• 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 - 
    Sara Paretsky does an excellent job with the financial crimes she has Kinsey Milhone investigate. Kinsey worked for a while as an insurance fraud investigator before she became a private eye.

    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


    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 keepThrillWriting free and accessible to all.

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  • Diversity in Your Characters: Racial and Ethnic Inclusion with Agatha Award Nominated Lamar Giles

    Today, I am honored to introduce you to Lamar Giles.

    Lamar writes novels and short stories for teens and adults. He is the author of the 2015 Edgar® Award Nominee FAKE ID, a second YA thriller ENDANGERED, a third, currently untitled YA novel from HarperCollins, as well as the forthcoming YA novel OVERTURNED from Scholastic Press. Lamar Giles is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books. 

    Fiona - 
    So welcome. You are helping me develop what I hope will be an interesting series of conversations that explore inclusivity and diversity in our characters to bring depth and breadth to our writing.


    Let's talk about your
    diversity initiative. Can you tell me how it
    began,  what you are doing now, and where
    you aspire to go?

    Lamar - 

    Thanks for having me. I'm a founding member of We Need Diverse Books. We're a grassroots organization of children’s book lovers that advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people. We started a little over a year ago with a twitter campaign (#weneeddiversebooks) that quickly gained international attention...

    In the year since, we've become a non-profit organization, and have begun instituting many initiatives. Including our Walter Dean Myers Awards for Outstanding Diverse Works (the inaugural award will be administered next year), Grants for unpublished writers, an internship program to help marginalized interns afford living in New York while they intern with major publishers.

    We hope to make a difference in what has been a decades long tradition in children's books, where most books are written about (and essentially for) straight, cis, white, able-bodied children, which doesn't really represent the make up of youth in our country. We want all children to have windows through which to see those who aren't like them, and mirrors to see themselves.


    [definition note: "cis" - cisgender means a person identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth, where a transgender person identifies with a gender different from what they were assigned at birth.]

    Fiona - 
    One of the reasons I was so excited to talk with you today is that readers will often send me questions hoping that I can find an expert to help them. Last year, a reader asked me if I could find someone who could help them describe their characters demonstrating their ethnic backgrounds without saying the East Indian, the Latino, the .... and so forth. Each of his young characters came from a different background, and he was deeply concerned with offending by stereotyping. In your book, you did a great job with diversity. Can you help our fellow writers with how to write descriptions and avoid the pitfalls?

    Lamar - 
    Those are the types of questions that I hear a lot, and there aren't easy answers. 


    When I'm writing outside of my culture, I'm as afraid of getting it wrong as anyone else. And I make mistakes, too. But, there are some things you can do if you're writing a culture you don't know. 

    First, have you been reading books by authors from that culture? If so, you'll probably see great examples of how members within the culture speak of themselves. Are you friends with people in the culture? If so, ask them to read what your write and take their feedback without being defensive. Have you eaten food from that culture, visited neighborhoods? These are all things you can do to increase your knowledge. BUT, know that you can still mess it up, and if you do, again, take feedback without being defensive. Learn and grow, it's an ongoing thing.

    Fiona - 
    Can you give me an example of a movie and a book that you feel exemplified your goals with diversity?

    Lamar - 
    Sure! As far as books, right now I'm reading PRETTY TINY THINGS by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton, and it is an excellent story that features wide range of characters from all sorts of backgrounds. High recommend there. 


    Movies...this one is a few years old, but I absolutely loved ATTACK THE BLOCK and the range of characters in it. If you're not familiar, it's a science-fiction movie about aliens invading a housing project in London. The lead is John Boyega, who's going to have a big role in the new Star Wars movie. Awesome, awesome film that nails diversity...because it's diverse but not ABOUT diversity. 

    But, if I'm talking of movies, I have to say I think Hollywood productions, in general, miss a lot of opportunities to be more diverse. Though I'm seeing improvement here and there (The Fast and Furious Films, for example).

    Fiona - 
    As you were talking about immersing oneself in various cultures that you are trying to portray and that you won't get it all right even with a beta reader helping you with your representations, it made me think that there's a continuum of ways to explore that for example - 


    1. "Diversity is no big deal we barely notice (or we enjoy) the differences.
    2. We're okay but the people around us are not - for example in an interracial romance
    3. There's racial antipathy where the groups feel they are fighting against each other.

    Can you discuss portraying racial conflict from the second scenario where some of the characters are tolerant but some of the characters are diversity intolerant?


    Lamar -
    Well, in those scenarios (we're okay, but the people around us are not, and the groups fighting for or against each other) I think it's especially important to seek people who've been through it if YOU haven't been through it. Because outside looking in is never going to give you the emotional resonance of inside looking out. 


    And this isn't limited to race. Without insight from the group in question (interracial couples, group A who has a problem with group B), you run the risk of oversimplifying, giving uninformed judgements, and simply being offensive. If you're not in it, you can't presume. Seek the insight, or leave the topic alone. In my humble opinion.

    Fiona - 
    Does your initiative have any programs/seminars/information available for writers to help them explore using diversity in their writing?

    Lamar - 
    Not at this time. WNDB is really focused on the programs I've described (grants, internships, etc.), but we've had individual team members do those sorts of workshops at various conferences/events across the country. 


    Because the diversity topic is such an important, ongoing conversation, I would encourage anyone who's interested in that sort of thing to keep an eye out for writing conferences that might be offering panels or workshops on the topic. There are so many organizations committed to increasing awareness, that it shouldn't be hard to find those sorts of learning opportunities if that's a desire.

    Fiona - 
    How can interested authors reach out to your organization?

    Lamar - 
    On our website (weneeddiversebooks.org) there's a GET INVOLVED menu, under that, there's a Propose a Partnership link where people who want to connect can give us the requested info, and that gets reviewed quarterly. 


    If there are appropriate opportunities for authors to connect with us, they will be contacted after the review. Our VOLUNTEER link is currently closed due to the massive amount of interest we've had. Otherwise, there's a contact link for general inquiries, and an FAQ for the most common questions we get.

    Fiona - 
    Let's say an author reads this article, has an Ah-ha! moment and decides to make their work more balanced, what advice would you give them?

    Lamar -
    I'd say that by "balanced" it doesn't inadvertently become "cliched" and/or "stereotypical". It's more nuanced than simply changing a white character to an Asian character, or adding a sentence about some supporting character being a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. 


    Honestly, while I appreciate the effort of writers who want to be more inclusive in their work, I'd like them to understand there's always a learning curve, and I'd ask them to consider if the best move is to change the way they're writing (that MIGHT be the best move) or seek out writers who already do it well, buy their books, and encourage others (bookstores and libraries) to buy those authors books. 

    Is the thinking behind it "A-ha! I get that the exclusion of so many people in literature is a problem, so I'm going to help support diverse literature" or is it "A-ha! I get that the exclusion of so many people in literature is a problem, and *I'm* the solution"? One of those makes me more wary than the other.

    Fiona - 
    What are some of the other great communities/organizations who do a lot for raising awareness on the topic? 


    Lamar - 
    Diversity in YA (http://diversityinya.tumblr.com/), Brown Bookshelf (http://thebrownbookshelf.com/), Lee and Low Books (https://www.leeandlow.com/), Children's Book Council (http://www.cbcbooks.org/), and many others....

    Fiona - 

    Can you address inclusivity in your own work?

    Lamar - As for my own work, I include different cultures because I've always been around a lot of different people. It's just what I'm used to. And when dealing with unfamiliar cultures, I look for the experts, and ask for help. Again, I don't always get it right, but it's not for lack of trying.

    Fiona - 

    Can you tell us about your newest book?



    Lamar -   
    E NDANGERED - Her name is Lauren, but everyone calls her Panda. What they don't know is that behind their backs, she also goes by Gray. As in Gray Scales, the photoblog that her classmates are addicted to because of the secrets Gray exposes: a jock buying drugs, a teacher in a compromising position, a rich girl shoplifting. But no one knows Panda's the vigilante photographer behind it all. At least, she thinks no one knows—until she gets a note from the Admirer, who's not only caught her red-handed acting as Gray but also threatens to reveal everything unless Panda plays a little game of Dare or . . . Dare. Panda plays along. Anything to keep the secret she's protected for years. But when the game turns deadly, Panda doesn't know what to do. And she might need to step out of the shadows to save herself . . . and everyone else on the Admirer's hit list, including some of the classmates she's loathed and exposed for years.


    Fiona- It is a tradition on ThrillWriting to ask you about your favorite scar.

    Lamar -  I don't know if you'd call this harrowing, but I once cut a 1-inch gash in my left hand opening a tube of toothpaste. 

    I was in 7th grade, and it was before school. This was one of the Crest Neat Squeeze tubes (I don't know if they make them anymore) with this tight plastic seal over the cap. For some reason I couldn't get the seal off, and I was running late, so I grabbed one of my mom's new Ginsu knives, and jabbed it through the seal. The knife did the trick, it was as sharp as advertised. So sharp, in fact, that I didn't even feel the blade slice my hand. I brushed my teeth, finished getting ready for school, and was almost out the door before I glanced at my hand and realized the skin on the back of my hand was open. I could see muscle. The craziest part was it hadn't started bleeding. The blood only came once I knew it was there. I don't understand why--there must be something to mind over matter, I thought I was fine, so I was fine. Once it did start bleeding, it BLED.

    Anyhow, it's not swimming with the sharks, but I do have the scar (looking at it right now). Sort of let me know that if I could injure myself opening toothpaste, I should err on the side of caution in all physical endeavors going forward. 

    Fiona - 
    Thank you so much for hanging out with us today. To stay in touch with Lamar:
    www.lamargiles.com  
    follow @LRGiles on Twitter.


    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 keepThrillWriting free and accessible to all.

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  • Diversity in Our Characters: An Adult Living with Autism with Benjamin Hall

    Autism Awareness
    Autism Awareness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
    Including people with various life challenges into your plotline makes your writing interesting, complex, and real. One of the mental and physical issues that confronts so many is autism. Today, I welcome Benjamin Hall to ThrillWriting to talk to us about this subject.

    Fiona -
    Hi Ben, can you give us a brief overview about what science is saying about autism, the autistic spectrum, and if you don't mind where you fit into that picture.

    Ben -
    Autism is a spectrum of neurological conditions. 
    This means that someone can fit into it and be totally low-functioning or (in my case) be considered exceptionally high-functioning. 

    Low-functioning usually means that one cannot function socially in pretty much anyway. 

    My level of functioning means I appear as neurotypical but still have socialization problems. It also means that I had trouble learning to read and write. I needed help typing up projects in high school by means of dictation. 

    Science has trouble diagnosing properly. Also, the media portrays it as a disease, which it is not. Vaccinations have nothing to do with Autism. Yet people like Jenny McCarthy still spout off about this as if it were fact.

    Fiona - 
    You have received a master's degree in media communications. Kudos. Can you talk about your work life? I'm wondering if you can tell me some of the obstacles to success, which are unique to someone with asperger's, that one might experience and what systems/plans/strategies you employ to deal with these issues.

    Ben - 
    Meltdowns due to sensory overload caused by too much stress are always a risk/obstacle. 

    For me personally, there is the problem of feeling like my intellect will allow me to do certain things that I end up having a problem with doing. Thus, I still need to dictate at times. I get help from my mother (sounding board/advice) at times on non-confidential work.

    There is also the problem of getting distracted and/or laser focusing on things at the wrong time. The main problem is that many people still don't understand Asperger's, including people who have it. This main problem also extends to the ability to get work outside of freelance editing and writing. I have often sabotaged job interviews without meaning to. Finally, there is the singular focus on my personal interest in comics. This meant in childhood/teens that I would often talk about comics and pop culture to the exclusion of other subjects. I have learned through therapy and speech therapy not to do this as much as I used to. Though each person with Autism and/or Aspergers is unique.

    Fiona - 
    As a neurological condition, people who fit along the autism spectrum experience issues with overload. Can you please explain to us this type of event and what should and should not be done to help?

    Ben - 
    The way to help is first properly getting a correct diagnosis, including any proper medication and physical/mental/speech therapy. This should be done as soon as you start to notice a child is not developing in the right way. Though some adults still need proper diagnosis due to not having been a pioneer age autistic like myself. 

    Meltdowns (sensory overload) can occur due to pretty much anything. For some, it involves clothes on the body being too irritating. Sometimes it can be too much stress without time to process. Sadly, it is a case by case basis, and you can rarely visually spot a meltdown from the outside in my experience. Though by becoming more self-aware an Autistic can learn to see signs of one approaching. 

    They are like the brain is on fire with a lightning storm of all the synapses firing all at once. Very painful! 

    Wrong things to do include: 
    • Restraining someone during this time. At least most of the time. 
    • Calling the police and then the parents without informing either of the full situation. 
    • Touching. 
    • Bombarding them with questions. 
    • Following them to closely. 
    To help:
    • Allowing someone time to process is one of the keys to helping. 
    • Asking what they feel they need. 
    • Giving them space. 
    • Not Touching! 
    • Time to calm down from crying or wanting to fight or flee. Just watch to make sure they are safe and are going to a safe location. Before they have a meltdown, they may ask for a break, so just give them a few minutes.


    Fiona -
    What kinds of ongoing therapy might help someone? Is this readily available with insurance?

    Ben - 
    I feel that Speech and Language pathology can help if the person is knowledgeable about Autism. Also Physical and Mental therapy can help depending on what needs to be learned. I have almost always had mental therapy to deal with my Autism/Anxiety&Depression/Aspergers/ADHD. It really just boils down to finding a knowledgeable therapist who actually can get on an individual's level.

    Fiona - 
    What do you want writers to know so that we write it right?

    Ben - 
    I want writers to read up on the subject not just from doctors and parents but those who have Autism/Aspergers. 

    A good resource is the Orp Library which has graphic novels and books. Also the book The Reason I Jump, Temple Grandin bio-pic and Mozart and the Whale are good at showcasing some of the range visually. 

    We do not all look or act the same so I would recommend looking on youtube accounts of those users who are diagnosed. There is a wealth of information so fact-checking is easy. 

    The hard part is always going to be writing it intelligently and correctly. 
    .
    Fiona - 
    It used to be that insurance would not pay for or recognize autism as a disorder. This meant that people with means received care and those who could not pay out of pocket did not. The reason I am making this point is that dependent on the socioeconomic background and age of the character,  insurance could have serious impact on the characters' present day abilities. Is this correct?

    Ben - 
    This is the insurance info my mom typed up and sent to me for the interview answer. Her name is Cate Hall and she works as an advocate for parents needing help with their kids who have Aspergers and Autism Spectrum. She helps at IEP [Individualised Educational Plan] meetings in Missouri Schools using what she learned from books and raising me:


    Like everyone, people on the autism spectrum need healthcare. For most health issues, their insurance will look much like anyone else’s. The difference is in providing services that specifically target the autism needs. This requires a healthcare plan that will pay for specialist areas. Prior to the Affordable Healthcare Act, many adults with autism had difficulty obtaining services to help them in these areas. However, the “no pre-existing condition” requirement was removed from insurance plans and this opened up some doors for adults with autism.
    Several states now have mandates in place to provide healthcare insurance coverage for children and adults on the autism spectrum. The following website should be very informative: http://www.asha.org/Advocacy/state/States-Specific-Autism-Mandates/

    These states have recognized the need to provide services that support people with autism diagnoses. This includes services such as assessment and diagnosis, treatment with a psychiatrist and/or psychologist, speech/language therapy, occupational therapy, sensory integration therapy and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy. However, states differ on which services and how much they will cover. This is especially true when trying to get coverage for ABA therapy. States With Specific Autism Mandates The following states have specific autism mandates which require certain insurers to provide coverage for autism spectrum disorder. asha.org


    Fiona - 
    It is a tradition here at ThrillWriting to ask about your favorite scar. Do you have a story you'd like to share?

    Ben -
    I have many mental scars and a few physical scars/injuries, including a meltdown related spinal compound fracture, and a hand injury that consistently hurts. I was 16 at the time. Meltdowns are something that happens when people with Autism Spectrum Disorder/Aspergers have become overloaded with sensation(s). It feels like the intellect is in the back passenger seat of the mind, while said mind is in a painful electrical overload storm. I had and still have trouble with authority figures because of my Autism/Aspergers.

    Fiona - 
    Ben has shared the following links to help writers who are researching characters who are on the autistic spectrum:



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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 keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.

    Cheers,

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  • Script Writer to Novelist with Jim Morris

    ThrillWriters, I have a  treat for you. Jim Morris has stopped in to talk to us about transitioning between script writing and novel writing.


    James Morris is a former television writer with produced credits including episodes of “Smallville,” “Crossing Jordan” and “The 4400.” Born in Chicago, he now calls Los Angeles home. He lives with his wife and dog, and when not writing you can find him experimenting in the kitchen (which is one of my favorite of his attributes.) 

    So you see we are in good hands with this information.

    Fiona -
    Jim, you have been involved in writing for a long time, but you have shifted your attention lately from script to novel. What led you to this change and a bit about your newest novel that just won a Kindle Scout contract - congratulations by the way!

    Jim - 
    Sure, and thank you Fiona, for having me. 

    I always knew I wanted to write, and I grew up going to the movies every weekend with my dad. Growing up in the Midwest, it seemed such a strange goal to want to get into entertainment, but I was hooked with storytelling. I used to also love reading Ray Bradbury and Stephen King. I went to college, majored in English literature and film, and then I moved to Los Angeles. From there, I was lucky enough to meet the right people, and work hard, where I landed on a few TV series. I had a writing partner at the time, but we eventually amicably broke up. 

    Afterwards, it was difficult to re-brand myself as a solo entity, but I still had the love of words and storytelling, so I shifted into novels. And it's been great - that direct communication between writer and reader. What Lies Within isn't my first book, but it's the first one that landed, and it's been great to see it take root. 

    What Lies Within is a Young adult thriller ~



    "You’re going to die"

    A single text message and Shelley Marano’s world is upended. A normal high school senior, Shelley discovers she is adopted. She goes on a journey to uncover her past, only to find she was part of a horrific experiment to test the theory of nature versus nurture. In a culture of violence committed by young people, she may be one of these killers. With the lives of her and her friends in the balance, one thing is certain: she will never be the same.


    Fiona - 
    YIPES!

    For you, which elements of writing for TV are helpful when it comes to creating a novel, and which elements did you have to be aware to change in the novel format?

    Jim -
    Here's the good with TV writing:
    1. You realize your words aren't precious. Yes, of course they are important, but all writing is about re-writing, but more so in TV due to budgets, input from differing stakeholders - so you learn to be agile. 
    2. TV writing forces you to write - there is no waiting for inspiration. The actors need a script, and the show must go on, so there's great training in just getting down to putting words on paper; and three, in my experience, writing scripts really forces you to make sure the story works - there's an outline, and it twists and turns, so you know where you are going as a writer. The downside, of course, is that there is no prose in scripts, and learning that craft, to expand on scenes in a novel took some time. Scripts are all about economy, moving in and out, but people read to have an experience, to settle in to the characters. It's a skill I'm still trying to develop more. 



    Fiona - 
    In your novel What Lies WIthin what kind of TV rating (G? R?) would it receive and why?

    Jim -
    What Lies Within is definitely a strong PG-13. It deals with violence in society. In fact, one of the reasons that I wanted to write it was I kept seeing the horrible things on the news with young people and shootings. I wondered - why is this happening? It wasn't like that when I was growing up, and it's like once an idea takes root in society, it grows, and it doesn't matter if the idea is good or bad. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it's out.

    Fiona -
    So what age ranges would you suggest. I'm asking because Crossing Jordan which I saw once (I'm not a TV watcher so feel flattered) seemed to be a good conversation started between the generations.

    Do you feel that What Lies Within would be a good one for a family to share and discuss?

    Jim - 
    You know, it's weird that publishing even has these labels now - young adult, and new adult. I like to think of stories as just good stories. But yes, if I had to say what age ranges, of course that depends on the maturity of the reader. Probably age 15 and up. I wouldn't call it family-fare (when I hear that I think more of Walt Disney) but it could be something for parents and kids to read, as it deals with relationships within the family.

    I will add, though, in terms of reader maturity, who would've thought that the HUNGER GAMES trilogy would've been such a hit given that it's about kids killing kids, and it's PG-13. I would've thought parents would've gone running away from a story like that, but I guess because it's not set in this reality, it's more palatable.

    Fiona -
    I'm interested in the topic of scaling up - it seems that storylines in the mainstream are getting progressively more sexualized and violent at early ages. And sometimes that messes up a good story. The hunger games, example that you brought up. . . this is about children killing children and not even in a distant way (as one does with guns) but in up close confrontations. Few trained adults could take a life in hand-to-hand -- it's against the preponderance of society's nature, but it seemed easily absorbed by our culture as a norm in literature then movies.

    What do you see happening in the visual storytelling industry and the book industry along the lines of acceptability.

    Jim - 
    That is a deep question. I could argue that storytelling is all about high stakes, and there is nothing more high stake than a survival story set against the backdrop of a society out of control.
    I honestly don't know how to answer this - there is no answer, really. All art, literature, movies, even food, is subjective. I think this push-pull has been happening for centuries, and will keep on going forever.

    Fiona - 
    Agreed. Reminds me of the Bob Dylan song - These Times They Are a Changin. . .
    With the idea of exposing violence and sexuality to a broader age range - what kinds of parameters in terms of language and adult content were you constrained by when developing your scripts as opposed to books?


    Jim - 
    Whether books, or scripts, I just try to tell a good story. Some of those projects are aimed at different audiences. For example, my young adult novels: I want them to be appropriate for that age range, but also, if my aim is to write a thriller, it's gotta be, well, a thriller. High stakes, danger. I'm not a John Greene (though I'd love to be) where my stories are about relationships and will-she-or-won't-she-get-the-guy. Those are great stories, but what compels me as a writer is exploring more of the darkness, the underbelly in us, that usually gets glossed over. Especially for young adult, I think there's the tendency to repress how you feel, rather than seeing: hey, lots of people think these thoughts.

    As for the TV scripts, there was more latitude because the audience was assumed to be adult. On the other hand, "The Dead Zone," which I wrote for, was on the USA Network, and it was more family-oriented, or at least at that time.

    I will add, and I think it's funny: my mother always asks me when am I going to write a "nice book."

    Fiona - 
    I think those dark underbelly things are exactly the kinds of things that YA needs to explore and talk about. 


    And just to add a bit of psychology here. Humans are wired to tell stories as a means of experiencing without experiencing. If one hears the story about being eaten by a bear, one knows that that is a possibility and when in a bear populated setting, the person understands they shouldn't go up and pet the bears and share a picnic. Decisions are made based on this information.  By providing experience through character-learning, that is the reader growing along with the character, a lot of underbelly things can be mastered and let go through literature instead of actual experience.

    YA is  a time for storm surges. What kinds of "dark underbelly" themes did you explore in your YA novels?

    Jim - 
    What Lies Within is the first one to make it to publication, and at its root it's about identity. Who are we? That's at the root of a lot of what I write. There's the structure of what parents want their kids to do, to be, but that's not always who the kids are. I think that's great tension - between who you are versus who you "should" be, or who others want you to be.

    I don't always have the same theme for my work, but the quest for identity is one that I realize I come back to often. Who are we versus who we say we are?

    By the way, that's why I find Facebook fascinating. Who are the people on it? Are they whom they really are, or is it how we would like to be seen?

    Fiona - 
    The search for authenticity is timeless - I'm turning 50 and still wondering who I'm going to be when I grow up. I imagine this theme resonates across our society. Did you use that theme in your TV scripts as well?

    Jim - 
    TV scripts are a whole different ball of wax. On TV, you are hired as a team, and in most TV shows the main character never changes. It's about the case of the week. People tune in to see their favorite TV character - whoever that is - and watch them solve something. But at the end of the episode, they really haven't changed. That's the nature of episodic network TV, which is where I worked. (It's different, too, than the shows on cable, Netflix, now, certainly.) So, it's less about introducing a theme, or having a character undergo an arc - and growing - as it is in a book.

    Fiona -
    Did you find that frustrating? Taking A, B, and C and today they. . . instead of growing the character? Or did you find that that freed you up to experience your character in different ways - maybe reveal different layers of your character by manipulating only the plot? 

    And the follow up question - how do you like manipulating your characters through an arc - what has surprised you about the process in your novel writing?

    Jim -
    I really enjoyed working in TV and would like to do it again. 

    It all depends on the show. It can be frustrating because the focus is more on: what is the case of the week? But, you're right, that's also freeing: the character is pretty much set, so you're job is to create a lively story. Sure, there can be "season" arcs that you help create, where do you say Character A will end up here by the end of the season. For me, this is what it comes down to: TV is a group effort, and along with a group effort comes some difficult personalities, but it's great to work as a team; it can be a lot of fun/social. Writing a novel is isolating, and yet, it's all me. Love the book or hate it, I wrote it. There is a great ownership of it, where in TV, maybe my script got rewritten by the boss, or maybe an actor messed up a line (or maybe made my "flat" dialogue that much better!) It's all part of the soup, and a team effort - the end product belongs to everyone, not just me.

    Fiona- 
    If a writer was trying to develop themselves in a new direction, moving from novel to screen writing what advice would you give? What first steps could they take?

    Jim - 
    Interesting. First, I would have to sit them down and say: your book is yours, but what you write for the screen? That will never belong to you. That's the main difference; once a writer knows that going on, then it will save a lot of frustration when the many, sometimes contradictory notes come in. Second, everything happens in present tense, and you're limited only by what you see/hear on screen. That's the pleasure of a book - you can experience a character's thoughts, a voice, a rhythm. On screen, it's: what do we see? What do we hear? 


    Fiona - 
    Will you tell us a scar story?

    Jim - 
    I got my most noticeable scar when I was a young kid, and I played near construction sites. This was in the 70s, and building was booming, and up and down my neighborhood were new houses going up. Well, I was playing near a foundation and jumped into the basement, only to land weird, and my head banged onto the cement. But there happened to be a nail sticking straight up on that floor, and it embedded into my forehead. Not deep enough to penetrate my skull or anything, but enough to give me a Harry Potter scar. Of course, I ran to a neighbor and she fixed me up, and I learned the hard way not to play near construction site
    s.

    Fiona - 
    Thanks so much Jim for sharing your insights and experience with us.




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