Reading the News for Better Fiction

Currently I am in research mode for a new book – one source of information is the news.  I do read the news daily and have some stories I follow.  I like to be informed about the world and I often find that something in a news story is relevant to a poem or story I am writing.

For example:

Here in Northern California the news story of the week is evacuation of the cities below the Oroville Dam. It’s distressing to read of all the people and lives disrupted by the emergency and my heart goes out to all those affected by this.  

For those who aren’t up on this here’s the short version:

The Oroville Dam sits on the Feather River in northeast California and impounds Lake Oroville, the second largest manmade lake in California with 3.5 million acre-feet of water – enough for some 25 million people and irrigates nearly 755,000 acres of farm land.  This winter has been wet, with rainfall totals far above normal.  By Saturday, Feb 11, the lake was approaching the top of the 770 foot tall dam.  The dam operators did the sensible thing and for the first time since 2011 opened the spillway.

Then the spillway started showing cracks and a gaping hole appeared.  No problem, there’s an emergency spillway, so the dam operators shutdown the spillway.  When water started to flow over the emergency spillway an epic erosion of the hillside started, and threatened to cause the spillway to fail and send a 30 foot wall of water downstream.  If that had happened we’d be reading about tens of thousands dead, missing and many cities washed downstream to the San Francisco Bay.  Instead officials decided to evacuate nearly 200,000 people.  In the end engineers were able to effect repairs, reopen the primary spillway, lower the lake level, and save Oroville.  How many fiction writers could come up with a story like that?

In the next weeks and months we’ll get more details and will read about all the finger-pointing on who failed to do what.  It could get interesting (upsetting if you’re a taxpayer here).

The novel I am working on is set in a post-apocalyptic California about 150 years from now.  There are a number of themes and stories I am weaving into my tale.  One of them is what happens to the dams and reservoirs after decades or centuries of neglect.  Is it possible that Hoover Dam will continue to be standing?  What about the many earthen dams, like Oroville?  Will they survive the extremes of weather – drought to flood?

These questions can be difficult to answer even with good research.  Heck, even the civil engineers who build these things don’t always know.  Like that whole emergency spillway thing –  from 1968 till Sunday, Feb 13, 2017 the pros said it would work just fine.  It didn’t.

That is one of the great things about following news stories and seeing how reality works out.  How many times have you heard, “You can’t make this up”?  

Well, that’s the value of reading news – it’s got stuff you can’t make up.  Especially if you can read political news without getting upset.  The other value is that you can learn about how people respond to extraordinary circumstances.  It’s a gold mine for a writer.

Of course, you can’t get all the facts from the news.  News reports are the result of research by journalists and often sensationalized to sell news papers or get views on a website.  However, each story offers something to the fiction writer and can be used as a basis for further research.  Many of the information sources used by the journalist are open to you the fiction writer.  Much of the information used in reporting the Oroville story came from two places: The California Department of Water Resources and the Butte County Sheriff’s Office.

In today’s internet world, both agencies have websites, video feeds and tons of cameras pointed at them – many of which end up on YouTube.  So if you find a story related to something you’re writing about it’s not hard to do your own fact checking and research.

And since we’re talking about writing fiction, don’t worry too much about misleading news or people lying.  That can be the best fiction.

I mean, what if the Oroville spillway was really destroyed by an alien spaceship landing in the wrong place?

Got to go, have a story to write.