The Burn Patient is a gritty, action-packed L.A. thriller featuring African-American TV reporter, Beatrice Middleton and her photographer partner, Lucy Vega. It’s the third in the Vega & Middleton series with a fourth scheduled for release in 2021. If you like Rizolli & Isles, you might enjoy this series, too.
The relationship between Vega and Middleton is based on my real-life partnership many years ago when I was a rookie TV news photog hired by a Midwest station with two FCC sex discrimination suits against them. They badly needed a female hire so I became the token woman in the tech department and my female reporter colleague was the only person of color employed by the station. As the two outliers, were often thrown together on assignments.
A feature that makes my work somewhat different than others in the genre is that my stories are very multi-cultural with diverse characters. Beatrice Middleton is from an African-American family in Savannah, Georgia. Lucy Vega was born and raised in Southern California by a Mexican mother from Guadalajara and a Norwegian father from Oslo. After the family was killed in a car accident, Lucy’s uncle and his housekeeper took over her upbringing. I’ve found many authors afraid of writing characters of different races, sexual orientation, religions, and ethnicities from their own—afraid of a making a mistake that reveals a hidden bias or unrealized prejudice. Criticism can be harsh. But that’s our world today—a huge, wonderful melting pot--so I want to embrace it even if I screw up or stumble across my own areas of ignorance and insensitivity. It will be an opportunity to learn. As Tananarive Due, author and American Book Award winner says, “‘Diversity’ should just be called ‘reality.’ Your books, your TV shows, your movies, your articles, your curricula, need to reflect reality.” Overall, I think compassion and due diligence in research are the most important parts of writing about anyone well.
The Burn Patient’s protagonists, Lucy and Bea, are smart, passionate, a little reckless but very effective at what they do. Both have great integrity, hearts of gold, and would risk anything for family and friends. Despite differences in age, race, and experience, their values are such that they are true sisters under the skin. I have been blessed with wonderful women friends and colleagues from whom to draw inspiration.
The Burn Patient Plot Summary
Lucy thought she’d seen her uncle’s murderer, Gary Mercer, Hollywood bad boy and black tar heroin czar, die in Guerrero. Incinerated in a Jeep explosion while trying to put a bullet through her head, she didn’t know officials never found his body. Now, back from the dead with a new face, his perverted sights are set on Bea’s beautiful, naïve teenage daughter, Alyssa. Trafficking her into the porn industry would be the perfect instrument of revenge. While Alyssa sneaks off to audition for the music video that will result in her ruin, Mercer’s henchmen start a brush fire on Lucy’s Malibu ranch. She and Bea struggle to save Alyssa, the ranch, and end Mercer’s reign of terror before it’s too late.
More on The Burn Patient and other books by the author at www.suehinkin.com
Podcast with the author: The Rocky Mountain Writer at https://rmfw.org/its-a-podcast/
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LOW COUNTRY BLOOD A Vega and Middleton Mystery Book 2 BY SUE HINKIN
Los Angeles TV journalist Beatrice Middleton has lost her job. With a possible employment offer in Atlanta, she heads home to Savannah, Georgia, to reconnect with her contentious African-American family. She arrives to find that her 15-year-old nephew has been murdered.
This begins the unraveling of a cloak of family secrets surrounding another devastating crime, one that shattered Bea’s world when she was a teen. The traumatic memory has been buried so deep it almost feels like it never happened—almost. Humiliated by Bea years earlier, a psychotic Special Ops vet who makes his living moving heroin and specializing in “wet work” has returned to seek retribution.
Meanwhile, Bea’s teenaged son Dexter, an aspiring documentary filmmaker discover an eye-witness connection to his cousin’s homicide. After a rookie attempt at surveilling the perpetrator, he disappears.
Bea and her brother, Sheriff Luther Middleton— along with their quirky friends and family—work together to find the killer, stop a major drug deal, and rescue Bea’s son held hostage in a nightmarish landscape of gator-infested black water rivers and tidal creeks.
PRAISE FOR LOW COUNTRY BLOOD Hinkin’s second Vega and Middleton Mystery…reads like a thriller, successfully blends multiple ingredients: fast pacing, romance, danger, humor, and a crazy wild ending. A spirited reporter dealing with her past and helping police solve a murder in the family makes this novel hard to put down.—Kirkus Review
Initially Low Country Blood was the first book that was contracted for publication by Literary Wanderlust, but you wanted to write the prequel Deadly Focus and publish that book first. How did that work with your publisher? Why did you want to go back and write a prequel? Talk about that. What made you decide to go back and write Deadly Focus to kick off the series and then publish Low Country Blood as the second book in the series rather than as the first book?
The prequel, Deadly Focus, actually existed in many versions prior to Low Country Blood. It was loosely based on a story I covered as a TV news photographer in Michigan decades ago. As I wrote the story, I brought the location to LA where I was living at the time and where I spent the most formative years of my adulthood. Through the many iterations of DF, I made every writing mistake a rookie could make. This was a good thing. DF is a critically important book for me because through it, I began to see myself as a writer, learned a great deal of the craft, and got to know my characters intimately.
I also learned the lesson of persistence. I wrote, gave up, shelved Deadly Focus for years, started again, was interrupted by life, gave up again, struggled back into it, and found people in similar straits to slog forward with. I should mention that I’m a Taurus so I have bullish determination in my stars.
Low Country Blood feels like a natural evolution for the storyline of your two main characters. How did both of your books evolve?
Both books evolved from my experience working in the television industry and the stories we covered and the people I initially met in that profession. In book #2, Low Country Blood, Bea loses her job as a result of a corporate buy-out. This happened to many of my friends who worked in print journalism, and I wanted to pursue that thread. Without the anchor an intense work environment provides, you’re forced to fall back onto the support of friends and family. For various reasons portrayed in this novel, Bea returns home to not only deal with her nephew’s murder, but unfinished family business and childhood trauma that has haunted her on many levels.
How do you develop your plots and characters?
My characters come from amalgamations of real-life relationships. I just keep getting to know them better with each book. Plotting comes very organically through my imagination. When I get stuck I stop and try to outline what’s to come. Sometimes I end up following the outline, sometimes my thinking goes off into another direction.
There are some very dark characters in Low Country Blood. How did you create such characters? (how did you research etc.).
I am constantly stunned by the abuse and brutality humans can inflict upon each other but I feel a certain empathy for all of my antagonists because they survived deeply damaging life situations that led them to become the twisted, evil characters that they are.
Was there a difficult scene or chapter in Low Country Blood that you were concerned with getting through? Or perhaps was there anything in the story that you were worried readers wouldn’t accept?
The most difficult scene to write was the rape scene from when Bea was a young, naive high schooler who took off with a beautiful, psychopathic bad boy with whom she was completely infatuated. I didn’t want it to be gratuitous but wanted to give voice to the full horror of the experience.
In subsequent years, Bea fled Savannah and blocked the experience from her mind. Returning home made it impossible to repress it any longer. Fortunately, she was able to come to grips with the trauma among people who loved and supported her.
In Low Country Blood, some of your characters are people of color. Did you find any aspect of this difficult to write? What about cultural differences?
Bottom line, people are people. I didn’t venture into specifics of cultural differences, but focused on the humanity we all share. I drew on experiences with African-American friends and colleagues over the years and took the leap of faith. I was very much afraid of being criticized for insensitive portrayal, we all have prejudice acknowledged and unacknowledged, but I was raised in family that were activists, particularly during the civil rights era of the 60’s and 70’s. I saw my grandparents and parents fighting for racial and gender equality–and that was my guide.
How does your past work – life experience come through your characters?
As a former TV news photographer myself, it’s fun to write Lucy into the same profession. I can relive and embellish on old times though her adventures. Her Mexican-Norwegian heritage is modeled after an L.A. friend named Lucia who is of Bolivian-German heritage.
The inspiration for Bea’s character started with a colleague I teamed with at my first job working in TV news back in Michigan. I was the only female photographer/tech person and she was the only African-American reporter so the News Director often scheduled we two marginal characters together.
What was your favorite part of writing Low Country Blood?
Enjoying being with Bea’s family, which is not unlike my own, and remembering the rich visual and sensual feel of Savannah and translating it into words.
If you could spend time with a character from your book, which character would it be? And what would you do during that day?
I’d probably hang with Aunt Hattie at her Beauty Spa in Shellman Corners. She’d probably talk me into letting her do my hair and nails while filling me in on all the juicy local gossip. Then we’d jump in her Ford Fairlane and head over to the Friday night fish fry at Hunter’s Inn where we’d meet the rest of the family. They’d all be amazed at my rainbow-hued acrylic nails and my blonde cornrows.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing Low Country Blood?
How similar Bea’s family is to mine. Both fathers are protestant ministers and mothers are educators. We share basic values and continue to believe in the redemptive power of love despite all. We think our children are exceptionally wonderful and have a hard time realizing we can’t protect them from experiencing their own difficult and defining experiences.
What is your writing process? Do you write daily? Do you outline? How do you develop ideas?My writing process is pretty simple—butt in chair and just do it. No excuses, no lingering writers block–just make it happen. I outline when I’m stuck as a way to push ideas onto paper and keep the momentum of writing when the words aren’t easily coming. Ultimately, I’m a very organic (pantser) writer and I may or may not follow the outlines I do–depends on what happens to the characters. They have a life of their own in my head and often make surprising, un-outlined choices.
Our thoughts were interrupted by a far-off scream. It was faint but so horrible and bloodcurdling that I had to swallow down the panic that began to crush my chest like steel pliers.
Otis froze, then reached for his gun. His hand rested on the damp metal for reassurance. “I’d say we’d better get going, Miz Bea. Things’re gettin’ bad out here. No time to waste.”
I followed him down the trail with a renewed sense of urgency. The screaming became louder and more tortured. It seemed to go on forever, then mercifully, began to wane. We were heading straight for it. It was definitely human but wasn’t my son Dexter or his friend, Cornelia—of that I was pretty sure. Maybe the two had already screamed themselves to death. I stopped myself from going there.
Soon, it was quiet once more except for the rumble of thunder and the sound of falling rain. The swampy forest was barely lit. In a dark, ominous twilight, ghostlike mist began to gather amid the underbrush. We had flashlights, but to avoid detection, we didn’t turn them on. Our eyes glued to the narrow band of sandy trail before us, we crept forward. After another slow, soggy half mile we stopped again for a break, exhausted as much from the emotional journey as the physical one. I could tell that Otis, a man in his late seventies, was losing steam. The storm was getting worse and the thunder and lightning were frighteningly close. I had also run out of spray paint. No more breadcrumbs for my brother to track. We were on our own.
A bolt of electricity ripped the sky. I could feel electrons dance on my skin. I touched my hair to be sure it wasn’t starting to stand on end. I’d read that happens before you get struck. Another bolt flashed nearby. As I looked up, above me hung a man. His arms and legs were gone; only his upper torso and head remained. What was left of the victim, below his ribcage, was skin that appeared ragged and chewed off. Blood dripped from the corpse like pink rain onto the vacant stretch of beach. Lightning came again and the image of the ravaged man embedded itself on my retinas like a photograph on film. I gasped and fell to my knees and pressed my hand over my mouth to keep from shrieking.
Readers love a strong female character. Just remember you can be vulnerable, unreliable, uncertain, or even physically weak and still be a strong character.
For decades, fans and publishers alike were eager for strong female characters. People were tired of damsels in physical or emotional distress. They wanted women who were smart, brave, capable, and who didn’t need men to solve their problems. Then we started getting them.
Hooray, right? Well, the problem is, we’ve mostly been getting one type of strong female character (SFC) — the ass-kicking kind — as opposed to women who are strong in other ways. This has led to a slew of characters who are often less interesting than their forebearers.
There’s no denying the empowering appeal of an ass-kicking SFC. The British TV show, The Avengers, featured a few of them, especially Dr. Cathy Gale and Emma Peel. These women were genius scientists, masters of martial arts, and fashion icons to boot (because why not). They inspired millions of girls, worldwide, and are considered iconic characters. No wonder. They were trailblazing characters … back in the 1960s. The problem is we haven’t really progressed beyond these women since then.
It’s not that fully developed, interesting strong female characters don’t exist in modern literature. They do. Esch in Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones and Ifemelu in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah come to mind. The problem is most pronounced in genre fiction — especially male-written genre fiction — where SFCs have become one-dimensional male-fantasy figures who don’t have nearly the emotional depth of their male peers.
Or, we get characters like Hermione Granger: amazing, capable characters with depth who get overshadowed by their male counterparts. (The “Simply Potter” Facebook group hilariously re-named the Potter books to fix this, e.g. Hermione Granger and that time I used the power of research and deductive reasoning to make sure Harry didn’t die; Hermione Granger and that time I was a Time Lord.)
Sometimes writers just can’t win when it comes to creating great SFCs. Female characters get criticized in ways that male characters don’t. Nancy Drew, who first appeared in 1930, has gone through several changes over the years (in an effort to keep up with the times) and each iteration has been equally praised and lambasted. She’s too bossy. She’s too outspoken. She’s too passive. She’s too submissive. The Hardy Boys have changed too, but they don’t receive the same criticisms as Nancy.
Of course, our idea of what a strong female is changes over time, too. Consider the case of two genre heroines: Ellen Ripley from Alien (1979) and Wendy Torrance from the film version of The Shining (1980).
Ripley was immediately hailed as a feminist role model. She wasn’t the typical “final girl” of slasher films. She was smart, outspoken, and, most of all, tough. She beat the alien, and she did it in a recognizably strong way — or, specifically, in a way that men recognized as strong. (It’s worth noting that the writers put a note in the Alien script that read: “The crew is unisex and all parts are interchangeable for men or women.”)
Wendy, on the other hand, was roundly criticized at the time. Stephen King led the charge of critics, calling Wendy a “screaming dishrag” and “one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film.” Yes, she and Danny ultimately prevail, but she was terrified and crying half the time, and seemed totally unsure of what to do the rest. And the fact that Kubrick famously harangued actress Shelley Duvall during filming only added to the sense that Wendy was the opposite of an SFC. Wendy wasn’t just considered weak, she was hated.
But times have changed, and opinion is shifting on Wendy. Many are now considering her a real-world example of a strong female character; she just happens to be strong in ways that are different from the cliché. She’s a caring and attentive woman caught in an abusive relationship. She’s a loving mom to her troubled son. She’s terrified, yes (who wouldn’t be?), but she manages to overcome her fear and prevail over Jack. She resourceful. She’s even brave.
In short, Wendy is a woman. A strong woman. (I would even argue that The Shining, whether intended by Kubrick or not, is a feminist film that clearly satirizes the crumbling world of the patriarchy: e.g. Wendy does all the work Jack was hired to do, on top of making all the meals and raising their son; Jack is merely an abusive, alcoholic, whiny, loser; Dick Hallorann, the proverbial knight in shining armor, gets killed — foolishly — the minute he shows up; “Your wife appears to be stronger than we imagined, Mr. Torrance;” etc.)
Championing Wendy doesn’t mean dissing Ripley. Ripley is a great character. She’s much more interesting and three-dimensional than most of the characters she inspired. She is, as author John Scalzi puts it, “pushy, aggressive, rude, injured, suffering from post-traumatic syndrome … tired, smart, maternal, angry, empathetic, and determined to save others, even at great cost to herself. All without being a spinny killbot.”
In the ‘60s, or even as late as 1979, the notion that “women can be strong, too” may have been groundbreaking. But today, that sentiment is patronizing. Strength can be expressed in ways that don’t involve the physical. Your heroine can be scared, inept, sick, suffering, depressed, shattered, haunted, cocky, bipolar, unreliable, uncertain, selfish, and even physically weak and still be a strong character — just the way so many male characters have been. The world is ready to embrace the notion that a well-written, compelling female character does not have to mimic a male stereotype of strength.
One last comment: Many agents and publishers will claim they are searching for strong female characters — they will even use those exact words. I would urge you, however, to avoid using that term in any queries you write, as it has become somewhat toxic. (After all, people never seem to feel the need to include the word “strong” in any description for a male character.) Instead, show how strong your heroine is without actually using that word.
What female characters have inspired you?