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[Guest Post] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: J. Kathleen Cheney (DREAMING DEATH) on the Rule “You Always Bathe at Night”


J. Kathleen Cheney is nothing if not versatile in her story telling, but weaving through her work is a common thread, that of the improbable heroine. From worlds set in humanity’s distant post-apocalyptic future to alternate worlds of today or of the near past, Kathleen’s heroines include a siren who with help from a gentleman of the city must stop a regicidal plot, the neglected daughter of an absent king coming to terms with her shapeshifting ancestors, a blind teenager who dreams of others’ deaths and who uses her gift of touch to find their killers, and the widow of a trainer who with a most unusual horse must save her farm and way of life. All use their unusual gifts and talents to overcome obstacles and find their place in the world.

In 2005 Kathleen decided to pursue writing as a full-time endeavor and has since enjoyed seeing her stories published in Shimmer, The Sword Review, and Baen’s Universe. Her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2011 Nebula nominee. Kathleen twice attended the summer Writer’s Workshop at the Center for the Study of Science Fiction under the tutelage of James Gunn. She lists C. J. Cherryh, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Georgette Heyer among the writers who influenced her most–as well as Ansen Dibell, whose ghostly fingerprints can be seen all over her work.

Born and raised in El Paso, Texas, Kathleen’s parents actually were rocket scientists (they worked at White Sands Missile Range), which made for interesting dinner-time conversations. After graduating with degrees in English and Marketing she worked as a menswear buyer for retail department store chains before changing careers to become a teacher, where she taught mathematics ranging from 7th Grade Arithmetic up to Calculus. Kathleen also served a brief stint as a Gifted and Talented Specialist. She coached the Academic Team and the Robotics Team and was the Chess Club sponsor.

When not writing, Kathleen likes to don a mask and get sweaty fencing, both foil and saber. Quieter hobbies include putting on her Wellingtons and getting her hands dirty in the garden. She also enjoys traveling and taking care of her dogs. Two large, hairy, dogs. Visit her on her website.

You Always Bathe at Night

by J. Kathleen Cheney

Writers always try to research things when we write about them. When I wrote about a character who had suffered an amputation during war time, I tried to do my due diligence, reading up on how characters who endured a Civil War Era amputation survived the surgery, the infection, and the terrible conditions. And then there’s the struggle to live on with the change in one’s state, both the physical and mental aspects of that.

In a piece I’ve been working on, I have a character with an amputated arm. (The setting is 1815 Russia, but the medical process then wasn’t too different from the Civil War US.) My character was lucky both because it was his left arm, meaning that he kept his more dexterous hand, and because they didn’t take his scapula and clavicle, and thus his shoulder still filled out a jacket or shirt.

In a lot of ways, it’s easy for a writer to figure out what a character with a missing arm can and cannot do. For me it was a matter or strapping my arm to my side and trying to do things one handed.  I’ve had a cast before, but in that case I could use my fingertips and the cast itself to hold things.  With my hand secured to my side, however, I had to improvise quite a lot. Try it. Try dressing yourself using only one hand. The zipper is your friend, but they didn’t have those in 1800s Russia. The button? It’s actually not too hard to undo, but a real struggle to fasten. Laces? Hah!  Laces and drawstrings require pressing one string between one’s hip and a hard surface (like the edge of the dresser) while tugging on the other. I tried a lot of things that I have my character do, and there are an astounding number of challenges just getting up and getting dressed in the morning.

I can experience, for a short time, the physical difficulties presented by that situation. I cannot experience the mental ones, though. I can read about the trauma of the loss, I can research it, and I can try to represent it as best I can.

But research is no substitute for real knowledge.

Several years ago I was writing about a character who’d lost a leg (below the knee) during a war. Modern prosthetics are far superior to the ones from the 1800s, fortunately, and allow for better balance and flexibility. My character didn’t have that luxury. He had a wooden prosthetic. That meant that he could walk well enough and ride a horse fairly normally, but he couldn’t run. I researched and researched, and hoped I’d gotten all the details correct.

To be safe, though, I ran it by one of my first readers, J.  When J. got back to me, I was surprised. Her first criticism was one I would never ever have considered.  The post- Civil War memoirs I read didn’t mention this particular rule–You Always Bathe at Night.

Now a lot of the things she’d told me made sense. It’s very difficult to carry a cup of liquid upstairs, for example. That I could figure out.  I thought I’d given my character’s situation an adequate amount of research and contemplation. Even so, I had to get back with her for an explanation about bathing at night.

My friend, although she’d never had an amputation, had one leg that was much shorter than the other. She usually wore a prosthetic to compensate. And that meant, she told me, that after bathing she had to let her skin dry out completely–overnight was best–before donning her prosthetic. If she didn’t, it would rub her skin raw (and then she wouldn’t be able to use the prosthetic again for days.) Dampness was her enemy.

She had a lot of other practical advice for me, but that one comment about wearing a prosthetic stood out for me because it was one I’d never considered. I had researched, but that tidbit simply wasn’t in the literature I covered.

That did give me pause. I wondered if I hadn’t bitten off more than I could chew, if I should give up having the character suffer the amputation because I didn’t want to offend a reader who knew better than me.  What I decided, though, was that I should try.  Someone needs to try to write about the guy with the missing leg.

I will make some mistakes. I cannot know what it’s actually like to live with that disability day after day, but I’m going to try to figure it out, and do the best I can to put that down on the page.

1 Comment on [Guest Post] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: J. Kathleen Cheney (DREAMING DEATH) on the Rule “You Always Bathe at Night”

  1. S.C. Flynn // January 28, 2016 at 10:52 am //

    Hmm…going even beyond research. Difficult

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