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

Writing Dialog If Your Character Is a Scientist


I talk with scientists a lot, as I’ve mentioned before. But until this last weekend, when, due to the fact that it was time for us all to March for Science (and I hope everybody did), what I’ve mostly thought about when I talked with a scientist was what words I would use if I needed to translate what the scientist was saying into Regular English. Translating Science, after all, is my job.

But I’ve been writing fiction for some time now, and a writerly mindset seems to be taking over my brain. Instead of doing as I usually do, and mentally translating the March for Science speeches into the common language of most of the crowd, I found myself analyzing them for the specific characteristics of Science-ese that really define the way a scientist speaks. I was trying to figure how to subtly incorporate those characteristics into dialogue in such a way as to give the impression that a character is a genuine, bona fide scientist.

Early on, I learned that in writing dialogue, it’s sometimes little things that make all the difference. One of the first novels I ever wrote was set in the very early nineteenth century, and though I naturally wanted the dialogue to sound convincingly early-nineteenth-century-ish (or at least not jarringly modern), I also didn’t want to try to reproduce actual speech from the era. I guess some writers can pull that off, but when I do it, it always sounds fake. So I immersed myself in period literature for a few months, trying hard as I did so to pick out some stylistic detail that I thought nicely defined the difference between early nineteenth-century and modern style.

I found it in the old rule that I was taught in high school English class: “Don’t split infinitives.”

This is a stupid rule, and no one has obeyed it for the last two hundred years. But briefly—very briefly—it was an absolute; and that brief period happened to be the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

So the characters in my novel never ever, in speaking, split their infinitives; and friends who read it said, “Oh, your dialogue is so good! It really evokes the era!” They were friends, so mostly they refrained from pointing out the hundred other things that I’d done wrong.

Scientists, of course, split their infinitives.

They also sprinkle a fair number of scientific words into their conversation, and you would probably think that mimicking this (annoying) tendency would work well to make a character sound like a scientist. Somehow—I don’t know why—it doesn’t. It is, however, unbeatable as a device for making a character sound pretentious; so keep it in mind.

Scientists also talk about their research a lot; and if, in a novel, every conversation involving a particular character somehow wound up back on the topic of, say, neutrophils, that character would sound convincingly like a scientist who studied neutrophils. However, this is tricky to write for the author who is not also an authority on neutrophils. You may believe me when I say that if you get one picky little word wrong, you will hear from every neutrophil-loving scientist in the world about it. There are a lot of them. Not all of them will be tactful.

Looking back over the texts of some March for Science-day speeches, what jumps out at me most is the fact—it is a fact—that scientists are never certain. Somehow they never forget, even for a moment, that nothing can ever be definitively proven. They know that even something as well-established as gravity may actually be wrong. One day we may penetrate to the earth’s core and find that dropped things fall because there’s a giant Stuff-magnet in there, pulling everything toward the center of the earth with its powerful Stuff-attractant Rays. You don’t believe me? A scientist at our local March was asked by a heckler if she believed in the theory of evolution (the questioner emphasized the word “theory”). After gently correcting her interrogator’s terminology (he meant “natural selection”), the scientist replied—not “yes”, although natural selection is a cornerstone of biological science—but “So far, that is the theory that best explains the evidence.”

Since I know that the shortest and best way to define a character is with one or two lines of really trenchant dialogue, I’ll write a book with a scientist in it when I’ve come up with something as brilliant to write as “the theory that best explains the evidence.” Or better still, I’ll aspire to something even more brilliant; something on a level with the exchange between Ray Stanz (Dan Ackroyd) and Winston Zeddmore (Ernie Hudson) in the original Ghostbusters movie.

Winston asks Dr. Stanz if he believes in God.

Says Dr. Stanz, “I never met Him.”

That is the perfect scientist answer.

[Image of the March for Science at Portland, Oregon from Another Believer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

Science as a Plot


I’ve written before about why, even though I know them well, I don’t make scientists protagonists in stories. Here’s why I don’t make scientific research a plot, either.

Many years ago, my husband made his first big splash as a scientist when he published the complete sequence for a gene that causes blood to clot. How big a splash? The research institute for which he worked issued a press-release, the local television stations sent news-crews, and an item about this discovery appeared in the News of the World, directly below an article headlined, “CHOCOHOLIC MOM GIVES BIRTH TO SUGAR-COATED BABY!!!” *

Hubby was briefly a minor celebrity; his hat-size increased by a full half-inch; and honestly, for a few weeks there was no living with the man.

Then it all passed off and he got back to work in the lab.

The cloning of that gene sequence was far from being the most significant work my husband has ever done. So why was it the thing that got the most attention? It was because the cloning of the tissue factor gene had a plot. It followed an arc from Young Scientist Embarks on Quest; through Difficulties Along the Way; through Gamble On Using Last Available Sample for Final, Risky Experiment; through Triumphant Moment When Final Risky Experiment Yields Desired Result. There was pathos: At one point Young Scientist was putting in such long hours at the lab that his two-year-old announced, “Daddy doesn’t live here. Only Mommy and I live here.” The press particularly loved it that the effort to clone and sequence the gene turned out, in the end, to have been a race. Two weeks after Husband’s lab published the sequence, another lab published the same gene-sequence in another journal; and a third lab published a slightly different sequence a month after that. The press made much (much more than there actually was) of the “rivalry” between the labs.

Science—real science—that makes good fiction is a once-in-a-career event. Most science makes terrible fiction.

For one thing, the path of scientific discovery meanders. A lot. Everybody knows from high school that research starts with a hypothesis, of course. What people sometimes forget after high school, however, is that the point of the experiments that follow are intended—not to prove—but to disprove the hypothesis. Trying to disprove something doesn’t lead to any big dramatic moments—the ones where the scientist turns to the members of his lab and says, tears in eyes, “That’s it! We’ve proven it!” because there’s always the chance that someone somewhere will subsequently uncover that crucial missing bit of information that means that everything the scientist postulated is wrong. The most the scientist can usually say is, “Well, our second-choice journal says if we do a few more experiments, they’ll accept our paper.”

Not much drama there. Just sighs of relief.

Even life-saving new medical treatments don’t generate drama—at least not for the scientists involved. By the time a new discovery makes it into the clinic it has gone through so many steps—promising result, to confirmation of result by subsequent researchers, to further research, to—and I’m simplifying here— tentative treatment, to hand-off to other scientists who do appropriate animal studies, to small-scale clinical studies, to many major and minor modifications to treatment, to licensing to drug company, to wider-scale clinical studies, to finally entering mainstream medicine—that any drama has been dissipated to the point of non-existence.

So, I don’t write about scientists as scientists (the scientist-type—and there is one—makes a great character, though); and I don’t write about real science, either.

On the other hand, I think the scientific community is long-overdue for “exposure” in some sort of modern Peyton Place-ish fiction (remember Peyton Place?), and if anybody wants material for something like that, contact me for some very juicy stories!

* Husband’s work was also covered by the New York Times; but I think we can all agree that the News of the World piece was the really important one.

Image source:



A Story with a Sad Ending


As I’ve said before, family stories are the easiest ones for me to turn into novels. The plot is fixed, the outline pre-written (can’t work without an outline!), and a plausible number and realistic variety of characters already exist, eager to be set in motion. My favorite part is that I don’t even have to think up names for them. I hate coming up with names for characters.

I’ve got a family story in mind right now that I think needs telling—one of those historical fictions that could easily be a multi-volume epic (although at my age I think maybe I’d better aim for something more like a novelette). It’s an old story, but a good one; about how one branch of my family came to this country from Ireland and made good. I think a lot of people would find it very relatable.

The family’s progenitor was the son of poor Catholic farmers—I’ll call him Paddy, since I don’t know his real birth-name—and he left his native land alone, in the midst of the Great Famine. I can’t decide whether or not to get deeply into all the reasons that my Paddy’s family, like so many in Ireland, were utterly dependent on the potato (and specifically on the commercially non-viable variety called the Lumper). The socio-political situation in early nineteenth-century Ireland is absolutely fascinating, but to discuss it might slow the narrative flow.

Putting politics aside, then, I’ll just get on with the story; which is that my progenitor—still Irish, and not yet Irish-American—took advantage of a British government-sponsored subsidized fare to sail to North America.Canada_immigrants

Naturally, the British government didn’t send Paddy to the United States. Why would they? His ship was bound for Canada, of course—a large, fertile member of the British Commonwealth that needed a larger population to fully exploit its potential to produce and export wheat. Britain needed wheat, and viewed Ireland’s “surplus” population as a convenient means to get it.

A parallel government plan was to undermine the Francophones by planting a lot of English-speakers among them, so Paddy’s ship landed in Quebec.

Unfortunately, in Ireland Paddy had practiced nothing but the spade-culture of the potato. In common with most poor Irish, he knew absolutely nothing about wheat-farming, which generally requires the use of tools like plows, harrows, disks and other mysteries. Therefore, along with most of his young, male shipmates, Paddy took the first opportunity he got of BETRAYING HIS PROMISE to the British government to stay in Canada in return for his fare, and slipping TOTALLY ILLEGALLY over the border into the United States.

(One imagines that the Québécois made no difficulties about this. In fact, they probably pointed Paddy south themselves, and wished him a hearty “bon voyage!”)

Going on with the story, I would then describe young Paddy’s initial struggles in the New World; where, in an atmosphere of hibernophobia and “NINA” (No Irish Need Apply) signs, opportunities were few for displaced Irish potato farmers. But when he got to New York, Paddy modified his accent and his name (to the frustration of his genealogy-minded descendants), and landed a job with the fire department. Soon, he was married (to an Irish-American girl whose lack of any clear trail to the United States suggests that she was also in the country illegally), and had a bunch of children. These children did well; and their grandchildren did even better. Paddy’s adopted name has spread far and wide across the country, into nearly every state, and every trade and profession.

And some of them have now turned Nativist, and cast their votes for the candidate who most stridently vows to deny other would-be immigrants the chances Paddy had.

I don’t think poor Paddy would approve.

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.