JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Here's the question every crime fiction writer gets: where do you get your ideas? The real answer - I don't know, I was staring out the window sorting socks and I suddenly wondered how long someone could survive being buried alive - is never socially acceptable. In my case, social issues play a part in many of my books, and thus I have a ready-made source to point to. I read an article on migrant workers. I saw a news report about returning soldiers. The idea that makes the frame for my story is almost always something extrinsic, not something I myself have lived through. Except for the latest book.
No, I don't have first-hand experience of meth brewers, or of arson, or of turning up five months pregnant after three months of marriage (although all these factor into the plot of THROUGH THE EVIL DAYS.) What I did live through was impassible roads, state-wide declarations of emergency, fallen power lines, and weeks without electricity in the coldest part of the year. Yes, I survived the Ice Storm of '98.
For me, the ice storm started with a bad weather forecast and my husband away in San Francisco on business. We lost power that January afternoon (I remember The Boy, then 4, repeatedly pressing the button on the VCR to get Aladdin to start up again.) Since we live out in the country and lose power when the wind blows too hard, I didn't take it amiss. If I had know it would be nine days before the electricity was turned back on, I probably would have grabbed a kid under each arm and hightailed it to Fort Lauderdale.
Ice storms require a precise set of weather conditions; a layer of warm air sandwiched between two layers of cold. Frozen precipitation falls from the upper layer, melts in the central layer, and supercools in the final layer, so that the still-liquid drops freeze upon contact with whatever they land on: roadways, branches, power pylons, telephone lines... the weight of the ice accumulates fast.
Back at my electricity-free house, I was bundled up in bed when a terrific cracking sound brought me bolt upright at 3am. It sounded as if someone had set off a cannon in the side yard. Our ash tree had split in two under the stress of the ice, knocking a pair of shutters off my house as it fell and narrowly missing our neighbor's bedroom windows. The next morning, we stomped through the yard, rain splattering and icing our hoods, and marvelled at the sight, as if a celestial axe had cloven the tree from crown to root. I was lucky - no serious damage occurred, and despite the fact that it continued to ice well into the next night, our roofs held. I moved the car to the bottom of the drive, which prooved to be a sound decision after a huge maple branch snapped off, blocking our upper driveway.
The roads were impassible. On the hand-cranked radio, I heard stories of three-level accidents: cars crashing, emergency vehicles going off the road attempting to respond, and finally, tow trucks sent to clear the mess skidding sideways and blocking the roads. Lines were down everywhere. No one had power. At my house, this meant no furnace, no running water (we have a well that doesn't work without an electrical pump) and no flushing toilets.
Ross and I (he got home two days late, when the Portland Jetport finally reopened) slept in shifts, rising every three hours to restock the woodstove and the two fireplaces, which, burning round the clock, kept our house at a balmy 50 degrees. I became an expert on cooking on the woodstove. We relocated all our perishables in coolers outside. I sent the children, 6 and 4, outside with hammers and instructions to smash the ice which lay six inches deep over everything and bring it inside in buckets. Melted on the woodstove, it was used for gravity flushing.
School was closed for days. We read books by candlelight, played Candyland and Parcheesi, drew pictures, sang songs. Elsewhere in Maine, barns collapsed, killing livestock, and people were rushed to hospital with carbon monoxide poisoning from faulty generator lines. We bunked the children together in the warmest room of the house, and made endless circles trimming candles, lighting them, snuffing them. The National Guard was called out. When the grocery store reopened, we had fresh milk for the first time in a week. Electrical crews came from as far away as North Carolina, working round the clock to restore power. Over half the population of the state was without electricity. When a crew finally made it to our country road, nine days after the beginning of the storm, I went out with a thermos of hot cocoa and thanked them personally.
The experience was one of the signal events of my life. At the time, In the Bleak Midwinter was just a few ideas jotted down on a legal pad, but I already thought the ice storm would make a great story. For years, I've wanted to write a thriller about a prison outbreak coinciding (and aided by) a massive ice storm. Alas, my turtle-like writing pace means it will be more years before I got to take a crack at that book. Finally, I thought why not put the ice storm into one of the Russ and Clare books?
Thus: THROUGH THE EVIL DAYS. An ARC of which one of you dear readers will be able to win if you tell me about your weather disaster. Any other survivors of the Great ice Storm of '98 among the Rederati?