Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Where Do You Get Your Ideas? How About the Ice Storm of the Century.

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?


  1. Here in New Jersey we’ve muddled through hurricanes, snow storms, and Superstorm Sandy . . . as a child I remember a few days of no school for the worst of the hurricanes and snowstorms, but the longest I can recall being without power is about a day. We’ve been fortunate in that the worst storm did not devastate our home as happened with so many. Since my children spent their early years in California, we’d have to travel back to New Jersey or drive into the mountains to play in the white stuff, but the trade-off on that was that we had earthquakes. Lesson learned from all that? Mother Nature always wins . . . .

  2. We've had two 8-day periods of no power, after Irene and after Sandy. But it wasn't cold and icy--that's awful. My sweet hub had had surgery the friday before Irene, so he was very fragile and unavailable to help with any of the no-power chores. I still remember the scathing look the person behind us in line at the grocery store 4 towns away gave him--as I hoisted a 30 lb bag of ice onto the checkout counter!

    Julia, you used that ice storm to brilliant effect in the new book!

  3. I lived through that ice storm, but it wasn't so bad for us on a state route in northeastern Massachusetts. We had our power back in a day or two, although a neighbor on a side street had to wait two weeks!

    I've lived through some 120-degree days in West Africa. Always had water to drink, though, and shade to sit in.

    In terms of disasters, I guess my personal worst (although it isn't really weather, per se) was the Sylmar, California earthquake of 1971. We lived about an hour from the epicenter. Our house shook and swayed and rattled for what seemed like a long, long time. It held together but the elderly clients I delivered prescriptions to later in the day were very rattled by all the aftershocks.

  4. Those photos are amazing. I was not looking forward to winter... and now I'm really not.

    Ice storms are really scary. I once slid off the road in one. You can't see black ice, and conditions can change so much even just a few miles away and at a slightly different elevation.

    I had to wear my coat to read parts of In the Bleak Midwinter.

  5. My home has a flat roof, so the Snowmageddon event of just a few years back (here on the East Coast) was a stressful time.

    It held up well to the feet of snow that piled on it, but there were several times where we had to climb up there to get some of it down for fear that the roof would cave in.

    Once it was all over, it was to the store to buy a snow-blower, so as not to be stuck in the position of shoveling tons and tons of snow from the sidewalk again. Alas, as one would expect, very little snow since.

  6. Sandy will be my weather story someday. By flashlight, we watched the Atlantic Ocean lap against our front steps, wondering if and when it would stop rising. A house full of family; lower-built neighbors who'd lost everything needing our help; state troopers from Alabama and MIssissippi protecting the whole town from the looting that went on elsewhere. Lots of great background conflict, but I don't have the story yet. For sure it won't have a prologue. (inside joke for Seascapists).

  7. Oh I remember the ice storm. Here in the mountains we were without power for only a few days. Which was surprising because we lose power at the drop of a branch usually. I can't complain too much about it. We had heat thanks to the woodstove and the town water worked. It was eerily beautiful and quiet.

    We were in Massachusetts during the Blizzard of '78. That was something else! We were living on Cape Cod and I was working in Hyannis; my husband was in Lexington. I called him early in the day and told him to come home; forecast was for a doozie. They finally let him out of work around 2PM. His story of that drive down Routes 128, 24, and 25 is chilling. He met a policeman around Middleborough who couldn't believe he had made it that far. He had to dodge cars that had just stopped on the highway. He had to dig himself out at times using only a hubcap. He stopped at a HoJo that was packed with people but didn't even have coffee left. Somehow he made it home over 12 hours after he started. And this wasn't with 4WD - he was in a '67 Firebird. He was actually talking to himself by the time he drove onto the front lawn, missing the driveway completely. The cop had followed him home just to be sure.

    I was safely still in Hyannis. I stayed with a co-worker and drove home the next morning - everything was closed. I had to go to work the next day (Barnstable County was open) but the rest of eastern Massachusetts was shut down for a week.

    At the end of that week my father-in-law died. The town they lived in was fantastic. They cleared the snow around my in-laws' home so people could park there.

    Sorry I droned on. It was a horrible week!

    And, yes Julia, you do use the ice storm experience perfectly in the new book!

  8. Thanks for the kind words, Lucy, Hallie, Marianne.
    Jack, I suspect Hurricane Sandy will fuel a lot of great fiction. Don't worry about taking time to find the story - obviously, I wrote my ice storm book 14 years after the actual event!

  9. Snowstorm in northwest Indiana, 1967 I think. I was about 16. Power out for a few days (certainly not 9!) but the phones were working. Huge snowdrifts. Country roads with fairly deep ditches on the sides. My mother couldn't make it home from work so stayed with friends who lived about 4 miles away. After a day or so she decided it was time to come home. Not quite sure of the urgency, since my sister (13), 2 little brothers & I lived on property with my grandparents, and they HAD power where my mom was. My sister and I were told by my grandmother to "just walk over there and get your mother." Seemed strange since my mother was the poster child for someone non-athletic and fearful of the unknown, but also the poster child for stubborn, and who was going to argue with grandma? Anyway, we trudged over there, had some hot chocolate to warm up, thought we'd really like to just stay there where they had hot water and television, but started for home. The walk home consisted of pushing and pulling my mother and cajoling her when she said said she was tired. But the highlight of that walk was when we heard "Ooof!" and turned around just in time to see our mom's head disappear off the side of the road. She had walked into a ditch and a snowdrift deeper than she was tall!

    Another fun winter experience was an ice storm and record cold (60 below windchill) in Chicago in about 1994. I slipped and slid out to the parking lot at work, chipped at the lock to open my car, scraped my front window a bit, decided that was too hard and would be easier to get in the car and run the heater so the windows would warm up. Great idea, until I rolled down the window and the sheet of ice on it was now melted enough to drop right into my lap.

    I live in California now. Today the high will be 81 degrees.

  10. Yup, we survived the ice storm of '98 here in Wilton, Maine AND we have the t-shirts to prove it. And like Julia, I used bits of it in my fiction (The Corpse Wore Tartan in the series I write as Kaitlyn Dunnett). Looking forward to reading about Claire and Russ coping with a similar event.


  11. Kathy/Kaitlyn, I'm also in Franklin County!

    I must look for your books.

  12. Julia, I've been looking forward to THROUGH THE EVIL DAYS, and this post increases my anticipation tenfold.

    At the time of the '98 Ice Storm I was living on Peaks Island, and by some miracle, we did not lose power. The ferries were running on schedule for the most part, and I was in the middle of writing a brief with a fast-approaching filing deadline. With no ability to work from home (this was 1998 folks) I armed myself with an old pair of ski poles for stability and every morning that week picked my way to the boat, crossed the water to Portland, and picked my way up into the Old Port. At the end of each day, I reversed course.

    I remember screaming in relief each night when I stepped into the house, grateful to have made it home without a broken bone. Even with the ski poles, every icy step was stressful. The(unshoveled, unsanded) hilly, brick sidewalks in the Old Port were the most treacherous, and also eerily empty. If I'd wiped out, I would have been on my own.

  13. In early June 2005, my husband went to San Diego for a conference. It was the rainy season -- the 3 weeks in late May and early June when we get heavy rains here at the foot of the Swan Mountains and it's warm enough in the mountains that the moisture is rain, not snow, accelerating the snow melt and doubling the run-off. So the ground was saturated, the aquifers were full and the groundwater rising, the seasonal drainage stream through our property was overflowing, and the rain kept falling.

    And then that combination triggered a short in the pump switch and for three days, home alone, I had no water. We always keep drinking water, so I was okay, stranded here on my little island. I called the pump repair guy -- there's only one in the valley -- and of course, it was a weekend. He tried to walk me through repairs over the phone -- starting with bailing, by lowering a bucket on a rope into the well housing! No luck. I was at the head of the list for repairs, but his kid was graduating from high school that weekend and he had a full house and a full schedule. Bless him, the man made it out anyway, eventually.
    But meanwhile, I had fun. Since I had water, I cooked. (No dishwashing!)And I read. I had a stack of Jerrilyn Farmer's Mad Bean books and I read them all and cooked everything she inspired that I could make with things on hand -- my driveway was washed out -- and it was a blast.

    Took days for the flooding to subside, and we had to boil water for a week because of possible well contamination. It was a highly visual lesson in the importance of protecting the aquifer -- and the river, less than half a mile away -- and we changed all our cleaning products and fertilizers to non-petroleum, naturally derived products, which we still use.

    I guess I'd better put that in a book!

  14. I lived in NE Ohio for 18 years, and Minnesota for 6. So we had snow and ice, but nothing too drastic that I remember. Moving to Ohio from Texas taught me about black ice. Bleah. And about knocking heavy wet snow from your bushes before they broke. And about checking your wipers to make sure they weren't frozen to the windshield before turning them on. (MY husband burned out the wiper motor on My car, naturally). We were in place in Houston when Ike came in a few years ago. We were really lucky. We didn't lose our power. My parents moved in for a few days until theirs was restored. My little brother came next. We had friends over using the computer, and the laundry facilities. A block over people on one side of the street had power, the other side didn't. All these extension cords were running from one side to the other. People gave their ice away as soon as they didn't need it. We've been lucky. Up north or down south, whatever the weather disaster, we have not been without power for more than a few hours at most.

  15. Julia, the ice storm in THROUGH THE EVIL DAYS was its own character--amazing! (I won one of your previous ARC giveaways.) I love understanding where it came from. Wow.

    I'm lucky, living on the west coast. I haven't experienced anything too bad, but then I guess it's all relative. Being a snow wimp, I was totally caught out about a decade ago by snow that built up and froze over. Since I don't own tire chains, I was stuck, and for three days had to trudge to the store in my hiking boots (not owning snow boots).

    I grew up in CA with earthquakes though. Those were always fun.

  16. Did you know we have ice storms here in North Texas? (As well as triple-digit summer heat... Oh, and tornadoes, of course.) That said, we've never gone more than a day or so without power. In an ice storm a couple of winters ago, my dear hubby permanently damaged his shoulder by trying to chop the sheet ice off our driveway. We couldn't get a car out for five days.

    We were actually snowed in on Christmas Day last year, which turned out to be lovely. My daughter and now son-in-law made it over. I'd cooked, knowing the forecast was ominous, and we four spent the day in front of the fire, watching movies.

    I did put a snowstorm in a book--the storm in Crystal Palace at the end of The Sound of Broken Glass. I didn't experience it personally, but my friend who lived there did, and his descriptions inspired a big part of the plot!

  17. PS Julia, I LOVED the storm in Through the Evil Days!!!! Talk about a great plot tension device! It was nice to learn what inspired it.

  18. I read TTED on a sunny beach in Italy - and still felt like the ice storm was coming. The way you integrated the storm into the book reminded me of something Stuart Kaminsky once said about having a man enter the room with a gun!
    Your storm was like a man with the gun!

  19. we had just bought a tree filed acre in indiana when an major ice storm came thru and shut power down to most of the city. i made my husband drive me to the property (over closed roads) so i could be sure my tress were still standing!!!!!!!!!

  20. I lived through one helluva ice storm one winter in Sewanee, TN, on top of a mountain. We were hit with the full power of the storm - at a boarding school with 100 teen age girls - and no johns, no water, no food, no nothing! The first couple of days they thought it was fun - til the plumbing backed up, no washing hair, no hot food, you get the drift. As Headmistress I was pretty busy. After a week we finally closed down the school , hired some busses and sent them home to their maids and lovely southern mansions! We faculty cut down trees and pushed the logs in through the ground floor windows to the big fireplace in the main building. It was kinda fun, in a way - but I never want to do it again!! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

  21. I live on a little road in the country in Qu├ębec. During the icestorm of 1998, I lost the power for 30 days. My husband had left home during fall and I was alone to do everything : bring water to drink, cook, clean, flush, bring wood in the house to feed the stove and make sure nothing froze.
    It was one of the most difficult time of my life but I discovered a strenght I didn't know I possesed. I look forward to read what you wrote in relation with your experience.

  22. We periodically have bad ice storms out here in Kansas City (along with blizzards, triple digit summers, floods, and tornadoes). I've been through two of them that kept large chunks of KC without power for several weeks. For one, I had to go to another town to stay with relatives because I had a brand-new baby. It's one of the reasons my house is always full of quilts, afghans, shawls, and handmade blankets. Losing power in winter is not unusual--and no fun, at all.

    Loved how you used the storm in THROUGH THE EVIL DAYS. Magnificent use of weather!

  23. I can hardly wait to read about the ice storm in your latest book, Julia, although to tell the truth, I'd be anxiously anticipating the new book with or without an ice storm.

    As a native San Franciscan, now living in the Santa Cruz Mountains of Northern California for close to 30 years, I've never had the misfortune of being in an ice storm. We do get snow, and while it isn't usually more than five or six inches, we did get a foot and a half one year, which caused a four-day power outage. But living a mile away from the San Andreas fault line, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake gave us quite a ride.

    The afternoon it hit I was standing at the kitchen counter getting ready to feed our cats. My kitchen has 12 feet of windows that overlook a canyon, and for the 15 or so seconds the quake lasted the house rocked and rolled back and forth at least two feet over that canyon. I kept trying to make it outside, but each time I made my move the cupboards and drawers would all open and the refrigerator would roll out in front of me. I ended up just hanging on to the counter, praying the windows wouldn't shatter and the house wouldn't end up at the bottom of the barranca.

    We were incredibly fortunate. The only thing that shattered was a jar of jam that tumbled out of a cupboard. Other than that there were only some minor cracks in the plaster walls, but our bolted-to-bedrock foundation held and there was no major structural damage.

    After checking on our nearest neighbor who sometimes worked from home, I went back to our house and hunted down our cats, all five of whom were hiding out and one who peed on me, and put them in my car. I brought a water dish, litter box and blankies to make nests for them, and we just waited things out, listening to what turned out to be wildly inaccurate stories on the news.

    Amazingly, my husband made it home from the valley in about 45 minutes. I hadn't expected him to be able to get here at all, so was thrilled when he pulled into the driveway. He thought I was being silly when I told him the cats and I were spending the night in the car (the aftershocks were beyond unnerving), but after going inside to judge for himself, he spent the night with us. It was quite cozy.

    Power was out for four days, and after coming through the quake so well, we really didn't mind at all. We stock extra jugs of water for emergencies, and that covered our needs as well as the needs of the cats and the toilets. We invited our neighbors over for meals and cooked all the defrosted meat on our gas barbeque. We used our wood stove to heat water for cowboy coffee, instant oatmeal and washing up, and ate lots of canned pantry staples.

    Another nearby mountain community, Holy City, suffered devastating losses that ours was spared. Their entire water system collapsed, and for months following the quake their only source of water was from trailers that trucked it in and operated only certain hours of the day. Things for the residents were pretty damn bleak. Then someone whose name I wish I could remember came up with the idea to collect and distribute candy for the young Holy City residents on Halloween. She figured their parents were occupied with other things, and with increased expenses might not be able to afford extras like holiday treats. So several of us bought gobs and gobs of candy and brought it to the Holy City community center on the 31st, where we distributed it to dozens of happy, grateful little trick-or-treaters.

  24. Summer of '69, northern Ohio--the mother of all thunderstorms rolled through. I can remember widespread flooding, bridges and roads washed out--some abandoned and never repaired to this day. The cows standing on tiny hillocks in the pasture and sending the shepherd swimming through the water to bring the milk cows to the barn. But most of all, I remember the lightning and unceasing rolls of thunder, and of some tension in my dad--he gathered us all to safety in his arms, so to speak--everyone accounted for. It was only after I grew up that I understood his underlying fear--the sound of thunder the roar of cannons, the driving rain, the howling, all bringing back his wartime experiences in the jungles of New Guinea and the Philippines--where his job was to get his men safely through the raging storms of battle after battle. God love him, the past could not stay buried.

  25. When we lived in Wilmington, we were unable to return home from Raleigh because a hurricane had shut down most of the roads near the coast. That was nothing, though, compared to #2 son's experience as a student at Tulane during Katrina. We were very proud that he shuttled numerous friends to the airport and bus station rather than rescuing more of his own stuff.

  26. Wow, the ice storm of '98 being revived in your next book! My kids were 5 and 3, and we were only without power in Harrison for 6 days. We all slept in front of the fireplace in the livingroom, and cooked whatever was most thawed from the freezer on the grill. My daughter kept on say, "What did I do wrong? Why can't I watch Barney?" We read lots of books to the two kids, and had an odd diet. We saw patients in our office in Bridgton by flashlight on the first day. But, I never ever though, "Well, how would prisoners best mix with this situation?" REALLY looking forward to the book.