Beyond the Silk Mills

With great pleasure, I welcome my friend and new novelist, Leslie Rupley to share her journey to publication.

This blog is in honor of Camille Minichino who kicked me out of Research Addiction and started me on the path to publication on October 1, 2014 of my debut novel, Beyond the Silk Mills, a historical saga of family discord, obsessive ambition, and regret. Trade Paperback and eBook are available on Amazon. Kobo and Nook carry the eBook. Libraries and Indie Book Stores may order from Ingram.

How Not to Write Historical Fiction, Part I

“Great news!” I told my husband. “I have the makings of my first novel. I’m going to write about an immigrant wife’s aspirations for wealth and power and about her husband who doesn’t care about having money.”

The historian in him jumped to attention. He was full of questions. When? What was life like for immigrants?

“I have the story outlined. Emma starts…”

“Yes, but what was going on in the country when Emma tried her hand at money-making?” My helpful husband guided me to his office ‘library’ stocked on all sides with floor to ceiling bookshelves, including all manner of history books. Aside from math, history is his love. He pulled out a stack of books from his history section about societal issues in the early twentieth century.”

Whose book is this? His or mine? I felt heat rising to my cheeks, and as usual when faced with conflict or a daunting project, I started to sweat.

Oblivious to my stress, and with that well-known greedy-for-books look on his wild-eyed face, he made his way to the computer said, “Let’s get on line and find some more books.”

The first book that came up was New York Year by Year. Before I could react, he had clicked the Amazon ‘Buy Now with One Click’ order button.

I retreated to my own office with its meager bookcase of knitting and travel books. I picked up my needles and began to knit-purl at a rapid pace. Click, click. The needles worked out my anxiety, and I picked up the top book on the pile that he had so graciously plopped on my desk, A History of the Jews in America.

After flipping through it, I called up the stairs, “Can I write notes in your book margins?”

“No!”

I got my sticky pad and pen and went to work notating pages of interest that I might include in my opus. At dinnertime I was stunned to see Bill at my office door. “You’ve been reading for almost three hours. Are you planning any food?”

I shook myself out of the past and thought about the mundane.

Seeing my expression, he said, “Let’s go out to eat.”

A week later I had been reading and note-taking non-stop when he approached me with a new source he had read about. This time I followed him without hesitation to the computer where he pulled up the book called The Brothers Ashkenazi, copyright 1936.  It was an out-of-print novel about the Jewish ghetto in Lodz, Poland, and the collectible copy cost $112.

“Go ahead. Spend the money,” he said. Once again his over-active thumb pressed ‘Buy Now with One Click.’  This is how I became addicted to research. Stay tuned….

Fermi Problems

I think of September as Enrico Fermi’s month. His birthday is 9/29/1901. It’s a little early to sing, but I thought I’d introduce my own favorite aspect of Fermi’s contribution to science—his problem solving technique.

The problem:

How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?

This is the legendary problem presented to his classes by the Nobel Prize winning Italian-American physicist. It’s the original of a category of problems called “Fermi problems,” meant to be solved by putting together reasonable estimates for each step of the solution.

At first glance, Fermi problems seem to be impossible to solve without research. The technique is to break them down into manageable parts, and answer each part with logic and common sense, rather than reference books or, these days, the Internet. By doing this systematically, we arrive at an answer that comes remarkably close to the exact answer. By the end of this calculation, we also see what advantages it has over looking up the answer on Google.

Here’s the way Fermi taught his students to solve the piano tuner problem:

1) Assume that Chicago doesn’t have more piano tuners than it can keep busy tuning pianos.

2) Estimate the total population of Chicago.

At that time, there were about 3,000,000 people in Chicago.

3) Estimate how many families that population represents.

The average family consisted of four members, so the number of families was approximately 750,000.

4) Assume that about one third of all families owns a piano.

That gives us 250,000 pianos in Chicago.

5) Assume that each piano should be tuned about every 10 years.

That gives us about 25,000 tunings per year in the city.

6) Assume that each piano tuner can service four pianos per day, and works about 250 days a year.

Each piano tuner would perform 1,000 tunings per year.

Summary: In any given year, pianos in Chicago need 25,000 tunings; each tuner can do 1,000 tunings, therefore we need 25 piano tuners.

The answer was within a few of being the number in the yellow pages of the time.

Why not just count the listings in the yellow pages in the first place? A good idea, until we remember that “solving a problem” is an exciting, challenging word to people like Fermi and to scientists in general. Difficult problems are even better opportunities to test their minds and their ability to calculate.

Another of Fermi’s motivations in giving this problem was to illustrate properties of statistics and the law of probabilities. He used the lesson to teach something about errors made in estimating, and how they tend to cancel each other out.

If you assumed that pianos are tuned every five years, for example, you might also have assumed that every sixth family owns a piano instead of every third. Your errors would then balance and cancel each other out. It’s statistically improbable that all your errors would be in the same direction (either all overestimates or all underestimates), so the final results will always lean towards the right number.

Fermi, present at the time, was able to get a preliminary estimate of the amount of energy released by the atomic bomb—he sprinkled small pieces of paper in the air and observed what happened when the shock wave reached them.

A whole cult has been built up around “Fermi questions:”

• how much popcorn would it take to fill your family room?

• how many pencils would you use up if you drew a line around the earth at the equator?

• how many rejection letters would it take to wallpaper a writer’s office? (oops, too personal?)

For Fermi, there was great reward in independent discoveries and inventions.

Many contemporary scientists and engineers respond the same way. Looking up an answer or letting someone else find it impoverishes them, robbing them of a creative experience that boosts self-confidence and enhances their mental life.

Could this also be why they don’t ask for directions when they’re lost?

The SinC Blog Hop

With this blog, I’m happy to join the Sisters in Crime September Blog hop!

Among the suggested topics: Which authors have inspired you?

My answer: Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) and Eve Curie (1904-2007), two authors who may seem to have nothing in common, but have inspired me in ways none have since.

Louisa May Alcott

Little Women was the first and only book I read that wasn’t a schoolbook, until I was in college. Reading was discouraged in my home environment unless it was to ensure a good grade. I’m not even sure how I happened upon a copy.

Whatever critics or scholars have said is the theme/message/quest of Little Women, Alcott taught me that words and stories could move the reader to emotion as surely as a real-life drama.

I’m sure I wasn’t the first to dissolve into tears at Beth’s death, or to root for Jo as if she were my real-life friend. It’s strange to me now that I didn’t learn from that experience, that other books might be similarly rewarding.

Eve Curie's bio of Marie, open to a random page

Several years later, I was in college and came across a biography of Marie Curie in the science library. It was written by her younger daughter, Eve (the daughter who was not a radiation scientist, and lived to 103!). Eve’s book became the second book I read that wasn’t a schoolbook.

In Madame Curie, Eve Curie gave us her mother’s story, in words, without equations, and I found it fascinating. So what if she included only the most flattering, romantic picture of her parents and their life in the laboratory. There would be many other biographies to give a more complete picture.

This second “unrequired reading” set me on the path, finally, to seek other stories.

Louisa May Alcott and Eve Curie taught me that books could provide information, interesting stories, and valuable emotional connections.

Only a few decades later, I decided to try writing my own.

Tagging: Ann Parker to join the hop!

Remembering 9/11

Galileo and Bach

There’s nothing like a little physics and music combination to start the month. Click on the caption for an amazing rendition of Bach on an inclined plane.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/C_CDLBTJD4M

(to view this, you need a Google account)

The SKYPE’s the Limit

How to go everywhere without getting dressed up: SKYPE – my new favorite mode of transportation.

Thanks to Skype (and my resident Cable Guy), last week I visited a library across the country in Gainesville, Florida, while seated comfortably in my home office in Castro Valley, California.

The wonderful organizer there set up a meeting in a room with a computer and I’m told I was bigger than life on a projection screen (that might be the only downside). I was sent a list of topics and questions ahead of time, and when the day came and we logged on, we were ready to go with our discussion. The craft of writing, our favorite authors, the great amazon vs. the world debate—we took them on!

The photo above is of an earlier Skype session where I “visited” a book club in San Francisco. All that was necessary was a laptop in the hostess’s home.

AN OFFER

If you’re a member of a book club, or a library patron, or simply enjoy gathering a group together to talk about books and writing, I’d love to join you.

If you’re interested, let me know by commenting here, or by sending an email to: Camille (at) minichino (dot) com

I’ll send a book or two that you can raffle off and a pen for everyone!

A Cave of My Own

Recently I attended a gathering at the home of a writer friend who lives in Marin County, California.

Her house overlooks San Rafael Bay. The guests oohed and aahed over her workspace, which has a full wall of window facing the water. There were ducks and other creatures within feeding distance. Everything was bright and sunny. If we weren’t talking, the air was filled with silence and the occasional sound of a nonhuman species.

Scary.

I’d never survive in such a space, let alone do anything productive. I’d be too nervous, thinking maybe the world had ended for humans, or wondering if an ocean mutant might break through the glass and land on my lap. The space was too open, held too much wildlife. The only “buildings” in view were a few other houses around the edge of the Bay. Nothing over two stories.

I prefer caves.

My office is small and dark. I keep it that way by having my blinds closed during the day. The only things in my field of view are my 26″ computer, a TV, 2 printers, scanner, DVD player, and books, of course. Nothing scary, like a duck or a bird, or long weeds full of insects, or the blinding sun.

I’m sure this preference comes from childhood. My bedroom window for the first 21 years of my life was about one yard away from the jukebox in the pizza parlor next door. The only sounds I heard were human (recorded or otherwise, and sometimes accompanied by sirens); the only vista a brick wall on one side, a fire escape on the other.

The pizza parlor that was an extension of my bedroom.

I spent the next 20 years shuffling from one big city to another. Boston; Hartford, Connecticut; The Bronx; Washington, DC. Not exactly prairie land.

The combination of buildings, subway tunnels, and city noises is still comforting to me, and the place I work best.

Am I in the minority here?

Guest: Ellen Kirschman: A Doctor in Turnouts

My guest today is one of those people whose amazing success in a professional field has made her only more willing to share what she knows with others. Dr. Ellen Kirschman’s I Love a Cop and I Love a Fireman are among my first go-to books for help as I write characters she knows better than I do! Thanks for joining us today, Ellen.

How did I get here?: Years ago, Camille invited me to talk to a gathering of mystery writers.  She told me that she used a “dog eared copy” of my first book, I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know as a reference for her own writing. Neither of us knew that twenty plus years later she would be “blurbing” my first ever novel, Burying Ben: A Dot Meyerhoff mystery and inviting me to be a guest on her blog. You’ve been a role model and a pal. Thanks Camille.

How and why I went from writing non-fiction to fiction:

After writing two more non-fiction books about public safety psychology, I began to think it would be easier to make things up. Boy, was I delusional! Readers can put a non-fiction book down and pick it up without losing the thread. But a good mystery should have the reader baring her teeth at anyone or anything that interrupts her before she finishes the story.

I started writing when I was a child and never stopped. I used to be a probation officer. Once a supervisor told me that a report I had submitted was the best piece of writing he had ever received. The only problem was that he didn’t think it had anything to do with the person I was investigating. I guess that would be the first time I began turning my real work into fiction.

Years later, as a police psychologist, I wondered how I would react if a client of mine committed suicide. Cops are two, perhaps three, times as likely to kill themselves as they are to be killed in the line of duty. Fortunately, the only time I had to deal with this was when I wrote   Burying Ben and created Dr. Dot Meyerhoff, using my mother’s first name and my maternal grandmother’s maiden name.

People ask me if Burying Ben is autobiographical. Not really. I’m not nearly as gutsy, young or thin as Dot and I certainly never did the things she does to bring the right people to justice; impersonating a public official, breaking and entering, and assault with a deadly weapon. Dot’s father was a student activist at Berkeley in the 60’s who was beaten by the police and injured for life. His legacy puts Dot in perpetual conflict with the officers she’s been hired to help. My father was a Republican. On the other hand, Dot and I do have some things in common. We’re both divorced and we’ve both had an uphill battle trying to get officers to trust us because we’re civilians, women, and “shrinks.” I spent 25 years consulting at one agency and the day I left there were still some cops who believed I had a video camera in my office that connected directly to the Chief’s desk.

Some things that really happened  have found their way into the book, mostly scenes having to do with stories I heard or things that happened when I was riding with the cops. I’ve always had an ear for how cops talk and for years I’ve been keeping a record of the funny, off-the-wall things they say. Officer Eddie Rimbauer, is a composite of many people, but he sounds so real, there was an on-line pool of cops trying to guess his real identity.

Some readers want to know if Dot’s first post-miserable-divorce new love interest, Frank, is really modeled after my husband. He is.  My husband wants to know if Frank will get lucky in the sequel. I’m not telling. He’ll have to read the book.

Burying Ben went through some eighteen revisions.  I was teaching myself a new craft. Writing a mystery was a puzzle to be solved, one that challenged all my weak points – an abhorrence for details and a non-linear mind. My big “aha” moment came when I changed from third person point of view to first person. Once I put my psychologist hat back on, I was in familiar territory. My next challenge was to stop telling myself that whatever was happening in the book wouldn’t really happen this way in the real world. Faithfully adhering to reality is what drives non-fiction. But reality can be boring and is not the stuff that keeps a reader reading.

Promotion and marketing:

Few of my friends had read my other books, which were aimed at specific readers.  But they’re all reading Burying Ben. That would include my hair stylist, my dentist, my dentist’s receptionist, my doctor, my neighbors, and some strangers I met in the airport. Other people carry photos of their kids and grandkids. I carry postcards of my mystery and I’m not shy about handing them out. Not something I did, or needed to do, with my non-fiction work. Especially since psychologists are prohibited from promoting themselves, other than to provide general information that is neither misleading nor deceptive and does not offer discounts or inducements.

Doing research:

I did most of my research in the back of a patrol car or in my consulting room. But if you’re writing about cops and you don’t have the kind of access I was fortunate to have, you might consider attending a citizens police academy at your local PD or the Writers Police Academy (www.writerspoliceacademy.com). Both will give you hands-on experience. Go on a ride-along. After all these years I still learn something new every time I do. Learn about guns. Practice on the range. Try your hand at a firearms training simulator (FATS). If you’re qualified and have the time to invest, consider becoming a reserve officer or putting yourself through a police academy. I went through a condensed fire academy designed for journalists when I wrote I Love a Fire Fighter. Whatever you do, don’t watch cop shows on television. Join the Public Safety Writers Association (www.policewriter.com). You’ll meet a lot of active and retired public safety professionals who are also writers. I Love a Cop, I Love a Fire Fighter and Counseling Cops all contain real-life scenarios that, as Camille says, can enhance your stories and deepen your characters.

Is there a doctor in that suit?

Bio: Ellen Kirschman has been a police and public safety psychologist for over 30 years. She is the winner of the California Psychological Association’s 2014 Award for Distinguished Contribution to Psychology. Her work with first responders has taken her to four countries and 22 states. She is the author of four books. I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know, has sold more than 100,000 copies.  I Love a Fire Fighter: What the Family Needs to Know was penned after the tragic events of 9/11. Her third non-fiction book is Counseling Cops: What Clinicians Need to Know. Burying BenA Dot Meyerhoff Mystery (2013) is her first foray into fiction and the first in a series.  Ellen spends her time writing, teaching, and volunteering as a clinician at the West Coast Post Trauma Retreat (www.wcpr2001.org) for first responders. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, a photographer and a retired remodeling contractor. Ellen loves to hear from readers. You can contact her at www.ellenkirschman.com.  You can order her books from Guilford Press, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and more of your favorite vendors, in print or as e-books.

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Technology and Social Change

My online class starts at the end of August: Science, Technology, and Social Change. A favorite topic, a favorite class.

I’m gearing up by gathering blogs, articles, and rants about what social media, smartphones and other electronic devices are doing to our teens, our dining habits, our culture.

Has our attention span suffered? Have we lost the ability to focus, to enjoy the moment?

Here’s one way to look at it: people haven’t changed. Only the tools have changed.

For example:

• In 1989, pre-smartphones, pre-Facebook, pre-almost everything, a college student in the northwest sent me postcards regularly. The usual message: I’m here in the library, studying hard.

My (unwritten) response: No, you’re not. You’re writing postcards, connecting to family and friends.

That same person, now 45 years old, posts on Facebook. The message: Thanks to (our babysitter), my husband and I are having a nice dinner out by ourselves.*

My (unwritten) response: No, you’re not. You’re posting on Facebook, connecting to even more family and friends.

Like?

Is technology ruining our ability to focus or is it simply filling a need?

*Actually, she writes Me and my husband are having a nice dinner . . . but we can’t blame technology for that, can we?

Booked

A few nonfiction selections

On LadyKillers recently, we were asked: What do our characters read?

My answer: Not much.

I’m what you might call a heavy reader; I’m not sure why no one in my gallery of characters is even a light reader. They confine themselves to literature that’s pertinent to their jobs or interests, almost never including fiction or reading for relaxation. For example:

• Dr. Gloria Lamerino, retired physicist, reads Physics Today, Scientific American, and the New Yorker cartoons.

• Gerry Porter, retired English teacher and miniaturist, often quotes Shakespeare, but not once in 8 books has she picked up a volume and had a quiet read. She does occasionally leaf through a miniatures or crafts magazine.

• Professor Sophie Knowles, college math teacher, reads and contributes to mathematics journals and puzzle magazines. No fiction.

Finally, with my 4th series, I might have a reader.

• Cassie Miller (debuting in 2015), postmaster in a small Massachusetts town, reads crime fiction. Though I don’t give specific titles, I do have Cassie commenting on certain plot devices, and actually trying to read crime novels or watch crime dramas before bedtime. Granted she’s quickly distracted and turns to focusing on “the case” at hand.

One reason my amateur sleuths don’t read: they’re very busy people! In general, they solve a murder case in a week or at most two weeks. That’s pretty quick, considering real cops sometimes take months, often years. Also, reading is very passive, as opposed to, say, a car chase, a shoot-out, or even a quiet stalking scene. It’s hard to make a reading scene exciting.

She stretched out on the couch, put on her reading glasses, picked up a book, found the bookmark, opened the book,  . . .

See what I mean?

I’m in no such hurry, however, and under no obligation to live an action-packed life, so here’s what I’m reading.

Literary Fiction – recently finished The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden, by Jonas Jonasson, not as “original” IMO, as his The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared.

Mystery Fiction – often a cozy and a thriller going at the same time. Now: re-reading California Roll by John Vorhaus, for a book club.

Nonfiction – Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices, and Carlin Flora’s Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are

Technical – A new edition of my text for a fall class, Society and Technological Change, by Rudy Volti.

Assorted Magazines: Writers Digest, Publishers Weekly, the New Yorker (cartoons + articles), and for a Real Break, Real Simple.

My Book on TV: A True Story

A few years ago, Hallmark produced a TV movie based on Citizen Jane, a true crime book by Bay Area’s James Dalessandro. In one scene, Jane’s aunt is pictured sitting comfortably, reading. The book: my first, The Hydrogen Murder! She holds it up, the cover plain as day.

And then an intruder breaks in and murders her!

The book falls out of her hands and onto the floor, cover side up, immortalized as a part of the crime scene.

So, although my characters aren’t reading, someone is reading my characters!