Showing posts with label Alcohol. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Alcohol. Show all posts

Saturday, September 9, 2017

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night - Booze in Your Writing with Nick Thacker

English: Dark 'n Stormy made with Gosling's Bl...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
ThrillWriters and ThrillReaders, belly up to the bar and meet my friend Nick.

Hey, Nick! Cheers, 

Nick - 
Hello, again!

Fiona - 
With the storms down south and the fires in the west, I say drink 'em while you can. What's your drink of choice? 

Nick - 
I am in a whiskey/bourbon phase, and a time-tested great go-to for me is an old fashioned, made PROPERLY (no bright red cherries or other fruit!). However, since it's rainy, chilly, and stormy down south where I'm from (Texas), a Dark and Stormy is a wonderful option. It's a perfect combination of summery feelings with an ominous tone to it. 

Dark and Stormy is essentially rum and ginger beer. I typically try to simplify as much as possible with mixology, as it's easier to remember recipes, so most of my drinks are 2 oz of base. In this case, it's rum -- and I always have Captain Morgan Spiced Rum on hand. For ginger beer, there's no competition: it has to be Cock n' Bull. Usually, 3 oz will do the trick, and a squeeze of lime juice to top it off. The drink is also built up, not shaken or stirred or you'll lose carbonation -- just fill a glass with ice, add your base (rum) and then top with the ginger beer and squeeze of lime

Fiona - 
YUM!

You're an amateur mixologist (p.s. spell check is offering me assistance and wishes me to say: sexologist, monologist, or seismologist- and while any or all might apply, I think we'll stick to mixology for this interview.)  

Mixologist means a person skilled at mixing cocktails; it also means I'd like to be your friend. You write what you know and have a character who runs a bar. Can you tell us something about that series? 

Nick Thacker- 
The series is the Mason Dixon Thrillers series, and the main character (Mason Dixon) is a southerner from South Carolina who wants to buy out his bar and retire in peace so he can make classy drinks for classy people. In order to do that, he has a moonlighting gig -- as an assassin! 

Fiona - 
For your book you've done some research into moonshine - which is why I want to talk to you. This is a problem that is in an upcoming novel in my Badge Bunny Booze collection. Can you take me through the production process?

Nick -  
Producing alcohol is actually a simple process in concept: you have a "beer" (literally some sort of grain or malted (sprouted) grain that has fermented using yeast to convert sugars into alcohol and CO2.

However, instead of taking that "wort" and adding hops and bottling it for carbonation, you take the alcoholic mixture (usually about 5-10% alcohol at this point), and extract the alcohol using a still. 

The most common and affordable still is a pot still -- essentially a pressure cooker with a spout that allows the alcohol to evaporate, rise through the spout, then get cooled again into liquid, where it runs down another spout into a collection container. 

Here's the kicker: Not all alcohol is created equal. Alcohol boils (and thus evaporates) at a lower temperature than water (212 deg. F), say 170-190 F. The first alcohol vapors to come off the still are, quite literally, nail polish remover. Or wood alcohol. 

If you drink this, spit it out! If you don't spit it out, you can hurt yourself. This alcohol is poisonous to the optic nerve -- you'll go blind. 

After that's thrown away, the next alcohols that come out are all purifications of ethanol, which is what we drink. 
  • "Heads," which are bright and sharp, and don't taste great on their own. 
  • "Hearts" run, which is great-tasting and somewhat mellow. 
  • "Tails," which tend to give flavor (fusel oils) to the alcohol, but can also taste like wet dog or cardboard. 
The science is in knowing what to save/throw away, and in mixing combinations of your heads, hearts, and tails so you have something special to drink. 

Fiona
Alcohol is regulated, yet people make their own beer and wine. Is it legal to distill their own alcohol? In the vein, are all alcohols equal? I'm thinking about moonshine here. Could I make rum but not moonshine?

Nick - 
In the United States, it is not illegal to make beer and wine for personal use (there is a certain amount deemed "personal use," around 20 or 200 gallons a year, I believe). However, it is NOT legal in any way to distill alcohol. 

To the government, yes, all hard alcohols are considered the same. Beer/wine/cider/etc. is not run through a still, so it's legal. 

Whiskey/moonshine/vodka/etc. is run through a still, so it is illegal. As a wonderful example of government inefficiency, though, I don't believe it's illegal to own a still. 

Fiona - 
200 gallons LOL

Nick -
RIGHT! Surprising, as I'd LOVE to be able to drink 200 gallons of anything in a year. 

Fiona - 
Right, Officer, it is a still but I'm making distilled water to clean my contact lenses. 

Nick - 
Yep -- we're making essential oils with it, nothing more! 

Fiona
Who regulates the distillation of alcohol - who would come knocking on your door at 3 am? And are the penalties such that it stops people from trying this? PS when I was ten at the Science and Innovation Center I learned how to distill alcohol then we tasted it and took some to our principal who shot it down in one gulp -- times have changed. 

Nick -
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, and/or the ATF regulates. In shows like Moonshiners, they are the guys who come knocking in the middle of the night, looking for pot stills in the back country of Kentucky. 

In real life, it's unlikely anyone -- police included -- would come checking, because it's simply not something many people are doing. Besides that, and contrary to popular belief, many home distillers are using setups that are so small and well-built that they are not at all dangerous. No sealed, pressurized containers, for example, and no open flames (electric burners instead). The only other reason besides safety that the production of alcohol was made illegal was that when moonshiners are selling their production, they're not paying taxes on it. The taxation of alcohol, tobacco, and firearms is a BIG DEAL, so the government wants their cut! 

As far as penalties, yes -- there are fines, mostly. Where I'm from, I've been told, it's probably between $200-$1,000 depending on scale/safety, etc. Though I'd bet that if one was caught, the Feds could do just about anything. 

Fiona - 
What tidbits of information should an author keep in mind when they're writing about mixing drinks/bar tending that a reader could appreciate knowing in real life, maybe make them suave in front of their date? 

Nick - 
I always go for this: no one expects or even wants me to be the utmost expert on everything, yet they do expect and want at least a small amount of believable knowledge in their fiction.

I try to, again, simplify: making drinks is as simple as finding a recipe online, so there's no excuse in having a character explain how to build a cocktail if they're doing it wrong. That said, having some flair or personality in it goes a long way (e.g. "Bond didn't know what he was talking about -- you NEVER shake a dry martini"). If that intrigues the reader, they can do some research and find out why. 

If not, they just keep reading -- they're not bogged down by Clancy-esque descriptions of every little thing from utensils to recipes to ingredients and techniques. So I try to have:
  1. A real drink, usually one they've heard of. 
  2. A tried-and-true recipe that no one would argue with 
  3. Something "unique" or special about the character's way of making it.

One of the best ways to do this is to read some old bartender's manuals, then have your character pay homage to that bartender/era by making the drink their way and explaining to the drinker in the book why they did it. 

Fiona - 
Cool -  Okay - At ThrillWriting we have a traditional request that you tell us your favorite scar story. Would you please? 

Nick - 
Sure thing: I'm a safe, lame, boring guy. My wife is the only reason I've ever been outside. LOL So my "best" (and probably only) scar story is the two lines on the back of my left hand. I was in little league baseball, and one of the rules of the league was that if you turned in a foul ball, you'd get a free soda. 

Well, in my house growing up, soda was like CRACK. Everyone wanted it, no one was supposed to have it, and it was "too damn expensive anyway." Lo and behold, I'm hanging out at the fields and a foul ball comes screaming down over our heads. We race to where it landed, only to find that it ended up in a fenced-in area next to a shed. The chain-link fence was the kind that had the really sharp ends on top, and it was tall, too. 

I should add here that I HATE heights, and moving in general. 

Naturally, 12-year-old me decides he's going to climb the stupid fence and get the stupid ball so I could have my stupid crack soda.

More importantly, I'll look REALLY cool doing it, and the other guys won't make fun of me for not doing it. 

Fast forward to a minute later: I've got the ball in my pocket, I'm climbing back over the fence, and I'm excited to get my Cracksoda. I launch myself up and over the fence, aim my feet at the ground about six feet away, and -- URCH. I hear and feel the top poky things on the fence grab my hand and just... hang there... I stop, dangling, waiting for it to let me go. I have to climb BACK up a bit with my other hand to rip it off my left hand so I can fall down.

When I do, I can't feel my left hand but it's BLEEDING LIKE A WOUNDED GAZELLE and squirting everywhere. I become the coolest kid around for about ten minutes, and I have the scar to prove it! 

Fiona - 
"Nick is a writer, but you already knew that, so he won't waste your time. If he were to describe his work (which is exactly what he's trying to do here), he would say it's a mashup between Jurassic Park, National Treasure, The Da Vinci Code, all of James Rollins' stuff, some of Clive Cussler's stuff, a little of Michael Crichton's stuff, with a side of adrenaline, testosterone, and the good parts of the Michael Bay movies (but only the GOOD PARTS). 

His soon-to-be-written Wikipedia page says that he lives in a cabin on a mountain in Colorado with his wife and daughter, and enjoys being terrorized by the three dogs and tortoise that share his life and do nothing but eat food and cost him money. He would love for you to hang out with him on Facebook or on his website.

Nick has joined me in an AMAZING boxed set, Murder and Mayhem 20 NY Times, USA Today, and Award Winning authors put together a boxed set for 99 cents!

Nick - 
When I was approached to be in the Murder and Mayhem box set, I couldn't believe it. An amazing lineup of authors, and a fantastic arrangement of stories -- this is going to be a blast!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

TOXIC: Information for Writers from Forensic Toxicologist Sabra Botch-Jones



Today, ThrillWriting welcomes Sabra Botch-Jones. Sabra is a Forensic Toxicologist and full-time faculty member at Boston University School of Medicine’s Biomedical Forensic Sciences graduate program. She teaches courses in Drug Chemistry, Forensic Toxicology and Instrumental Analysis in Forensic Laboratories.

Fiona - 
Sabra Botch-Jones, M.S., M.A., D-ABFT-FT
Department of Anatomy & Neurobiology
Boston University School of Medicine
Biomedical Forensic Sciences
Sabra, you have a very cool title. At what point did you realize that you wanted to be a forensic toxicologist?

Sabra - 
I realized that the field of Forensic Science was “where” I wanted to be in during my junior year of my undergraduate degree when I took an Introduction to Forensic Science course. I “thought” I wanted to be a psychiatrist. I did not know that the sub-discipline of Forensic Toxicology was my calling until I was working as an intern at the Federal Aviation Administration during my final year of undergrad.

Fiona - 
Here is a PRIMER on Forensic Toxicology.

Can you tell us what a forensic toxicologist does?


Sabra - 
A forensic toxicologist is like a chemist. We conduct instrumental analysis on biological samples (like blood and urine, but also body tissues or even bone at times) to determine the presence of drugs, including alcohol, and sometimes other compounds (like heavy metals, etc.) 

We are also trained in the interpretation of those results and what they may mean based on the case we are working with. For example, a toxicological result in a living person such as a Driving While Impaired (DWI) case may be different if we find the same value in a deceased person.

Forensic Toxicologists can work in Federal, State, County or private laboratories. The cases can involve living and deceased individuals.

Fiona -
You're sitting on the couch in your den, enjoying a bowl of popcorn with some of your colleagues and watching TV - a crime show. What are the things that make you throw food at the screen and yell at the writers for getting it ALL wrong? What points do you want writers to pay the closest attention to so that you can enjoy the plotline?

Sabra - 
So, I don’t have a lot of time to watch TV. As the mom of a 2 year-old, I watch a lot of Curious George (which I love); therefore, I don’t get to watch a lot of crime shows. But if I do, the over simplification of some things and the time it takes drives me crazy.

I don’t let it get to me too much because I know the producers and writers are working with time constraints to tell a story. Plus, as Forensic Toxicologists we are always trying to reduce the time it takes to perform analysis so at times it makes me wistful for faster analytical times. 

There is one other humorous thing forensic toxicologist like to joke about and that is wearing white clothes in the laboratory. Besides our lab coats, we don’t typically do that, but now I do it on purpose because every time I do I think of a shows like CSI.

Some points that would really impress me would be using the difficult names of our instrumentation like Liquid Chromatography Tandem Mass Spectrometry or Supercritical Fluid Chromatography.

Fiona - 
Do you ever go to a crime scene? Do you ever interview a witness or a family member? Do you ever seek (outside of the laboratory) evidence to support a theory that you came up with while doing your forensic analysis?



Sabra - 
Those are good questions, because the typical answer to that question would be no. Most Forensic Toxicologists stay in the lab and are very happy to do so. But, I have been very fortunate in that during my career I worked in a medical examiner’s office with a Forensic Anthropologist who needed help in recovering skeletal remains. Therefore, I have been to scenes -- some were and some were not crime scenes. In one instance, we actually found drug paraphernalia. I do not interview witnesses or family members, however I have spoken with individuals who believed they were being poisoned or victim’s family members to address their questions and concerns.

Also, depending on the laboratory, we may conduct experiments to determine why something happened. One of those areas as a Forensic Toxicologist would be to recreate storage conditions to determine analyte stability.


Fiona -

With whom do you interface? How do the samples get to you? 

Sabra -
We interface with medical examiners, attorneys, police officers, judges, jurors, and at times family members. Depending on the laboratory, samples may be hand delivered or may be sent to us. 

Fiona - 
From whom do you get information for what you are looking for in the sample? Do the detectives ever sit down and chat with you about the case and their theories/what they are trying to prove?

Sabra - 
Case information comes in a variety of different ways. If medical information is available for a case, we would review it. We may also look at the investigators' narratives and police reports. Some police officers go through extensive training to become Drug Recognition Experts, and their reports can be very useful. Police officers or investigators do not usually discuss their cases with us, unless they need interpretation on what the results mean. They may want to understand what a drug is and what its effects would be. We don’t typically get involved in the “proof” of a case, as our role is that of a scientist or “fact finder”.

Fiona - 
Let's talk plot twists. If a sample is collected -- at the scene or a hospital, for example -- and it is properly packaged for clean chain of custody. Is there any way that a character could taint your sample or switch your sample or for that matter change your report to reflect something other than what was found? The presence of drugs for example?

Sabra -
As a plot twist that's a fun one but a nightmare in reality to a Forensic Toxicologist. 

The purpose of chain of custody is to preserve and protect the evidence. But for this example, we don’t have to look too far for real life examples of mistakes that have been made. Storage is one, let’s say you have an unstable analyte that must be kept at a certain temperature or it begins to degrade. Leaving a sample locked in the back of police car (intentionally or unintentionally) might have deleterious effects.

Another scenario would be switching out a sample before or at the lab such as having an “insider” or a “break in” at the laboratory. These all make me shudder but are reason why we have so many safeguards and security measure in our laboratories.

Fiona -
Have you been to court as an expert witness?

Sabra -
I have been to court as an expert witness and I have interacted with both the defense as well as prosecutors. As a Forensic Toxicologist in government laboratory I primarily dealt with the prosecutors or District Attorney’s office. As a consultant, I have dealt mainly with the defense. The hearing was fairly straight forward.

Fiona - 
What was it like to sit in the witness box? Did the defense lawyers try to rattle your cage?

Sabra - 
I have had attorneys try to rattle me before I took the stand so that I may not present myself in the best possible way. The witness box is a very important place to be and I believe an individual who has the opportunity to sit there should show it the respect it deserves. 

Fiona - 
Can you give examples of defense rattling techniques? That's good plot fodder.

Sabra - 
I had the opportunity to do an interview for The Setup (you can find my interview here: http://sabra.botch-jones.usesthis.com/) and the image I provided was one of a flask and cocktail glass held up to my face. This image represented what we do as Forensic Toxicologists, looking for chemicals that enter the human body. I had an attorney show me the image before testifying and during the cross-examination. I believe he wanted to rattle me, but when he asked me about the interview I had the opportunity to talk about what we do as Forensic Toxicologists and the technology we use. 





Fiona - 
I always ask my guests to share their favorite scar story or lacking scars their favorite harrowing event story. Would you share?

Sabra -
I have been very lucky to not have many scars, but the ones I have I wear with pride. The longest was from an emergency C section for my son (I also have a couple on my face from him when I let his nails get too long). I am really fortunate to not only get to be a mom but also a scientist. It’s a tough balance, but being a mom, I think has complimented my new role as an educator of future Forensic Toxicologist and Forensic Scientists.

Fiona - 
Where could an author look for new material - what's being explored in forensic toxicology?


Sabra - 

One of my research focuses include New Psychoactive Substances, and I think this is a great area to explore for writers. Not just the use, but how they are made and obtained.

Fiona -
Sabra, thank you so much for helping us writers out. I truly appreciate your time and expertise.

You can stay in touch with Sabra on  Twitter
fTox Consulting, LLC. website
BU faculty website


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