Sunday, October 26, 2008

Drawing the Dark Hero

(Cue drum roll) I've passed the halfway mark in the first draft of DISASTER STATUS, the second in my medical drama series. My most ambitious work so far (involving a pesticide scare in a Pacific coast community), it's told from the point of view of FIVE separate characters: ER nurse Erin Quinn, Fire captain Scott McKenna, elderly widow Iris Quinn, female physician Leigh Henner . . . and hospital housekeeper (and Viet Nam vet) "Sarge" Gunther.
In the action-packed opening scene, firefighter Scott McKenna barrels through the ER doors carrying a migrant worker's child suffering a full-blown seizure. A toxic exposure is the cause, and the devastating effects may be widespread--a fact that is both unifying and polarizing for related rescue personnel. Off-duty charge nurse Erin Quinn discovers this bluntly when attempting to re-join her ER team only to be denied access by newly appointed incident commander Captain McKenna. Fear, duty, pride . . . and personal survival instincts, come into play as each character adds his/her own "baggage" to the already toxic mix.

As a writer, it is intriguing to "climb into" the minds of these very different characters. And at this 'halfway' marker, I'm finding that viewing the story through the eyes of my "dark" character, "Sarge" is most intriguing of all. I'm not surprised. In CRITICAL CARE (set for release June 2009) , the character of ER nurse Sarah Burke was equally enjoyable. So what do I mean by a "dark" character? Darth Vader? Not exactly. Maybe more like T.V.'s Gregory "House." Was there ever a character you hate to love more than that brilliant and abrasive doctor?? Or one whose heroic qualities are more finely balanced against all too obvious flaws and weaknesses?

That is exactly the challenge for a writer.

I remember very clearly a line in a writing workshop that made bells ring for me. It may have been author Jennifer Crusie who said it (not sure); but here's the gist:

"A villain {or dark character} is a hero in his own mind."

His goals, his driving motivation, are as desperately important to him as are those that guide the hero. He (or she) is fully dimensional (has strengths and flaws) and--to some degree--becomes somewhat sympathetic to the reader. In the case of my characters Sarah and Sarge, their painful and troubled pasts lead them into downward spirals . . . that inevitably alter the lives of people around them. They become catalysts for change.

Here's a snippet from the draft of DISASTER STATUS, when we first "climb inside" the head of hospital housekeeper, "Sarge":

Sarge Gunther grimaced in the darkness against a jolt of searing pain . . . in a calf he didn’t have. Phantom pain the VA called it. He shifted his weight on the bulky prosthesis, then focused the penlight to inspect the water bottles on the storage room shelf, looking carefully at the dates, the places of manufacture, the bar codes and the lot numbers. He lined them up symmetrically and examined the tops to be certain they hadn’t been opened and re-capped. Or pierced with a needle right through the plastic. They could do that--to add the pesticides. He’d seen what they’d done to that little girl in the ER. She was still in a coma. He had to be careful. It wouldn’t do anyone any good if the Sergeant was out of commission. My unit counts on me.

When he finished checking the bottles, he’d mark each label with a tiny, inconspicuous dot of permanent ink. And then he’d know they were safe to drink, when he returned here to spend the night after everyone was gone. Sarge’s duty was here at the hospital. Sandy was safely home now. Mission completed there.
But that boy was still upstairs. Only ten years old. They were trying to take his leg.

Troubled? You betcha. Hero in his own mind? Absolutely. Villain? Dangerous?

Hmmm . . . you'll have to wait to see. Me too. I'm only HALFWAY through the first draft.

Meanwhile, anyone want to try the moustache?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Konfessions of a Klutz

I got trapped in my wrist watch. I am. Not. Kidding. I have a pea-size bruise to prove it. And, most humbling of all, it all happened because I was trying to MEDITATE. Go ahead and laugh, my husband still is. Here's how it went down:

I told you in a previous post that:

1) I'm taking a spirituality class that will allow me to become a lay chaplain.

2) Part of the training is learning to be comfortable in SILENCE . . . enhancing the student's ability to truly listen.

3) I am not a person entirely cool with silence. It makes me a little . . . antsy.

In a recent class we learned about MEDITATION (the process and benefits), and I knew it was something I needed to pursue. I was actually encouraged by my ability to sit in silence for ten full minutes during our classroom practice. Which is why:

I decided to give it a try on my own the other evening. Perfect timing . . . dusk, crisp fall air, pastoral silence. I'd sit on my favorite bench on the porch and just silently and serenely . . . BE. For maybe 5-10 minutes. Which (according to class) should be timed because, apparently, there are (non-antsy) people who can "disappear" into silence for a really long time. So because I didn't have a timer--and refused to use that as an excuse--I decided to wear my watch and sort of time myself by sneaking a peek now and then. Which (I know, I know) probably negates the whole process, but I'm like a dog worrying a bone when I get an idea in my head.


I chose my pretty Brighton bracelet watch and snapped it on securely. At which point I realized that I wouldn't be able to see it in the darkness. Then I glanced down at it and was surprised to find that . . . I couldn't actually even see the watch face right there inside my kitchen. So I grabbed my reading glasses--and discovered that . . . I'd snapped it on INSIDE OUT. Meaning that the watch was FACE DOWN. And, worse, so was the (very secure) FASTENER. And I was . . . trapped.

Right about that time hubby entered the picture and--red-faced--I confessed my klutzy problem. He was determined to come to the manly rescue. So here's what we tried for the next TWENTY minutes:

1) Releasing the lift-snap from underneath . . . his big fingers, my little ones, switching on and off who manned the flashlight and who hoisted the (tight) band as high as possible.

2) Rubbing liquid soap on my wrist and trying to slip, slide, wiggle the thing off over my knuckles . . . managing only to get it stuck halfway and contort my hand into a paralytic lobster claw (note: even at hubby's insistence, it is not possible to "suck in" your hand and make it a size smaller. Even if you've managed this feat a thousand times to fit into your skinny jeans).

3) Applying ice cubes to hand and wrist to shrink it . . . frostbite isn't helpful either

4) Jabbing at the latch with a dinner knife. Not recommended. And may cause heart palpitations.

BUT, just as hubby was heading off to the garage for "TOOLS" (and I was thinking about how I'd explain it to the local ER when they were doing my stitches) I tried one more prod with the dinner knife and . . . SPROING, I was SPRUNG!

I never did get to meditate. But I felt way more peaceful.

And remember when I said that SILENCE made me antsy? Well, I have a whole new outlook now. I'll take silence over jewelry extrication any day. And I'll be back on that bench, feet on ground, back straight, silently repeating my mantra. Not worrying about the time . . . and not wearing a watch.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Making Fiction Real

A few days ago I turned in my final revisions on CRITICAL CARE, and was elated that my editors gave it a very strong thumbs-up. They were especially pleased with a dramatic new opening scene that pulls the reader into the "Code Room" alongside Dr. Logan Caldwell as he takes over heart compressions in a last desperate attempt to save a toddler's life.

Along with a later scene showing--in detail--the (critical, every-second-counts) treatment of a trauma victim's near-fatal lung collapse. The scenes are fast-paced, gritty-real, and highly emotional. Kind of like my years in ER. And they add SO much to the story's impact, on many levels. My editors were absolutely right that I needed to include them, but they had to nudge me several times. Which led this author to an interesting self-discovery: I'd been trying to "protect" my readers from the realities of ER. The same way I'd protected my family (all those many years) from "what Mommy does at work."

It's true. I'd done exactly that during my career. Sort of a twist on the Vegas deal, only: "What happens in ER stays in ER." For patient confidentiality, of course, but it went further than that. I wanted to spare family (my children especially) and friends from the "tough stuff" that medical workers face every day: violence, hopelessness, injustice, suffering, fear, death . . . the entire gamut of human drama. I made it my mission to protect them from those things--starting with my shoes. Yes, my shoes. Try to imagine a pair of white nurse-shoes after a 12-hour day in the trenches of ER. The (shall we say) . . . "speckles" they might accumulate? All colors, all textures. None of them cherry Kool Aid or chocolate sauce. So I'd leave my shoes outside the back door when I got home.

My daughter (now 29) does this Seinfeld-esqe shtick about developing a morbid fear of white shoes as a very young child. She remembers being told to "never, ever touch Mommy's work shoes." But not exactly why. Were they hot? Sharp? Would flying monkeys carry her off?

The kid exaggerates. But the fact remains, my work was gritty and real. And my instinct was to protect my family and-- even now--my readers. And maybe . . . myself? Sure. Writing this new fictional medical series makes me re-live a lot of those real shifts in ER. Has me walking in the battle-worn shoes again. Not easy. But necessary, if I'm to take my readers to the heart of the story. The fact is, that after watching TV shows like "Grey's Anatomy", "ER," "House," etc., my readers could probably scrub in on brain surgery without flinching. And would laugh in the face of speckled shoes and flying monkeys.

So I'm not holding back in CRITICAL CARE. Tragedy, triumph, pain, laughter, heartbreak, love, and inspiration . . . you'll get it all. I promise. Of course, now I have to type while wearing my old scrubs. And a surgical mask and gloves. The hours are pretty much the same, but the coffee's way better.

A big shout out to intrepid ER veterans Barbara Jamieson R.N. and Tim Sturgill M.D. for reviewing my new scenes . . . for helping to make fiction "real." And to Tyndale editors Jan and Lorie, for the persistent nudge to write it the way it is.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Sunrise Adventures Part One

Okay, this was on my dining room ceiling at dawn this morning. I. Kid. You. Not.

Scurrying over the crown molding and onto the coffered ceiling that I once climbed high on a ladder to faux-paint. Today I climbed on the ladder to . . . get the lizard down.

My plan--hastily put in place after a dozen incredulous squeals--involved a dust pan and swimming pool net. I'd sweep him into the net with the dustpan, or vice versa. Except that he decided (his eyes googling) to jump on my head instead.

Fortunately I'd had my coffee, and dodged effectively. Which meant he was on the floor . . . goin' like a greyhound. Here's how it went: sweep-squeal-net-squeal-sweep . . . open the front door. Sweep-squeal-net . . . back under the table. Head 'em off . . . watch him (my eyes googling) climb onto the net and head toward my arm. Squeal . . . fling net and lizard out the door onto the front porch. Then grimace in guilt and horror, because:

The net bounces off him and lops off his tail. And the lizard scurries off, EXCEPT:

For two inches of tail, that continues to WIGGLE on my porch!

Then, of course, I must take the dust pan and sweep up the wiggling severed tail--all the while talking aloud to it . . . after which I suffer the humiliation of realizing that a lone construction worker on the lot across the street is watching me the whole time. It's entirely possible that his lips were forming the word, "Loco."

So, that was my Sunrise Adventure today. Fortunately I'd already returned from my inspiring walk and had done my meditative bench sitting. Unfortunately, I'd brought my potted chrysanthemums inside the night before to keep them from being eaten by deer. And didn't check for hidden lizards.

Don't get me wrong, I LOVE those green lizards. They're so cute. But not on my dining room ceiling. Now that the adventure is over, I regret two things:

First: That I accidentally lopped off that poor little guy's tail. I feel really bad about that.

Second: That I didn't discover him 20 minutes later . . . after he'd changed color to match my faux-painted ceiling. Wouldn't that have been too COOL to see?

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Giving Myself the Silent Treatment

I've found that people have different comfort levels when it comes to sound . . . for instance, my husband likes his music (from gospel to reggae) LOUD. Same with the TV. When I start up his car ( forgetting his tolerance for decibels) the radio will hit me like a cannon blast. And( because I try not to be a nag, really) I've discreetly used ear plugs on more than one occasion during football season--"Go Cowboys! Whoo-hoo-hoo! What? Is that ref out-of-his-mind?!"

On the opposite extreme, is my beautiful, bright and athletic daughter, Brooklynn, who craves silence. She's most at peace hiking alone in the high Sierra Mountains--pines, snow-capped vistas, pulse-quickening elevations --to find an outcropping of boulders where she can sit and lift her face heavenward, closing her eyes and listening in profound silence, with a faith-filled heart.

And then (like the Three Bears and the porridge. Cold-warm-hot) there's folks who fit somewhere in the middle. Who'd rather not wear ear plugs, but still require a little background noise at all times, to keep them from experiencing the strange, edgy sense of disconnection that comes with complete silence. Radio down low in another room, "pink noise" to sleep by, humming little comforting tunes to ourselves like Winnie the Pooh did, and . . . did I say "ourselves"? Oops, busted! Yes. I'm one of the uncomfortable with silence people. Which makes my newest endeavor so challenging:

I'm taking part in a 10-week Community of Hope course based on the principles of Benedictine Spirituality. It teaches compassionate listening. Listening to others with "the ear of your heart." And often means sitting in silence, "being there" without saying a word. Training me to function, in effect, as a lay chaplain.

Let me say right up front that my husband (though he loves me dearly) pretty much laughed at the idea of me sitting silently. Ever. Meaning he doubts my ability to listen without completing sentences or interupting to offer a plethora of kind and helpful "fixes." Um . . . he may be right. I'm not sure if it's the mother- thing, the nurse-thing, the writer-thing, or a combination of all three. But this concept of "active listening" is a challenge. Though it's goal, (helping others by becoming a compassionate listener ) is more than worth the intense work, whether I eventually use the skills for community outreach (like hospital and hospice visits, support groups, assisting the homeless) or in offering help to neighbors, friends and family. Having someone available to "just listen," is a true blessing for someone feeling helpless in the throes of emotional distress. And it's a reassuring reminder of the hope and compassion present in a relationship with God.

So I'm trying. To listen without fixing. To be present without doing. To sit in silence without humming like Pooh Bear. I'm taking baby steps. And some of those steps have me rising just before dawn to tiptoeout to my front porch. Where I sit on an East-facing bench and watch the sun rise, salmon pink and lavender and gold. Light out of darkness. Glorious. Quiet. And hopeful.
It clears my head for writing, and it stirs my soul.

I'm learning to listen with the ear of my heart. And, to my surprise, I'm feeling less edgy and more . . . connected. That's an added blessing.

Now where are those ear plugs? Hubby's brandishing the remote, and the Cowboys are playing Cincinnati.