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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Keeping Your Heroine Safe - Situational Awareness in Your Plotline with Doug Cummings



English: Chicago skyline at sunrise Deutsch: C...
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Hey there! 
Today Doug Cummings is visiting with us here on ThrillWriting
to talk about your character's situational awareness and his new book Escaping the O-Zone.

Escaping the O-Zone is a product of Doug's more than thirty years of experience as a deputy sheriff, security consultant, and television and radio crime reporter. 

Doug - did I get that all right? What should we know about your background?
Doug Cummings

Doug - 
I spent my college years and a few thereafter as a deputy sheriff, did some security consulting work and then morphed into a broadcast reporter covering crime darn near exclusively for more than 25 years.

Fiona - 
25 years of crime reporting in Chicago - that's a lot of time looking at the underbelly of society.

I've just finished reading your book, O-Zone. I'd like to talk with you about 
the lessons you garnered from your experiences and how writers can apply your work to writing their characters in a more realistic and recognizable way.

I am particularly interested in portrayals of teens and young adults as their attitudes about personal safety seem to put them right into harms way. Let's start there. From you experience seeing the effect of crimes, what can you tell us about that group and choices

Doug - 
To be clear, my work was not entirely in Chicago, some in Kansas City, but yes, it was a job that required a lot of emotional distance and a fair amount of mental alertness.

One of the first and hardest lessons learned both in law enforcement and in the news business is how quickly a situation can change.

It's cliched to say that teens and young adults think they're invincible... I'm not sure that's quite the attitude. It seems to me that they are indifferent. In part, that's because some have experienced repeated violence ...friends killed...maybe they have been victims themselves, and they accept it as a part of life

I think a lot of the kids in the well-to-do neighborhoods and suburbs are indifferent for precisely the opposite reason...they've never had firsthand experience.
This applies to adults as well. Not invincible as much as, thinking that crime will never happen to them.

Fiona - 
Let's talk about that point. People from different areas/backgrounds will perceive of events and react to events differently. 

Can you sketch a quick NA character and place that character in a suburban setting and then do it from inner city? 

Doug - 
I'll use the term "kids" because that's how they appear to me...not to be insulting.

Fiona - 
Understood. It's also understood that you are painting with a broad brush and your comments are generalizations.

Doug - 
Suburban kids focus on themselves, their gadgets, and their friends/relationships. They are the ones I most often see in the O-Zone or Oblivious Zone. Texting as they walk down the street, drive, ride their bikes, or even hang out in the water. Their awareness of what's happening around them is limited to about a two foot radius, if that. They have no conception of "danger" because it's not really been an issue for them.

I just talked to a friend who's worried about his daughter. She's 20, just moved into an apartment in Chicago ...a garden apartment with a sliding glass door and a hallway door. She prefers to use the patio door for it's easy access to her car, even though the door doesn't lock.

Fiona - 
He has every right to worry!

Doug - 
Sure. Obviously, that presents a security problem. Fortunately, she also has a dog she loves. I suggested to my friend that he talk to her about people who steal dogs for a variety of unpleasant reasons

She's now dropping a metal bar into the track of the sliding glass door, has asked for a deadbolt lock on her hallway door.

Oh, and is in line to rent an apartment on a higher floor

Fiona - 
Often, suburban kids are zoned out and can't conceptualize violence coming towards them. Please talk about why this set suburban kids up for bad things and how an inner city kid might be a harder target.

Doug - 
While my experience with inner city young people is limited, I can say those I have known - those who come from neighborhoods where street crime is common and Mister Drive-By visits daily - are yes indeed, a far harder target.

They seem to have the instincts you'd expect of a child growing up in a war zone. They know not to walk their dogs in the fields where land-mines are planted, so to speak

They may listen to their tunes and focus on their friends but one kid I talked to says he never wears a headset in certain neighborhoods.
* for fear of theft 
* for fear of mis-identification as a gang member 
* for fear of missing the sound of gunfire or a car roaring up on

He's a kid who knows to roll off the bed onto the floor in the middle of the night if he hears any unusual noise outside.

He's 13 by the way.

Fiona - 
Let's move farther into our scenario,

The suburban kid (we're stereotyping here for illustrative purposes) is zoned out and can't imagine violence/crime happening within her sphere. The harder inner city target is aware and has some stay-safe auto-responses. So these are what we would call a soft target and a hard target - when violence/crime happens how might these two examples React differently?

Doug -
Let's take it to the extreme ...

Gunfire: suburban kid may or may not hear it (headphones) and even if she hears it, she may not identify the sound properly.

The inner city kid (if headphone equipped) may have the same problem but won't be wearing the headphones if their subconscious threat assessment capability tells them they're in a dangerous place.

I think that's a significant with no experience dealing with danger or threats will be slower to get out of the O-Zone. To them, gunshots in real life don't sound the way they do on TV, so it could take them critical moments to understand what's happening.

Someone who is quasi trained will hit the ground or at least look for cover immediately. For someone who is untrained, it'll be a bit like waking up from a nap or light trance for them.

Once they realize they have been threatened with a gun, most people, young and old, will react from fear. Bad place to be but as babies, we all learn emotional responses first. Training can mitigate that...and I mean hard core police or military training that becomes reflexive. No thought required. you see the gun you have an immediate series of responses programmed.

Fiona - 
Gun shot is the extreme. Let's make it more personal - they actually encounter a thug. 

Doug - 
That scenario is more realistic. Most kids, urban or suburban, know what it's like to be bullied. They'll recognize an overt threat when they're approached. The more subtle variety is where a street smart kid who's grown up with a sensitivity to bullshit and the suburban kid may react differently.

A kid will generally submit ... fear delays us and that limits our options so we give in...especially to a gun or knife. That said, the cocky type A may (especially if emboldened by alcohol) not recognize the seriousness of the situation or just won't back down.

The cocky type A with a little bit of training in self defense is scary. No way is an amateur trained to deal with a firearm threat. Remember...the really bad guys "train" as predators their whole lives. They're always looking for victims and have no conscience. The newbie bad guys are even worse...they don't know that some victims react unpredictably and if someone twitches at the wrong moment, they shoot out of fear.

The most important thing young adults and new adults...everyone ... need is awareness. 
The headsets while jogging? Nix 'em. 

In my book Escaping the O-Zone, I make the point that situational awareness is like defensive driving...hopefully it's something we do automatically. We learned to drive, and we can learn to pay attention to our surroundings.

Give yourself a checklist if that helps. Every time you walk into a new place...identify the exits. Walk into crowds, any crowd, as though you're looking for someone. That keeps your head up. Always pay attention to sounds...even in a loud environment, the ambient noise will change if something significant happens. The President walks in, or someone gets knifed in the corner of a bar. Pay attention to conversations too. You hear a drug deal going down and you might want to leave the area.

I'm told one of the best things about Escaping the O-Zone is that it's short and to the point. And I don't try to reinvent the wheel. This isn't paranoia...fear is counterproductive.

Fiona - 
Doug Please tell me a favorite harrowing story that you survived.

Doug - 
One of the "secret" reasons I wrote the book was that I've wandered into the O-Zone myself far more than I'd like to admit. 

I was held up in a cemetery when I was a teen, for example. But a few years ago I was on my way to cover a third-floor porch collapse in the city...a tragic multiple fatal incident that happened during a large party where every third person was a drunk college student. Their friends were dead and the media showed up. The students were angry and confrontational. Running toward the scene, I failed to note a guy and two women coming toward me, fuming. They saw my audio recorder, screamed at me for wanting to "put our dead friends on TV," and the guy came at me to yank away the recorder. Fortunately, I broke away and by amazing luck not skill, smacked his face into a brick wall, dissuading him and probably sobering him AND his friends a bit. 

My mistakes were all in awareness: I knew there had been violence toward other reporters, I should have (a) hidden the recorder, (b) not worn my hat with the station logo (c) hidden my credentials, which were on a lanyard around my neck, (d) and should have noticed the attitude and intent of the trio before they got to arms length.

Advance planning, consideration of threat level, and awareness

let me just say the cemetery incident alerted me to the fact that 16 year old boys do wet their pants when surprised by dark figures with knives in a graveyard late at night

Fiona -
Good to note. 

You can read more about Doug and his fiction books HERE.

.So Writers, how aware is your heroine? Is she chatting on her phone while walking down the street? Is she lost in a good song on her headphones? Does this give your villain the opportunity to pounce?

In my book Chaos Is Come Again - distraction at a pivotal moment had dire consequences. You can read it by clicking 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.

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