Hysteria and the Ordinary Writer

Stop that screeching. The world is not ending. If this wasn’t an election year in the United States, COVID-19 would get about thirty seconds of media coverage a night, and that’d be it. And yet, here we are, with schools and businesses closing, flights from Europe suspended, and a large portion of the population running around with their hair on fire. And a shortage of toilet paper, of all things.

What is a writer to do?

Well, if you write your manuscripts longhand on TP, you’re screwed. But for the rest of us, this can be an interesting experience. I, personally, have never witnessed The End of the World! ™, or at least, not to this degree. But I write about catastrophes, and characters’ reactions to said catastrophes. I assume many of you do the same.

 

The main thing I’ve learned about panic is that people aren’t rational. Go figure. What I mean is, they panic about things unrelated to the real problem. See above about the shortages of toilet paper. Definitely something you want to have in the house if you’re stuck there for a fortnight, but you probably don’t need a year’s supply, unless this turns into a cholera outbreak.

But people have been on edge for a long time, and buying pallets of TP is a socially acceptable way to express those feelings. Without getting too political, Americans- and the rest of the world, to a somewhat lesser extent- have been increasingly wound up over the state of the world for the past decade, and it’s accelerated rapidly in the past four years. All that emotion has to go somewhere, and people are shoving it through the tiny gap of expression labeled ‘panic buying.’ Hey, at least it’s less destructive than shooting at each other, which is what I honestly thought was going to happen. Still might. Or people might channel it in a different direction, and the lampposts will have new decorations. Or it might all blow over in a month, and we’ll all be wondering what to do with our stockpiles of hand sanitizer.

 

Which is another point. Panics are inherently volatile. They rev up quickly and often disappear just as quickly as they began. The bottom falls out from under the panic market when people look around and go, “Wait; what am I doing? I just drove to five stores, looking for bleach, when I already have ten gallons at home. This is stupid.” Then they go back to their normal lives, some faster than others. Adrenaline doesn’t last forever, and when there’s no immediate reason to panic, because your friends and relatives aren’t sick or dying, people usually settle down. Their neighbors see them settling down, and do likewise.

 

Another interesting thing of note is that panic exists in small, dense pockets. If I didn’t have internet, and hadn’t gone to the grocery store only to find that all the shopping carts were in use at once, I might not know there was an apocalypse on. If I hadn’t seen empty store shelves and talked with friends who work in retail, I wouldn’t know that supplies were getting low. It’s quite possible to live, happily ignorant of panic, if you don’t know what’s happening (I already sort of knew this, after a tornado hit five miles north of my house about ten years back, and I just thought we were having a bad thunderstorm until my brother mentioned it had gone right past his workplace).

We’re so used to living in an interconnected world that it’s easy to forget: all that information comes through your eyes and ears. If you don’t see or hear it, it may as well have never happened. Even if it comes through the internet; you had to watch that video or read that article to know what’s going on, no matter how detached you feel from the actual situation.

This is important for continuity and realism in stories, especially if it’s pre-modern. You might have a gigantic battle in this valley, but unless the shepherd in the next valley hears the fighting or wonders why the vultures are circling and goes to investigate, he might never realize a bunch of dudes were killing each other.

Your characters are not omniscient (usually) and they don’t all know the same things. Poor communication, or simply talking past each other, is great for conflict. And if they’re in an intense situation, even simple information might not make it through the fog of adrenaline.

If you want to avoid this, to stop the story getting bogged down, make your characters train and practice for intense situations. Some people are naturally and culturally prone to hysteria, but anyone can be trained out of the tendency. Eventually. And with varying success.

But poor communication, fog of war, and the limited spread of panic make for excellent conflicts- the meat of the story. Use that to your advantage, dear writer.

 

Supply chains are fragile, unless you purposely make them robust. As I write this, the grocery store in my upper-middle class suburb has almost no milk on the shelves. Milk. The cows are still giving milk, and the drivers are still delivering it, but because everyone grabbed a second gallon, ‘just in case!’ there’s none left.

Most readers, even if they haven’t experienced The End of the World! see shortages as a sign of crisis. Add an empty shelf or a starving army into your story as shorthand for ‘things are going badly.’ How your characters react is up to you.

 

People and institutions reveal their true colors during a panic (impossible to keep this bit from getting political; keep it civil in the comments or I’ll hit you with my axe). Amid the governors and local politicians locking down their cities and closing businesses, there have been a few instances of deregulation, mostly related to medical testing and supply chains. And there are rumors, with some but not overwhelming evidence, that certain countries are getting rid of political dissidents and attributing those deaths to the Wu-Flu. A cynic might say that everyone in power- a.k.a. employed by their constituents- has been waiting for a crisis, so they can implement the agenda they want. Your fictional characters and institutions should do the same.

 

I’m able to see this panic from a slightly detached perspective, because of my work and home situations. If I had children, lived closer to my elderly grandparents, or was obliged to go out to work, I might see it differently. Either way, some of this is going into a story, because no one will believe it otherwise.

What weird things have you noticed about this particular catastrophe? Does it line up with other panics you’ve witnessed? How do you plan to incorporate the experience into your writing, if at all?

28 comments

  1. What weird things have you noticed about this particular catastrophe? Does it line up with other panics you’ve witnessed?

    Main thing I’ve seen is the kind of people who can’t let someone post about a really great cheese cake recipe they found without saying something like fat will kill you, milk is murder, sugar is death, how dare you post that when children are starving in Honduras– those misplaced moral impulse twits are all over facebook and blogs, being obnoxious.

    And flipping the freak out if you don’t panic right along with them.

    1. So in a fit of cleaning I found a recipe for Lemon Cream from a twenty year old newspaper.
      1 cup of whipping cream
      1/4 cup of condensed milk
      1/4 cup of sugar
      1/4 cup of lemon juice

      Beat together until you feel like quitting. Eat alone or put on other things.

      I also substituted some cascadian raspberry balsamic vinegar for some of the lemon. ( The second time I made it. )

      1. *Drools*

        Since I’ve got someone to spot me with the kids right now, we’ve been doing a TON of baking– attempted cake mix browies today. (pack of pudding, prepared, add cake mix, bake; got very moist cake. Not bad, but not brownie)

        Wondering if I should attempt this or if it’ll be dangerous. 😀

        1. My daughter did a spot of cake-mix cookies for a launch party for an author friend of hers. They were really pretty good. I think the Daughter Unit got the recipes off Pinterest.

          1. Oooh, I’ve got one for those, called Nancy Cookies– the lady who gave me the recipe use to make them by the gross to send to military guys stationed over-seas, had me scouting out names so she COULD do it– they are awesome, especially if you get some of those novelty cake flavors.

            It’s literally a half cup oil, two eggs and a tablespoon of water to the dry cake mix, bake at 350. ❤

            Sooooo easy, but so fun!

      2. I have a similar recipe for the carb-avoiders (I know there are several of us around here): Substitute 2 oz. of cream cheese for the condensed milk and 4 packets of Splenda for the sugar. If the carb budget allows, a few mini chocolate chips are really tasty on top!

  2. I have to wonder if, and I think we would be, instead of having this countrywide quarantine with everything shutting down that we ask those vulnerable communities to self sequester for awhile. All indications are that if you are under 60 without an underlying health condition like an auto-immune disorder or breathing problems if you contract the WuFlu you’ll fight it off, probably without even realizing you have it. I think we’re going to kill more people from the economic loss (and subsequent loss of health it involves) than we are from the actual virus. THIS SEEMS NUTS!

    1. It is NUTS.

      The issue, however, is that many of the vulnerable can’t manage on their own.

  3. It lines up with some of what I recall hearing about the H1N1 bird flu (had a prof who was outraged that we grad students weren’t rioting in the streets, demanding anti-viral drugs. We were too busy with Life to bother.) And with the Crash of 1987 (and the Dot-Com-Bomb, and Enron, and the mortgage meltdown, and the S&L Crash of the 1980s).

    I don’t know if I will incorporate it. It is too close, too fresh. And will it sell? Maybe if you work it into a very light, funny story about, oh, an evil thing starting the panic because it can only be defeated by wrapping the entire temple with TP and it wants all TP to vanish, or something silly. Otherwise? Nah.

    1. I’m explicitly ignoring it. Several reasons: AU, secret masters of the PRC could’ve avoided it, and the whole point is fearmongering over a PRC invasion of Japan. There’s no sense in following reality, if in reality Winnie dances the hemp fandango, or the PLA isn’t even in shape to invade Taiwan.

      I’d decided early on to sacrifice realism, and later on that I was assuming an outcome of the 2020 election, regardless of what actually happened.

      And sure, while Tulsi Gabbard as a Chinese asset winning in 2024 would fit hilariously with some of my other choices, I think I’d have to kill the project if I hadn’t finished it by then, and I found myself writing some sort of political commentary*. So, I will be explicitly assuming that I have no details about that character, even kept secret from the reader. Maybe they aren’t a Chinese asset, maybe China isn’t fully confident of non-intervention. What matters is what the Japanese in story fear. What they do in response to that fear, to their own ambitions, etc.

      *It would be wasteful to spend so many words actually shilling for a side of an election. I would like to finish more quickly, but it takes what it takes. Spending five years on a story to have it read during the length of a campaign is pointless. I think I’d hate to spend five years on anything to have it entirely obsolete within a year.

  4. I don’t think I will incorporate it – and like TxRed, if I do, it will be a good long time from now – my contemporary series is pure country escapism, a diversion away from all that. 9-11 touched Luna City, though – as well as the Gulf War, so I might eventually bring it in. But only when it has long-settled and become a part of history.

    1. *nods*
      Filing off the serial numbers gives you more scope for integrating this particular episode into a lot of different stories, too. Your readers would be surprised if your Martian colony had an outbreak of COVID-19, but no one would be surprised if they had an outbreak of Nameless Flu #87. And yet the character’s reactions would be very similar to what we’re seeing in real life.

  5. In the earliest versions of the Chicken Little stories, there’s a fox that leads Chicken Little and company into a trap so they can be eaten.

    So who’s the fox right now? 😉

      1. And unlike the story, those “foxes” had a hand in starting the panic. 😉

  6. Your characters are not omniscient (usually) and they don’t all know the same things. Poor communication, or simply talking past each other, is great for conflict. And if they’re in an intense situation, even simple information might not make it through the fog of adrenaline.

    Completely non-hysteria related, but I’ve been having some difficulty with this recently. Given that I’m an omniscient goddess in my imaginary world, it’s hard for me to remember that my character isn’t. Unless I’m keeping something from her deliberately, I tend to act as thought she knows what I do.

    Case in point: I had a beta-reader comment on the “creepy Beauty and the Beast dynamic” between the main character and one of the fairy lords. My reaction was, “But there is no such dynamic. He’s obsessed with her, yes, but for completely non-romantic, non-sexual reasons…” rereads the scene “…but given the questions he’s asking, there’s no way that she should know that.” It’s been a challenge rewriting things so she reacts based on what she thinks she knows rather than what she does.

    1. I have trouble with this, too. I’m working on a multi-POV story, and keeping track of which character is ‘the one with the background information’ in any given conversation is tricky.

  7. I’m glad to see that I’m not the only person exasperated with panicking ninnies. Maybe it helps because I heard stories from my parents (both born in the 1930’s) about the regular epidemics of measles and rubella and polio that kept hitting throughout their childhoods in rural Pennsylvania. The attitude seems to have been ‘avoid contact with the infected and stay away from quarantined homes, don’t do anything stupid, and otherwise get on with your life as usual.’

    1. One third of my first grade class was out when I returned from having the measles myself.

  8. At the current moment, I am merely noticing that the current work I am revising has the main characters packed away in isolation for their own safety.

    Not from disease. Also, they move a lot. But I tend to notice parallels on inadequate grounds under stress.

  9. I was actually heartened by the fact that Sam’s Club was out of staples. Rice, beans, flour, etc… were all gone or mostly gone. That makes me feel much better about my fellow shoppers than Whole Foods being out of specialty cheese. That is, not everyone in my area is an idiot; there may be a touch of panic buying, but they’re buying the right stuff.
    The toilet paper thing has me baffled.
    This is the first time in my life (in my 50s) that I’ve ever noticed empty shelves in stores. It’s a bit odd, but not (yet) worry inducing.
    Definitely story fodder. Bad thing happens and people all run off to empty the shelves of something totally strange.

    1. I went shopping this morning, and managed to catch the section manager at Walmart while he was walking around looking all official (didn’t actually notice his name tag until after I’d asked if they were having trouble keeping milk in stock– I usually get six jugs, but didn’t want to wipe them out).

      He explained they’re not having any issues with the supply chain in Des Moines, it’s just that they’re selling everything two or three times as fast as usual. He estimates that it’ll take six day’s worth of shipments before they are fully restocked.

      Just not enough truck drivers, as anybody who has been paying attention to trucking already knew.

      1. Enlivened by such things as states shutting down rest stops. What do they expect truckers to do?

    2. Flour, of any kind except masa, I have hardly seen at several stores (I’m only running around to track down things like milk – we go through about a half dozen gallons a week, so it does not stock well).

      WEIRD thing is, there has been plenty of yeast on the shelves around here.

      1. “Self-rising flour”. Also baking powder. Also sourdough. There have been alternatives to yeast for a while.

        1. I admit I didn’t check the baking powder. I’ll do that Sunday or Monday when I’m on the hunt for milk again.

          Although a lot of people around here are probably lazy like me and use the mix (of which there was plenty). I used self-rising once and didn’t care for the results; but, yes, the people that bought that out are going to be fine. Sourdough… apparently not very popular here in Tucson. I kept a starter for a while here, but I’m the only one that likes it in the family, so I surrendered that space some years ago. I have noticed that the mix is normally a very low stock item, and it’s frequently not even in the baked goods.

          I was surprised by the masa supply, though. All of that meat disappearing, and tamales freeze so well…

          Produce is another odd place to visit, for me. Onions (except for scallion) – usually cleaned out. Potatoes less so. Very little other produce is hard to find – particularly peppers. Might be a function of what is locally grown, though.

          Amusing (in a dark way) to me, is that the fake meat bin is always overflowing… Says to me that people just aren’t THAT desperate yet.

          1. well, produce is reportedly ok at local stores, but my most recent trip was the ft lee comissary, which was somewhat better stocked on some things

  10. no. tbh, this thing just has a bunch of weird aspects . I dunno if tis cause i am out driving and seeing/hearing them or what.

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