Thursday, September 24, 2009


Most people know I'm a history buff. Kind of obvious from the books I write. But I'm also a science geek. I read Science News. I watch NOVA on PBS. I grew up with the Franklin Institute practically in my backyard. I've been known to get up at 3 am to watch a meteor shower. And once I poked a pin hole in a Xerox box, held it up in front of a sunny window, and showed everyone at my office job a solar eclipse.

The geek genes came from my dad, who used to take us rock hunting, stargazing, birdwatching, you name it. Back when America was gearing up to go to the moon and our local library had a weekly kids' program about NASA rockets, he'd bring us and sit in himself. When Star Trek made its debut, he watched it along with us. And family lore says that he and his brother Charlie had a respectable turtle skull collection. As I clean out the house (see my blog on Clutter a couple weeks ago), I expect to find that collection in the cellar.

When I created the character of Beth Ann Lee, I didn't plan on her being a geek. She simply was one, from the start. Part of it, I suppose, came from my own frustration at seeing so many girls turned away from math and science at a young age, merely because someone thinks females aren't supposed to be good at those subjects (Hello! Marie Curie! Jane Goodall! Sally Ride! to name a very few).

I've been asked why, if I like science all that much, do I put something as unscientific as ghosts in my books? I've been asked this by folks who fancy themselves scientific thinkers.

Okay, call me crazy (lots of people do), but isn't the whole point of science to try to explain the unexplained? So my standard answer, when asked if I believe in ghosts, is that I believe in the possibility of ghosts--just like I believe in the possibility of life on other planets and undiscovered life forms on this one. Ghosts aren't out of the question, just not proven or for that matter, disproven. I can bend my brain around ghost theory a lot easier than I can string theory (if you don't know what that is, picture something a physicist might dream up after eating hallucinogenic mushrooms).

I've been reading up about ghost hunters who do their research armed with electromagnetic field meters, infrared and ambient thermometers, motion sensors, digital voice recorders, cameras and other serious technical equipment. I applaud their collection of data, but frankly, most of them need to think more scientifically. They point to an "orb" (what appears to be a ball of light in a photo) and call it a departed human being. I'm not saying it isn't, just that I don't see a clear line of evidence and logic between the phenomenon (the orb) and the conclusion. I could offer other theories. I said I believed in the possibility of undiscovered life forms--maybe that's what an orb is. Or, like the aurorae, an effect of solar wind on Earth's magnetic field. Or simply a trick of light and humid air.

No ghost hunters I've met seem interested in explaining the physical conditions that creates an orb. Why wouldn't ghosts be subject to the same laws of physics, even if they exist in another dimension? (String theory says other dimensions are possible--or maybe you just feel extra-dimensional after eating those mushrooms.)

Anyway, will some scientist out there please work on ghost phenomena? Stop wussing out because you think the world will laugh at you. I'm guessing there's a Nobel Prize in store for the mind who cracks this mystery.

To answer the question: Why do I put ghosts in my books? Ghost tales are probably the oldest form of storytelling. No civilization known to history has been without ghost stories. People like them because they're entertaining. Me? I write ghost stories because I like them. And I put science in my books because I like that, too. They can go together.

Oh, and to my cousins, Uncle Charlie's kids? When I find those turtle skulls, you're entitled to half. Only fair.

Live long and prosper,

Friday, September 18, 2009

CONGRESS -- Comity or Comedy?

"The recent fist fight in the United States Senate, precipitated by Senator Tillman of South Carolina, is one of the most disgraceful episodes that ever took place in the upper branch of Congress."

That's a quote from the New York Times, March 2, 1902. Senator Tillman punched his fellow South Carolina senator in the nose. What IS it with these South Carolina congressmen?

In 1850, during heated debates, Senator Foote from Mississippi nearly shot Senator Benton of Missouri while Benton was having a caustic exchange of words with Vice President Millard Fillmore. Foote was wrestled to the floor and disarmed.

You can find a fairly long list of politicians killed in duels at . Congress, however, didn't pass an anti-dueling bill until 1839, after Representative Cilley of Maine was killed by Representative Graves of Kentucky. The bill was introduced by Henry Clay. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote Cilley's graveside memorial.

In June 2004, while members of the Senate were having their photos taken on the Senate floor, Vice President Cheney and Senator Leahy had a heated argument in which Mr. Cheney gave the gentleman from Vermont instructions using the F-word as a verb. Since Senate wasn't technically in session, the rule against cursing and obscenity on the Senate floor didn't apply.

As you can see, U.S. Congressmen have been acting like small spoiled children throughout most of our history. Last week Joe Wilson of South Carolina was merely upholding a long-standing American tradition when he broke congressional decorum rules by heckling a speaker (the rule covers any speaker, not only the President). In Joe's defense: at least he was paying attention. Decorum rules also forbid the use of cell phones or personal computers while someone is speaking, yet I saw a few members texting that evening. They weren't admonished. At least, not by anyone but me.

Joe Wilson did apologize to the President, though when interviewed, he said he did it because the Republican leadership thought he should, and he's since refused to apologize to his co-workers in Congress and to his employers, the taxpayers. I'm not sensing a lot of remorse here. He broke the rules of his workplace. The rest of us would be on unemployment, or at least on probation, if we did that.

What's this got to do with my books? I write historical mysteries set in different eras of American history. Lately I've been reading the political commentary of Will Rogers (for my Great Depression Pat book) and Continental Congress transcripts of 1777 (for a Rev. War thriller). Whatever decade I'm researching, I'm finding that many members of our Congress--our employees--really haven't done good work nor acted as we'd want our employees to act. And yet we let them give themselves raises and award themselves the best benefits, at our expense. Who else would give their employees that kind of power, especially if they only do so-so work and create conflict in the workplace? Okay, maybe baseball team owners. But who else?

In the 1850s, despite the anti-dueling law, Representatives Cutting of New York and Breckinridge of Kentucky decided to settle their dispute with Western rifles at 3 p.m. seven miles outside Washington. That morning, however, they were on the House floor for a vote and accidently met face to face. After a moment of strained silence, Breckinridge said, "Cutting, give me a chew of tobacco!" Without missing a beat, Cutting pulled a plug of tobacco from his pocket and offered it to Breckinridge. That evening Breckinridge returned the favor by having Cutting over to share a bottle of wine. The duel was forgotten.

Those two could teach a lesson to both sides of the current congressional aisle.

"This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer." Will Rogers

Still true today, Will.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Flowers Shouldn't Always Be Red

I've been teaching writing workshops for fifth through eighth graders at different schools the last few years. One of my lesson plans for 6th grade is this: using the who-what-when-where-why-how approach, each class comes up with the seeds for a short mystery story about a missing object in the school. We write the beginning and end while I'm there, then their teachers can help them flesh it out and polish it later on.

The experiences have taught me scads about creativity and the writing process. Each class has a completely unique personality. Some let their imaginations soar--we've encountered closet monsters and secret passages behind lockers. Some get totally into the "how" details (hiding things in suspended ceilings is a biggie). Some love planting clues--one class used fingerprints, footprints, and a tool box with the initials "MM" (because they could also be "WW" upside-down, though they decided the tool box was bought on E-bay, so the new owner didn't have those initials after all).

Another part of personality, of course, is extrovert-introvert. At one middle school, I had a sixth grade class full of extremely creative extroverts. They wanted to talk out all their ideas, but had no patience with writing them down. Another class, though not as creative, were whizzes at focusing their ideas and putting them into words.

Most of the time, I come home from these adventures feeling extra-creative myself, re-energized for having been exposed to the playful innovation of youth--a reminder that the writer in me never grew up, and never should.

However, once I had a different experience. The class I was teaching was predominantly extroverts, so they talked a lot. Not a big problem, and at least they were talking about the story, but their ideas were scarce, random and mundane. Nothing held together--no idea built on the one before. Then one student suggested that we make one of the suspects a substitute teacher. All of a sudden, all hands shot up--everyone wanted to participate. Their ideas were still mundane, and a tad malicious, but they were creating, and finally making some sense. A story was taking shape.

As they were jabbering, and I was shushing them, their teacher said, "That's enough. Stop the silliness."

I'd never had a teacher interrupt a workshop before. Without thinking, I said, "No. We need the silliness. That's what writing is." Then, realizing I'd just stepped on his authority in front of his class, I added, "What we can stop is the discussion. I need you to think." The kids did stop talking, but except for a few, they also stopped volunteering. Their attention wandered--one kid played with his shoelace. Finishing that story was hard work. The only bright spot was at the end when they decided that ALL their suspects were in it together and they got to send them off to jail for ten years.

At lunch the teacher told me that there had been a "situation" with a substitute teacher and he didn't want them using that idea. He told me, "There are things you don't understand." I was tempted to inform him that I'd been teaching while he was still a grade school student and that what I did understand was that his class hadn't learned a thing that day. But I also want to be invited back to that school, so I kept my trap shut.

Harry Chapin wrote a song called "Flowers Are Red" about a child who wants to use every color while he paints. His teacher tells him to make his flowers red and his leaves green, until the boy is afraid to be imaginative. By the time I got home, I realized I'd had an encounter with a "Flowers Are Red" teacher. This was why his class had been afraid to use their imaginations in the first place, and why, after he spoke, they all crawled back into their shells.

Did the "situation" with that substitute teacher give him the right? How many characters have I created from a real person I didn't like? How many stories have I written to sound off my feelings about the injustices and ugliness I've experienced? Those kids were doing exactly what I do, expressing themselves about their frustrations. Exactly what I'm doing right now by writing this article.

On occasion, when I've tried to encourage wannabe writers to pen stories based on personal experiences, I've had writers say something like, "I can't write about that! I'd get into trouble!" They seem to think that they'd write too close to the truth, that others involved in the situations would sue them. They don't trust their imaginations enough to take them beyond reality. Just like that teacher didn't trust his students' imaginations.

As a society, we seem to be rejecting creativity altogether. Look at the "reality" TV show craze. And consider the glut of current crime novels that have little original prose or plotting between their covers (I don't call them "mysteries" because there's nothing mysterious about them.) I wonder how many editors, or at least marketing people, had "Flowers Are Red" teachers in school?

A decade from now, the kids I encountered this month may enter adult life with no clue how to imagine. No creative problem-solving. No healthy, therapeutic fantasies. No play and no silliness. Not one novelist in that bunch, and probably no fiction readers either. Then they'll raise kids of their own.

Me? I intend to practice wanton creativity. And pass it on every chance I get.


Friday, September 4, 2009

To My Favorite Gas Miser

Time to cut back to one post a week for a while. Been a fun summer, but now the Writing Muse calleth.

Here's a parody for those traveling this holiday weekend:

A Sonnet To My Favorite Gas Miser

Shall I compare thee to a Chevrolet?
Thou art more peppy than the Cavaliers.
Rough winds do make Berettas go astray;
The dealer's lease lasts only for three years.
Sometime too hot the wheels of steering get,
And always will the coolest paint job fade
'Neath bird poop plopped upon a slick Corvette,
Plus drops of sap from parking in the shade.
But thy strong drive shall not depreciate,
Nor lose a muffler on a mountain curve,
Nor move too slow upon the interstate
When in the passing lanes. (They have their nerve!)
So long as pickups leave me in their dust,
So long may your fair chassis never rust.

Peace (and drive safely),


Member, Delaware Valley Mystery Authors