Tag Archives: Writing a zombie novel

Hurricanes, Tornadoes, Microburts and Heatwaves: How Weather Can Add Texture To Zombie Apocalypose Novels

17 Dec

Rightly so, most zombie apocalypse novels concentrate on getting the zombie set pieces spot on, making them both mesmerizing and terrifying. However, in order to make a zombie novel truly riveting, there has to be more than that to them. There has to be good characterisation, there has to be conflict, there has to be landscape, and, finally, there has to be texture.

What do I mean by texture? Well, texture is all those extra additions which make a zombie novel seem real. They are little bits here and there that remind the reader that this isn’t just a fantasy story, but instead that it’s something which is happening in a real world, very much like the one they, themselves, inhabit.

One of the best ways I have found of adding texture is through the use of weather. In most parts of the world, the weather changes day by day, hour by hour, and, in some places, minute by minute, and by referencing this, you can give the reader a greater understanding of the mood of the story, and the characters within it.

Really, there’s three ways that you can use weather to add texture. The first is comparative weather. This is where the weather in a specific scene matches the feelings of the scene itself, helping to emphasize and amplify the internal mood of the characters and any conflict they are facing. This can be the use of rain or drizzle when the characters are feeling run down or depressed, sunshine when they are feeling happy or a sudden storm when their luck unexpectedly shifts. Comparative weather is very tempting to use, but it should always be used sparingly. If you use it too frequently, then it quickly becomes clichéd.

The second is contrasting weather. We’ve all experienced a time in our lives when we’ve been in the foulest of foul moods on the brightest of bright sunny days, or been unable to stop smiling, despite the fact that it’s pouring with rain, soaking us to the skin. These are examples of contrasting weather, and when used in a novel, they can really help to bring it alive. This is because while they’re at odds with the situation the characters might find themselves in, everyone can remember a time when they felt this way themselves, and this makes the characters seem more real. With contrasting weather, you can have characters breaking out into laughter in the middle of a rainstorm because they’re ecstatic at just having escaped from a dangerous situation, or downcast and depressed as the sun rises to reveal a clear blue summer sky because they have just lost one their number to the undead. Again, as with comparative weather, contrasting weather has to be used sparingly, or it will quickly become old.

The final way of using weather is perhaps my favourite, and it’s to use weather as an additional element that the characters have to deal with. Fighting off marauding zombies is one thing, but how much more scary is it to have to be fighting them off in the middle of a hurricane, when the characters also have to struggle against the storm as well? Or what about being attacked by zombies in a fog-filled forest, where you can barely see more than a few feet in any direction? That would be terrifying, wouldn’t it? You wouldn’t know if that blurred shape coming towards you was a friend or foe until it was almost too late. Then there are thunderstorms and tornadoes, which can unexpectedly tear down defences, letting zombies into otherwise safe encampments, or a ice-storm that abruptly turns the world your characters inhabit into a white hell and makes running away all but impossible. And what about heatwaves? Can you imagine being huddled together in a small, airless room with zombies hammering on the boarded up windows as the mercury in the thermometer hits 110 degrees? Or sweating away in quickly cobbled together zombie-proof armour on a scorching summer’s day as you try to both hold back a marauding horde of undead and not pass out from heat stroke? If used correctly, all of these possibilities would add to the tension of any given scene by providing that extra layer of information and visualisation.

These are just a few of the possibilities that are out there when it comes to using weather to add texture to a zombie novel, and with a bit of searching, you can always find just the right bit of weather for any given situation. There is the weird and the wonderful, things like weather bombs, or microbursts or white squalls. There are clouds of every different variety from wispy, feather-like stratus to the ever-threatening cumulonimbus or the out-right bizarre mammatus clouds that always make me feel like the end of the world is coming. There’s zephyrs, and breezes, and gale force winds. There’s sleet and snow and hail and rain (the Inuit might, or might not, have 47 words for snow, but here in Scotland we have at least twice as many for all the different types of rain you can get). Really, the options are endless.

Of course, as with any literary device, weather has to be use sparingly. After all, what you are writing is meant to be a zombie novel and not a weather forecast, but get it just right and it will bring a level of reality and believability to your story that you will find difficult to generate in any other way.

So how to you get it just right? Well, there’s no hard and fast rules here. What you are looking to achieve is having just enough references to the weather to paint the right pictures in the readers head without them ever consciously noticing what’s going on. This means that weather references need to be subtly woven into the rest of the story until they seem such an integral part of it that the reader couldn’t imagine a scene without it. This is not always easy to achieve, but if you can get it right, it can pay off big time because of the depth and the texture it brings to your writing.

*****************************************************************************
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 Kill Off Characters In A Zombie Apocalypse Novel

26 May

In a good zombie apocalypse novel, the reader should never be left feeling that any character is completely safe. After all, in a zombie-filled world, the threat is ever-present and attacks can happen at any moment, and this means that anyone could end up dead at any time. Indeed, it’s often the feeling of not knowing who will survive until the end of the story, and who won’t, that gives a zombie apocalypse story suspense and keeps the reader turning the pages when they should be doing other things, like getting up and going to work.

However, handling exactly how characters die can be a difficult balancing act. Death and destruction cannot be arbitary, and you cannot simply kill off a character, especially if it is one of the main ones, completely out of the blue. This is because readers have some level of expectation as to how a story will go, and you cannot build a character up and then have them die without some hint that this might happen.

On the other hand, you also cannot end up with a ‘men in red’ situation. This term comes from the original Star Trek series, where if you ever saw an unnamed character dressed in a red top, you could be pretty sure they’d die before then end of any particular scene they featured in. This means that you have to avoid having characters where it’s clear that the only reason they’re being introduced is to act as cannon fodder (or maybe, in this context, that should be zombie chow!).

So, how do you get the death of characters exactly right? Well, there’s no firm rules on this and it will depend on your exact situation, but the following guidelines are likely to help.

1. Characters that die can’t always be minor ones: Most zombie novels have a core set of characters which the story revolves around, and often when authors are looking around for someone to die, they will reach not for one of these characters, but a more minor one. However, if it’s always minor characters that die, this will get repetitive and you will lose the element of suspense because it will quickly become clear that the main characters aren’t really under threat. Instead, you should always aim to kill off at least one of the main characters at some point within your story. This will give the reader that ‘oh my god, no!’ type of moment which helps keep them on the edge of their seat. It also leaves them wondering whether any other main characters might die, too, and it can act as turning points within the overall story arc, signifying that it will change direction from what has come before.

2. Don’t kill too many main characters: Once you accept that you have to kill off a main character, there can sometimes be a tendency to go too far in the other direction and turn the whole thing into a blood-bath with a never-ending chain of people being introduced and then killed off. Killing off a main character only really works if it is unexpected and beyond what the readers were anticipating. This means killing too many of them off will quickly become predictable. There’s nothing worse than reading a book and thinking, ‘oh here’s another character – they’ll be dead in twenty pages, just like everyone else.’ So, the killing off of main characters is something which must be used sparingly.

3. Don’t kill off any of the main characters too soon: If you are going to kill of a main character or two, or even three, you can’t do it too early in the novel. The reader will invest in the main characters and they will feel cheated if they’ve spent the whole first chapter getting to know a character only for them to die at the end of it. This leaves the reader feeling like they have wasted their time and that they are effectively having to start the book again when they get to chapter two. This is a great way to alienate them and they are just as likely to give up as carry on reading.

4. Main character deaths can neither be completely unexpected or completely predictable: Killing off a main character is a difficult thing to handle properly. It cannot come completely out of the blue, so that one moment they’re there, the next they are dead. However, it also can’t be completely predictable either (think about all those old movie clichés: the cop who’s one day away from retirement, the soldier showing off a picture of his girlfriend and kids back home before going into battle and so on). This means that you have to work up to the death of any main character, building suspense and anticipation as the reader tries to work out exactly what’s going to happen or who it’s going to happen to. Often this involves a series of seemingly unimportant decisions or actions which, with hindsight, the reader can look back on and think ‘if only they hadn’t don’t that, they’d have lived rather than died.’ This can be something as simple as forgetting a weapon, wasting bullets when they should have been conserving them or having to go after someone who has stormed off in a huff. Basically, think of The Butterfly Effect here and focus here on small, insignificant actions which have big, unexpected, but logically consistent, consequences later on.

5. Main character deaths have to be memorable and unique: There are lots of ways to end up dead in a zombie story, and many of the have been so over-used that they’ve become clichés. These should be avoided wherever possible, and when it comes to any of the main characters, their manner of death has to be both memorable and unique. This means you have to put a lot of thought into exactly how it’s going to happen. However, don’t confuse memorable with gratuitous. A character death needs to pull at the emotions, and no just turn the reader’s stomach with graphic descriptions of blood and gore. This usually means the death cannot be quick as there needs to be time for the other characters to see what’s happening and have time to react to it, or try to do something to save them. It’s also often useful to put the characters in a position where they have to make a choice of some kind which could lead to the death of either themselves or another character. For example, they might choose to close a door to keep most their group safe while leaving a straggler outside to be killed by a pursuing horde of undead. Similarly, one character might decide to throw themselves onto a zombie to save another character from being attacked, only to end up being bitten leading to a slow lingering death and feelings of guilt in the person they saved. These are the types of actions which make the reader stop and think about what they’d have done if they were in the same situation.

6. In real life, the good guys don’t always win: Zombie books need to feel realistic. This means that just like real life, the good guys can’t always win, and just because you like a character, that doesn’t mean they should necessarily make it through the story unscathed. In fact, some of the best twists in zombie novels come about when one of the good guys ends up dead just at the crucial point where the reader might have expected them to survive. While it’s widely used, the simple revelation that someone has been bitten by a zombie, and so is doomed, just when you think they’ve survived a dangerous, and possibly deadly, situation, is a great plot device. However, because it has been widely used in the past, it has to be handled carefully to make sure it doesn’t slip towards becoming a cliché.

7. Unlike real life, the bad guys should always get it in the end: Zombie novels need goodies and baddies, and while the unanticipated death of a good character can really add to the story, if a bad buy doesn’t get his comeuppance, then the reader can be left feeling cheated. This is because the reader expects the dichotomy between good and bad to be resolved, with the bad being punished, even if the good don’t necessarily win.

Of course, these guidelines are simply hints to help you understand what the reader might be expecting, and how you can play with these expectations to build the required suspense and anticipation to keep them reading. You can break one or two of them, or even all of them, within you own writing, but if you do, you need to think about it really carefully and make sure that you handle it appropriately. Yes, it’s different to kill off three characters that the reader was expecting to be able to follow through a whole book on page four, but there are good reasons why you haven’t read novel where that happens before, and that is because it will put many readers (and, indeed, agents and publishers!) off. Similarly, having the bad guy walk away unharmed while all the good guys die at the end may seem edgy and new, but it will leave the reader feeling that they’ve been cheated out of the ending they were anticipating.

Really the key take home message here is that the choice of which characters you kill, and they way you kill them, can make or break a zombie novel. Get it just right, and the readers will love it. Get it wrong, and the whole story will start to fall apart. Striking exactly the right balance of death and destruction always requires a lot of hard work, but it’s well worth the effort.


*****************************************************************************
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.

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.



*****************************************************************************
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.