Of Vampires and Other Things

Back in 2015 – yikes! I’ve been blogging here for along time – I made a post called Ten Good Vampire Books. At some point along the way, that post got caught up in Google’s SEO magic algorithms and it’s had more views in 2019 than it had the year it was published.

Go me?

At any rate, when I sat down to write this post, I planned to make an updated version of the old post, except almost immediately I ran into a problem. I haven’t been keeping up on the vampire literature.

In part, that’s because I have a vampire of my own. Thaddeus Dupont is 100 years old, and he was a monk before he was turned back in 1925. He and his boyfriend Sarasija Mishra appear in the Hours of the Night series I co-write with Irene Preston. (Jump HERE to learn more about Vespers, book 1 in the series.)

Some of you have seen me post about the Hours of the Night and Thaddeus Dupont before, so maybe this won’t be news, but bear with me for a bit. There were a couple compelling reasons I chose to write a vampire character – above and beyond Irene telling me I needed to write another vampire. (She can be very persistent.)

First off, I’ve always loved stories about vampires. Whether it’s trad vamps like Dracula or naughty vamps like Bill & Eric from the Southern Vampire Mysteries (the books that inspired True Blood), I’m a fan. For a while, I made something of a study of vampire fiction, reading as much as I could get my hands on.

Did you know George RR Martin wrote a vampire novel? I couldn’t finish it.

When Irene and I first started working on Vespers, I had a good knowledge of what was out there in the world of vampire literature and some ideas about the kind of character I wanted to create. The popularity of vampire fiction rises and falls, following some unspoken cultural zeitgeist.

Victorian vampires addressed the cultural fear of death. Later in the ’80s and early ’90s, the themes were blood and infection, likely a response to the AIDS crisis. Then in the ’90s to early ’00s, vampires explored our ideas about eternal youth and sexiness.

At the risk of taking myself too seriously, when I write Thaddeus, there’s a similar theme at play. See, I’m the elderScribe, a good 10-20 years older than the rest of the gang who blogs here, and Thaddeus Dupont is my attempt to express my sometimes bewildering experience dealing with the modern world.

Thaddeus was born in 1900 and grew up in the bayou, speaking a patios of English and French, in a time and place before most of the modern accouterments we take for granted. His mildly confused response to his 21st century boyfriend is an echo of my own feelings. I try to keep up, but kids these days….damn….

There’s another, more personal reason for Thaddeus Dupont’s creation, specifically, why I gave him a strong Catholic orientation. I’m a cradle Catholic, and while my relationship to the Church has waxed and waned over the last 50-odd years, it’s currently on indefinite hiatus. The dissonance between Thaddeus’s relationship to the church and the love he has for Sara give me a place to work out my own feelings – in a hopefully-entertaining way.

Irene and I are currently working on Spooked, book 2 in our spin-off Haunts & Hoaxes series. The first book, Haunted, was written for a freebie giveaway, but readers liked the characters so we turned it into a series. I made the first cover (b/c freebie), but we recently unveiled a much-improved version that brands the series.

Isn’t it pretty?!

Haunts & Hoaxes is a mash-up of Supernatural + The X Files with naughty bits thrown in, and we’re hoping to release Spooked sometime in early 2020. Keep your eye out for it!

This post turned into kind of a ramble, but in summary, I probably know more about vampires than is good for me, I hadn’t kept up with vampire fiction b/c I don’t want it to color my own vampire, I have several reasons for how Thaddeus Dupont took shape, Irene and I are headed in a slightly different direction but will come back to HotN soon, and this is one of the longest sentences I’ve ever written.

Happy Halloween!

Oh, and…uh… I have a couple gift codes for a free copy of Vespers. Leave me a comment and I’ll hook you up. (In the off chance that I get more comments than I have codes, I’ll draw names or something.)

Take Back the Night

Black clouds scud across the moon, nearly full. The chill breeze has a little…bite to it. A tap-tapping on the window startles you out of your slumber. Perhaps it is only a tree branch, shaking in the wind. Or perhaps it is something else? Someone else? What are they saying, as they lurk outside?

“Let…me…in.”

Although pop culture seems to have something of an on-again, off-again relationship with vampires, I’m a steadfast fan. If there’s a vampire movie, I’ve probably seen it, and I’ve definitely made a dent in the books about them. Some authors *ahemStephenieMeyerahem* tried to make vampires into sexy, brooding vegetarians, but that trend can’t last forever. From the reported reboot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to Renee Ahdieh’s new The Beautiful, to Jay Kristoff’s forthcoming Empire of the Vampire, I predict pop culture is swinging back toward our long-time fascination and obsession with the dark, immortal creatures of the night.

Halloween reminds us that while vampires might be fangtastic, and know how to have a bloody good time, they are ultimately denizens of the night who enjoy violence and murder. So let’s sink out teeth into some of my favorite creepy vampires…

That's what friends are for!
That’s what friends are for!

CarmillaCarmilla

Beautiful, languid, and mysterious, Carmilla insinuates herself into the lives of innocent young women, one at a time. Her mercurial moods and unsettling sexual advances distract her prey from her exotic tastes: the catlike monster that visits them in their nightmares and drinks of their blood is really her. Eventually, each girl wastes away and dies, leaving Carmilla free to find a new female companion. Best friends forever…or until you die.

Edward Cullen, Twilight

One of the most insidious vampires in literature, Edward lures Bella–his teenaged prey–with his brooding demeanor and ascetic lifestyle, then utilizes psychological tactics such as stalking, threat of violence, and abandonment to confuse her and alienate her from her species. Finally, Bella succumbs to Stockholm Syndrome and marries Edward, who is then able to complete his goal: impregnate his human wife with his unnatural half-vampire spawn.

Claudia, Interview with a Vampire

After being sired as a child by her adoptive fathers, Louis and Lestat, Claudia matures into a ruthless, murderous vampire with the face of a doll, who “appears to her victims as a little angel” before luring them to their bloody deaths. In cold blood, Claudia attempts to destroy Lestat by feeding him the poisoned blood of a young boy, and she manipulates Louis into doing various dastardly deeds, including siring an innocent woman so Claudia could have a “mother.” Sugar and spice and everything nice…

80’s vamps slay

Miriam Blaylock, The Hunger

Once every few hundred years Miriam, a vampire whose life began in ancient Egypt, assuages her loneliness by siring a human to be her half-vampire companion and lover. (This century, it’s David Bowie. Swoon.) Together they hunt, feed, and slaughter. But eventually these companions wither away into dusty, bloodless corpses, unable to die yet still conscious and aware. Unable to put her lovers out of their misery, Miriam instead encases the half-living corpses in coffins and keeps them with her for eternity. Talk about skeletons in the closet!

Kurt Barlow, Salem’s Lot

In Stephen King’s classic novel, Barlow is an ancient, master vampire who terrorizes the small town of Jerusalem’s Lot when he invades and quickly begins slaughtering and turning the citizenry. He causes some bad blood by performing human sacrifice before moving on to blood-letting, hostage-taking, murder of the elderly, and finally subversion of religious figures. This vampire really goes for the throat.

"I don't drink...vine."
“I don’t drink…vine.”

Count Dracula, Dracula

Ah yes, Dracula–a vampire who really sucks. After luring Jonathan Harker to his decaying castle in the Carpathian Mountains and subjecting the young man to unnatural penetration by his three vampiric brides, Dracula infiltrates London and begins menacing the beautiful Lucy Westenra and her companion, Mina Murray. He feasts upon Lucy’s blood until she dies and resurrects as a violent vampire herself; then, with so much at stake, Mina falls under the Count’s thrall, betraying her fiance and friends for Dracula’s sake. With his potent combination of sexuality, violence, and aristocratic charm, Dracula rains a dark terror upon London, and imparts a lasting and toothsome legacy to Western Literature.

Do you have any favorite vamps? Take a bite out of our comment section, fang you!

Building Characters, One Verb at a Time

Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees…

Last October I heard Damon Suede speak at the Emerald City Writers Conference. He’s a terrific speaker who wraps a lifetime of knowledge and experience in an entertaining – like, LOL funny – presentation.

Damon could explain this a lot better than I will, but the basic premise to his master class was this: a reader gets to know a character by the character’s actions. Period. And those actions make it on the page in the form of verbs. So, rather than spend hours developing a detailed character biography, pick a handful of verbs and a few adjectives and make that the template your character grows from.

(If you’re curious, you can read about his approach in Verbalize: Bring stories to life and life to stories.)

And you know what? It works!

I recently wrote a holiday novella, the first piece I’d started from scratch since hearing Damon’s presentation. Over the years I’ve done my share of character biography worksheets – the more detailed, the better – but this time I came up with names, chose half a dozen verbs and the same number of adjectives, and wrote simple goal-motivation-conflict statements for each of the two main characters.

Here’s the beginning of my character worksheets for Bo and Jon, the heroes in my holiday novella:

Bo Barone – the crafty one: Adjectives & verbs: bright, shiny, quick, glittering, smiling, laughing, glowing, self-assured, patient, detail-oriented, crafting, inspiring, protecting, intimacy issues, performing, caring

Background: big family, Italian, local Seattle, Midnight Mass at St. James

Jon Cunningham – the artist: Adjectives and Verbs: dark, deep, methodical, dedicated, passionate, reserved, commanding, distancing, consider, create, observe, listen, measure, perform, practice, reflect, teach

Background: Seattle family, missed out on much of high school, studied at Juilliard, Dad had a stroke

Can’t you just picture them? Instead of pages of detail, I had a few lines, yet I felt it took me less time to get a handle on Bo & Jon than just about any of my other characters. I’ll admit things morphed a little during the writing process, particularly in terms of their goals/ motivations/ conflicts, but the characters’ essence, who they were, was pretty solid.

That essence was captured in the verbs and adjectives I chose for them.

Happy Hydrangeas!

Whenever I wasn’t quite sure how a character would respond or what they’d do next, I had my list of verbs and adjectives to guide me. Even though both my heroes changed over the course of the novella – because that’s what the plot is for – still, their core remained constant.

You’ll have a chance to see how well I did, because Dreamspinner offered me a contract for the novella, so A Holiday Homecoming will be released ~ 12/1/19. If you have the change to hear Damon speak, do it. You’ll learn a lot. And the next time you’re stuck with on a character, focus on their verbs and see if it helps.

Hybrid Tea Rose Tequila Sunrise. Cheers, mate!

Summer Reads: What’s on YOUR list?

We’re having Juneuary, that stretch of time between the end of May and the Fourth of July when the temperature sits in the 50s and 60s (that’s 10-15 degrees C) and it rains and everybody whines about how summer’s never coming. It’s a Seattle thing. We always act like rain in June is a huge surprise.

Every year.

At least I haven’t turned the heater back on. (Yet.)

To remind myself that it is summer – on the calendar, at least – I thought it would be fun to make a list of the books I’m most looking forward to reading once beach weather starts for real. Lately my kindle has been heavy with non-fiction – cool stuff, but not light and fluffy beach reading material.

For example, I’m in the middle of “The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World” by Melinda Gates. She uses personal glimpses into the lives of women world-wide to illustrate the appalling way women are treated, and while I have no doubts about her commitment to her foundation’s causes, I wish she’d taken a more academic, less-Hallmark tone. She’s walking the walk when she really doesn’t have to, and I respect that. That said, when I finish, I’m definitely going to be ready for something lighter.

With that in mind, here’s a handful of books I can’t wait to dive into!

Caveate: I’ll have to start a couple of these in the next week or so – before Seattle’s summer meanders in – because the Seattle Public Library has a way of dumping *all* my hold requests on me at once.

Who needs to clean house? Not me…sigh…

First up is “The Affair of the Mysterious Letter” by Alexis Hall. It’s a Sherlock-adjacent fantasy novel, and I cannot wait! Here’s the blurb:

Upon returning to the city of Khelathra-Ven after five years fighting a war in another universe, Captain John Wyndham finds himself looking for somewhere to live, and expediency forces him to take lodgings at 221b Martyrs Walk. His new housemate is Ms. Shaharazad Haas, a consulting sorceress of mercurial temperament and dark reputation.

When Ms. Haas is enlisted to solve a case of blackmail against one of her former lovers, Miss Eirene Viola, Captain Wyndham is drawn into a mystery that leads him from the salons of the literary set to the drowned back-alleys of Ven and even to a prison cell in lost Carcosa. Along the way he is beset by criminals, menaced by pirates, molested by vampires, almost devoured by mad gods, and called upon to punch a shark.

But the further the companions go in pursuit of the elusive blackmailer, the more impossible the case appears. Then again, in Khelathra-Ven reality is flexible, and the impossible is Ms. Haas’ stock-in-trade.

This book has had such amazing reviews! I’ve never read anything by Casey McQuiston before, but a number of my reading buddies have been singing the praises of “Red, White & Royal Blue”, and I can’t wait to dive in. Here’s the blurb:

What happens when America’s First Son falls in love with the Prince of Wales?

When his mother became President, Alex Claremont-Diaz was promptly cast as the American equivalent of a young royal. Handsome, charismatic, genius―his image is pure millennial-marketing gold for the White House. There’s only one problem: Alex has a beef with the actual prince, Henry, across the pond. And when the tabloids get hold of a photo involving an Alex-Henry altercation, U.S./British relations take a turn for the worse.

Heads of family, state, and other handlers devise a plan for damage control: staging a truce between the two rivals. What at first begins as a fake, Instragramable friendship grows deeper, and more dangerous, than either Alex or Henry could have imagined. Soon Alex finds himself hurtling into a secret romance with a surprisingly unstuffy Henry that could derail the campaign and upend two nations and begs the question: Can love save the world after all? Where do we find the courage, and the power, to be the people we are meant to be? And how can we learn to let our true colors shine through? Casey McQuiston’s Red, White & Royal Blue proves: true love isn’t always diplomatic.

And finally, I’m dying to read Hither, Page by Cat Sebastian. It’s a cozy mystery set in post-war England and it has LIV’S CATNIP written all over it. Here’s the blurb:

A jaded spy and a shell shocked country doctor team up to solve a murder in postwar England.

James Sommers returned from the war with his nerves in tatters. All he wants is to retreat to the quiet village of his childhood and enjoy the boring, predictable life of a country doctor. The last thing in the world he needs is a handsome stranger who seems to be mixed up with the first violent death the village has seen in years. It certainly doesn’t help that this stranger is the first person James has wanted to touch since before the war.

The war may be over for the rest of the world, but Leo Page is still busy doing the dirty work for one of the more disreputable branches of the intelligence service. When his boss orders him to cover up a murder, Leo isn’t expecting to be sent to a sleepy village. After a week of helping old ladies wind balls of yarn and flirting with a handsome doctor, Leo is in danger of forgetting what he really is and why he’s there. He’s in danger of feeling things he has no business feeling. A person who burns his identity after every job can’t set down roots.

As he starts to untangle the mess of secrets and lies that lurk behind the lace curtains of even the most peaceful-seeming of villages, Leo realizes that the truths he’s about to uncover will affect his future and those of the man he’s growing to care about.

“A Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics” by Olivia Waite is another book that’s had great buzz. It just came out this week, and I can’t wait to dive in! Here’s the blurb:

As Lucy Muchelney watches her ex-lover’s sham of a wedding, she wishes herself anywhere else. It isn’t until she finds a letter from the Countess of Moth, looking for someone to translate a groundbreaking French astronomy text, that she knows where to go. Showing up at the Countess’ London home, she hoped to find a challenge, not a woman who takes her breath away.

Catherine St Day looks forward to a quiet widowhood once her late husband’s scientific legacy is fulfilled. She expected to hand off the translation and wash her hands of the project—instead, she is intrigued by the young woman who turns up at her door, begging to be allowed to do the work, and she agrees to let Lucy stay. But as Catherine finds herself longing for Lucy, everything she believes about herself and her life is tested.

While Lucy spends her days interpreting the complicated French text, she spends her nights falling in love with the alluring Catherine. But sabotage and old wounds threaten to sever the threads that bind them. Can Lucy and Catherine find the strength to stay together or are they doomed to be star-crossed lovers?

So yeah, this is shorter than my usual to-read posts, and it also seems to be very white. Hmm…I need to make diversity more of a goal. Is that something you think about? What’s on your reading list for the summer? If you have any suggestions – diverse or otherwise (as long as it’s not some heavy non-fic tomb) I’d love to hear them.


Heroic Sacrifice

This weekend, here in the U.S., we celebrate Memorial Day. It is a day of remembrance, when we honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country; when we pay tribute to all the brave men and women who have lost their lives in armed conflicts over the years. Most of us know someone (or many someones) who we thank and honor for their service on this holiday, whether we spend the day itself visiting national monuments, leaving flags and flowers at cemeteries, or just spending time with those closest to us.

It may seem strange to honor fictional characters as well as real-life heroes, but I often think about the fact that literature and pop culture act as both mirror and tribute to the real world. Books, movies, and TV give us access to stories we might not otherwise be exposed to, and teach us lessons about ourselves and the world we live in. Through stories, we learn to be brave, to be selfless, to fight for the things we hold most dear, and to always stand up to injustice. We spend this weekend honoring and remembering real-life heroes, but here are a few of the most poignant and selfless fictional sacrifices in literature and pop culture that have inspired me also.

(No big spoilers for anything released in the last 3 years.)

Sydney Carton, A Tale of Two Cities

Sydney Carton is a brilliant but depressed drunkard, full of cynicism and self-loathing for his wasted life. He falls deeply in love for Lucie Manette, but she marries Charles Darnay, Carton’s client and eventual friend who bears an uncanny likeness to Carton. When Darnay is imprisoned and set to be executed in Paris during the French Revolution, Carton smuggles himself into Darnay’s cell and swaps himself for Darnay, ensuring he will be executed in his place. I was always deeply touched by this dissipated character who trades his own life for the happiness of a woman who could never love him.

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

Buffy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

There were many sacrifices on this series *coughSPIKEcough* but none which brought on the waterworks like Buffy’s death in Season 5. In order to prevent the hell-god Glory from murdering her younger sister in ritual sacrifice, Buffy realizes her greatest gift is her ability to die for her friends, her family, and ultimately the world.

“She saved the world. A lot.”

Hodor, Game of Thrones

In one of the most affecting episodes of Season 6, we finally learn the background and history of Bran’s sweet but simple-minded ally, Hodor. When wights led by the Night King attack Bran’s hiding place, Hodor bravely holds the door to save Bran, losing his life in the process. But his heroic gesture ripples through time and space, and we discover it was this harrowing event that broke his mind many years ago.

Donna Noble, Doctor Who

Donna had one of the most inspirational character arcs as the Doctor’s companion, going from a spoiled and self-centered woman to a compassionate and empathetic time traveler. But when she develops near-godlike powers, she poses a threat to herself, the Doctor, and the world. Her mind must be wiped of all her memories with the Doctor, and all the growth and learning she did on her journeys. While Donna doesn’t technically die, her mind, personality, and growth are all erased, returning her to the person she was before she met the Doctor.

Obi Wan Kenobi, Star Wars

Star Wars has a number of heroic sacrifices to choose from, but Obi’s always struck me the hardest. In order to give his protégé Luke time to escape, Obi-Wan faces off against Darth Vader, ultimately letting Vader kill him. Obi willingly gives his life for the greater good, but Luke has to lose his friend, guide, and surrogate father in order to achieve his destiny, which is always a heartbreaking moment.

“If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

Lily Evans, Harry Potter

Another series with so many sacrifices to choose from! Yet the selfless sacrifice at the heart of these books is the one made by Lily Potter on the night Voldemort came to murder her infant son. Her willingness to die in Harry’s place works such powerful magic that Voldemort cannot harm him. She saves her son’s life, nearly kills He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, and sets off one of the most iconic stories of our time, all with the power of a mother’s love.

The Iron Giant

*deep breath* I’m getting a little weepy just thinking about this one.

A lonely boy meets an enormous robot who is being pursued by the military. As their friendship unfolds, Hogarth explains to the metal behemoth that he doesn’t have to be the villain the army paints him as–he can choose to be a hero instead. So when a nuclear missile inadvertently hurtles toward their small town, the Giant says a heartfelt goodbye to his young friend before flying into the sky to intercept the bomb. He forces the missile out into space, and it begins to detonate, smiles and whispers:

“SUPERMAN.”

Who are the heroes you honor on this Memorial Day? Real or fictional, let me know in the comment section below!

GRRM and the Three Bears…

…or, the virtue of leaving clues that are visible to the average reader but not ham-handed, neon-bright arrows.

I’m going to start with a small qualifier: I have neither read A Game of Thrones/A Song of Fire & Ice, nor have I watched the HBO series. I am, however, a sentient human being with access to the internet, so I know the last episode – in which the Mother of Dragons went postal – created something of a stir. Or a shitstorm. Or therabouts.

I know this in part because Chuck Wendig made a tweet thread in which he argues that character should come before plot – accusing implying that GRRM &/or the series creators may have overlooked this small detail.

You can read his thread HERE, and you should. He knows his stuff. Also, he deconstructs the episode – and the series – HERE. (And if you’re really into it, fashion bloggers Tom & Lorenzo also have a detailed review you can find HERE.)

The big concern with the Game of Thrones episode seemed to be that Daenerys Targaryen behaved in a way that was inconsistent with her character. Maybe or maybe not – I did see at least one tweet prior to the episode suggesting that the Mother of Dragons might end up being the Big Bad, which tells me there must have been at least a couple hints along the way.

Hints that the vast majority of the television-watching public apparently didn’t notice.

Sunday night, while the rest of humanity was glued to HBO, I started a mystery by a new-to-me author. It was a pretty standard trope: Big City Woman is dragged back to her small-town home for Reasons, where she Learns Things, Figures Out Whodunnit, possibly Falls In Love, and then decides to Stay Forevermore.

Sadly, I bailed on it by about 30 pages in, because:

  • I didn’t connect with the main character. At all.
  • Which turned on my editing brain, so that every time her eyes wandered around the room, I lost a little more patience. (Her gaze wandered. Her eyes stayed in her head. Thanks.)
  • As a result of my lack of connection and super-editor, the clues to the character’s arc were glaringly obvious.

The main character was the only one in the family who had the time to take care of the problem in the Small Town, even though it meant leaving her job in the middle of a project and pissing off her boss. Because apparently a woman’s work is never too important to interrupt.

Whoops. That’s another blog post.

Anywhoodle, her stated goal was to return to her uber-exciting life in the Big City, but from just about the moment she arrived, she had Feelings. Right there in her internal dialogue, she noticed a strange connection to the place, one she could not understand. “Why do I feel this way?” she’d ask herself.

Why?

Because it says in the blurb that you’re going to have a change of heart, sweetie, and you’ll want to stick around.

*ahem*

Leaving aside the (potentially sexist) set-up, to me these “what an odd emotion” moments were clunky, too-obvious road signs to her character’s development. I think it would have worked better if she’d had a chance to earn that sense of connection rather than just stumbling into it like a slap-happy princess in some insta-love romance.

And honestly, maybe she did. I mean, I did quit at only 30 pages. But hey, I’m over 50 and there are too many books left for me to read to waste time getting annoyed.

Although the stories are very different, I think the essential problem is the same. Daenerys’s behavior took a wild left turn from her established character, and the mystery character’s “odd feelings” didn’t relate to anything intrinsic to her personality. In the one case, the clues were too subtle, and the other, too blatant.

Seems like we should be able to split the difference somehow.

I wish I could say I knew how to avoid either mama bear or papa bear details. I’m researching Victorian London with an eye to writing a mystery, so I’ve done a lot of thinking about how to leave baby-bear style clues – hints that give readers just enough to keep going, but don’t beat them over the head.

The best advice I can come up with is that character trumps plot, and to be ready for a shitty first draft and lots of editing. To that end, I’m brainstorming characters’ goals and motivations and secrets and wounds and all the good stuff that will (hopefully) help me construct a story that’s character driven, and not the other way around.

With a plot Chuck Wendig would love.

Wish me luck!

How to Write Like A Doctor

It happened again.

A book came highly recommended – a lovely romance, with intelligent characters and a grown-up perspective. The set-up was fantastic; the dialogue was hysterical. The hero, however, wasn’t a surgeon. I mean, the author said he was a surgeon, but he had two weekends off in a row.

Not a surgeon.

I almost bailed on the book at 50%, because I had such since problems with the way the author messed around with the rules of healthcare, both clinical (nope, kids don’t get to eat if their surgery is delayed) and social/cultural (don’t get me started). Despite that, I stuck with the book, and by the time the couple found their happily-ever-after, I sincerely had a tear in my eye…

…in part because in the scenes right before they kissed and made up, the “surgeon” was so unhappy he acted like a jerk to his patients and coworkers. That part was believable.

Seriously though, not all surgeons are jerks, but when they’re not in the OR, they generally spend most of their life with their nose in a book….or, more accurately, a medical journal or a laptop. If you’re going to convince me that they’re also charming and funny and have great social skills, you better get every other detail right: things like their training, hospital culture, and the reality of working only 60 hours on a good week.

And that’s where I want to help! My perspective may be somewhat skewed – I’ve worked primarily in academic medical centers where the physicians rotate between clinical work, research, and teaching – but for a long time now, I’ve wanted to pull together a talk to help authors navigate the world of medicine. Which is a LOT to cover, so let’s get started.

First stop: hospitals. So, you want to have your mind blown? Think about this: people get admitted to hospitals because they need nursing care, not medical care. If all you need is a doctor, you can be seen in a clinic. (More about nurses later.)

The other thing to know? Hospitals are incredibly expensive. They can’t afford to admit someone “to run a few tests”, and they’ll discharge you as soon as possible. Like, when my 80-some year old mother-in-law fractured her hip, she was sent back to her adult family home two days (TWO DAYS) post-op. (I was horrified, but everything went okay.)

Obviously I don’t have space to list every diagnosis that’ll get your character a hospital bed, but if your plot goes there, make sure the patient has something they couldn’t take care of at home, and expect them to be discharged before anyone is really ready for it. (WebMD is a good reference for clinical questions and concerns.)

Also, leaving hospitals AMA – against medical advice – is a thing, and can be a dramatic plot device. Just know that in the real world, insurance companies generally won’t cover a stay when the patient leaves AMA, so if your police detective or otherwise employed and insured main character is contemplating that move, there are real-world consequences.

As I implied earlier, hospitals are run by nurses, and nurses come in a variety of types. Nurse techs or nurse assistants have completed a certificate program and can assist with basic patient care tasks. They’re often nursing students trying to get some real-world experience before they take their boards.

Licensed practical nurses (LPNs) have completed a one-year program and passed a certification test. They function in much the same way registered nurses do, with some minor variations in the tasks they’re allowed to perform.

Registered nurses (RNs) are the backbone of the place. They’ve completed either a two or four-year program and passed their State Board exam. They also often have additional training &/or certification in a specialty area, and they are required to keep current on their continuing education credits to maintain their licenses.

Nurse practitioners are registered nurses who have completed either a masters degree program or a doctor of nursing practice degree. An NP is a specialist – I’m licensed as an NNP, or neonatal nurse practitioner, which means I take care of preterm or sick infants. We work from a medical model, which means we do many of the things physicians do. Generally NPs have a couple years clinical experience in their specialty area, so we bring bedside nursing assessment skills to our medical decision-making.

Word to the wise: don’t confuse nurse practitioners and licensed practical nurses. I read a book where the NP was passing out patient meds, which…no. NPs write the orders, LPNs pass out the meds. Got it? Good.

There are a number of other people who are directly involved in patient care. Respiratory therapists (RTs) focus on the patient’s cardiopulmonary health by directly assessing the patient’s breathing and by managing the medication and equipment required to support them. Like with nursing, RTs complete a two- or four-year program and must pass a certification test.

Social workers provide invaluable support for patients and their families, connecting them with necessary resources while they’re in the hospital and after discharge. (So no, your surgeon hero doesn’t need to drag his new girlfriend into a patient’s room where she can instantly connect with the family and identify their needs. Find another way to prove she’s a decent human being. Ahem.)

Physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech therapists all provide key support to a patient’s recovery, as do nutritionists and pharmacists. In the interest of space, I’m not going to specify the range of academic preparation and certification required to function in these roles, but every professional involved in patient care contributes a unique and valuable perspective.

Other random thoughts...

Not all hospitals have residents. Most academic or teaching centers (the ones with interns and residents) are associated with universities, though some private hospitals run selected residency programs.

Most (all?) hospitals have adopted computer based charting. THERE ARE NO PAPER CHARTS AT THE PATIENTS’ BEDSIDE. Also, HIPAA – the national law around patient privacy – is a thing. It affects who can be at the patient’s bedside, and how patient information can be communicated.

So if your characters want to brainstorm in the elevator, make sure they don’t drop names or other identifying patient information.

Hospital administrators exist in their own world – and it’s usually pretty classy. Most, but not all, have been involved in patient care in one way or another, but the higher they get on the ladder, the less clinical work they’re responsible for. In addition to the RN or MD on their resume, they’ll usually have an MBA or MHA (master of hospital administration).

Since I started by bitching about doctors, I’ll close the circle with them. To become a doctor, a person must complete a bachelors degree (4 years), score well on the MCAT (sort of like the SAT but HARDER), and complete three years of medical school. By the end of their second year of medical school, most have decided on which area they want for residency.

First year residents are called interns, and residency programs are usually three or four years long. After residency, some will continue their training by applying to a fellowship program. These are in specialty areas; for example, pediatricians have completed a 3-year pediatric residency program, but pediatric cardiologists did a 3(?) year fellowship in cardiology after residency.

Do the math. Four years of undergrad + three years of medical school + ~ three years of residency, at a minimum. That means most new physicians are around 30 years old, older if they did a fellowship. Some programs – surgery or neurosurgery, for example – take substantially longer.

I do love my day job, and I could probably keep going, but I’m going to stop here. If you have questions, leave them in the comments, and thank you for reading along. There’s no reason for fictional malpractice!!