My boyfriend at high school summer camp in Massachusetts turned out to have played with my brother when they were five-year-old neighbors in Kansas. Some years later, as I stood forlorn in Honolulu after my husband boarded his flight for Vietnam, a young man in Air Force uniform called my name; our families were shirttail relatives who visited in Pittsburgh when he and I were kids. In real life, coincidences happen.
Why not in fiction, then? Because fiction isn’t like life. Stories demand a logical progression of cause and effect, leading to climax and resolution. Real life is less shapely. A lot of life just happens, including the occasional odd happenstance we wouldn’t tolerate from an author.
This guideline comes from Emma Coates in Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling: “Coincidences that get characters into trouble are great. Coincidences that get them out of it are cheating.”
Maps have fascinated me since childhood. Globes, aerial photographs, choreographic floor plans, house blueprints, graphic organizers, apps that show you the driver approaching your house—lay it out for me spatially and you have me hooked.
So my first question after checking into my San Diego hotel last week, on respite from the polar vortex, was, “Which way is north?” The answer, together with the maps I’d pored over in advance, let me roam with confidence by foot, bus, and trolley.
Two-dimensional maps didn’t prepare me for the wonders of Balboa Park. A walkway in the Japanese Friendship Garden descends by switchbacks to the pond in this photo, far below the entrance. The Palm Garden nestles in another canyon across the road. A visit to the panda began with a long outdoor elevator ride into the depths of the zoo. To relish the third dimension, sometimes you have to be there.
Lately I’ve been working on an Afghanistan chapter for the next volume of Rotary and the Gift of a Polio-Free World. It’s sobering stuff. Afghanistan led the world in children paralyzed by polio last year, in part because of threats against workers who tried to deliver vaccine. Across the border in Pakistan, more than a hundred vaccinators and their guards have been murdered over the past five years. Immunizing children can be dangerous work.
The dangers are different in the United States. Measles infected more than a hundred people here in the past two months, mostly in places where a critical mass of parents fear vaccination. Measles vaccine can’t be given to those the vaccine most endangers: infants below age one, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems. Unprotected, they’re at high risk of infection in any public space where someone with measles coughed or sneezed in the last hour or two. They're safest in a community where the children around them are vaccinated.
For historical perspective, measles caused 450 to 500 deaths a year in the United States before the introduction of vaccine. Globally, measles and its complications still kill more than 100,000 people a year, mostly children below age five. Unwitting travelers—eighty-one of them in 2018 alone—bring the virus back to the United States.
Michelle Wildgen of the Madison Writers’ Studio begins each class, “What are you reading?” My latest three were recommendations from a historical mysteries book club, a comment on my Pandemic blog post, and a Facebook friend respectively.
• In Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen. A novel of spies, class, romance, and mystery in World War II England. I hadn’t previously heard of the “land girls” sent to the countryside for wartime farm labor, or of Nazi proposals to restore the former King Edward VIII to the British throne.
• The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. A riveting history of London’s 1854 cholera epidemic, on every scale from microbe to metropolis, and the pioneering epidemiologist who figured out how it spread. The book grabbed me from page one with the night scavengers who recycled the bones, rags, and excrement of Dickensian London.
• The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult by Jerald Walker. Powerful memoir of a Chicago kid in the 1970s, raised to expect the end of the world before he reaches his teens. His parents are blind, his God wrathful, his classmates puzzled. To his secret shame, Jerry wishes he could just be a normal boy.
What are you reading?
Translation is an inexact craft. Some words born in one culture lack close equivalents in another. Schadenfreude (pleasure at another’s misfortune) and déjà vu (a sense of having been here before) entered the English tongue because nothing else says it so well.
Ability to describe your emotions more precisely than “glad,” “mad,” or “sad” may improve your physical health. If English doesn’t have the exact word for what you feel, why not look further? The examples below are from Dr. Tim Lomas’s long and growing list. What favorites can you add? What sensation do you wish you had a word for?
One of the novelties of fifteenth-century care in the great Hospital of Rhodes was the provision of a separate, curtained bed for each sick patient. Perhaps the Crusaders learned from the more medically advanced Arabs. Most European hospitals assigned at least two to a bed, while homes and taverns crowded sleepers more closely.
Communal sleeping cut across social classes in medieval Europe. While servants and poor folk huddled on rags or straw on the floor, entire families of means—or guests at an inn—shared mattresses, sheets, and blankets on raised platforms. Women, men, and children slept together. Nights were cold, beds were expensive, and notions of privacy didn’t exist.
Only gradually did the bedroom become a private space for sleep, sex, and childbirth. Well into the 1700s, monarchs received visitors in their bedchambers. Ben Franklin and John Adams shared a bed at an inn and quarreled about the window.
The Victorians ended most bed sharing with an appeal to health and morals. Though married couples eventually rebelled against mandatory twin beds, the old practice of communal sleeping is nearly extinct except for romantic/sexual pairs. Judgmentalism persists. Eyebrows rise over who’s sleeping with whom, why so-and-so sleep in separate rooms, or whether babies should sleep with a parent. Just a few centuries ago, nobody cared.
Winter blues come in many colors. Mine take at least three distinct, relatively predictable forms.
Early December: out of kilter. As night blankets out more and more daylight, I grow shaky, lose confidence, and see rejection where none was intended. This “Decemberitis” lifts with the lights, sounds, and camaraderie of the holidays.
Mid-January to late February: lethargic. Snowstorms, icy roads, and bitter cold restrict activities and personal contact. Anniversaries of significant mid-winter losses don’t help. Lots of time to write, but who has the energy? I’d rather go back to bed.
Around March: restless. Spring should be just around the corner. Instead, slush on my favorite forest paths hides patches of glare ice or puddles four inches deep. Cabin fever itches worse than it did in deep mid-winter. Are we there yet, are we there yet?
I’d love to hear from others about the hues of your winter blues.
Earlier this month I attended my first meeting of a local book group that specializes in historical mysteries. The current mystery was Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Sun. Huh? What does a story set far in the future share with stories set fifty or five hundred years in the past?
Lots, I soon realized. Readers explore an unfamiliar world through the eyes of characters already at home there, who rarely pause to explain what’s going on. Interspersed with the puzzles in the plot is the puzzle of figuring out how an alien society works. It's like foreign travel without a guidebook or interpreter. As a reader of historical novels, I may try wrapping my mind around futuristic science fiction more often.
Writers' workshops on “world building” attract historical novelists and science fiction writers alike. As an author, how do you convey the sounds, smells, customs, technology of an alien culture? Its assumptions, habits, day-to-day relationships? Because of the need to build a world, novels in both genres are typically longer than most other fiction (see sample word counts here and here). The need to keep a mystery moving adds a delicious challenge.
In ecology, the term edge effects refers to phenomena at the boundary between two different habitats, such as woodland/meadow or pond/shore. I first learned about edge effects in work for the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, a meeting place of sand dunes, wetlands, prairie, forest, oak savanna, and Lake Michigan beach. More than a thousand plant species at IDNL range from orchids and prickly pear cactus to bearberry of the Arctic tundra.
Magic flourishes and sparks fly at the boundaries. How many folktales begin with a little old couple who live in a cottage by the edge of the forest or sea? How many human conflicts erupt at cultural borderlands? Some years back I explored edge effects between nomadic and settler cultures, where systems based on kinship clash with systems based on territory.
In my writing about polio eradication, the main story begins in the 1980s on the boundary between a private service organization (Rotary) and multinational agencies (World Health Organization, UNICEF). They took years to learn to work together and trust each other. Now polio eradication efforts in parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria focus on the boundary between modern epidemiology and some of the world’s most traditional cultures.
My historical fiction-in-progress is set on an eastern Mediterranean island on the border of Europe and Asia in the late fifteenth century, the cusp of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Edge effects among Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Jews, and Muslims create a breeding ground for tensions galore.
Returning to work after the holidays was less jarring than usual this year. A board game from under the Christmas tree set my mind on course for two days of meetings about the global eradication of polio.
Pandemic challenges a diverse team of specialists from CDC Atlanta to stop four deadly infections before they engulf the world. Players race around the continents in a collaborative effort to bring outbreaks under control. Should we suppress an outbreak from the epicenter or work in from the edges? Focus on one disease till it’s gone for good or strive to maintain low levels of each? Divert staff from existing programs to respond to each new outbreak? Invest in research for future cures at the cost of immediate treatment?
This map-based strategy game reminds me of the Avalon Hill war games of half a century ago, such as Waterloo, Gettysburg, or Battle of the Bulge. While Pandemic isn’t overtly historical, that’s only because the game doesn’t name the infections. In any recent year, the international health community has battled multiple pandemics such as HIV/AIDS, diphtheria, cholera, SARS, MERS, H1N1 flu, Ebola, Zika virus, or Lassa fever. Pandemic mimics reality in the way deadly infections spread and the strategic challenges of combating them.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.