Writing Survival Scenarios

Or Apocalypse Scenarios


The end of the world provides for numerous story ideas, especially since it isn’t the end of the world, just seems that way at the time. These are really fun to write since you have an unlimited budget, both for toys and for mayhem. It’s an easy way to get your aggression out by taking out a lightpost with a Mack truck, etc.

Good starting points usually involve some unstoppable catastrophe, be it plague, nuclear war, asteroid or whatever. The point is, characters in the story have no way to stop it from doing what it’s going to do and your job as the author is to tell how they survived it and the rest of the chaos.

Survival stories are about man overcoming everything and everyone around him and if not coming out on top at least escaping. What a deceptive opening. It's really a lot trickier. It is important to first realize that these stories are best told from the perspective of them beginning tomorrow, the day after today. Always ground your fantasies in reality so the reader understands implicitly where he would be in this. If you get him to ask himself where he would be in such a scene, and what he’d do, then you’re successful. Of course, being quoted or linked by net survivalists is always a telltale of a good story, too.




Survival scenarios are always based on some kind of disaster, be it plane crash, major earthquake, asteroid impact, plague, nuclear war, or alien invasion. The bigger the better in some scenarios, where the story possibilities blossom like H-bombs. By that I mean the writer sees a number of likely characters to tell it from and in that interaction find more story to write and more drama than the simplicity of the big disaster. Humans are built around their interpersonal relationships and motives arising from those and their obsessions.

In a survival scenario, the bigger the apparent disaster, the more total the devastation, the larger the scale, the more terrible the decisions made are to one another. In a small disaster like a major earthquake or flood, the usual result is people pull together and help each other. Happy ending, most likely. In a larger disaster with refugees resulting, tempers get frayed and firearms start appearing and are used as "us vs. them" gets shoved to the forefront. People die and feuds result. The scenario turns to a large-scale morality piece on race, genocide, and only intervention by martial law can stop the escalation of violence. This story type tends to be tragic, rather than happy ending.

In the truly awful exhibits of destruction, the result is instant survivalist anarchy, turning man against man for perceived gain of resources, instants of revenge, savage violence, and no amount of military might will stop it as the disaster will undoubtedly have them scurrying for cover as well. An ocean strike with a comet for instance, or global nuclear war, or a killer plague (though plagues tend to push people apart from one another rather than draw them together with violence- perception of biblical wrath highly likely). The scale of the disaster and its nature are what guide the behaviors of the populations involved. A major disaster in India would cause fund raising in the USA, not anarchy. Understanding the cause and effect of disasters is the key skill of the writer while designing the plot of the story.

The critical point in deciding the result of the disaster on civilization is when the characters realize that the scope of the disaster would take more of their resources to help than they can spare, they inevitably decide to save themselves first. This is the most painful and cruel decision a cultured sapient can make, and usually worthy of some examination in the storyline, either by the philosopher/religious character, or in some metaphorical form the main character has to deal with in the course of his survival. The larger scale the disaster, the most likely it passes this moral event horizon, returning man to his barbaric roots in order to survive. Civilization exists for the purpose of removing this possibility from the life of man and thereby encourage cooperation and the concept of rights.

In more advanced writers, smaller disasters allow for just as much story. Recall you’re still limited to about 500 pages on the outside, to be printed, and you can’t kill your reader in the process. If the story is too big it won’t say much but not say much with a whole bunch of extraneous characters and lots of words. Pace the story carefully and try not to be redundant in depictions of events.




The basic plot of all survival novels is the world goes to hell in a handbasket and the characters have to survive it. Your job is to provide all the details. First provide some daily life of a main character, or each of the eventual key characters. Then show the disaster, possibly with lots of buildup to what is eventually going to happen that makes the world go crazy, or else with lots of surprise, though buildup is generally favored as most writers of these kind of stories are religious and therefore use lots of foreshadowing, essentially Structuralist writing. Then you show the characters escaping the catastrophe, generally travelling to some point of safety, which allows you to show off your setting. Once they arrive there they have a short period of safety followed by some war or other conflict with the regional villains.

Most survivalist stories skip the apocalypse and go directly to post-apocalypse which is excessively overdone. (Hint: don’t bother with mutants.) Talking about the during is that part most often glossed over and also that which is most interesting as well, which is odd that so many writers skip it. Each plot is specific to the story type, so keep that in mind.



It’s generally a good idea to tell disaster/survival stories from the pov of multiple characters in larger stories, as you can show off your setting from various places. In general with survival stories, it is a good idea to depict the story from the pov of certain archetypes: everyman (main char.), scientist, military, govt rep., religious rep., and someone completely out of danger watching it safely. There are reasons for each.

The main character should be an everyman because he is someone the basic reader identifies with, no small point. The reason for putting the story starting tomorrow, with all the current events messes, all the normal problems is the fantasy takes on a very real bent. Telling it from a person who is not in the loop, who doesn’t have all the answers and all the confidence accentuates the situation and provides drama to what might otherwise be a boring set-piece. The main character is the one who is forced to flee through riots and anarchy and barely escapes with his skin from the primary destruction. It is important that this be understood such that the mess can be brought to common human terms. It's all very well to sit back and watch it from safe distance, which is the whole purpose of one character, but the main char. has to deal with it personally, see it up close, react to it like a real person would, and survive. All others can croak for the plot, but the main character is supposed to survive, this being a story of survival.

The scientist fulfills the usual B-movie job of explaining the disaster to the characters in power and thereby the reader. Sometimes this is not needed as a purely scientific job, if for instance the disaster is man made such as a Civil War, in which case a historian or mass psychologist might be better placed for the role. Read up on papers so the dialog and thoughts don’t end up totally hokey. Expect some of your readers to be far smarter than you, and try to please them as well by not insulting their intelligence.

The military role may be a commander in which case he is just a govt minister in a uniform, but sometimes it is important to have a man on the ground, a grunt facing the difficulty with full military knowledge. One should remember that when disasters happen that effect major powers, minor powers always jump at the opportunity to do terrible things to their neighbors, knowing the powers in question are too busy to stop them. Military minds know this and always wince at disasters, another reason to be up on your current events knowledge. For the grunt, this means they may find themselves facing wars triggered by the disaster that have nothing physically to do with it. Nuclear attack in LA killing a million people triggers Iran to close the Straits of Hormuz to oil shipments by their neighbors, an embargo threatening the rest of the world. Keep in mind minor disasters result in usually more minor atrocities, limited in duration to that of the emergency. Flooding in St. Louis is not going to trigger an invasion by the Russians into China, for instance.

The political presence is about population management and negotiation. Sometimes all you can do with him/her is show the efforts at preventing worse disasters by govt mismanagement, as a reactive but positive force. Other times one uses the politician as the ultimate cause, as a villain. Use it as you see fit. The politician has certain powers, which in realist scenarios should probably include all the real ones, like FEMA, the Nat’l Guard, and various state and federal agencies related to the disaster involved. With an asteroid impact, this is global, and would involve the UN. Naturally, a major disaster beyond the control of a govt rep. makes for serious upset, and showing the character losing control, or even going mad makes for a nice dynamic. General Jack D. Ripper from Dr. Strangelove was a fine example of the politician going bonkers and causing the end of the world.

Religion and philosophy are essentially the same thing for the purposes of the story. An overview, even in the form of poetry, provides a moral backdrop for understanding the situation from outside itself. What kind of character one chooses is entirely up to the writers own philosophy as this is your chance to tell people what you think about the situation and how people are behaving. It sounds simple, but that's basically what one does.

The final important character is the safe one, the one who can watch it all without being affected by it. This character exists to show one how far the main character has gotten from the baseline of his existence, when he was everyone else and before it all happened to him, changed him in the process. This characters purpose is NOT to change, but to remain static, purely for comparison against the others. Naturally, this means, as in the real world, that some places will be less critically effected by troubles effecting most everyone else. In particularly bad situations, an old survivalist in the boonies and not easily startled is a simple character to work with. As there are plenty of them in real life, it's also particularly realistic. Picking the where can be anywhere on earth, but with global catastrophes like Asteroid Impacts or nasty plagues, anywhere with a mostly safe climate and few people would work just fine. This person should be aware of what’s going on outside, but not take the worry to heart and start acting like everyone else.

Naturally, small character roles, of only a few pages and often single use, are important in the telling of a story with multiple pov's. They allow the author to depict certain points of value to the overall impression the reader receives. In a story with lots of people dying, they can be the ones doing that, and give critical witness to the realism of the setting. It is important not to drown out the more important characters in the process, but these minor ones add critical depth and are best included.

As situations like this tend to cause lots of crime, its certainly reasonable to have escaped convicts, looters, snipers, gangs, hiwaymen, biker gangs, etc out murdering and such any unlucky enough to be in their path. Such things are the natural state of man, unfortunately, and even though 99% of the population is good and decent (maybe only 90% but I’m being generous), that still leaves that 1% of bad people; it only takes one bad person to ruin your whole life. Obviously, these are your villains and they can be of any type you chose. Make the best of your choices and the results will work out nicely.



Survival Approaches

In a survival story, there are places where survivalists come into the scene and may be the central characters in it. As survivalist stories are popular and usually a fun project for a writer, I am including info into writing this subgenre. There are two distinct ways to survive nasty periods in time. One is to Bunker Down, which is to construct a fortified and hopefully secret retreat, stock it with supplies and wait for the sun to come out. The other is to Wander, taking what you can from nature, the dead, and strangers. Wandering is considered immoral, as its simple theft and often murder, but morality ends once a decision is made to put the self first in consideration. Bunkering has the critical weakness of being stationary and therefore vulnerable. The supplies may not exceed the duration of the emergency, another problem. Wandering is weak in that it pits ignorant savagery against knowledgeable savagery, those sitting behind the barricades and knowing their home turf. Neither situation is safe and that’s the paradox of the survival strategy. Luck and caution are salvation, and one never has enough of either.

All anarchy and survival stories are about playing it safe, about thinking ahead, about people who make the right decisions and those who make the wrong ones. Show the differences with bit part characters, and how the main person or group survive against all odds. Usually there is violence, man against man, as some groups use the change to implement their own power over others, usually by force. A knowledge of firearms and tactics, as well as unconventional travel in the absence of law makes most stories into Travel Epics. A knowledge of the region described is important for realism, so it is helpful to tell the story in areas you are yourself familiar with, like your hometown.

That said, survivalist stories usually are best started from the present. A certain amount of time should allow for staging of the transition from law to anarchy. Some authors, such as myself, find the transition the most important part of the story, while others prefer to concentrate on the Aftermath, the result of the disaster on human behavior and devote their work almost entirely to the new structure. Critical to cohesion of survivalist groups in the Reconstruction Fantasy, in which the strong (the survivors with the power) dictate terms and direction of the rebuilding of society from the ashes. This goes way back to before Noah, to the original floods in the first civilization of Ur, known to you and me as ancient Babylon. The people who survive feel they are morally superior, attributing religious affirmation and rightness, and thereby power, to their decisions. Naturally, this is ignorant and childish, but it is what drives groups through the dark times and keeps them functioning. As social engineering, authors construct utopian fantasies which arise from the decisions made by their characters and in a SimCity kind of way they get to have their say. Its not reality but its a way to pass the time.

The other way to write survivalist scenarios is to deal with the ugliness of the collapse and the early stages of reconstruction, without predicting long term results. If history is any teacher of human organizational skills, a collapse of significant size will only make things worse for everyone else, just with modern weapons to enforce it. Look at a Banana Republic sometime, and picture that happening every two years here in the USA. Nasty, unpleasant, cutthroat, but plausible. We’re no better than anywhere else.

High technology is not necessarily out of the question as certain gizmos will operate as long as there is power and landlines, and others just need batteries. Satellites will be unaffected by even asteroid strikes since the odds of a hit on just one are very low, being so far away and so small. Localized generators or fuel cells can provide the needed electricity to maintain or improve technological development. Microfacture mass production allows the construction of machined parts of high quality with minimal tooling and space requirements using CAD/CAM. Chemistry and resins can provide for any number of plausible material products on a bargain basement budget. New things will continue to be created even after a significant collapse into anarchy or catastrophe. Consequently, it is not unreasonable to include some high tech into storylines of this type. Its not a stretch at all, even in very long term storylines, the Post-Post Apocalypse where the rule of the storyline is about the various levels of savagery and technology, the old world tools slowly breaking down, and the newfangled tech up against Road Warrior style Bikers and crossbows. Think logically when you do this or you’ll be laughed out of the publisher's office, but you can still have fun writing it.



Survival Scenarios

There are a number of types of survival stories. Plagues, asteroid impacts, nuclear war, civil war, and uncontrolled anarchy. Each has their own factors and angles that a novelist must take into account.

Plagues are fun because the heroes are the survivors of whatever it is, resistant to the disease that kills almost everyone else. The earth falls silent. Airplanes cease to fly overhead. After the dogs and vultures have finished off the bodies, its a frontier once more, populated with whatever material goods a person would care to pick up before they’ve rusted. Play up the collecting of toys, like cars and food and guns and such. Then the main character has to deal with the aftermath of things, and the growing problems, like packs of wild dogs or bears, the collapse of infrastructure like roads and bridges, and lack of medical help. It becomes the story of man against the elements and the beasts. The plot of the story is always about travels across the wilderness searching for other survivors in order to restart the world and rebuild from the ashes. It's the flood story all over again. A variation of this is for only a small portion of the population to die from the plague but for it to keep going in secret, or else be passed along with a new plague after it, and another. The population develops new ways to deal with the situation, just as it has developed to deal with HIV after the 70’s Free Love decade. A good example of this genre is Emergence by David Palmer.

Nuclear war is no less dangerous than it was in 1950. There are more loose nukes now than there ever were, and several are in the hands of bitter enemies who would merrily use them in a sneak attack against the USA. The usual problems of fallout, radiation poisoning, EMP blackouts, and cancer all apply. Even should a war occur in another continent, which is far more likely than a full strike against the USA, the fallout danger exists worldwide at low levels. Current nuclear capable disputes exist between Israel-Iraq, Iraq-Iran, Iran-USA, Greece-Turkey (neither acknowledges possession of nukes but both probably do), Russia-USA (low odds right now but that could change), North Korea-South Korea, China-USA, China-Taiwan, China-Indonesia, Pakistan-India (hot war), and South Africa on itself. Odds vary between groups. Iran, Iraq, Israel, Korea, Pakistan-India are the hottest concerns for a nuclear escalation. Up until a nuke is detonated on US soil, they won’t amount to more than political uproar and a few precautions against contamination. Once a nuke goes off in the USA, taking out a city, conditions will cause a massive state of mourning.

Anarchy will not occur unless something significant happens that effects the whole country, not just its conscience. If Galveston is taken out or an EMP attack is made at 100,000 feet over the USA, this is sufficient to cause national anarchy. Galveston is where 75% of the oil is refined into gasoline and diesel fuel, which is the lifeblood of America. Without fuel, America goes into anarchy within 14 days, according to official estimates from the DOE, DOD and the RAND corp as well as LLLabs. No gas, no way to get to work, and no money coming home. The whole system collapses. If an EMP attack is made on the USA, it will fry the electronics and phone networks, computers, fax machines, electric ignitions in cars, watches and everything else with a battery or electronic circuit simultaneously. This would disable the American economy, leaving only those with cash as having any money at all. Checks and credit cards would be unverifiable. Communications would be disrupted. People would be unable to drive their vehicles to work if they own a car without a carburetor. People would sit it out until they start to realize the scope of the problem. Then they get selfish and start hoarding. Mass panic ensues.

Conditions during the breakdown will be shortages of goods, followed by hoarding, followed by rioting, followed by looting, followed by starvation and total breakdown of even the last parts of law and order. Writing for this scenario is fairly easy. It's also a lot of fun, provided you have a strong stomach. Lots of nasty street fighting, massacres by and off the police. Militias and militants of every stripe running around trying to control things. Full-on gun battles between rival gangs and armies. It's complicated and a free fire zone where anything goes. Use lots of characters, many of them single use, and you’ll be able to tell your story effectively. Provide a group of main characters for continuity and development.

If you plan on telling it with survivalist types, look over the associated appendix or search for lists on the net. Minimalism is the rule if they hike, and if they bunker, they’re storing everything they can think of and it's never enough. You can’t Robinson Crusoe everything after all, because you’ll be laughed at as smug and pretentious. Everyone makes mistakes. Allow your characters to make their own, have regrets, and run out of things. Include spoilage and poor planning. That happens in the real world, after all.

An asteroid strike may or may not have much warning. Realistically it won’t, since they travel so astronomically fast and are usually totally black so don’t emit much radiation to show they’re even out there, much less coming this way. Should you choose to write the story with a head start on the impact, this gives plenty of time for paranoia and hoarding. Depending on where you choose to have it strike, and how much energy is imparted, that will decide the scale of your initial disaster. I recommend you do a little research. There are a number of excellent net-based databases on Earth orbit crossing asteroids. Some will pass by in the next few years, and others won’t be here until 2028, but that’s no reason not to have an undiscovered one come careening in since this is plausible (at best only 10% are charted). Solar system objects impact at minimum 11.2 km/sec, usually much faster. Multiply that by the mass, usually reflected in composition and diameter, listed in miles or kilometers. This usually results in thousand to million Megaton energies. To put this in perspective, Hiroshima was a 40-Kiloton bomb. This puts the asteroid in the Gigaton to Teraton energy level. Very big.

A nickel iron asteroid of 4-km diameter impacting at a modest 40 km/sec on land would cover the earth in dust for two years and kill off 90% of plant and animal life. Fires would sweep the land for hundreds of miles and dust sparked lightning would cause more. There is also a good possibility earthquakes jarred by the initial strike would make the earth rumble worldwide, and be very bad on the opposite side of the earth from the impact site, since the waves would refocus there. Spatter of molten rock from the site would fly for a hundred miles from the impact site, as well as going suborbital, and a large enough rock would puncture the crust, causing a volcanic eruption because of unloading, which triggers liquefaction of the magma. This would result in a stable volcanic plume that would outlast the continents, according to the current Unloading Hypothesis of Asteroid Impacts relating to Hot Spot volcanics.

A similar impact on water would cause massive mile high tsunami in the relevant oceans and overrun islands and coastlines, running up rivers, etc. This would likely drown all relevant coastal cities and the people still in them, as well as any lowlands nearby. It would change the climate, causing heavy rains for 2 years, the first 6-12 months of which will be salt water. Horrendous worldwide flooding will also result, as well as a rise in temperature since a fair amount of the impact energy is transferred to heat in the water and the impact site. This could trigger an ice age or global warming, depending on the results at the poles. It is possible the crater will become the site of a hot spot volcano, like Hawaii or Yellowstone. A larger impact results in more significant damage. More rocks make more impacts.

Writing this story would be man against the elements and later man against man as they struggle over resources and food during the long recovery. Attempts to blast a big rock with nukes may well break it up or simply change where it hits. If broken up this means more impacts at essentially the same velocity and more widespread damage from more strikes, continental and oceanic. Tech is not currently good enough to safely engineer an asteroid strike away from us. A good example of this story is Lucifer’s Hammer by Niven and Pournelle. Their efforts are excellent and recommended reading for any author interested in writing this kind of scenario.

Hollyweed has produced a few movies where asteroids or comets are inbound for a strike and send PEOPLE in SPACESHIPS to blast them apart or away. Frankly, this is ridiculous since you have to go there, come to a stop, accelerate back towards Earth to match velocities with the asteroid, then land on it. Its a lot simpler and cheaper to send a few nukes up on Saturn 5 boosters and detonate when they get close. Send more than one just to be sure. It's STILL CHEAPER and MORE EFFECTIVE than the lousy excuses provided in Hollyweed movies. Not as dramatic, but at least its plausible.

If you go for the unlikely but fun to write Invasion story, whether this be from Mexico by unarmed peasants looking for land and jobs, or from Space Aliens with battleships and unstoppable technology, then you get to band all the various disparate parts of American culture, or world culture to fight against the loathsome invaders who deserve no pity. Or only a little pity. Anyway, its a coming together story and is very hopeful. A couple good examples in the movies are Red Dawn and Independence Day, both of which are very popular. If you want to deal with a bug hunt instead, where a small advance guard is turning your country’s finest into corpses, then look over the Aliens, Terminator, Species, Relic, Mimic, and Predator movies. These tend to be single issue scifi rather than full immersion but can be written either way.



Simple Exercises

As an exercise, writing a survivalist novel is good practice for a more advanced novel later. The best way to approach it is to use yourself as the main character, and people you know, or those loosely based on them, as the supporting characters in your story. Work in your own hometown and write with those landmarks in mind. Describe them, and the devastation of rioting, burned out cars, blood stained concrete etc, as they would look there. It's a lot of fun to write and gets you thinking the right way to deal with novels. My own survivalist novel The Fall: Anatomy of a Riot is based on this idea. It is also infinitely expandable such that other authors can comfortably write their own versions of the story in their own hometowns without the slightest interference or difficulty.

Survival novels are a good transition between scifi and realistic fiction, and get you thinking about changes, about details, and about themes, dramatic license and such. You also learn to develop your characters and how to kill them as well, since violence is part of the deal in this genre. Finding the right way, whether in triumph or ignominy as per your intuitive artistic sense, is a delicate matter and one gets attached to one characters which makes their ending that much more poignant. Whatever the case, writing a survival novel in your own hometown is the easiest way to approach the genre for a first novel. After you learn the tricks and traits you can get more complex and subtle.

In later attempts you can deal with more established settings, those having more time to settle down into some sort of feudal or frontierized civilization with the associated technological anachronisms like horses and M-16’s, digital watches and crossbows. Such stories are fun to write as well. If you want to get more into the idea, you can write an epic from the causes of breakdown, through the breakdown itself, to the aftermath a few generations and the likely cultural impacts. If you want to get really subtle, skip the whole thing and just refer to the cultural aftermath generations later as it sneaks into public metaphors of grieving. Whatever the case there are a lot of ways to look at your story and which kind of story to tell within that setting you create.



Overlooked Details

Frequently I come across badly written or produced survivalist storylines that desperately need a kick to the head. The writer remembers that the power goes out in disasters. And that you run out of gas. And that there’s a run on the banks and money becomes hyperinflated and worthless. And that the markets are emptied by hoarders. Guns are worth more than gold. People go crazy and law and order instantly breaks down into anarchy. Yes, it is Carjacking City trying to drive anywhere after the first couple hours and roadblocks with rednecks or robbers everywhere else. Yes mobs run in the streets and loot every shop in sight, beat every pedestrian or driver they get their hands on. Rodney King riots all over again. Yes people commit arson and rape and murder in broad daylight and worse at night. They got that right. It's the things they forget which has me shaking my head in disgust.

Firearms are always going to be in survival stories, no doubt about that. All survival stories have firearms and salt of the earth types to hold them. Chivalry reborn, etc. A chance to right wrongs and redo the old western gunfights with automatic weapons. Real tech comes down to specific things like using stuff that doesn’t break. Submachine guns are fast and nasty in close range but they have too many moving parts and waste too much ammo. Plus they’re just gaudy pistols so they have lousy range. A man with a real rifle is king, so work from there. Obscure ammunitions and moving parts all add up to unworkable weapons shortly after trouble breaks out and you really need them. It may be a great gun in peacetime, but if the ammo is rare, it's a hunk of metal once it goes empty. Shotguns are better but have a limited range and heavy ammo. The rifle, the plain old simple deer rifle is the one that will last the longest, has the best accurate range and stopping power and uses the least ammo. It is the deer rifle that will define any realistic survival story. Nevermind smg’s and pistols blazing. That’s Hollyweed hack writing at its worst.

Furthermore, I’ve noticed that far too many survivalist authors get way too into their guns, tending to call them by their technical designation rather than describing them, which makes it pretty hard to envision as a reader. This is a major problem. It may make perfect sense and be technically accurate but unless you are including that the Valmet Hunter is a semiauto clip fed rifle and not an smg or a shotgun your reader is lost. In most cases, getting that specific about the firearms is a big mistake. Back it off and leave the descriptions at the level of rifle, pistol, shotgun, etc, with a few minor embellishments. If you bog it down, you’re hurting your story. You’ll have to use your judgement, but its part of the deal.

The next most often ignored problem is water. Once the power goes out, you lose the pumps that put the water in the tap for you to drink, shower, clean yourself and your dishes. You need water to live. If you go without for 3 days, you’ll die of thirst. If you drink untreated water, chances are good you’ll get dysentery or even cholera and die, if not just get very sick from parasites. You have to boil water or run it through a filter, or treat it with first Chlorine bleach and then Hydrogen Peroxide to neutralize the Chlorine so you don’t get cancer and die. If you’re going to boil it, you need a pot and a fire to heat it with. If you’re going to filter, you need enough filters to last the duration of the crisis, which is of course unknown.

Food can be hoarded yes, but if you are a normal person you have about a week worth of food in your cupboards and freezer and that fridge turns off with the power so eat up before it spoils tomorrow. Remember to include feasting in the early days of the riots while people sit home nervously, keeping watch. Lots of sex among couples since close quarters and high tension naturally produce that effect. Once the freezer goodies are gone, and people start scavenging for firewood to cook with, and you’re down to the last cans of pet food for dinner, you either go out into the mayhem in search of food or starve to death. All those people end up fighting over what they find, so you get a second string of violence after the initial one. The urban areas are worse than the rural, and rural types tend to store a lot more food for just this reason, and are more likely to share as well. That is the chief reason trouble will be less in the woods. People aren’t as hungry. When aid comes, it will be to the urban centers and the woods will be the last to receive shipments, if they get any at all. This is a paradox of surviving disasters as if you stay in the cities, you’re more likely to be killed or starve, but you’ll be first to get aid if you survive that long.

Pets are always ignored, as are zoo animals. Keepers will likely let them go if the alternative is letting them starve or killing them. Pets will stick around as long as they get fed. If the owner dies they get hungry and starve or go crazy and run off, tearing down anything edible, including feasting on the dead. Morbid, but established fact in past bad times, war zones and plague towns throughout history. Frequently dogs will join packs and once the dead are gone they start hunting livestock and then lone people to attack, kill, and devour. It will become necessary to carry a weapon or two to kill wild dogs, even should all the people die in a plague. Throw in released wild zoo animals and later next generation animals (should your story last that long into the future) with their claws intact. Imagine prides of African Lions hunting Bison in Nebraska or Oklahoma and you can see the story possibilities there. Animal mismatches will produce new ecosystems and food chains in whatever areas they end up. In the short term, it is quite reasonable in cities or surrounding rural areas to find Rhino, Lions, or various other zoo animals running loose. As time goes on you may find them further away as they migrate to quieter and safer habitats.

Medicines go bad in time and must be used while effective. When you get hurt, you have no medical help to do surgery so most wounded people will either heal on their own or die. Frequently you see people surviving these wounds in the movies, but it's simply not true. In the Civil War, 60% of casualties occurred from dysentery or cholera, not the actual fighting. Those who were wounded frequently died of infection. A few lucky ones only had their arm or leg cut off.

When times get hard the least important thing to bother with is shaving. People skip showers too, so they smell ripe. Beards will be growing out within a week and in a month will be full. Women will almost certainly let their leg hair grow out as well, since the water is needed for drinking, cooking, and washing, not to be wasted on frilly details like smooth legs or chins. Remember those beards, remind yourself of their itchiness and coarseness, and relate the ages of your characters by the thickness or lack of beard.




Most people like to write up some sort of reconstruction fantasy where the survivors, having proved their rightness by might, get to tell everyone left how to live and become the next dictators, all for the best of course. The standard response is vapid, but it's popular and what can you do?

In the real world, what will eventually happen is the military equipment will come into play and whomever has the ruthless strength to control people will take over, massacring some good people to show they mean business. Through whatever petty needs they have, a feudal power structure will evolve with associated rights and powers for the various classes. Feudalism is the only stable human system of govt. Democracy fails because of indifference, where feudalism is equally despised by all it does allow things to work in a way people understand intuitively. Someone is stronger and pushes you around; you’re stronger than somebody else is so you push them around. It's only insufferable for those on the bottom and the top. At the bottom, its poverty and desperation. At the top is a constant fight for dominance and madness once it is achieved, thanks to absolute power’s corrupting effect.

In time the feudal structure will fade into the background and industry will regain the attention of the masses. Information will not be destroyed in one massive disaster, so neither will technology. Eventually production will fully recover, then surpass previous levels. Power structures will continue to run things but that’s the way things are now so nobody will notice the difference in a generation of time.



Suggested Reading

Some good books on survival, anarchy, and disasters are readily available used or new from your local bookstore. Some westerns are also good source material as they describe old-fashioned wilderness survival; no less relevant when you’re stuck lowtech. The best source for survival and survivalist materials is the Internet, where various websites and Usenet groups like misc.survival are happy to provide info. Use a search engine to find a current list and read up.



Niven & Pournelle- Lucifer’s Hammer, Footfall

Vernor Vinge- The Peace War

David Palmer- Emergence

Robert Heinlein- Tunnel In The Sky

David Brin- The Postman

?- Alas, Babylon

James Rawles- TEOTWAWKI

Non Fiction

Jaynes Small Arms

Bradford Angier- Survival With Style

Various survivalist web sites and newsletters. Use a search engine to find a current list.