Is Your Story a Disaster? Should it be?

Something you don’t want to see out your window!

Well, not that I mean your story should be a disaster but maybe it can include one! I’m writing a class for the Kiss of Death chapter of RWA and thought it might be fun to share some of the intro with you.

Disasters come in all sizes, from the personal issue of losing a loved one to an event that gets worldwide attention. How would your characters respond to being in the middle of a disastrous event? A story with the backdrop of a natural disaster or (gasp) even a terrorist event can show what your characters are made of. Heroes are born from ordinary people in the midst of chaos. Like any complex story backdrop, the scenario and the facts within must be realistic.

In my twenty years with the American Red Cross Disaster Services in Southern California, we responded to house fires, earthquakes, floods and other events that displaced people from their homes. As a member of a federal medical disaster team, we deployed to tornados, floods, hurricanes, tsunamis, ice storms and heat events. In September, 2011, our country was rocked with the terrorist event at the World Trade Center that changed all our lives. Our Disaster Medical Assistance Team was one of many federal assets assigned to do patient care for the responders at Ground Zero. It was a life changing experience. Today, man-made disasters like active shooter scenarios, apocalyptic human-caused wildfires and national security threats are almost as common as acts of nature. On that note, acts of nature have become record-setting in magnitude and damage to human lives.

Who responds to these incidents? Who are the agencies that respond on a local, regional, state and national level? Who’s in charge and how does it change if more agencies are added to an event? How well do they work together? Does the role of law enforcement and other emergency services change during disaster? Under what circumstances does the National Guard get involved? What’s the role of Homeland Security? What are the roles of nonprofit and volunteer agencies? Do the role of universities and hospitals change during disaster?

The main goal of all involved agencies is to prepare, save lives, mitigate the disaster as quickly as possible, then help with recovery efforts. There are also other issues that no one wants to think about: Who manages the dead? What happens to vandals and looters? What is the personal cost to the responders?

As you can see, there are countless opportunities to include a disaster in your story – as the main theme, a backdrop, or an opportunity for a hero to be born. Could your story include a grocery store clerk at a concert who foils an active shooter attempt? An off-duty firefighter trapped in a gas station when a tornado hits and needs to rescue a number of terrified people? An introverted teenager on her post-graduate vacation when a tsunami hits and she must choose to help the injured people around her. A new EMT is sent on a post-hurricane disaster response with her ambulance company. A nurse in the ER is faced with having to move and manage patients when flood waters overtake her hospital.

Is there opportunity for romance? Absolutely. What if a librarian (whose only adventures come only from books) is trapped after a tornado with a number of frightened children and a gorgeous off duty cop? What if a paramedic suffering from PTSD is suddenly faced with a number of injured people after a hurricane? What if your young lovers are separated after an earthquake and are trying to find their way back to each other? Then again, what if your protagonist (or antagonist) is a looter, arsonist or terrorist?

Just for fun … maybe add a little disaster to your book!

Will a Change of Venue Help Writer’s Block?

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Well, it’s not exactly writer’s block … sort of. In 2015, my cousin and I took a trip to Scotland to follow some family ancestry as well as for me to do some research for the fifth book in my series, “Partners, Heart of the Phoenix”. For my main character, AJ Donovan, it took years to find the Scots-Irish father he thought had abandoned him. Now a father himself for the first time, he and his wife, Quin, chose to take a trip to Scotland where Ethan Donovan and his family currently lived. AJ was excited to meet his many half siblings and introduce his son, Reilly to his grandparents.

Ethan’s landscaping business had made him quite wealthy and that wealth bought him enemies. Unfortunately, some of his enemies were within his own family. He had to determine which of his children were embezzling funds from the family business. AJ’s siblings welcomed him warmly … except one. This brother perceived AJ as a threat to his inheritance – to the point he was willing to eliminate him.

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At the RWA conference last year I roomed with a friend who was retired military and had spent much of her life in Scotland and Ireland. She pointed out several flaws in Irish-Scottish relationships that made the background for my story somewhat implausible. Changing those details would require changing background facts going back to Book I. So, I pushed the book aside and went on to other things. Not a good way to enhance a successful writing career.

So, one of the annual writing conferences I attend is “20 Books to 50K”, the focus of which is indie authors supporting indie authors. They are in Vegas every year but have also been doing conferences in Europe. This year, in July, it will be in Scotland. I was immediately interested. It’s time to go back and seek my muse. I need to work through the story issues and come back with the ideas I need to fix them. Not to mention that Edinburgh, Scotland is one of my favorite places in the world.

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I’m curious if other writers find new energy when doing research in countries where your story takes place. Do exposure and new facts make you more zealous to get back to your story?

Astrology, Life Changes and Author Newsletters

My cousin likes to follow astrology. I believe there’s something to that but to truly understand astrology seems quite overwhelming … much like my life lately. The latest astrology report said the alignment of the planets were bringing a time of change and disruption. On that I would have to agree as I wind down a consulting job I’ve had for twenty years. As a Taurus, I don’t like huge surprises or forced changes in my life. I appreciate a degree of organization and certainty. On the other hand, I have to appreciate the old adage, “when one door closes, another opens.” I’ve had two consulting jobs come through LinkedIn recently and discussions are opening about helping a Caribbean medical school with disaster planning. (I could live with that). I regret having little time for writing, but I’ll get there. Besides work, there’s taking care of dogs, chickens, planting vegetables and pulling weeds. I guess life eventually finds its own balance.

On a separate note, a promised newsletter for this group has keep slipping through my fingers and I feel quite guilty about that. I’ve subscribed to several authors newsletters to get an idea of what the content is, how they’re formatted, what things I like, dislike, etc. It’s been rather interesting. Here’s some things I’ve noticed:

  • I don’t need to see three e-mails a day from the same author with almost identical content.
  • Plain text is boring.
  • Short and sweet is good. One author has huge covers and so much content that if I printed it out it would be about twenty pages. Most people aren’t going to bother to find their way to the bottom for the freebie.
  • I enjoy a newsletter with something new to report. I see a lot of redundancy.
  • A clever subject line is good. That determines if I’m going to open it.
  • Although I enjoy hearing things about the author’s life, several pages of health issues, pet photos and “what kids did today” can become annoying.
  • Speaking of annoying – many seem to call their readers by cutsie little names. I can deal with Sunshine, Gorgeous, Angel, Beautiful, Lovely, and Historical Honeys but I’m not sure about Bees, Sweetie (most of them could be my grandchildren) and Goddess. Sorry, but Vixen, Stoner and Smut Queen is a little over the top.
  • Lastly, I read all kinds of romance and I’m hardly a prude, but a newsletter filled with sexual innuendo may not be appreciated by everyone.

A nice example of a newsletter comes from our own Claire Gem. It has her logo followed by the topic  which is “5 Great Ways to Find Your Next Great Read”. Then there’s a nice photo of books in a field. This is followed by a neatly formatted discussion of the topic. The only thing that’s a surprise is that there’s nothing about her books. Anyway, kudos to Claire.

Chickens

Well, I’d love to chat more but I have chickens to feed and weeds to pull. Oh, BTW, here’s my books. I’d love it if you’d tell me what you think.

Partners, Odyssey of the Phoenix http://amzn.to/2dqqSb9
Partners, Challenge of the Phoenix http://amzn.to/2ewyFUN
Partners, Sacrifice of the Phoenix http://amzn.to/2l1IcXN
Partners, Transformation of the Phoenix – ready for publication
Partners, Heart of the Phoenix – in process

 

 

 

How Much of Yourself is in Your Characters?

 

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My first book started as a journal of my experiences as a new EMT working on an ambulance. I wasn’t sure at first what I was going to do with those stories but I felt the need to save them. In a few years I went from EMT to Paramedic and the number of interesting experiences multiplied. I worked closely with a number of fire departments and worked in a firehouse for five years. During that time I became familiar with and close to many different firefighters, ER staff and co-workers who added color to the events. We celebrated our common successes and I was pained when one of them was sick or injured. The worst case, as you may expect, was when we would lose one, and that happened more than it should have. So, on it went through my career as it expanded to Paramedic Supervisor, Clinical Coordinator, ER tech and federal disaster worker. I’m not sure when it happened, but one day it occurred to me that these incidents and these people I cared so much about could be fictionalized in a novel. I realized I had an avid interest in letting readers know who these firefighter-paramedics really were and how the stresses of their work affected them. So, AJ Donovan was born along with his crew of colorful characters at Station 19 in Cedar Grove, California.

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Mitch, the Captain, is kind and patient even with guys like AJ who are trying at times. Mitch’s best friend, Barney, is the engineer. Barney is an old Southern boy who shares his experience and advice with younger firefighters. Kevin is a young Irish-born EMT-firefighter who is short in stature but large in passion. Then there is slovenly Craig, the epitome of laziness. His favorite game is pushing AJ’s buttons. Chris is AJ’s partner and best friend. Divorced and a father of two, Chris only wants peace and love in his life but keeping AJ out of trouble is a challenge. Then there’s AJ, a product of a Native American mother and a Scot/Irish father. His mother died suddenly when we was three then he was led to believe his father had abandoned him. He left the reservation at 18 to find his way to California where he became the best rescue technician the department had ever seen. He’s great at his job, but his personal life is a hot mess. All his relationships fail because he’s so emotionally unavailable. A third firefighter-paramedic joins the team. Quin is young, fit and naturally beautiful but her focus is to be accepted as a woman, a firefighter and a paramedic in a man’s world. Her crew is put on notice that her first rule is “no dating co-workers”. It doesn’t stop AJ or even Chris, from falling for her.

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Quin quickly impresses all of them with her confidence, talent and empathetic nature, especially Chris and AJ. Strong friendships are formed. The more she gets to know AJ, the more she discovers his issues: low self-esteem, a case of closet claustrophobia, undiagnosed PTSD and anger issues to name a few. After her first few weeks of employment a life-threatening incident puts AJ in the hospital. Quin not only saves him from a near drowning but stays by his side during a subsequent bout of pneumonia. That opens a door to trust that changes both their lives. Subsequent books follow their careers as AJ goes to medical school to become an ER doc and Quin climbs the ladder in the fire department. Later, AJ is introduced to disaster medicine and their first disaster deployment was, well, a disaster.

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So, where do I come in? As the story followed its natural course, I began to realize how much of their lives paralleled mine. That was intentional in terms of their career experiences, but not so much in their personal traits. Quin honestly cares about the guys she works with. She took intensive training in critical incident stress management after her own experience left her with PTSD. Enough said on that. AJ prefers to eat whole foods and doesn’t eat sweets. Quin wears men’s style boxer briefs at work and will stay up at night feeding chicken soup to a sick partner. Chris is the kind of guy who never quits loving even after the relationship is gone. The state of people in a disaster situation tears AJ’s heart out. He’s an empath. Captain Mitch believes the team is what’s most important and discipline should come with respect. Kevin is as loyal as they come and there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for those he considers friends. AJ is his role model. Barney is the elder, the wise, and cares deeply about the young ones. Craig is an ass. I guess we all have that side of us. So, how many of these traits are mine? I’m not telling, but all of them to some degree. Oh, I’m Scottish with a bit of Irish and was raised by a Native American.

My writing is contemporary and based on real people. Would these parallels be the same for someone who writes paranormal? What do you have in common with a vampire or dragon? I’ll bet if you dig deep enough you’ll find yourself in there somewhere. Is this a natural habit for all writers? I’d love to hear your take on this. Think about it. You might surprise yourself.

 

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Does Your Story Write Itself?

So, I started my series of books, Partners, the Odyssey of the Phoenix, many years ago. It took way too long to get the first one out, but once I did, the next ones flowed. The story is about AJ Donovan, firefighter-paramedic, who is excellent at his job but his personal life is a train wreck. He suffers from closet claustrophobia and PTSD, the origin of which is unclear. Due to things that happened to him in his childhood he is emotionally shut down, which doesn’t work well when trying to establish a relationship (which he really does wants). Then a new firefighter-paramedic joins the station. There’s an instant attraction to Quinlan O’Leary but she puts him on notice that she’s focused on establishing her credibility as a firefighter, paramedic and a woman. Sleeping with a partner would be at odds to that end (regardless of how drop dead gorgeous he is). One thing AJ never experienced was a platonic relationship with a woman. Quin does things for him because she wants to not because there was sex involved. When the rescuer becomes the victim of a near drowning, it’s Quin who saves him and stays by his side during a life-threatening bout with pneumonia. AJ develops a level of trust in her that tears down his wall and paves the way to love.

In Book II, Partners, the Challenge of the Phoenix, Quin and AJ are starting out life together in their new fixer-upper. A man from AJ’s past surfaces and makes good on his promise to make his life the proverbial living hell. The police are minimally effective at protecting him. Saving his life is dependent on his engaging in a covert police operation. At the worse possible time, a memory is invoked that uncovers the origin of his PTSD. He must work past it to survive. A police sergeant, his partner Chris, Quin, and the father he hasn’t seen since he was three years old, join the fight.

In Book III, Partners, the Sacrifice of the Phoenix, AJ is coerced into going to medical school as Quin feels being an ER doc is safer than being a firefighter and rescue technician. AJ isn’t academically inclined and misses his works as a firefighter. He hates being away from Quin for the better part of four years. Weeks away from graduation, a crisis occurs that threatens his success in finishing medical school. Quin and his friends rally support. He succeeds in getting a residency at the same hospital where he took his patients as a paramedic. His life is finally on safe ground, right? Not. AJ’s black cloud follows him wherever he goes. An abduction, a desperate situation, and a run for his life through a forest upends the theory that working in an ER is safer. He has to use every skill he knows to escape, including seduction.

Book IV, Partners, the Transformation of the Phoenix, starts after AJ’s first year of residency (his intern year) chews him up and spits him out. Communication between he and Quin disintegrates and false rumors threaten to break them apart. AJ faces the issue head on and their strong love prevails. In the meantime, his second year of residency (and being a licensed physician) has him on a helicopter crew and working with a partner, Dylan Jorgenson, who is also a USAR/disaster doc. During a flood, the need for him to jump back into a rescuer role forces him to face his fear of drowning. Dylan is starting a non-profit disaster team and wants AJ and Quin to join them. AJ, who’s never been east of Arizona, finds himself in the Caribbean after an earthquake. It’s quite a culture shock for him. They are warned about drug activity in the area. AJ stretches his skills on a field amputation and a confined space rescue. Just as they’re packing to leave, members of a drug cartel abduct Dylan and Quin and it’s up to AJ and Dylan’s homicide detective wife, Annie, to find them. It engages the HEART team with a federal USAR, DMAT and even the National Guard.

So how did this story go from the trials of an emotionally unavailable firefighter to an ER physician trying to find his abducted wife? I didn’t write the story, they did. Most of the writers I know have had this experience. The characters write the story; we just get to be the first to read it. Being a panster, I work off a basic outline of where we’re starting and where the story might end. In Book IV, I had no idea how it was going to end. What’s interesting is that things crafted into the story early on, or even in previous books as a point of interest, somehow become integral to the plot toward the end. One of those things is how American Sign Language, that Quin teaches AJ in Book I, becomes an important mode of communication in Book IV. When AJ decides to learn police work in Book I, I didn’t see how important that would be in Book II. AJ’s knowledge of wilderness survival established in Book I saves his life In Book III. His tenacity as a warrior established in Book II comes back into play in Book IV.

See what I mean? It makes you wonder if those characters in your head aren’t manipulating the story right from the beginning. The problem is, they tend to send me ideas when I’m driving or wake me up during the middle of the night. We have to work on their timing.

I’d love to know how other writers experience this strange phenomena.

Well, I have to go. They’re calling me with a new plot twist. They’re already working on Book V. Where will it take us? Scotland perhaps?

If I’ve stimulated your interest, Books I and II are up on Amazon and Book III will follow shortly.

Book I: http://amzn.to/2dqqSb9

Book II: http://amzn.to/2ewyFUN