Writer turns family tragedy into debut novel

Woman’s grandfather and his two sons died from flu epidemic in late 1930s

By Jim Totten
Livingston County Daily Press & Argus (Howell)

HOWELL, Mich. (AP) — Lynne Smelser has injected all the right ingredients to make her first novel a fast-paced thriller.

A scientist creates a deadly flu virus that escapes from his lab, but he’s thwarted by a major drug company and by government agents who want to use the virus as a biological weapon. On top of this, he must face kidnappers who have taken his daughter, who is infected with the deadly virus, and are trying to create a cover-up.

Smelser’s book, “In Our Veins,” was recently released.

It’s fiction, but the Brighton Township woman said the inspiration came from a real family tragedy. Her grandfather and his two sons died from a flu epidemic in the late 1930s while living on a farm in Arkansas. Her grandmother, and later her father, told her stories about this incident.

“I wanted to write about my grandmother’s situation and the stories she told me,” Smelser said.

She said the idea first came to her when her own children were 4 and 1, the ages of her grandmother’s children who died. Her own father, one of 10 children, was 10 when he watched his father and two younger brothers die from the flu.

Smelser said her father, who is in his late 80s, didn’t talk much about the incident as she was growing up but is now sharing more about it.

“Now, he wants to talk about these things,” she said. “He remembers his father went into the hospital with the flu.”

She said her father has bottled up those painful memories for many years because he wasn’t allowed to talk about it as a child. He mentioned bits and pieces as she was growing up, and it surprised the family when he recently began talking about it.

Smelser jotted down some notes from her grandmother’s accounts 10 years ago and did a little research, but she couldn’t corral it into a story for a long time. She later wrote a story outline.

Another spark came when she heard about Russian diplomats accusing the United States of trying to use a virus as a political tool, and her story turned into a bigger novel.
She then began working on characters and doing a lot of research. She used libraries, consulted with nurses and interviewed staff at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

“I just kept going back to the outline and elaborating on it and making it more in-depth,” she said.

She made a lot of revisions to the story after having some nurses and medical professionals read a draft.

Smelser, a consultant for online learning programs, is an accomplished freelance writer. She has a doctorate in composition studies and a master’s degree in professional writing.

She researched flu epidemics and two disturbing biomedical incidents involving the U.S. government where citizens were used as scientific guinea pigs. She read about the Tuskegee syphilis study that ran from 1936-1972 and how black men infected with the disease were told they were being treated when they were actually being monitored.
“Instead, they were just charting their progress and watching them die,” Smelser said.

“I was totally astounded,” she said, adding that it’s scary to think government officials would do such a thing.

She also researched a lesser-known incident from the 1950s, when the U.S. government exposed some newborns to radiation to see what would happen.

Smelser said her novel’s characters ask a lot of questions in trying to figure out what has happened or hasn’t happened.

Besides enjoying her novel, Smelser wants readers to walk away with awareness.

“It’s awareness about what’s going on and how to monitor your own health,” she said.

Smelser said her father always insisted on his children getting flu shots, and even though she’s an adult, he still calls her and asks if she had her flu shot.
She said it’s important for people to be responsible for their health by watching what they eat and how they’re living.

“A lot of people just take it for granted until they get sick,” she said.