Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Girls with dragon tattoos and other select professionals

It's a bit disturbing - isn't it? - that a book can be so critically misjudged by its cover.  That nice, clean-cut guy next door might be on the verge of a violent nervous breakdown.  The long-haired bass player you've dismissed as a wastoid loser just might teach special education for a living.  The soft-spoken, understated guy in ragged blue jeans could turn out to be a philanthropic billionaire.

I am finally reading, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."  I applauded Lisbeth Salander when she walked into the CEO's office and handed him his starched, pressed little tush for under-utilizing her based on her appearance.  I was also very proud of him for facing up to his own mistake and subsequently entrusting her with responsibilities she could handle more competently than anyone else at the company.  I laughed, and yet, found it quite realistic, when she disguised herself in "normal" attire for the sake of an investigation (I, too, can donn a suit and play the professional seamlessly when need arises.)  My only disappointment, thus far in the novel, is that she actually does seem a bit messed up.  I was secretly hoping she would turn out to be a completely stable young woman, who just happens to look different from what is expected of her.

"The girl with the dragon tattoo" was my personal nickname (verbatim) at work for about three years.  I acquired it when someone on the corporate softball team noticed my left shoulder blade and commented that they thought it was a dragon.  Coincidentally, this was just before release of the book - which, of course, provided hours of endless fun within my company of approximately ninety five professional scientists.  For the record, it's not a dragon.  It's a caduceus (medical symbol) interlaced with a treble clef, and it makes an appearance in, "The Vesuvius Isotope," albeit, tattooed onto a fictional character.

When I began reading the book clearly written in my honor, I began thinking about the general public's perception of a scientist - or any professional, for that matter.  How one looks, and how one behaves.  And ooooooohhhhhh, how wrong they are! 

Truth being told, I work with dozens of professional scientists - male and female alike - who are heavily tattooed, body pierced, and even branded (yes, I said branded).  Of course, I also work with dozens of stereotypical, middle aged nerds with combover.  And I can say without hesitation that physical appearance bears no correlation whatsoever to professional competence.  It also bears no correlation whatsoever to scientific ethics, personal morality, mental or emotional stability, and certainly not to behavior.

Lisbeth Salander, so far, is an intriguing one.  I hope she makes people rethink their perceptions of girls with dragon tattoos.  And I hope she gets the bad guy.   

Friday, June 17, 2011

On Location: The Anatomical Machines of Capella Sansevero

The setting of a novel can be one of its most captivating characters.  In the "On Location" series of Murder Lab posts, we explore settings of thrillers and welcome insight from readers and writers alike: what makes an author choose a setting for the work?  Will you pick up a book because the setting intrigues you?  Does a great story make you long to visit its location, to see it through the eyes of the characters?  Guests posts are welcome!  Please e-mail if interested.

"For the poor people from the streets near the di Sangro Chapel, the Neapolitan incarnation of Dr. Faustus made a pact with the devil, and almost became a devil himself, to master the most secret mysteries of nature."

-Benedetto Croce, Storie e Leggende Napoletane

Several years ago, a traveling scientific exhibit passed through San Diego.  The exhibit was called, simply, “Bodies.”  It featured anatomical models similar to those one would observe in a high school science class.  Except that they were real.

The bodies of the exhibit were preserved using modern plastification techniques.  One could wander through the various sections of the exhibit and observe, in situ, the entire circulatory system, the respiratory system, the reproductive systems of both males and females - even neurons.

As I stood in the basement beneath Raimondo di Sangro’s Capella Sansevero in Naples, I realized the Bodies exhibit I had seen in San Diego had precedent almost two centuries prior.  Two display cases in a small, round underground chamber held two bodies.  One was a man.  The other, a pregnant woman. 

Their entire circulatory systems were emerging from hearts that were frozen forever to their open chests.  Their skeletons stood intact, and the intricate networks of tiny veins and arteries crossing their faces reminded me instantly of the detailed netting I had just seen carved over the Disillusion statue in the chapel above.

“Oh my God,” I said, venturing closer. “Are they…real?”

“The skeletons are real,” Alyssa said. “The fetus in the woman’s womb was most definitely real, until it was stolen a number of years ago.”

“Stolen?” I asked, suddenly feeling a wave of nausea.

“The legend held that these were two of di Sangro’s servants who had angered him. The belief was that he preserved the circulatory systems by injecting the victims with mercury while they were still alive.”

“Is this part true?” I asked.

“He certainly did have an affinity for science. And he certainly also had an affinity for mercury. But how he made these, nobody knows. Chemical analyses have yielded all sorts of organic substances associated with the capillaries and veins, among them, beeswax. So it appears that these models are, um, partly real. The rest is a mystery.

“Di Sangro’s Palace was adjacent to where he built this chapel. He had a laboratory in the basement. His contemporaries documented strange noises and strange flashes of light coming from his laboratories at all hours of the night. It’s really no wonder they were afraid of him. And he moved between the labs and the outside world secretly as well – he didn’t just use the front doors. Until very recently, there existed an underground tunnel connecting those laboratories under the Palace to this chapel basement. Officially, the tunnel no longer exists.”

“And unofficially?” I asked.

“Where do you think we’re going?” Alyssa said, and she pushed aside the display case containing the pregnant female.

Adapted from an excerpt of "The Vesuvius Isotope," the first Katrina Stone novel by Kristen Elise.  

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Show me how you show, not tell

I'm going through my WIP and making notes in areas where I think I've "told" something I should have "shown."  "SHOW NOT TELL!!"  My notes scream in bold red.  At some point, I'm now committed to editing those parts, if only to remove the damn red text.

I vaguely remember "learning" this trick in some English class at some point in my life.  But I don't remember what I learned.  At all.  Showing, rather than telling, is like porn.  You recognize it when you see it.  More importantly, you know when you've just been "told" something, because you recognize the drool running down your chin as you nod off to sleep.

Do you remember what you learned in that English class?  Do you remember the formula for showing, not telling?  Or does this technique just come as second nature to those who have written enough words onto paper?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Effective info dumping: inform without overwhelming or boring your reader

The last thing you want is for your novel to read like a textbook.  Yet, the intelligent story frequently involves some form of data exchange.  A well crafted info dump can draw readers into a subject they never thought they would care about, while a poorly constructed one can be the death of your novel. 

So how do you write a great info-dumping scene without making the reader either drift off to sleep, feel like an idiot, or wonder what happened to the plot?  Here are a few tricks I have learned for informing without overwhelming.

1. Keep it simple

We research obsessively.  We dive into our characters, their lives, their habits, their worlds.  We get so many great new ideas through following our first, and we learn so many new things that will flesh out our novels.  It's hard not to pile them all into one scene.  Don't.  Too many data points will overwhelm the reader, and, with no knowledge of what will later be important to the story, your poor reader will feel obligated to learn all of them.  Instead, trim each scene down to reveal only the most important pieces of information.  Then build suspense toward those reveals, and the reader will realize they are critical to the plot of the story.

2. Put it in dialog

Dialog is an invaluable tool for info dumping.  It is particularly handy to let a character who is an expert on the subject explain the data to one who is not, thus having no choice but to express it in lay terms.  I use this technique a lot in The Vesuvius Isotope, a thriller rife with collision between medicine, ancient history, archeology, and theology.  Rather than subject my readers to authentic jargon that will be utterly foreign to anyone outside of the field, I try to inform by informing lay characters in the scenes. 

3. Say it again, Sam

My readers are constantly thanking me for summations.  Even if the info dump was successful (by this I mean understandable and not boring), it is great to hear the inform-ee repeat what he or she just learned.  Not only can this further simplify the information for the reader, but it also reiterates which parts of it are the most important:

“So, you're saying Cleopatra was ugly as sin, but she somehow manipulated the two most powerful men in Rome. She grappled her way to Egyptian Queen by killing both of her co-regents, even though they were her brothers and she was married to them. She was implicated in the murder of Julius Caesar, literate in nine languages and proprieter of the world's largest library. Yet, she left behind not one single writing?

"Yes, that's what I'm telling you."

End of scene

4. Break up the scene

Just after an info dump can be a perfect time to change scene entirely.  This is a great way to keep the action moving along while giving the reader's brain a rest.  In a third person story, I find this is easy - just just jump to a different POV.  But a first person story might require a diversion - one important enough for the protagonist to credibly drop whatever led her to the info dump in the first place.  There is an earthquake.  She needs to vomit.  Or she just got a cell phone call from the mortician she bribed to hide her husband's body (one has no choice but to take such calls). 

What are your favorite techniques for info dumping?  What are some of the data you have dumped?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Advantages of working for the Borg: free book researching trips!

OK, it's been, like, an hour.  I can't contain this any longer.  I'm going to Switzerland in December.  For free.

I've been invited to speak at a conference, so the conference will waive my registration fee (these are usually in the ballpark of a thousand bucks.)  My company will pay my airfare and hotel, at least for the duration of the conference.  After that, I'm taking my vacation. 

Meanwhile, I've had this story in mind that entails some research in Paris.  Oh darn.  The story idea takes place in Paris circa 1905, to be precise.  I'm not sure quite where to find this world today.  But you can bet I'll have a pretty good idea before I go. 

I found 30 BC Alexandria, Egypt (it's underwater, by the way).  I can find 1905 Paris. 

As it turns out, Paris is only about five hours by train from Geneva.  And then it's a nice overnight train ride to Prague.  Which is near Vienna.  Which is near Munich.  Which is near Zurich.  Oh my.  There are now bobsleds, dogs and the Matterhorn on my agenda as well.  So maybe the story will mutate a bit...     

It's OK, you can hate me now.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

E. coli and humans: a love/hate relationship

It's all over the news again.  Another new strain.  Another food scare.  This time, it's in bean sprouts.  Is there anything left that I can safely eat anymore?  This bug is a zombie.  And each time it comes back, it seems to be more deadly than before.  Why doesn't science just get rid of it?

Well, we can't.  And furthermore, we won't.

For one thing, you need it.  E. coli lives happily in your intestine and helps you digest your food.  When a bad strain of E. coli invades, one of the harmful things it does in your poor body is wipe out the good E. coli, along with many other beneficial species of bacteria that live there.  Hardly seems fair, eh?  But such is the law of natural selection.

Furthermore, science loves E. coli.  Indeed, the ratio of E. coli bacteria to humans within any molecular biology lab is generally about ten billion to one.  As I type this, there are probably twenty liters or so of stinky E. coli being cultured in my lab.  It's the safe kind.  We could bathe in it (not that I would...) with no ill effects. 

Why is it there?  Well, we know how to exploit the very nature of this bug that can make it so harmful: it replicates like crazy.  We use this fact to our advantage and use E. coli to clone any gene we are interested it. 

It's quite simple, really.  We can pop a gene into an E. coli bacterium (this is frequently done by electrocuting the bug!) and the next morning, an entire population of clones from that bug will have our DNA of interest inside them.  We crack those bugs open and pull out our gene, which they have been so kind as to replicate for us in droves overnight.  We can then chop that gene up and splice it into other genes.  And this is molecular cloning at its most basic.

So please don't expect these little guys to go away any time soon.  Just wash your bean sprouts.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The roots of Rome: lessons from the gardens of ancient Pompeii

Is your basil bolting?  Well, you'd better go catch it!

When herbs flower - thus decreasing their flavor - it is called "bolting".  I find this funny.  It reminds me of that old joke about the refrigerator...

Many of you know that like my protagonist, I love gardening.  This skill will come in handy for Katrina as she chases down an ancient plant containing a rare chemical element that can treat cancer.

It is widely known that the ruins of Pompeii contain plaster casts of humans that perished in the 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius.  These unfortunate souls were buried alive as ash from the eruption piled upon them.  Centuries later, their bodies had decayed, leaving perfectly molded cavities in the hardened ash.  The cavities were filled in with plaster, and their exact deaths were thus immaculately reconstructed.

It is much less well known that the same was done with the root systems of ancient Roman plants and trees.  Mount Vesuvius erupted in August.  Many species of plant life abundant in Pompeii's gardens were in full bloom.  The reconstruction of their root systems, in combination with other data, has led us today to a strong understanding of these gardens.  Within them were plants for food, for beauty, for scent, for wine, for medicine.

The basil might have bolted, but the history remained for us to uncover.