How Much Research is Enough?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

My research tells me it’s Mother’s Day. So: Happy Mother’s Day! As Casey Stengel used to say, “You could look it up.”

But before the internet, it was rather easy for a writer to “fake it” when it came to research. That’s because a) there wasn’t an easy way for a reader to find, instantly, whether a detail was correct or not; and b) there wasn’t any social media or customer reviews for blowback. Thus, an author could get away with a bit of sloppiness—if that’s the kind of writer he wanted to be.

I have a friend who is an accomplished historical fiction writer. He worked his tail off on a series that came out in the early 90s. His research was impeccable. While his series sold okay, another historical fiction writer was enjoying much greater success with his series which (to put it mildly) was rather deficient in the research arena. Indeed, I read one of the books in preparation for my own historical series. This author’s book took place in 1904, but after a couple of chapters I had to put it down, because he had a thriving silent movie industry happening in Hollywood.

One problem: Hollywood did not become a popular movie location until around 1910, and certainly wasn’t hopping until the teens.

These days, you couldn’t get away with such a mistake. But would you want to?

Some significant fakery occurs in the classic film, Casablanca. One of the screenwriters, Julius Epstein, once admitted:

There never were Letters of Transit. Germans never wore uniforms in Casablanca, that was part of the Vichy agreement. But we didn’t know what was going on in Casablanca. We didn’t even know where Casablanca was!

But Letters of Transit sounds real. Which is, of course, the key to fakery!

In the 1960s Lawrence Block wrote a paperback series about a world-roaming secret agent named Tanner. When he got the galleys for one of the books he saw an odd term in the text: tobbo shop. What? He checked his own manuscript and saw that he had written tobacco shop. The typesetter had made a mistake. But Block sat back and mused that tobbo shop had a realistic ring to it and besides, how many readers would have been to Bangkok? (I believe he even got some letters from readers who had been there, and did remember those “quaint tobbo shops.”)

Harlan Coben issues a warning about research:

“I think it’s actually a negative for writers sometimes when they’re writing contemporary novels to know too much. First of all, doing research is more fun than writing, so you start getting into the research and you forget to tell your story. And, second, which is on a very parallel track … sometimes you learn all kinds of cute factoids you think are so interesting that you include them in the book, but you weigh the story down. I try not to do that.”

One method I’ve used when writing hot (and not wanting to stop) and I get to a spot where I know I’ll need research, I’ll put in a placeholder (***) and keep writing. I’ll make my best guess about how the scene should go, then do any additions or corrections later.

On the other hand, when writing historical fiction, which demands detail precision, I have to do a lot of research up front. For my series about a young woman lawyer in turn-of-the-century Los Angeles, I spent many, many hours in the downtown L.A. library, poring over microfilm of the newspapers of the day. I have two huge binders full of this research, and I’m really proud of the results. But man, it’s hard work (am I right, Clare?)

But it’s worth it. When the first book came out almost twenty years ago it sold great and got uniformly positive reviews, several mentioning the historical accuracy. I did, however, get a physical letter (remember those?) from the curator of a telephone museum! He said he enjoyed the book, but there was one little detail about my lead, Kit Shannon, using a wall telephone, that I got wrong. The one guy in the United States who would have noticed this happened to read my book!

Naturally, it was not plausible to dump all the books in the warehouse to change that teeny, tiny thing. And who else was going to notice? But it rankled me, nonetheless.

When I got the rights back to the series, that was the only thing I wanted to change. All those years later I was still mad about it! Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the letter from the museum guy. I decided to try to find him online. Instead I found another museum and emailed somebody there, explaining the detail. In return, I got a nice email back telling me there was a model of telephone that operated exactly like I had it. It would have been used only by very wealthy people.

Which is how it was in my book. Kit lives with her wealthy great aunt in the posh section of town known as Angeleno Heights.

I’d been right all along! How about them apples? (Yes, I’ve been wrong before. It was in October of 1993. I thought the Phillies would win the World Series.)

Today, there are areas in your fiction that you’d better get right or you’ll hear about it, boy howdy. Perhaps the biggest of these is weapons. If you have your hero cocking the hammer of his Glock, expect a flood of abuse letting you know that a Glock has no hammer. (And if Gilstrap reads your book, duck, because he’ll be throwing it at you.) If you have your hero shoving another clip into his Beretta, you’ll have an irate horde telling you to shove … never mind, just note that a clip is not a magazine.

If you’re not accurate about a place, you’ll hear from people who live there. This is partly why I base most of my books in my hometown of Los Angeles. I grew up here. I know it. That it also happens to be the greatest crime-noir city is a bonus.

But sometimes I want to venture forth. In some instances, to save me from a cumbersome research trip, I simply make up a town and slap it down somewhere. If people want to take the time to look it up and find out it doesn’t exist, they’ll know I made it up and accept it. Ross Macdonald and Sue Grafton set their series in Santa Teresa, a stand-in for Santa Barbara that allowed them plenty of leeway to make up locations within. No one’s complaining.

So I’ll throw it open. What’s your philosophy on research? Do you follow rabbit trails that can be an excuse to not write? Do you like to do as much….or as little… as possible? Do you, when the spirit moves, “fake it”? 

***

 

Reminder: My latest stand-alone thriller, LAST CALL, is still available at the launch price of 99¢. Because I want you to have it. Enjoy!

11+

What Really Goes On In The Morgue

I invited my buddy, Garry Rodgers, back to TKZ for a fascinating behind-the-scenes trip to the morgue. He’ll hang around for questions/comments, so don’t be shy. Now’s your chance to ask an expert something you might need for your WIP. Enjoy!

Most living people never visit the morgue.

Most never think of the morgue except when watching TV shows like CSI or some new Netflix forensic special. The screen may show in hi-def and tell in surround sound, but it can’t broadcast smell. That’s a good thing because no one would tune in and the actors would be looking for real-life morgue jobs like homicide cops, coroners and forensic pathologists.

I did two of those real-life morgue jobs for a long time. I’m a retired murder cop and field coroner who spent a lot of hours in that windowless place. Now, I’m a crime writer and thought I’d share a bit of what really goes on in the morgue with my crime-writing colleagues.

The morgue is strictly off-limits for anyone not having a specific reason to be there. That’s for a few reasons. One is the place can hold sensitive court evidence. Two is that it’s a somewhat disagreeable place due to the odor, temperature and the continual chance of contracting a contagious disease. The third reason is dignity. Even though the majority of the morgue occupants are no longer alive, they’re still human entities and not some sort of a morbid exhibit.

The morgue is a place of business. It’s a medical environment where the deceased are stored, processed and released to their final disposition. The morgue operates 24/7/365 as death pays no attention to the clock or the calendar. But, the morgue is busiest between 8:00 am and 4:30 pm Monday to Friday—holidays exempted. Morgue workers need time off like anyone else.

A city morgue, like I worked at in Vancouver, British Columbia, is an active environment. It has a dedicated shipping and receiving area with a loading dock much like a typical warehouse. Bodies arrive by black-paneled coroner vans or on sheet-covered gurneys brought down from the wards. They’re booked into a ledger, assigned a crypt and, yes, marked with a personalized toe tag.

Vancouver General Hospital’s morgue is like Costco for the dead. Stainless steel refrigeration crypts, stacked three-high in two rows of nine, have shelving for fifty-four. The freezer unit stores eight and isolation, for the stinkers, can take six sealed aluminum caskets or “tanks” as we called them. These tanks are also used for homicide cases, locked to preserve forensic evidence.

A grindy overhead hoist shifts cadavers from wheeled gurneys that squeak about fluorescent-lit rooms, touring them to and from roll-out metal drawers. Refrigeration temperatures are ideally set at 38-degrees Fahrenheit (4-degrees Celsius) while the ambient range in the autopsy suites is held at a comfortable 65 / 18. The storage rooms, laboratory and administration areas are normal office temperature, and they’re set apart from the main morgue region. Support staff, for the most part, have no sense of being so near to the dead.

Operational personnel in the morgue are highly-trained professionals. The workhorse of the morgue is the autopsy technician or attendant called the “Diener”. It’s a term originating from German that translates to “Servant of the Necromancer”. Dieners have the primary corpse handling and general dissection responsibility. They do most of the cutting.

Hospital pathologists are primarily disease specialists. They spend the majority of their day in the laboratory peering into microscopes and dictating reports. It’s a rare general pathologist who stays with an autopsy procedure from incision to sew-up. Usually, hospital pathologists come down to the morgue once the diener has removed the organs and has them ready for cross-section.

A hospital pathologist takes a good look for what might be the anatomical cause of a sudden or unexplained death. The main culprits are usually myocardial infarctions, or “jammers” as they called in the heart attack word. Aneurisms are another leading cause of dropping dead, and they’re often found in the brain.

Hospital pathologists sometimes do partial autopsies when they want to confirm an antemortem diagnosis. That might be a certain tumor or the extended effects of a runaway respiratory disease like Covid19. Sometimes, there’s no clear cause of death such as in a heart arrhythmia or a case of toxic shock.

Forensic pathologists are an entirely different animal. These are meticulous medical examiners with a tedious touch. It takes years of specialized training and understudy to become a board-certified forensic pathologist qualified to give expert evidence in criminal cases.

Forensic autopsies are peak-of-the-apex procedures inside the morgue. In a setting like Vancouver General Hospital (VGH), there are six autopsy stations in one open room. At any given time, the slabs are occupied and there more in the pipe. Not so with a forensic procedure.

There are two segregated and dedicated suites for forensic autopsies at VGH. Protection of the corpse, which is the best evidence in homicide cases, is paramount. So is maintaining continuity of possession, or the chain of evidence, that ends up in court. In a forensic autopsy, there’s utmost care to ensure the body is not compromised by contaminating it with foreign matter like DNA or losing critical components like bullets or blades.

In a homicide case, the body is taken from the crime scene in a sterilized shroud and locked in a tank. There’s an officer or coroner appointed to maintain continuity from the time the cadaver is bagged until the corpse is laid out on the slab. This is a critical element in forensic cases and one that is treated as gospel.

A forensic pathologist stays with the autopsy from the time the body is unlocked from its tank till the time the pathologist feels there is no more evidentiary value to glean. This is usually a full-day event but sometimes the body is put back in the tank, held overnight, and the process goes on the next day. This completely depends on the case nature such as multiple gunshot or knife wounds.

There are police officers at every forensic autopsy. Those are the crime scene examiners who photograph the procedure and pertinent physical properties. Detectives receive evidentiary exhibits like foreign objects such as fired bullets or organic particulates. There might be semen samples or other questionable biological matter. Then, there are usual suspects for toxicology examination like blood, urine, bile, stomach contents and vitreous fluid.

Radiography is done in almost all forensic autopsy cases. A portable X-ray machine scans the body as it lies on the table. In some situations, MRI / CT technology is helpful.

But, nothing beats the eye and experience of a seasoned forensic pathologist. They observe the slightest details that even a general pathologist would miss. However, don’t dismiss what a good diener can spot. It’s a treat to watch a forensic pathologist and a diener work when they’re in synch.

At day’s end, folks in the morgue are much like anyone else. They have a market to serve and they do it well. They’re also prone to talk shop in a social setting. There’s nothing like having drinks with a diener who’s into black humor.

 

What if six members—three generations—of your family were slain in a monstrous mass murder?

FROM THE SHADOWS is part of Garry’s “Based on True Crime” series. Available on Amazon and Kobo.

 

 

 

 

I couldn’t write a piece about what really goes on in the morgue without a few war stories. In my time as a cop and a coroner, I’ve been around hundreds of cadaver clients. Maybe more like thousands, but I never kept track. There were a few, though, that I’ll never forget.

One was “Mister Red Pepper Paste Man”. My friend Elvira Esikanian, a seasoned forensic pathologist of Bosnian descent who cut her teeth by exhuming mass graves, is a gem. She also has a wicked eye for detail.

I brought this old guy into the morgue after finding him dead in his apartment. Neighbors reported him screaming like someone was skinning a live cat. They rushed in and found him collapsed on the floor. No idea what killed him, but no sign of foul play.

Elvira opened his stomach and it was positively crawling. She knew what it was—botulism. Elvira told me to go back to the scene and look to see what he’d been eating. I found it. It was a jar of red pepper paste that was years past its expiry date, and the inside was a mass of organic activity.

Then, there was Kenny Fenton. He was found dead after being dumped beside a rural road and left to rot for a week in hot weather. I brought him into the morgue as intact as possible but it wasn’t easy. Kenny went into a stinker tank before Dr. Charlesworth could take him on.

As a routine, Kenny had a radiography session before his dissection. It showed a bullet in his gut. Not a run-of-the-mill bullet, of course. It was a .22 short with no rifling engraved on its sides.

Turns out, Kenny was accidentally shot in the neck by a Derringer dueling pistol. The bullet cut his carotid, hit his spinal cord, bounced back to his esophagus and he swallowed the dammed thing before bleeding out and dying fast. The crew he was with thought it was better to dump Kenny than report it.

And I can’t wrap up without a bit of spring foolishness that went on in the morgue. It involved my buddy—Dave the Diener.

Dave had about thirty years in the crypt before he met me. In fact, Dave had something to do with me getting hired by the coroner’s office because he thought I might be a good fit. Dave may, or may not, have been right.

It was the First of April and a Friday morning. Dave liked Fridays because he usually left early once his cutting was done. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, and I’ve done it myself.

But this Friday was different—probably had something to do with the date. I snuck into the morgue real early and prepared Dave’s first case. I needed some weight so he wouldn’t suspect anything off the bat. I put a bunch of concrete patio blocks on the crypt’s drawer base. Then, I placed my cadaver inside a shroud and laid it on top. I even attached a toe tag and made the right entries in the ledger.

I wasn’t there but sure heard from the other staff who were in on it. Dave rolled-out his first subject-for-the-day and unzipped the shroud. Smiling at Dave was the puckering face of a blow-up sex doll.

That’s the kind of stuff that really goes on in the morgue.

Garry Rodgers has lived the life he writes about. Garry is a retired homicide detective and forensic coroner who also served as a sniper on British SAS-trained Emergency Response Teams. Today, he’s an investigative crime writer and successful author with a popular blog at DyingWords.net as well as the HuffPost.

Garry Rodgers lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia at Canada’s west coast where he spends his off-time around the Pacific saltwater. Connect with Garry on Twitter and Facebook and sign up for his bi-monthly blog.

 

 

 

11+

Can Writers Lose Their Fingerprints?

By Sue Coletta

In a recent chat with Jordan, she mentioned that when she went for her TSA pre-check ID for her upcoming trip, they couldn’t detect her digital fingerprints.

They said since she spent so much time at a computer keyboard as a writer, she’s deteriorated her ridge detail.

Could this be true of all professional writers?

As you might have guessed, this question sent me down a rabbit hole of research, because I’ve had trouble with my iPhone’s digital fingerprint scan. It only recognizes my thumbprint, not any other finger. Which I figured was just a glitch with the phone. Now, I’m not so sure.

Before we can prove or disprove TSA’s conclusion, we first need to know the basics.

What is a fingerprint?

A fingerprint is a pattern of friction ridge details, comprised of ridges and valleys. A ridge is a high point, a valley is a depression or low point. Friction ridges are also found on our palms, feet, and toes. “Pattern” equals the unique characteristics of the ridges and valleys that make up the print, defined by the spatial relationship of multiple lines, their beginning and terminating points, and the unique pattern they create.

Each ridge contains tiny pores connected to sweat glands beneath the skin. When we touch an object, sweat and oils release from these pores and leave behind a print, latent or visible. The genes from our parents determine the general characteristics of the pattern.

 

Fun fact: Like human fingerprints, a dog’s nose has a unique identifiable pattern. In fact, many dog clubs now keep nose prints on file.

If you’d like to learn how to print your dog’s nose, see this post. 🙂

 

 

Sir Francis Galton was the first person to classify fingerprints into different types based on the three basic features: loops, arches, and whorls. Learn more about points, types, and classifications HERE.

Fingerprints form before birth and remain unchanged until the body decomposes after death.

There are two exceptions to “remain unchanged”…

If, say, someone sliced the tip of their finger with a knife, it may leave behind a scar. But then, their fingerprint would be even more distinguishable because of that scar.

Along similar lines, severe burns can also damage the deep layers of skin and obliterate the ridge detail. However, much like the knife injury, the scars that form would become the injured party’s unique identifiers.

The other exception has to do with the elderly. As we age, we lose skin elasticity, which may affect ridge detail. The fingerprints become wider; the spaces between the ridges narrower. Even though the fingerprint still exists, fingerprint technology may find it more difficult to detect.

Can someone be born without fingerprints?

In a few rare cases, yes. One condition called adermatoglyphia — also known as “immigration delay disease” — can result in a child being born without fingerprints. In some cases, these infants have almost no other health issues. In other cases, this condition could cause skin abnormalities, including tiny white bumps on the face, blistering of the skin, and/or a lack of sweat glands. Adermatoglyphia has only been documented in four families worldwide.

Naegeli Syndrome is another rare condition that halts the production of fingerprints in utero. Said syndrome is characterized by reticular skin pigmentation (meaning, mottled, purplish, and lace-like splotches), diminished function of the sweat glands, and the absence of teeth. Individuals with Naegeli Syndrome have sweat gland abnormalities. Not only do they lack fingerprints but they also suffer from heat intolerance due to a decrease or total inability to sweat.

Do Twins Have the Same Fingerprints?

No. Twins do not have identical fingerprints. Our prints are as unique as snowflakes. Actually, we have a 1 in 64 billion chance of having the same fingerprints as someone else.

Sci-fi writers could potentially take advantage of these odds, but it’s such a longshot that it’d be tricky to pull off.

Who’s most at risk for losing their fingerprints?

Patients undergoing chemotherapy — such as capecitabine (Xeloda), for example — are most at risk. With prolonged use of this medication, the finger-pad skin can become inflamed, swollen, and damaged to the point of erasing the ridge detail, according to DP Lyle, MD, author of Forensics for Dummies. Chemotherapy may also cause severe peeling of the palms and soles of the feet. The medical term for this condition is called Hand-Foot Syndrome.

Skin diseases like scleroderma, psoriasis, and eczema also have the potential to obliterate the ridge pattern.

Which professions cause the most damage to fingerprints?

Bricklayers and other heavy manual laborers can wear down their fingerprint ridges to the point where no pattern is visible. Secretaries and file clerks who handle paper all day can have a similar thing occur. Typists (Writers!) and piano players can suffer the same alterations. Hairstylists, dry cleaning workers, and those who work with lime (calcium oxide) are often exposed to chemicals that dissolve the upper layers of the skin, thereby flattening the ridge detail.

So, to answer our initial question, was TSA correct?

Yes! Pounding on the keyboard can wear away a writer’s fingerprints.

How might the lack of fingerprints cause problems?

Losing one’s prints can cause issues with crossing international borders and even logging on to certain computer systems.

Fortunately, fingerprint technology is always evolving and improving.

As more and more careers require hours of keyboard time, someday retinal scanners, facial recognition, and voice prints will replace the current technology.

Have you ever been told you have no digital fingerprints? Have you experienced any problems with fingerprint technology?

7+

Which Word is Correct: Coffin or Casket?

By SUE COLETTA

Last Friday I was editing what I wrote the day before in my WIP when a word stopped me cold: casket. Should that be coffin?

The specific year in question is 1901, so I needed to figure out exactly when “coffin” first became “casket”?

The words are often used interchangeably, but they shouldn’t be.

Coffins and caskets give two distinct mental images. I could ruin my scene if I used the wrong word.

Coffin

The word coffin comes from the Old French word cofin and the Latin word cophinus, which translates to basket. First used in the English language in 1380, a coffin is a box or chest for the display and/or burial of a corpse. When used to transport the deceased, a coffin may also be referred to as a pall.

The shape of a coffin resembles the shape of a body, with either six or eight sides, wider at the top to allow for the shoulders, then tapered toward the bottom—the foot, if you will. 😉

Think: Dracula movies.

Coffins date back to ancient Egypt when bodies were placed in a sarcophagus after the mummification process but before being buried in pyramids. Around 700 AD, the Celts in Europe began fashioning ornamental flat stones to coffins.

Casket

Interestingly enough, the word casket was originally used to describe a jewelry box, similar to the one George modeled in the above photo. 😀

In the mid-nineteenth century, casket took on an additional meaning synonymous with coffin.

Once morticians and undertakers started operating funeral parlors instead of mortuaries, the word coffin changed to casket because polite society considered it less offensive. The exact date still escaped me, though. I also had to consider the location of my story. What if Maine townsfolk used casket while Massachusetts residents still used coffin?

I kept digging…

A casket is rectangular in shape and often has a split-lid for viewing the deceased.

Caskets and coffins have been made of wood, cast iron, steel, fiberglass, real glass, bamboo, wicker, wool, and even gold. Wicker and wool threw me. How ’bout you? Carved whalebone, ivory, or precious metals adorned the ornamental trim, if the family coughed up the extra dough.

Both possess side handles for easy carrying. The main difference is the shape. Which, for writers as well as readers, is a pretty big deal. How would it look if pallbearers carried a triangular coffin? See what I’m sayin’? Details matter.

In 1784, a disturbing new law went into effect for a brief period. Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II declared coffins should be reused to save on wood. So, coffin-makers installed trap doors on coffin floors that would drop open as soon the wood hit the grave. After the funeral service, the undertaker would hoist the coffin out of the hole, rinse and repeat. Public outcry abolished the law six months later.

That’s all well and good — fascinating, even; I love learning new tidbits for the ol’ memory bank — but I still hadn’t answered my original question. Should I use coffin or casket in my WIP? Some might not understand a writer’s obsession over one tiny word, but TKZers know every word counts. More importantly, they must be the right words.

Next, I read about the different materials used in coffins…

From 1848 through the 1870’s Almond Fisk made some coffins out of cast-iron. Shaped like a sarcophagus, they weighed over 300 pounds. Total cost: $100. How many pallbearers would it take to carry 400, 500, 600 pounds of dead weight?

Wooden coffins sold for $1.00 to $3.00 during that time. Imagine? Today some “burial boxes” can cost a whopping $50,000., depending on material and style.

In 1950, Fisk died penniless after mortgaging his patent rights to John G. Forbes, who resurrected the company and continued the cast-iron coffin business till it folded in 1888. The affluent members of society, however, preferred cast-iron coffins to wood; they helped to deter grave robbers. In fact, some say General Ulysses S. Grant is buried in a steel casket for this very reason.

Edgar Allan Poe’s The Premature Burial added to the chaos of the 1700’s and 1800’s, when folks feared being buried alive. Which is when coffin-makers introduced the safety coffin, complete with cord and bell. We’ve all heard those stories, right? Countless novels, short stories, novellas, film adaptations, and even plays hopped on that particular bandwagon.

Poe’s The Premature Burial exacerbated many people’s worst fear.

            The lady was deposited in her family vault, which, for three subsequent years, was undisturbed. At the expiration of this term it was opened for the reception of a sarcophagus; — but, alas! how fearful a shock awaited the husband, who, personally, threw open the door! As its portals swung outwardly back, some white-appareled object fell rattling within his arms. It was the skeleton of his wife in her yet unmolded shroud.

            A careful investigation rendered it evident that she had revived within two days after her entombment; that her struggles within the coffin had caused it to fall from a ledge, or shelf to the floor, where it was so broken as to permit her escape. A lamp which had been accidentally left, full of oil, within the tomb, was found empty; it might have been exhausted, however, by evaporation.

          On the uttermost of the steps which led down into the dread chamber was a large fragment of the coffin, with which, it seemed, that she had endeavored to arrest attention by striking the iron door. While thus occupied, she probably swooned, or possibly died, through sheer terror; and, in failing, her shroud became entangled in some iron — work which projected interiorly. Thus she remained, and thus she rotted, erect.

As you can probably guess, I got sucked right into the master of darkness’ story instead of searching for the answer to my research question! It wasn’t easy — Edgar Allan Poe’s mind intrigues me — but I finally managed to refocus on the task at hand.

Turns out, I had the answer all along in my printed research paperwork, hidden in a news article. The story told of a victim’s father who argued over the price of his daughter’s coffin, believing he should be charged the wholesale price rather than retail. *facepalm*

Ah, well, I figured, maybe I can use this casket/coffin research for my Monday post on the Kill Zone. 🙂 There must be a lesson or two in here somewhere. Or maybe, just maybe, this information might save one of you research time in the future.

What say you, my beloveds? Have you ever gotten hung up on one word? Did it lead you to uncover a fascinating tidbit or two? Tell us about it.

International Thriller Writers wrote a feature article about RACKED, which I’m still *happy dancing* about. If you’re interested, you can read the full article HERE.

The ebook of RACKED is on sale for 99c on Amazon for another day or two.

*All books in the series can stand alone.

 

6+

Writing About Experiences You’ve Never Had

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Ted Fox, USMC

One hundred years ago on this very day, the armistice ending the “war to end all wars” was signed just outside the city of Compiègne, France.

World War I, as it is now known, was a bloodbath, an unleashing of horrors heretofore unknown by humankind. From machine guns (“the devil’s paintbrush”) to phosgene gas, technology had overtaken military tactics, resulting in a massive scale of death.

One of those was my great uncle, Frederick “Ted” Fox, a Marine. He died in the Battle of Belleau Wood and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

The longest book I ever wrote was the historical, Glimpses of Paradise. It begins in 1916 Nebraska and ends in early 1920s Hollywood. In between is a World War I sequence that was the result of intense research.

Which raises a natural question: how do you write about experiences you’ve never had? I’ve never been to war. Does that mean I can’t write about it? I obviously didn’t think so when I wrote Glimpses. So here’s what I did: 

  1. Extensive reading. I found some books deep inside the downtown branch of the Los Angeles Public Library that were priceless first-hand accounts of World War I battles. I also spent hours in the microfiche room, going through newspaper accounts of the same.
  2. I connected my emotions. I believe that if we’ve made it past forty or so in this life, we’ve experienced every emotion there is to a greater or lesser degree. While I have never felt the fear that a soldier feels on the eve of battle, I have felt the fear of dying. The same physiological response is there, and by extrapolation I brought it to the characters in the book.
  3. I looked at a lot of pictures of battlefields, soldiers, weapons and so on. I wanted to be soaked in them, so I could write with that soaked feeling.
  4. I had an expert review it. I showed the battle pages to someone who knows warfare, and got some notes for changes.

How about you? Have you ever written way outside your experience? What did you do to get it right? Please tell us in the comments!

And please pause a moment this Armistice Day to honor those men who gave the last full measure of devotion for our country a century ago.

Also, my film professor son alerted me to a new documentary by Peter Jackson about soldiers in World War I. The talented Jackson took old, herky-jerky silent film footage, digitized it and used computerization to connect the frames and make all the movements natural. Then he colorized the footage.

The stunning result is a view of The Great War as we have never seen it. I hear it will blow you away. Here’s the official trailer:

3+

Could a Feather Send You to Jail?

By SUE COLETTA

Raymond Reddington (left), Monny (right), Stretch (center)

While conducting research for my WIP, I stumbled across a law that blew my mind. As many of you know, I’m a huge animal lover. I would no more harm an animal than a member of my family. However, according to this statute, I may have inadvertently broken the law. And you might be guilty, too!

Years ago, I developed a fascination with eagles while writing Wings of Mayhem. When I wrote Blessed Mayhem, I became enamored with crows and ravens, as well. For those who aren’t familiar with Blessed Mayhem, Mr. Mayhem (the antagonist) has three pet crows. So, as the author, I had to know as much about crows as he did to portray him in a realistic manner. For months I studied their mannerisms, favorite foods, habitat, reproductive life, rituals, complex communication skills, body language, etc. And later, befriended a mating couple in my yard. You might remember my post about wildlife.

Some Native Americans believe that when a feather drops from the sky it carries the power of the bird, that crows live in two parallel universes, with one talon in a spiritual realm and one in the physical world, that they’re fore-tellers of change and messengers of the spirit world. When a crow visits, s/he expects to find our authentic self.

In writing, our character’s “authentic self” or “true character” is the 3rd Dimension of Character, the person only those closest to him truly know. The antagonist, especially a killer, will want to portray a false facade in public (1st Dimension of Character) to evade detection.

For my Mayhem Series, I take note of how my body reacts in the presence of crows, and then I transfer that emotion to the page to show Mr. Mayhem’s soft side.

Poe showing Shakespeare how to eat fries.

When my beloved murder of nine glides into the yard — awe-inspiring wings in perfect harmony with members of their tribe — my breath quickens, the world falls away.

As my stiff shoulders ease, I marvel at these incredible birds. I consider it an honor that they’ve let me share in the joyfulness of newborn chicks and the devastation of loss. I’ve reveled in their teachings of how to fly without smashing into a sibling’s wings, the intricacies of how best to crack peanut shells, and the unwavering belief that leftover French fries taste amazing first thing in the morning.

It’s probably no surprise then that when Poe leaves me a feather, I treasure her generous gift. But now, darn it, I found that pesky law …

Authorities created the North American Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918 when folks killed too many birds for the sole purpose of adorning their hats with feathered bling. It’s a broad-brush law intended to protect birds. Which is fabulous. The downside is, the law doesn’t recognize the difference between plucked feathers, shed feathers, or bird pieces. None of it is allowed in our possession. The Act lists over 800 birds. Crow feathers top that list, along with eagles, owls, ravens, hawks, and even blue jays.

In order to keep a feather collection, we need to visit our local Fish & Game headquarters and pull a permit. Maybe one of our TKZ legal minds could weigh in on any stipulations of obtaining said permit? I can’t bear to toss the feathers back in the yard, as the law requires. Poe and Edgar might consider it a slap across the beak.

Did you know it was illegal to pick up a feather? According to this law, not only are we required to figure out the exact species of bird who dropped the feather, but we need to cross-check the list to see if the feather is protected under federal law. The harmless act of collecting a feather from your yard could wind up costing you a hefty fine and even a misdemeanor conviction!

This discovery sent shock waves through my writer brain. Perhaps I could use this law in my WIP. We’re always searching for an interesting new angle, aren’t we?

Some of the ways I considered using this law are …

  • What if the detective uses the Migration Bird Act as “probable cause” to obtain a search warrant?
  • What if the confiscated feathers linked a suspect to the victim?
  • What if the detective witnesses a strange man pocketing a protected feather off the beach (yes, sea gulls are also on that watch-list) and he follows him to a killing lair?

None of those worked for my story, though. Too easy. I may have to abandon the idea.

How might you use the Migration Bird Act to heat up the investigation? Were you aware of this law?

 

Sue Coletta is on a path. She earned her ticket into the crowded arena of dark thriller contenders with her previous novel (“Marred”), and in “Wings of Mayhem” she announces her arrival with the wail of approaching sirens and the quiet horror of a blade swinging at your throat in the dark. Don’t miss this one. A star is born.” ~ Larry Brooks

Look inside Wings of Mayhem HERE.

 

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Can Creativity Pass Through Generations via DNA?

By SUE COLETTA

This video sent me down a rabbit hole of research.

As you can imagine, my writer brain lit up. Turns out, the research was even more fascinating than the video. A scientific study showed that a traumatic event could affect the DNA in sperm or eggs and alter the brains and behavior of subsequent generations. This breakthrough is an important discovery in the fight to treat phobias and anxiety.

Do you fear spiders, heights, or small spaces for no apparent reason? This may explain why.

Neuroscientists trained mice to fear a cherry blossom scent prior to copulation. While breeding these mice, the team at the Emory University School of Medicine looked at what was happening inside the sperm. Incredibly, the sperm showed a section of DNA, responsible for sensitivity to the cherry blossom scent, was indeed more active.

The mice’s offspring, and their offspring — the grand-mice, if you will — were all extremely sensitive to cherry blossom and avoided the scent at all costs, despite never experiencing a problem with it in their lives. They also found changes in brain structure.

In the smell-aversion study, scientists believe either some of the odor ended up in the bloodstream, which affected sperm production, or the brain sent a signal to the sperm to alter the DNA.

The report states, “Our findings provide a framework for addressing how environmental information may be inherited transgenerationally at behavioral, neuroanatomical and epigenetic levels.”

Enivronmental change can also critically affect the lifestyle, reproductive success, and lifespan of adult animals for generations. Exposure to high temperatures led to the expression of endogenously repressed copies of genes — sometimes referred to as “junk” DNA. The changes in chromatin occurred in the early embryo before the onset of transcription and were inherited through eggs and sperm. In mealworms, they traced the DNA changes through 14 generations.

Why mealworms? It’s quicker to test generation after generation on an animal with a short lifespan.

Another study showed that a mouse’s ability to remember can be affected by the presence of immune system factors in their mother’s milk. Chemokines — signaling proteins secreted by cells — carried in a mother’s milk caused changes in the brains of their offspring, affecting their memory later in life.

Memories are passed down through generations via genetic switches that allow offspring to inherit the experience of their ancestors. These switches, however, can be turned on and off, according to Science Daily. Scientists have long assumed that memories and learned experiences must be passed to future generations through personal interactions. However, this research shows that it’s possible for some information to be inherited biologically through chemical changes that occur in DNA.

Creativity counts as a learned behavior, but I also believe it goes deeper than that. Think about how deeply you feel about your writing. For most writers I know, when we’re “in the zone” our soul does the writing. One could argue we’re merely vessels who type. Have you ever read a passage that you don’t remember writing? Our ability to create burrows into the core of who we are, and thus, leaves an indelible mark. How, then, can we not pass that part of ourselves to future generations?

How many of you have creative folks in your family tree, be it writers, artists, musicians, singers, or other forms of creativity?

To test my theory, I asked the same question to my fellow TKZ members. Please note: this revelation occurred to me yesterday, so I’ve only included the members who saw the email in time. Hopefully, the others will add their responses in the comments.

For those I did catch on a Sunday, check out what they said …

Elaine Viets said, “My late cousin Kurt was a talented wood carver, and my grandfather was known as a great story teller in the local saloons.”

I love wood-carved pieces. The smell, the texture, the swirl to the grain. It’s not an easy creative outlet to master.

Jordan Dane comes from a long line of creative people. Here’s her answer: “My paternal grandfather was a writer for a Hispanic newspaper. My dad was an architect and artist (painter), my older brother went into architecture too, specializing in hospital design. My dad is a real renaissance guy. He could sculpt, paint, draw and he has a passion for cooking. My older brother Ed and I share a love for singing. I sang in competitive ensemble groups. He played in a popular area band and has sung in barbershop quartets. My mom was the original singer in our family. She has a great voice.”

Joe Hartlaub has two talented children. Here’s what he said, “Annalisa Hartlaub, my youngest daughter, is a photographer. My oldest son Joe is also a highly regarded bass guitar player locally.”

He’s being modest. When I checked out Annalisa’s photographs on Facebook and Instagram they blew me away. A photography project she created at 15 years old also went viral.

When I prodded further, Joe added, “My maternal grandfather played guitar, but we never knew it until we came across a picture of him taken at a large Italian social club gathering where he was strumming away. He was in his twenties at the time. As far as the source of Annalisa’s talent goes…her mother is a terrific photographer. The conclusion is that Annalisa gets the form of the art from her mother and her creativeness from me.”

Laura Benedict stunned me with her answer. “Someone doing genealogy linked my maternal grandfather’s family to Johann Sebastian Bach.”

Talk about a creative genius!

Laura added, “I remember a few very small watercolors that I believe my maternal grandmother painted. Trees and houses. But while we were close, we never talked about art. My aunt also did some drawing.”

John Gilstrap also came from a long line of creative people. Here’s his answer…

“My paternal extended family has always been fairly artistic.  My grandfather, I am told–he died long before I was born–had a beautiful singing voice, and for a period of time worked whatever the Midwest version of the Vaudeville circuit was.  My father, a career Naval aviator, wrote the Navy’s textbook, The Principles of Helicopter Flight, and had two patents on helicopter cargo handling operations.  He passed away in 2006.

My brother, four years older than I, plays a number of instruments, but his primary proficiency is the piano.  His daughter is a very accomplished cellist who makes her living as the director of a high school orchestra that consistently kills at competitions.
Closer to home, my only musical talent is to be a passable tenor in the choir.  For years, I sang with a choral group that performed all over the DC area, including a number of gigs at The Kennedy Center.  As a high schooler, our son was a pretty good cellist, but he walked away from it in college and never really looked back.”

 

Although I wasn’t able to catch her in time, PJ Parrish is the sister team of Kris Montee and Kelly Nichols.

As for me, my maternal grandfather was a highly regarded artist (painter) in his time. My mother was a beautiful writer, even though I never knew it while she was alive. After she passed, I discovered notebooks full of her writing.

So, can creativity be passed through our DNA? Judging by this small pool of writers, I find it hard not to entertain the possibility.

I’m betting the same holds true if I expand the test subjects to include you, my beloved TKZers. How many of you have creative folks in your family tree?

On a picturesque fall morning in Grafton County, New Hampshire, a brutal murder rocks the small town of Alexandria. In the backyard of a weekend getaway cabin, a dead woman is posed in red-satin, with two full-bloomed roses in place of eyes.

In her hand, a mysterious envelope addressed to Sheriff Niko Quintano. Inside, Paradox vows to kill again if his riddle isn’t solved within 24 hours.

With so little time and not enough manpower, Niko asks his wife for help. But Crime Writer Sage Quintano is dealing with her own private nightmare. Not only did she find massive amounts of blood on the mountain where she and her family reside, but a phone call from the past threatens her future–the creepy mechanical voice of John Doe, the serial killer who murdered her twin sister.

Together, can Niko and Sage solve the riddle in time to save the next victim? Or will the killer win this deadly game of survival?

Pre-order for 99c and save! Releases July 25, 2018. Want an early peek? Read opening chapter HERE.

 

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Eavesdropping on Quora

By Sue Coletta

Crime writers do their research in various places. Many of us have experts we can call on, but I hate to bother friends unless I can’t find the answer elsewhere. A great place to look is Quora. Numerous LEOs volunteer their time to answer questions. If you’re unfamiliar with Quora, you can follow topic feeds, like Police and Law Enforcement, and scan the Q&As. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, ask a new question.

Because I write about serial killers I also follow Psychopathy and Psychopaths. Some of the information is valid, other times alleged “real” psychopaths write in. Although it’s not unheard of for psychopaths to brag, Quora allows anonymity. Any time the poster doesn’t need to reveal their true identity, the information becomes unreliable.

Even if the poster has a valid profile, still double check the information. I recommend confirming with least two or three reliable sources for any internet information you intend to use in a book. Two of my favorite sites are Psychology Today and Explore Forensics, depending on what I’m looking for. I also need to give a quick shout-out to my dear friend Garry Rodgers, RCMP (Ret.), weapons expert and forensic coroner, who blogs at Dying Words. Quora also has its place in the pecking order.

In the Q&A below, I did not edit the answers for two reasons:

1. It’s not my writing; full credit goes to the poster;

2. The voice, including grammar and/or spelling errors, helps with the overall mental image of the officer who’s answering. After all, that’s one of the best parts of eavesdropping.

How many of you have listened in on a conversation while shopping or out to eat? You may not be able to see the person, but their language paints an image in your mind. As you read the following stories, I want you to imagine the officer who’s speaking. There’ll be a fun exercise at the end of this post.

Please note: the s-word is used a few times. Cussing and cops go together like peanut butter cookies and milk. You’ve been warned. 🙂

As a cop, what are the weirdest things you ever experienced?

Scott Conroy, 17 year veteran of law enforcement, answers:

Years ago some construction workers found some human bones in a a concrete patio that they were tearing up in the Venice Beach Area. In looking into the concrete we noticed that there were cavities in the concrete that were made by the now decomposed body. We summoned the Scientific Investigation Unit (LAPD’s version of “CSI”) and we came up with an idea to inject latex rubber into the cavities to get the body contours. Lo and behold we pulled out a latex rubber hand impression of the person to whom the bones belonged.

The detail of the latex replica was amazing. We could see defensive knife wounds and more importantly we saw fingerprints on the latex. We printed the “fingers” of the latex cast and discovered they belonged to a teacher who had disappeared around the time the concrete patio was poured. The ensuing homicide investigation revealed that the primary suspect in this homicide was a nephew who had worked in construction and on that particular patio job.

Epilogue: The suspect, however, had suffered an industrial accident a few years before the discovery of the bones in the concrete and was existing in a vegetative state. In the interest of justice, he was not charged or put on trial for that crime.

What is the scariest experience you’ve ever had as a police officer?

Jim Lee, Former Military Police officer (8 years) answers:

I was running a solo unit one unseasonably cold (for San Diego) November night over 20 years ago when dispatch sends me to an on-base bowling alley; apparently, security personnel were dealing with a D&D (Drunk/Disorderly) individual running around the parking lot half-dressed and beating on cars. I arrive on scene 5 minutes later and see the contact, and something wasn’t right about the situation. As I attempted to make contact with the individual I already didn’t like what I was seeing: no shirt in 40 degree weather but still sweating like a pig; dilated pupils; blank thousand-yard stare and wandering aimlessly. I’d seen these symptoms before, and they had jack sh!t to do with alcohol from what I’d remembered.

As I unsuccessfully attempted to speak to this guy he starts toward me in a threatening manner; I decided to deploy my collapsible baton and warn him off, but he wasn’t listening. That’s when I realized what I was looking at: My new “friend” was on PCP (aka “Angel Dust”).

Officers who have experience dealing with contacts on PCP are familiar with the dangerous situation I found myself in. But for those who don’t know: PCP prevents the actions normally caused when a neurotransmitter, called glutamate, attaches to its receptor in the brain.

It also disrupts the actions of other neurotransmitters. PCP distorts sights, sound and other senses. The user may experience “out of body” sensations that are related to the dissociative effects, feel like they are “floating” with strange impressions of space and time, or imagine things that aren’t real. Some abusers experience euphoria and invulnerability while others experience drowsiness and calming sensations.

PCP is dose-dependent and the effects on the brain intensify with greater doses depending on the methods of consumption and certain biological or psychological factors of the abuser with effects, generally, last from 4 – 6 hours. While the intoxication effects on the brain may be short-lived, the disruptions in neuronal activities can cause the person to feel unpleasant symptoms of depression, anxiety, mood swings, and general dysphoria when the intoxication effects subside.

I threw the baton to the security personnel; I knew, thanks to the effects of PCP, that I could beat the brakes off this guy all night long and he wouldn’t feel a damned thing, so the baton was absolutely pointless. I requested a cover unit to the scene; it usually takes several officers to subdue someone who is on this stuff, and I couldn’t trust the barely-trained security personnel, so I knew I’d have to keep the suspect at bay for a few minutes until “real” help arrived.

This is when things went sideways.

The suspect immediately went for my 9mm Beretta sidearm. I knew I had to keep him from getting to my service weapon at all costs, even if it meant taking an ass-kicking; a bloody nose or broken jaw would pale in comparison to what would happen if he were to somehow get hold of my pistol. Fortunately there were two things going in my favor:

  1. Our department issued retention holsters as standard equipment. Retention holsters serve the same purpose as regular holsters with one exception: instead of simply lifting the gun on of the holster one has to use a sort of “twisting” motion to be able to get to the weapon, otherwise it won’t budge. Thankfully, I’m pretty sure he didn’t know that.
  2. This guy was about 140 pounds soaking wet; this meant he gave up about 80 pounds to me (I was about 220–225 back then).

With a simple “bear hug” I was able to slam this guy on the pavement, as I was hoping to knock the wind out of him for a second. That was the easy part.

But now the fun was about to start.

Remember what I said about PCP’s effect of the human body’s nervous system? I finally got to see this effect first-hand; no amount of punching, arm bar holds or pressure point manipulation was going to stop this freak. It took all I had just to wrestle this guy and hold on for dear life (namely, mine). Despite the fact that I outweighed him by such a large amount I could barely hold this guy down, and he was determined to get his hands on my weapon. I’m not sure how long it took the cover unit to finally show up; it was probably about another 5 minutes but it felt like an hour.

Fortunately the officers in the other unit (they were riding a partner unit, thankfully) immediately recognized the situation I faced and helped me hold the drug-crazed nutjob down while security personnel contacted a paramedic unit under our orders. Upon the paramedic’s arrival it took no less than five of us to apply restraints to the suspect, “hogtie” him and prepare him for transport to the medical facility for treatment and evaluation. A subsequent search revealed that he was also armed with a 4-inch blade; I wondered why he didn’t use it but was relieved that he must have forgotten about it (otherwise this story would have been about a police shooting).

After I was also examined by the paramedics (and found to be still intact) my watch commander ordered me back to the station to take a rest and start my report. Good thing, too, because that was probably the longest 10 to 15 minutes of my life at that point; I was worn out, and someone just tried to kill me.

Yeah, fun times.

Benjamin Bender, Retired Police Detective St Louis Metropolitan Police, answers:

For me its almost getting thrown off a 6 story bridge that was over a freeway while fighting a guy who outweighed me by 100 lb or watching a Woman burn alive 3 feet from me that I would have saved if I had arrived literally 10 seconds earlier.

Bridge incident story starts as all my stories do. One day while on “routine” patrol (again on a day my permanent partner had a Kelly Day…which was a common thing for me to get the call of the century while he was off….drove him nuts).

I got a call for a “vehicle accident” on the Freeway, I-55 near the North Bound exit onto the Poplar Street bridge. Traffic often backed up on that on ramp and rear end collisions were common. I was in an area not my normal one because my partner Blake was off I got stuck in a sector car that a guy was off and would be deadheaded. When I got the call it was crucial that I take one particular hidden on ramp to arrive at the location the quickest. I unwisely chose to go to one that was 2 blocks further (because the other was hard to find off an alley hardly marked and it was dark).

When I pulled up 3 cars had been in an accident. A drunk in the rear slammed into a guy who slammed into a 3rd car in front. The furthest car in front had a Mother in Law in it. The Son in law was the middle car. Drunk as I said..in the rear ramming and causing it.

Well as I pull up the Mother in laws car erupts in flame from gas leaking out of the tank by the back bumper. She is trapped in the car but nobody had got her out by breaking the window. Nobody noticed the leaking fuel. By the time I run to her the flame is fully over and in the back seat of the car. I break the window and cut her seat belt …go to pull her 100 LB body out like a kid but just before I can the flame billows over and engulfs both of us…the entire car bumper to bumper. I drop away and lose most of my exposed hair and a shirt. She burned alive in front of us..and the Son in law. I then had to take him to the station and sit there while he called his wife and told her he just rear ended her Mother and she died.

If that was my beat or I knew that exit better she would have lived. 100%

Second was a Home Invasion robber wanted for many crimes was leading Cops from 6 or more jurisdictions on a high speed chase through the City and County. I was listening in on the radio and correctly guessed he would go for the bridge over the Mississippi to get to Illinois. The chase went on for over an hour and I correctly deduced he was circling the rabbit hole to get home to Illinois and couldn’t find the bridge on ramp.

I went to the easiest one for him to get to based on his location north of the city. I then cause a traffic jam on the 1 lane on ramp by ordering 1 car to stop on the ramp and not move until I said ok. 10 Min of round about chase later…sure enough…here he comes. Goes on the side of cars as much as he can till its blocked..gets out on foot and starts running up the ramp to the bridge on foot with me 10 feet behind..letting him run a bit and get tired before we fight.

So…he gets higher up and apparently then did get tired and want to fight. When it didn’t go well for him he tried to jump off the side of the bridge (he didn’t realize that the earth rise fell away to a long drop the higher you went up…he thought ground was about 10 feet down or something). I instinctively grab his forearm as he went and I held a second. Then I felt his weight pulling me over. I knew I was going over now…I saw the terror in his eyes as he realized he had screwed up and was about to get very hurt and or dead. I then made the split second decision to let go. I saw his eyes go wide as saucers as I said…”bye”…and let go. He fell 60 feet and shattered both legs and his pelvis and lived. Almost got ran over too. That scared the shit out of me. He came sooo close to pulling me over head first…not feet first like he fell.

Love the dark humor, love the voices. I hope you enjoyed them as well. Ready for a fun exercise? Take one of these fascinating stories and describe the officer who told the tale. No clicking the name to peek at their profile picture!

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Our Brain and Creativity

By Sue Coletta

Creativity and the brainFirst, let’s define the word “muse.”

A muse is a woman, or a force personified as a woman, who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist. How amazing that we’re able to tap into her energy and translate our story to the page.

An alternate definition of “muse” is an ancient Greek word that means to be absorbed in thought or inspired. Amusement is the absence of thought or inspiration. Hence why social media can destroy our creative time. Over saturating ourselves with anything, including thoughts, outside and inner pressure, too many ideas, etc., can wound our muse. Ever notice that some of our best ideas come when we’re falling asleep or taking a shower or walk? That’s because our mind is relaxed. For those that struggle to structure themselves should consider using a matching worksheet maker to help them keep on track with educational tasks, they have laid out for themselves to improve their creativity.

What happens inside the brain?

Dr. Lotze from the University of Greifswald had always been fascinated by the creativity of writers, so he wondered how the brain reacted when they crafted stories. In a scientific study, he took novice writers who’d never completed a story and professional writers who’d authored published books. The results amazed him.

Did you know our brains react differently, depending on whether an author writes professionally or if they’re just beginning their writing journey?

First, Dr. Lotze built a custom-made writing desk. While lying supine, their head cocooned inside the scanner, the subject rested their arm on a wedged block. He positioned several mirrors which allowed the writers to see what they were writing.

Novice Writers

Dr. Lotze asked 28 volunteers to first only copy a block of text. This gave him a baseline of brain activity. Next, he gave them the first few lines of a short story and told them to continue on. Thus, triggering their muse. They were allowed to brainstorm for one minute, write for two.

Hippocampus in red.

The research showed certain parts of the brain became active during the creative process but not while copying text. During brainstorming, some vision-processing regions also came alive in some of the writers, as if they were seeing the scene unfold in their mind’s eye.

During the writing process, other regions activated, as well. Dr. Lotze theorized that the hippocampus was retrieving factual information for the subjects to use in their stories. Who says research isn’t important?

Another region of the brain, near the front — left caudate nucleus and left dorsolateral and superior medial prefrontal cortex, which is crucial for storing several pieces of information at once — also activated. When writers juggle characters and plot lines we put special demands on that part of the brain.

The problem with this study was that he’d chosen all novice writers.

What happens inside the mind of a seasoned writer?

Twenty authors volunteered this time. In the same position as the novice writers, Dr. Lotze gave seasoned writers the exact same instructions. Brainstorm for one minute, write for two. Like before, the first few lines had been written for them.

Dr. Lotze’s findings are as follows …

During creative writing, cerebral activation occurred in a predominantly left-hemispheric fronto-parieto-temporal network. When compared to inexperienced writers, researched proved increased left caudate nucleus and left dorsolateral and superior medial prefrontal cortex activation. In contrast, less experienced participants recruited increasingly bilateral visual areas. During creative writing, activation in the right cuneus showed positive association with the creativity index in expert writers.

High experience in creative writing seems to be associated with a network of prefrontal and basal ganglia (caudate) activation. In addition, the findings suggested that high verbal creativity specific to literary writing increased activation in the right cuneus associated with increased resources obtained for reading.

You can read the full report here.

Let’s break it down in easier terms.

The brains of seasoned writers worked differently than novice writers, even before they began to write. During the brainstorming, the novice writers showed more activity in the brain’s regions responsible for speech.

“I think both groups are using different strategies,” said Lotze. “It’s possible that the novice writers are watching their stories like a film inside their head while the professional authors are narrating it with an inner voice.”

He discovered more differences.

Deep inside the brain of seasoned writers, a region called the caudate nucleus, responsible for skills that require a lot of training and practice, also became active. In the novice writer, it didn’t. The caudate remained quiet. Perhaps that’s due to the fact that when we start learning a skill we’re more consciously trying to master it. With practice, those actions become largely automatic, and it’s inside the caudate nucleus where the shift occurs.

Skeptics like Dr. Pinker, another scientist, said the test wasn’t involved enough to make comparisons. He’d rather see tests between writing fiction vs. nonfiction or other factual information. Creativity might also cause differences from writer to writer. For example, some writers may activate the taste-perceiving regions in the brain when they write about food. Another writer might rely more on sound. Paul Dale Anderson wrote a fascinating post that touched on this difference in more depth.

What’s the best way to summon creativity?

Read a book, listen to music or audiobooks — any exercise that forces us to envision someone else’s story world. A passionate and focused writer can accomplish more in a few hours than an unfocused writer can in a full day.

Over to you TKZers. What do you think of this study? Are you an auditory or visual writer? While writing, can you taste the food?

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