My latest novel, Blackout Trail, has been out for a couple months now. I appreciate all the support, and thought I’d share a spoiler-free "behind-the-scenes" look at how the book came about and some fun tidbits about the story.
- Blackout Trail
Like Lauren in my story, I also went through a phase where I became a little obsessed with disaster preparedness. I was an EMT/paramedic in the early 2000’s, during the time of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the smaller Hurricane Ivan. While I only directly participated in the emergency response for Ivan, those events left an impression. Coupled with a steady stream of EMS training for WMD attacks and mass casualty incidents, I had disasters on the brain.
Somewhere in the middle of all that, I stumbled upon an article about EMPs (Electromagnetic Pulse). I had heard of them before, but this was the first time I really became aware of the destruction they could wreck upon modern society. A commonly quoted (unsourced) claim is the average US city has only about 3 days of food reserves. Whether that specific figure is true or not, “just in time” food delivery models are exceptionally vulnerable to an EMP incident crippling our transportation system. The effects would be massive.
Out of all the potential disasters to use for a story, an EMP felt like the right mix of scale and frightening plausibility.
I decided early on that the opening scene would take place at the airport. I remembered the plane crash scene in the Tom Cruise War of the Worlds movie, and it was just such a classic apocalyptic moment that I wanted to use it as the focal point for the first big set piece.
I did take some dramatic license with the EMP depicted in the story. A massive solar Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) is theorized to affect electronics differently than a high-altitude nuclear strike, and both are unlikely to target the entire world at the exact same instant. Blackout Trail’s Hollywood-style “Super EMP” plunges the whole world into darkness for maximum chaos, but even a more localized EMP would be an unmitigated disaster.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by the practice of medicine in challenging environments: battlefield medicine, wilderness medicine, disaster medicine. It takes the already high stakes of emergency medicine to a whole other level.
I've read many blogs and memoirs, one of the more memorable being Just Here Trying to Save a Few Lives by Dr. Pamela Grim. She wrote of her experiences in Nigeria and Bosnia with Médecins Sans Frontières (aka MSF or Doctors Without Borders). At one point, ER (my favorite TV show) also had a long-running storyline where some of the doctors went to the Congo and Sudan, bringing my attention to the crisis in Darfur. I became a supporter of MSF, impressed by the work they do to help millions in crisis zones all around the world.
Although the stories that inspired me mostly took place overseas, Katrina made it clear that it could just as easily happen here. I wondered what it would be like if someone with experience in international disasters were suddenly thrust into the same conditions back home. That was the foundation for Anna’s character in Blackout Trail.
It should be noted that the international aid business, though obviously well-intentioned, is not free from criticism. MSF has had to address institutionalized racism towards its local staff, and the industry is beginning to reckon with its uncomfortable connections to colonialism and the "white savior" trope. I tried to capture this dichotomy with Anna. She had her own reasons for chasing disasters, and her work—however admirable—doesn’t make her a saint.
- Blackout Trail
The theme of "found family" is central to Blackout Trail, and I really love the relationship that develops between Anna and Lily. Too often we see "child melts the heart of ice queen" trope in media, and I tried to avoid that by making Anna more of a "fun aunt" from the beginning. I also tried to make Lily believable, incorporating tidbits from both my kids. Seven seemed like the perfect age—old enough to be somewhat self-sufficient, but young enough for her wide-eyed naïveté to contrast with the brutal conditions.
It was also important to me to have a male lead who was Anna's equal. While I obviously love stories about "Self-Rescuing Princesses" (hence the blog), my favorites have equity between the genders. Mark and Anna are a team. They rely on each other and each save each other at various points.
A question I see a lot is: "Why would Anna go with this family she just met instead of trying to find her own family?" Certainly, peoples' first instincts after a disaster would be to try to make it home, but I think Anna's quote above summarizes the harsh reality. We take mobility for granted in modern society, but it took Lewis and Clark eighteen months to reach the west coast, and they weren't doing it in the middle of an apocalypse. If something like a worldwide EMP happened, I think most people would just be stuck where they were. Mark is the outlier in his willingness to undertake a long, dangerous journey.
A little tidbit: in the earliest outlines of the story, Lily was Anna's teenage niece, staying with her to visit local colleges when the EMP hit. The road trip was to get to their family cabin, and Mark was Anna's friend/neighbor who tagged along. While I liked the 'odd couple' vibe of a woman building a relationship with a niece she barely knew, I found that the overall story and character arcs worked better when I flipped it and made Anna the outsider.
When I first got into EMP fiction, it seemed that every book I found was about a prepper or ex-military guy. Nothing against those stories; I enjoy them as much as anyone! I just wanted something different. More than anything, I wanted the story to be about relatable, everyday people.
It is funny, though: in a story with miraculous medical saves, a global "Super EMP", and too many death-defying adventures to count, the thing that people seem to find hardest to swallow is Anna and Mark surviving in the wilderness without prior experience. Don't get me wrong, wilderness survival isn't easy. But I think with a bit of luck and cleverness, it's not that improbable. It helps that they started in summer, berry season in Pennsylvania, and had some initial supplies to buffer them while they bumbled around figuring things out. I tried to find a balance—showing their struggles to survive without making the story a miserable slog focused on the minutiae of foraging and trapping.
I charted Anna and Mark's course using guides like the Central New York Hiking page and North Country Trail Association website. From the boulders of Mahoosuc Notch to the strange lighthouse on the Allegheny River, most of the little details along their journey are based on real places. My favorite has to be this warning sign near Mount Washington. Once I saw that, I knew I had to work it into the story somehow.
Odds and Ends
I am tremendously grateful for everyone who has taken the time to leave a review on Goodreads or Amazon. Even for the ones who didn't like it much (or at all), I appreciate them reading it and leaving feedback. It is particularly gratifying to see folks who really got the heart of the story—that it was about ordinary people trying to survive the end of the world and do the right thing along the way.
I am currently hard at work on the sequel. While Blackout Trail was meant to stand alone (no cliffhangers here!), there are more stories to tell with these characters. I can't promise an ETA. Writing is my passion, not my job, so it comes second to other life priorities. Ideally sooner rather than later, though.
You can follow the book's progress, along with other updates, by subscribing to my newsletter. (No spam, I promise; it comes out about every two weeks.)