the whirlwind or the avalanche

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I write books that are part forensic mystery, part environmental thriller, mostly set in the outdoors.

When I can, I use real-life experience in my scenes. When I can’t, I research.

I began this post thinking that the key issue here is believability. Does the reader believe in the scene, whether or not it is based on something that happened?

A while back, I ran a little experiment. I chose two scenes, from two different books: one inspired by a real-life experience, one totally made up. Both scenes were intended to give the reader a few shivers—or least keep the pages turning.

I showed the scenes to a friend who’d not read either book (some friend!) and asked which one she thought came from something I’d experienced in real life.

Scene #1, from BADWATER, the second in my Forensic Geology series: the bad guy is in a slot canyon in Death Valley, having just watched the chaos his act of sabotage caused, and now he’s getting the hell away from the scene before he gets caught. He’s already jumpy and suddenly there comes a low-pitched roaring sound, from upcanyon. He’s desert-wise and knows it could be a flash flood coming, caused by summer storms in the watershed above. And there’s no way to escape—the canyon walls are vertical and he can’t outrun a flood. The sound intensifies. And then around the upcanyon bend comes something totally unexpected: a black twisting whirlwind of dust and soil. It seems alive, snaking its way down the twisting slot canyon without touching the walls. It screams. The bad guy presses himself against the canyon wall and the whirlwind just grazes him as it passes. A flood would have drowned him. This thing spooks the hell out of him.

   Hint:  I’ve hiked Death Valley canyons. 

Scene #2, from VOLCANO WATCH, third in the series: the protagonist Cassie Oldfield is returning to her hometown, which has just been evacuated under the threat of an eruption. She’s returning in search of her partner, who she believes is stranded there. She’s returning on skis, coming in cross country via a steep canyon. (I like canyons) There’s a sudden low-pitched roaring sound (I like scary sounds) and, in wonder and terror, she sees a slab of snow detach from the canyon wall and descend upon her. Avalanche. It catches her, tumbles her, envelopes her. Buried with only a small air pocket, she must dig her way out. But the snow is like ice. She thinks she’ll die. And then mother nature throws her a rope: there’s an earthquake, cracking the icy snow roof enough that she can escape. Of course, she escapes into more trouble.

   Hint:  I’ve skied the Sierra Nevada back country. 

My friend said, without hesitation, #2 came from your real-life experience. Hey, I said, I’ve never experienced a volcanic eruption. She qualified: but you’re a skier and you’ve skied the back country in heavy snow. Hey, I said, I’ve never been buried in an avalanche. She qualified: yeah but I saw you take a nasty fall in deep powder and you were, technically, buried. Well yes, about half an inch deep.

For scene #2, I got on the net and googled ‘avalanche’ and read about other people’s harrowing true-life experiences.

Scene #1, I told her, came from a real-life experience. Me in a slot canyon in Death Valley, alone, mindful of the warnings about sudden flash floods. And then the noise, and the devilish black whirlwind. My friend stared. That’s just too weird to be real. I shrugged. It happened. And then she said something that blew believability right out of the water, for me. She said, but it made me wonder.

If I can capture that—the gift of wonder that nature gives—then my scenes will be true to life, whether or not they really happened.

I still don’t know what caused that whirlwind. I asked a desert expert and he said this: “Whirlwinds or “dust devils” generally form on sunny days with fairly cool temperatures. They are very common in desert areas but usually form on fairly flat terrain as sun heats the ground and warm air from the ground rushes upward. My guess is that the one you encountered formed on the flats or the alluvial fan area and then moved into the canyon areas.”

And yet, the whirlwind was coming downcanyon when it passed me. So, did it form on the fan, come upcanyon, and then backtrack?

I wonder.