• Sword Play: Information for Writers with Eric Gates

    Eric Gates
    After several readers tweeted me requests this week for information on swords, I turned to Eric Gates.

    Eric J. Gates has had a curious life filled with the stuff of thriller novels. Writing Operating Systems for Supercomputers, cracking cryptographic codes under extreme pressure using only paper and pen and teaching cyberwarfare to spies are just a few of the moments he’s willing to recall. He is an ex-International Consultant who has travelled extensively worldwide, speaks several languages, and has had articles and papers published in technical magazines in six different countries, as well as radio and TV spots. His specialty, Information Technology Security, has brought him into contact with the Military and Intelligence communities on numerous occasions.

    He is also an expert martial artist, holding 14 black belt degrees in distinct disciplines. He has taught his skills to Police and Military personnel, as well as to the public.

    He now writes thriller novels, drawing on his experiences with the confidential and secret worlds that surround us. 

    Fiona - 
    Welcome, Eric. As a martial artist of (WOW!) fourteen different black belt disciplines, swordsmanship is part and parcel of your training. Does it make a big difference about style issues in how a sword is used? Or is a sword a sword and every culture manipulates the weapon in the same way?

    Eric - 

    Good question. There are many similarities in using a sword and many differences too, that vary according to the styles and characteristics of the weapons.

    In Japanese swordsmanship, a Daito (long sword) can be used one-handed (Kiritsuke) or with both hands (Kiri). In the case of a two-handed grip, each hand has a distinct and separate role. 
    • The right hand, behind the guard, is used to guide the blade on its journey. 
    • The left is used, with a pulling action, to impart power. 
    • Both hands are used, by twisting the wrists in opposite directions without slackening the grip, to stop the blade’s motion. 
    • The space between the hands is used to help create a ‘lever’-like action to impart speed to the tip.

    As with all swords, the cuts are delivered not with the arms and shoulders (sorry Arnie) but with the lower part of the body (hips and legs). This was why in Japan the wearing of Hakama (the baggy pants) helped cover the feet and thus hid any clue as to how you were going to strike.

    In fighting with a sword, not just the edge of the blade is used. 
    • Strikes to the opponent’s hands, arms, body and weapons using the guard and the handle, even the back (non-sharp) part of the blade are employed. 
    • The use of other objects, from parrying weapons to throwing weapons (to blind or distract opponents – shuriken [throwing blade] in Japan) were common too. As is the use of ‘unarmed’ combat techniques (Japanese: Aikijutsu) to unbalance, even throw the opponent, or capture their weapon and disarm them. 

    Most sword fighting, from Scottish Claymore, English Broadsword, Arabian Scimitar, Chinese Jian, to Japanese katana use the body's movements as the means to deliver the strikes, especially the lower body. 


    The Samurai (which means ‘one who serves’) would be given his swords by the Daimyo or Feudal Lord. The two swords are known together as a Daisho and consist of:
    • Daito (the long sword, commonly referred to as a katana in the West) 
    • and the Shoto (shorter, one-handed sword). 
    • In turn these may be completed by a dagger or Tanto, often used to finish off the opponent on the battlefield by slipping its blade under the neckpiece of their armour once they are on the ground. 
    All three are worn in the belt (Obi) in such a way they can been individually drawn without getting in the way of each other. In the Nito (or two-sword) Style  both the short and long katana blades are used together, the right hand using the Daito and the left the Shoto, and both can be drawn simultaneously by someone trained in these styles.

    Fiona - 
    Do you think that a Japanese sword could find its way into a piece of modern literature? Or do you think it's best left to a different time period?

    Eric - 
    Japanese swords have been used in modern literature - the one that immediately comes to mind is Eric Van Lustbader's 'Ninja' books. Set in the present but involving a lot of ancient Japanese weapons, not just swords. 

    Historically, Japanese swords found their way over to China and to Europe, and more recently, many American soldiers brought them home after WWII. So it's not completely impossible that they could appear. In Movies we have the Highlander series, the Bob Mitchum film Yakuza and of course Michael Douglas in Black Rain.

    Fiona -
    Who would carry such a weapon and what would their minimal training/background be (unless they were a wannabe psycho who bought a sword off E-bay?)

    Eric - 
    Many wannabes out there! Also many bad (i.e. dangerous) swords. Over here in Spain, there's a huge industry in Toledo dedicated to making replica swords - both of real weapons from history, and the sort that turn up on GOT or Lord of the Rings. Anyone can buy them, but most are useless as anything other than wall-hangers - they are made from poured metal (hopefully, but not always steel) using molds. 

    It takes a good year to learn the basics of how to use a sword - and I do mean basics. Otherwise the probability of injuring yourself or others is very high.

    Fiona - 
    The sword is an intimate weapon. And by that I mean there are ways to wound someone hands-off, guns being the prime example. What kind of personality might gravitate to the use of a sword as their weapon of choice. It's so different than a knife - convenient, small, close proximity battle while a sword is a dance really - arms length, full body...

    Eric - 
    Yes, I agree. Swords are an intimate weapon. Anyone can shoot a gun (apologies, milady) but just to make a basic strike with a sword means learning a skill that involves both mental and physical expertise. To then face an opponent, similarly armed, requires understanding strategy, tactics, body language, internal energies, terrain managment and being better with your sword than they are with theirs. Above all it require two things: patience and absolute relaxation in your body and mind. Someone who impulse-bought a sword on EBay doesn't seem to fit the bill.

    Fiona -
    When you read a sword scene in a book, what makes you roll your eyes and skim forward? (I'm thinking things that defy physics and anatomy here)

    Eric - 
    Two basic areas: all this nonsense about swords being imbued with magical properties when they are made because they are dipped in human blood (which would cause a hot piece of steel to warp and break instantly) etc. No, all they ever used was water (salted usually) or oil. Second issue is really a multiple. All the nonsense people repeat because they've seen it in a movie. I’d like to highlight five common mistakes regarding swords that Hollywood especially has propagated throughout the years:
    1. When placed on a display rack, the Japanese katana swords should never be simulating a smile, rather a grimace (i.e. a bump in the middle). I see this constantly in movie & TV. The reason is simply you do not want the wood on the inside of the scabbard (saya) in contact with the cutting edge when in storage. 
    2. You can always tell when a non-Japanese has trained an actor in wielding a katana – both hands will be gripping the sword handle (Tsuka) together. A Daito (the long sword) is gripped with the right hand behind the guard (Tsuba) and the left at the end of the handle. The space between allows for greater control and leverage during the strikes. In fact, the left-hand little finger and heart finger are the most important in gripping the sword (which may be why the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia, so fond of carrying katana, have to chop off the tip of their little finger in penance if they screw up something – this would make using a sword efficiently extremely difficult and result in the decline of their importance in the organization). Usually when I see this, the instructors for the movie/TV show are Chinese as this manner of gripping the two-handed sword is Chinese, not Japanese, in origin. 
    3. A mistake made often by fantasy writers: in a battle scenario, the kind of sword you want to have is one which can slash and hack. The ‘coolness’ of a rapier-like blade is offset by its impracticality in this kind of situation as superficial cuts and stabbing don’t get the job done. This kind of weapon was employed for one-on-one duelling (especially in France) and is just not suitable (even for small girls, sorry GOT fans) as they are easy to break when they go up against a more solid blade. Incidentally, this is probably why certain writers imbue their dainty weapons with ‘magical’ properties. 
    4. Remember that scene in Kill Bill 2 in the trailer - just wouldn't happen. Anyone with a minimum of training can draw a sword within the width of their body, flip it around so the pointy bit is aimed at the opponent and strike... and do it quickly. Plenty of room to swordfight in a trailer - could this be a new sport? 
    5. Another fallacy - sword weights and the huge, bulked up people that many would believe are needed to use them. Most swords, worldwide and throughout history were between 1 and 2 kilos. Those big battle broadswords used in the middle ages rarely exceeded 4 kilos. You need to remember that moving something of a certain weight at a speed that would allow kinetic energy to help do some damage will tire you out even if you look like Schwarzenegger. (Incidentally, when he was filming Conan in Cuenca in Spain, he trained with a Japanese friend of mine at the Japanese Cultural Centre in Madrid - they didn't get on, to say the least - Arnie wanted a lot of twirling and stuff - useless - and the swordmaster wanted to teach classic swordfighting - Arnie left after a couple of weeks.)

    Fiona - 
    LOL - why does that not surprise me about Arnold? I love the phrase "terrain management" - I'm assuming this means you don't trip over the brambles in the pathway?

    Eric -
    Terrain management refers to the place where you fight. You see many movie fights staged on flat areas with no obstacles. That doesn't happen. The footing could be icy, sandy, rocky, uneven, a mountain track 
    with a drop-off, a small room...You have to know how to use the environment to your advantage,  and to the opponents' disadvantage as well  

    After searching old backup copies of stuff on DVDs I came across the attached pic. It shows several interesting aspects of TM. The technique we did took place on the edge of a small wood on a very sunny day, relatively early in the morning - hence the dappled lighting effect. 
    Now depending on where you were standing, your form and movements were diffused by this - instant camouflage as the human eye tries to adjust to the sharp localised differences in light.

    I used this by applying an Aikijutsu technique which spun the other guy around so his face was pointed into the sunlight. I then applied pressure to his knees with my own, taking advantage of the slope of the hill and loose dirt underfoot, to make him lose his balance. Capturing his left elbow and steering it using the grip of my own sword, resulted in the point of his weapon piercing the earth, thus reducing its threat level to me. Finally, I moved in for the 'kill' cut with a reverse forward grip on my own Daito.

    Fiona - 
    So very interesting.
    Thank you so much.
    Learning in a Do jang. I often thought we should be training in real life situations. And real life clothing. I think that's a big hole in MA training.

    Eric - 
    The gear we wear for sword training, from the tabi shoes through the Hakama pants and wide-sleeved jackets, is exactly what was worn by the samurai when not using armour. The latter, even replica, is far too expensive for training purposes, so it's as good as it gets. 

    When I teach self-defence, we do train with street clothing though, and common improvised weapons. That's the basic difference between (using the Japanese terminology) a -do (such as Karate-do, Ju-do, Aiki-do etc) and a -jutsu. It's not just about the former being focused on competition (even if it's just about doing a better Kata than the rest); it's a state of mind. 

    Modern clothing is not designed for fighting, so it makes an interesting element to take into consideration both negatively (what you can't do) and positively (what your opponents can't do) and exploiting the latter is half of the fun. 

    Also being able to fight inside vehicles, subways, aircraft, trains, and all the other places we take for granted in our lives is so different from what you learn on a tatami (for example, I learnt to roll out of throws on a marble floor - that way you get it right the first time or it hurts). The change in perspective is also remarkable: you see your world in a different way. That magazine on the table, the coaster under your drink, the coffee in your cup, the mug itself, the pencil in your pocket, the chair you're sitting on etc all become potential weapons...as long as you know how to use them. 

    And no, it's not about learning Jason Bourne-like techniques with a rolled-up newspaper; it's a mentality-shift, based solidly on science (physics, anatomy and math, mainly geometry) which can be taught and easily assimilated with a little practice. 

    My own approach is what I call the "toolbox method." There's no point learning specific techniques to counter predefined situations because the odds of that situation happening exactly as you practiced are pretty remote. So the trick is to have a stack of options available, easily combined amongst themselves, to respond. Just like the handyman who is faced with a repair - he may not have the precise tool he needs, but he does have the knowledge of what needs to be done and what the capabilities of his tools he has will allow. It's the Swiss Army Knife/MacGiver mentality at work; all about breaking mental boundaries. 

    Fiona - 
    Funnily enough, I unschooled my kids and their education is based on what I call my "Toolbox Philosophy." 

    I'm interested in the concept you mentioned  about being relaxed in mind and body. THAT is a task easier accomplished in a setting with a sparring partner - what does one do to prepare for a real battle with a vicious enemy? How does one learn to maintain or compartmentalize the adrenaline so that they can stay in their place of Zen quietude and perform at top level?

    Eric - 
    It's not Zen, as such. The Japanese call it  Mushin  (literally 'No Soul'). It's like a blank slate on which you are waiting for someone to write something. It is not easy to learn yet all competent fighters, of any discipline, usually have this. It frees your training and your body. Many 'arts' teach you to maintain a tense body position (Karate for example) yet any muscle group MUST relax before it can move a limb so tensing beforehand, then relaxing just wastes time. It's a dance, as you say. The more relaxed you are, the more you go with the music and integrate your movements with your partner/opponents then the better things will go for you. 

    Fiona - 
    What do you want us to know about the sword experience so we can translate it into our writing. By this, I'm really asking if you can share how it feels to you - the weight in your hand, the air whistling past the blade, what happens to your body when you are struck or conversely land a strike. This is a huge hard question.

    Eric -
    Okay, I'll give it a go: In combat, sword or otherwise, you strive to attain a state where you trust your training to keep you out of trouble. There's no time to think out a move, your body is being hammered with adrenaline too, as you say, which can play havoc with basic control. Then there's the amygdala and the fight or flight issue. If you choose to fight, you can give in to an adrenaline-fueled reaction (and become much easier to defeat). So maintaining calmness especially in your mind, and the body relaxed, opens the door to whatever you need.

    When fighting, you are not conscious of holding a weapon. If you have trained well, it has become an extension of your own body, like moving a hand or foot. You don't think, just do. That sounded very Yoda-like, didn't it - I'm even turning green - must be the adrenaline!

     After it's all over, then you notice the adrenaline and throw up!

    Adrenaline and heave definitely go together.

    Fiona - 
    Yes, my heroine from my Lynx series, Lexi, vomits a lot. Poor girl.

    What do you wish I had asked you today?

    Eric - 
    Best sword in the world? 
    This is a discussion that has been raging for, probably, centuries. Some say the Japanese katana blade, others those made from Toledo steel and yet others, the famous Damascus steel blades. For a combat sword to be outstanding, it needs to be both strong and flexible (did you know you can bend a good Daito blade sideways almost back on itself without it breaking), relatively lightweight and easy to maintain on the battlefield....

    And, why do I look so fat in that video?
    I have a habit of stuffing notebooks and coloured pens down the front of my training jacket to explain stuff in class - occasionally other weapons to throw etc. as a surprise for the students. What I had that day, I can't remember - probably as it was a Black Belt class, the notebook and pens.

    Fiona - 
    Before I ask the obligatory question about death-defying experiences, I wanted to tell folks that Eric's book won

    GoodReads BOOK of the MONTH February 2015


    Outsourced - 
    Outsourced’ features a New York-based writer of thriller novels who receives a mysterious package from a fan. That fan turns out to be a professional killer. That’s just the start of the writer’s problems; problems that escalate way beyond anything he could have imagined on the pages of his novels, as death and destruction follow rapidly.

    Just when matter cannot get any worse for the novelist, he learns a high-tech Intelligence agency has been tasked with obtaining the contents of the package too, and they will stop at nothing to achieve that goal. They have their own global agenda. The agent assigned to the task is out of her depth working on US soil and her methods are unsuited to a civilian environment. As pressure mounts for her to achieve results, she becomes more and more radical in her approach.

    And, if that’s not enough… the sender wants it back, and his methods are even more direct and violent! He believes the contents of the package were used to try to kill him and his aim is to recover them and exact his revenge on the writer.

    Fiona - 
    Were any  of your scars made with the tip of a sword?

    Eric - 
    Scars - yes I have a few but can't tell you where or how I got them, sorry, (none of them from a sword though.) I do have the one on my forehead from when I did a science experiment at age 4 - what's the hardest, my head or a ceramic tile? Guess which won?

    Harrowing experiences? Jumped between skyscrapers and got shot at on the same day when doing a security penetration test for a client... no more details available. Does that count? How about being scheduled to fly one morning, cancelling at the last minute due to clients' planning issue and aircraft falls from sky killing all aboard (I recently heard that it may have been a bomb with another passenger as the target).

    Fiona - 
    Yowza! Now here I am with the dilemma - if travelling with you, do I insist that we are side by side for my own protection? Or do I require my own car and separate hotels for my own protection? 

    Eric - thank you so much for such fabulous plotting fodder. So incredibly interesting. 

    If you'd like to stay in touch with Eric here are some handy links:

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

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  • Does Your Character Need to Access Her Past? Genealogical Searches for Writers with Juliette Godot

    Using a genealogical search as part of a plotline has always been a fascinating topic to me. Recently I met Juliette Godot on Twitter and asked if she'd mind letting me pick her thoughts a bit on the subject.

    Here's Juliette's genealogy story:

    Juliette - 
    I have a weird name that kids picked on and I hated it, so when I got older I wanted to do my genealogy to see if I was related to someone famous - LOL. I have been working on my family for about 10 years now and have over 35,000 names in my family tree. Some dating back to the 1400s. Two Saints, two witches, one guy who was beheaded for incest, and rumor has it, my Crispin ancestor was the Crispin that accompanied William the Conqueror in the 1066 Norman invasion of Britain. Silas Crispin, born 1655, the guy who negotiated the treaty with the Indians for William Penn in Penns Woods was my 7th generation grandfather.

    Anyway, after I found my link to France and entered people on my tree, I started getting messages from people in France who were very distantly related. Most of the time, we talk for a while, several times a week for a couple of months, and then we lose touch. So one day, I received a message from Francoise Cordier, a distant cousin who asked if I know about a particular person who was married in 1585. I knew the name, but nothing more, and I said "No, I'm in the US and the only information I get is on the computer, but if you find out anything, please let me know." I've said that dozens of times and I have never heard anything else.

    Well, a couple of weeks later Francoise emailed me that she couldn't find anything. I was not surprised. Once you get back that far, the records are very sparse. So for some reason, out of the blue, I said, "Well, then we can make it up and write a book." I was just joking, but it turns out that Francoise is a retired journalist who had always thought about writing a book! So we started bouncing ideas off each other. We both had different visions for the book and we each wrote our own versions, but the family is, of course the same.She self published hers - it's in French, called Les Demons du Pays de Salm, but since I wrote so much more, and had never written anything before, it took me much longer and I just now finished with mine.

    I had never met Francoise face-to-face until I traveled to France and she escorted my husband and I all around the old country of Salm, and showed us all the places mentioned in the book. Now we are great friends and talk via email at least once a week for about three years now, so there are many advantages in learning about your past - finding true friends.

    Fiona - 
    How fun is that?

    Now, if you were a character in a novel who decided to follow along your real-life experience, how would she begin?

    Juliette - 
    You start at the obvious beginning, ask everyone for as much information as you can get, then take it all with a grain of salt.
    Sometimes, people know what the family wants them to know and there are always skeletons in the closet that nobody knows about.

    It is the skeletons that make a good book, of course, you don't want everyone in the family to hate you either

    So I would go back far enough that nobody would be embarrassed by what you find. In my case, I went back to 1585.

    Fiona - 
    It sounds like an amazing way to twist a plot - especially when you said that there are things that a family edit in the retelling. Can you give us some examples?

    Juliette - 
    For example, in the past babies were born "premature" a lot. I don't know if that makes for a good book, though. I know the infant mortality rate was high in the past, but sometimes I wonder about every child dying... No proof there.

    A lot of times babies were given away or people pretended they
    actually had a baby later in life, when really, the child was their grandchild.

    I had one ancestor who was convicted of incestuous relationships. He was the mayor of the town. The paperwork I found said the women were paraded out of town and were not allowed to return. The mayor was beheaded

    So you have to wonder, was it a set up? or was he really a pedophile?

    So you could start from there and write the book either way because history does not tell you.

    Fiona - 
    Where would an intrepid heroine go to start culling through the genealogical data are there sites you suggest? And what kind of documentation can you find on these site?

    Juliette - 

    • Like I said, Start with your ancestors still alive. 
    • Most libraries have genealogical departments storing obituaries, that's where I went next, 
    • The local courthouse for census records.

    It took a while for me to finally get across the pond to France, and I actually got the information by luck.

    I knew my great grandfather worked at a glass factory and was a glacier in France, but my grandfather said he came from Nancy. There was no record of him in Nancy. I happened to get a hold of the employee roster from this closed glass plant. It turns out, someone from the plant  actually went to France and recruited glaciers, my great grandfather was one of them. On the roster, everyone was supposed to write their hometown. None of the men did, except my great-grandfather, and I found he was actually from Harbouey, not Nancy.

    Once I found relatives from Harbouey  , I joined geneanet.org which is based in France.

    For someone who is just starting out, I would say try all the free sites first.

    The biggest free site is familysearch.org, run by the Mormon church. You can find a lot of information there, but there are other free sites.

    usgenweb.org, findagrave.com, there are also many genealogy family pages on Facebook, so search there too.

    Fiona - 
    So it seems a real boots on the ground adventure and less Ancestry.com searching...which makes for a more intersting plot anyway.

    Are there rule for gaining access to public records?

    Juliette - 
    Well, Ancestry is expensive, about double what Geneanet costs. I would do as much free as I could first before spending money.

    Rules? Yes. Some churches may give out information but only 100 year old information, and they are not very accommodating.

    For me, I would have to drive to the diocese in Pittsburgh and look there because the local churches do not keep records.

    Libraries have old newspapers, but you almost have to know what day an event occurred to be able to find it.

    Europeans seem to be much more interested in their genealogy, at least that's what I have found. And since the records are over there for most of us, you really need to join a site over there to get the most information.

    I just happened to be adding people from someone else's tree and they had it in the notes about the incest.

    That's how I found out about my protagonist, too. One of my relatives over there asked me if I knew what had happened to her, and she told me.

    Fiona - 
    So can you list some records that would be available? I'll start: birth records, marriage, death certificates... what about medical records? school records...?

    Juliette - 
    I have never found any medical records, or school records. The census is a good place to get names, but once you get to the birthplace, unless you live there, it's hard to get records, though you can order them online and pay for someone to look them up for you.

    That's why I joined Geneanet. I am really only familiar with them because my ancestors are from France, which is where Geneanet is based.

    Though they have most of Western Europe in their database.

    Fiona - 
    You mentioned pay. If you were trying to do a thorough search of someone's history can you tell me about budgeting that - there is the European vacation ... but say here in the States, how much money would it take to do this?

    Juliette - 
    It depends on the era. If it is recent, you can find a lot of information at the library. They have archived newspapers, and obits. The courthouse has the census and deeds.

    Getting copies of birth certificates - from Geneanet, you used to be able to buy a pack of points and each record, depending upon how hard it was to find cost so many points.

    In total, besides my trip that was a great vacation, I probably don't have more than $500 in my whole tree.

    The first thing you need to buy is software. I have Family Tree Maker, but there are others. Don't try to just use excel or something, I tried because I'm cheap, but it was just too much of a headache. The software is worth the money.

    It is not an expensive hobby if you are willing to spend the time doing it. If you want to find people fast, then join Ancestry.com and pay.

    Here's another good free site.  http://www.cyndislist.com/
    More than 327,000 links! 325,000+ links, categorized & cross-referenced, in over 190 categories. Another 1790 uncategorized new links in the works.

    Fiona - 
    As a history major this kind of thing is fascinating to me - I think it could lead to all kinds of plots. 

    Juliette - 
    I had never even thought to write a book until I found my protagonist.

    Fiona - 
    Can you fill in a little about your protagonist?
    Which parts are factual which did you create in your imagination?

    Juliette - 
    Her death is historical fact. The time and place were very thoroughly researched. We know the politics of the area, the religious wars were going on.  We know what was going on all around them.

    Fiona - 
    Which era? What country?

    Juliette - 
    The country is Salm - It was swallowed up by Lorraine and then later, Lorraine was swallowed up by France, then Germany, then back to France, but the era of my book is when it was still Salm.

    Salm was a small country caught in between Lorraine - Catholic, France - Catholic, though Henry of Navarre was Protestant, and the Holy Roman Empire, Germanic - Protestant.
    This was during the Renaissance.

    The Protestants were making a lot of noise and upsetting the Catholics.

    Salm was actually Independent, which was another fascinating aspect of this era. It was run by 2 Counts, one Catholic, one Protestant.

    About the only place in the area where you weren't persecuted because of your religion.

    This is when Mary Queen of Scots was in jail, Elizabeth was Queen of England, and Henry of Navarre was King of France.

    I didn't know any of this before we started researching, but it really made for an interesting backdrop.

    Fiona - 

    Juliette -
    So I think in order to write a historical, you really have to look in to the politics of the day.

    When a character looks at her tree, though, she doesn't really need something horrific.

    Sometimes, there were entire families – 10 kids, and none of them lived.  Were they just unlucky, sickly or something, or maybe something more sinister?

    If you go back far enough not to offend anyone, you could use your imagination.

    If you know the history of the era, you could probably find out if there was an influenza outbreak or something like that could have wiped out the family, or could it have been a wild animal, roving bands of thieves, maybe a crazy person randomly murdering people.

    Fiona - 
    I always thought it would be cool to go to Ellis Island and see my ancestors' names in the books.

    Juliette - 
    Yes, actually, Ellis Island has a free site. They ask for donations.

    I've never gone there, but I do have a copy of the ships registry where one grandmother and her 6 kids names' are listed.

    Fiona - 
    Looking into the past does seeing these records of times and people past ever just -- I don't know make you feel very mortal and wonder what future generations will find when they look you up?

    I'm wondering about  the character reactions to seeing their records.

    Juliette - 
    Well, they certainly will have more to read than in the past.

    Most of the people in times gone by could not read or write so it was up to the church to keep the records.

    History is always written by the winners, too, so you never know how accurate it really is.

    Fiona - 
    A thrillWriting traditional question is - would you share a scar story or your favorite harrowing story?

    Juliette - 
    I don't really have any scars, and I've never been in any harrowing situations.

    We did have a funny experience in France.

    After we left Francoise, we spent a couple days in Paris. We wanted to do everything French, including eating Frog Legs. So one day we were going down to the subway and an older gentleman stopped us and said the train was not working and they had told him it would be at least half an hour. The man was very kind and we started talking to him about our trip. I mentioned that I wanted to eat Frog Legs and he said to come with him, he was on his way back to work and we would get off at his bus stop where we could get the Frog Legs. So we followed him on the bus. We rode for a very long time - I started getting nervous. I didn't know this guy at all. Where was he taking us? So finally we got off the bus and he pointed down the street at a very small shop and said we could get our Fried Eggs (!) down there... LOL! Fried Eggs! We had no idea where we were, we didn't speak French and he just smiled and waved and left, so there we were. We walked around a bit before we found a restaurant - they didn't have Frog Legs, I don't know if they had Fried Eggs :-). I got Lapin (Rabbit) it was very good, and luckily we found someone who spoke English who pointed us to the subway, and we were able to find our way back.

    To stay in touch with Juliette she is

    @juliettegodot on Twitter

    Her my website is juliettegodot.com,

    Her facebook is https://www.facebook.com/pages/Juliette-Godot

    Thank you to Juliette for sharing your expertise and his willingness to help. 

    As always, thank you so much for stopping by. If you like my blog, you'll love my books! Give one a try today.

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  • I am NOT Hostile (I'm just adverse): Trial Witness info for Writers with John Higgins, Esq.

    A few of you have written to me asking for an article that explains what a hostile witness is. ThrillWriting friend, John Higgins, has kindly stepped in to illuminate this for us.

    John spent 26 years in government, the last 15 years as a Deputy Attorney General and statewide prosecutor. John prosecuted cases in 19 of New Jersey's 21 counties, from simple assault to homicides including writing the plea agreement for the serial killer nurse Charles Cullen. (Information about Cullen HERE) 

    Fiona - 
    John, welcome and thank you for coming. We've all heard about hostile witnesses on the stand, but I'm assuming this isn't referring to their in-the-moment demeanor. Can you explain how and why a witness would be addressed with that adjective?

    John - 
    Well actually, it can be in-the-moment demeanor. Depending on the court rules in a specific jurisdiction, there are different requirements for someone to be considered hostile, actually.

    Let me go back one step and explain how the whole witness testimony procedure works.

    I will do it from a criminal trial perspective. If your readers want to do it in a civil lawsuit setting substitute plaintiff for prosecutor.

    In presenting a case, the prosecutor must provide evidence for each of the elements specified in the statute that makes a criminal offense.

    Under  United States law , an  element of a crime  (or  element of an offense ) is one of a set of facts that must all be proven to convict a defendant of a crime. Before a court finds a defendant  guilty  of a criminal offense, the prosecution must present evidence that, even when opposed by any evidence the defense may choose to present, is credible and sufficient to prove  beyond a reasonable doubt  that the defendant committed each element of the particular crime charged. The component parts that make up any particular crime vary depending on the crime. (link)

    • Mental state (Mens Rea) - intent related blog link
    • Conduct (actus Reus) - the illegal act
    • Concurrence -  you have an illegal action and the intent to do that action at the same time
    • Causation - harm ocurred

    Witness testimony is often used to fill those elements, but so can evidence in the forms of documents, pictures, DNA, etc.

    The prosecutor always goes first as he or she has the burden of proof.
    Witnesses are prepped before trial so we know what they will testify to or about.
    Often times, there are statements already given under oath by a witness to a police officer, detective or even in front of the grand jury. (related blog post)

    As prosecutors, we

    • Expect the witness' testimony to be in accord with their previous statements.
    • Prepare a witness close to trial to also make sure they remember.
    • Allow them to read any pre-existing statement of their own if need be to refresh their recollection as part of trial prep (this can also be done in while they are on the witness stand – they can review their statement but not read from it). Remember, often a case can take 2 years or more before it goes to trial.

    So as we go into trial we know the lay of the land. The prosecutor in putting on his case in chief (meaning his main testimony and evidence supporting his version of the case) must elicit what is known as direct testimony - that is we are required to ask open ended questions.
    to trial
    So as we go into trial we know the lay of the land.

    The prosecutor in putting on his case in chief ( meaning he's the one with the burden of proving his case) must elicit what is known as direct testimony - that is we are required to ask open ended questions.

    We can do a bit of guided testimony to move along preliminary areas - this means we are looking for yes or no answers, which has in effect the information we are looking for as part of the question.

    After we get direct testimony from our witness the defendant's attorney gets to cross examine, which means that they can ask questions that should elicit a yes or no answer.
    They can ask open ended questions as well but using the yes or no answers they can box in a witness and confine them to the specific information in the question asked.

    Follow me so far?

    Fiona -
    What if the witness wants to expound beyond a yes or no to indicate a shade of grey?

    Are cross questions only supposed to be black and white?

    John - 
    Well a witness under cross will often try to get the information in and generally a judge will allow them to give a fuller answer to some extent. If that witness gets cut off, I can do what's known as re-direct. I can ask them to fully answer that question after the defense attorney is done with cross examination.

    Fiona -
    Good thank you.

    John -
    Now one other parameter, cross examination is limited to the topic areas covered on direct examination unless it's bringing in information like a prior criminal conviction that would impeach their truthfulness.

    So redirect is also limited to the areas covered in cross examination. That way a whole new area doesn't open up. If you missed it the first time, you can't then go into it afterwards unless it's some form of rebuttal.

    Generally, any witness one calls in the case in chief is a friendly witness - one who supports the prosecutor's view of the case, confirmed of course in pre trial preparation.

    Now, there can also be a witness that I would rather not call because they are tied to the defendant in a significant way but for whatever reason I need information that they have and therefore have to call in my case in chief. I'm trying to think of a good example...let's say someone who can put the defendant at the location of the crime, but they are the boyfriend or girlfriend of the defendant. They do not want to testify against their loved one. (And they don't like me, lol.) They would be considered an adverse witness.

    • It’s obvious they will not want to testify for me because of their tie to the defendant.
    • I know they will be trouble for me.
    • I can argue (ask the judge) to call them as an adverse witness. (Remember, I know this ahead of time.)
    • So, I get to cross examine them from the very start, eliciting mostly yes or no answers not asking them open ended questions, confining their testimony to the certain topic

    Now we get to hostile witnesses

    A hostile witness technically is someone who is expected to testify consistently to what they testified to earlier. I believe they will do that but when they get on the stand they change their testimony drastically.

    Fiona - 
    What are some things that could make them hostile? My mind goes to threats and intimidation.

    John -
    That could be true, or they are playing games and trying to protect the defendant.

    Generally, the prosecutor would ask a couple of questions confirming this change in testimony, and to make obvious this new version. To be safe, us their surprise I  would ask for a sidebar, and then argue to the judge that I did not expect this testimony. It came out of nowhere. They had testified much differently before or told me other information.

    I would then request that I be allowed to treat the witness as a hostile witness. Then I can keep their testimony much more confined through cross examination type questions.
    That can also happen in pre-trial preparation, where you find out that they will be testifying as a hostile witness. Some jurisdictions require you to show more evidence to the judge if you know before hand. Similar to an adverse witness but on steroids.

    A wise prosecutor is careful about these things, wanting to keep the judge up to speed. If it goes wrong in front of the jury, you could walk into mistrial territory.

    Fiona - 

    John -
    You have to be careful what's heard in the jury's presence often in a trial the jury is kept out of the courtroom while these type things are dealt with. Once a jury hears it, they can be given a corrective instruction by the judge, but that only does so much.
    If one of your witnesses just becomes really argumentative with you, you can request the court to have the witness just answer the question, but it certainly makes your case weaker.

    I know that was a lot to digest....

    These things present themselves on a case specific basis. Doing a trial is in many ways an art form.

    Sometimes the prosecutor just elicits all the damaging information about their own witness, prior convictions, or weaknesses in the beginning of a case, admitting the problem and not giving the defense attorney the chance to make it appear that we were hiding something from the jury, or that the defense found this gaping hole in the case.

    Fiona - 
    Okay here they are 2 different scenarios:

    1) An ex-wife wants to see ex-hubby go to jail. She is testifying. The guy is innocent, but she can put a spin on things that makes it not so clear that he's innocent - what do you do with her?

    John - 
    Her testimony would be in support of the state's case from what you describe. So I don't know that I would have her in hostile or adverse witness territory at all.

    Now if she was lying, and I knew it. I wouldn't use her as a witness in support of my case at all.

    The defense attorney will bring out her lies on cross if I didn't know she was lying. Prosecutors are not omniscient.

    Fiona - 
    Could the defendant's lawyer say she was hostile?

    John - 
    No. He gets to cross examine her if I use her as a witness first anyway. If I never called her, and he decided to call her, and he knew she was lying, he could then seek to have her treated an adverse or a hostile witness, yes.

    The defense attorney is also confined to direct questions when he puts on his case.

    Then I get to cross examine his witnesses.

    So ...testimony in a trial goes like this:

    • Prosecutions goes first puts on a witness and has to use direct (open ended) questions.
    • Defense atty then gets to cross examine..prosecution can than redirect, defense can then recross for each of the state's witnesses.
    • After all the State witnesses are called, the State rests its case.
    • The defense gets to put on his case and calls a witness. Defense must use direct (open ended) questions.
    • Prosecution gets to cross examine.
    • Defense gets to do redirect.
    • Prosecution gets to recross
    • When all of the defense witnesses are done, then the defendant rests its case.

    Fiona - 

    Scenario 2) Defendant's fiance is called to testify against the love of her life. Agh! She witnessed the crime, but she doesn't want Cuddle Bear to rot in the slammer. She is on the witness stand, defiant and protective. What do you do? 

    John - 
    In scenario #2 she would qualify as an adverse witness right off the bat from what you describe. Mainly because of her status as the defendant’s fiancé. A better example would be: We cut a deal with the fiancée to testify against Cuddle Bear so she gets lesser charges in exchange for testimony against the guy. She remains consistent about testifying against the fiancé all through trial preparation. Now, she gets on the stand and does what you said above, becomes belligerent and now untruthful.

    I would then request she be considered a hostile witness. And I would confine her testimony tightly -- get exactly what I needed from her and get her off the stand.

    Remember, I can always request that the court advise her to confine her answers to the questions asked. If the defense attorney attempts to follow up on whatever she just mentioned, I can object on the basis that it's beyond the scope of the direct testimony.

    Of course, any objection is at the discretion of the trial judge. He may sustain or overrule the objection.

    A hostile witness can be fatal to a case.

    Fiona - 
    Thank you so much for that explanation. Are you sure I can't convince you to write a book - Courtrooms Explained: Information Writers?

    John -
    Right now, I am working on my memoirs. I'm still in the proposal stage. I'm not sure if that will take two months or two years. 

    In the meantime though, we can listen to your sagesse, John is on Practical Solutions For America at 11 pm EST on the Barb Adams show every Saturday night, discussing problems in american and solutions www.radioamerikanow.com

    I know you'll want to tune in. Listening to professionals speak gives you a rhythm and tone quality that you can use in your writing. Word choices, thought processes, all of it adds to depth of character. (And you'll probably enjoy the subject matter, too.)

    Here is John's  website

    Thank you to John for sharing his expertise and his willingness to help. 

    As always, thank you so much for stopping by. If you like my blog, you'll love my books! Give one a try today.

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  • Murder She Wrote: Homicide Information for Writers

    “We believe he attacked six women using the same M.O. He stalked them with love poems, which he’d rewritten in a threatening tone, broke into their homes, sliced their torso with a razor and poured either vinegar or salt on them. He killed them with blunt force to the head, then he disappeared. He has never left any usable clues. No one was able to describe him before.”
                “I’m his first mistake.” 

    WEAKEST LYNX - Fiona Quinn
    (Spring 2015)

    Why do you call the police investigator at your murder scene a "homicide detective"?

    A HOMICIDE - takes place when one person kills another person. Not all homicides are murders. These words are not synonymous. There are justifiable/non-criminal homicides. These include:
    • Self-defense
    • The defense of others (Mom saves her kids etc.)
    • Officers use of deadly force in defense of self or others

    MURDER - is the term used for unjustified homicide. It is a felony.  A felony - is a serious crime that would imprison someone for over a year and could potentially lead to the death penalty.

    Murder can then be broken down into smaller categories. These categories are based on the circumstance of the murder. Laws about required prison sentencing/punishments are ascribed to the different levels.

    Capital Murder

    • Killing a police officer doing his duty
    • A prisoner killing a corrections officer (prison or jail)
    • Are premeditated, willful and deliberate. Someone thought then acted on that thought. Time of premeditation is not necessarily an issue be it a month planning session or a 3 second decision. "I saw the man who was making me a cuckold and decided I wasn't going to play that game anymore, so I pulled my gun."
    • Someone planned to kill someone
    • Killing a child under twelve during an abduction/attempted abduction.
    • Someone died during a rape/attempted rape/sodemy, 
    • Someone died in an armed robbery/attempted armed robbery
    • Someone hired someone else to commit to kill the person.
    • Killing people in a crime/crime spree
    • Killing someone during an illegal drug transaction for the purpose of continuing the transaction.
    First-Degree - occur when a murder takes place during:
    • Abductions
    • Lying in wait
    • Holding someone against their will
    • Foreign object sexual penetration/forcible sodomy
    • Starving
    • Poisoning
    • Burglaries
    Second- Degree Murder
    • Definition varies by state.
    • All murders are classified as 2nd degree until the prosecutors can prove an aggravating factor such as those listed above.
    • The result of "reckless indifference for human life."


    There are two types of manslaughter:
    1. Voluntary Manslaughter - is when things get out of hand like in a fight when your character throws a wild punch and collapses the guy's windpipe.
    2. Involuntary Manslaughter - is when someone dies because of the character's reckless behavior like in a car accident when your character ran the red light during a road race.
    The characteristics of manslaughter include:
    • Criminal homicide
    • There was no premeditation, malice, or deliberation
    • Happens because of someone's reckless behavior (ex. shooting celebratory gun shots) or careless behavior (ex. not putting up no smoking signs by the oxygen tanks.
    I hope you found this helpful.

    Thank you, ThrillWriters, for stopping by. Remember, if you like my blog, you'll love my books. Why not try one today? 

    Fiona Quinn's Newsletter Link, Sign up HERE

    Happy plotting.


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  • Cop Plot? Avoid Common Mistakes and Stereotypes: Info for Writers with J.J. Hensley

    ThrillWriting welcomes J.J. Hensley as he shares his thoughts on "how to write it right" in this guest post. 

    J.J. is a former police officer with the Chesterfield County (Virginia) Police Department and a former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service. Hensley graduated from Penn State University with a B.S. in Administration of Justice and has a M.S. degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Columbia Southern University. The author is currently a training supervisor with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and lives with his beautiful wife, daughter, and two dogs near Pittsburgh, PA.

    The Damage Caused by Negative Police Stereotypes in Fiction

    In recent weeks, a blizzard of misrepresentations and misconceptions about policing and the use of force have helped to polarize our society while clouding issues that should be discussed in a rational manner. While the some media outlets and various opportunists have helped to feed an anti-law enforcement movement that is heavy on emotion and short on facts, the seeds of misinformation have been planted through the world of fiction. In books, television, and movies, law enforcement officers have been depicted through the use of cookie cutter stereotypes and outlandish characterizations. In fact, one of the most overused characters in police procedurals and dramas is the police officer or agent who is incompetent, apathetic, or outright corrupt.

    Those of us who have been in law enforcement know that 99% of the community is hard-working, intelligent, and caring. The problem in the world of fiction is that many storylines benefit from having a detective who isn’t doing his job, or a patrol officer planting evidence, or an FBI agent taking a bribe. It adds drama and there is a bit of shock value when someone in a position of authority fails society.

    Creative types also take advantage of the fact that we as humans have a natural tendency to be wary of those who have power – legal or otherwise – over us. In the United States, skepticism of authority is not only commonplace, but is the basis for our system of government. However, educated skepticism is much different than fabrication for the sake of creating sound bites. As the line between news and entertainment continues to blur, public expectations of law enforcement become as unrealistic as the most far-reaching novel.

    Some examples of this blurring of the lines between entertainment and reality follow. While these are just a few, they may be some of the most damaging.

    Inaccurate Portrayals Some People Really Believe

    Police officers are often involved in shootings

    Unlike many television shows in which a shooting happens ever fifteen minutes, a vast majority of law enforcement professionals will never have to harm another individual with a firearm. Not only will most officers not use their weapon in the line of duty, but almost none want to do so. Forgetting for a moment that professional officers do not want to worry about the potential legal and civil consequences – as a conscientious human being, the last thing an officer wants to do is to take a life.

    Forensic Evidence is Always Present and Quickly Analyzed
    Much has previously been written of the “CSI Effect” on juries and the general public. Most of those articles relate to juries having expectations that every fiber and hair can be found, fingerprints can be pulled from any surface, and DNA can be analyzed in less than an hour. Over the years, juries have come to expect there to be forensic evidence linking a suspect to a crime. The absence of such evidence tends to drown out any other proof.

    Cops are petty and territorial

    This is a depiction that can cause the public to believe there is an inherent atmosphere of pettiness in the profession. Here’s the thing… most investigators do not get emotionally involved in cases (for good reason) and have no cause to get upset if an old unsolved case is looked at again. Why would she be? There are so many variables an investigator cannot control. Witnesses lie. Evidence was hidden well or destroyed. The victim wasn’t talking then. Etc, etc., etc. When a serious crime goes unanswered, people want answers and egos are usually not a factor.

    What Novelists and Entertainment Writers Can Do Better

    A more realistic portrayal of law enforcement benefits all of us. If law enforcement characterizations are more accurate, the public has a better understanding of police procedure, the use of force, and criminal law. Law enforcement officers benefit because impractical expectations are not heaped on top of people doing what is already a difficult job.

    Even novelists and screenwriters benefit from not using the stereotypical incompetent, apathetic, or corrupt officer or agent. Some benefits for writers include:

    The story is more authentic

    Yes, there are often headlines about law enforcement officials getting into trouble. However, the media understandably latches on to these stories as police are (and should be) held to a higher standard. Additionally, the law enforcement community is much like the intelligence community as successes are rarely advertised but failures are magnified. If a writer is going to create a scenario where a law enforcement official violates the law, it can be done in a way that demonstrates that the behavior is not indicative of the entire profession.

    Creating an Incompetent Investigator is a Cop Out (pun intended)

    Honestly, it’s kind of easy to toss in an apathetic city detective, or a Federal agent who insists on focusing on the wrong suspect. If the protagonist isn’t in law enforcement, it gives the character a reason to pursue the truth. But if he has the cops do their jobs well, the writer has to be more creative as to why the protagonist needs to be involved in a case. As a bonus – if the cops are better, the writer has to make the criminals smarter. The end result is a better story.

    Be Different

    Unrealistic portrayals have become the norm. A writer in the fiction business can be different and refreshing simply by being accurate. By following this path, a writer may be forced to do research and therefore develop insights into the profession. The story becomes tied to the real world and ends up being something more than a collection of dreamed-up thoughts and characters.

    While we should expect novelists and screenwriters to take liberties with how the profession is represented, we can hope for the occasional dose of realism. There are some, but relatively few, examples of law enforcement characters and scenarios that mirror real life. When fans stumble across these instances, they leap out and have a different feel than the eye-rolling cop dramas to which we have become accustomed. Possibly fans of crime fiction should demand more of the entertainment industry. Maybe those who create stories and characters can help others see the value in reducing the ridiculous and injecting the reasonable.

    Perhaps the best way to improve crime fiction is to get more real.

    J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, Measure Twice, and other works. Note: A portion of sales for Measure Twice go toward breast cancer research through the non-profit group Par for The Cure.


    An addict is killing Pittsburgh city officials, but Homicide Detective Jackson Channing has his own addiction.


    In the Pittsburgh Marathon, more than 18,000 people will participate. 4,500 people will attempt to cover the full 26.2 miles. Over 200 of the participants will quit, realizing it just wasn't their day. More than 100 will get injured and require medical treatment. One man is going to be murdered. When Dr. Cyprus Keller lines up to start the race, he knows a man is going to die for one simple reason. He's going to kill him.

    Finalist - 2014 International Thriller Writers Awards - Best First Novel

    Named one of the BEST BOOKS of 2013 by Suspense Magazine!

    Top Ten Books of the Year - Authors on the Air

    Thank you, ThrillerWriters, for stopping by. Remember, if you like my blog, you'll love my books. Why not try one today?

            Fiona Quinn's Newsletter Link, Sign up HERE

    Happy plotting.


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  • Removed for their Safety Does Not Mean they're safe: Foster Care for Writers with Nikki Grey


    Today, we are talking about writing characters correctly and specifically characters who are involved with Social Services as foster children. 

    There are many reasons why a child might be placed in foster care such as:
    • Physical abuse
    • Sexual abuse
    • Neglect (including such things as food, safe/clean environment, emotional support)
    • Medical neglect
    • Incarceration of the parent/guardian
    • Abandonment
    • Voluntary placement because of parent/guardian illness.
    • Placement because of parental/guardian death

    There are  also non-parental/guardian involved reasons for placing a child within the system  
    • Juvenile delinquency
    • Truancy
    • Runaways
    • Length of stay in U.S. foster care
      Length of stay in U.S. foster care (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    To help us with this subject, I welcome Nikki Grey.

    Robby Barthelmess, photographer

    Nikki Grey was born in Southern California, but grew up in Northern Nevada. At 12 years old, she entered the Nevada foster care system, and spent the next six years living in different foster homes. After a great deal of self-advocacy (including realizing the power of writing after she wrote the Nevada governor’s office when she felt her case was being mishandled by social workers), the then 17-year-old moved in with one of her high school teachers, who later adopted her as an adult.

    Nikki grew up wanting to become a lawyer and advocated for herself during court hearings about her living situation in foster care. Later, after working in two law offices, Nikki decided she wanted a different career. In hopes of going into public relations, Nikki chose journalism as her major at the University of Nevada, Reno. She is now a freelance writer.

    In Nikki's case, she became part of the foster care system when her mother was dying from cancer, her extended family was unable or unwilling to care for her, and she experienced abuse and neglect.

    Thank you so much for your willingness to share your story so that we writers can write our characters correctly in our storylines, Nikki.

    From your experience, can you walk us through the child's perspective? How does one learn they are going into care? Who interacts with them? And who has ongoing contact with the children once they are placed?

    Nikki - 
    In my case, and many cases, the child doesn't know what is going on or what foster care is or where they are going.

    A social worker came to my house and told me to pack a bag full of clothes but not to take anything valuable. I was doing laundry so she had me fill a garbage bag with dirty clothes.

    She drove my brother and me to an emergency shelter group home, where she said we'd only be for a few weeks (which is why she wouldn't let me take more than a few outfits).

    Once I arrived, I had to "inventory" all of my clothes by writing my initials on the tags so if they were stolen by another child they could be identified. That was upsetting. My brother was placed in a foster home before I was. I stayed in the emergency shelter for six months before a placement, in a different town, was found for me.

    Once placed, I had a social worker who was supposed to visit once a month. This didn't always happen but happened more for me because I was moved around a lot. I was allowed to speak to my mother on the phone.

    She had colon cancer so when I was removed from my father's home I couldn't live with her.

    Fiona - 
    What were the things surprised you about being a foster child?

    Nikki - 
    I felt like I was being punished, like I was in jail (when, in fact, my dad was the one in jail).

    I was surprised at how many rules I had to follow and how many of the group home workers and foster families were unkind to me. I thought, why are they doing this if they don't like kids?

    I was also surprised that many of the homes I ended up in didn't seem any better than the one I left. I was abused and neglected in foster care, too.

    And the worst was always assumed of me; I must be a bad kid, because my parents were bad or other foster kids were.

    I was surprised by the horrible stories I heard of former foster kids who lived in the groups homes I did. How they were prostitutes or pregnant; why did my foster parents tell me these things?

    And I had no privacy.

    Fiona - 
    Can you tell me about some of the new rules you were expected to follow?

    Nikki - 
    I couldn't stay the night at a friend's house. I had to do chores, but often not just to clean up for myself or foster siblings. I had to clean up after my foster parents.

    I had one foster father insist I clean my room for his "military room inspection". He'd look for dust with a white glove on and if he didn't find anything he'd lift a piece of furniture, like a dresser that was too heavy for me to lift, find dust and fail me. So then I'd be grounded.

    I was grounded a lot and then had to do chores on the ranch I lived in, like clean up horse poop.

    There is more, but I don't know that I need to go into all the specifics.

    Fiona - 
    Were you offered counseling? Did you have a trusted adult at this point to help you deal with your mother's impending death?

    Nikki - 
    I actually had to go to counseling (although I wanted to, it wasn't optional). So, I did have a counselor help me deal with my mom's death.

    I didn't have a trusted adult, per se, until I moved in with my foster mother (my teacher), aside from my grandmother, but she couldn't care for us so that's not exactly the same.

    I had a few teachers and coaches say nice things to me, which I held on to.

    At the time I didn't see it this way, but I was very fortunate to have been moved into a small town, because people noticed me there. I think in a city or larger area, foster kids may "slip through the cracks" with no one noticing because there are so many people and so many things going on.

    Fiona -
    If you could give one fairy god-mother swish of the wand to every foster child what would you gift them?

    Nikki - 
    A family, but I don't think that's what you're asking. I'd give them the ability to believe that being in foster care is temporary and that, although the bad that has happened to them in their life so far likely wasn't their fault, when they become adults they are in control of their lives, for the most part, and can make good decisions that will make their lives better.

    Fiona - 
    When you read books or watch TV and movies which include a plotline that has foster children what kinds of mistakes do you think writers who do not have a personal experience with foster care make.

    Nikki - 
    Foster children have long been misrepresented in the media by shows like Law and Order. I mean, how many plot lines where the former foster kid is the criminal can you run? Other shows, while entertaining, depict foster children as deviants. In The Secret Life of the American Teenager foster youth Ricky Underwood, who was sexually abused by his father prior to entering foster care, manifests his self-loathing by sleeping around with girls, treating them badly, and ultimately becoming a teenage father after a one-night-stand.
    (I'd like to add that The Secret Life character does end up becoming a good dad in the end.)

    Although there are many negative statistics that show what tends to happen to foster kids when they grow up, not all foster children turn out to be criminals. And constantly receiving messages that imply that’s all we are going to amount to isn’t doing anyone any favors.

    With that being said, Law and Order is a really great show! And I liked The Secret Life of The American Teenager, too.

    I'm just saying it would be nice to see other outcomes represented more frequently. The Fosters on ABC is better at making the characters more multi-dimensional.

    Fiona - 
    What do you wish that I asked about foster kids?

    Nikki - 

    A few things off the top of my head, that I would like to add.

    • I think it's important that people realize that prior to entering foster care, these children have had difficult lives, most likely, and the things that have happened to them have shaped their worldview, how they act, how they speak, how they treat people. 
    • They often didn't have great role models showing them how to live. Even then, they probably love their families, even if those families abused them. It's all they've ever known. And then they are taken from that, thrown into a new world, with little guidance and few, if any, people who take the time to understand them, help them cope and grow. They then are sometimes treated badly and again and again moved around, causing problems in their schooling.
    • Foster kids can tell if people are judging them or looking down on them. And they may be too proud to admit it, but this can be humiliating. They just want to be like everyone else.
    • Foster care is scary sometimes. You don't know what's going to happen; you have little to no control over any of it; and you're lonely. It can be very, very lonely.
    • These kids need people who are patient and loving and understanding. Not judgement. But they also need people who are firm and provide (appropriate) discipline. The saddest thing for me to see is foster kids who end up just like their parents. It doesn't have to be that way.

    Fiona - 
    Why are the children moved around so frequently?

    Nikki - 
    Not all children are moved around frequently, but some are. There are so many reasons. Sometimes if foster kids get into trouble, they get kicked out (which is sad, because kids misbehave and most of the time, their biological parents won't kick them out for that). Sometimes the foster parents aren't equipped to deal with a certain child's needs or didn't realize what they were getting into. Sometimes the kids are abused in the homes. Or they don't get along with their foster families. Or because they don't qualify for that level of care anymore. There are levels in the foster care system and those levels constitute different types of care and different funding, it's kind of complicated.

    Or foster parents might just not want you anymore; that happens, too.

    Fiona - 
    Can you ask to be moved?

    Nikki - 
    You can ask, but there aren't many foster homes so your wants might not be listened to unless you're being abused, then they'll remove you, but foster kids don't always tell their social workers what's going on.

    I was moved from town to town because there weren't homes available near my school often.

    Some kids lose credits and have difficulty advancing grades or graduating because they have to switch schools frequently. Fortunately, this didn't happen to me.

    Fiona - 
    Can you talk a little about your writing and if/how you think your foster care experience influenced you?

    Nikki - 
    I'm a full-time freelance writer.

    I have been published in national print and online media outlets. My articles have appeared in New Hair Trends, American Survival Guide, Geek Out and other Engaged Media magazines. I used to be a features reporter at a newspaper and, recently, I started publishing personal essays about my life. I hope to do that more in the future.

    I write fiction, too, and I just sent my newest manuscript (with a protagonist who is in foster care) to my agent.

    I think having experienced a lot with my family and foster care helps me have empathy. I've seen a lot in life for my age and that helps me as a writer.

    I care very much about people and their struggles. I hope to use my writing to inspire and help people, including foster kids!

    Fiona - 
    Thanks, Nikki.

    If you want to stay in touch with Nikki Grey you can contact her through her WEBSITE and on Twitter

    Thank you, ThrillerWriters, for stopping by. Remember, if you
    like my blog, you'll love my books. Why not try one today?
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    Happy plotting.


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