One of the things I enjoy most about writing time-travel novels set in twentieth-century America is learning about the people, customs, and events that defined particular eras. This is particularly true with events like natural disasters, events no movie studio could improve.
I found many of these cataclysmic events to be fascinating stories in their own right and did my best to incorporate them into my books. In four of my eight novels, in fact, I have used natural disasters as backdrops, starting points, and/or climactic turning points.
In The Journey, I bring my protagonist in close proximity to the May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St. Helens. In The Fire, I devote several chapters to the Great Fire of 1910, a relatively little known but widely destructive inferno that charred three million acres of pristine forestland in Washington, Idaho, and Montana.
In both books, the main characters know a disaster is coming but can do little more than spare a precious few from harm. The same is true in September Sky, where a reporter and his college-age son try to minimize the impact of a hurricane they know will strike Galveston, Texas, in 1900 and claim several thousand lives.
I like incorporating natural disasters into my stories because they provide added drama, sharpen distinctions, and bring out the best and worst in people. Timid men and women become heroes in an instant, while some of the cocky and powerful become cowards.
I learned this when researching The Fire, set in Wallace, Idaho. As the flames closed in on the isolated and vulnerable mountain town on August 20, 1910, many men helped women and children escape by loading them onto trains. A few acted less nobly. They pushed others out of the way in an effort to save themselves, much like some men did on the RMS Titanic less than two years later.
I didn’t use a natural disaster to draw out heroes and cowards in Indiana Belle, but I did use one to get the novel off to a roaring start. A few chapters into the book, my protagonist comes face to face with the Tri-State Tornado, a mile-wide tempest that killed nearly seven hundred people in the Midwest on March 18, 1925.
Reading about these disasters made me appreciate modern technology all the more. People who confronted wildfires, hurricanes, and tornadoes in the early 1900s did not have television, smartphones, the Internet, or Doppler radar to alert them to pending doom. They faced nature’s wrath blindly.
Part of the fun of researching the books that featured the disasters was visiting the disaster sites themselves. I visited Wallace in 2013, Galveston in 2014, and southwest Indiana earlier this year. The first two venues offer several museums, historical sites, and attractions that commemorate their respective calamities.
I visited Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument -- pictured above in 2005 -- several years before writing The Journey. It is an attraction no one with a memory of the May 1980 eruption or its aftermath should miss when visiting Washington state.