Saved By YouTube: A Minor Miracle

Head and top torso of plaster cast of person from Pompeii. Facial expression of surprise and pain. An arm thrown over their face as if to protect themselves.

Pompeii, Italy by S J Pinkney

I credit my writing group and the fact that I just put something on paper for helping me get back on the writing wagon. However, I would also like to thank YouTube. Usually a black hole filled with LBD, Teens React, The Guild and other labyrinths, YouTube also served up a 1960’s Army training video for how to apply a plaster cast.

One of the scenes I was struggling with just happened to be a ’50s doctor applying a plaster cast. I rewrote the scene several times and just guessed at how things would work…everything from no ambulance to no insurance. I imagined that the way doctors made a cast was similar to how I made paper mache in 5th grade, only instead of newspaper and goop, they used gauze and goop.

Um, I was a little wrong about that and while it was only a minor adjustment to make, knowing how it really worked got me excited and back on track.

I would link to the video for you, but I can’t find it again…it’s like the clouds parted, this video fell into my laptop when I needed it and then disappeared. Either a Mission Impossible self-destruct moment or a little writing miracle.

Have any of you ever had your own writing miracle? ‘Tis the season!

Green Beans and Research


A little while ago, my department at work had a belated-holiday-party/team-bonding outing to the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD) to volunteer together. GCFD distributes food to shelters, food pantries and soup kitchens to Chicago and the surrounding areas. Some of that food is donated by manufacturers, stores and individuals. And some of that food is purchased in bulk by GCFD. When they buy bulk, they have to take a 30 pound bag of pinto beans and re-bag them into 1 or 2 pound bags…or they’ll get canned veggies without the labels and so they have to label everything.

While we were at GCFD, a high school class got to re-bag pinto beans (and wear white lab coats and hair nets), while we labeled french-cut green beans. 10,000 cans to be exact.

It was nice a break from the desk. Most people were given a station and stuck to it. I floated a bit, trying my hand at boxing, labeling and transferring from palette to labeling table (by far the least back-friendly of the jobs).

You know how much I love behind-the-scenes! Well, this was just as interesting. This was a peek into a world I know nothing about. Walking into their warehouse was like walking into a Costco on steroids. The sheer magnitude was awe inspiring…and the first thing everyone mentioned.

I don’t have any stories on the horizon that deal with warehouses or assembly lines, but now I have a small taste of what that’s like…just in case.

Have you ever volunteered as a way to explore your story?

Creepiness of Research Part 3

Creepy smiling doll with unblinking eyes

Caring is Creepy by brainware3000 CC 3.0

This is the third time I’ve written about this (and the last time you’ll have to look at that doll in the photo, I promise). You’re probably starting to wonder about me…I am.

When I bought the medical textbook, I also got a forensics textbook. I haven’t cracked the spine on it yet because I’ve since discovered forensics4fiction. This blog is written by a criminologist with 15 years’ experience for crime writers. It’s fascinating!

During a recent morning commute, I was intrigued by skeletanization – blood drops dry from the outside in, so if something is dragged across an old drop, you can tell approximately when and in which direction. I managed to restrain myself from leaning over to my seatmate, and complete stranger, and sharing the interesting tidbits I was learning. Looking back, I might have gotten my own seat that way.

Forensics4fiction isn’t all gruesome. What happens when a lawyer asks a blind question? How does a stolen car take on the thief’s personality? F4F tells all. None of this information will be useful in Julia, but I’m just curious.

It’s this curiosity that lead me to The Poisoner’s Handbook: The Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. Again, fascinating! However, I would warn against reading it in, say, your office’s lunch room. I did.

I took a late lunch one day and was happily reading about the Radium Girls when a co-worker came in and asked if what I was reading was any good. “Yes,” I replied at the exact moment I realized that I was reading about poisons in a lunch room. Of course, my co-worker wanted to know what I was reading. I tried to hedge and just said it was about the birth of forensic medicine, but I’m pretty sure the cover was visible. My co-worker’s eyes got large and she backed away slowly before booking it out of there. Ever since, her smile hasn’t been quite as big when she sees me in the halls.

Creepiness of Research Part 2

Creepy smiling doll with unblinking eyes

Caring is Creepy by brainware3000CC BY 2.0

I’ve talked about the creepiness of research when I was learning about plane crashes. Well, I’m researching again…

Originally, in Julia, I had two characters with the same disease — one that occurs in 1 in 3000 live births. Despite the span of miles and years, the coincidence was too much.

Luckily, I bought a medical textbook a few years ago. Yes, that’s right. At the annual library book sale, I bought a thirty-year-old medical text book that’s full of words I have to look up on the internet. Ah, yes, symptoms include angioneurotic edema*. I heard doctors on ER throw around edema a lot, but that’s about the extent of my medical knowledge.

So, between this text book and the internet, I’m fascinated. Look at all these new diseases that I could inflict on one of the two characters!

It’s very odd, playing God like this. It’s like those car comparison sites. I’d like a sun roof, but don’t want that color interior. Only, I’m saying that I need a disease that will do X, and since this disease also does Y, it’s out.

Pulling the strings to make a character do what I want is one thing, having them make bad choices in a book is another, and dooming them to painful diseases is something altogether different. Oddly, I don’t feel the need to protect the characters from the medical terms I’m dumping on them…not the same way I want them to make the right choices even though, if they did, there’d be no book. But I’m also not gleefully rubbing my hands saying, take that angioneurotic edema and I’ll raise you some angiitis**.

I’m very detached. I need specific things out of this disease, so I’m rather objective in my search. And that’s what’s so weird about it. I am attached to my characters…except for during this research.

Have you ever done something to your characters with surprising ease or difficulty?

*Angioneurotic edema, by the way, is a recurring, inflammatory swelling of the skin.
**Angiitis, yes, that’s the spelling, is inflammation of a blood vessel or lymph duct.

Flashback Friday: People


Every Friday this month I’m posting oldies but goodies to celebrate The Empty Pen’s two-year anniversary!

When I first moved to the big city, I’d never used public transit and was a little intimidated. I found one route to work and stuck to it for an extraordinarily long time: a bus to the El to a commuter train. When I finally found a shorter route, part of me still missed the long way because I’d observed so many interesting people. I’d filled notebooks with them. At the time, I thought about compiling them into a book of short stories: One Year on Public Transportation…or some equally gripping title. That book never quite materialized, and none of those people have turned into characters.

For a while, I was commuting by car and I really missed public transit. My suburban co-workers thought I was crazy. When I came back to the train, it was very different. By that time, I was older and used to the city and public transit. I guess I was less enchanted with everything or, perhaps, this new train line just had more boring people. Except for one fascinating person. I dubbed him Pompous Man. He always has a self-important air about him.

He’s nicely dressed, but doesn’t seem to care about his clothes at all. He’ll toss and twist them as he settles into his seat, not caring if they get wrinkled. He won’t just loosen his tie, he’ll yank it loose so that it hangs askew and off to the side. He sits with his legs splayed wide and his arms spread on the backs of as many other seats as possible.

When he walks, his chest is puffed out and there’s a jaunty dip to his swagger. Again, he takes up as much room as possible. His arms are out, swinging freely (and often with a plastic grocery/lunch bag pendulum).

He never seems concerned for anyone or anything around him; he’s self-absorbed; he’s in an oblivious bubble. I saw him at the grocery store once. He was with a woman who seemed exceedingly exasperated with him. He was staring at items on the shelf with wonder, as if he’d never been in a grocery store before. He abandon the cart in the middle of the aisle and the woman snapped at him as I tried to eek by. I could tell by the look on his face that, to him, she was an annoying gnat who was blithering about something unimportant.

Can you picture him? Have you formed an opinion on what he’s like? I certainly did.

And then, I noticed that we took the same route exiting the station. Every morning, the same homeless man stands at the end of the street bridge jangling his cup. This pompous man often stops to talk to him. I’ve passed when they’ve had a nudge, nudge, wink, wink conversation about a woman. I’ve seen pompous man carry a nice shirt on a hanger the whole commute, just to give it to this man. I’ve seen him empty container upon container of yogurt from his own lunch bag to the homeless man’s bag. Even when he has nothing to give, he’ll smile and say hi.

Surprised? Me too.

People are surprising (and judgmental). While none of my train observees have been fictionalized, I hope that I’ve learned a thing or two from them and infused my characters with the same humanity.

Writing Sommelier



Full wine glass standing on a keyboard. The reflection of the keyboard on the bottom of the glass looks like a Cheshire Cat grin.

Wine Glass on a Keyboard by itchys CC 3.0

On the NaNoWriMo forums and on many writing blogs, you can read about the types of music people listen to while writing. Some authors vary their music by scene. Others create soundtracks that embody the overall theme or feel of the book they’re writing.


Along the same vein, some writers surround themselves with totems of their story. Writing a story that takes place on a beach? Make sure you have some driftwood and sand to get you in the right mood and mindset.

I prefer to write in silence and rarely gather story totems, but I do enjoy drinks (of both the alcoholic and non- variety). There is a cabinet in my kitchen that is overflowing with teas, coffee and hot chocolate…and yet I buy more.

Anyway, when I was writing about a main character who worked in a coffee house, I drank a lot of black coffee. That’s not something I normally enjoy, but my character did and I wanted to be able to describe the nuances of coffee roasts better.

Other than that, I haven’t noticed my drink choices being influenced by what I’m writing. But I wonder if there is a kind of writing sommelier out there. You need an action sequence? Try Four Loko Cranberry Lemonade. Dramatic ending? Tea, Earl Grey, hot.

Do you have any story-drink combos to share?

Guts: An Update


I‘m feeling giddy today. Way back when, if you remember, I bemoaned my introverted-ness as a stumbling block to researching for Julia.

In the comments, Beth wisely pointed out that people like talking about themselves. Well, that didn’t cure my hand wringing, but it did push me into contacting an old friend and ask her probing questions about her job.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago. I need information on how the transport of bodies are handled by airports and funeral homes. I know I need to contact a funeral home, but really, on top of my general introverted-ness, there’s the whole funeral home aspect of it. Ug. So, I realized that the airport part of the equation might be a little easier to do. I didn’t bother with my local airport; O’Hare would probably be a little busy. I opted, instead to email the customer service desk of my hometown airport, Blue Grass Airport…coincidentally the airport I’d be sending said fictional body.

I sent the email, figuring I’d never hear back from anyone…but I did! I’m thrilled beyond belief. Giddy even.

Unfortunately, the kind person who helped me could only give me some info, but he did direct me to where I could get more help…a funeral home. And the funeral home only has a phone number, not email address. Gulp. I’ll have  to bite the bullet. But tonight I’m focusing on giddy.

When Research Falls In Your Lap



Man holding magnifying glass up to a window so that the image seen through the glass is an upside down version of what we see through the window

Virtual, inverted, reduced by Micah Sittig CC 3.0

I know, I just had a binder of research fall in my lap, and now this…how lucky am I?


What is this? A medical emergency in my train car! (Don’t worry, all’s well)

I don’t have a scene like this, but I might, someday, or you might now, soI paid attention. I tried to be cool like the other passengers and not rubber neck but that’s hard when you’re trying to observe the scene.

Right as the train left the station a man a seat in front of me and across the aisle, slumped over and started convulsing. His eyes were closed, his mouth fell partially open. The convulsing wasn’t dramatically violent. They shakes were short, rhythmic and fairly quickly, but not as quickly as I expected.

I was engrossed in my Google Reader, so I didn’t notice until the man sharing a seat with him and asked (very quietly) for someone to get the conductor. Another man jumped up and (again quietly) hurried to the other end of the car.

When the conductor came, the seizing man had stopped shaking but was still not quite coherent – he was sluggish, like he was just waking up. With help, he was able to sit up. When the conductor asked his name, the man didn’t answer, but when asked if he knew his name, he said yes. There were more questions, most of which I couldn’t hear. The whole time, the conductor was going back and forth between the man, his seat partner and the radio. He kept his body over the man, blocking him from view. Not just mine, as many people as possible.

The train stopped for a while before pulling back into the station.

Once there, a policeman came on and talked to both the conductor and the seat-mate. The man knew where he was, who he was and where he was going. He’d had seizures before and knew that this one had been caused by stress. He was not diabetic. I think he said it was epileptic, but everyone had their back to me, so I can’t be 100% sure.

The policeman actually cautioned the conductor from calling the EMTs because they would ask the man to get off the train and he wouldn’t want to go and it would turn into a long mess. Guess what. He was right.

The Fire Department came to the scene. Four guys, including an EMT shuffled down the aisle. It was tight quarters. The head guy did all the talking to the man and his seat-mate. The second guy  might have been involved with the conversation. I couldn’t hear him, but his body language was engaged. They both pushed forward, bodies almost overlapping in the tight aisle. The third man had what appeared to be a portable defibrillator, and the fourth man hung back, holding a collapsible gurney. Both of these men left breathing room on either side of them and had a more relaxed pose. They had nothing to do but wait.

The head man tried to convince the man who’d had the seizure to leave the train for tests. “I know you’ll be late, but this is your health. This is your health.”

Finally a new man arrived on the scene (another new character – knowing their names would make this description so much easier!). Dressed in working pants, a collared shirt and a pullover, he whispered with the man holding the gurney. At first, I thought maybe the new man was just a curious train rider, but the way gurney man was explaining things, it seemed he was more like a ride-along (think writer following the police on their rounds). After several intent nods, the ride-along moved his way up the line and whispered to the head man. He then introduced himself to the man who’d had the seizure as a manager, and said he was concerned about getting “all these people” moving.

After more back and forth the Fire Department finally shuffled off. Overheard: he can stay, but he’ll have to sign a waiver and the policeman can be his witness.

So, the policeman came back on. At this point, the man who’d had the seizure was packing up, getting ready to get off. The policeman was very insistent that he doesn’t have to leave, that they can’t force him off the train. But, in the end, he got off and we started rolling.

The conductors announced that there was a medical emergency on the train twice. Once when we pulled back into the station, the second time right after the Fire Dept. arrived (they mentioned the FD had arrived). Once we started again, the automated PA system came on saying that we were 20 minutes late because of a medical emergency…I guess it happens frequently enough that they needed to create an automated message.

So there you go, a 20 minute medical emergency and response on a train.

My car was very calm; the people very courteous. Obviously, we knew what was going on, so no one got upset or anxious. Everything was handled in whispers – minimal fuss and maximum privacy…although when I was watching people be as discreet as they possibly could be in such close quarters and the blaring PA announcement about a medical emergency came on, it seemed incongruous. I know that they needed to inform the other passengers and medical emergency is pretty vague, but at that moment it felt intrusive.

When I was standing in the vestibule, ready to get off at my stop, a man from the other half of the car stood beside me. He looked at me with a glint of excitement in his eyes. “Were you in the car with the emergency?”

Research Fairy


Some writers thoroughly research prior to starting their stories. Others write first and research later. Is there a right way to do this? I think it’s personal to your writing process.

My approach is mixed. I can’t do all my research before, because I know I’ll come up with questions as I write and if I try to cover everything before hand, I’ll never get started writing. If I wait to research later, I’ll make drastically wrong assumptions and the story will go in a direction that can’t be supported by reality.

Of course, the problem with researching mid-story is my tendency to fall down the rabbit hole and never come back. I find research fascinating, even if it can get tedious at times.

Luckily, I seem to have my own Research Fairy!

I was chugging along with my writing when a friend dumped a binder full of info into my lap — research pre-bundled just for me! It’s an awesome early Christmas present.

However, it revealed a horrifying truth: reality has it all wrong. In Julia, life happens A, B, C. Reality is all screwy with things happening A, C, B. Pesky facts.

I’m worried. B and C are both important. They both push the characters and trigger forward plot momentum, but they aren’t interchangeable. I’m tempted to stick my fingers in my ears and sing la, la, la. Perhaps that’s not the best strategy, but I don’t want to put on the brakes since I was chugging along before the fairy landed.

How do you work your research into your writing…what about when your research doesn’t quite go your way?



Hope everyone enjoyed 10-10-10.


It’s time for a field trip. Luckily, in a few weeks, I’ll be in the town where part of Julia takes place. Just in time.


When I write, I can see the set, as it were, in my head. I walk through a house, office, etc with my characters when I describe their actions and surroundings. Describing the setting in great detail isn’t necessarily important to the reader’s understanding of the story, so while I know there is a metal umbrella bucket by the front door, I’ll leave it out since it has nothing to do with the plot or character development. And if I decide to change the blueprint or the wall color, no one knows but me.

This is all well and good when I’ve created a set in my head. But when I’m working with a public place that people could potentially drive by, I need to make sure that any details I give are real and exact.

Would you trust an author or narrator who described the White House as a nice Cape Cod with green shutters? Me either.

So, as I was writing a particular scene, I blocked it in my head with a generic set. As I began flushing scene out with descriptions, I was making it all up: high brick walls with wrought iron gate. It dawned on me that, perhaps, I should actually take a look at the place I was writing about.

I’m not writing about the White House, so a Google image search wasn’t going to show me a bagillion pictures of every angle that I could draw from. But the scene is set in a public enough place that I found a few pictures…just enough to let me know that my descriptions were way off.

So, it’s field trip time.