Mysteries that Matter
What happens when a non-scientist writes about science?
She might wade through a deep pool of self-doubt and imposter syndrome, for starters. At least I did.
I have always had a strong interest in science, especially environmental science. I enjoyed science classes throughout my education, even if I struggled sometimes, and I really loved the few science classes I took in college. Yet I somehow let myself get steered exclusively toward the Humanities, and into an English major, never really considering how these fields need not be mutually exclusive. I told myself a lot of super unhelpful stories as early as ninth grade: I’m not good at math. You need to be good at math to be good at science. I’m not really a scientist type.
I don’t know where I got the idea that I had to pick one path and stick with it, and why I never let myself fully explore an interest in science, or get the help I might have needed in math to boost my confidence. I graduated from high school just before a big push to get girls into science began.
Whatever the reason, I continued to tell myself unhelpful stories about my aptitude for science even as I cultivated the idea for my new eco-mystery, Trouble at Turtle Pond, back in 2017. I wanted to write about the turtles my son and I were caring for as part of a conservation program his school had partnered with. I wanted to show the fascinating work that wildlife biologists were doing in the field to bring back our area’s native population of endangered Blanding’s turtles. I would scribble ideas – and scribble them out, telling myself I wasn’t qualified because I wasn’t a biologist, I had no degree in science, I didn’t really know what I was talking about. Or did I?
Eventually the urge to tell the story overcame the fear. And I completed the draft of the book. I decided if I had written outside my comfort zone and immediate knowledge before – which I had done in all my previous novels, writing of places and professions that were not my own — I could do it again. It just felt scarier this time around, because, well, science. As I had with the other books, I sought expert help when I was ready. This time it was in the form of a wildlife biologist, who read the book very carefully and offered incredible feedback. I was surprised how much my research had paid off, how much I’d gotten right. And yes, I’d gotten some things wrong, and was very grateful for his patient corrections! But at no point did he or anyone suggest I was doing the wrong thing by writing about science, and about citizen science sleuths helping a local wildlife biologist to solve some turtle mysteries.
Not only that, when I applied for a mentorship program to get guidance on writing a teachers’ guide and a series of related talks and workshops, my application was selected! I am now a 2021-22 mentee in Creature Conserve‘s mentorship program.
Creature Conserve is an organization founded by Dr. Lucy Spelman, who is a board-certified veterinarian in zoological medicine, a media consultant, a writer, and an educator. The mission of Creature Conserve is to bring artists, creative writers, and scientists together to study, celebrate, and protect animals and their habitats. In addition to this mentorship program I’m participating in, they run a series of professional development workshops for artists, writers and scientists, which you can read about here. The workshops are open to anyone for a fee. I attend my first one yesterday, and came away feeling inspired and empowered to work for conservation as a creative person. Dr. Spelman acknowledged that conservation efforts are lagging partly because scientific literacy is low, scientific information about conservation issues is not always accessible, and people tend to feel either hopeless or intimidated – or trust that “other people” are out there working to save the climate, animals, etc. But we need not be scientists to do conservation work. I learned this is a multifaceted problem that requires an interdisciplinary approach. Artists and writers make important contributions to conservation efforts by helping people to connect to nature, and by raising awareness of the need to protect specific creatures and their habitats. Narrative and imagery are important tools, just as scientific data is an important tool.
I am proud of bringing my turtle book and supporting materials into the world to help do my part as a creative conservationist, and look forward to posting updates here as I progress through the program!
On a trip to see family in Seattle this past August, I visited the National Nordic Museum and stumbled into a special exhibit on landscapes by Finnish painters. I don’t know if it was the luxury of visiting an art gallery for the first time in nearly two years – my soul starved for art not on a screen — or if it was the sheer novelty of an unexpected burst of free time, while my son was occupied with grandparents — but I felt the most extraordinary joy viewing this gallery and taking in every image.
I had no prior familiarity with these Finnish painters (or any Finnish painters, really). The one painting I kept circling back to was called “Wild Anjelica,” by an artist named Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931). This painting was created in 1889, but the colors seemed so fresh and vibrant, the paint still looked wet, the canvas vibrated with energy.
I have become obsessed with this painting, often gazing at it on screens since my return home. It is a strange image to fixate on in some ways. Its subject is not a grand tree, or a conventionally picturesque flower. Wikipedia generously calls wild anjelica a “species of flowering plant.” But if I didn’t know better, I might call it a WEED. The central image of a rather scrubby-looking blossom, surrounded by prickly neighbors, looks like a plant right out of my own yard, which is tangled with all kinds of weeds that by late summer I typically give up trying to tame. It’s edible, a form of wild celery, and a distant relative of the carrot. But it’s not something I’m dying to sprinkle on a salad.
I think what draws me to this image is its unconventional beauty, and the strength it exudes. I equate Wild Anjelica, and this painting, with these pandemic times. I think of how amidst sickness and suffering and anxiety, we can find beauty in resilience. Like this plant, we twist our lives to find space and light, living in less than perfect conditions. Like this plant, we announce, in defiance: We are here. We are here.
Or maybe this plant and its neighbors are akin to the pandemic. Ugly, dense, no clear way out. Invasive. The alluring blue of water and sky feel like the life we left behind – or the hope of better times to come, on the other side of this virus.
Yet there’s energy and strange beauty in the weeds, just as there are in these times. I reflect on how I have connected creatively with family and friends for over 18 months. I’ve joined my mother on the other side of the country in dance classes online and at the “opera” every Friday night (sung by her neighbor two blocks away, and live-streamed on Facebook). My family acquired a dog. We’ve dined out, on occasion, in parking lots. We’ve tirelessly (or tiredly) Zoomed. I had a milestone birthday, which I feel lucky and privileged to celebrate. We’ve found ways to live creatively, defiantly. Our life probably isn’t the distant water. It’s probably the thicket of weeds.
I like how Gallen-Kallela seems to be playing with us. Are we meant to look at this weedy flower demanding attention in the center of the frame? Or does our eye want to shift to the impossible blue of that water behind it, or up to that expansive sky? The neighboring weeds, too, clamor for attention, insist on being seen and admired, stretching as if to block the water from view.
Sometimes I wonder if the plants in this painting can even be called weeds. They’re not stifling the growth of more carefully cultivated plants. They’re the only plants in the painting.
This painting has also made me appreciate the weeds I’m not pulling in my own yard. I can see them as plants that happen to live in my area, that predate my house and scoff at my landscaping, that have flourished in a summer of heavy rains. I also appreciate the time I’m not spending in battle with them. These days, in my yard, I just live with them. On my walks, I let the wild plants brush my legs. Here are some I pass every morning on my walk with my dog. I’ve come to know and even admire them:
“Wild Anjelica” makes me reflect on my writing process, too. I love the revision stage of writing best because it feels like weeding. The work is hard, sometimes grueling, but satisfying, bringing clarity and lightness. I am a ruthless reviser, cutting out unnecessary scenes and plot lines, or even eliminating characters.
The hardest part of writing for me is shifting from polishing a book to embarking on something new. Tolerating the messiness, the sprawling plot lines and willful characters that threaten to destroy my careful planning, climbing over my path and over the fence rails.
The project I’m working on now has a very new shape for me — it’s a verse novel — and it continually surprises me. New voices clamor to be heard when I thought I had only two narrators. My careful dual timeline structure wants to go in new directions. Backstory creeps in at every turn.
“Wild Anjelica,” and the “weeds” along my walks, are ultimately teaching me patience. I am learning to see the process of drafting, especially in this new-to-me form, not as messiness, but as wildness. I am trying to be more playful, and not worry so much yet about whether some parts are getting in the way of the story, or whether they are the story itself. I am not plotting and planning this project in the same way I have organized my previous novels. Maybe some parts of this particular story are demanding my attention for a reason. Maybe some voices want to be heard. My challenge to myself as I embark on this very early draft is to resist that urge to weed. I will make some space for surprises, and pay attention, as I learn to write — and live — in a new form.
I’m so, so excited to announce a new book deal — and my first foray into Middle Grade! Fitzroy Books, an imprint of Regal House Publishing, acquired my new mystery, TROUBLE AT TURTLE POND, for publication in Spring 2022. It’s a friendship-centered eco-mystery, about a team of self-appointed young wildlife rangers who try to stop a series of crimes against local endangered turtles – think HOOT meets HELLO, UNIVERSE.
Regal House is a traditional independent publisher putting out a wide range of books for kids, teens, and adults. I’ve been snatching up some of their recent and past titles, reading avidly, and am honored to be in the company of such a talented team of authors and editors. (And they have beautiful covers!) This is an exciting new chapter in my writing career, with a new age group and a new publisher, so I’ll be sharing plenty of news and updates here along the way. Meanwhile, here’s the official deal announcement in Publisher’s Marketplace!
It’s been awhile since I’ve posted here – I’ve been a bit busy! (Excuse me a moment while I dust off this blog and throw open some windows!)
So. I spent most of last year working on a brand new book, False Idols. (Hence the lack of blogging). And I’m thrilled to announce, it’s out today!!!
Wow – BLUE VOYAGE was selected as a 2016 “Must-Read” for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts! I’m so honored to be in the company of these amazing authors. Congratulations to all Massachusetts Book Awards winners and honorees! Do check out all the great reads across categories on their poster, which will be distributed to libraries throughout the state. (Blue Voyage is listed on the right sidebar, second from the bottom).
Continuing my series of actual travel photos that inspired BLUE VOYAGE scenes, here’s another!
This is me, in a cave in the Cappadocia region of Turkey. This region is honeycombed with caves and tunnels and entire underground cities, of which this is one. Various civilizations took up residence in these caves in ancient times, one civilization eventually replacing another. People lived sometimes eight stories underground, bringing their livestock down with them. This is one of the coolest yet creepiest places I’ve ever been. At least I had a tour guide and a light, and some air, all those good things. In BLUE VOYAGE, Zan isn’t quite so lucky, and she’s desperate to find her way out! I was glad I had experienced the cave cities firsthand and journaled about it later; when I wrote the cave scenes with Zan, I was able to recall the way the walls felt when you scraped against them, the distinctive odor, and the immense sense of claustrophobia. (Notice I’m not exactly smiling in this picture!)
It was a busy weekend, celebrating BLUE VOYAGE’s launch! Many thanks to Porter Square Books in Cambridge for hosting the Evening Edition of my two-part release party!
And thank you to Ohlin’s Bakery in Belmont for a glorious and delicious cake! This cake represents a nazar, an evil eye charm to protect against the evil eye, so hopefully we all internalized a bit of good luck.
I know something was working for me on Friday because I got through the awful Friday traffic and found a parking spot right in front of the store!
I chose to have a nazar cake and to give out small evil eye beads for party favors because the evil eye protector is important in Turkish culture and very important to Zan in the book. (When she breaks a nazar bracelet, things start to get really tough for her!) read more…
Here’s the Blue Voyage Story-Behind-the-Story photo of the day! (Scroll back through this week’s previous post to see my daily photos from a trip to Turkey and the scenes they inspired in the novel!)
This is the roof of a small hotel I stayed at in Istanbul. The rooftop garden and patio inspired scenes in a similar (but fictitious) boutique hotel that is run by Zan’s Aunt Jackie. Zan spends a lot of her down time on this roof looking at the sea on one side and the Blue Mosque on the other — and at an intriguing boy on the rooftop next door!
BLUE VOYAGE launched yesterday, and I had the first of two release parties! This was the Afternoon Edition, held at a new bookstore in Plainville, MA called An Unlikely Story. Plainville is a small town about an hour’s drive from Boston, and it’s recently been on people’s radar because of An Unlikely Story.
I was thrilled to make this road trip because this shiny new bookstore is getting a lot of great buzz. It was created by local author Jeff Kinney (yes, that’s the one — of Wimpy Kid fame!). You can read a great article about the store’s inception here — it’s a fascinating account of how a derelict building was repurposed for this outstanding bookstore / community hub, and how a bookstore can potentially transform a community.
My son is a HUGE Wimpy Kid fan, so when I suggested taking him out of school and coming to this after school release party with me, he didn’t raise any objections! We had no guarantee that Jeff Kinney would actually be there — it can be hit or miss, say friends who have done events there — but I thought even seeing this place Jeff had created would be a great experience for my son. read more…
Blue Voyage is officially out in the world today!
To celebrate, I’m on the CrimeFiction FM podcast talking with host Steve Campbell about the origins of the books, writing teen travel mysteries, and YA mystery. This is an excellent podcast featuring short (15-20 minutes) chats with mystery and crime writers — mostly for the adult market, but mystery/crime fans of all ages can enjoy these conversations, and they’re a must-listen for anyone writing mystery.
This afternoon I’m super-excited to be having an after-school book release party, 4:00-6:00 pm, at An Unlikely Story in Plainville, MA! This is a new bookstore started up by Wimpy Kid creator Jeff Kinney, and it’s the talk of the town in Plainville and surrounding towns! It’s about 45-60 minutes from Boston, and very close to Rhode Island, so if you’re in those areas come and join us! (And if you miss it, there’s an evening edition launch party at Porter Square Books in Cambridge this Friday evening at 7 pm).
Here’s a sampler of some of the treats I’ll be serving up at this week’s launch parties . . . read more…