Sunday, November 27, 2016

How Safe Is Your Character? Information for Writers with Jacqueline Ward

Jacqueline Ward is a Chief Executive Officer at the Safety and Reliability Society, in England. This is a membership based organization that deals with major hazards. She is a Chartered Health Psychologist and has done research into women's health, domestic violence, missing people, Alzheimer's, central nervous system, and disaster management & human factors in engineering. How cool is that?

(This article was edited for American spelling)

Fiona - 
Does any your work background show up in your writing, or do you use your writing to escape from these subjects?


Jacqueline - 
I have used my knowledge of missing people and domestic violence extensively in my writing, and I'm currently writing a psychological thriller where the central character is a psychologist studying psychopathology! Not based on me though - honestly.

Fiona - 
Let's chat about trauma psychology. I bet you've had some experience with TV, movies, and books, where you're thinking - in no universe is that how it happens. Can you start with some of the common mistakes creative types make when they're putting their characters into a highly charged atmosphere? 

Jacqueline -
I have a lot of experience of what happens step by step in major disasters. Part of my work is to read and evaluate major incidents reports and to draw out lessons learned, so I understand them at a deep level. 

It just happens that major incidents with lots of danger and fatalities are the subject matter for books, TV and movies. 
  • One of the most common mistakes I pick up is alarms. It's either no alarms at all, or all the alarms go off and everyone runs in all directions. There is never a procedure that everyone follows. Quite often this mayhem is portrayed as the cause of the disaster and fatalities, when it definitely isn't. 
  • Also, when one person is bellowing orders to lots of people in a noisy environment, I am shouting at the screen. It is usually massively oversimplified, in film and TV. I guess to save money, but in books it's usually lack of research.

Fiona - 
In some people, they follow the rules - you mentioned the alarms - surely there have been times when a group has practiced evacuation  and even though someone is new (perhaps visiting) but enough people know the process that the new players can be herded along.

But what happens when the way the populace has been taught to respond is thwarted? The exit they were aiming for is ablaze. Can you break down what kinds of reactions might happen - are there in your field specific "types" that you plan to accommodate or even depend on emerging?

Jacqueline -
A lot of this is cultural. 
  • Firstly, alarms. When an alarm is put into place and it has a process around it (alarm sounds, employees/staff exit and guide the public out) it is rehearsed. The problem comes usually at the first stage when the initial alarm goes off to indicate something is wrong. 
  • Quite often and a real problem is alarm desensitization. The person in charge of the facility or venue may have rehearsed the alarm so often that the populace is used to it and begin to perceive every alarm as a rehearsal. This is a direct reversal of what should happen biologically in the flight or fight. 
  • Then there is the reaction to an alarm by the crowd. This differs significantly in different disasters. 


Fiona- 
That's so true, and obvious when you say it. I might have understood how one of my characters would act/react - but I also need to be cognizant that they are acting within a group that will have its own personality traits. Can you give us a couple of cultural examples?

Jacqueline -
Let's take the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster, the incident was caused by alarm desensitization. Alarms were possibly overridden by the survival instinct. The individualistic culture of the UK might have played a role. This is an example of the exit that is ablaze. In this situation, the crew had fairly clear instructions about how to leave the rig but fire blocked their way. So their fight or flight instinct was invoked. Their lives were threatened and their senses heightened to find any way to survive. Sensory amplification in hazardous situations in common. In this case, they had no choice but to jump into the sea that was on fire.

Alternatively in Japan with the Fukushima nuclear incident, all procedures were followed to the letter and fatalities were extremely low (from the nuclear incident, not for the natural tsunami incident).

Major hazards are so rare that there is not enough data collected to assign types to people who have survived or perished. This is also why there are very few prediction models.

Fiona -
Let's talk about prediction models - what elements are involved?


Jacqueline -
Taking infrastructure hazards as an example, a big focus has been on the safety and reliability of the engineering of things like trains, planes and buildings. Many prediction models focus on the performance of the complex system and its parts - how the materials have performed in the past. This is combined with the past incidents and near misses with similar vehicles or buildings.

It is only fairly recently that human error has been taken into account when predicting disasters. 

The people who design and operate prediction models to prevent accidents and disasters are just as much heroes as the people who act when the hazard happens - without their foresight there would be many more disasters. 

I'd like to see more of them in books, films and TV, but they are not as sexy as someone who (often unrealistically) runs in and rescues someone from a burning building. Believe it or not there are whole teams of people who are responsible for keeping military vehicles safe and reliability so as to protect the lives of the people who operate them in war zones. 

Part of my rationale for working in this field is to keep nuclear power safe. I used to be against nuclear power, but as it is here to stay we need to be able to manage it in order to prevent a major accident with lots of fatalities.

Fiona - 
I can totally see a lone hero on a planning committee trying to bring a flaw to the attention of those who'd rather turn a blind eye.

Okay ThrillWriters, we have a new hero! Maybe it's our beta heroine, who knew the risks the whole time. The alphas are in high gear, and she's running into the fray with blueprints in hand. "Listen to me!"

So Jacqueline, let's make you in your position into a character. What common qualities do you see in someone who is working in your field?


Jacqueline -

  • Someone in my field would probably have a science background and a deep concern for the safety of people and for the environment, so they'd be compassionate
  • There is a certain amount of confidence needed as 'speaking up' is part of the job description, but also being able to operate on a national level, as the work involves understanding and reporting on the National Risk Register to government. So resilient also.
Fiona - What would you like to teach us about your world that I would never guess or know to ask about?

Jacqueline -
That major incidents are a lot less frequent than we think they are and that they can almost never be predicted. There is a book called Black Swan by Naseem Nicholas Teleb that anyone interested in risk and disasters should read.


Fiona - 
In the ThrillWriting tradition, it's now time to share your favorite scar story.
Jacqueline -
It's horrible. I've never been good with electric knives and one day when I was heavily pregnant with my third child I was chopping cabbage, and I cut my arm open with the electric knife I was using. As if that wasn't enough, I ran to the bathroom to wash it and even though there was no one in the house I locked the door behind me. I couldn't get out as the lock stuck. I was bleeding badly and then I felt labour pains. It took three hours for my partner to come home and find me, and the ambulance was accompanied by the fire brigade who had to break the bathroom door down. I was OK, my baby son was OK, but I have a big scar on my arm to remind me of that day. People sometimes ask me about it and ask if I tried to commit suicide, which is ironic as I was actually giving birth, but it gives m an opportunity to open a conversation about mental health and have been able to facilitate healing through it. So all's well that ends well!

Fiona - 
AMAZON LINK
Thank you.

I'm sure you are all anxious to learn about 
Jacqueline's writing.
Why not check out her work RANDOM ACTS OF UNKINDNESS

DS Jan Pearce has a big problem. Her fifteen year old son, Aiden, is missing. Jan draws together the threads of missing person cases spanning fifty years and finds tragic connections and unsolved questions.

Bessy Swain, an elderly woman that Jan finds dead on her search for Aiden, and whose own son, Thomas, was also missing, may have the answers.

Jan uses Bessy's information and her own skills and instinct to track down the missing boys. But is it too late for Aiden?

Set in the North West of England, with the notorious Saddleworth Moor as a backdrop, Random Acts of Unkindness is a story about motherhood, love and loss and how families of missing people suffer the consequences of major crimes involving their loved ones


Her website, www.jacquelineward.co.uk, is a great way for you to get in touch with her also her Twitter - @jacquiannward

Cheers! And thanks for visiting.