Living History: Schools and Bathrooms

I’ve been working on a short story that is set in the U.S. state of Mississippi in 1964 and involves the Freedom Summer actions that were part of the Civil Rights Movement. When my writer’s group critiqued an early draft, one person asked me, “Who are you writing this for?”

She went on to explain that if I was aiming the story at people my age, that is, people who remember that time, the amount of explanation I had was fine. But if I wanted a broader audience — a younger audience —I should put in more detail about what things were like in Mississippi (and the United States as a whole) in 1964.

That comment made me think not just about the story, but about the many things that I know a lot about because I lived through them, whether personally or because they were major news, things that I think of as “just life” but that are, in fact, now part of history.

I am a Boomer, part of the leading edge of that very large generation of people born in the years after World War II when so many people, at least in the U.S. and probably in many other parts of the world, were desperate for a return to some kind of normal.

Like many U.S. folks of my generation, I had the experience of going through life as part of the largest cohort anyone had ever seen. The U.S. population has more than doubled in my lifetime; the world population has tripled. The post-war baby boom set that in motion.

My kindergarten class had 60 kids and two teachers; it met half a day for one semester so that they could offer kindergarten to all the kids whose families wanted it. My first grade class had 45 kids and the teacher was just out of college. Fortunately, she was a born teacher. Continue reading “Living History: Schools and Bathrooms”

Raised in a Barn: A Heist

When I was a kid we went from our home in New York City to our work-in-progress barn in Massachusetts virtually every weekend. Among other things, this meant that my brother and I got very good at packing. My father had a system for packing, which meant we had packing lessons and were supervised by my father until he was certain that we could be trusted to follow the protocol. All clothes were to be folded and then rolled into neat tubes which could then be stacked in our brightly colored duffels (mine pink, my brother’s, blue). This allowed one to pack an extraordinary amount of stuff–far more than one generally needed for a two-day weekend.

In addition to the duffels, routine weekend luggage included my parents’ suitcase, whatever luggage weekend guests were bringing, and an object that we called the Meat Bag. Continue reading “Raised in a Barn: A Heist”

On the Need to Shelter Behind Books

I think the world is waking up. Around me people are talking and doing things and… all I want to do is sleep. It’s autumn here and my ear-worm isn’t some mad song about hyperactivity or achieving goals, it’s a poem by Paul Verlaine. I can hear the autumn violins.

Despite this, I’m busy. I had a wonderful time at an online science fiction convention over the weekend, but the time differences between me and them left me tangling days and dates and times. I’m still tangling them.

I had a deadline today and I met it and I am now looking around and thinking “Can I sleep yet?” Each deadline leads to the next and I’m still working late. Next week may be better. Next year my tax may be finished, all my essays done, and I may simply be doing research.

My research is very cool. I’ve finally reached the stage where I can see what shape it might take. After it takes its full shape, all I have to do is work through each section, methodically and carefully, and at the end of the research the writing will be done and lo, I shall have a book. Also another PhD. That’s why I’m not writing much fiction at the moment. My mind has two concepts for novels arguing bitterly with each other about which one will be written (or maybe written first, I don’t know yet!) but I can’t arbitrate or solve the squabble by scribbling. I have fiction coming out this year and a novel that needs a home, but the rest of the week is devoted to research and taxes. It’s just as well that the research is so very cool, given that the same does not apply to taxes…

Last week my research time was spent wrangling an approach to look at power differentials in a particular type of novel. This week I’m sorting out how everything fits together. Also I’m doing bibliographic work. My tables and chairs were piled high with books to help my brain work.

I do not know why I use piles of books, when most of my bibliographic work is on the computer. Maybe my brain needs three dimensions to think things through. Maybe I just like books. Maybe the books give me fort in which I can hide, when the world becomes frenzied.

Beware Fake Science News!

Barbara McClintock, geneticist

Science news articles abound, everything from the results of carefully designed peer-reviewed research studies to fear-based rumors and anti-science biased conspiracy theories. How are we to discern which are reliable, which are hype based on misinterpretation, flawed studies, and the like, and which are clickbait nonsense?

The first thing I do is look at the source. Mediabiasfactcheck and other sites provide information as to the right-left biases and factual accuracy of a given source, although not of a particular story. Science Based Medicine is also helpful. I’ve been known to search under “Is Dr. So-and-So a quack?” and get useful answers.

I also check my own reactions: Is this too good to be true? Is it at odds with what I understand about science (my academic background is biology and health sciences)? Have I seen an article in a trusted source (such as the newsletter from Center for Science in the Public Interest) debunking this or similar claims? I’ve been also known to check with friends with special expertise in the field.

The Conversation offers some guidelines on assessing the quackery scale of science new stories. Their suggestions:

1. Has the story undergone peer review?

Scientists rely on journal papers to share their scientific results. They let the world see what research has been done, and how.

Once researchers are confident of their results, they write up a manuscript and send it to a journal. Editors forward the submitted manuscripts to at least two external referees who have expertise in the topic. These reviewers can suggest the manuscript be rejected, published as is, or sent back to the scientists for more experiments. That process is called “peer review.”

Research published in peer-reviewed journals has undergone rigorous quality control by experts. Each year, about 2,800 peer-reviewed journals publish roughly 1.8 million scientific papers. The body of scientific knowledge is constantly evolving and updating, but you can trust that the science these journals describe is sound. Retraction policies help correct the record if mistakes are discovered post-publication.

Peer review takes months. To get the word out faster, scientists sometimes post research papers on what’s called a preprint server. These often have “RXiv” – pronounced “archive” – in their name: MedRXiv, BioRXiv and so on. These articles have not been peer-reviewed and so are not validated by other scientists. Preprints provide an opportunity for other scientists to evaluate and use the research as building blocks in their own work sooner.

How long has this work been on the preprint server? If it’s been months and it hasn’t yet been published in the peer-reviewed literature, be very skeptical. Are the scientists who submitted the preprint from a reputable institution? During the COVID-19 crisis, with researchers scrambling to understand a dangerous new virus and rushing to develop lifesaving treatments, preprint servers have been littered with immature and unproven science. Fastidious research standards have been sacrificed for speed.

A last warning: Be on the alert for research published in what are called predatory journals. They don’t peer-review manuscripts, and they charge authors a fee to publish. Papers from any of the thousands of known predatory journals should be treated with strong skepticism.

2. Be aware of your own biases.

Beware of biases in your own thinking that might predispose you to fall for a particular piece of fake science news.

People give their own memories and experiences more credence than they deserve, making it hard to accept new ideas and theories. Psychologists call this quirk the availability bias. It’s a useful built-in shortcut when you need to make quick decisions and don’t have time to critically analyze lots of data, but it messes with your fact-checking skills.

confirmation bias can be at work as well. People tend to give credence to news that fits their existing beliefs. This tendency helps climate change denialists and anti-vaccine advocates believe in their causes in spite of the scientific consensus against them.

 3. Correlation is not causation! Continue reading “Beware Fake Science News!”

Daydreaming on a Sunny Afternoon

I daydream. I always have.

When I’m traveling (oh, to be traveling again!), I like to wander around the place I’m visiting and fantasize about what it would be like to live there. I do the same thing staring out car or train windows.

I like to lie in bed when I first wake up and think about things. Sometimes I work on stories or essays, but sometimes I just think about something I’d like to do.

The main thing that actually gets me out of bed in the morning is the idea that once I’ve washed my face (and such) and fed the cats and made the coffee, I can sit in a comfy chair, sip my coffee, and think.

Truth be told, I think my whole life is a constant search for time to just sit and think.

So when I read this report about a scientific study that suggests most people don’t like to be alone with their thoughts, I was, to put it mildly, shocked. Especially when they reported that 67 percent of men and 25 percent of women would rather give themselves electric shocks than be alone with their thoughts.

Apparently the thing that I want most in life is anathema to a lot of people. Continue reading “Daydreaming on a Sunny Afternoon”

Women’s History Month

I’m a bit late with my post this week because I’ve been finishing up things. One of the things I was finishing up was a month’s worth of wonderful guests on my personal blog.

I was one of the group of women who set up a Women’s History Month in Australia. I moved on and others took over. Those years were special to me and most years I do a celebration all March of women’s history. I ask writers and historians to be my guests, set a theme and sometimes they stick to the theme and sometimes they don’t and every year brings much joy. This year was no exception.

This year it struck me that we were all making quite big history, even those of us confined to our homes and unable to explore the greater world. The small things in life are the history. That’s what I asked of my writer-friends – the small things in their lives. I wanted us all to have some insight into how all our lives are valuable in this pandemic time. My only regret is that I had to limit the number of writers I asked, due to my own physical restrictions. In my perfect celebration of women’s history, I would have been able to include triple the number of posts and to explore more writers’ understanding of what makes the small things in life special. Sometimes it’s research they’ve done, sometimes it’s someone’s everyday – I let writers make their own choices (as I often do) and the outcome is posts so varied and interesting that there should be something for every reader. You can find the posts here: https://gillianpolack.com/blog/

I wish we lived in less interesting times. At least, because we live now, we can understand how our apparently ordinary lives are part of something very big. In fact, they’re part of many very big things. We’re not alone and we’re not unimportant.

On Aristotle, Thomas More, and the U.S. Founding Fathers

Bust of AristotleI meet weekly via Zoom to discuss ideas with a group of friends who have many years in Aikido among them. A couple of weeks ago, one them (a philosopher as well as an Aikido sensei) was taken aback when she came across a comment that our U.S. founding fathers did not come here for freedom and were not interested in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The person who made those observations was referring back to slavery, of course, but my friend compared it to saying that Aristotle was not a great thinker because women during his time couldn’t own property. Since the Greece of Aristotle’s time, like the U.S. today, is often touted as the birthplace of democracy, it is worth noting that women had almost no rights there, which is one of the things that makes Aristophanes’s plays Lysistrata and Congresswomen so funny.

The commentary got me to thinking about how we should look at great thinkers and art in an age when many of us are no longer willing to accept racism, misogyny, and other practices that assume some, or even most, people exist only to serve the elite.

I recently read a discussion of Thomas More’s Utopia in which it is mentioned that the perfect fictional land included slavery. I haven’t read the book in many years and that fact had somehow not stayed with me. However, having looked up a summary of the book, I think I still need to go back and re-read it, because there are some important concepts in there, one of them dealing with the importance of the commons.

This is a roundabout response, but my point is that there is both value and harm in what was done by those who settled this country (many of them my direct ancestors, at least from the 1700s on). In the same vein, both More and Aristotle had important things to say, but there are things they missed. Continue reading “On Aristotle, Thomas More, and the U.S. Founding Fathers”

Treehouse Writers Out and About

Writers hanging out in the Treehouse have been sighted out and about on the Web this month.

Writers Drinking CoffeeNancy Jane Moore was just interviewed on the podcast Writers Drinking Coffee about everything from her forthcoming novel For the Good of the Realm to the poetry class she took at the 92nd Street Y in New York City (with assistance from Zoom).

Earlier this month, Madeleine Robins talked on the same podcast about Race, Romance, and Regency.

Meanwhile, since March is Women’s History Month, Gillian Polack has been hosting writers discussing that subject on her blog. Nancy Jane wrote there about being in college marching band and the relevance of Joanna Russ’s story “When It Changed” to that experience. Meanwhile, Gillian herself wrote about her experiences in debate and how they tie into current political upheaval in Australia.

And over at Strange Horizons, Judith Tarr has an essay on the importance of care in science fiction, a very topical subject these days.

Auntie Deborah Answers Your Writing Questions

Dear Auntie Deborah, How do I stick with my story idea and finish writing it?

Some writers can take an idea and launch it into a story while writing, but most of us can’t — or else end up revising many times to whip that shapeless manuscript into something that resembles a true story. Your description of losing motivation suggests that you, like me, need to have more structure in place before beginning.

What do I mean by structure? I need to have a hook or inciting incident — the action, situation, crisis, or decision that fuels the first part of the story. Then something goes wrong (or right, or unexpected) and spins the story in a new direction — that’s the first plot point. I need to know what it’s all building toward, and also the feeling or flavor I want to leave the reader with (sadness, triumph, satisfaction, chocolates on the pillow?). I need at least 2 or 3 characters I’m in love with, although I don’t necessarily need to know what happens to them. I write all this down, do flow charts and maybe a map or two. If I’m submitting on proposal, I’ll need to flesh it out into a proper synopsis plus the first 3 chapters, but for writing for myself on spec, that’s enough to get me going.

If these concepts are unfamiliar with you, I encourage you to learn more about storycraft and the journey from idea to plot/character/dramatic arc. Ideas aren’t a bad place to start, they’re just not enough.

Dear Auntie Deborah: My critique group keeps giving me contradictory advice. I’m at a loss as to which direction to take. Help!
 

Deborah: It is as important to know which advice to ignore as which to pay attention to! Without knowing the sources of your opinions, I can’t evaluate their validity, but — BUT — I am always leery of anyone who tells me how to fix problems in my own work. This was true when I began writing on a professional level 35 years ago, and it certainly is true now. What helps me are comments like, “I’m confused about x,” or “This didn’t work for me,” or “I don’t care what happens to this character.” In other words, careful readers marking where they had problems. Then it’s up to me, the author, to discern where I went wrong and how I want to remedy it. (This is how my publishing editor and I work together, by the way.)

My second point is that learning to write and working on a specific project are two different things. A project problem may highlight a skill you need to strengthen, but someone telling you how to improve it makes it their story, not yours, and isn’t likely to help you improve as a writer.

I wonder if you might fare better by not showing your work to anyone until it is completed to the best of your ability. Otherwise you run the risk of distorting your artistic vision to please others so much that you lose your authentic creative voice. When you are ready for feedback, seek out trusted readers (who need not be writers themselves but who have keen sensitivity to their own reactions) or writers a little ahead of you in their careers. Make it clear what kind of feedback you want: What worked for you? What didn’t? Where did you lose interest? Was the result satisfying? And leave the nuts and bolts of prose craft for a separate discussion.

Dear Auntie Deborah: I think my novel has way too much speech in it. What should I do?

Continue reading “Auntie Deborah Answers Your Writing Questions”

Family History on St. Patrick’s Day

I went out to run an errand on Wednesday and spotted someone walking along wearing a green sweater, green skirt, and green tights. None of them were precisely the same shade of green, nor did they blend in a completely harmonious manner, but they did convey a brazen greenness.

That’s when I realized that, even though I knew it was St. Patrick’s Day, I was not wearing anything green. Fortunately, I was also not wearing anything orange. This is important among those of us who can trace some of their heritage back to the Irish Diaspora.

My Irish ancestors were not Orangemen. My great-great grandfather, Florence McCarthy, followed his brother Dennis to the States in about 1850. They were McCarthys from County Cork.

My grandmother Omega was devoted to her grandfather. He named her — he was a scholar of classics (like my nephew, his great-great-great grandson) and taught Latin and Greek before taking a job with the railroad.

My grandmother was the only person I knew growing up who despised the English. I may have picked up her distaste from some discussion about the coronation of Elizabeth II, though I would have been a tiny child then, but at any rate it was very plain. Continue reading “Family History on St. Patrick’s Day”