Yay! Welcome!

  18. Lindsay on January 3, 2009 at 10:44 am

    I just wanted to add a little something here; I went to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button last night and although the majority of the movie was great, I was turned off by the unnecessary use of Hurricane Katrina. It’s not a major plot point by any means but the part of the movie that takes place in the ‘present’ takes place at a hospital with katrina on its way. I didn’t understand the point of it at all. Yes I know they set the story in New Orleans but having the hurricane made no difference to the story in my opinion.
    Also I’ll just say that it may be based off the short story but the only thing they keep is the basic storyline of a man aging backwards. Nothing else is taken from the story and the movie is completely different (not necessarily a bad thing).

  19. Glen on January 3, 2009 at 10:55 am

    Thank you Margo! As Gina said “you took the words right out of my mounth.” In more ways than one.
    Even if Diane decides to use a current tragedy, I would probably read it. Why? Because the genre of her books are personal realtionships, brother / sister, parent / child, etc, and I trust her. I have always been satisfied with not only the ending but more importantly, the path.
    I would be more inclined to read fiction invloving natural disasters. I have not yet read Lamb’s book.
    Natural disasters are different to me in that there is no human control over the event, just the effects.

  20. Diane Chamberlain on January 3, 2009 at 10:59 am

    Fascinating discussion, y’all. Margo and Glen, you make some excellent points. (By the way, when I don’t understand an historical reference, I just ask John. . . though I have to request the “short answer” or I will get every speck of the history behind the history behind the history.)
    Lindsay, I bet the Katrina element in TCCoBB was because of Brad Pitt’s work on rebuilding New Orleans. He probably felt a need to have it in there in someway. It’s a trap writers can easily fall into–letting their own passions/social values enter a story where they don’t belong. Been there and done that myself.

  21. Glen on January 3, 2009 at 11:09 am

    lol. Diane, it’s definitely a guy thing. We don’t ask for directions because we already know where we’re going and we give the long answer because the short answer doesn’t make us look as bright as we think we are!!!

  22. Lindsay on January 3, 2009 at 11:32 am

    Yes, Diane, I’m sure you’re probably right about TCCoBB thing.
    Glen, you make a strong point about the natural disaster versus human control. I’ve never thought about it that way but that’s definitely something to consider.
    Also- finished THE READER. Loved it! Really a great book and it’s a book I didn’t really expect to like.

  23. brenda on January 3, 2009 at 11:37 am

    Glen-good point about natural disaster…I think since I teach, the Columbine tragedy is just so real to me…each day we know that something like that could happen…sometimes it is much better (with students) to let things alone…the more they are reminded, the more they think it is a natural part of life…not an anomaly…

  24. Glen on January 3, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Lindsay, that does appear to be a Hollywood commercialization of Katrina. I agree, what’s the point. Here on Topsail we have had so many hurricanes from ’96 to ’06 I’ve forgotten the names. Diane’s use of a hurricane in “Before the Storm” was appropriate because it became such a part of our lives. It’s just what was happening here at the time. Her’s did not have a name. The sequel “Secrets She Left Behind” will probably have the same element. No one here even considered it an exploitation. Simply because time has passed and they were no longer anomalies.
    Brenda, I can only imagine what todays teachers face. I only taught in corporate settings. It was hard enough just knowing the material, I couldn’t imagine a physical threat.
    My mother was a “lunch lady” (loved the SNL skits). She was actually the manager. While I was away out of town on business she was beaten and robbed… in the school cafeteria! I was so furious! This was in the early ’80’s before there was this widespread “lock-downs” and entrance metal detectors.
    I admire the teachers of today that continue to persevere to teach in our public schools, despite the persistent threat of violence.

  25. Diane Chamberlain on January 3, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    Oh my God, Glen, what a terrible thing to happen to your mother! I hope she was somehow able to get through that experience emotionally. I can’t even imagine.
    (By the way, there a few of you whose comments require me to “approve them” before they appear on the blog. Glen you’re one of those people. Ironically, I’m another. So if you don’t see your comment show up right away, it means I haven’t been to my computer to approve it yet. I have no idea how to fix this and neither does my webmaster!)
    Glen, I had no reservations about using a made up hurricane in BEFORE THE STORM, but I did struggle with my decision to “use” that line of vulnerable houses at the north end of Topsail Island in my story. I hope those homeowners have forgiven me.
    Lindsay, I’m adding THE READER to my to-be-read list on your recommendation. I think I’ll read it soon because I’d like to read the book before seeing the movie. I just discovered a book on my bookshelf called YEAR OF WONDERS by Geraldine Brooks. I have no idea how it got there, but I started it last night. So far so good.

  26. brenda on January 3, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    Glen-good grief…how horrible. We don’t have metal detectors at our school…we do have the codes for lockdowns…we have drug dogs and a police officer-he works full time.
    In the south, we had many more lock downs-bomb threats, etc…for awhile, here, we had the anthrax scares-ended up being flour or sugar…we do have lock downs when the dogs are in the building…or other things…so far-we have been safe. However, there are things happening in schools all the time, and that is one reason, I wish the writing about COlumbine would END!!!!! I don’t mean the nonfiction part-to help others get through it and understand…Hope your mother came through that okay. The lunch ladies are so great!!!!!

  27. Denise on January 3, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    I think THE READER was an old Oprah bookclub pick, wasn’t it? I am not sure why I didn’t read it back then. I have sold quite a few of them recently.

  28. Glen on January 3, 2009 at 6:36 pm

    Diane, I don’t think there was anything to forgive. During hurricane Fran in ’96 over 200 homes were washed out to sea or toppled back toward the sound. Then in ’99 Floyd caused what is called a 500 year flood event… inland! We were barely touched along the coast. During the last noreaster in October, over 15 feet of dune was washed away. This is where we live and we accept these events, higher insurance premiums, possible loss, just as those in CA know they are on a major earthquake fault, and those in the north know there are going to be blizzards. BTW, did you know that there is just as big a fault line in Raleigh as the San Andreas?
    Back to your original question… we’ve all heard it from the old PI movies, “in this city of a million people, there are a million stories.” I think that whatever you write about would do justice to one of those million stories. Also, you would humanize the event with compassion and empathy. I have yet to see you denigrate any of your characters or events. I feel that when you write a point of view it is with total respect of that characters integrity.

  29. Rob on January 3, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    Good question. I think if you are SJ Rozan and always write about NYC or O’Neil DeNoux and always write about New Orleans then you have to include 9/11 of Katrina in your work or it seems like you’re being dishonest.
    But for the rest of us I think the usual rule for writing on sensitive subjects is what applies: don’t do it unless you can do it well.

  30. Gina on January 3, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    THE READER is a good book. I think it’s become popular again because the movie just came out or is coming out soon.

  31. Margo on January 4, 2009 at 12:12 am

    Glen, your mother must be incredibly strong to have survived such a horrific incident…I can’t imagine the obstacles she’s had to overcome.
    Gina and Lindsay, it sounds like I should add THE READER to my list…haven’t seen it at the bookstores but if you say it’s good, I’ll look into it!…haven’t heard of a movie by the same name either.
    Lindsay, we saw THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON and really, really enjoyed it…the story really pulls at your heart, doesn’t it?
    Diane, LOL with asking John history questions!…maybe Glens right, that it’s a guy thing but you know what?…Gary goes into lots of details too but I’m so fascinated with his answers to my history questions that I just let him go on and on because I learn quite alot from him…
    Diane, If you decide to weave a real life tragedy or natural disaster into your novel I know you will do it with elogance and style and with profound compassion for the people.

  32. brenda on January 4, 2009 at 8:35 am

    Just a question…when you girls (and guys) watch a movie, do you absolutely expect accuracy in history…I know sometimes I am so aggravated when something that happened in my lifetime (or in history as I am a buff) is not what it should be-same in books…One movie I watched recently had a blow dryer in it…the movie was set during the years when I grew up…Good grief…I can remember when we were excited about the “new” hair dryers let alone blow dryers…things like that…or a woman has panty hose in the bathroom-and they weren’t out yet…I want exact facts…Now-on the other hand…when we watched l0,000 B.C. (the movie), I didn’t know what to expect…I was shocked at the perfect English some of the characters spoke-so let’s face it…we just don’t know everything, do we??? *I’m smiling as I write that…

  33. Mary on January 5, 2009 at 10:29 pm

    Brenda, I don’t but that’s because of my personal knowledge of how the production companies work. Many years ago I worked for a major motion picture company. My job was specifically to research and point out inaccuracies in the script. Honestly, the only time they cared was if there were legal implications. Otherwise, whatever made the story more entertaining was the way to go even if it was inaccurate.

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