Poison References: Emsley and Blum

There comes a time when most authors are going to need a book on poison.

Recently, I’ve read two, and they have both been topnotch. I would like to recommend them to you.

The Elements of Murder by John Emsley. British chemist John Emsley has written a book that takes you on a journey to the “darker part of the periodic table.” The book is divided into six sections: mercury, arsenic, lead, thallium, antimony, and a catch all section of other periodic poisons at the end. The book scientifically describes the element, breaks down its deadly qualities, and talks about accidental and deliberate poisoning with the element. Along the way we learn useful tidbits about how the poison was used (and abused!) in a variety of historical incidents.

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum: This engrossing tome is a biography of two of forensics most important historical figures: Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler. These two transformed the way medical evidence was perceived in American courts. Part historical account, part forensic education, I had a hard time putting this book down. It’s a fascinating read in a world where poisoners often get off, and the government decides that poisoning alcohol to enforce Prohibition is the moral thing to do. History and science are unsettling in this book, as are the doubts of the scientific detectives themselves as they refine their techniques. This book will definitely make my best of the year list.


I need to find a couple of good books about venoms and plant based toxins, but I’m now up on the chemical side of things. Best not put any incriminating quips in my blog, however, lest an investigation come home to roost later.


Life Lessons from Italian Folk Tales

1. Women are not as white as snow. They are as white as ricotta.

2. If you are a woman who does not have children, do not compare yourself or your future child to an animal or an inanimate object. Otherwise, you will probably give birth to said animal or said inanimate object.

3. When invading the home of a wind, giant, or ogre, make sure the lady of the house hides you and the wind, giant or ogre has a good dinner before you come out of your hiding place. You could get eaten otherwise.

4. If an old man shows up to help you with your fortune, it’s probably the ghost of the cadaver you buried and no one else would.

5. Very beautiful men need 7 veils to hide their beautiful faces. These guys are usually vain.

6. If you play practical jokes on a man, he will inevitably marry you to get even. A life-saving technique is to bake a replica of yourself out of bread. Fill the heart with cream, so when he stabs you, he’ll get squirted with cream and express remorse. After that, the marriage is gonna be great.

7. If you are the youngest child in a family, rest assured, you are also the smartest and the most beautiful. Your fortune is assured.

8. There is more royalty in Italy than there are peasants.

9. Never trust the Lame Devil. Especially if you’re another devil.

10. Whatever the dwarf tells you to put on the deck of your ship, you do it. You will inevitably run across an island of creatures who need what you have in abundance (ie you load your deck with carrion, you meet an island of vultures.)


Hope these tips are helpful to you in your Italian travels!


Are Your Characters, You Know, You?

A thought-provoking post from my friend Miranda Suri over at Comedy or Tragedy?

So. Do I base my characters on myself? Do I base characters on people I know?

Yes and no.


Let’s start with the self. Many characters have started as me, but they have become someone else pretty damned fast. The character that has resembled me most in recent years has actually ended up back in the casting room. She was CUT from her story because she was a secondary character who just wasn’t needed in the main thrust.

I will admit that aspects of myself often end up in characters. Abigail Rath is the sort of know-it-all kid I was, only she’s a know-it-all kid on steroids. Stephanus Galt has the same sort of parenting issues, and the painful shyness that goes with them, although his withdrawal is more angry than mine.

I can see myself in some of my characters, but they certainly are not me.

And other people? Well, again, the situation is similar. Some characters I pattern on versions of people I know. They may start as more like the people I know, but become more what the story demands they become. I can often find a piece of a friend in them.

Milo Hamwich is currently a lot like my friend Mark. Astrid is currently a lot like my friend Lisa. The Widow is less like my mother than she was. Errol is less like Bryon than he once was, but there’s still a lot of him in there. I expect these characters will only be based on the people I know in the end, but there will be recognizable bits.


I have written about absolute strangers. No one in O-Taga-San or Turtle of the Earth is based on anyone. So, it can be done.

How about you? Where do you find yourself pulling the influences from your characters from?


In Search of Professor Borgia and Peace of Mind

You need to read Writers and Pellets by Tobias Buckell. It’s another quality article from Buckell about living the writing life.


Right now, I’m experiencing a time famine. I haven’t really done anything to my satisfaction this week. We are having a brutal beginning of the year this year, because we have more students than we can handle. If students come to me, say, in July, I can try to accommodate numbers by finding rooms and hiring teachers. If students come to me, say, this week, I can only turn them away.

So, this week has been spent saying no. A lot. That really wears you down.

It has also had my dean begin to consider the musical question of whether the ELA part of English should be its own department. I NEED to write a post in which I consider the pros and cons of that. The good news? Nothing happens this year or probably next, as we come up with THE PLAN.

I know that the college would like me to head up THE PLAN, whatever it is. Being the kind of person who is good at this sort of thing is both good and bad. And being a Gemini means part of you wants to not lead the PLAN and write books, and the other part of you finds THE PLAN seductive.

I have to talk to a lot of people, and I have to do a lot of thinking. Right now, though, I have to keep my head down and get some work off my desk. Just the day-to-day treading water is pretty crazy right now.


Instead of goofing off on the Internet at night, I have been engaging in what I call The Search for Professor Borgia. Borgia is an important mentor character in Substance of Shadows. I sat down to write about some magic he would use to test our main character, and low and behold, there was nothing there. So, this week I’ve been reading Italian folktales. Almost done with them.

Also, I had already ordered a book on herbology and two on poison. By the time I’ve done a bit with those, I’ll be more or less ready to fake my way through that character. It’ll be time well spent.

Okay. Well, time to do a bit of worky stuff. I am READY for a weekend.


The Professional Ladder

I’ve just been asked to consider turning my position into a deanship. Or an associate deanship, depending on what we can get the college to swallow.

And everyone else seems to think this would make their work life easier.

This kind of pressure? Well, we’ll talk. I have to go teach a class I’m not prepared for, because all I’ve done today is troubleshoot students. Which is why they need a dean to make their life easier.

Writing career? How’s this supposed to work?


Writing Gods

Dear Writing Gods:

If you have a moment, I’d like to speak with you. I don’t have much time myself today, so I’ll try to keep things brief.

I wish you would let me know when a writing slump is coming. There’s a popular myth that a real writer can slog their way through less productive times. Well, we can, all of us, at the very least practice typing exercises.

But you know that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about when our psychology begins to dink around with our work ethic, and we are unproductive. Or when our internal editor begins to criticize our work before we get too far in it. Or when we’ve been working on a project for so long, we aren’t really sure of its current worth.

Any one of these is bad. The next time you decide to do all three things to me, just drop me an itemized list.

I am beginning to come out of it, no thanks to you. I am at least grateful that I didn’t have to sacrifice any livestock. However, here are some things that have actually helped me.

1. Scheduled time to write. — School is back in session. For me, that means scheduled creative time during the day, my peak creative time, at least one day a week.

2. Switching around to a couple of different projects at a time.

3. Talking to other writers about what they’re doing.

4. Having some people read my chapters and giving me reader feedback.

5. Reading some published books that lack stylistically. (Oh, I can do that.)

6. Reading some published books that inspire quality writing. (I can do that!)

7. Not finding the exact thing I want to read, and realizing I can at least write the exact thing I want to read.

8. Revisiting the artistic materials (books, movies, music) that mused me on these projects in the first place.

I am back to the idea that I write for me because I want to see what I have to say down so I can read it. I am back to believing in the uniqueness and quality of my work, as well as not working in isolation. I am back to being part of a community of people who do this thing, not in competition with anyone. I appreciate that others are interested in what I’m doing.

But, writing gods, if we’re going to do this every year, just drop me a line, and remind me, okay? In the middle of this, I forget we do this tango, and I sort of lose track of my worth. Worst of all, I pretend I’m not doing it, until I realize I am, so it takes me a while to take steps.

Ooookay. So, let’s get back on this mechanical bull. I know you have other writers you need to be harassing. See you next year, but don’t hurry back on my account.


Another Semester Begins

…and as is usually the case, my days at work will be spent troubleshooting during this first week until things settle into more or less a routine.

I am also making the time to write (!) and do research over journaling, given that I have to do this sort of thing later in the day now. Right now, I’m trying to find some ways to spice up Professor Borgia’s magic, so I’m reading a book of Italian folktales. I’ll be happy to write up some summaries of those. It’s almost like Italian folktales are other folktales with a punchline.

Example: “By night I am a man. By day I am a…tortoise!” The horror! I mean, it’s not any worse than a frog, but it seems so much more funny to me.


So, there’s that. I’ll be getting my tomes of poison and herbology soon, so there’s that to report on as well.

I haven’t forgotten that I’ve promised to talk about Dwayne McDuffie and the Milestone Universe, either.

And I’ll be re-reading the Harry Potter series, to try to find that original voice I had when I was working on Substance. Because it’s in there. It strikes some sort of chord in there.


For the immediate future, though, what you will be getting are hastily scribbled notes saying things like, “I’m still alive,” “Students never plan well,” and “I can’t believe our ESL classes are this full.”


Peace, love, rock-n-roll.


Abigail Rath Versus Blood-Sucking Fiends; Cool Recs

Last night, after I sent Mark Twain’s Daughter back out into the world, I did it. I sat down and began another funny middle grade book. Funny is where my natural writing talents tend to do better. It’s harder to sell than dramatic and straight (you may begin denying this, but I have rejections to give my theory some credence), so I also try to write dramatic and straight. I was ready, though, for a change of pace.

So, I started writing Abigail Rath Versus Blood-Sucking Fiends. The Abigail Rath books are the stories of a 10-year-old girl who wants to grow up and protect the world from the dangerous forces of the occult, just like Mom and Dad do. I’ve toyed on and off with making this middle grade or YA, but middle grade is often where the thing takes itself as I write, so that’s where we’re going. Abby and her buddy Vince have been featured in a few readings at convention in a short story from long ago. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like this could be a fun series of books.

It goes without saying that Abby and Vince are fighting blood sucking fiends in this book. I will be contrasting the classic Hammer vampire with the classic YA vampire too. I’m really enjoying revisiting their voices, especially Abby’s, because she soapboxes a lot.

At any rate, the trick worked. I’ll work on Substance some tonight, and I feel a bit more energized to do that, as well as to get back into the ring.


Also re-energized a bit by doing something new. Yesterday, I went through a bunch of vintage sites, and last night I explored some of those links. By far and away the coolest vintage links I’ve seen is The Lisa Freemont Pages. Lisa is like vintage central. Check out her links page. And her youtube how to videos. I love it when someone shares their hobby. Many of the sites I’ve found seem to be ego sites mostly about the vintage life style, but Lisa helps you learn how to do things.

Also, through Lisa’s site, I discovered that there’s a magazine called Vintage Life Magazine. Also, if you’re looking for place to buy things, Lisa’s got a pretty comprehensive list.


Finally, my politics are showing. Susy Charnas McKee talks about money and justice. As someone who has lifted herself out of the lower classes, I am conflicted about making the amount of money I do. Then again, I still make a five digit figure, so I’m firmly in the middle class. But you know, hippie Jesus, he had a robe and some sandals. And Gandhi? Even less. So, yes, conflicted.


Well, I’d best be getting to some message editing on the test I’ve recently normed. Just wanted you all to know that Bryon’s adage works. When you feel down, do something. You’ll feel better.

Still, all in all, I’d rather be in Reno.

I can’t believe I just said that.