Louisa May Alcott and Eve Curie

Last month, Sisters in Crime posed this topic for a blog hop: Which authors have inspired you?

My answer: Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) and Eve Curie (1904-2007), two authors who may seem to have nothing in common, but have inspired me in ways none have since.

Louisa May Alcott at 25; LW was published when she was 36.

Louisa May Alcott at 25; LW was published when she was 36.

Little Women was the first and only book I read that wasn’t a schoolbook, until I was in college. Reading was discouraged in my home environment unless it was to ensure a good grade. I’m not even sure how I happened upon a copy.

Whatever critics or scholars have said is the theme/message/quest of Little Women, Alcott taught me that words and stories could move the reader to emotion as surely as a real-life drama.

I’m sure I wasn’t the first to dissolve into tears at Beth’s death, or to root for Jo as if she were my real-life friend. It’s strange to me now that I didn’t learn from that experience, that other books might be similarly rewarding.

Several years later, I was in college and came across a biography of Marie Curie in the science library. It was written by her younger daughter, Eve (the daughter who was not a radiation scientist, and lived to 103!). Eve’s book became the second book I read that wasn’t a schoolbook.

Random pages of MC, written when Eve was 33.

Random pages of MC, written when Eve was 33.

In Madame Curie, Eve Curie gave us her mother’s story, in words, without equations, and I found it fascinating. So what if she included only the most flattering, romantic picture of her parents and their life in the laboratory. There would be many other biographies to give a more complete picture.

This second “unrequired reading” set me on the path, finally, to seek other stories.

Louisa May Alcott and Eve Curie taught me that books could provide not only information, but also interesting stories, and valuable emotional connections.

Only a few decades later, I decided to try writing my own. After more than twenty, I’m still trying to write one like Little Women or Madame Curie.


Driven to Distraction

I have a sign above my computer monitor that says “Write First.”

Despite that straightforward reminder, writing first doesn’t always happen.

I have written other blogs on the way things get in the way of the creative process. When I addressed the subject in a blog last year, one of the big things that got in the way was my day job.

Well, I retired last fall, so the day job isn’t a problem anymore. However, I’ve discovered many other distractions. And I don’t just mean my cats Daisy and Clio who, at various times during the day, are sure to leap onto the computer table and plant themselves directly in front of the computer monitor, prompting my exasperated comment, “I can’t see through you!”

Clio at the Computer

Clio at the Computer

The distractions – oh, let me count them! Since I retired, I really notice the amount of noise that surrounds me. The garbage collectors outside my office window on Mondays. The landscapers who visit the condo complex on Fridays, leaf blowers making that obnoxious noise. In the evenings it’s kids and people coming home from work. On the weekends when the weather’s good, kids again, this time in the swimming pool not far from my front door. Neighbors who crank up the volume on their TVs or entertain on their patios.

And if the writing isn’t going well, it’s so tempting to stop and clean out that closet. Or go raid the refrigerator. Just as an aside, though, I’ve noticed that if the writing is going very well, I get the munchies. Go figure.

But the biggest distractions are right here on the computer.

Recently I read an article that said the most successful business people don’t read their email at the start of the day. I understand why. It’s easy to get seduced into answering that email. Next thing I know, half an hour has gone by and I haven’t started working on my book.

If the chapter I’m writing hits a snag, it’s also easy to tell myself I really need to check what’s on the New York Times website, or see what breaking news the San Francisco Chronicle has to offer.

Yet I do need to search the Internet from time to time. The book I’m working on now takes place in early April of 1953, aboard the California Zephyr as it travels westward through Colorado. It’s useful for me to look for historical weather information so I can determine whether there’s snow on the ground when the train arrives in Glenwood Springs.

Then there’s Facebook. Yes, indeed, there’s Facebook. We all know what a timewaster that can be.

So I have resolved to limit the distractions. I can’t do much about the noise that surrounds me, but I can tackle the distractions on the screen in front of me. Last week I didn’t check my email until I broke for lunch. Next week I’m moving that back even further, to the end of the writing day.

So if I don’t respond to your message right away, that’s why. I’m practicing a new mantra – “Write First!”

In the Beginning


Where should a story begin? In media res, of course, but at which point in the middle of things? For me, deciding where to begin a new book is the most difficult part of the entire writing process.   

When I was still teaching I would warn my students that if asked on an exam to explain why World War I occurred and they answered that it was because a tubercular teenager, after eating a sandwich, shot the unsatisfactory heir-apparent to a no-longer powerful nation at high noon in a city most Europeans and Americans could not point out on a map, then they hadn’t answered the question.  So, where does that story begin? 

A book might open with a kid walking out of a sandwich shop and shooting the fat guy sitting in the backseat of the car that by happenstance is stalled in the street in front of him.  Good action scene, but it isn’t the story.  Who was Gavrilo Princeps and why did he want to kill Franz-Ferdinand? And why did Europe explode because he was successful? It is a huge story; where to begin explaining it?

 Because my current book in progress has a large back story and a large cast of characters, I struggled over where to begin. I wrote six complete first chapters before I had the right opening. That’s about four more than usual for me and there is no guarantee that when the book is finished that chapter will still be the opening.  For example, my original first chapter for The Hanging ended up about a third of the way through the book. However, the opening of The Color of Light remained very little changed from proposal to finished book.

 As I struggled over the opening, there were times when I had to turn my chair around and look at the row of books with my name on the spine as reminder that I have managed to do this before, and can do it again. And, by jinggies, it got done, again. I am happy to say that the book now progresses apace. Occasional hiccups, of course, but progressing.

Tuck a madcap teenager into your manuscript?

by Nancy Means Wright

As a youngish mother with four lively children teaching high school and trying to write between classes, I was losing weight and, all too frequently, patience.  My oldest son had been expelled from his pre-school for breaking the toys, and was too fidgety to concentrate in first grade, so I had to teach him to read–with the help of Dr. Seuss.  I hadn’t yet heard of ADHD or the drug Ritalin. My daughter, two years his junior, was  a teacher’s darling in school but a mother’s nightmare at home with her negativity and a closet full of rabbits, guinea pigs, and white rats. When her clothes got too smelly she would raid my closet/bureau for school apparel–usually just what I was planning to wear. How many rainy days I’d come home, exhausted from teaching, to find the living room window glass shattered by flying pucks from an indoor hockey game organized by my eldest!

If they were wild as pre-teens, they were beyond control as young adults. My daughter graduated high school with ease, then took a gap year before college to wander, alone, through Europe, then into the explosive Middle East. My oldest son poured all his energy into hockey–his college coach phoned with abject apologies when the lad crashed into a goal post and knocked out half his teeth (another “gap” year and don’t ask about the cost.)

I got my revenge by writing them into stories and books. Teens appear in almost all my twenty books–mysteries, mainstream novels, poems.  My daughter howled when I wrote up her risky gap year adventures in a local newspaper column. “How could you?” she’d cry, “that was my story!”

Well, we’re all familiar with the “my story” syndrome, yes?

They’re grown up now with wilding kids of their own. This year I’ve four grandchildren doing their thing in the developing countries of Central America, Africa, and the Near East. And I worry about them as they wander. Because adolescence, I recently read in a piece by a professor of clinical psychiatry “is synonymous with risk taking, emotional drama, and all forms of outlandish behavior.”

Apparently, the professor says, we afflicted elders have never understood the dark side of adolescence, the “surge in anxiety and fearfulness.” For the brain circuit, he claims, develops far ahead of the pre-frontal cortex (the seat of reasoning and control). In other words, teens are overwired for anxiety but underwired for calm reasoning.

I could have told him that years ago! But if my daughter was so afraid and anxious, why did she keep traveling through Iran, Afghanistan and India, where they threw pebbles at her, a young woman daring to explore the world–alone?  And why did my eldest hurtle his body into contact sports that might injure his brain and eliminate his teeth? (Even as a college hockey coach, he was recently hit by an errant puck and bled all over the ice.)

The three top killers of youth, I’ve heard, are homicide, accidents, and suicide. My offspring, and now my grandkids, have all had accidents. One granddaughter was a passenger in a rented car en route to Duke University when the car was rear-ended and a heavy suitcase fell and killed a girl in the back seat. Even though it wasn’t my granddaughter driving, she still suffers PSTD from the death of her close friend.

I’m not surprised to see the increasing popularity of young adult novels these days, as we authors write about  this risk-taking circuit in the adolescent brain. One might  add a world filled with guns, bombs, drugs, civil wars and children fleeing violence to travel on their own to a U.S. that is trying to keep them out. And the young brain has gone crazy with it all–wanting to escape–not like me as an aging writer into books–but physically: to another part of the untamed world, not knowing what the welcome might be.

All I can do now with my tired brain is to stand out on the village green in my Vermont home town and wave a petition for universal background checks for guns. And then go home and work on a story about–well, yes, a runaway teen.

1964: The Great Society?

1964: The Great Society?

Over the past few weeks I’ve been teaching a continuing education class for a group of retirees at a local college. The topic of the sessions is “1964: The Great Society?” It’s been a learning experience for me because I was a student at a small Southern college in 1964 and blissfully unaware of much of what was going on outside the confines of the campus. The only televisions I had access to were in the common room of my dorm and in the student center. I was not alone, apparently. One woman in the group said she was at the University of Michigan and heard President Johnson’s Great Society speech at her graduation, but she realizes now that she knew nothing of what was happening outside Ann Arbor.

The series comes at an important moment in my life. In 1964 I was 19, in my last year as a teenager. This year, obviously, I’m 69, in my last year as a sexagenarian. It’s been fascinating to look back at my world and myself fifty years ago. We’ve both changed a lot, thankfully.

One thing I’ve come to appreciate from presenting this series is how profoundly sexist our society was in 1964. And it started with children. Everyone knows Barbie, of course, and G. I. Joe (who was introduced in 1964), but have you ever heard of the Milton Bradley games “POW” and “WOW”? Or, as they were advertised, “POW for boys and WOW for girls!” Both games involved hurling a small projectile over a barricade and knocking down an opponent’s pieces on the other side. In POW the projectile was a cannonball and the targets were soldiers. In WOW the projectiles were pillows and the scene was a pillow fight between two groups of girls. See it for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T71Qf-KfkJQ

A Lux commercial from that year began with a man’s voice crooning, “A woman’s born to softness, and that’s the way it is, a soft and magic creature some man will call his.” Or consider the Buick commercial that calls the car a machine that “a woman can admire and enjoy to the fullest but only a man can understand.” When I hear that crap, I can understand Betty Friedan’s anger (The Feminine Mystique came out in 1963.)

The popular TV shows of that era reinforced this sexist attitude by making women disappear or be less than they could be. On “Bonanza,” “My Three Sons,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Flipper,” and “The Farmer’s Daughter” you had widowed fathers raising a total of eleven sons—not a daughter in the lot. And Ben Cartwright had buried three wives, with one son from each of them. Today the police would be looking more closely at that situation, I think. He could have hidden a lot on that huge ranch.

Samantha on “Bewitched” was an immensely powerful, several-hundred-year-old woman who gave up that status to marry “Durwood,” as her mother called him. She promised not to use her magical powers, but she often had to in order to be a dutiful wife. Above all she had to keep her identity secret from other mortals. Jeannie on “I Dream of Jeannie” would face the same dilemma in 1965.

Those shows are familiar to everybody, but in preparing for these presentations I came across another show from 1964 in which a woman’s identity had to be hidden. “My Living Doll” starred Bob Cummings and Julie Newmar, created by the folks who did “My Favorite Martian.” The show is almost unknown today because most of the master copies were destroyed in a fire. It lasted only one season, leaving Newmar free to play Catwoman on “Batman.” The rather flimsy premise was that Newmar was an android, AF709, made for the Air Force, but her creator didn’t want the Air Force to be able to use her powers. When he was transferred, he left AF709 with Cummings, a psychologist. Cummings was supposed to protect her identity and teach her how to be human. At one point he tells her she “could be the perfect woman: one who does what she’s told, reacts the way you want her to react, and knows when to keep her mouth shut.” I don’t expect you to believe me, so take a look at a clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6gWxyz0XemA

Ah, yes, who doesn’t want to go back to that Great Society? No wonder Leslie Gore was singing “You Don’t Own Me.”

I never learned such sexist attitudes because my mother gave me a completely different model for what a woman could be. She was the first woman in her family to go to college. She started working in a department store when I was eleven, and she worked until just a few months before she died. I remember telling her one morning, when I was in the tenth grade, that I needed a shirt ironed for school. She said, “You know where the ironing board is.” Her great ambition in life was to own a motorcycle. In her 60s she finally bought a Moped. I can still see my kids clinging to her as she rode them around the neighborhood.

We can’t go back in time, of course, but if we could, 1964 is not a year I would set on the dial of the time machine. I don’t want to be 19 again, and I wouldn’t want to live in a world where people thought the way they did then. Once was enough.

Why I Love E Books

They’re the same books they always were. Some of them have been around for a very long time. There were people who liked them, people who didn’t, and a huge number who didn’t know they existed.

When I got an opportunity to put them out there again and give them a second chance, I grabbed it. E books. First, a publisher who put all the work and all the blame on the authors. We didn’t sell because we didn’t do enough to publicize our work. That gets old.

When a writer friend started an e book company and asked if she could have my books—and said she actually put some money into publicity—I hopped aboard. With all the Jake Samsons and what was then titled Blackjack.

Blackjack was first up. She loved it enough to suggest some edits. She was right. I was happy.

The covers are all great.

I had always avoided looking at the Amazon rankings because they were depressing. A Two millionth? Might as well have dug a hole in the yard and buried them. So I wasn’t in the habit of checking on my books. But my publisher kept an eye on everything she published.

Publicity? Editing? Paying attention?

She emailed me to tell me the great news. My books were up there. In the top 100 of several categories. Torch Song (nee Blackjack) was #1 in a category I can’t remember. Overall, all the books, under a hundred thousandth, often much lower, often a figure more like 5, 6, 7 thousandth. One of the Jakes recently hit 1200th.

Now I look at the rankings every day, which is probably not a good idea. A watched ranking can stop boiling. Isn’t that the old saying? But so far, so good. I love e books.








Band of Brothers

One ghastly feature of modern romantic fiction is how boring the heroes are.  It’s all very well to hire a male model or body-builder, rip his shirt, and pose him, sword in hand, as Rock or Knute or Prince Knuckle of Ramstein for the cover of the book.  But what happens when you have to put him in a conversation?  Not just with the heroine, with anybody.  “Erg, awk, aggghhhh!” he said.

This past week I’ve had reason to think about one of my biggest assets as a creator of characters, romantic and not–I have lots of brothers.  I have four, to be exact, all of them younger than I am, so I got to watch them develop into personalities.  I have only one sister, and she’s ten years younger.  We didn’t interact much.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my male characters are more varied and interesting than my female ones.  This is particularly helpful when I’m writing romances, but it comes in handy elsewhere too.

For the purposes of narrative simplicity, I’m going to call the boys Able, Baker, Charlie, and Dog, with Able the eldest and Dog the youngest.  They are now all retired, some several times, and among them have had six marriages and twelve children.  Three of my brothers are pilots, one a professional, and the same three were sky-divers before sanity prevailed.

We were raised as Catholics, but they have all departed from the bosom of Mother Church with only brother Baker, after a brief deviation into Hinduism, returning to Christianity.  Most are now amiable agnostics.  Among them, they have worked at a wide variety of jobs ranging from mink farmer to postman to canner of green beans to researcher into conversion of bio-mass to fuel.  Three are combat veterans and one a war protester, and, fortunately, all four have senses of humor that permit them to be in the same room for long periods of time, playing their guitars (and banjo and cello) and singing silly songs with each other.

My brothers are at least as verbose as I am.  In fact, Able and I amused ourselves while we washed dishes for all eight family members by reciting narrative poetry at each other, alternating the verses–“‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves,” etc.  Able (between mink farming, lawyering, and selling real estate in Mexico) has written two thrillers, Baker is both an actor and a playwright, and Dog has done three novels and a film script.  Charlie, for reasons that will be clear, should write his memoirs and can if he will  just sit down and do it.

Ten days ago I had a call from my sister in law to say that my youngest brother Dog had suffered a stroke.  It was a minor one, fortunately, but it affected his peripheral vision.  It also caused an interruption between hand and eye that makes it hard for him to work the computer or drive a car.  I talked to him the next morning and was relieved to know that his wit and enthusiasm are intact.  He has since dived into physical therapy.  Let’s hope it works.

That woke me up.  I began to think about Dog and the others and wish I could see them face to face.  Then last week I got a phone call at eight in the morning from brother Baker.  “Turn on the tv,” he said.  “Charlie’s on the morning news.”

He was indeed.

Charlie, who lives in Miami Beach, is a pilot, the professional one.  He retired from the Air Force as a lt. colonel and flew for American Airline for some years, mostly in the Caribbean.  When he retired from AA, he ferried Russian millionaires around the globe for a while.  He knows I’m a geography buff, so he called me with a stumper one winter morning.  “Bet you can’t guess where I am.”  “Where?”  “Sharm el Sheik.”  “Ha,” I said.  “Sinai.  Red Sea.  Right?”  He was terribly disappointed, but we had a nice chat about the weather.  He was basking on the beach.

Charlie has his own small plane, but he wanted to fly regularly and that can be expensive, so he got himself a part time job flying a tow plane along Miami Beach.  The planes the company uses were built in the 1950s for forward air control, to use as spotters. High wings, single engine, open cockpit.  You get the picture.

Now visualize Charlie on a peaceful weekday morning, flying along the beach with his banner trailing an advertisement for snake oil.  All of a sudden, with no warning, the engine quit.  He cut the banner away and tried to start the engine.  No dice.  As he told the tv commentator later, “I said to myself, ‘I may have five seconds to live.'”  His face quirked in a typical Charlie grin.  “‘We’ll know in a minute.'”  Both of them cracked up on the air.

In fact, as he told me later, he barely had time to verify that he wasn’t going to land on top of a swimmer before the plane hit the water at 45 miles an hour–800 yards off Miami Beach in about twenty feet of water.  The wings held the plane on the surface for a few moments, then sea water swept into the cockpit.  He took a deep breath, unhooked his seat restraint, and swam up, free of the wreckage.  He could see light.  He swam toward it, inflating his life jacket.  When he reached the surface, a jet-skier whooshed over to him and pulled him aboard.  The entire event lasted less than fifteen minutes.

Well, there you are.  A woman who has four brothers shouldn’t have any difficulty crating male characters who are as nutty and interesting as real people should be.  My problem is that I don’t have any models of male villainy.  SPOILER.  My murderers tend to be women.



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