Showing posts with label plotting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label plotting. Show all posts

Sunday, December 4, 2016

What Was Your Character Thinking? Or: What I Learned on a Cold Dark Training Mission

English: American Black Bear Ursus americanus ...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I was out in the mountains of Virginia, training with the the K-9 Search and Rescue teams, but I was thinking a lot about plot development and characters. 

If I could pick one nugget to share from my experience, it would be that in a "situation" whatever the situation is that you've cooked up for your character, the thing on their mind will be the last related story they were told. 

Example 1:

I had been out as a walker most of the day tracking the handler who was tracking the dog who was tracking the lost person. We had a "find." A young woman and her friend were hanging out in the bramble as our subject. After applying fake first aid to a fake injury, we assisted in an equine evacuation. The girl and her friend had been in the woods for hours, and I was asking how they did. The woods can be a scary place. "Were you afraid?"
"Only of bears," she said.

Huh, okay. 

Fast forward, dinner's done back at base, and they're calling for volunteers to be staged in the woods. I was glad to do that, I'm quite comfortable in the woods, and I had sufficient equipment in my pack that the below freezing temperatures and chance of snow didn't feel concerning. So off I went. We drove until there was no more fire road, then I was walked waaaaay out into the woods until I hit the location they'd assigned me, and my handler left me there. The last thing the handler was talking about was bears in the woods. Since it was pitch black out there, I asked if I was allowed red lights (we don't use white lights in the woods if we're not using a search beam, because we're trying to keep our night vision. I use a green light when I'm walking in the woods at night, because it's easier to read a topographical map.) 
"Why do you want lights? Are you feeling scared?"
"No not really, it's just that you've been talking about black bears; and when the K-9 runs out of the brush, I'd like to know it's a dog and not a bear. I'd like to know if I'm about to get  licked or mauled."
"Good point, but no. We'd prefer you not use your lights."

So there I was. Alone. Wrapped in a black tarp. Sitting under a tree, contemplating life. And the rustling sounds around me. And was that a snort? 

As I said before, I'm perfectly okay in the woods, night or day. What sent me out of my comfort zone was that a potential threat loomed in the forefront of my thoughts, since it had been alluded to twice that day in the context of sitting alone in the woods. 

Those earlier conversations are what made me pull my knife out of its sheath and stab it into the dirt beside me. I kept my hand on the handle. A low level hum of "what if," ran the entire time I was waiting for my "rescue."

Example 2:

Fast forward; The K-9 team found me as the moisture in the air started to rise and the dew began to form. The temperatures were dropping precipitously. I headed to the equine camping area to warm up in front of the campfire before Hubby and I drove to our tent to get some sleep. Around the blaze, we were sharing war stories of past searches. One of the last stories they told was that the night before, only one equine searcher was in the area. It was a single woman in her horse camper. She was the only one who was supposed to be there. Late in the evening, she heard two men talking outside. She listened as they circled around her trailer. 

The woman called over to base and several men came over and did a search. Finding no one, they went on their way. The strangers came back and tried the woman's door handle. She racked the slide on her semi-automatic and called out, "Leave now or I shoot." They high tailed it out of there. 

It was an odd story because no one should have been testing her door's locks. It was also concerning because no one was supposed to be in the area, not even park staff. To be honest, there aren't many who want to hang out on the top of a mountain, camping in December. 

I heard the story and promptly forgot the story. That is, I forgot it until Hubby and I were in our tent. We were the only tent in the whole campground and the campground was a good distance from the equine area and even farther from base. No big deal, Hubby and I are perfectly comfortable in the woods. Though, a little warmer would have been more pleasant as far as our comfort went, that's for sure. 

As we lay in our tent, a dually truck drove around the camp twice, nice and slow. 

Here's what I was thinking:
I'm in silk long johns in my sleeping bag. My boots are a hassle to get on. No one would hear me if I screamed. My pack is in the car. I have no gun. I didn't even bring in my knives. It's around twenty degrees outside. There's nowhere to run except deeper into the woods. Dressed the way I am, there isn't a good chance of survival if I run towards the woods. My best option, if these men come to cause problems, was to get past them, out the small tent door, down to the bathhouse and lock myself in the shower room. Of course, I'd be barefooted and in almost no clothes, so unless they left pretty quickly or there was a ton of hot water available, I'd probably freeze. 

I'll be honest, the bears were such a long shot in terms of actually being a problem, that it was just something that played through my brain. The story about the men - who tried to enter our teammate's trailer and had to be chased off with the threat of gun fire - that was much more worrisome. Worrisome enough that I only slept lightly, keeping an awareness of the sounds, trying to catch footfalls coming toward the tent.

The next morning, I was talking about it with Hubby. Of course, he was in the same straights I was -- clothing and weapons wise. He'd heard the same story and the concern of folks not on the mission being in an area that was supposed to be empty. He went through almost the same thought processes as I did. 
"So what did you conclude? Did you have a plan?" I asked.
"I guess it would come down to who won the fight us or them."
So he had imagined how he'd have to spring from the sleeping bag (and we had to stay zipped against the cold). His conclusion, we didn't have a good shot at coming out of this okay. He hadn't considered getting to the showers but said that would have been a good route. 

We both decided that we'd make better weapons choices next time around. Live and learn and come out the otherside. It's all an adventure.

On the drive home, I thought about the significance of that last story one hears, the last odd concern that was expressed. It has the power to construct a new understanding of an otherwise okay situations. The storytelling becomes a warning that looms large when in a situation where the other person's story elements are lining up with yours. It's a great way to get to know a character or twist a plot.

I thought this was a pretty good thing to keep in mind as characters are sharing their stories with the others in a book. So I'm sharing my observation with you in case you're wondering just what your character would be thinking.

Cheers!
~And happy writing.
Fiona



Sunday, October 30, 2016

A Blind Date with Freddie Krueger and the Art of Thrill Writing with Chris Patchell

Welcome!

Grab a cup of something warm and let's settle in for a chat with my fellow Kindle Scout winning author, Chris Patchell.

Chris, please tell us about your background and how that brought you to writing novels.

Chris - 
I was a shy kid who didn't make friends easily. We lived way out in the country, so there were no kids nearby. I would escape into my own head for hours at a time, making up stories. Imagining I was somewhere else -- a flight attendant up in the blue sky flying to exotic places. I'd imagine shapes in the clouds. I'd act out scenes with my barbies. In the third grade, I was given my first creative writing assignment and discovered the magic of writing--of creating a new world, all of your own making.

It was awesome.

Better than friends.

I wrote on and off through high school and my early twenties and then quit. I got busy building a career in tech, and a family. 


I hit a point in my career where I was feeling burned out. My girls were little, and I remember thinking that there was no part of my life that was mine anymore. I needed a little piece of myself back. I thought about what I used to like to do, and I remembered that I used to love to write. But being type A, I didn't just sit down and open up a word processor. I researched some writing courses I could take. Found one through the University of Washington. Went to the information session. Loved what I heard and STILL, it took me a year to sign up.

My husband says to me, "did you ever sign up for that course?" Um... No...

"Why not?"

"I'd never have time to write. You know, with the job, the kids..."

He fixed me with this hard stare. "Stop making excuses. Just do it."

So I did. That was 10 years ago, and I've been writing ever since.

My analytical mind has served me well working in the tech industry. I set my first book in a tech company, and used some of my experience as a woman working in tech in building the book's main character, Jill. Little bits of tech make it into my plots.

I've managed a lot of projects from small mobile apps, to large scale, complex deployments. This experience--the ability to organize and deploy multiple projects simultaneously translates well into devising complex plots. I love weaving multiple story lines together into big bang endings.

I can remember a lot of detailed dependencies off the top of my head, which means when I make plot changes, I can go back and change all of the places in previous scenes where the info becomes relevant. It's handy.

I like the high-stakes and fast paced plot lines in suspense novels where characters struggle against external obstacles to get what they want. I also like creating their internal obstacles--the emotional baggage they carry with them that limit their actions. Fear. Anger. Rage.

The minute I started writing my first thriller, I was hooked.

I also like creating strong female characters. Jill Shannon, the anti-hero in my first book is a great example. She's smart, fierce, and a little ruthless. Not what you'd expect lurking underneath her pretty face.

Ha!

Fiona - 
What do you think makes a good thriller - what components do you try to include? What are you consciously aware of as you're putting your plot together?

Chris -
It has to be high stakes. Typically life and death, or loss of freedom. Both figure prominently into my plot lines. There also has to be a personal stake in the story. What motivates your hero to conquer the obstacles in the story and risk it all? Single mother, Marissa Rooney, will stop at nothing to find her missing daughter. Then there is the element of time (pacing). Everyone knows that the first 48 hours are critical in a missing person's case, but beyond that, what provides a ticking clock--the tension that moves your characters (and your readers) through the story? The kidnapped girl in In the Dark is a type 1 diabetic. She's got her insulin pen with her, but it's not ideal (she needs 2 types of insulin and only has one) and her supply is limited. When it runs out, she dies.

AMAZON LINK
It's a compelling ticking clock. It's selection wasn't random. My husband is a type 1 diabetic, so I know a little bit about what happens (high blood sugars, low blood sugars, etc.).

If your hero has a good reason to care, your readers will too.

Fiona - 
Let's talk about that pacing. I find books that are written with the gas pedal being pushed down the whole time wears me out. I appreciate a few scenes with introspection or a little more quiet so there are highs and lows. Is that something you include in your pacing or is it go go go?

Chris - 
Like you said, it can't be go go go all the time. It gets boring. It's like the never-ending car chase scene.

There are moments when your characters are alone and they're struggling with their inner demons. The action isn't high, but the emotional tension is. I also like to inject a little humor where I can into the story.

That was probably more true of my first book than my second.

You also need to let your hero win every once in a while to keep people invested. There was this t.v. show years ago, about an Irish family. Modern. T
he Black Donnelys. But everything went wrong for this family. It went from bad to worse. I watched 2 - 3 episodes then quit. It was too depressing. They took it off the air before the season finished.

Fiona- 
Another way that you can hold the reader's attention is with complex plotting. Beyond the pantser v plotter question, how do you develop the ideas for your plots and how do you refine so it's the Three Little Bears not too twisty not too straight?

Chris - 
Yes, I'm a big fan of complex plotting. I'm definitely a plotter. I start with the seed of a story. An idea. I spend some time nodding on the idea, growing it, to see if it's big enough to support a plot. Then I write a summary 3-Act Plot. This is maybe 5 - 10 pages long. Then I start breaking it into scenes--more of a formal outline. I usually start writing. Evolve the outline as I go. Major plot twists are built into the idea of the story. Part of how do you make it interesting or surprising. For instance, In the Dark has a big reveal in the prologue. Sometimes though, you delay a reveal to build tension, or a new idea comes to you during the writing phase that makes a reveal or twist better.

Good twists are part of my original story design. They're what makes the story interesting. So, while I do outline, I use my outline as a guideline and not a blueprint, so if my characters take me in different directions (deviate off the path), I go with it. If it works, I keep it, if it doesn't, I dump it and move on.

Each of my characters have their own story lines, even the secondary characters. While they play a role in the major plot, their stories weave into the whole making it richer.

Fiona - 
Go back to the original three parts. What does that breakdown look like?

Chris - 

The first act sketches out the main character. Who are they? Why are they here? The inciting incident that puts the characters on the path. My first act usually ends with the characters gaining momentum, they reach the point of no return on their journey, which propels them deeper into the story.

The second act is the bulk of the story. The obstacles they face, setbacks in the plot. Pushing against the obstacles to learn more about the case, battle with their own demons. You know. At the end of the second act, they acquire knowledge that moves them into the third act. In In the Dark, the investigator learns the identity of the kidnapper. The climax of the story. The showdown. Do they find the missing girl? Can they save her? Slay the demon? In a romance it's usually about whether the relationship survives the crisis and how.

The end of Act 3 is the resolution. I usually tie the ends of my acts with a big reveal or twist; a moment in the action that propels you into the next phase. You up the stakes.

Fiona - 
Do you apply special choices of words or sentence structures to encourage people to read in a section in a particular way? For example how would you change between the physical action high stakes pages v. the emotion angst introspection pages to change the rhythm?

Chris - 
Sentence structure is obvious. Shorter, choppier sentences for action scenes. Longer, more complex sentences for more introspective parts. Atmosphere plays a role too; setting the scene. Because I set stories in the Northwest, I use a lot of physical scene setting (barriers like mountains and mudslides, raining, flooding, typical things we experience in Northwest winters). Word choices are important--how you describe something reflects the mood of the character. Marissa Rooney has made a lot of mistakes with men. When she thinks about these mistakes, her inner critic calls her a loser. The voice of her inner critic is probably her mother's, and she struggles against her poor self-esteem the whole book. Only at the end does she accept her mistakes and move past them. Get stronger. Those emotional moments where she's waging her own inner battle use words that reflect what her inner critic (and by extension herself) believes.

The emotional stuff is harder for me to write.

Takes longer. I have to dig pretty deep to get it out.

Fiona -
For me sex is hardest to write -- I can write emotion all day long.

Chris - 
I hear ya!

When I'm writing a sex scene, I have to block out the idea that anyone else will ever read it. If I didn't, I would never be able to write one.

Fiona - 
Amen to that one -- especially the idea of one of my kids reading it! Ha!

Chris - 
I'm in denial about my kids reading my stuff. I started to write again about the time my oldest daughter was in kindergarten. That's when I instituted the rule, you never read mommy's stuff. Eventually though, they will. Luckily we're still years away from that.

Fiona - 
Let's talk about staying motivated.

Chris -
I think the hardest thing for me is finding ways to stay motivated during the edit cycle. It always feels endless to me. Ripping a scene apart. Rewriting it, until you get it right, or as close to right as you can while not over-obsessing to the point you can never let it go. So, one of the things that helps motivate me is getting feedback from my writing group, or other sources that I trust. When I'm struggling with a scene and I think it's a piece of crap, getting feedback helps identify what's working, what's not, and provides an opportunity to brainstorm how to fix what's there. Writing is solitary. Building a community of support will help motivate you when the going gets tough.

Tracking what you do also keeps you motivated. Tracking word count in the initial draft, watching your manuscript grow. And then keeping track of where you are in the edit cycle. While it may feel like slow going, just being able to see progress helps. Remembering that there is an end in sight. I know there's a point during the edit cycle where I want to burn the manuscript, or kill myself. Or both.

Having finished several books, I know that this is part of my process. I need to keep pushing to get past it. Eventually I will and the book will be finished and I can write something else.

The promise of writing something new is the carrot at the end of the string fore me.

Fiona - 
It's time! We want a good scar story, please.

Chris - 
My favorite scar story...

Well, I've got a three-inch scar at the base of my throat. One of my coworkers asked me how I got it and this is what I said...

I was working in Vancouver, BC, in an area of the city called Yaletown. It was late. Winter. Raining. I was meeting some of my friends downtown and stopped at a bank machine to pick up some funds. Vancouver is an interesting city--parts of it are upscale, pretty. Safe. But step one or two blocks out of the "zone" and it can get a little sketchy. So there I was at the bank machine, paying no attention to what was going on around me when a man approached from behind. I felt the cold chill of metal against my throat and..."

"Whoa," he says. "Is that what really happened?"

"Uh, no. But it makes a better story."

The real truth was that I had surgery to remove a cyst. Apparently the surgeon was either drunk, or used popsicle sticks. Maybe both. 

Afterwards, I had a drainage tube and a long row of staples closing the wound. I looked like I'd gone on a blind date with Freddie Krueger. I should have been horrified when I looked in the mirror. Instead, I burst out laughing. That was 20 years ago.

Fiona - 
Ha! You got me -- I totally thought you were a crime victim. Thanks so much for coming and hanging out!


Readers, you can stay in touch with Chris:
Website - http://www.chrispatchell.com
Facebook
Twitter - @chris_patchell


I hope this was helpful. As always, a big thank you ThrillWriters and readers for stopping by. Thank you, too, for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.


Chat Conversation End

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Changing Reader Paradigms: Info for Writers with Sean McLachlan

In this article, we will be looking at two ideas that writers who want to write it right come across. First, how do we write authentically about another culture? Second, once we have done our research, and we know that we are writing in opposition to what our reader understands as true, how do we bring them along with the plot and make the story believable?



A big welcome to Sean McLachlan. 

Sean, can you tell us about your new book and how a man who lives in Spain found himself writing about the west from the POV of Apache Indians?

Sean - 
Back in my archaeology days, I spent 12 years living in Arizona. I got to visit a lot of the sites from the Apache Wars, plus excavate at Tubac Presidio near Tucson, where I lived. So I've always had an interest in various Southwestern peoples, the Apache especially. A couple of years ago, Osprey Publishing, a leading military history publisher, asked me to do a book on the Apache Wars. Osprey's books tend to be brief, heavily illustrated histories, so I had a lot of material left over. Since I'd always wanted to write a Western, I decided to write one from the Apache point of view in order to debunk a lot of popular myths.

Fiona - 
Popular myth busting is our favorite sport here at ThrillWriting. Can you you share some of the ways that you helped to dispel myths in your book without lecturing your reader? 


If they have a paradigm in their head, you have to make them believe your information is more credible in order to keep them agreeing with your premises. 

Sean - 
Amazon Link
Warpath into Sonora is set in what is now Arizona in 1846 and is about a group of young Apache warriors just into manhood who are eager to prove themselves. To do this, they raid Mexican settlements and other tribes. So basically it's a Western from the Apache point of view. Their carefree life disappears when a nearby Apache settlement gets destroyed by a group of Mexican and Texan scalp hunters, who take Apache scalps for a reward from the Mexican government. Under the leadership of their war chief, who has gone insane with the desire for revenge, they pursue the scalp hunters deep into Sonora.

The main myth I'm trying to debunk here is that the Apaches gleefully took scalps any chance they got. Actually they were more often the victims of scalping than the perpetrators.

The provincial governments of northern Mexico offered a reward in gold for Apache scalps—100 pesos for a warrior’s scalp, 50 pesos for a woman’s, and 25 pesos for a child’s. At this time the peso was worth about the same as an American dollar, and thus killing even one large family would be enough to support a scalp hunter comfortably for a year. The scalp bounty in the province of Chihuahua continued as late as 1886, with the notorious Ley Quinto (Fifth Law). Established in 1849, the Ley Quinto offered 150 pesos for each live woman and for each child under fourteen, 200 pesos for the scalp of a warrior aged fourteen or above, and 250 pesos for each live warrior. Slavery as well as extermination became official policy.

Movies and poorly researched novels have consistently shown Apaches scalping their victims. While this was the practice with some tribes, especially on the Great Plains, scalping was not generally practiced among the Apache. Their culture has an aversion to death and Apaches avoid dead bodies, graveyards, and recent battlefields. This is documented in nineteenth century accounts by both the Apache and Americans. Numerous passages written by U.S. cavalrymen relate how the Apache rarely if ever took scalps, and that if they did so it was in the heat of the moment and the scalp was quickly discarded. The Apache maintain that they never took scalps or mutilated bodies before the Mexicans started doing it to them.

Fiona -
So interesting. And I'm assuming you use the plot, inner thoughts, and dialogue to educate as well as entertain your readers.

On the topic of dialogue. How do you construct the Apache's internal and external dialogue to show culture without doing what the cowboys and Indian movies of the 1950s did with their scripts?

Sean - 
Dialogue is tricky. It is easy to avoid the grunting savage dialogue of old Westerns, but making it accurate is very hard, especially since this is a full generation before any Apache wrote down their memoirs. I modeled it a lot after the style of the few precious memoirs we do have of Apache from the last decades of the 19th century. Also, what's not said can be equally important. For example, it was a very sexually conservative culture and so the hero, Nantan, and his love Liluye, don't even speak to each other in the entire book. They're not married and so it would be inappropriate to talk to each other much. Of course a lot can be said with eye contact and with actions.

Also there's the misconception of what a chief is. Western cultures, accustomed to Western ideas of hierarchy, would deal with chiefs thinking they had complete power. They did not. They were more like respected specialists. The war chief in the book, Tarak, is the best and most experienced warrior in the group, but he can't command people to follow him, he must convince them.

Fiona - 
If writers don't have the benefit of an education and over a decade of interaction with a foreign culture they would like to portray in their book, how would you advise them to proceed. For example, I am about to write a book that includes a man who was born in El Salvador from an American mom and and El Salvadorian dad. I picked a mix lineage so I didn't have to be worried about the linguistic issues mentioned above, but that doesn't mean culture wouldn't shine through. If you were mentoring such a project how, in your opinion, should a writer proceed?

Sean - 
Research, research, research. Get thee to the library! Also, Youtube and other video sites are handy too. They help you see the style of talking, physical mannerisms, how individuals interact. And don't be afraid to ask questions. It's remarkable how open people are when you say you're writing a book. For example, in my Toxic World post-apocalyptic series, Chinese-Americans are persecuted even worse than Japanese-Americans were during WWII. So people of Chinese descent take on Korean names to hide their identity. I spoke with a Korean woman married to a Chinese man about Chinese names that could pass for Korean, and also common Korean names that Chinese people with distinctively Chinese names could take on.

Fiona -
Here on ThrillWriting it's our tradition to ask you to tell us the story behind your favorite scar OR a harrowing story that you survived.

Sean - 
When I was 19, I went on my first archaeological excavation overseas. It was in Israel, and it was my first big trip alone. While I was staying in Jerusalem, I heard a bomb go off outside my hotel. It was a car bomb in a parking lot near the Damascus Gate. Being young and stupid, I went out to see the wreckage. Luckily, no one was hurt. The police were pushing everyone back away from the bomb site, and I soon discovered why. A second car bomb, in a vehicle parked close to the first, blew up right in front of me. The tactic was obvious: attract a crowd with the first bomb, and then blow it up with the second. Basically that was the world saying to me, "Hey, you wanted to experience life outside your First World bubble, well here it is! Sure you want to continue, Sean?" I did. I've spent much of the past 25 years in the Middle East and Africa and don't regret a moment of it. Well, except for a few cases of food poisoning, but that's just the price of admission.

Thank you so much for sharing.

You all can stay in touch with Sean:

As always, a big thank you ThrillWriters and readers for stopping by. Thank you, too, for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.


Thursday, October 13, 2016

Under the Weather? How to use Mother Nature in Your Plot

I'm blog hopping from ThrillWriting over to Thriller-Writer in this article.

BTW, I wanted to name my blog Thriller-Writer but someone beat me to it. And then, I found out it was my friend Eric - great minds and all that. So join me as I hop.

My Guest: Fiona Quinn

My Guest this week is a little under the weather...  in fact, we all are, as are the characters in the novels we read, and she's going to show us some clever ways authors can use this to immerse readers into scenes on the page. Ladies and Gentlemen...


Fiona Quinn


How’s the Weather? 
In Your Novel, 
It Makes a Difference.


Last weekend, I was out in the woods on an Evacuation Team with Search and Rescue. It was ninety degrees (32º C). Things had cooled down quite a bit from the last time I was out on a manhunt; that day it had been over a hundred (39º C) with a wall of humidity. 

Amazon Link
Since I write Romantic Suspense/thrillers, I always try to note my experiences so I can bring my written words to life. In the case of searching for someone in the woods, weather matters. And I want to make the broader point that weather matters in all of our writing scenes.

Let’s start with my evac event as an example. In order to go into the woods, rescuers need to dress out; that is, we’re required to wear certain clothing to maintain our safety: boots, wool socks, long pants, long sleeved shirt, eye protection, helmet, heavy leather gloves. I was covered from head to toe except for the three or so inches between my glasses and my shirt collar. On top of that, I carried a rescue pack and equipment like rappelling webbing, a backboard, and a litter, as well as first aid bag, water for the victim and food. Water weighs a lot. Especially the amounts carried in for the heat. Ninety degrees. Remember that.


Amazon Link
In ninety-degree weather, a rescuer can quickly need rescuing. Rescuers are human beings, too. While often portrayed as heroic and never being aware of things like heat, Mother Nature really isn’t that kind. In ninety-degree heat, with or without the extra equipment, in that clothing, your character will be sopping wet with sweat. The sweat will make the dirt on the skin muddy. It will bring the bugs a-buzzing. It will make the character thirsty, tired, and probably a bit irritable. It will make the clothing cling uncomfortably to the skin, will increase the friction on the feet, forming blisters. Physical exertion in that weather will increase the need for water. Increase the chance of heat stroke. Use the weather to increase the misery of your character (nothing should be going well for them anyway.) 


Think about all of the wonderful ways you can describe the event once you take into account the weather: heat, cold, rain, drought, wind – it’s all plotting fodder.

The weather gives a writer plenty of ways to add beats into conversations instead of tags. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term 'beat', what I mean is that I would give environmental information or physical activity to the scene. It’s very important to resituate a reader. . . 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

SEALED FILES: Plot Twisting with Kara Piazza, esq.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Hand-folded letter sealed with wax and stamped...
. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Today, I am sharing with you an interview that I needed in order to write part of a plot point in my novella, Mine.

I sought the expertise of writer/lawyer Kara Piazza. First, since Kara is a very thorough lawyer (which we love) please read the disclaimer:



DISCLAIMER - This is a non-political site that is geared to help writers write it right. I am presenting information to help develop fictional characters and fictional scenes. In no way am I advocating any position or personal decision. All Kara's answers will be general and she cannot give specific legal advice in such a broad setting. She can give general statements and also it should be known that there are many nuances and exceptions in the legal realm so even the answers she does give might not always be the outcome in every legal situation.



Fiona -
Hey there, Kara, thank you so much for stopping by and helping today. Would you take a moment and introduce yourself?

Kara -  
I attended DePaul University College of Law (Chicago, IL) with my Juris Doctor degree. I then sat for the bar exam in Phoenix, and I am now a licensed attorney in the great state of Arizona. 

 In order to be permitted to practice law you must attend and graduate from an ABA (American Bar Association) accredited law school. You must take a number of required courses including Civil Procedure, Constitutional Law, and Torts (to name a few). Then you
are allowed to choose which courses
you would like to take. 

 I chose to take courses that emphasized litigation (in court proceedings) and business law. I have a little over a year experience in the prosecutor's office where I spent much of my time in the courtroom.

Fiona - 
ThrillWriting is so pleased to have you and your expertise here today. One of the topics that I find confusing when it comes to reading about courts is the FILE. Is a court file available for public scrutiny? If yes, how would someone go about obtaining one?

Kara - 
Generally speaking, court files are considered public records once the court clerk has officially filed them. 

It may be different from place to place, but from my understanding, most places you can obtain copies of the records through the clerk's office at the courthouse where the case was heard. It may be called something other than clerk's office at different court houses, for example some might be called the recorder's office instead or variations of those two words. 

Usually, there is someone in the courthouse that can direct you if you tell them you would like access to a public file. Some clerk's offices will have a database that you can search (which is often cumbersome and not very user friendly) and some places you will have to tell the clerk's office what file you want. You will need the date the case was heard and/or the names of the parties involved. Generally, they use the last names (if the parties are individuals) or company names (if the party is a corporation).

Fiona - 
So these files have all the information in them for example, the victims name and address? The names and addresses of the witnesses? What about social security numbers, phone numbers, email, and so forth.

Kara -
Ok, so there are rules for the way things work in court. In law school we study what are known as 'Federal Rules of Civil Procedure' (FRCP) which gives us the rules of the game so to speak. These rules are binding in Federal Courts and most State Courts adopt their own set of rules but many are similar if not exactly the same as the FRCP. 

There is a FRCP that states that sensitive information like social security numbers, Tax ID numbers, birthdays, account numbers even the name of minors, should be redacted from the public file. This is as close to a black and white rule as you're going to get though again there may be exceptions where the court or parties may choose not to have this information redacted. With this information redacted, the rest of the file is then placed in the public record.

Fiona - 
Okay good - but a perpetrator who gets off on a technicality could find out the address of the victim? Her employer? I'm just thinking how exposed a character might feel to have the villain "knows her stuff."

Kara - 
That is the kind of information a judge would "seal" especially in situations of people that have previously been victimized by the defendant or if they can show the judge that such information could be dangerous if not kept out of the public record. 

However, both attorneys generally have access to the information and there have been instances of unethical attorneys passing on sensitive information like that to their clients even though they were not supposed to. 

If the court "seals" a file though, most times such information is kept away from such perpetrators (again generally speaking). For the sake of drama for a story, it is possible for a court to decide the information is not worth "sealing" and it is also possible for the information to slip out if it is sealed. But under our rules of ethics it's a huge no-no.

Fiona - 
Is it true that juvenile cases are sealed when they are 18?

Kara - 
Generally speaking juvenile cases are sealed.

Also, I should note from my answer on juvenile records that some states automatically seal those cases but some states don't. The states where they don't, the juvenile (once they reach the age of maturity, or sometimes they have to wait a few years after) can ask to have the file sealed and the judge takes into consideration a number of factors like the age they were when the crime was committed, what the crime was, and others.

Fiona -
What if it is not a criminal case - it is a civil case - If I was suing Mr. X for killing my man would that fall under the same sealing regulations? "I want his money for depriving my of my husband's income - but you can't know who I am?" 

Which leads me to a second question: do you have to tell your name in court in front of the accused can you be called "Jane Doe" for safety reasons?

Kara -
A defendant has the right to know his accuser so the person who files against them must be named. In cases such as child abuse, the accuser is typically the state which is why the children's name is usually replaced with just their initials. For witnesses, it can be a different story, here is where you can get away with using "Jane Doe" if you can convince a judge that it's necessary. It is generally left to the judge's discretion.

The court can seal both criminal and civil files. And right, that is a very common scenario for informants to be kept confidential with the use of the name "John/Jane Doe" for that specific reason.

Fiona - 
Right because - who wants to come forward and rat on the gangbanger, and then find his homies standing in her living room the next day?

What are other reasons that a file could be sealed - my thoughts are going to the government secrets - the military... ?


Kara - 
Reasons a file might be sealed. 
1. Birth records for "closed adoptions." 
2. We've already mentioned witness protection and child abuse but sometimes custody cases might be sealed as well to protect the infant (under 18 in legal lingo) 
3. Trade secrets are another biggy. And then of course 
4. What you're looking at state secrets. 
**This list is not exhaustive but these are usually the big ones.

Fiona - 
What did I not ask you about sealed files that you think we should know?

Kara - 
Hmm that's a good question. I think that the law is extremely unpredictable. 

In cases of record sealing, the judge is granted a lot of discretion. If you are wanting the information to be leaked (for dramatic effect or plot advancement) it is possible, and it is also possible that the judge will decide not to seal it in the first place. 

The right to face your accuser is a heavy burden to overcome and sometimes a judge will decide that the perceived threat against someone's safety is not enough to overcome this burden (or maybe the judge thinks there is no threat at all). It's such an uncertain thing but I think that is helpful in writing, it can really add to the drama and suspense.

Fiona - 
And finally, your favorite scar story. . .

Kara -
Haha I could probably write a whole book about it!
I have a Y shaped scar on my forehead from when I was a senior in High School. I went to a small school, and it was the first year we had a football team so for homecoming, the junior and senior girls did a powder puff flag football game. 

I'm super competitive so when we were playing, I was going all out. The final play of the game, I was running towards my opponent who had the football. I was reaching for her flag, when she slipped past me, and I realized too late that my teammate and I were on a collision course. I remember waking up a few moments later, lying on the ground, forehead bleeding profusely with my hand triumphantly clutching the flag. My teammate was bleeding next to me in the grass, moaning. 

The circle of people standing over me was swaying as I tried to focus. "How many fingers am I holding up." One of the teachers asked. "She wouldn't know that anyway," my friend quipped helpfully. The teacher rolled her eyes and asked, "Do you know where you are?" To which I replied, "I'm pretty sure this is hell." Another eye roll, and I was asked, "I need to make sure you don't have a concussion, do you know who you are?" At which a smile spread so wide across my face, I felt it in my head wound. "I'm batman."

Fiona - 
Okay, Batman, you obviously love drama - can you tell me about the novel you're working on?

Kara - 
I am currently working on a YA novel series. My first novel will be the Seeker Initiative. I am nearly finished and then will be querying literary agents with the hope of being published in the traditional manner. 

My novel is about a young girl named Alitheia Seeker who is faced with a very difficult task in the year 2215. The world has been enslaved by a powerful, tyrannical group called the Static. However, a more pressing problem exists: no one seems to know who these mysterious people are and most of the population doesn't even know that such overlords exist. Alitheia must decide whether to free the minds of every adult on the planet and risk an untold number of deaths, or ignore the disappearances and deaths of anyone who disagrees with the tyrants and leave the world at the mercy of these rulers. Alitheia and her friends are put in danger when they begin to ask questions the Static has worked so hard to suppress for over a hundred years. Overwhelmed by the answers they are finding, the young friends get help from an unlikely source, a group of black market traffickers. Known in secret circles as the AT, these renegades offer to join forces to bring down the Static. Just as it seems hope has arrived, the teens start to wonder if the traffickers are giving them better solutions or just a different set of troubles in disguise. Do you have the courage to ask the difficult questions when no one else is willing? If so, you might have what it takes to join the Seeker Initiative.


Fiona - 
Very fun! Best of luck. Thank you so much for your help. You can reach Kara at: Her Blog and on Facebook.

And thank you for stopping by, I love having you here.


Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Criminal Trial Coordination with Cynthia Forget



Fiona - 
Cynthia Forget

Hi Cynthia, welcome to ThrillWriting, would you introduce yourself to our readers?

Cynthia - 
My name is Cynthia Forget. I am the the Criminal Trial Coordinator for 4 counties and am responsible for the scheduling and coordination of resources, services and facilities in those areas.

Fiona - 
(Please note that Cynthia lives and works in Canada)

Cynthia, I have to say that your job is not one that I had considered when plotting a novel. I am imagining all kinds of ways that a character in your position could help or hinder a plot line. Would you mind explaining specifically what it is you do in your coordination efforts?

Cynthia - 
Well, my main task is the creation and operation of the court schedule. I design the schedule to accommodate 6 judges in 14 courtrooms. I decide what courts will sit when (ie. first appearance courts, plea courts, pre-trials, and trial courts). I assign the judges to the particular courts. Once that schedule is set then
I assign cases to particular courts. I should note that all my work is overseen by a
Local Administrative Judge and the Regional Senior Justice.

Fiona - 
Can you take me through a typical day? Start with I grabbed my car keys at --:00 a.m.

Cynthia - 
I would arrive at work at 8:15 a.m. The first thing I do is obtain the lists from the courtroom clerks of everything set the day before. I put those cases into my trial schedule and generate a list of available trial times for each court. This needs to be completed before 9:00 a.m. when some courts start.

Fiona - 
Everything set the day before - that is all of the cases that were scheduled the day before?


Cynthia Forget at Work
Cynthia - 
Yes, all of the cases from the day before. those set after I left for the day - others I would have already dealt with.

Fiona - 
Why doe it need to be in by 9 if the dockets are set in advance? And how far in advance are they set?

Cynthia - 
The list of available court time has to be ready for the judges to use in court - to set matters - I provide them with the list of available times. Court starts at 9:00 and 9:30.

Then counsel starts arriving in my office to deal with their cases. They want priority court time (which is given to certain cases) or to reschedule matters etc

Fiona - 
What qualifies for priority court time? And is this one of the areas where a character might be manipulated?

Cynthia - 
Priority time is key - yes it is easily an area where cases can be manipulated. In our jurisdictions priority cases include continuations, domestic assaults, cases that are at risk for being appealed for lack of a speedy trial.

Another way cases are manipulated is through the day - I monitor the progress of each courtroom and move matters between judges as I see fit - counsel often will come and request a case be moved

Fiona - 
So if a judge is falling behind a lawyer could come to you and say - Look I have another case at 3:00 can you move me to another judge?

Cynthia - 
That's right

Fiona  - 
What if you wanted to move a case to another judge, and the lawyer absolutely was dead-set against it - he knew the other judge would be tougher on his client - could he say no?

Cynthia - 
That is strictly the decision of the trial coordinator.

Fiona - 
Interesting - so if a lawyer had developed his case to exploit what he knew about Judge X, he could all of a sudden be thrown over to Judge Y, and his tactics might be all wrong for that judge.

Cynthia - 
Right. I should note, one other scheduling point - seizures and disqualifications - if a judge hears the pre-trial of a case, they cannot then hear the trial, they are disqualified. Or if they know a party to the case, they are disqualified. So if a lawyer didn't want Judge X for trial, they may try and get him for pre-trial, knowing they will then not have him for trial.

seizure is when a judge starts a case, they have to be the one to finish it.


English: A small courtroom in the Supreme Cour...
. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Fiona - 
VERY COOL DETAIL!!! Do you ever get to go and watch a trial?

Cynthia - 
Yes, on a slow day, I will often go in and sit in the courtroom and observe - not only out of interest, but also I feel it's important to stay on top of the way things run in the courtroom. - I miss the courtroom - I used to be a court reporter/clerk

Fiona - 
Oh fun! What made you change directions?

Cynthia - 
Promotion

Fiona - 
Great! 

Okay on with a day in the life of a trial coordinator. Lunch - how long is the break - is yours as long as the judge's

Cynthia - 
Yes - generally it's an hour sometimes an hour and a quarter. I try to take my lunch at noon - court usually lunches at 1:00 - that way I can interact with the stakeholders during the break ...

Fiona - 
Are you allowed to speak to people outside of your job? Can you be friends with the lawyers, have drinks with the guardian ad litems etc.

Cynthia  - 
I've never been told not to.

Fiona - 
At this point in the interview I want to make it is VERY CLEAR that you and I are speaking hypothetically. I am, as an author, looking for ways to manipulate a plot line and in no way do these questions or your answers reflect on you or your work ethic.


English: Brass weight scales with cupped trays...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cynthia - 
OK

Fiona - 
You would know all of the judges personalities and the judges quirks, personal stories, and sentencing choices?

Cynthia - 
Yes.

Fiona - 
You know something about the cases that are going to court? Would a trial coordinator read the charges etc.

Cynthia - 
Not all the cases but definitely the larger ones

Fiona - 
What information do you have when scheduling?

Cynthia - 
A coordinator would read the files for most cases the charge, the defense counsel, the Crown Attorney, the pre-trial judge, the time estimated for trial the number and type of witnesses

Fiona - 
And one would also read the newspapers - a coordinator might have familiarity and opinions about a case?

Cynthia -
Yes...

Fiona - 
 My thought is - if a character had some kind of God-complex and wanted to manipulate outcomes -- that a character could potentially line up cases with the judge that would have the most bias or give the strongest prison sentences - is that possible?


Old gavel and court minutes displayed at the M...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Cynthia - 
Absolutely

Fiona -
Is there the potential then for a character to be bribed? Say a family thinks the evidence is weak - but their daughter is dead, and they know in their heart that this is the guy who did it. - The family is worried that he'll walk. Is there the potential for bribing a coordinator so she will schedule the trial with the hard-nosed judge?

Cynthia - 
I suppose that is possible.

Fiona - 
And there's not really any way that the character would be caught except perhaps by the tax guy?

Cynthia - 
The character could be overseen by another staff member or the judiciary. for example, if a character was offered a "gift" by a defense attorney and a judge witnessed it that could cost them their job. I am not allowed to accept even the smallest of gifts - like chocolate at Christmas - for the sake of perception.

Fiona -
No chocolate at Christmas - that's martyrdom! But they would be more circumspect than that - say an envelope of cash dropped through their home mail-slot?

Cynthia -
I suppose a character could make that happen - though predicting what one judge will do is very difficult.

Fiona - 
Let's chat about that. How much contact would the character have with a judge? Would they hear water-cooler talk about the judge's private lives?

Cynthia - 
A lot of contact - and yes the trial coordinator (t/c) works very closely with judges.

Fiona  -
I'm thinking a wayward wife case and ensuing homicide. And the t/c knows that the judge's wife left him for another man... or something along that line. Or a doper case is coming up, and the t/c knows the judge's kid is in rehab...

Cynthia - 
Right - those types of things would definitely be in the t/c's knowledge

Fiona - 
So the t/c knows the judges buttons. Do they also know how a judge likes to sentence? For example, do you know "Judge Mayers" likes to give benefit of the doubt, but  "Judge Harlock" puts them in the pokey for the longest time allowed by law.

Cynthia - 
Right - all the judges have their pet peeves, so to speak, and the t/c would generally know how harsh they sentence - so too do counsel - they generally know how they sentence on certain cases and attempt to do what is called "judge shopping" this is something the t/c has to guard against.

Fiona - 
So if the character were quietly dating the hunky lawyer - or have a mad crush on him - he might be able to suggest the judge he might like?

Cynthia - 
True

Fiona - 
I know that you encounter many personality types in your job - but are there any traits that would make this job easier and what personalities (doing the job correctly - just speaking personality wise) would make this a pain in the rear.

Cynthia - 
Lawyers who are very self-centered make the job much more challenging - the same can be said for judges.

Fiona - 
So I'm a writer I'm developing a character to do this job - she is helped out by her excellent memory and organizational skills but her anger towards men... that kind of thing.

Cynthia - 
Being a bit of a control-freak is a good thing in this job - being very friendly and cooperative also helps

Fiona - 
Here on ThrilWriting we have a traditional question and always ask about your favorite scar.

Cynthia - 
My biggest scar is internal - I had a baby who died inside me at 14 weeks - She didn't miscarry and had to be surgically removed - it was a very harrowing experience.

Fiona - 
I'm so sorry. 

Cynthia - 
Thank you


Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.