Types of trauma – which does your character have?

facesI’m currently in that fun part of the doctoral student process where I’m writing my comprehensive exam – a big 75-page paper that demonstrates I’m an expert in my field and deserve to stay in the program. My focus is on trauma-informed care and education.

Trauma-informed care basically boils down to 2 things: realizing people have experienced crappy things in life, and then giving them the benefit of the doubt. It is NOT about making excuses for behavior, but rather finding an alternative way to get the same results you expect for everyone else.

There are quite a few types of trauma. Each one has a different cause, although they can all have similar results.

BIG CAVEAT: Not everyone who experiences trauma will react to it the same way. Some people are affected and some aren’t. It basically comes down to resiliency (although my argument is that if so many students have experienced – or are experiencing – trauma, why don’t we just change how the education system reacts to it, rather than telling kids to suck it up or get over it – which is kinda what teaching resiliency comes down to).


The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration focuses on “three E’s” of trauma: event, experience of the event, and effect. Specifically, “Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

Within that definition, there’s a lot of room for variability.

  • Acute trauma – one single event. A house burning down, getting mugged or raped, witnessing your parents’ murder in an alley when you’re supposed to be enjoying the theater.
  • Chromic trauma – exposure to multiple events. Interesting fact: chronic poverty has the same neurological effect on kids as combat does on military personnel.
  • Complex trauma – exposure to multiple events over time, but of an interpersonal nature. Domestic violence and child abuse falls into this category.
  • Identity trauma – trauma that effects an entire group, because of how they identify (also known as historical or collective trauma). The Holocaust falls into this group, as does genocide against the Native Americans. It often manifests in cultural stories, practices, and beliefs.
  • Continuous or ongoing traumatic stress – chronic or complex or identity trauma, but it’s still happening and there’s no way to escape it. For example, people trapped in a war zone with no way to escape it.
  • Secondary trauma – the response to witnessing or hearing about someone else’s trauma. A huge issue for caregivers and teachers, especially if they’re not prepared for it.

Writers love to throw trauma at their characters, and readers seem to love it too. What types of trauma do your characters face? What types do you prefer to read about?

Thursday Things: random facts about the history of mental hospitals

ThursdayThingsMy short story “Tim and Sara” takes place at Kirkbride, a state hospital. Although the story is fictional, the hospital isn’t.

My Kirkbride is based on the state hospital in Fergus Falls, Minnesota (which is also the building on the story’s cover). What makes this building different than other state hospitals is its design and purpose.

Pre-Civil War, people suffering from mental health issues in the US were treated like criminals: locked up in tiny cells, often shackled and abused.

In the 1840s, Dr. Thomas Kirkbride came to the now obvious conclusion that people suffering mental health issues would do better in airy, light-filled buildings with private rooms, so he designed a bunch of state hospitals that tried to respect patient dignity. The Fergus Falls building was one of these.

As the US has moved to community-based, out-patient treatment for people with mental health issues, many Kirkbride buildings have been torn down or sit empty, like the one in Minnesota.

Fergus Falls state hospital

Fergus Falls state hospital in 2013

I used to drive past it on the interstate, and although no one’s there now, it still makes for a cool story.

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Tim and SaraAbout “Tim and Sara:”

The victim of debilitating flashbacks, Tim is content to spend the rest of his life at Kirkbride, a state mental hospital. But his friend and fellow resident Sara is concerned that she has to save her soul before it’s too late, and so she devises a plan to break them out of the hospital. Can Tim help his friend while holding onto what’s left of his sanity?

Available for $.99 at Amazon or free through Kindle Unlimited

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Thursday Things is a weekly-ish feature highlighting little known facts, ideas, and stories behind my stories. Is there something you want to know more about? Let me know!

Spring 2017 goal review

sand castle

Much needed self-care at Coronado Beach, CA

Every 3 months or so, I take a look at the goals I’ve set for the year and then write about how little progress I’m making on them. Here’s the update for this spring.

1. Finish something every month – short story, novella, novel, anything.

If you count chapters, I’ve almost done this! I finished the first two chapters of a novel I’ll really excited about, tentatively titled Waylaid on the Road to Nowhere.

2. Publish at least 4 things – again, short story, novella, novel, anything. Either with my publisher or self-published or in a magazine, doesn’t matter where.

I’m not there yet, but I have several longer short stories that are in the pipeline, and I hope to have at least one done by May for an event I’m doing.

3. Finish the draft of a nonfiction book that’s good for my career.

I have to take a dissertation class next fall but since my dissertation proposal will (fingers crossed!) be done by then, I plan to work on a draft of a research how-to book for the course instead. Don’t expect updates on this for awhile.

4. Do more live events – readings, book fairs, etc. Again, it’s about getting my name out there.

I’m on fire here! Kind of. I’m signed up for the Rock Town Lit Fest in early May, the I.O.W.A. book fair in August, and a Read Local event in October. I’ll try to add more events as I hear about them.

5. Travel more internationally – and Canada doesn’t count.

Due to some stupid international relations stuff, I’m not sure how feasible this’ll be. I’m in the planning stages for a trip back to India around Christmas. I was in San Diego a couple weeks ago and wanted to hop the border to Tijuana, but we didn’t have enough time – although if Canada doesn’t count (I’m planning a trip to Banff over the summer), then maybe Mexico doesn’t count either?

At the very least, I’ve been able to travel a lot recently. Three weeks in India at the beginning of the year, a road trip to Savannah and Raleigh-Durham over spring break, and a week-long conference in San Diego. That comes out to a trip a month, so I’m doing pretty good.

6. Read 100 books.

So far, I’ve read 21 books this year, which leaves me only 4 behind schedule. I had a lot of time to read in India (I’m not looking forward to the ereader ban on flights through Abu Dhabi or Doha, the two airports I’ve flown through in the past – what else do you do on a 28-hour trip??), plus I’ve been sneaking in books as a break from my overwhelming schedule this semester.


I’m actually in a good place regarding my year’s goals. Part of it, I think, is because I’m so busy, not in spite of it. When I don’t have projects and deadlines, I tend to procrastinate, but when I have to be careful about my time management, I get more done.

If you’ve set goals for yourself, how’re they going so far this year?

Media Monday: Strong women on a mission

Media MondayThe books: Where Carpets Fly by Elise Edmonds and Blood and Circuses by Aliya Smith

The music: “Sit Still, Look Pretty” by Daya

Lots of stories feature damsels in distress, even when it’s the main character. They wait for someone to save them, rather than saving themselves (and yes, my women’s fiction novel, Yours to Keep or Throw Aside, kinda fits into this). There’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes characters get swept along and the story is about them dealing with their life changes.

But other times, the female heroines want something and aren’t afraid to go after it, like in today’s two books.

In Where Carpets Fly, teenage Elina is super excited to go to the big city to learn magic. Granted, it’s so that she can someday return to her provincial village to make enchanted carpets with her father, but she’s determined to learn everything she can before being forced to return. Her plans are interrupted, however, when she and her best friend Kara accidentally stow away on a boat bound for a less-than-friendly country. Rather than bemoan their situation, the two friends are determined to make the best of it – until Kara gets arrested. Elina will stop at nothing to rescue her friend.

Blood and Circuses is set in ancient Rome. After her father is murdered, 10-year-old Lucilla and her sister are attacked while trying to flee the city. Lucilla manages to kill one attacker and fight off the other, but it’s not enough. She vows vengeance for her father, her nurse, her family, and her family’s honor. But being a warrior isn’t easy when society expects you to devote your life to your future husband and children. Lucilla defies expectations, fighting family pressures, volcanoes, jealous rivals, and even vampires (yes, vampires – I didn’t expect them in this story but they’re nicely done) until she’s able to get her revenge.

Although both books have very different settings and protagonists, they have one thing in common – you don’t want to mess with their female main characters because they kick ass.

Today’s song fits this theme. We’re not going to sit around, waiting for a guy to need us or help us out. We’re gonna rule the world, and Elina and Lucilla are off to a good start.

Media Monday: New takes on old fairy tales

Media MondayThe books: Steampunk Fairy Tales Vol 1, Steampunk Fairy Tales Vol II , and From the Stories of Old: A Collection of Fairy Tale Retellings

The music: Rockabye Baby! Lullaby Renditions of Nine Inch Nails

I’m a huge fan of short stories. And I’m also generally too busy to read a whole book, so I love finding short story collections that introduce me to new authors. And fairy tales are just fun, so I was glad to find these three books, each of fairy tales.

The first two are steampunk versions of old tales (or steampunk stories inspired by fairy tales), while the third book is just new takes on fairy tales. And while at least a couple stories in each book are, unfortunately, barely mediocre, there are some real gems that stand out:

Leslie and David T. Allen have a fun story about a tiny samuri, “The Mech Oni and the Three-Inch Tinkerer,” who goes into the big world to rescue a damsel in distress. They follow up his story with a second one, “The Fairy Collector and the Three-Inch Samurai,” that’s just as good as the first one. Maybe it’s because I don’t know much about Japanese folklore, but these seemed to be some of the most original stories.

“Water of Life,” by Chris Champe, was another good one in vol II, about a mediocre prince who turns out to be better at questing than his older brothers. “Vasilisa and the Mechanical Matryoshka,” by Heather White, was a great adaptation of the Baba Yaga stories (which don’t get enough attention by Westerners).

Turning towards From the Stories of Old, “The Glass Maker” by Mckayla Eaton may have been the most original – a retelling of Cinderella with swapped gender roles. “Daughter of the Air,” by Renee Harvey, is another great twist on a favorite tale – what happens to the Little Mermaid after she becomes sea foam?

Altogether, these three anthologies are well worth the price for nearly 30 fairy tales that are each a new take on the familiar.

Today’s accompanying music is also a new twist on some old songs – the kid-friendly, lullaby renditions of Nine Inch Nails classics. The whole album is worth a listen, but this version of “Closer” is probably my favorite.

Why I get political on social media

protest picOne of the strongest suggestions for authors is to avoid politics on social media so you don’t offend your readers. If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll notice that I do not follow this advice. Here’s why, in no particular order (as well as why I won’t stop):

  1. Professional obligations. I’m currently in a social work PhD program. Although I’m not currently a licensed social worker (hopefully I’ll have time to take the test and get my LMSW this summer), I still follow the National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics, which calls on us to advocate on the behalf of our clients. When crappy things happen that adversely affect my clients, I’ll speak out about it.
  2. Personal impact. This goes along with #1. A lot of politics affects me personally – like when the Iowa House did away with collective bargaining for state employees (including graduate students), which means that there’s a good chance I’ll lose my tuition scholarship and healthcare for next year. Politicians listen to their constituents, at least at a local/state level. Speak out for me and I’ll speak out for you.
  3. Client, friends, and family impact. Here’s another anecdote – a Sudanese woman in my grad program went back to Sudan to visit her dying mom over Christmas break. She made it back to the States two days before the travel ban went into effect. Had she not been allowed into the country where she’d lived for the past ten years, she would’ve been separated from her husband and three kids. I share issues that effect the people in my life, because chances are they’re affecting the people in your life too.
  4. Setting an example. My son loves politics and history. By speaking out, I’m showing him that it’s possible to change the course of history through your actions.
  5. Lack of awareness. Lots of people aren’t aware of what policies are being enacted and repealed, as well as how those policies are being followed. By letting people know what the issues are, hopefully they can help find a solution.
  6. My book content. I write about a lot of social issues. The Futility of Loving a Soldier is about veterans’ issues. Yours to Keep or Throw Aside deals with domestic violence. “A Place to Die” focuses on end-of-life care. “Us, Together” touches on the impact of poverty on children. If you’re offended by my posts, chances are you wouldn’t like my books either.

These are just a few brief reasons I’m political. And until the bad hombres in charge get their acts together and stop taking away needed programs and infringing upon our rights, I’m going to keep posting. And writing about it too.

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What are your thoughts on authors getting political?

Media Monday: War zones for kids

boy who speaks in numbers coverThe book: Th3 8oy Who 5p3ak5 1n Num83r5 by Mike Masilamani

The music: “When Universes Collide” by Gogol Bordello

A month ago I was browsing through the kids’ books section of a boutique in Auroville, Tamil Nadu, India, looking for books for my son. He loves myths and historical stuff, so I thought he’d enjoy kids books from another culture. I stumbled across this week’s book, Th3 8oy Who 5p3ak5 1n Num83r5. I thumbed through it, assumed it was a book about a dyslexic kid or something, and bought it without reading the back. I read it last week, thinking I could discuss it with my kid after he read it – and holy crap. It was not what I expected.

The story follows the unnamed title character as he navigates a refugee camp in war-torn Sri Lanka (I feel horrible for not knowing details about the Sri Lanka civil war; I remember hearing about the Tamil Tigers a few years ago, but I didn’t know much about them.

Well, turns out there was a major war. Tens of thousands killed, more displaced, and, like any war, both sides lying about what happened while blaming the other.

And that’s the best thing about this book – it really could be about a war and refugee camp anywhere in the world, from Latin America to Syria to Liberia, at any time in the last 50 years. Because to a child, the specifics don’t matter. All that matters is that his family and friends are gone, and he doesn’t know why. He had to leave his home, and he doesn’t know why. He’s hungry and scared, and everyone in charge is yelling, and he doesn’t know why.

My focus in my non-writing life is on child trauma in underprivileged populations. I spent a year at an elementary school with a large refugee population, with families from around the world. So when I read a book like this one, I marvel at the strength it took them to make it through alive and safe. And I cry that they had to experience those atrocities.

The song this week is by a gypsy punk band, Gogol Bordello. This song is about war and what happens when you love someone on the wrong side. It’s not a direct match for Th3 8oy Who 5p3ak5 1n Num83r5 , but it’s complementary.

Media Monday: Deus ex machina in the Dark Tower

gunslinger poster

The Gunslinger features Idris Elba as Roland and Matthew McConaughey as Flagg – photo from EW.com

The books: The Dark Tower series by Stephen King

The music: “Bad Company” performed by Five Finger Death Punch

Like many (most? very few?) kids, I picked up my first Stephen King book in middle school. I’d read my way through the entire YA section and most of the sci-fi/fantasy section at my nearby library and branched out to horror with his Eyes of the Dragon, which first introduced me to Flagg, who also appeared in The Stand and, of course, The Dark Tower series.

I vaguely remember reading the first book in the series, The Gunslinger, in high school and not being too impressed. However, I kinda have a thing about reading the rest of a series if I’ve started it (I actually made it to Wheel of Time book 10 – the furthest of just about anyone I know), so I pushed on with The Drawing of the Three – which was pretty good. And they got better after that, with Wizards and Glass being pretty damn amazing, until they suddenly weren’t good at all, but I pushed on and the ending was worth it, because it was one of the best, most appropriate endings the series could have.

And then I got sidetracked to other authors, and into not really having time to read, and didn’t really think much about the series.

Until the powers that be decided to make it into a movie. A real movie, actually cast and happening, and not just rumors. I decided to reread the series.

A quick summary: Roland of Gilead is the last gunslinger, chasing a man in black across the desert in order to learn more about the dark tower and maybe get some revenge. He teams up with three people from our world -Eddie, Susannah, and Jake – and they go on a bunch of side quests while trying to save the tower, which is kinda the linchpin of all universes.

Here’s my thoughts on them (without specific spoilers):

Book I: The Gunslinger – It’s a lot better than I initially thought. It sets up Roland’s world nicely; minimal backstory but it’s still intriguing.

Book II: The Drawing of the Three – I like Eddie. I’m not impressed with Susannah. And I’m confused as to why they fall in love, other than what some kids described to me as “the airport phenomenon” – basically, you’ve been away from viable partners for so long, everyone becomes attractive, including people you’d never hook up with otherwise (1. Yes, I realize this has nothing to do with airports, and 2. We’d been out of the country for 2 weeks at this point). Applied to this book, it seems they fall in love because there’s no one else to have a relationship with. Nothing says “This relationship will last” like desperation.

Book III: The Wastelands – Nothing really happens in this book. A lot of walking. Interactions with new characters. Killing of some of those characters. And Flagg pops in.

Book IV: Wizard and Glass – So maybe King isn’t actually great at the love aspect of storytelling, because Roland and Susan also fall for each other because they’re there (and because of teen hormones). This book is a wonderful flashback to when Roland was a teen with visible emotions, and it nicely sets him up as a badass adult. This book is also probably the best in the series.

Book V: Wolves of the Calla – Much like book 3, there’s a lot of walking. Interactions with new characters. Killing of some of those characters. This is also where the deus ex machina begins to ramp up. “Oh, hey, let’s just time travel and leave ourselves notes so that everything will turn out peachy.” Also, the end of this book starts the “Holy crap, what the hell does he think he’s doing?” reactions.

Book VI: Song of Susannah – More time travel/world hopping. At this point, you’re pretty much reading because you’ve already invested so much, you may as well finish the series. King is starting to tie threads from all his stories together, but then he kinda just craps out. Maybe he’s spent all his creative energy on other books.

Book VII: The Dark Tower – So, you wanted everything wrapped up? Sure. And then let’s throw in a new character in the last 100 pages of a 7-book series spanning over 4000 pages, and let’s give him a magic ability that miraculously saves the day. Ugh. But at least the ending was perfect.

Overall: The series is well worth the read. Sure, it drags at some points. Some of the cameos are beyond stupid (you know who I’m talking about, Stephen King). And there’s a lot of moments where things wrap up too nicely due to “serendipitously” having the right object and being in the right place at the right time, because they went back and warned themselves and planted items. But King’s worldbuilding is second to none, a nice blend of fantasy and post-apocalypse and now for a setting in “a world that has moved on.” I strongly recommend reading the books, before the movies come out.

The music of this is Five Finger Death Punch’s cover of Bad Company’s “Bad Company.” Because Roland and his pals and gunslingers first. They have their own code of honor, but they won’t hesitate to gun you down if you get in the way of their quest for the tour.

Resolutions: 2016 review and 2017 goals

new years mandela

Kolam near my hotel in Puducherry, India

Every year I set goals and then periodically update the world on how I’m not meeting them. Here’s the latest year in review.

1. Write at least 30 minutes a day.

Did not happen – at least not on fiction stuff. This year was crazy busy with school stuff that I wrote on instead.

2. Finish something every month.

Nope. But I did at least start something every month. Now, if only I had time to write every day, maybe I’d finish them.

3. Publish at least 4 of those finished things.

I published “A Place to Die” in January. It’s available for $.99 at Amazon or free if you join my mailing list. And I had a short story, “Three Casseroles, Two More Cookies, and a Pile of Uncles on the Floor,” published in a local holiday anthology. I’m close on some other stuff, but school stuff popped up – comps, research projects, classes, etc.

4. Continue the focus on increased marketing.

Overall this year, I focused a lot on marketing: ads, promos, giveaways, etc. Unfortunately, I can’t say that it’s worked very well. True, I lakh-tupled my newsletter subscribers, but that’s not converting to reviews or sales. I’ll be reevaluating this for 2017 because I can’t afford to keep throwing away money on approaches that don’t work.

5. Read 100 books.

I read 73 – by which I mean I finished them completely; I didn’t count books I started but gave up on. This also doesn’t include books I read for classes.

6. Continue the focus on being healthy.

I joined a gym in November – and have made it twice, due to a very busy end of the semester (I think I pulled more all-nighters this semester than I have in the rest of my life combined). My diet also wasn’t the best towards the end – again, no time to cook so I ate a lot of meals out that weren’t the healthiest.

Overall in 2016

Overall, I failed at my goals. Every one of them. BUT I’m doing awesome academically and am on pace to get my PhD in 3 years instead of 4. I’m focusing a lot on building my career-focused CV, which doesn’t leave much time for much else. However, I seem to be more productive the busier I am, so I should have better time management in 2017 and thus actually meet some of my goals!

Speaking of which…

2017 goals

  1. Finish something every month – short story, novella, novel, anything.
  2. Publish at least 4 things – again, short story, novella, novel, anything. Either with my publisher or self-published or in a magazine, doesn’t matter where.
  3. Finish the draft of a nonfiction book that’s good for my career.
  4. Do more live events – readings, book fairs, etc. Again, it’s about getting my name out there.
  5. Travel more internationally – and Canada doesn’t count.
  6. Read 100 books.

What are your goals for 2017?

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