Sunday, February 19, 2017

Memories and Facts in Fiction


After I read several glowing accounts of the  “good old days,” I asked friends about their memories of their childhoods and turned their memories into The Good Old Days? A Collection of Stories.

Although my vignettes are fiction, my friends’ memories created the mood of the stories. A five-year-old’s view of department stores in the 1950s (e.g. The elevator operator wore gloves. Everything was fastidiously arranged by color in the Notions Department.) in “Questions” is funnier than an adult’s comments.

Memories need to be supplemented with facts. Although I took copious notes as friends spoke of their past, key details were missing or garbled. I found these details were “hooks” to readers. For example, in the story, “Dirty Dave,” I mentioned the nested pyrex mixing bowls from the 1950s in yellow, green, red, and blue. Several readers noted I’d gotten the sizes right. The yellow bowl was the largest; the green was the next size. I was glad I’d researched the subject. (By the way, these vintage sets often sell for $100 at antique shows in New England.)

Memories can be snapshots of history. Nostalgia is fine, but honesty about the past gives fiction more depth. I hope these tales will encourage older readers to remember the past honestly and will let younger readers realize most social problems aren’t new.

Here’s the start of one tale from the collection,“How Old Is the Earth?” 

This story is based on reminiscences of a friend. He mentioned the Golden Book Encyclopedia, but couldn’t remember any particulars, as he told me about how he was abused and bullied at school. My research supplied all the details about this hot promotional item for A&P Stores in 1959 and 1960. The geological facts are also correct. However, the George in the story is fictional. My friend doesn’t look like George and has never enjoyed a Friday afternoon on the patio of the University of Wisconsin Memorial Union. He does like a beer occasionally.

I hope you enjoy this intertwining of facts and memories in fiction. Maybe, you use memories in your fiction.

How Old Is the Earth?

“You’re a scientist. How old is the earth?” My friend, an art professor, looked around the rather raucous crowd on the patio at the University of Wisconsin Student Union on a late summer afternoon. When he waved his tanned arm, I noticed thin, white scars crossed the back of his hand. “What do you think these students would say?”
“First off, I’m no geologist. I don’t know the current scientific estimate, probably several billion years.” I nodded at the students as I sipped my beer. “I doubt any of them could give you a better answer, even if they were sober.”
George pulled his hands through his longish gray hair and then stroked his much darker short beard. “Four and a half-billion years. The most painful and maybe most important fact I ever learned.”
I blinked. “Really? Somewhere in grade school, I accepted the earth had a long history, but I was never fascinated by paleontology or geology.”
“You’re not from a religious home.”
I frowned. “We went to church most Sundays.”
“I mean a home steeped in strict interpretations of the Bible.” He leaned back in his yellow, sunburst metal chair and chewed a handful of popcorn. “Did you know church leaders calculated the earth to be six thousand years old on the basis of the book of Genesis?”
I threw a couple of kernels to nearby birds. “You must really like the Discovery Channel and PBS nature specials. What got us on this line of conversation? I expected you to be reliving your years as a professor of photography this afternoon, one week before your official retirement.”
George took a long swig of his beer. “Today would have been Mum’s birthday. Made me think of the day I was most proud of her. She was your typical stay-at-home mother of the fifties. Well, except Pop was afraid other men would notice her. So, she wore her long dishwater blonde hair in braids wrapped around her head. She looked like a Norwegian immigrant just off the boat in the old daguerreotypes. Didn’t matter to us boys. We thought Mum was pretty.”
He gazed out over the lake for so long I interrupted his thoughts. “What did your mother do on this special day?”
“Be patient. I was remembering how it all began. Do you remember when A&P offered the Golden Book Encyclopedias as a sales incentive in fifty-nine and maybe sixty?”
I pushed my green starburst metal chair back. “Vaguely. I can’t remember the deal exactly. Let’s see...if you bought twenty dollars of groceries, you could purchase one of the volumes in the Golden Book Encyclopedia for an additional dollar or two. Every month, they offered another volume. I think there were…fifteen or sixteen volumes all together.”
George smiled. “Yeah, they had shiny covers in bright colors, not like the standard encyclopedias, World Book and Britannica, with their fake leather covers and gilt-edged pages. Okay, I’m ready to tell my story.”


For the rest of the story, read The Good Old Days? A Collection of Stories. Available at Amazon (paperback and Kindle): https://www.amazon.com/Good-Old-Days-Collection-Stories/dp/1537743813/

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Mystery Writers Are Like Scientists


 Writing a mystery novel is similar to conducting a science experiment in several ways.
·      Writers and scientists both do research.

·      They both organize their observations into a whole, which writers call plots and scientists call hypotheses.

·      They both test and refine their “whole.” Writers edit their prose; scientists run additional experiments.

·      Both require a lot of hard work to gain occasional flashes of insights. To paraphrase Thomas Edison, they’re “one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Why did I drag you through this discussion? I’m trying to explain why so many scientists and physicians became writers of mysteries and thrillers. Consider Michael Crichton (a physician by training), Kathy Reichs (a forensic anthropologist), Robin Cook (a physician). I’m also explaining how as a retired biology professor I came to write mystery/suspense novels with tidbits of science.

Through this discussion, I hope you learn how bits of science add realism to a mystery.

Let’s start with my thriller, I Saw You in Beirut. In this thriller, a woman’s past provides clues for the extraction of a nuclear scientist from Iran (http://www.amazon.com/dp/1610092201).

Did you know? In the early 1960s, scientists identified zinc deficiency in peasants in Iran. At that time, two to three percent of the villagers in some regions of Iran didn't pass the physical for the army because of stunted growth. Dr. James Halstead, Sr. who was married to President’s Roosevelt’s daughter, Anna, headed the research team at Shiraz. Surprised?

I created Doc Steinhaus, a fictional character in I Saw You in Beirut, who worked on the project in Shiraz as a grad student. He was a logical way to “show not tell” readers about science in Iran and advance the plot. Let’s face it most foreign agents don’t look or act like James Bond, but they can be a lot more nuanced.
 
Now how about Malignancy? In this suspense novel, a woman scientist tries to escape the clutches of a drug lord and accepts a risky assignment in Cuba (http://amzn.com/1610091779.

When I visited Cuba in 2013, I learned Cuban researchers had patented a therapeutic cancer vaccine to treat non-small cell lung cancer. This drug revs up a patient’s own immune system to produce cells, which recognize substances found on the surface of tumor cells but not on the surface of normal cells, and kills the cancer cells. For those surprised about the sophistication of this work, please note the researchers had spent a lot time at Harvard despite the embargo.

I also read the editorial in Science (6/6/2014) on scientific exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba. I thought Sara Almquist, as an epidemiologist and heroine of my previous medical thrillers Coming Flu (http://amzn.com/1610090985 and Ignore the Pain (http://amzn.com/1610091310), would be the perfect protagonist to do a little “scientific diplomacy” in Cuba.

Of course, Sara gets involved in a lot more than science in both novels; they wouldn’t be thrillers without danger. Why don’t you read them and learn a little thrilling science?




Sunday, January 29, 2017

Book Signings are NOT about Authors

Book signing are about the readers. Author are successful at book signings if: they excite readers about their book and they make readers think they purchased something important (interesting or exciting).

So, what can you do to improve your books signings.
  •         Don’t wait for people come to you. Greet people near the door and ask “what they like to read.” Fiction writers doing their spiels to customers who say ”they never read fiction” are probably wasting their and the customers’ time. Similarly, customers who growl probably don’t want to be bothered. Everyone else is fair game. I never do as well at book signings where the store owner puts me in a “special” room for book signings.
  •         Keep your spiel short. The classic 1 or 2 sentence “elevator” talk is good. Try to encourage questions.
  •         Study the customers in the store. If possible, visit the store prior to the book signing and analyze the crowd. Develop two-sentence spiels to fit different types. If everyone entering the bookstore is over fifty and you write children’s books, perhaps you should focus on how books make great gifts for grandchildren. My protagonist is a woman. I don’t mention that to men.
  •         Be enthusiastic. Don’t read or do other activities as you wait for customers.
  •         Don’t panic or get angry if the crowd is sparse or if a customer insults your book. I know some authors leave after a half-hour if the crowd is sparse. I find I usually make the most sales in the first ten minutes and the last twenty minutes of a well-advertised signing. Remember, my first comment and forget your ego.
  •         Advertise your signing. Any means is fair gamenewspapers, posters, newsletters, your website and Amazon author page, word-of-mouth. Work with the bookstore owner for best results.
  •         Give customers something extraa talk or reading at a specified time, bookmarks, cookies, gift wrapping, or a discount. I do talks on science in fiction with slides, but the talks are more successful at special events or libraries than in bookstores or at book fairs. I find tying books up with a bright ribbon bow helps sales just before Mother’s Day with male customers.
  •         Try to please the customer and meet their requests.


You’re probably wondering if my book signing are big successes? No, but they’re more successful when I follow this advice, than when I don’t. I bet you can add to and improve my advice on book signings. Please, add comments.

Books you might like by JL Greger:

Discover who killed the set doctor in Murder… A Way to Lose Weight (winner of 2016 Public Safety Writers Assoc. [PSWA] contest and finalist for New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards. http://amzn.com/1610092392


           Learn the truth about childhoods in the 1950s and 1960s in The Good Old Days? A Collection of Stories. http://amzn.com/1537743813










 Follow a woman as she uses clues from her past to extract a nuclear 
scientist from Iran in I Saw You in Beirut. 












Sunday, December 18, 2016

Holiday Overload?

Are you exhausted from trying to re-create your family’s remembrances of holidays past? It’s time for a quiet break—like that created by reading a good book. You can’t spend much time relaxing. How about a short story or two? It’s cheaper than a massage.

Here’s some stories with nostalgia, but also a jolt of reality.

How did students find information for school reports before the Internet? They used encyclopedias, but most were expensive and only in libraries. Then, A&P grocery stores offered a different volume of the Golden Book Encyclopedia each month as a sales gimmick. How Old Is the Earth? is a tale of how the increased availability of information changed lives. The story also evokes memories of a time when cotton/polyester wasn’t available and all cotton school uniforms were ironed daily. (Not a fond memory.)

Do you remember your first bra? (Sorry guys, you missed that experience.) Did it look a bit like Madonna’s costume with two cones of foam strung together with straps? Enjoy the humorous memories in I Look Like Papa.

Then there are old photos. Do they reflect the past or are they attempts to paint an alternate reality? The answer varies in my vignettes. I’ll let you read Thanks for the Memories and Double Exposure and decide.



These stories make a great gift for those older men, who are impossible to buy for, for those young adults who think life was easier in the past, or for anyone who reads. Remember: books are easy to wrap.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS from Janet & Bug.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE


Do you like to thumb through books when you’re deciding what to read next?

Amazon is great when I know what I want, BUT sometimes I like to peruse lots of books, especially when I'm looking for something different. Then I go to one of my two favorite bookstores.

Under Charlie’s Covers (primarily a used book store)  
505-404-2097
160 S. Camino Del Pueblo Suite B
Bernalillo, NM 87004

Treasure House (features New Mexico authors)            
505-242-7204
2012 S Plaza St. NW (on the square in Old Town Albuquerque)
Albuquerque, NM 87104

If you live in the Albuquerque area, I recommend these two. If you live elsewhere, take time to visit bookstores in your area and develop favorites. Sometimes, used bookstores are the best choice; other times bookstores, which focus on local authors, are great.

I’ll be doing a book signing for The Good Old Days? A Collection of Stories on Sunday, Dec 10 from 12:30-3. It's a great Christmas gift with bits of nostalgia and reality about the past intermixed.

My mysteries ad thrillers are already at Treasure House.
                In Murder… A Way to LoseWeight, discover who killed the set doctor in Albuquerque. (winner of 2016 Public Safety Writers Assoc. [PSWA] contest and finalist for New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards)
                In I Saw You in Beirut, follow a woman as she uses clues from her past to extract a nuclear scientist from Iran.
                in Malignancy, shadow a woman scientist as she tries to escape the clutches of a drug lord and accepts a risky assignment in Cuba. (winner of 2015 PSWA contest)
                In Ignore the Pain, a woman scientist learns too much about the coca trade and too little about a sexy new colleague while on a public health assignment in Bolivia.
                In Coming Flu, decide whether the Philippine flu or a drug kingpin caught in a quarantine in Albuquerque is more deadly.
                More details at http://www.jlgreger.com.

Feel free to add the names and info on your favorites bookstores.


MEMORIES IN FICTION


Novels and short stories by definition are fiction, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t contain bits of reality. Sometimes an author can introduce reality into her fiction by using her memories—personal, and probably slightly biased, facts. I guess a purist would say memories and facts are often distinctly different. I don’t want to argue the point today.

Turning my memories into a thriller, I Saw You in Beirut.
I combined several of my memories with facts and lots of fiction. The University of Wisconsin-Madison was awash with Iranian students protesting the Shah in the late 1970s. I was a professor there and the graduate advisor of one of these students. Conversations with her and her friends served the basis of creating the fiery character Farideh in I Saw You in Beirut.

For example, in an early scene in I Saw You in Beirut, Farideh takes a knife, which she was using to slice a cake, and threatens an annoying fellow grad student. Unfortunately, the incident really happened in my lab, but I changed the names to protect the guilty. I thought this incident was a #way to show not tell about Farideh’s temperment. 

Collecting memories for a short story collection?
Before I wrote The Good Old Days? A Collection of Stories, I talked to dozens of people about their memories, especially of their childhoods and adolescences. Thus each of my stories has a different perspective, but they all address historical or social problems in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960, a time that many refer to as the good old days. I think these vignettes demonstrate past events are often funny, but many would rather remember than relive the events.

Here are two examples of the memories that triggered stories: Do you remember your first bra? (Sorry guys, you missed that experience.) Did it look a bit like Madonna’s costume with two cones of foam strung together with straps? Enjoy the humorous memories in I Look Like Papa.

Many towns in the Midwest and New England are awash with grand Victorian ladies (large houses with endless brightly-painted decorations). As an old man remembers his glory days as a high school athlete in Dirty Dave, he also reveals secrets about domestic violence in these so-called grand homes.

We all have memories usable in fiction. Perhaps, you can remember with horror a car accident or the death of a love one. You could use your painful memories of you raw emotions to make a scene in a novel memorable to others.

Why don’t you search you memory for ideas for your next novel or short story?

I Saw You in Beirut Blurb: Sara Almquist’s past, as a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and as a globetrotting epidemiologist, provides clues for the extraction of a nuclear scientist from Iran.

The Good Old Days? A Collection of Stories Blurb: Are many nostalgic accounts of the good old days examples of selective forgetfulness? Before you argue the point, read these fourteen short stories.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

WHAT IS A SHORT STORY?

Do you realize many famous movies are based on short stories?
The list is long. I’ll only mention four.

          "The Sentinel” by Arthur C. Clarke became 2001: A Space Odyssey.
                  “The Birds” by Daphne du Maurier.
                  “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” by Truman Capote.
                 “The Body Snatcher” by Robert Louis Stevenson.
      Some experts hypothesize that short stories are good bases for movies because they both tell stories by implications and quick shots without the superfluous explanation of novels.

How long is a short story?
Debatable. Every publisher and contest uses a different definition—no longer than 20,000 words, between 1,000 and 6,000 words, or less than 4,000 words are frequent limits. Stories shorter than 1,000 words are often called flash fiction.

However, two famous writers gave the best definitions of short stories. In 1846, Poe defined a short story as prose fiction that could be read in “one sitting.” The problem is “one sitting” is probably shorter now than then. H.G. Wells defined it as a “half-hour read.”

Short stories versus novels?
In theory, short stories contain the traditional elements of dramatic structure, but in a condensed form. However, the exposition (the introduction of setting, situation and main characters) is often deleted and the story begins in the middle of the action. In many, the resolution is abrupt and/or open to interpretation. Often short stories focus on a single plot in a single setting.

What’s the history of short stories?
Short stories, as examples of story telling, could be considered descendents of the Roman and Greek fables and early Christian parables. Fairy tales are also classic examples of short stories.

In the 1800s magazines created a high demand for short stories. Hence, many American and English authors (Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas, Hardy, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain) wrote short stories in the 1800s. Probably the most famous author of short stories from that period is Edgar Allan Poe ("The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Pit and the Pendulum," and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue").

During the twentieth century, most major authors wrote short stories at least occasionally. Despite their publication in high profile magazines, many readers considered short stories to be a lesser form of literature than novels. However, short stories gained more respect when the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Alice Munro, the “master of the contemporary short story.”

Why did I write this blog?

My first collection of short stories—The Good Old Days?—will be published later this month.

Blurb: Did you ever wonder whether many nostalgic narratives of the good old days are cases of selective forgetfulness? All the short stories in The Good Old Days? are loosely based on recollections of childhoods in the 1940s, 1950, and 1960s. The combination of mirth, fear, anger, and finally wisdom displayed by the narrators of these tales may make you reassess your memories of childhood.