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Sunday, July 12, 2015

Diversity in Your Characters: Writing Physical Challenges with Katie Mettner

English: A close-up of a rear wheel of a wheel...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Continuing in our series on diversity in literature, today we are talking with Katie Mettner and her use of physical challenges as a character quality.

Fiona - 
Katie, I introduced myself to you from social media after I learned about your book Liberty Belle.  First, could you give us your book blurb; and second, can you talk about why you decided to write about a character with physical challenges?

Katie - 

Main Street is bustling in Snowberry, Minnesota, and nobody knows that better than the owner of the iconic bakery, the Liberty Belle. Handed the key to her namesake at barely twenty-one, Liberty has worked day and night to keep her parents’ legacy alive. 

Now, three years later, she’s a hotter mess than the batch of pies baking in her industrial-sized oven. Photographer Bram Alexander has had his viewfinder focused on the heart of one woman since returning to Snowberry. For the last three years she’s kept him at arm's length, but all bets are off when he finds her injured and alone on the bakery floor. Liberty knew falling in love with Bram would be easy, but convincing her tattered heart to trust him may be impossible. Armed with small town determination and a heart of gold, Bram shows Liberty frame-by-frame how falling for him is as easy as pie.


In the opening scene you meet Bram Alexander, who is at the bakery to pick up the baptism cake for his niece. His sister-in-law Snow and his brother Jay are both in wheelchairs. Snow is very prevalent in Liberty Belle because she is a researcher for MS where Liberty is being treated for MS. Snow is married to Dully Alexander, Bram's older brother, and Dully is a special education teacher. They foster a boy with Down Syndrome.

All of my characters have some form of disability or special challenge. When I write a new character I internally know, by whatever power is telling me, what their name is and the condition they will have. The rest is up to me to figure out and carry out. 

MS is a disease that is so varying and runs a different course for each patient that it was very easy to focus on just one or two parts of the disease for this character physically, but really explore the emotional and social aspect of the disease and how that affects the whole being. 

Liberty's mother also had MS and so with Snow we explored the idea behind how MS is passed through generations, or not, and how that too will change a relationship with a person you are falling in love with. Will that person accept me if I can't, or won't, give them a child? Will that person love me when I'm in really bad shape and need help with practically everything? Will that person still love me when I'm in a wheelchair or can't use my hands anymore? I really focused on the emotional aspect of the disease with Liberty because as she was newly diagnosed in the book, she didn't have a lot of answers and she had to work through all the emotions she was feeling, while trying to fight her need to be with Bram.

Fiona - 

Will you take a moment to talk about your background - the how and why of your ability to write characters with disabilities?

Katie -
Katie Mettner

I don't consider myself an expert on anyone's life but my own. I'm fortunate to have a lot of life experience as a disabled person, and I use those emotions to draw off of for my characters. 

When it comes to medical equipment that I put in my stories I also use personal experience. I’ve worn nearly every leg brace they can make, used every crutch or cane on the market, test drove multiple new products, wore prototype feet, and been in possession of multiple wheelchairs that have all taught me something new. 

When it comes to the specific medical conditions of my characters then my years of experience as a medical transcriptionist come into play. I typed for every medical specialty known to man, and with each report I heard another person's story, and struggles. The medical understanding of the conditions is important to make a storyline believable, so I'm often pulling a little from all those millions of reports a typed for both technical aspects and emotional aspects. 

Fiona - 
As I look around at my friends, every single one of them either has a mental or physical challenge or is in a care giver role for someone who is challenged. It's interesting to me that these types of challenges are not often addressed in literature. Do you have a theory about why authors often don't include these daily issues? And can you tell us if you made the distinct decision to be inclusive or is that how stories show themselves to you as in Liberty Belle?

Katie - 
My theory is two fold on why author's don't write about disabled characters. 

  1. Technical Skill - Most of these disabilities are complicated disease mechanisms and if you aren't disabled, aren't trained in the medical field, or don't care for someone disabled (which makes you an expert in one disability only) then it's a daunting task to think about writing a character that is disabled. 
  2. Sales - The second reason is most authors feel if they include special needs characters, or the main character, into the story they won't sell books. It's one of the most underwritten genres there is for that reason. It would take a lot of time and research to write a main character with a disability if you don't have any knowledge to draw off, but it's not impossible.

My first book, Sugar's Dance, was supposed to be my only book. I wrote that character as an amputee, because I am one, and that was knowledge I could draw from. When I finished it, so many readers told me how much they loved reading about a disabled heroine, and they wanted more, so I wrote a second Sugar book. Each time I finished the Lord put another story on my heart, and I picked it up and wrote it. Since that book, twelve books ago, I am fed a constant litany of characters and their circumstances. I can tell you that the authors who think books about characters with disabilities won't sell are dead wrong. Dead wrong. But you have to do it right or you will get called out in reviews
Fiona - 
I'm going to add my two cents here. My thought is that it's just not a traditional plotline. People in the good old days didn't survive with the types of medical issues we have now. They died or were locked away. Without the tradition in our storytelling, perhaps it just hasn't occurred to authors that this is such rich ground for character exploration. Katie, I am so glad that you and authors like you are being inclusive and trail blazing.

In my writing, I include special ops guys. I am not a SEAL, but I write about them, and I try to get it right through my research.

Katie - 

I would agree with you there too a point. We certainly can all write about whatever we would like to with enough research. It's just been my experience from authors who I have talked to that they look at the idea of having a disabled main character as an absolute promise their book will be in the Amazon Wasteland, and that's just not true.

But, with most things medical, I think it's intimidating to a lot of people. it's easy to say to a SEAL, "hey, tell me about what you do and what it's like" It's a lot harder to say to a disabled person, "So, tell me what it's like to have sex as a disabled person." Or "Hey, tell me what it's like to use a catheter bag." You get what I mean?

Concerning Sugar's Dance, I agree! People are hungry to see themselves as normalized. Characters on TV and in books can go on about their lives AND have an added issue to deal with. 

Fiona - 
When my daughter was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, I wanted to start a library of books for the local JDRF that had a character who dealt with diabetes, so children could see characters struggle and succeed. But I found very few. It was disheartening.

Having literary role models is sort of like the Dove soap commercial where the models have a variety of body types, it's cool to see someone similar - someone with whom you can identify.

Let's switch gears a bit and talk a little about compassion. One of the aspects that is interesting to me is that when a writer writes it right, the reader can learn in a gentle way. 

Writing about people's struggles with medical issues helps readers to better understand how, when, and why to help. It also "normalizes" being challenged physically. What are your thoughts and have you received any reader feedback about this?

Katie -
Oh yes, this is a huge part about writing about disabled characters. 

In the Sugar Series, Sugar is VERY Stubborn about wanting, needing or asking for help. In fact, she doesn't even tell him for the first 50 pages that she is an amputee. This is very common for most people who are disabled. They don't want to look weak or helpless, but at the same time the people who love them can often see that they need help and are just being stubborn. 

One of the best books that I worked this idea into was Autumn Reflections. In that book Autumn's son Grayson is the disabled character. He is a child, so it was really easy to talk about compassion and helping when he ASKED For help and not doing everything for him, with his schoolmates. It also was a great way to introduce her love interest as he got to know Grayson. He learned right away how to help him and make it on Grayson's terms.

Fiona - 
Going back to the answer about sex and catheter bags...

Katie - 
Okay let's get into that.

Fiona -
NOT EVERYBODY but some people might appreciate that you care and want to get it right, and they will answer your questions when asked kindly. You're not being intrusive; you're gathering info to write it right. And there's a big difference. 

But you're right asking someone about their sex lives might need some warming up questions and trust. As someone with an amputated leg, I'm sure many people have asked questions. Can you give authors a tutorial on a good approach that makes you feel open to sharing information and conversely the approach that will shut you down?

Katie - 

There are plenty of authors who write in disabled situations and write it right. 

I can tell you as a disabled person that we love to answer questions that will work to better educate people about disabilities and that we are, in fact, just normal people. 

That said, if I line up 10 people 9 out of the 10 of them would be incredibly uncomfortable asking a disabled person anything, much less something as personal as some of the things that are going to come up in a main character situation. 

That's why many disabled characters are written as secondary characters, you can touch on the outside boundaries and not have to get too in depth with the uncomfortable parts of being disabled. Believe me when I tell you, as a disabled person I can't walk in the mall with my family without multiple people not being able to make eye contact with me.

For me, I find that it is easiest to answer questions when the person has clear, concise ideas about what they want to know and aren't stuttering around looking for how to say something politically correct. 

  • You can call me disabled and I don't get offended, as long as it is said in a respectful way. 
  • Start with the easy questions like: 
    • What is your disability? 
    • Where you born that way or did you have an accident? 
    • Can you tell me a little bit about your daily life and how you do things? 
    • How did your relationship change with your significant other because of your new disability (if new) 
    • How does your significant other help you on a daily basis?
    •  How does your disability affect your work? 
  • Once you have established a relationship with the person, then you can get into more in depth questions. 
  • Don't ask about how you have sex, ask about the feelings you have about your body or your disability and how that has affected your sex life. Usually that person is going to tell you if adaptive aids are needed or what have you, just because it would be part of answering that kind of question. 
It's really all about how you word your questions, so the person feels like they are a valuable asset to your project and not just a sideshow. The one thing that shuts me down the fastest is when someone is flippant. This is my life and something I deal with every day, and it's not always easy, so respect has to be the utmost thought in the author's mind.

If an author just can't bring themselves to ask a disabled person these questions most disability conditions (i.e. Multiple Sclerosis, Diabetes etc) have excellent websites for the association that have hundreds of stories written by people with the condition. You might spend several hours reading and taking notes, but they get in depth and often times can answer the questions you have within the site. Sometimes they have a place to send questions, and they are answered by the experts, this is also a great way to find out your answers. 

All disabilities vary greatly, so there is no wrong way to make a person disabled, but there is a wrong way to write the technical aspect of it. For instance, My character Jay Alexander is in a wheelchair from Spina Bifida. He has a low lesion and has feeling to his pelvis, but not his legs. Some people with spina bifida do, some don't. You can choose how in depth, but make sure whatever you choose you back it up with facts and not what you 'think' would happen.

Fiona - 
What do you think authors should know about this topic that I didn't ask you?

Katie - 
It's worth the extra effort! 

There are so many people out there just dying to read a book where they are, like you said, normalized and matter. They just want to matter to someone. When they see their condition depicted in text, in a compassionate, loving, funny, neat way, they will be your reader for life. They will tell your friends to read it. They will join your street team, and they will be hungry for more. That is human nature. 

Don't be afraid to go out on a limb and start small, maybe a run in at a workplace with a colleague in a wheelchair or a hospital worker who has cerebral palsy. Start small and as your confidence builds so will your readership.
Fiona - 
And of course, we always insist on a story. Do you have a favorite scar you'd like to tell us about?

I have many scars, and the most obvious would be my scar on my left leg from my amputation. It's not my favorite scar, though.

My favorite scar is one you can't see. It's about four inches below my belly button, six inches long and gave life. You're thinking C-Section, right? While I do have one of those too, but the scar I'm talking about is what they used to take out my right kidney, and transplant it into my husband's brother, to keep him alive. That was six years ago June 26. It was harrowing and humbling. It was a litany of questions with very few answers. It was predicting an unpredictable future. It was learning to love a person I didn’t even like. It was long talks in the dark with the man who had to choose between the safety of his wife, and the life of his brother. It was faith, hope and love, even when all you felt was fear. It was a mother's tears before surgery and a wife's tears after. 

Now, six years later it's about the masters degree he finished, the house they bought, the adventures they take spur of the moment, and the full-time job he goes to everyday, where he teaches the kids as much about life as about art. It's about the afternoon game-offs with his niece and nephews and the cookouts on the Fourth of July. It's about the things they told him he would never do that he does, and that still take a healthy dose of faith, hope and love. In my opinion that’s a lot to carry around in a six inch scar.

Fiona -
Thank you so much, Katie, for sharing.

Find all of Katie’s books on Amazon 

Read about more of Katie's adventures as an amputee writer at
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  1. Love the article. I'm also disabled and it requires a bit of ingenuity. Love writing though. Great article to let folks know how to deal with everyone.

  2. Great article. We're a family living with challenges, and I've only touched on disabilities once in a novel - but plan to face that challenge in the coming year.
    Our son is autistic, daughter is diabetic, DH deals with chronic back pain, and I - well, I got hit with multiple autoimmune issues, lupus, scleroderma, and RA. So, we're now training our service dog and that's helped more than I ever thought possible!

    1. We use a service dog - wow, what a miracle he has been to us!

      Wishing you all well,