A plant in DC's Botanical Garden. Nature is full of inspiration! Photo by Kate Ota 2017
Some people wait for the muse to strike them. I say, go out and find the muse yourself. She might be lost because muses don’t know how to use Google Maps. But really, how do you go about finding inspiration? Seems rather personal, but I have a few major places I turn to first.
The Animal Kingdom
Whether I’m trying to dream up a magical or super power or an unusual government system, I love turning to animals for inspiration. Did you know naked mole rats run their colonies like a beehive? The one queen rat gets to mate and most of the others are workers. Did you know female hyenas have genitalia that appears to be male? And they give birth through that. No wonder hyenas run their packs with the females totally dominant, then the babies, then the males. You can google strange animal facts and get a flood of fun ideas.
New Science Papers
If you look up the latest scientific breakthroughs, there are some strange experiments being done. And they often discuss what the scientists want to do next. Have you seen the video of rats taught to drive tiny cars? Adorable. Pick any category of science and you’ll be amazed with the exciting results being published. While most of this would easily apply to a scifi and even fantasy work, don’t shy away if that’s not your genre. If you’re a fan of historical fiction, archaeology news is for you. Romance? Try psychology, they always publish relationship stuff. Horror? Well, just imagine the science going wrong. (The rats in cars will come for us all!)
Laws and Warnings
If you see a warning on the side of fish food, for example, and it says not for human consumption, you immediately wonder who tried to eat it and why. There are all sorts of silly warnings that seem obvious on products throughout your home and each one could be a story. Not to mention the odd laws, some centuries old, at the city, county, state, and national level. You can Google strange laws and get lots of hits. Take it beyond the level of who caused this to be a rule, and think of the future—what will happen when the next person breaks this law? Or build a whole fantasy society around one very odd law, which has a significant purpose. Even defunct laws could be exciting to focus on, whether in historical fiction or if the law was brought back to life. Let your mind go wild.
I love watching Extra History on YouTube, and I’ve also gotten into Weird History and Drunk History. Some are deep character studies, some are events based. But they all reveal the more complex situations that have unfolded in the past, and could be used for plots in books. Plus that gives you an easy pitch: This story is if Cleopatra’s usurping sister was taking over a space ship instead of ancient Egypt. Ta da! There are so many cool events and historical figures you can use to inspire stories of any genre. Go forth and fall into a YouTube hole, you can always claim it was research.
Did any of these methods help you? Have any other tips for finding your muse? Let’s discuss in the comments!
Had an adrenaline rush when two rhinos ran across our path about three yards ahead. These were not those rhinos, we had no time for photos then. These rhinos were nice and calm.
Photo from South Africa in 2011, taken by Kate Ota.
I earned a Masters in Molecular, Cellular and Integrative Physiology, and the part that I’ve used the most is the integrative aspect. Classes taught me not just what one signaling chemical does, but how it impacts others. Some of my favorite things I learned were why alcohol makes you urinate way more than any other beverage, why nicotine is so addictive, and how epinephrine (aka adrenaline) impacts your entire body.
I thought it would useful to discuss how adrenaline impacts the body, because any good story is going to have a scene where your character feels that shot of adrenaline—whether it’s from fear, excitement, or a combination of both. The section called “how your character will feel” discusses how to show the impact of adrenaline for each part of the body.
Adrenaline is produced in the adrenal gland, which sits on top of each kidney like a party hat. It’s a hormone, so it travels through the blood. Therefore, it has access to and impacts most of the body. It prepares you for sudden physical exertion as a reaction to a stressor, like a bear or an important exam.
Let’s break this down by body part:
What happens: Some vessels will dilate (widen) and allow more blood to flow through them. Some will constrict. It all depends on location, location, location. Skeletal muscles, the ones you have conscious control over like those in the legs and arms, have lots of blood vessels in them. These blood vessels will dilate to deliver more oxygen to the skeletal muscle. Afterall, you need those muscles to run or fight. However, adrenaline decreases the activity of smooth muscle, which you don’t have conscious control over, like what lines your intestines, for example. You don’t need active intestines to fight or run. Vessels delivering blood to the digestive system, urinary system, and reproductive system will constrict, allowing blood to be sent where it’s most useful for survival.
But why do people sh*t their pants or urinate when they’re scared? So glad you asked. It’s because the smooth muscles at the end of your large intestines and in the bladder also relax, and if there was something in the rectum waiting to be released at an appropriate time or a lot of pressure within the bladder that was being held, well. You didn’t need that extra weight slowing you down anyway.
How your character will feel: They will have warm, reactive muscles, which will be able to produce more power than usual. If they were hungry/turned on/in need of a bathroom before, this will no longer be a major concern. There’s a reason why most fight scenes don’t include the inner monologue wondering about lunch or the bathroom—those systems are suppressed.
What happens: It beats faster and harder. This will increase blood pressure. Pretty straight forward.
How your character will feel: pounding heart, maybe feeling the heartbeat in their head, even a headache if the stress is chronic.
What happens: Welcome to Sweatytown, USA. Now that those blood vessels around muscles are dilated, there’s more blood going through muscular areas. That blood will lose heat through the skin when it passes near the surface, so the skin is generally warm over big muscles. The muscles themselves are also producing more heat as they’re used. But remember, the body can shunt blood away from things less necessary to fighting/flighting, so some people also experience very cold hands. (Who needs fingers to run? Apparently not you.) Also common: pale (as in bloodless) faces, which flush again later after physical activity or embarrassment.
How your character will feel: Sweaty palms and armpits are most common for emotional stressors like running into a crush or a big test. For physical stress, like seeing a bear and realizing you need to run (not the recommended method of bear safety), they may get more of an all-over body sweat.
What happens: Faster breathing. Get that oxygen to those muscles! Some people will take short shallow breaths, but that’s not going to get enough oxygen in there, and these individuals may pass out instead. Adrenaline also relaxes the smooth muscle in the lungs, which opens the airways wider in the hopes of increasing oxygen.
How your character will feel: While most characters will breathe faster, and take deeper breaths, reactions may vary. Anxiety (a chronic stressor) may cause a sense of chest constriction, but the best reaction to that is deep breaths. The character may also breathe faster and shallower, but remember this can cause light headedness, dizziness, and/or fainting.
What happens: Adrenaline releases glucose (sugar) from where it’s stored in the liver as glycogen. After all, muscles need the energy in sugar to contract, and the body is anticipating using the muscles a lot. If this ends up being a false alarm situation, like a scare in which there is no actual fighting/flighting needed, the blood sugar may take a while to go back down. This may lead to a lack of hunger for a time afterwards—it varies by person.
How your character will feel: There will be a spike in blood sugar. Most characters won’t notice this, but diabetic characters might be strongly affected.
What happens: The pupils dilate to allow more light in. More light = more information. Ever seen a cat about to pounce? Its pupils get huge just before the motion, so they can get more information about their prey.
How your character will feel: Tricky, since this is something most people won’t actually feel themselves. But your character may see it in others. It can be shown subtly. For example, if it’s dark, perhaps your character was struggling to see before, but after hearing that wolf howl, they’re able to navigate the dark forest much more easily.
What happens: Anaphylactic shock is when the body’s reaction to something is so bad, the heart is no longer able to pump, and blood vessels are too constricted. The heart and circulation sections above explain how the adrenaline counteracts that exactly. But remember, it has a short lifespan in the body compared to other hormones, so anyone who experiences anaphylaxis needs medical attention ASAP.
How your character will feel: A character in anaphylaxis will have trouble breathing, even chest pain, and may lose consciousness. The EpiPen is injected and they will feel all the effects of adrenaline, but most notably, their heart will pick up the pace.
Because the body is now ready to fight or run away at the drop of a hat, the character may experience any of the following: jumpiness, jitteriness, trembling (especially hands), ignoring physical pain in order to focus on an immediate physical task, or palpitations (fluttery/irregular heartbeat).
Chronic stressors can cause the release of another hormone, cortisol. And that’s usually associated with more chronic effects, like stress-induced weight loss.
Hopefully this list gave you some methods of showing your character’s feeling of excitement, nervousness, fear, or surprise. Did any others come to mind? Does it help to know the physiology behind the feeling? Let’s discuss in the comments!
Flowers at a local park. Photo taken by Kate Ota 2019
We’ve all seen the medical show episode about a brain-dead patient donating their organs to save another patient. Maybe there’s a heartbreaking twist, like the donor is the recipient’s father. Every medical show has the organ donation episode or episodes, and they almost always get it wrong.
This post is to help you write your book or screenplay with an accurate portrayal of the organ donation process. At the end, I breakdown how one show did a terrible job portraying organ donation, and why it's wrong. And hey, if this post convinces you to register as an organ donor at your local DMV or at donatelife.net, then bonus!
1. Organ donors get the same care as non-donors.
No one at the hospital considers or even checks to see if you’re registered until either brain-death or after death. Doctors and nurses want to help every patient stay alive and healthy!
2. The hospital’s doctors do not determine donor eligibility.
This is what I see as the biggest problem in medical shows: they always have the protagonist make the call as to if the donor is safe to donate. Nope!
Organ procurement organizations (OPOs) and Tissue/Eye Banks determine donor eligibility. These FDA regulated organizations review medical records for the purpose of preventing disease transmission between donor and recipient. Different organs and tissues have different requirements. For example, because organ donation can be a life or death decision, the organization may ask the recipient family if they’d be willing to accept organs with viral Hepatitis. However, this is never done in the case of donated corneas, as there are enough corneas in the US that the need is met with disease-free tissue.
3. It’s a time-consuming process.
First, the future organ donor must be declared brain-dead, usually by two doctors. Then, the OPO gets the next of kin’s consent, and there’s a lot of paperwork involved recording that consent. The family also fills out a survey of the donor’s history. Then there are blood tests, chest x-rays, CT scans, and even biopsies, depending on the organs deemed eligible for donation. The OPO offers organs based on the UNOS list, who matches the donor, who’s within delivery range, etc.
Then everyone waits for a time-slot in the operating room. This may vary by hospital, but organ donors are not a high priority surgery compared to, for example, incoming traumas. Waiting for an OR time can be a long process, or a very short one.
Something that TV shows get right is that donor families may choose to have an honor walk, in which doctors, nurses, and hospital staff line the halls to the OR when the donor is wheeled in.
Surgeons remove the organs and take them to their recipients. Tissue Banks (which may be the same as the OPO, depending) will remove any donated tissue, like skin, bone, or valves. Eye banks will remove donated eyes or corneas.
4. Donor families and recipients usually don’t meet right away.
Recipients can write letters to the donor families, or vice versa, and they can decide to meet or not from there. TV shows often have these players all in the same waiting room, or meet in the hall. I saw one episode where the donor’s mother waltzed right into the recipient’s ICU recovery room! No!
The problem there is those scenes would violate HIPPA, the act which protects patient privacy. Some donor families may not want to meet the recipient, or vice versa. Especially right away. It’s a personal choice, and no one’s name will be given to the other party unless they write a letter and introduce themselves. In fact, the first letter often goes through the OPO or Eye Bank, so the first letter writer doesn’t even know to whom they are addressing their letter.
5. Remember: consent consent consent!
When you register yourself to be a donor at the DMV or at donatelife.net, you are giving your consent to be a donor. In some states, like Virginia, this consent is enough to donate your corneas without your family needing to give additional consent. But other tissues and organs require your family to consent on your behalf as well. If you decide to register, be sure to let your nearest and dearests know, so they will understand your wishes and honor you through donation.
Now let's chat about how one show got it wrong, so you can avoid those mistakes!
There’s a Law and Order SVU episode that makes me cringe. There was a doctor who would procure from donors if they died on the table without family consent. This doctor, to be clear, was the person on trial. Let’s parse out the episode and see what this character did wrong based on what you read above. And also, what the writers of the episode got wrong.
1. No family consent. And that means no survey of the donor’s history. The FDA won’t like that.
2. The patient’s doctor made the determination to donate, but that’s not their job. That’s for the OPOs and Tissue/Eye Banks to determine. This character would probably not know enough about donation to safely make that determination. In fact, when this happened is the moment the case became unbelievable. Now we move from blaming the character for doing things wrong, to blaming the writers of the show.
3. The character removed the organs themselves and shipped them off to patients at other hospitals. But where was the UNOS list? How did the doctor know if the donor was a match to those recipients? The doctor had no time to run any tests for crossmatching, disease, or size (that’s the X-rays and CT scans).
4. No one caught this doctor for dozens of patients. They were acting alone. And you’ve learned there are a lot of people involved in an organ donor case, from the OPOs and Eye Banks, to the doctors, nurses, and surgeons involved in the tests at the hospital, to UNOS, the FDA, and recipient surgeons. This doctor would never have been successful through one, let alone dozens, of cases like this.
The only thing SVU got right was that the doctor truly tried to save their patients before they were declared brain-dead. And that the family of the donor would sue in that situation.
Did this post help you write your organ donation scene? Have anything to add? Let’s talk about it in the comments!
These are grasses growing on Cape Cod, MA. They're growing, I'm growing, it's a whole symbolism thing. Photo credit to me 2019.
I attended the 11th annual Hampton Roads Writers Conference a few weeks ago. It offered pitch sessions with agents, breakout sessions focusing on different aspects of craft, and tables for local authors to sell their books. Not to mention the social aspects! It was a great time, and I thought I’d share what I learned.
1. Specificity is King
Whether it’s in the first ten lines, the query, or the pitch, agents want specificity. Details make a book stand out in a crowded market.
For example, take this non-specific logline pitch:
A teenage girl must overthrow the corrupt society ruling her in order to be with the guy she loves.
Is that Hunger Games? Divergent? Matched? Delirium? Any of the other dozens of YA dystopias from the Obama years? You can’t tell because it lacks specific details to make the character, location, or plot stand out.
Now try this one:
Teenage Katniss volunteers to replace her sister in a deadly tournament run by the government of Panem. Once inside the game, she realizes she can’t kill the baker boy from her District, who she might have feelings for. She must find a way for her and Peeta to survive against all odds.
Okay it’s not exactly the same angle, and it glosses over SO MUCH, but it’s a lot more specific and you know it’s The Hunger Games. The agents at this conference talked about specificity at every opportunity. Make sure your first page/pitch/query come across as a fresh story, or a fresh take on an old one. And the way to do that is including specific details.
2. Sensitivity Readers aka Authenticity Readers
I hadn’t heard the term authenticity reader until this conference and I appreciate that term. It clarifies why you should hire such a person to read your manuscript. Hire them whenever you’re writing outside your experience to make sure the portrayal is accurate and not harmful or (even unconsciously) biased.
Even more eye opening, consider hiring an authenticity reader while you’re developing your plot. An authenticity reader can give you notes about how the plot is harmful before you spend time writing a book the world will not tolerate on the market. An authenticity reader can only do so much if reading the manuscript after it’s complete. Consider hiring an authenticity reader early and throughout your process.
Remember these readers can look for authenticity in your representation of ethnicity, race, sexuality, class, mental/physical health, disability, nationality, and more.
3. Sign up for Pitch Sessions
I signed up for pitches based on the descriptions I found on the agents’ websites. I didn’t think one agent and one editor would be interested in my genre and didn’t sign up to chat with them. What a mistake! Turns out the agent actually was interested after he overheard me practice pitch in a session. I might have missed the opportunity to chat with him had I not been in that particular class. So even if an agent’s website doesn’t explicitly ask for your genre, sign up to pitch anyway. (The exception being if they list your genre as a Do Not Want.)
Worst case scenario, they say they don’t rep your genre, and you still have time to chat about the industry. Maybe pull out your query for their opinion on how you’ve phrased things, or your first page to ask if it’s written clearly. Either way, at the end of the pitch time you’ll walk away with more knowledge or an unexpected invite to query. Win-win!
Have you been to a writing conference? Did you pick up any helpful tips and tricks you’d like to share? Let’s chat about it in the comments!