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):

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 (

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 (

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 ( and Ignore the Pain (, 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?