Michael Northrop On The Blizzard That Rages In This Month's Trapped

Michael Northrop has us crossing our fingers that none of the winter’s snowstorms turns into the serious natural disaster that occurs in the author’s new YA, Trapped. The tale follows teen Scotty Weems and six other students who are stuck in a high school as a monster blizzard rages outside.

Let me begin this the way I begin so many things, with a crippling admission. I watch a lot of documentaries. Not like a few here and there: a lot. My favorites are usually about nature in some way, either animals on their home turf or people trying to navigate the natural world. Let’s just say I’m not the sort of guy to miss Shark Week.

Usually, this is just a nerdy thing I do, but every once in a while it serves a purpose. A few years ago, I was watching a documentary about the whaleship Essex. It was sunk by a whale in 1820—there’s karma for you—and the survivors clambered into small whaleboats, where they drifted for months, resorted to cannibalism, and mostly died anyway. The sinking, by a massive sperm whale, was the inspiration for Moby-Dick; the drifting was the inspiration for my second novel, Trapped. (And yes, I used a semicolon just so those books would be mentioned in the same sentence.)

I’d already read a book about the Essex—Nathaniel Philbrick’s amazing In the Heart of the Sea—so I’d thought about those poor starving wretches before. The idea of being stranded in nature is fascinating because nature can kill you or it can keep you alive, but it truly doesn’t care one way or the other. I started thinking about variations on that basic theme: other places where people could be stranded. When I came to a high school, I thought, that’s a YA novel. So that was the where, and snow was an easy choice for the how, because I grew up in a very snowy part of New England.

The next piece was the narrator, Scotty Weems. I develop an almost obsessive devotion to my narrators. Once I get a good sense of who they are, the manuscript becomes theirs as much as mine. That was definitely the case with Micheal in Gentlemen, and I knew it would happen in Trapped.

I knew two things about Scotty right away, his name and his basic place in the school’s social structure. Micheal, Mixer, and Bones were on the margins in Gentlemen, and I decided that Scotty and his friends would be more or less in the middle: not underachievers and not overachievers. Scotty gets good grades, but not great ones. He isn’t a star on the basketball team, but he’s got a good shot at a varsity letter.

Then I assembled the rest of the characters and let them begin interacting. All that was left for me to do was to make their lives a freezing, claustrophobic nightmare. It’s not the sort of job description that looks good on a resume, but I had a lot of fun with it. The structure was clear to me from the get-go: the pressure would increase in the same constant, unrelenting way as the snow. As the snow got deeper, the pressure would get higher. I felt like readers would intuitively grasp what was going on with that, and I could just keep it up until something gave.

The biggest challenge was resisting the temptation to have too much go wrong too quickly. I knew what the main perils would be—no power, no heat, communication cut off, the pipes, the building—and the order was fairly clear. What I had to do was come up with a few more things and release them in a slow drip. The irony is that increasing the pressure slowly and steadily made the pace of the story faster and faster.

The heat is a good example. First it shut off, providing a good (bad), dramatic event, and then the last remnants of it began to slowly leak out of the old building. Eventually, it became almost as cold inside as outside. And that’s how it came together. The characters interacted with each other and reacted to their changing situation. They cooperated to an extent that frankly surprised me, but I just kept increasing the pressure on them.

The other decision I made was to keep the focus extremely tight: Trapped is the story of that group of teens. For most of the book, the outside world is not allowed in, apart from little snippets or glimpses here or there. In that sense, it’s very claustrophobic and almost like a play, and that goes back to the original idea: a group of people stranded by nature. Nature doesn’t care about them one way or the other, but it’s the backdrop and the impetus for everything they do.

- Michael Northrop

You can find out what happens to Scotty and the six other students in Trapped, which is in stores now!