Last weekend I participated in the 7th Annual Gaithersburg Book Festival, and I cannot praise it too highly. It had something for everyone! There were writing workshops for adults, teens, and children. The Children’s Village features storytellers, puppeteers, jugglers, authors, and magic, all encouraging reading, writing, and a love of books. There were exhibitor booths catering to adults and children, a variety of food vendors, and live performances by poets and singer-songwriters. And there were book sales!
The official bookseller for the even was Politics and Prose. They sold all of the books represented on the program. I bought two, having been captivated by the authors’ presentations I attended after finishing my own presentation and signing. Thomas Murphy by Roger Rosenblatt, who had an engaging conversation/interview with Alice McDermott.
The second book I bought was “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs” by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf. They presented jointly. She is the author of The Hemingses of Monticello, and a professor at Harvard. He is the Thomas Jefferson Foundation professor of history at the University of Virginia. They were a dynamic duo, talking about what promises to be an atypical biography of Jefferson (e.g., covering music and religion), and answering questions clearly—and patiently!
There was also a used book sale by Friends of the Library Montgomery County, MD. I bought two books related to three of my passions: popular culture, old books, and dictionaries! For which I spent a total of $8.
Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms was published in 1848! It explains what a chore is (the equivalent of char in England), and polk, meaning sack. Needless to say, it’s my oldest slang dictionary, and it nicely illustrates that what was slang 200 years ago has moved into—and sometimes through—mainstream English!
GBF drew participants from near and far. I met authors from New York, Texas, and London—to name a few. Some of the famous authors were highlighted on the festival poster, for example, Juan Williams.
Well-known or not, everyone was articulate and professional.
But enough about attending. As an author presenting there, I couldn’t have been treated better!
Before the event, my primary contact was Carolyn Crosby, the Senior Program Supervisor. She was not only friendly and gracious but well-organized and responsive. She made sure I had all the info I needed ahead of time, from hotel reservation to maps to advice on rain gear.
The festival hotel, Homewood Suites by Hilton, was spacious, comfortable, and provided shuttle service to all events. They gave us our GBF book bags, containing all the important stuff (program, shuttle schedule, maps) and no throw-away junk. It’s a classy bag, heavy canvas.
On Friday evening, there was a VIP Reception from 7:00 till 10:00. The food was great and plentiful, and there was an open bar. Presenters mingled with those involved in producing the event. I met Jud Ashman, Founder and Chair of GBH and currently mayor of Gaithersburg. He is articulate and humorous! He’s shown here with me and M.Tara Crowl, who writes fantasy fiction for middle-schoolers.
Gaithersburg Book Festival is a rain-or-shine event.
All of the programs are under tents—and this year it was rain, with temperatures in the low-50s. GBHis a class act, and they provided all the presenters with umbrellas.
The weather dampened people but not spirits. Attendees could choose among 10 presentations at a time, each in a tented pavilion: Dashiell Hammett, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edgar Allan Poe, H.L. Mencken, James Michener, Gertrude Stein, Rachel Carson, Jim Henson, Willa Cather, Ogden Nash.
I was on at 10:00 a.m. in the Dashiell Hammett Pavilion. Debbiann Holmes and I talked about Making Fiction Real. We seem to make a great sister act. Maybe we should take it on the road.
Enthusiastic, upbeat volunteers were everywhere.They kept the presenters on time starting and ending. We were escorted to the pavilion for the presentation, then to the signing area after. People seemed okay waiting in the rain to get books signed.
By definition, presenters were VIPs. Besides umbrellas and book bags, we had reserved parking, special registration, and a VIP lounge with refreshments all day.
But perhaps the most striking aspect overall was the universal enthusiasm and the breadth of community support. Just look at the number of partners and sponsors they have!
I want to go again! And you should go, too. It might even be sunny!
Some books seem to get better every day—or at least year by year. I find that many books I first read for entertainment have grown over time—or maybe I have! Into this category I put anything by Jane Austen.
Her observations of human behaviors, foibles, and motivations are timeless. And I smile at the humor, even when re-reading.
Then there are Mary Renault’s books. She brings history to life and dealt with delicate issues of sexuality long before most mainstream authors.
I first approached Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glassas children’s books. Indeed, my elementary-school granddaughter read them recently. But reading them with an adult eye and understanding, I find the plot line and magical realism rich and the writing superb.
Waverley Root & Richard de Rochemont
I’ve had Eating in America: A History by Waverley Root and Richard de Rochemont on my shelf of unread books for years. But recently, The Food of Italy by Waverley Root turned up on a list of recommended reads for people planning a trip to Italy, and having started that book, I turned to Eating in America. It starts with seafarers and Native Americans and continues through refrigeration and the modern American sweet tooth. Why did I let it languish so long?
And that segues into cookbooks. Of all my book loves, cookbook loves are the most fickle. I’ve had my low-calorie, low-fat, low-glycemic-index, low-carb, pressure-cooking, microwaving, slow-cooking, blending, cooking-for-one-or-two infatuations. But two cookbooks have held steady in my heart: The Doubleday Cookbook—the best encyclopedic cookbook out there—and Culinary Classics and Improvisations—the best leftovers cookbook in the world!
Memoir & biography
As a category, I’m coming to a greater appreciation of memoir and biography. For example, The Glass Castleby Jannette Walls, West With the Night by Beryl Markham, and at the recent Gaithersburg Book Festival, I bought “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs” by Annette Gordon Reed and Peter S. Onuf, a recent and atypical biography of Thomas Jefferson—which is still untested but very promising.
When it comes to books about which my feelings have undergone a sea-change, the Bible is in a category by itself. Once upon a time, I believed it was literally the word of God. Now I don’t. Enough said.
As I’ve become a writer, my interest in the mystery genre has waned. I lost interest in Patricia Cornwell early on because her protagonist, Kate Scarpetta, didn’t grow or develop. But former favorites from Sue Grafton to Rex Stout just don’t grab me anymore.
And last but not least, I’m no longer in love with the six volumes of The Dictionary of American Regional English. I really regret it. But being able to look up a word and find out where it’s used isn’t nearly as useful as it would be if I could look up a region and get typical word usage!
What books are waxing, waning, or shifting ground in you heart?
I mentioned that tomato juice is the official state drink of Ohio. While having a character mention that fact might bring a smile or a raised brow, a writer could milk that tidbit for a whole story—such as a Buckeye living in a famous tomato growing county in Virginia alienating everyone at the annual tomato festival by bad-mouthing the local product, and someone ends up dead.
If your genre includes historical fiction. . .
Then this is the book for you. It includes an alphabetical listing of firsts, covering everything from the first abdominal operation and the first importation of Aberdeen-Angus cattle to the first zoological laboratory to the first zoom lens—thousands of story ideas just waiting to be exploited. For example, the first coeducational medical school in the world was the Boston University School of Medicine, founded in 1873. Imagine that first co-ed class—and the classes they would have had, such as anatomy in the days of grave robbers.
If you are obsessed with money. . .
Then delve into Charles Reichblum’s collection.
Suppose your character is in a bar and another drinker says, “Okay, mate, here’s the deal. I’ve won the lottery, and I want to share the wealth. I’ll give you $1000 a day for a month, or one penny doubled each day for a month.” What would the character choose? Why? And then what happens?
If your genre is magical realism. . .
There’s no better place to look than science.
Genetic mosaics are not so rare, formed by fusing two gametes in utero or a placenta shared between fraternal twins or by the mother’s cells crossing the placental barrier and continuing in her child. Imagine that a woman had children with all of her genetics, so the cell lines were thoroughly mixed.
But it isn’t necessary to turn to hard-core science texts. Bits of science turn up everywhere.
Each newly conceived human has approximately 300 harmful genetic mutations. The life expectancy of professional cyclists is approximately 50. The closest living relative of tyrannosaurus rex is the chicken. And people are genetically one-third daffodil. Create a plot relating any two of these facts and voila, you’re launched.
Whatever your genre, books of little-known information are great sources of ideas.
All sorts of genre’s could generate stories based on which big cats can interbreed, in the wild and in captivity. (Lions with tigers and leopards. Leopards with lions, tigers, jaguars, and pumas. Jaguars with pumas. Servals with caracals.) It could revolve around an animal rights conflict, a new breed going out of control, zoo politics, or love in the workplace—or whatever your brain produces.
This volume includes topics from consumer products to sports. You can read about a boat race in which two-member crews inside bottomless boats grip the gunwales and run a foot race along a dry river bed—which certainly be fodder for humor. And if you want to tie in to current events, base a character on Victoria Woodhull, who endorsed short skirts, an end to capital punishment, legalized prostitution, birth control, free love, and vegetarianism. On April 2, 1870, she became a candidate for president, running on the National Radical Reformers ticket.
Readers like to learn something new, especially when it pertains to the plot.
Takeaway for writers
Whether you start with an idea and look for off-beat information to support it or welcome inspiration for novel ideas, off-beat information is the way to go.
Actually, this could apply to most of the books currently on my shelves. I almost never set out to buy a particular book. I see it and I want it. And so, in no particular order, here are a few of my whimsies.
Books I Bought on a Whim: the Bizarre
I’m attracted to anything with bizarre in the title. Who wouldn’t want to know about peculiar precipitation, from colored rain to frog falls? It may be comforting to know that not even acid can dissolve a diamond. And if you ever came across a Hercules beetle, you’d know it by its 7-inch length.
Books I Bought on a Whim: Skulls
I like skulls. I have half a dozen pairs of skull earrings, 3 rings, 4 pendants, and 1 bracelet. I bought this book by mail-order, and it covers everything from the empire of the dead to tattoo skulls.
Books I Bought on a Whim: the Horrible
And then there are books that just appeal to me as a mystery writer—and as one fascinated by death.
Books I Bought on a Whim: Bob Dylan
I first loved Dylan lyrics when I heard his songs sung by others. It took a long time for me to appreciate his voice. And truth be told, I seldom even glance at this book. I just like knowing it’s on the shelf.
Books I Bought on a Whim: Writing Journals
I’ve written in my diary every night for decades. I’ve kept notes and files related to writing ideas and projects. But I’ve never kept a writing journal. Maybe that’s why I buy every one I see!
Books I Bought on a Whim: Chagall’s Illustrated Bible
I bought this book after having seen it briefly in a writing class. You may remember my blog comments about cross-over art. Chagall’s illustrations cover only Genesis, Exodus, and The Song of Solomon. The text is set in paragraphs. The combination of format and paintings makes the words themselves fresh.
Books I Bought on a Whim: the Dark Side
Books that deal with the dark side—for example, the books in the Postsecret series—are highly inspirational for writers. This book is similar. It covers shameful confessions to all the deadly sins, plus miscellaneous.
This book I bought because the title is such a cliché, and because it reminded me of BONK: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (Mary Roach).
Books I Bought on a Whim: Repeats
Last but not least, here are 5 books I bought on a whim more than once! Don’t ask.
According to Gallup polls, over half of Americans say they are at least a little superstitious. Consider the value of superstition for your character(s).
People who are truly not superstitious are nevertheless well aware of what’s associated with Friday the 13th, black cats, broken mirrors, four-leaf clovers, etc. Such people might well make a wish with fingers crossed, or when tossing a coin into a fountain or other water, when blowing out birthday candles, or kissing a horseshoe. If you don’t consider yourself superstitious, you may engage in superstitious thinking or behavior nevertheless, without paying attention—an habitual or non-conscious action. For me, that’s knocking on wood.
This collection by Claudia De Lys has an excellent two-page description of this and other wood superstitions, ranging from the balsam needle pillows to wooden rosary beads, traced back to the spirits believed to live in trees that bring on the seasonal changes (life, death, and resurrection) or maintain the evergreen state (immortality). A tree or wood was touched when asking favors and again in appreciation of good fortune received.
Superstitions and characters
Diana Gabaldon’s work is an excellent example of effectively using her characters’ beliefs, superstitions, and ritual acts—everything from beliefs about witches and fairies to making the sign of the cross—to illuminate both the characters and the historical context.
Stuart Vyse, Ph.D., author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, is an authority on magical thinking. He differentiates superstition from obsessive-compulsive behavior or other mental disorders and religious ritual, and discusses the functions each serves. I’ll stick with superstition for the sake of (relative) brevity.
Why are people superstitious?
Anything as nearly universal across time and cultures as superstition must serve some beneficial function! In a 2010 paper by Damisch, Stroberock, and Mussweiler, “Keep Your Fingers Crossed! How Superstition Improves Performance,” the researchers argue that superstitions give people a sense of control in chaotic situations. The major outcome of this research was that people who were allowed to solve problems with their lucky charms at hand performed better than when those charms were absent.
But the important point is that it is performance based. So wearing mismatched socks when playing baseball or tennis—or mah jongg jewelry when deep into that game—might improve performance.
But lucky charms have no impact on outcome when the results are due to chance. So skip the lucky dice—unless you just like the look.
These researchers point out the ways in which this phenomenon may be wide-spread and important, for example in alcoholism. Many if not most members of AA attribute their abstinence to the higher power in their lives giving them strength. If they believe, they are more likely to stay sober.
Who is superstitious?
Some people are more superstitious than others—athletes and actors are notoriously so—and superstitions run in families. One example is a Virginia friend who says, “Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit,” first thing in the morning on the first day of each month to ensure a good month. Her daughter in Texas does the same thing. And now they text each other to see who says it first!
And, incidentally, women are more superstitious than men. Vyse relates this to locus of control. People who have an internal locus of control (I am master of my fate) are less superstitious than those with an external locus of control (life happens to me). Compared to men, women still feel that they have less control in their own lives. So maybe they wear special earrings for dominoes, euchre, and bridge for a reason!
Vyse also makes a connection between performance improvements and effort. He says that lucky charms don’t significantly reduce anxiety, but they do increase persistence. So maybe that’s what’s going on with a friend who happens to be a lapsed Catholic. When she loses something, she still says what she calls “the kid’s version of the prayer to St. Anthony”: Tony, Tony, come around. Something’s lost and must be found. She swears it works.
Truly magical thinking is taking an action that has no logical way to affect the outcome but may bring comfort anyway. A third friend who grew up in a Navy family won’t watch people leave because that means they won’t come back. She attributes this to her life on base, when families would see their husbands/fathers off at the dock but turn away as soon as the ship was underway.
When pressed, many non-superstitious people will admit that they prefer not to walk under ladders, step on graves, or open umbrellas indoors. They prefer to leave a building by the same door through which they entered, and they want to round an object in the path on the same side as their companion. Do you always include money when you give a purse or wallet? Does the recipient of a gift knife have to “pay” the giver at least a penny? Superstitions are everywhere, everyday, not just on Friday the 13th!
Takeaway for writers
Give your characters superstitions and/or rituals. It can add interest, tell something about the person’s ethnic or family background, and illustrate her/his anxieties and feelings of control.
A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I like having books about places I’ve lived. I was born and reared in Ohio, and now live in Virginia, so those are two of the states I am drawn to. And given that I’m also drawn to the weird. . .
From books like these, you can gain such vital information about Ohio as the location of Crybaby Bridge; abandoned hospitals, prisons, and asylums; and graveyards worthy of a safari. And as for Virginia, you might think Civil War Statues—but what about a statue of a giant Viking, or Johnny Appleseed, or the Auto Muffler King?
Did you know that the official state drink of Ohio is tomato juice? Or that the 50-star U.S. flag was designed by an Ohio high-schooler? And FYI, the dorm room occupied by Edgar Allan Poe at the University of Virginia is on permanent display. And Secretariat was the first Virginia bred-and-owned horse to win the Triple Crown.
Of course, trivia can come in all forms. I have several books of lists. I like knowing the 6 illegal substances that occur naturally in our bodies, 21 biblical contradictions, and 12 erotic works by well-known writers. (Anne Rice? Piers Anthony?)
If ever evidence was needed that people will compete in anything, just check out weird records: the longest time balancing a Christmas tree on the chin (56,82 seconds), the longest time keeping toe in mouth while hopping on one foot (1min. 49.02 sec.), and the largest grand piano cake (300 lbs, shaped like a baby grand).
And examples could go on. But why? Either you love trivia—and therefore will own these books or others like them—or you won’t. In which case, why are you still reading?
Trivia positives for readers
Trivia is interesting, often funny, can serve as a conversational gambit, and you needn’t worry about coming to a good stopping place before going to bed.
Trivia positives for writers
Giving your characters off-beat information or obsessions adds interest—and you can enjoy the research!
True confession—in case you hadn’t figured this out yet: I’m a book hoarder. So, you might ask, why does someone who seldom sees a book she doesn’t want to own love libraries? Let me count the ways!
My local libraries all have book sales on-going, and I can pick up all sorts of interesting books, CDs, DVDs, etc., for $1-$2—some good enough to gift!
I can borrow audio books for those times when I can’t actually read—e.g., when I have a raging case of conjunctivitis or I’m driving 200 miles
Many people—even writers!—think research means Google, but sometimes that comes up short. In my experience, nothing beats the reference section of a library and a friendly librarian for helping to ferret out the tidbits you need to make your story real.
Probably less important for writers than for others—except in emergencies—but libraries offer free access to computers, and thus the internet.
Libraries host programs that are free to the public, often talks by writers or about writing.
Study rooms and meeting rooms are available free for non-profit use—such as critique group meetings. IMHO, every writer should have at least one good critique group that meets regularly, and meeting at a library means no one has to make the house suitable for visitors!
Inter-library loan is a godsend!
So why do I love libraries? Because I’m a writer!
Tell me your reasons for loving libraries. Leave a comment below, or find me on Facebook or Twitter.
How often do you check out bestseller lists? Which ones?
There are some who sneer at best-selling books, but I’m of a different opinion.
Just because it sells doesn’t mean it isn’t good!
There are debates about the legitimacy of bestseller lists and how the New York Times, Wall Street Journal,andUSA Todayarrive at their rankings. Some lists have more editorial oversight than others; some lists rely on sales figures as well as a sampling from their pre-selected booksellers. Some lists split digital and print, some don’t. The New York Times shows both.
Whatever your opinion of the tactics that create the lists, the lists are excellent places to find a great book to read. Or you might try recommendations from booksellers, such as the Indie Next List, which is curated by independent booksellers.