• Diversity in Our Writing: Cultural differences and Immigration with Jennifer Skutelsky

    Today we have the wonderful
     opportunity to visit with Jennifer Skutelsky.  Jennifer was born in South Africa and has settled in the United States, where she lives with her daughter and three immigrant pets in San Francisco. Award winning author of GRAVE OF HUMMINGBIRDS and TIN CAN SHRAPNEL, she is both a softie and a warrior, with a passion for the underdog and alternate realities. She loves rhinos and elephants and has been known to talk to pigeons, while laughter and gratitude have often talked her off a ledge. With roots in ballet, marketing and visual art, everything she does now revolves around books.

    Fiona - 
    Welcome Jennifer. Would you tell us your "coming to America story?"

    Jennifer - 
    Mid-2009, I moved to the United States with my daughter, Amber, who was 13 at the time. I'd applied to both San Francisco State University and Columbia to do an MFA in Creative Writing--Columbia waitlisted me and SF State said yes, so San Francisco it was. I was leaning toward the West Coast anyway, as I'd heard that San Francisco was its own country: progressive, alternative, a bit like me, so the decision made sense. (No one had the faintest clue how much the city has changed since the 60s.)


    It was a daunting prospect. I sold everything to make three years of study in a different country possible, and my family did all they could to help. The exchange rate was terrifying: R10 to the $ at the time. I look back and wonder how I found the courage and temerity to even dream I could pull it off. At 13, Amber still thought I was a magician and could do anything, so she was mostly excited that she'd get to watch a dozen movies on the plane. Our dog, Fifi, came with us. She stayed in her crate under the seat in front of me for the duration of the long flight to Paris, then on to San Francisco.

    Fiona - 
    Can you talk to me about the decision making process? How did this come onto your radar? And was your daughter part of the decision making team?

    Jennifer - 
    We both needed a break from South Africa. 2008 had been a traumatic year. I'd worked with refugees of a violent spate of xenophobia that displaced over 20,000 people, and I think a large part of my heart broke during that time. I wanted to move Amber away for a few years, into a global arena, one that would advance and nurture her ballet and expose her to a more culturally expansive experience. One that didn't feel so threatening, or dangerous.

    My daughter, young as she was, was very much part of the decision-making process. I raised her on my own, and we're very close. She's my center; everything spins around her. Both of us were excited at the prospect of her auditioning for the San Francisco Ballet School, although we knew how difficult it would be to get in. I had faith in her, and she in me.

    Fiona - 
    Had you planned to live here forevermore?

    Jennifer - 
    I didn't think past the three years it would take to do my degree. I was very naive. However tough things had gotten for me in the past, I'd always landed on my feet. But if I'd known how strong and resilient I'd have to be, I just might have chickened out.

    Fiona - 
    What hoops would a character in a novel have to jump through to move to the US.

    Jennifer - 
    Since 9/11, immigration has become a minefield, but I think that's true of most countries/continents--Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and South Africa too. 

    There are a frightening number of active war zones in the world that desperate people are trying to escape, and any hardship they take on in terms of immigration pales into insignificance against what they face in their home countries. In extreme cases, people fleeing poverty or violence might approach the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (with limited success); others will do whatever it takes by whatever means. So it depends how edgy the character is, his level of jeopardy, where he comes from, why and how he's chosen to move to the United States. In South Africa, some refugees brave being eaten by lions and leopards as they crawl under border fences; here they might get shot, fall off a train, drown, or suffocate in an overloaded container.

    Where legal channels come into play, and when a person chooses to move for reasons other than imminent threat, there are a number of hoops to jump through, and they can test someone's athleticism for years. Let's assume your character falls in love and marries an American citizen. That used to be all that was needed to establish residency, but the US authorities became aware of the proliferation of fraudulent marriages, and clamped down. Now a couple has to prove that they entered into a good faith marriage, either through joint bank accounts, joint tax returns, and/or a joint mortgage or lease. The US spouse essentially sponsors her foreign husband to remain in the country, and she has to show that she has the financial means to support him. The couple then launches a joint application, and will usually be called in for an interview with an officer from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
    If approved, the immigrant is granted conditional permanent residence, which expires after two years, at which point another joint application must be made to have those conditions removed. If nothing has changed since the original application, the person becomes a permanent resident, and after five years (including the initial two), can apply for citizenship. However, that's the ideal scenario. There are often delays, requests for further evidence, additional face-to-face interviews with USCIS, fingerprinting at various intervals, etc. It can become a very difficult process to navigate, and many people turn to immigration lawyers for help.

    Other paths some people might follow are corporate sponsorship in the form of a job offer; investment opportunities; and/or business visas (where they have serious money at their disposal).

    I came on a student's visa initially. While I was still in South Africa, I was required to show that I had the funds to support us, and could pay for my degree. I had to produce proof from the university that I was in fact enrolled. I already had a ten year visa in place, as I'd been to New York a few times to train with the New York City Ballet Workout, and once all my student documents were in place, things went smoothly. Fortunately, I had Amber's Unabridged Birth Certificate at hand, which indicated that I was her sole parent and could therefore move freely with her. I think if one is honest and systematic, very focused and in tune with what's required, it makes the process less fraught.

    My student visa allowed me to work for 20 hours a week, only at the university. I ended up doing my degree in two years, not three--I wouldn't have finished if I'd taken that long.

    Fiona -  
    What happens if the character's spouse dies or they are divorced - does this change their status?

    Jennifer - 
    At some point the US Government had to take into consideration that marriages fail more than they seem to succeed--sadly--and that it would be unfair to punish a bona fide immigrant by deporting them if their marriage didn't work out.

    If the divorce happens prior to the conditions of permanent residence being removed, then the joint application is rejected and the applicant must proceed alone, or face deportation. If s/he chooses to proceed alone and can prove a good faith marriage, which is sometimes hard to do, then s/he will have the conditions removed and further down the line, may take up citizenship. The fees mount up, as does the time it takes for the applications to be processed. It can take a person a decade or more to become a citizen.

    If your application, either joint or individual as a divorced person, is rejected, then you would appear in Court before an Immigration Judge, who would assess the credibility of the marriage. If the judge rejects the application, then you have leave to appeal in Civil Court, where many lawyers feel more comfortable. While applications are pending, it's unlikely that you would be deported, but it's essential that USCIS knows where you are or whether you have any intention of traveling. During some of these transitions, travel becomes especially thorny, and express permission is needed if you're to be allowed back in the country.


    Fiona - 
    You had visited the US before, and you already spoke English, was the transition fluid or did you have some shocks?

    Jennifer -
    I think you've hit on something a lot of people don't take into consideration when undertaking such a move. We speak and write British English, and might think that we're ahead of the game because we've also embraced many aspects of American culture. We love Hollywood and TV and have tried everything on McDonald's menu, so we assume the transition will be smooth. And perhaps, if you're coming to a job or to family, it's easier. But immigration is one of the most traumatic life changes a person can go through; it's right up there, just below losing a loved one. I found myself constantly off balance. My daughter fared better than I did--she jumped in like a little fish and played in the water.

    Fiona - 
    When I lived in Europe, I tried to explain it by talking about the doors. You pushed the doors to go in and pull to go out. Here in America, for the most part, they are the opposite. So it looked like a door and acted like a door, but I was always seemed to be doing it wrong - in doors and other little subtle ways. Can you share a story of some of the subtle ways that life in America felt like a huge learning curve?

    Jennifer - 
    That's an interesting analogy.

    One day, not long after we'd got here, my daughter and I were waiting to catch a train in West Portal. The BART police were on the platform, checking the tickets of people getting off one of the trains that pulled in. A young man wearing a hoodie didn't seem to have a ticket. The policewoman wouldn't let him go when he tried to leave, and she called for backup. Four of them laid into this boy, and I stepped forward to intervene--I'd come from South Africa and seen some horrific things; I'd stopped a UN plane from leaving Johannesburg, for heaven's sake--I wasn't going to stand by. My daughter held me back and pulled me onto the train, which was a brilliant thing to do (but she's like that, my Amber). People on the train were staring straight ahead, like they were completely unaware of this boy being pushed around outside the window. It was like an episode straight out of The Stepford Wives. I stood in the middle of the aisle and screamed at them, "Can you not see what they're doing to him? How can you just sit there??? What's wrong with you people?" Then I burst into tears. It took me a long time to get over that, even though I wasn't a stranger to brutality. I guess I learned caution, and I learned to temper my expectations, to modify my hopes, and I learned patience.

    Fiona -  
    I'm wondering about coping mechanisms - what helped you deal with your stress? Can you give some bench markers for adaptation or do you still feel off kilter?

    Jennifer - 
    Honestly, I'm sometimes still off kilter. There are many things I love about America and more specifically, about San Francisco. But I continue to bridge cultural gaps. I miss my mother, who's 91 this year, and my sister. I miss the beauty and spirit of Africa, and I will always love South Africa. 

    We've made a lot of sacrifices, Amber and I, and while she feels a sense of belonging, I've acculturated less easily. I think San Francisco can be tough on people who migrate to the city. Amber has an American accent; I don't. I still say things that elicit a bewildered stare and find myself groping for a different vocabulary than the one I'm used to. My work as an editor pushed me into a whole new arena of English, and I adapted quickly, worked especially hard to get ahead. I did Professional Editing and Teaching as correlatives for my MFA, and I think that accelerated and consolidated things for me. But it was hard to come to terms with finding a new voice and sensibility in writing. Some things have been difficult to let go of. That's good. We shouldn't aim to emulate everyone else, and being different is fine. It took me a while to work that out.

    Coping mechanisms? I would recommend becoming part of something--for my daughter, it was the San Francisco Ballet School. Because she was a technically sound and artistically beautiful dancer, she fit right in, and ballet's globally inclusive language facilitated her sense of belonging. Make friends, something that isn't easy to do unless you're part of some kind of group, whatever that is. Join Meetups, learn the rules of baseball and football. Fall in love with the Giants, and watch cricket, rugby and soccer with people who understand why you're sitting near a box of tissues. Read as much as you can, especially if you're a writer, but even if you're not. Do a lot of research because really, knowledge and understanding can change everything.

    Fiona - 
    Did you gravitate to other immigrants/try to find other people from your cultural background or did you prefer to make American friends/connections as your social base and can you explain why?

    Jennifer - 
    I made friends with some of the moms at Amber's school (School of the Arts) and at SFB. I was much older than people at University and had vastly different historical imprints, so I often felt lonely. I think that's one of the most difficult things an immigrant has to deal with aside from the culture shock and the fact that people don't laugh at your jokes--that sense of isolation, of being different. Charlize Theron understood what it would take to fit in: she lost her accent in record time and has never looked back:).

    Fiona - 
    What did you hope that I'd asked/want authors to understand about writing a character who is new to America?

    Jennifer -
    Avoid trying to capture an accent in dialogue. You need a very finely tuned ear to get it right. If you feel you must, then do it once or twice right at the beginning, but that's all you get. Most times a writer's efforts to capture a vernacular will be jarring and come across as patronizing.


    Considering the context in which we live and the need to embrace diversity in all spheres, the immigrant lends himself to vivid character development in a novel. Try to get under the character's skin. Stereotypes of refugees and immigrants allow for only a single, one dimensional story to be told. In reality, many immigrants bring a wealth of vibrant cultural influence and contribution to all facets of American life. Unfortunately there's a cloud of implied hostility/distrust that they often live under. You can imagine how many years and what kind of financial outlay is involved in being accepted here, not to mention the stress and insecurity that would inform every facet of a character in a novel. They might develop symptoms of anxiety and depression, even PTSD; they might be defensive or constantly fearful, especially agitated when looking through mail, or when there's a knock on the door. Speaking broadly, they might develop sleep issues, nervous body language, and I can almost guarantee that money will be a major concern. The whole process of migration is one that leaves a person in a state of fairly constant precarity, unless the ideal scenario mentioned above is at play. Some people come from terrifying places, yet they'll experience homesickness. They may have given up everything to run a gauntlet of emotional and cultural upheaval. Try to get a hold of the issues they grapple with. Take into account the frequent, destabilizing recalibration that has to take place and how very little can ever be taken for granted.


    Yet it's not all grueling. When I came here I looked at everything with wide eyes. I was so intensely eager and receptive. Of all the places I've ever been, San Francisco allows you to reinvent yourself--to be whoever and whatever you want to be. The process of discovery might kill you, but you try not to dwell on that.

    Fiona - 
    Would you please tell us about your Kindle Scout winning book Grave of Hummingbirds which will be published by Little A in January 2016?


    Jennifer - 
    When a boy stumbles on the body of a woman with a condor's wings stitched into her back, Gregory Moreno does a secret autopsy and confronts the work of a butcher. The killer stirs again when Gregory meets Sophie Lawson, a forensic anthropologist traveling from San Francisco, and before she meets a grotesque fate, Gregory must undertake a frenzied search across mountains haunted by ritual and superstition. Nothing prepares him for the macabre truths he uncovers.

    Fiona - 
    Traditionally here at ThrillWriting, we ask about your favorite scar.

    Jennifer - 
    Rather than tell a scar story (of which I have a few), can I tell a story that tested a few of my limits?

    As I mentioned previously, in 2008 mobs of South Africans attacked and displaced thousands of refugees and asylum seekers from other African countries. Camps were set up to accommodate traumatized people who had lost everything. In the aftermath of protests at a camp in Johannesburg that led to a standoff between authorities and angry refugees, a group of women stood in front of their men to shield them from the police. A number of people were arrested, including the women. One of them was nursing an infant, while the others had small children. I got a call from an agitated father to tell me that his children had disappeared and no one knew what had happened to them. None of the working groups had a clue where to look for them. But I was something of a wild card and eventually managed to track the little ones down. They were in the process of being made wards of the state, something I couldn't let happen since I had met the mothers and knew how terrified they were of losing their children. I wrested them from the state and returned them to their fathers. One group of children, however, was to be deported to Burundi with their uncle while their mother sat in jail. I knew that was the last thing she would want, so I fought the United Nations. One of the lawyers got me into the prison again, and I wrote an Affidavit on the mother's behalf to refuse permission for her children to be returned to Burundi. As I was leaving the prison, clutching the document, I got a call to say the UN plane was ready to take off. I threatened all manner of mayhem if they didn't stop it, on the runway if necessary, and stop it they did. I drove like a maniac across town--I remember one of the lawyers sitting in the back seat holding on for dear life with terror in his eyes. A couple of weeks later, mother and children were reunited when she was released on bail. The case was dismissed months later.

    I wrote about that year in a memoir called Tin Can Shrapnel. It was important that I kept a record of what had happened to people I had grown close to, and I wanted their voices to be heard.



    Fiona - 
    A beautiful story of strength and conviction. Thank you so much Jennifer for sharing it with us.





    An ERIC HOFFER BOOK AWARD Finalist, TIN CAN SHRAPNEL is the story of one woman's journey to salvage hope from the hate and madness of horrific xenophobic attacks that broke out in cities and townships across South Africa in 2008. Reflecting the voices of a small group of men and women from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Jennifer Skutelsky traces events leading to the accommodation of more than 20,000 dislocated people in refugee camps. A story of chaos and courage and missing children, it is, more than anything, a story of universal truth, and finding a way back from the end of the world.

    If you'd like to keep stay in touch with Jennifer, here are her links:


    Fiona Quinn's Newsletter Link, Sign up HERE
    Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.
    Cheers,




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  • Saving Our Youngest Characters: Neonatal Information for Writers with Meredith Pritchard

    Jaap Vermeulen, Jacoplane in a Neonatal intens...
     (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
    It is heart wrenching to watch a tiny infant struggle for life.

    The vulnerability of the new parents, the impuissant position they find themselves creates strong emotions for an author to grapple with.  Written well, this is a wonderful place to twist a plot and pull up the deepest, most basic desire to survive and to continue into a new generation.

    If you are attempting this in your work, I thought you might like some information from a neonatal nurse, my friend and fellow Kindle Scout winner, Meredith Pritchard.

    Fiona - 
    Can you tell my readers why I turn to you for information about neonatal scenes?

    Meredith - 
    I have been a NICU nurse for over five years, and I still have a lot to learn. I don't think I'm 'expert' level, yet, but I definitely feel like my clinical expertise falls under proficient right now. It's an ever changing specialty where the technology continues to get more advanced and the babies we care for come to us with greater morbidities. 

    Fiona -  
    Meredith, if I was writing a scene that included a baby being placed in NICU can you give us some parameters? What age child and under what circumstances would they receive that level of care?

    Meredith - 
    In the neonatal ICU we care for babies that are 30 days old and younger. We care for infants born as early as 24 weeks who are frequently on life support for weeks, infants who are simply premature and need some more support with growing until they can go home, and also term infants who could be ill for a variety of reasons (cardiac defects, sepsis, dehydration, etc).

    Fiona - 
    Nurses go on rotations to see where their skillsets and personalities fit best. What kind of personality would it take to be a successful NICU nurse and what kinds of personalities have you seen make things more difficult (not thrived) in that particular position.

    Meredith - 
    Author, Meredith Pritchard
    Compassion is the number one trait a NICU nurse needs. We are dealing with sick infants and mothers who are stressed, and who just had a baby. Add in the hormones and illnesses of some mothers (Gestational Diabetes, Hypertension, etc) a twelve-hour shift can be an emotional rollercoaster for some.

    An RN is rarely assigned one baby, a single nurse cares for 2-4 babies and their families. So organization, attention to detail, and quick critical thinking are a must-haves. 

    The nurse also needs to have excellent interpersonal skills since we communicate with various members of the healthcare team
    • co-workers
    • charge nurse
    • Practitioners
    • Doctors
    • Residents
    •  Surgeons
    The nurse needs to be able to speak up. We care for the tiniest patients that have no voice of their own, so we are their voice at the bedside. 

    Every now and then we'll have a nurse pass through the NICU who just isn't emotionally ready to deal with sick babies. It's not for everyone. It's very stressful some days and relaxing others. No shift is ever the same.

    Fiona - 
    What can a parent expect to see when their child is in the NICU and what role can they play? Are parents allowed to touch/hold their babies?

    Meredith - 
    I can say from experience that seeing your baby in the NICU setting is a shock. My daughter was born 7 weeks early and the experience still boggles my mind. 

    It also depends on why the child is there. Some babies are in cribs and just feeding and growing, other babies are on warmers or in isolettes (think an incubator for baby humans instead of chicks) and have IVs and respiratory support. So there is no quick answer to this question, it all depends on why the baby is there. But they will definitely have cardiac leads on and oximetry probes. All of our babies are monitored throughout their time there. 

    We try to have parents participate in care as much as they can and as much as their baby will allow. Some babies, their parents care for them all day long as though they were a normal newborn-diaper changes, breastfeeding, baths, holding. Other infants are more critical and something as small as being stroked on the back or being held can send their body into stressed-out shutdown mode. These kids are working so hard at keeping their own body systems going that noise, touching, or even increasing their feedings by 5 milliliters can stress them out. So again, it depends on why the baby is there and what kind of a day their having that lets us decide if a parent can hold or touch their baby. We let the babies run the show in the NICU.

    Fiona - 
    I'm wondering about security. What safety mechanism are put in place for the babies?

    Meredith - 
    In the NICU where I work the door is locked all the time and visitors must be let in for visitation. The nurses at the bedside check the paren't hospital bracelets to verify who they are and if they're at the right bedside. Once a baby goes into an open crib, those babies have a HUGS tag placed around their ankle. The HUGS tag alerts security and shuts down the hospital if it is tampered with or if someone takes the baby past the doors to the unit.

    Fiona - 
    Let's talk about coping mechanisms for nurses when things don't go well and a baby doesn't survive or even if there's just been a lot of close calls. It seems the stress levels would be enormous.

    Meredith - 
    Some days are good and some days are bad. 

    I've had a lot of crazy stressful days. Usually it's during the summer when census ( number of patients) is high. I remember one night when babies just kept coming; and then when we thought there was no more room left at the inn, there was a set of 28 week triplets born. 

    On the subject of loss, we nurses tend to support ourselves on the unit during a tragedy. The death of a baby creates a somber setting for the entire unit. Depending on the situation, sometimes we are supporting the family during a death, and we can't allow ourselves to deal with it until hours later. That's when we turn to our co-workers, and our friends and family. Most hospitals also offer support services for coping.

    Fiona -
    What kinds of programs are there to support a parent?

    Meredith - 
    I think every hospital has different programs in place. Where I work we have a support person who runs a weekly support group for parents to attend. It's a safe place where they can discuss their situation and give each other tips on dealing with their stay in the NICU.

    Fiona - 
    I got stuck on one of your details from an earlier question. Your census is higher in the summer? So the heat creates a more difficult environment for carrying to full term?

    Meredith -
    Well, it's a combination of that and everyone was making babies during the coldest days of winter. The heat definitely doesn't help. An example of that is while the NYS fair is running we get a lot of dehydrated moms coming into the hospital.

    Fiona -
    When you are watching movies or reading books and an infant is placed in the NICU, what makes you crazy because it's just so wrong?

    Meredith - 
    Oh Lord. I can't even watch movies/shows that have NICU stuff in them. I actually don't watch TV anymore, haven't in years. I do like movies, but I try to stay away from medical stuff since the critical nurses eye is always watching closely. But one thing that drives me nuts is when they place a baby in an isolette and say it's ventilated and yet there is no Endotracheal tube present. There was a scene like that in show Jericho - loved the show, hated that episode.

    Fiona - 
    Can you take us through a quick day in the life? On the job and off - how is your time managed.

    Meredith -
    Well since I work nights, I always feel like my time is managed poorly. It's always a fight to get enough sleep and try to exist within the strict business hours created by society. 

    This past year I've just allowed myself to live a night lifestyle. I go to bed late, I get up late, it helps me stay awake at work. So on a typical day that I have to work: 
    • I'll get up around 9 or 10 and work on house chores, homeschooling, and book business stuff. 
    • Then I shower and leave for work around 5:30pm. I have an hour commute so I like to daydream and work out kinks in any of the books I'm currently working on, and then I'll take notes in the parking garage for a few minutes before clocking in. 
    • I put my lunch in the fridge, fill up my water and clock in.
    • I check the assignment board to see what I'm doing for the night. Since it's rarely the same assignment, overnight is different. But there is a lot of diaper changing, medication administration and teaching parents how to care for their ill infant. 
    • Usually 12 hours passes in a blur, and I'm clocking out at 7:30am and dragging myself to my car, laughing with my co-workers. 
    • Then it's time for the hour-long commute home. I turn the music up as loud as I can stand it and rock out. 
    • Shower. 
    • Then bed. If I have to work the next night, I sleep for 6 hours and then do it all over again. If I don't have to go back to work, I take a nap and then get up and write into the night. That's my day in a nutshell. 
    Fiona - 
    If an author is trying to portray a NICU nurse as their character, what advice do you have about writing it right? Do you know of any sites where they can get information?

    Meredith - 

    • In healthcare, vagueness is your friend. The more technical people try to get, the easier it is to nitpick. 
    • Anyone interested in writing about the NICU should definitely follow around a NICU nurse for a day. It's easy to do, just call a hospital and ask to shadow a nurse or be a volunteer and come in and hold the babies. 
    • Allnurses.com has a ton of threads and some for NICU, it's a good place to start. 
    Fiona - 
    And with all of the pressures from family and job, you still find time to write. Recently you became a Kindle Scout winner. Can you tell me about that book?

    AMAZON LINK - Read It Now


    Meredith -
    A second chance at love is a fight to the very end.

    Guys like Alex Sullivan don’t come around every day, but when they do, they aren’t looking for girls like Morgan. She is the unexpected one, the unplanned daughter of parents who don’t want her; she has always stood in the shadow of her beautiful-but-dead twin sister. So when Morgan lands a marriage proposal from the handsome businessman, she pounces on the opportunity.

    While Morgan is basking in the joy of feeling wanted for once, Alex’s untimely death sends her life into a downward spiral, and she’s left picking up the pieces while the tabloids, pesky neighbors, and an eight-point buck haunt her.

    The only thing keeping Morgan grounded is her new found love of running. And then there’s her newly acquired business partner, stoic MMA fighter Nick “The Strangler” Stacks. Morgan and Nick have never been able to get along, but Alex’s tragic death forces them to interact when he leaves the two as owners of his successful gym.
    After years of tepid interactions, Morgan and Nick finally find that they have more in common than they previously thought, and it’s enough to make one of them want to tap out on their disastrous relationship for good.


    Fiona -
    I always ask our visitors to tell us about their favorite scar.

    Meredith - 
    I have a lot of scars. I don't think any of them are my favorite. I tend to be a wimp and I don't like pain. I have scars from an emergency appendectomy, c-section, various cuts because I'm a klutz, and a scar on my wrist from falling out of the back of an El Camino when I was a teenager. If I had to choose any of them, I'd have to say the one on my wrist. I cleaned it and bandaged it myself and avoided going to the doctors when I really needed stitches. But it reminds me of a simpler time, when there was more time for fun and less time spent paying bills.

    Fiona - 
    Thanks so much, Meredith, for sharing this information with us!
    Here's how to stay in touch with Meredith:

    ~

    Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.

    Cheers,



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  • Diversity in Your Characters: Writing Physical Challenges with Katie Mettner

    English: A close-up of a rear wheel of a wheel...
     (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
    Continuing in our series on diversity in literature, today we are talking with Katie Mettner and her use of physical challenges as a character quality.

    Fiona - 
    Katie, I introduced myself to you from social media after I learned about your book Liberty Belle.  First, could you give us your book blurb; and second, can you talk about why you decided to write about a character with physical challenges?


    Katie - 

    Main Street is bustling in Snowberry, Minnesota, and nobody knows that better than the owner of the iconic bakery, the Liberty Belle. Handed the key to her namesake at barely twenty-one, Liberty has worked day and night to keep her parents’ legacy alive. 

    Now, three years later, she’s a hotter mess than the batch of pies baking in her industrial-sized oven. Photographer Bram Alexander has had his viewfinder focused on the heart of one woman since returning to Snowberry. For the last three years she’s kept him at arm's length, but all bets are off when he finds her injured and alone on the bakery floor. Liberty knew falling in love with Bram would be easy, but convincing her tattered heart to trust him may be impossible. Armed with small town determination and a heart of gold, Bram shows Liberty frame-by-frame how falling for him is as easy as pie.



    AMAZON AUTHOR PAGE

    In the opening scene you meet Bram Alexander, who is at the bakery to pick up the baptism cake for his niece. His sister-in-law Snow and his brother Jay are both in wheelchairs. Snow is very prevalent in Liberty Belle because she is a researcher for MS where Liberty is being treated for MS. Snow is married to Dully Alexander, Bram's older brother, and Dully is a special education teacher. They foster a boy with Down Syndrome.

    All of my characters have some form of disability or special challenge. When I write a new character I internally know, by whatever power is telling me, what their name is and the condition they will have. The rest is up to me to figure out and carry out. 


    MS is a disease that is so varying and runs a different course for each patient that it was very easy to focus on just one or two parts of the disease for this character physically, but really explore the emotional and social aspect of the disease and how that affects the whole being. 

    Liberty's mother also had MS and so with Snow we explored the idea behind how MS is passed through generations, or not, and how that too will change a relationship with a person you are falling in love with. Will that person accept me if I can't, or won't, give them a child? Will that person love me when I'm in really bad shape and need help with practically everything? Will that person still love me when I'm in a wheelchair or can't use my hands anymore? I really focused on the emotional aspect of the disease with Liberty because as she was newly diagnosed in the book, she didn't have a lot of answers and she had to work through all the emotions she was feeling, while trying to fight her need to be with Bram.


    Fiona - 

    Will you take a moment to talk about your background - the how and why of your ability to write characters with disabilities?

    Katie -
    Katie Mettner

    I don't consider myself an expert on anyone's life but my own. I'm fortunate to have a lot of life experience as a disabled person, and I use those emotions to draw off of for my characters. 

    When it comes to medical equipment that I put in my stories I also use personal experience. I’ve worn nearly every leg brace they can make, used every crutch or cane on the market, test drove multiple new products, wore prototype feet, and been in possession of multiple wheelchairs that have all taught me something new. 

    When it comes to the specific medical conditions of my characters then my years of experience as a medical transcriptionist come into play. I typed for every medical specialty known to man, and with each report I heard another person's story, and struggles. The medical understanding of the conditions is important to make a storyline believable, so I'm often pulling a little from all those millions of reports a typed for both technical aspects and emotional aspects. 

    Fiona - 
    As I look around at my friends, every single one of them either has a mental or physical challenge or is in a care giver role for someone who is challenged. It's interesting to me that these types of challenges are not often addressed in literature. Do you have a theory about why authors often don't include these daily issues? And can you tell us if you made the distinct decision to be inclusive or is that how stories show themselves to you as in Liberty Belle?

    Katie - 
    My theory is two fold on why author's don't write about disabled characters. 



    1. Technical Skill - Most of these disabilities are complicated disease mechanisms and if you aren't disabled, aren't trained in the medical field, or don't care for someone disabled (which makes you an expert in one disability only) then it's a daunting task to think about writing a character that is disabled. 
    2. Sales - The second reason is most authors feel if they include special needs characters, or the main character, into the story they won't sell books. It's one of the most underwritten genres there is for that reason. It would take a lot of time and research to write a main character with a disability if you don't have any knowledge to draw off, but it's not impossible.


    My first book, Sugar's Dance, was supposed to be my only book. I wrote that character as an amputee, because I am one, and that was knowledge I could draw from. When I finished it, so many readers told me how much they loved reading about a disabled heroine, and they wanted more, so I wrote a second Sugar book. Each time I finished the Lord put another story on my heart, and I picked it up and wrote it. Since that book, twelve books ago, I am fed a constant litany of characters and their circumstances. I can tell you that the authors who think books about characters with disabilities won't sell are dead wrong. Dead wrong. But you have to do it right or you will get called out in reviews
    Fiona - 
    I'm going to add my two cents here. My thought is that it's just not a traditional plotline. People in the good old days didn't survive with the types of medical issues we have now. They died or were locked away. Without the tradition in our storytelling, perhaps it just hasn't occurred to authors that this is such rich ground for character exploration. Katie, I am so glad that you and authors like you are being inclusive and trail blazing.

    In my writing, I include special ops guys. I am not a SEAL, but I write about them, and I try to get it right through my research.

    Katie - 

    I would agree with you there too a point. We certainly can all write about whatever we would like to with enough research. It's just been my experience from authors who I have talked to that they look at the idea of having a disabled main character as an absolute promise their book will be in the Amazon Wasteland, and that's just not true.

    But, with most things medical, I think it's intimidating to a lot of people. it's easy to say to a SEAL, "hey, tell me about what you do and what it's like" It's a lot harder to say to a disabled person, "So, tell me what it's like to have sex as a disabled person." Or "Hey, tell me what it's like to use a catheter bag." You get what I mean?

    Concerning Sugar's Dance, I agree! People are hungry to see themselves as normalized. Characters on TV and in books can go on about their lives AND have an added issue to deal with. 


    Fiona - 
    When my daughter was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, I wanted to start a library of books for the local JDRF that had a character who dealt with diabetes, so children could see characters struggle and succeed. But I found very few. It was disheartening.

    Having literary role models is sort of like the Dove soap commercial where the models have a variety of body types, it's cool to see someone similar - someone with whom you can identify.

    Let's switch gears a bit and talk a little about compassion. One of the aspects that is interesting to me is that when a writer writes it right, the reader can learn in a gentle way. 

    Writing about people's struggles with medical issues helps readers to better understand how, when, and why to help. It also "normalizes" being challenged physically. What are your thoughts and have you received any reader feedback about this?

    Katie -
    Oh yes, this is a huge part about writing about disabled characters. 


    In the Sugar Series, Sugar is VERY Stubborn about wanting, needing or asking for help. In fact, she doesn't even tell him for the first 50 pages that she is an amputee. This is very common for most people who are disabled. They don't want to look weak or helpless, but at the same time the people who love them can often see that they need help and are just being stubborn. 

    One of the best books that I worked this idea into was Autumn Reflections. In that book Autumn's son Grayson is the disabled character. He is a child, so it was really easy to talk about compassion and helping when he ASKED For help and not doing everything for him, with his schoolmates. It also was a great way to introduce her love interest as he got to know Grayson. He learned right away how to help him and make it on Grayson's terms.

    Fiona - 
    Going back to the answer about sex and catheter bags...

    Katie - 
    Okay let's get into that.

    Fiona -
    NOT EVERYBODY but some people might appreciate that you care and want to get it right, and they will answer your questions when asked kindly. You're not being intrusive; you're gathering info to write it right. And there's a big difference. 


    But you're right asking someone about their sex lives might need some warming up questions and trust. As someone with an amputated leg, I'm sure many people have asked questions. Can you give authors a tutorial on a good approach that makes you feel open to sharing information and conversely the approach that will shut you down?

    Katie - 

    There are plenty of authors who write in disabled situations and write it right. 

    I can tell you as a disabled person that we love to answer questions that will work to better educate people about disabilities and that we are, in fact, just normal people. 

    That said, if I line up 10 people 9 out of the 10 of them would be incredibly uncomfortable asking a disabled person anything, much less something as personal as some of the things that are going to come up in a main character situation. 

    That's why many disabled characters are written as secondary characters, you can touch on the outside boundaries and not have to get too in depth with the uncomfortable parts of being disabled. Believe me when I tell you, as a disabled person I can't walk in the mall with my family without multiple people not being able to make eye contact with me.

    For me, I find that it is easiest to answer questions when the person has clear, concise ideas about what they want to know and aren't stuttering around looking for how to say something politically correct. 


    • You can call me disabled and I don't get offended, as long as it is said in a respectful way. 
    • Start with the easy questions like: 
      • What is your disability? 
      • Where you born that way or did you have an accident? 
      • Can you tell me a little bit about your daily life and how you do things? 
      • How did your relationship change with your significant other because of your new disability (if new) 
      • How does your significant other help you on a daily basis?
      •  How does your disability affect your work? 
    • Once you have established a relationship with the person, then you can get into more in depth questions. 
    • Don't ask about how you have sex, ask about the feelings you have about your body or your disability and how that has affected your sex life. Usually that person is going to tell you if adaptive aids are needed or what have you, just because it would be part of answering that kind of question. 
    It's really all about how you word your questions, so the person feels like they are a valuable asset to your project and not just a sideshow. The one thing that shuts me down the fastest is when someone is flippant. This is my life and something I deal with every day, and it's not always easy, so respect has to be the utmost thought in the author's mind.

    If an author just can't bring themselves to ask a disabled person these questions most disability conditions (i.e. Multiple Sclerosis, Diabetes etc) have excellent websites for the association that have hundreds of stories written by people with the condition. You might spend several hours reading and taking notes, but they get in depth and often times can answer the questions you have within the site. Sometimes they have a place to send questions, and they are answered by the experts, this is also a great way to find out your answers. 


    All disabilities vary greatly, so there is no wrong way to make a person disabled, but there is a wrong way to write the technical aspect of it. For instance, My character Jay Alexander is in a wheelchair from Spina Bifida. He has a low lesion and has feeling to his pelvis, but not his legs. Some people with spina bifida do, some don't. You can choose how in depth, but make sure whatever you choose you back it up with facts and not what you 'think' would happen.

    Fiona - 
    What do you think authors should know about this topic that I didn't ask you?

    Katie - 
    It's worth the extra effort! 


    There are so many people out there just dying to read a book where they are, like you said, normalized and matter. They just want to matter to someone. When they see their condition depicted in text, in a compassionate, loving, funny, neat way, they will be your reader for life. They will tell your friends to read it. They will join your street team, and they will be hungry for more. That is human nature. 

    Don't be afraid to go out on a limb and start small, maybe a run in at a workplace with a colleague in a wheelchair or a hospital worker who has cerebral palsy. Start small and as your confidence builds so will your readership.
    Fiona - 
    And of course, we always insist on a story. Do you have a favorite scar you'd like to tell us about?

    Katie
    I have many scars, and the most obvious would be my scar on my left leg from my amputation. It's not my favorite scar, though.

    My favorite scar is one you can't see. It's about four inches below my belly button, six inches long and gave life. You're thinking C-Section, right? While I do have one of those too, but the scar I'm talking about is what they used to take out my right kidney, and transplant it into my husband's brother, to keep him alive. That was six years ago June 26. It was harrowing and humbling. It was a litany of questions with very few answers. It was predicting an unpredictable future. It was learning to love a person I didn’t even like. It was long talks in the dark with the man who had to choose between the safety of his wife, and the life of his brother. It was faith, hope and love, even when all you felt was fear. It was a mother's tears before surgery and a wife's tears after. 

    Now, six years later it's about the masters degree he finished, the house they bought, the adventures they take spur of the moment, and the full-time job he goes to everyday, where he teaches the kids as much about life as about art. It's about the afternoon game-offs with his niece and nephews and the cookouts on the Fourth of July. It's about the things they told him he would never do that he does, and that still take a healthy dose of faith, hope and love. In my opinion that’s a lot to carry around in a six inch scar.


    Fiona -
    Thank you so much, Katie, for sharing.

    Find all of Katie’s books on Amazon 



    Read about more of Katie's adventures as an amputee writer at http://katiemettner.com
    Follow Katie on Twitter ttps://twitter.com/KatieMettner 
    Come chat with Katie on Facebook Https://www.facebook.com/pages/Katie-Mettner-Author 
    Katie would love to see you on TSU
    https://www.tsu.co/Sugarlips 
    Are you a Pinner? Pin with Katie at Sugarsballroom http://www.pinterest.com/sugarsballroom/

    ~

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  • Dollars and Sense: Writing Financial Crime Fiction with James Jackson

    English: A bag of money, US dollars, spinning ...
    . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
    In this article, we are talking about financial crimes in novel writing with author James Jackson. 

    Jim, you have a new book out - can you give us the blurb and talk about how you apply your financial background to your fiction?

    Jim - 
    First, thanks so much for having me here today.

    Here's the blurb for Ant Farm:In this thrilling prequel to Bad Policy and Cabin Fever, when thirty-eight retirees meet a gruesome end at a picnic meant to celebrate their achievements, financial crimes consultant Seamus McCree comes in to uncover the evil behind the botulism murders.

    But the deadly picnic outside Chillicothe, Ohio, isn't the only treacherous investigation facing Seamus; he also worms his way into a Cincinnati murder investigation when the victim turns out to be a church friend's fiancé.

    While police speculate this killing may have been the mistake of a dyslexic hit man, Seamus uncovers disturbing information of financial chicanery, and by doing so, puts his son in danger and places a target on his own back. Can Seamus bring the truth to light, or will those who have already killed to keep their secrets succeed in silencing a threat once more?
    James Jackson


    I worked as a financial consultant for thirty years. My particular area of expertise included pension plans and post-retirement medical plans for large corporations, not-for-profits and governments.

    As an actuary, I determined the annual funding requirements for those plans. As a consultant I dealt with the organization's senior executives to design the most efficient plans for their group.

    I have a character flaw (well, one of many): I look at any financial transaction and want to figure out how to game it. Fortunately, a reasonably strong moral compass and a very strong desire to stay out of jail convinced me never to act on any of the schemes I figured out.

    But as an author of financial thrillers and suspense tales, I can use that character flaw, combined with my inside knowledge of the financial industries and corporate executive culture to write realistic stories.

    Fiona- 

    Do you worry that people with broken moral compases might be taking notes as they read your work?

    Jim - 
    I don't. I am not teaching anything new to insiders of the various businesses I have dealt or am dealing with in my novels (insurance companies, insurance brokers, hedge fund managers, for example). Those who are in the position to execute the kinds of fraud I describe already know what they need to know.

    If anything, I hope the average reader will learn how vulnerable the systems are and be mindful of their own affairs so they are less likely to be scammed themselves.

    Fiona - 
    Numbers :sigh: most people I know are math-phobic. Are you writing for a particular audience or have you found a way to make this interesting for all? And as a piggy back to that question - do you have to spend time in your novel explaining financial concepts? If yes how do you do that without acting like warm milk and a Sominex?

    Jim - 
    One major skill I had as a consultant was the ability to explain complex financial concepts using English that people unfamiliar with the jargon can understand. There is a small segment of the population who reads my books because they too have insider information about the businesses. In fact, I had a former boss comment about Ant Farm that he had had someone who worked for him arrested because they perpetrated one of the frauds outlined in the book!

    However, for everyone else, anything that needs to be explained is in very understandable language.

    One technique that works well is to have another character ask Seamus McCree (the protagonist) to explain something -- or have them make a guess, which is close and then have Seamus make the correction. Done in dialogue and flows very quickly.

    People only need to understand the concepts, not all the specifics.

    I have had lots of mathaphobes, whom I personally know, tell me how much they enjoyed learning about these financial instruments, such as annuities, short sales [when you borrow stock, sell it and hope to buy it back later at a lower price].

    Fiona - 
    What mistakes in books/TV/movies do you frequently see and drives you crazy? How can these be avoided?


    Jim - 
    The errors I see that just drive me up the wall usually have to do with probability and statistics (major areas of actuarial study).

    For example, they will have no understanding of the difference between average and median.

    Fiona - 
    Gasp!

    Jim - 
    For example, they will say something like (totally made up on the spot) because the average income in this town is $100,000, poverty isn't a problem. However, there is a rich neighborhood and a poor one. There are 10 rich guys who each earn $10,000,000 bucks and 90 people who earn nothing. The average for the 100 is $100,000. However, if we looked at the median (the number at which half the people would be above and half below) the number is $0.

    Jim - 
    Very large or very small numbers in a group can skew the average and so that misrepresents the group. Other statistics do a better job and people don't know them.

    And now our audience is snoozing -- how to avoid. Check with someone who does understand the stuff.

    Fiona -
    LOL

    What advice do you have for people who may not be as familiar as you are with the subject, but woke up in the middle of the night with a plotline running through their head, and it's a financial suspense?

    Jim - 
    My experience is that experts in any subject are delighted to share their knowledge with authors. Do a bit of research to figure out who you want to talk with and give them a call -- or if possible show up in person.

    Fiona -
    Can you give us some examples of financial suspense/mystery that you thought were particularly well done and might be used as a template for well written financial mystery - and can you tell us about your other books and what crime you developed in each (if it's not a spoiler).

    Jim - 
    The biggest mistake I see regular people make is to sign a financial agreement they do not understand. You can be assured that the people who drew up the agreement know exactly how to screw you if you are not aware -- and many will, if they legally can.

    That was just an extraneous, not answering your question.

    Fiona - 
    Thanks for the warning and that sucks.

    Jim -

    Sue Grafton & Sara Paretsky do excellent jobs with the financial crimes. Kinsey Millhone worked for a while as an insurance fraud investigator and V.I Warshawski has dealt with many white-collar crimes.


    Read It Now


    Ant Farm and Bad Policy both revolve to some extent upon fraud relating to insurance companies. Cabin Fever also has financial crimes within its core, but saying much more would give away a bit of its plot.

    My current WIP, the next in the series, Doubtful Relations, deals with hedge funds -- which have been in the news lately.

    Fiona - 
    Would you say that lay people who want to have a better conceptualization of some of the issues that we hear about in the news would be edified and entertained at the same time with your books - sort of a gentle tutorial or is that taking things too far and they are really there for great entertainment?

    Jim - 
    Well, they might be enlightened a bit, or they might be a bit more careful in the future, but really the books are page-turning yarns and any education someone gets is purely a side benefit.

    Fiona - 
    And very quickly we are out of time. My last question: What do you wish I had asked you, if I had enough knowledge to do so?

    Jim - 
    I love that question. It is one I always ask experts.
    Q: What advice do you have for people when they are dealing with financial professionals?
    A: Understand as much as you can about how they are compensated. Even the most honest and ethical individual will be swayed by how they make money.

    When I worked for a company that sold insurance the consultants who sold a lot of any particular insurance company's products would earn free trips; the company would earn "production bonuses". Despite being independent more contracts flowed to those companies who sweetened the pot than didn't

    That is even more true when all a person's compensation comes from commissions.

    Not that everyone is dishonest, but I do believe they will be swayed -- and it isn't for your benefit.

    Fiona -
    Now for the most important part of interview, please tell us you scar story.

    Jim - 
    I have three and I’ll be brief. Scar one: As an eight year old, I fell on a cinder driveway. Deep under my skin I carry one small cinder that never came out. It reminds me that our past is always with us.

    Scar two dates from grade school: On my left shinbone I have a circular scar caused by a thrown baseball bat. I was pestering a neighborhood kid, and he threw the bat at me. I tried to jump over it but didn’t quite make it. I could see my bone. My memory is not of pain but of realizing that it was stupid to pick on someone with a bigger, badder weapon. I recall that knowledge when someone cuts me off on the road—the jerk might just be carrying a gun.

    Scar three: Above my left knee is a chainsaw scar—self-inflicted when I forgot Newton’s law that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. I was cutting down a small tree and just as it began to fall, my dog trotted into its path. I reached out to slow the tree down with one hand. The hand with the chainsaw swung in toward my legs. I was eight miles from the nearest human; fifteen miles from a phone; twenty-seven miles from the hospital.

    Lots of blood but no spurting. Short story: I applied pressure, took myself to the hospital for the necessary stitches, and am still alive.

    Fiona -
    Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing, Jim!


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  • DANGER ZONE: Liquid and Gas Explosions with John Gilstrap

    Flammable Liquid
    Flammable Liquid (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
    We are chatting about things that go BOOM! in the night with New York Times bestselling author John Gilstrap.

    John, will you tell my fellow Thrillwriters and readers why you're my go-to guy for all things explosive?


    John- 
    In my "other" life--my non-writing life--I was a safety engineer. I got my masters degree in that field a while ago, and have been a safety professional for 35 years. My expertise, starting way back at the beginning of me career, deals with explosives, hazardous materials and hazardous waste. During my 15 years in the fire and rescue service, I was a member of the HazMat team.

    Fiona- 

    I am making making my way through all of your books and one of the things that I enjoy most is when you blow things to smithereens. We have discussed explosions before in THIS ARTICLE, but we decided to devote another article to gasses and liquids. Can you start with a primer on liquid and gas explosions? 

    John Gilstrap
    John - 
    Let's start with some basic science. In reality, there really is no such thing as a flammable or combustible liquid. No liquids burn. Only gases and vapors burn. When gasoline burns, it's actually the vapors surrounding the gasoline that are burning. As the fire creates more heat, the rate of evaporation (vapor creation) increases, and the fire gets bigger. At the same time, because the liquid is evaporating, the volume of liquid decreases. When there’s no more liquid to produce vapor, the fire goes out. The difference between a flammable and combustible liquid, is the temperature at which the liquid creates

    enough vapor to burn. That temperature is called the "flash point" (it has nothing to do with a "flash" like a lightbulb; “flash” is the chemistry term for the act of transforming from liquid to vapor).

    A flammable liquid is defined by a liquid whose flash point is less than 100 degrees F. A combustible liquid has a flash point between 100 and 200 degrees F. Gasoline has a flash point of around -43 degrees F, so it is considered a flammable liquid. Diesel fuel’s flash point is around 123 degrees F, so it is considered a combustible liquid. 


    Once they start to burn, the difference is purely academic. So, building on what we talked about in our last chat, it is difficult to get an explosions from flammable liquids. Depending on how much vapor as accumulated at the time of ignition, you can get a pretty good whump when they first ignite, but I can’t think of a way to get a really big bag. 

    Gases, on the other hand (like propane) are gaseous at atmospheric temperature and pressure. To use them (say, in our gas grills), we compress the gases into tanks and convert their physical state to a liquid via condensation. If the pressure vessel is ruptured, that gas reconverts at a ratio of several hundred to one back to its gaseous form. If the gas is flammable (as opposed to, say, nitrogen, which is not), that big gas cloud will ignite all at once.

    That rapid expansion and ignition can and often has caused low-order explosions. It's very difficult to get gases to detonate, however. Remember, a detonation is a flame front that travels at supersonic speed.

    Fiona -
    Could you define low order explosions? What would they look/feel like if present as one goes off? And as a follow up, is there medium and high order? If yes, how are they differentiated and experienced?

    John -
    Low order = a subsonic transmission of energy. 

    High order = supersonic transmission of energy (i.e., a detonation) 

    Up close, like standing on the surface, the difference is academic. As you move farther away, however, a low order explosion loses its destructive energy much sooner. With a detonation, the blast effects are much more widespread.

    Fiona - 

    So subsonic you don't hear a BOOM! ? 

    John - 
    Oh, there’ll be a boom. When an airliner crashes, the resulting fireball is a low-order explosion. There's still a boom, because sound and pressure are the same thing. What you won't get is a destructive shock wave.

    Bursting a balloon is a very low order explosion.


    Fiona -
    The myth about exploding a gas tank by shooting it with a bullet. Why is this impossible?

    John - 
    An auto gas tank is not a pressure vessel. It just holds liquid. If a hole is poked, the liquid will leak out. If it's a flammable liquid, it will leak out burning. The fire will not propagate back into the tank through the hole for several reasons, probably the most important of which is because there won’t be enough oxygen among the vapors inside the tank to support combustion. You can get a *whump* and a fireball, but you won't get a *bang*. It's just physically not possible.

    Fiona - 
    What are some mistakes that you've either read in books or seen in movies that you would like us to avert? John - Remember that scene in Bourne Identity where Jason Bourne uses a shotgun to create an explosion when he shoots a diesel tank in the back yard? That. In movies in particular, where firefighters are working a fire, or where our heroes are trying to survive. All of that pretty fire along the floor is wrong. Heat rises. In fact, here's a video of what the inside of a fire really looks like.



    Fiona - 
    Thank you. I've been doing Citizens Fire Academy, and we got to see a flashover in their fire building. Very scary stuff. 

    John - 
    Yeah, I've been way too close to a couple of those over the years. You find out very quickly where your exposed skin is.

    Fiona - 
    Have you ever used gas or liquids in your novels? I know Big Guy is awfully fond of his C4 - have your characters ever needed to fabricate a bomb on the spot with found ingredients? 

    John - 
    Not in the Grave novels, no. But I think maybe in AT ALL COSTS, my second novel. That was my hazmat novel. Flammable liquids (FL) are very inefficient weapons. They are damaging only to the degree that people get splashed. Or, I guess, from the radiant heat. If you can create a BLEVE, though (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion), you can do a lot of harm.

    More science

    Remember, I said before that liquified gas reconverts to its gaseous form instantaneously. Well, imagine a tank of propane that is exposed to fire. As the tank heats, the liquefied gas inside also heats, which causes vapor pressure to increase. The hotter the contents, the higher the pressure. 

    Meanwhile, continuing flame impingement causes the steel of the tank to weaken. As the pressure inside increases. Sooner or later, the tank will weaken to the point where it can no longer contain the internal pressure, and it will unzip, at which point you get this instantaneous liquid-to-gas conversion that ignites all at once. The resulting (low order) explosion has been known to throw railroad tank cars over 600 feet. That can happen at the BBQ-bottle scale as well. 

    Fiona - 
    At what temperature does steel weaken and will this happen in a normal fire? I'm wondering about the construction of fire-proof safes/file cabinets. 

    John - 
    There are quite a few variables, but 1500 F is in the ballpark. At 2000 F you're talking imminent collapse in most cases.

    But remember, that's the temp of the steel itself. These days, there are all kinds of ways to insulate the steel structure. Fiona - Going back to your last response, BBQ scale propane - could someone effect this by starting a small fire and setting the tank on top? Or is that not enough heat? John - Okay. More science . . . All liquid--even liquefied flammable gases--are heat sinks (a heat sink is a passive heat exchanger that cools a device by dissipating heat into the surrounding medium). That means flame impingement on the liquid space will never get the steel hot enough to weaken.

    However, if you can direct a flame to the vapor space at the top of the container, you'll get an efficient transfer of heat and the tank will melt. Or, you could shoot a propane bottle for more or less the same effect. (Stand back a ways, though.) 

    Fiona - 
    How far back? 

    John -
    Hey, a quick plug: I'll be teaching a course on all of this at CraftFest in New York on July 8, 2015.

    How far back is dependent on how full the tank is, but I'd be twitchy at much closer than 100 yards

    Fiona - 
    Directing a flame to the vapor space - how might that be done and conversely if someone was trying to protect a tank what could they do to protect it from exploding? 

    John - 
    I'll take that in two parts. 

    One: How to make it happen. Imagine a welding cart, where two bottles of flammable gas are right next to each other. If you crack the valve of one and direct the burning gas stream to the vapor space of the bottle next to it, you've got a pretty good shot. Or, in your scenario of putting a five-gallon propane tank on a fire, as the pressure increases, the pressure relief valve will release and cause direct flame impingement on the vapor space of the bottle. 

    Then the question is whether there’s enough time of impingement to cause the explosion. There’s no way to predict that.

    Two: To protect it. Well, that's tougher. My SOP in the fire service was to pull back and drown the bottle with an indirect water stream. But for something bigger, we wouldn't even do that. We'd evacuate the area and put in earplugs. 

    BLEVEs are extremely unpredictable. The only way to stop the inevitable once you have flame impingement is to keep the pressure vessel cooled to a temperature below its critical temp.

    Fiona - 
    What household/garage-held liquids/gases might serve a danger or conversely a MacGyver-type last ditch effort explosive? As an example I've seen hairspray used as a blow torch before (long story about a rat - don't ask). 

    John - 
    ANY compressed gas cylinder will work--including hair spray, but the magnitude of a household aerosol can is just not enough to do real harm. I've had them popping off all around me in fires. They scare the bejeebers out of you, but there's not enough potential energy to do much harm. 

    Fiona - 
    We've talked about solids as explosives in our last article and this one is about liquid/gas. I'm curious about the combination of the two. Are there particular products (not to teach people how to cook bombs for sure) but products that people should know not to store in the same place unless, for example, a bad guy shoots a hole in a container and all of a sudden product A leaks into product B - and if you would be so kind a science lesson? 

    John - 
    Okay . . . Fuels and oxidizers do not get along. Pretty much anything in your garage that ends with "nitrate" in its chemical name should be kept away from fuel sources because nitrates are very strong oxidizers. 

    Petroleum products react spontaneously with strong oxidizers to create a fire. Medicinal O2 and fuels = bad stuff. 

    Oddly, some of the most stable items to store are the things you'd think you'd have to worry about. Stuff like ammunition is very stable, and difficult to cook off. To shoot a box of ammo is to put a hole through the box and spill powder. Nothing dramatic. If you store gasoline in your house, you're not thinking things through. 

    In Oklahoma City, the Murrah Building was brought down with a mixture of ammonium nitrate (fertilizer) and fuel oil. It's called ANFO, and it's a very useful and powerful explosive. It's the addition of the oxidizer that makes such a big boom. Very, very high order. Rocket propellant is essentially polymer and oxidizer, with a little magic and voodoo thrown in. 

    Fiona -
    Voodoo being the essential ingredient.

    I have been to a house where my friend was on O2 as you come to her door there is a big sign "no smoking allowed" If a non-English speaking person was smoking and walked into the house what if anything would happen?

    John - 
    Oh, there's a great/horrifying story about this. Supposedly, there was an old lady in an oxygen tent back in the day who, when preparing for the arrival of her family, combed her hair. A tiny static spark immolated her. The astronauts of Apollo 1 were incinerated on the pad because of a tiny spark in a high-O2 atmosphere. Very, very dangerous.

    Fiona - 
    Carbon monoxide is lethal because it displaces oxygen in the bloodstream, is it also flammable?

    John - 
    It is. 

    Fiona - 
    What did I miss that you feel we should know? 

    John - 
    I encourage everyone to research this kind of stuff before you put it down on paper. Whether it's explosives or guns or knee surgery, there are SO MANY resources available through the Interwebs. And people should feel free to reach out to me if they want to bounce an idea or two. 

    Fiona - Thank you kindly for sharing your expertise - as always it was fabulous learning from you. Now, you have a new book. Can you tell us what it's all about?

    Read it Now


    John - 
    Jonathan Grave finds it hard to believe that a fellow combat vet has gone rogue, killing American agents and leaking sensitive intel to hostile foreign interests. With black ops assassins on the trail of his old friend, Grave sets out to get to him first. He finds far more than he bargained for. Not only the wily operative, but evidence of a conspiracy so dangerous, so far-reaching, that an unthinkable tragedy is in-motion. Grave and his elite team of specialists must expose a deadly high-level secret —and do it in time to avert a catastrophe of historic proportions…

    You can stay in touch with John here:



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  • Diversity in Your Characters: A Conversation About Economic Inclusion with Stacey Cochran

    Fiona - 
    I recently finished reading  EDDIE & SUNNY Stacey Cochran's newest book. 

    This is what I said about it in my review: As I read Stacey Cochran's book, the idea of slave spirituals softly hummed in my head. The beauty of songs like Swing Low Sweet Chariot and the beauty of this book begins and ends with hope. Hope that though born into circumstances that are untenable that somehow, someday things would be better; hope that today's needs for survival would be met; hope that the children would experience better circumstances than their parents.

    And while struggling and striving, warm clear notes are sung out to ease the distress. In this book those notes were formed by love and a sense of family. And even though the mother, Sunny, says "I don't want to hope anymore. Hope's been as poisonous as fear in my life." We know that she doesn't mean it. Hope is the fuel that keeps this family running. Running from the law, running towards each other and a better life.

    A poignant and provocative read.


    I thought it was a stunning work.
    Can you give us a brief glimpse at what your book is about?

    Stacey - 

    Well, it's a love story. Here's the synopsis from the paperback version: Eddie and Sunny have never had anything in life save for each other’s love. For months they’ve lived out of their car with their young son, and the stress of it all has driven pregnant Sunny to the point she wants to ditch Eddie and her kid and vanish from the life Eddie’s tried so futilely to build for them in rural North Carolina. When they stop at an abandoned service station, the point is just to survive another night in their car. But inside they discover a marijuana grow operation, cash, and a stockpile of weapons. As they leave, the owners arrive and Sunny is forced to shoot the dealers to save her family. Eddie and Sunny become fugitives of the law and the drug dealers’ kin and are separated with each believing the other has been killed in an act of retribution. Eddie & Sunny is the story of a family finding its soul, but to do so they have to lose one another first. It is a story of hope, love, and the American Dream. It is the great American novel set to a crime fiction soundtrack.

    I didn't write that last line. That's was the publisher's line.

    And I think it is escapist. It's just escapism with a bit of a message about our culture and its value and how we treat (and view) those in poverty.

    Fiona - 
    The population that you highlighted was not one that usually finds their way into a book. Can you tell us about how you came to the decision that this was where your story was going to take you and how you learned about this community? 

    Stacey - 
    So I'm not entirely sure why love stories generally feature middle class, working class, or upper middle class characters. I think it has something to do with escapism. But, yeah, there's a whole population of people in America and around the world who don't fit those socioeconomic categories, and they want the same things the rest of us want. A roof over their heads, a committed, meaningful relationship, a sense of peace and hope, and a safe place to raise their kids. Eddie & Sunny is a novel that represents that population, a population that is too often under-represented or simply ignored. The irony is their love story is all the more poignant for its unconventional nature. At least I hope readers see it that way.


    Fiona - 
    I thought about the books from the depression era but in those books all of the population faced the same daunting situation. In this book you juxtaposed those with means and often wealth with those who had gone days without food. Was that hard to write?

    Stacey - 
    Yeah, I've not thought about that aspect of it before, but America in 2012-2014 is not the depression era. It was some neo-recession era, where a small portion of the population is just very wealthy, and the rest of us are struggling to pay the bills each month, keep food on the table, etc. It's like there's two polar opposites in America today. I think that was definitely one of the things I wanted to put on the table for readers to consider and discuss. I mean how many of us are rich? Seriously? And how many of us worry and struggle each and every month to make ends meet? I suspect the vast majority of us. Eddie & Sunny, in that respect is our story.

    Fiona -
    At one point Eddie is confronted by a man who, like him, lived on the margins and Eddie had the means to help but chose not to. Now I've experienced this, when I lived in France when I first got there and spoke no French, people would ignore me if I tried to get help in English. After being there for a year an American couple came up and asked for help in English - to my shame- I answered them in French and walked away. Why did you include that scene?

    Stacey -
    I decided to include that scene because I think I was trying to say that money has a way of changing people. Eddie comes by a pile of money as the story unfolds, but having it makes him very nervous and when confronted by a homeless man, someone who is virtually the mirror of where he was at near the beginning of the novel, he quickly forgets what it felt like to have to beg for change to feed his kids. It's kind of like Kino in Steinbeck's The Pearl. The pearl changes Kino and makes him a killer.

    Fiona - 
    You intimated that Eddie and Sunny both experienced mental health issues - either by brain anomalies for Eddie or from past abuse in the case of Sunny - it was there but it wasn't. What kinds of choices were you making as a writer when you decided what to include and what would shift the story away from your intended story arch?

    Stacey - 
    The story arc was really very focused in my mind. I wanted first, a character arc for Sunny. She starts the novel all but ready to ditch her Eddie. But the end of the novel she realizes that Eddie is maybe the single most important thing in her life. Eddie's story arc is that he has nothing at the beginning of the novel but is wholly committed to his young son and his wife, despite his failings. And I wanted him to come 180 degrees by the end of the novel, to where he has all the money and more that he'd need to provide for his family, but maybe be ready to leave them at the end. Then I wanted to follow a 3-act plot structure: Act 1 ends at the gas station in Southport, Act 2 ends when Eddie and Sunny are separated and Sunny is forced to flee Carolina Beach, the 3rd Act is in Key West. Those were the major arcs and structures I had in my mind as I began and as I worked through the novel.

    Fiona - 
    One of my personal struggles with your novel was the children. A baby was born and there was no vitamin K cream to protect her eyes, no checks, their son witnessed horror, he was exposed to deep hunger and his parents (thank God non-physically abusive) substance abuses. I wanted theses children in the hands of protective services and then again - I did not. It was quite a roller coaster for me (having been a counselor for at risk families)

    Stacey - 
    And that's intentional. That's good. I hoped to create that dialogue in readers. Are these fit parents?

    Fiona - 
    So as the parent of two small children what are your feelings? Are they fit?

    Stacey - 
    In the real world, they would be absolutely demonized in the news media, and there'd be no chance of redemption. In fiction though, you can empathize and show that they actually are good people. The system has simply let them down.

    Fiona - 
    I cried when the old man offered Sunny the blanket for her children - just sayin'

    Stacey - 
    A few of my favorite scenes are the Key West scenes near the end with the news reporters reporting on the fact that they're reporting. It's like Eddie and Sunny the human beings get totally lost in the news cycle, which sadly seems to happen - all the time - in our real world.

    I wish you'd have said that in your review.

    Fiona - 
    That I cried? I don't think my saying I was sobbing like my puppy died would add to an uplifting feeling though, Stacey.

    Stacey - 
    Ha! True dat.

    Right now, the reviews are amazing, but they give the impression of a hard novel to live with. Maybe it is. I just don't know. I see it ultimately as a story of hope and triumph of the human spirit. Sort of a love story version of the Shawshank Redemption.

    Fiona - 
    It seems that this book is full of important societal discussions and would be excellent for an ethics class to debate. Was that in the back of your mind, Professor?

    Stacey - 
    I like complicated characters. Book clubs tend to like to debate characters like Eddie and Sunny. Are they wholly responsible for their actions? What responsibility does society hold in helping people like them? Any? Some? Is our criminal justice set up to make money and funnel people like Eddie and Sunny into prison? Lots of questions that we all think about to some degree every day hopefully.

    Fiona - 
    I was a court ordered emergency interventionist and Eddie and Sunny are characters who are familiar to me. I burned out. Try as I might to work through the issues, there are people whose world view and society are on crash courses.

    Stacey -
    I would first start by cutting down on racial profiling and arresting people for petty offenses. Look at what's been going on in Ferguson. You have a law enforcement system that is essentially rewarding officers for making the most arrests possible, giving the most citations possible, etc. and our nation has become one of the most incarcerated nations on earth. There is clearly a problem and we need a generation or two or more to make it better.


    Joseph Souza, author of UNPAVED SURFACES joined the conversation -





    Joseph - 
    I really want to read this book now, I love crime stories that address sociological issues. I guess my favorite was George V. Higgins who wrote about the working class criminals in Boston. The movie made from it THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE is a classic. 

    Stacey - 
    The Friends of Eddie Coyle. That novel was absolutely a huge influence on Eddie & Sunny. In fact, I think I named Eddie "Eddie" because of that novel. Also, I tried to do southern dialogue as authentic as I could based on the brilliant dialogue in Eddie Coyle. That novel raised the bar for crime fiction.

    My agent said it was one of the best sociological crime fiction novels he's read in a decade. For what that's worth.

    Joseph - 
    Stacey, as a professor I imagine you don't deal with this population. Did you do research or have you worked with this demographic?

    Stacey - 
    I actually did a lot of research, from meeting with and talking with homeless populations to doing a documentary film project at a local shelter that was essentially the inspiration of the novel. There are some scenes in the novel that are practically paraphrased dialogue that I had with several folks.

    Fiona, because you've read it you probably know the scene, where Eddie is in the trailer and he bares his soul to Sunny and his son about his own father and about leaving his mother to die alone because his mother got his father arrested. That was from a conversation I had at Simonton Beach in Key West with a guy who was homeless.

    I will never forget the conversation I had with the middle school student in the shelter who was working on her homework for class the next day, while her mom was out interviewing for a job. They'd been at the shelter for more than two months. No one would give the woman a job.

    Maybe there were just no jobs to be had then. This was around 2010.

    Joseph - 
    Sounds like a southern version of THE BEANS OF EGYPT MAINE. It's amazing the dialogue you must have heard in that environment.

    Fiona - 
    I'm not familiar with that book - what similarities bubbled up for you?

    Joseph - 
    Poor, hardscrabble Mainers living in the rural region trying to survive despite economic hardship and family dysfunction.

    Stacey - 
    Daniel Woodrell's Tomato Red was a novel I read about a half dozen times while writing Eddie & Sunny. I totally recommend it. http://www.amazon.com/Tomato-Red-Novel.../dp/B007ME5H2S

    My agent likened Eddie & Sunny to Willy Vlautin's Motel Life, which I had not read until after E&S was done: http://www.amazon.com/Motel-Life-Novel.../dp/B005HF54M2


    Fiona - 
    Thank you Stacey and Joseph for being part of this dialogue about portrayal of underrepresented socioeconomic status in writing.

    Stacey, before I let you go, we insist on a harrowing story.

    Stacey - 
    When I was a freshman in college, my parents were going through a rough patch. I was the youngest of three, and so they found themselves suddenly with an empty nest and the rest of their lives ahead of them, and I think the stress of the unknown after having known a steady routine for nearly thirty years (my oldest brother is ten year older than me) really put their marriage to the test.

    Our family on my father’s side owns a Reconstruction-era home on the shores of the Pamlico River where the water is nearly a mile across, and the salinity close to the ocean allows for jelly fish and sharks.

    My parents had decided to spend a few weeks at the river house to try and find themselves and determine the direction of their marriage now that all their children were grown and out on their own.

    I took a weekend off from college and visited them.

    Now picture this house. A large southern two-story with clapboard shutters on the upstairs windows and a wide wrap-around porch, the home itself built up on stilts to keep it above ground during hurricanes and coastal flooding.

    A home with an energy and a history all its own.

    One morning, my mom called me from out on the porch. I think I was fishing down on the shore of the river. She told me there was a snake inside in the laundry room.

    I carried a garden hoe and walked through the house and found the back washroom, and sure enough a snake had found a dark corner in the room and was coiled up and resting. (No doubt waiting for mice to eat).

    And so I carefully scooped the snake up, dangling it from the end of the hoe, and carried it through the house and out into the front yard. The thing was probably three feet long and wrapped and slithered around the hoe until I was able to get it out into the grass of the front yard and flung it to the ground.

    I struck the snake with the hoe, and that was when I was hit with an electrical surge the likes of which I’ll never forget. It felt like a shock, as if I’d brushed against an electrified fence. One of the most curious feelings I’ve ever experienced because it did not seem natural or entirely of this world.

    The snake died. Soon thereafter. But the electrical shock that struck me when I killed it has stayed with me for over twenty years.

    I’ve written it off in my mind as some sort of curious electrical impulse that was running through its central nervous system, though I know that explanation doesn’t entirely hold up to scientific scrutiny. Creatures don’t give off electrical surges like that, at least not that I’ve ever heard of. But it helps me to process the weirdness of that moment. The inexplicable nature of an electrical shock coming off of a snake.

    The other explanation that I’ve kept in mind was that the snake embodied all of the negative energy my mom and dad had been fighting through… a force of energy that tested their love. And perhaps an even darker Southern past stemming from the Civil War itself, and that my act of killing the snake was an act of putting to rest that part of my own internal subconscious connection to that past.

    Fiona - 
    Thank you, that was quite a story!

    If you want to catch up with Stacey Cochran go HERE
    If you want to catch up with Joseph Souza go HERE


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    Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keepThrillWriting free and accessible to all.

    Cheers,



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