How much science is too much?

I always enjoy participating on panels, and the annual ThrillerFest panel I join every year is especially interesting.

Boyd Morrison (far left) moderates

The official title: Ghost Particles, Nanotechnology, or Bill Nye: Introducing science in thrillers. Panelists (l. to r.) Amy Rogers, Mark Alpert, Bev Irwin, Kent Lester, Kira Peikoff, Camille Minichino, Grand Hyatt, NYC, July 8, 2016.

You might call the panel a lovefest, in that most of us have been on this panel for several years and are in complete agreement as to what to offer readers: engaging characters and plots, free of technical information dumps. Only the slightest bump in the smooth interaction came when one panelist suggested no more than 2 pages in one shot for a scientific explanation. “2 paragraphs” said another; “2 lines” another.

I’m on the side of less is more, when it comes to technical information. While not strictly thrillers (global consequences), two of my series deal with STEM topics — the Periodic Table mysteries and the Professor Sophie Knowles series. I’ve tried to avoid the cliche device of dialogue between a lay person and a scientist:

Jill, Scientist: I’m going to charge up the laser, Bob.

Bob: What’s a laser, Jill?

Jill: Well, Bob, the word “laser” is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. The first one was built in 1960 by . . .

Reader: <snore>

What’s you threshold between interesting/informative and TMI?

A MAD Trip

I have lots of photos from my trip to New York City for the ThrillerFest conference, but here’s one that says it all. It’s the tip of my cane, worn down from walking through Grand Central and up and down the streets and avenues.

Tip of my cane. The silver sliver is where the rubber is completely worn off!

In the next weeks, you’ll see more artistic captures from my museum breaks. Here’s a taste, from a delightful sculpture exhibit at the Museum of Art and Design, properly called MAD.

"Steam" from the sinking ship forms the table!

A bent Eiffel Tower is the base of this lamp.

New York never disappoints — more proof to follow.

New York New York

If all goes well, I’ll be in New York when you read this, at ThrillerFest 2016.

Here’s a scene I look forward to:

The NYPL, courtesy author Margaret Duma

Here’s one I hope to avoid:

OUCH!

Your friendly local newspaper

Famous blogger, Lisa A. Kelley, shared a great idea with cozy authors: why don’t we “publish” newspapers from our fictional towns? I’m in!

The first issue of The Lincolnite was published by Lisa on June 1. Here are some of the sections of the newspaper, in case the link is not active by now. It’s worth a look to scroll down on Lisa’s site to see her great graphics.

THE LINCOLNITE

Lincoln Point, California              Forever 50 cents

SADIE’S ICE CREAM SHOP EXPANDS MENU, CAUSING UPROAR

Picketers lined Springfield Boulevard on Monday, protesting the newly offered lunch menu at Sadie’s Ice Cream Shop. “NOT FAIR TO WILLIE” read the signs, referring to Willie’s Bagels, only 2 doors down from Sadie’s and a popular lunch spot for many years.

“People don’t want to have to get up and trudge outside between lunch and dessert,” a spokesperson for Sadie’s said. Regular customer Mabel Foster said, “It’s hard when it’s raining,” while her companion, who wished to remain anonymous, asked “When is it ever raining?” The two businesses have agreed to arbitration, which will be facilitated by retired English teacher, Geraldine Porter.

LOCAL DOGS HONORED

A monument unveiled at a ceremony this week at Lincoln Point Park, Civic Center, honored the K-9s that serve alongside the city’s police officers. Civilian volunteer, Bev Gowen, arranged the privately funded dedication. “In the coming year we plan to honor the human officers in the unit,” said Gowen, the mother of Detective Eino “Skip” Gowen. The younger Gowen was unavailable for comment.

SPORTS

The Mary Todd Gym has issued swag bags to all lifetime members. Featured is a red logo travel mug with I’D RATHER BE READING in white letters.

SCIENCE FAIR

Local middle school children showed off their projects this week at the annual Science Fair. Heading the judges panel was a visiting physicist from the Boston area, Dr. Gloria Lamerino, who is responsible for the nationally recognized Cannoli Method of awarding prizes. “I’ve never seen so many 5-Cannoli projects,” Lamerino said. First prize, a 1-inch mini Austrian crystal cannoli went to Maddie Porter, 12, for her working model of a waste water recycling plant.

POLICE BLOTTER

After a string of more than a dozen murders in the last 8 years, the Lincoln Point Police Department is pleased to announce that the only crime committed so far this year is the theft of a small fountain from a lawn on Gettysburg Avenue. The thief left a note reminding the homeowner that it was drought season in California and that he should stop being “a water waster.” The homeowner has decided not to pursue the matter.

COOKING WITH CAMILLE


Abraham Lincoln High School home economics teacher CHEF CAMILLE offers a special recipe for Father’s Day: an Honest Abe top hat cake.

DIRECTIONS:

Start with your favorite basic cake—white, yellow, or chocolate—and bake THREE 8-inch rounds. Split the rounds, giving you six layers. Mix black food coloring into enough frosting to spread between layers and around the top and circumference of the cake. Use the last of it to spread around the edge of the cake plate, to make the brim of the hat. Add a BEST FATHER figure as pictured, and let the celebration begin!

The Book Stands Alone

Mystery series are popular these days. (Thanks, readers!) Some series seem to go on forever, with 10 or more books released over a period of years—nearly 26 for Sue Grafton (Thanks, Sue!) I know many readers who insist on reading the series in order. I’m not one of them. One reason is purely practical: if the series has been around for a while, the first ones are out of print, and possibly not available in e-form either, if the publisher has chosen not to reissue. The other reason takes longer to explain:

The photograph illustrates my theory:  Every book is a standalone.

Think about the need to read a series in order. I imagine these readers at a party, being introduced to someone new, hitting it off.

“Let’s be friends,” the new person says.

“Sorry,” says the in-order reader. “We can’t be friends because I didn’t know you as an infant.”

The way it usually works in real-life friendship is that you can start a friendship at any age, with people of any age. As the relationship grows, each person’s backstory is revealed, not necessary in chronological order. It’s the same for me with characters in a book. If I happen upon book four of a series and it looks interesting, I’ll read it, then decide if I want to know more about the protagonist, in which case, I’ll pick up either earlier or later books, depending on what’s available.

Of course, it’s different for a trilogy or other format where the story is set up in a certain order.

It’s also different for tv shows, where it’s sometimes impossible to understand an episode unless you’ve seen the “previously on”s.

But each book in a mystery series should stand on its own, with understandable characters and a story that has a satisfying conclusion. If you’ve started with book five of a series and have no idea about the motivation of a character, or if you feel you’re missing something, it’s the author’s fault. Every book should be a standalone.

M is for Mini

Here’s a slightly tweaked blog that appeared on Chris Verstraete’s site a couple of months ago.

What’s in a name? Could mine have predisposed me to a life-long miniatures hobby and a string of mystery novels about a miniaturist? It makes as much sense as anything.

I don’t remember how long it took me to learn to spell my name—in my day, kids entered first grade with virtually a clean slate. We were lucky to be able to count to 10 (on our fingers) and know the way to the corner store. There were no public kindergartens, let alone pre-schools, pre-pre-schools, and so on. Our mothers didn’t read to us, explain the world to us constantly, or teach us anything but to be seen and not heard. At least, that’s how it was in my neighborhood.

So it might have taken a couple of grades for me to master CAMILLE MINICHINO, the 16 letters that make up my name.

Meanwhile, I played with the one “toy” I had, which was a dollhouse my father built for me. Along with my favorite cousin, I turned everything into minis. We cut up old greeting cards and “framed” a bird or a flower or a bicycle to decorate the walls of my mini house. We sliced pieces of straw from a broom and made spaghetti. We covered sponges with scraps of fabric and made beds and easy chairs.

Corner of mini post office. Marker for scale.

We had a whole life in miniature.

I kept that hobby through my adult years. At one time or other, nearly everyone I know has received a miniature “something.” A small sewing scene for my quilt-making friend, a tiny cluttered dorm room for one stepdaughter, a miniature stable for another. In my home I have a post office, a 6-level museum, and a funeral parlor, all in miniature. My embalming room and post office are pictured here.

Mini embalming room. For scale: the orange waste container was a pill container.

To give my hobby even wider distribution, I created Geraldine Porter and her granddaughter, Maddie (there’s that M again) and set them free to make minis and solve murders in a slew of mysteries—nine novels and one short story so far. That meant I had to come up enough M’s for the titles: Murder, Mayhem, Malice, Mourning, Monster, Mix-up, Madness, Majesty, and Manhattan are out in paper and e-book formats. Matrimony in Miniature will be released in September 2016.

Anyone have an M for the next one?

The 19th Amendment

My miniature tribute to HRC

I believe in the separation of Church and State, and until now I have believed in the separation of Authors and Politics.

But I find it impossible to hold my tongue at this historic moment, when, finally, the United States has joined Norway, Germany, Latvia, Poland, Brazil, and others in accepting a woman as leader of their country. Here’s a list of the 22 female leaders currently in power. South Korea? Trinidad? Chile? All before us?

America is touted by many to be the greatest country in the world, but as a 30-something-year-old woman in the seventies with a doctorate and professional employment, I couldn’t get a credit card in my own name. My female students were not allowed into veterinary  school. (The rationale was that they couldn’t lift heavy animals. As if any nonsuperhero male could!)

When I tried to file a legitimate claim about an unfair salary practice, I was told by the head of Human Resources at a large company, “You’ve done such a good job. Do you really want to make a fuss now?” He then explained that the man who was awarded the raise I was due was supporting a family.

I’ll stop there, with other examples on request.

Is Hillary the perfect candidate? Of course not, but which of the 43 male presidents has been? Any one with many years of service has a mixed record. Hillary has dedicated her life to public service, championing the causes of children and families, and she deserves the same credit and opportunity as any other American.

African-American males got the right to vote 50 years before any female. I was afraid we’d have to wait 50 years between Barack Obama and the first female president. But we’re already on our way!

If mixing my writing life with my political life costs me friends or readers, I’ll have to accept that. But this is The Real Me. Thanks for listening.

Happy birthday

One year a friend made me THREE birthday cakes, so why am I complaining?

I’ve always wished I had a different birthday. Like November 7 with Marie Curie and Lise Meitner, or December 10 with Ada Lovelace and Emily Dickinson. Or imagine if I could have been born on February 15 with Susan B. Anthony, Galileo, actor John Barrymore, astronaut Roger Chaffee, and Alfred North Whitehead. Wow. Such a great day, no wonder I gave my first protagonist this birthday. (Gloria Lamerino was born on February 15 in an undisclosed year.)

Instead, I share the day with Charles I of Austria and Henry Scrapnel, British inventor of the shrapnel shell. There’s also Josephine Baker, Allen Ginsburg, Paulette Goddard, and Tony Curtis, but no one on my Heavenly Speed Dial list.

I got a bit of thrill finding out my favorite anchor man, Anderson Cooper blows out candles on the same day as me, but he neither knows nor cares.

When I taught physics in a traditional classroom (i.e., pre-e-learning), I celebrated all the great birthdays. One semester, we were able to find an excuse for a cake every Friday. A student would read a short paper she’d prepared on Henry Cavendish (October 10) for example. We’d have a discussion on the philosopher-chemist who’s thought to have discovered hydrogen, and then, yes, break out the cake and coffee. Those were the days.

I admit, this is not the first time I’ve whined about my nondescript birthday, but I promise it will be the last.

I guess it’s time to crowdsource the event and wish everyone out there, from here to Facebook, a happy birthday, no matter what day it is.

No Research Stone Unturned

Author FRAN WOJNAR visits The Real Me today with her story of diligent research for her novel, Magdalena’s Conflict.  And, lest you think I’m partial to this book because the protagonist is Sister Camille: I met Fran long after her book was published!

Before writing the murder mystery Magdalena’s Conflict, I centered my research for Eliza, an Iowa Pioneer, on immigrant customs and stories. I had read the early Iowa Palimpsests and Annals of Iowa. A book about murder would be a challenge for me. If a TV program pictured a person with a gun or a police chase, I would switch channels. Since my story involved the possibility of poisoning and persons afflicted with emotional issues, I had “hard” research to do.

I started with cyanide, my choice of weapon. In Deadly Doses by Stevens and Klarner and Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie, both authors mentioned the sources of cyanide in apricot pits, but, I needed the recipe. Two pharmacists eyed me with suspicion when I asked about the procedure.

I took a tour of the Contra Costa County Crime Lab where I met a police lieutenant who suggested I check out the drug called Laiatral, which contained small quantities of cyanide made from apricot pits. Laiatral, though illegal in the US, was used in Mexico as a treatment for cancer. I was assured that it could be produced in a kitchen in about an hour. I found the recipe in the Contra Costa County Library.

My next questions concerned autopsies. I needed to know things like: Would a body show trauma after ingesting cyanide? What trauma? If a body was buried five to six days, could cyanide be detected in an autopsy? Where? How soon after ingestion would death occur? Could the victim taste cyanide in a cup of coffee?

I called the coroner’s office:

“Flanagan here. This is the Contra Costa County Morgue. What is it you want?”

“I need to talk to the coroner about details for a book I’m writing.”

“The coroner doesn’t do autopsies. We contract with a group of pathologists. Give me your name and phone number and I’ll pass it along.”

Before 7:00 AM the next morning, my phone rang.

“Is this Fran? This is Dr. P. Do you want to come over to the morgue this morning? I’ve got a stack of bodies.”

Watching an autopsy never entered my mind. After I caught my breath. I managed to get out, “I need to ask you a few questions for a book I’m writing.”

“I’m here now. It’s up to you,” he responded.

“Can you talk while you work?”

“Sure.”

“I’ll be right over.”

Author Fran Wojnar

When I arrived at the morgue, a deputy met me and ushered me down a dark hall into a large well-lighted room. If the musty odors that smelled like body fluids didn’t convince me, the three bodies on long tables did. Maybe it was the alarmed expression on my face that convinced the staff to gather close to me against the cupboards along the wall, cutting off the view of the tables.

To my surprise, they had questions for me: How long does it take to write a book? What’s the plot? Can we be in your story? Slowly, I began to relax and was able to get answers for my own questions.

Psychotherapy. In my novel Sister Camille believes Mother Rosaria was murdered. Because the newly elected Mother Cordelia thinks Sister Camille suffered from a persecution complex, she orders her to a psychologist. For this research, I asked a psychologist friend to role play potential psychotherapy sessions. In the exercise, my friend’s demeanor changed toward me. It was not our friendly discussions at home. He took the side of Mother Cordelia and agreed Sister Camille had a suspicious nature and the death of Sister Rosaria was none of her business. This irritated me. Sister Camille, whose role I played, wanted to shout, “You wait and see.”

In one session Raymond questioned Sister Camille’s relationship with her parents and siblings. He grabbed onto my childhood memories like a squirrel gnawing on a nut. I thought he distorted my tales. I felt bruised by our sessions.

My husband observed, “You’re finding out some things about yourself.”

I replied, “Huh, but, I don’t know if it’s Sister Camille or me.”

Police Procedures

For this research, I volunteered in the Juvenile Unit at the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office. The unit was at one end of the large homicide division. I thought I’d be able to hear the detectives talk about their cases and get a feel for their language. Instead I was I holed up in a cubicle and couldn’t hear one word. The restrooms were on the other side of the homicide division, so I’d walk slowly through it hoping to hear them talk. After a few weeks of these walks, the detectives got used to seeing me. I asked one of them, Lieutenant K., if he’d be willing to read the procedural sections of my novel. He was a fan of the mystery writer Joseph Wambaugh and made a big point that a writer doesn’t learn police procedures from watching police shows on TV.

One day I filled him in on my years as a nun. His large eyes bulged. He yanked out his middle desk drawer and slammed a ruler down shouting. “You were one of those knuckle busters!” We both howled with laughter.

Another time I asked him if he’d ever used a jeweler’s loupe. Again, he pulled his middle desk drawer out, and slammed a loupe on his desk. When I asked to see his gun, he leaned over and emptied all the bullets on the floor, then handed it to me.

Lieutenant K. read the police actions in my novel and made suggestions. When he said he’d hire my fictional Detective Kummer to be on his staff, I knew the book was ready and all the research I’d done was worth it.

Nothing

I should have known better than to promise a report on a road trip, especially when it consisted mostly of I-5 and exits like this one, with Nothing on either side of the road.

Road 27: No one wanted to bother thinking up a name for these exits off I-5?

Don’t get me wrong — I loved traveling with the expert road tripper, Ann Parker, who knows all the nice, clean rest areas, and how to get to the Olive Pit where the shelves are filled with the best in olives, oils, nuts, and jams. It was the long stretches between the Olive Pit and the Safeway gas pump, that had nothing to hold my attention. Good thing we never lacked for great conversation and fine snacks.

Now and then, there would be a single house, far off the road, nothing but dried grass and hills around it. I wondered who lived there. A family? How far was it to the nearest school? church? doctor? Starbucks? Maybe a single cowboy lived there, or a female rancher. (Is it ranchers who take care of cows? I saw a few cows here and there.) Maybe an old couple were running a tulip farm that I couldn’t see.

I was nearly 40 the first time I lived in a single, unattached house, and over 50 when I first owned one. There’s something comforting about hearing neighbors next to me, above me, a stone’s throw away.

I’d never make it in the land of rom-coms when the career woman in a big city “sees the light” and returns to the family farm/ranch/homestead in a flyover state.

I love having cut flowers available to grace my table. I’m grateful that someone else plants them and digs them up for me.