Friday, February 5, 2010

Guest Blogger, Carla Buckley

Please join me in welcoming debut author Carla Buckley as the special guest blogger here today at Thoughts in Progress.

Carla’s debut novel is “The Things That Keep Us Here,” which was just recently released. Here’s a brief synopsis of her book:

How far would you go to protect your family?

Ann Brooks never thought she’d have to answer that question. Then she found her limits tested by a crisis no one could prevent. Now, as her neighborhood descends into panic, she must make tough choices to protect everyone she loves from a threat she cannot even see. In this chillingly urgent novel, Carla Buckley confronts us with the terrifying decisions we are forced to make when ordinary life changes overnight.

A year ago, Ann and Peter Brooks were just another unhappily married couple trying–and failing–to keep their relationship together while they raised two young daughters. Now the world around them is about to be shaken as Peter, a university researcher, comes to a startling realization: A virulent pandemic has made the terrible leap across the ocean to America’s heartland.

And it is killing fifty out of every hundred people it touches.

As their town goes into lockdown, Peter is forced to return home–with his beautiful graduate assistant. But the Brookses’ safe suburban world is no longer the refuge it once was. Food grows scarce, and neighbor turns against neighbor in grocery stores and at gas pumps. And then a winter storm strikes, and the community is left huddling in the dark.

Trapped inside the house she once called home, Ann Brooks must make life-or-death decisions in an environment where opening a door to a neighbor could threaten all the things she holds dear.

Carla Buckley’s poignant debut raises important questions to which there are no easy answers, in an emotionally riveting tale of one family facing unimaginable stress.

Carla joins us here today to talk about the power of research when writing. Carla would you give us your take on research, why it‘s important, and how you go about it?

I spent my high school and college years avoiding science classes. I delayed taking biology in high school until my senior year, and ended up at a college with no curriculum requirements. Physics terrifies me, and the closest I’ve ever come to a chemistry lab is hearing my husband talk about the one he’s designing at the university where he works. But here I am, an affirmed non-scientist, writing
novels about science. Accordingly, I do a lot of research.

I start by reading everything I can get my hands on. I plunder the library and bookstores, then go online. Google Scholar is an amazing resource. Because my husband’s a scientist, he has access to scientific journals and papers that I wouldn’t otherwise come across. After I’ve picked my topic, he begins bringing me home all sorts of interesting reading material, most of it on the cutting edge of science.

Once I’ve built a basic understanding, I begin looking for experts in the field. This is my favorite part of research: talking to those actually doing the work. Their passion for their field of study transcends the written word. There’s nothing better than talking to a scientist on the verge of making a discovery, or facing down something the rest of us would run from. The casual comments they make, or the insights they provide, are like nuggets of gleaming gold in a bed of gray muck.

For The Things That Keep Us Here, I had to become acquainted with influenza viruses: what they look like, how they behave, how the seasonal variation differs from the one that rages out of control and causes a pandemic. One of the scientists I interviewed spent hours describing the virus, diagramming it, talking about its behavior in the wild. He walked me through his lab, showing me the equipment field researchers use to diagnose virus variants, the precautions they take to stay safe, and how much risk is involved in the work they do.

At the end of our last session, we sat down and talked about influenza, in particular H5N1, the variant scientists all over the world were closely monitoring. Despite his enthusiasm about his work, the topic was a grim one.
“You’re the father of two young children,” I said. “How would you keep them safe?” He shook his head. “I couldn’t. The virus is airborne. It could get into my home no matter how tightly I closed my windows.” I persisted. “What about masks? Wouldn’t they protect you?”

“My little girl is two years old. It would terrify her to see me wearing a mask, especially if she were feverish. I couldn’t possibly comfort her like that. I’d have to take it off.”
That was true. When your child is sick, your only thought is consoling them. You don’t think about getting sick yourself. But he was a scientist. He had to know tricks that the rest of us didn’t. “So what could you do?”

“Nothing.” He shrugged. “I’d get sick, my wife would get sick. We’d just have to wait and see which one of us survived.”
I stared at him. The question between us remain unvoiced: what if neither one of you survived? What would happen to his children then?

He folded his arms and looked at me. “You see,” he said, gently. “There is nothing we can do. It’s not a question of if we’re going to have a pandemic. It’s a question of when.”

That statement, delivered so matter-of-factly and with the power of scientific knowledge behind it, haunted me as I began writing The Things That Keep Us Here. It was one of the nuggets of gold I discovered; it helped me shape my character Peter, a research scientist, and lent gravity to my words.

This is why I do a lot of research in my work. It’s not only to compensate for all those science classes I’ve avoided in my life. It also helps fill out characters, pluck plot points from thin air, extend a storyline in a direction I never envisioned. And ultimately, it puts me into the right place, mentally and emotionally, to tell the story I’ve undertaken to write.

Wow, Carla that was a power quote from the scientist. It makes one stop and realize just how little we can do against a virus. I’m not sure if Carla will be able to drop back by or not, but if you have questions for her I’ll be glad to forward them to her.

Carla was born in Washington, D.C. She has worked in a variety of jobs, including a stint as an assistant press secretary for a U.S. senator, an analyst with the Smithsonian Institution, and a technical writer for a defense contractor. She currently lives in Ohio with her scientist husband, children, and two curious dogs.

Carla's next novel will be published in 2011. You can visit Carla at her Website at “Things That Keep Us Here” can be purchased here.

Now, what are your thoughts on research when writing? Is it a fun part of the progress or just something that has to be done? And I won’t even ask what you would do to protect your family.


  1. I love pandemic books! I'm a real sucker for them. This one sounds like it raises some interesting ethical questions, too.

    Viruses are rough! Thus speaks a mom who dealt with 2 bouts of flu this winter. :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. How grim! Bet that was something you didn't expect to uncover when you began researching.

  3. Thanks for hosting Carla today. There has been great interest in her book for the tour. She received an excellent review yesterday from The Cajun Book Lady.

    This is the type of book that would interest me too, so I have a copy of it on my Kindle.

    Thanks again for hosting Carla.


  4. Mason, thanks for hosting Carla : ).

    Carla, this does sound like an utterly fascinating book that takes pandemics to a personal, and therefore, even more compelling, level. I especially enjoy books that explore the personal "fallout" from wrenching events. I'm excited to read it!

  5. This sounds like a chilling read. I wonder what it must have been like to be so deeply immersed in this difficult and frightening subject matter for the amount of time it took to research and write the book.

  6. I love these kinds of books, too! What is it about unspeakable terror and widespread annihilation that is so cool? Maybe it's better to read about than to experience! Can't wait to read this one.

  7. That was a pretty chilling conclusion in the interview with the scientist, Carla. Even so, I also read tales of future horrors resulting from pandemics or terrorist attacks. And I definitely want to read "The Things That Keep Us Here."

  8. Hi everyone--thanks for welcoming me here, and thank you, Mason, for hosting me.

    You know, the topic of pandemic flu really terrified me, which is why I undertook to write about it. I thought if I could understand the virus, I could be better prepared to protect my family from it. As the scientist I interviewed told me, there's really no way we can protect ourselves from an airborne virus.

    Still, the process of researching and writing the book proved to be surprisingly cathartic. I stopped having nightmares that woke me up shaking in the middle of the night, and I stopped obsessively checking WHO and PandemicFlu websites every hour.

    But I will admit that I do stock plenty of bleach and hand sanitizer at home :)

  9. Carla, thanks so much for stopping by today and talking about your book and your research. This definitely hits home right now with everyone having the flu.

    Elizabeth, pandemic books do make you stop and wonder "what if" and especially when children are involved.

    Cheryl, thanks for letting me know about Carla and her book. I've added her book to my TBR pile.

    Alan, I think you got it right. We had much rather read about a pandemic than have to even think about facing one.

    Thanks everyone for stopping by. Research can be an interesting thing, but sometimes I guess we can find out more than we ever expected.


I'd love to hear your thoughts on today's post. Thanks for dropping by.