Friday, June 29, 2018

Writing as Continuing Education

Yesterday I was thinking about a book -- a hefty volume -- that I owned years ago and probably still have on a book shelf somewhere. The title, as I recall, was An Incomplete Education. I can't remember where I bought it, but I'm sure I was drawn to this book because of the title. In spite of the fact that I have a PhD, my education in some areas has been haphazard. One thing I always wanted as a child was to "know stuff". I wanted to be well-rounded. I ended up with a deep knowledge of some topics and only enough information to know how much I don't know about others. As I recall, this book was divided into categories, such as Music. The premise was that all "educated" adults should possess certain basic information.

I remember that I set out to work my way through the book, but I was soon bored with the process.  I am the kind of learner who learns best when I am following my nose. For example, I have no interest in baseball as a game. But when I was creating John Quinn, the  homicide detective that my crime historian Lizzie Stuart was about to meet in Death's Favorite Child, I wondered what he would be interested in. I pulled baseball out of the air -- maybe I was flipping by a game on television.

I filed the baseball idea away because it was irrelevant to the first book in the series. But baseball -- a sport I still know little about -- has weaved it's way into my writing over the years. When Lizzie goes to Chicago in You Should Have Died on Monday, the fourth book in the series, she goes to a sports store to buy Quinn a White Sox cap, and -- as a crime historian -- thinks for a few moments about the 1919 World Series.

Even if I don't feel inclined to rush to a stadium, I have pondered the arguments that a friend, who loves baseball, makes  -- that there is something magical about the game, that it is a "thinking person's game," that the rituals around baseball are worthy of note. So when a new friend mentioned that he collects the figures of baseball players from each team, my ears perked up. When I joined him and his wife for dinner, I had a chance to see his collection on display. And, suddenly I had another character who loved baseball -- a secondary detective in my Hannah McCabe police procedural novels.  In one scene, Pettigrew, my detective, recalls going to a baseball stadium with his father. He has a collection of baseball players.

I suspect that one day I will go to a baseball game because, as little interest as I have in the sport, it  keeps weaving its way into my consciousness. There are other topics that I've included in my books because they are necessary to time and place. Others that I've dug into because of something that I read or saw in passing. Some have been fun to learn more about, others disturbing. When possible I've done on-location research. Here's a short list from a couple of decades of writing:
--Madame Tussaud's wax museum in London
--the artist colony in St. Ives, Cornwall
--The conception of of King Arthur
--peanut allergies
--early 20th century drug addiction
--doll collecting
--brothel cuisine
--training for half-marathons
--gangsters in 1960s Chicago
--female blues singers
--New Orleans radio
--migrant labor on the Eastern Shore of Virginia
--how to escape from a car trunk
--peacocks and their habits
--voice-over acting
--soap opera writing
--the lobster industry in Maine
--West Point and cadet life in the 1970s
--Ranger training
--phenol poisoning
--Maine coons
--Lewis Carroll
--Characters in Alice in Wonderland
--Central Park in NYC
--The Wizard of Oz and the origin of the yellow brick road
--3-D autopsies
--virtual reality
--surveillance systems
--vertical gardening
--World War II nurses
--parrots (care, vocabulary, and response to anxiety)
--upstate New York villages
--amateur theaters in the 1940s
--Somerset Maugham and Raffles Hotel
--how to make a Singapore Sling
--the lifespan and migratory habits of eels
--1939 New York City World's Fair
--Pullman sleeping cars
--the premier of "Gone with the Wind" in Atlanta
--Eleanor Roosevelt's newspaper column

The list goes on, but you get the idea. My education may still be incomplete, but I think I might be able to make a respectable showing on Jeopardy (a fantasy of mine).

How has being a writer contributed to your continuing education?

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