Earthquakes and Primary Research

Okay, this is bizarre. It’s about 6 p.m. in the evening. I’m working at the computer on a short story titled “The Phone Call.” It opens with a woman standing in her kitchen drinking a cup of coffee when an earthquake occurs. (The quake becomes a metaphor for what will happen in her life.)

At the moment, I’m focusing on three aspects of the story. First, what happens in the character’s immediate environment? For example, the room lurches. A silverware drawer slides open. Pots and pans rattle on an overhead rack. A box of cereal falls to the floor, scattering its contents.

Next, what happens to the character physically? I play with various manifestations. Increased heart rate, sweaty palms, a bathrobe suddenly too warm. Perhaps she clenches her eyes. Or screams. Perhaps she flees the room, one of the human responses to fear. Perhaps she freezes.

Finally, what happens to the character mentally? Maybe she thinks about being buried in debris. She pleas for the quake to stop. She becomes disoriented, confused. She’s sorry for recent words with a lover. Or maybe she simply shakes it off as another California shaker. Or is it?

What happens next is the bizarre part. At 6:24 p.m., a 4.4 quake takes place in real time, the epicenter about 55 miles from where I live. It sounds like marching feet that become louder and then stomp through the room, creating a jolt. At that moment I become a primary research source.



Night at the Metamorphic Mountains by artist George Hunter Tyneside


You should know earthquakes scare me. They give me a real sense of something bigger than myself, than humanity … with way more destructive might. They’re the reason there’s an earthquake kit under the bed along with a special wrench to shut off the gas, and clothes and an old pair of tennies.

Back to the quake. I try to capture the sounds. Very few except the rumble and the jolt. I try to capture what I did. I know I froze momentarily, listening, deciding my next move should I see or hear damage. But then the quake stopped. I only noted when it began, not its duration, probably less than a minute, more like seconds. I do know I was preparing to take off, run down the hall, find my husband. I became a combination of fight and flight.

What did my body do? It tensed, with all systems working overtime. My breathing, my nervous energy, my heart. Suddenly, I felt very alert.

After the quake stopped, and hoping there would be no aftershocks, I went back to the short story I was working on when the quake started, feeling more affinity with the main character than before. I became closer to the thoughts and actions she experiences during the fictitious quake, but more importantly to her actions after the event as her life takes on its destructive path and thoughts.

While doing secondary research, I’d read about earthquakes and how people may react mentally and physically. Primary research is research you collect yourself. At 6:24 p.m., I became prime material.

P.S. My husband didn’t feel a thing.



Courtesy of


About cmwriter

I'm a writer ... of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. I blog about writing, short stories, poetry, books, plays, and thoughts on life. Love reading and travel and being with friends!
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9 Responses to Earthquakes and Primary Research

  1. pamgolden says:

    Hi Carol,
    Your post was funny because I didn’t feel a thing either. But my husband did! And he said, Molly, our dog, did too…


    • cmwriter says:

      Hi Pam,
      It’s always a mystery to me how quakes can be felt by one and not another in the same house. I would prefer to be a non-feeler. Thanks for stopping by. Enjoyed your comment!
      Love back!

  2. says:

    we were on a visit to my parents in the bay area when a quake hit. My husband, who had never experienced such a thing, insisted on taking his bowl of cornflakes to eat as we stood under the door frame, and my father arrived from the bathroom two minutes later- the toilet paper had rolled away from him in the panic. everyone senses things in their own way.

    • cmwriter says:

      So true. Every response is unique. Loved the visuals in your comment. I was an east coast girl who moved to the west coast, settling in southern California. During the first quake I ever experienced, my response was, “What’s happening?!?”

  3. Ruth Hill says:

    I felt the quake but my roommate did not interesting

  4. Chris Black says:

    Next time I guess you will choose a topic far removed from quakes – perhaps holidaying on an ocean liner sailing close to the Bermuda triangle – I’ll let you know where to send the royalties…

    • cmwriter says:

      M-m-m-m. A relaxing little cruise. Near the Bermuda Triangle. Good story idea. The last “relaxing” cruise I was on, we were returning from Alaska and encountered a 90 mile an hour gale off the coast of Oregon. Had to put into San Francisco for repairs.

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