Reading History and Geography

I have mixed feelings here. In fourth grade, my geography book was the most exotic, fascinating thing I’d ever seen. In high school, I hated history so much that I vowed never to take a non-mandatory class. And I didn’t, avoiding history all through college. But like so many, I find both topics not just palatable but absolutely fascinating when presented in literature and/or experienced during travel.

 

Virtually any good writing set abroad gives a vivid sense of place, so I’ll put geography aside for a bit, and urge you to consider all the ways you can enjoy history.

 

nervous splendor budapest 1900 norway 1940
Consider historical events or periods of interest to you. Your reading options are myriad. I grew up in a house with few books, but we did have a two-volume pictorial history of World War II that had pictures of concentration camp survivors that are seared in my mind’s eye still.

 

At least as common is to read history by reading about people. Queens, kings, generals, popes—biographies abound. Think Queen Elizabeth, Marie Antoinette, Joan of Arc, or Catherine the Great—to name a few women. Often travel sparks an interest. I was unaware of Sisi the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, or Maria Theresa, one of the most outstanding and powerful personalities in the Habsburg dynasty.

 

dean king skeletons zahara
[Photo credit: Amazon]
I won’t belabor the point, but geography can be equally personal. Consider Dean King’s book, Bones in the Zahara. Vivid and personal, immediate and gripping. (Indeed, I recommend any of Dean King’s non-fiction books.)

 

Bottom line: History and geography can be as gripping as fiction. Try it!

Writing From the Road

I’m on the road now. For the most part, I don’t write from the road. I write a daily journal, and an occasional postcard, but I’m not a travel writer. Of course, that doesn’t keep me from having an opinion!

 

travel writing map
The best travel writing is full of vivid detail and focuses on things not in the tourist pamphlets. Think Jack Kerouac. Think John McPhee. Think Paul Theroux. And think about reading Italy in Mind. (Alice Leccese Powers, Ed.)

 

italy in mind alice leccese powers
This book includes essays, journal entries, letters, poetry, short stories, and excerpts from novels by everyone from Mary McCarthy to Edith Wharton, Gore Vidal to Susan Sontag. They give a great sense of place.

 

For a different type of travel writing that really goes beyond tourist pamphlets, you could also try Hidden Cities by Moses Gates.

 

hidden cities moses gates
[Photo credit: Amazon]
What does this have to do with writers? These are great examples of people who write travel well! Absolutely crucial if you want to write a travelogue, but important if your work includes travel scenes.

Food and Drink Can Poison Your Prose!

flavor sicily anna tasca lanza
I love food. For me, eating and drinking across cultures is one of the main reasons to go somewhere new! The last time I was in Italy, I bought this book. Indeed, wherever I go, I try to buy a cookbook (written in English!).

 

For me, the danger of writing about food and drink is going overboard. Describing every dish at Thanksgiving dinner, listing all the ingredients in Bacardi Minced Fruit Pie…

 

food italy waverley root
Unless you are Waverley Root, or your book is actually about food, remember that a little goes a long way. It’s like transportation in that way. 

 

cuisine hungary george lang
So, when people come together over food, keep the focus on advancing the plot: Who says what while passing the goulash? What is the significance of Mama making veal paprikas? What are people thinking and feeling as they dig into the smashed potatoes?

 

austrian cooking helga setz
Meals can be extremely important to your plot. They can be a platform for bringing people together to show alliances, competitions, insecurities, grudges, etc. But while the dinner table is the platform, keep the focus on the action.

 

heritage spanish cooking
Another function food and drink can serve is to illustrate ethnic roots—either for the first time, or as a reinforcement. Sangria is clearly associated with Spain and Portugal in ways that beer just isn’t.
aztec way healthy living peruvian kitchen
Additionally, food and drink preferences can define your character. Does s/he drink beer or martinis? Craft beer? Single-malt scotch? Drink (and food) choices can say much about your character’s roots, socio-economic status, and self-concept.
 
classical turkish cooking ayla algar
 
So, one way food and drink can poison your prose is by focusing on the food and drink to the detriment of the plot, action, and character. But cliché food and drink is just as hazardous.
food singapore
You need to bring two people together to talk. You have them sit down with cups of coffee and cookies/pie/cake/donuts. Ho-hum. First of all, try to bring in food only when it’s relevant. So your first defense against this poison it to get them together over something less stereotyped. Oiling the teak on a boat, Setting up a museum exhibit… even gardening together!
peruvian cuisine
Your second line of defense is to add a few vivid sensory images. Consider the coffee and cookie option. Even if eating and drinking is background to the conversation, make your reader smell the coffee, feel the chew of the oatmeal, savor the sweetness, etc.

 

splendid table lynne rossetto kasper
Bottom line: Food and drink can be great or deadly—your choice!

Help for Writing Magical Realism

Definitions of magical realism abound. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a literary genre or style associated especially with Latin America that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.” Here’s the definition I am using for this blog: supernatural, paranormal, or unexplainable phenomena which are included and accepted as reasonable within a work of fiction. It could be spiritual, or just plain weird.

 

Charles Hoy Fort [Image is in the public domain]
Charles Hoy Fort is a goldmine for writing magical realism. He was an American writer and researcher into “anomalous phenomena” who combed scientific writing, libraries, and newspapers to find reports of such phenomena. He is best known for four books, still available today: The Book of the Damned (1919), New Lands (1923), Lo! (1931), and Wild Talents  (1932). He doesn’t try to explain the phenomena he reports, nor does he posit theories. He takes a “just-the-facts-ma’am” approach. Each phenomenon gets a few pages, with various instances cited—providing a solid base from which writers can launch into literary magic.
Lo! Charles Hoy Fort
Lo! (1931)
In my opinion, Fort’s reports are timeless. He covers things like showers of frogs and blizzards of snails—many extraordinary, and unexplained, skyfalls. He reports having collected 294 records of showers of living things. He writes of ice images, millions of years old, that are later expressed botanically in an onion. He writes of teleportation, spontaneous fires, ball lightning, unexplained disappearances, and alien abduction. Such phenomena have subsequently been labeled Fortean, and Forteana used to characterize collections of them.
Lo! Charles Hoy Fort
Although I consider Fort’s original works timeless, if you want something more contemporary, check out The Fortean Times magazine, in print since 1973.

 

Although Charles Hoy Fort has been recognized for his influence on science fiction writing, consider the writings of Fort as a source of inspiration for writing magical realism!

Alcohol for Writers

"alcohol for writers" whisky poured into tumbler

Keep it on the page!

Surely everyone can name at least one famous writer also famous for drinking. Think Raymond Chandler, Tennessee Williams, Dorothy Parker, Edgar Allen Poe. . . . If not, an internet search will turn up titles like these.

 

  • Top 15 Great Alcoholic Writers
  • Drinking Habits of Famous Authors
  • Top 10 Drunk American Writers
  • 99 Writers who Were Alcoholics, Drunks, Addicted To Booze, Etc.
  • 25 Great Writers Who Battled Drug Addiction and Alcoholism
  • All The Drunk Dudes: The Parodic Manliness Of The Alcoholic Writer
  • ‘Every hour a glass of wine’—the female writers who drank
  • What drives writers to drink?
This last question has led to numerous academic examinations and investigations of the topic.

 

As for “How to Drink Like Kerouac, Hemingway, and Other Famous Writers,” don’t try this at home, lest you end up on the list of “Famous Alcoholic Writers Who Died of Alcoholism.”

 

wine rack, alcohol for writers
So, although I don’t advise writers to drink, I do advise knowing about alcohol. It’s such an integral part of life in America—celebrations, business dinners, relaxation, sports events, picnics, parties, all sorts of gatherings from weddings to funerals—that one can hardly write realistically without scenes involving alcohol. So here are a few basic facts you should be aware of and ready to justify if you go against them. See below for why your petite female PI would be unlikely to drink a hulking athlete under the table.

 

Alcohol for Writers: The Facts

  • In general, bigger people, more muscular people, and males get drunk slower than smaller people, less-muscular people, and females.
  • Even controlling for height and weight, women absorb alcohol faster and metabolize it slower than men. In other words, they get drunk faster and stay drunk longer.
  • In general, the health-related problems for women drinkers come on faster and are more devastating than for men.
  • People get drunk faster on an empty stomach than after a full meal. I’ve read that ancient Romans drank olive oil to coat the stomach before their binges, because that slows-down the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream.
  • People who drink regularly and heavily have a greater capacity (tolerance) than those who drink less.
  • People are more likely to blackout from fast drinking than from slow drinking of the same amount of alcohol.
  • A standard drink is defined as 1.5 oz.shot of liquor, 5 oz. of wine, or 12 oz. of beer. Most wine coolers are the equivalent of one standard drink. FYI, heavy drinking = anything more than two drinks per day for men or 1 drink per day for women.
shot glass, beer glass, wine glass
  • Having 2-3 drinks can cause a loss of motor control 12 to 18 hours after drinking. Name your accidental injury—falls, drownings, automobile accidents, etc.—and the incidence goes up with alcohol consumption. Name your intentional injuries—shooting, stabbing, physical violence, rape—it’s more likely to happen with alcohol.
  • There’s a reason athletes don’t drink before big events. Two to three drinks can deplete aerobic capacity and decrease endurance up to 48 hours after consumption.
  • Alcohol impairs both learning new information and recalling previously learned information.
  • Alcohol is a depressant for the central nervous system. People initially get “high” because the first thing to get depressed is inhibitions, creating a willingness to party and live dangerously. But beyond the buzz is the risk of seriously depressing metabolic functioning. A pulse rate below 40 or a breathing rate slower than 8-10 per minute is a medical emergency!
  • The website brad21.org is a great resource for writers! B.R.A.D. stands for Be Responsible About Drinking. It’s a series of bullet facts, well-footnoted for further reading.

Other Things Writers Should Know

…especially if a main character drinks.

 

First, perhaps most obviously, you need to decide on a preferred drink. According to bartenders, here are 10 drink stereotypes to help you create the desired impression. (Taken from complex.com, “The Funny Ways Bartenders Stereotype You Based On What You Drink.”)
-Vodka sodas are for people who want to lose weight—or want people to think so—but not enough to quit drinking.
-Jager bombs and vodka Red Bull are for basic bros.
-Blue Moon is for craft beer posers.
-Real craft beer drinkers are actually pretty cool.
-Annoying people act like they invented picklebacks. (Apparently a shot of whisky followed by a shot of pickle juice—really.)
-Buttery Chardonnays are for soccer moms.
-Only rookies drink Appletinis.
-Bud Light is for sporting events and day drinking, not Saturday night.
-Martinis are a classic, classy drink.
-Shots should be taken with a beer or a celebration. (Otherwise they’re for alcoholics.)
For a funny but useful commentary on everything from absinthe to wine see pointsincase.com, in an article titled “What Your Drink Says About You.”
Scotch whisky and bourbon bottle

 

Second, know your character’s drink. Know what it looks like, how it smells, how strong it is, and its taste. Also, whether wine, beer, or liquor, a drinker is likely to have the everyday brand and the special-occasion brand.

 

Third, know your character’s drinking habits and reactions. Know when, where, under what circumstances, and how much s/he drinks. People usually have a pattern of reaction to alcohol, roughly: fall asleep, talk more, repeat him/herself, verbal abusiveness, physical violence.
beer, beer glass

 

Takeaway for Writers

What’s good for characters isn’t good for authors!

Forensic Nursing: What Writers Need to Know

If your plot involves any sort of violent crime, whether you’re a mystery/crime writer or not, you should know forensic nursing. In broad terms, forensic nursing is where the healthcare system and the legal system intersect.

"Emergency" sign on side of hospital Photo credit: KOMUnews via Visual Hunt / CC BY

Forensic Nurses’ Role

Survivors of violent crimes typically come through the ER, where their medical needs are taken care of—setting broken bones, stitching wounds, etc. Ideally, the patient spends as little time as possible in the controlled chaos and tension of the ER; the goal is no more than 45 minutes.

Then they are escorted to a quiet, comfortable room furnished much like a small living room, but with drinks and snacks as well as TV. Anyone accompanying the patient would typically wait here during the examination. The area is secured, and only people the patient chooses to bring are allowed into the room. These people might be family or, perhaps, a trained volunteer from an organization such as Hanover Safe Place, which supports survivors through what is inevitably a traumatic time at the hospital.

The patient then meets with a forensic nurse. The forensic nurse’s role is to record the details of the crime and collect physical evidence. This process typically takes 3 to 4 hours.

Forensic Nurses’ Work

Background information comes first, including general medical history as well as questions about any injuries, surgeries, diagnostic procedures, or medical treatments that might affect the physical finding. But then come pages of more detailed and focused questions. For example, in cases of sexual assault, not only question about the assault itself and perpetrator(s) but also about the date, time, type, partner’s race, and relationship of last consensual intercourse; and since the assault, whether the patient bathed or showered, douched, brushed teeth, defecated, urinated, vomited, wiped or washed affected area, changed clothes, or had consensual intercourse.

For strangulation cases, they ask how the patient was strangled—one-handed, two-handed, knee, forearm, ligature—how long it lasted, and whether there was more than one incident.

Forms in box, Forms to be completed by forensic nurses and patients
Forms to be completed by forensic nurses and patients

A danger assessment is conducted as well, focusing on whether the violence is escalating in severity or frequency, whether weapons (especially guns) are available and/or used, drug or alcohol use, presence of children, and control of the survivor’s daily activities and social interactions.

Forensic nurse's exam room, hospital exam table, equipment
Exam room

The Physical Exam

Although the verbal data are crucial, the physical exam is central to forensic nursing. Samples of blood, urine, hair, and swabs of orifices are taken. Specialized equipment is available. Photographs are taken. Hair is combed, nails cleaned and clipped. The patient stands on a plastic sheet to remove clothing, to catch any random debris.

Chain of custody box for storage of evidence, clothes in Hefty zipper bag, and a child's toy on a hospital exam table
Chain of custody box, clothes, and a child’s toy

Chain of custody must be carefully controlled and documented.

Children have special treatment as well. They are given a toy that they can keep. They’re also given tablets and pencils or markers to draw pictures that can help in understanding the assault. Sometimes an outline of a person is presented for the child to mark where he or she was touched or hurt.

Improving Forensic Nursing and the Patient’s Experience

Improvements and refinements are always in progress. Once upon a time, a survivor might be asked to detail the crime by a dozen different people. Now recounting the crime waits for the forensic nurse, diminishing the impact of reliving it.

Forensic nurse holding a pair of women's underwear, large, granny panty,
Underwear that had been given to all survivors

When a patient’s clothes are taken in evidence, they are given generic going-home clothes. These are grey sweatpants, t-shirt, and—until recently—the granny panties pictured above, one size for all. A college student survivor said that having to wear those granny panties made her feel violated all over again.

 

Forensic nurse holding a pair of red women's bikini briefs
Survivors can now choose panties to wear home

She organized her sorority sisters to provide hundreds of pairs of new panties in varied colors, styles, and sizes. All of the clothing provided to survivors is donated. Should you or your group want to donate new clothes, new toys, child pillowcases, gas cards, food cards—or money!—here’s your contact. And, by the way, she gives talks about the program.

Business card for Senior Development Officer, Memorial Regional Medical Center, Bon Secours Richmond
Senior Development Officer, Bon Secours Richmond Health Care

History of Forensic Nursing

Forensic nursing is a relatively new medical specialty. In 1992, 72 registered nurses—mostly sexual assault nurse examiners—came together to form the International Association of Forensic Nurses. Since 1993, Bon Secours Forensic Nursing in Richmond has served survivors of sexual assault, child sexual abuse, and domestic violence. Now a team of 10 full-time nurses work with 26 agencies to serve survivors of any type of violent crime.

Bon Secours is atypical. There are over 300 hospitals in Virginia, and many of them have no full-time forensic nurses. Therefore, patients from all over central Virginia can end up at Bon Secours. They assist more than 2,200 patients per year.

Additional Facts For Writers

  • Forensic nurses have from one to three certifications beyond the RN degree, which are essential for presenting expert testimony.
  • Approximately 9% of patients are male.
  • Patients are 50/50 adults and children.
  • In descending order, the busiest days for forensic nurses are Monday, Friday, Wednesday, and Sunday.
  • Rush hour starts at 11:00 a.m.; the slowest times are 2:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m.
  • Most forensic nurses are recruited from ER nurses, but they need to be “softened up” on the job, not to rush.
  • Patients can choose 1) medical treatment only, 2) anonymous evidence collection, or 3) identified evidence collection.
  • Evidence that must be refrigerated cannot be anonymous; other evidence can be made identifiable later.
  • Although immediate evidence collection is best, kits can be collected up to 5 days after the fact.
  • All patient info is secured in the Forensic Nursing Department; it isn’t part of general medical data bank.
  • Part-time, floating forensic nurses tend to burn out after a couple of years.
  • Perhaps surprisingly, most long-term forensic nurses are married to police officers, firefighters, or EMTs.

Bon Secours is a premier forensic nursing program. For the sake of your story line, you might create more conflict in the story if the characters botch the process. A screw-up could taint evidence or miss it. Insensitive treatment could leave the survivor among the walking wounded.

Support Forensic Nursing

Last but not leastput this worthwhile event on your calendar!

Save-the-date card, "Wine Women & Shoes Benefiting Bon Secours Forensic Nursing, Sunday, October 30, 2016"
Benefit for Bon Secours Forensic Nursing

Wine, Women & Shoes

Benefiting Bon Secours Forensic Nursing

Sunday, October 30, 2016

2:00-5:30 p.m. at Hilton Richmond

Hotel & Spa

Short Pump

First Women

Celebrating First Women

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t know that Hillary Clinton is the presumptive Democratic Party nominee for president? Or that she is the first woman to run for president on a major ticket? Her achievement reminds us all that women have long been making history. Some of you will remember that I mentioned Victoria Claflin Woodhull, the Equal Rights Party candidate in 1872. She was a fascinating woman—a stockbroker and publisher as well as a suffragist.

 

TO ALL THE READERS OUT THERE

Find out about other amazing first women. Lots of them are listed in references such as this.
Famous First Facts: Third Edition, book by Kane,
Famous First Facts
Lady Astor (birth name Nancy Witcher Langborne), the first American-born woman to become a member of Parliament in Great Britain in 1919.
Nancy Astor
By Bain News Service (Library of Congress) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Harriet Maxwell Converse, the first white woman to become an Indian chief, made a chief of the Six Nations Tribe in 1891. She had been adopted as a member of the Seneca tribe. You can read a poem by Harriet Maxwell Converse at the Poetry’s Foundation website. 

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the first woman to appear as a congressional hearing witness in 1869. She was trying to keep the women of DC from being debarred from voting.
Elizabeth Stanton
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, c. 1880, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Sally Stearns, the first woman coxswain of a men’s collegiate varsity team, 1936.

 

Nan Jane Aspinwall, the first woman horseback rider to make a solo transcontinental trip from SanFrancisco to New York City, 1910.

 

Susanna Medora Salter, the first woman mayor, elected in Argonia, Kansas, 1887.
Susanna Madora Salter
By Unknown photographer (Kansas Historical Society) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Belle Martell, the first woman licensed to be a prize fight referee, 1940.

 

Nellie Tayloe Ross, Director of the Mint, the first woman to have her name on the cornerstone of a US government building, 1936.
 
Nellie Tayloe Ross
Nellie Tayloe Ross (1876-1977), Wyoming Governor, 1924-1926. Wyoming State Archives, photo published 1922 [Public domain]
Sybilla Masters, the first woman to obtain a patent—for a machine for cutting and cleaning Indian corn, 1715.

 

And many others, in books such as this.
Robertson's Book of Firsts: Who Did What for the First Time, book by Patrick Robertson
Robertson’s Book of Firsts: Who Did What for the First Time
Alternatively, one could go to any field of interest—from playwright to astronaut—and find the first woman in those fields.

FOR THE WRITERS OUT THERE

Consider these pioneers as inspiration. What sort of character does it take to be a first? What might daily life be like for the first woman licensed as an electrical engineer? What price might such a woman pay in terms of family or love relationships? And ultimately, is it a story of triumph or tragedy?

 

Please share other first women in the comments or on social media. Please tag me on Facebook and Twitter to continue the celebration of first women.

Education and Writing Inspiration

Where do you get writing inspiration? You may recall that I recently blogged about the pros of trivia for interest and entertainment.

 

trivia books
Trivia for writing inspiration

 

I mentioned that tomato juice is the official state drink of Ohio. While having a character mention that fact might bring a smile or a raised brow, a writer could milk that tidbit for a whole story—such as a Buckeye living in a famous tomato growing county in Virginia alienating everyone at the annual tomato festival by bad-mouthing the local product, and someone ends up dead.

 

Famous First Facts: Third Edition, Kane, book, trivia, writing inspiration
Famous First Facts

 

If your genre includes historical fiction. . . 

Then this is the book for you. It includes an alphabetical listing of firsts, covering everything from the first abdominal operation and the first importation of Aberdeen-Angus cattle to the first zoological laboratory to the first zoom lens—thousands of story ideas just waiting to be exploited. For example, the first coeducational medical school in the world was the Boston University School of Medicine, founded in 1873. Imagine that first co-ed class—and the classes they would have had, such as anatomy in the days of grave robbers.

 

If you are obsessed with money. . .

Then delve into Charles Reichblum’s collection.

 

What Happens to a Torn Dollar Bill?, Charles Reichblum, book, trivia about money, writing inspiration
What Happens to a Torn Dollar Bill?

 

Suppose your character is in a bar and another drinker says, “Okay, mate, here’s the deal. I’ve won the lottery, and I want to share the wealth. I’ll give you $1000 a day for a month, or one penny doubled each day for a month.” What would the character choose? Why? And then what happens?

 

If your genre is magical realism. . . 

There’s no better place to look than science.

 

Genetic mosaics are not so rare, formed by fusing two gametes in utero or a placenta shared between fraternal twins or by the mother’s cells crossing the placental barrier and continuing in her child. Imagine that a woman had children with all of her genetics, so the cell lines were thoroughly mixed.

 

But it isn’t necessary to turn to hard-core science texts. Bits of science turn up everywhere.

 

You are One-Third Daffodil and Other Facts to Amaze, Tom Nuttall, book, trivia, writing inspiration
You are One-Third Daffodil and Other Facts to Amaze, Amuse, and Astound

 

Each newly conceived human has approximately 300 harmful genetic mutations. The life expectancy of professional cyclists is approximately 50. The closest living relative of tyrannosaurus rex is the chicken. And people are genetically one-third daffodil. Create a plot relating any two of these facts and voila, you’re launched.

 

Whatever your genre, books of little-known information are great sources of ideas.

 

A Compendium of Indispensable Facts, book, trivia, writing inspiration
A Compendium of Indispensable Facts

 

All sorts of genre’s could generate stories based on which big cats can interbreed, in the wild and in captivity. (Lions with tigers and leopards. Leopards with lions, tigers, jaguars, and pumas. Jaguars with pumas. Servals with caracals.)  It could revolve around an animal rights conflict, a new breed going out of control, zoo politics, or love in the workplace—or whatever your brain produces.

 

The Best, Worst and Most Unusual: Noteworthy Achievements, Events, Feats & Blunders of Every Conceivable Kind, Bruce Felton, Mark Fowler, book, trivia, writing inspiration
The Best, Worst and Most Unusual: Noteworthy Achievements, Events, Feats & Blunders of Every Conceivable Kind

 

This volume includes topics from consumer products to sports. You can read about a boat race in which two-member crews inside bottomless boats grip the gunwales and run a foot race along a dry river bed—which certainly be fodder for humor. And if you want to tie in to current events, base a character on Victoria Woodhull, who endorsed short skirts, an end to capital punishment, legalized prostitution, birth control, free love, and vegetarianism. On April 2, 1870, she became a candidate for president, running on the National Radical Reformers ticket.
Victoria-Woodhull-by-Mathew-Brady-c1870
Cabinet photograph of Victoria Woodhull, c.1866-1873. Mathew Brady [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Readers like to learn something new, especially when it pertains to the plot.

Takeaway for writers

Whether you start with an idea and look for off-beat information to support it or welcome inspiration for novel ideas, off-beat information is the way to go.

Books I Bought on a Whim

Top Ten Tuesday, Broke and Bookish, Books I picked up on a whim
Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature created by The Broke and the Bookish. Each week, they provide a prompt for bloggers. Today’s prompt is Ten Books I Picked Up on a Whim.
Actually, this could apply to most of the books currently on my shelves. I almost never set out to buy a particular book. I see it and I want it. And so, in no particular order, here are a few of my whimsies.

 

Books I Bought on a Whim: the Bizarre

I’m attracted to anything with bizarre in the title. Who wouldn’t want to know about peculiar precipitation, from colored rain to frog falls? It may be comforting to know that not even acid can dissolve a diamond. And if you ever came across a Hercules beetle, you’d know it by its 7-inch length.
Bizarre-Weather-The-Book-of-Bizarre-Truths-book-whim
Bizarre Weather and The Book of Bizarre Truths

Books I Bought on a Whim: Skulls

I like skulls. I have half a dozen pairs of skull earrings, 3 rings, 4 pendants, and 1 bracelet. I bought this book by mail-order, and it covers everything from the empire of the dead to tattoo skulls.
The Mammoth Book of Skulls, book whim
The Mammoth Book of Skulls

Books I Bought on a Whim: the Horrible

And then there are books that just appeal to me as a mystery writer—and as one fascinated by death.

Books I Bought on a Whim: Bob Dylan

I first loved Dylan lyrics when I heard his songs sung by others. It took a long time for me to appreciate his voice. And truth be told, I seldom even glance at this book. I just like knowing it’s on the shelf.
Bob Dylan lyrics, book, whim
Bob Dylan Lyrics

Books I Bought on a Whim: Writing Journals

I’ve written in my diary every night for decades. I’ve kept notes and files related to writing ideas and projects. But I’ve never kept a writing journal. Maybe that’s why I buy every one I see!
Journals by Hawthorne, Christie, and Cheever, books I bought on a whim
Journals by Hawthorne, Christie, and Cheever

Books I Bought on a Whim: Chagall’s Illustrated Bible

I bought this book after having seen it briefly in a writing class. You may remember my blog comments about cross-over art. Chagall’s illustrations cover only Genesis, Exodus, and The Song of Solomon. The text is set in paragraphs. The combination of format and paintings makes the words themselves fresh.
illustrated Bible, Chagall, books i bought on a whim
Chagall’s illustrations of Genesis, Exodus, and The Song of Solomon

Books I Bought on a Whim: the Dark Side

Books that deal with the dark side—for example, the books in the Postsecret series—are highly inspirational for writers. This book is similar. It covers shameful confessions to all the deadly sins, plus miscellaneous.
Not Proud: A Smorgasbord of Shame, Books I bought on a whim
Not Proud: A Smorgasbord of Shame
This book I bought because the title is such a cliché, and because it reminded me of BONK: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (Mary Roach). 
 
Sex, Drugs, Rock 'n' Roll, books I bought on a whim
Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n’ Roll

Books I Bought on a Whim: Repeats

Last but not least, here are 5 books I bought on a whim more than once! Don’t ask.
books I bought on a whim

Writing 101: Jail Time

Writing 101: Jail Time, Creative writing about jail, prison
Every writer who has a scene involving an arrest and/or jail time really should do some jail time—preferably in the local facility. On April 21st, I toured the Richmond City Justice Center (a.k.a., the City Jail). I start by thanking all involved. This facility is modern, clean, and apparently well-run and forward- thinking. While JCRC seems exceptionally good for what it is, you wouldn’t want to live there
Richmond City Justice Center sign, city jail, creative writing about jail, creative writing about prison
Richmond City Justice Center sign, Richmond, Virginia

 

Even though I had toured the Queen Anne’s County Sheriff’s Office and did interviews there when writing Dark Harbor, time has passed and jails differ by locale—by state, by rural/urban, by tax base. When it comes to jail time for writers, once is probably not enough.

 

The mission of the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office is, in part, “To maintain a secure jail and a safe court system along with seamless inmate transport and civil process to preserve public safety.” This is, more or less, the mission of sheriff’s in all jurisdictions.

 

But the devil is in the details. For example, at the RCJC, inmates (whom they call residents) can have one visit every seven days, four visitors at a time, children under 12 not included in the count. At the Pamunkey Regional Jail nearby, inmates are called inmates; a total of three people, counting both adult(s) and minor(s) can visit.

 

And, by the way—here—any jail with Regional in the name is a for-profit facility.

 

Both of these facilities require photo IDs for visitors and forbid too short, too tight, too revealing, or transparent clothing. Nothing can be given to inmates (food, paper, drugs, keys, pictures, etc.)  RCJC has options for both face-to-face visits, separated by a clear partition, or a set-up similar to Skype for video visits.

 

At present RCJC houses approximately 1000 people, approximately 10% women. Most are in the general population, but about 150 are in “The Program,” a 24/7 structured program of education and rehabilitation geared toward successful reentry into the outside world.

 

WRITERS, get the details right.

 

CLOTHING: RCJC residents wear jumpsuits that are color-coded according to which pod they live in and whether they work custodial or kitchen duties. There are 32 living pods, ranging from 12 to 76 people each. Only those in for detox or overnight transfer wear orange. Black and white stripes are for the most violent/dangerous prisoners.

 

MEALS: at RCJC, breakfast is at 5:00, lunch at 11:00, dinner at 4:00. Lights out is at 11:00, so lots of time between dinner and breakfast. Which brings us to commissary sales. Inmates can buy food, t-shirts, and other incidentals (though no tobacco and no makeup).

 

PRISONER CLASSIFICATION. When taken into the facility, each person is assigned to a level of restriction based on the seriousness of the crime, criminal history, and behavior while in custody. People who are more violent, suicidal, or seriously deranged are in smaller pods and have more restrictions on meals and showers. They have video monitors, take meals in their cells, and are taken from the cells in handcuffs. Showers are in a locked and barred shower stall they call “the cage.”

 

Much of this information could be obtained online or with phone interviews. But nothing beats actually being there! I toured RCJC with seven other Sisters in Crime, all of us writers. Mary Miley, who teaches writing in The Program every Monday afternoon, arranged the tour. (I’m on the far left, Mary is second from the right.)

 

Sisters in Crime, Richmond City Justice Center, Vivian Lawry, creative writing about jail
Sisters in Crime touring Richmond City Justice Center: Mary Burton, Maggie King, Frances Aylor, Stacie Giles, and Sandie Warwick

 

We learned that the carpeted areas are not secure and the tiled areas are. “The Yard” for open-air activity mandated by law is a room with a basketball hoop and open-air ventilation. All furniture can be bolted down, even though it isn’t in most cases. We actually saw the tiny white cells with bunk beds, a toilet, and a washbasin, shoes lined up and everything else in duffels under the bed, virtually bare of anything personal—unless one counts one plastic bowl and one plastic glass. The women had a few more toiletries visible—presumably from the commissary. Family needs to deposit funds for use in the commissary.

 

chain-link-jail-prison

 

By the way, RCJC charges inmates $1 per day (toward the $58/day that their incarceration costs). They could charge as much as $3 per day. If these charges aren’t paid, the inmate can’t have commissary accounts.

 

Contrary to Orange Is The New Black, women inmates have no nail polish and no makeup—though sometimes they use M&Ms, Kool-Aid, or iodine for the purpose.

 

LINGO: a click is a phone call; a lick is a theft; a canteen girlfriend is someone who’s into a relationship for the partner’s canteen account; riding the phone means monitoring it.

 

Technically, jail is for people awaiting trial or the outcome of an appeal, and for those serving sentences up to one year, while prison is for longer incarceration; in actuality, due to prison over-crowding, inmates are sometimes in jail up to three years.

 

Gambling and bullying are strictly forbidden, but they do happen. Ditto intimate relationships among inmates.

And there’s more: the distinction between public defenders and court-appointed attorneys. The gangs that “own” the phones in the general population. The nine arresting bodies that bring people to the RCJC. The total lack of privacy for phone calls or during visitations—and what people say or do anyway! Inmates and visitors who expose themselves. The girlfriend who calls and barks for fifteen minutes while her incarcerated boyfriend tends to his arousal.

 

Two things in particular that inmates said stuck with me.

  • Not all inmates are bad people; they’re people who made bad choices.
  • You aren’t your crime.
In short, there’s nothing like being there. Get thee to jail, pen and paper at hand! And be sure to appreciate the access. Thank you, RCJC! Special thanks to Sarah Scarbrough, who conducted the tour.

 

 

Have you participated in a jail visit? Please tell me about it in the comments below, on Facebook, or Twitter