How My Mother Made Me a Reader


Some people are, unfortunately, born out of their proper time; either too early or two late to live the life that would have fulfilled them. My mother was  one of those people.

She graduated from high school in December of 1929, straight into the Great Depression. This sounds like the worst possible luck; and for my father, who left high school in the same year—without graduating—it probably was. But for my mother, bad times meant good opportunities. She had a high school diploma at a time when most women didn’t; she could type and take shorthand; and best of all—no, really—her home-life wasn’t happy. To what was probably the whole family’s satisfaction, at age eighteen my mother took an apartment in Chicago with some friends who wanted—at least for the time being—to have jobs instead of husbands. One of them worked at Sears, Roebuck, and recommended Mother for a job there.

Before the Depression, women at companies like Sears had mostly been confined to the sales floor, and restricted to departments like clothing, where employees were salaried, and not—as in furniture, and appliances—on commission. But as the depression deepened, Sears cut its expenses by hiring women to do what had formerly been strictly men’s jobs. My mother replaced a better-paid man in the accounting department; worked hard; and did well. She even got raises, though her salary never approached those of her male co-workers. She was thrifty, and before long she was able to afford her own apartment. She furnished it with the aid of her Sears Employee Discount; and bought herself an extensive wardrobe. Given what I know of my mother’s execrable tastes, both the furniture and clothing were probably horrible; but she, at least, was happy with her choices.

In later years, she hinted that she’d had a love affair or two during this time; but like most women of the day, what she wanted, ultimately, was to be married. In 1939 a friend at Sears set Mother up with her brother. Three months later, the two were wed; and three months after that, Mom quit work because riding the street-car to her job made her nauseous. My brother was born seven months later.

Even as times changed around her, Mom continued to insist to her own children that “working women” were emotionally stunted, unfulfilled beings who were to be pitied. But in fact, she envied them. A lot. She hated housework and found children and child-care tedious.

Her escape from household monotony was in reading fiction; and this is Rule One in my system for Making Your Children Readers. If you want to make readers, be a reader yourself. Read a lot. Read obsessively. Read so hard that the world recedes into a thing of no importance whatever, and keep it up for hours at a time. You may as well know right now that your children regard most of what you say as no more than an annoying buzz in their ears, but they closely observe what you do. Tell them to read; give them all the excellent reasons that reading is good; and they will not hear you. Swat them away like flies when they disturb your reading, and they will want to discover for themselves the secret joys you find there.

Rule Two of the system is, after your children are four or five years old, read aloud to them; but never as much as they would like. Mom started many books aloud, but I can’t remember her ever reading one through to the end. After a few chapters she’d go dutifully off to stand at the kitchen stove for awhile, her own book propped before her, boiling something she could allege was “dinner,” and leaving the book she’d been reading to us kids lying somewhere, open. It never lay unread for long.

Rule Three is to have a lot of reading material right in your house. People are surprised when I tell them that I never had a library card until I was in college; but honestly, the fact that my mother was too busy reading and boiling dinner and wishing she was Vice President in Charge of Something Big to take her children to get library cards was a big part of why I am a reader today. Our house was full of books, and they stayed around—not for two weeks, as a library book would have—but for my entire childhood, or in other words, until I got around to being interested in them. In the fourth grade, to the shock of my teachers, I read Oliver Twist. I read it because my mother happened to own a copy with interesting wood-cut illustrations. I studied them for a while, trying to figure out what the story was from the pictures; gradually worked my way through the smaller blocks of dialogue; and ended by reading the whole thing just to see how it all came out. I read hundreds of books that way.

But the best, most effective rule of all is Rule Four. Rule Four says, put your kids to bed at a ridiculously early hour (I was ordered to bed at 8:30 until I was in high school) in a room with no source of entertainment save a well-stocked bookshelf; and then supply your children with bedside flashlights.

Then go off and enjoy a quiet evening, reading. Do not ask, next morning or ever, why your children’s flashlight batteries are always dead.

Writing Historical Fiction versus Fantasy


I have all the admiration in the world for historical fiction; especially my own, which has the advantage of always being about the periods and people I am most interested in. (Not too badly written either; although I admit they could still stand to improve in that regard.) But—and I hope I’m not out of line here—I expect the historical fiction I read to be reasonably historically accurate. As far as I’m concerned, authors may invent all the characters they like; but where they include actual, genuine historical figures, I think they ought to stay pretty close to the facts of those people’s lives as we know them. —And the “facts” I’m talking about include the absolute certainty that all people, in every age, who have principles or points of view that are not in line with the ones usual for their period had to pay a price for their non-conformity. A medieval person who said, “No, really: We shouldn’t be punishing these people! Homosexuality is really perfectly natural!” would probably have been castrated along with the homosexuals he was trying to protect; and a 1930s American housewife who said, “Honey, I want to go back to work. Let’s put the kids in day-care!” not only would have found no good day-care, she’d have found no sympathy for her desire to have a career, either.

Since social history is my very favorite subject, I’m particularly offended when it appears that an author has done almost no research into the manners and customs of the time s/he writes about. Medieval people only ate messily with their hands and threw the bones over their shoulders in old movies; and unless they died alone and unexpectedly, they were invariably offered shrift (confession), and Extreme Unction. I won’t name the book (because I didn’t like it), but I read one recently in which an actual historical king was depicted as refusing the final offices of the Church when he was dying because he “preferred to make his own peace with God.” Furthermore, his entire family went along with the plan.

Right. Sure.

It’s bad enough when, in television period pieces, men wear their hats indoors and remain seated while shaking hands;  women who are supposed to be ladies eat and drink while wearing gloves; and—okay, this one was actually in an opera which I otherwise enjoyed—ladies attend church (Catholic; pre-Vatican II) bareheaded. TV is TV (and opera is great and you should try it), and I don’t expect any better from it.

But an author ought to do better, and I’ll tell you why: Because an author who doesn’t want to study up on, or conform to, historical fact can always write fantasy instead.

Fantasy is great. I recommend it. In fantasy, people can have modern view-points and wear flowing gowns and shiny armor too. They can be kings wielding actual power (rare as hen’s teeth these days), and yet still be Sensitive Guys who bathe. Women can put on men’s clothes and ride into battle like Joan of Arc without getting burned at the stake like Joan of Arc. (As evidence that one of the charges against her was true—that she was “headstrong in speaking out on matters of faith”—it was pointed out to Joan that she had taken Communion dressed as a male.) Fantasy is fun; fantasy is freeing; and no matter what historical liberties or social anachronisms you introduce into a work of fantasy, even cranky old people like me cannot complain that you have gotten it all wrong, dammit.

Image: P.S. Krøyer: Hip, Hip, Hurrah! (1888) [Public domain or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Adieu, Apostrophe!


Maybe this is a strange thing for someone to say who spent as much time as I did learning to use apostrophes, but I won’t miss them when they’re gone. It seems clear to me that they will go. Like the hyphen, we’re quickly learning we can live without them; and texting, I think, will be the apostrophe’s death-blow.

I always found apostrophes a little equivocal anyway. The rule—as I learned it—was that an apostrophe had three functions: One was to indicate a dropped letter in a contraction of two words, as “don’t” for “do not”, for example; and “sha’n’t” for “shall not”, which—to be correct—actually requires two apostrophes. (So does “foc’s’le” for “forecastle”, even though “forecastle” isn’t actually a contraction of two words at all, but one word that sailors pronounce very badly.) A second use was to indicate possession (“Jack’s book”), although this rule was just a refinement of rule one, since “Jack’s book” was originally a contraction of “Jack, his book”—a usage that has been obsolete for so long that a lot of people don’t realize that it was ever the “correct” way, and “Jack’s” would get you points off on your English paper. To make the rule regular, “Mary, her book” would have to give us the form “Mary’r book”, which you’ll notice doesn’t exist.

The third use of an apostrophe was to pluralize individual letters, as in, “all the a’s and b’s”, which I still think is useful but I seem to be the only one who remembers it.

Do we need any of those? The extra apostrophes in “sha’n’t” and “foc’s’le” went the way of the Dodo and we still recognize those words when we see them—which in the case of “shan’t”, we hardly ever do anymore. As indicators of possession, apostrophes seem to cause more confusion than clarity. I’m so tired of seeing “it’s” used incorrectly (it can only be a contraction for “it is”), that I’d rather just never see that word with an apostrophe ever again. And “Jacks book” seems intelligible enough to me.

But anyway, love ’em or loath ’em, in twenty or thirty years I think apostrophes will be gone. In 1978 the Colorado State Legislature decreed that the only acceptable spelling of the name of the mountain is “Pikes Peak” without the apostrophe; and as goes Pikes Peak, so goes the nation. Remember that you heard it here first.

Have a Little Respect (for your readers)


Long ago, just at the time that I was nervously considering submitting my first work for publication, I happened to come across an article (in a magazine I respected), called something like, “My Life as an American Gypsy.”* I was interested. Growing up, I’d seen groups of Roma sheepherders near where I lived (in the days before RVs became standard, they’d adopted large Cadillacs in place of their traditional caravans), and I was curious about their lives.

The piece was purportedly written by a contemporary Romani-American woman, but when I read it I discovered (to my annoyance) that it was nothing more than a slightly reworked series of incidents lifted straight out of Jan Yoors’ memoir of his life with the Lovari Romani in 1930s Europe. My annoyance stemmed from the fact that Yoors’ The Gypsies (I highly recommend it) is a standard work on the subject, and not only I, but lots of people, have read it. I felt totally dissed by the assumption that I wouldn’t know the work.

I was insulted—but I learned a good lesson. Readers read. Some of them—like me—read a lot. With this in mind, I never ever directly recycle anything I read into something I intend to share.

Other people’s personal experiences are great source material, though. I’ve praised family stories for this before, and I’ll say it again: If you listen carefully, Granny’s got some good stuff there. And if you look around, Granny’s granny—or at least, somebody’s granny—probably kept a diary or wrote a memoir way back whenever. Whatever historical period you want to write about—and without borrowing any one specific incident—you can mine primary sources for all sorts of period detail.

Project Gutenberg is my new favorite source for historical tidbits. For instance, I’d never considered the inconvenience—even danger—that colonial New Englanders subjected themselves to by observing European fashions in a rough new country with lots of snow and not many Old Country conveniences until I read Anna Green Winslow’s account of how a broken axle one Sunday forced knee-breeched and daintily shod neighbors (no trousers or boots at church, please) to abandon their carriage and struggle in silk stockings through three feet of snow. Keeping in mind all those voracious readers I mentioned, I’d never plagiarize Miss Winslow; but I could easily come up with a story of my own in which it’s a significant point that, in Ye Good Olde Dayes, there was no Gore-Tex. Anna Green Winslow’s Diary, written in 1771 and first published in 1894, is a treasure-trove of all kinds of historical material, in fact; and it’s free to download.

Another good one—which in my opinion ought to be required reading in American schools—is Fanny Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, which pretty much knocks the stuffing out of Gone with the Wind-type ante-bellum fantasies of the Old South. This one was a forehead-slapper for me. The reality of plantation life becomes obvious when you keep in mind that plantations were intended to be money-making (preferably, lots of money), and not humanitarian-or even humane-endeavors. Again; the book’s free, convenient to get, and contains information not only about ante-bellum America, but also things like women’s issues. Ms Kemble left her husband, but spent years afterward feverishly placating him so that he would refrain from invoking his paternal right to take their children away from her.

And then there are the periodicals…

Ah, nothing like a good Victorian periodical to remind us that it isn’t just tight stays that can constrict women.  One year of “Godey’s Ladys Book” is packed with enough articles written by male clergymen about a woman’s duty to shut her mouth and please her menfolk to precipitate clinical depression in any normal female.

On the other hand, “The Prairie Farmer”, full of no-nonsense articles written by farm-wives to advise other farm-wives on how to increase cash-flow in the butter-and-egg sectors happily makes it clear that, whatever the folks at “Godey’s” thought, a lot of women were getting right out there and making something more than household ornaments of themselves. And with the full support of their men-folk, too.

All of which makes me wonder why would anyone plagiarize one book (and risk offending the subset of their readers already familiar with it) when right at hand are a thousand good sources of material on every subject. –Of course, I admit it’s really easy to get so interested in reading those thousand sources that you have no time to write at all. That can be a problem. It’s certainly mine.

*I should point out that this was in the days when “gypsy” was the accepted name for people who now prefer to be called “Roma” or “Romani”, and I certainly intend no offense by using it.

Why I Don’t Write Novels about Scientists—and Why, If You Knew Them, You Probably Wouldn’t Either


People who know me are sometimes surprised that I don’t write about scientists. “A scientist would make a great character,” they tell me. “People are interested in scientists; they’re colorful; and you know all about them.”

Even without asking, I know the people who say this all really enjoyed the Back to the Future movies.

Heck, I enjoyed them myself; and the character of Dr. Emmett Brown did, in certain key ways, actually resemble some scientists I have known. Just dial Dr. Brown’s eccentricity and flamboyance waaaaaay back, preserve (or enhance) his single-mindedness and drive, increase the Brown family fortune that he spent up doing his research to at least twenty million dollars* (it took him—what? thirty years?—and doing research is very expensive), then load him up with a lot of teaching duties and administrative responsibilities and the fictional inventor of the time-traveling DeLorean would make a perfectly plausible researcher.

But—and this is the critical part—not a very good character in a movie, or book.

While it is true that a lot of scientists are a bit eccentric (some quite charmingly so), to be successful they have a lot of other traits that are the opposite of colorful. Doing research, as I mentioned, is expensive and most real scientists don’t have a family fortune to spend. Therefore, they must secure grants, which requires, not flamboyance, but an organized and linear thinker who can marshal past research successes, the present research status, and a coherent three-to-five-year plan for advancing the field into a forty-page document that will convince a panel of competing researchers and at least one cold-hearted government agency that any large chunks of money they throw his way will be well spent. I’ve known researchers who sported flying hair and flapping lab-coats à la Dr. Emmett Brown, and even ones who, like Einstein, eschewed socks. But believe me, when it comes to getting funding, they are as practical and business-like as any CEO, and just as uptight.

And then, if Dr. Brown is a scientist, then why isn’t Marty McFly more educated about time travel? Hang around scientists for long (five minutes) and what you find is that they can’t stop talking about what they do. They’re used to talking about their research, because that’s a huge part of their job; and since they mostly talk to other researchers who find what they say riveting, they’re used to thinking that everyone wants to hear all about it. Scientists teach everybody, all the time. Even scientists in research institutions who have no classes to teach still have to educate their graduate students and post-doctoral fellows; the public (funding again!); and—through seminars and symposia—their peers. Marty was Dr. Brown’s friend and didn’t know about the flux capacitor???? He’d have heard all about the flux capacitor nine million times!

In my experience your average scientist, far from being a wild-eyed loony, is much too serious, driven, single-minded, analytic, practical, deeply but not widely knowledgeable (there are exceptions), and naturally skeptical for me to want to write about.

Also—and this may be the real reason they don’t come up in my novels—despite all this practicality, etc. etc., an incredible number of them love the Three Stooges. I just don’t think my writing skills are up to making that seem believable.

*Question: Are we supposed to deduce that Dr. Brown burned down the family mansion to get the insurance on it to fund his research? Because this has been suggested to me by several people in a “duh! Of course he did” tone of voice when I totally did not see that at all. Not that don’t believe that there are real scientists—a few—who might do this if all their other funding sources ran out; I just didn’t see it.

Getting Started: The Journey of a Thousand Pages Begins with a Single Word—And the Delete Key


I got a pleading e-mail from someone who is beginning her first novel and who—despite having known me for a long time and having read my work—imagined that I could help her. This is what she wrote:

“I suddenly realize that I don’t understand how to write fiction. If I put in all the details, it could be boring. If I gloss over everything, it’s a plot summary. There’s something in between the two extremes, but if I write the whole story in the in-between way, I think it’ll still be at least be 10x longer than it should be. So what do I leave out? Which parts should I write long, and which short?

“I’m not sure how to pick what order things should go in either. Is straight chronological too boring? Are flashbacks too artificial?

“Also, I don’t have a name for my protagonist.

“I haven’t started writing because I’m still debating with myself about these things. I also haven’t started writing because I don’t know how to start writing.

“The only advice I can find anywhere is ‘don’t do X’; but what should I do?”

Let me be perfectly up-front here: I don’t know the answers to these questions.

I can’t even say, “I only know what answers work for me,” because, honestly, I have no actual system that I use to decide long or short, detailed or spare, chronological or not. I don’t even have a system for picking names for my protagonists (although I wish I did).

But I do have this one little bit of advice:

If you have something written down—however unsatisfactory—you have something you can work on and revise into something you like better. You can revise it forever, in fact; though I don’t recommend this. (Sometimes you just have to move on and resolve to do better on your next book.) But you can’t revise what you haven’t written, so forget everything else and just get some sort of story down on paper. Make it as long as you like.  10x what it “should be” is actually just about right (every manuscript reads better after a thorough pruning, I find); but if the only way you can get the story down on paper is as a plot summary, then write a plot summary, and plan on gradually fleshing it out. Chronologies can always be changed; flashbacks introduced or eliminated; whole episodes and characters put in or taken out ad libitum. Just write. Do it; don’t think about it. Then re-write and re-write and re-write.

That’s almost all the advice I have.

I also have one handy writing tip, but it’s not actually my own. It’s something I got from my husband, the biochemist. He says that when a cell is about to synthesize a protein, it first secretes a “leader peptide,” whose function is to tell the cell where to direct the protein it’s about to make. A leader peptide is absolutely essential, but once its job is done, it’s immediately destroyed. By analogy, he destroys the “leader peptide” of every scientific paper he writes.

Having tried this in my own work, I can confirm that this tip works for fiction, too. Once you’ve begun writing in earnest, go back and delete the first paragraph you wrote—if not the first page or even the whole first chapter. This is the secret to a punchy beginning.

But mainly—just write. Just sit down and write. Do it now; today.

Tomorrow you can figure out what to name the protagonist.

How to Become a National Merit Scholar in One Easy Lesson


Unless you count words like “groovy”, which has been of limited use to me since the mid-1960s, I personally do not have an enormous vocabulary. But I know someone who does, and I know where she got it, so I’m passing the information along to anyone else who might be interested. (And yes, she was a National Merit Scholar.) When you sit down to write, you can never have too many words to work with. The right one, in the right place, makes all the difference.

And by the “right” one, I do mean right, and not merely close, or right-sounding— as in “complacent” for “complaisant”, for instance, which I encountered just yesterday in a letter from somebody who really knows better. Trust me: The thesaurus provided by Word can be a useful jog to the memory, but its assertion that this or that word totally unfamiliar to you is an exact synonym for the one you do know should not be relied upon.

My secret method for acquiring a powerful and versatile vocabulary not only works better than lists to memorize, anything offered by Microsoft, or even a Word-a-Day calendar; it’s lots more fun, too. My secret is reading nineteenth century literature. Tons of it.

Sure, you can pick up new vocabulary from the literature of any century, including our own. But there’s never been a time in the history of the English language when writers were more determined to stuff even the most trivial matter full of words like “lucubration”, and “pulchritudinous” than they were in the nineteenth century. Even in adventure books—intended for the masses and young people who had not yet been to University—“gloamings” were “crepuscular”, and storms “illumed” by “coruscating” flashes of lightning.

And that’s the great thing about my method. With it, instead of battering your brain with some dull scholarly tome in an attempt to force in new words, you get to read Mark Twain; Bret Harte; Lewis Carroll; or something—anything—by Jane Austin. –And don’t neglect H. Rider Haggard, whose She, I believe, at one point enjoys an empyrean feast.

What could be easier or more fun? Read cool stuff: learn new words. Win/win.

Also, you will learn a lot of grammar from long nineteenth-century sentences that you will never pick up from, say, Ernest Hemingway, who thought he was going overboard if he put two dependent clauses in the same paragraph.

Still, if you happen to get that Word-a-Day calendar for Christmas, you should totally go for that, too.