Lately I’ve been relishing mystery series where author, protagonist, and setting are African American. They offer a glimpse into communities I can’t know from the inside. Unlike much of my mystery reading, characters aren’t presumed white unless otherwise specified.
Valerie Wilson Wesley’s Tamara Hayle in New Jersey is a private investigator and former cop, like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone or Robert Parker’s Spenser. Like them, she experiences puzzles and dangers that keep me turning pages and a life that propels me from book to book. Unlike them, she lives in a world where worry over traffic stops or fear for teenage sons takes forms I can only imagine. When Death Comes Stealing (1994) is first in a series of eight.
Eleanor Taylor Bland’s Marti McAlister is an African-American police detective in Lincoln Prairie, Illinois, modeled on Waukegan. Like Tamara, Marti has a personal life as engaging as the crimes she solves. The series of fourteen begins with Dead Time (1992). Coming up on my list: Frankie Y. Bailey’s Lizzie Stuart, Nora DeLoach’s Mama Candi Covington, Barbary Neely’s Blanche White, and Pamela Samuels Young’s Vernetta Henderson.
This blog began on March 12, 2016, with “Conversations with Laura.” “Out into the World” followed the next day, “Fire, Flood, and Famine” on March 21, and “Gothic Shadows” on March 28. Every Monday since, I’ve posted an entry broadly related to writing, reading, history, imagination, and the creative life. The intent is to start a conversation, compare notes, and trigger ideas. Thanks to all who read these posts and respond or think about them.
You’re invited to help me celebrate by suggesting a topic for a future post. I’ll try to post something, over time, on every suggestion (or at least one per person) consistent with the overall blog theme. No present-day politics or religion, please. Blog form comments, Facebook, LinkedIn, and email will all reach me. Looking forward to hearing from you!
Most New Year’s resolutions have been broken by now. The first snowdrop is in bloom in the garden; the robins have yet to return. This in-between season calls for hope and trust along with any lingering intentions. Writers not yet assured of an audience need ways to nurture hope in order to keep writing. I suspect that’s equally true in other endeavors, from selling your art on Etsy to working for social change. Purposeful persistence is essential but doesn’t guarantee results. How do you balance hope with realism?
My view of hope is shifting over time. This year’s thoughts: Optimism and expectations are about the future. So is hope for a narrowly defined outcome. But hope in the broader sense is about the present, an attitude in this moment. Right now I hope and trust that my work has value, even if it’s too soon to see exactly how.
Hope demands a willingness to live with uncertainty. Barring life crises or chemical imbalances in the brain, I suspect a major impetus to giving up is the discomfort of not knowing. Why should I keep writing if you can’t promise the desired result? It takes courage to accept that we don’t know what will happen and to keep going all the same. The alternative is to quit for the comfort of certainty, in the assurance that nothing will happen at all.
My days rarely start with a hook or end with a cliffhanger. The most satisfying hours are not spent on the edge of my seat in suspense. Momentum means being on a roll, in flow, where the rest of the world goes away and later I’ll wonder where the time went. Disruptions break the momentum.
"Fiction isn't like life," Christine DeSmet of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Continuing Studies told her novel-writing critique lab last year. Fiction creates an illusion of reality through techniques that are anything but. What breaks the momentum in fiction is having everything run smoothly. Engrossing as I find working a jigsaw puzzle, you’ll only keep reading about it if two of the pieces are lost and the cat’s running off with a third and the landlord’s going to put my furniture on the curb unless the puzzle is completed by five o’clock.
From tracing ancestry or writing history to indicting thirteen Russians for interference in U.S. elections, it all begins with gathering and evaluating evidence. Friday’s meticulous indictment details the suspects’ use of social media fraud to sow discord and spread distrust. However this plays out, no one can promise it won’t happen again. Care in gathering and evaluating evidence can make us less vulnerable.
Check your sources. You can only do so much to distinguish fake news from real, but how many even try? It doesn’t take long for a social media post to go viral. I can’t count the posts I’ve seen shared by at least four or five contacts before the first comment by someone who’s checked it against Snopes.com or noticed it’s from The Onion.
Monitor your confirmation bias. There’s a well-documented human tendency to believe what’s consistent with our pre-existing beliefs and dismiss what conflicts with them. If I tried to reexamine every issue every time it arose, I’d never get through the day. But remember that matching our expectations doesn’t always make things true. If the subversives weren’t playing to your biases this time around, the next ones might.
Look outside your box. One of the Russians’ strategies was to weaken the U.S. by increasing polarization. We can resist by refusing to play. We can read or watch media that doesn’t tilt to our side, listen to people with different life experiences, and be open to the possibility of common ground. It might not only make our nation less vulnerable but also make us better neighbors, historians, or writers.
One author drafts entire novels in longhand. Someone else jots the simplest notes to self on an electronic device. Fear not, I won’t tell you which to use, much less jump into the fray about what to teach in grade school. But how, when, and why people choose which technology intrigues me.
Different physical ways of writing interact differently with the brain. Students who take notes by hand have to put the material into their own words and formats. Afterward, they answer conceptual questions about the material better than those who use laptops. Keyboarding requires less mental processing; the student can type more nearly verbatim. When something closer to transcription is the purpose, the laptop has the edge.
Conversations with writers and others reveal that many of us vary our writing tool based on purpose. I use longhand to journal, to get unstuck, and to wrestle with a sentence that refuses to work. Almost all my blog posts begin with ink on lined yellow pad. If a longer scene or exposition is clear in my mind, I’ll go to my desktop computer and let the words flow. My typed drafts are wordier and need more later edits. Other writers tell me they have the opposite experience.
When do you write by hand? When do you keyboard?
Seeing ourselves as others see us is greatly overrated. Not having been filmed in decades, watching myself as a talking head in Dare to Dream: How Rotary Became the Heart and Soul of Polio Eradication was a bit of a jolt. On the other hand, what fun to see and hear leaders I know today as a writer, or worked with thirty-odd years ago as a Rotary staffer, or both. How young we all were!
Rotarian Ken Solow’s remarkable documentary recounts how Rotary decided to rid the world of polio and assembled partners for the effort. While my role as historian* is only a bit part in global polio eradication, Dare to Dream reaffirms that beginnings matter. The polio story in 1979-88 was messy, confusing, and sometimes mired in controversy or mistrust. That’s how movements begin. They succeed, if at all, because believers press on through the confusion and mess.
* Rotary and the Gift of a Polio-Free World, Volume I, Making the Promise, and Volume II, Almost Every Child.
Historical fiction is chock full of daughters. Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch, Mapmaker’s Daughter by Laurel Corona, and Bloodletter’s Daughter by Linda Lafferty are three I’ve enjoyed lately. If 15th- to 17th-century Europe isn’t your thing, you may be more drawn to Pharaoh’s Daughter, Ninja’s Daughter, or Frontiersman’s Daughter. Fathers also shape subjects’ lives in the occasional biography (Galileo’s Daughter, Stalin’s Daughter) or memoir.
Last summer I reflected on influences from my mother. With my father’s 106th birthday just past, now it’s his turn. He grew up a rural shopkeeper’s son in frontier British Columbia. Inspired by a high school math teacher, he became the second in his large extended family to attend university. Math led to economics and eventually a rare depression-era fellowship in the fledgling field of sociology. The train ride across Canada to Montreal, home of McGill University, was his first-ever venture more than 200 miles from home.
He explored urban immigrant communities in Montreal and Detroit and rural poverty in Appalachia, where my early campus memories feature lush green hillsides, endless books, and the stuffed owl at the natural history museum. At home he answered my questions with the wisdom of a sociologist father. His explanation that “people” commonly means “people like me” helps me understand debates today about the wishes of the American people.
When I asked why we didn’t join the country club, he said we had the good fortune to visit grandparents in wonderful places each summer. When I asked the reasons for racism (though I didn’t yet know the word), he said some who don’t feel good about themselves want someone to look down on; we were lucky to like ourselves well enough to be comfortable liking others. He gave me lessons not only about societal relations but also about respect, compassion, and gratitude.
’Tis the season to sleep, eat, and hunker down. Technically humans can’t hibernate, but the idea is tempting. Our farming ancestors worked long hours to plant and harvest, followed by winters of comparative rest. Then came the Industrial Revolution and electric lights. Now we expect to sustain a busy life year round, but that’s not to say we’re built for it.
The British Medical Journal in 1900 reported how Russian peasants survived chronic famine:
"At the first fall of snow the whole family gathers round the stove, lies down, ceases to wrestle with the problems of human existence, and quietly goes to sleep. Once a day every one wakes up to eat a piece of hard bread, of which an amount sufficient to last six months has providently been baked in the previous autumn. When the bread has been washed down with a draught of water, everyone goes to sleep again. The members of the family take it in turn to watch and keep the fire alight. After six months of this reposeful existence the family wakes up, shakes itself, goes out to see if the grass is growing, and by-and-by sets to work at summer tasks."
Researchers have found human genes similar to those that trigger animal hibernation. Increases in sleep and appetite associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) resemble hibernation more than clinical depression. By all means use light therapy or medication if it helps, but let’s not berate ourselves for lowered ambition or flail against snow and cold. It’s all part of nature’s seasonal message to slow down.
What joy to wake at home, after dreaming we moved out because we had no business living in a place this nice. The dream followed an exchange about the humiliation of trying to look like the cool girls in high school and getting it wrong.
Other memories flood back. Wondering, in my twenties, when I would start to feel like a grown-up instead of pretending. Shocked, in my thirties, to be approached by an acquaintance told by her therapist to interview successful women. Recently reluctant to join a group of writers, unsure I’d belong in spite of writing for a living for over twenty years.
“Impostor syndrome" was coined in the 1970s for high-achieving women’s fear of being unmasked as a fraud. Studies also find it common among men, with a difference. Women are socialized to be modest and faulted for overconfidence. Men, socialized not to look vulnerable, are under pressure to hide self-doubt. If you feel like an impostor, you’re in good company:
Albert Einstein, late in life: “The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”
Maya Angelou: “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find me out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.”
Neil Gaiman, on a gathering of notables: “I felt that at any moment they would realize that I didn’t qualify to be there, among those people who had really done things.” Another attendee, the first man on the moon, questioned his own invitation; he’d done nothing special, just gone where he was sent. Gaiman goes on: “If Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.”
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.