Where Can I Find a Ghost Like That?

The end of October is finally upon us and for writers that means only one thing: bowls full of miniature candy bars will be widely available for snacking.

Or maybe two things. Because tomorrow is the first of November and the start of National Novel Writing Month. Once again it’s that time of year when people dedicated to the craft of novel writing, become even more dedicated and join upwards of 400,000 of their closest friends in setting the goal of writing 50,000 words in a single short month that, at least for US participants, includes a major holiday.typewriter-584696__340

I’ve participated a few times in NaNoWriMo and I’m proud to say that each time I have been among the usually less than 20% who completed the challenge. I’d love to do it this year, too. I even have a couple of ideas for books floating around in my brain and tonight I will be attending a NaNoWriMo kickoff party for local writers who will get started on their future masterpieces at the stroke of midnight.

Sadly, I’ve had to accept that this year I will be attending in a strictly cheerleading capacity. I’m still working through one project and preparing for the rapidly approaching launch of a new novel. And, well, it’s a short month with a major holiday in it. Unless I can find myself a ghostwriter, I think I’m out of luck.

Pearl_Curran
Pearl Curran took the term “ghostwriter” to the next level. by Walter Franklin Prince [Public domain]
But I suppose you never know. It happened for another St. Louis woman in the summer of 1913. Mrs. Pearl Curran had been experimenting with her Ouija board for nearly a year when she was first contacted by Patience Worth. The English-born ghost claimed to have lived from 1649-1694, traveled to America as a Puritan, and eventually died at the hands of hostile Indians. She also had a way with words and a story to tell.

Actually, several stories, quite a few letters, and a whole lot of poems. With the help of her living companion, Patience Worth wrote at least six novels before Pearl Curran died in 1937, at which time, presumably, the two continued to hang out.

In 1918 alone, the strange duo produced eighty-eight poems that were published in various magazines. Some of this large body of work even garnered praise from literary critics, one of whom wrote that Worth had “a sense of humor that is rare in ghosts.”

As a novelist whose work has yet to attract a great deal of critical attention, I admit this bothers me a little bit. Mrs. Curran definitely encountered her fair share of skeptics and I am among them. Believers argued that Curran lacked the formal education to produce the works on her own, but there’s some evidence that she might have had more creative abilities than her background would suggest.ouija-board-4553829__340

Frankly, I don’t think it really matters much. Great work came from the collaboration, whether Patience Worth was a figment of a highly developed imagination or she was a literal ghostwriter.

Either way, I’ll probably miss out on penning a novel this November. I suspect I’m unlikely to come across a ghost willing to share its literary genius. I don’t even own a Ouija board. But I am looking forward to the candy.

Happy Halloween! Happy NaNoWriMo!

Fruit-Plants, Cheap Coconuts, and the Need for a Brilliant Editor

The kids are back in school this week and I am back in my little hidey hole in the basement where I churn out silly blog posts and the occasional book. It’s a big year for us. My oldest is starting high school. My youngest is headed to middle school. And I’m, well, probably going to pen the next great American novel or something.

Actually, I am pretty busy trying to get back into the swing of things, starting with some novel editing. If you’ve been following along with this blog for very long, you might recall I wrote what I refer to as a lost novel. It’s a long story (the “lost” part, not the novel, which is pretty average length), but basically, a publisher did me wrong and a book that was supposed to come out never did.

hidey hole
It’s possible that I should also spend some time cleaning up the hidey hole in the basement.

Fortunately, the lost book saga is nearly at an end. The rights will return to me early next year and I hope to release the book myself in February. And that means that right now, I’m spending a lot of time editing.

This is not as difficult as it sounds. Mostly I just have to read through the book for the 4,782nd time and acknowledge that I am incredibly lucky to work with a brilliant editor who calls me out on all my silly mistakes.

She’s also very kind. While I’m sure she rolls her eyes as she corrects my nineteenth dialog formatting error in the space of four pages, not once has she called me idiot, or even made me feel like she might. I really don’t know how she does it. I’d go cross-eyed and just start throwing in commas between every other word.

But that’s why I need a brilliant editor. Because sometimes I do that. And as small and inconspicuous as commas seem, they really do matter.

I recently stumbled on the story of a very important comma that once lost the US government about 2 million dollars. I realize that if you are a politician and not just a normal person, $2 million may not sound like that much money, so let me explain that this was in 1872. Really, that $2 million was more like $40 million in today’s money.commas save lives

Okay, if you are a politician, you’re probably still not all that impressed, but to us regular folk, that’s a pretty pricy comma.

The problem started with a tariff act passed that year which specified that on August 1, 1872, the following imported goods would be duty-free: “fruit, plants tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation.”

If like me, you’re not so great with commas, you might gloss over the fact that this list seems to suggest that all imported tropical and semi-tropical fruits are no longer subject to tariff. Since the previous tariff act placed a 20% tax on lemons, oranges, pineapples, and grapes, and a 10% tax on limes, bananas, mangoes, pomelos, and coconuts, this had people in the business of pineapple importation pretty excited.

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William Adam Richardson, probably not the best Secretary of the Treasury the US has ever had, and definitely in need of a brilliant editor. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Then Secretary of the Treasury William Richardson was less excited as he explained the act contained a clerk’s typo and that the comma after fruit was meant to be a hyphen. It was fruit-plants, he insisted, that were duty free, and not bananas. The threat of litigation made him roll back his statement and it took two years before an angry congress managed to correct the mistake with a new tariff act. In the meantime, a whole lot of potential government revenue helped line the pockets of some grammar enthusiast pomelo importers.

I’m pretty sure none of my comma mistakes are going to cost me that kind of money. Then again maybe my potential book sales are more substantial than I think. Like A LOT more substantial. Just in case, I’m combing through my almost-found-again book at least one more time with the help of a brilliant editor who I’m pretty sure would also not let me get away with using the word “fruit-plants.”

Oh—I See What He Did There

Last fall, I had the opportunity to attend a writers’ conference for which the keynote speaker was bestselling author Tess Gerritsen. You might know her as the author behind the television series Rizzoli & Isles and several fairly brilliant medical thrillers that, if you are a fan of medical thrillers, you should probably read.

TessandSteve
The very gracious Tess Gerritsen with Sock Monkey Steve.

She is a wonderful speaker and had many insightful things to share, including this one bit I am holding onto particularly hard at the moment. Bestseller Tess Gerritsen confessed that during the course of reworking nearly every project she writes, there comes a time when she no longer believes the story is any good at all. Of course, her point in sharing this was that sometimes you just have to put your head down and keep forging ahead.

I find myself at this point with my current work-in-progress. I suppose I might call it writer’s block except I don’t think that’s really what it is. I’m not having trouble coming up with ideas or even getting words on a page. I mean, I am mostly working on short story and essay submissions and not my novel, but I am writing. I’m even writing some things I’m pretty proud of.

But when it comes to this historical novel, of which I have plowed my way through a terrible first draft and have completed a good portion of a hopefully somewhat less terrible second draft, I’m kind of just having a hard time finding traction.

Writer’s block of all forms has plagued mankind probably since the first cave dwellers agonized over whether a bow and arrow or an antelope would better communicate the inner transformative journey of the central stick figure. Fortunately, the condition has been widely studied.

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The bull is a bold and clever choice here. image via Pixabay

And no one’s research has yielded more fruitful answers than that of Dennis Upper of Veterans Administration Hospital in Brockton, Massachusetts, whose findings were published in the Fall 1974 issue of the Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis. Dr. Upper titled his insightful paper “The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of a Case of ‘Writer’s Block.’”

Other than the title, one footnote, and a single peer review response, the article is entirely blank. The footnote explains that findings in the paper had not been presented at a convention of the American Psychological Association. The review heaps praise on the concise nature of the article and recommends no changes, stating that the journal should find room for Dr. Upper’s fine work “perhaps on the edge of a blank page.”

The point of the “study,” of course, is that psychologists, if not always super helpful, are at least pretty funny. light bulb

But there is probably a lesson to be learned from the not-an-article, that really did appear in a respectable peer-reviewed journal, even taking up a full page, and not just the edge of one. The point, I suspect, is that leaving the page blank will clearly not solve the problem and, as Gerritsen suggests, there comes a time when you have to just put your head down and keep forging ahead.

Oh—I see what he did there. It turns out, psychologists, if not always super funny, are at least pretty helpful.

A Cough Drop for Edgar Allan Poe

In January of 1845, Columbian Magazine listed among its upcoming publications, a new story by Edgar Allan Poe called “Some Words with a Mummy.” The story finally appeared, however, in April of that year in American Review. People who care to know such things assume Poe pulled the story from the original magazine because he received a better offer. And, well, what writer wouldn’t do that?

Despite having a mummy at its center and being written by an author most widely known for his dark tales, the story is actually an example of Poe’s lighter work. If you haven’t spent much time with him since reading “The Tell-tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado” in high school, then you may be surprised to know that he was also pretty good at being funny.

mummy
Can you even imagine? By jalvear – originally posted to Flickr as Mummy at Louvre, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7141759

“Some Words with a Mummy” is straight up satire, poking fun at the 19th century Egyptomania that had people decorating their sitting rooms with mummies and hosting unrolling parties with their closest non-scientist friends, just for kicks. And he doesn’t let the scientific community off easy, either.

In case you haven’t read it (which you can do here if you want), the premise is that a tired narrator blows off his early bedtime for a chance to attend a mummy unrolling at his buddy’s house. The gathered friends decide after poking and prodding for a little bit that they might as well feed some electricity into various slits they make into the desiccated body.

The mummy, named Allamistakeo, wakes up and informs them they’re all pretty rude. Then the story really gets going. After sewing up their new friend and giving him some ridiculous clothes to wear, the 19th-century gentlemen feel compelled to prove to their ancient counterpart that mankind sure has come a long way in 5,000 years.

Edgar Allan Poe
EAP may not have been terribly photogenic, but he could be kind of funny when he had a mind to.

Allamistakeo remains unconvinced. He offers a reasonable counter for every ill-informed suggestion his hosts make, demonstrating their narrow grasp on not only science, but also history. The only thing that impresses the reawakened Egyptian at all is the throat lozenge.

That’s right folks, the best advancement humankind made in nearly five thousand years was the cough drop.

Of course, Poe’s fairly dopey narrator didn’t yet know anything about space travel or smart phones, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Allamistakeo, who had been as successfully placed into perpetual stasis as any sci fi character ever was, wouldn’t have been too impressed with those either.

This is actually one of my favorite stories of Poe’s. It’s absurd and clever and it makes me giggle, which is why I was particularly excited to discover I could pay homage to it in my own work about mummies.

My first (to be published) historical thriller Gentleman of Misfortune follows the story of an elegant swindler who steals a shipment of eleven mummies. My thief is invented, but the mummies are ripped from the pages of history and there was a point when they were located in the same city at the same time as Edgar Allan Poe. Talk about a fun cameo to write!

cough drops
So many choices! What a time we live in.

My fictional gentleman got the opportunity to have a fictional conversation with the ripped-from-history Poe himself. As you might imagine, they talked about mummies. And lozenges.

It’s one of the lighter, more playful moments in a story that has a definite dark edge. I’d like to think that if Poe found himself suddenly resurrected, he’d enjoy it. But I doubt that. He was generally a pretty harsh literary critic. And like his Allamistakeo, Poe didn’t seem much pleased with his own age. I think it’s unlikely he’d be all that impressed by ours.

Still, I bet he would appreciate our wide variety of cough drops.

Wait—did you just make up a word?

Every week, or at least as closely as I can make it, I head out to a local restaurant where the waitress knows my order as soon as I walk in. I slide into the back room and take my place at a long table where, along with several other writers, I engage in the painful but necessary process of critique.

For nearly six years I’ve been subjecting my work, five or so pages at a time, to the scrutinizing eyes of more or less the same collection of critical readers.

We know each other well enough by now that the sting of harsh criticism isn’t too painful and any heaped-on praise is usually genuine. We each know the unique voices and styles of the others, share a great deal of respect for one another’s work, and have all become more skilled throughout our time together.

We’ve got a good thing going.

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A writer looking for just the right word.

My fellow critique partners focus on both the big stuff and the small details, asking me the tough questions about story structure and character development, as well as calling me out for awkward phrasing, run-on sentences that include fifty-eight overly sentimental words, use of ridiculous adverbs indiscriminately, exceptionally long lists, or for starting sentences with “but or “and.”

But they know that when it’s their turn to share, I will ask the tough questions too, like, “Wait—did you just make up a word?”

This very situation came up a couple of weeks ago. The writer (who shall remain nameless) smiled and explained that he did not just make it up, because it actually appears in previous works of his as well. I let it slide because the word (zorch) somehow fit the context remarkably well. And sometimes the word we need just doesn’t exist in the dictionary.

Other times, words that wind up in the dictionary are ones we don’t need. That’s what happened in second edition of Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary in 1934. The story goes that in July of 1931, chemistry editor Austin M. Patterson made a note that the word density should be included on the list of words that could be represented by the abbreviations D or d.

Somehow the note got misplaced and ended up directed incorrectly to the printer. Before long, a curious word nerd could find, tucked into the Ds between Dorcopsis and doré, the word Dord, complete with a pronunciation guide and a definition suggesting that it was a synonym for density.

dictionary
So many words. photo credit: Merriam-Webster Inc. MW_Bookshelf_Unabridged_Vintage via photopin (license)

No one caught the problem until a word nerd extraordinaire and editor for Merriam-Webster noticed, almost eight years later, that Dord didn’t have an etymology. The resulting investigation resulted in the removal of the ghost word by 1940, but for almost ten years Dord was a perfectly good word.

And why shouldn’t it have been? English is, after all, a dynamic language. In recent years, English language dictionaries have added, on average, more than one thousand new words each year. So far, Dord hasn’t been one of them. Neither has zorch.

I am, however, pleased that the online Urban Dictionary includes three definitions for Merriam-Webster’s most famous not-a-word. The first states that it is a mistaken synonym for density. The third defines it as “a word that is incorrectly used or does not technically exist . . .” My favorite part about this definition is the clever accompanying sentence: “Urban Dictionary is not a place to learn, it’s just a load of dords.”

I’m sure my critique partners would be quick to point out that the previous sentence is a comma splice, but what matters more is the second definition, which uses dord as an adjective for describing something as literally dense. I suggest this should be taken one step further and used figuratively. For example, I might say to a fellow writer: “You must be pretty dord to try to use the word zorch.”

I think I’ll roll this out and see if it sticks. Maybe it’ll become one of Merriam-Webster’s thousand or so new words in its next edition.

What words do you wish existed?

So Cold: The Secret to My Success

Occasionally someone will ask—either at a reading event or in casual conversation—whether I find it difficult to work at home. They wonder if I get distracted by the dishes or the errands or the dirty socks my children have inevitably left stuffed behind the couch cushions.

Of course, I have to admit that sometimes I do. Sitting behind a computer screen with no one to talk to except the dog (a good listener) and the chorus of characters (not great listeners) competing for attention in my head can get a little tiresome. Then the household stuff calls to me. It’s a convenient distraction—one I can always justify because those things need to get taken care of, too.

I generally reply that I get by because I’m list-maker and dedicated time manager, and I am, but I also have a special, motivational weapon in my arsenal, especially this time of year.

I’m cold.

Like seriously cold. All. The. Time.

thermostat
One study suggests that a third of all couples argue over the temperature setting in their homes, and 40% of women admit to secretly turning up the heat when their significant other isn’t looking. photo credit: EE Image Database Woman giving the thumbs-up sign and pointing to a thermostat on the wall in her home via photopin (license)

People have been finding clever ways to keep our environments warm pretty much since the invention of people, when cave men and cave women argued about how much to build up the campfire.

In ancient Rome, some buildings evidently used systems of pipes to force hot air from pockets of empty space beneath a fire into walls as a clever method of using radiant heat to warm up a room.

After a few dark and chilly centuries when heating returned to a more primitive style, other solutions began to emerge. In 13th century Europe, the Cistercian Order of monks began using diverted and heated river water to warm their monasteries. Better stoves and chimneys were developed through the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. Then Benjamin Franklin invented his (appropriately named) Franklin Stove in 1741, which proved to be a somewhat effective way to force warmth and smoke into a room in greater amounts than your average fireplace.

ozziesun
My dog’s favorite solar powered heating system.

Over the next hundred years or so, Scotsman James Watt came up with a steam-driven heating system, Russian Franz San Galli invented the radiator, and American professor Warren Johnson patented the first thermostat, because he was tired of classrooms that were either too hot or too cold. I think we’ve all been there.

Just a few short years later in 1919, Alice H. Parker patented the first central heating system that used natural gas. An African American woman enduring harsh New Jersey winters, Parker said she developed the idea that formed an important basis for the convenient and safer heating systems of today because she was cold and her fireplace just wasn’t cutting it. I hear that.

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Dressed for a day at the office.

According to a 2015 Dutch study, most women probably do. On average, the researchers found, ladies tend to be comfortable with a warmer ambient temperature than their gentleman counterparts do. The findings (which surprised absolutely no one who has ever attempted to share a home with a member of the opposite sex), sparked a discussion of whether office thermostats are sexist. Or something like that.

The idea was that back in the day when offices contained mostly men in three-piece suits, temperature levels were set for the comfort of those men. Today, as offices tend to contain more equal numbers of men and women, the temperatures remain set for ideal manly comfort standards. There’s a fancy formula engineers use to determine the optimal level of temperature comfort as determined by humidity, air temperature, and mean metabolic rates, etc. The problem, according to the study, is that the formula overestimates the amount of heat produced by a resting woman.

The differences have been attributed to estrogen production and muscle mass to fat ratios, which tend to be different between men and women. I don’t know that I would go so far to call the thermostat a source of inherent workplace sexism, but the struggle is real, and lots of women throughout the workforce carry an extra sweater to the office.

space heater
The secret to my success: a closed door and a space heater.

As someone who works primarily at home, I use the problem to my advantage, because I am the lone female living with three males. Through the winter, my house is always at least 2 (or 3 or 4) degrees colder than I’d like it to be. Yes, when my sons head off to school and my husband to work, I could turn up the thermostat and no one would complain.

Instead, I walk down the stairs and through a long hallway to my hidey hole office in the basement where I close the door and turn on my own personal space heater, before sitting down to work. Pretty soon, the dishes and the errands and the dirty socks begin to call to me, when the words don’t want to flow and the character voices have gone silent. When that happens, all I have to do is step outside of my office into my cold, cold house. I don’t stay there for long.

The World’s Favorite Sociopath: A Goal for 2019

In 1877 a young would-be physician walked into the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and met an attending physician who seemed already to know everything there was to know about him just by making a few astute observations. Dr. Joseph Bell had a habit of showing off his highly refined detective skills in order to impress upon his students the importance of taking a careful survey of a patient before launching into treatment.

sociopathThis so impressed medical student and writer Arthur Conan Doyle that when he published A Study in Scarlet, his first detective novel, nearly a decade later, Dr. Joseph Bell’s mad skills of observation showed up in the habits of a brilliant consultant named Sherlock Holmes.

When asked about his inspiration for his beloved consulting detective, Conan Doyle always answered that the character was drawn from Joseph Bell, himself a famous surgeon and forensic scientist known for drawing large conclusions from minute evidence. The two had worked closely together for a few years, as Conan Doyle clerked for Bell, a kind of Dr. Watson to his Sherlock. It probably makes sense that Bell might show up in his student’s work.

I recently became re-introduced to Sherlock Holmes when my oldest son discovered him. My son cut his teeth on the BBC show Sherlock in which the modern-day Holmes is brilliantly portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, but then he made this mama proud by plowing his way through Arthur Conan Doyle’s original works as well.

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The game is afoot!

So, when he recently turned fourteen, we celebrated with a Sherlock Holmes party, complete with a mystery to solve, a deerstalker to wear, and a little brother dressed up as John Watson. He made a good Sherlock, though I’m happy to report he’s a little more socially aware than the character.

Despite Conan Doyle’s repeated claim, there were likely other influences that contributed to the development of Sherlock Holmes as well. Edgar Allan Poe essentially created the detective fiction genre and Conan Doyle had been known to praise his efforts. The contemporary works of Émile Gaboriau also seem to echo at times through the character of Sherlock Holmes. And then there was Joseph Bell’s own claim in a letter to his former student in which he wrote, “You are yourself Sherlock Holmes and well you know it.”

I don’t blame him one bit for rejecting the honor. Holmes is something of a single-minded sociopath with little use for other people and a significant cocaine addiction. He’s a fascinating character and if I’m ever falsely accused of murder, I’ll want someone just like him on the case. But I wouldn’t want to hang out with him.

Because many of the people I do hang out with regularly are writers, I’m not surprised to read that Conan Doyle’s most famous character was inspired by someone he knew. That kind of goes with the territory when you are friends with a writer.

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Never mess with a writer.

I even once had a professor who boldly confessed that the “friend” character in every novel he’d ever written was almost exactly based on a boy he’d known growing up. I’ve never done anything so blatant. None of my characters has ever been intentionally patterned off someone in my life, but I’m sure if I really thought about it, I could recognize bits of those I know and love within my work.

I suspect that’s true of most fiction writers. Like Conan Doyle’s famous detective, we draw inspiration from a variety of places—ourselves, great books, and yes, occasionally from people we know. I guess that might bother some folks. Maybe it bothers you. It just kind of makes me want to be the type of person who could inspire a great character.

And that sounds like a good goal for 2019.

Happy New Year!