• Your Villain Is Sneaking Over Our Borders? Info for Writers with Vincent Annunziato

    Does your plot include crossing a border into the United States? You'll have to get your character past the border guards.

    To help inform our writing about US borders, I've invited Kindle Scout Winner Vincent Annunziato to join us today.

    Fiona - 
    Vincent, in the news we often hear about border issues, and it seems like a wonderful dynamic to add to a plotline since it is a struggle for life or death, a way of living, and more. Can we start by your background?

    Vincent - 

    First of all, I have to state that I am acting on my own personal accord and I am not officially representing the government or CBP. The opinions expressed here are solely my own.

    My background: I have worked for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) since 1996. I started out as an Inspector at Los Angeles Airport. I worked in various positions for 8 years which included passenger processing as well as cargo processing. Eventually, I was offered and accepted a position in Washington, DC. I was hired at what is termed a "Subject Matter Expert." In this position I helped build the CBP Information Technology (IT) systems. I have been there for 11 years and am now a Director.

    As an IT Director, I work on one of the largest and most successful civilian government projects the federal government has budgeted. I oversee programs that Customs brokers use to bring cargo into the United States.

    On this project, I have received 5 Commissioner awards in my tenure. One of them, called the Ambassador Award is the highest facilitation award given to non-uniformed staff. I was one of 2 selectees out of all of customs personnel to receive it.

    I currently oversee three major programs for CBP, Cargo Release, Single Window and Mobility Apps. And yes, in my spare time I write novels.

    Fiona - 
    Please tell us what the duties of the border security force are?

    Vincent -
    Border Security breaks down into a couple of different components.

    • There is the human aspect which people are most familiar with. There is a difference between immigration and passing through Customs. Immigration focuses on rules governing people. Customs focuses on rules governing goods. 
      • When a person enters from foreign into the US they agree to abide by the laws as set forth in this country. 
      • The person must have proper identification such as passports and visas in order to come here legally. 
      • They also must adhere to the laws governing what is lawful to bring into the country. I'm sure many have seen little beagles sniffing for fruits and vegetables. But anything purchased overseas is subject to our authority. 
    • There is also the non-human aspect. 
      • To import goods into the country importers must make entry. As an example if a person were to import clothing or watches they would need to file the proper data or documentation. 
      • Imported goods have what is called duties or taxes and those charges are collected by Customs. People coming from overseas are responsible to declare those items or suffer severe penalties.
    That is a summary of what CBP does with people at the border. If we expand to cargo related items. I would like to give you a little historical information.

    CBP is a self-sufficient agency. Meaning we pay for ourselves.

    The agency itself has been around for several hundred years. It is one of the oldest US agencies. Signed into being in 1789, the Customs service has quite a history.

    CBP has two main responsibilities. Protecting our borders and collecting revenue. We are the buffer between international terrorism and the safety of our homeland. Since we are also a revenue-collecting agency, we keep our economy moving strong. Cargo comprises most of our revenue. Individual duties are a very small portion of what the agency takes in. Commercial revenue arrives on large ships coming into ports such as Long Beach, CA and New York. It can come in on planes, trucks, trains, etc…. All of these modes of transportation bring goods into the country. And all of those goods that come into our economy are subject to taxes and duties.

    The importing companies pay the US government to legally bring goods into the country

    Fiona - 
    How are the border guards chosen? What kinds of backgrounds and expertise are sought after?

    Vincent - 

    Border guards, or better stated, Customs Officials are broken up into a number of different divisions.

    We have Customs and Border Protection Officers, Border Patrol Agents, Agriculture Officers, Immigration Officers, Air and Marine divisions.

    Customs Officers apply to the government and are selected based on education and experience. It is the ground floor of law enforcement and you have to have a clean background, meaning no felonies associated to your name.

    Officers go through a 12 to 13 week training course if selected and are trained in a number of different areas.
    Everyone who attends the school must be able to prove they can: 
    • Fire a weapon 
    • Have good physical ability 

    They must be able to pass a battery of academic tests too. These tests include understanding international laws and regulations and harmonized tariff schedule (classification of goods).

    Fiona - 
    What kinds of personalities would do well in this job and conversely which personalities would create tensions in a plotline?

    Vincent - 

    • There many different types that serve in this agency. It is quite large. But when you look at the types that the public comes in contact with I really see two categories. There are the military types that come straight from military backgrounds.
      • They are usually very letter of the law and disciplined. 
      • Those without a strong law enforcement background or military background are usually more analytical. They will dig very deeply into the laws and smuggling habits and leave no stone unturned. 
      • We see these types on specialized teams performing large volumes of reconnaissance to study up on items like black market goods, drug marketing, etc. 
      • As far as plotlines, I would stay away from the typical postal worker type that is slovenly and does very little.
    • Those without military background, such as myself fall into a   different category. 
      • These types tend to be more analytical. 
      • There are more astute in the irregularities they see from trends. 
    • There is one other distinct difference especially with the younger ones. They tend to be very generation Y. Meaning they work toward small goals, very internet savvy, and believe they can do anything even if they don’t have the experience.

    Fiona -
    What is the craziest thing that you've ever heard of being smuggled either into or out of our country?

    Vincent - 
    Birds Eggs. Apparently, a person came into the airport and several officers noticed she had very large hair that went straight up. Her hair caught a lot of attention, but nobody immediately saw anything wrong.

    When the woman was called into secondary for questioning, apparently the officer heard what sounded like chirping. Sure enough the woman was smuggling exotic birds into the country and they hatched in her hair. LOL

    Fiona - 
    That's hysterical. While many focus on the southern border when they think of border control, my concern is our vast shoreline. Does the border control and the coast guard work in tandem? What is does that relationship look like?

    Vincent - 
    Yes, CBP works very closely with the Coast Guard. The agency has its own Air and Marine Division.

    Every area of the country is very dangerous and has its own component to deal with.

    People don't think of Canada as an area that could be potentially dangerous, but I can tell you that many people forget about the car bomber that was trying to come in from up there to blow up LAX where I used to work.

    The Coast Guard can stop ships if it needs to out on the ocean and although I don't have much personal experience that area we are both a part of the same department (DHS) and the two agencies have joint activities when necessary.

    Fiona - 
    You mentioned earlier the issues with weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) can you tell us, without giving away State secrets, the kinds of equipment that would be used to monitor for this and if there is a special task force employed?

    Vincent - 
    Officers are equipped with devices that can detect nuclear weapons. There are also machines that are used to detect these devices. The agency of course also relies on intelligence that it garners from outside sources such as other agencies. Every unit that works the front line receives training to detect these types of items and how to respond.

    Fiona - 
    When you read books or watch movies that include border safety, what do you see written incorrectly (the technical side of things)? What stereotypes do you wish the writers would stop using (the personality side of things)?

    Vincent - 

    Tough question. Most of the time when I see officials from CBP portrayed, they are either in the background not doing anything or being portrayed as somewhat lackadaisical. That drives me crazy.

    The officer in their role has to make decisions in a matter of seconds. They are looking for something that is at the 6th sense level. Is it a twitch, or unexplained nervousness reaction?

    These officers don't need probable cause to approach someone they only need mere suspicion. So an officer, a good one is "INTUITIVE." They see things before the average person, and they can decipher another person's actions into tangible, confrontable issues.

    How does an officer identify a "swallower" or one who swallows drugs to smuggle into the US? Is it a person who dresses slightly off? Who looks a little slower? A little more active? When you get to this point in your character analysis, you are really uncovering a potentially complex creature that is very cognizant of their surroundings.

    One other thing that may be helpful to understand, is that these people are not shy. They are always in front of the public, looking for smuggling activity. Because of this, they are usually dealing with uncomfortable situations and are not intimidated easily.

    Fiona - 
    You mentioned a swallower. First question - could a scent-trained K9 pick up on the scent inside of a person if they had thoroughly cleaned after the swallow? And part 2 if you have a suspicion you have a swallower how do you prove/disprove the suspicion - what 4th amendment rights are preserved by the person?

    Vincent - 
    K-9's cannot pick up scents on someone who has swallowed balloons filled with narcotic.

    It takes a specially trained officer to recognize this kind of smuggling. I will say that it is one of the most dangerous methods for smugglers to agree too. If the balloon bursts, the people smuggling in this manner will die a horrible death.

    With international law, a person is taken in (again on mere suspicion). If a person is suspected of smuggling in that manner, they are brought to a hospital for x-rays and/or a monitored bowel movement MBM. Literally, the potential smuggler will be watched and the officer will wait until they have passed the items before going any further.

    Fiona - 
    Describe "horrible death."

    Vincent - 

    The narcotic acts like acid inside the body and literally eats away at the organs. This method was also used with dogs and puppies. Dogs have the drugs surgically implanted and when they reach the US, they are killed. Many dogs have been found in the streets with their stomachs cut open. The drug trade is a cruel and vicious employment.

    Fiona - 
    They made puppies eat narcotics balloons? There's a special ring in hell for such a villain.

    Vincent - 

    Yes. These people are not businessmen. They are murderers. And the MULES (smugglers) who humanly transport drugs are people in dire straits.

    Smugglers are usually desperate for money, so they see the money which can make them more in one successful trip than what they make in a year. Of course once they do smuggle, they can't get out. If they try, it isn’t just them who have their life threatened, but all their family and friends. Nobody wins in this business.

    Fiona - 
    Do border officials ever do undercover ops? Or are they always in uniform?

    Vincent - 
    There are special ops where people go out in plain clothes. For the most part CBP is uniformed.

    Fiona - 
    Do you have your own jail system?

    Vincent - 

    Fiona - What happens to the people who were being brought over in human trafficking? Are they given medical treatment? Are they sent right home? Does this response change if they are minors?

    Vincent - 
    This is a sad situation. I don't really have experience with this, but yes, I do know that people are treated well, and then returned to the country they came from. They receive medical treatment and then they are deported.

    Fiona - 
    A question about integrity - it seems to me that if I were a bad guy (and karmic retribution didn't terrify me) that I would try to plant some people in the roll of border guard so I could get a free pass when it came to my nefarious shipments. How does your agency thwart such plans?

    Vincent - 
    LOL - yeah, I don't think too many criminals are into Karma. Greed usually is the prime motivator. As every agency we self police. There is a separate Internal Affairs unit that does prosecute and oversees cases.

    We have a website that tracks people who succumb to criminal activity. The numbers never make sense to me. I don’t know why anyone would aid the bad guys. It’s amazing to me that people give up a good paying job for a quick hit. The cash that people make doesn’t add up either. It’s not like they make enough to go buy an island. So they give up a good paying job for some cash. Just an odd thing in my book. But something for writers to think about.

    Fiona - 
    How do you interact with the various governments do they give you heads ups? Do you work cases together?

    Vincent -
    Fiona this is very complicated question. The regular officer does not interact in this manner. The agents who are not the same as officers probably have more experience in this area. Officers usually assist in cases where our expertise is needed. We understand the flow of goods, but most of the international liaisoning (I know that's not a word) is done a different level. Agencies have to have agreements in order to share information.

    Fiona - 
    (English is a living language and can grow with new words. I like liasoning.)

    I was thinking that the particular government and their GDP as well as the politics would have a great deal to do with things. What should I have asked you if I knew enough on the topic to ask?

    Vincent - 
    I guess you might ask how we keep our business competitive in a global market.

    US business is one of the agency's priorities. International agreements are signed to keep domestic companies competitive. There is something called anti-dumping.

    When a company from foreign produces a lot of goods at cheap prices they can flood the markets here in the US so that our companies go out of business. CBP protects our country by setting up quotas.

    Fiona - 
    What types of flooding? Is this Chinese steel?

    Vincent -
    Could be batteries, transistors, TVs. Could be anything.

    Fiona - 
    Besides writing on your work commute, how has your job influenced your writing?

    Vincent - 

    Several things actually. One I have become a very good observer of personal interactions. Many of my experiences in my work life have influenced me.

    Some people identify well with a badge. They see the person as someone who is protecting them vs. others who feel the badge signifies something that is stopping them from what they want to do.

    Also, I use as a constant motif one of the issues I have dealt with on an on-going basis. The job day in and day out is the same and a lot of overtime is worked so the officers have to face the same public everyday it weighs on you after a while. Overcoming that obstacle mixed in with a feeling of there has to be something better always finds its way into my characters.

    Fiona - 
    Can you give me a synopsis of you Kindle Scout Winning novel?

    Vincent - 
    33 Degrees is a very different dystopian/post-apocalyptic.

    33 Blurb:

    It is said that in the depths of the Underground lies a weapon so powerful it will save the Northern herd from the cruelty slavery has put them under. It is said that anyone who holds the Pulse, holds the power to freedom. It is said… well after so many years, no one really believes it anymore.

    18 year old, Javin has grown accustomed to death. Burdened by a new ice age, little food and very little fuel for heat, only the strong survive under the threat of nature and the cruelty of the South. Survival is a train ride away and missing it can be deadly. Everyone battles to board so that they can work in the mines where Northerners are paid with two small meals and enough coal to heat their homes for the night.

    Everyday's a struggle for the herd. Survivors would rather die than live and many say that even the sun has turned its back on them. They believe it is hidden behind the Southern wall in a city where no Northerner will journey. Javin has his own personal issues as he waits for the perfect time to kill and be killed. Only there’s one catch. A new found love, sparks unexpected hope.

    In this dystopian, post-apocalyptic view of the future, Javin must rise from the depths of despair and help his people find their way back to their rightful place in the world.

    A daunting task for anyone living in a world where it is too warm to die, and too cold to live.

    Fiona -
    And finally, per tradition will you tell us a scar story?

    Vincent -
    Between my thumb and pointing finger I have a scar shaped like a bird. As a young boy I picked up a piece of wood with a nail in it and lifted it not realizing it was connected at the other end. I pulled hard and the wood slipped out of my hand. When the wood snapped down the nail pierced me in the soft muscle between the two fingers. It went straight through. Ironically, no blood.

    Fiona -
    Thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us today, Vincent.

    If you want to stay in touch with Vincent, here are his links:
    website: www.vincent-robert-annunziato.com
    Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/VincentRAnnunziato
    Google+: google.com/+VincentRobertAnnunziato

    Thank you, ThrillWriters, for stopping by. If you like my blog, you'll LOVE my books. Give one a try today! And thank you for your support.

    Fiona Quinn's Newsletter Link, Sign up HERE

    Happy plotting! Cheers,

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  • Paralegals 101 How to Twist Your Plotline: Info for Writers with Tina Glasneck

    Hello ThrillWriters - ready to twist your plotline with a new character? How about a brilliant paralegal to help thwart your wily villain?

    Fiona - 

    I'd like to welcome fellow Sisters In Crime member Tina Glasnick. Can you tell us a bit about your career as a paralegal?

    Tina - 
    I’ve been a criminal paralegal for almost 10 years, and I’ve worked on a multitude of criminal cases, ranging from simple possession to premeditated murder. My job has taken me to numerous jails, detention centers and correctional facilities, and I’ve had the pleasure of working under the guidance of my attorney with federal agencies, such as the FBI, DEA, and United States Marshals.

    I graduated with a master’s in religion from Liberty University, and entered the field of law after beginning as the receptionist for a small law firm. Since then, I have moved up the ladder from receptionist, to entry level paralegal, to senior criminal paralegal, to now post-conviction paralegal. My current position requires me to look at a case which has already been in through the trial courts and determine if there are any post-conviction legal remedies available, provide supporting documentation to the attorneys to back up my stance, and then to assist in the completion of the hired task.

    In accordance with the laws of the Commonwealth, a paralegal can only work under the guidance of an attorney – as such, my job is to assist my attorney in providing the best service and representation to his clients. I’ve even had the pleasure of co-lecturing a continued learning seminar for paralegals.

    In January 2014 edition of Facts & Findings, I authored a well-received article discussing how the skill set of the paralegal has led to my crime fiction writing.

    Fiona - 

    What kinds of activities fall under your purview?

    Tina - 
    Over the past ten years, my job responsibilities have included: 
    • The interviewing of clients and witnesses 
    • Obtaining additional supporting evidence 
    • Taking statements 
    • Speaking with law enforcement about cases 
    • Collecting and viewing supplemental evidence as provided under the terms of Discovery by law enforcement or the Commonwealth
    • Reviewing supplemental evidence as located by client or other sources 
    • Going out into the field to take pictures to get a sense of crime scenes in order to counter the assumed events 
    • Locating specialist or experts that can validate the points of contention 
    • Helping the attorney in any way necessary, including taking notes during trial.

    As seen above, the position as a paralegal is a diverse one– we often serve as legal secretaries, drivers, couriers, file clerks, but the investigating of the facts of the case is where it all begins.

    Fiona - 
    Many people have heard of paralegal work but don't have a firm grip on how a character with this job title could influence a plotline. Can you walk us through a normal day and point out along the way where the paralegal could add specific and interesting twists to the criminal trial process?

    Tina - 
    The paralegal is the assistant of an attorney. There are no normal days for paralegals, at least not for criminal paralegals. 

    Morning - 
    Although every attorney is different in their approach, usually the morning begins with a meeting, and/or long email, with the list of administrative tasks that need to be done 

    • Drafting of court correspondence, motions, briefs 
    • Updating of the case log, as to where a case stands 
    • Checking on due dates for different filings and of course taking calls from courts, court reporters and clients. 

    Afternoon - 
    The afternoons are usually when clients will come in (since it works easier for their schedules). For new clients, my tasks often include:

    • Either the sitting in on the intake process, whereby the attorney ascertains the who, what, when, why and how as to the criminal charges, including court dates, arrest date, copy of warrants and paper work, if available, if one has an attorney already, their version of events and of course, the scope of what the client may be up against. 
    • Or, at times, the paralegal will do the intake alone with the client, ascertaining the above. The new client will usually paint the picture of complete innocence, since no trust has been established. So, the paralegal while taking notes, will also sift through the information, following the logic and looking for holes in the story -- I enjoy to play devil's advocate, but this is usually during the follow-up meeting. They will provide their version of events, as well. Often because the actual person facing the criminal sentence is already incarcerated, the information will come in second-handed, through a relative, girlfriend or loved one. They will provide their version, as well as why they believe their loved one is in jail -- often this is when we will hear the beginning of the conspiracy theories. 
    • Once this information is gathered, the paralegal then heads to the attorney and provides him/her with an update as to the facts of the case, status of representation etc, and then the attorney will join in. The attorney will take the facts as given to him by the paralegal, as well as listening to the client, and come up with a potential course of action, and offer representation. If the deal is sealed, with the terms of representation, then the contract will be signed, and payment accepted.
    • For the client that is coming in to speak with his attorney, at this time, the paralegal is serving as note keeper, fact checker, and often a sounding board. I am given the latitude to ask questions of clients, to inquire again -- even if they have already stated 1000 times what happened, I can ask again to assure their version of events, which is very important for trial preparation. The worst thing is for a client to change his version of events on the stand!

    Fiona - 
    Fascinating. So a paralegal is acting like a detective. . .

    Tina - 
    The interesting parts that the paralegal can add to the criminal trial process is that they are very aware of the witnesses, their versions of events, how their testimony might match up in helping a defendant. Also, by looking at the case against a client, the paralegal is able to take a closer look at the evidence, in hopes of furthering the investigation -- making sure that the defendant's rights have not been violated, and comparing paperwork and the paper trail with that of the version of events. The paralegal will serve as a quasi-investigator, continuing to follow the breadcrumbs and helping the attorney provide the best defense possible. I am a defense criminal paralegal, so everything comes from that point of view. 

    Fiona - 
    What personality types would flourish in this job and which would flounder and why?

    Tina -
    It takes a mentally strong person to deal with the kinds of people who need a criminal lawyer. 

    The best personalities that thrive in this career are the ones that are inquisitive, analytical, empathetic and have the ability to take initiative; as well as the ability to work in a fast pace environment and hold your own. A paralegal must be able to work with a team. The paralegal has to be able to work well with others in a variety of ways, and therefore able to talk to a variety of individuals, outside of those in their worldview etc. Also, there must be a sense and understanding of right and wrong, and knowing that the job of the paralegal isn't to defend anyone, but to assist the attorney in making sure that the criminal process is taking place within the boundaries of the law. 

    Fiona - 
    You were telling me how you started writing your book. Can your share your harrowing office experiences?

    Tina - 

    My first novel, THOU SHALL NOT, came about as a result of having a disgruntled client appear at the office. She was more than threatening, and at that time there had been several episodes of people going postal. 

    Working in a criminal law office, you never know who is going to walk through the door. On this day in particular, my thoughts wouldn't calm down, and I was sure this client was going to shoot up the office, and I couldn't help but wonder how and if we -- those in the office -- would survive. At the time, there was only one way out of the office, and we'd have to pass by the shooter. The furniture was too heavy to move; the doors unable to be locked, and we were located on the 2nd floor of an old building, which surely meant if one was able to first lift up the window, and somehow get out of it, I'd fall straight down onto concrete slab alleyway. Writing became my therapy, a way for me to deal with the angst, a plan, a way for me to process it.

    It took 23 re-writes, and me having to rework my internal fears, until I was able to come to some sort of peace about it. Confronting the issue helped me to deal with it, and writing helped me process it.

    Fiona -
    Do you interact with the police, go to crime scenes and get involved in the hands on investigations?

    Tina - 
    Yes, when we are investigating cases and preparing for trial, we will interact with different law enforcement agencies and officers -- depending on where the charges are pending, this will determine if we are contacting federal or state authorities.

    For murder cases, we will go out to the crime scene (or where the body was recovered), in hopes of getting more of an idea of the scene, locating potential witnesses, and looking at the version of events of the client. Also, if there is video of a crime, such as the police doing surveillance, we will then head to the Commonwealth's Attorney's office in order to view it (if we are unable to get a copy of the video). 

    Additionally, when it comes to reviewing autopsy reports, we will head to the ME's office in order to make any specific inquiries as to what is in the report, but also if the injuries could have occurred any other way. All of this helps with trial preparation and all of this is done long after the fact. So we are not hands on in charges being presented, and the fresh crime scene, but more once the charges are filed, we are looking at the evidence, and asking questions to prepare the best defense available. 

    This will also include going into jails and meeting with the client, witnesses, meeting with officers to discuss items, if possible (depending on the openness of the case and the Commonwealth, the exchange of information can be forthcoming or not so much).

    A lot of what we are able to do will come down to what the Commonwealth or prosecution is able to communicate with us -- there is not this animosity between parties usually. No one wants an innocent man or woman to go to jail.

    Fiona -
    Have most of your clients been white collar crimes? violent crimes? drug crimes?

    Tina - 
    I've dealt with mostly violent crimes and drug crimes. It is for that reason that I've come to understand that justice is composed of shades of gray -- a theme that I often address in my writing.

    Fiona - 
    So let's talk about interactions with the criminal element. How intelligent and knowledgeable are these individuals? What's their demeanor? Do you feel that palming mace is necessary around the office?

    Tina -
    I guess you can say that I am surrounded by alleged criminals, but all I see are people who have potentially made life changing mistakes.

    Most of those that I've met are just individuals either doing petty stuff (entry level drug dealers), who were trying to do better, and didn't know how. It is more socioeconomic than anything else. There are those who are illiterate, who are just hustling to make ends meet. You do have those that think they are geniuses, and for that it is important to have a "bull shit" radar. They will all lie-- they will all try to play on your emotions, especially if you are a woman, or if they perceive you as being weak. They will try to find a hole to manipulate you to their side. Here you have to know that you are not their friends --

    The violent crimes are a little more difficult to process. There, nothing is ever as simple as what you think it is. It is a maze, a mystery and everyone is lying; everyone could be a suspect. You have to take all of this into consideration, along with their particular cultures and paradigms -- there are some that believe they should never snitch; others that if they are juveniles, their silence willkeep the adult from getting in trouble. Usually when they come in, and have a seat, it will be a combination of puppy dog face hiding behind a mask of niceness. You don't discover the truth of character until after the second or third meeting.

    No, mace is not necessary, but you have to know when to be a bull dog, and when to be a bitch.

    Fiona - 
    What is it that you wished I asked/wished people knew about paralegals? And what are some ways that a writer could twist a plot with a paralegal?

    Tina - 
    Paralegals will work a case from the time that it enters into the client files and stay with it until the case is truly over. They will know almost every detail of your case . Because the paralegal knows everything, they are a good source of either seeking justice for the idea of justice of justice, even if everyone else gives up on a case -- because they know so much about it -- so in my opinion, they make great sleuths, and have access to police officers to assist them in their quest for justice and answers. 

    They are often overlooked, since the attorney takes the main focus, and because of this, they fall under the radar in so many ways. 
    Depending on their level of objectivity, and because paralegals work in a variety of firms and areas, they can use this knowledge for good or evil. In criminal litigation, the paralegal can sabotage cases, even lose pertinent information. They are not as constrained as attorneys in certain things since they are not under a licensing authority like attorneys. Because they visit prisons and facilities and send tons of legal mail, they can get involved in smuggling things into jails. The possibilities of evil are many.

    Fiona - 
    It is a tradition on ThrillWriting that our guests tell us a harrowing story.

    Tina - 
    I’ve combed through my memories to find a harrowing experience, which I am comfortable sharing. My life has been filled with dark and terrifying moments, whereby I’ve often danced with darkness. Yet, there is one experience that signifies the beginning of it all for me. It is the moment when my tangle with the macabre began and became a combination of beauty, pain and heartbreaking terror.

    At the age of seven, during late spring, I was playing outside, like all children of the 80s did. I was a tomboy, and couldn’t be bothered by staying in-doors. On this warm day in particular, the sun shone brightly from overhead. I played behind the house near a white wire fenced flower bed.

    Then I saw him – a lovely robin. His breast a beautiful warm orange and his wings a deep gray. He chirped, and hopped ever closer, his large eyes never leaving my face. I cupped my hands and held them out to him, wondering if he’d allow me to pet him, and like an innocent child, I hoped he would.

    His silky feathers tickled my hands, while his chest rose and fell. It was a simple joyful moment; a little girl with a special bird. He stayed, resting in my cupped hands, until I heard only a final chirp. He closed his eyes that once stared at me, and stopped moving.

    I waited in vain for him to awaken from his nap, afraid to move, but hoping to hear him chirp again. I carefully placed him in the grass. He didn’t move. Instead his thin legs stretched out too straight, and he rested on his side.

    Tears burned my eyes. I raced inside up the stairs to my bedroom and dumped out my pencils and crayons onto my bed -- emptying my worn gray and white pencil box. My heart thudded against my ribs, and every moment of clearing the box I thought only of him. My feet quickly stomped down the stairs and I raced outside again, back to where my friend silently lay. Lifting him up, I placed him in the box.

    Up until then, I'd never been to a funeral. I didn't know a lot about death, but I knew about honoring the passing of something beautiful. Crossing the two lane road behind the house, I headed to the large field where my mother had her vegetable garden.

    My hands dug into the dirt, until I cleared a deep and large enough space.

    Lowering the box, my heart hammered, and tears continued to stream down my face. I said only the words a child would utter: words of thanks to a bird that chose to spend its last moment with me.

    We are all broken and damaged in some way, but to experience death so close and near, that changes one, I think. My robin showed

    me the juxtaposition of life and death, and the beauty of small moments. Thirty years later, I still remember the bird that died in my hands, and often think of him.

    Wow, Tina, that was so poignant - you've left me a little heartsick.

    So while I wipe away these tears, can you tell us about Thou Shall Not?

    Tina - 
    Some things are worth killing for...

    A serial killer demands satisfaction for justice's failure.

    Bodies are piling up in Richmond, Virginia, mutilated and tagged. A serial killer metes out justice to those who have escaped it, killing according to the Ten Commandments, and Alexandria "Xandy" Caras is on the list. Two years have passed since the workplace massacre; six months since the day her charge of murder was dismissed.

    When innocent "fan" letters become aggressive acts, Xandy finds herself seeking help from Police Captain Victor Hawthorne. He doesn't believe in coincidences. Can he keep her safe when all signs point to her as being the killer's ultimate target?

    Only Xandy's death can make it all stop, silencing the deranged killer who wants more than revenge, but true repentance.

    Book 3 in the Spark before Dying Series, NUMBERS, is scheduled for a fall 2015 release.

    Fiona - 
    Thanks so much for sharing your expertise, Tina.

    If you want to stay in contact with Tina  here are her links:
    Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TinaGlasneck
    Twitter: https://twitter.com/TinaGlasneck
    Webpage: http://www.tinaglasneck.com/

    Thank you, ThrillWriters, for stopping by. If you like my blog, you'll LOVE my books. Give one a try today! And thank you for your support.

    Fiona Quinn's Newsletter Link, Sign up HERE

    Happy plotting! Cheers,

    See original posts...
  • Evolution of a First Responder Rookie to Retirement: Info for Writers with Cpt Michael Brigati

    Captain Michael Brigati
    Many of you are writing about the men and women who run to the scene when 911 is dialed. In my own writing, Lexi Sobado is a rookie and she feels a little overwhelmed in a world where her team has already been burnished with experience. As we construct our characters, I think it is interesting to take into consideration where they are in the spectrum of their career. 

    To discuss this I have invited retired Captain Michael Brigati to reflect on this topic. Michael was a firefighter, paramedic, and elite SCUBA rescue team member.

    Fiona - 

    Michael, let's begin with the idea of expertise. Obviously rookies would look to their captain and expect to find a figure to emulate. What does it take to be an expert? Can you explain your evolution to proficiency?

    Michael - 
    Expert…that's a big word and there is no one answer. I believe any professional, in any field of endeavor, might say it is the attempt to attain that level, that defines their proficiency. If I achieved the skills necessary to advance my career and become more resourceful and adept, it may well have been 
    seeded in my love of sports, academics and being a student of nature. 

    Playing sports, but perhaps team sports in particular, requires not only learning an individual skill set based on desire, technique and repetition. But when working with others to succeed, demands understanding that the sum is truly greater than the individual. As regards academia; by definition, as a student, my role,was to absorb the wisdom through lectures given, study and enhanced thought processes. Of course, nature is the greatest of teachers, and I’ve spent the largest part of my life outdoors simply observing. To survive, one must adapt and use what is available to flourish, even learn what not to do; valuable lessons in that as well.

    All of these combined to help me succeed as a firefighter, officer, paramedic and rescue diver. The Fire Service is the ultimate ‘team sport’ and I am convinced that is why it is deemed a brotherhood, which it certainly is.

    I would also be remiss if I did not add that the very first thing one must do, to even try to become an expert, is to keep quiet and listen to those who’ve earned their stripes. Again, that applies to all my examples above. To become the ‘master’, one must always be the ‘student’. I have to give a ‘shout out’ to Chief Jim Graham in that regard. He was my mentor in the Chesterfield Fire & EMS Department and one hell of a fire ground officer.

    Fiona -
    Michael, in the county of Chesterfield, Virginia, where you worked, they have an interesting fire system that folks may need to understand as you are answering questions. Could you explain why a fire truck shows up if you call about chest pains?

    Michael - 
    Everyone of our firefighters are at the least Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT); but there is an ALS medic (Advanced Life Support) provider on every unit, all the time. We respond with fire trucks and an ambulance with ALS is sent at the same time to continue care all through transport. 70% of all emergencies in Chesterfield County are medical, the other 30...fire incidents

    Fiona - 
    This has not always been the policy. It's actually fairly new that the fire and EMTs in Virginia are paid professionals and not volunteers. Did you begin as a volunteer?

    Michael -
    Yes, the system of combined Fire and EMS began in the seventies. As for myself, no. I never volunteered. I was working as a counselor for the Virginia Department of Corrections. A friend told me of the work, and it appealed to me. After a rigorous testing procedure and interview, I was taken on...a raw recruit if ever there was one.

    Fiona - 
    Who is selected as a recruit for the program?

    Michael - 

    The county government uses all manners of communication and media to advertise openings. It is not uncommon at all to receive literally hundreds of applicants for a recruit school. That number changes from year to year depending on vacancies, growth in the county and other mitigating factors. It is open to the public. Anyone over the age of 18 is eligible, and we have hired people in their late thirties. And of course, gender, ethnicity and such are irrelevant. The fire and EMS department simply wants the most qualified individuals. It is what the public deserves. The testing is quite stringent and along with background checks and drug testing, the process is very thorough.

    Fiona -
    You mentioned you were "a raw recruit if ever there was one" and that is an excellent beginning for the topic today - what were your first thoughts on entering that world?

    Michael - 

    My first thought was this: It's a Fire HOUSE. You live there. Meals get cooked, beds made, bathrooms cleaned...in other words, it was a 'reality check' for me. Even in these seemingly mundane tasks, there is great purpose. You must pull your weight, because who you are and what you are willing to do as a person is being revealed and observed by people you will know for many years in sometimes the most difficult of situations. If you shirk responsibility at 'home', word spreads and this first impression is critical. 

    Fiona - 
    Put yourself back to your time when you were training. What were your basic thoughts about the job and what surprised you the most?

    Michael - 
    The repetition in training to learn the tools of the trade and when to use them was remarkable. It didn't take long to recognize that the better shifts trained constantly. And since we responded to just about any emergency, it became clear that it made sense to train regularly.

    We went over the simplest procedures frequently and at first I didn't understand why so much time was spent on them. It didn't take long to realize it was done so that in emergency conditions we could react in an 'auto pilot' mode.  People hear of it in the military. Phrases like "training took over." So very true. After all, the worst of emergencies don't happen on a beautiful sunny day, they occur in thunderstorms, at night, in fire and smoky conditions where life does indeed hang in the balance. 

    You have to be able to work calmly and orderly, with confidence that what you are doing is right, a lot of times, there is no second take. That stayed with me for all of my career, and I've never forgotten it.

    Fiona - 
    What was the first gut check that made you look at your role in the grand scheme, and it felt like a seismic shift? The whole "Holy crap this is truly life and death that I'm dealing with here" moment. And how did this change who you were as a first responder?

    Michael -

    Everyone recalls their first real 'worker'. That's jargon for when its a true emergency; a house fire with people trapped, a violent wreck with people screaming in the car -  things of that nature. 

    My first experience was a house that exploded because of leaking gas; literally lifted off its foundation. Fire smoke, late at night. I will always remember being a jumpseat Firefighter, the position one starts their career, and jumping off with my 80 pounds of gear, and stopping dead in my tracks. All my senses were magnified. I stood there, I'm sure with mouth open, until one of the veterans slapped me in the back and said, "Let's go. Follow me." The world was surely different after that. I was now officially a firefighter.

    Fiona - 
    How much pressure do you feel from "no second take?" Do you rehash? Can you let an event go? Do responders develop a philosophy that helps them through the "deaths doorstep" situations? And if yes to the last, at what point in the responders career does that begin to gel?

    Michael - 
    There is a tremendous feeling of pressure. 

    Early on it is a huge weight. That goes back to an earlier question about evolving. Learning and following a veteran, moving cautiously. It is a unique job. I have seen many leave the service because of the stress; understandably so. 

    It may sound cold, I assure you, it is not, but a Firefighter will tell you he or she is "at work" and when in that mode, can work under extreme conditions. But you cannot get cocky, thinking you are superhuman or nothing bothers you. That sets you up for disaster. 

    Running an incident where children are involved...critically injured and even dying...these are the worst. They strike deep and can stay with you. Everyone has a level of 'detachment' I was able to keep my perspective by realizing I was there to help, and it was all I could do. 

    Because of my background in mental health, I ended up becoming one of the original peer counselors for stressful incidents and was even asked to present at the World Congress of Critical Incident Stress in Baltimore.

     I think for me, it all 'gelled' after three years or so. Seeing enough calls, learning how to respond to them, and accepting outcomes aren't always what we want.

    Fiona - 
    If an author is writing about a firefighter, the place the responder is in in his or her career will inform the abilities, reactions, psychology etc. I am wondering what changes an author should consider as their character ages or as we enter a story say of a mid-career responder. Perhaps you could explain with your characters in Fire Thieves.

    Michael - 
    One has to have a good memory and an honest perspective to write about the particular period a character, in my case, firefighters, are in. A rookie will not be savvy, A veteran will not be foolish. 

    Critical to that, as the firefighter has collected calls and response behaviors, it will change; evolve dependent on the stage he or she is in relevant to their career. My main characters are just about at the end of their career. They have seen much and being brothers, know each other quite well on several levels. To bring them to life in this stage of their career, I went so far as to gather my good friends, several retired, some approaching that milestone, and would chat with how they did things as they approached the end of their career. It was a good way to stay on track and not get caught up totally in what I thought alone. Always helpful for a writer to have such excellent sounding boards.

    Fiona -
    Every responder I have ever spoken with talks about their Fire Family. The Assistant Chief who is teaching at the Citizens Fire Academy I am participating in could have retired years ago, and he is not planning on heading out the door yet; he's needed as the next generation is trained and prepared to take over. How does a responder know enough is enough, it's time to hang up my helmet? How hard is that transition? I imagine once a responder always a responder much like the Marines.

    Michael - 
    The fire service, like any business, is divided into divisions. Each a separate entity meeting the needs of their particular mission. 

    In 'operations', the actual hands on responders, there is a wear and tear - physically, mentally, and emotionally. Most realize, even if reluctantly, that when they can't 'do what they used to', or they slow the crew down at a call, then it's time to consider a change to a position out of operations or retirement.

    Others, as in your example of the Chief, are in the training division which is not as hard on the body and one is able to stay on the job longer in a valuable mentor mode so to speak. Same is true of arson investigators, maintenance and logistics. 

    And you are absolutely on target...once a firefighter...always a firefighter. I am still called captain when I visit a station. And even when traveling, as a member of this brotherhood, you can stop at just about any fire station and be taken in, have dinner. It is simply fantastic. Some do have a hard time leaving it behind, and are always in touch with the service, and the men and women who are like family.

    Fiona - 
    What do you wish I had asked today? What do you wish all writers knew when they wrote about responders at different levels of their career evolution?

    Michael -
    Authenticity. Without that, a writer will fall short as this kind of work, like the military, is based on codes of contact, language, behavior that is uncommon to most all other careers and absolutely critical to be 'spot on'. A writer can still get that. As with any good author, reference work is the key. That and having a friend in the service. But even that can be handled. Citizen Fire Academies, fire service speakers, and I can assure you...if a writer was interested, they need only ring the doorbell at a station house, talk about what they were doing, and they would be INUNDATED with help and assistance.

    Fiona - 
    Tell us about the book you've written that puts us into the Firehouse.

    Michael - 
    A fire rages out of control at a large chemical plant, and it’s threatening to detonate into a massive toxic fireball that will kill thousands near the capital of Richmond, Virginia.

    The Meagher brothers, career firefighters both, are there to battle the blaze and fight to get it contained before the facility's highly volatile ammonium nitrate explodes. Little do they know that this fire will suck them into a complex international web of deception, death and lies, intended to destabilize the Middle East and culminate in the destruction of the U.S.S. Defender, incinerating the 2,000 Marines on board headed home after deployment, and initiate a war between the U.S. and Iran.

    Aided by their father, William, a private investigator and former Fire Chief, and friend Marcus Delorme, an FBI terror expert, Patrick and Shane, begin to suspect that this was no ordinary accident. When their closest friend, Vincent, an arson investigator in the Chatterton County Fire Department, is murdered in a second conflagration, they're out for blood. But will they discover the connection to the Defender, about to leave Iraqi waters, in time?

    Fiona - 
    And this is a Kindle Scout Book - which means folks when you go to this LINK and press the support button, if Michael's book is chosen you get a FREE COPY!

    Now, Michael - everyone is asked to tell us their favorite scar story and like many people who have highly dangerous and physical lives , you inexplicably have no scars! That's crazy to me. But surely you have a plethora of harrowing stories. Can you tell us one?

    Michael - 

    Fiona…no physical scars, but as anyone in Emergency Services, a few scares and yes, a very harrowing story. It was springtime, my first year on the elite water rescue team for Chesterfield County; my third year as a Firefighter. The Spring rains had swelled the waters of the Appomattox River in the area known as Battersea Beach. A dangerous, and popular, rock garden where citizens of Chesterfield and Petersburg would come for a days adventure. Unfortunately, a young man had slid from the slippery rocks worn smooth by the rising waters and went under in the rapids formed by the boulders in the area.

    There were only two divers available that day. A skilled veteran, Craig “Catfish” Vaughn and myself; new to the team. Our land based crew that day, headed by Rick Butcher.

    Typically, divers use a practiced pattern and are tethered with safety lines, but this was impossible due to the violent surge and volume of water. Catfish and I dove separately, each trying to stay in the eddies, the pockets of calmer water found behind each submerged obstacle, as we groped frantically to try and find the boy.

    In a violent and dangerous river flow such as this, where the water is incredibly thick ,murky and strewn with debris; rescue divers call it "zero viz", you literally cannot see your hand in front of your mask. 

    My adrenaline was pumping at least as fast as the Appomattox as I darted from one eddy to the next; diving alone with no way of anyone knowing where I was, my exhalation bubbles nonexistent, lost in the crest of waves breaking on the surface.
    Feeling my way along the bottom, I inched past the edge of the rock formation I was scouring, and kicked powerfully to try and cross the swift current, intent on searching elsewhere. I underestimated the flow and caught in its grip, was shoved helplessly downstream until I was pinned against the trunk of a large underwater tree trunk; a ‘strainer’ is what such an object is called. 

    Try as I might, I could not move, the water far too strong, my air supply starting to dwindle; no one knowing where I was and no way to call for help. I started to panic and honestly believed I would die right there.

    It’s difficult to explain, perhaps it’s our primal nature to survive, helped considerably by the training I received in the Fire Service, but I managed to calm myself enough to formulate a plan. It would be my only chance to survive. Feeling objects hitting me, then the tree trunk before swirling past and getting kicked down stream, I began to roll, much like a carpet being rolled, away from the trunk and towards the crown of the tree. It was the only way I could move. Eventually, I got to the thinner branches; kept rolling, until the force of the water ejected me away from the tree and downstream.

    I have been in perilous conditions in house fires and commercial structures, but far and away, the closest brush with death was underwater that day early on in my career. A lesson I never forgot and used throughout my career.

    Fiona - 
    Ach! A nightmare.

    These photos are from a different water rescue scene:

    If you want to know more about SCUBA search go HERE

    So as we end our interview - you can stay in touch with Michael  -

    And please take ten seconds and go support his book HERE if he gets chosen for a contact you get the prize.

    Thank you, ThrillWriters, for stopping by. If you like my blog, you'll LOVE my books. Give one a try today! And thank you for your support.

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  • The Slammer: Incarceration 101 for Writers

    English: A view of the door to a maximum secur...
    " (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    You have your character in the lock-up - but is it the right facility?

    Jail is not synonymous with prison.


    • not yet convicted by a court
    • convicted of a misdemeanor (less than a year of incarceration)
    • convicted of a felony (more than one year of incarceration) but there isn't a free bed available in the prison system, so they are waiting their turn for a prison bed.
    • typically operated by a sheriff.
    • Because these are usually small facilities, there is often an overcrowding issue (picture 2-3x the number of inmates than was intended)
    • Jails often do not provide the same level of medical attention available to inmates in prison. Most jails have a nurse on duty, others have equipped medical care including dentistry.
    • These facilities are often in quite bad repair and filthy with bodily fluids and feces on the ground and no easy access to cleaning supplies.
    • Programming is typically minimal. Local churches provide religious services and groups such a AA and NA provide services as well.

    Regional jail - when in rural areas where small towns cannot afford to maintain
           their own jail house, they will cooperate with nearby townships to have a
           multi-jurisdictional jail.

    State Prison 

    • Inmates have broken state law.
    • Are run by the individual states and include:
      • juvenile
      • low security
      • medium security
      • maximum security
    • State prisons are either male prisons or female prisons

    Federal Prison 

    • Holds prisoners who have been convicted of a federal offence(s). A federal offence breaks a United States law. These include such crimes as terrorism, extortion, embezzlement, and bank fraud.
    • The prisoners are serving mandatory times. There is a range within the guidelines. After the prisoner is convicted by a jury, then the judge decides that sentence.
    • All crimes that happen within the limits of DC may be seen as federal offences since DC does not belong to any state.
    • Overseen by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) 
    • Inmates are separated by levels of security 
    • Prison Camp (minimum)
      • prisons without fences
      • low risk prisoners
      • they have less than ten years to serve in their sentence
      • sometimes called "Club Feds" 
    • Low - (the following quotes are the definitions as found on http://www.bop.gov) "Low security Federal Correctional Institutions (FCIs) have double-fenced perimeters, mostly dormitory or cubicle housing, and strong work and program components. The staff-to-inmate ratio in these institutions is higher than in minimum security facilities."
    • Medium - "Medium security FCIs (and USPs designated to house medium security inmates) have strengthened perimeters (often double fences with electronic detection systems), mostly cell-type housing, a wide variety of work and treatment programs, an even higher staff-to-inmate ratio than low security FCIs, and even greater internal controls."
    • High - "High security institutions, also known as United States Penitentiaries (USPs), have highly secured perimeters (featuring walls or reinforced fences), multiple- and single-occupant cell housing, the highest staff-to-inmate ratio, and close control of inmate movement."
    • Complex - "At Federal Correctional Complexes (FCCs), institutions with different missions and security levels are located in close proximity to one another. FCCs increase efficiency through the sharing of services, enable staff to gain experience at institutions of many security levels, and enhance emergency preparedness by having additional resources within close proximity."
    • Administrative - "Administrative facilities are institutions with special missions, such as the detention of pretrial offenders; the treatment of inmates with serious or chronic medical problems; or the containment of extremely dangerous, violent, or escape-prone inmates. Administrative facilities include Metropolitan Correctional Centers (MCCs), Metropolitan Detention Centers (MDCs), Federal Detention Centers (FDCs), Federal Medical Centers (FMCs), the Federal Transfer Center (FTC), the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners (MCFP), and the Administrative-Maximum Security Penitentiary (ADX). Administrative facilities, except the ADX, are capable of holding inmates in all security categories." 
    • Supermax prisons (ADX):
      • were designed for the absolute worst offenders
      • prisoners are only allowed human contact during count time, meal time, shower time 
      • Shower time:
        • 20 minutes 
        • 2 -3 x a week 
        • hands and feet remain shackled
        • guarded by at least two guards 
        • Shaving happens about once a week
      • no work assignment
      • mail is heavily censored
      • They are in a cell by themselves behind a steel door for their entire term for 23 hours a day. 
      • They get 1 hour of recreation - this is a done in a cage.
      • video study 

    • Federal timeline US prisoners
      Federal timeline US prisoners (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    In both state and federal prisons

    • Guns are not typically allowed inside the prison and are only held by officers in the caged turrets.
    • Programs are available such as educational programs.
    • Exercise often does not allow for weightlifting or martial arts practice to protect the corrections officers.
    • New arrivals are kept separate from other prisoners until they are taught the rules and what they can expect out of prison life.
    • Inmates are given a classification that takes into consideration length of sentence, education, probability of flight, psychological status, and medical issues (criteria differs from institution to institution). The prison keeps similar classifications together.
    • The offender will be sent to the facility that is near the place where the crime took place. In the case of federal offenders, they can be sent to any of the federal prison. This may mean far from family and friends. An effort is made to keep the prisoner within 500 miles of their families.

    Corrections officers (COs) run the jails and prisons.

    • high job turn-over rate
    • usually less training than police officers. Their operations are paramilitary so their training is training mimics a boot camp structure. Training includes among other aspects:
      • handcuffing and restraints
      • riot squad
      • defensive tactics
      • weapons including pepper spray, batons, tasers, firearms 
      • prisoner supervision
      • securing a crime scene and collecting evidence
      • drug training (identification and spotting its use)

    related blog article - Locked up

    Thanks to all of you ThrillWriters for stopping by. If you like my blog, you'll love my books! Give one a try today.

    Police Procedure and Investigation - Lee Lofland
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  • Nature V. Nurture in Your Characters: Info for Writers

    Nature V. Nurture is an interesting philosophical/psychological debate that  has a great deal of import to the story lines that we are creating. Indeed, it is one of the themes that I am exploring in my new Lynx series, starting with Book One ~ Weakest Lynx.  

    Buy It Now

    In Weakest Lynx

    What Lexi wants is a simple life. What she gets is simply terrifying.

    Lexi Sobado is a 20-year-old experienced intelligence consultant with a special psychic gift. However, her gift couldn’t prevent her from becoming the focus of a stalker’s desires. With a death threat shoved in her purse, she finds herself caught in the middle of a sinister web of crime and corruption.

    Striker Rheas, a seasoned special agent, is charged with keeping Lexi safe. But can he keep his personal life separate from his professional life as he finds himself falling for his assignment?

    What Lexi hides, what she reveals, and what she keeps trying to uncover is a delicate balancing act as she tries to save her own life and stop the killer. Can Lexi learn to love, trust, and harness the power of her psychic flashes before it’s too late?


    In Lexi Sobado I have crafted a golden girl. You all know at least one of these - the girl at your highschool who was a track star, an honor student, and the Homecoming Queen? But Lexi doesn't see herself as a standout amongst genetic award winners or even among those pushed and prodded by life's circumstances onto the awards' podium. She  never got to show off on a public stage to get that kind of feedback. She thinks her skillsets are nothing special just different.

    Lexi's parents kept her home to unschool her. Unschooling is like homeschool only less organized. Practically minded, her parents gave her a hands-on, real-world, useful education. She learned applied sciences from her dad, a mechanic, and creative expression from her mom, an artist. She also learned from her neighbors - anyone and everyone who had a skillset to teach her from martial arts by Master Wang at the dry cleaner to the locksmith across the way at the stripmall. Hairdressers, homemakers, primate zoologists are all part of the myriad  teachers who moved in and out of Lexi's life. Amongst them, Lexi's most beloved mentor was Spyder McGraw who trained her brain and her reflexes to follow her career goal of becoming a modern day Kung Fu Nancy Drew.

    But here's the question - did Lexi's personal curiosity, drive, and acumen shape whom she became or was it her unusual background?

    That's sort of like "which came first, the chicken or the egg?"
    A person with low IQ and slow metabolism  would find Lexi's frenetic lifestyle impossible. A person who wasn't taught meditation and other stress management skills would have a hard time coping with the shit that kept hitting the fan in Lexi's life.

    Obviously, the more we think about how our characters arrived at the people they are at the moment the story opens, the more three dimensional, believable, and interesting they will be for our readers. Think about your heroine.

    • What natural gifts was she born with?
    • Were they nurtured of left uncovered?
    • Did her life experience train her to overcome something she lacked in her genetic code?
    • What was her emotional state based on nurture?
      • How was she treated by the people in her life up until this point?
      • What would she expect of others in their reactions to her - the golden girl in high school may expect doors to open while the foster kid who changed schools every three or four months might expect all those doors to slam shut in her face.
      • What kinds of stresses had she endured?
      • Did her stress load teach her resilience? Or did it errode her ability to cope? 
    • What was her emotional state based on nature?
      • Gregarious?
      • Combative?
      • Assertive?
    • What was her emotional state based on her life's circumstances?
      • Was she taught to be demure and quiet?
      • Was she taught to fight for what she needs?
    • What are her physical capabilities?
      • Was she born with two-left feet?
      • Did her parents put her in every sports class they could find to help her develop stamina and coordination?
      • Is she more comfortable sitting on a couch and reading about/watching others in action?
      • Can she not sit still; does she always need to be in motion?
    • How does she interact with her environment?
      • Was she born a neat nick, feeling better able to cope when her environment isn't chaotic or does she prefer a lived-in look where she can feel more creative?
      • Did she develop OCD - an anxiety disorder - and need everything to be perfect?
      • Did she develop skillsets from a family who gave her chores? Or has she no clue how to do the basics because her mom preferred to do it herself or they had domestic help?
    • How does she interact with others?
      • Extravert?
      • Introvert?
      • Event dependent?
    • And what about the sixth sense?
      • Was your heroine born with the ability to read people? 
      • Does she get a "gut check" when things are going wrong?"
      • Was she trained to rely on data and weigh stats over using her intuition?
      • Where does she land on the spectrum of intuition and how is this augmented or downplayed by her spiritual background?
    These types of questions can continue as you sit down and think about your character. Knowing their innate propensity can be a starting point - but what happens when nature conflicts with nurture? 
    • The boy who wants to play the violin and read books is born into a family of diehard football fans.  
    • The girl who wants to run and climb trees born into the family that wants to raise a princess. 
    • The family who raised a doctor - but that doctor only wants to paint.
    Available for Pre-sale

    Nature V. Nurture can create wonderful external conflict especially in the deeper relationships and in dire circumstances.   But also think of a ll of that delicious inner conflict that roils in the gut when our characters are pushed and pulled by sometimes opposing forces. Conflict makes for fabulous prose. 

    Thanks to all of you ThrillWriters for stopping by. If you like my blog, you'll love my books! Give one a try today.

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  • Domestic Abuse and the Counselors Who Try to Help: Information for Writers with Donna Glaser

    Today I welcome to ThrillWriting Donna White Glaser. Donna is the author of The Letty Whittaker 12 Step Mystery series and the Blood Visions Paranormal Mystery series. She is a psychotherapist and lives northwestern Wisconsin. As if that weren’t enough, she and her husband own a residential construction company where it’s Donna’s job to deal with any overly emotional, what-do-you-mean-you-can’t-put-roof-trusses-up-in-a-thunderstorm? clients. Strangely enough, she often comes up with ideas for creative murders and hiding bodies during business hours. Currently she is at work on the fifth Letty Whittaker 12-Step Mystery, The Lies We Tell and is plotting the second in the Blood Visions series,  Scry Me A River.

    Fiona - 
    Would you please tell us a little more about your psychology background?

    Donna - 
    I'm a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) in WI. My degrees are BS in Psychology and MA in Human Relations, and I've been working in the mental health field for thirty years. Much of that time has been working with children and adolescents. 

    Early on, I worked in residential treatment centers with kids who had been removed from their homes and foster homes for severe neglect and abuse. Those that were placed in the RTC after their own behaviors had gotten dangerous, either to themselves or to others. 

    Domestic violence is so horrific because it happens in families, the place where we should feel safest. Not surprisingly, the children who are trapped in these situations react with what they see and experience.

    I shifted out of working in RTCs after marrying and getting pregnant with my first child. The kids' stories and the intensity of treatment grew too close when I had my own babies, so it was time for me to step back and let others carry that particular burden.

    That's also when I began to write. Prior to leaving that field, I think my energies were too focused on pouring into others for me to have any leftover for creative purposes. I did stay working as a therapist, though when my kids were young I kept it part-time. I worked (and still do) with outpatient clients, both adults and children. 

    Five years ago, I was hired by an agency that does Children and Adolescent Day-treatment, so I was back working with kids again. In CADT programs, kids remain in their homes, but come to daily treatment during school hours. The particular program I work for is only a half-day program, so the kids head back to school when they're done with our group. During the time they're with us, we provide group therapy and help them deal with traumas and issues that are overwhelming them. Many come from homes where domestic violence is, or has been, common.

    Fiona - 

    If writers want to see the influence of your work with domestic abuse in literature they can read some of your early stories. Can you tell us a bit about those works?

    Donna - 
    Description for my first series, the Letty Whittaker 12-Step Mysteries: Letty is a psychotherapist, a recovering alcoholic, and a bit of a smartass. The themes in the series are loosely connected with Letty's journey through her own 12 Step program as well as the tough issues she faces in her own career. In the first book, The Enemy We Know, Letty is attacked by the boyfriend of one of her clients after Carrie leaves their abusive relationship. When Wayne (the boyfriend) can't take his anger out on his usual target, he turns his focus to the person he blames for Carrie's escape. 

    The second book in this series also focuses on domestic violence. It's set in a women's shelter where Letty uncovers the fact that several women have been murdered or gone missing over the last several years.

    Fiona - 
    Let's start with a definition. What is considered abusive by a mental health professional?

    Donna - 
    I can't answer what is abusive by law. I know there have been many times when I've reported what I felt was abuse to CPS (Child Protective Services), and they've labeled the situation "unfounded." Unfortunately, it's a lot like the old "porn" definition: it it looks like porn to you, it is. But that's so hard to make objective. 

    In a therapeutic setting, I let the client decide what is abusive in the context of their lives. As far as reporting goes, as a mandated reporter, I have to report instances where physical or sexual abuses of certain population types, eg. minors, the elderly, mentally ill. Neglect is also reportable, but emotional abuse isn't.

    Fiona - 

    When folks think about abuse they often imagine bruising and broken bones but abuse also includes

    • emotional abuse
    • physical abuse
    • sexual abuse
    • medical abuse
    • neglect

    Abuse happens at all levels of education and socio-economic situation, what kinds of personalities and what kinds of triggers might begin the cycle of abuse?

    Donna - 
    You're so right about the generalization of abuse. It's not confined to any one demographic or victim personality type. That's because the abuse starts with the abuser. I know that sounds stupid but what I mean is that there is nothing about the victim that triggers the abuse to start. It's all about the abuser, and is born out of inflated insecurities which spawn the need to control. As an example, I've noticed that when a person, any person, is feeling out of control in some (or several) areas of their life, they often turn to another area and overcompensate. For instance when my work as a therapist starts to feel overwhelming, I come home and plot murders. I can control what happens in my books. I can decide every little piece and interaction in my characters. On a much larger and significantly more horrific scale, abusers follow the same pattern. They feel out of control, or less than, in some area--usually public--and they turn to something they can control to compensate.

    Fiona - 
    And the victim's are frequently not people that we would think could ever become victims. Can you tell us a little about victim cycles and how things escalate?

    Donna - 
    You're right that victims are often people we would least expect. That's because we have a preconception of the kind of person we think would become victims. Maybe that's because we'd like to think we are safe from falling into that trap. But we aren't. 
    Most of the women (and some men) that I've seen are strong, capable personalities. Ones that lead and make decisions in their jobs. I think sometimes it's their very strength that leads to the entrapment. Knowing and believing in her own strength, the victim

    1. has a difficult time seeing herself as such
    2. believes that her very strength can "make a difference" in the abuser's life. Her love will be strong enough to weather this storm. Compassion is also another trait that victims have in plenty. They want to help and they want to be the ones to heal their partner's wounds.

    Regarding how things escalate: 

    • THE TEST - an abuser starts with a test. Usually a threat, but a real one. Maybe he'll bring a gun home one day, or maybe it'll be a push or a drawn back fist. Some action that will test how his partner will (or won't) react. And then he'll apologize, often quite sincerely, for losing his temper while at the same time casting whatever he did as his partner's fault. He's sorry, but she shouldn't have. . .whatever.
    • ISOLATION - is key too, and happens at about the same time. Isolation can be physical--maybe a move to a location where the partner doesn't know anybody, maybe he'll encourage her to quit her job. Or it could be emotional. He makes her choose between him or her friends/family. He makes it an issue of loyalty and often couches it as an action that will help heal him and prove her love.

    The actual triggers, once that prep work has been put in place, can really be anything that adds stress to the abuser. Life. Whatever. His job isn't going well. Financial burdens. Relationship conflicts in other areas. Anything really.

    Fiona - 
    Upon the initial threat - the test -can you give me three responses? 

    1. A counter move on the would be victims part that would curtail further abuse. 
    2. A neutral act that would lead to a second test 
    3. A response which would solidify the abusers new role. These are simply examples - obviously each situation is unique.

    Donna - 

    1. The most effective counter move would be for the partner to leave the relationship. From what I've read, most of the women who've been abused state that there were clear signs and situations prior to getting married. Just leave. We're taught that true love forgives all, but it doesn't have to. 
    2. A neutral act would be one where the potential victim sets a boundary. One that she thinks will clarify acceptable and unacceptable behavior to her partner. Unfortunately, in the world of human interactions, words mean less than actions, and the action taken was, in this case, inaction. He might exert more self-control, which will extend the time between the threat and the next, but if a man is going to be an abuser he's going to abuse eventually. 
    3. A response that would solidify the cycle would be if the woman accepts responsibility for being the trigger and, in turn, apologizes for causing it.

    I also want to stress that while I'm using he = abuser and she= victim, that's definitely not always the case. Especially in terms of emotional abuse. The same patterns apply there and in those situations I've seen a 50/50 ratio of men victims as women.

    Fiona - 

    That's an interesting plot twist.

    There are also people who are abusive by nature, and they are looking for victims. Can you talk about some warning signs that -- let's put this in the context of a male looking for a female victim to -- a woman could be aware of. And what kinds of traits might an (psychopath, sociopath, narcissistic) abuser be seeking out in a mate.

    Donna - 
    If we're shifting to the more extreme personality disorder of an Antisocial Personality (psychopathy,) then he would probably be looking for a malleable, gullible person. 

    APDs (antisocial personality disorder) don't feel love, but they are often charming and have learned what people, in this case, a woman, wants to hear. They'll use manipulation before aggression, because over-aggression might make the woman leave. 

    If an APD marries, there is going to be an ulterior benefit for him. He might recognize that being married is a kind of screen for him; maybe he gains access to money or her kids, if he's a pedophile.

    It's difficult to say what to look for in order to avoid an APD, because they often are highly skilled in getting what they want. They're conmen, and they're usually very good at it. Unless they're dumb, and then they get caught and put in jail. The very, very smart ones go into politics.

    Fiona - 
    So we are nearing the end of our interview - what did you think I'd ask/want me to ask you about this subject in terms of what a writer needs to bare in  mind when writing this kind of plot line?

    Donna - 
    One thing I wanted to point out is the #1 question so many people ask about or to the victim: Why do they stay? 

    • They stay, not because they are weak, but because they are strong and compassionate and those very qualities work against their instincts to flee. 
    • They stay because they've been isolated and cut off from resources. 
    • They stay because they've been told that nobody else will have them and nobody else understands what they really are and nobody else will believe them. 
    • They stay because they've been isolated financially or because they have kids together and he's a good father (sometimes). 
    • They stay because they know the most dangerous, unpredictable period for them to be serious hurt or killed is after they finally do leave. Leaving is necessary. It's ESSENTIAL. But it's not easy.

    Fiona - 
    If an author has written a plot that includes abuse, and characters outside of the situation are becoming aware that there is an issue, what helpful response could the other character offer the victim?

    And what can a victim do to get out especially when they're leaving has been threatened with retribution?

    Donna -
    If you see someone in the situation, encourage her to leave and don't judge her when she is afraid to. Try not to be frustrated when she goes back and forth in her decision or when she gives you the excuses for him that she tells herself.

    For the victim? 

    • Tell everyone. Get out and tell everyone. 
    • Tell the police 
    • Tell your friends and family 
    • Tell your coworkers. 
    • Be alert and aware of self-protection strategies and do what you have to do, including move, to keep yourself safe. 
    • If you need to find a safe place like a women's shelter for a while, do it. As heartless as this sounds, feeling ashamed won't kill you, but the abuser might. It's awful, but it's not fatal and it will get better.
    Fiona - 
    Awesome! Thank you.

    You have a book up on Kindle Scout - Folks if you go over and vote, and Donna is offered a contract, you will get the book for FREE a week before anyone else gets to a chance to see it. That's a no-brainer win-win situation!

    Donna, can you tell us about the story - I think it's so intriguing.

    Donna - 
    A SCRYING SHAME Book One in the Blood Visions Paranormal Mystery series. Following a near death experience, twenty-five-year old Arie Stiles decides she might as well take the job nobody else wants: a crime scene clean-up technician. It’s good money, which she could use, and death doesn’t hold a lot of mystery for her. Or so she thinks. Arie isn’t on the job long before discovering she’s been “gifted” with a new psychic talent—the ability to scry. Whether she wants to or not, Arie can read the memories of the dead in their blood. When she is assigned to clean the crime scene of Marissa Mason, the socialite author of the best-selling gold-diggers' bible, Rich Bitch, Arie finds herself haunted by blood visions day and night, and to her shock discovers an unexpected family connection to the victim. With her brother suffering the unwanted attention of the police as the primary suspect, can Arie face her fear of the blood visions long enough to follow the trail of clues left in the murdered woman's memories and find the real culprit?

    VOTE NOW - and (hopefully!) GET A FREE COPY

    Fiona - 

    And now for our traditional ThrillWriting tell all :)
    Can you tell us one of your harrowing stories?

    Donna - 

    The first one that pops to mind was when I was still in college and I started working at a residential treatment center for developmentally disabled adults. I filled in as a substitute at the school. Most of the classes were designed to teach life and work skills--some as basic as sorting buttons to learn counting, colors, and differences in size. At the other end of the spectrum, was the wood shop. Residents there were quite skilled and made craft items like lawn ornaments and birdhouses, which were sold at fundraisers. The men and women who worked in the shop were quite proud of their independence and enjoyed having a real job.

    For some unknown reason, I started subbing in the wood shop, despite the fact that I knew nothing about wood-working or tools. Or anything, really. But ignorance is bliss and I was making good change so I toddled happily along. The shop was a cavernous room filled with bandsaws, routers, drills, and various other tools that made a lot of noise and had the potential to slice off important body parts. Which, as far as I'm concerned, is every body part. The room housed three different classes-nearly forty people, teachers included.

    The plus side was there were two other teachers to help me figure things out, although their interactions with me started out fairly crabby because they were essentially doing my job since I was so CLUELESS. But I was all they had. Eventually, when they saw I was going to stick around, they lightened up a bit and gave me some tips about how to run the class. I kept my students away from the scarier tools and we stuck to sanding and painting wooden tulips in messy but cheerful colors. And I got to know several of the residents, especially a very dapper middle-aged man named Ernie who wore a faded plastic rose in his lapel and called me "mama."

    Things were going well.

    Until, that is, the school administration decided to prohibit smoking. Keep in mind, this was twenty-five years ago, so smoke-free environments weren't as much of a given as they now are. A further complication was that the residents were adults. Working adults, as they saw it, and they wanted their cigarettes.

    Oh, my.

    The announcement was made in the morning and it caused a stunned silence in the shop. For about four-point-two seconds, anyway. Then the dam broke and a steadily building roar of consternation and anger began to rise. The other teachers promised to find out what was going on and we split the classes up and set everybody to work. A few protesters had trouble moving on, but the majority, although still frowning and sullen-looking, got to work on the day's chores. After a while, things seemed to settle back into a routine of sorts. But the air felt tense and brittle.

    At first break, the resentment rebounded. The smokers were used to having a cigarette or two on their breaks, and the fact that they couldn't was brought back to them. The wood shop seemed divided into two camps: the angry and the anxious. I was firmly in the second camp. Things were not looking good. But the other teachers stayed calm and professional, and kept the groups moving through their schedules.

    And then, lunch time. Nicotine withdrawal and the indignation of trampled rights combined into an unholy cataclysmic event. They rioted. And, by riot, I mean, the adult residents started chucking two-by-fours and Sawzalls and metal stools. Open cans of tulip paint sailed through the air, leaving streamers of red and blue and yellow in their wake. I grabbed several pacifists who were frozen in fear and shoved them under the work tables. I dove behind the lumber racks. This, I decided, was going to be my new home.

    Except from across the woodshop I heard, "Mama! Mama!"

    "Ernie? Ernie, get down!"



    I started crawling. When I got to Ernie, he was standing fully upright in the chaos, clutching his fingers and sobbing as hammers and birdhouses whizzed past his ears. I hauled him down beside me and dragged him under a table where we shivered and cried together for a while. Eventually, the police and several teachers from other classes showed up and restored order. When they finally found Ernie and myself, he was drawing pictures of kitties in the sawdust and I was curled in the fetal position sucking my thumb. (Actually it was the other way around, but I promised him I wouldn't tell.)

    Over the years, I've been involved in many other precarious situations, but this one helps keeps things in perspective. Having survived the Cigarette Wars, everything else is cake.

    Fiona - 
    Donna would love to hear from you via her website at  www.donnawhiteglaser.com  or on Twitter: @readdonnaglaser.

    Thanks so much, Donna.

    And thanks to all of you ThrillWriters. If you like my blog, you'll love my books! Give one a try today.
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