A good novelist does a lot of research, and it isn’t all Regency gowns and carriages, fun and useful though such studies are. Human behavior is more basic than costumes, and that means social history and psychology.
Having a deep and possibly regrettable interest in complicated people has led my stories into some interesting psychological byways. Alcoholism and drug addiction. The dynamics of an abusive relationship, and whether it is possible to get beyond that. (I was ahead of the curve on that one. The Burning Point, my book that deal with domestic violence, got flamed on the internet, sometimes by people who hadn’t even read it. Yet just a few weeks ago, I heard an author on NPR who has written a book about getting beyond domestic violence, and how leaving is not the only possible strategy. But I digress.)
Once again, the radio has led me to a fascinating book called THE UNTHINKABLE: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why. ( http://tinyurl.com/63p4s8 ) I heard the author, Amanda Ripley (Time magazine’s specialist in risk and homeland security), on NPR’s Diane Rehm show, and was riveted. Sometimes when catastrophe strikes, absolutely nothing can be done. If one’s luck runs out—like, you’re on one of the World Trade Center floors where the plane hit—that’s it. But many disasters have both victims and survivors. What is the difference? Since heroes and heroines are central to our romances, naturally I wanted to know more.
Amanda Ripley became fascinated by ths subject, and has spent years talking to survivors and disaster specialists. One of the clearest points to emerge is that while many people fear that they’ll panic, in fact panic is very rare.
Far more common, and often disastrous, is to do nothing. Shock and denial are the most common reactions, and critical minutes are lost while people come to terms with the fact that yes, an airplane has struck the building. Or the boat is sinking. The building is on fire. A man with a gun has entered the room and is shooting people. This kind of catastrophe is so alien to most of us that it’s not surprising that it takes time to assimilate that yes, we’re in danger and we have to act RIGHT NOW.
After 9/11, I read that “heroes are the ones who run toward the fire, not away.” It’s as succinct a definition of heroism as one is likely to find. It also implies something that is key to dealing with catastrophe: Training. People who are best qualified to deal with disaster are those who have been taught about how to behave. Drilled to the point where the behavior is second nature. These are the firemen and policemen who run toward the fire and the bullets, and God bless them every one.
This is why military people and first responders are the ones who are so effective. When the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Kentucky burned down, the most effective person in getting people out (probably saving hundreds of lives) was an 18 year old busboy from a military family.
Rick Rescorla, the security chief for Morgan Stanley, was a decorated Vietnam vet and a tough guy who irritated company employees by insisting on regular evacuation drills. On 9/11, 2,687 Morgan Stanley employees survived, largely due to Rescorla’s efforts over the years. Only 13 Morgan Stanley employees died—including Rescorla and four of his highly competent security officers, who had gone back in for the handful of employees who hadn’t left. (Rescorla was an amazing guy. For more about him: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rick_Rescorla )
In a holiday 2006 shooting in an Annapolis mall, it was highly trained Secret Service Agent Paul Buta, shopping with his family, who took on a gun wielding teenager who had already shot another kid over a gang dispute. Buta and the shooter were both wounded, but no one died because Buta knew what to do, and had the courage to do it.
As a side note, most descriptions of the incident said that “shoppers fled in panic.” In fact, in such circumstances, running is a pretty darned smart thing to do. So is finding cover or dropping to the floor. It’s not really panic—it’s a rational response to an irrational situation. But too often in such circumstances, people freeze. Amanda Ripley does a great job of showing how our natural instincts have long evolutionary roots—and talking about how we can develop better survival skills.
We don’t have to be cops to benefit by the information in Ripley’s book. As Rick Rescorla proved, the much despised fire drill can be a huge live saver. Fire is one of the most ancient and scary of threats, and until someone has experienced fire, it’s hard to grasp how swift and overpowering it is.
Mercifully, I’ve never been caught in a fire, but I researched the subject for The Rake, where the heroine and her foster family (and her cat) are almost killed in a fire. The Mayhem Consultant read the work in progress and said “More smoke, more smoke!” Then he took me on the Factory Mutual tour in Rhode Island. Factory Mutual is to fire safety what Underwriters Laboratory is to electrical safety, and the facility has a monthly tour that features such goodies as a dust explosion blowing up a shed and a warehouse fire. The latter is particularly exciting because visitors watch from a glass control room while two huge stacks of pallets and boxes are ignited. One stack is sprinklered, one is not. Heat radiates through the protective glass.
Not only was it blindingly clear that sprinklers make a huge difference. I also saw the masses of confusing, overpowering smoke produced by a fire. When I returned to my manuscript, I added more smoke. (It’s very good to hang out with a Mayhem Consultant who is by profession a health and safety engineer. He always knows where the emergency exits are. <g>)
It’s no accident that so many romance heroes (and heroines) are soldiers, police, and firemen. It isn’t that such people are unafraid. Often they’re terrified, but they know what to do to survive and save others. These are the people who act effectively when disaster strikes. And for that reason, they make appealing and admirable characters.
Toward the end of The Unthinkable, Amanda Ripley discusses the elements that go into heroism. I’ll leave you to read her book or her website ( http://www.amandaripley.com/ ) if you want to know more. But she does say that most people we call heroes are young, single males with a lot of empathy and a sense of community responsible. And one of the benefits of being a hero is that—well, heroes get the girls. And as romance readers, we know why. <G>