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.
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.