Disaster Writing: How Hurricane Sandy Became Hell of a Mess
Hurricane Sandy plowed into New York City in 2012. At the time I was living in Park Slope, a Brooklyn neighborhood with its share of minor problems and irritations. (Every time I stepped outside, I risked being crushed to death by phalanxes of baby strollers pushed by over-caffeinated yuppies.) But as the hurricane bore down on us, the Slope had one clear advantage over the rest of the city: It sat atop a very, very high hill.
I’d lived through natural disasters before; I’d even dozed through a tornado that tore the roofs off a bunch of houses in my old neighborhood. But Sandy was different. Overnight, it transformed my reality into something verging on the apocalyptic. Half of the city lacked electricity; the gasoline supplies quickly dwindled to nothing; the storm surge had crashed a sailboat into the middle of a nearby street.
Still, it could have been much worse. A friend of mine, as part of his work for a government agency that shall remain nameless, had spent years before Sandy modeling what would happen if New York City lost power and other resources in the wake of a natural disaster. He predicted the metropolis had two or three days at most before it succumbed to chaos. In reality, that didn’t happen, outside of some looting and window-smashing.
But because I’m a crime writer, I spent the post-Sandy days thinking a lot about what you could do in the liminal space after a disaster, before the social order could be fully restored. With the cops and emergency services occupied with the destruction, and the majority of the populace focused on survival, you would have the space and time to do all sorts of things. Break into a safe. Pull off that high-profile assassination. Rob a museum.
The idea lingered in my head for years, finally becoming Hell of a Mess, my new novel of suspense. In the book, I decided to make the hurricane hitting New York much worse than Sandy—I wanted to convey the sense that my protagonists were in constant danger from both the elements and the people around them. A natural disaster might eliminate the risk of police finding out about your high-stakes robbery—but it also negates the possibility of help reaching you if you’re in real trouble.
I also discovered that structuring a plot along the timeline of a major hurricane is weird, hard work. Characters can’t simply navigate from point A to B, at least not during the storm’s climactic hours. Even opening a door to the outside can become a complicated endeavor, thanks to the extreme differentials in air pressure and wind (something I learned firsthand during Sandy when I tried leaving a building). I ended up setting a good deal of action during the passing-over of the hurricane’s eye, simply because that allowed the surviving characters to walk around outside relatively unencumbered.
If you’re writing a thriller set during a disaster, keep all of that in mind: You have so many more opportunities to generate danger and suspense (and emotion), but the logistics of disaster are intricate. It’s helpful to research and diagram everything out beforehand, even if you’re not typically a planner when it comes to writing (especially if you’re not a planner). A reader might not have lived through the disaster in question, but they have an intuitive sense of when the author hasn’t done their homework.
About Hell of a Mess by Nick Kolakowski:
The heist should have been a simple one: infiltrate the top floor of a luxury New York City penthouse, steal a server with compromising data from under the noses of the unsuspecting guards, and slip back out. Fiona, master thief and occasional assassin, has pulled off similar jobs dozens of times. But with a massive hurricane bearing down on the East Coast, the timing is tight and the escape routes are limited—and that’s before she discovers something horrific in the penthouse’s master bedroom.
Now Fiona’s on the run, trying to stay one step ahead of rising floodwaters and an army of hired assassins. Her husband Bill, the finest hustler between Florida and Maine, can’t help her: he’s been kidnapped by a group of dirty cops who want the secret millions left by his former employer. The night will take the two of them from the heights of money and power in Lower Manhattan to a haunted island in the East River where no secrets stay buried forever.
It’s going to be one hell of a night… and one hell of a mess.