The Power of Poisons

A couple of years ago, when I saw that the American Museum of Natural History in New York, was running an exhibit entitled, “The Power of Poisons”, I just had to attend. Why you might ask. It all started when after my sophomore year of college; I took a part time job in a toxicology laboratory at the National Institute of Environmental Health and Sciences at the Research Triangle Park in the Raleigh-Durham, NC area. Well, it was love at first sight – toxicology; and me and we have been together ever since! In case you may not know, toxicology is a discipline incorporating biology, chemistry, pharmacology and medicine that involve the study of the adverse effects of chemical substances on living organisms; i.e., the study of poisons. The word toxicology comes from the ancient Greeks and Byzantines, meaning poison and study of. I went on to the University of Cincinnati to get a Masters and Ph.D. in toxicology and then, you may not believe this, figured out a way to get paid to study poisons! Is America Great or what! How, you ask did I pull this off? Here’s the secret – technically, everything is a poison, it’s just a matter of the dose!

Where are poisons found?

  • Animal – For example, reptilian venoms are among nature’s deadliest innovations. Every year, these expensive weapons (because of the energy needed to produce the venom), delivered through the fangs of vipers, cobras and numerous others, kill up to 200,000 people.
  • Plant – Over millions of years of evolution, plants have developed an array of chemical defenses against insects, herbivores and even other plants.
  • Mineral – Some metals can be toxic. Arsenic and mercury are two well known examples.


How do poisons work? Poisons are defined by the systems that they effect.

  • Neurotoxins like strychnine and mercury affect the signaling mechanisms of nerves.
  • Cytotoxins like ricin (from castor beans, remember you Breaking Bad fans?) and arsenic disrupt cell functions.
  • Hemotoxins, found in leech saliva and many snake venoms inhibit blood clotting.
  • Mycotoxins found in some vipers destroy muscle tissue.
  • Some viper venoms combine neurotoxins, mycotoxins and hemotoxins. A bite from some of these vipers can result in death in a matter of minutes!



Here are just a few other poisonous animals…


Golden Poison Frog:  The golden poison frog is considered one of the most toxic animals on Earth. A single specimen measuring two inches has enough venom to kill ten grown men. The indigenous Emberá people of Colombia have used its powerful venom for centuries to tip their blowgun darts when hunting, hence the species’ name.

Scientists are unsure of the source of this frog’s amazing toxicity, but it is possible they assimilate plant poisons, which are carried by their prey. Poison dart frogs raised in captivity and isolated from insects in their native habitat never develop venom.


Wandering Spider or “Banana Spider: Remember those panicked reports of people finding deadly spiders-perhaps the deadliest on Earth-in bunches of bananas? Those reports referred to the Brazilian wandering spider, whose bite can cause severe burning, sweating, and goose bumps followed by high or low blood pressure, nausea, hypothermia, blurred vision, vertigo, and convulsions.

The Guinness Book of World Records considers the Brazilian wandering spider the most venomous in the world. Hundreds of bites are reported annually, but a powerful anti-venom prevents deaths in most cases.


The Giant Silkworm Moth Caterpillar (see the little cutie below) is a species of moths from South America. It is famous for its larval form, rather than the adult moth, primarily because of the caterpillar’s defense mechanism, spiny bristles that inject potentially deadly venom. The caterpillar has been responsible for many human deaths, especially in southern Brazil.


So, remember, everything is a poison; it’s just a matter of the dose! And before you pickup some cute little crawly thing; some poisons come in very cute packages…

Posted in Author Bill Powers, Bill Powers, Medical Suspense/Thriller, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Cute and Venomous

“Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.”

– Paracelsus

When most of us think of venomous animals, what most likely comes to mind are slithery reptiles, multi-legged spiders or anything living in Australia. But did you know that there are venomous mammals? In contemporary nature, venomous mammals are relatively rare. It is suggested by paleontologists that poisonous mammals were once more common.

What are some venomous mammals?

  • Well, you may be familiar with the Duck-Billed Platypus that odd Australian (surprise) egg-laying mammal that resembles a cross between a furry duck/beaver. While both male and female platypuses are born with ankle spurs, only the male’s spurs deliver venom from a gland in their thighs, which is potent enough to kill a mid-sized dog. While Platypus venom is not lethal to humans, it is potent enough to temporarily incapacitate a person.
  • Several species of shrew; the Eurasian water shrew, the Northern Short-tailed shrew and the Southern Short-tailed shrew, etc.
  • And my favorite – the Cuban Solenodon – they are so frigging cute!



The Cuban Solenodon is endemic to Cuba and related to the Hispaniolan Solenodon. It was previously thought to be extinct, but was recently sighted in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. It is a nocturnal burrower that lives underground, making it hard to find. The Solenodon weighs about 2 pounds and measures 16 – 22 inches from nose to tail with an extremely elongated snout and a long, naked, scaly tail. It resembles members of the Tenrecidae famile that include hedgehogs, shrews, opossums, mice and otters.

The Cuban Solenodon is found in dense, humid forest and around plantations. It is an insectivore and comes out at night to hunt insects and lizards. They have a long life span and low reproductive rate as a result of being among the dominant predators in their habitat before Europeans colonized the New World, bringing larger mammals.

Solenodons have venomous bites. Their venom is delivered from modified salivary glands via grooves in their lower incisors.

Currently the Cuban Solennodon is considered an endangered species because it only produces a single litter of one to three pups in a year and because of predation by species that were introduced by humans.

But wait, what if there was a cute, but deadly venomous primate? Impossible, you say? You’re wrong. The Slow Loris (genus Nycticebus) is accepted as the only known venomous primate! And check out cute it is. Look at that face!


There are at least nine recognized species of Slow Loris and they are relatively small, weighing approximately two pounds. They have a dual composite venom that consists of their specialized saliva and secretions from a specialized sweat gland on their forearm.  The mixture, which is administered by a bite from an adapted toothcomb, is a potent toxin that in humans can produce necrotic wounds, anaphylactic shock and even death in some circumstances.

So, the next time you go to pet some cute little animal, just remember –  “Deadly doesn’t have to be scary looking”.

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The Toxicology of The Terror

Above – HMS Terror shipwreck

In my previous blog (The Terror of The Terror), I shared with you my minor obsession with the doomed saga of The Franklin Expedition in a 19th century search for the Northwest Passage in the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus. Let’s go to the end of the story and work our way back. The British Admiralty launched several failed rescue missions starting in 1848 and some went on for 33 years.

In 2014, archaeologists and Inuit historians found the HMS Erebus in Victoria Strait. Two years later, the HMS Terror was found in Terror Bay on the southwestern coast of King William Island. But what happened to the crew? Some communications left by Captain Crozier and Commander James Fitzjames (Captain of the Erebus) and second in command of the expedition upon Franklin’s death was found in Cairns, but the official ships logs were never found. The wrecks of the Terror and Erebus are in relatively shallow water and in good shape, most likely due to the frigid water temperatures. The sites are protected and being preserved with artifacts being recovered.

But what happened? There are several theories. Imagine my glee when I stumbled across a paper by Zane Horowitz (Oregon Health & Science University) on “Polar Poisons: Did Botulism Doom the Franklin Expedition?”. I’m a toxicologist by training and now a mystery/thriller author. The story of The Terror combines mystery/suspense with history, a wee bit of the supernatural and toxicology. It is truly my perfect story!

Let’s unpack what we know.


  • The HMS Terror and HMS Erebus were state of the art and very well provisioned to feed 134 men for three years, including 32,224 pounds of salt beef, 36,487 pounds of biscuits, 20,463 pints of soup, 8900 pounds of preserved vegetables, 9260 pounds of lemon juice (to combat scurvy), 3684 gallons of concentrated spirits and 4980 gallons of ale and other alcohol beverages.
  • The provider of the canned goods for the expedition was Stephan Goldner (the lowest bidder), who a few years later would be caught in a scandal regarding his canned foods for naval ships going rancid. One theory is that the majority of the expedition’s canned food went bad, resulting in them loosing a significant portion of their food supply.
  • On May 19, 1845, Erebus and Terror left England and sailed for the west coast of Greenland, where five men were discharged due to illness, bringing the total crew number to 129. On July 26, the expedition met two British whaling ships, the Enterprise and the Prince of Whales – the last Europeans to see the Franklin expedition alive.
  • The Erebus and Terror continued west and wintered on Beechey Island where three crewmembers died and were buried in the permafrost. The bodies were exhumed (and reburied) in the 1980s for forensic testing in order to shed light on what may have happened.
  • On September 12, 1846, the sea froze around the Erebus and Terror just north of King William Island, signaling the start of winter. The crew left messages in a cairn detailing events to this point.
  • The sea in this region usually froze in late August or early September and then broke up the following spring, but in 1847, spring and summer never came and Erebus and Terror found themselves trapped and drifting helplessly with the pack ice.
  • By spring 1848, both ships remained stuck in the ice. Captain Franklin and several officers and crew had died of currently unknown causes. Crozier was now in command with Fitzjames as his second-in-command. The men were reaching the end of their original food supply. They decided to abandon Erebus and Terror in a desperate attempt at survival. They hoisted smaller boats on sledges, packed them full of provisions and set off in search of rescue. They returned to the cairn where they had left a note a year earlier; where Crozier and Fitzjames updated their status (see below). The remaining crew set off for Back’s Fish River, which led to a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, but this goal was hundreds of miles away over a vast artic wasteland.
  • In 1854, a Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor met with several Inuit near King William Island and asked if they had seen white men or ships. The Inuit told of seeing about 40 survivors marching south dragging a boat on a sledge. The Inuit also reported that later during the 1850 season they encountered the corpses of some 30 persons and some graves. The Hudson’s Bay Company report states, “From the mutilated state of many of the bodies, and contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative as a means of sustaining life.” Cannibalism
  • Forensics backs up this gruesome finding. In the 1980s and 1990s, bones of crewmembers were found and showed signs of heating and breakage and being cracked open to obtain the fat-rich bone marrow. The conclusion was undeniable evidence of cannibalism.
  • In 1859 a British search expedition found a trail of bones and other evidence along the southwestern coast of King William Island. A boat with two skeletons and supplies was found, along with the cairn where they retrieved Crozier’s and Fitzjames’ note – the sole piece of written evidence from the Franklin expedition.
  • The first explorer to navigate the Northwest Passage by ship, the goal of the Franklin expedition, was Roald Amundsen in 1903 – 1906.
  • In 2014, archaeologists and Inuit historians located the wreck of the Erebus in Victoria Strait and in 2016; a separate group located the wreck of the Terror in Terror Bay.


What could have happened to the crews of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus?

o   High levels of lead were found in the tissue and bones of all three crew buried on Beechey Island. Some have suggested that the lead solder used to seal the expedition’s canned provisions had leached into the food resulting in neurological impairment and possibly death.

o   Could Botulism, type E, which is endemic in the Arctic, have contributed to crew deaths? In theory the Botulism could have come from improperly prepared canned foods or from eating contaminated local fish and game.

o   Or was the fate of the crew a combination of horrors; lead poisoning, botulism, scurvy, tuberculosis, zinc deficiency, Addison’s Disease, exposure, starvation, cannibalism?

  • One last tale persisted in some remote Inuit corners. That one white man, an ‘‘eshmuta,’’ was aided by the Inuk and survived. Romantics like to think that young, Captain Crozier, the ‘‘eshmuta’’ leader of that final brave death march south, the most experienced Arctic explorer alive at that time, was that sole survivor. Will we ever know?

↓  ­Location of HMS Terror & HMS Erebus abandonment and shipwrecks

← Facsimile of Crozier & Fitzjames note found in cairn




For Further Reading:

  1. The Terror by Dan Simmons – 2007
  2. Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition by Owen Beattie by John Geiger – 2017
  3. Captain Francis Crozier: Last Man Standing? by Michael Smith – 2006
  4. Sir John Franklin’s Erebus and Terror Expedition: Lost and Found by Gillian Hutchinson – 2017
  5. Polar Poisons: Did Botulism Doom the Franklin Expedition?  A. Horowitz; Journal of Toxicology. Clinical Toxicology 41 (6): 841-847, February 2003
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The Terror of The Terror








Have you ever experienced a story, be it a television show or series, a movie or novel that gets inside your head and just won’t let go even after you have finished the original story? Well The Terror did that for me. The Terror is a 2007 novel by Dan Simmons and a 2018 television series on AMC.

Warning: If you have not seen series or read the book, there are spoilers below.

Why did this story grab me? The Terror combines history with mystery/suspense with the supernatural and believe it or not with toxicology! It’s my perfect story!

In the early 19th century the search for the Northwest Passage, a sea route from the Atlantic to the Pacific was the equivalent of the mid-20th century quest to put a man on the moon. The prevailing theory at the time was that the Arctic would be relatively ice-free during the summer months. A sea route from the Atlantic to the Pacific, through northern Canada, would quickly become a trade route from Europe to Asia. The leader of this exploratory quest – the premier sea power of the 19th century – the British Royal Navy.

On this particular expedition, two ships were outfitted, the HMS Terror, a retrofitted bomb vessel built in 1813. She participated in several battles in the War of 1812, including the Battle of Baltimore with the bombardment of Fort McHenry. “And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there”
The “rockets” and “bombs” came from British naval bomb vessels that included HMS Terror. HMS Erebus was also a bomb vessel constructed by the Royal Navy in 1826. The vessel was named after the dark region in Hades of Greek mythology, called Erebus.

Several early 19th century attempts by the British navy to find and traverse the Northwest Passage had failed when in 1845; Captain John Franklin led a British Royal Navy expedition consisting of the HMS Erebus (his flag ship) and HMS Terror (captained by Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier), the expedition’s second-in-command.

The Franklin Expedition left England in 1845 with sufficient provisions to last for 3 years (5 with rationing). Both vessels had been retrofitted with extra timbers and iron plating to the fore and aft hull to withstand the pressures of the ice; along with a 40 horsepower steam engine.

The novel and AMC series have both added a very scary supernatural aspect to the story, but the story of HMS Terror and HMS Erebus is plenty scary enough.

Captains Franklin and Crozier both were experienced Arctic and Antarctica sea captains. Crozier appears to have been the more experienced and better of the two; unfortunately Franklin was the leader of the expedition.

The expedition left England on 19 May 1845 and was last seen entering Baffin Bay, located between Baffin Island and the southwest coast of Greenland. By September 1846, the two ships became trapped in ice off Canada’s King William Island and never moved again. Or did they?

The British Admiralty was not initially concerned, thinking the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus had enough food and supplies for three years. The Admiralty did eventually launch a rescue mission in 1848 and offer a 20,000 British Pounds reward for finding the Franklin Expedition. Rescue missions went on for 33 years.

But by 1848, when the first rescue expedition was launched, it was too late. Franklin died in June 1847 and 23 other men had died before 1848. Communications that the Captains left in Cairns describing their situation were later found. The rest of the crew under Captain Crozier stayed on the boats, alive for two full winters and eventually abandoned the boats in 1848 and attempted to walk toward an outpost. During these two winters at times the temperature dropped to -100 degrees F and the ice up to 15 feet thick! Try to imagine those conditions on two sailing ships of the early 19th century for three years!





They all died during the trek. Or did they?

Next blog, I will talk about what we know and about what could have happened and how toxicology comes into the story.

For Further Reading:

  1. The Terror by Dan Simmons – 2007
  2. Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition by Owen Beattie by John Geiger – 2017
  3. Captain Francis Crozier: Last Man Standing? by Michael Smith – 2006
  4. Sir John Franklin’s Erebus and Terror Expedition: Lost and Found by Gillian Hutchinson – 2017
Posted in Author Bill Powers, Bill Powers, Book, Suspense/Thriller Novel, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What Is Strauss-Howe Generational Theory?

Strauss-Howe Generational Theory is another esoteric concept that I stumbled across while doing research for a storyline. It’s a little complicated, so stick with me.

The theory was created by authors William Strauss and Neil Howe and refers to what they describe as a recurring generational cycle in American history. In their 1997 book, The Fourth Turning, the authors expanded the theory to focus on a fourfold cycle of generational types and recurring mood eras in American history. The theory was developed to describe the history of the United States, the 13 colonies and their British antecedents, but has since been expanded to generational trends elsewhere in the world and identified similar cycles in other developed countries.

With that said – it is a theory. Take what you want from it.

Historical cycles, according to Strauss-Howe, consist of four turnings that repeat for each cycle. Each cycle has thematically similar turnings, which they typify as:

  • The High (which follows the crisis that ended the previous cycle). Strong institutions and social collectivism, and weak individualism typify this period.
  • The Awakening. This period is typified by increasing personal and spiritual autonomy of people. During this period social institutions may be attacked, impeding public progress.
  • The Unraveling. Weak institutions that are distrusted typify this period. During this period, individualism is strong and flourishing.
  • The Crisis. This is an era of societal destruction, e.g. through war, where institutional life is destroyed. However, as this period ends, institutions will be rebuilt. Society will rediscover the benefits of being part of a collective, and community purpose will take precedence again.

A single historical cycle of “four turnings” is believed to take roughly 80-90 years. Strauss-Howe define this period as a “Saeculum”, which is a Latin word translated into English as “century”, but which originally meant “the span of a long human life”.

If you look at the definition of “Saeculum”, it is defined as a length of time roughly equal to the potential lifetime of a person or the equivalent of the complete renewal of human population or the span of living human memory. Originally it meant the period of time from the moment that something happened (for example war) until the point in time that all people who had lived at the first moment had died. At that point a new saeculum would begin. A saeculum is not normally used for a fixed amount of time, in common usage it stands for about 90 years. It can be divided into four “seasons” of approximately 22 years each; these seasons represent youth, rising adulthood, midlife, and old age.



The following table shows the last Four Saeculum and the Turnings for the last two:

Generation (years) Type Birth Years Formative Era


Revolutionary Saeculum (90)  1701-1791
Civil War Saeculum (67)  1792-1859
Great Power Saeculum (85)  1860-1942


Missionary Generation Prophet (Idealist) 1860-1882 (22) High: Reconstruction/Gilded Age
Lost Generation Nomad (Reactive) 1883-1900 (17) Awakening: Missionary Awakening
GI Generation Hero (Civic) 1901-1924 (23) Unraveling: World War I Prohibition
Silent Generation Artist (Adaptive) 1925-1942 (17) Crisis: Great Depression/World War II
Millennial Saeculum (69+) Now
Baby Boom Generation Prophet (Idealist) 1943-1960 (17) High: Superpower America
Generation X Nomad (Reactive) 1961-1981 (20) Awakening: Consciousness Revolution
Millennial Generation Hero (Civic) 1982-2004 (22) Unraveling: Culture Wars, Postmodernism
Homeland Generation Artist (Adaptive) 2005-present Crisis: Great Recession, War on Terror


According to Strauss-Howe, America is now in a Crisis Cycle, where institutions will be destroyed and rebuilt. Sound familiar?

I find Strauss-Howe fascinating and will give you a list for further reading if you choose. But why was I interested?

What if certain aspects of a significant historical event of the mid 20th century occurred very differently than that historically portrayed? We are nearing the end of the Saeculum after which historical memory will began to die. That “what if”, is part of a storyline and began my fascination with Saeculum and Strauss-Howe Generational Theory.


  • Howe, Neil; Strauss, William (1997). The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny. New York: Broadway Books.
  • Howe, Neil; Strauss, William (1991). Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069. New York: William Morrow & Company.
  • Howe, Neil; Strauss, William (2000). Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
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What Is Ericksonian Hypnosis?

Under conditions of traditional hypnosis, the client is fully aware that they are being hypnotized. You have all see the movie or television scene where the powerful, authoritative hypnotist implants suggestions in his subject, along the lines of “you are getting sleepy, your eyelids are getting heavier and heavier. You will stop smoking…”.  Traditional hypnosis is authoritative, direct and forceful.

But there is another method of hypnosis; an indirect method that is named after Dr. Milton Erickson, a prominent 20th century American psychiatrist and psychologist who is widely regarded as the “father of hypnotherapy”. Ericksonian hypnotherapy uses more of what is called indirect suggestions. Indirect suggestions are much harder to resist because they are often not even recognized as suggestions by the conscious mind, since they can disguise themselves as stories, metaphors or symbols.

The Ericksonian Hypnosis model focuses on three aspects:

  1. 1.Rapport – Building an empathetic connection with the client. In addition to verbal communication, this may include “mirroring” the subject’s body language (not mimicking, which could be off-putting.
  2. 2.Overloading conscious attention – By distracting the conscious mind with vagueness and ambiguity, one is able to open the unconscious to change. Erickson developed very specific techniques that he called “the confusion technique*” and the “handshake induction**”.
  3. 3.Indirect Communication – Subjects can only meet a direct order in two ways; with acceptance or dismissal (the latter being more likely). Indirect suggestion, being more subtle and elusive, can be a more productive way to invoke change.


* Confusion Technique – A confused person has their conscious mind busy and occupied or distracted, and therefore more open to unconscious learning. A confused state is actually a trance in itself and confused people are more susceptible to going into a trance state. Confusion may be created by ambiguous words, complex or endless sentences, pattern interruptions, etc.

** Handshake Induction – One of Erickson’s most famous hypnosis techniques is the handshake induction. Erickson demonstrated that it was a subtle way to change the subject’s accepted behavior. When someone performs a handshake you may have never realized it’s a trance. It is the most widespread social norm in the world to shake hands at the beginning of a meeting; we don’t even think about it. By interrupting this subconscious process, Erickson was able to open the mind for suggestion. This is a classic example of “pattern interruption.”

Erickson’s handshake technique is well documented in his books and by those that have met him. He began with a strong, normal shake to begin the induction. Then he would interrupt the process by loosening the strength of the grip and brushing specific fingers against the subject’s hand. It’s quite complicated to learn, but a powerful induction.

Why did I learn about Ericksonian Hypnosis? In my last novel, “The Torch is Passed”, Deirdre Southington is a forensic psychologist who works for the National Security Agency. She uses Ericksonian hypnosis to get another character to admit to their involvement in a crime. Deirdre does this by having several conversations with the other character over several encounters and implanting indirect suggestions.

I stumbled across Ericksonian hypnosis while doing research for The Torch is Passed and found it fascinating. Look into it. Learn it if you dare…

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Dark, Malevolent Personality Traits

Let’s hope that you don’t know any of these “dark” types, unless you are a mystery/thriller author, in which case you need to get to know them intimately. You will need them to create fascinating, interesting antagonist – bad guys (“guy” being gender neutral in this case). The type of bad guys that you love to hate! You can’t look away from what they are doing.

Dark or malevolent personality refers to those with less empathic or more negative personalities perhaps even sociopathic behaviors.

The Dark Triad is made up of three negative traits, i.e., narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy.

  • Narcissists have exaggerated self-esteem. Everyone has self-esteem, but narcissists have more than needed. They tend to be “grandiose self-promoters who crave attention.”
  • Machiavellian personalities are extremely manipulative, but usually are not psychopathic, but some can be narcissistic. These tend to be “master manipulators”. Bernie Madoff, the confessed operator of the largest Ponzi scheme in world history, and the largest financial fraud in U.S. history, is a text book example of a Machiavellian.
  • Psychopaths display harmful behaviors towards others because they have distinct brain differences. Several studies show that a psychopath’s brain may show damage to the frontal lobe, which regulates a person’s ethics. Psychopaths are the most malevolent of this group. They show little concern for who gets hurt as they seek thrills. Their impulsiveness makes them less adept at white collar crime like Madoff, and more inclined towards violence – think Charles Manson and Whitey Bulger.

But there are numerous classifications of malevolent personalities.

  • Sociopaths are products of their environment. Perhaps they have gone through some kind of trauma and their sociopathic behavior serves as a coping mechanism.
  • Sadists display an enjoyment of inflicting cruelty on others.
  • Cynics have a jaded view of the world and tend to put down attempts at progress.


Now how to you create a realistic, believable bad guy? I like to create a villain that the reader will still care about what happens to them. Even if the antagonist is odious, they are still human. You will need to allow their human side to show.

  • Do a backstory on your antagonist. Allow their past to explain what motivates them. Very few people are evil just for the sake of being evil. Do they have a family? In real life many do.
  • Find a sympathy factor. If you can make the reader feel this, they will be hooked on finding out what happens to the antagonist. Make the character multi-dimensional.
  • Justify the bad guy’s position. Show his thinking. No matter how bad he or she seems to you, the bad guy thinks they are in the right. Let that thinking come out. You want the reader to be slightly conflicted about the antagonist.
  • In a mystery/thriller, you will likely want your villain to be a realistic and believable, yet darkly motivated character vs some sort of “super-villain”.
  • Dark personalities are not favorable, yet in real life these people often attract partners. Why do people with malevolent personalities seem to attract partners so easily? Studies suggest that dark personality traits are attractive because they are unconventional. A rebellious man or an impulsive, mysterious woman may seem sexy.

Keep all these malevolent, dark traits in mind when creating your antagonists – make them dark, yet alluring. You’ll get your reader hooked.

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Character Building: Psychopath vs Sociopath

In recent decades, storytellers through movies, novels and television have put two seemingly sexy and fascinating pop psychology terms into our popular vocabulary – psychopath and sociopath. Both of these are non-clinical or pop psychology terms for antisocial personality disorders. They are not well defined and can be confusing, however there are some similarities as well as differences between these two personality types.

Both of these antisocial types, the psychopath and sociopath, make for first-rate antagonists and villains in our stories. After all, we are talking about people with no feelings of guilt, regret, shame or remorse. They can do anything and feel nothing. They can be very dark and malevolent. They can go places and do things that most of us only dare dream of.

Both psychopathy and sociopathy are antisocial personality disorders and both are the result of an interaction between genetic predisposition and environmental factors. Psychopath tends to be used when the underlying cause is more hereditary. Sociopath is the term used when the antisocial behavior is a result of a brain injury or belief system or upbringing, i.e., environmental. Thus researchers generally believe that psychopaths tend to be born, while sociopaths tend to be created by their environment.

Both sociopaths and psychopaths demonstrate a pervasive pattern of disregard for the safety and rights of others. Deceit and manipulation are common features to both personality types and neither is necessarily violent, although both can be.

Psychopaths, in general have a hard time forming real emotional attachments with others. Instead, they may form artificial, shallow relationships that lend themselves to manipulation that will benefit the psychopath. People may be viewed as pawns to be used to reach their goals and they rarely feel guilt or remorse for their behaviors, even if others are hurt. Examples of psychopaths in pop culture – Dexter and Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.

Sociopaths may tend to be more impulsive and erratic in their behavior than their calculating psychopath counterparts. The sociopath tends to be less organized and less able to form attachments to others. If they do engage in criminal behavior, they do so in an impulsive and unplanned manner with little regard for the risks or consequences of their actions. Examples of sociopaths in pop culture – the Joker in The Dark Knight and Alex Delarge in A Clockwork Orange.

Who is More Dangerous?

While both psychopaths and sociopaths can present risks to society, I would say, the psychopath is the more dangerous of the two because they are more manipulative and able appear normal, while experiencing little guilt for their actions. In other words, they can hide in plain sight. A psychopath also has a greater ability to dissociate from their actions, i.e., they have little emotional involvement to any pain or destruction they may cause to others. Many famous serial killers have been psychopaths.

But we should keep in mind that not all people that we consider to be a psychopath or sociopath are violent.

Here is a cheat sheet if you are building a character:






  • Tend to be male
  • Tend to be male
  • ~1% of general population
  • ~3% of general population
  • Lack empathy
  • Lack empathy
  • Can demonstrate disregard to social rules and behavior standards; fail to feel remorse or guilt; can be violent
  • Can demonstrate disregard to social rules and behavior standards; fail to feel remorse or guilt; can be violent
  • Origin of illness is innate condition. Studies on twins reared apart indicate condition is 60% heritable. They are simply “that way”
  • Origin of illness is likely due to environment and upbringing.
  • Likely to be educated and have a good career
  • Likely to be uneducated and unable to keep a steady job
  • Controlled behavior
  • Erratic behavior – rage and anger
  • Highly manipulative
  • Impulsive, spontaneous
  • Unable to form personal attachments
  • May form attachment to a particular individual or group
  • Takes calculated risks. Minimizes evidence
  • Crimes are typically spontaneous, hence tendency to leave clues and evidence.



Psychopath and sociopath are different cultural labels applied to the diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. If you are building a character, it can be helpful to have an understanding of these two conditions.



    1. Differences Between a Psychopath vs Sociopath; John M Grohol, Psy.D.
    2. Psychopath vs Sociopath: What’s the Difference?; Natasha Tracy
    3. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition
  1. Stop Calling Sherlock A Sociopath! Thanks, a Psychologist; Maria Konnikova
Posted in Author Bill Powers, Bill Powers, Medical Mystery, Psychology, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Synesthesia – A Superpower or a Curse

  • Synesthesia – The production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body
  • Synesthete – Individuals who exhibit Synesthesia capabilities
  • Mirror-Touch Synesthesia – A condition that causes individuals to experience the same sensation (such as touch) that another person feels.
  • Empathic Ability – exaggerated ability to understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions
  • Debilitating effect – Constant bombardment of other people’s feelings


Synesthesia is thought to be an extreme neurological condition that could be present in most of us in whom stimulation of one sense (such as sight, smell) can lead to an experience in a second sense.

Example – Growing up one of my jobs was to mow our lawn at home – it was ~ 5 acres and to mow the lawn at my Dad’s school, it was ~ 20 acres and I’m allergic to grass. I hate mowing the lawn, but I love the smell of fresh cut grass. A few months ago, I was reading something and it triggered an olfactory response. For a couple of seconds, I felt like I was standing in the middle of a field of fresh cut grass. I didn’t remember the smell of fresh cut grass; I actually smelled fresh cut grass even though I was sitting inside my house. That was a synesthetic response – my sense of sight (seeing a series of words) triggered my sense of smell (the smell of fresh cut grass).

Synesthesia was first described medically in the early 19th century, but in the early 20th century fell out of favor because it couldn’t be accurately studied. But in the late 20th century it began to be seriously studied again by psychologist.

It’s possible that most people have some capabilities related to Synesthesia, but because it’s considered weird or odd, it may be suppressed. Some think that up to 4% of the population have true synesthetic capabilities.

There are several different types of Synesthesia:

  1. Color Synesthesia – This is the most common form of Synesthesia, where letters or numbers are perceived as a color. For example when a person with Color Synesthesia hears or sees the number 5 or the letter A, they may perceive it as the color Red and so on.
  2. Chromesthesia – This is the association of sounds with colors. For some, everyday sounds such as a door opening, car horn or people talking can trigger seeing colors. For some, musical notes may trigger seeing colors. Many musicians are thought to have a form of Synesthesia.
  3. Number Synesthesia – where numbers appear in 3-dimensional space. Here, the number 1980 may appear further away than 1990.
  4. LexicalGustatory Synesthesia – This is one of the more rare forms of Synesthesia in which spoken or written words can cause individuals to experience a taste or smell.
  5. MirrorTouch Synesthesia – Another rare form of Synesthesia where individuals feel the same sensation that another person feels (such as touch). So if a synesthete saw someone being touched on their shoulder, the synesthete would also feel a tap on their shoulder. It’s considered a state of heightened Empathic ability.


It’s not clear how it occurs, but one theory is that regions of the brain that are dedicated to specialized functions may increase cross talk between regions. In some, Synesthesia can be debilitating, because it presents as a constant bombardment of sensations.

Mirror-Touch Synesthesia:

I found this type of Synesthesia to be most fascinating and came across a recent article about a doctor named Joel Salinas, a neurologist at Harvard, who has Mirror-Touch Synesthesia.

  • When he thumps a patients’ left knee with a reflex hammer, he feels it as a tap on his left leg – not a thought of what it would feel like, but an actual physical sensation.
  • If he sees someone slapped across the cheek, he feels a hint of the slap against his own cheek.
  • Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference, or what is often called the capacity to place oneself in another’s shoes. Well, Mirror-Touch Synesthesia is considered a heightened empathic ability.
  • Mirror-Touch Synesthesia is thought to occur in 1 – 2% of the general population and can be debilitating.
  • There is a constant intrusion – a bombardment of other people’s experiences. There are reports of people with Mirror-Touch who have seen a person being punched and passed out or just watching television becomes a sensory over-load. Some become shut-ins.
  • It can be a painful existence.
  • When Dr. Salinas performs a spinal tap on a patient, he can feel the needle going into his own lower back.
  • Salinas also has color-synesthesia – he sees letters and numbers in colors. And he associates those colors with personality traits and feelings. For example a person may “feel like a 5, which he sees as Red and associates with a strong personality” or a people he sees as 4s and 7s he sees as blue and soothing.
  • While other forms of Synesthesia have been studied for many years, Mirror-Touch Synesthesia has only been studied for about 10-15 years.
  • It’s also been observed that people with Mirror-Touch Synesthesia are better at recognizing facial emotions in other people – they are better at reading other people. They seem to be actual Empaths. They can actually share another person’s experiences and emotions.
  • And if that’s not enough, Dr. Salinas finds that his form of Synesthesia extends to inanimate objects – when he looks at a light pole, he might feel his body stretching and elongating.
  • Dr. Salinas has learned how to manage and control his Mirror-Touch Synesthesia; otherwise, it would overwhelm him.
  • No one really knows why some people have Synesthesia. In Dr. Salinas’ case, he did have a benign brain tumor removed when he was 22 and he and others wonder if this may have caused his brain to develop differently from others. But he is clear on one thing – he feels very strongly that his Mirror-Touch Synesthesia, because it makes him more empathetic, makes him a better doctor.


So that is a little peek into the world of Synesthesia. It sounds like science fiction, but is real. It fascinates me as both a scientist and a writer and I have decided to create a minor character in my next book who has Mirror-Touch Synesthesia.

Posted in Author Bill Powers, Bill Powers, Medical Mystery, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Introvert’s Guide to Writers’ Conferences

A significant percentage of us who write for a living are introverts. Unfortunately, extroverts, who think they rule the universe, consider being an introvert the equivalent of having a third arm growing out of your forehead. It’s not. Introversion simply means, “preferring lower-stimulation environments”, but unfortunately is often interpreted as being antisocial. Again, it’s not.

Introversion is confused with shyness. Shyness is the fear of negative judgment, and introversion is a preference for quiet, minimally stimulating environments.

Many of our societal institutions, e.g., schools, businesses and yes, writers’ conferences, are designed mostly for extroverts and their need for constant stimulation.

So, what to do if you’re a writer and want to attend a conference – how can you get the most out of it?

  1. Yes, You Should Attend.

It may mean temporarily moving out of your comfort zone, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s only temporary and the benefits can be well worth it. As an introvert, you may have to manage it differently. You may have to plan a bit more than most. Each day, plan to do at least one thing that requires stretching yourself, such as requesting an appointment with an agent or editor.

  1. Stop Apologizing.

Before you event arrive at the conference, just in general – stop apologizing. There is nothing wrong with you. If someone else doesn’t “get you” because you’re an introvert – that’s their problem. Set goals for yourself. They will help you push yourself when you start to get tired

  1. Take Advantage of Social Media & Volunteer

Most conferences use hashtags on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) before the sessions start to get folks talking – take advantage of that.

Also, most conferences are looking for volunteers to help. This is a great way of forcing yourself to interact with others and immerse in the conference.

  1. Carve Out ‘Me-Time’

You introverts out there know what I mean. We have to have our ‘me-time’! I attended a week long professional training meeting once, where we broke up into teams of 5 people. Out teams were together each day from 8:00 am to midnight. After dinner each day, our team would continue to work on our project. Wednesday evening was a ‘free’ period and we could do as we pleased. Some folks went out as groups. I locked up in my hotel room, ordered room service and luxuriated in my ‘me-time’.

Whether it’s quiet time in your hotel room, a half-hour in the hotel gym or a walk outside, make self-care a priority in your schedule. Manage yours at the writers’ conference; you’ll enjoy it better.

  1. Ask Questions.

In conference sessions, it’s a good way to get confortable. If you’re talking to someone and the conversation seems to hit a lull, ask a question. It can be any question.

People love to talk about themselves – their jobs, their writing projects, their kids, have they been to this or other conferences – you get the picture. Then you can sit back and listen.

Here’s a little trick: Rather than try to talk over the loudmouths (which probably won’t work), hold your hand or finger in the air as you speak, so you aren’t interrupted, and speak softly. This forces everyone to lean into you to hear, which lends authority to what you have to say.


So, all you writer-introverts out there thinking of attending a writers’ conference – do it! You can enjoy it, learn a lot and may even make new friends – and still be an introvert.

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