Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go. ~ E. L. Doctorow

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Z is for Zebrafish

Well, we've made it to the end of the A-Z Blogging Challenge. Woohoo! I'm so happy to have met everyone and gained all my new followers. I hope to see everyone in the upcoming months. Keep writing! 

How do you plan to celebrate the completion of the challenge?

Today's poison is in the form of a fish. Usually found near coral reefs, so keep an eye out when snorkeling! My information came from Book of Poisons: A Guide for Writers. The book provides scientific information, so I won’t attempt to paraphrase, but give you direct quotes.

Disclaimer: Do not attempt the method discussed. The information provided is meant for fiction writing only. Please keep it on the page.

Zebrafish or Scorpionfish (p. 143-144):

Scientific Name:  Scorpaena guttata, pterois volitans (lionfish), Synanceja horrida (devilfish)

Other: Stonefish, butterfly cod, turkeyfish, firefish, rockfish.

Toxicity (scale of 1-6; 1=almost non-toxic, 6=super toxic): 5

Form: The zebrafish is a beautiful variety with vivid colors and elegant fins like wings of a butterfly. 

            The scorpionfish is about four to eight inches long with a large head, big mouth, and bright bands in reddish brown and white. Reef-dwellers, they are often found upside down in coral caves and other shelters. When annoyed, the fish tend to stand their ground and may actually approach the intruder, dorsal spines erect. All spines contain venom. The scratch is extremely painful and can cause a swimmer to be incapacitated. There are eighty different varieties of scorpionfish.

            The stonefish looks like an irregular lump of flesh. It has a large, upturned mouth to suck in prey. Closely related to the scorpionfish, it is sedentary, usually lying partially buried in the debris of a coral reef or in mud flats. Colors are subdued, matching their background to some extent. The spines and venom glands of these fish are large. The dorsal fins become erect at the least disturbance, so if an unlucky swimmer or diver steps on the fish there is an immediate sting.   

Effects and Symptoms: Marked swelling, convulsions, and intense pain may continue for hours, disabling the victim and even causing unconsciousness. Convulsions and unconsciousness, incredible pain, and paralysis of limbs can cause swimmers to drown. Respiratory distress often leads to cardiac failure. If the victim survives, secondary infection is common and gangrene can occur. A fluctuating fever with sharp highs and lows can lead to collapse and death due to cardiac failure.

Reaction Time: Instantaneous. Recovery is a slow and painful process of weeks and months. There may be a permanent scar.  

Antidotes and Treatments: Stonefish antivenin is available, but in remote or tropical areas this may be unobtainable.  

1.     The scorpionfish can be found in the Pacific from central California to the Gulf of California. Other varieties of this fish are found in most seas. The zebrafish is found in the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the western Pacific from Japan to Australia. The stonefish inhabits the Indo-Pacific and the waters around China, the Philippines, and Australia.
2.     The most familiar aquarium species are among the most venomous. Stonefish spines can penetrate flippers and thin tennis shoes as well as gloves. 

Friday, April 29, 2011

Prose from the Pros #11: Y is for Young


Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life
By Rida Johnson Young

AH! sweet mystery of life, at last I've found thee;
Ah! I know at last the secret of it all;
All the longing, striving, seeking, waiting, yearning,
The burning hopes, the joys and idle tears that fall!

For 'tis love, and love alone, the world is seeking;
And it's love, and love alone, that can reply;
'Tis the answer, ti's the end and all of living,
For it is love alone that rules for aye!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

X is for Xylocaine

Today's poison makes it easy for the villain to apply it on his or her victim or switch it out for another ointment the victim uses daily. I got this poison from Book of Poisons: A Guide for Writers. The book provides scientific information, so I won’t attempt to paraphrase, but give you direct quotes.

Disclaimer: Do not attempt the method discussed. The information provided is meant for fiction writing only. Please keep it on the page.

Xylocaine or Procaine and Lidocaine (p. 159-160):

Other: Marcaine, moncaine, nesacaine, nupercaine, duranest, sylocaine, carocaine, oracaine, unacaine, citanest, and novocaine. All are related to cocaine, and are synthetic version of the coca bush alkaloids.  

Toxicity (scale of 1-6; 1=almost non-toxic, 6=super toxic): 5

Form: colorless liquids or thick gels, the drugs are given by injection or used topically. As a general, it can be given intravenously.  

Effects and Symptoms: These drugs are rapidly distributed in the body and numbness occurs locally.
            At first giddiness develops, then feelings of oppression, followed by severe collapse of the body organs, coma, convulsions, and respiratory arrest. After injection or large surface application, circulatory collapse comes about by direct depression of blood vessel tone or by effect on the central nervous system. Dizziness, cyanosis, fall of blood pressure, muscular tremors, convulsions, coma, irregular and weak breathing, bronchial spasm, and cardiac standstill are other symptoms. Rapid intravenous injection causes cardiac arrest.
            Hypersensitivity (allergic reaction brought on by repeated exposure) occurs with repeated topical applications; reactions include itching, redness, edema, blistering. A person allergic to the drug can go into anaphylactic shock.

Reaction Time: Immediate. Efforts to remove the drug after thirty minutes are useless. After survival of one hour, the victim usually recovers.

Antidotes and Treatments: The injected drug is stopped and absorption from the injection site limited by tourniquet and ice pack. Airway is maintained and artificial respiration given with oxygen until convulsions and central nervous system depression are controlled.

1. Procaine is considered the most dangerous of all the derivatives and has caused numerous fatalities. As with cocaine, states of shock with a possible fatal outcome can occur with very small doses of procaine. Procaine and other similar drugs also enhance the effects of muscle relaxants.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

V is for Victimology

Today, I want to discuss a technique an investigator can employ to catch a perpetrator: victimology. Victimology is a field in forensic science, specifically it is the study of victim characteristics. The investigator looks at the victim’s personal, professional and social life to determine why they were selected at the specific location and time.

The show Criminal Minds dramatizes the lives of special agents with the Behavioral Analysis Unit of the FBI. The agents look over cases of serial killings and use similarities between victims to profile the unknown subject (unsub) in order to apprehend them. 

Victims fall into three categories: High-, medium- and low-risk. I used information from the HOW DUNIT series, Forensics: A Guide for Writers, pages 415-16, to explain the characteristics of the three victim categories.   

High-risk victims are those who are frequently in high-risk situations. Prostitutes, particularly those who “walk the streets,” obviously fall into this category.”

-       nighttime employment
-       drug use
-       promiscuous lifestyle
-       association with people who possess criminal personalities

Low-risk victims are those who stay close to work and home, doesn’t visit areas unfamiliar to them, have a steady job and many friends, doesn’t use drugs, and lock their doors at night.”

Medium-risk victims fall between these two.”

Besides the type of risk associated with the victim, the unsub’s fantasy needs and the victim’s vulnerability can lend investigators insight to why a particular victim was selected. Either they were a victim of opportunity (wrong place at the wrong time) or they “fit the starring role” in the unsub’s fantasy. The unsub will “cruise” or stalk their victim to ensure they’re the right person.

The characteristics shared among the victims provides the investigators with not only the type of people at risk, but also an understanding of the unsub and why they are attacking these particular victims.

What shows do you use for inspiration or reference when writing?  

Monday, April 25, 2011

T & U are for Trace Evidence and Undercover

Well, I've slacked off over the weekend with my posts. I'm sure we've all experienced burn out, but I blame the Easter holiday for falling behind. Today I plan to give you information on trace evidence and working undercover to improve that mystery or thriller novel or short story you're working on. My information comes from the HOW DUNIT Series: Forensics and Police Procedure & Investigation


What is it?

-       Hair
-       Body Fluids
o   Blood
o   Saliva
o   Tears
o   Semen
-       Fiber
-       Glass
-       Soil and Plants
-       Dust

Note: Not all trace evidence contains DNA, such as semen, saliva and tears. The evidence, when secreted, picks up epithelial cells containing the DNA.

Why is it important?

-       Trace evidence places the suspect at the scene or in contact with the victim.
-       Trace evidence is very durable, lasting from months to years.
-       “It clings to clothing, hides in shoe seams, nestles into hair, and settles into nooks and crannies (p. 320).”

Dr. Edmond Locard

-       A pioneer in forensic science. He was known as the Sherlock Holmes of France.
-       He’s known for the Locard’s Exchange Principle
o   Whenever any two objects contact each other, a transfer of materials occurs.
-       His principle lead to today’s crime scene investigation protocol.
o    Securing the scene
o    Controlling access to the scene to avoid contamination and removal of trace evidence.


-       Going undercover allows the investigator (police, private or amateur) to infiltrate groups and areas under suspicion.
-       People are more willing to open up and divulge information to someone similar to himself or herself, than someone possibly linked to the police.
-       Information might be difficult to obtain without diving deeper into the suspects life.

-       First and foremost, an investigator planning to do undercover surveillance or infiltrate a specific group must research the area and people to understand and plan their appearance and back story.
-       Blend in by mirroring the suspects:
o   Dress
o   Mannerisms
o   Slang
o   Culture
-       On occasion an undercover investigator will be faced with performing illegal activities to gain access to groups or obtain information.
o   If they don’t, they risk exposing themselves and getting hurt or killed.

What information have you researched for your novel and/or stories? 

Friday, April 22, 2011

Prose from the Pros #10: S is for Sassoon


Seigfried Sassoon
SOLDIERS are citizens of death's gray land, 

Drawing no dividend from time's to-morrows. 

In the great hour of destiny they stand,

Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows. 

Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win

Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives. 

Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin 

They think of firelit homes, clean beds, and wives.

I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats, 

And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain, 

Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats, 

And mocked by hopeless longing to regain 

Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats, 

And going to the office in the train. 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

R is for Ridge Patterns

This topic really excited me, but apparently my excitement was better spent in the warm sunshine today than writing up my post. The information on tonight’s topic comes from the Forensics: A Guide for Writers book.

Ok, so ridge patterns, or fingerprints, are used to identify people, suspects and now, teachers. Everyone has fingerprints that form in utero, but how many and where they are located gives them their uniqueness. Each fingerprint you have is independently unique. Even DNA sharing identical twins’ ridge patterns differ.

Certain nefarious individuals try to eliminate their ridge patterns by burning or shaving off the pads of their finger. Unfortunately for them, you can never permanently remove your fingerprints. They always come back after some healing time. 

I’m going to give you a quick break down of the three patterns, so take a look at your fingers while you read.

Arches (5% of population): “ridgelines that rise in the center to create a wave-like pattern.” 
Tented Arch

Plain Arch

Loops (60% of population): “one or more ridges that double back on themselves to produce a loop pattern.”
Single Loop

Double Loop

Whorls (35% of population): “look like little whirlpools of ridgelines.”
Target Whorl

Spiral Whorl

What kind of patterns did you find on your fingers and thumbs? 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Q is for Quixotic



The adjective quixotic derives from the novel Don Quixote. It describes an impulsive, unpredictable, idealistic, extravagantly chivalrous person. For the life of me, I couldn’t think of how I would approach this topic today. Then, yesterday morning, an idea rushed into my head leaving me mentally occupied all day, ignoring all of my writing class obligations. (The process of balancing work, creation and a TV addiction takes longer than expected. Moving on…)

The personality appealed to me, and I couldn’t wait to attach it to a new character. My idea involves developing a female amateur sleuth with a quixotic personality living in Philadelphia. I’m still improving my characterization and story development, so an earlier post of mine discussing the infusion of a borrowed idea with my own experiences and perspectives lead me to make the connection with Don Quixote.

I plan to read the novel and loosely base the personalities and characters on those Miguel de Cervantes created. The plot of my story will revolve around a serial killer, which marks the break in resemblance to the novel. I can’t wait to put all my learning to work on this idea, starting with all the research. This summer I’ll immerse myself in understanding and developing my milieu and characters before I start writing in the fall. Right now, I need to get my ass back to class work.

Has the A-Z Blogging Challenge kicked your Muse into gear, providing you with new story ideas?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

P is for Psychopath


Good morning! Today’s post comes to you a bit late. I’m still recovering from my novel workshop on Saturday. Elizabeth Mosier, through Philadelphia Stories, guided 14 novelists through writing exercises and deconstructing our novel. A great learning opportunity, but, as my once broken coccyx will tell you, an uncomfortable and mind-numbing 8 hours spent sitting in a hard, wooden chair conceptualizing my novel.

I would like to apologize to all my visitors for the amount of time it’s taking me to respond to your comments. I love to read the goings on in your life and writing. Please bare with me.   

Ok, on to another mystery/thriller topic. The past few posts dealt with methods a suspect might use to render someone weak or even kill them. So, who is this unknown suspect (unsub)?  

According to Forensics: A Guide for Writers, a psychopath “tends to be self-centered (egocentric and narcissistic), manipulative, emotionally shallow, and devoid of empathy and remorse (p.407).”

They like to revisit the scene or collect newspaper clippings to relive the fantasy they brought to life through the crime.

Psychopaths, like Ted Bundy (pictured above), are capable of using a ruse to lure their victim. They present a problem to the victim they feel comfortable lending help to solve.

You can also spot a psychopath by their lack of emotional response. These individuals are incapable of feeling emotion, which makes them all the more frightening, and also makes serial killing much easier.

 A psychopath doesn’t just come to fruition out of the blue. Many attribute their behavior to actual brain formation, when agitated by environmental factors such as physical, psychological and sexual abuse, the unsub’s psycho switch is turned on. Since everyday life is difficult to handle, they often slip into fantasies to protect themselves. They may start out as innocent, but over time, the fantasies evolve into sexually violent scenes. Unfortunately, unlike other abused children, their fantasies become so important they begin acting them out.

“When the offender goes on the hunt for victims, he is in fact seeking a character in his fantasy play. He looks for a certain type of person or one with a specific look (p.408).”  

Now, keep in mind, many doctors treat the psychopath and sociopath similarly, but their anti-social personality disorders differ. The difference manifests in their behavior. The psychopath not only appears normal in relationships, they are also controlled and well-planned, leaving very few physical clues at the crime scene.  The sociopath is more erratic. Their interactions with people are minimal and they tend to leave clues at the scene of a crime.

John Sandford’s antagonist in his first Lucas Davenport novel, Rules of Prey, is a psychopath. The title of the novel alone lets you know the unsub, maddog, carefully plans his crime, following a list of rules to prevent his capture, as he systematically kidnaps, tortures and murders brunette women.

I know, another ugly and frightening topic, but it’s important for me to understand my characters thoroughly to ensure a realistic mystery/thriller story.

What types of character personalities do you like to explore in your writing? 

Monday, April 18, 2011

O is for Oxybenzene

Another poison today from Book of Poisons: A Guide for Writers. It's incredible how many poisons we store under our roofs. Makes it easy for the villain to harm and/or murder a person. The book provides scientific information, so I won’t attempt to paraphrase, but give you direct quotes.

Disclaimer: Do not attempt the method discussed. The information provided is meant for fiction writing only. Please keep it on the page.

Oxybenzene or Phenol (p. 47-48):

Other: Carbolic acid, phenic acid, phenylic acid, phenyl hydroxide, hydroxybenzene, oxybenzene

Toxicity (scale of 1-6; 1=almost non-toxic, 6=super toxic): 5

Form: A white crystalline substance that turns pink or red if not completely pure, phenol has a burning taste, a distinct, aromatic, acrid odor, and is soluble in water. In addition to the household uses listed the notes below, it is used in production of fertilizers, paints, paint removers, textiles, drugs, and perfumes. All equally deadly are inhalation of mist or vapor; skin absorption of mist, vapor, or liquid; ingestion; and skin or eye contact. Phenol penetrates deeply and is readily absorbed by all surfaces of the body.  

Effects and Symptoms: Phenol is corrosive. In high concentrations, contact with the eyes can result in severe corneal damage or blindness. Skin contact, which can occur at low vapor concentrations, causes burns that form white patches.
            If a sufficient amount of phenol is ingested (and in most household forms, it is very diluted), the victim will suffer from vomiting and diarrhea. Because of the corrosive effects, burns can injure the gastrointestinal tract; if the phenol is absorbed into the system, it may cause seizures, coma, blow blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, and respiratory arrest.

Reaction Time: Thirty minutes to several hours.

Antidotes and Treatments: For skin contact, washing for fifteen minutes, followed by mineral oil or olive oil or petroleum jelly to treat the burns. Eyes that have been exposed are flushed repeatedly with water or saline solution. After inhalation, victims are removed from exposure and given oxygen. Activated charcoal is recommended for ingestion; however, one source suggests withholding it if the doctor expects to use an endoscope to check for damage to the gastrointestinal tract.

1. This is another toxin that had widespread household use as a germicide and a local anesthetic until replaced by less toxic substances. Even now it constitutes roughly 4.7 percent of the topical ointment Campho-Phenique, and is used in a variety of sore throat remedies, including lozenges and the spray Chloraseptic. It is also used to cause skin peeling for cosmetic purposes.

2. Dinitrophenol was formerly used medically as a metabolic stimulator for weight reduction.

3. Phenol is used in making creosotes (wood or coal tar); phenol derivatives are used in making disinfectants, antiseptics, caustics, germicides, surface anesthetics, and preservatives.  

Do you know any other household items considered poison?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

N is for Nightshade

Here's another poison from Book of Poisons: A Guide for Writers. Miranda Bliss featured this poison in the first novel, Cooking Up Murder, from her Cooking Class Mystery Series. The book provides scientific information, so I won’t attempt to paraphrase, but give you direct quotes.

Disclaimer: Do not attempt the method discussed. The information provided is meant for fiction writing only. Please keep it on the page.


Nightshade or Belladonna (p. 55-56):

Scientific Name: Atropa belladonna

Other: English nightshade, black nightshade, nightshade, banewort, deadly nightshade, dwale, sleeping nightshade, belladonna lily, Barbados lily, cape belladonna, devil’s cherries, naughty man’s cherries, divale, black cherry, devil’s herb, great morel, dwayberry lirio, naked lady lily, azuncena de Mejico.

Toxicity (scale of 1-6; 1=almost non-toxic, 6=super toxic): 6

Deadly Parts: All, especially roots, leaves, and berries.

Form: Reddish purple flowers appear June through July and the plants are sprinkled with dark, inky, sweet berries. The dull, darkish green leaves, unevenly sized, have a bitter taste fresh or dried. The young stems have soft, downy hairs. The thick, fleshy, and whitish root grows about six inches long. When crushed, the fresh plant gives an ungodly odor, but that leaves as the plant dries.

Effects and Symptoms: Dilated pupils; blurred vision; increased heart rate; hot, dry, red skin; dry mouth; disorientation; hallucinations; impaired vision; loud heartbeat, audible at several feet; aggressive behavior; rapid pulse; rapid respiration; anuria; fever; convulsions; coma; and death.

Reaction Time: Several hours to several days.

Antidotes and Treatments: The poisonous effects of belladonna berries may be prevented by swallowing an emetic to encourage vomiting and by gastric lavage. Some home emetics might be a large glass of warm vinegar, or mustard and water. This is followed by a dose of magnesia, stimulants, and strong coffee. Sometimes artificial respiration is needed. Symptoms special to those poisoned by belladonna are complete loss of voice and continual movements of the hands and fingers, as well as dilated eye pupils.  

1. The medical components of atropine, scopolamine, hyoscyamine, and hyoscine are used for sedatives and as antispasmodics, as they work by paralyzing the action at the nerve endings. The poison is eliminated almost entirely by the kidneys, if these are in good working order.

2. Introduced as a drug plant from England and France, it is found in Central and Southern Europe, southwest Asia, Eurasia, and Algeria. Belladonna is occasionally found in the wider and uncultivated areas or as an ornamental plant of the eastern United States.

3. Belladonna means “beautiful woman” in Italian. During the Renaissance, women applied an extract of the plant to their eyes to dilate their pupils and give them a wide and beautiful appearance.

4. Rabbits often eat belladonna and pass the effect onto anyone who might eat them.

5. A powder made form the leaves and roots of belladonna is used to treat asthma, colic, and an overabundance of stomach acid.  

Friday, April 15, 2011

Prose from the Pros #9: M is for Monroe


On the Train
By Harriet Monroe


THE lady in front of me in the car,
With little red coils close over her ears,
Is talking with her friend;
And the circle of ostrich foam around her hat,
Curving over like a wave,
Trembles with her little windy words.
What she is saying, I wonder,
That her feathers should tremble
And the soft fur of her coat should slip down over her shoulders?
Has her string of pearls been stolen,
Or maybe her husband?


He is drunk, that man --
Drunk as a lord, a lord of the bibulous past.             [sic]
He shouts wittily from his end of the car to the man in the corner;
He bows to me with chivalrous apologies.
He philosophizes, plays with the wisdom of the ages,
Flings off his rags,
Displays his naked soul --
Athletic, beautiful, grotesque.
In the good time coming,
When men drink no more,
Shall we ever see a nude soul dancing
Stript and free
In the temple of his god?


She comes smiling into the car
With irridescent bubbles of children.
She blooms in the close plush seats
Like a narcissus in a bowl of stones.
She croons to a baby in her lap --
The trees come swinging by to listen,
And the electric lights in the ceiling are stars.

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