“Accidents” of Research

dinosaur, dig, paleontology

(photo: wikimedia)

In the May issue of The Big Thrill, writer Gary Grossman discussed how he dug deep for the themes and jigsaw pieces of his new “geological thriller,” Old Earth. There are two kinds of research that I do. One is akin to fact-checking: Exactly how should a flash-bang be described, and how does it work? On what street corner in Rome is the Anglican church? What variation of baklava do Turks eat? This kind of research is essential, in order to keep readers convinced that their books’ narrators know what they are talking about. More about my research process is here.

Although that kind of research can be a springboard for ideas, the other type of research, which Grossman describes, is more wide-ranging, more generative. Old Earth begins some 400 years ago in Galileo’s time, thought the principal story concerns characters who are present-day paleontologists involved in an excavation. As Grossman wrote, he began to feel the need for a powerful inciting incident, one that would be “profound, believable, and grounded in truth.” So he expanded his research on Galileo and discovered some of the astronomer’s less famous inventions, which turned out to be authorial gold.

These facts provided a plausible jumping-off place for plot development, an opportunity to link the historical and modern-day portions of the novel, and an imaginative yet believable motivation. They were, he says, “A wonderful accident of research.” Such interconnections in a novel create a natural resonance for the reader and make the work more meaningful. Good storytellers who use such links–in fiction and non-fiction alike–make their work both more interesting and more universal.

He terms his discovery an accident, but it’s really a case of “chance favoring the prepared mind.” It’s the kind of thing that can happen when a writer stays open to possibilities and connections. In the process, the discovery became an adventure for Grossman, as well as for his subsequent readers.

Writers frequently talk usefully about the need for balance between research and writing, since many writers so love to do research they can get lost in the byways of investigation and neglect to even open up the most recently saved file of their novel-to-be. It’s a matter of figuring out how much detail—and in Grossman’s case, how much depth—is needed to craft a story that is both believable and memorable.

The Books of Summer

book, House of Leaves, Danielewski

House of Leaves page (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

The May Wired’s guide to summer fiction leads with two 880-page doorstops: one from my fave Neal Stephenson titled Seveneves (I’ve pre-ordered!), and the other from Mark Z. Danielewski. Danielewski’s is The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May, with a planned 26 more volumes to come, BTW. If Danielewski’s name is unfamiliar, you may recognize the title of his last convention-shattering tour de force, House of Leaves (my review). He may have done it again, suggests Jonathan Russell Clark in his Literary Hub article, “Did Mark Z. Danielewski Just Reinvent the Novel?”

Also out in May is Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, a thriller set in the near future when the water supplying Las Vegas and Phoenix runs out. “It’s just as apocalyptic as his first book (The Windup Girl, which won both Hugo and Nebula awards, among many others), more political, and though it didn’t seem possible, angrier,” says Wired reviewer Adam Rogers. “These days are coming,” thriller writer Lee Child says about the book, “and as always fiction explains them better than fact.” Bacigalupi views his books as thought experiments—by seeing where the world is headed, people can “make different decisions and vote for different politicians.” In other words, “Let’s not do this.”

In the same Wired issue, Caitlin Roper interviews Hollywood’s Damon Lindelof (Lost) and Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) about their new film, Tomorrowland starring George Clooney, and the omnipresence in entertainment media of a catastrophic future. Lindelof says, “I think one of the real reasons for all these dystopian movies, TV shows, and videogames is that it’s just easier to wreck things than it is to build something new.” Tomorrowland, he says, began with the notion of recapturing the “idea of an optimistic future, which has become completely and totally absent from the landscape.”

That’s certain true in fiction. In an NPR essay, Jason Heller says that ever since Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the dystopian literary trend has been unstoppable, if only because “the world feels more precariously perched on the lip of the abyss than ever.” Like Bacigalupi, Heller believes that “by imagining what it’s like to lose everything, we can value what we have.”

Crime Scene 101

Television and the movies notoriously overstate the tools (especially the electronic ones) at a criminal investigator’s command, to the extent juries have developed increased expectations about the availability of forensic evidence. (Here’s a fascinating study of the “CSI Effect,” suggesting prosecutors and judges need to up their game.) At the same time, many writers of crime thrillers strive to accurately portray crime scene investigations and to make their fictional detectives follow more careful procedures than often occurs in real life.

crime scene investigation

(photo: U.S. Army, Europe, creative commons license)

Forensic investigator Geoff Symon recently talked to crime authors about evidence. He began by dividing it into two categories:

  • direct evidence, which means eye-witness accounts, with all their well-documented weaknesses and
  • circumstantial evidence, which is everything else.

Symon emphasized that circumstantial evidence is still evidence, and when a tv lawyer pooh-poohs a case, saying “it’s only circumstantial,” that’s not necessarily a weakness. In truth, unless there is a reliable eye-witness, all cases are circumstantial. Fingerprints, hairs, fibers, and blood and DNA other than the victim’s are all circumstantial evidence, and the accumulation of evidence of this type, when put together in a convincing narrative, can become absolutely compelling. Circumstantial evidence can relate to a particular category of people (say, all those with blood type AB negative or having a carpet with a particular kind of fiber), or to a particular individual (fingerprints or DNA).

Says Adam Plantinga in 400 Things Cops Know says “People watch crime shows on TV so they think the police can get readable prints off just about anything—human skin, stucco walls, quesadillas,” but “only a few surfaces are conducive to the retrieval of fingerprints.” Slick surfaces, like noncoated glass, glossy paper, and aluminum are best, he says.

Two additional considerations are avoiding contamination of the crime scene and maintaining the chain of evidence. No longer do hordes of people enter the room where a body lays, tromp around in their own shoes, and depart. (In the notorious 1954 murder of Marilyn Sheppard, “Police officers, relatives, press, and neighbors [were allowed to] troop through the house.” Subsequently, this case was a basis for the movie and tv series, The Fugitive.)

Today’s investigators recognize that “whenever you leave a room you take something with you and you leave something behind,” Symon said. Thus, the importance of hair coverings, gloves, booties, and hazmat-looking suits. Cross-contamination of the crime scene was vital to the defense of O.J. Simpson. First investigators on the scene, therefore, have a particular responsibility to document it accurately with photos, video, sketches, and notes, knowing it may be contaminated subsequently.

Similarly, the chain of custody for evidence is an essential part of “preserving” the crime scene evidence. Unless a piece of evidence has been carefully tagged, and each subsequent person who handled and tested it has signed for it, criminal prosecutors cannot claim that a trace of DNA , a hair, or other physical evidence is the same bit gathered at the crime scene and not somehow introduced subsequently.

Symon and other forensic investigators help authors by describing “reality.” The challenge for the author is to subvert reality in a believable way so their story’s plot can unfold. While in real life, procedural mess-ups may mean perpetrators are never be brought to justice, this often suits the author’s fictional purposes very well.

*****The International: A Novel of Belfast

hotel bar, barman

(photo: shankar s, creative commons license)

“If I had known history was to be written that Sunday in the International Hotel I might have made an effort to get out of bed before teatime,” writes Daniel Hamilton, an 18-year-old Belfast bartender and narrator of Glenn Patterson’s novel The International. The history he refers to is the meeting to launch the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), an organization formed to focus attention on discrimination against Northern Ireland’s mostly Catholic nationalist minority. We call the succeeding three decades of violence and despair The Troubles, and The International “is the best book about the Troubles ever written,” according to Irish author and Booker-Prize-winner Anne Enright.

Funny thing is, there’s almost no overt violence in this book, apart from the fact it’s set in a busy bar with lots of coming and going and football on the telly and political shenanigans where money changes hands and gay men and straight women hoping to meet someone and people who should have stopped drinking hours before ordering another and weddings upstairs in the hotel, at one of which the clergyman plays an accordion. In other words, enough latent violence in reserve to keep the average semi-sober person on his toes.

The principal action of the novel takes place during on Saturday evening, January 28, 1967, the night before the big meeting, larded with Danny Hamilton’s memories of other times and barroom encounters. His minutely observed portrayal of everyday life as seen from behind the bar is heartbreaking when, with the lens of hindsight, the reader knows how soon it will all be gone, sucked into a slowly unwinding catastrophe of bombs and gunfire.

Patterson’s writing style reflects the unadorned—and often wryly humorous—worldview of his young narrator, yet see how precisely he captures the sense of a departing wedding guest:

“You look like you enjoyed yourself,” I said.
He sucked air through his pursed lips and held a hand to his heart as though to say that any more enjoyment would have killed him.
“That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?” I said.
“Great people,” he said and the hand on his heart became his word of honour. “Not a bit of side to a one of them.”

The novel’s only violence of the kind that would become all-too-familiar happened somewhat before the book begins, when four Catholic barmen from The International were shot leaving another bar, late at night. One died, creating the opening that Daniel filled.

The quote at the top of this piece opens the book, and these words about the barmen who died, Peter Ward, also age 18, help close it:

I can’t tell you much else about him, except that those who knew him thought the world of him. He is, I realise, an absence in this story. I wish it were not so, but guns do that, create holes which no amount of words can fill.

The Author

Princeton University, through the Fund for Irish Studies, brought Belfast author Glenn Patterson to campus last week. He talked about how his writing emphasizes history and politics and his deep sense of place. And, he said that “when history looks back at our present, it will see that what we thought we were at and what we were at, really, were entirely different.” This theme is borne out in a postscript to The International, where Patterson recounts going back to newspaper archives from 1967 to see what they’d made of the NICRA’s formation, and the answer was “scarcely nothing.” In that gap, the novel grew.

Charming, disarming, Patterson told stories and read from several works, include four of the five short literary interludes he was commissioned to write for Philip Hammond’s “Requiem for the Lost Souls of the Titanic,” which premiered April 14, 2012, the 100th anniversary of the night the ship—built in Belfast—sank. I regret I couldn’t find them online to share with you; they were extraordinary.

It still being (barely) March, the month of St. Patrick’s Day, also see: Glenn Patterson’s top 10 books about Belfast.


Baskerville, McCarter

Lucas Hall & Gregory Wooddell in Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville

In the fan fic spirit I wrote about yesterday, the current production at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, Baskerville, is a yet another take on the perennial Sherlock Holmes favorite.

Playwright Ken Ludwig wrote this version as a romp through the moors. Aside from the commercial differences with fan fic, another difference–and one that weakens the show–is that it so closely follows the original tale (“canon” in the fan fic vocab). Ludwig doesn’t have the freedom for farce of his Lend me a Tenor or Moon over Buffalo. Though it lacks fic’s mind-bending flights of fantasy, the production is massively entertaining, nonetheless, and no doubt some audiences prefer a retelling versus a reimagining.

The two main characters are ably played by Lucas Hall (Dr. Watson), who has the occasional chance to mug at the audience when encountering some particular absurdity, and Gregory Wooddell (Holmes). Ludwig has written both of these parts mostly as foils for the other actors, and they often come across as excessively bland. All the other characters, whether playing significant roles or walk-ons, whether servants or opera stars, whether German or Castilian, are played by Jane Pfitsch, Stanley Bahorek, and Michael Glenn. This calls for manic pacing and lightning fast costume changes, which become part of the fun. Can they do it? Pfitsch calculates that during a week of this production she makes 200 costume changes.

An early decision was to make this a fully costumed show, giving every character a full outfit, as if they were on stage for twenty minutes, not two. Costume “stations” are set up all around backstage, and a specific costume is positioned where a player will exit or enter. Often two costumers help get the old off and the new on—sometimes over the old outfit, sometimes as the character is walking. Michael Glenn wears the same shirt throughout, but has individual neckties for each character he plays. With no time to tie them, the secret is magnets.

The crew that enables all the costume changes and special effects to occur precisely on time deserves special recognition. The production makes full use of McCarter’s generous under-stage traproom with its elevators and hoses for smoke and fog effects and has other surprises in store.

Baskerville is a co-production with Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage, and although it was rehearsed and the effects all mapped out here in Princeton, it played in D.C. first. You don’t have much time: It closes March 29. Tickets here.

Capturing the Thrills

security cameras, street corner

(photo: takomabibelot, creative commons license)

Among the workshops at the Liberty States Fiction Writers’ annual conference last weekend were two directed specifically to writers—and readers—of thrillers, led by highly-rated author Melinda Leigh and featuring Dan Mayland (espionage) and Ben Lieberman (financial thrillers). The first was on “Technical Difficulties”—and the three experts described how the ubiquity of cell phones (especially their GPS capabilities), public and private security cameras, and increasingly sophisticated facial recognition software make it harder and harder for urban bad-guys to evade discovery. (Here’s an example of the many websites and articles focused on defeating facial recognition technology.) While security and cell phone cameras were key to finding the Boston Marathon bombers, they are a black hole for story ideas, if authors want to write an accurate and believable modern-day thriller or crime story.

Similarly, a photo posted on social media may well have embedded geotags that reveal where it was taken—at the crime scene, at the perpetrator’s home, at his/her favorite hangout. This explains, I think, why so many mysteries are set in past decades—even centuries—or in small towns, where such capabilities don’t impose plotting impossibilities for their creators. I’ve had to let a protagonist’s phone battery run out, for example—imperfect, maybe, but we’ve all done it.

Understanding how such technology works, in order to construct a plausible 2015 plot requires research, and, like many authors, I’ve confessed to really loving the research I do for my books. These presenters’ second workshop—“The Thrill of Thrillers”—discussed restraining the impulse to put all that research in the actual book. Technothrillers (of the Tom Clancy/Frederick Forsyth/Michael Crichton variety, to which I am addicted ) are an exception. Too much background research slows readers down, and when they’re skipping over as much as they’re reading, face it, the thrill is gone!

Another advantage of leaving any type of too-detailed information out is, of course, that the reader can imagine a technology (likewise torture) that is more vivid, scary, or powerful (or gruesome) than the author can. You need just enough to jump-start their own creativity.

A side issue: I noticed how Amazon’s author pages for Leigh, Mayland, and Lieberman provide “Customers also bought books by . . .” information, and there is almost 100% gender concordance between the authors’ gender and that of the other authors customers reportedly purchased. Is that true? I like books by men AND women, if they are well done, and most other readers I know are the same. So, do these lists reflect real reader preferences, or just Amazon’s marketing assumption? Signed, Wondering . . . See this related post.

Nobel Laureates in Literature: Women’s Division

woman writing

(photo: Mike Licht, Creative Commons License)

In the past 111 years, only 13 women have received Nobel awards for literature. This Infographic lists them (and, if you’re like me, many still slumber in obscurity) and may make us hope that Virginia Woolf was wrong when she said, “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.”

But when you look at the whole list, many of the men are not well known, either. The male winners the year previous to the first five female winners were, after all: Rudolph Christoph Eucken, George Bernard Shaw (heard of him!), Henri Bergson, Roger Martin du Gard, and Johannes Vilhelm Jensen.

And women still choose to obscure their gender with initials or pseudonyms. Why they/we do it! This handy tool lets you paste your text and assess whether it comes off as more “male” or “female.” I just used it on two short stories—one from a mostly male point of view (judged by the tool as “weakly male”) and one from a female point of view (“weakly female”). Hmm. Creators of the tool say “weakness” suggests the writer “could be European.” Not quite sure how to interpret that!


Goodnight Moon, Children's book

(photo: wikipedia.org)

Not just authors, but most of us often have to communicate in writing, whether in reports for the office or papers for school or other purposes. But, how readable are our efforts? What readability standard should we strive for? Shane Snow’s recent Contently article began by saying, “Ernest Hemingway is regarded as one of the world’s greatest writers. After running some nerdy reading level stats, I now respect him even more.”

Leaving aside the “world’s greatest” issue, certainly Hemingway is considered one of the most direct and uncluttered authors of the 20th century. This is an assertion that can be tested using the various scales developed to measure the readability of texts. How does he stack up? Snow ran The Old Man and the Sea through one of the most-used readability tools, the Flesch-Kincaid index, and Hemingway’s classic was pegged at a fourth-grade reading level.

He reports results of similar analyses of a number famous authors’ works–both fiction and nonfiction. Among fiction writers, Hemingway’s effort was at the low end of the scale, only slightly less demanding (in terms of readability) than the writing of Cormac McCarthy. Most demanding was Michael Crichton’s work, which scored at almost grade 9. So even the “most challenging” of the 20 or so fiction authors tested required less than a high school education. That isn’t to say that the content of these works was suitable for children in those grades. Just because the words and sentence structure are simple, the meaning may not be.

Test your own work here: Just cut and paste your text into the window and instantly find out how it scores on six different readability measures. (This piece, which seems pretty straightforward to me, tests out at almost the ninth-grade level.)

I ran a short story I’m working on through the tests, and it came out at grade 6.1, approximately the difficulty of the work of Stephen King and Stephanie Meyer. In another popular measure—the Flesch-Kincaid “Reading Ease” score—my story had a score of 74.2, similar to the work of Dan Brown (holding my tongue), J.K. Rowling’s 7th Harry Potter book, John Grisham, and James Patterson, but easier than work by Tolstoy and David Foster Wallace. In this particular test, Hemingway and McCarthy are both more “readable” than Goodnight Moon.

The most recent national studies, which are now more than a decade old, suggest the average American reads at about an eighth grade level. Inexperienced or academic writers shoot themselves in the foot when they make their writing too complex in an effort to appear more intelligent. This strategy fails miserably, according to the results of experiments published a decade ago and summarized here.

And, even if people can read at a higher than eighth grade level, do they want to? My theory about the booming popularity of “young adult” fiction is that people like it because it’s easy to read. They don’t want to have to slog through a lot of complicated vocab and syntax. Looks like Hemingway was onto something!

****The Long Goodbye

$5000 bill

“The Madison” (photo: wikimedia.org)

By Raymond Chandler – This hardboiled detective story from 1953 is one of Chandler’s last featuring detective Philip Marlowe, and all the usual appeal is here—Los Angeles riffraff, a complex plot, and the sly, ironic first-person tone of wiseass Marlowe, who narrates. Although the prose conjures the voice of the ultimate Marlowe interpreter, Humphrey Bogart, the movie version was on ice for two decades, awaiting the deft touch of Robert Altman, with Elliott Gould as Marlowe. (FYI, the Rotten Tomatoes critics give this one a 96% rating, so it’s now on my Netflix list!)

Lots of alcohol gets sloshed in this story, written at a period when Chandler—an alcoholic himself—was at a serious low point (his wife was dying) and discouraged about his writing. It was late in his career, and he wanted to be taken more seriously. A few plot elements don’t quite hang together, and “the Madison” (a $5000 bill a client sent him) is not the unbelievable windfall it was in 1950, yet the writing propels you forward from sentence one: “The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers.”

Keep reading, and you’re rewarded with thrilling descriptions (“His eyebrows waved gently, like the antennae of some suspicious insect.” “On the window sill a bee with tattered wings was crawling along the woodwork, buzzing in a tired remote sort of way, as if she knew it wasn’t any use, she was finished, she had flown too many missions and would never get back to the hive again.” A metaphor that probably says as much about how Chandler—and Marlowe—were feeling at that moment as it does about how the fictional bee may have felt.) Of course, Chandler was equally observant and precise in his descriptions of people: “There was the usual light scattering of compulsive drinkers getting tuned up at the bar . . ., the kind that reach very slowly for the first one and watch their hands so they won’t knock anything over.” Oh yeah.

In a crime fiction anthology published in 1995, mystery writer Bill Pronzini called The Long Goodbye “a serious and significant mainstream novel that just happened to possess elements of mystery.” Contemporary novelist Paul Auster wrote, “Raymond Chandler invented a new way of talking about America, and America has never looked the same to us since.” A pity Chandler didn’t anticipate that the critics’ unwavering praise of him ultimately would extend beyond genre borders.

If the books leave you wanting more, take the awesome Esotouric Raymond Chandler Tour or get the map of his Los Angeles settings, described in this popular post from last fall.

Looking for Something Good to Read?


(photo: Nico Cavallotto, Creative Commons)

The stack of books I’m excited to read in 2015 is already pretty high, and to make room, sorted the books of 2014—keep, donate, donate, keep, keep. Handling them again and in writing last week’s post on the 11 very best, I couldn’t help thinking how many more really good ones there were! All 22 **** books of the past year.

Mysteries & Thrillers

  • Sandrine’s Case by Thomas H. Cook – originally I gave this 3 stars, but when I couldn’t stop thinking about it, slapped on a fourth
  • The Golden Hour by Todd Moss—believable political thriller, awesome first novel
  • Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin—an always-satisfying outing with Edinburgh’s Inspector John Rebus
  • Mystery Girl by David Gordon—a wacky Hollywood tale with oddball characters and LOL dialog
  • The Cottoncrest Curse by Michael H. Rubin—I met Rubin, so bought his book about late-1800s murders on a Louisiana plantation. So glad I did!
  • Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger—won all the big mystery world prizes in 2013
  • Spycraft by Robert Wallace, H. Keith Melton, and Henry Robert Schlesinger—non-fiction, describing the technologies of espionage (and avoiding recent scandals entirely)
  • The Reversal by Michael Connelly—Harry Bosch AND Mickey Haller
  • The Cold, Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty—really makes his Belfast-during-the-Troubles setting work for him

Other Fiction

 Biography, History, Politics

Great Places

  • The White Rock by Hugh Thomson—adventurers still discovering lost Inca outposts
  • The Danube by Nick Thorpe—from the Black Sea to the river’s origins in Germany
  • The New York Nobody Knows by William B. Helmreich—this sociologist walked more than 6000 miles of NYC streets and talked to everybody

 Stephen King

book, imagination

(Cinzia A. Rizzo, flickr.com, CC license)