I often write books with a post-apocalyptic setting. At this point, I’m used to imagining cities in a state of ruin, desolate, or otherwise destroyed, and accustomed to doing things like spending an hour looking up pollinator insects that can live underground. But how does one get used to that? How do you write a post-apoc setting?
Post-apocalyptic and apocalyptic books are not the same thing
This is probably the first and most important point. The kind of research an author will have to do to describe a catastrophe while it is happening will be different from the research needed to describe a world after the disaster has happened. The first decision to make is between these two setting types. In this case, we’re talking about post-apocalyptic worlds.
The next question is—how long after the apocalypse is the story taking place? A story set five years afterward will be very different from one set fifty or a hundred years-plus afterward. The nature of the disaster or disasters will determine a lot about the resources that are available of characters as well.
Characters are defined by their circumstances
Are characters accustomed to deprivation and harsh circumstances, or do they remember a time of ample resources? How have the deprivations and extreme weather, violent gangs, etcetera, changed the way they live? Are your characters poor, rich, or middle-class? Have they experienced prejudice based on their gender or ethnicity? Has their identity insulated them from suffering and unpleasantness? Has it been changed?
How much of civilization remains?
Choosing between urban, rural, and small-town settings also make a difference to the plot and character development—the pressures of an urban environment after an apocalyptic event will be different from those in a rural environment. The country of choice also makes a difference—Canada, for example, has a lot of empty land, but China has less, and smaller, very urban countries such as England would have very little land without people. More people means more competition, but can also mean that society becomes reorganized more quickly.
What about technology?
Technology is one of the defining features of a sci fi world. A setting might involve a lot of advanced technology, or might be quite simplistic and low-tech--After the Garden is an example of a low-tech society that came from a fairly high-tech society. It’s also quite common for there to be a mixture of tech levels--Fallout (a famous game series) tends to exemplify this, with an omnipresent mixture of advanced, yet jury-rigged technology. In most cases, jury-rigging and improvisation will be very important; an apocalypse tends to result in a collapse of infrastructure, so few things are new or in polished shape.
Knowledge is the key to survival
It’s often worth researching and taking notes on things like structural engineering, house construction, plumbing, and survival skills. While it’s better not to include every detail of your research, these ideas can shape characters’ actions and coping mechanisms. After all, fighting skills are important, but a character still needs to be able to barter, get around, and survive for the rest of the time.
By investigating these areas and writing up detailed notes, you can ensure that your post-apocalyptic novel stands out and—most importantly—makes sense.
Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Leave your comments, rebuttals, and vehement agreements below. Don't miss any of the phuquerie--get on the mailing list. Find Michelle on Twitter, Facebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog to see when one of the irregular posts has careened onto your feed. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!
Memories of another life and lover guide her, but are they even hers? She is a Bearer—keeper of past lifetimes and gifted with strange talents. Ember must find her answers away from safe Longquan Village, snared instead in the sensuality and dangers of The City. Hidden among spider farmers and slaves, prostitutes and weavers, a nest of people like her are waiting.
A powerful man outside The City raises his forces, determined to hunt down the ‘demons’ who could taint his followers. Threatened from without and within, can the Bearers even trust each other?
Powers will rise and alliances will be forged in a dark new world. The Memory Bearers are coming.
This book includes violent and mature content. Reader discretion is advised.
She was looking in a mirror, marvelling at her powdered face. You can’t even tell, she thought admiringly. She picked up a bottle of perfume and sprayed some on her wrist. She dropped it, and there was a heavy sound, a clunking noise, as the bottle connected with the tile. Not plastic, but thick glass.
Hearing the crash, he appeared from behind the bathroom door. “Are you all right, honey?” he said, resting a hand on her shoulder.
“Oh yes, I’m fine,” she said, nuzzling him.
“You look exquisite. I can’t believe you spend most of your time in a lab coat when you look like this.”
“Believe it,” she said. He twisted her around suddenly and kissed her.
“How much time do we have before dinner?” he asked.
“Enough.” She took him by the hand. “Come with me.”
The memory slid away to another part of her mind. She considered telling—no, wait, who could she tell? Their names eluded her. She winced, frustrated. She’d already forgotten her family’s names. That was part of the deal, she told herself; she’d known what she was in for. Paranoid, she wondered if she would forget her own name next. It wouldn’t be that bad, though; and after all, she knew she would remember someday. When the time was right, the lock would open again, and she’d have the things she was giving up back. And though they were frustrating and mildly debilitating, she still had the fragments. That annoyed her, but it was a comfort.
Philosophy was the path of madness, she decided, shoving the bottle in her satchel. In the meantime, she had other things to do—she had to see if there was anything of value left in this house and get out of here as quickly as possible. Something unpleasant had happened here after The Time Before had come to an end, a small disaster after the fact, and she was eager to leave.
Michelle Browne is a sci fi/fantasy writer from Calgary, AB. She has a cat and a partner-in-crime. Her days revolve around freelance editing, jewelry, phuquerie, and nightmares. She is currently working on the next books in her series, other people's manuscripts, and drinking as much tea as humanly possible. She is all over the internet, far too often for anyone’s sanity, and can be found in various places.
Other books by Michelle Browne:
The Underlighters (Book 1 of The Nightmare Cycle); The Loved, The Lost, The Dreaming (Includes The Underlighters and many other short stories); The Stolen: Two Short Stories (Book 2 of The Meaning Wars); And the Stars Will Sing (Book 1 of The Meaning Wars)
Collaborations: Euphoria/Dysphoria, Cult Classics for the Modern Cult, Frost and Other Short Stories
Coming soon: The Meaning Wars (Book 3 of The Meaning Wars), Monsters and Fools, (Book 2 of The Nightmare Cycle), Within the Tempest (Book 2 of The Memory Bearers Saga)