• Urban Ops in Your Plotline? Info for Writers with NY Times Bestseller Stephen Templin

    I would like to welcome Stephen Templin back to ThrillWriting. If you missed his first article about SEALs you can find it HERE


    Stephen Templin is a New York Times and international best-selling author. He co-wrote SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper and is the author of Trident’s First Gleaming, the first in his Special Operations Group Thriller series.

    After high school, he completed Hell Week, qualified as a pistol and rifle expert, blew up stuff, and practiced small-unit tactics during Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training. Later, Steve left the Navy and became a missionary. Then for fourteen years he lectured as a tenured professor at Meio Universityin Japan, where he practiced the martial art aikido. His PhD is in education.

    He has a new book out From Russia Without Love, that I devoured in one sitting.


    SEAL Team Six veteran Chris Paladin left the Navy to become a pastor, but CIA spook Hannah Andrade pulls him back into Special Operations Group to locate the White House Chief of Staff’s kidnapped son-in-law before he is executed by Greek terrorists. Cantankerous Army Delta Force operator Sonny Cohen reunites with Chris and Hannah as they race the clock to save the hostage.

    In Athens, Chris and his teammates discover that Russia is secretly behind the kidnapping, part of a murderous plan to attack the flow of natural gas in Europe. The Cold War has heated up again.

    Chris and his crew’s rescue quickly changes into a mission to capture-or-kill a Russian spy.

    Amazon Link
    First let me say - what a fun read. A nd I very much appreciated the romantic non-romance

    Steve -
    Oh, thank you

    Fiona - 
    Steve, you just came out with a new black ops novel called From Russia Without Love, and it started with a bang, literally.

    Steve -
    Yes, love to start with a bang.

    Fiona - 
    It was actually quite a complicated issue of a three man black ops team (well one woman) trying to follow a businessman around an area with rifles.

    Can you tell us some of the issues that came up with writing this scene right? Let's start with what kinds of guns and why?

    Steve - 
    Yes, it was easier before they knew an assault was about to take place. They could travel lighter. But once they figured an attack was about to happen, they wanted to be better armed, and that required some more tricks and concealment.

    With the rifles, a .223 caliber assault rifle is nice because it can be short for use in tight places such as inside buildings, yet reach out and touch someone--out to 300+ yards

    It's quite versatile

    For a sidearm, there are two trains of thought--the lighter 9mm pistol and the heavier .45 pistol.

    The 9mm is a bit smaller, easier to conceal, holds more rounds, and reaches out a bit farther.

    The .45 packs a meaner punch and is useful for shooting through a car window.

    SEAL Team Six vets like the main character Chris aren't bashful about using the 9mm. Army Delta guys tend to like the .45.

    The 9mm is also easier to obtain abroad. 

    Fiona - 

    1. Will 9 mm not shoot through a car window? Or does that depend on the bullet choice? 
    2. What was your bullet choice for urban area?
    Steve - 
    I would use a special type of ammo to shoot through a car window with a 9 mm.

    Urban or in the outdoors, either 9 mm or .45 are fine

    With rifles, you'd want something longer for longer distances like the outdoors.

    Fiona - 
    Were you using hydro-shock or hollow-point to stop the bullet from flying through the bad guys? (see BULLET blog article)

    Steve -
    Either of those are good rounds.

    Fiona -
    You tricked out the weapons with specialized equipment, suppressors and so forth, a
    nd modified the firearms to fit their shooter.  Is there a difference between red dot and laser?

    Steve - 
    Red dot is something that only the shooter sees in the scope, and the optics could be magnified or not. That's great for all around use.

    Infrared is more specialized for night ops. Shooting becomes more like a video game--the technique is different. Infrared laser can be seen by the shooter with infrared vision. So you just line up the laser with the target. Different from lining up a red dot with a target. Or a front sight-rear sight with the target.

    Just regular laser is a bit dangerous because the target can see where the laser is coming from.

    Fiona - 
    That's what I thought and too doesn't it make the shooter dependant? SEALS don't normally use that do they?

    Steve -
    SEALs use a variety of weapons and optics. The red dot seems the most common, but it all depends on the mission, the platoon, and the individual.

    Fiona - 
    Your team modified their firearms to fit their shooter - what kinds of modifications might a professional want to include?

    Steve - 
    For the Glock 9 mm pistol, the main character Chris (and I do, too) takes off the plastic sights and replaces them with more durable metal sights.
    He puts a plug in the empty space near where the magazine is inserted, so debris doesn't clog up in that empty space. Chris also uses a match grade barrel for improved accuracy.

    For wet or sweaty hands, it can help to add some stipple to critical spots, to help maintain one's grip when those parts get slippery.

    These are not so many mods. Some people do more, but often doing too much can ruin a nice weapon like this one.

    Fiona - 
    Match grade barrel simply refers to the quality of engineering it has a tighter tolerance and is used professionally or for competition. Correct? 

    Steve -
    Yes, the match grade barrel is a higher grade that is used for professional shooting matches. And efficient killing of terrorists.

    Fiona -
    So now your heroes have the right equipment for shooting. You also gave them some interesting comms. Can you talk about the ear piece and vocalization?

    Steve -
    Yes, they use a wireless throat mic.

    It's mounted on a band and is concealed by the collar. It transmits via vibrations in the throats rather than over open air. More covert.

    And the earpiece is a magnetic wireless bud about the size of a pencil eraser that's dropped inside the ear canal. Because its magnetic, it can be retrieved via something metal such as a key.
    Also quite covert.

    Fiona - 
    ThrillWriters/Readers here's a video quick study

    I want to talk with you about urban surveillance, but first let me touch on something that really needs to be considered for characters and that's weather - I know we consider night and day, but you had them in a shootout in a torrential downpour. What conditions make life difficult and if you could mention a few of the problems a non-shooter might not think about - temperature for example.

    Steve -
    Yes, the shootout in the rain can be tricky for a variety of reasons. One is the red dot on the rifles--when the rain gets too tough, you can't see the red dot anymore. So it's critical to have back up iron sights. In From Russia Without Love, Chris runs into this problem, so he uses the quick release lever on his red dot and pockets the red dot. Then he pops up his irons sights and goes to them. Problem solved.

    Dealing with the wet and/or the cold, hypothermia can become an issue. Which can result in death if one isn't careful.

    (Of course slipping and falling in the water with a loaded weapon is always of concern for buddies)

    Fiona - 
    Now in urban surveillance - it's important to work as a team can you start us off with a little surveillance 101 basics?

    Steve - 
    Sure.

    The challenge of urban surveillance is dictated by:
    •  the location
    •  the target's awareness
    •  available assets
    •  your purpose.

    For location, if there are a lot of people around it's easier to remain concealed. Blend in with the crowd and follow your target.

    As for the target's awareness, if they're a clueless person, that's wonderful. But when going spy vs. spy, it becomes more challenging.

    In From Russia Without Love, Chris finds himself in a situation where he has to conduct surveillance on his own, which is the most challenging. During the Cold War, Russia would have lots of surveillance people on a target, and that's the easiest for the surveillance team.

    Finally, objectives can be things like assassination, kidnapping, theft and so on.

    Fiona - 
    Blending - the businessman was dressed correctly but moved like a tourist instead of a fellow office worker. What are some things to keep in mind when trying to blend with your surroundings?

    Steve - 
    It's important to avoid marked appearance or behavior. Business Traveler was dressed right for the environment, but he erred in looking around like a tourist rather than appearing bored like others on their way to work.

    Marked appearance can mean tattoos, facial hair, or other such things. Unless you're fitting into a motorcycle gang, then that'd be unmarked appearance.

    For behavior, it's helpful to observe the environment and do as others are doing.

    This extends to vehicles, too. An expensive vehicle in a poor neighborhood is going to stand out, and a cheaper vehicle in an expensive neighborhood will stand out.

    Fiona -
    Another way to blend was to peel off. Your team would watch and then walk away that way if they were made, it wouldn't seem obvious - an everyday person might not see this, would a professional spy? Would they rely on sixth sense?

    Steve - 
    If peeling off is done with a natural stride with the natural flow of pedestrians, that can work. But a sudden change in direction or pace will alert a professional. Yes, different people have different levels of sixth sense, so it can be helpful to not think directly about the target. So those who are sensitive to the thoughts of others won't pick up on that they're being watched.

    Mostly, a professional will rely on experience, training, and instinct.

    Fiona - 
    I loved it when Chris wouldn't think the guys name for fear he would pick up on his thoughts. Is that something you train - something you've experienced?

    Steve - 
    Some train it, some don't. I've experience it and others have, too. My buddy, Howard Wasdin was a SEAL Team Six sniper, and he was careful not to raise the sixth sense of his target/subject. We mentioned it in our book, SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL sniper.

    Fiona - 
    Yay - that's queued up in my Kindle.

    Steve -
    Have you ever thought someone might be watching you and turned around and caught them? It's that.


    Fiona - 
    Steve, thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us.

    You can catch up with Steve  through this website here, also  Twitter Facebook , and  Goodreads .



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  • How to Save Your Heroine with a Can of Coke: Info for Writers (and Other Human Beings)

    a photo of a glass of coke taken by my new com...
    t (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
    Did your heroine find herself in a bind? 

    Let's show the readers what she's really made of. She doesn't shriek and pull out her hair. She simply looks around her environment and thinks outside of the box er can. Let's get her out of that bad situation. . .


    The Coke Itself -


    Twenty ways that citric acid and phosphoric acid can be your heroine's friend.

    1. Drinking
    2. De-frosting - In a pinch, your heroine can pour a can of Coke on her frozen windshield to get her out of her desperate situation faster.
    3. De-skunkifying (water, soap, Coke, a few minutes of soaking)
    4. It also removes the smell of gasoline - in case that would give her antics away.
    5. De-sting-afyer - it works on bee stings, jelly fish, bug bites... just let soak for a few minutes.
    6. Helps with nausea
    7. The caffeine can keep your heroine awake - or give her a boost of energy when she needs to push through a long night.
    8. Caffeine + pain reliever helps migraines and menstrual cramps.
    9. Can bring up someone's blood sugar if they are diabetic or just spent after running away from the zombies.
    10. Color fader - Does your heroine need to change her look fast? Let's say she dyed her hair dark brown to change her appearance. Now with a can of Coke she can fade that color and look completely different.
    11. If your heroine permed her hair too tight, she can pour on a can of flat coke, and it will loosen the curl.
    12. And while we're on the subject of hair - it can get the gum out. (And from other unwanted places as well.)
    13. Removes rust - if your heroine has to get that lug nut off to save her life (but she better have a little time to let things soak.) 
    14. Getting a charge - so this works on batteries,too. If the battery connection isn't good because of corrosion, and your heroine is imperiled, she can use the coke to clean it up enough to get herself on the road to civilization.
    15. Did your heroine spill oil on anything from her clothes to the crime scene? Coke will get it out.
    16. It can also get bloodstains out of clothes when mixed with detergent -- but we all know you can't really get rid of blood. Even if it looks stain free, it will show up under forensic inspection.
    17. Burned pans or utensils? Coke.
    18. Your heroine needs to read the date off of a dirty coin? Coke.
    19. Is your villain afraid the forensic team will collect bugs off his car to determine where he might have left the body? He can remove them with Coke. Did I just help a villain? Eek.
    20. And as long as we're talking about villains, Coke dissolves teeth.
    Here are some more - Quick Study Video

    The Can the Coke came in -

    Remember - in life or death situations the four things required are:
    • Water 
    • Fire
    • Shelter 
    • Food


    Water -
    • collection
    • cup
    • Fill with water and place near a fire to heat to boiling to remove bacteria and viruses

    Fire - 
    • How to start a fire with an aluminum can Quick Study Video 3:30 - I've tried this - not everyone has char cloth on them, but in a pinch other flammable things worked. Time, patience, and bright sun are your heroine's friends. Cloudy day or too late in the day? Mrph.
    • Make a lamp using used motor oil. Video Quick Study 1:24 BTW if you don't have steel wool - cause who has that in their car? You can just tightly twist some paper and then rub the oil on to the paper and stick it in the pop top the same way.
    • Increase your light source - Video Quick Study 1:46
    Shelter - The only way I could think that a can of Coke could provide shelter was to signal for help to get the heck out of the situation in the first place.
    • How to make an emergency whistle with a can Quick Study Video 5:50 -I have tried this and it works very well it is a high-pitched marine whistle like sound.
    • How to boost your wifi signal - Quick Study Video 1;10
    • Polish the bottom with a little chocolate (It's an EMERGENCY! sacrifices must be made.) or some clay and use like a signaling mirror. 

    Food

    Other useful can skills:
    I tried this - and tried it - and tried it - and tried it. A case of soda later. . .

    This is not something to do on the fly. AND the Crazy Russian Hacker is showing you how to do this on a padlock that is not closing anything. Let's just say this is for the character who has trained hard. Your heroine who has some Girl Scouting skills under her belt would have a hard time of this - not to say she shouldn't try. Getting hopes up just to dash them can be an interesting thing to do in a plot.

    Your heroine is left in the office with the keys that she needs to get into the file cabinet? Have her chug that coke and make a quick clone key. When I tried this the key worked once. Does your heroine need to use it repeatedly? She can now take her clone key to a hardware pick out the base, go home and clamp the clone to the base key, use a Dremel to make herself a spare.




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  • What's in Your Wallet? Every Day Carry for Your Character: Info for Writers

    Do you remember watching that old game show "Let's Make a Deal"? Monty Hall would ask women to reach into their purses and pull out absurd things, pieces of cheese and such. As a kid, I wondered what thought process the women would go through when making their choices of what to bring to the show -- just in case it got them an opportunity to play the game.

    I thought about this again when I was reading Janet Evanovich's By the Numbers series. Stephanie Plumb had a gun and maybe some bullets in her purse. . .somewhere. . . 

    What your character carries with them is a big insight into the character's thought process, background, and lifestyle. As an example, I'm going to show you the inside of my purse so you can see what I mean.


    Ta dah! This is my purse with the insides pulled out. 

    It weighs a TON!


    In the center of the black organizer is this toiletry bag

    Which looks like this when opened.

    By now you might be thinking, wow this chick is VERY organized. 

    When it comes to my purse, I am. 

    Just like a bag carried by a military person or an EMT, my bag is there for convenience and to save lives. It has saved lives many times. So I am very careful with how things are packed into my bag.



    This is what's inside that toiletry bag:


    On the right of the bag are the everyday niceties: 

    • chapstick - outdoors a lot
    • deodorant - two teens
    • lotion

    On the left tools/safety


    • paracord (blog article)
    • swiss army type knife
    • small leatherman
    • Glucose tabs (to counter low blood sugar)

    In the center go six specialized mini-kits:


    Kit #1 (MOST important)

    • diabetic meter
    • test strips and fresh needles
    • alcohol wipe
    • lancet
    • fast acting glucose (read about using that in this scene of MISSING LYNX)
    • And a hair tie - because if you're using the glucose gel on someone, you'll have it in your hair.

    Kit #2

    • shampoo taken from hotel stay because it works like soap.
    • lighter/cotton balls for fire starting
    • 2 glow sticks
    • tweezers (can use lighter to disinfect)
    • 2 different colors of duct tape - the bright pink is good for marking trails if you are lost. Also great for writing information for the EMT prior to their arrival when assessing and triaging folks. Just stick it on their arm at the wrist.
    • And grey is an all purpose helper. (They are each wrapped around used gift cards.)










    Kit #3
    Mini first aid 
    • honey works great for a bunch of issues from low glucose to wound care
    • benadryl in instant melt form can save someone having an allergic reaction




    Kit #4 
    Hair and Clothes






    Kit #5
    Meds - the basics 
    • Advil
    • Allergy
    • Pamperin (great for migraines)
    • Imodium


    Kit #6 
    Other first aid - (products for alternative use)





    Now all of that goes into an outer carry case with pockets that contains:
    • umbrella with pen light
    • water
    • wand flashlight
    • pens
    • CPR kit with gloves and respiration mask
    • 6 meal replacement bars
    • red lipstick 

    My keys:   
    • flashlight
    • multitool
    • whistle



    Did you note how many forms of light I have?
    1 high lumen hand held light wand
    1 high lumen tactical flashlight
    2 glow sticks
    1 hand crank flashlight
    1 mini pen light
    (and if push came to shove) a lighter
    ____________
    8 forms of lighting. 

    WHY??? you may ask. I have been involved in many a crisis, and it seems the one recurrent theme is it's pitch black. Emergencies in the dark are darned dangerous.

    Did you notice the forms of food/glucose?
    6  meal replacement bars
    2 honey
    1 tube glucose tablets
    1 tube fast acting glucose
    $ for emergency food
    _____________
    11 forms of possible sugar/food. 

    WHY??? (I know the diabetes meter was a give away.) My kid #4 is a T-1 diabetic. BUT 1/3 of America has some form of diabetes. All of the emergency diabetic stuff I carry, in the ten years I have carried it, has only been used to save strangers' lives.

    If I had lead a life different from the one I have, I would obviously carry different products in a different way. 

    Things not on my priority list include brushes and makeup except for my energy boosting red lipstick which BTW is excellent for writing tourniqueted-limb times on foreheads etc. Ah, now would your character have had that thought when she put her lipstick in her bag?

    What's in your character's wallet or purse? 
    • Will it help? 
    • Will it thwart? 
    • Will it give insight? 
    • Will it be a conversation starter?
    • MAYBE it will twist your plotline.



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







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  • Eye of an Eagle Heart of a Tiger - A Fighting Mindset info for Writers with Danielle Serpico

    Blue yin yang
     (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
    Today, we are talking with Danielle Serpico about a fighter's mindset, so we can get our characters right as well as write better fight scenes. Danielle, can you start us off? Tell us a bit about your background.


    Danielle - 
    Hi, sure yes, delighted to. The arts I have trained in are American and Chinese Kenpo and Taiji Chuan. I am a Gold and Silver European Champion. My instructor was Alan Ellis, and 
    I also had the privilege of training on many occasions with,  mainly Tommy Jordan, Erle Montague, Larry Tatum.  I teach various classes and self defense seminars in the empowerment aspect of things.

    Fiona - 
    Is there a personality difference between a lover and a fighter?

    Danielle -
    I believe we can be both a lover and a fighter. We touched on this previously in my other interview with you, regarding yin yang.

    (Read that article HERE.)

    I believe we can be both a lover and a fighter but...

    Our instinct is to avoid conflict and fighting, it is not natural for us to want to fight, however we posses a primal coding that enables us to move into fight mode when needed. Our most primitive state is one of fear, which is actually a good thing. Our ancestors would have known fear on a daily basis, and they would have understood how that fear worked, in order to enable them to survive, procreate and live some semblance of a 'happy life'. Unfortunately, society has eroded this sense of understanding of fear, and now we are confused and sometimes frightened by our 'fight' instinct. This can lead to severe emotional and health issues, such as depression and anxiety.

    Fiona -
    Can you talk about the mindset of a trained versus an untrained (oh, boy I hope I can get out of this one!) fighter?

    Danielle - 

    Essentially, a trained fighter will not 'think' but will react.

    Fighting is an illogical activity for us to engage in as human beings. We are not programmed to harm each other so even when confronted with our own imminent destruction or injury many of us will tend to not want to fight.

    The trained fighter is someone who has developed the ability to overcome layers of civilized behaviour and to automatically enter into a primal state. In this state, the thought process is bypassed because if we were to think during an altercation the thought process would slow us down.


    The Chinese saying 'If someone attacks you, hit them first' is indicative of this philosophy.

    In our training and preparation, we do of course have to 'think' about what we are doing, to the point of having to learn specific moves and body mechanics. However, during the actual moment of confrontation, we need to give ourselves over to our primal or animal instinct and allow that inner rage to come forth.

    Fiona - 
    So tell me about "self-defense for the mind."

    Danielle -
    The greatest enemy we face is fear. The paralyzing effects of fear cannot be underestimated. In defending the 'mind' and creating strategy of protection we need to KNOW fear.

    What I mean by this is we need to embrace our fear, examine them and confront them one by one.  I like to have my students and clients make out a fear pyramid, with the least fearful issue at the bottom and an ascending scale of fear as it reaches the top.

    The object of this is to, from the bottom up, examine and actively confront each of those fears. We don't necessarily want to completely eradicate fear, but we want to know it and why we are fearful and to be able to get ourselves to a point where we can accept that fear but not let it bind us.

    In a sense, to have NO fear one must KNOW fear.

    Fiona -
    Having the character confront their fears is an important part of character building and can make for some very interesting plot twists. 

    Another technique that you speak about with your students is Eagle Vision - can you talk about this?

    Danielle -
    In a martial or fighting context, one should never look at an opponent's eyes, the person's eyes won't pop out and strike us!

    If we concentrate on the attackers eyes or face, we narrow our field of vision, leading us vulnerable for attacks outside this visual range what we need to do is to have a peripheral view of our opponent, that is to say for example, if our opponent were standing in front of us, we would rest our gaze on their shoulder this allows us to pick up movement from our attackers hands or feet, and we can react accordingly

    The Chinese call this Eagle Vision and what this technique mimics is how an eagle would look at its prey. The eagle doesn't focus on its prey, but rather on a wider area around the prey and in that way can track any movement.

    I relate this technique to stepping back and taking an overview of any life situation, not just focusing on the problem but rather having a view of the bigger picture in order for us to have a better perspective of what we are dealing with.

    Conversely, if the student does not understand the effects of adrenal dump, whereby the body is flooded with chemicals, which actually creates tunnel vision, then the concept of Eagle Vision will not work.

    Its important for the student to understand that we must be quite proactive in our defence and learn to react before the adrenal dump kicks in, 
    so we have a huge advantage on our opponent.

    Likewise in life, in general, prompt action and positive thought can often preempt and negate many problems.

    Fiona - 
    Obviously, one of the aspects of a trained fighter mind v. an untrained fighter has to do with thinking about things/working with mindsets that aren't normally offered to us in our day to day lives, taking the time to ponder such things as stress and focus. 

    What other techniques do you work with your students on to broaden their understanding, and how would these techniques show themselves in decision making by a trained fighter v. a seat of the pants fighter?



    Danielle - 
    Firstly, for us to manifest it in our outside world, we have to first manifest it in the inside world.

    Therefore, we have to go there, to a place which is not necessarily pleasant. The same is true for the opposite of course.

    In martial terms a huge part of the training with my students is the working of scenario based drills. By this I mean we deliberately fire the adrenal response.

    This is achieved by placing the student under verbal assault and triggering the adrenal response by various verbal and physical methods.

    The object is to place the student under a high level of stress to enable them to become familiar with the feeling of being swamped by an overload of chemicals running through the bloodstream.

    It is important that they experience this because they can then know how to flip this switch in their opponent and this allows them the option of controlling the situation.

    To control the situation at that point the student would have to practice what we call the Escalation drills. This allows the student to loophole their opponent and perhaps a get out clause to avoid the situation becoming physical.

    I like to use what I term the Traffic Light method, whereby we have the reverse of the normal light procedure. We have red, amber and green.

    Red, obviously you're stopped, nothing is happening. Amber you're switched on, your waiting and green is a go.

    The life lessons from these drills in the studio can be easily assimilated into everyday life. A confrontation with the boss, a difficult argument with your spouse or children, etc. All this can be much better handled when we understand our own capacities.
    And also, it doesn't have to be a violent confrontation. As I said pre-planning and programming works both ways. If you plan for a situation to go well, you stand a much better chance as you have prepared.

    As is said..

    Whether you think you can't or think you can, you are right!


    Fiona - 
    Let's talk about that last sentence for just a moment. I have found in the young people I speak with that our social environment encourages us to think we are capable of anything we put our minds to. Unfortunately, the last bit - we put our minds to - gets lopped off. They think that without putting in the brain training/muscle training/time and effort that spur of the moment they will have what it takes to do the job. That complicates the think you can/can't equation. Can you add your two cents?

    Danielle -
    The prevailing line of thought seems to be...that we are capable of anything.

    The truth is and it is a lovely thing...is that we are not in fact capable of anything.

    However, we are capable of MUCH more that we think we are.

    Of course though, that requires effort as you say. The effort to success ratio is an extremely important factor.

    Edison and the light bulb are a prime example. It took him many hundreds of attempts before finally achieving success. In fact each 'fail' takes us a step closer. Our unconscious mind, which makes up 93% of our decisions, doesn't know the difference between what
    s real or imagined. When we visualise with real intent, the mind believes it has happened. This gives us drive and momentum but of course we now have to take action!

    So whether in the Dojo or in everyday life, we must practice daily inside and out.

    Fiona - 
    Last thoughts?

    Danielle - 
    A true fighter will always recreate and innovate. Embrace your fears and get to know them. Remember...your mind is like a parachute. It only works when it's open.


    Much of my teaching and philosophy was inspired by the works of  Erle Montague, Larry Tatum.

    Thanks, Danielle. 
    You can stay in touch with Danielle Serpico HERE



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  • Are You Thinking of Co-authoring a Book? Info for Writers

    Writing
     (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
    A few years ago, I met English ex-pat John Dolan on Twitter, of all places. He had doffed his Henry Higgins cap to explain to me the retweet concept when I was meandering around the Twittersphere as a newbie. Our personalities clicked, and we decided in short order to write a novel together via the Internet.

    I thought I might lay out some of the barrels we needed to leap in order to help you make decisions should you ever find yourself wanting to co-author a work. If you are a reader you might appreciate the behind scenes foibles

    Timing
    I thought the hardest part of this experiment would be time. John and I had our personal constraints as well as the timing issues of a 9 hours difference between EST where I live and Dubai time where he was living. But that was the least of the issues. Technology issues were our #1 headache.

    Trusting.
    If either of us threw up our hands before we were done, then months of work would be down the drain. Make sure you have an exit strategy should one of you need to stop.

    Picking a language.
    John speaks British-English, and I speak American-English. Word choices, phrases, even spelling can become confusing, even if you are from different regions within a single country. Here’s a real-life exchange between John and I that actually made it into our book:

    John: "Dagenham Dave" was a 'wide boy' in an Ian Dury song.

    Fiona: OK I think this is fine but have no idea what a 'wide boy' could mean besides someone who enjoys too many pastries.

    John: Continues Fiona's education in matters British: A 'wide boy' is someone who is an insincere person, a con-man, a snake-oil salesman, someone obsessed with making 'loads of money'. OK, Elisa? Yours, Henry Higgins.

    Fiona: Thank you, professor. Can I take the marbles out of my mouth now?

    Writing Style
    I am a writer who has the characters and plotline basics in her head, and then lets the story unfold organically. John is a plotter extraordinaire. He kept sending me spreadsheets. To be honest, the first time I opened one, I broke out in hives. He had to coax me, like a wounded animal, into opening any others.

    Specialties
    Combining fortes produced what we think is a really interesting and unique work. I have a background in psychology, weapons, CSI, and fighting. John is a Shakespearean actor, musician, poet, who works with laws and numbers. We each wrote our strong points and did tutorials for the other. Once I even “killed” one of my adult children over Skype with a black magic marker. John needed to understand how the move worked and the victim's body mechanics. My kid #2 is a trained martial artist so she knows how to take a convincing fall.

    A Meeting of the MindsBecause we discussed plot holes, characters, settings and all of the issues that make writers have to dump whole scenes, when we actually sat down to write, our first draft was pretty clean. We did do some rearranging and tweaking, but for the most part, we had already ironed the wrinkles out of the major issues.

    Co-authoring CHAOS IS COME AGAIN with John Dolan was a fabulous experience. I had the most fun. I laughed so hard when we were working together that my sides hurt. Chaos Is Come Again is a psychological suspense, a mystery, and a love story, packed with irreverent humour, and viewed through the lens of obsession. You’ve probably never read anything like it
    .







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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

    Fiona - 
    Had you planned to live here forevermore?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

    Jennifer - 
    That's an interesting analogy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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



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





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

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


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