I'm obsessed with earthquakes, and so I'm writing a novel that involves a major earthquake, and so I'm even more obsessed with earthquakes.
I've lived in the Bay Area for 14 years. I can remember about half a dozen specific quakes with enough magnitude to cause that adrenaline rush of excitement and terror. None did any damage where I was, and at most they knocked things off shelves closer to the epicenter. On maybe twice as many occasions, I've felt a small, questionable tremor that sent me to the USGS site to check, or I've learned after the fact that I failed to notice a quake while I was in a car or asleep.
The earth moves a lot in California, relatively speaking. Today a rare significant earthquake hit Virginia and was felt along most of the East Coast. Twitter went wild with quake reports, along with a certain amount of ribbing from Californians saying that a little shaking was nothing to get worked up about. I think most California residents aren't as jaded as they might pretend to be. A little shaking is still grounds for posting to the internet out here, even when nothing's damaged.
It's likely that I'll eventually experience a destructive earthquake, but so far I have no first-hand experience. Which I'm glad about, as the owner of a creaky old house built on a liquefaction hazard zone. (Apologies to my parents, who just had a collective heart attack reading that.) As a writer, though, I do have a morbid desire to know what it would really be like if it happened here and now.
(On the other hand, if the Big One happens here and now, that breaks my entire story, in which a massive quake strikes here and at a specific point in the near future, with a clear implication that it didn't also happen a few years earlier. Fortunately or unfortunately, I get no say at all in the real world timing.)
I've done a lot of research into past earthquakes and projected quake scenarios for the Bay Area, and I expect to do another round of research before the manuscript is finished. The destruction caused by even a very large earthquake in modern California would be far, far less than what occurred in places like Haiti, thanks to our much better building standards, living conditions, and infrastructure.
I'm trying to keep the effects of the earthquake in my novel realistic and to portray a likely quantity of destruction, fatalities, and so on. Since writers are sadistic, while doing my research, I frequently had thoughts like, "Only that many deaths? That's not very dramatic." Optimistic projections are good news for reality, not as good for fiction. I went with the worst-case scenario.
UPDATE, 11:55pm: The eastern part of the Bay Area just experienced a 3.6 quake, and Twitter is abuzz over this minor shaking. Incidentally, I didn't feel it in the South Bay.