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Wednesday, April 13, 2016


llustration of a "zodiac man" From John of Arderne's Medieval book "Mirror of Phlebotomy & Practice of Surgery".

Jean Lamb recently took early retirement to write full time. She currently has three novels to her credit with a fourth due out soon. She has also written fanfic on www.fanfiction.net using the name of excessivelyperky. Learn more about her and her books at her Amazon author page. Today Jean talks about giving your characters health issues.

Medical Knowledge—Your Guide to Heightening Tension

Mary Jo Putney said it best: “Research is hard. Torturing heroes is fun.” Granted, you can always bring in a horrible villain with hot irons and a bad attitude, but as the Wicked Witch of the West once said, “These things must be done delicately.”

I used to be a nurse’s aide, and have tried to keep up with general medical knowledge. I once scored a copy of Grey’s Anatomy at a library sale. The human body is capable of sustaining torments and problems far in excess of what the most ingenious bad guy could ever think of.

Let’s take childbirth and all its attendant problems, just for one example. In the soon-to-be-released Phoenix in Shadow, I have a heroine (Lady Idabel) who has miscarried several times (and there are hints that she was helped along that path by the enemy). Now she’s pregnant with twins.

What could possibly go wrong? I am sure many readers are ahead of me here. Lady Idabel is a relatively small woman carrying twins, and just to make things even more fun, she is most heavily pregnant during a hot summer. She’s having bad headaches, swollen ankles and wrists, and sometimes turns an unpleasant shade of grayish-yellow. Pre-eclampsia is such a complicated phrase for ‘kidneys going tits-up’. And to make things even more exciting, her lord is away at war, leaving her with few officials to pass the buck to when envoys from another land come calling for the Phoenix Empire’s assistance. So despite her ill health, she makes what she believes to be the best decision, only to have it go all wrong. Stress much?

And then there’s the actual childbirth. Rudyard Kipling said it best, in his line, “She risks death by torture for each life beneath her heart.” But it helps to have medical knowledge of what is really going on, rather than swiping from oh, say, the relevant bits of Gone With the Wind while describing such an event.

Phoenix in Shadow isn’t the only novel where I have had fun with medical knowledge. In Dead Man’s Hand I explore what it’s like to be badly burned, the psychological implications of changed body image, and idiosyncratic drug reactions. All of these are central to the hero’s struggle throughout the book.

There are lots of research materials available for authors to read up on medical problems, drug interactions, and strange things that human bodies are apt to do. Heroes and heroines are not always healthy, wounds do not always heal instantly and with no after-effects, and if the hero lives long enough, old age is not always hearty. A hero’s struggle against the odds can be made even more exciting with various handicaps as well—Miles Vorkosigan in the Bujold books is a prime example.

It’s well worth the trouble to give this dimension to your characters and plot. 

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