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photo by [phil h]

There’s one thing about a disaster, you get to know your neighbors.  And for the most part they’re pretty nice folks.

Hurricane Sandy hit New York City hard.  Downtown in the West Village we watched the storm with our fingertips on our windows, the glass ballooning inward.  We saw the Hudson River rise.  Piers disappeared.  The West Side Highway became a river.  Our block-long apartment building became an ocean liner aground in a shallow sea.

The blackout that followed was, for us, seven nights long.  The first night, as fire alarms sounded, our neighbors converged in our pitch black hallway with flashlights and candles.  Where were the emergency lights?  Fire alarm?  (We later learned we were supposed to evacuate.)  We discussed what to do.  Stick it out?  Head out of town?  But how?  The subways, railroads, airports, bridges and tunnels were all closed.  Cars in the parking lot across the street were under water.

In subsequent days we joined the army of affluent downtown refugees heading uptown into the power zone north of 26th Street for cellphone charging, hot meals and coffee.  You could tell who our neighbors were.  They were warmly dressed, pushing strollers, looking like they needed a shower.

And they talked.  People who ordinarily would keep eyes averted on the sidewalks and subways were eager to share stories.  Are you okay?  Do you have water?  What have you heard?  Hi, I’m Don.  This is my wife Lisa, and our son Abi.  Nice to meet you.  Where do you live?  Which school are your kids in?

I collected business cards and handed out mine.  We’ve heard from none of those neighbors since the power came back but for a little while we were a community, and a nice one.  The conditions were inconvenient but the company was warm, neighborly and connected.  I was glad to be living downtown.  I didn’t mind the dark.

So what has that to do with manuscripts–?  It’s not often that I read about a fictional place and wish I lived there.  But once in a while those magical places appear on the page and welcome me.  It’s a combination of the place and the people.  There’s a warmth, a comfort, a sense that whatever the conflict underway there’s an innate goodness to the folks there.  I feel at home.  No doubt you can think of such places in some of your favorite novels.

How does such a place come about on the page?  It takes only the deliberate intent to create it.  You may be writing about a world that’s cold and hostile, or a time when no one can be trusted.  Fair enough.  Yet even in dystopia there’s room for goodness, a safe corner for your readers.

Here are some ways to develop that:

  • What’s the nicest thing about people in the time and place you’re writing about?  Find a way for us to experience that early in your story.
  • Who in your cast is generous, big-hearted, empathetic, insightful or wise?  Make sure we meet that character soon.
  • Early in your story, let someone reach out to help someone else.  If possible, involve food.
  • In the world of your story what’s the equivalent of a Sunday picnic, backyard barbeque, school dance, country fair, town meeting, 4th of July parade, old time diner or corner bar?  Set a scene there.
  • What are the highest values in the world of your story?  What’s the most dramatic way in which they can be enacted?  Go ahead, you know what to do.

Once in a great while I read a manuscript where everyone is too nice, but not often.  Far more commonly I slog through stories in which I meet hardly anyone nice at all.  It’s odd, considering that novelists are some of the nicest people I know.

Don’t be afraid of warming up your world or your characters.  It could be just the thing that gets us through the disaster you’re going to blow our way.

About Donald Maass

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.