When people hear the ‘Donner Party’, the first thing they think of is cannibalism. That was part of the final event, a result of a number of preventable cascades. By the time this group resorted to that extreme, they had made enough mistakes that we’re not going to spend much time on that aspect. In another book in this series, we’ll cover another event where cannibalism played a role, Flight 571, the Andes Plane Crash, but that was a very different scenario. To me, the most important aspect of the Donner Party catastrophe were the homicides and the way the group fell apart because it is an ominous portend of what happens during catastrophes that needs to be taken into account.
The Donner Party is key because it’s a study of group dynamics or rather, how group dynamics don’t work. Few of us understand how quickly the veneer of civilization can be torn away from people. Soldiers who’ve served in combat zones can attest to this phenomenon, especially among civilians who aren’t trained like the military. In zones such as Bosnia, the Middle East, and other places, the barbarity into which apparently ‘ordinary’ people can quickly descend is frightening, and that is the lesson to understanding the catastrophe that was the Donner Party, because something similar can happen rather easily in future disasters. Turn the power off for a week in a large locale with no relief in sight and the results will be terrifying.
The Facts In Spring 1846, a group of emigrants departed west for California. Rather than take the usual route, they decided to take a ‘shorter’ new route, the Hastings Cutoff. The delays from taking that route caused them to reach the last obstacle, the Sierra Nevada Mountains so late in the season that they became trapped by heavy snowfall, and were forced to spend the winter. Starving and freezing, some of the group resorted to cannibalism. Eventually, about half the party was rescued in the Spring of 1847.
15 April: The core of the party sets out from Springfield, Ohio.
12 May: The party sets out from Independence, Missouri, the start point of western emigration.
18 June: William Russell gives up command of the party, trading in his wagon for mules to travel faster, along with Edwin Bryant and some others.
27 June: The party arrives at Fort Laramie. They are urged not to take the Hastings Cutoff.
17 July: Passing Independence Rock, the party receives a letter from Hastings saying he will meet them at Fort Bridger and guide them.
18 July: The party crosses the Continental Divide.
19 July: At the Little Sandy River the party splits and the Donner Party heads toward Fort Bridger while the rest stay on the known California Trail.
31 July: The party leaves Fort Bridger to take the Hastings Cutoff. They cross the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, with many delays.
30 August: The party sets off across the Great Salt Lake Desert, experiencing more delays
26 September: The party finally rejoins the California Trail at the Humboldt River.
7 October: An elderly man is abandoned by the convoy, left on the side of the trail to die.
13 October: One man decides to cache his wagon; the two men who stay behind to help him, come back without him saying he was killed by Indians. He was murdered by one of them.
25 October: A small relief party arrives from California with seven mules of provisions; accompanied by two Native American guides.
November: The party cannot make it over Truckee Pass and camp for the winter.
15 December: The first member of the party dies from malnutrition.
16 December: The strongest members of the party set out on snowshoes to make it through the pass to Sutters Fort (the Forlorn Hope).
24 December: The snowshoers can go no further. They draw lots to decide who to kill and eat. But can’t kill the loser. Members begin to die.
26 December: They resort to cannibalism.
30 December: The snowshoers run out of human meat. It’s suggested they kill the two Native Americans who were part of the resupply party. Warned, the two run off.
9 January: The snowshoers come upon the two weakened and exhausted Native Americans who’d tried to escape. Shoot the two and then eat them.
17 January: The snowshoers are taken in by a Native American village. For the rest of the party on the other side of the mountains, it’s uncertain when they resorted to cannibalism of those who died from malnutrition and/or the cold.
19 February: The First Relief makes it over the mountains.
29 April: The last surviving member of the Donner Party arrives at Sutter’s Fort.
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The last post was about the Kernel Idea.
Let’s look at some ideas
- Character: “A housewife and female assassin must uncover the truth of the men in their lives in order to save their own.” BODYGUARD OF LIES
- Plot: “What if a Federal agent investigating a murder, finds out it’s connected to an illegal CIA operation?” CHASING THE GHOST
- Setting or scene: “An international treaty bans weapons in Antarctica: What if the US put nuclear weapons there and lost track of them?” The Green Berets: The Final Option Z
- Intent/Theme: “Connection leads to a full life.” DON’T LOOK DOWN.
- “What If”: “What if people going into the Witness Protection Program really disappear?” CUT OUT
John Saul at the Maui Writer’s Retreat ran a seminar called “What if?” where he had writers put their one sentence up on butcher paper and analyzed it. He made sure every word in the sentence meant something. For example:
What if Mary has to stop a band of terrorists?
How could this be improved? What does Mary mean? How about ‘a housewife’? How about making her a special housewife with an anomaly: What if an obsessive-compulsive housewife? However, that term hints at a comedic tone.
Stop a band of terrorists from what? How about ‘assassinating the president’? so we understand what’s at stake.
This gives us: What if an obsessive-compulsive housewife has to stop a band of terrorists from assassinating the President?
That pops, but it makes me wonder how we balance the comedic possibility of the OCD with the high stakes thriller of the assassination? Do you see how your idea raises questions? Both good and bad.
The Importance of Your Kernel Idea
- It starts your creative process.
- Remembering it keeps you focused.
- It is often the core of the pitch to sell the book.
I stress this in my teachings because this one idea is critical to the writing process. It’s the one thing I believe every writer should start with, or at the very least, find it before getting too far into the draft.
I also believe every writer should have this on a piece of paper, post-it note, or taped to their computer screen where they can see it at the beginning of every writing session.
A different point of view can be a way to tell a story that’s already been done in a fresh way. In Beowulf the monster had his story to tell and John Gardner did it in Grendel. Who was the madwoman in the attic in Jane Eyre? She had her story and Jean Rhys told it in Wide Sargasso Sea. Jane Smiley put King Lear on a present day farm and called it A Thousand Acres.
Whenever I watch a film or video I try to figure out what the original idea the first screenwriter had. For example, in the movie True Romance written by Quentin Torrentino, there is a scene at the end where there are four groups of people in a room all pointing guns at each other in a classic Mexican standoff. Rewatching the film, I can see the entire movie driving to that one climactic scene. In an interview, Torrentino said that scene was the kernel idea. He didn’t know who the people with the guns were (that’s character); where the room was (setting); why they were in the room (motivation); whether it was the beginning, end or middle of the movie (story and plot); what the result of this stand-off would be; etc. etc. He just had this vision to start with.
When I watched the movie The Matrix, the scene that stuck out to me was where all those people were plugged and being tapped for their electrical power. I almost sense that was the kernel idea—the screenwriter read or heard that the human body produced X amount of electricity and sat down and thought what he could do with that idea. I think he then came up with the concept of the Matrix itself as a follow on.
Kernel Idea and The Pitch
- Sometimes they are the same.
- Sometimes they aren’t.
- But they should be very close.
- The Kernel Idea is your tool for your writing.
- The Pitch is your tool to sell your writing to someone else.
When I teach the Novel Writer’s workshop in a small group, we spend an enormous amount of time on the Kernel Idea. The participants will talk out their ideas, push each other to focus on the excitement and when a writer nails it, it will send a shiver up everyone’s spine. This is the reason it is foundation for your writing and for your pitch. It excited you, therefore that idea will excite your readers, whether it be editors and agents or end consumer readers. (Nanowrimo Survival Kit)
Focusing Your Idea
When you write your one sentence down, check to see what the subject of the sentence is:
- Protagonist, antagonist?
- Check to see what the verb is.
- Positive or negative?
- Action or re-action verb?
- Start your sentence with “What if . . .”
Each word must mean something to the reader.
Don’t be a secret keeper.
- “What if a thief was using a movie set as a cover for heist?” DON’T LOOK DOWN.
- “What if mankind didn’t originate the way we thought?” AREA 51
Another way to try to figure out what the core of your novel is this: What is the climactic scene? This is when the protagonist and antagonist meet to resolve the primary problem that is the crux of the novel. This is what the entire book is driving towards.
Check out your one sentence idea. What is the subject of the sentence? Is the verb action or reaction?
Share your Kernel Ideas!
Write It Forward!
You need a catastrophe plan for three reasons:
- To avoid the catastrophe. Since at least one of the six cascade events is human error, if we plan and prepare adequately, we can delete the human error cascade event from the situation, thus avoiding the final event.
- To have a plan, equipment, training etc. in place in case the catastrophe strikes. If we project out possible final events, we can prepare for their eventuality. I am adamant that preparation is critical, even more so than actual actions during the final event. It is too late when we reach a final event to prepare for it. Even the best-trained individual will be overwhelmed by a final event if they have not prepared for it. In the last catastrophe we cover in this book, you’ll see how the fact someone planned for possible catastrophes helped avert a terrible final event.
- To give you peace of mind in day-to-day living so you don’t constantly have to worry about potential catastrophes because you are prepared for them. This allows you to experience a higher quality of life. You’ve done your best to avoid the catastrophe, making the likelihood that much less. And you’ve done your best to prepare for the catastrophe, so you can focus on other things. Too many people worry about potential catastrophes without preparing; this is a fundamental failure and fuels fear. Fear feeds on itself and is debilitating. Often, extreme fear can bring about an event that would have never occurred otherwise. Confident people are prepared people.
Excerpted from IT Doesn’t Just Happen: The Gift of Failure