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.
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.