Shell Shocked!

Donis Casey author photoRelevant History welcomes back Donis Casey, author of ten Alafair Tucker Mysteries from Poisoned Pen Press. Her award-winning historical mystery series, featuring the sleuthing mother of ten children who will do anything, legal or not, for her kids, is set in Oklahoma during the booming 1910s. While researching her own genealogy, Donis discovered so many ripping tales of murder, dastardly deeds, and general mayhem that she said to herself, “Donis, you should write a series.” Donis is a former teacher, academic librarian, and entrepreneur who lives in Tempe, AZ. For more information about her and her books, visit her web site, and follow her on Facebook and Goodreads.


The Alafair Tucker Mystery series started in 1912 with The Old Buzzard Had It Coming and has moved forward years or months with each book. The tenth book in the series, Forty Dead Men, takes place early in 1919, shortly after the end of World War I and at the end of the Great Influenza epidemic.

My grandparents were all in their early twenties during WWI, but none of them ever told me anything about their lives while the war was on. Neither of my grandfathers went. I fear I grew up thinking that the distant European war didn’t have much of an effect on folks buried deep in the hills of Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Was I ever wrong.

History books and articles are good for giving a writer an overview of a time period, but what I am really interested in writing about is what the people who lived through an event thought about it at the time. One great thing about writing historical fiction is that when you do your research, you discover that what really happened is often more amazing than anything you could make up.

I am particularly proud of Forty Dead Men, which deals with the psychological effects of warfare on a veteran of the First World War. They called it “shell shock” back then. Now we call it post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Surviving the horrors of war
WWI soldierSoldiers have been psychologically affected by the horrors of war since the beginning of human history, and every society has dealt with it in different ways. But the modern technological advances in weaponry during WWI brought the problem to a whole new level. Imagine being trapped for weeks on end in a wet, stinking, muddy trench being bombarded day and night, hour after hour, nowhere to go, completely at the mercy of fate. If a shell fell on your position, you were toast, and there was nothing you could do to protect yourself. Then again, at regular intervals, some officer behind the lines would order you and your mates to go over the top and get mowed down by machine gun fire, and if, like a sane person, you didn’t do it, you were liable to be shot by your own officers.

Shell shock became a real problem. Before the U.S. entered the war, British doctors thought shell shock was a physical thing caused by exposure to exploding shells. But it didn’t take long before that notion was proved wrong. “Shell shock” happened to men who had never come under fire. The symptoms of shell shock were extraordinarily varied. Hysteria, paralysis, blindness, deafness, loss of the ability to speak or control one’s limbs were the most common among enlisted soldiers. Officers had fewer physical and more psychological symptoms like nightmares, insomnia, depression and disorientation. Still, four times as many officers suffered breakdowns than regular soldiers. That was because they tended to repress their emotions in order to set an example for their men. Sometimes officers were so ashamed of their fear that they flung themselves into impossibly dangerous positions just to keep face before their men.

Living with shell shock
There really wasn’t much help for these wounded soldiers. Some doctors tried electric shock therapy, hypnosis, solitary confinement, even shaming. According to the U.S. Veterans’ Administration, soldiers often received only a few days’ rest before returning to the war zone. I saw a comment online that was written by a grandson of a British WWI vet, who wrote that his grandfather recovered from his physical wounds and became a productive member of society. But he “medicated his emotional wounds with alcohol and extra-martial affairs. Even in his advanced age, he could not be in the kitchen when the kettle was whistling.”

My fictional veteran, Alafair’s eldest son, Gee Dub Tucker, was an officer with a front line unit who suffered a head wound during a bombardment, but was loaned to a British unit only a few days after his concussion. He was assigned to act as a sharpshooter. Nowadays we call them snipers.

What Gee Dub witnessed, and even more so, what he did while he was in France, haunts him after his return to the family farm in Oklahoma. He seems normal to his family. Except for his mother, who sees that something is terribly wrong with him. The restless veteran has taken to roaming the quiet hills around his family farm. One rainy day while out riding he spies a woman trudging along the country road. Holly Johnson reveals she’s forged her way from Maine to Oklahoma in hopes of finding the soldier she married before he shipped to France. At the war’s end, he disappeared without a trace. Gee Dub is glad to have a project and tries to help Holly, but ends up the prime suspect when Holly’s husband turns up dead. Alafair will not let that stand. As one reviewer noted, “she’ll do anything to protect her kin…No one can resist her—at least, not for long.”


Forty Dead Men book coverA big thanks to Donis Casey. She’ll give away a signed, hardbound copy of Forty Dead Men to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available within the U.S. and Canada only.


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Soldier’s Heart: Defining PTSD

Regina Jeffers author photoRelevant History welcomes Regina Jeffers, an award-winning author of cozy mysteries, Austenesque sequels and retellings, and Regency era romances. A teacher for thirty-nine years, she often serves as a consultant for Language Arts and Media Literacy programs. With multiple degrees, Regina has been a Time Warner Star Teacher, Columbus (OH) Teacher of the Year, and a Martha Holden Jennings Scholar. With five new releases coming out in 2015, she is considered one of publishing’s most prolific authors. Her novels include Darcy’s Passions, Captain Frederick Wentworth’s Persuasion, The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy, and The First Wives’ Club. To learn more about Regina’s books, check out her web site and blog, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


The Prosecution of Mr. Darcy's Cousin book coverOne of my upcoming releases (The Prosecution of Mr. Darcy’s Cousin) uses Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as part of the plot line, but as my book is set in the Regency period (1811-1820) in England, when no such distinction was made for the disease, it was important to treat the disorder’s presence in the main character’s life with a large dose of research. There are references to what we now term “PTSD” in the Bible (story of Job comes to mind), the writings of the Greek historian Herotodus (i.e., his description of the Spartan leader Leonidas—the guy from “300”), the Mahabharata, Homer’s description of Ajax’s madness, and Shakespeare’s descriptions (via Lady Percy) of Harry Percy’s nightmares and delusions, as well as the accounts of Macbeth. Samuel Pepys’s diary holds references to the trauma many experienced after the Great Fire of London. Charles Dickens wrote of the “weakness” he experienced after a train wreck that killed ten people and injured nearly fifty.

Over the years, PTSD was known as nostalgia, homesickness, ester root, neurasthenia, hysteria, compensation sickness, railway spine, shell shock, combat exhaustion, soldier’s heart, irritable heart, stress response syndrome, etc. In my story, I use the word “melancholia” for research into the disorder did not occur until well after the Regency period. Needless to say, the many wars of the late 1700s and early 1800s (American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Napoleonic Wars) in England brought this issue to a head. (For more on the many terms used for PTSD, see “From Irritable Heart to ‘Shellshock’: How Post-Traumatic Stress Became a Disease,” by Charlie Jane Anders, 4 April 2012.)

Jacob Mendez Da CostaDuring the American Civil War, the study of “soldier’s heart” fell into the lap of Jacob Mendez Da Costa, who took up the study of the condition and advanced what we now know of the disease. Da Costa was a well-trained and observant clinician. He held the reputation of an excellent clinical teacher and served as Chairman of Medicine at the Jefferson Medical College (now Thomas Jefferson University) for nineteen years, as well as president of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia in 1884 and again in 1895; Da Costa was one of the original members of the Association of American Physicians and its president in 1897.

In the years of the Civil War, Da Costa served as assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army and at Turner’s Lane Hospital, Philadelphia. As such, he studied a type of cardiac malady (neurocirculatory asthenia) plaguing soldiers. He described the disorder in his 1871 paper “On Irritable Heart: A Clinical Study of a Form of Functional Cardiac Disorder and Its Consequences,” a landmark study in clinical medicine. The malady was soon to be known as Da Costa’s syndrome—an anxiety disorder combining effort fatigue, left-sided chest pains, breathlessness, dyspnea, a sighing respiration, palpitations, and sweating.

In the mid-20th Century, the syndrome was thought to be a form of neurosis. It is now classified as a “somatoform autonomic dysfunction.” Earl de Grey presented four reports on British soldiers with these symptoms between 1864 and 1868. He attributed the symptoms to the heavy equipment being carried by the soldiers in knapsacks strapped to their chests. Earl de Grey asserted that the constriction of the knapsack affected the heart’s ability to function. Henry Harthorme described the Civil War soldiers who suffered with similar symptoms as being exhausted and poorly nourished. The soldier’s heart complaints were assigned as lack of sleep and bad food. In 1870, Arthur Bowen Myers of the Coldstream Guards (the Foot Guards regiments of the British Army) regarded the accouterments as the source of neurocirculatory asthenia and cardiovascular neurosis.

“J. M. Da Costa’s study of 300 soldiers reported similar findings in 1871 and added that the condition often developed and persisted after a bout of fever or diarrhea. He also noted that the pulse was always greatly and rapidly influenced by position, such as stooping or reclining. A typical case involved a man who was on active duty for several months or more and contracted an annoying bout of diarrhea or fever, and then, after a short stay in the hospital, returned to active service. The soldier soon found that he could not keep up with his comrades in the exertions of a soldier’s life as he would become out of breath, and would get dizzy, and have palpitations and pains in his chest, yet upon examination some time later he appeared generally healthy. In 1876 surgeon Arthur Davy attributed the symptoms to military drill where ‘over-expanding the chest, caused dilatation of the heart, and so induced irritability.’”


Darcy's Passions book coverCaptain Frederick Wentworth's Persuasion book coverElizabeth Bennet’s Deception book coverMr. Darcy’s Fault book cover





A big thanks to Regina Jeffers. She’ll give away one of the four ebooks pictured above to four people: Darcy’s Passions: Pride and Prejudice Retold Through His Eyes, Captain Frederick Wentworth’s Persuasion: Austen’s Classic Retold Through His Eyes, Elizabeth Bennet’s Deception: A Pride and Prejudice Vagary, and Mr. Darcy’s Fault: A Pride and Prejudice Vagary Novella. I’ll choose the winners from among those who contribute a comment on my blog this week by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available worldwide.


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“The Doomsday Machine,” Suspense, and Dodging the Sagging Middle

Have you ever been watching a movie or reading a novel, and somewhere in the middle (aka Act 2), it bogs down? If Act 2 is sluggish enough, you’ve even lost interest in the outcome, Act 3.

Here’s what probably happened. The writer was up against a deadline and threw all manner of challenges at the characters in that midsection to perk up the action and avoid what’s known as “the sagging middle.” But ironically, the wrong kind of action can drag at the momentum.

The challenges faced by characters in the middle of a movie or novel must be more than a random series of obstacles for those characters to overcome. They must mean something to the characters’ goals. And the challenges must also relate intimately to the pending crisis.

Setup for successful Act 2 suspense
“The Doomsday Machine,” my favorite episode of classic “Star Trek,” is full of driving suspense. Some of the most memorable tension in the episode is found in the very middle, making this middle anything but saggy. Let’s see how the writer did it.


In Act 1 of “The Doomsday Machine,” the starship “Enterprise” encounters a sister ship, the “Constellation,” that’s adrift and all-but-demolished after battling a giant robot—a Doomsday Machine—that eats planets. Out of a crew of more than 400, only the commander of the “Constellation,” Matt Decker, has survived. The robot, impervious to phaser weapons from the “Constellation,” has continued on a course that will allow it to eat its way through the heart of the Milky Way galaxy. So “Enterprise” Captain Jim Kirk, temporarily aboard the “Constellation,” decides that his ship will take the broken vessel in tow and proceed to the nearest star base so they can warn Command about the threat. He sends Decker back to the “Enterprise” for medical treatment, and he and a repair team remain aboard the “Constellation” to restore minimal mobility to the starship and prepare it for tow.

Doomsday machine

That brings us to the middle of the episode. Act 2. At this point, the Doomsday Machine robot circles back into the vicinity and attacks the “Enterprise.” Decker, grieving the loss of his crew and making decisions while in the grip of post-traumatic stress disorder, assumes command of the “Enterprise.” Kirk, stranded aboard the “Constellation,” watches his ship get beat up by the robot.

The look and feel of a successful Act 2
The core of this episode’s Act 2 action plays out in the following five-minute YouTube clip. (Caveat: 1960s-style special effects ahead.) Watch how the suspense leaps back and forth between Decker on the “Enterprise” and Kirk on the “Constellation.”

And this isn’t even the climax of the episode.

Key points of Act 2
Matt DeckerDecker’s decisions at 0:07, 0:30, 1:47, and 1:56 are wrong. His credibility as a starship commander is gone. On some level, he realizes that phaser weapons from the “Enterprise,” like those from the “Constellation,” won’t stop the robot, but he’s unable to think logically. He uses the ineffective strategy of phaser barrage as a surrogate for beating on the robot with his fists. The result? The robot damages the “Enterprise” and threatens the lives of Kirk’s crew. Even though we can see this coming, it’s still suspenseful.

Jim Kirk

Aboard the crippled “Constellation,” the usually-cool and often-correct Captain Kirk engages in a short-sighted act of desperation (at 1:00, 4:06, and 4:23) to draw the robot off the “Enterprise.” His act pays off for the “Enterprise.” But Kirk has made a whopper of a mistake. Fixated on saving the “Enterprise,” he imperils himself and his crew members aboard the “Constellation.” Kirk’s “Oh-sh*t!” expression at 4:40 says it all.

What else do you see that gives this sequence tension?

What this writer did well
Many have commented that the unique musical score written for “The Doomsday Machine” contributes to the atmosphere. Yes, it does, but even without music, this sequence would be suspenseful. Writer Norman Spinrad exploited the fears of Decker and Kirk, developing tension organically from personality weaknesses in both characters. Then he milked the resulting suspense in a crisis that gives viewers a taste of death.

Act 2, written well, is supposed to guide you into Act 3. Everything that happens in Act 2 of “The Doomsday Machine” sets the stage for even greater challenges in Act 3, the climax of the episode, and makes you eager to find out how the dilemma gets resolved.

Sagging midsections in movies and novels may contain random, meaningless obstacles like a car chase, explosions, a seduction, or a gunfight. Hidden behind those are opportunities the writer missed to craft suspenseful challenges that arose due to character weaknesses.

Can you name a movie or novel with a midsection that didn’t hold your attention?


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