Jun 29, 2009

"Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing.” - Werner von Braun

Another re-post from the old writer's blog! Try to contain your excitement.


We all know the old adage, "write what you know." But with the help of a little research, you can 'know' just about anything. I'm not entirely certain that this is a good thing.

Research is a natural part of writing for me. I usually like to research every detail, right down to appropriate name meanings for my characters' pet toads, but not everyone shares in my psychosis. In fact, I feel this practice has the potential to get me into real trouble. For one, it can break up the flow of writing - if you get hung up on if Chicago bus drivers wear blue or purple uniforms, you might miss your hero's stop. For two, there are potential, ahem, legal ramifications.

In one of my stories the heroine has to type a letter for her boss, the assistant district attorney. I wanted to show off his clout, so I addressed the letter to a politician in my heroine's hometown ... and used the politician's real name and address. Later I realized this was a BAD IDEA (yes, all-caps are necessary to contain the badness of this particular idea) and changed it. On the other hand, no one wants to read that your hero attends Nondescript University in Nowhere Special, Nebraska, regardless of that fact that his major is Underwater Basket Weaving and he's secretly dating the captain of the football team. You just need to find a balance.

The internet is the double-edged sword of research. Obviously you can get the facts on just about anything from databases like Answers.com and Wikipedia. I also like to use Google Images to find pictures of my settings. But the ease of obtaining information can often lead you astray. A good rule of thumb: if it takes you more than five minutes of dedicating Googling to find something out, is anyone else going to get the reference? Unless you're writing Star Trek fanfiction, the answer is probably 'no.'

Also, never underestimate the benefit of life experience. All the research in the world is no substitute for visiting your setting or observing/working at your hero's job, if only for a day. If your hero is a surgeon or cliff diver or some other job they don't let you temp in, bribe someone with expertise into having a nice, long chat. I find that cookies and promises of a spot in the acknowledgments work wonders.

Jun 23, 2009

Fat Lip

It's amazing to me what I can and can't do with the right lower quadrant of my face completely numb from Novocaine. I talk on the phone and eat a cup of yogurt. I can't purse my lips evenly or stop playing with my mouth. It feels like my lower lip should be huge, but constant checks in the mirror confirm that my face is as proportional as it ever was.

On the upside, I learned a lot about my dentist today. She enjoys ballroom dancing, and has been taking lessons for over ten years. She watches trashy reality TV shows like The Bachelorette and likes to pretend that her office (in the mountains) is actually located on the beach. I quite like her. Which is pretty remarkable, since just this morning she spent the better part of an hour drilling holes in me. And then told me I'd be too numb to eat much of anything until 3pm.

*pokes lip* Any time, now.

Jun 22, 2009


There are so many descriptive terms for the biological process of emesis. Of course there is the most common, throwing up. But there's also getting sick or being ill for the more refined, and spewing or blowing chunks if you want to be descriptive. There is also context to consider - after a long night of partying, you worship the porcelain god. If you wake up to a churning gut it might be morning sickness, which may or may not be a good thing. So many, many ways to say the same thing. But my kind readers will forgive me if I speak plainly for once.

I am so nervous I want to vomit.

I don't usually have a sensitive stomach - I can (and unfortunately do) eat almost anything. I think it comes from being raised on Indian food. Growing up, being able to tolerate spices was considered a necessity for gastronomic health. More recently I've come to the conclusion that my stomach may actually be slightly larger than is typical. When properly inspired, I have been known to eat an IHOP breakfast and a half, as Maggie can attest. I have also won a Jell-O eating contest... The details of which I do not plan to publish. Sorry.

So what could cause a dedicated, resilient organ such as my stomach to stage a revolt? This afternoon I am expecting an important phone call. Life-changingly important. How-am-I-going-to-get-through-clinic-today important. So as soon as I got my breakfast down this morning, it immediately wanted to come back up again.

Fear not, gentle readers. I have not expelled the contents of my stomach ... yet. Lunchtime may bring new and unpleasant developments. Please think good thoughts for me and my bubbling gastric acid.

Jun 18, 2009

Not cool, President Obama. Not cool.

I'm really puzzled by the news of this DOJ brief on DOMA. On Friday, the Department of Justice called for the dismissal of a lawsuit that challenged the heinous Defense of Marriage Act. DOMA states that the federal government doesn't recognize same-sex marriages and that states don't have to, either. This DOJ brief contradicts President Obama's campaign promises to repeal DOMA, a law he described as "abhorrent." The gay rights movement, having supported the President's campaign en masse, was patiently waiting in line behind the global economic crisis and a slew of other "more pressing" issues. When this came along leading activists were, needless to say, pissed. Now the administration is saying that the President still intends to get rid of DOMA, but it is the DOJ's job to uphold the law of the land, whatever that law may be.

You know what else used to be illegal? Interracial marriage. Yeah, I said it! How the DOJ brief could compare same-sex marriage to incest and statutory rape and not make this much more reasonable connection is beyond me. My point is, we know that the law of the land is not infallible. It is the product of human effort, and as such can be wrong and scary and bigoted. If we wanted our government to follow the letter of law - no more, no less - we could install a system of computers for that. And soon we'd all be living on Mars, toiling endless to mine the ore they need for fuel. But I digress.

Over the past week the administration has paid lip-service to the ideas of equality, possibly trying to pacify angry gay rights activists. President Obama granted some benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees (though, of course, not full benefits... that's outlawed by DOMA). And the DOJ has allowed one man to change his passport to reflect his married name. It's kind of like cutting off someone's leg, then handing them back a few toes.

This is, at best, a first-class f*** up (Joe Biden's in the back with his hands in the air, "Not me this time! Totally not me."). At worst, I've heard it called an attempt by the Obama administration to kowtow to "family values" conservatives. One thing is for sure - the trust has been broken. President Obama will need to offer up a lot more before he can again count on the support of the gay community and it's supporters.

Here's a link to a good summary article.

Jun 17, 2009

My library was dukedom large enough

When I was a child the library was my sanctuary, my summertime escape. I could avoid the sun, heat, and physical activity that typified most kid's vacations. In the library I didn't have to worry about my body, already plumping up in all the wrong places, and it's many athletic deficiencies. There it was my mind that was active - running through long reading lists, doing laps around the stacks. I was training my brain for the marathon of education that would follow - high school, college, grad school and beyond.

While running the race of higher learning, however, I had little cause to return to the library. My text books were purchased, not borrowed, so I could take notes in the margins and highlight important passages. I would never dream of defacing a library book like this, but such was my training. Reading was no longer a sport - it was my occupation. For the most part, pleasure reading fell to the wayside. For six years I read almost nothing but academic texts and scientific literature. Even when I started work and had a little more free time, I didn't go back to the library to browse and relax. Until this week.

I had requested a novel for a book club, and it came in on Monday. The book club meeting is today, and I had conflict anyway, but I figured I couldn't just let the book sit there. I went to pick it up from Marion the Librarian at the branch where my Toastmasters group meets. Please do not imagine her to be the precocious heroine from The Music Man ... think instead a short woman with gray hair, wire-rimmed glasses and hard features. I can tell that Marion disapproves of the noisy speechifying that goes on in the library's meeting room. She scowls impressively over her glasses every time I walk by the circulation desk - daunting, to say the least. Still, on this day it galvanized me to action - I would not flee before Marion's dour expression. I would stay, and leave when I was ready to go.

I wandered in and out of the stacks, admiring the classification by genre that mirrored my bookcase at home. I went from Mystery to Westerns to SciFi to Adult Fiction. Young Adult called to me from out of the past, but I resisted. I amused myself by confirming that I'd read all the Agatha Christie available and considered checking out Ralph Compton's last installment in the Danny Duggin series, Death Along the Cimarron. Searching for Neil Gaiman revealed three slim Sandman graphic novels, but no Neverwhere or Anansi Boys. I finally settled on a book suggested by my book club last month, that I had previewed on Amazon but never got around to buying. When I was finished, I used the self-checkout station (the wonders of our age!), snubbing Marion entirely. Take that, I thought childishly. I win at Library.

Jun 12, 2009

Mark my words

Here's an old post from the blog I started with my now-defunct writer's group. It consists of me fangirling Mark Twain for several paragraphs. *eye roll*


"Let us guess that whenever we read a sentence and like it, we unconsciously store it away in our model-chamber; and it goes, with the myriad of its fellows, to the building, brick by brick, of the eventual edifice which we call our style." - Mark Twain

If this is the case, the entire basement of my house of style is made of tiny bearded bricks in white linen suits. Mark Twain saw the world so clearly. He saw the humor of things because he also saw the truth of them. Thus, Twain's self-awareness as a writer and a man just makes sense. His ideas about writing (and about life) are inspirational without being maudlin and funny without being trite.

"The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say."

"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

"Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very.' Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."
Do yourself a favor - go read Captain Stormfield's Visit To Heaven. It will change the way you live your life. Or at least the way you use adjectives.

Jun 10, 2009

The weary traveler finally makes it home

Last week I was again up in New York for my certificate program. Eight hours in a classroom per day for five whole days, joy of joys. Two things made the week bearable - that I find the material endlessly fascinating (nerd!) and that I had plans to meet up with my friend, Ducks, and visit NYC.

Ducks' life is completely alien to me. She lives in a one-room apartment with a tiny kitchen and a minuscule fridge. Keeping a bunch of food around would only attract vermin, so her cupboards are constantly bare. On the plus side, anything you could ever want to eat is available in the city - and the store that sells it is within walking distance. While it takes me half an hour to get a box of cereal from Kroger, Ducks can pop over to the cafe (literally) around the corner and bring back the freshest, most delicious pastries known to man. We breakfasted like kings.

For lunch we met friends at a French restaurant - our waiter's accent was pronounced and extremely intimidating. I wanted to order the quiche, but hesitated because it was on the brunch menu. "Don't worry," our friends Ann and Alyssa reassured me. "Brunch in New York doesn't start until noon." Fascinating. Ducks and I then announced our plans to go to a festival at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA). Our friends Tom and Kristi immediately exclaimed in unison, "MOCHA FEST?!?" Once we explained it to them, they seemed less excited about joining us.

After our sadly-lacking-in-chocolatey-coffee-goodness festival, Ducks and I wandered about a bit. She took me to get Slurpees at a 7/11 (this is apparently a rare delicacy in NYC) and to an artifical beach at South Street Seaport. Finally, we met our friend Matt and his fiancee Makayla for dinner. It was Matt's birthday, 30 years young! But sadly the rest of us were too old to get up to any truly crazy shenanigans. Though we did wander back down to the bar at the artificial beach - they were playing house music, and there were only six people on the dance floor. We decided to call it a night.

And so ended my adventures in New York City - with an exhausted subway ride, a few hours of fitful sleep, and a far-to-early flight the next morning. *sigh* I wish I was still there.

Jun 9, 2009

Wait... there's an election today?

The Virginia gubernatorial* primaries are today. Why was I not informed? Oh wait ... maybe I was informed, but was too busy to make specific plans. No matter! With the power of teh interweb, I can become an informed voter in a matter of moments.

Party affiliation: you don't have to be a member of a specific party to vote in Virginia primaries - huzzah! In fact, you can vote in any primary you wish. Shock of shocks, I plan to go Democrat.

Here are the websites for the three Democratic candidates for governor:
Creigh Deeds
Terry McAuliffe
Brian Moran

Not sure where to go? The State Board of Elections has your back:
Where Do I Vote In Virginia?

You have until 7pm tonight - good luck and godspeed.


*I love this word

Jun 2, 2009

Thoughts on Dr. George Tiller

As a student, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. George Tiller give a lecture on abortion at my first professional conference. He spoke with compassion and practicality, both of which are necessary to provide counseling regarding this sensitive issue. It was inspiring - after hearing him, I felt I was better equipped to discuss the full range of pregnancy options with patients.

When I heard the news on Sunday that Dr. Tiller had been shot, I cried. Not only for his family - his wife, his children, his grandchildren. But for every other family who will now face a terrible diagnosis in their (very wanted) pregnancy with one less choice about what to do next.

Pro-life groups were quick to denounce Dr. Tiller's murder as a "cowardly act," stating that they do not approve of violence of any kind. In my humble opinion, their aggressive rhetoric did play a role. It incites hatred, though obviously a person must be mentally unstable to begin with to act on that hatred. Unfortunately, I have little hope that pro-life groups will change their tactics.

The plain fact of the matter is that Dr. Tiller was providing a medical service - one that he knew put a target on his back - because he felt it needed to be provided. Regardless of your politics, you must acknowledge that he was a man with the courage of his convictions. He will be missed.