Archive | February, 2014

Useful Resources For Zombie Authors

27 Feb

You might think that writing a good zombie novel is as simple as coming up with a good idea and then getting it down on paper, but there’s much more to it than that. In particular, one of the most intriguing and spine-tingling aspects of many zombie stories is that they take place in a world not too different from the one the reader lives in, except for the zombies of course, and that leaves them feeling like it could happen to them. This means that you need to work hard to make sure that the zombie-filled world you create still feels real, and you need to make sure that you don’t have survivors doing the physically impossible, that you don’t have guns which can fire an infinite number of shots without having to be reloaded, cars driving vast distances without ever stopping for more fuel, and so on.

You might think you can gloss over the details, but you’d be wrong. It’s the little things that can make the difference between a story working really well, and it falling flat on its face. It doesn’t help that if you make even a minor mistake, someone somewhere will spot it (and there’s a good chance that, one way or another, they’ll let you know!). For example, if you have a character using a specific model of gun, you can guarantee that someone will be counting the bullets which it fires before the character stops to reload, and they will be quick to point out if it’s more than that specific weapon can hold.

So how do you get the details right? Well, sometimes, you can fill in the details about things from your own experiences (like how hard it is to kick a door down – much more difficult than they make it look on television!), but many other times you’ll need to do a bit of research to make sure that you get them right. This means you need to become an armchair expert in things as diverse as guns, car mechanics, geography, survival skills, medicine and first aid, epidemiology, and even human anatomy. For the first time writer, working out where to find all this information can seem daunting, but it’s not as hard as it might at first seem, especially in a world where you can google just about anything and come up with an answer. Of course, you also have to remember that just because it comes first in a search engine, it doesn’t make the information contained on a website right.

With this in mind, here’s a few resources which zombie authors are likely to find useful. I’ll start with two general ones:

1. Wikipedia: Wikipedia is often my first stop when looking for information on any subject, and it generally proves reliable (although not always in-depth enough). If you find it useful, or if you use it regularly, consider making a donation to keep it going, and advert free.

2. Google Earth: This is a great, and I suspect greatly under-used, resource for writers. You use it to check up on the layout of cities, to work out how long it would take to get from place to place, to plan out escape routes and search for great places to hide out. If you want to make sure that your zombie story fits neatly into an existing landscape, this is the resource for you.

Now for some more topic-specific ones:

1. Diseases: If you’re going down the route of having your zombies caused by a disease, you’ll need to make sure your disease plays by the rules. This means tracking down information about how diseases spread and how they affect people (especially if you’re going to base your zombie disease on a real disease). For this, I’d recommend checking out the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website as it has lots of helpful information (although you may have to dig around to find just what you’re looking for). They also have a web portal of toxic substances which might also prove useful.

2. Military Hardware: if you’re going to have a strong military element within your zombie novel, you’ll need to make sure that you know your howitzers from your hand grenades. One of the best places to find out more about military hardware is through the Military.com equipment guide. It will tell you all you’ll need to know about almost any type of weapon you can imagine (and possibly a few you can’t).

3. Vehicles: Vehicles can be tricky. How far could you drive on half a tank? Would you really be able to take it off-road and keep it in one piece? How full could you cram it with people or gear or cases of spam raided from the nearest warehouse before it refuses to go anywhere? If this is what you need to find out, try the car specifications data base from Carfolio.com. They claim to have technical specifications on just about everything that’s ever been produced.

4. Vehicle maintenance: If you need to have your characters fix cars or cannibalise them for spare parts, you’ll need to know about mechanics. For specific vehicles, one of the best places to start is the relevant Haynes manual. This will show you how to take your vehicle apart and put it together again, and help you include just the right details when you’re writing about it.

5. Survival Skills: For years, the place to find out about survival skills was the SAS Survival Handbook, and I think I still have my old copy floating around somewhere from when I was a teenager. Nowadays, much of the same information can be found online. One good source of information is the Wilderness Survival Guide where you can find lots of handy hints about how to survive in the wild (although it doesn’t cover how to fend off marauding zombies – a bit of an oversight on their part if you ask me!).

6. Medical Skills: Writing about medical skills and procedures, and getting it right can be difficult. Generally, my advice would be to find a friendly doctor and ask their advice on anything medical, but if you don’t have that option, you can try The Wilderness First Aid Handbook for information about how someone with only basic first aid training might be able to deal with accidents and injuries in a realistic manner. If you need something that is a bit more technical, especially related to injuries likely to be suffered from guns and other weapons, and how characters might deal with them, you can try the Emergency War Handbook to see if it has any useful tips. It will also help inform you about what levels of injury are survivable and what aren’t.

7. Human Anatomy And Physiology: If you want to find out anything about the human body and how it works, the best place to start if Gray’s Anatomy (no, not the overly-schmulchy TV series, but the book which it stole its name from). For the last 150 years, it has been the book on what humans look like on the inside. Yes, it can be a bit technical in places, but it will have the information you’re looking for.

8. Military Strategy: Many zombie novels strongly feature military reactions and/or strategies in the response to a zombie apocalypse – either through the conventional military, or militias set up by survivors. Either way, knowing a bit about military strategy will help you to make things as realistic as possible. If you want a case in point, read Max Brook’s World War Z. Almost all the military strategies and set pieces he featured in that have been lifted straight out of real military history (it’s just that he’s applying it to fighting zombies and not badly behaved neighbouring countries!). A good starting point to learn more about military strategy is a books called (perhaps unsurprisingly) Military Strategy: Principles, Practices, and Historical Perspectives by John M. Collins.

9. psychopaths: Within zombie good zombie novels, the struggles between survivors can be just as important as the struggles against the zombies. Think, for example, of The Governor in The Walking Dead. Yet, getting the bad guys just right can be difficult. This is because it is too easy to slip into stereotypes and leave the villans feeling a bit one-dimensional, especially if you’re aiming to portray them as somewhat psychopathic. If you want to get these types of characters right, a good starting point is to read a book called Without Conscience: The disturbing World Of The Psychopaths Among Us. It’s written by Robert Hare, the world expert on psychopaths, and reading it will help you get your baddies feeling just right and true to life. I’d also recommend reading this so that you can learn to spot any psychopaths you may run into in your everyday life (and with psychopaths making up 1% of the population, this will happen more often than you might expect).

Finally, there’s the zombie forums. A lot of these have sections specific to topics like selecting a vehicle, what weapons would be best for killing zombies and how to survive. They offer the opportunity for you to ask questions about even the most unusual zombie-related subjects and get an answer back from people who really know their stuff. Some also offer you the opportunity to discuss plot ideas, and get feedback on your novel as it progresses, which can be really useful when you’re stuck on how to get a specific scene to work and you just can’t see a way forward on your own. Of those available, these are amongst my favourites:

1. The Zombie Squad Forum: A great forum with separate message boards covering everything from weapons to survival skills, bug out bags, zombie biology and zombie combat tactics.

2. Homepage Of The Dead: The HtoD forum also covers a wide range of topics, but probably of most use is the Fiction Discussion section where you can discuss all things to do with writing zombie stories as well as sharing ideas or asking for help with problems.

3. Post-apocalyptic Forum: Not directly zombie-related, but still post-apocalyptic in nature. One particularly board is called Apocalypse Now where people post photos and links to real examples of what the world might look like once the zombies take over. Always good for a bit of inspiration when want to really get into the visual description of life in a post-apocalyptic world.

4. Permuted Press Forum: The Permuted Press Forum (publishers of a number of zombie books), provides a number of boards of interest to zombie writers. This includes their board about writing and the publishing business. It won’t really help you fill in the details, but it will help you with your writing in general.

These are just the resources which I use while writing, and I’m sure that there’s many others out there too which would be of use to zombie writers. If you have your own favourite and it’s not covered here, feel free to post it in a comment on this article with a brief note about what it is and why you find it useful.



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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

The Awakening – A Short Story About One Man’s Fight Against A Zombie Disease

24 Feb

‘John, can you hear me? John?’

I feel someone rub a knuckle against my sternum. My eyes are heavy, but somehow I pull them open. I try to turn my head, but I can’t; instead I move my eyes, even though it hurts to do so. A shadow leans over me and I feel liquid dropping first onto one eyeball then the other. I blink to clear my eyes and find I can now move them without the pain; as things come into focus, I’m surprised to find I’m lying on a bed. No, not just lying on it, I’m strapped to it and there’s something covering my mouth. Standing over me is a man in a white coat holding an empty syringe; next to him is a young woman in blue hospital scrubs holding an eye dropper and a small bottle of clear liquid. Seeing them, I pull at my restraints, not knowing what’s happening and desperately trying to get away.

The man in the white coat smiles reassuringly, ‘John, it’s okay, your safe. You’re in hospital; I’m a doctor. Do you remember why you’re here?’

I think back, but there’s nothing. Well, not nothing, there are memories of my childhood, of going to university, of getting married, of having children, but then things just seem to peter out. I remember something about getting ill, or was it having an accident? I fight to bring the memory to the front of my mind, feeling like I’m trying to drag my brain through molasses just to recall this single event. No, it wasn’t an accident, I’d been attacked by something; or was it someone?

The man in the white coat steps to the side, revealing a tall, scared-looking woman, ‘John, do you recognise who this is?’

I nod, or at least I try to, but I can only move my head few millimetres because of the way it’s strapped down.

‘Good, that means it’s worked, we’ve got you back; at least for the time being.’ The man gives a signal and unseen people remove the restraints and the gag that had been strapped across my mouth. I sit up but as I do so, my wrists grazing against the side of the bed sending a searing pain shooting through my body. I glance down and see my forearms are raw and bleeding. The man waves to someone and the young woman in hospital scrubs scurries forward to dress on my wounds.

I turn my attention back to the woman beside the man in white. I smile at her, ‘Gabrielle?’

She steps forward, a tear running down her cheek and I notice there’s something different about her. Her once beautiful hair hangs limply and is flecked with grey; her face is drawn and gaunt, with worry lines etched across her forehead. I can’t understand how she’s changed so much in so little time. Only yesterday, her eyes sparkled with happiness but now there’s only pain and despair in them. can’t help but be struck at how much older she suddenly looks than her thirty-five years. I know that’s how old she is because it was her birthday yesterday, wasn’t it? We’d gone out for a meal, but something happened, didn’t it? But what? My mind’s starting to connect the random thoughts more freely, but still I’m confused. ‘Gabrielle? What happened to you?’

‘Life happened, just like it happened to you.’

‘What d’you mean?’

‘Look.’ She holds out a mirror and I stare at the grizzled face which stares back. Not believing what I’m seeing, I touch the side of my face, feeling the rough stubble that’s more white than it’s usual auburn. I struggle to understand what’s going on. ‘How long have I been here?’

The doctor examines his chart but it’s Gabrielle that answers. ‘Ten years. Ten years today. That was when you got attacked; when you got infected.’

I scowl, trying to remember, but failing. ‘And I’ve been in a coma all this time?

‘No, John, not a coma. You’ve been … You’re a …’ She struggles to find the words.

The doctor steps forward, ‘Maybe I can explain better. I’m Dr Walker, but you can call me Ben if you want.’

I shake the hand he’s holding out, feeling the weakness in my arms as I do so. He doesn’t seem to notice and carries on. ‘You won’t remember it, but there was an outbreak, a disease; no one really knows what it was or where it came from, just that it flared up briefly and then disappeared. This disease, it took over people’s brains and made them attack anyone who was nearby. That’s how the disease spread, through infected people biting others. At first people thought it was rabies, but there was no trace of the rabies virus and rabies doesn’t spread quite as fast as this disease did. The government managed to get it under control, but most of the people who were infected had to be shot because they were too dangerous to get close enough to restrain, but you were lucky, your wife,’ the doctor smiles at Gabrielle, ‘managed to get you here before you started showing too many symptoms and we were able to restrain you.’

I’m still confused. ‘But I don’t remember anything.’

The doctor cleared his throat. ‘That’s because the disease shut down the conscious part of your brain, but left the basal areas unaffected. You could move and sense the world, but you weren’t consciously aware any more; you weren’t in control of what you were doing. It made you incredibly dangerous, you’d attack anyone who came near, trying to bite and infect them.’

‘Are you saying I was like … like a …’ I try to think of what I’m meaning, and then the world comes to me. ‘A zombie?’

Gabrielle looks away and the doctor shifts uncomfortably. ‘Yes. In fact, that’s exactly what we call people like you.’

‘But I’m still alive, I’m not really a zombie.’ Then something the doctor had just said wormed its way into my consciousness, ‘People like me? There are other people who have this disease too?’

‘Yes. There are thirty-eight of you in all, spread throughout the hospitals in the city. All kept in isolation, in rooms just like this, so you can’t infect anyone else.’

I struggle to comprehend what’s happened to me. ‘But I’m cured now?’

Again the doctor shifts uncomfortably. ‘No, not cured; just temporarily relieved from the worst effects of the disease, allowing you to regain control of you body and become conscious again.’

A wave of fear washes over me. ‘For how long?’

The doctor glances at his watch. ‘Thirty minutes; maybe forty at the most. I don’t know how long the drugs will last this time. It’s a new one you see, never been tried before.’

‘This time?’

‘Yes. We’ve brought you back before.’

I wrack my brain for memories. ‘But I don’t remember.’

‘I’m not surprised. It takes time to lay down memories and we’ve never managed to bring you back long enough for that to happen.’

‘Why do the drugs stop working?’

‘We don’t know, it seems to be that the disease fights back and block off the receptors which the drugs stimulate. That’s why each drug only works once in each person.’

I try to take this all in, but I’m struggling. There is one question which springs to mind though. ‘What will happen when the drug you used this time wears off? Will I go back to being a zombie again?’

The doctor stares down at his feet. ‘Yes.’

I’m angry now. ‘So why did you bring me back if it’s not going to last?’

Gabrielle sits down beside me and hugs me. I remember her scent and the feel of her skin against mine. ‘Because I asked him to, because I wanted to see you, the real you, one last time.’ I feel her shake and realise she’s crying. ‘Because I wanted to say good-bye.’

I try to pull away, but she’s holding me too tightly. ‘I can’t go on like this, seeing you strapped down, struggling against the restraints. I need to move on with my life.’

I finally break free. ‘But Gabrielle, you can’t leave me, not now, not when I’m like this!’

This is the only woman I’ve ever loved and I thought she loved me too. I can’t believe she’s abandoning me, not when I need her most.

She holds my hand. ‘I’m not leaving you, John, you left me the moment you got infected. It wasn’t your fault, but I can’t keep doing this. In ten years, I’ve only been able to spend thirty minutes with you here; quarter of an hour there: maybe half a day in all. I can’t go on like this, with just brief snatches of the real you now and then; the rest of the time you’re as good as dead.’

Before I can say anything I notice my hand is shaking. At first I think it’s because I’m upset, but then I realise it seems to be doing it on its own.

The doctor sees me staring at it, and checks his watch. ‘Only ten minutes. Damn, I thought we’d get more time with this one.’

Gabrielle kisses me on the cheek and stands up.

‘Gabrielle? Where are you going?’

She bows her head and turns away from me. ‘I’m leaving. I don’t want to watch as I lose you all over again.’

‘But Gabrielle …’

‘No, John, not this time. This will be the last time. I’ve told them not to give you any more drugs. I won’t bring you back again.’

Anger rises inside of me; not normal anger, but something more consuming. ‘But why?’

At the door she stops and turns round to face me. ‘Because it’s unfair to you, John. I keep bringing you back so I can see you, spend time with you, hold you once more, whenever a new drug becomes available no matter how much it costs, but I realise now I’m being selfish; I’ve only been thinking about what I want, not what’s best for you. You don’t remember the times I’ve brought you back before; the anger you feel, the pain as the disease takes over again, the fear in your eyes as you know once more that you’re disappearing again. I can’t keep doing that to you just so I get to spend a few more minutes with you. I love you too much to put you through all that again just because I’d give anything to have you back the way you were, even if it’s only for the briefest of moments.‘

I feel my arm jolt and an urge rushes over me. Suddenly I want nothing more than to tear her throat out. I feel a hunger build inside me. I try to speak, but words don’t come out; instead there’s just a low guttural groan, sounding more animal than human. My eye sight starts to blur around the edges and the world starts to close in around me. I fight as hands from unseen orderlies grab me and roughly push me back onto the bed. I feel the restraints being attached again, but I don’t feel pain as they chaff against my wounds, turning the fresh dressings red as blood oozes from them. I shake my head violently, trying to stop them putting the gag over my mouth, not because I want to speak, but because I know that once it’s on I won’t be able to bite them, and all I want to do right now is sink my teeth into someone’s flesh; anyone’s.

The last thing I hear is Gabrielle saying goodbye, her voice cracking and filled with sorrow; then a door closes and everything’s slowly fading to black. In my mind, I’m frozen with fear, screaming as loud as I can into the darkness that’s engulfing me, but my body’s still moving, fighting as hard as it can against the restraints, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.

***

You can download a PDF of this story from here.



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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

If You Became A Zombie, Would You Ever Want To Become Human Again?

21 Feb

I’m working on a short story at the moment which is inspired by the movie ‘Awakenings‘. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s the true story of one doctor’s attempts to reach people who’ve become locked in a catatonic state by a disease they caught as a child. Decades later, he found a drug that managed to awaken them (hence the title), but their rest-bite was only brief and soon they slipped away again, but all the time knowing what was happening to them.

What, I wondered, would it be like if someone became a zombie (of the still-living infected kind rather than the traditional risen-from-the-dead kind) and we discovered a drug which could make them human again? How would such people manage to cope once they found out what they’d done while in their zombie state? What if they’d killed strangers? Or friends? Or relatives?

This was a subject which was touched upon in the great TV series ‘In The Flesh‘ which aired last year, but I’ve been thinking about it again because of the short story I’m writing. I guess the question here is whether, if you became infected with a zombie disease, would you want to become human again if that choice was available to you? Yes, you would have your life back, but you’d have to live with the knowledge of what you’d been and what you’d done. It’s also very unlikely that your friends and family would treat you as being the same person they’d always known and loved. Some might shun you, or treat you as a second class citizen. Even those who didn’t would still treat you differently, they wouldn’t be able to help it, and would you be able to live with those changed relationships? The mother who can’t bring herself to hug you, the partner who jumps every time you roll over in the night, the children who run away and hide when you approach.

What about if it wasn’t a cure that brought you back, but simply a way to keep the disease at bay, meaning you’d have to take medication for the rest of your life. Would you want to become human again then? Would you want to live with the responsibility of knowing that if you ever forgot to take your medication, you would once again turn and be a danger to all those around you?

What if it was only temporary? What if you knew the medication would only make you human again for a few weeks, or days, or even just a few hours? Would you want to take it just for a few moments of once again being who you’d once been?

Then again, the decision to start treatment wouldn’t be yours, would it? It would be your doctor’s or your family’s, or it might even be forced on you by the government. If a zombie disease arrived and you wanted to make sure you were never brought back if you caught it, would you need to sign a ‘Do Not Dezombify’ statement like the ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ statements which exist today?

Personally, if something like this happened to me, I’d probably not want to be brought back. I might if there was a straight out cure, although I’d have difficulty living with the knowledge of what I might have done in my zombie state. I certainly wouldn’t want the responsibility if I’d have to keep taking medication on a regular basis (sometimes I’d forget my own head if it wasn’t screwed on, especially when I’m writing, let alone remembering to take a pill three times a day). And I definitely wouldn’t want to come back if it was only temporary because I’d permanently be looking for signs that it was coming back and worrying that every little thing might be the first step on the steep slide back to zombism.

Yet, the temptation for loved ones would be to give you the medication, just so that they could spend more time with you, and get to say good-bye to you properly – to get the closure that would be so rare in any zombie outbreak – even if it wasn’t necessarily what you would want for yourself given the circumstances.

So, where am I going with this? Well, there are some quite serious issues here and they are ones we are increasingly have to think about and deal with in the modern world. Yes, zombies don’t exist (not yet at any rate!), but medicine has now reached the point were we can keep people alive in states that even a few years ago would have meant certain death. People are also living longer and that means more and more people are developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Together, this means we now live in an age where we ever more frequently face having to make decisions about the lives and deaths of those we love when they lose the capacity for doing it for themselves, yet we rarely speak to each other about it until it’s too late.

This might be a depressing thing for a Friday afternoon, but these are the types of conversations that we need to have with those around us in the world of modern medicine. We need to know what our friends and relatives would want to do in such situations, and we need to tell them what we would wish to happen to us. It sounds morbid, but it at least means we’re prepared if the worse were ever to happen and we end up in a state trapped between the living and the dead, unable to make decisions for ourselves.

Oh, and if there’s ever a zombie disease outbreak, please remember, it I could do it for myself, I’d tick the ‘Do Not Dezombify’ box.



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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

How To Start Zombie Apocalypse Novel

17 Feb

A while ago, I did a post looking at the various ways you can successfully end a zombie novel. In this post, I want to look at how to start one. Here, the main issue is where along the time line of your particular zombie apocalypse do you drop into the lives of your character(s) and meet them for the first time?

There’s four broad possibilities here, three of which I think work quite well, each under different circumstances, and a fourth which doesn’t – or at least it’s very much harder to get it to work well. These are: 1. Finding the world has unexpectedly changed; 2. The descent from normality; 3. The zombie-filled world, and 4. The flashback. Each of these plays on slightly different aspects of the human psyche and will elicit different feelings and emotions in the reader.

1. Finding the world unexpectedly changed: In this option, a character, or group of characters, is somehow isolated from the world, and while they are no longer in touch with it, it changes in an unexpected manner (such as being over-run by zombies). Stories which start in this way feature the disconcertion and discombobulation of encountering a world which you both know and don’t know at the same time. Think, for example, of the start of 28 Days Later, where Jim wakes up to find himself in hospital, an unexpected enough event as the last thing he remembers is cycling along a road, but then as he progresses further and further from the bed he woke up in, he finds that he’s somehow been left alone in an apparently deserted city which should be teeming with life. The opening sequences are truly disconcerting for anyone familiar with London as they will never before have seen its streets so devoid of people. Indeed, this is the emotion which finding the world unexpectedly changed starts to play on, and indeed on the nagging worry in the back of people’s minds whenever they go to sleep that there’s no certainty that the world will be the same when they wake up. There is a similar nagging worry whenever you leave home, that there is a risk that it could all change in your absence. Really, I think that it boils down to humans struggling to deal with the fact that, in their absence, the world carries on without them and this means they are not the lead character – but rather just a bit player among millions on a larger stage.

The biggest problem with starting novels in this way is how you create a realistic and novel isolation scenario. The waking up in a hospital bed approach was done so well in 28 Days Later, it’s difficult now to use it without the reader instantly thinking you’ve copied the idea (even then, it wasn’t an original idea in that movie – it was ‘borrowed’ from the 1950s post-apocalyptic novel The Day of the Triffids). The Walking Dead also used this approach, and would invite further charges of plagiarism if you used it. Of course there are other possible scenarios which you could use: A prisoner being held in isolation, a group of people locked in a bunker for a military exercise, a spaceship returning to Earth after a long mission, or (and this was the scenario I used in For Those In Peril On The Sea), a boat coming back to shore after a long voyage. They key here is to make sure that your scenario can realistically explain why your character(s) don’t know what’s happened, such as a break down of some kind with the communication equipment.

If you do deploy this opening for a novel, you will need to fill in the back story as to exactly what happened at some point (because the reader will expect to be told). This is usually done through conversations with other survivors your main characters meet up with once they are over their initial shock at finding themselves in a world that’s suddenly changed. However, this has to be handled carefully and it cannot seem too much like a plot device to allow you to explain exactly what happened.

2. The descent from normality: In a descent from normality beginning to a story, you get a glimpse of what normal life is like for your character(s) before everything starts to fall apart. This can either be slowly (with little things just seeming a bit out of place at first, and then things getting progressively worse and worse – Max Brooks did this very well in the World War Z novel) or it can be very quickly, with everything going to hell pretty much in an instant (as occurred in the recent remake of Dawn of the Dead). Either way, the main emotion being played on here is the nagging worry that people have that, at some point , something will go wrong and their world will come crashing down around their ears. This means the reader can empathise with the characters as this happens, and wonder what they would do if they found themselves in a similar situation.

The descent from normality option is probably the easiest for the novice writer to attempt as it allows them to use a relatively linear narrative, and no need to have too much back story in conversation with others. However, care must be taken to make sure that you strike the right balance between having just enough of the non-action scenes before the start of the descent for the reader to get a handle on what the character’s normality is, and not so much that the reader is left wondering when the apocalypse is ever going to start (after all that is why they are reading a zombie apocalypse novel in the first place!).

As a general rule, the more normal the character(s) lives and situation is, the less you need to reveal of their normality before you can start in with the zombies. This is done really nicely in both Dawn of the Dead (someone returning from work and going to bed) and in Shaun of the Dead, where we get a brief glimpse into a normal day in his life (so we can see he’s stuck in a rut so big, it will take nothing less than the fall of civilisation to jolt him out of it). However, if you are setting your zombie apocalypse story in a quiet different from the real world (such as some alternative future version of Earth) or with characters whose daily lives are more unusual, you may need to provide a longer lead in so that the reader becomes familiar enough with their normality that they can understand the effect of the descent upon it, and those who live in it, when things start to change. Indeed, this is probably the biggest mistake that people make when using the descent from normality opening as there is a tendency to jump into the zombie action too quickly (e.g. having the opening line of: ‘It was a normal day for Bob, until he saw the zombies swarming up the street towards him’ – a good opening line to a short story, but probably not for a novel).

3. The zombie-filled world: In this type of start to a zombie novel, you drop in on your characters in a world already over-run (or being over-run) with zombies, usually at a point when something has changed in their life. For example, it might be a new character arriving in a group, a safe house being over-run, being force to move to a new location because of some threat, or something about the zombies changing (maybe getting more intelligent, or the disease which creates them spreading in a new way). The emotions you’re trying to elicit within the reader here is thinking about how they would survive in a world which is very different from the one they live in, and one which they don’t have the experience or the skills to handle, and you’re doing this by throwing them in at the deep end of just such a world.

The reason you need to have this start at a point of change in the characters’ lives is simply so that you have a fixed starting point to work from. From this point, you can then move forwards and backwards to fill the reader in on how the world came to be the way it is, and what’s then happening with the characters. Although not zombie stories, this is used very well in Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road and the TV series Falling Skies.

The main difficulty which you will face if you wish to use this type of beginning is that you will have to make sure you build your world in your reader’s mind, and it can be quite difficult to explain the rules of how your world operates to them. In particular, you don’t have the luxury of having an essentially naive character who needs everything explained to them as you do in the first option.

4. The flashback: In a flashback beginning, you join a character during a tense scene or at a given point of action, often close to the end of your story arc, and have the character questioning how they ended up in that situation in the first place (this is also the emotional response which you are aiming to illicit in the reader, that of how someone can end up in a very bad place because of seemingly inconsequential decisions they have made in the past). This type of opening allows you to go back to the beginning and fill in everything that happened. This way you can show each of the decisions and why they lead the characters to end up where they did, hopefully with the reader screaming at them not to do something because they know that it will end up badly for the characters and they’d save if they just made a different decision.

This can be an effective ploy for a short story, but in general for a full length novel, it (in my opinion at any rate) can be very difficult to pull off successfully. This is because the reader will either have forgotten the flashback situation after a chapter or so, or will be aware that a specific point will be reached at sometime, and will be expecting it to be resolved with every turn of the page. This means it is difficult to integrate the reveal of what happens to end the flashback scene with the back story action. This can be done by moving back and forth between the character’s past and present, and it is often successfully done in movies. However, this is because you can use visual elements (clothes, hairstyles, locations etc.) to passively inform the viewer which time frame a given scene is in. When writing, you need some sort of similar ‘signpost’ for the time frame, but this often leads to the writing becoming rather clunky as it disrupts the flow.

So these are the basic options for starting a zombie apocalypse novel, but which one is right for you? Well this depends on your characters, your story arc, the world you’re aiming to create and what emotions you’re aiming to elicit from your readers. Really the key here is to pick one which works for your specific plot and fits with how you want to reveal your characters to your readers, but be aware that you shouldn’t try to shoe-horn a beginning to your novel which doesn’t fit with how the story will develop. Each type of opening promises the readers some very specific types of resolution and if they don’t get it, they will feel ripped off. For example, if you’re using the first option, you need to reveal to the reader at some point what happened to the world or they will quickly become frustrated at not being told. Similarly, with option 3, they will expect some back story to explain how the characters ended up in their new world and how they learned to cope with it, and if this is not done, they’ll feel cheated.

Personally, I like stories which start with the first type of opening, and that was one of the reasons why I chose it when writing For Those In Peril On The Sea. However, when I started work on the next book in the series (The Outbreak), which follows another group of survivors, I realised I could use this opening again without it feeling very same-y. For this reason, I’ve gone for a descent for normality option for this one, and it is likely that I’ll use the third option the for next book in the series because it will see the characters from the two books united in the pre-existing zombie-filled world. If I ever get round to a four book, I might be brave enough to try a flashback opening, but only because the rules of the world in which I’m writing should be firmly established by then in the readers’ minds, and it will use an existing character who is looking right back to the events which started my particular version of a zombie apocalypse. If I was starting a brand new series set in a very different world, I wouldn’t have these options and so wouldn’t even consider it.



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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

Of Love And Zombies…

14 Feb

I’d be the first to admit that being a zombie author can sometimes be a bit all-consuming (pun intended!), especially when I’m deep in writing mode, or working up a new idea which has just come to me. In particular, when I’m writing an intense zombie set piece, I can disappear into my work for hours at a time, leaving my log-suffering girlfriend feeling like a bit of a laptop ‘widow’ as I hunker over the keys, tapping away like crazy (well more like thumping the keys as I don’t have the lightest touch, especially when lost in the action I’m writing!).

She also has to put up with me constantly running half-formed story ideas past her (some of which can be pretty weird and dark) and having to work her editing magic on what, even I would admit, can sometimes be quite poor first drafts, especially if I’m just trying to see if something works or not before writing a more complete version.

And then there’s the times when we’re out and about, and my eyes glaze of over, and she’ll give me a weary look and say, ‘You’re thinking about zombies again, aren’t you?‘ – and she’ll be right.

Luckily for me, she’s into the whole zombie thing, too, and also my rather dark sense of humour. How do I know this?

Well, this was the Valentine’s Day card she gave me this year, and I love her all the more for it!

Zombie Valentine's Day Card

It’s almost as good as last year’s one, where the strapline was: ‘I love you but if zombies chase us, I’m tripping you‘.

Both of them came from the same small craft company (Dream A Little Dream Crafts), and while it might be a bit late for this year, remember them next year for the zombie-lover in your life. You can find their full range here.



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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

The Day A Zombie Came Into The Playground – A Dark Tale For Young Readers

11 Feb

‘Mrs MacKay, there’s a zombie in the playground!’

The teacher sitting at the front of the classroom didn’t even look up, let alone turn so she could see out of the windows behind her desk; she just kept scribbling away with her red pen.

Donald tried again, ‘Mrs MacKay …’

She cleared her throat. ‘I heard you the first time, Donald.’ She spoke with a dismissive and condescending tone. ‘You’re already being kept in for telling tall tales; don’t make it any worse for yourself!’

Beyond the teacher, Donald could see into the sunny school yard where a rotting figure was shambling around, chasing the children who, only moments earlier, had been enjoying the lunch break he’d lost as a punishment. He didn’t know where the zombie had come from, but he knew this was no figment of his imagination, it was definitely there now. ‘But Mrs MacKay, there really is a zombie in the playground. It’s chasing people; it’s trying to catch them and eat their brains.’

Still the teacher didn’t look up from her marking. ‘On Monday, you said you saw a werewolf, and that wasn’t true, was it?’ Her hair was tied up in a tight bun which wobbled ever so slightly as she spoke.

Remembering his mistake, Donald felt his cheeks turn a deep crimson. ‘But Miss, I wasn’t lying; when I shouted out, I really did think it was a werewolf.’

The teacher drew a large red cross at the bottom of the page she’d been reading and turned it over. ‘And what did it turn out to be?’

Donald shifted uncomfortably in his seat and mumbled, ‘It was just Mr Smith, the sports teacher.’

She turned another page. ‘And why did you think he was a werewolf?’

Donald let out a resigned sigh, ‘he’d grown a beard over the summer holidays.’ As he spoke, he watched what was happening in the playground. He knew he wasn’t wrong this time: this really was a zombie. As it continued to stagger around, Donald could see it was too slow to catch any of the kids. In fact, it was moving so slowly that the only way it was going to catch anyone was if they didn’t see it coming until it was too late.

The teacher closed the jotter she’d been marking and leant backwards. ‘And on Tuesday, you saw a pterodactyl swooping down into the playground, trying to snatch one of the kindergarteners from the sand pit.’

Donald kept his eyes fixed on the zombie. ‘I was sure it was a pterodactyl, I thought they were in danger; I had to say something.’

‘And what was it really?’

Donald started to answer, but the teacher interrupted him, ‘Look at me when you’re talking to me.’

Donald shifted his gaze towards the teacher’s narrow, pointy face which always looked like she’d just sucked on a lemon. ‘A black plastic bag the wind had blown into the air.’ As soon as he’d answered, his eyes shot back towards zombie as it stumbled around the now empty school yard, all the children having fled to safety.

‘And remind me what you thought you saw on Wednesday?’ There was a scraping noise as the teacher pushed her chair away from the desk and stood up. She paced back and forth, never taking her eyes off Donald as she waited for him to answer. The sudden movement caught the zombie’s attention and he started to lumber towards the windows, his arms reaching out in front of him.

Donald could barely tear his eyes away from the approaching monster. ‘I saw a mummy.’

‘No, you saw Miss Walker, the maths teacher; she’d had a car accident and had a bandage round her head. I’m telling you, Donald, you’ve got to stop letting your imagination run away with itself. It’ll only get you into trouble.’

Mrs Mackay rested her bony bottom on the window sill, keeping her back to the yard. Behind her, the zombie moved ever nearer. Donald could now make out its dull lifeless eyes, its sallow, sunken cheeks, the way its skin was peeling away from its left forearms. ‘But Mrs MacKay, I’m not making it up and I’m not mistaken this time; there really is a zombie in the playground!’

She folded her arms, a stern look on her face. ‘Just like you were sure there were aliens trying to land on the playing fields yesterday?’

The zombie was getting closer and closer with each faltering step, and Donald was becoming more and more agitated at his teacher’s refusal to believe him. ‘That’s different, I just got confused. I really thought it was aliens.’

‘Yes, I’m sure you did, yet it was only a helicopter flying over the school to take some pictures for the local newspaper. And what about the vampire you saw this morning? The one you were shouting about and disrupting everyone else in the class in the middle of a very important test; remember? The reason you’re in this room right now rather than getting to play outside with your friends. What did that turn out to be?’

‘The headmaster.’ Donald knew he’d been wrong, but he tried to defend his actions. ‘But the way his gown was blowing in the wind, he looked like a vampire.’

The zombie was now only a few feet from Mrs Mackay, its rotting fingers almost touching the thin pane of glass that was all that separated the classroom from the school yard. Its head loomed over the teacher’s shoulder, its jaws open, revealing blackened and blood-stained teeth.

‘And now, you’re saying there’s a zombie in the playground?’ The teacher leaned back against the window, shaking her head and tutting loudly. ‘Tell me, why should I believe you, this time?’

‘Because you have to, Miss, it’ll get you if you don’t. I know I was wrong about the werewolf, and the pterodactyl, and the mummy, and about the aliens landing on the playing fields, and the vampire, but I’m right about the zombie. Just turn round and you’ll see for yourself!’

Mrs MacKay narrowed her beady little eyes and stared at Donald over the top of her half-moon glasses. ‘Have you ever heard of the story about the boy who cried wolf?’

‘Yes, Miss, but that’s different. I wasn’t doing it for fun, I really did think the monsters were there.’ Donald sprang to his feet, unable to see why his teacher couldn’t understand the difference. ‘I really did think we were in danger. All I was trying to do was to warn everyone, to keep them safe.’

‘You know, I almost believe you, but when are you going to grow up and realise that monsters don’t exist? The dinosaurs died out millions of years ago, didn’t they? So there can’t be pterodactyls flying around now, can there?’ She’d uncrossed her arms and was now leaning forward, waggling a finger tipped with a claw-like nail at Donald. ‘You need not get it into your head, there’s no such thing as werewolves, or vampires, or aliens.’ Misses MacKay drew her skinny frame up to its full five foot eleven inches, trying to appear as intimidating as possible. ‘And there’s certainly no such thing as zombies!’

No sooner were the words out of her mouth than the zombie smashed through the glass and dragged her, kicking and screaming, from the classroom. Donald had done all he could to warn her, and he couldn’t help thinking that it wasn’t his fault that she was now zombie food. All she needed to do was give him the benefit of the doubt this time rather than assuming he must be lying because he’d got things wrong before. Teachers were always doing that, judging children from their past mistakes, not realising that they could change. After this morning, Donald had sworn to himself that he wouldn’t shout out again, not unless he was sure he was right. It just so happened that a real monster had turned up a few hours later and she had assumed that, yet again, he was seeing things that weren’t really there. Well, she was the one who’d ended up dead because of it and Donald felt she only had herself to blame.

At that moment, the classroom door flew open. There stood the headmaster, his black gown billowing out behind him, again bearing a striking resemblance to the vampire in the film Donald had watched the night before when he should have been tucked up in bed.

‘What’s all this racket?’ The headmaster spotted the broken glass littering the floor and turned towards where Donald was still standing in the middle of the room. ‘Did you break that window, boy?’

‘It wasn’t me, Sir, I didn’t do it.’ Donald saw the headmaster roll his eyes in response as he strode over to shattered window. Glass crunched under his size twelve shoes as he turned to face Donald, and his voice boomed out accusingly. ‘But there’s no one else here, boy, it must have been you!’

Behind the headmaster, Donald saw the zombie rise up, his teacher’s blood dripping from its face. He smiled at the headmaster, knowing what was going to happen next if the headmaster didn’t believe what he was about to say and thinking that it would serve him right.

‘No, Sir, it was the zombie in the playground …’

***

This is my first attempt at writing something in the zombie genre specifically aimed at children (late primary school age perhaps? or maybe early secondary school? I’m not really too sure). It’s a long time since I was a child, so I’m not too sure how well it would actually go down with younger readers these days, but it’s certainly the type of story I would have liked to read as a kid.

If you happen to be able to get your hands on a young reader or two who might be interested in this dark little tale, I’d be keen to get some feedback on what they think of it (after all, children are the best judges of what writing for children should be like). If you want a copy you can easily print out (or indeed put on an eReader), you can download a PDF of the story from here. I’m aware that this story probably has a particularly British slant (do school kids in other countries write in jotters?), but hopefully most of it is fairly cross-cultural.

In case there is anyone out there wondering about the title, it seems that one of the strongest memories almost every British kid has of being in primary school is the day a dog wandered into the playground, and the fuss it caused (this might just be a British thing, but then again, maybe it’s not). My own memories of an event like this was, indeed, the starting point for this story, and what might happen if it had been a zombie rather than just a stray dog.



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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

Death From Above: Will It Be The Humble Bat Which Finally Start The Zombie Apocalypse?

6 Feb

Most of us probably don’t spend much of our time thinking about bats. We might see them flitting around from time to time in the growing darkness, or occasionally encounter one which strays, mistakenly into our house, but beyond that, bats don’t really make much of a dent in the collective consciousness of humans except as stereotypes in B list horror movies and around Halloween.

Yet, it turns out that bats have a much darker side than anyone ever suspected, and it is this dark side which means that it could be them, rather than some mad scientist hunched over his test-tubes and giggling maniacally, that triggers the zombie apocalypse. Well, okay, I’m taking things a bit too far there, but they could certainly trigger a worldwide pandemic which could bring civilisation crashing to its knees.

Why do I say this? Well, because it almost happened once already. How many of you remember the global panic triggered by the SARS outbreak in 2003? If not, here’s a quick reminder. SARS or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome sprang out of nowhere and spread rapidly from Hong Kong to 37 countries across its nine month reign of terror. It killed almost 800 people, but more frighteningly it had a death rate of almost 10% (so one in ten people infected ended up dead). It also went airborne and leapt easily from person to person, and it was only a prompt worldwide response which finally brought it under control. When scientists started looking into where it came from, it quickly became clear that it was a zoonotic disease (that is one which leapt to humans from another animal species), and eventually the source was traced back to bats.

Now, you might think that this was a one-off, but it is far from it. If you want another example of a disease outbreak which originated from bats you need look no further than the much feared Ebola virus. Here’s a true nightmare disease that in some forms is 100% fatal and that basically causes your insides to turn to liquid and pour out through every orifice in your body.

Then there’s MERS or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. That’s a new disease which is doing the rounds at the moment, killing a large proportion of people it infects, although it doesn’t seem to have gone airborne yet. It, too, is thought to have come from bats (albeit via camels).

This is just the start. There’s also the Hendra Virus (killed two in Australia), the Australian Lyssa Virus (a relative of rabies), the Nipah Viruus (it killed 50% of the 229 people it infected) and possibly the Marburg virus (a cousin of Ebola). Thus, bats are often the prime suspect when an emergent virus suddenly appears out of nowhere to devastate human populations large and small. And of course, bats are also a regular source of that old favourite of zombie authors – Rabies, so maybe the title of this article isn’t quite as far-fetched as it might at first seem.

So far these would-be epidemics have flared up and then died, some burning more brightly than others, but there are likely to be many other viruses out there lurking in bats, ready to jump to humans, and we never know when one of these viruses might have the killer combination of being highly contagious, kill a high proportion of those it infects and have airborne transmission from person to person and the luck to make it into our inter-connected system of flights and airports.

Normally, diseases have to trade-off virulence with the risk of extinction, because it they kill off too many of their hosts they risk killing themselves off too, but not zoonotic diseases. This is because they will continue to thrive in their primary hosts (non-human animals often referred to as the disease reservoir), so they can afford to wipe out any secondary hosts they leap into (like humans).

But, you may ask, why are bats so often the source of these outbreaks? First, and I must stress this, this is not because bats are some kind of disease-ridden pest. They are far from it. They probably carry no more diseases that humans do, it’s just that they are diseases we have not evolved to cope with. Similarly, they carry diseases which are no more inherently dangerous than those in many other animals, but they are ones we’ve never been exposed to before and this means we have no defences against them. In fact, the real risks comes from the actions of humans and not bats. Humans are impinging ever further into what was once pristine forests and wild lands all over the world and are destroying it at an ever-increasing rate. While many species perish, some bats can actually thrive quite well in or around human habitations. Indeed, many will quite happily roost in the buildings we construct, and this can bring humans and bats into ever-increasing levels of contact, an in ways which simply doesn’t happen with other animals.

Even then, many of the leaps of diseases from bats to humans come through accidental contamination, for example from farm animals eating fruit dropped by foraging bats, or getting infected from droppings of bats roosting over their heads in barns, and it is these animals which actually pass them onto humans. Occasionally, you get infections from direct contact. A few of these will be when someone, often a child, picks up a sick bat they find on the ground and are either scratched or bitten; more often, though, it comes from humans hunting and eating bats.

So how can we reduce the risk of diseases leaping from bats to humans? The answer is not in culling bats or trying to wipe them out, that would wrong on so many levels and it has been shown not to work. Instead, it is about modifying our behaviour and our buildings. We need to stop our continued destruction of untouched wilderness which brings us into contact with bats with new and frightening diseases in the first place. We also need to stop hunting and eating them for food. We need to make small changes to our farming methods to stop bats and farm animals coming into contact, and we need to educate people not to pick up sick or injured bats which they find on the ground. With these changes, we need not live in fear of bats, and instead we can live quite happily alongside them, and even share our homes with them.

So that’s it. while you might never suspect it to look at them, bats may carry within them the power to bring down humanity by infecting us with some terrifying new disease, but it is only our actions that will make it happen. This means that if there’s a zombie virus out there lurking in an unknown bat population in some as yet unexplored and unexploited rainforest, and it makes a leap into the human population, bringing the world as we know it to its knees, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

For more information on bats and human diseases, click here.



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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.