Supercell

Behind the Scenes

The challenge of writing Supercell was different from that of creating Eyewall.  In Eyewall, a “meteorological thriller” with a violent hurricane as its centerpiece, the ratcheting up of suspense was relatively easy and almost automatic.  The tension and danger built steadily as my fictional Hurricane Janet increased in fury and lumbered toward the coast, in essence, stalking my protagonists.

Events with a hurricane evolve over a period of hours or days.  That allows a related story to evolve in a similar time frame, thus giving a novelist plenty of temporal space in which to craft his or her drama.

The challenge was different with Supercell.  Since the average life span of a tornado is less than ten minutes, it was obvious I couldn’t use the same approach in Supercell that I did in Eyewall.  While a hurricane can provide a sustained setting of threat and violence, a tornado is a short-lived explosion of savagery.  Wham-bam and it’s over.

Thus, the idea of creating a novel around a twister stalking my heroes was a none starter.

But, I thought, what if I reversed roles?  What if I had my primary characters stalking a tornado, not the other way around?  Thus, the seed of Supercell was planted and I began to outline the drama.  (The outlining, by the way, at least initially, is done mostly in my head over a period of weeks.)  Gradually, with enough tilling and fertilizing, the characters and major turning points in the tale emerged.

While Supercell is a work fiction, a product of my imagination, several of the scenes in the book were inspired by a tornado chase I went on with Silver Lining Tours (www.silverliningtours.com) in 2012.

Specifically, the pursuit of a supercell from Levelland, Texas, toward Lubbock by two brothers featured in the book was based on a chase I participated in.  The big difference was that in the novel, the cell spun out a destructive twister.  Although the storm I pursued with Silver Lining was big and black and mean, it didn’t drop a tornado.  It did, however, coat the ground with a blanket of hail several inches deep.  It left the roads on the south side of Lubbock looking as if they’d been smacked by a High Plains blizzard.

Another scene inspired by the chase I was on was the one in which Chuck Rittenburg, the book’s protagonist, leads the film crew into a hailstorm along the Red River in Texas, then seeks shelter from the storm’s massive hail stones in a car wash.  Silver Lining Tours ran an intercept on a big hailstorm in the same area and also hunkered down in a car wash.  But the storm we tracked weakened and the hail core lumbered by just north of us, so we never witnessed the giant chunks of ice depicted in the novel.

I learned a lot about supercells on the chase, mainly drawing on the vast knowledge of Silver Lining Tours gracious co-owner, Roger Hill, and one of the tour’s veteran guides, Tom Howley.

Greg Forbes, “Storm-meister Greg,” The Weather Channel’s severe weather expert and a former co-worker, answered a multitude of questions I had about severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.

A couple of excellent books helped me fill in my (lack of) knowledge of storm chasing and tornadoes.  Tornado Alley—Monster Storms of the Great Plains, by Howard B. Bluestein, offers a well written, relatively technical look at supercells and tornadoes.  Storm Chasing Handbook (Second Edition), by Tim Vasquez, proved a wonderful, practical guide for storm chasers . . . and novelists.