LOVING OLD BOOKS

This glass-fronted secretary is full of old books—cookbooks and books on household management and helpful hints. When I open the doors, the smell of old books—so different from the smell of a library—always makes me smile.

Instructions For Cookery, In Its Various Branches, By Miss Leslie is dated 1843. This is the 17th edition (!) “with improvements and supplementary receipts.” As far as I know, it is my oldest book. I say, “As far as I know” because not all old books are dated. For example, this 64-page relic was printed in Edinburgh, sometime before 1890.

Books of this sort are my first collection, and still the most numerous. In the beginning I bought books like High-Class Cookery Made Easy by Mrs. Hart for what was on the printed page: how things used to be done. I found the recipes fascinating: instructions to  “assemble the [cake] ingredients in the usual way”; lists of ingredients with no measurements. (Fanny Farmer [see below]first introduced standard measurements in 1896.)

When I open a book of great (by my amateur standards) age, I like to ponder what sorts of women might have owned and used it over the decades. This copy of Mrs. Crowen’s American Ladies’ System of Cookery cookbook is inscribed Mrs. Dr. S.  S. Fitch, May 18th, 1860. It reminds me of the German practice of addressing someone as Herr Doctor Professor So-and-so. Might she be of German background?

The books printed in the 1880s and more recently are much more likely to be in good condition. Then, as now, once one made a name for oneself, more book deals followed.  Miss Parloa’s Kitchen Companion and Miss Parloa’s New Cookbook and Marketing Guide are early examples of this.

Perhaps the best example is Fanny Merritt Farmer. She paid Little, Brown, and Company to publish her Boston Cooking School Cookbook in 1896.  My earliest copy is from 1904. By then, it had been copyrighted 1896, 1900, 1901, 1902, and 1903. The flyleaf of my copy says it is revised with an appendix of three hundred recipes, and an addenda of sixty recipes. (Note the modern spelling of recipe.) She is listed as the author of Chaffing-Dish Possibilities and Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent.

I have a copy of the latter, as well as What to Have for Dinner, copyrighted 1904, 1905, 1907,  and 1905, respectively.  The Fanny Farmer Cookbook is still popular today.

Sir Terry Pratchett

But It’s More Than Just Old Cookbooks For Me

Over the years, I’ve replaced numerous paperbacks with older hard-copy editions of favorite books. I like the worn covers and brittle, yellowed pages.

They remind me of reading books of fairy tales and the Ruth Fielding series from the early 20th Century at my grandmother’s house.  It turns out that I’m not alone. Scent carries powerful psychological meaning for people—and triggers memories that otherwise are not readily available.

Many people, perhaps most, like the smell of old books. Science tells us that as books decompose over time, they emit a smell from decaying volatile organic compounds, very similar to chocolate and coffee! This is one time I really don’t need to know why I like something, just that I do.

My most recently acquired old book, 1904, came along with my most recent obsession: Bird Neighbors!

Bottom line for writers: smell an old book and feel uplifted!

Terry Pratchett’s Younger Readers

Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, teacher, writer, editor, favorite auntie, and avid (some might say rabid) fan of everything contributed to the world by the late, great Terry Pratchett.

Sir Terence David John Pratchett, OBE (28 April 1948 – 12th March 2015) was one of the most prolific and popular fantasy and humor authors of all time. His first story was published when he was thirteen years old, and his numerous novels, short stories, and collaborations have since been translated into 37 languages.

Despite leaving school early to work as a journalist, Sir Terry has been awarded honorary doctorates by ten universities. His work has earned him Skylark Awards, Locus Awards, the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement, the Order of the British Empire, and knighthood from the Queen of England.

Of all the honors and recognitions he earned in his career, Sir Terry always said that the one he was most proud of was The Carnegie Medal given for his young adult novel The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents in 2001.

The panel judging the 2001 Carnegie selection was unanimous. Karen Usher, Chair of the Panel, said, “This is an outstanding work of literary excellence: a brilliant twist on the tale of the Pied Piper that is funny and irreverent, but also dark and subversive. It is a rich multi-layered story with a pacy plot and excellent characterisation. Terry Pratchett uses his trademark wit and humour to question our society’s attitudes and behaviour in a way that is totally accessible for children of 10 years and over.

The Discworld series, with books about dragons, police, witches, trolls, the postal system, and werewolves, also contains five stories about a young witch in training. Tiffany Aching is an admirable role model for readers of any age, and she has four Locus Awards attached to her book covers.

One of the reasons Sir Terry’s books for children and young adults are so good is that they are not exclusively for children and young adults. My copies of Nation, Dodger, The Bromeliad, and Only You Can Save Mankind are on the same shelf as my copies of Wyrd Sisters and Good Omens.

Pratchett has other worlds less extensively mined, notably the Earth of the early 1990s. Ostensibly he writes about this for younger readers; the adult books have longer words and the juvenile fiction shorter sentences, but they are otherwise interchangeable….

Rupert Goodwin in The Times 5.3.94

Few authors speak with the same voice to children and grown-ups alike, but Terry Pratchett does. His first novel, The Carpet People, written originally for children, was recently back on the adult bestseller list. In fact, all his children’s books have been on the adult best-seller lists, which must make him unique in publishing annals.

SHE Magazine

Tiffany Aching is not a Chosen One. She has no special birthmark or secret royal lineage. No one gave her a special quest; no mysterious stranger asked her to guard a magic talisman. And that is part of what makes Tiffany Aching such a relatable character for younger readers.

She chooses to fight her battles because no one else will. She earns her place among the witches by being stubborn and paying attention. Wee Free Men, the first book starring Tiffany, discusses serious issues like the death of her grandmother and class divisions. Anyone can grow up to be a Tiffany Aching.
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Many of Sir Terry’s books for younger readers touch on this same theme of paying attention to what is happening and dealing with the problem in front of you. Masklin in Truckers and Mau in Nation are faced with tragedies and then go about finding a way to fix them simply because no one else will. In addition to being incredibly fun to read, Sir Terry’s books for younger readers present them with role models for real problem-solving.

Despite the lessons in his children’s books, Sir Terry never preached to his audience. Characters learned by making mistakes, by suffering (sometimes terrible) consequences, by finding another way to accomplish what they needed to accomplish.

In The Bromeliad, the nome Masklin has to convince an entire colony of nomes that they need to pack up and leave behind everything they’ve ever known. The entire world outside their home is a terrifying idea (that may not even be real), and the hero has to create reasonable arguments and persuade his elders that not following him will result in the death of every member of society. Despite the imminent annihilation, the series is funny to read and ultimately leaves the audience with the idea that looking beyond the horizon, listening to others, and working together might not be such a bad idea.

The function of humour is to help us cope with the dark side of life; Terry Pratchett is worth a dozen psychotherapists. David V.Barrett in New Statesman and Society

I have trouble reading Sir Terry’s books to my nieces because they are so good. Bedtime stories take a lot longer to finish when the orator has to keep stopping to laugh. The entire bedtime routine takes longer when the bedtime story leads to a discussion of why no one wanted to help a certain character or why people are mean when there isn’t even a reason!

As the little readers get older and learn to read the longer books, I expect many more questions I’m not really able to answer. Sir Terry discussed religion, death, prejudice, responsibility, and a million other topics I’m sure I’ll be unprepared for.

Sir Terry has provided hours of entertainment to millions of readers around the world. His work has been adapted for theater, for radio, for television and movies, and for all sort of video and board games. Most recently, Good Omens was produced as a mini-series for the BBC. And he was always happy to help other writers, funding scholarships and first novel prizes, and giving numerous interviews about writing.

He was diagnosed with Posterior Cortical Atrophy in 2007 and passed away in March of 2015. The Glorious 25th of May (a reference to the futile Treacle Mine Road Revolution in the novel Nightwatch) has been designated by fans as a day to honor Sir Terry Pratchett’s work and legacy by wearing lilacs and donating to fund Alzheimer’s research. The ripples he caused in the world are not likely to fade away any time soon.

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RATS: WHO KNEW?

And who would want to?  

The Country Rat and the Town Rat

Writers, that’s who. Rats have long been characters—sometimes major—in literature old and new. Fables from around the world feature rats/mice and the moral usually relates to survival in one form or another.  In these fables, rats are often presented as clever and resourceful. Aesop’s Fables, the Fables of Bidpai, and Panchatantra all feature rats involved in moral lessons.

In some languages, rats and mice are interchangeable. When there is a distinction made, rats usually come off worse. In fiction and in popular consciousness, rats are almost always portrayed as more devious or dirty than mice.

Rats are extremely important in Chinese mythology. The rat is the first of twelve animals in the Chinese Zodiac, corresponding to Sagitarius.  Both are assigned the traits of creativity, hard work, generosity, and optimism.

The Year of the Rat is reputed to be one of prosperity and hard work. FYI: 2020 is a year of the rat.  The rat rules daily from 11:00 p.m. till 1:00 a.m. and its season is winter. 

N.B. writers: if you are inclined to write a rat fable, this might be the place to start.

The German cover is so much more horrifying.

Often rats are included in stories to add a touch of horror to scenes involving dungeons, torture chambers, vampires, the unknown… Authors from Edgar Allen Poe (“The Pit and the Pendulum“), to George Orwell (1984) to Stephen King (“Graveyard Shift” and “1922,” for example) have made effective use of rats. Shakespeare included rats in eight of his plays. Perhaps the epitome of horror would be The Coming of the Rats by George H. Smith (1961), suggesting the aftermath of the H-bomb.

And of course, if it’s in books, it’s in movies as well. Think Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  Some movies, such as Ratatouille, Chicken Run, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Flushed Away, include rat characters who are funny and likeable in addition to being clever. Willard, Of Unknown Origin, and The Missing are Deadly are horror movies that focus on twisted relationships between humans and rats. Many films, especially The Food of the Gods, Deadly Eyes, Rodentz, and Rats: Night of Terror, focus on swarms of rats pitted against humanity.

Rats and mice are depicted very differently in The Secret of NIMH.

If you do write about rats, it may help to know the terminology.

  • A group of rats — a mischief
  • Male rat — buck
  • Female rat — doe
  • Infants — pups or kittens
  • Musophobia (suriphobia) — fear of rats and mice

Rats have such a horrific reputation that threats of being eaten, taken, overrun, etc., by rats are a common tool used around the world to frighten naughty children into better behavior. In Canada—Newfoundland—rat threats were second only to bear threats, and twice as frequent as big fish (in third place out of seven). 

Writers consider the possibilities: “I’ve got an attic/cellar full of rats for naughty little girls and boys like you.”

As mentioned above, rats are often depicted as smart, and turn up in unexpected places. Consider this poem by Emily Dickinson:

The rat is the concisest tenant.
He pays not rent—
Repudiates the obligation,
On schemes intent.
Balking our wit
To sound or circumvent,
Hate cannot harm
A foe so reticent.
Neither decree
Prohibits him,
Lawful as
Equilibrium.

Emily Dickinson

Rat Facts 

A Rat King was a group of rats whose tails were knotted together, often ascribed mystical powers by rat catchers.
  • Rats are everywhere in the world except Antarctica, where it’s too cold for them to survive outside and there are too few humans to provide for them.
    • In some places, especially islands, aggressive rat control policies have reclaimed the land.
  • Rats are one of the world’s worst invasive species.
    • Transported around the world on ships, rats have been credited with the extinction of untold number of small native animals and birds.
New York City rats can take down pigeons.
  • Rats often live with and near humans (commensals).
  • Rats carry many zoonotic pathogens, all sorts from The Black Death to foot-and-mouth disease.
  • Many rats in the wild live only about a year due to predation.
  • By and large, rat vocalizations are pitched beyond the range of human hearing.
  • Rats have been kept as pets at least since the late 1800s, most often brown rat species, and are no more of a health risk than cats or dogs.
  • Rats are omnivorous.
    • Rats are cannibals.
Rats made of food?

Rats as Food 

The Bible forbids eating rats, and  parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East, consider rat meat to be diseased, unclean, and socially unacceptable. Islam, Kashrut, the Shipibo people of Peru and the Sironó people of Bolivia all have strong taboos against eating rats. However the high number of rats and/or a limited food supply have brought rats into the diets of both humans and pets worldwide.

  • Human food
    • Rat meat is part of the cuisines of Vietnam, Taiwan, and Thailand.
    • National Geographic (March 14, 2019) featured Vietnamese rat meat.
    • In India, rats are essential to the traditional Mishmi diet, for women are allowed to eat only fish, pork, wild birds, and rats. In the Musahar community, rats are farmed as an exotic delicacy.
    • Aboriginal Australians’ diet regularly included rats, as did traditional Hawaiian and Polynesian cultures.
    • Rice field rats were an original component of paella in Valencia (the rat later replaced by rabbit, seafood, or chicken). These rats were also eaten in the Philippines and Cambodia.
    • Rich people ate rat pie in England in Victorian times, and others ate rats during the World Wars when food was strictly rationed.
    • Alcoholic rats trapped in wine cellars in France became part of a regional delicacy – grilled rats, Bordeaux-style.
    • Rat stew was (and maybe still is) eaten in West Virginia.
Remy insists that rat food of any kind must be properly seasoned.
  • Animal food
    • Snakes, both wild and pets, eat rats and mice. The rats are available to snake owners both live and frozen. However, in Britain, feeding any live mammal to another animal is against the law.
    • When included in pet food, rats are counted as “cereals” in the ingredients list.

Rat Contributions to Science 

The first rat research I know of was conducted at Clark University (Worcester, MA) in 1895. Since then, rats have been used to study disease transmission, genetics, effects of diet, cardiovascular conditions, and drug effects. 

Psychologists have studied rats to further our understanding of learning, intelligence, drug abuse, ingenuity, aggressiveness, adaptability, and the effects of overcrowding (the “behavioral sink”).

Working Rats

Besides acting in movies, rats are good a sniffing out gunpowder residue, land mines, and tuberculosis. They also can be trained for animal-assisted therapy. 

N.B. writers: consider a PI or amateur detective who has a trained rat sidekick!

The stereotypic rat: Besides the horror aspects of ratness, their image is mainly that of pest. 

They infest urban areas, particularly multi-family housing. They like areas with access to food, water, and a moderate environment, such as under sinks, near garbage, in walls, cabinets, or drawers.

In rural areas, rats are a threat to both grain supplies and small birds. (Think chicks.) They live in fields, barns, cellars, basements, and attics. 

And as with so many things, rats are a bigger bane for the poor, whether rural or urban.  Picture this: a baby crib is set in the middle of a room, all four legs in buckets of water to try to keep rats and mice from climbing into the crib. Meanwhile, beady eyes stare from darkened corners.

Rat in Everyday Language 

Any way you cut it, rat is not positive.

Rats shredded nearly $19,000 worth of rupees in a safe in India in 2018.
  • Noun: backstabber, betrayer, blabbermouth, canary, deep throat, double-dealer, fink, informant, sneak, snitch, source, squealer, stoolie, stool pigeon, tattler, turncoat, whistle-blower.
    • In unionized workplaces, anyone who doesn’t pay dues and/or crosses picket lines is called a rat.
  • Verb: the act of doing any of the above.
Master Splinter is living proof that rats can train turtles and fight ninjas!
  • Rats!—exclamation of surprise, frustration 
  • Drowned rat
  • Gutter rat
  • Mall rat
  • Rat’s ass (as in, I don’t give a…)
  • Rat faced
  • Rat fink
  • Rat hole
  • Rat king
  • Rat’s nest (hair or residence)
  • Rat pack
  • Rat race
  • Rats from a sinking ship
  • Rat tail (hairstyle)
  • Rat tail comb
  • Ratted hair
  • Rat trap
  • Ratty
  • Smell a rat

Bottom line for writers: it’s worth your while to know about rats!

W.H.O. Let the Dogs Out?

These dogs are better at social distancing than most humans I know.

Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, teacher, writer, editor, favorite auntie, turtle lover, and dutiful servant of a fluffy tyrant masquerading as a dog.

By this point, most of us have seen something in our lives change as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but we understand (at least a bit) why things have changed. Our animal companions just see that the humans’ behaviors are suddenly different.

“Humans are staying in these circles, so I guess I’ll stay in a circle. Do I get treats now?”

Despite various quarantine and lockdown orders around the world, animals dependent on humans still need care. Many zoos and animal parks house animals that cannot be released into the wild because they were born in captivity, they are still recovering from injuries, their homes have been destroyed, or other circumstances that prevent them being able to thrive. Animal shelters, zoos, rescue and rehabilitation centers, and emergency veterinarians have adjusted to provide food, socialization, attention, playtime, and everything else to keep their charges happy.

Zoos have closed to the public, but zookeepers are still reporting for work. Some keepers have temporarily moved into the zoos themselves to be closer to their charges and to avoid any chance of carrying any infections into the zoo or home to their families. They’re camping in the cafeterias and staying in veterinary isolation huts.

In Cornwall, England, four keepers at Paradise Park have moved into the original house of the family that owned the property. Other keepers rotate in and out to assist, maintaining a strict schedule so that they are not in the zoo at the same time.

Without visitors around all the time, zookeepers have more freedom to take animals to visit their friends in other areas of the parks.

Because most zoos are making do with skeleton crews, keepers don’t have as much time as they’d like to play with the animals in their care. Many animals have been taking their own tours around zoos to see each other and keep each other entertained. (That doesn’t mean that bunnies have been jumping into the lion pens to say hello.)

The tamer animals have been allowed to wander the parks freely while there are no visitors. Territorial animals like geese have taken over bridges and tried to block keepers from crossing to feed other animals. Many zookeepers report that the more social animals still follow them around during rounds, without any leads or harness.

Some animals have left the zoo altogether and gone to explore the world. Peacocks from the Bronx Zoo took a stroll through Prospect Park.

Police in a closed park in Houston helped a gaggle of ducklings find their way back to their mother.

This cockatoo learned how to sing “Row row row your boat” and loves to sing along with kids who come by her enclosure. Without her backup singers, she has started humming to herself in the quiet. Zookeepers report that they can sometimes hear her start the song by herself but trail off sadly when no one joins in.

Without visitors to interact with, many animals are behaving differently. Keepers try to give each animal extra attention during feeding and rounds, but it’s hard to replace a steady stream of admirers. Some animals miss the interaction and get very excited to see anyone. Other animals feel more comfortable without an audience and venture out of hiding spaces more regularly.

Zookeepers come up with activities to keep animals entertained and socialized. Gorillas who regularly mirror gestures and pose for selfies with visitors are shown videos of people talking to them. Leopards at Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, NY have to “hunt” for food in cardboard tubes to keep teeth and jaws strong.

Polar bear cubs at Ouwehands Zoo Rhenen in Holland didn’t have to worry about public crowds when they left the maternity den for the first time.

Snakes, alligators, stingrays, etc. haven’t shown any sign that they’ve even noticed a change. However, one zookeeper noticed that some types of fish have become very attention-seeking.

Veterinarians at the Dubai Camel Hospital in Abu Dhabi have kept their enclosures open to treat their patients. After surgery, the very large patients need plenty of space and lots of help to get over that first hump in their recovery. (Ha! I crack myself up!)

Q: Where does the 800 lb gorilla sit for surgery?
A: Wherever the anesthesiologist wants.

Most veterinarians are only open for emergency cases to lessen the chances of spreading COVID-19. The CDC has confirmed that two pet cats have tested positive for COVID-19, but both showed mild symptoms and are expected to make a full recovery. Updated guidelines for interacting with cats and dogs have been posted on the CDC website. Although pets cannot become infected, there is a chance that they could spread virus surviving in droplets on their fur or paws.

There have been no reports of tortoises catching or spreading the virus, which makes them the perfect quarantine buddies!

One of the positive side effects of this awful pandemic has been the emptying of animal shelters. All over the world, people are adopting or fostering quarantine buddies. Shelter managers warn that permanent adoption may not be the best choice for families who will not have the time and resources to continue to care for pets when lockdown restrictions are lifted.

Some pets are not excited about constant supervision.

Some shelters are offering to cover food or vet bills for adopted or fostered pets as an incentive. While we’re all stuck inside, what could be better than spending extra quality time with our favorite furry buddies? They must be loving it, too. People home all day!

Mental health experts recommend furry, feathery, or scaly companions to mitigate the feelings of loneliness and depression some people are bound to develop while self-isolating. Pets can also be a huge help to parents trying to keep children entertained while they are out of school and have no place to run off all that energy.

Depending on the intelligence and motivation of the pet you adopt or foster, they may be able to help you complete some of your work at home.

Therapy dogs who can no longer visit patients in hospitals and nursing homes are sharing their affection and calm over video.

Some therapy dogs are so calm, they sleep through their own swearing-in ceremonies. This is Brody, the newest and sleepiest member of the Bristol, RI police force.

Several localities are under extremely strict lockdown measures that residents are only allowed outside for specific errands, such as walking the dog. If walking the dog is the only opportunity you have for going outside, you might as well do it in style.

Don’t put a facemask on your dog. It doesn’t help anything, and it annoys the dog.

While the zoos and aquariums are closed and everyone is staying home, take a virtual trip. Many parks and zoos have installed virtual tours and live-feeds of animals. These are a few of my favorites.

The World Health Organization has announced that dogs cannot contract COVID-19. All dogs previously held in quarantine will now be released. To be clear, WHO let the dogs out!
Who? Who? Who?who!

WRITING PANDEMICS

Beware the Carnosaur Virus!
from the movie Carnosaur

We are currently enduring a coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19).  But perhaps I can tell you some things about pandemics in general that you don’t know! 

Writers note: you will find below several bits of information you absolutely must have if you are going to write a story involving a pandemic—or even an epidemic.

ALZ-113 (Simian Flu) from Planet of the Apes

First you need to know the different levels of the disease’s severity within a community.

  • Sporadic: a disease that occurs infrequently and irregularly (rabies, polio)
  • Endemic: the constant presence and/or usual prevalence of a disease or infectious agent in a population within a geographic area (chicken pox in American schoolchildren, malaria in certain areas of Africa)
    • Hyperendemic: persistent, high levels of an endemic disease occurrence, above the expected “normal” levels
Disinfection of workers at an Ebola clinic, 2016
  • Epidemic: an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area (Ebola in 2014, Zika in 2018)
    • Outbreak: carries the same definition of epidemic, but is often used for a more limited geographic area
  • Holoendemic: essentially every individual in a population is infected, though not all show symptoms (modern occurrences are not common, but one example is hepatitis B in some areas of the Marquesas Islands)
  • Cluster: aggregation of cases grouped in place and time that are suspected to be greater than the number expected, even though the expected number may not be known
  • Pandemic: is an epidemic so big it crosses international boundaries and affects large numbers of people.
Bubonic Plague
Squirrel Army!

Pandemics can occur in crops, livestock, fish, trees, or other living things, but I’ll be sticking with people here.  You may want a plot line that has people battling a pandemic in another species. What happens to the food supply if all the wheat or corn or soybeans die off? How would people protect themselves from an entire population of aggressively rabid squirrels?

A wide-spread disease or condition that kills many people is a pandemic only if it is infectious. E.g., cancer and diabetes are not pandemics.

Until recently, I thought—in a vague sort of way—that pandemics were a thing of the past, mostly centuries ago. Wrong.  Currently, besides COVID-19, HIV/AIDS is an active pandemic world-wide. For example, several African countries have infection rates as high as 25%, or even 29% among pregnant South African women.

Distribution of AIDS cases worldwide

Any given pandemic is seldom one-and-done. Maybe none of them are.

Black Death, Venetian miniature. Middle Ages, Italy, 14th century. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Seattle PD wearing newly distributed face masks to prevent the spread of respiratory disease
  • Plague: contagious bacterial diseases that cause fever and delirium, usually along with the formation of buboes, sometimes infecting the lungs. In past centuries, plagues killed 20%, 40%, even 50% of a country’s population. The first U.S. plague outbreak was the San Francisco plague of 1900-1904. 
    • Writers note: isolated cases of plague still turn up in the western U.S.
  • Influenza (a.k.a. Flu): the first flu pandemic recorded was in 1580, and since then influenza pandemics have occurred every 10 to 30 years
  • Cholera: seems (to me) to be nearly perennial, with pandemics recorded 1871-1824, 1826-1837, 1846-1860, 1863-1875 (in 1866 it killed some 50,000 Americans), 1881-1896, 1899-1923, 1961-1975. 
  • Typhus (a.k.a., camp fever, gaol fever, and ship fever): caused by bacterial Rickettsia prowazekii and characterized by a purple rash, headaches, fever, and usually delirium. It spreads rapidly in cramped quarters, often carried by fleas, lice, and ticks. It’s common in times of war and famine.
  • Smallpox: caused by the variola virus, it raged from the 18th century through the 1950s. Vaccination campaigns beginning in the 19th century led the World Health Organization to declare smallpox eradicated in 1979. 
    • Writers note: it is the only human infectious disease to have been completely eradicated. But for your purposes, maybe not!
  • Measles: historically, before the vaccine was introduced in 1963, 90% of people had the measles by age 15. Measles is an endemic disease, so groups of people can develop resistance. But it is often deadly for those who get measles, and it has killed over 200 million people over the last 150 years. Worldwide, in 2000, measles killed 777,000 out of 40 million cases.
  • Tuberculosis (a.k.a, TB): a very present danger, as new infections occur at a rate of one per second. A quarter of the world’s current population has been infected, and although most of those are latent, 5-10% will progress to active disease. Left untreated, TB kills more than half of its victims.
  • Leprosy (Hansen’s disease): caused by a bacillus, it is a chronic disease. It has an incubation period up to five years, but it can now be cured. It’s been estimated that in the early 13th century, there were 19,000 leper hospitals (leprosariums) across Europe.
  • Malaria: widespread in tropical and subtropical regions around the world. 
    • Writers note: consider the implications of climate change. Once common, malaria deaths became all but non-existent due to drug treatment. However, growing drug resistance is a major concern. Malaria is resistant to all classes of antimalarial drugs except artemisinins.
Yellow fever was vaguely understood to be carried by sailors on long voyages
  • Yellow fever: a viral infection carried by mosquitoes. In 1793, it killed approximately 10% of the population of Philadelphia.
  • Ebola virus: one of several viral hemorrhagic fevers (along with Lassa fever, Rift Valley fever, Marburg virus, and Bolivian hemorrhagic fever) that seem to be pandemics in waiting because they are highly contagious and deadly. On the other hand, transmission requires close contact and moves fast from onset to symptoms, so effective quarantines are possible.
    • And on the third hand, writers note: it could always mutate and adapt.
  • Coronaviruses: a large family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV, and the current Coronavirus-19, which is a new strain of SARS-CoV-2. Common effects of all of these are fever, cough, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties. 

Historians have identified five (sometimes six) “major pandemics” that have affected enough of the population to cause a significant change in the social order. They are often referred to as plagues, despite not being caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis.

  • The Plague of Justinian (541-543) continued to cause famine and death after the primary infection had been contained because the sudden lack of a labor force meant that crops weren’t planted and harvested.
    • The horrific conditions during and after the plague are believed to have created an ideal atmosphere for the rapid spread of Christianity.
    • Though he survived his infection, Emperor Justinian had to shelve plans to consolidate power and expand the Roman Empire.
Plague victim demonstrating a bubos
  • The Black Death of 1347 to 1351 is believed to have killed as much as half the world’s population.
    • Historians have estimated that resulting labor shortage allowed for the end of the feudal system and the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe.
    • The population of Greenland was so diminished that the Vikings didn’t have the manpower to continue their raids in North America.
  • The Colombian Exchange is a general term used to cover all of the species of plants, animals, people, and diseases moved from one continent to another during the European invasion of North and South America.
The worst-hit areas of the Third Plague
Hong Kong
  • The Third Bubonic Plague began in 1855 and reached every part of the world before it died down in the 1960s.
    • Researchers confirmed that the disease was spread by bacteria in flea bites, allowing for major breakthroughs in quarantine methods.
    • Some of those early quarantines involved such draconian measures in colonized areas that they contributed to rebellions in Panthay, Taiping, and several regions of India.
Public information campaigns helped to reduce transmission
  • The 1918 Influenza outbreak, commonly known as the Spanish Flu, infected 500 million people around the world and killed more people than World War I. In 25 weeks, it killed more people than AIDS did in its first 25 years.
    • The close quarters of soldiers involved in World War I contributed to the rapid spread, but the contagion raised public awareness of how disease is transmitted and how to prevent it.
    • Note: The “Spanish” flu was present around the world, but it gained its name because the Spanish government did not censor information on the pandemic. Because most other countries worked to suppress information so as not to disrupt the war, people got the impression that the disease was coming from Spain, the source of their information.
Keith Haring, AIDS activist and artist
  • Though it was first reported in 1981, HIV/AIDS is believed to have originated in a mutated genetic strand of the virus from a monkey in the 1920s.
    • Sex education in schools and sexual practices among some portions of the population (notably among sex workers) changed drastically to focus on safety.
    • Because it was first prevalent among the gay community, many religious leaders claimed the virus was a divine sign that homosexuals were evil.
Leprosy hospitals still exist in India

“Alien” diseases are more deadly than local ones. Writers note: what are the implications of colonizing Mars?

Medieval dead cart
  • In 1529, a measles outbreak in Cuba killed 2/3 of the natives who had previously survived smallpox.
  • Malaria was a major threat to colonists and Native Americans when introduced to the Americas along with the slave trade.
  • In Colonial times, West Africa was called “the white man’s grave” because of malaria and yellow fever.
  • European explorers often had devastating effects on indigenous people—and vice versa. For example, some believe that the death of up to 95% of the Native American population of the new world was caused by old world diseases such as smallpox, measles, and influenza.
  • On the other hand, syphilis was carried from the new world to Europe after Columbus’ voyages.
Attempts to combat typhus after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen

Many notable epidemics and pandemics involve transmission from animals to humans, zoonoses.

  • Influenza/wild aquatic birds
  • SARS-CoV/civet cats
  • MERS-CoV/deomedary camels
  • COVID-19/bats’
  • Avian influenza (bird flu)/birds in Vietnam (a pandemic in waiting)
During the Third Plague, researchers definitively proved that flea bites spread Bubonic plague

Writing about pandemics—or any disease, actually, you need to decide on:

  • Name, fictional or real
  • Disease type/ who’s most susceptible (childhood/ common/ rare) 
  • Cause (bacteria, virus, parasite, fungus, imbalance of bodily humors, witchcraft, divine intervention, etc.) 
  • Transmission (airborne, body fluids, food or water, touch, telepathy, miasma, etc.)
  • Virulence (how likely a person is to catch the disease after coming into contact with it) 
  • Length of the incubation period: a person could be showing symptoms and become infectious almost instantly or it could take years 
  • Symptoms of this disease
  • Whether it’s treatable and/or curable
  • How people react when they encounter someone with this disease
    • For a first-hand idea of what people thought during the Black Death, check out this Eyewitness to History!
Houses with sick inhabitants were marked for quarantine in London

BOTTOM LINE FOR WRITERS: pandemic are tried and true for creative fiction, whether historical or current, sci-fi or known world, mystery/action adventure or romance. Go for it!

Let’s end this on a more cheerful note:
Happy Saint Patricks Day!

Exercising Your Creativity – Challenge Accepted!

Mariko Takahashi really exercises her creativity!

Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, teacher, writer, editor, favorite auntie, and very reluctant washer of dishes.

This is an update/response to a post originally written on June 9, 2017. I’ve decided to take up Vivian’s challenge and run with it as far as my over-active imagination can take me! (Spoiler warning: I can run pretty far.)

The program is simple. Take an ordinary event and consider all the ways you could add tension, conflict, humor, surprise, etc.  For example, house-sitting.

This is definitely my brother’s house. Mine is right across the street!

My brother and sister-in-law live across the street from me. It’s a bit like having an extra WiFi connection, couch, kitchen, and bathroom, complete with pet-sitters and random free food. On this particular occasion, I was looking after my extended house while my brother’s family was out of town.

Mid-morning, I piled all my dirty dishes into a box and went across the street to take advantage of the dishwasher. And feed the fish. And water the plants.

  • What if
    • The box fell apart or dropped, smashing dirty dishes all over the street?
    • I forgot my key and had to jimmy open the window to climb in?
    • A neighbor called the police about the shifty-looking woman in slippers wandering around the yard with a suspiciously clattering box?

My niece is six-going-on-seven and makes her presence known even when she isn’t home. Little rainbow shoes and fluffy coats were left by the door. Exquisitely rendered crayon portraits covered the refrigerator. Scattered markers and Legos and hair ribbons and books and dinosaurs and a million other bits of her massive personality dominated every room in the house.

  • What if
    • I replaced all her artwork on the refrigerator with finger paintings by another niece, just to see if anyone would notice?
    • Paint, glue, juice boxes, etc. had spilled, making a big mess or possibly indicating that someone else had been in the house?
    • I stepped on a lego, screamed in pain, dropped the box of dishes on my other foot, stumbled back, tripped over a plastic sword-wielding dinosaur, knocked over a bookcase, crashed into the fish tank, and fell to the floor in an unconscious heap while fishy water and inevitable glitter dripped on my head?

When I go out of town, my brother takes care of my dog and turtle. When he’s out of town with his family, I feed his fish. I think I’m definitely getting the better end of the deal. All I have to do is shake a few pellets into the tank.

  • What if
    • The fish were floating upside down and I had to decide whether to dispose of the bodies and hope no one noticed or to save the bodies for a shoebox funeral when my niece returned
    • I knocked something in the tank and had to dive into the cold, salty water to save it, feeling fish and slimy water plants drift through my fingers?
    • A leak had developed in the tank overnight, leaving puddles on the floor and flopping fishy bodies on the gravel at the bottom of the tank?
If you find a pack of wolves in the living room, I suggest leaving them there and running away.

While the kitchen robot washed my dishes (I hate washing the dishes), I wandered around the house to check that everything looked as it should.

  • What if
    • Broken windows or missing/ disarranged valuables showed that someone had broken in?
    • An animal of some kind had gotten in through an overlooked air vent and clawed furniture, released bodily fluids, shed fur, knocked everything over, and then left? What if it was still there?
    • Embarrassing items of a personal nature had been left out?
    • A strange and not altogether pleasant smell was coming from somewhere?
    • The mail I brought in included an envelope marked “Past-Due” or “Cancer Test Results” or something else worrying?
    • I replaced all of the energy drinks in the kitchen with decaf drinks in similar cans?

So many possibilities! No matter how comfortable I am with my brother’s family, being in someone else’s home always feels just a bit voyeuristic. There are some things I can reliably assume I won’t find in my brother’s house, but a stranger’s house might contain anything a whole world of insanity!

  • Someone else in the house unexpectedly, maybe sleeping on the couch or looking through the refrigerator…?
  • The remnants of something illegal halfheartedly hidden in a trashcan…?
  • Poisonous plants to water very carefully without touching the leaves….?
  • A coffee table made from the taxidermied bodies of deceased pets…?
  • Burst pipes, smoking outlets, fires, or any other kind of disaster in progress…?
  • Sexually explicit photos framed and hung on the bathroom wall…?
  • A chandelier smashed on the floor with no clear reason why…?

Your assignment: Choose any mundane activity from today’s wealth—anything from doing laundry to going to the gym to hosting six for dinner—and take a few minutes to consider what if?

What if there is a horse in the dining room?

GOOD READING ANYTIME

I’ll cut to the chase: when my husband and I talked about Black writers the other day, in the car, the following list rolled off the tips of our tongues. If you search the internet for African American writers, you will find all sorts of lists, from those who made the New York Times Bestsellers list to literally hundreds on Wikipedia arranged into categories. But here is our personal, not-so-big-as-to-be-overwhelming list of our favorite Black authors, and something we especially liked from each. (FYI: we didn’t think of them in alpha order! 😉 )

  • Chinua Achebe Things Fall Apart
    • Born in Nigeria in 1930, Chinua Achebe made a splash with the publication of his first novel, Things Fall Apart, in 1958. Renowned as one of the seminal works of African literature, it has since sold more than 20 million copies and been translated into more than 50 languages.  Achebe followed with novels such as No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964) and Anthills of the Savannah (1987), and served as a faculty member at renowned universities in the U.S. and Nigeria.  He died on March 21, 2013, at age 82, in Boston, Massachusetts.
    • Biography.com Editors
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Americanah
    • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria in 1977. She is the author of three novels, Purple Hibiscus (2003), Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), and Americanah (2013), of a short story collection, The Thing around Your Neck (2009). She has received numerous awards and distinctions, including the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction (2007) and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (2008).
    • The Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Website, written by Daria Tunca
  • Ama Ata Aidoo Changes: A Love Story
    • Born Christina Ama Ata Aidoo in 1942, was born in Abeadzi Kyiakor, Gold Coast, now Ghana. Combining traditional African storytelling with Western genres, she writes of the contemporary roles of African women and the negative impact of Western influences on African culture. Her first play, The Dilemma of a Ghost, was published in 1965. Her short stories, collected in No Sweetness Here and The Girl Who Can, and her novel, Our Sister Killjoy, expand on these themes, many of which mirror Aidoo’s own experiences. Her other works include the play Anowa, the poems of Someone Talking to Sometime; Birds; and Angry Letter in January; and a collection of children’s stories. The novel Changes: A Love Story (1991) explores a contemporary African marriage.
    • The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia
  • Maya Angelou I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
    • Born in 1928 in St Louis, Maya Angelou joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild in the late 1950’s. With the guidance of her friend, the novelist James Baldwin, she began work on the book that would become I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Published in 1970, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings received international acclaim made the bestseller list. The book was also banned in many schools during that time as Maya Angelou’s honesty about having been sexually abused opened a subject matter that had long been taboo in the culture. Later, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings would become a course adoption at college campuses around the world. Maya Angelou has wrote 36 books, including more than 30 bestselling titles, before her death in 2014.
    • The Legacy of Dr. Maya Angelou
  • Ayi Kwei Armah The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born
    • Ayi Kwei Armah is a Ghanaian novelist whose work deals with corruption and materialism in contemporary Africa. He worked as a scriptwriter, translator, and English teacher in the United States, among other places. In his first novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968), Armah showed his deep concern for greed and political corruption in a newly independent African nation. All of Armah’s works are concerned with the widening moral and spiritual chasm that existed between appearance and reality, spirit and substance, and past and present in his native Ghana. He is also an essayist, as well as having written poetry, short stories, and books for children.
    • Encyclopedia Britannica: Ayi Kwei Armah written by Amy Tikkanen
  • Odafe Atogun Taduno’s Song
    • Odafe Atogun was born in Nigeria, in the town of Lokoja, where the rivers Niger and Benue meet. He studied Journalism at the Times Journalism Institute, Lagos and is now a full-time writer. His debut novel, Taduno’s Song, was selected for the BBC Radio 2 Book Club, and he has been compared favorably to Franz Kafka and George Orwell in critical reviews. Following his two-book deal with Canongate, Penguin Random House and Arche Verlag, Atogun’s second novel, Wake Me When I’m Gone, was published in 2017. His work has been translated into several languages.
    • Odafe Atogun press
  • Sefi Atta Everything Good Will Come
    • Sefi Atta was born in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1964 and currently divides her time between the United States, England, and Nigeria. She qualified as a Chartered Accountant in England, a Certified Public Accountant in the United States, and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Atta was a juror for the 2010 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and has received several literary awards for her works, including the 2006 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa and the 2009 Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. In 2015, a critical study of her novels and short stories, Writing Contemporary Nigeria: How Sefi Atta Illuminates African Culture and Tradition, was published by Cambria Press. Also a playwright, her radio plays have been broadcast by the BBC and her stage plays have been performed and published internationally.
    • Sefi Atta Official Website
  • Mariama Bâ So Long A Letter
    • Mariama Bâ was one of the pioneers of Senegalese literature. Born in Dakar in 1929, she was raised by her maternal grandmother, who was of Muslim confession and strongly attached to traditional culture. Through the insistence of her father, an open-minded politician, the young Mariama attended French school, obtained her school-leaving certificate, and won admission to the École Normale for girls in Rufisque, from where she graduated as a schoolteacher in 1947. She threw herself into the women’s movement to fight for greater recognition of women’s issues. Throughout her life, she tried to reconcile her grounding in her culture, her Muslim faith, and her openness to other cultural horizons. Towards the end of her life, her literary genius achieved full expression in So Long a Letter, a novel that directly confronted polygamy and the caste-system in Senegal – a predominantly Muslim country, firmly attached to its traditions, yet traversed by profound transformations, and confronted by the challenge of new models of society.
    • UNESCO: Women In African History – Mariama Bâ
  • James Baldwin Go Tell It On The Mountain
    • Born in Harlem in 1924, James Baldwin was the oldest of nine children.  His writing started as a way to escape his stern stepfather.  He graduated from high school in 1942 and moved to New Jersey to begin working as a railroad hand. In 1944, he moved to Greenwich Village where he met Richard Wright and began his first novel, In My Father’s House.  In 1953, he finished his important novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, which stands as a partially autobiographical account of his youth.  The following year he wrote the play, The Amen Corner and won the Guggenheim Fellowship. During the 1960’s, Baldwin became politically active in support of civil rights. Baldwin wrote novels, poetry, essays and a screenplay in the later years of his life. He died of stomach cancer at his home in St. Paul de Vence, France.
    • African American Literature Book Club – James Baldwin
  • Octavia Butler Kindred
    • Octavia Estelle Butler, often referred to as the “grand dame of science fiction,” was born in Pasadena, California on June 22, 1947. During 1969 and 1970, she studied at the Screenwriter’s Guild Open Door Program and the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop, where she took a class with science fiction master Harlan Ellison (who later became her mentor), and which led to Butler selling her first science fiction stories. Butler’s first story, “Crossover,” was published in the 1971 Clarion anthology. With the publication of Kindred in 1979, Butler was able to support herself writing full time. She won the Hugo Award in 1984 for her short story, “Speech Sounds,” and in 1985, Butler’s novelette “Bloodchild” won a Hugo Award, a Nebula Award, the Locus Award, and an award for best novelette from Science Fiction Chronicle. Other books by Octavia E. Butler include the Xenogenesis trilogy: Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988) and Imago (1989), and a short story collection, Bloodchild and Other Stories (1995). Parable of the Sower (1993), the first of her Earthseed series, was a finalist for the Nebula Award as well as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. The book’s sequel, Parable of the Talents (1998), won a Nebula Award.
    • Octavia Butler: The official site of the Pen Lifetime Achievement and MacArthur award winning writer
  • Charles Chesnutt  The Conjure Woman
    • Charles Waddell Chesnutt was born in Ohio in 1858, the son of free blacks who had emigrated from Fayetteville, N.C. When he was eight years old, Chesnutt’s parents returned to Fayetteville, where Charles worked part-time in the family grocery store and attended a school founded by the Freedmen’s Bureau. In 1872, he began teaching in Charlotte, N.C. but returned to Fayetteville in 1877. Chesnutt married a year later, and by 1880 had become principal of the Fayetteville State Normal School for Negroes. Meanwhile he continued to pursue private studies of the English classics, foreign languages, music, and stenography. In 1883, he moved his family to Cleveland, where he passed the state bar examination and established his own court reporting firm. Financially prosperous and prominent in civic affairs, he resided in Cleveland for the remainder of his life. “The Goophered Grapevine,” an unusual dialect story that displayed intimate knowledge of black folk culture in the South, was Chesnutt’s first nationally recognized work of fiction. Its publication in the August 1887 issue of the Atlantic Monthly marked the first time that a short story by a black had appeared in that prestigious magazine. After subsequent tales in this vein were accepted by other magazines, Chesnutt submitted to Houghton, Mifflin a collection of these stories, which was published in 1899 as The Conjure Woman.
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates The Water Dancer
    • Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates is an American author and journalist. Coates gained a wide readership during his time as national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he wrote about cultural, social, and political issues, particularly regarding African Americans and white supremacy. He was born in Baltimore in 1975, a member of a large, close-knit, politically active family. In addition to his nonfiction work, Coates has been a teacher, has written for Black Panther and Captain America comics, and published his first novel, The Water Dancer, in 2019.
    • The Official Website of Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Frederick Douglass Any of his autobiographies
    • Frederick Douglass was an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. At about the age of twelve or thirteen, Douglass purchased a copy of The Columbian Orator, a popular schoolbook of the time, which helped him to gain an understanding and appreciation of the power of the spoken and the written word, as two of the most effective means by which to bring about permanent, positive change. After escaping from slavery in Maryland, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York. Whenever he could he attended abolitionist meetings, and, in October, 1841, after attending an anti-slavery convention on Nantucket Island, Douglass became a lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and a colleague of William Lloyd Garrison. This work led him into public speaking and writing. He published his own newspaper, The North Star, participated in the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, in 1848, and wrote three autobiographies. 
    • The Frederick Douglass Society
  • W.E.B. DuBois The Souls of Black Folk
    • Scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois was an American civil rights activist, leader, Pan-Africanist, sociologist, educator, historian, writer, editor, poet, and scholar. He was born and raised in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1895.  DuBois was one of the most important black protest leader in the United States during the first half of the 20th century. He shared in the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He had two children with his wife, Nina Gomer. In 1963, he became a naturalized citizen of Ghana at the age of 95 – the year of his death.
    • NAACP History – W.E.B. DuBois
  • Alexandre Dumas The Three Musketeers
    • Born Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie (1802–1870), also known as Alexandre Dumas père, was a French writer. His grandmother was Marie-Cessette Dumas, a black slave in what is now Haiti. His works have been translated into many languages, and he is one of the most widely read French authors. Many of his historical novels of high adventure were originally published as serials, including The Count of Monte CristoThe Three MusketeersTwenty Years After, and The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later
    • Alexandre Dumas, Two Centuries of Living Literature
  • Ralph Ellison Invisible Man
    • Born in 1914 in Oklahoma City, the grandson of slaves, Ralph Waldo Ellison and his younger brother were raised by their mother, whose husband died when Ralph was 3 years old. His mother supported her young family by working as a nursemaid, a janitor and a domestic. Having earned a degree at Tuskegee University, Ellison was an American novelist, literary critic, and scholar best known for his novel Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953. He also wrote Shadow and Act, a collection of political, social and critical essays, and Going to the Territory.
  • Yaa Gyasi Homegoing
    • Yaa Gyasi (born 1989) is a Ghanaian-American novelist. Her debut novel, Homegoing, published in 2016, won her, at the age of 26, the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for best first book, the PEN/Hemingway Award for a first book of fiction, the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” honors for 2016 and the American Book Award. She was awarded a Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Literature in 2020. Homegoing is her debut historical fiction novel, published in 2016. Each chapter in the novel follows a different descendant of an Asante woman named Maame, starting with her two daughters, who are half sisters, separated by circumstance: Effia marries the British governor in charge of Cape Coast Castle, while her half-sister Esi is held captive in the dungeons below. Subsequent chapters follow their children and following generations.
  • Bessie Head When the Rain Clouds Gather
    • Bessie Amelia Emery Head, known as Bessie Head, was a South African writer who, though born in South Africa, is usually considered Botswana’s most influential writer. Bessie Amelia Head never knew her real parents — an unstable white woman and an unknown black man. She was born and raised in apartheid South Africa. After spending several years in the field of education, she decided to work as a journalist for the Golden City Post. She experimented with poetry and fiction, and published her first story in The New African.  Despite the occasional financial aid from friends, the author lived in absolute poverty, forcing her to live in a refugee camp with her son. Her luck changed when a New York editorial offered her to write a novel, When Rain Clouds Gather (1969), in which she tells about the era she lived as a refugee. This book was met with positive reviews from critics, which encouraged her to continue her literary career with Maru (1971). She wrote novels, short fiction and autobiographical works that are infused with spiritual questioning and reflection.
  • Langston Hughes Any of his poetry and/or essay collections
    • James Mercer Langston Hughes was an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist from Joplin, Missouri.  While working as a busboy in a hotel in Washington, D.C., in late 1925, Hughes put three of his own poems beside the plate of Vachel Lindsay in the dining room. The next day, newspapers around the country reported that Lindsay, among the most popular white poets of the day, had “discovered” an African American busboy poet, which earned Hughes broader notice. Hughes received a scholarship to, and began attending, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in early 1926. That same year, he received the Witter Bynner Undergraduate Poetry Award, and he published “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” in The Nation , a manifesto in which he called for a confident, uniquely black literature. After graduating, he traveled widely in the Soviet Union, Haiti, Japan, and elsewhere and served as a newspaper correspondent (1937) during the Spanish Civil War. Hughes documented African American literature and culture in works such as A Pictorial History of the Negro in America (1956) and the anthologies The Poetry of the Negro (1949) and The Book of Negro Folklore (1958; with Bontemps).  Hughes was one of the most important writers and thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance.
    • Academy of American Poets – Langston Hughes
  • Zora Neal Hurston Their Eyes Were Watching God
    • Zora Neale Hurston was an American author, anthropologist, and filmmaker. She portrayed racial struggles in the early-1700s American South and published research on hoodoo.  During Zora Neale Hurston’s career, she was more concerned with writing about the lives of African Americans in an authentic way that uplifted their existence, rather than focusing on their traumas. Her most celebrated work, 1937’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, is an example of this philosophy. It follows Janie Mae Crawford, a middle-aged woman in Florida, who details lessons she learned about love and finding herself after three marriages. Hurston used black Southern dialect in the characters’ dialogue to proudly represent their voices and manner.
  • Edward P. Jones Lost in the City
    • Edward P. Jones was born in 1950 and raised in Washington, D.C. A winner of the Pen/Hemingway Award and recipient of the Lannan Foundation Grant, Jones was educated at Holy Cross College and the University of Virginia. His first book, Lost in the City was originally published by William Morrow in 1992 and shortlisted for the National Book Award. Mr. Jones was named a National Book Award finalist for a second time with the publication of his debut novel The Known World which subsequently won the prestigious 2004 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
  • Dinaw Mengestu How to Read the Air
    • Dinaw Mengetsu is a Washington, DC-based American writer born in Ethiopia in 1978. In addition to three novels, he has written for Rolling Stone on the war in Darfur, and for Jane Magazine on the conflict in northern Uganda. His writing has also appeared in Harper’sThe Wall Street Journal, and numerous other publications. He is the Program Director of Written Arts at Bard College.  Since his first book was published in 2007, Mengetsu has received numerous literary awards, and was selected as a MacArthur Fellow in 2012. He is the author of three novels, most recently All Our Names. His debut novel, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, won the Guardian First Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and was a New York Times Notable Book of 2007. His novel How to Read the Air, published in 2010, was the winner of the 2011 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence.
    • PEN America – Dinaw Mengetsu
  • Toni Morrison Beloved
    • Chloe Anthony Wofford, (1931-2019) was an American writer noted for her examination of black experience (particularly black female experience) within the black community. When Morrison was two years old, the owner of her family’s apartment building set their home on fire while they were inside because they were unable to afford the rent.  After earning her MA at Cornell University, Morrison taught at Howard University and then became the first black female editor of fiction at Random House Publishing. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. The critically acclaimed Song of Solomon brought her national attention and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. She received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 for her novel Beloved.
    • National Women’s History Museum – Toni Morrison
  • Trevor Noah Born a Crime
    • Born in South Africa in 1984, Trevor Noah’s father Robert is of Swiss German ancestry, and his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, is of Xhosa ancestry. Because interracial relations were illegal under Apartheid law, Noah’s mother was jailed and fined by the South African government. Patricia and her mother, Nomalizo Frances Noah, raised Trevor in the black township of Soweto. Trevor Noah has hosted numerous television shows including South Africa’s music, television and film awards, and two seasons of his own late night talk show, Tonight with Trevor Noah. In November 2016, Trevor Noah released his first book Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, which was an instant New York Times bestseller.
    • Official Site of Trevor Noah
  • Ben Okri The Famished Road
    • Ben Okri is a poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, aphorist, playwright, and writer of film-scripts. He was born in Nigeria in 1958 and came to England as a child. He went to school in London and returned to Nigeria with his parents on the eve of the Nigerian Civil War. The war made a defining impact on his life. After finishing secondary school, he wanted to study physics and become a scientist but was deemed too young then for university. He began writing at a very early age, poetry and published articles and essays about the living conditions of the poor in the slums of Lagos. In 1978, Ben Okri returned to London to study comparative Literature at Essex University. Two years later he published his first novel; and in 1982 came his second novel, The Landscapes Within. After a brief period of homelessness, in 1986 he published Incidents at the Shrine, a collection of stories that won him prizes and enhanced his reputation. The Famished Road won the Booker Prize when it was published in 1991.
    • Ben Okri Official Site
  • Alexander Pushkin Eugène Onegin
    • Born in Moscow in 1799, Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin was heavily influenced by his great-grandfather, Abraham Petrovitch Gannibal, who was kidnapped from Cameroon as a child and sold as a slave to the court of Tsar Peter the Great. As a frequent exile himself, Pushkin compared his experience as an outsider to that of a poet’s role as an observer. His unfinished novel The Moor of Peter the Great was meant to be a biography of his great-grandfather, but Eugène Onegin directly refers to Pushkin’s mixed racial background.
    • How Alexander Pushkin was Inspired by His African Heritage
  • Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka Death and the King’s Horsemen
    • Nigerian playwright and political activist Wole Soyinka was the first African recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. He was born in 1934 in Abeokuta, near Ibadan, into a Yoruba family and studied at University College in Ibadan, Nigeria, and the University of Leeds, England. Soyinka, who writes in English, is the author of five memoirs, two novels, and 19 plays shaped by a diverse range of influences, including avant-garde traditions, politics, and African myth. Soyinka’s poetry similarly draws on Yoruba myths, his life as an exile and in prison, and politics. An outspoken opponent of oppression and tyranny worldwide and a critic of the political situation in Nigeria, Soyinka has lived in exile on several occasions. During the Nigerian civil war in the 1960s, he was held as a prisoner in solitary confinement after being charged with conspiring with the Biafrans; while in exile, Soyinka was at one point sentenced to death (the sentence was later lifted). Soyinka has taught at a number of universities worldwide, among them Ife University, Cambridge University, Yale University, and Emory University.
    • Biography of Wole Soyinka
  • Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o A Grain of Wheat
    • Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, currently Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, was born in Kenya, in 1938 into a large peasant family. In the 1950s, his family was caught up in the Mau Mau Uprising, an experience that influenced much of his later writing. His novel A Grain of Wheat was the first modern novel to be written in Gikuyu; all of Ngũgĩ ‘s work thereafter was written in Gikuyu and Swahili. The play Ngaahika Ndeenda, co-written with Ngũgĩ wa Mirii, was shut down by the Kenyan regime six weeks after its opening, and Ngũgĩ was imprisoned for over a year. While in exile following his release, he worked as a teacher, a writer, and an advocate for justice in Kenya and for native linguistic equality.
    • Website of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
  • Amos Tutuola The Palm-Wine Drinkard
    • Amos Tutuola was born in Abeokuta, Nigeria, in 1920. The son of a cocoa farmer, he attended several schools before training as a blacksmith. He later worked as a civil servant. His first novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, was published in 1952 and brought him international recognition. From 1956 until retirement, he worked for the Nigerian Broadcasting Company while continuing to write. Many of his novels drew elements from Yoruba folktales as well as oral storytelling traditions. His last book, The Village Witch Doctor and Other Stories, was published in 1990. He died in Ibadan in 1997.
    • Authors Calendar – Amos Tutuola
  • Abraham Verghese Cutting for Stone
    • Abraham Verghese was born in Ethiopia to parents from Kerala, India, who worked as teachers. He is the Professor for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at Stanford University Medical School and Senior Associate Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine. He is also the author of three best-selling books, two memoirs and a novel. The novel, Cutting for Stone (2009), follows twin brothers in Ethiopia during its military revolution and in New York, where one of them flees. In 2014, Verghese received the 19th Annual Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities.
    • Website of Abraham Verghese
  • Alice Walker The Color Purple
    • The author of short stories and novels, essays and poetry and activist for racial civil rights, women’s equality, and peace among other causes, Alice Walker brought black women’s lives into primary focus as a rich and important subject for US American literature. Her landmark novel The Color Purple (1982), which drew upon her sharecropper family’s Southern roots, made Walker famous and brought her the first Pulitzer Prize for fiction awarded to an African American woman, as well as the National Book Award. Walker’s introduction of the concept of “womanism” (1983) was an influential corrective to the focus on white women understood by many under the term “feminism;” it helped broaden the women’s movement to include women of color and appreciate their traditional cultural and creative roles. Walker has also been instrumental in rediscovering and promoting other Black women writers, past and present, most notably Zora Neale Hurston (1901-1960), whose work she edited and interpreted. Alice Walker has written seven novels, four collections of short stories, four children’s books, and volumes of essays and poetry.
    • Alice Walker’s Garden – About the Author  
  • Isabel Wilkerson The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
    • Born in Washington D.C. in 1961,  Isabel Wilkerson became the first woman of African-American heritage to win the Pulitzer Prize in journalism in 1994, while Chicago bureau chief of The New York Times. She devoted 15 years to the research and writing of The Warmth of Other Suns. Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,200 people, unearthed archival works, and gathered the voices of the famous and the unknown to tell the epic story of the Great Migration, one of the largest migrations in American history. During the Great Migration, millions of African Americans departed the Southern states to Northern and Western cities to escape Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and the failing sharecropping system. The book highlights the stories of three individuals and their journeys, from Florida to New York City, Mississippi to Chicago, and Louisiana to Los Angeles. Wilkerson’s in-depth documentation won her a National Book Critics Circle Award for the nonfiction work.
  • Richard Wright Native Son
    • Richard Nathaniel Wright (9/4/1908 – 11/28/1960) was born in Adams County, Mississippi into a life of poverty, and racial discrimination.  He was quoted as saying, “I was born too far back in the woods to hear the train whistle…” When he was fifteen, Wright knew he wanted to be a writer.  Known as a poet first, through his writing, his goal was to bring two worlds together, one Black and one White, and make them one.  His marriage to Ellen Poplar, a white woman, like his writing was controversial.  His most successful work, Native Son, a Chicago story about a Mississippi boy, Bigger Thomas, in New York had an autobiographical tone.  The author of 16 books, some of which include, Black BoyThe Outsider, and American Hunger, Richard Wright died mysteriously of a heart attack at the age of 52 in Paris, France.
    • African American Literature Book Club – Richard Wright

Bottom line for readers: Choose any of these authors you haven’t yet read and go for it!

Keeping It All Straight in a Mystery Series

On this day of mashed potato sandwiches and ten dollar televisions, I offer you another reason to give thanks: good friends, good friends who write very good books, and good friends whose latest very good book is now available! Today’s blog was written by my good friend and fellow author (and pet lover) Heather Weidner.

Guest Blog by Heather Wiedner

Many thanks to Vivian Lawry for letting me be a guest on her blog. Vivian and I met when the Sisters in Crime – Central Virginia chapter formed. Through the years, we’ve served as officers, worked on committees and anthology projects, and most recently, as part of the mystery critique group that Vivian chairs.

I have loved mysteries since Scooby-Doo and Nancy Drew. I write short stories, novellas, and mystery novels, including two mystery series. While the short stories and novellas are stand-alones, the novels are in two separate series. The first is the Delanie Fitzgerald mysteries (Secret Lives and Private Eyes, The Tulip Shirt Murders, and Glitter, Glam, and Contraband), about a sassy private investigator in Richmond, Virginia. She and her computer hacker partner, Duncan Reynolds, and his sidekick, Margaret the Wonder Dog, work with a variety of clients in Central Virginia to solve crimes, capers, and murders. I am also working on another new cozy series set in Charlottesville, Virginia.

When you write novels and a series of novels, you need to keep the details in order. I make a chart for each book in a word processor, and I list all characters and key places. Then I make a column for the book, and I add all the details. This helps me keep the character names organized and avoid duplication. I also put a lot of backstory and details here. It helps me remember likes, relationships, and descriptive details. (You don’t want a character’s eye color to change between books.) I review and update it as the book goes through the writing process. Then, when I’m ready to start the next book in the series, I add a column and the characters. It also helps me show where all the characters appear. Also, if I change a character’s name during a revision, I use the search/find feature in the word processor to make sure I made all the updates.

In another file, I do a brief outline for each book with what I think appears in each chapter. Then I color-code the crimes, clues, humor, and romance. This gives me a visual sense of the story’s progress. Then I start writing, and that is when all the plotting and planning take a back seat. I find that some of my characters take on a life of their own, and the story progresses down another path. I also update my outline when I’m going through the editing stages. I use this document when I write the synopsis later for querying.

Church Hill in Richmond, Virginia

When you write a series, you also need to think about how much previous information from the other books you want to include. It’s like a skirt: it needs to be long enough to cover the subject. But you don’t want to go on and on and derail your current work with too much backstory. You want readers to remember things from the past books, but not to feel lost if they started reading your book in the middle of the series. You also need to introduce your characters with a brief description when they first appear, but be careful not to do an information dump on their life that reads like a police report.

The details are important. Your readers will notice if things change inadvertently between books. My critique group and beta readers also help me with early reads to make sure particulars are accurate.

When I’m not blogging, I’m working on my next book. The third book in my Delanie series came out in November 2019, and I have a novella in the next Mutt Mysteries (dog-themed mysteries) that comes out in March 2020.

Author Biography

Glitter, Glam, and Contraband is Heather Weidner’s third novel in the Delanie Fitzgerald series. Her short stories appear in the Virginia is for Mysteries series, 50 Shades of Cabernet, and Deadly Southern Charm. Her novellas appear in The Mutt Mysteries series. She is a member of Sisters in Crime–Central Virginia, Guppies, International Thriller Writers, and James River Writers.

Originally from Virginia Beach, Heather has been a mystery fan since Scooby-Doo and Nancy Drew. She lives in Central Virginia with her husband and a pair of Jack Russell terriers.

Heather earned her BA in English from Virginia Wesleyan University and her MA in American literature from the University of Richmond. Through the years, she has been a cop’s kid, technical writer, editor, college professor, software tester, and IT manager.

Synopsis of Glitter, Glam, and Contraband

Private investigator, Delanie Fitzgerald, and her computer hacker partner, Duncan Reynolds, are back for more sleuthing in Glitter, Glam and Contraband. In this fast-paced mystery, the Falcon Investigations team is hired to find out who is stealing from the talent at a local drag show. Delanie gets more than she bargains for and a few makeup tips in the process. Meanwhile, a mysterious sound in the ceiling of her office vexes Delanie. She uses her sleuthing skills to track down the source and uncover a creepy contraband operation.

Glitter, Glam, and Contraband features a strong female sleuth with a knack for getting herself in and out of humorous situations like helping sleazy strip club owner, Chaz Smith on his quest to become Richmond’s next mayor, tracking down missing reptiles, and uncovering hidden valuables from a 100-year-old crime with an Edgar Allen Poe connection.

Contact Information

Book Links

The Author and the Guest Author

Road Trip Roundup

My recent travels to Bethany Beach rekindled my interest in road trips.

I wrote about road trips back in 2010, advising writers to note the names of roads, businesses, schools–whatever–as they traveled. Venture off the congested interstate to the byways and small towns where the names really get good. Sometimes a compelling name is enough to spark a story. Consider Bone Yard Road or Fresh Fire Church of God as possible settings.

barn on a scenic byway on my road trip home
A barn glimpsed from a scenic byway during my recent travels

Leave space in your itinerary and in your mindset to come upon the unexpected, e.g. an African/Mediterranean vegan cafe in Santa Fe or a salt mine in Warsaw, Poland, that’s been carved into a salt cathedral. Those locations might stimulate a scene or add a quirk to your story.

Wieliczka salt mine
Wieliczka salt mine (Photo: Cezary p [CC BY-SA 3.0])

While I’m on the road, I keep a daily journal to record the vivid details not found in a tourist pamphlet. Think Jack Kerouac. John McPhee. Paul Theroux.

How do you record your road trips? Let me know in the comments.

 

Beach Reads vs. Reading at the Beach

Gone to the Beach lifesaver
Recommendations for great beach reads are everywhere, every year; they start in the spring and are often ongoing. Amazon gives us “Superbly Good Beach Reads” while Barnes and Noble more modestly lists “Beach Reads”—totally disinterested advice from both, of course! Real Simple gives us “The 20 Best New Paperback Beach Reads.” The Huffington Post published other people’s lists, including one from The Oprah Magazine. Refinery 29 has “Beach Read Books.” Bustle has “31 Beach Reads for Summer 2016, Because Vacation Should Be Filled With Incredible Stories.” In 2016, POPSUGAR recommended both “Summer Books 2016” and “Beach Reads for Women.”

 

Many lists seem to presume that women are the readers, because most of these lists appear in magazines targeted to women: Cosmopolitan, “Beach Reads for Summer 2016”; Redbook, “Best Summer Beach Reads of 2016”; Women’s Day, “28 Summer Beach Reads 2016.”

 

I’ve always loved the beach and books—but I’ve never bought a “beach read,” and didn’t this year. I’m rereading Diana Gabaldon.

 

Voyager Drums of Autumn Diana Gabaldon
I finished Voyager and started Drums of Autumn. Given that these are big, fat books, I didn’t take them. I took my Kindle, instead. For the reasons why I chose these reads, see my earlier blog on “Loving Diana Gabaldon.”
 

Am I alone in reading at the beach without advice?

 
I recently shared a beach week with 9 other people, ages eight to eighty-five. Some brought multiple books, but none of them brought a book specifically bought for the beach! Here, in no particular order, are their books and their comments on them.

 

Tim Johnston Descent
“I like macabre books. They hold my attention. I wanted to read The Girl on the Train but this book is better. A girl disappears when her family is on vacation in the Rocky Mountains.”
Lila Marilynne Robinson
“I brought Lila by Marilyn Robinson, a book I bought the last time I was in Denver. She writes with surprising details about surprising events that call attention to the uniqueness of the most ordinary people, their inarticulateness. Yet somehow she brings out the intensity of their inner lives.”
Earth Works Nancy R. Hugo
“I love flowers and Nancy Hugo writes about her gardening experiences in a very down-to-earth, witty way. She makes me feel like I am with her in her garden.”

 

“I brought Killing Reagan but I was out shopping and found a mystery by a local writer that sounded like a good read, about being set up by a friend with cyberspace and assault rifles and, of course, a woman was involved. The author is Bruce Wilkins and the book is The Count of Cape Hatteras.
 
The Fiery Cross Diana Gabaldon
 
“I’m reading The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon. As part of my 2016 Reading Challenge, I am supposed to re-read a book I previously abandoned. I struggled with this, the fifth in the Outlander series, when I started it a few years ago, but my interest was recently renewed by the TV series based on the books. I have found that I am more engaged in the book this time around and I am glad I picked it up again.”

 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows J.K. Rowling
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows is the seventh and last book in the Harry Potter series that I started in May, abandoned, and then started back up in late June, because I had nothing new to read. I have noticed that as the books go, it develops a more grown-up sort of writing, and the type of art on the covers changes as well. On the first book the cover is cartoon-y and on the last book it’s much more… ‘Sirius.’”

 

daily reflections aa members
“The only book I brought was the daily meditations. I gotta keep up with the program, but the beach is for sun and water, not books!”

 

One True Thing Anna Quindlen
One Time Thing by Anna Quindlon was recommended to me by a friend, I think because it’s about transformation. I like that it starts off with the narrator in her hometown jail and then regresses back to the events leading up to her relaxing gratefully in that cell. The way she illustrates courage, suffering, and everyday acts of love. . . the ingredients for the shifting bond of mother and daughter are beautiful. Anna Quindlon is an excellent storyteller who has managed to hold my attention.”

 

Italian language learning books
“I brought Buongiorno Italia! in a foolish attempt to learn enough Italian to use it on a trip in September. But really, my motive was because I like languages. Italian is beautiful to speak. I have picked up phrases that I memorized listening to opera records at age twelve or thirteen and didn’t understand. Right now I am working on the auxiliary verbs and verb endings. What fun! I need oral practice and a better memory.”

 

Young Avengers The Secret Zoo
The Young Avengers is about superheroes. I’m reading The Secret Zoo instead. It’s about a girl named Megan who went missing and her brother and his two friends go looking for her. What’s special about the zoo is that the animals are able to get out of their cages and lead Megan’s brother and friends to a secret part of the zoo. And along the way Megan’s brother finds pages of Megan’s notebook that have clues on them.”

 

Gentle Yoga with Great Benefits Anna Shapiro
“My yoga teacher had surgery early this summer and won’t be back till September. I just wanted to hold my ground. Does looking at the pictures count as reading? If so, it’s a great read!”
Bookshelf
When my younger granddaughter was singing nonsense, her older sister said, “That’s not a song!” The younger one said, “If I sing it, it’s a song!” To paraphrase: if you read it at the beach, it’s a beach read!