It Burns

Warning: This is not a very pretty, shiny post.

Bliss House is the tentative title of my nearly-completed WIP. I won’t go into deep detail here–this isn’t about the novel itself, but about some accidental research.

Jillian McAdam is a fourteen year-old girl who has shut herself away in the massive house her mother has just purchased in historic central Virginia. She’s hiding from the world, afraid that she’s become a freak because of the vicious burns covering a significant portion of her body. Bliss House may be a heaven or hell for her–it will turn out to be a bit of both, in the end.

I’ve looked at lots of photographs of burn victims, wondering what being seriously burned must feel like, and wondering what it would be like to almost die from devastating burns. I’ve pondered what it means to be disfigured–and what disfigurement really is. There are acceptable ranges of appearance that vary from one culture to the next. But the ranges are never very wide or terribly different from one another. Deviance from symmetrical norms is barely tolerated. And suffering as a fashion went out with hair shirts and self-flagellating monks.

My experience of a small burn wrought by carelessness is nothing compared to the anguish endured by the seriously injured, but it certainly got my attention.

As fond as I am of good research, I didn’t burn myself on purpose.  We had company at the house a little over a week ago, and I made pizzas. Lazy bum that I am, I didn’t bother to remove the oven rack sitting just a few inches above the rack holding the pizza stone. As I used a spatula to ease the stone-cooked pizza onto a baking sheet for cutting and serving, I accidentally burned my forearm on the unused rack. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, of course. Anyone who bakes more than once in a blue moon can tell you that the occasional minor burn is part of the drill.

It wasn’t until the following evening that the burn became a problem. Bengal and I were taking a CPR class for Scouts at a local hospital when someone brushed up against my arm and tore off the fragile veil of damaged skin covering the more tender layers. I had to bite my lip to keep from crying out. The burn looked pink and stupidly innocent, but it hurt a lot. That evening, I started putting an antibiotic cream on it. Eventually, my daughter convinced me that I needed to cover it with a loose bandage and actual burn cream. Here’s how it looks after a week:

It still hurts like hell if I touch it.

Now I must go back and extrapolate and imagine my character’s day to day life and I’m not sure if I can do it. The wound on my arm is about one-inch square. Jillian, my character, is a year out from her accident, and while she may not be in immediate physical pain, the memory of that pain must surely be beyond horrific. She is irreparably scarred–in both body and soul. Fortunately, for Jillian, Bliss House offers her something close to comfort and healing. But that healing can never be complete. Her pain can never be forgotten. She needs only to look down at her hands, or to look in the mirror to live it all over again. Still, Jillian’s story is fiction. It’s not real.

In my research, I stumbled upon Angel Faces, a non-profit group that provides healing retreats and ongoing support for adolescent girls with severe facial disfigurement. Also, Firefighters Quest for Burn Survivors. They seem to have a real heart for burn victims. You might want to check them out.

6 thoughts on “It Burns”

  1. carmar76 says:

    OUCH! sorry about your arm, but your WIP sounds terrific!

  2. Indigo says:

    There is something about real life experiences, and being able to take that knowledge and step into a characters mind. Although not as severe as your character’s burns, it does on some level allow you to understand the agony and pain, to make it more realistic.

    Sometimes plot gets in the way of all those details we wish we could convey.

    I am sorry about the burn you have. Amazing how our life experiences relate to our characters on a certain level. (Hugs)Indigo

  3. Carrie–Thanks! It’s much better today. Have been traveling, but now that I’m home, I’m excited to get back to work.

    Indigo–Excellent point. You’re so right about the plot sometimes getting in the way. I love plot, and find myself bored to death by aimless prose. Discovering the balance can be so difficult.

  4. JJ says:

    Laura, here’s a tip from an RN – and I have no idea why it works. Origins White Tea Skin Guardian works on burns. Put some on and the burning goes away and the area heals with no pain and no scarring. I found out accidentally when I got a burn and tried it. I’ve told friends and it’s worked for them, too. Hope it works for you — then you can concentrate on your book and not the owwwie!

  5. Coolkayaker1 says:

    Hi Laura. I have treated patients with burns in the past, although it’s not a routine part of my practice now. I mean, and no disrespect to your smart burn, whole body burns, in intensive rehabilitation. The pain is deep, nerve-generated, often dull and incessant, sometime lancinating (that’s a good medical description, lancinating, that you might consider for your WIP). The amount of fluid loss from the organ, skin, is huge, and fluid supplementation is key in the first months. If your protagonist suffers from large surface burns, we should Skype so that you can get info about burns to make it realistic. If she suffers smalled burns, well, it appears you have some personal experience with that. (Honestly, that looks painful).

    One thought, if your protagonist suffers smaller, unexplained burns, would be to have her experience some of the symptoms, (dryness, hypotension, headaches, etc.) that are associated with larger burns, making the scope of her suffering more than just what is seen on the skin. But that may not fit your work, and certainly, you’re the writer, I’m just a doc with some medical experience. Let me know if you wish for more info. Steve

  6. JJ–Thanks so much for the recommendation. I’ll look for it next time I’m in civilization. Love the idea of no scarring.

    Steve–Wow-I got so much just from your info here. Will def be in touch if I find myself in over my head.
    I’m realizing that the pain angle is critical to the character’s experience. Thank you!

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