How My Mother Made Me a Reader

read-369040_1280.jpg

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

hipp_hipp_hurra21_konstnc3a4rsfest_pc3a5_skagen_-_peder_severin_krc3b8yer

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

march_for_science2c_pdx2c_2017_-_10

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

lab

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: wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/60/Biochemistry_laboratory_MPI-CBG-panorama.JPG

 

 

A Story with a Sad Ending

emigrants01

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.

Rationalizing Your Way to Virtue

virtue-cropped

We now know for sure that it isn’t the ability to use language or tools that sets man apart from other animals; and the jury’s still out on whether, if there even is such a thing as a capacity to contemplate the divine (huh?), man is in exclusive possession of it. But nobody’s shown to my satisfaction that any other species but humans so consistently and imaginatively rationalize. Our ability to conjure up exculpatory reasons for what we do seems to be our great defining characteristic.

I think this is a very important thing to keep in mind when writing fiction. Any character who isn’t meant to be a certified psychopath should not only have clear motives for what he does, but should consciously (and—to be authentic—continually) rationalize his misdeeds.

In stories I’ve written, based mostly on people I’ve actually known, the rationalization often turns out to be the most interesting aspect of the work. This is because many times humans don’t just want to convince themselves and others that some unkind or unfair thing that they’ve done isn’t really so bad after all, or should be excused because of some extenuating circumstance. People often rationalize their behavior all the way from bad to good; even from positively evil to virtuous.

Take, for example, an elderly aunt of my mother’s, now long dead. According to Mom, this woman’s perennial state of simmering rage was likely genetic. She was apparently just born hating the world. But after being raised in the same tepidly Methodist household that produced my grandfather and several other perfectly normal people, Auntie embarked on a quest for a rationalization for her inner rage; which, after some early experiments with radical—really radical—politics, eventually led her to a small church which preached that to hate your neighbor was a sure sign of Salvation. Like the members of Westboro Baptist, the innate anger of the members of Auntie’s church was righteous anger; and intolerance of not only the sin, but the sinner, too, was virtuous and good. Everybody who ever met her disliked her; but Auntie was—in her own mind, at least—sure of Heaven.

I’m seeing the same thing in certain Trump supporters. For years, some of the ones I know personally kept their bigotry and sexism quiet (at least in public), though the rest of us were all more or less aware of what they really thought. Then along came the Trumpkins, relabeling political correctness (otherwise known as an effort to screen overtly racist and blatantly hurtful language from public discourse) as hypocrisy; and bad manners and aggressive self-promotion as authenticity. Some Trump supporters are simply delighted—beyond delighted—to see hatefulness and prejudice redefined as “virtues”, because they like to be virtuous as much as anybody. Now, without having had to abate their hate and prejudice in the least, they can tell themselves that they—like Auntie—are so full of virtue that they’re sure of Heaven or at least a tax cut.

Of course, the problem Auntie had with being actively disliked is a problem for some Trump supporters I know, too. And if I were writing them in a piece of fiction, they would definitely see very soon that real virtue, practiced properly, doesn’t alienate you from your friends and relatives. In the meantime, I’m getting a lot of good information on how to write about families torn apart and old friendships destroyed by ideology, which is useful, I suppose; though sad. It remains to be seen whether I’ll also one day be provided with many examples of happy reconciliations and tearful resolves to try, in future, to come to some better understanding.

Age of Innocence?

sleeping-passengers-smaller

A few days ago I was telling a writer friend about a story I was working on, in which the protagonist was a child growing up in the 1920s—an era I characterized as more “innocent” than our own. My friend objected. People weren’t more innocent then, she asserted. They were just more hypocritical about pretending to be innocent. Neither of us had any data to support our positions, but I did offer this anecdote (which I did not include in my story, by the way).

In 1924, my maternal grandfather was employed by the railroad, and one of the perks of the job (it may have been the only perk) was that he got free rail passes. They were for travel anywhere in the US; but only for the “day-car,” meaning seats, not berths, and they didn’t cover food, of course. But unlike most married women of her day, my grandmother had a part-time job. She supervised a team of women—mostly housewives like herself—who supplied fancy-work to order for Marshall Field’s department store. My grandmother spent the money she got for teaching the women to make beaded purses and embroidered baby layettes to bankroll a family trip to relatives in California.

Even with rail passes and my grandmother’s savings, the five-day journey was an extravagance, and economies had to be made. My grandmother packed a basket with enough food to last the first two days (the diner, my mother always remembered, charged the shocking price of ten cents for a single boiled egg in the days when a dozen eggs cost twelve cents at the grocery store). For the first night, my grandparents and my mother’s baby sister shared a berth (it must have been snug), while my mother and her older sister were supposed to sleep stretched out on seats in the day-car. (On subsequent nights the family would be able to afford two berths, because one day out of Chicago, ridership on the train diminished, and the price went down.)

The train left Chicago at dinnertime, and at ten o’clock the family went to bed. The day-car was still fairly crowded, but luckily my mother and her sister each got a seat to herself—though not, as they had anticipated, facing one another. Instead, my mother was on one side of the aisle, and my aunt on the other.

And on the seat facing my aunt was a man. He was already asleep, with his arms folded and his hat pulled over his face.

Next morning at breakfast, my aunt looked terrible. Eyes ringed with blue, she could hardly hold her head up. When my grandmother questioned her, she admitted, shamefaced, that she hadn’t gotten a wink the night before; but wouldn’t say why until her mother—probably fearing the worst—took her aside. In private, it all came out: The man in the seat opposite had slept soundly, never stirring—but the only “fact of life” my aunt knew was that if a girl slept with a man, she might have a baby. My aunt was eleven years old.

My writer friend and I eventually compromised on our positions: She agreed that there was a time in human history when the so-called “innocence” of young people was more “protected,” and I conceded that this era was very short (the approximately one hundred years or so between the time when ubiquitous barnyards ensured that the means of mammalian reproduction was on regular display, and the time when popular media took over that function).

On the other hand, we weren’t able agree on whether this kind of “protection” was a good thing or not. My friend did find the story hilarious, however. She said I should use it some time.

So now I have.


Image by Charles O’Rear, 1941-, Photographer (NARA record: 3403717) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons