How A Metal Rod Through the Brain Is Inspiring

Authors never know what's going to lead to a novel. A dream. Something we see from the corner of our eye. A random question, or an overheard conversation in a coffee shop. Or... in the case of A Madness So Discreet, a story about someone's front lobe being punctured by a tamping iron.

I'm fascinated by the human brain. Deeply, deeply fascinated. Our understanding of the rest of our bodies is pretty thorough, but the organ that makes us US, that commands our speech and movement, our personalities and intelligence we're still drawing a pretty big blank on. Yes, we're learning. We're mapping our brains and using the technology at our fingertips to make strides, but one of the larger steps toward knowing more about our brains came in 1848.

Phineas Gage was a railroad worker whose job involved setting blasts to make way through rock for the new lines. He used a tamping iron - a metal rod three feet long - to tamp charges down before igniting them. On September 13, 1848 someone messed up. A hole had been bored into the rock, the powder had gone in, and (Gage thought) so had the sand that his tamping iron packs. But the sand wasn't there, and when Gage struck the gunpowder it ignited, sending his tamping iron through his skull. It entered below his left eye socket and exited through the top of his head.

Yep, that's gross.

Gage is famous not because he had a tamping iron blown through his head. He's famous because he lived even though part of his frontal lobe exited along with the tamping iron. Gage not only lived, but was walking and speaking right after the accident. His workmen carted him to the town doctor, to whom he supposedly said, "Here's work enough for you, doctor."

Yes, he even had a sense of humor about it all.

But, not for long. Though Gage lived through the accident, his personality showed damage long after the physical healing was finished. Gage had been a hard worker, an intelligent foreman and a pleasant person. Post-accident Gage was a shadow of his former self. The doctor who treated him initially, Dr. John Martin, followed Gage's progress with interest and documented the personality change:

The equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities, seems to have been destroyed. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man. Previous to his injury, although untrained in the schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation. In this regard his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was 'no longer Gage.'

While Phineas' accident was life-changing in a bad way, it led to tremendous gains in the emerging science of neurology. Scientists were just beginning to understand that different areas of the brain served different purposes, and while they didn't quite grasp how this worked (enjoy this amusing early phrenology chart), Gage's trauma taught them that the frontal cortex was heavily involved in personality and social reasoning.

Gage died during an epileptic fit thirteen years after the tamping rod accident. His skull and tamping iron are in the Harvard University School of Medicine, if you want to go see them.

Gage's story is both sad and amazing, one that's always captured my attention. That a iron rod can pass through the human brain and that brain continue to function might sound like fiction, but it's not.

It's just science.

Reading about Phineas Gage got me interested in brain science, which led me to reading about lobotomies, which led me to reading about treatment of the insane, which led me to learning more about The Athens Lunatic Asylum, where A Madness So Discreet is set.

An amalgamation of different ideas and subjects came together to create A Madness So Discreet, but Phineas Gage ignited that spark.

Please tell me you get the joke (and forgive me, Phineas).

I like Phineas so much, I consider him my historical boyfriend. Watch the video to learn why.

The Importance of Facts, Even In Fiction

I'm a discerning reader, possibly to a fault. A factual slip can throw me out of a story and anything set in the country (or God forbid, on a farm) damn well better have been researched or I'm going to skewer it. In private, of course, but it will be skewered.

I researched for 18 months before writing A MADNESS SO DISCREET. I like to tell people I know so much about lobotomies I could perform one (I don't add that it's not a terribly delicate surgery). When it came to MADNESS, I dove in. Lobotomies, medical treatments for the mentally ill, the history of criminal profiling, the setting per 1890's culture, even speech patterns. I wanted to be thorough.

Originally MADNESS was supposed to have a connection to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and America's first known serial killer, H.H. Holmes. That was scrapped later on for various reasons, but I had already done so much in-depth work framing the book for the 1890's that I didn't want to deal with a very big roadblock.

Lobotomies as we know them weren't in use until the early 1900's.


A part of my plot hinged on lobotomies and I'd read over a thousand pages concerning them, so I wasn't going to toss everything in the bin. Instead, I needed a feasible reason for a doctor in 1890 to have enough medical evidence to support performing something like a lobotomy... and I found that in the story of Phineas Gage.

I read another thousand pages in relation to Phineas before executing the scene in MADNESS where Thornhollow describes to Grace the function of the frontal lobe and explains the procedure he's about to perform on her.

Thousands of pages of research went into roughly three pages of that book.

In the same vein, I researched water for six months before writing NOT A DROP TO DRINK. I read about the history of water, about the projected water shortage, and even a book concerning - yes, really - water law. I can tell you things about water law that you really, really don't care about.

But in all of my thorough research concerning water I overlooked something vital.

Gasoline expires.

Did you know that? I didn't.

It was something I didn't even think to look into. Most post-apocalyptic movies show plenty of roving bandits on motorcycles and people driving around in cars. Totally wouldn't happen. This was pointed out to me at a conference the year that IN A HANDFUL OF DUST (a book with, yes, people driving cars) released.

I'm not above telling you that it really, really bothers me that any scene in DRINK or DUST that involves gasoline is bogus.

That's how important facts are to me, even as a fiction writer. So important, that one of my favorite quotes from a historical figure found it's way into IN A HANDFUL OF DUST. I'm going to leave it here at the bottom of this post as well, and you will be seeing it pop in my social media feeds as we move forward this year.

Wednesday WOLF - Cops

've got a collection of random information in my brain that makes me an awesome Trivial Pursuit partner, but is completely useless when it comes to real world application. Like say, job applications. I thought I'd share some of this random crap with you in the form of another acronym-ific series. I give you - Word Origins from Left Field - that's right, the WOLF. Er... ignore the fact that the "from" doesn't fit.

Here's a little something I learned while writing A MADNESS SO DISCREET. I was working on a scene where a character needed to say something along the lines of, "Somebody call the cops!" Now, aside from the fact that they wren't calling anyone, I couldn't finish the sentence because I didn't know what policemen were called in Boston in the 1890s.

Were they police? Constables? Bobbies?

Ironically, I don't actually remember what the answer was, but I learned something cool while trying to find out.

The reason why we call police "cops" is because their badges were originally made out of copper - hence they were first called "coppers" which became shortened to "cops."

Fifteen minutes worth of research later, I was able to finish my one line of dialogue. 

And I got a blog post out of it :)