Monday, June 25, 2007

Medical Examiners and Coroners Offices

I'll talk more about this after I finish up with the class I'm teaching, but...

In case you missed the news, the Bureau of Justice Statistics just issued a report on a study of Medical Examiners and Coroners Offices in the US, based on the year 2004.

News releases noted that there are over 13,500 unidentified human remains on record in those offices.

The report is also another resource for those who want to see numbers on how overworked public forensic science providers are these days.

Friday, June 22, 2007

One great thing about teaching

is that it forces you to look at what the heck you're doing, and to think about the basics. You think about what helped you to understand those basics.

I don't know how long I would have floundered without Lawrence Block's books on writing. For my money, they're still hard to beat. I wrote a letter to him when Goodnight, Irene was sold, thanking him for helping me to understand what went into writing a novel. I'm far from the only writer who read and reread his books before setting out on this adventure, nor am I the only author who goes back to them every now and then.

There are other fine books on writing — Oakley Hall's Art & Craft of Novel Writing and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird come to mind. But Block's straightforward and insightful explanations of the essentials show that this four-time Edgar-winner and MWA Grand Master also has a gift for teaching. His writing books should be in every new writer's library.

The ones that helped me to get started:
Spider, Spin Me A Web
Writing the Novel From Plot to Print
Telling Lies for Fun and Profit

Friday, June 15, 2007

what is otherwise occupying my time

aside from writing, is teaching. The class has nearly completed its first week, so I'm just getting the hang of balancing this among all other objects juggled. May not see me here quite so often as a result!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Which should win the title of "Thought for the Day," I wonder?

From an article in the May 28, 2007 issue of The New Yorker, "The Golden Man," in which Paul Theroux describes the tyranny of the late ruler of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, aka Bashi:

...he regarded himself as an accomplished writer — a clear sign of madness in anyone.
This would have been my favorite sentence in the article, if he hadn't added this a few paragraphs later:

This [memory of his mother's smile] was perhaps why many of the portraits of Bashi showed him with a smile, though he never looked less amused than when he was grinning; his smile -- and this may be true of all political leaders -- was his most sinister feature.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Sisters in Crime LA/Downey Library

Had a wonderful time this weekend, speaking at the Downey Library's Friends of the Library event and at the "No Crime Unpublished" conference sponsored by the LA Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Both groups generously contributed to the CLP Foundation. I especially appreciate all the LA Sisters in Crime folks did for their raffle.

Those of you who are interested in forensic science should definitely sign up for Sisters in Crime's Forensic University -- after June 15th the cost of registration increases.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Excellent hockey night in California

Hooray for the Ducks!

Those of you who've read the Irene Kelly books have probably figured out that I'm a hockey fan. I became a fan when I started dating a guy who'd been playing the game from the age of five. First time I went to watch him play, I couldn't tell where he was on the ice, let alone the puck. But it didn't take long for me to fall in love with the game. I was already head over heels for the guy, and a couple of decades later I still am. We're still together and he's still playing hockey.

Now I've seen a local team win the Stanley Cup -- amazing. I wondered if I'd live to see the day when a West Coast team won it, at least until this team started to show it could take on all comers.

And to top it all off, when they played about four hours after the Ducks-Senators game, Tim's hockey team won last night!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A Tale of Vampires - Part 7

Sorry for the delay...commencements, visitors, and various and sundry other matters...did I mention that I write books?...conspired against blogging last week.

More on all of that another day.

Back to vampires. But first... are you amazed at all the recent TB news? See? Read this blog and you will be so ahead of the game.

Okay, back to the story of the story, "The Haunting of Carrick Hollow"...

Paul and I exchanged e-mails and met once more in person (a lunch meeting at an AAFS convention in Florida, IIRC), setting up how we would write the story from two different coasts. Paul was incredibly easy to work with.

We soon agreed that the protagonist would be in the situation Paul spoke of — of growing up in a rural area where vampire folklore existed, and being forced to participate in these rituals performed on the remains of beloved family members. This could cover a range of time and places in New England. We decided to set it in the 19th century, in Rhode Island. What more could we bring to the story?

We tossed around several ideas. Paul sent some reference materials on the vampire beliefs to me, and I looked into the history of TB as well. I was struck by how late some of these rituals were performed, given the progress being made in treating TB in the late 19th century.

Perhaps the most famous New England vampire story is that of Mercy Brown. I mentioned her case in a previous post. The exhumation of Mercy Brown, who had died from TB at the age of 19, took place in 1892. Although her father apparently did not believe in the power of these rituals, he succumbed to local pressure to allow them to be performed. Her heart was removed and burned, and the ashes were given to her brother, Edwin, to drink. (Despite this attempted remedy, he died of TB two months later.)

The rituals performed on Mercy Brown received newspaper attention, in stories which decried them as rustic superstition. The stories inspired H.P. Lovecraft (his "The Shunned House" refers to it) and a clipping of the story was found among Bram Stoker's possessions.

So a new possibility for the story occurred to us. What if a young man grew up in rural Rhode Island in the late 19th century, in a community where vampire folklore existed as an explanation for deaths from consumption (the name then given to TB), and this young man's family was pressured into performing these rituals on the bodies of beloved family members, BUT...later he is offered a chance to study medicine, and returns to the community to be of help, now knowing that TB is caused by bacteria? How might the community react? If he were believed, what effect would his new knowledge have on those who had endured the ritual?

We each took sections of the story, wrote them, pieced them together and smoothed them out. Paul's contributions to the history and science in the story were key, but I also want to say here and now that I was amazed at his writing abilities. It was hard to believe this was his first attempt at fiction. By the late spring of 1999, we had a story to submit to the Crime Through Time III anthology.

Before I wind up my series of blogs about this story, I want to make a note about a decision in telling the story. Michael Bell says that the term "vampire" was never used by these New England families. (Someday I'll have to ask him how he came to that conclusion, but I am sure he knows what he's talking about -- he did the decades of extensive research, not me!)

Bell's research now noted, I'll point out that in 1892, the term was most definitely in use in that part of the United States.

It's an old word. The word "upyr" and synonyms have been part of the Slavic languages since the middle ages and the terms "vampire" or "vampyre" had been used in English by 1688.
(For a fascinating scholarly study of history the word, see Katharina M. Wilson's article, "The History of the Word 'Vampire'," Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 46, No. 4. (Oct. - Dec., 1985), pp. 577-583.)

This became the only real point of disagreement between us that I can recall, though. Paul, familiar with Bell and his work, thought we should not have the characters use the word "vampire." I thought the story worked better if they did use it, in part because the word was in use at that time in Rhode Island (and carrying a meaning that conformed with their use of it). My opinion was that in a work of fiction, it wouldn't be out of line to have the characters use the word "vampire," provided we weren't using a word that had not yet been coined, or using a word that had a different meaning at that time, or using it in one time as if it had a later meaning (such as OK, which has undergone a change in meaning since its 1840 origins). We shouldn't have people using anachronistic terms in historical short stories, but I didn't think this was anachronistic usage.

So for the public record, Paul disagreed, but graciously let me have my bratty writer way.

I'm going to leave at that for now, hoping Paul will find time to tell more about this from his perspective! I hope you'll find time to read and enjoy "The Haunting of Carrick Hollow."