Elaine Forrestal

What could be better?

Cover of Black Earth which shows the wild fire at the heart of the story

What could be better, as a story starter, than a fire alarm at ten decibels and an order to evacuate the building?

I was about half way through my presentation to a group of eager students from Years 4&5 when the alarm went off just above our heads. It was so loud that there was no way my voice could be heard. I stood there, in mid-sentence, and looked at the Library staff member who was in the room. She indicated that this happened frequently and that we would probably not have to move. The noise stopped and I went on with my workshop presentation. However, it was only a few minutes later that another Library staff member came along and said that there was a real fire in the adjacent shopping centre  and we must evacuate immediately. With all my precious first editions, translations and covers from other countries spread out on display I was reluctant to leave. But I was told that I could only bring my handbag so I grabbed that and went out into the hallway to join the throng of people already heading for the exit.

Outside in the park we waited … and waited … and waited. The students were anxious to get back to writing their own stories, which they had only just started. Instead we talked about what an exciting story the evacuation itself would make and who would solve the mystery of where, and how, this fire started. Was it the popcorn machine in the nearby cinema? The oven in the Pizza Shop? Or the enormous fat-spitting chunk of meat which regularly sent out sparks as it turned on its spit in the Kebab Shop? We talked about how to make a recount into a narrative and how to embellish the facts in order to engage an audience. By the time the all-clear was given and we were allowed to go back to our meeting room there were several evacuation stories underway and a lot of keen young writers with first-hand experience to draw on.