Using Tragedy as a Theme

Hi, all. Did you feel the tremors where you are? Virginia was hit with a 5.9 earthquake on Tuesday, 8/23/11,  and here in New York, we got a decent dose of it. The problem with something like that here is that memories of September 11 are still very fresh, even 10 years later, and anything out of the ordinary sends people into a panic. When you’re in a high-rise building in the middle of Manhattan and you feel the walls and floor swaying, you don’t think—you just get the hell out.

I was talking recently with someone about my memories of 9-11. We were sitting outside in her backyard and a fighter jet flew overhead. I explained to her how the sound of a fighter jet triggers memories for me of 9-11 and the aftermath. If you recall, all air traffic was suspended for weeks. Normally, in a place like NYC, airplanes and their familiar rumblings are pretty much a constant thing. For weeks after 9-11, the air was silent. Not a plane, not a helicopter, not a blimp could be heard. Just silence. It seemed as if even the birds knew to stay out the sky.

But every now and then during those dread-filled weeks and months, I’d hear the thunderous, window-shaking roar of a fighter jet going by. Now, maybe in places like Pensacola or Fort Dix, the sound of a fighter jet is commonplace. But not in NYC. Not over Manhattan or any of the five boroughs. Fighter jets in the air and army vehicles in the middle of Broadway were something quite surreal, something out of a film noir. Anyway, that sound is embedded in my brain and will forever be associated for me with that horrible event.

Why am I talking about this? Because it brought to mind another issue. After 9-11, many authors saw an opportunity to sell their writing. By making 9-11 a part of their novels, they knew that they would strike an emotional chord in readers. One of the questions that was brought up and discussed in the years that followed was: Is it appropriate or ethically acceptable to use 9-11 to sell books? I certainly don’t know how many writers chose to use it (I’m sure many did badly), but I personally haven’t seen it as often as I would have thought.

I began wondering what you all think about that? How do you feel about using a tragic event, such as 9-11 or Hurricane Katrina, as a theme, motif, or even backdrop?  Is it right to do so? Or is it taking advantage of tragedy?


  1. I live just north of Boston and on the night of 9/11, I lay awake listening. Every 20 minutes a plane flew overhead. Not the usual roar of a jet coming in to Logan Airport, but high up. I thought they were probably rescue flights heading to NYC, but later I realized they were fighter jets monitoring for more attacks. It was creepy and I think of it whenever anyone mentions how quiet the skies were post-9/11 (so I was glad to see you mention the jets).

    Some years ago I took a writing workshop and during the open mic, someone read a reminiscence of 9/11. I thought it was pretty good. Eye-witness account from someone evacuated to a boat, watching from the water. But someone muttered along the likes of, geez, not another 9/11 piece.

    In my WIP, I have a character whose parents died on 9/11, but it’s not mentioned. I don’t know why I bothered to have that be the cause of death and not mention it, but it’s not important to the story, though it is important to the character. I also found myself needing to mention Katrina because of the nature of one character. It was hard to write about something I know nothing about and the research was painful enough that I could just barely begin to imagine what it was like. Whether I pull off either remains to be seen.

    J.M. Redmann did a fabulous job with post-Katrina New Orleans in Water Mark. She couldn’t not do it, of course, but what she did with it was excellent–not just the wreckage of a city, but of lives. I haven’t read a lot of pieces set there and then, but it makes me curious how writers have handled it.


  2. Hemingway said “You especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously.”

    Seems it’s all a matter of the writer’s intent. If there is a story to tell from your heart, tell it. If you’re writing to make money from another’s pain, shame on you.


  3. It’s a tough call. I think for some writers — those who experience a tragic event either directly or through a close friend or family member — writing it ends up being cathartic, and helps with healing. Others might not experience the event directly, but they meet someone who experienced it, and that person touches them so much that they feel compelled to write it. Do some people try to capitalize off tragic events? I’m a cynic, so I’ll say yes. But I think readers can tell when it does come from the heart (as Baxter says above) or not. Thanks. Good topic.


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