Firing a Glock for Character Research


As soon as we bought Imagine Dragon tickets, I told my guy I wanted to shoot a gun. Vegas indulges tourist fantasies, and that was mine.

Guns aren’t a part of my life, but in A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS, my character Avie must learn to fire one. I worried for a long time about whether I got the scenes right, because I’d never fired a gun myself. What if the scenes I wrote were embarrassingly wrong?

I’d spent hours talking to relatives who either owned guns or were fascinated with weapons. Still, I was nauseous when my editor shipped the manuscript off to Trent Reedy, author of DIVIDED WE FALL, and a National Guardsman.

Apparently, I captured firing a gun well enough that Trent gave it a thumbs up, but I still wanted to know what it was really like.

At the Gun Garage, I passed up the Zombie Apocalypse package in favor of the beginners package: a glock handgun and an MP5. I thought I’d be thrilled, but I was actually nervous.

As the instructor handed me the glock, I was surprised by how stripped down it is. There is nothing seductive or decorative about the design. It’s ugly: a matte black surface, inelegant and square.

I took the stance, placing one foot in front of the other, and wrapped my hands around the glock and lined up the sights. All you have to do is line up the tip of the pin with the top of the notch as you hold the gun steady out in front of you. The gun wasn’t heavy, but it was hard to keep the the tiny pin and notch lined up as I aimed at the red oval in the center of the target, then calmly and firmly pulled the trigger.


Even with ear protection, the sound hits you. I’d thought the recoil would throw my hands up higher than it did. My brother had told me the gun would pull my hands up and then they would fall back down into position after I fired.


I didn’t anticipate how hard it was to line up with the target even though it wasn’t that far away. Or how impossible it would be to aim while the guy in the stall next to me was firing a fully automatic weapon and shell casings were flying in front of my face. I have new respect for soldiers trying to focus in the midst of battle. And I was thrown when my safety glasses fogged up halfway through a round, because despite the sixty degree room, heat was pouring off my body.

When it was time to switch to the MP5, I couldn’t believe how light and small the gun is. I have short arms and it fit nicely against my shoulder. But holding an MP5 is totally different from holding a handgun. The weapon fits into your body and your cheek almost touches it. It is intimate–unlike firing the glock which you hold it away from your body.The MP5 recoil which I’d dreaded, wasn’t bad, but the gun is so powerful, that shooting off a round of ammo felt almost intoxicating.

When we finished, the instructor gave me my target, and I was again surprised that the pattern of shots was different for the glock and the MP5. The shots I took with the glock hit to the left of the red bullseye, while those with the MP5 hit above and slightly right of where I’d aimed.

I wished I’d gone to the gun range while I was writing A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS instead of after, but I came away satisfied with how Avie narrates her experience. It’s a mix of emotions–of respect for the killing power of the weapon, pride at having learned how to use it, and trepidation, knowing she might have to, even if it’s the last thing she wants.

For the Good of Mankind?


Jacket For the Good of Mankind?

“Doctors injected orphans with live polio and tuberculosis, they subjected African American slaves to numerous surgeries without anesthesia, and they gave pregnant women drinks laced with radiation. The mentally ill, prisoners, women and children—powerless people without a voice—”  

Terrifying and enlightening, Vicki Oransky Wittenstein’s new non-fiction release For the Good of Mankind? holds you on the edge of your seat. Her talent at using individual stories of suffering and loss to give us a picture of humanity, and man’s inhumanity to man, pose ethical dilemmas readers won’t soon forget. I couldn’t wait to get her author’s perspective on the experience of writing this crucial book.

Because the tone and subject matter is such a departure from her first book, Planet Hunter: Geoff Marcy and the Search for Other Earths, I was curious to know how her writer’s journey differed this time around. Below, Wittenstein talks about handling the horrific research, moving from writing a single story to one that encompasses all of mankind, and how this book changed her own perspective. She tackles these questions with humor and sincerity, reminding us it takes courage to write, and to face our demons, whether in writing, or in life.

Vicki Oransky Wittenstein: Zu, thanks so much for inviting me to talk about my new book. I was just re-reading the interview you posted when my first book Planet Hunter: Geoff Marcy and the Search for Other Earths was published, and I was struck by how dissimilar the writing experiences were for the two books. The biggest difference of all? This time I didn’t have a reason to travel to Hawaii!

jacket Planet HunterKidding aside, in many ways that trip to Hawaii marks a crucial difference in the two books. The story of planet hunting was very much about the life of Geoff Marcy, the astronomer who first figured out how to detect planets that orbit stars beyond our sun. Young readers were hooked on the science by “seeing” Marcy at work in the Keck Observatory in Hawaii. For the Good of Mankind? on the other hand, tells the story of not just one person, but the thousands of people throughout history who have been subjected to painful and unethical medical experimentation. Although the beginning of each chapter recounts a personal tragedy, the huge time period covered (from ancient times to the present) necessitated the use of a broader lens. In turn, the many examples helped emphasize the magnitude of the problem.

Indeed, the sheer number of instances throughout history where people have been injured from medical experiments shocked me. One of the most difficult challenges was limiting and choosing the examples to write about. Reading the details of the experiments upset me, too. Doctors injected orphans with live polio and tuberculosis, they subjected African American slaves to numerous surgeries without anesthesia, and they gave pregnant women drinks laced with radiation. The mentally ill, prisoners, women and children—powerless people without a voice—were subjected to experimentation without consent. People were humiliated, injured, and some even died.

In addition to all these disturbing tragedies, I had to figure out how to write about the most gruesome and inhumane experiments of all: those performed by Nazi doctors on concentration camp inmates during World War II. I was worried. How could I write about these experiments without them seeming like just one more awful example, when they were so clearly in a category of their own? In reading about Dr. Joseph Mengele’s experiments on twins at Auschwitz, I learned about a twin survivor, Eva Mozes Kor, who was willing to talk to me. Her story was so compelling that it became the basis for an entire chapter. Eva’s personal account and the authenticity of her voice help young people fathom the inhumanity of the experiments.

Most importantly, readers also needed to understand that many of these medical experiments occurred hand-in-hand with great medical achievements. Without a doubt, new treatments, medicines, and cures depend upon human medical experimentation. How can we conduct experiments without losing our moral footing? How do we balance the risks to individual subjects versus society’s need for new treatments and cures? Today there are laws and regulations that protect subjects, but they can be difficult to implement. These questions, which I raise throughout the book, continue to be debated, particularly now with increasing numbers of clinical trials by the pharmaceutical industry, genetic therapies, stem cell research and the sequencing of the genome.

Young people today will be the next generation of leaders in science, health care, government, and law. They will be continually bombarded with ethical and moral dilemmas that will challenge their core beliefs. I hope this book helps them question what is right and wrong, and inspires them to never forsake their principles in the name of science.

Author photo


Vicki Oransky Wittenstein is author of the award winning non-fiction book Planet Hunter: Geoff Marcy and the Search for Other Earths (Boyds Mills Press 2010) and the new release For the Good of Mankind? (Lerner 2014). A graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, she’s written numerous science articles for young readers, is an advocate for children and families, and a former criminal prosecutor.

 -Zu Vincent

Nonfiction Mistakes I’ve Made – And Ways to Avoid Them


This week The Tollbooth welcomes guest blogger, Nina Kidd. A Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA grad, Nina has mined her passion for the outdoors by writing MG non-fiction about wildlife corridors helping cougars in the Santa Monica mountains.


As Nina says, my first mistake was ignoring nonfiction.

“Everyone” in grad school was writing fiction. As an illustrator, my favorite projects were realistic plants, animals, landscapes. Duh! I had spent years writing and illustrating nonfiction, and hadn’t even noticed. Don’t be me.

What articles do you hunt on the web? what was your favorite reading/viewing as a child? What are your guilty reading indulgences now? Reading passion=writing passion.


My second mistake was researching too long. You know you’re a nonfiction freak if that is among your problems. Two strategies helped me tame the research addiction:

Outlining. Right away. It’s freeing to cut away all the non-story to focus on that one narrative and central theme. Revise the outline, play with it, focus it. The book proposal must have one, so I feel fine lavishing time and care on the outline. And, yes, outlines are supposed to evolve.

Begin to write –soon—before the research is done. Alexis O’Neill, who writes fiction as well as nonfiction, reminded me recently, if  a fact or date comes along that needs looking up, Don’t! Leave a space for it (____) and keep writing. Getting a draft down helps focus the themes and sharpen the outline. Of course, that’s where we’re all heading anyway: to a draft

Don’t forget fiction. Structurally, fiction and nonfiction share the goal of telling a good story. How?

Sid Fleischman reminded us all to “write in scenes.” The narrative nonfiction that editors prize is a story, basically a series of scenes and transitions. It’s easy to let transitions take over in nonfiction, especially if there is no live person to tell the story. But without fabricating anything we can still create a scene with action, tension and emotion. I’ll bet you that when people read your work, their favorite parts will be the scenes.


Sensory details. Use the magic of specific sights, sounds, skin sensations. Jennifer Armstrong’s Orbis Pictus Award-winner, Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World will dazzle you and make you shiver as you sail with Ernest Shackleton’s crew into the Antarctic ice. Factoid: scientists say that the name or suggestion of a familiar smell is the most vivid and memory-evoking sense for a reader. That’s probably why cookbooks are so popular. Of course kids love the stinky ones too.

Narrative arc. This is where you can really hold the nonfiction reader, with tension building to a climax. Something as basic as cliffhanger chapter endings can work in nonfiction to lure the reader into reading your true tale cover to cover rather than just researching for the paper the teacher has required.

Tone can make even a scary-complicated subject more accessible. Do you see humor in nature? Are the characters in your story playful, prayerful? How about wonder? Is your topic lushly visual? Is there music in the spheres? Maybe, you’ll get to quote a wildlife biologist like the one I’ve been researching, who burst out that a life of discovery is “cool,” that climbing around outdoors is “a gas.” You can pass that unexpected grin along.

I Failed at all-important Filing. But if you are a fellow filophobe, the following may offer encouragement.

Make and label the files before generating the contents, for virtual as well as physical files. Following your outline, item by item, is a good way to arrange your files. For those of us who never liked putting the toys away, having a place pre-planned to put it encourages filing the work with the comforting promise you will find it again when needed.


Color code. When I’m working on more than one project, it helps to know that all the folders tabbed with a green hiliter go in Drawer #2. Alphabetize files by bolded keyword if necessary.

Photos: It helps to name them starting with date taken (or received). You can sort/retrieve “2012_11_28 Sweet Gum Red”  by year, month and day, species name, and/or color. This is a photo tip from bird photographer Doug Wechsler, director of VIREO, which has the world’s most comprehensive collection of bird photos.

Footnote as you go. It’s a temptation to leave it for later, but Kerry Madden (author of fiction, and nonfiction) shared that mistake, which she made when writing her 2009 biography of  Harper Lee. At the end, Kerry confessed, she sat with her editor for hours looking for the source notes she needed.

Good Feedback: One mistake I didn’t make was leaving my adored fiction critiquers when I was fortunate enough to find a wonderful nonfiction critique group. The two are complementary, with a nice overlap, if you can do it.

Happy (nonfiction) Writing!

Thanks, Nina!

Nina’s article “The Cougar Connection: Mountain Lions Lead the Way to Conservation Solutions” will be posted on the website of The Mountain Lion Foundation in the next few weeks. Currently, she is researching and writing two nonfiction books for middle grades. One tells the story of scientists working to save mountain lions struggling to survive in suburban Southern California, the other is a biography of Dr. Paul Beier, an American wildlife ecologist known internationally for his work on wildlife corridors, a conservation strategy to help humans and wild communities thrive side by side.

Your Brain as a Reader, and as a Writer


I love what scientists are learning about our brains from fMRIs (functional magnetic imaging machines). A recent “New York Times” article entitled “Your Brain on Fiction” is all about what fMRI research has shown about reading fiction. The author, Annie Murphy Paul, tells us how and why the worlds of stories can feel truly alive. “Words like ‘lavender,’ ‘cinnamon’ and ‘soap, for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.”

I remember being taught at Vermont College to consider including actions or sensations pertaining to each of the five senses in my stories. Include a smell, include a taste, include a sound. And don’t forget the other two if you can help it.

Now scientists are proving my advisors right.

Scientists are also researching the neural power of metaphors. As any creative writer knows, many figures of speech have become so common as to have lost any metaphorical richness. Instead, they survive as mere terms. On the other hand, according to Murphy, an explicitly textural (and surprising) metaphor, such as “‘He had leathery hands’ roused the sensory cortex.”

Again, I feel my advisors smiling.

Further, descriptions of the motor activity of fictional characters stimulates the motor cortex of a reader’s brain.

Most interesting of all to me, and surely also obvious to any reader of fiction, is that the brain seems not to distinguish much between reading about an experience and experiencing it in real life. According to Murphy, “In each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.” One researcher contends that this is because “reading produces a vivid simulation of reality.” Fiction, perhaps because its explicit aim is to create such a simulation, offers “an especially rich replica” by comparison to other reading genres.

In fact, fiction can go further than real life, allowing us to become other people or to travel to places we’ll never go, including the past and the future and places that simply don’t exist. Nevertheless, it can all feel absolutely believable and true.

Other research suggests that the same parts of the brain that are involved in trying to understand stories are also enlisted in making sense of interactions with real people. Stories can “‘help us understand the complexities of social life,’” offers one researcher. Children who are read to a lot as pre-schoolers have a keener sense of others’ intentions than children who are not.

All this research can help writers understand their audiences (as well as understand themselves as readers). But scientists are also using fMRIs and other new technologies to understand the creative process, including writing. Jonah Lehrer has just published a book on the subject called “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” which I recommend to anyone who makes art of any kind. He reports on what scientists have learned about the role of struggle in the creative process, on the necessity of being stumped before moving on to a solution, on why sometimes careful and laborious analysis fails – and then an answer comes out of nowhere.

For me, “Imagine” is a relief. It’s a relief to learn from scientific research that I’m a normal creative person. It’s normal never to be satisfied with my writing or my art – at least not until long after others think the problem has been solved. It’s normal to fail over and over until you wonder if you’re any good at all. It’s normal for a creative person to choose a life of making art even though it’s sometimes depressing, and it’s normal for depression to be a part of your toolkit because, oddly, depression can actually keep you from giving up.

And it’s normal to be willing to deal with all of those things if they’re the price of creating for readers (and, in my case, also viewers) experiences that rival real life. That, for me, makes everything worth it.

The “New York Times” article is “Your Brain on Fiction.”
Jonah Lehrer’s book is “Imagine: How Creativity Works.”