Sunday 29 January 2017

Hunting The Story

The new UNDEAD UK book is out this week, and while my name is on the cover, I didn't actually write it.

The characters wrote it.

Let me explain. While that last statement will elicit a knowing smile from many writers, it won't make sense to anyone not familiar with the writing process. After all, characters don't write - they get written.

In this business, there are generally two types of writers: plotters and pantsers. Plotters outline the story before they begin writing, often making notes for each chapter, listing the characters involved and sometimes even writing detailed backstories for the characters. Then they begin writing. Pantsers don't outline beyond a couple of vague notes. They begin with a simple idea, then they start to write, making up the story as they go along, essentially 'flying by the seat of their pants', hence the nickname.

I'm a pantser.

If you've never written a novel before, the first method probably sounds the smartest. After all, a novel has so many story threads, characters, conflicts, etc, that surely it makes sense to lay it all out first, in the same way that a film producer will commission a story board (basically a cartoon version of the movie, drawn on large sheets) to plan the shooting schedule. The various scenes can be planned better, with a definite sense of where the story is going, and you're less likely to forget stuff (like the clue the character picked up in chapter 2 that won't become relevant until chapter 17, for example).

I've tried that method a few times, and it didn't work for me. It was too cold and clinical, and I couldn't actually picture the scenes, so I felt detached. The story ideas wouldn't come, and the characters wouldn't come alive. I spent a lot of time staring at the paper, wondering why the inspiration didn't flow. Once I've begun writing a story, however, I found myself in the story, seeing what the characters see, hearing what they hear. The story feels more alive, and I start to see then where it should be going.

And yes, I do make it up as I go along. I'm not going to say that one method is better than the other. A lot depends on how a person thinks. I'm a visual person, so I have to live the scene in order to write it, and often that means being immersed in it. Trying to hold it all together so that every element of the story flows together (and so I don't forget stuff) is just a skill I've had to learn to make this work. Many writers are the same.

So I began writing Hunting The Dead without a clear idea of what I wanted to write. I had Breht from the last book, and I felt I knew him well enough by now. And I had a fantasy picture in my head that I'd seen on DeviantArt once, of a woman fearfully holding her hand over her baby's mouth while she hid in the shadows from some demonic, hooded creature holding an axe. The drama in the picture was quite vivid, and it was beautifully painted (for some project or other) but I can't find the picture now to give you a link.

That was pretty much all I had when I sat down at the computer, staring at the blank page. I felt the pathos, the desperation, the plucking of the maternal heartstrings (and as a parent, I felt that strongly). But I had no story, no ending and no location.

It wasn't a lot to go on.

What I needed first was a location. I'm not very good at writing against a green screen, so to speak, so I needed a place to be, somewhere I could visualise. I know I wanted an urban setting, preferably a large city, since I'd set the last story in a small town. I was in a hurry to begin writing, though, and the school holidays were over, so I didn't have time to visit a city for some extensive research and location spotting.

Daft as it may seem, little details like that do go on to shape entire stories, like the fact that, as a single parent, I didn't have the freedom to do the kind of exploring I felt I needed to do. So I fell back on the 'write what you know' dictum, and based the story in Leicester. Because I was born there, had grown up there and knew it well. Or at least well enough to begin the process of visualising.

So Breht begins in Leicester, on Narborough Road, which is close to where I was born (I was a home birth). I'll avoid any spoilers in this blog post, and I plan to go into greater detail in a future UNDEAD UK Locations article, so from here on I'll stay vague on the geography and plot (yes, it does have one).

The plot grew organically from that first moment. I know that sounds pretentious, but what I'm basically saying is that the first scene set the tone for the rest of the story, and began dictating where it would go.

Breht is a survivalist. This much is already clear from his experience in the last book, Remember Me Dead. His backstory indicated that he would be a loner, with little desire to seek company. Being pedantic and conscientious, it was natural that he'd learn and acquire new skills that he didn't have in the last book. As I wrote the scene, putting myself in his shoes, it became obvious that this would have an effect on his whole outlook. He would become closer to the zombies than to human survivors.

From that point on, Breht wrote the story. I thought initially he would go in one direction, for example. He thought that would be stupid and totally out of character for him. So he picked another direction. Later, when he meets another character, his direction is changed again, according to what made sense to the other character. Occasionally they would conflict, and whoever won the argument would determine where the story went next.

I still didn't have an ending for the story, and the original idea I had for them to go past a couple of landmarks I'd pictured got derailed by the fact it wouldn't have made sense for either of them to want to go there. This is what I mean when I say that the characters wrote the story. I just followed them.

At one point, a minor character who was going to be written out in the last third of the book suddenly grew a backstory and an interesting personality, and wrote himself deeper into the story, forcing me to cancel a scene I was planning that wouldn't have worked with him in it.

It's stuff like this that can make pantsing so much fun, because it's like watching a movie unfold. Not only for you the reader, but for me the writer. More often than not, I finished a chapter with very little idea of what I would write in the next. And the end of the story got changed, cancelled and only put together when the characters walked it.

On the other hand, yeah, this technique can end in disaster. Pantsing is probably the biggest cause of writer's block. And projects being cancelled halfway through because the writer ran out of ideas or the whole thing started to look ridiculous and the writer felt too mentally exhausted to rescue it (been there, done that, got the T-shirt).

But I'm glad to say it worked okay this time, and I'm happy with the results. Breht's character develops a little more, and we're introduced to new characters and new cultural realities (I won't explain that last part. You'll have to find out for yourself). And we get to explore zombies a bit further, gleaning some more information about how they act and why. I'll say no more, but the book is out on Amazon and Amazon UK (plus Amazon sites around the world), and you can check out a sample to see what I mean. Enjoy.

Saturday 7 January 2017

Surviving A Zombie Apocalypse: The Basics

Everybody knows how to survive a zombie apocalypse, right? You've seen the movies and TV shows, and you know you just need to grab an assault rifle or shotgun and head over to your local mall. Or an abandoned prison. If you're in Britain, you head to the pub. You shoot zombies in the head, decide on a code of conduct for the group and never, ever suggest that you should all split up to explore the seemingly empty supermarket. Apart from that, just make sure no one gets bit.

Sounds simple enough. When you're not killing the undead, you'll spend your downtime having whispered conversations with those you trust, and arguments with those you don't. The social drama will only be interrupted by encounters with other human groups who'll hate you for no particular reason, other than being assholes. And occasionally you'll have to search for that annoying individual who thought it was safe to leave the group and wander into the woods alone.

Piece of cake, really.

Pah! As if. That doesn't even scratch the surface of what'll happen if society were to suddenly collapse and the majority of its former citizens decided to turn round and eat you. A zombie apocalypse may be a fictional event (and honestly, I'm not going to pretend it's anything but, in spite of what some people think), but since the fall of Babylon, humans have survived one apocalypse after another, so we can actually paint a pretty good picture of what it might be like. The basics of what you need to survive don't really change much, and most TV shows tend to skip over, well, all of it.

So let's take a look at what you really should be thinking about, starting with the highest priority.

Water Is Everything
Yes, even in a zombie apocalypse, your biggest problem is going to be water. Not shotgun shells or canned food, but water. It doesn't matter how badass you are with your crossbow and Katana, if you don't have access to clean water, there's a good chance you'll catch cholera and shit your brains out until you die. Remember the pictures that charities send us showing some African kid with a distended stomach drinking out of a muddy puddle? That'll be you. If it wasn't bad, they wouldn't be asking for your money.

If 80% of the population dies off and society collapses, the power grid will cease to function and those pumps that give you that life-saving liquid from your taps will stop working. With the water treatment plants idle, most of what's in the system will get contaminated anyway. Water may cover 71% of the Earth's surface, but the truth is, most of it will kill you. If you think modern pollution or fluoride is a problem, wait till you get a load of all the parasites that can live in just a single droplet.

Medieval peasants drank beer. It wasn't because they were alcoholics, but because the boiling process killed bacteria and the alcohol preserved it from re-contamination. They even gave weak beer to children. Because the water wasn't safe to drink straight from the stream. Or the well.

First rule of survival then is: make sure you can sterilise your water. And here's where your problems begin. You can hoard bottled water in your bunker, but it'll run out, and you'll only last three days without it. So you're going to be spending a lot of time getting water. And boiling it. And gathering wood to boil it.

Got a stream and a wood near your house? Because that's what you'll need. Once the stores and vending machines have been cleared out, you'll have to think strategically about your location. Just like humans have always done. There's a reason the first towns and cities were sited by rivers.

But what if the woods are full of zombies? Then a simple problem just got a whole lot more complicated.

An easier way to get water is from the sky. We call it rain. Catch it in a clean container, and most times (it's not 100% pure) it will be safe to drink. Bottle it immediately, and you've got something to travel with. If you opt for a tank or barrel to catch runoff from the back of your shack, though, you'll have problems again. General rule of thumb: if your water can be accessed by insects or rodents, it'll be contaminated with parasites pretty quick. So you need to boil it, and that means another trip into the zombie-infested woods.

There's an ingenious solution for if you're on your own, and you can use it if you're hunkered down or on the move. It's a Solar Still.

What's a Solar Still? Basically, it's a way of getting the sun to evaporate dirty water from one source, and condense it onto a separate surface so it's safe to collect. The impurities don't evaporate, so you end up with clean water. And the best part is that you can make one from a can and a plastic bottle, so it's something anybody can do.

You won't end up with a lot of water, but it'll keep you alive. Problem is, it'll only really work on sunny days. So if you live in Britain, you're screwed. And in winter, the sun may not be enough to generate the necessary heat for evaporation.

Of course, even in Britain, the difference between night and day temperatures means that you'll get dew on plants and surfaces most mornings, all year round (but not so much when it's windy), so if you're up early, you can soak it up with a cloth and wring out the liquid into a container. You'll get as much as you're willing to work for. Is it safe? No, the surfaces will almost certainly be contaminated, so you'll have to boil it, which means another trip to the woods.

Did I mention there were zombies in the woods?

Okay, forget that. How about a natural spring? That's a fairly good option if you're in the mountains. Water from deep underground will be free of parasites, and fairly clear in appearance, so it'll look pure and fresh. The same goes for water from aquifers underground, though you'll need to drill down and find a way to pump it. Can you construct a hand pump?

It's not all good news though. While parasites, algae and plant life can't survive in the darkness underground, bacteria and viruses can. Certain rock strata also contain impurities like arsenic and sulphur. The latter will smell bad, but the former will make you smell bad when you're laid out dead and decomposing. So it's a bit of a lottery.

All this stuff gets even more complicated when you have a community of survivors. Water needs are multiplied, and the whole group will have to learn to think strategically. One wrong step could cripple the community with a debilitating illness that will take the children and the elderly first, so make sure you've got your plans in place and implement them immediately. And start home brewing.

Food Doesn't Grow On Trees
Well, technically, it does, but if you're used to city living, you'll be surprised at how difficult it is to conjure up the stuff. Accustomed as we are to regular store deliveries and imports from different latitudes, making sure you've got food to eat all year round is going to come as a bit of a shock after the apocalypse. And the further north you are, the tougher it gets. There's a reason why Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia are thinly populated, even in these modern times. Max Brooks, in World War Z, posited that humanity's remnants would move closer to the poles, because the extreme cold would freeze the undead and neutralise them as a threat. Unfortunately, those lands are limited in their ability to support a given population. Even the smarts of an Inuit can't make the land yield more for that many people.

But that's all long term stuff. At the height of the outbreak, when you've bugged out with your bottled water and canned peaches, you'll be fine for food. Your water will run out quicker, and then you'll be screwed, but food will be less of an issue. If you're willing to slug it out with the panic stricken mob at the local superstore and brave the shoot-to-kill policy of a desperate military trying to quell the looting, then it's all there for the taking: chocolate, biscuits, twinkies and more chocolate. All the luxuries of modern civilisation, just sitting there on the shelves.

Until it runs out. Which won't take long. After that, you'll get to enjoy a hunter-gatherer existence, searching for those last elusive cans while playing hide and seek with zombies. It's easier for them. They don't bother with canned goods because they like their food fresh. Free range, if you will. And you're it. Takes a lot of calories to keep one step ahead of them, and you'll find that harder to get.

Fruit trees will keep on fruiting, no matter how much you're screaming as you run down the road, so if you can find some in gardens or orchards, it'll be good. But it'll be the only fresh food you can get, as the rest of the stuff in fridges and deli counters will rot. And the biscuits won't last long either. There's still dried foods like pasta, noodles and flour, and a year later this stuff will still do you good. But you'll need water. Remember water? Yeah, you'll have your own problems getting hold of that.

Water is at least simple. If it doesn't make you ill, it'll provide your body with hydration. Food, on the other hand, has to be varied. You need proteins, vitamins, trace elements, etc. Miss out on any of these things, and you'll develop skin conditions, gum recession, heart palpitations, constipation, and a bunch of other symptoms. Eating nothing but corned beef may be boring, but your life can get a whole lot more interesting when you develop scurvy and your teeth fall out.

Because someone will mistake you for a zombie and shoot you.

Food's hard enough to find when you're on your own, but if there's a group of you, foraging won't be enough. The fights over who gets to eat the last hot dog won't be pretty. And hunger will cause havoc with your social life. As Joseph Conrad wrote in Heart Of Darkness:

No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is; and as to superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze.

Group cohesion is going to be hard to maintain if basic needs aren't met. Good manners will avail you not. For any community, sustainability is everything and you'll need to provide for everybody's needs from the get-go.

So where can you build your community? That's easy. According to many stories and TV shows, you just head to your nearest farm. Lots of fertile land, crops, livestock and space to breathe. You can chill out with a more traditional life, getting 'back to nature', no longer bothered by the hectic 9-5 of modern urban life. You can till the soil with satisfaction, knowing that you are living by the fruits of your labour, with no artificial additives in your food. It's all fresh. You can chew on a stalk of wheat and shout 'Carrrrrrrrrrrrrl' to your heart's content.

Pfft! Have you seen what a modern farm's like? The farmer only buys seed once or twice a year, sowing it immediately, so you won't find any for a second crop. Most of the seeding, ploughing and spraying is contracted out, anyway. At best, you'll find a barn with dried grain (for the livestock) or potatoes. And any livestock that hasn't already been devoured by the zombie horde will have jumped the fences and gone feral. You'll be better off finding an orchard or a vineyard. At least you won't get scurvy.

And maintaining security on that much open land won't be easy. Your scrawny electric fence may keep cows and sheep in, but to a zombie that doesn't feel pain, it's just a single strand of wire. And how are you going to power it anyway? You're going to need a bigger fence - two to three metres high, at least. And a chain link fence won't be strong enough when there's a mob of undead pushing against it (they won't be half as compliant as the ones in The Walking Dead, content to let Rick get close to them without going absolutely apeshit. Ravenous hunger defines the undead). You're going to need steel security fences, and concrete to bury your posts. Do you have any idea how much foraging it will take to get all that, never mind erecting it (and that's assuming the zombies don't take a sabbatical while you're busy putting it up). You're going to have to patrol it regularly, and keep it maintained. And all that just to guard a few acres of land that you don't even have seeds for, because nobody thought to grab some seed packets on the way there.

Do you remember that famous scene where the survivors are huddled in a convoy of ramshackle vehicles, with the children crying and everybody looking tense? Just before opening the gates, the hero stands on the pickup bed, waving his carbine, and shouts, "To the garden centre!"

No, me neither. A garden centre is a way better option than the farm, though. You'll have shelter, fences, seeds, tools, compost and greenhouses. Just pray someone hasn't got there before you.

Eventually you plant your seeds. Then you wait. And wait. And wait. And argue over the last hot dog while the shoots are still sprouting. Takes a while to grow stuff, so, as with the water, you'll need to set it up the minute you get there. If you want to live, you won't have time to waste.

Growing food is hard work. Farmers have it down to a fine art because they can draw on centuries of tradition, plus modern technology - tractors with fuel, sprayers, fertiliser, etc. Even organic farmers benefit from the society they're a part of. Drag it back to the pre-industrial age, and growing and harvesting food is back-breaking work. And it only takes the wrong weather, an insect rampage or some innocuous plant disease to ruin an entire crop. Your post-apocalyptic farming community will do well if it can make it through the first winter - and you won't be able to import food from warmer climes to get you through Christmas. The food you harvested in the fall (if you managed to harvest any) will have to be preserved so it can last through till spring. So no, the food you'll be eating won't be fresh. You'll have to learn the art of pickling and salting.

If there's a river or lake in your chosen location (and you'd better make sure there is one) you can fish. And you can hunt - though that's another trip into the woods. If you've managed to acquire livestock, you can butcher some of them, but you'll need to give them time to reproduce. And your chickens can lay eggs, but your community won't survive on just that. Keeping cattle or sheep will take up a lot of space, so if you opted to stay at the garden centre, you'll have problems. These animals eat a hell of a lot of grass. And for the cattle to reproduce (and give milk) you'll need a bull. Don't even get me started on how many problems you'll have with that thing. And don't bother with goats - they'll leap the enclosure, devour your crops and start eating your painstakingly constructed fence. They're just stubborn chewing machines.

If you want manageable livestock, try rabbits. The Romans introduced them to Britain for precisely that reason, and medieval warreners cultivated them for their meat and fur. They take up less room and they breed like, well, rabbits. And there are millions of them across America and Europe. They're also voracious chewers though, and they don't need any lessons from Steve McQueen on how to dig their way out of a prison camp. On the bright side, they won't try to escape on motorbikes.

Meanwhile, the zombies are still out there, waiting to chow down on your guts. Won't be long before you have to break out the arsenal and mow those suckers down. In the next article: Surviving A Zombie Apocalypse Part Two, we'll review the most, and least, useful weapons to employ against the undead, plus a few other things. Until then, stay alert and try not to look too tasty.

*Cover art sourced from: Clipartkid