Friday, September 29, 2017

Lead: Poisoning People for Fun and Profit #30

Lead kills. Everybody knows that. Lead is what bullets are made of. Bam. Acute case of lead poisoning. 

But lead itself, the elemental metal, (atomic number 82, symbol Pb) when not propelled by a charge of gunpowder through the cylinder of a gun, can still be lethal.

In fact, its widespread use has resulted in extensive environmental contamination and significant public health problems in many parts of the world.

Lead is a Major Hazard to Public Health. 

According to the World Health Organization these are some of the hazards:
  • Lead is a cumulative toxicant that affects multiple body systems and is particularly harmful to young children.
  • Lead in the body is distributed to the brain, liver, kidney and bones. It's stored in the teeth and bones, where it accumulates over time. Human exposure is usually assessed through the measurement of lead in blood.
  • Lead in bone is released into blood during pregnancy and becomes a source of exposure to the developing child.
  • There is no known level of lead exposure that is considered safe.
  • Lead poisoning is entirely preventable.

The WHO says lead was responsible for at least 830,000 deaths in 2013 alone, almost all accidental, mostly in the developing world.

History of Lead Use

And yet people have used it for over 6000 years. A lead necklace found in Turkey is thought to be 6000 to 8,000 years old and a lead mine nearby is at least 6500 years old.

The ancient Romans seem to have had a special fondness for lead. They used it in everything from wine to water pipes. In fact the word "plumbing" comes from the Latin word for lead, plumbum.

Ancient Romans added "sugar of lead" to their wine
There's a theory that many wealthy Romans unknowingly poisoned themselves with lead in the form of an artificial sweetener called "sugar of lead" (lead acetate.) I have to admit that before I researched this article, I had never heard of sugar of lead, but it's a thing.

The Romans had no sweetener but honey, but they would boil down the fruit mash left over from making wine in lead pans, and the acid in the fruit mash corroded the pans to form lead acetate, which had a sweet taste. They called it sapa and often added it to beverages.

In my five years of studying Latin, I never came across the word sapa/sapae but I guess most of those texts we slogged through had more to do with soldiering than wine-making.

The Romans knew sapa was powerful and could be dangerous, because ancient Roman hookers used it as a way to induce abortions, but they thought it was safe to drink a little mixed in with their wine.

I don't quite get this, since the area around Rome has been producing some very tasty wine for a couple of millennia now, without any added sweetener, but maybe some young Romans preferred a Boone's Farm type of alcoholic beverage. (Yes, for those of you waxing nostalgic for that sticky-sweet wine of your youth, they still make Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill and it's still cheap.)

But I digress…or maybe I don't. Who knows what damage we may have done to ourselves with all that Strawberry Hill?

The ancients did know that lead wasn't exactly good for you. Hippocrates wrote about a lead miner who had terrible symptoms from lead poisoning. 

Did Elizabeth I to Lose her Hair because of Lead Poisoning?

Obviously people didn't pay enough attention to Hippocrates.

Pope Clement II died in 1047 from drinking wine sweetened with sugar of lead (although many think this might have been administered purposely by an assassin.)

Europeans were still adding sugar of lead to wine in the late 1690s, when there was a severe outbreak of intestinal disease In the German city of Ulm, which was traced to wine from a monastery where they used lead acetate to sweeten their wine.

From the Renaissance through the 19th century, people used sugar of lead as a cosmetic and "cure" for skin ailments. That white face powder Elizabeth I made so fashionable was probably responsible for her losing her teeth and hair. The powder, called ceruse, could corrode the skin, cause tremors, and even kill. (Lead in cosmetics is believed to be what killed the famous London courtesan, Kitty Fisher.)

Lead has also been dangerous to painters, since a number of paints contain lead. In 1787, painter Albert Cristoph Dies accidentally swallowed lead acetate and although he recovered, he had symptoms the rest of his life. And it probably contributed to Francisco Goya's death.

When Beethoven died, doctors found his hair contained 100 times the normal level of lead.

There's evidence President Andrew Jackson died of lead poisoning too. His death had long been attributed to mercury poisoning from a medication he took regularly, but a study of hair clipped shortly before his death showed high levels of lead. It was probably caused by a bullet lodged in his shoulder for 20 years after a gunfight.

Lead as a Murder Weapon

In the 19th century, when people began to realize that lead could be lethal, it became a method of murder.

In 1882, Londoner Louisa Jane Taylor got a doctor to prescribe her some sugar of lead to treat a fictional skin disease. Instead she used it to poison a Mrs. Tregillis, the elderly lady she cared for.

Poisoner Louisa Taylor was hanged at Maidstone Prison

But what Mrs. Taylor didn't realize is that lead takes a long time to kill, and even though Mrs. Tregillis was dying, she lived long enough to testify against her murderer. She pointed to Taylor and stated she had seen her pour a white powder into her medicine. After Mrs. Tregillis died, Taylor was convicted of murder and hanged at Maidstone prison.

Symptoms of Lead Poisoning

The symptoms of acute lead poisoning of the type Mrs. Tregillis suffered, include blackened teeth, blue gums, and black vomit. Victims suffer sudden memory loss and confusion as well as intestinal distress, difficulty breathing, and often go into a coma.

Painter Albert Christoph Dies died of lead poisoning.

Slow lead poisoning can be lethal too, and so often people aren't aware they're being exposed. The dust of lead paint in a house can be a factor. So is drinking wine that has been kept in a lead crystal container. Some pottery glazes contain lead too. Also old metal toys, some Mexican candies and folk remedies for skin rashes and breast pain in nursing mothers.

The symptoms of slow lead poisoning:
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Gout
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Difficulties with memory or concentration
  • Headache
  • Abdominal pain
  • Mood disorders/aggression
  • Reduced fertility
  • Miscarriage, stillbirth or premature birth in pregnant women
  • Lowered IQ in children. 
Lower levels of lead poisoning can be treated with chelation therapy, either oral or intravenous. 

Lead in contemporary Life

Canada and the European Union have banned most lead compounds in gasoline, paint, and industrial uses since 2005. California lists it as a carcinogen.

But in most countries, lead acetate (good old sugar of lead) is still completely legal.

It's even present in Grecian Formula men's hair coloring.

I'm not sure a bottle of Grecian Formula would contain enough to kill, and it would be tough for a murderer to administer, I should think.

But lead acetate is still used in the US for textile dying, mixing paint, and also cleaning guns. It's available by mail order in the US contiguous 48 states.

For a crime writer, using lead as a murder weapon could work. If somebody drank lots of wine he kept in a lead crystal decanter, it might be possible to kill him undetected by adding lead acetate to the decanter.

As long as the murder doesn't take place in Canada or the EU, you might have the perfect (if unnecessarily nasty) murder.

Had you heard of "sapa" or sugar of lead? Did you know Elizabeth I lost her hair and teeth because of her make-up? 

Here's a list of all the poison posts in this series:

SALE!! 99c at Amazon

THE BEST REVENGE: The prequel (Camilla Mystery #3)

When Camilla Randall, a 1980s New York debutante, is assaulted by her mother’s fiancé, smeared in the newspapers by a sexy muckraking journalist, then loses all her money in the Savings and Loan Scandal, she seeks refuge with her gay best friend in California. But her friend has developed heterosexual tendencies and an inconvenient girlfriend, so Camilla has to move in with wild-partying friends. When a TV star ends up dead after one of their parties, Camilla is arrested for his murder. She must turn to a friendly sanitation worker, a dotty octogenarian neighbor and the muckraking journalist who ridiculed her--who also happens to be her boss. 

The Best Revenge is available at all the AmazonsSmashwordsKoboGoogle Play Apple, and NOOK. It's also available at Page Foundry (Inktera) and 24 Symbols

Friday, August 25, 2017

Antimony—Poisoning People for Fun and Profit #29

Antimony is an element, a "metalloid" like arsenic. Its symbol in the periodic table of the elements is Sb, because it is most commonly found in the sulfide mineral stibnite

In the ancient world, stibnite was known as kohl. Egyptians famously used it for eye make-up. It was an important part of their culture as early as the Proto-dynastic Period (3100 BC ) They believed it protected the eyes from eye ailments and the glare of the sun.

Egyptians used antimony for eye make-up

Antimony compounds were often used for medicine. Pliny the Elder described several different compounds, which he designated "male" and "female" to be used in small doses for treatment of various ailments. 

But they were all known to be poisonous in larger doses. 

"The Monk-Killer"

In fact, the name antimony is said to come from the Greek word ἀντίμοναχός, anti-monachos. Which means "monk-killer". Some dispute this, but since compounds containing antimony can kill, the name makes sense.

Antimony by itself hasn't been proved to have a toxic effect on humans. It's the compounds that are the problem.
Antimony is rarely found in its pure metallic state

The thing is, antimony is rarely found in its pure isolated form. But it is part of many compounds, both natural and manufactured. A lot of those compounds are poisonous.

Inhaling antimony trioxide dust can cause a number of lung ailments, including lung cancer. And antimony chlorides are corrosive to skin. Scary stuff.

Symptoms and Treatment

Symptoms of an antimony overdose usually appear within 30 minutes of ingestion. There will be vomiting, sweating, diarrhea, and an acrid, metallic taste in the mouth. External exposure can cause skin irritation. Severe antimony poisoning has symptoms similar to arsenic poisoning.

Some people work in industries where they are at greater risk of exposure to antimony compounds, and the cumulative effect can cause health problems like skin irritation "antimony spots," lung irritation, and gastrointestinal problems. Port workers often come into contact with toxic levels of antimony because it is used in brake pads on the vehicles used for loading ships.

Treatment is the same as for arsenic and other heavy metal poisoning—gastric lavage if it has been ingested recently, then treatment with chelating agents that will bind with the metal so the body will eliminate it naturally. Three common drugs for treatment of metal poisoning are: BA. (Dimercaprol), Calcium EDTA (Calcium Disodium Versenate) and Penicillamine.

Uses of Antimony

Today antimony compounds are used in the manufacture of such varied products as flame retardant, polyester, safety matches, paint, glass art, and the manufacture of TV screens.

Combined with lead, antimony is used in lead-acid batteries, bullets, electrical cable sheathing, type (in printing machines), solder, pewter, and organ pipes.

In medicine, the antimony compound, Potassium antimonyl tartrate, or tartar emetic, was used as a treatment for parasitic infections in humans and animals for many years, although it has been replaced more recently.

Other antimony-based drugs, such as meglumine antimoniate, are still used in veterinary medicine for skin conditions and infections.

The Most Infamous Antimony Poisoning Case: Dr. Charles Bravo

The 1875 poisoning death of London barrister Charles Bravo, four months after he married his wealthy second wife, the scandalous Florence Ricardo, was one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Victorian era.

Bravo had been involved in scandal himself since he had fathered a child out of wedlock, and Florence had been shunned by her family for her extramarital affairs. 

Charles Bravo was poisoned with antimony
Charles Bravo was known as a bully and an abuser. His groomsman and housekeeper described him as a nasty employer.

Bravo's death by antimony poisoning (in the form of tartar emetic) was drawn out, lasting from two to three days, and painful. The strange thing about it was that he would do nothing to help his doctors find out the cause of his condition.

Many people thought he might have accidentally poisoned himself while trying to poison his wife, who had developed a mysterious chronic illness right after the wedding.

He himself was taking laudanum for a toothache, and the theory is that he mistakenly took the "medicine" he'd been giving his wife, and it killed him.

Apparently he told his housekeeper he had accidently taken the tartar emetic, but later changed his statement, perhaps in hopes of incriminating his wife.

But other investigators suspected the housekeeper herself of the murder. The unhappy groomsman was a suspect too.

The coroner held two inquests, and the details were considered to be so scandalous that women and children were banned from the room while Florence testified. The first had an inconclusive verdict. The second returned a verdict of murder.

But no one was ever arrested. Florence died two years later.

Books Inspired by the Bravo Case

The first time I heard about the Bravo story was in reference to John Dickson Carr's classic Gideon Fell mystery from 1949 Below Suspicion.

Agatha Christie also refers to it in her Ordeal by Innocence

The 1948 Ray Milland film So Evil My Love (based on the novel by Marjorie Bowen) has elements of the story as well. 

Had you heard the story of Charles Bravo? Can you think of any other books or films where antimony is the murder weapon. Do you read John Dickson Carr? You don't hear much about him anymore. 

Here's a List of All the Posts in the Poison Series

Part 28: Mustard Gas

It's HERE! The New Camilla Randall Mystery

It's #6 in the series, but can be read as a stand-alone
At all the Amazons (FREE in KU)

Why does everyone think Camilla has the lost Portuguese crown jewels? And what has turned polite little Buckingham into an attack cat? Can Camilla keep her boyfriend Ronzo safe? Or will the murderous Mack Rattlebag find out Ronzo faked his own death?

It's one surprise after another in this warp-speed comedy-mystery where a too-perfect doctor may or may not be in cahoots with a bunch of homicidal New-Agers. Will Camilla and Ronzo, and the tarot cards, solve the mystery?

Friday, July 28, 2017

How to Write a Novella...and Why Readers Love Them

Books are getting shorter these days. Amy Collins at The Book Designer reports the average NYT Bestseller is now half as long as it was in 2011.  And the brand new Smashwords survey shows bestselling romance novels have decreased by 20,000 words since 2012. 

The fastest growing fiction form right now is the novella. 

Novellas, once the pariahs of the publishing industry, are now in demand with readers. The stodgy Big 5 publishers are still demanding a word count of 60K plus. (And alas, newsletters like Bookbub won't take them.) But I'm sure that will change with their growing popularity. 

  • Traditionally published authors self-publish them to fill in the time between the snail-speed production schedules of their own publishers and increase their revenue stream. 
  • Indies use them to explore characters in their series that readers want to know more about. 
  • Readers who have less time to read than they used to enjoy getting into a meaty story that has a satisfying beginning, middle and end, but doesn't take weeks to get through. 

Perhaps the popularity of the novella also comes from our love of movies. As novella author Paul Alan Fahey wrote for our blog in 2014, the novella has a lot in common with a screenplay. It is also the fiction form most easily adapted to film.

My own publisher keeps encouraging me to write novellas to fill in the gaps in Camilla and Plantagenet's history.

Have I followed the advice?

Nope. The new Camilla book, The Queen of Staves, due in August, is the same 83,000 word length as my others.

I find writing novellas really hard. I think in terms of the "long game". How can I explore a big topic in 20,000 words?

But I know some talented writers who can do if brilliantly

In January 2014, I asked award-winning novella author Paul Alan Fahey for some advice. Paul's book The Other Man was honored by the American Library Association , and received a Rainbow Award in 2013. The View from 16 Podewale Street, the first of his beautifully-crafted novellas set in WWII Britain, won a Rainbow Award in 2012. Since then, his books have won many more awards, including the anthology Equality, which was nominated for a Rainbow this year.

I hope his advice will help us all to keep up with the new trend....Anne

How to Write a Novella

Paul Alan Fahey

Author of The Short and Long of It

Years ago, when I started writing fiction—as opposed to journal articles for career advancement in academe—I fell in love with flash fiction. That love affair lasted throughout the 1990’s, well into the millennium, and beyond. I loved the form and was quite content to stay within those teeny-tiny word limits. At the time, I also took classes in flash, presented writing workshops on the form, and participated in several online critique groups for flash writers.

When I taught at Allan Hancock College, I edited Mindprints, A Literary Journal, devoted to flash fiction and memoir pieces of 250-750 words. Here's a piece I wrote giving tips for writing good flash fiction.

During that time, I managed to write and publish a few short stories other than flash, but nothing beyond the 5,000 to 6,000-word range.

With the advent of the E-Age, I began to think seriously about writing longer work. The novel absolutely terrified me, so I gravitated to the novella: something in between a very long story and a novel.

When I began writing my first WWII novella, The View from 16 Podwale Street, and later with Bomber’s Moon, I told myself I was only writing flash, and that each scene or chapter was a kind of mini-flash piece with its own story arc. Little did I know that this strategy would work, and I’d soon be off and running with a romance series and a much larger story to tell.

Novellas in the E-Age: A Definition

Searching for a precise definition of a novella can be a maddening experience. Some consider novellas very long short stories, while others call them short novels, or say they’re synonymous with novelettes.

Nothing specific there, right? I was just about to give up when I stumbled upon a terrific article in the New Yorker by British novelist and screenwriter, Ian McEwan. Not only did he define the form, but he specified word limits most publishers, including my own, would agree with—give or take a few thousand at the top or bottom of the range.

"Novellas are between twenty and forty thousand words, long enough for a reader to inhabit a world or a consciousness and be kept there, short enough to be read in a sitting or two and for the whole structure to be held in mind at first encounter.”

McEwan went on to discuss the strong similarity between novellas and screenplays in their overall unity and economy.

"To sit with a novella is analogous to watching a play or a longish movie."

I have to admit I was totally stoked when I read that. I’d been using screenplay techniques as a pre-writing strategy for flash fiction and short stories for years. In fact I wrote an article for Byline magazine about the flash-screenplay connection in 2005. It's since been reprinted at Fiction Fix. Is it any wonder I was drawn to the novella form?


Let’s see how this prewriting thing works. We’ll take a look at my novella, Bomber’s Moon, and apply the strategy.

Step 1: Find a Story Idea

The idea for Bomber’s Moon came from an incident in my childhood. Mom and I were sitting at the breakfast table discussing a lovely Englishwoman she worked with in an upscale dress shop, someone who had lived through the London Blitz and still suffered in the late 1950’s from what we’d probably now call PTSD.

I took this idea and went into a “what if” frenzy, asking myself all sorts of questions: How did Londoners manage to survive day to day under such unimaginable conditions? What was it like being gay back then, and in a relationship, having to keep it all a secret except perhaps from your closest friends? These questions and many more would later guide character development as well as plot development in Bomber’s Moon.

Step 2: Turn the Idea into a Logline

Anne has previously written an excellent post on loglines. So there’s really no need to reinvent the wheel here other than to say a screenplay logline is a short, one-sentence statement of the film’s premise. Think TV Guide descriptions of cable movies.

Here’s an example:

Nebraska: An aging, booze-addled father makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize.

And another one:

August: Osage County: A look at the lives of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose paths have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Oklahoma house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them.

Here’s the logline for Bomber’s Moon:

During the London Blitz, and after losing his life partner in a tragic accident, Leslie Atwater, a young gay man, discovers his lover’s death may not have been an accident and sets out to uncover the truth.

**I know, I know. It ain’t Shakespeare. You’re using it as a guide or throughline for developing your story. No one but you will see it.

Step 3. Write the Story Theme from the Logline

Often I know the book’s theme before I start to write. Sometimes I don't and it surfaces later in the writing. Still, it’s a terrific bonus if you do can articulate theme because it provides a wonderful subtext for scenes and dialogue.

"Journeys end in lovers meeting" is the main theme of Bomber’s Moon.

Step 4: Determine the Three Acts and As Many Plot Points as Possible

First, here’s a quick overview of three-act structure.

  • Act I, Set Up: Introduces setting, characters and the main story conflict or the inciting incident. 
  • Plot Point 1: The first major turning point or event that closes the first act and moves the characters into… 
  • Act II, Confrontation: The main character struggles to achieve his/her goal amid ever increasing obstacles. 
  • Midpoint: A subtle turning point in the plot midway through the story. 
  • Plot Point 2: A devastating setback or reversal in the main character’s fortune that leads to… 
  • Act III, Resolution: The final confrontation and highest point of action (climax) before the character reaches goal. 

Here’s what I knew about Bomber’s Moon before I began writing:

  • Act I: Set Up: During the day, Leslie works as a clerk in a modest bookshop in Central London. By night, he’s an air raid warden in his district responsible for the safety of his “flock.” In an effort to feel closer to Edward, he spends his evenings in their flat reviewing his partner’s sketches and soon discovers irregularities he can’t explain. 
  • Plot Point 1: Leslie, convinced his lover’s death wasn’t an accident. Despite warnings from friends to let well enough alone, he sets out on a journey. How did Edward die? 
  • Act II Confrontation: Leslie learns more about Edward’s work assignment the day he died. He begins to question family members and colleagues at The Globe. This leads him on a journey through London and into the countryside as he follows the clues. (Vague? You bet, but it works for now.) 
  • Act III Resolution: I envisioned a climax in a lighthouse overlooking the English Channel with enemy aircraft overhead. The ending would be a happy one—journeys end in lovers meeting—since Bomber’s Moon is a romance, and I was following conventions of the form. 

This pre-writing three-act paradigm for Bomber’s Moon, adapted from a screenwriting text by Syd Field is far from complete. But having the structure planned out as much as possible beforehand, kept me focused on the storyline, while I filled in the blanks of the paradigm as I went along in the first draft.

For a more thorough discussion and examples of the three-act structure, please see: The Elements of Cinema.

This process may or may not work for you. I can only say it does for me. And in a big way.


Paul Alan Fahey created and edited Mindprints, an international literary journal for writers and artists with disabilities, at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, California. During Paul’s seven-year tenure, Mindprints made Writers Digest’s “Top 30 Short Story Markets” list for two consecutive years. He is the author of the Lovers and Liars Gay Wartime Romance series, published by JMS Books. Paul is the editor of the 2013 Rainbow Award winning anthology, The Other Man: 21 Writers Speak Candidly About Sex, Love, Infidelity, & Moving On. His first WWII novella, The View From 16 Podwale Street, also won a Rainbow Award in 2012.

Paul's Latest Book is a memoir that's novella length. It's a fantastic read
poignant and funny and hair-raising all at once. 

Debuts on August 31st

In the tradition of Patrick Dennis, Truman Capote, and of Tennessee Williams’ memory play, The Glass Menagerie, Paul Alan Fahey’s memoir, The Mom I Knew, The Mother I Imagined, recounts a son’s loving yet often maddening relationship with his mother over four decades. Told in a hybrid mix of memoir, short fiction, and poetry, the author tells of their nomadic existence in the 1950s; his mother’s four month visit in Africa while he completed his teaching contract; and the last decade of her life.

It will debut August 31st. 


And I've also just read the ARC of a fun new novella by veteran screenwriter Barbara Morgenroth. It's a mystery set in 1933 Hollywood and the tone is very "It Happened One Night" and "Bringing up Baby" (two of my favorite movies of all time!)  

Available August 1st!

It’s 1933. When hard news reporter, Caro James, reveals the secret life of a politician in New York, much to her dismay, The New York Sentinel newspaper sets out to teach her a lesson about the rules of journalism. They send her to Los Angeles to write fluff pieces on the film industry.

The contact in Hollywood who is supposed to guide her for the week of punishment, is the handsome and unpredictable movie director, Sugar McLaughlin. Soon a story falls in Caro’s lap. A young, beautiful starlet has been missing for two weeks and is in great danger. Caro and Sugar must find June Fowler before she is lost forever. When the one person who knows what happened to June is murdered, Caro and Sugar can’t help but think they’ve reached a dead end. As Sugar knows, every story has an Act III and Caro is in for the ride of her life as they race to find the starlet.

Friday, June 23, 2017

You May Be a Bestseller on Tralfamadore! Why Writers Write.

This blogpost first appeared on Nathan Bransford's blog on Jan 22, 2010, and it launched my blogging career.

I thought it would be fun to revive it.

Even though the self-publishing revolution has changed the logistics for new writers, the reality is the same: only a few of us are really successful at writing fiction.

So why do we all feel compelled to keep turning it out?

It's the Tralfamadorians! 

Kurt Vonnegut's drawing of a Tralfamadorian actress
Nathan Bransford once posed a question on his blog: “How Do You Deal with the ‘Am-I-Crazies’?

Those are the blues that can overwhelm the unpublished/ underpublished novelist as we slog away, year after year, with nothing to show for our life’s work but a mini-Kilimanjaro of rejection slips.

The truth is, most fiction writers spend our lives sitting alone in a room generating a product that has zero chance of ever making a penny—or even being seen by a person outside our immediate circle of friends, relations and/or personal stalkers.

So—not surprisingly—we occasionally ask ourselves that big, existential question: WHAT ARE WE—NUTS?

Trying to answer can plunge a writer into despair. So how do we cope?

Most of the over 250 respondents to Nathan’s post answered with variations on the following advice:

1) Embrace the crazy and accept that we are, most of us, deeply and certifiably Looneytunes.
2) Chocolate helps.
3) Ditto booze and caffeine.
4) Ditto sunrises, music, and long walks.
5) Ditto the company/blogs/tweets of other lunatic writers.
6) And reading good books.
7) Or crap books, because we know we can do better than THAT.
8) Funny, nobody mentioned sex,
9) But denial is good. Really good.
10) And keep writing, even if it’s just for ourselves, or the one person who reads our blog, or the dog, or whoever…because: WE CAN’T STOP OURSELVES.

Kurt Vonnegut in 1972
And why is that?

Well, I have a theory: It’s the Tralfamadorians. If you’ve read your Vonnegut (and what business do you have calling yourself a writer if you haven’t read Vonnegut?) you know about Tralfamadore. 

It’s a planet where a super-race of toilet plungers exist in all times simultaneously. The name of their planet means both “all of us” and “the number 541,” and they control all aspects of human life including social affairs and politics.

Since these beings have infinite time on their hands, I figure they’ve got a lot of leisure to fill up with reading. And how do they get their books? Of course! They compel earthlings to write novels. Hundreds of thousands of them. Way more than earthbound publishers and readers can handle. But on Tralfamadore—hey, they’re consumed like Skittles.

On Tralfamadore, books are consumed like Skittles
In fact, the Tralfamadorians are so eager for new material, they’ve figured out how to transmit stories right from our brainwaves to their TralfamaKindles the minute you type “the end” on that final draft.

And it could be that right now, as we speak, your first novel—the one that has been sitting in the bottom of a drawer along with its 350 rejection letters and the restraining order from that editor at Tor—could be at the top of the New Tralfamadore Times bestseller list.

Think about it. You could be the Dan Brown of that whole part of the galaxy, where readers are desperate—pining, pleading and panting—for your next book.

And that voice in your head telling you to pound away, day after day, trying to finish that opus, even though everybody, even your girlfriend—and your MOM for god’s sake—says it sux? That’s a transmission from the Doubleday Company of Tralfamadore saying, “Hurry up, dude, we gotta have this for our Christmas list!”

Hey, just prove to me it’s not true.

What about you? Do you feel compelled to write? Even if nobody much seems to be reading? How do you deal with the "Am-I-Crazies?"

Smart, funny mysteries with a touch of romance

"Anne R. Allen is P.G. Wodehouse for the 21st Century!" 
... Sidonie Wiedenkeller

GHOSTWRITERS IN THE SKY:  Camilla Mystery #1 

After her celebrity ex-husband’s ironic joke about her “kinky sex habits” is misquoted in a tabloid, New York etiquette columnist Camilla Randall’s life unravels in bad late night TV jokes. Nearly broke and down to her last Hermes scarf, she accepts an invitation to a Z-list Writers’ Conference in the wine-and-cowboy town of Santa Ynez, California, where, unfortunately, a cross-dressing dominatrix named Marva plies her trade by impersonating Camilla. When a ghostwriter’s plot to blackmail celebrities with faked evidence leads to murder, Camilla must team up with Marva to stop the killer from striking again.

Ghostwriters in the Sky is available in e-book at all the Amazons iTunesGooglePlay  KoboInkteraScribd and NOOK.

It is available in paper at Amazon  Barnes and Noble and Walmart

It's FREE at iTunesInktera, and Kobo!

Friday, May 26, 2017

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit: Can Bleach and Ammonia Kill?

I don't know if it was my own mother or somebody else's who first warned me of the dangers of mixing bleach and ammonia. But like most kids I knew, I was told when I was very young that the mixture was lethal and would produce "mustard gas."

We were told bleach and ammonia made "mustard gas"
In fact, one of my first attempts at writing a mystery, when I was in about third grade, involved a mysterious corpse found in the girl's bathroom of an elementary school, and the deceased had been done in by mustard gas made from bleach and ammonia.

I thought I was terribly clever, since those were cleaning supplies that could be found in any janitor's closet in those days, so anybody could be a suspect.

I never could decide on a murderer or a motive, so I never finished the book, which I started writing with a schoolmate who lost interest in it before I did.

But it's just as well, because it seems that I (as well as our moms) got it wrong.

Bleach and ammonia do form a toxic gas, chloramine, but it's not "mustard gas" otherwise known as "Sulfur Mustard" the horrific chemical weapon used by the Germans in World War I.

Mustard gas actually smells like garlic and it's a "vesicant," which means it causes corrosive burns on the skin.

Chloramine gas, which is what happens when you combine bleach and ammonia, doesn't burn the skin, but it can cause respiratory damage and throat burns.

However, it's not likely to kill you unless you're cleaning in a very small unventilated space.

But…if there's more ammonia than bleach, the explosive hydrazine might form. Hydrazine was used as rocket fuel in WWII. Explosions do kill people, so in that way the combo can be lethal.

But it's certainly not a surefire way to kill somebody. So I wouldn't recommend it to any mystery novel villains.

In researching this article, I ran into an awful forum where teens were bantering about how they planned to kill themselves. One young man was convinced that mixing bleach and ammonia and inhaling the fumes would take him off on a fairly painless trip to heaven. (I'm not going to link to it because it don't want to give those idiots the clicks.)

Luckily ammonia is so stinky it would probably put him off before he got very far. But all he'd do was burn his throat and maybe permanently damage his lungs. Very painful, but unlikely to be deadly.
Window cleaners usually contain ammonia

Mixing bleach and Drano is apparently more likely to kill, although again, the conditions have to be exactly right.But it's definitely not a good idea to pour bleach in the toilet after you've poured in Drano to unclog it.

In general, it's good to remember that mixing your household cleaners isn't wise. However, if you're a mystery author, forget the homemade mustard gas as a murder weapon. A nice dose of Warfarin or a Hemlock salad would work better. 

What about you? Were you told that bleach and ammonia make mustard gas? Where do you suppose the myth originated? Anybody know?  

Here's a List of All the Posts in the Poison Series

Part 27: Warfarin

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After her celebrity ex-husband’s ironic joke about her “kinky sex habits” is misquoted in a tabloid, New York etiquette columnist Camilla Randall’s life unravels in bad late night TV jokes.

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Friday, April 28, 2017

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit #27—Warfarin

Did you know that warfarin, also known as Coumadin—that stuff that Grampa takes to prevent a stroke—was originally developed as a rat poison? It came as a surprise to me.

Kale can combat the effects of Warfarin
In high doses it can kill a human. It's a touchy drug, that doesn't get on well with lots of food. Especially green leafy foods like broccoli and kale and parsley, which diminish its effects. (Any food that's high in Vitamin K will interfere with it.)

It becomes more potent when taken with aspirin or other NSAID drugs like Advil and it's also given a boost by garlic and ginger.

The substance now called warfarin was first discovered in the
Warfarin was first discovered in spoiled sweet clover
1920s when American and Canadian cattle started dying from a mysterious bleeding disease. After some medical sleuthing, scientists discovered that the stuff causing the disease came from some fermented sweet clover in the cattle feed.

This mysterious substance prevented vitamin K from forming blood clots, so the cattle would die from minor cuts and abrasions or develop internal bleeding.

It wasn't until 1940 that scientists at the University of Wisconsin isolated the anticoagulant that caused the bleeding and gave it a name: dicoumarol.
Coumarin makes new-mown grass smell sweet

This powerful anticoagulant is produced by a fungus acting on a plant molecule called coumarin. Coumarin is the substance that makes new-mown grass smell sweet. But if the grass is allowed to ferment, rather than dry, the fungus grows and produces dicoumarol.

After World War II, researchers at the University of Wisconsin patented the substance as "Warfarin," a name derived from the acronym WARF: (Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation) and the suffix "arin" from coumarin.

Warfarin was first registered for use as a rodenticide in the US in 1948.

Rats soon became immune to Warfarin
Apparently it was very effective in killing rodents because it's odorless and tasteless, so the rats and mice would keep coming back for more until enough Warfarin accumulated in their bodies to do them in.

In 1954, Warfarin was approved for medicinal use. But patients have to be carefully monitored to make sure the right balance of Vitamin K is preserved. It can cause skin necrosis and "purple toe syndrome" if the dose is too high. It is risky enough that pregnant women are advised not to take it.

But it stopped working as a rodenticide because rats developed immunity to it. That led scientists to produce "superwarfarins" brodifacoum, diphenadione, chlorophacinone, and bromadiolone . These superwarfarins are marketed under a number of colorfully named brands like Pestoff, Ratshot, Mouser, Havoc, and the better known D-Con. 

Superwarfarins stay in the body much longer and reduce Vitamin K more quickly, so they are much more lethal. Like warfarin, they can be absorbed through the skin, so people need to use care in handling them.

Both warfarin and superwarfarin can kill humans. The Handbook of Pesticide Toxicology reports that a 32 year old man was murdered by being given warfarin for 13 days. Since the drugs are odorless and tasteless, they are easy to administer, but the killer has to stay around for at least a couple of weeks.

In 1988, two teenaged girls tried to murder their parents using the superwarfarin D-Con. But luckily the parents went for medical help for the symptoms before they succumbed to the poison.
It's not a good idea to add warfarin to your weed.

The American Journal of Hematology reported that some wildly misguided stoners have found that if they mixed superwarfarins like D-Con with their weed, it will extend their high. When they land in the emergency room with mysterious bleeding, they often don't disclose that they've been exposed to surperwarfarins, which makes treatment difficult.

One young Einstein in Utah decided that if smoking rat poison was good, eating it would be even better. He nearly died of the bleeding disorder before he admitted he had been munching on D-Con.
You'd need a lot of these to do in nasty old Aunt Augusta

But most poisoning with warfarin and its cousins is accidental. The good news is that if a person or pet takes it by mistake, they will achieve full recovery if they get to a hospital, where large doses of Vitamin K combat the action of the drug.

To the mystery writer, warfarin and its nastier cousins might provide some interesting plots. If the wealthy, bullying matriarch everybody is hoping will die is already taking warfarin for a medical condition, a little of the colorless, tasteless rat poison in her cocoa might make for the perfect murder. Hmmm.

What about you? Have you read a mystery where warfarin is used as a weapon? Can you think of a good plot for murder by warfarin? 

Here's a list of all the posts in the poison series

Part 25: Yew
Part 26: Toxic Relationships

Enjoy the post? Take a look at some of my books!

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