Thursday, October 27, 2011

Where Are the Handicaps in Fiction?

I almost called this one "Where are the chronic conditions?", but pretty much everything I'm talking about here are chronic (long-term and/or lifelong) conditions. (This is the fourth post in a series.) Right now, let's think about the outright handicaps.

So where are the handicaps? Where are the blind, the deaf, the fibromyalgic? I know I've read a few paralytic characters. Some authors have had blind protagonists in their stories, like Patricia Briggs in "Seeing Eye" and a YA novel with an author and name I can't remember, though I remember wanting it on my to-read list. (Blind girl gets kidnapped on accident in a car theft; ring any bells with my readers?)

The most common handicap I can remember reading in fiction? Bad knees. It's like every other kick-@$$ urban fantasy heroine has bad knees. (And water stains in their bedroom ceilings the shape of some state, but that's a topic for another post, methinks.)

What about bad wrists? Lots of people have carpal tunnel (a condition where all fingers but the pinkie finger are affected, with often severe pain or numbness). Thanks to typing, lots more people are prone to having that inner forearm muscle cramp up, which sometimes gets misdiagnosed as carpel tunnel.

(If you can bend your hand forward at a 90° angle without debilitating pain, you've been misdiagnosed. Stretch your wrist out by bending your hand back—holding two fingers at a time. In an emergency, you can follow the muscle diagonally across the inside of your forearm, from the side of your wrist below your thumb, to find the "trigger point" by your elbow—the spot that hurts like heck to touch, but if you force yourself to press and hold it for 30 seconds, your arm should loosen up. DISCLAIMER: I'm not a physical therapist; I'm just passing on what works for me and friends.)

What about weak knees and/or ankles? When I was in elementary school, my knees or ankles sometimes gave out without warning. I warned teachers, but some wouldn't believe me even after it happened. They thought I was collapsing on purpose to get out of class. (To be honest, I don't blame them for that assumption. Sports fiend I was not.)

What about vision handicaps? I can think of a few characters with glasses, but… the glasses don't effect them much. The glasses never fog up; they never have a lens fall out in the middle of a parking lot and roll under a truck; they never make it impossible for the hero to eye something sidelong, because his eyes are so bad that he effectually doesn't have peripheral vision.

Oh, and those scenes where the hero's glasses would be most inconvenient? He just so happens to be wearing contacts. (I remember one scene in This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti where a girl's glasses are gone, and she has to drive despite her atrocious vision, but that's the only time I can think of where a MC's glasses actually influenced things.)

Some people can't wear contacts. Many people have astigmatism. I have mild astigmatism in my right eye; the result is that I have a spot to my upper right where it's impossible to focus my vision. It's always blurred, unfocused. So if I happen to glimpse something in just that spot on the upper right, I won't be able to identify or read it. Here in the US, we drive on the right side of the road, so that's where road signs tend to be. I have to pay attention so I don't miss any.

Some people are color blind. (This is much more common in guys, for genetics reasons.) There are different types, so it could be interesting to see a mystery where the witness and sleuth are both different types of colorblind, and therefore don't realize it when they see the same striped shirt or some such clue.

Some have no depth perception. I don't—or if I do, it's minimal. I can't gauge distance. It's most obvious if I'm, say, standing on a chair; I then can't tell if I'm two feet up or ten. When you have this problem, you adapt by paying attention to angles, lining up the ground and walls and background with what you're looking at, to figure out what's closer. As an interesting side effect, I've found that I can answer "Which item is closer?" with comparable accuracy to someone with fantastic depth perception. When driving, I follow a policy of "Assume things are closer than you think."

Some people can't smell. Some can't taste. (I've been told that either one makes food unappealing.)

Some are missing a limb, a finger, or a toe. I know a teenager who lost a toe to a lawnmower.

When people are handicapped, they adapt. But the handicap itself has conflict potential. Maybe a killer teases his intended victims by playing a music box as "warning", but your sleuth is deaf and never hears it. Maybe your teen is struggling with a recent amputation—something that's more common than you might think—which would affect his sense of self-worth and would test his friendships; will his friends, his girlfriend, stay with him through the discomfort and awkwardness?

Personally, I've had some fun with my fantasy to create some paranormal handicaps:

  • Silva Feyim (A Fistful of Fire) – a seasonal telepath unable to block out what she hears, which will eventually drive her insane.
  • Jillian Giovanni ("Romeo & Jillian") – limited sensations and access to the five senses.
  • Emris Winters ("The Corpse Cat") – able to be controlled by another if magically bound by someone with one of her bones.
  • Lyn Burgess (who you should be able to meet before Christmas) – burns when exposed to sunlight – though not quite for the reasons you think.

See what I mean? ^_^ Being deaf wouldn't exactly be a handicap to a telepath—unless known deafness brought horrible consequences and there were ways to block telepathy. (Yes, that's something I have stewing.)

But that doesn't mean I don't stop to consider handicaps when writing. I have characters in my head with more conventional handicaps, but they've not been written or released, yet. Including one guy, the hero of a romance, who'll have a bum leg.

What handicaps do you want to see in fiction? What are your favorite examples of handicapped characters? Anyone know the name of that YA book with the kidnapped blind girl?


Monday, October 24, 2011

Question: What Do You Want to See?

Okay, I can take a hint.

While there's obviously some interest in my "Where are the…?" series, I'm not getting much response to it or new releases. Which makes me wonder:

  • Is there something you want me to talk about?
  • Is there a type of story you'd like me to write?

I still plan to continue my current "Where are the…?" series and a new release per month that's set in Aleyi (like A Fistful of Fire) or the Darkworld (like Destiny's Kiss).

But is there anything else you readers and followers want to see, as well?


Friday, October 21, 2011

Where Is the Asthma in Fiction?

This is the third post in my "Where are the…" series. I've asked "Where Are the Allergies?" and "Where Are the Genetic Diseases?"

Asthma actually does appear in fiction, to some degree. I can't recall any titles with it, but I know I've probably read some, and I've at least heard of people, like Lisa Gail Green, making asthmatic characters. I have the impression that asthma (or diabetes) usually show up in something like a thriller, where the kidnapped child is without her medication and must be found before time runs out.

In those cases, it's a nice use of a chronic condition, but there's so much more possible—and more than 7% of adults have some form of asthma. So why is asthma so rare in fiction life?

There's even more than one form of asthma. (Here comes the biology talk, but it's fairly mild today.)

Asthma means the airways inflame and constrict, making it hard to breathe to the point of wheezing and coughing. (Sound familiar? It's comparable to part of what happens with the allergic reaction of anaphylaxis.) It's a chronic (long-term) condition. As an analogy for how it works, you can think of it like eczema. You'll probably be fine as long as you take proper care of it, and sometimes it won't bother you at all, but sometimes it'll flare up and get really bad if you don't catch it in the early stages.

Then there are the variants. Allergic asthma is when the asthma is triggered by an allergic reaction, usually pollen.

Exercise-induced asthma is when the asthma is triggered by physical activity. Exercise triggers asthma in most asthmatics, but some people only have asthma symptoms during exercise. (For an alternative for what could cause that, go down two paragraphs.)

According to Web.MD, there's also cough-variant asthma when the coughing is the primary symptom, not the wheezing. But even that site's description says the triggers are usually exercise or or respiratory infections. So it seems like a fancy way of saying "Some asthmatics have more of the coughing symptom than the wheezing symptom" to me. Any of my readers know more than that?

One "variant" I am familiar with is "airway constriction disorder" or "seasonal asthma", which is how a doctor might describe "You're having trouble breathing, but I'm not sure about what's causing it, so I'm not comfortable saddling you with an asthma diagnosis." A magnesium deficiency can cause chest constriction. Fix the deficiency, and the breathing trouble goes away. I learned that one from experience.

Why did I specify that the "airway constriction disorder" could cause exercise-only asthma? Because magnesium is a required electrolyte for your body. When you exercise, you excrete magnesium and other electrolytes like potassium in your sweat.

Now, go check the magnesium content of your favorite sports drink.

It probably doesn't have any. This can kill you.*

Don't believe me? Look up "sudden cardiac death." Even folks more inclined to blame aspartame and other food additives admit that low magnesium is one of the causes.

Asthma has potential for conflict, even as a factor in relationships. Maybe the hero in that YA novel doesn't want to admit he has asthma, so he forces himself to keep up with the track team to his own detriment—or maybe he takes good care of his "asthma", but his actual problem is a magnesium deficiency that causes a seizure on the track. Maybe the girl in that romance novel thinks the non-asthmatic guy's making up his trouble breathing to manipulate her into feeling sorry for him, not realizing he does have the muscular constriction of a magnesium deficiency.

Possibilities, possibilities.

What's your favorite example of an asthmatic character or an asthmatic condition adding conflict to a story? If you're a writer, have you written any stories with asthmatic characters?


I'm not a doctor or anything, but I've read about this magnesium issue enough and heard about it from doctors I trust.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Where Are the Genetic Diseases in Fiction?

Two weeks ago, I talked about the different kinds of allergies, how they work, and their conflict potential. Genetic diseases are another area that doesn't often make an appearance, except for maybe the occasional high-profile condition, but there are far more types of genetic conditions than autism and Down's syndrome.

(Alert to the queasy: biology talk ahead.)

There's a condition that means you have to stay healthy and avoid infections, else risk gangrene and amputation (diabetes). There's a condition that mean a bunch of benign tumors grow throughout your body, which can destroy tissue and turn malignant at any time (neurofibromatoses, NF). There's a condition that means you have to carefully watch your diet or else you'll end up with brain damage (phenylketonuria, PCU).

I haven't even scratched the surface.

You might know I'm a proofreader. What you might not know is that proofreaders also tend to be good at genetics, and vice versa. My original career plan was to become a research geneticist as a day job, while I wrote fantasy on the side.

See, I have a genetic disorder.

Oh, I look normal. Put me beside just about anybody, compare how much I eat to what I weigh, and I'll seem enviably healthy. Okay, so I have to watch the ingredients in what I eat, and I sometimes wear sunglasses inside to nip a migraine in the bud, but no biggie. Lots of women have allergy and migraine problems.

You know your endocrine system? The one that makes and regulates the hormones, that keep the rest of your body in order?

My endocrine system can't even manage itself.

The condition I have is misnamed, presumed rare, and often described incorrectly. It's either insulin resistance that causes the endocrine problems, or endocrine problems that cause the insulin resistance. Doctors keep changing their minds. (Insulin resistance is what causes adult-onset diabetes. That means anyone with my condition is probably prediabetic, too.)

What I have is PCOS, PolyCystic Ovarian Syndrome. And according to a study done more than 5 years ago, 5-10% of women have it, and it's genetic. Guys can have it, too (though the study didn't specify what guys' symptoms were.) And doctors still call it rare.

The problem stems from genetic expressivity and penetrance. You can have the genes for something that doesn't actually show up. You might have the gene that says "Add another finger and/or toe", but it won't necessarily penetrate. So you won't have that extra toe that your uncle had.

Once a condition does penetrate, it may not be 100% expressive, meaning it might show up to different degrees. If you cross a pea plant with red flowers with a pea plant with white flowers, you'll get a pea plant with a specific shade of pink flowers. But if that flower color gene were less than 100% expressive, you might end up with different shades of pink.

PCOS (and many other conditions) are not 100% expressive, and they possibly might not completely penetrate, either. That's why diagnosis and treatment are such a nightmare.

So now doctors say women can have the cysts on the ovaries without having PCOS, and completely ignore the variety of symptoms that can stem from having a messed-up endocrine system. I was diagnosed by doctors researching my condition. Since then, I've had more than one endocrinologist be skeptical—even though I have symptoms like metabolism trouble. My metabolism's just hyperactive; usually the metabolism is hypoactive.

In other words, most women with PCOS have very slow metabolisms. That's why they struggle to lose weight. My metabolism's overactive; I have to fight to maintain my weight. Imagine having to eat even when you're not hungry—and having to buy enough food to feed someone 2-3 times your weight. It gets expensive.

Endocrinologists are skeptical and won't admit I have it, these days, because I never had my testosterone levels checked—even though I have particular symptoms of elevated testosterone levels. (You know those big hairy women who were shown off in freak circuses, once upon a time? High testosterone. Fortunately, most of us with the condition aren't that furry.)

I also started getting hot flashes when I was 20 years old. That isn't a typo. A few years ago, at the end of a hot flash, I lost my cold sensation. I can detect cold, I get goosebumps and shivers from getting too cold, but I don't feel cold, myself.

Imagine discovering you're cold because you realize your feet are numb and your toenails are turning blue. It's kind of scary.

The loss of cold sensation may not be related to the PCOS, though I think it is. The hot flashes? Definitely related. (If you get hot flashes, try putting an ice brick on the back of your neck the next time one flares. If one isn't available, sticking your head in the freezer also helps, but it probably isn't very good for you.)

I'm not saying all this to complain. I'm used to my body, so it doesn't seem so bad to me as it does to someone else. I'd rather have my condition than NF. My friend with NF would rather have her condition than mine.

I'm saying all this to point out that genetic conditions, like allergies, have variety and implications that can make your story all the richer.

Does your teen girl with PCU drink the diet soda because she thinks it'll help her lose weight, even though she knows the aspartame is poisoning her neural system? Does your character with NF envy her healthy sisters and daughter because the tumors have misshaped her face, making her feel ugly?

What's your favorite example of a character with a genetic condition? Have you written any characters with genetic conditions?

Personally, I like Graysha Brady-Phillips in Shivering World by Kathy Tyers. Graysha's genetic disease is slowly killing her, it limits what she can do, and it affects the entire story—but only because it's an integral part of who she is.


Tuesday, October 4, 2011

October's Story Release

This month's story release is another short story, "A Blackmail and a Birthday". (If you know me from the Hurog forums, this is a slightly revised version of "A Summer Birthday".)

It's set in the Darkworld, the same urban fantasy world as Destiny's Kiss, "The Corpse Cat", and "Romeo & Jillian", but it's a stand-alone.

While waiting for her boyfriend to treat her to her first drink, Ember hears a gun. Her 21st birthday’s about to get a bit more eventful than she expected.

***A short story of 3600 words/14 pages***

CONTENT ALERT: Contains mild language, violence, and drunkenness.

It's currently up on Smashwords, in processing on B&N, and still in formatting for Amazon. (Sorry. That takes longest.)

Usually this short story will cost $0.99 US, but for today only, you can head over to Smashwords and use coupon code WU65C to get the story free. (Okay, the coupon might work tomorrow, too; I'm not quite sure how Smashwords handles the expiration date.)

I've listened to folks I've seen online and added an approximate page count with the word count, as well as a basic content advisory in the product description. While I doubt any urban fantasy fans are going to have a problem with the content, I figure it's better to be safe than sorry. Doesn't hurt me any to add that info.

I hope you enjoy this release, and I'd appreciate it if readers would leave a comment about how/if they liked it, either here on the blog or as a review. That way, I know if I'm duly confident or utterly delusional, and readers can find stories they like.



Monday, October 3, 2011

Website Down—FIXED

Just fyi, I am aware that my website's down. I'm switching hosts, and I tried to time it so the one would end as the other picked up, but… Er, yeah. Failed that one.

My new host actually costs less and gives me more perks. Once I've had them long enough to verify that they're as great as they seem to be (and as has been reported to me), I'll do a public announcement about who they are and why I'm so pleased.

For now, I will say this: There are certain things I've wanted to do for years, but I couldn't find a web host in the price range I was paying that offered me the ability to do it, and I couldn't justify paying more to be able to do something that might not work out.

I'm paying a great price for more bandwidth than I'm likely to use—with reasonable costs if I end up needing more!—with subdomain and add-on domain ability. Just the subdomain thing alone would've been enough to put me on cloud nine.

And I'll stop now, I blather too much. Here's to hoping this web host experience will be better than my last one!

ETA: My website's back up. Thanks for your patience!


Popular Posts
(of the last month)