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.


Julie Layne said...

We learn a lot about our assumptions when we write a book, don't we?

One of my POVs in my current story is a deaf, teenage boy, and I still have many things to work out even though I've technically finished the story. After hunting a bit, I'm not sure I'm going to be able to find someone in his position to interview, either, so it's a little frightening!

Do you use critique partners? Any advice on finding them if so? Just luck? :)

Julie Layne said...

Oh, hey, thanks for the link! Just noticed.