While researching my book on the Moore tornado of 2013, I came across the story of a man who instantly intrigued me. His name is Ted “Mr. Tornado” Fujita. The tornado F-scale is named after him, and he is responsible for nearly all the information we have about the mysterious weather phenomenon known as the “tornado.”
An expert in severe weather research, his relentless pursuit for information helped the field of meteorology understand some of the most mystifying weather occurrences in existence…as well as discover the invisible and disastrous phenomenon known as the microburst, capable of taking down 90,000 pound airliners.
What fascinated me about Fujita, among other things, was how he studied tornadoes. He was known for taking hundreds of aerial pictures of tornado damage and then meticulously drawing the damage path in order to find patterns of destruction. These patterns gave him the data he needed to establish wind strength as well as it helped him discover multi-vortex tornadoes, which nobody knew even existed.
But what really captivated me was his insistence on also studying the aftermath from the ground. Dr. Fujita would walk the tornado path, get down on his hands and knees and study a single blade of grass, intrigued by the way it was bent, understanding that this small clue held the greatest meaning.
Ted Fujita was almost single-handedly responsible for unlocking the mysteries of weather phenomena that were hardly understood before and certainly feared by citizens and scientists alike. But he did this by observing it in a different way…by studying the details.
As I was considering how I approach writing about topics I don’t know, I think this is a good example of the method. Studying it at large is overwhelming, not to mention time consuming. The “aerial photo” gives a good view, but it’s too expansive to write about. I can see it, sure, but how can I understand all about it or even explain it to my reader?
When I begin the difficult task of writing on a topic I know nothing about, I have to try to sort through the enormity and find the details that tell the real story…the most interesting story. It’s not as hard as you think. You just have to “metaphorically” get down on your hands and knees.
For example, when I interviewed some pilots about their commercial airline experience, I wanted to know some of the gritty details. “What,” I asked, “are some things people just don’t know about your job?”
Oh boy! Did that get a response! I learned a ton, especially about the culture. Most agreed that pilots and flight attendants don’t get along very well. One guy complained that since the flight attendants who got assigned the international flights were older, they tended to “all be in menopause and grumpy and hot all the time.” Not my words, but fascinating to ponder, since I hadn’t considered that international flight attendants were more experienced, therefore would be older.
One guy told me of a way some pilots were cheating the system to try to make more money, since their pay was so drastically cut due to September 11th. He described the financial disaster many pilots found themselves in. They’d bought a house expecting one lifestyle, and now had a hefty mortgage and half the pay.
The flight attendants had their own opinion of pilots, as you can imagine. One described her efforts to out a pilot’s affair to his wife by placing a lipstick stain on the collar of a shirt he had in his bag, with hopes that his wife might see it when he got home. (Yikes, right?)
I even got a chance to talk to the man who made the decision to ground all Delta flights on September 11th, before the FAA made the call. I stood in the Command Center of Delta in awe of the room; it was everything you imagine that it would be. Dark. Large, glowing monitors. Men and women attentive to multiple screens, headsets commanding their attention.
I did my own research as well. I listened to dozens of hours of air traffic control tapes, including all of the 9/11 air traffic recordings. I was curious to hear their voices on that day. The cadence. It’s amazing the calm pilots always display, even in terrifying moments.
I did interview after interview, which painted less of a large picture, and more of a detailed picture, and one that provided very interesting insights into the life of airline personnel. It was less “destruction path” and more “bent grass.”
For another book I interviewed an undercover cop. When I asked him to describe some of the dangers, he stopped me and insisted I understand something. “I don’t have the most dangerous job. It’s patrol officers. I work in a controlled environment. They never know what they’re walking up to when they stop a car.” It made me understand something I would not have known before. And he was right. In the past few years, we’ve certainly seen that as true, haven’t we?
Another curious thing about Dr. Fujita was how he solved the mystery of downdrafts and microbursts. A microburst is a sinking column of air that can cause extensive damage, including crashing large aircraft. And downdrafts are powerful currents in a thunderstorm.
Before Dr. Fujita, nobody understood what they were or how they were causing such damage. Airliners were falling out of the sky but nobody could explain why. However, Dr. Fujita had a life experience that helped him solve the mystery.
After narrowly missing the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki, he was sent to study it. He had a mechanical engineering degree and training, and Fujita was captivated by the damage of the bomb and the circular pattern of destruction that came from it. The outward burst of the obliteration of trees, power poles and other objects created almost a starburst-like effect.
In his study of supercells and some of their damage, he noticed the same thing, and though microbursts are invisible, he could envision a column of air punching downward, like a bomb, and exploding outward, like the destruction of a nuclear detonation. That is how he discovered the microburst. Many scientists thought he was crazy until the Dallas crash of Delta Flight 191 in 1985. After studying the crash site, Fujita was proven right. An invisible and powerful column of air had caused the crash. And from that moment on, airline safety was changed forever to include training on microbursts.
Like Fujita, we can take our own life experiences and add them to what we’re studying. Let’s say you’re writing about law enforcement. What have you noticed in your own life that you can add to whatever scenario you’re writing about? For example, when I was involved in the Oklahoma City bombing, I ran squarely into a police officer minutes after the explosion. The scene was chaotic and I was trying to get to the building in which I worked.
He grabbed my shirt as I tried to run across the street toward the building. Our eyes locked. And you know what I saw? Not power. Fear. The scene was too big. The chaos was overwhelming. And here was one young woman running. He didn’t know to where. Or why. And then he let me go. He knew there were other things he would need to do. I wasn’t…and couldn’t be…his biggest concern.
Whenever I write about law enforcement, I take that with me. They’re human. They can be afraid. There are moments that overwhelm them. Like Fujita, I deconstruct my characters like he deconstructed his studies, using life experience.
Even though Ted “Mr. Tornado” Fujita is responsible for solving some of meteorology’s biggest mysteries, it wasn’t until almost the end of his career that he actually witnessed a tornado. He was a student of study but not a witness to the event. And that’s how we must understand our role. We should have a keen eye for the details that paint the picture. It won’t be in trying to explain the whole of it. It will be by absorbing the small details. Our readers will appreciate the nuances we provide, and will especially enjoy learning things they didn’t know.
And you will have a much more manageable way to write about something you knew nothing about when you started.