Category: research

Inspiration… Or “What Does my Character Look Like?”

genre fiction, research, Uncategorized, writing life January 28, 2014
Just imagine this guy a little grayer.

Just imagine this guy a little grayer.

I’m totally guilty of trolling the internet for images of my characters. I’ve written here before that James McAvoy is the inspiration for Theo Walker. I find inspiration for a lot of my characters this way and I find it helps me keep their features straight throughout the story. I have a basic image in my head of what this character looks like, maybe ethnicity or general features or hair and eye color, and I search the internet, most often stock image sites for a person who looks like what I’m imagining. I print the photo and stick it on my character card.

Hello, Detective Gavahan

Hello, Detective Gavahan

I’m also guilty of employing this little trick with settings. I keep cards for important places in my novels with information like business hours, addresses, cross streets, anything that might be important details to keep consistent throughout the story. In the mystery novel I’m rewriting, one shop acts as a character. I had a local shop in mind when I created the one in the novel, so I went to the website of the local place and found photos of the interior. I printed them and stuck them to my “character” card for the shop.

Sometimes when I’m writing, all I have to do is flip through these character and setting cards for inspiration to strike.


012814 blog cards pic

Movie review: Devil’s Pass

movie review, movies, research October 4, 2013

I’m always intrigued by movies that claim to be based on actual events, particularly horror movies. Most of the horrific things we write about are so far out there it’s unreasonable to assume they’d actually happen. For a movie to bill itself as real horror is fascinating to me.

I was trolling Amazon rentals for something different to watch one night last month and found this one:

100413 Devil's Pass

    Also known as:

100413 The Dyatlov Pass Incident










This is a 2013 movie directed by Renny Harlin. The basic premise is straightforward: a group of teenagers read about the “Dyatlov Pass Incident,” which is a real event, and go to investigate.

The Dyatlov Pass Incident refers to the disappearance of nine skiers in the Ural mountains in 1959. When an expected message from the group of experienced skiers did not arrive, search and rescue went after them. They were found dead, in various stated of undress (in below zero temps), with tents ripped open from the inside, and some had fatal wounds that could not be explained. Several of them left the camp barefoot, and radiation in the area was unusually high. Their deaths have never been explained. Really fascinating stuff, and certainly could be the basis for a real life horror. If you’re interested in reading more about this event, I found a good article here.

In the movie Devil’s Pass, Harlin puts his own spin on what might have happened to the original skiers. A group of American college students, interested in the original incident, decide to hike the same path as the party from 1956. As you can imagine, Harlin puts forth his own dramatized theory of what might have taken place in February, 1956. The cast is mostly newcomers, no big-ticket actors, and they do a good job. There’s a good slow burn up to a certain point, after which you have to let go of the “true story” part and just run with it. I had a brief outburst of “WHY??? WHY’D HAVE TO GO THERE???” and then just settled in and enjoyed the end. It was suspenseful, if not believable.

I give it three and a half stars. I had to take one and a half off because of the ending. I would have preferred a plausible idea to what might have happened to the skiers, but on it’s own this is a fun movie.










Brains and entrails and spoons, oh my…

genre fiction, research, zombies November 28, 2012

Zombies. Shamblers, moaners, walkers, undead, the risen, biters, crawlers, uglies. Mindless masses of once living humans craving human flesh.

Whatever you want to call them, they’re terrifying. Death by zombie isn’t pretty, what with the gnawing and the gnashing of teeth. Having one’s brains scooped from his or her skull and chowed upon doesn’t sound like the most peaceful way to slip into the hereafter.

No one wants to become a zombie, either. The idea of wandering the planet restlessly searching for my next meal isn’t exactly appealing. Depending on the type of zombie and the writer’s preferences, there is a question of whether or not the zombie is aware of their predicament. Is the soul of the person still behind the decaying face, unable to control his or her movements and base desires?

These are the questions we are faced with when the walkers come knocking. Nothing about zombies is pleasant, including their actions and the manner in which they feed. Is it fair to downplay the violence associated with zombies? When we, as readers, are confronted with something as horrifying as the walking dead, is the writer somehow obligated to domesticate the monsters? Or do readers of zombie fiction prefer the full experience, the visceral terror and grotesque details of the legend?

My novel, Habeas Corpse, is the story of a zombie who is trying to reintegrate into a post-apocalyptic society. Theo Walker discovers he can relive the last moments of a dead person’s life when he consumes their gray matter. Eating human flesh is the only way the zombies in my novel can feel emotions or experience chemical sensations, like sexual pleasure or anxiety.

If you look at the classic zombie movie, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the violence is understated. The audience was very different then. These were people accustomed to I Love Lucy, Gomer Pyle, and Gunsmoke. Fast forward to today, and we’ve got movies like Zombieland, The Dead, and the upcoming film adaptation of World War Z. Even movies meant to be comedic like Shaun of the Dead, and YA novels like Jonathan Maberry’s Rot and Ruin series incorporate more violence and gore than ever before. The modern zombie connoisseur cuts his teeth on The Walking Dead, and if you’ve been watching that over the last few episodes, you know what gore is all about.

Does the modern zombie reader want to return to the homogenized, nonviolent zombie of Romero’s time? I don’t think so. Today’s zombies fans want realism. They don’t want the story sugarcoated or dumbed down. In fact, most zombie fans expect a healthy dose of gore and complain if they don’t get it. Fans of the TV version of The Walking Dead did just that after a season of what they saw as too little action and too much sitting around the farm. This season reflects the fans desire for more zombie killing, blood, death, and the struggle for survival, not just avoiding the walkers.

In Habeas Corpse, Theo depends on ingesting human flesh in order to feel emotion and experience stimulation. Eating the flesh is more than opening his mouth and inserting the food for Theo; the act of eating heightens his senses and brings him closer to the state of humanity he’s lost since dying. It’s a “whole” experience for him. The sensual nature of savoring the entire experience is essential to understand his motivation. The story would not be as effective without the graphic descriptions of the consumption of human flesh.

Leave me a comment. Do zombie fans expect or even want gore? Or should zombie stories be homogenized to fit a larger audience?

Friday Fuel: Wherein we discuss obscure myths, extinction, and a big set of teeth.

Friday Fuel, research September 7, 2012

Sometimes the best stories can come out of the most basic prompts. My short story, “Black Bird,” will appear in Dark Moon Books’ anthology Mistresses of the Macabre later this year. “Black Bird” was inspired by a prompt in a college class. The instructor told the class to find an obscure myth or folk tale from another culture. By obscure, he meant no vampires, no werewolves, no mermaids. He even nixed banshees and the tir-na-n-og.

The research was great fun and the myth I came up with, although I found out later had been used by other writers, was the Middle Eastern ifrit. I put my own spin on the creature of vengeance, and “Black Bird” was born.

Don’t discount the little seemingly meaningless prompts. Sometimes the most unexpected stories can be born.

1.    Does your family come from an interesting culture? Find a story from your ancestral heritage and spin it to suit your favorite genre.
2.    Did your grandmother ever tell interesting stories about her childhood or stories that she’d been told as a child? Retell the story from the first person, taking creative liberty.
3.    On this day in 1936, the last surviving member of the thylacine species, or Tasmanian tiger, died in a Tasmanian zoo. These animals are beautiful and can open their jaws an impressive (and frightening) 120 degrees. Write a story in which this creature (or something like it) is spotted in the wild.

Imagine meeting that set of teeth in a dark alley.

4.   Would the protagonist of your latest work ride a motorcycle? Why or why not?
5.    What is your protagonist’s favorite weekend activity? Is he or she a night owl?

Whatever your own favorite weekend activity might be, enjoy it!

Excuse me, sir, but I based a character on you…

angst, research January 25, 2012

I have been looking forward to today for weeks. I need everyone’s positive thoughts so that I don’t make a complete idiot in front of someone I’m very much looking forward to meeting.

In high school, all my studies were focused on the sciences. I wrote, indeed I wrote well enough to win contests (including one that I went to Penn State University to accept) and was requested to write a poem for my graduating class’s baccalaureate program. But I wanted my future to be in the sciences. I took honors biology courses and advanced placement tests, went to college for marine and then microbiology. I worked in the genetic therapy field for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center before I had my sons.

I love science.

I also love writing and I have a slightly morbid interest in all things forensic. I don’t know why it took me so long to figure out I’m a horror writer, but my favorite blend of horror and forensics makes me very happy.

Pittsburgh is the hometown of one of the country’s most prominent forensic scientists, Dr. Cyril Wecht. For those that don’t know, Dr. Wecht worked with the Allegheny County coroner’s office for 15 years. He earned a B.S. from the University of Pittsburgh in 1952, an M.D. degree from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 1956, an LLB from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 1962, and a J.D. degree from the University of Maryland School of Law. He’s been involved in investigating the deaths or cases of Robert F. Kennedy, Sharon Tate, The Symbionese Liberation Army shootout, John F. Kennedy, The Legionnaires’ Disease panic, Elvis Presley, JonBenét Ramsey, Dr. Herman Tarnower (the Scarsdale diet guru), Danielle van Dam, Sunny von Bülow, the Branch Davidian incident, Vincent Foster, Laci Peterson and Anna Nicole Smith. During his career, Wecht performed more than 14,000 autopsies. He is a clinical professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and an adjunct professor of law at Duquesne University. (source: Wikipedia)

My kids go to an excellent school here in Pittsburgh that attracts many prominent people, and parents are encouraged to be a part of everything. Today I will go listen to a private talk given by Dr. Wecht and then have lunch with him.

Please cross your fingers I don’t trip in front of him.


research, writing and technology, writing life January 19, 2011

I love reading. I love writing. Most of all, I love reading about the things I love to write. In other words, I love researching my subjects. I can Google a subject and spend hours reading related articles, clicking on side articles (like a digital tangent), and just absorbing the information. I do believe this allows me to write with authenticity. One of my mentors in my MFA program told me it was obvious how much I really love herbs and gardening, since my writing comes alive when I write about it.

Actually, not so much. I generally kill plants. If you ask my mother, getting me to work in the garden as a kid was like getting my sons to do dog-poo patrol in our backyard. In my mind, weeding is a form a punishment, but for people who truly love gardening, weeding is therapeutic.

What I did love was researching the subject. The information is fascinating. Herbs have been used for centuries for medicinal purposes, for aromatherapy, for cooking… and for killing. I have several books on poisoning and poisonous plants. They tend to make my dinner guests nervous, but I digress.

This love of research presents a problem for me, since I am time management challenged. So how best to do the research I need without finding myself sucked in and suddenly three or four hours of my day are gone?

First and foremost, I set a timer. I have one hour to find the information I need, or at least to identify the source for that information. After one hour, I have to move on and start writing. Chances are I have enough to go on to write my word count for the day. (That’s the beauty of fiction, too. We can fudge a little.)

Best place to start? Wikipedia. I know it’s not good source material for truly academic work, but for general research it’s fantastic. Another novel I’m working on now features a woman (actually the ghost of a woman) from “somewhere in the South.” That’s all I knew. I could hear her voice and for some odd reason, she sounded Cajun to my inner ear. Fleshing out her backstory has been a blast. Starting at “Cajun” on Wikipedia took me to all sorts of interesting places.

I have an iPad (both a curse and a blessing and my children are constantly plotting to take it from me and play Angry Birds). Without doing individual reviews of each app, there are a few I find indispensible for efficient research:

Instapaper- allows you to search newspaper articles from all over the world

Articles- a Wiki search app

Wikihood- (my favorite) allows you to search for information on a particular location, anywhere in the world, and gives you interesting side info as well

When I’m in the market for a book on a particular subject, such as my poisoning books or a book on reading auras, I like to search Amazon. The customer reviews are incredibly helpful, and when combined with the “customers who purchased this book also purchased…” feature, nearly unbeatable for finding an obscure book with awesome information.

What works for you?