Mike Mullin is the author of Ashfall, and the upcoming sequel, Ashen Winter, novels about the Yellowstone supervolcano. While writing Ashfall, Mike did a bunch of research: reading books, taking road trips, and talking with experts. Below, he shares his research experiences and offers some insight into the writing process.
I started researching my debut novel, Ashfall, before I knew I was going to write it.
I was wandering through Central Library in downtown Indianapolis when I spotted Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. Dozens of novel ideas lurk within that book’s pages, but the one that stuck with me was the idea of a supervolcano eruption at Yellowstone. A few days after I read Bryson’s book, I woke at 3:30 a.m. with a scene filling my mind so completely that I was afraid it would start spilling out my nose and ears. I wrote 5,500 words before dawn, the gist of which was a boy and girl fleeing down an ash-covered Indiana highway on a bicycle. Then I put Ashfall away to gestate for eight months while I worked on a never-published young adult horror novel.
When I returned to Ashfall, I started by reading. I read everything from Winchester’s elegant and scholarly Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883 to the obscure self-published The Mount St. Helens Ash Ordeal: An Eyewitness Account of the Mount St. Helens Ash Fall and Its Aftermath, from articles in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research to USGS pamphlets on volcano preparedness. It quickly became obvious that the scene I wrote in the middle of the night was useless. Maps of the ashfalls that followed the last three Yellowstone super-eruptions showed that Indiana wouldn’t get as much ash as I wanted to inflict on my protagonist. Ashfall moved to Iowa. First-person accounts and USGS warnings described how slippery volcanic ash is—nearly impossible to navigate on a bicycle. Alex left his bicycle in the garage and took up skis.
Still, I didn’t have the visceral experience I needed to make my novel convincing. I flew to Portland and drove to Mount St. Helens. I enjoyed hiking around the park, but there was very little ash remaining in the areas I could visit. What ash I did find was mixed with organic material—not the powdery, fresh stuff I was looking for.
While I was in Portland, I took the opportunity to relearn cross-country skiing. Although I go downhill skiing almost every winter, it had been more than 20 years since I had last been on cross-country skis.
When I got home, I ordered a bag of fresh ash from a scientific supply company. I kept the ash in a big bowl on my desk so I could play with it as I continued drafting Ashfall. Fiddling with the ash helped to keep the landscape in my head. The other thing that helped was posting a selection of pictures from the Mount Pinatubo eruption on the wall above my computer.
However, I still didn’t have a solid grasp of the pre-eruption terrain in Iowa. The solution: road trip! My wife and I drove every step of Alex’s journey through Iowa and Illinois, snapping pictures and quizzing locals as we went.
Once I completed that draft, one final step was needed. I reached out to friends, asking if anyone had connections to a geologist who might be willing to review my book. Amazingly, I found two: one who had worked on the Mount St. Helens eruption and another who spends summers studying Yellowstone.
I hope you’ll give Ashfall a few hours of your reading time if you haven’t already. And I hope you find it compelling for both the story and the science behind it. Although no one can predict exactly when the Yellowstone supervolcano will blow, there’s one thing all scientists agree on: Someday, it will erupt again.