Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Research--part II

I didn’t realize until I started writing fiction how much research can be involved in putting together a story. Even if the story takes place in your head, you still have to have your facts straight or someone will call you on them. (See yesterday’s post.)

In my latest work-in-progress, I have a character whose father is in prison. First step: how did he get there? Luckily my son’s baseball coach is an ICE agent (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement), and he gave me some insight as to crimes this guy might have committed that would have landed him in a federal prison. Since my character goes to visit his dad, I needed to know more about how that would play out. I chose Beaumont since it’s in Texas (where the story takes place) and is a federal correctional facility. It took about 20 phone calls before someone ever answered their phone (glad I didn’t have someone incarcerated I was trying to reach), and then three more tries before I connected with someone who would/could talk to me. Now I have her name and direct line. She told me about security procedures, what the inmates would be wearing, guards, parking, everything I needed to know without actually having to make the drive.

I also have a character who drives a racecar around the Texas Motor Speedway—just for fun. Dawn Stokes, the CEO of the Texas Driving Experience, was more than willing to talk with me and even invited me out to the track in July. I’ll be there.

Another character in the story rides a motorcycle. (I seem to be drawn to them—probably because I was raised around bikes and even had a mini bike of my own that I shared with my sisters. My dad and brother raced dirt bikes.) One night at critique, I read about this character getting on his bike. Two guys in the group immediately started grilling me: what type of bike was it? what did it sound like? did it have a back rest? etc. And they were right. The type of bike he owned would say a lot about his character. Did he ride a ‘crotch-rocket’ or a Hog? So, more research. Now he rides a Triumph Tiger. (I found one on eBay and was careful not to bid as I checked out the features.)

This book is set in Dallas (and I’m writing it with my critique/writing partner Joan), so we spent an afternoon wandering around downtown Dallas, Deep Ellum, and uptown to get a feel for where our characters might live, work, eat and play. A chatty waitress named Maggie at Ten (a sports bar), a friendly valet, two cops on foot patrol, and assorted others helped us get a feel for the area, and we worked many comments and details into our story.

What I’ve learned is this: people are willing and so helpful when asked for their expertise. We couldn’t have put together this story and made it authentic without the input from others who know more about ‘stuff’ than we do.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Research--part I

Recently I read a book that I assumed to have been researched meticulously by the author. One of the characters had a life-threatening illness, requiring a bone marrow transplant. I was so impressed by the details she shared until I read the last chapter. Now, I’m not a doctor, but I’ve seen enough medical dramas to know the basics of organ donation and, in one of the last scenes, I thought the author blew it. She had the parents saying goodbye to their child AFTER the organs had been harvested and the mother puts her hand on the child’s chest to feel her heart beat one last time. Uh, why didn’t they take her heart? And don’t the parents say their goodbyes BEFORE they harvest organs? It ruined the story for me because then I doubted every medical detail leading up to that scene.

My first manuscript featured a character in a wheelchair. First step, how did he become paralyzed? I first thought he might have been in a diving accident. But then after talking to my sister-in-law who is a physical therapist, I discovered that most diving accidents will break your neck and leave you as a quadriplegic. That wouldn’t work because my character was only a paraplegic. I wanted him to be as independent as possible and therefore, he needed a back injury instead of a broken neck. So, I had him in a motorcycle accident which Becky said could cause a wide range of injuries depending on speed, helmets and road conditions.

Then I visited the Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation in Dallas to observe disabled people during rehab exercises and talked with another therapist. There I met John. I’m guessing John was about 25 years old and the angry red welts snaking down his arms suggested a recent surgery. The beginning signs of a wicked scar on his forehead also signaled a recovering head injury. He was wheeled up to where I was standing, and a technician made adjustments to his wheelchair while we talked.

I introduced myself and told him I was a writer observing for the day. He asked about my book, and I told him I had a character in a wheelchair. He asked how he got there and I told him. John shared that the same thing had happened to him about five weeks earlier. Apparently he was out for a ride with some buddies and another biker cut in front of him and bumped his front wheel, causing his bike to slide out from under him. Even though he was wearing riding gear and a full face helmet, when his head hit a guardrail, John broke his neck. He told me it was going to be his last ride. His wife was due to have their baby the following week, and he didn’t think he needed to ride anymore. Ironically, the ride was his last but not by choice.

His next question floored me. “Did the guy in your book wish he had died?” What to say then? I said, “No. He didn’t. He certainly wished he could change what happened, but he made the most of his life after that point.” John nodded, not really buying it, so I continued. “I’m sure your wife doesn’t feel that way. And now you have a daughter you might never have lived to see.” He and I talked some more and now that about a year and a half has passed, I still see him sometimes in my mind. I wonder how John is, how his wife and baby are doing. Mostly, I hope that John has had a change of heart. That he still doesn’t wish he’d died out there on the parkway when his life changed in the blink of an eye.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Nothing soft about a gun

This week my son and I went to visit an old friend. His name is Dr. Lee and we met under tragic conditions nearly three years ago. Dr. Lee is an eye surgeon and he met us at the hospital one summer evening in 2005 when we had just moved to Texas.

My son Ben had been playing outside with his brother, getting to know the new neighbors while my husband and I stayed indoors unpacking and keeping an eye on our daughter. The boys came in and asked if they could play Air Soft guns with some neighbor boys. Initially we told them no, but they said they had goggles and why not and everyone was playing and why couldn’t they. So we relented, against our better judgment.

A few minutes later we wandered outside to the driveway and then we heard Ben scream. I stayed with our daughter while my husband went over to see what had happened. Ben was holding his face screaming, “My eye! My eye!” But he had goggles on, right? So I assumed he had taken a pellet on the eyebrow or forehead.

My husband ushered him down the sidewalk and said to me, “He’s been hit in the eye.” I said, “You mean his eyebrow.” That’s when he said, “No, he took his goggles off to reload and got shot. In the eye.” I ran over to the neighbor and asked her where the nearest emergency room was. We had just moved in and didn’t even have a doctor.

Moments later, Ben was being examined at a walk-in urgent care clinic and the diagnosis wasn’t good. He had no vision in the eye and blood had pooled. We were referred to a local hospital—about thirty minutes away—and Dr. Lee was called in to examine him.

He’d suffered a tear to the iris (at about the 2 o'clock mark), pulling the iris away from the sclera (white part). Fortunately the pellet did not embed itself in his eye. We were sent home with four different types of eye drops, pain medication and a very scared little boy. Dr. Lee said he sees about twelve cases of eye injuries caused by Air Soft guns each year. Ben’s was one of the worst.

This week, Dr. Lee said at Ben’s now annual check up that we were lucky. His vision is normal. He shows no signs of glaucoma or cataracts but those will be ongoing concerns.

Dr. Lee’s mission is to get manufacturers to take the word “soft” off the product since it misrepresents the “hardness” of the pellet and the damage it can cause. My wish is that no one will allow their children to play with such a dangerous toy. Please click on the envelope below and forward this blog entry to everyone you know who might have a child who plays with one of these guns. Because that’s what they are: GUNS and kids have no business playing with them.

Monday, June 9, 2008

I am not my mother

I made a mental list last night of all the things I had done the previous week that my mother would never have done: had two glasses of wine with dinner; let my daughter play with the neighbor boy even though he had pink-eye (I needed a break); spent fifteen minutes in front of a magnifying mirror with tweezers, trying to tame my eyebrows; went to see Sex and the City at 10:45 at night with a girlfriend; let my daughter eat EZ Mac for breakfast; allowed laundry to pile up, washed and dried, because I was too lazy to go looking for hangers; danced to a CD in the den—just because; wrote on my laptop in bed; let my daughter sleep between me and my husband—just because; left my husband in charge of the kids so I could attend critique group.

It’s not that I’m a lot different than she. We really are a lot alike. We both like to cook, and I’m pretty much a homebody. The major difference is I am a little more relaxed about how I live my life. I enjoy my family, but I know I can start to feel resentful if I let their schedules override mine every time. I also differ in that I totally believe my husband is more than capable of parenting as well as I.

Now that summer is here, it will be easy for me to become Momma Taxi and, before I know it, school will be back in session and I’ve done nothing but chauffeur kids around town. So, call me selfish (You’re selfish!), but I am giving myself permission to not let my kids dictate my schedule. If they want to go to the pool, they can figure out a way to get there. Soccer camp this week at the high school? I wrote the check, but you can ride your bike. There. I don’t think my mom would say that, but I bet she wished she did.