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.”
Mystery author Sue Grafton died in late December at age 77. The last of her alphabetical Kinsey Millhone novels, Y is for Yesterday, appeared this past year. Like other engaging mystery series, Grafton’s combines a fresh crime puzzle in each volume with an admirable, imperfect protagonist whose life progresses from book to book.
I probably read A is for Alibi soon after it came out in 1982. Grafton was 42 years old, her fictional private investigator 32, and the southern California setting contemporary. Reading B is for Burglar and its successors as they appeared, I gradually noticed Kinsey’s world falling out of sync with mine. At first jarred, then intrigued, I finally became entranced with how Grafton handles the passage of time.
You do the math. In twenty-five mysteries over thirty-five years of your life (if you’re old enough) or Grafton’s or mine, Kinsey Millhone ages from 32 to 39. Sleuthing her way from A to Y entirely within the 1980s, Kinsey has to find a pay phone to communicate. She still makes notes on 3”-by-5” index cards and consults reference books at the brick-and-mortar library. With the slowing of time, I’ve watched her world shift from the one I inhabited to the one I remember.
From the window, the lump under the tree out back looked like a large rock. A closer view transformed the rock into a sleeping body. My intrepid granddaughter, bundled against the cold, ventured close enough to touch. The body was quite dead.
I phoned the authorities for instructions. They said the next step depends whether death resulted from a road accident or natural causes. And if the hole in the body’s side suggested neither? Unlike a bullet, I was told, the bolt from a crossbow leaves a clean exit wound. I chose not to turn over the frozen carcass to investigate.
This may not have much to do with history or writing, or maybe it does. Details from the mystery—the lump, the unexplained body, the evidence of shooting, the uncertainty what to do—may resurface in some future tale set in medieval Europe, the deer transmuted to human form. The hole in the crossbow victim's corpse may match the one out back. As I blogged last May, it’s all autobiographical.
Charlie Brown’s Christmas always brings tears to my eyes. My throat tightens when Linus tells what Christmas is all about and suggests the scraggly tree just needs a little love. Of the many holidays honored in diverse traditions this darkest time of year, Christmas is the one that stirs my heart.
Granted, its claims as a holy day are weak. No historical or biblical source suggests what time of year Jesus was born. Christmas originated in the fourth century when Pope Julius I fixed Jesus’s birthday on December 25 to co-opt existing midwinter revels. It became a raucous holiday marked by riots and booze. Religious leaders in seventeenth-century Boston banned it as non-biblical.
Unlike factual origins, meanings are assigned by humans and change over time. The idea that Christmas has a “true meaning” is relatively recent, starting in the 1800s with the writings of Washington Irving and Charles Dickens. Christmas is no more an age-old family celebration of peace and love than it is the anniversary of Jesus’s birth. On the other hand, this is as good a time as any to heed the call for light in the darkness, hospitality to the stranger, generosity over greed, and hope in the face of fear.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.