Unlikely Influences: What Beth Cato Learned About Magic by Living Through Earthquakes

Unlikely Influences is a series of occasional blog posts,  about how writers can learn the tricks of their trade in odd places. Most are from guest authors, but I’ll pop in from time to time too.

This week’s installment is by the fabulous Beth Cato. She wrote previously about what she learned about writing from baking cookies.

BreathofEarth_500x332 (1)What I learned about magic by living through earthquakes

by Beth Cato

When I was three years old, I was in the bathtub as a 6.2 earthquake devastated nearby Coalinga, California. My most vivid memory is of water splashing sideways out of the tub all on its own. I started screaming, and my mom was there in an instant to save me.

A few days later, we drove to Coalinga to see the damage firsthand. My mom had lived there a decade before, and my grandparents had been driving away from Coalinga on a visit when the quake struck. I remember my mom being very upset at the sight of so many buildings with the fronts sheared off, exposing the rooms like dollhouses. I wasn’t disturbed, though. I was fascinated.

As I grew older, I knew earthquakes were a constant danger. We did frequent practice drills in school, though I only ever experienced quakes at home. I knew about the nearby San Andreas fault and the basics of plate tectonics, but earthquakes still seemed like a magical experiences: invisible forces at work that I could feel shiver through my skin, that I could hear in the chime of my mom’s dishes, witness in the sway of our hanging lamps. I understood, through science, that this movement indicated continental shifts in progress, but how could I ever truly comprehend something of that mass and scale?

It made about as much sense as magic.

My family would drive to the Pacific coast and cross the very visible, rigid line of the San Andreas fault as it cuts through the hills. I always wondered how it would feel to stand right there when the Big One finally happened. What would that kind of power feel like?


A few years ago, I knew I wanted to start work on a new steampunk series. I thought of writing something set in my beloved California, and I realized I hadn’t seen any steampunk set in 1906 San Francisco against the backdrop of the earthquake and fire. I love writing about magic–my Clockwork Dagger series follows a magically powered healer–so it was only right that this new book feature magic mixed up with steampunk, too. This time, though, that magic needed to be geomancy.

Creating the world of Breath of Earth pulled inspiration from so many nagging questions and curiosities from my childhood. What if you could feel the power of an earthquake–and what would that do to your body? What if you could store the earth’s energy, like electricity? What could be done with that power?

Writers are often told to write what they know. I’m a native Californian. I know earthquakes. It was only right to add magic to help things along as I rewrote history. I want readers to understand the might and awe of an earthquake in action–without the terror of actually being in a bathtub during the next Big One.

Beth Cato is the author of the Clockwork Dagger series from Harper Voyager, which includes her Nebula-nominated novella WINGS OF SORROW AND BONE. Her newest novel is BREATH OF EARTH. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cat. Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.

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