How To Use False Eyewitness Testimony in #Thrillers

By SUE COLETTA

Forensic Psychology is a fascinating field, especially as it relates to eyewitness testimony. Can we always trust our memory? Let’s test your observation skills. In this short video, count the number of times the ball is tossed from one white-shirt player to another. Sounds easy enough, right? Give it a try.

Well, how’d you do?

This phenomenon is called inattentional blindness. Your mind perceives what’s happening, but you do not attend to it. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with your eyes. But for some reason this information is more subconscious than conscious. The best known demonstration of inattentional blindness is a study performed by Simons and Chabris (1999) known as Gorilla in the Midst.  It’s highly copyrighted so I couldn’t embed it here, but if you’d like to check it out, click the title.

Imagine the implications inattentional blindness has on eyewitness testimony? Often times victims of violent crime are so focused on the gun they see little else.

Change blindness is another phenomenon that effects key elements of our surroundings, including the identity of the person right in front of us, even if that person has changed places with someone else. If you’d like to use change blindness in your WIP, check out The Door Study.

The implications of change blindness on eyewitness testimony could delay solving the crime. Always a good thing in thrillers. A detective could be led down numerous dead-ends, and so could the reader.

In a violent crime, “weapon focus” muddies the waters. Participants in another study watched a film of a kidnapping attempt. Would it surprise you to learn that actions were better remembered than details?Eyewitness testimony

Action Details

When we witness a crime, we absorb the information by the actions that happened during the commission of the crime. For example, a man pointed a gun at a woman, pushed her into his van, and sped away. The central information — what an eyewitness focuses on — and the peripheral information — what’s happening around said eyewitness — often becomes skewed with the surge of adrenaline.

Such findings suggest that when we witness a traumatic event, our attention is drawn to the central action at the expense of descriptive details. Yet, in other circumstances, such as non-violent events, our attention may be spread more evenly between the two.

Which brings us back to inattentional blindness. This phenomenon occurs when attention is drawn toward only one aspect of an eyewitness’ surroundings, resulting in lack of information. Which writers can use to our advantage.

Weapon Focus

The use of weapons complicate matters even more. When a gunman brandishes his firearm, an eyewitness tends to focus on the pistol rather than other details, such as the suspect’s hair and eye color, build and dress. Researchers have tested this theory, as well.

In the study, they showed participants videos of robberies — robbery involves a weapon and a victim; burglary does not— where one group witnessed the robber with a concealed pistol and other group witnessed the robber with the gun in plain sight. When researchers asked the concealed weapon group to identify the robber in a line-up, only 46% of participants could identify the suspect. From those who watched the video where the robber brandished the weapon, only 26% could identify him.

Schemas

In order for an eyewitness to be able to answer a question, they must be willing to respond. And it’s this willingness that can impair their memory of the events. Not everything we “see” or “experience” is stored in our minds. Our brains don’t work like computers where each bit is encoded. Rather, we make connections to other things in order to process information. If you’re interested in learning more, I’ve written about Subliminal Messages on my blog.

Episodic memories — memories involving an event — are organized in our minds as “event schemas.” This allows us to store knowledge, events, and activities by connecting to what we classify as “normal.” In other words, rather than remembering every time we dined at our favorite seafood joint, we tend to build a general impression of seafood restaurants … the smell, the atmosphere, and so on.

However, the use of schemas can distort memories. The perfect example of this is when someone asks me about my childhood, then asks my brother. From our answers one might think we grew up in different households. Many factors contribute to how we remember times and events. Such as, influence. When gaps exist in our memory we tend to incorporate new information in an attempt to fill in the blanks. Although useful in everyday life, this poses real problems for investigators, because this new information is often constructed after the crime took place, and leads to false testimony.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this peek into Forensic Psychology. We’ve barely scratched the surface. Next time, I’ll share how an investigator should pose questions to an eyewitness. Perhaps you could use the techniques in your WIP. Would that interest you?

So, TKZers, how many of you saw the gorilla? Are you tempted to use false eyewitness testimony in your WIP?

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Writers and Dreaming

By SUE COLETTA

Most of us are able to recall one or two of our dreams, but what if there were ways to increase that number?

We’ve all heard the stories of hugely popular novels which stemmed from the author’s dreams. For example, Stephanie Meyer and Twilight. Dreams serve health benefits, too. Researchers believe dreams help with memory consolidation, mood regulation, and/or conflict resolution.

Nightmares aren’t fun. Night terrors are even worse. It’s important we pay attention, though, because they can signal a disruption in our lives and sometimes, provide the answer.

Sigmund Freud believed dreams were a window into our subconscious, that they paved the way to satisfy urges and secret desires that might be unacceptable to society. I agree with the first part of his theory, but I think the latter depends on the dreamer. When it comes to dream interpretation there’s no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all definition.

Case in point: crime writers dream about murder. If an average Joe plotted revenge in his dreams, it might be cause for alarm. When writers delve into the dark recesses of the subconscious mind, it’s research. 🙂

While some sleep experts believe dreams are an anomaly of sleep, others think they may help us save memories, problem-solve, and manage emotions.

Dreams and the Brain

During REM — rapid-eye movement, when brain activity piques — and non-REM sleep, we have the potential to dream.

Dreams are connected to the creativity part of the brain, called the Superior temporal gyrus.

We have three creativity sections of the temporal lobe…

  • Superior temporal gyrus — mainly auditory, this gyrus is responsible for processing sounds, sound level and frequency, as well as interpreting language and social cognition.
  • Middle temporal gyrus — connected to recognizing familiar faces, contemplating distance, and interpreting word meanings while reading.
  • Inferior temporal gyrus — visual stimuli processing and recognition, memory and memory recall, particularly with objects. This gyrus stores the color and shape of objects so they’re easily recognized when we see that object again.

This could explain why serial killers, who often have temporal lobe damage or malformations, experience different phases before, during, and after they kill. And why, during the Aura Phase colors become vibrant.

Did you notice in the 3D image the temporal gyri aren’t limited to the right-side?

Right Hemisphere vs. Left Hemisphere

Dreams and the brainBrain cells in the left hemisphere have short dendroids which pull in information.

The right hemisphere branches out wider to absorb distant unrelated ideas, connections between concepts, and is responsible for insight and Ah-ha! moments. It’s here where our creativity comes alive.

Part of the Brain Responsible for Dreaming

The cerebral cortex is responsible for our dreams. During REM sleep, signals are sent from an area of the brain called “the pons” and then relayed through the thalamus to the cerebral cortex, which attempts to make sense of these signals. The end result is dreaming.

The pons also send signals to neurons in the spinal cord, shutting them down, causing temporary paralysis of the limbs. This safety switch prevents the dreamer from physically acting out dreams and harming themselves. However, there are exceptions. A condition called REM sleep behavior disorder exists. Can you guess what this causes? If you said, the pons fail to paralyze the limbs during REM sleep, you’re correct.

Why Dreams Are Difficult to Recall

Some researchers believe we’re not designed to remember our dreams. If we had perfect recall, dreams might get confused with real-life memories. During REM, maybe our brain shuts off the Inferior temporal gyrus, responsible for memory recall. And why, we may only recall our last dream before waking, because that part of the brain is now switched back on.

Studies show people actually have more brain activity and more vivid dreams during REM. Others say our brains store dreams, which is why the tiniest detail later in the day can trigger the memory of what we’d dreamed the night before.

8 Tips to Recall Dreams

Sound sleepers are less likely to recall dreams. If you fall into this category, consider yourself lucky; the rest of us don’t sleep as well. Even so, maybe these tips will help:

  1. Don’t use an alarm clock. We’re better off waking naturally. When that annoying buzz startles us awake, we’re concentrating on slapping the snooze button rather than dream recall.
  2. Once you get in bed tell yourself to remember your dreams. This may sound silly, but sometimes making the conscious choice to do something works wonders.
  3. Upon waking, don’t move. Studies show if we remain in the same position as when we had the dream, we’re more likely to remember the details when we wake. Keep your eyes closed and concentrate on the emotions you felt while dreaming. Were you frightened? Exhilarated? Blissful? By first tapping into our emotions, we’re more likely to recall the circumstance. In this case, the dream.
  4. When you wake, concentrate on recalling your dream rather than reviewing your to-do list for the day. Easing into your day promotes healthy living and helps with dream recall.
  5. Regular routine. Going to bed and waking at the same time each day aids in dream recall.
  6. Keep a dream journal next to your bed. When that perfect plot idea jolts you awake, scribble the scene in a notebook before you forget, the more detailed the better. Or sketch pictures of what you envisioned. Don’t worry if it doesn’t make sense yet. Author Ruth Harris suggests several pads, pens, and notebooks that would make perfect dream journals.
  7. Tell your significant other, roommate, or writer friend your dreams. By bringing dreams into your reality, it helps to recall the next one. Maybe skip the intimate dreams if they do not include your partner. I can hear it now, “Don’t blame me. Sue told me to tell you my dreams.” An angry mob of jilted lovers storms my home, with pitchforks and murder on their mind! Seriously, though, the above link is fascinating and might also help explain why you’re having sexy dreams about Mr. or Mrs. X.
  8. Studies show pleasant aromas cause happy dreams. Whereas unpleasant odors cause bad dreams and/or nightmares.
  9. Don’t get discouraged. Mastering dream recall takes time. The more you practice, the better you’ll get.

So, my beloved TKZ family, are you able to recall dreams? Have you ever used dreams in your writing?

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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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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.

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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Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole!

by John Gilstrap

With all that holiday frivolity behind us, I’m going to continue my quest to help writers understand some of the technical aspects of weaponry so that their action scenes can be more realistic.  Today, we’re going to talk about some practical applications for high explosives.  It’s been a while since we last got into the weeds of things that go boom, so if you want a quick refresher, feel free to click here.  We’ll wait for you.

Welcome back.

When I was a kid, the whole point of playing with cherry bombs and lady fingers and M80s was to make a big bang.  Or, maybe to launch a galvanized bucket into the air.  (By the way, if you’re ever tempted to light a cherry bomb and flush it down the toilet, be sure you’re at a friend’s house, not your own.  Just sayin’.  And you’re welcome.)  As I got older and more sophisticated in my knowledge of such things, I realized that while making craters for craters’ sake was deeply satisfying, the real-life application of explosives is more nuanced.

Since TKZ is about writing thrillers and suspense fiction, I’m going to limit what follows to explosives used as weapons–to kill people and break things.  Of course, there are many more constructive uses for highly energetic materials, and while the principles are universal, the applications are very different.

Hand grenades are simple, lethal and un-artful bits of destructive weaponry.  Containing only 6-7 ounces of explosive (usually Composition B, or “Comp B”), they are designed to wreak havoc in relatively small spaces.  The M67 grenade that is commonly used by US forces has a fatality radius of 5 meters and an injury radius of 15 meters. Within those ranges, the primary mechanisms of injury are pressure and fragmentation.

For the most part, all hand grenades work on the same principles. By pulling the safety pin and releasing the striker lever (the “spoon”), the operator releases a striker–think of it as a firing pin–that strikes a percussion cap which ignites a pyrotechnic fuse that will burn for four or five seconds before it initiates the detonator and the grenade goes bang.  It’s important to note that once that spoon flies, there’s no going back.

Claymore mines operate on the same tactical principle as a shotgun, in the sense that it is designed to send a massive jet of pellets downrange, to devastating effect.  Invented by a guy named Norman MacLeod, the mine is named after a Scottish sword used in Medieval times. Unlike the hand grenade, which sends its fragments out in all directions, the Claymore is directional by design.  (I’ve always been amused by the embossed letters on the front of every Claymore mine, which read, “front toward enemy.”  As Peter Venkman famously said while hunting ghosts, “Important safety tip. Thanks,Egon.”)

The guts of a Claymore consist of a 1.5-pound slab of C-4 explosive and about 700 3.2 millimeter steel balls. When the mine is detonated by remote control, those steel balls launch downrange at over 3,900 feet per second in a 60-degree pattern that is six and a half feet tall and 55 yards wide at a spot that is 50 meters down range.

The fatality range of a Claymore mine is 50 meters, and the injury range is 100 meters.  (Note that because of the directional nature of the Claymore, we’re noting ranges, whereas with the omnidirectional hand grenade, we noted radii.)

Both the hand grenade and the Claymore mine are considered to be anti-personnel weapons.  While they’ll certainly leave an ugly dent in a car and would punch through the walls of standard construction, they would do little more than scratch the paint on an armored vehicle like a tank. To kill a tank, we need to pierce that heavy armor, and to do that, we put the laws of physics to work for us.

Shaped charges are designed to direct a detonation wave in a way that focuses tremendous energy on a single spot, thus piercing even heavy armor.  The principle is simple and enormously effective.

The illustration on the left shows a cutaway view of a classic shaped charge munition. You’re looking at a cross-section of a hollow cone of explosives. Imagine that you’re looking into an empty martini glass where the inside of the glass is made of cast explosive that is then covered with a thin layer of metal.  The explosive is essentially sandwiched between external and internal conical walls.  The open end of the cone is the front of the munition.

The initiator/detonator is seated at the pointy end of the cone (the rear of the munition), and when it goes off, a lot happens in the next few microseconds.  As the charge detonates, the blast waves that are directed toward the center of the cone combine and multiply while reducing that center liner into a molten jet that is propelled by enormous energy.  When that jet impacts a tank’s armor, its energy transforms the armor to molten steel which is then propelled into the confines of the vehicle, which becomes a very unpleasant place to be. The photo of the big disk with the hole in the middle bears the classic look of a hit by a shaped charge.

Now you understand why rocket-propelled grenades like the one in the picture have such a distinctive shape. The nose cone is there for stability in flight, and it also houses the triggering mechanisms.

The picture on the right is a single frame from a demonstration video in which somebody shot a travel trailer with an RPG.  The arrow shows the direction of the munition’s flight. There was no armor to pierce so the videographer was able to capture the raw power of that supersonic jet of energy from the shaped charge.

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“Real World” Problems

imgresToday we welcome Barbara Nickless as a guest blogger. Her new novel, Blood on the Tracks, has just been released and today she talks about some of the real problems involved in researching this great book. I’ll be on the airplane home to Denver after cheering my husband on in the NYC marathon so I hope you give Barbara a great TKZ welcome and lots of comments!

“Real World” Problems

As soon as I decided to write a police procedural about a modern-day railroad cop in Colorado, I knew I had to set my thriller in the very real city of Denver. Denver is a major hub for western railroads, which have large operations there. As a railroad cop, my protagonist’s territory would cover 35,000 miles. But she—like her railroad—would be based out of Denver.

The problem? Even though I live only 60 miles away, Denver might as well be on the other side of the world for all I knew about it. To write a believable book, I had to go beyond geography. I needed to understand the workings of the Denver Police Department, the ins and outs of the railroads operating out of Denver, and Denver’s history, demographics, economy, and government. I had to get a feel for where my heroes would dine, work, study and live. Just as important, I had to know where my villains would lie, cheat, steal and murder.

Unsure whether to use actual settings for your novel? Here are some dos and don’ts if you decide to play it real.

Do get your facts straight. Errors will jolt your readers out of their willing suspension of disbelief. Start by learning as much as you can about your locale upfront. Online resources like Wikipedia and Google Earth provide everything from weather conditions to street views. There are websites for businesses and institutions where your characters might work, as well as information on museums and restaurants where they can conduct meetings or relax. Additional digging can turn up articles written by the locals, which will give you a feel for the local lingo and tell you what about their city makes them proud (or ashamed). Look at online magazines and newspapers, too, and consider subscribing. When I needed a swanky home in a swanky neighborhood for one of my characters, the Denver magazine 5280 told me the best areas of town, while Zillow offered maps, prices and photographs. And speaking of maps! I bought a large city map, a Denver street guide, a railroad map and a police precinct map. Hang them on your wall and add satellite or street-level photos. Or use pushpins to mark where the bodies are buried.

Don’t think everything has to be real-world. Feel free to make up some locales, especially if bad things happen there and you want to avoid a lawsuit. For my thriller, I took real neighborhoods, gave them the twist I needed, then sometimes renamed them. Denverites who’ve read my novel tell me it’s been fun trying to pinpoint neighborhoods and separate fact from fiction. Another huge part of my setting is the railroad my cop works for. Since railroads are privately owned and I didn’t want to risk offending the actual businesses, I created my own. While I’ve done my best to get general railroading facts straight, I’m free to make up the details.

Do travel there if you can. Nothing beats on-the-street research. For my novel, I was fortunate to find a retired Denver PD detective who also loves trains. Not only did he take me on tours of the Denver Crime Lab and police headquarters, he helped me pinpoint train track locations and find hobo camps. The railway cop who provided invaluable information for my book told me where hobos “catch out” (hop a freight train) and gave me a tour of the yards. He also banished my preconceived notion that railway police, like a lot of traditional police, have partners to help shoulder the load.

Don’t worry about getting it perfect. In Blood on the Tracks, I added a disclaimer at the end of the book stating that I’d taken a few liberties not only in the layout of my settings, but also in the institutions I portrayed such as the Denver police and the U.S. Marines.

What about you? Does your book take place in a real setting or a fictional one? And what are some of your tricks for handling either situation?

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Hidden Gems

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne


I just got back from London late last week, and, as always, I loved exploring the city and discovering hidden gems – places or items that I find provide unexpected insight or inspiration for my writing. That’s partly why I love traveling for research as well as fun (book research is, after all, always fun for me!) – I get to immerse myself for a brief time in the sights and smells of a place I hope to bring to life in my books. This time, I had no specific research needs and was busy showing my mother-in-law the sights, but nonetheless those hidden gems were still there to be discovered.

The first of these came on our trip to Kew GardensIMG_3711 when we discovered Kew Palace (which hitherto I hadn’t visited). Inside I discovered a little Georgian gem which unexpectedly fed into my current middle grade WIP. There was a hidden staircase for the servants to enter and leave rooms without bothering their occupants, mourning heraldry to be displayed in the event of a death in the family and a meal laid out representing  one of the last meals George III ate (I always love learning more about food!). There was also a wonderful physic garden with some interesting medicinal herbs that I will be able to incorporate into the book as well.

The next few gems were found during a visit to the lovely V&A museum when I discovered an illustrated herbal book that had been digitized and open to the very hIMG_3593erb I was using in another WIP of mine (references to which are found in Greek mythology). I then also discovered an instrument called a claviorgan decorated with the story of Orpheus – an instrument that could slip in nicely to a chapter in this same WIP. I was probably way too excited about these two finds that any normal tourist would be!

IMG_3604By the time we travelled to Bath I was ready for the next few gems, including a reference to a potential character in the Bath abbey and a visit to a charming town in the Cotswolds that had a small medieval church and graveyard that could totally be used in a future book.

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You can obviously tell how much I love deriving inspiration from places I’ve been and the hidden gems I discover are always unexpected and exciting. Sometimes they even spark brand new novel ideas (now just to find the time to write them…).

So TKZers what hidden gems have you discovered on your travels that helped inspire your work?

 

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Tips for researching your story

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

My co-author, Lynn Sholes, and I write globe-hopping thrillers that always deal with some form of futuristic technology—human cloning, quantum computing and mechanics, string theory, human cell regeneration, faster-than-light propulsion, and many other yet-to-be-developed science. We spend a great deal of time before and during the drafting of our manuscript researching or story. Often, we call upon experts to help us formulate our fictionalized theories. For instance, we contacted a famous geneticist and asked: “We know you can’t regenerate an entire human body from just a sample of DNA, but if you could, how would it be done.” The result was the science in THE PHOENIX APOSTLES.

I find researching for our novels to be as much fun as writing them. It’s the excitement of uncovering those tidbits and morsels of fact that add seasoning and spice to the story. I believe that research adds layers to a story. It keeps the story from becoming thin and two-dimensional. With the right amount of research, we can round out character’s lives, locations, settings, and atmosphere. Each layer helps transport our readers into a more fascinating and realistic story-world. Some genres demand more research than others—science fiction, medical, legal, criminal, and historical to name a few. But all books can benefit from in-depth research.

The general rule in researching for a manuscript is: more is better during the collecting stage but less is better during the writing stage. Here are some tips to help find the right balance.

When we research, we collect a great deal of material, almost always more than we need. We come across a lengthy article on a topic and highlight a dozen of those tasty info tidbits. The skill to researching is to choose one or two that will enhance the reader’s experience without bogging down the tale or turning our writing into a dry college lecture or travel guide. If you have a number of research items available for a particular scene, pick the one that helps put a little bit more icing on the story cake. Ask yourself which one helps develop the character or move the story forward the best. That’s the one to use. Keep the others in mind in case they’re needed later. Also remember that choosing the right research data will help lend authenticity to our writer’s voice.

Another tip is to never talk down to the reader by using information from our research that they might not understand. Never confuse the reader or push them out of the story by making them feel they’re not as smart as the writer. It’s really easy to put a book down and move to another out of frustration. Keep it simple—but not too simple. There are a number of ways to talk down to the reader. Avoid them all by not talking over their heads or dumbing down the information as if you were explaining it to a child. Even if the readers may not totally understand a fact or word, use it in such a way that they can mostly grasp the meaning from the context of the scene.

Avoid throwing in facts from your research just to prove you know how to look stuff up. Again, use your research only if it helps build your characters or advances your plot. Showing off your knowledge is not why the reader enjoys reading.

Lastly, avoid the dreaded info dump. Spread out your research information in just the right amounts to keep the reader from skimming over pages or skipping ahead. Your novel can educate readers and take them to places they’ve never been, but don’t forget that first and foremost, the reader wants to be entertained, not go back to school. Sprinkle in your research like spices and seasoning in a gourmet dish. Too little creates a bland taste, too much creates heartburn.

Zoners, any other researching tips and experiences to share?
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tomb-cover-small“Vengeance can be earth-shattering.”
Max is back! Coming in July, Maxine Decker returns in THE TOMB, book #3 in the Decker series. This time around, the former OSI agent risks her life to stop the elimination of an entire branch of the U.S. Government.

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