Nic Brown’s Perfect Storm (For Writing about “People and Some Dogs,” That Is)


I don’t remember much about Hurricane Hugo; in September 1989, I was already deep into my sophomore year of college in the middle of Indiana, well out of hurricane country. But as Nic Brown points out in this essay about his new collection of “Hugo stories,” Floodmarkers, I don’t really need to know that much about what happened then. I remember what it was like getting stuck in Hurricane Bob two years later—a lot of not-much-happening punctuated by rain and wind—and once you get past that, you can begin to relate to Brown’s characters on more fundamental levels, discovering the variety of responses they have to a simple external event.

In North Carolina, where I live, Hurricane Hugo is never discussed. Hurricane Fran, which devastated the state in 1996, tops the conversational list when it comes to Carolina catastrophe. Hugo hit years earlier, in September 1989, and wreaked havoc on Charleston (which is in South Carolina, folks) and then moved up into Charlotte with a wallop. At the time, it was the most destructive storm since Hazel in 1954. The Katrina of Charleston, I’ve heard it called since (which is hyperbole, of course, but you get the idea). Then Fran arrived, and was worse. I guess this is when Hugo disappeared from conversation.

But if you mention Hugo—if you bring it up directly—everyone here has a story. Rarely are these momentous in the near-death or total destruction sort of way. Usually they’re more like, “I didn’t even know the storm was coming and then a branch landed on my car and the electricity went out and I got in a fight with my brother.” This is why Hugo worked well for my fictional purposes.

Floodmarkers is a linked collection of stories set during the day Hugo blows through the fictional North Carolina town of Lystra. But the book isn’t about Hugo. It’s about the people living in Lystra and the ways the storm changes their daily lives just enough to make room for the singular to occur. Lystra is set in the Piedmont, where only the edge of Hugo reached. If I had set the book in Charleston, or even Charlotte, it would have run the risk of becoming a historical fiction about a Hugo. And I don’t care about Hugo. Because Hugo is a storm, and to tell you truth, when it comes down to it, I really only care about people. And some dogs. So the book is about people. And some dogs.

That said, when I was first drafting it, I felt the onus to know as much as I could about Hugo and started to read articles, look up newspaper clippings, and do other things I felt a responsible author would do. In the process, I realized that historical accuracy was worthless. I was writing fiction. I had the best tool ever—total freedom! If I wanted the rain to last longer than it actually had, I could. The small amount of research I put into the book quickly revealed itself to be a waste of time. I was 12 and living in North Carolina when Hugo had actually hit. I knew firsthand that it had rained and that I got out of school and that it had been windy. For Floodmarkers, I knew what I needed to know.

The one bit of research I did that proved useful was watching old Hugo weather forecasts on YouTube. The voice of a weatherman appears intermittently in Floodmarkers, and this helped me to learn that cadence—a strange repetition and self-correction—that marks live forecasting. But there was nothing Hugo-specific about the diction. I could have watched Fran forecasts and gotten just as much.

Good fiction arises from complex relationships among people. This is what is important to me. The rest is window dressing. It’s all smoke and mirrors. I don’t claim to have stayed true to the facts of Hugo’s path. But I do aspire to have created truths about a few convincing, fictive people. And a few semi-convincing dogs.

27 July 2009 | guest authors |