By Sherry Knowlton
Topical issues that affect real people are a perfect foundation upon which to construct a suspense novel. And you can’t get much more topical than fracking mixed with government and corporate corruption. The research I did into fracking uncovered environmental nightmares and much more. That’s why I chose it as the backdrop for my new Alexa Williams novel, Dead of Spring.
I’ve long considered myself an environmentalist, so I’ve followed the evolution of fracking quite closely, both here in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. In my day job, I interact a lot with Pennsylvania state government. That’s given me a front row seat to the contentious debate about whether the Commonwealth should tax fracking companies. I’ve been concerned that the negative impact of fracking on people and the environment has been overshadowed by the drive for energy independence and economic growth. That’s what I wanted to explore in Dead of Spring – in a suspense story context.
But what exactly is fracking? It’s the commonly used term for a natural gas extraction process called hydraulic fracturing. This process is unique in that the gas wells are drilled, first vertically, and then at a 90-degree angle that can extend as much as a mile both down into the earth and parallel to the surface. The process has opened up huge swaths of geologic formations known as shale to gas drilling. In Pennsylvania, the region that is being fracked is known as the Marcellus Shale.
Fracking has its pros and cons. It has opened up new reserves of natural gas, lowering energy costs and helping reduce the US reliance on foreign oil. And advocates argue that natural gas is cleaner burning than coal and other fossil fuels. But the drilling process uses a slurry of toxic chemicals, releases methane into the air and can degrade water supplies. The injection of the fracking waste back into the ground has caused earthquakes. Oklahoma’s dramatic increase in earthquake activity is well-publicized. Maryland and New York have banned new fracking activity. But, other states have welcomed fracking’s economic boost. Needless to say, fracking is a controversial issue.
One of my most useful bits of research came when I visited a landowner in northern Pennsylvania who had leased his land to an energy company for fracking. He leased in the early days of fracking and was unaware of the problems he might encounter. He shared his experience by showing me his photographs of the process that transformed his property. A beautiful woodland that step by step by step turned into an acre of gravel and machinery. Pristine drinking water that now requires constant filtering just for showers and bathing. Battles with the energy company about compensation for various problems. Although I did considerable additional research, that visit was most enlightening.
Dead of Spring, like my other novels, is primarily a contemporary suspense story, but there’s a parallel historical plot. The historical story takes place during the Three Mile Island nuclear crisis in 1979. Since I live in Southcentral Pennsylvania, I experienced Three Mile Island personally. And, I see real parallels between the early days of nuclear energy in America and the wild abandon of the early days of the Marcellus Shale boom.
Of course, the fracking and Three Mile Island crisis are the backdrop to Dead of Spring. The book is primarily a work of suspense. My primary goal is to write a story that will keep readers on the edge of their seats. I want them to stay up all night because they can’t put the book down. However, I firmly believe that dealing with substantive issues helps add depth to the story and fosters the suspense.
Sherry Knowlton is the author of the Alexa Williams series of suspense novels: Dead of Autumn, Dead of Summer and Dead of Spring. When not writing the next Alexa Williams thriller, Knowlton works on her health care consulting business or travels around the world. She and her husband live in the mountains of South Central Pennsylvania. For more information on Knowlton and the Alexa Williams series, visit www.sherryknowlton.com