Hidden Figures in the Restroom

In Hidden Figures, the excellent film about African-American women mathematicicans working at NASA in the early years of the space program, the main character, Katherine, spends an inordinate amount of time rushing across the Langley campus in her heels to the Colored Women’s restroom. In fact, the sequences get a bit tiresome–until you realize that of course that’s the point: If watching it is tiresome, imagine having to make that trip, half a mile each way, whenever you need to relieve yourself. Meanwhile, Katherine’s

Katherine Johnson, NASA, 1966

boss gets annoyed that she’s absent so much, until the day she finally explains. Then he takes a sledgehammer to the sign and integrates NASA’s bathrooms.

Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn, 1912

Women scientists have had bathroom trouble before. I describe one instance in my book Magnificent Minds. When nuclear physicist Lise Meitner began working with chemist Otto Hahn in Berlin in 1907, the boss, famous organic chemist Emil Fischer, restricted her to the basement. Fischer’s excuse? Meitner’s long hair might catch fire in the Bunsen burners upstairs. (Fischer’s bushy beard apparently presented no such danger.) Besides being confined to the woodshop, Meitner had to walk down the street to a nearby hotel to use the restroom.

How silly, but how oppressive. Nothing says, “Your kind isn’t wanted here” like failing to provide restrooms. I can’t help but think of these examples as I read about the controversy over which bathrooms transgendered students may use in schools. I’m not convinced by statements that restricting bathroom use is “to protect our daughters.” What is the fear? That a person who considers herself female is going to display male genitalia to frighten other girls in the bathroom? Why would she? Or is the fear that males will pretend to be transgender to get into girls’ bathrooms and spy on them? But then why don’t they do that now? Right now, a man could slip on a dress and a wig and go through the wrong door. This doesn’t seem to happen. What changes if we welcome those who consider themselves female into the bathroom of their choice?

No, I think on the whole the real issue is something else. A woman from Omaha explained it on NPR this morning. She works in a school, she says, and they have transgender students, and even though she doesn’t “approve of their choice,” the school treats them all with love. But allowing them to use the bathroom that makes them comfortable “would only encourage it.” The idea seems to be that allowing a young person to use their chosen bathroom would overcome all their other hesitations and lure them into becoming transgender, a choice they would otherwise rationally reject.

I don’t think this makes sense.

I understand that the mere idea of transgender people can make us uncomfortable. From early childhood, a person’s gender is one of the very first things we perceive about them. To think that this designation is fluid or uncertain can be profoundly disorienting. What does it mean about us? Do we really have to think about this? But truly, people who question or seek to change their gender are not impinging on our freedom or physical security.

sledgehammerAnd for all you men out there, I’ll tell you a secret. Women’s restrooms have stalls. Women use the toilet in privacy.

Forty years ago, when I attended Harvard, the houses in the Radcliffe Yard were co-educational. Males and females lived on the same floors. But because the dorms had been built when Radcliffe housed only women, there was only one large shared bathroom on each long hallway. The dorm held an annual bathroom vote to determine whether the bathrooms should also be co-ed, or whether half the population should have to travel to another hallway or another floor. Over and over, the co-ed bathrooms prevailed. People used the toilet stalls. They closed the shower doors. They didn’t intimidate or harass one another. In fact, it worked pretty much the way it does when you’re at home. Everyone was welcome to use the bathroom. It wasn’t a big deal.

So maybe it’s time to do what Kevin Costner did in Hidden Figures. Knock down the signs. A restroom is a restroom. A person who needs it should be allowed to use it, and we can all be just a little courteous and discreet.

How Working with an Editor Strengthened the opening of THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE

THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE had taken me two years to write, and I thought it was good. I took it to Calumet Editions editor Ian Leask for a read.

The opening is weak, he told me.

I thought I had masterfully crammed my main themes into my opening. My protagonist Kiran hesitated between becoming a musician and becoming a soldier. He argued with himself internally even as I showed the world he lived in and wove in backstory about his lost father and brother.

Too static, Ian said. Make the conflict external, active. Besides, he added, your book is about Kiran’s identification with his father. Make him defend his father.

Begrudgingly, I started for the fifteenth time to rework my first chapter. I threw Kiran into in mock swordfight with his nemesis Ryan, the blacksmith’s son, who taunts him by insulting his father. Kiran gets crushed, but writing the scene opened a way for me to show other aspects of his conflict. Ryan threatens to break Kiran’s flute where it leans against a tree, and Kiran jumps to rescue it.  He doesn’t dither; he doesn’t think to himself; he shows what he values by acting.

A bell rings. As the two rivals rush back to the village to prepare for the barge bringing examiners from the capital, Kiran encounters the herb-woman Nora. Village children have knocked her down, and

Old Woman and Boy in a Forest, by Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps, around 1848

reluctantly Kiran stops to help her rise and to carry her burden. All at once I found myself portraying a classic fairy tale figure: the old woman who makes demands on the hero’s kindness and then prophesies for him. Nora says,

“I know why you’re discontented, Kiran. Instead of the sword you yearn for, you carry a flute. Instead of a spear, you carry water for slaves. I’ll tell you something that’s painful to learn. We don’t always choose our burdens; sometimes they choose us. In war or in peace—”

Nora’s daughter Myra interrupts. Then the herb-woman resumes.

[She] reached to probe the bruise on Kiran’s wrist where he had struck aside Ryan’s sword. “What I mean to say,” she told him, “is you need not worry. The day will come, and you will be a warrior, Kiran.”

Kiran will be a warrior? What does Nora mean? In what way? “The day will come . . .”  Now I, as writer, have made a promise to my readers. The story is launched.

Thank you, Ian.

Book Signings: Best and Worst

A few people have asked me if I’m planning a book tour for THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE. I’d be happy to come talk to just about any group that invites me, but I find talks at schools or to teachers much more fruitful than bookstore signings.

The sad truth is I’m not famous enough for people to flock to a bookstore to see me. Not very many authors are. Think about it: how many times have you gone to book signing and author talk, especially for a new author you don’t already know? Bookstores know this. Some of them (I’m talking about you, Kepler’s) even charge an author or her publisher for the chance to visit.

Still, I’ve had some really great events. The trick is to have a main event that is something more than a signing or even a reading. I’ve talked about women in science in places from colleges to gatherings of science teachers to research labs, and in April I’m going to lecture at the American Library in Paris. Not that they’re paying for my trip or anything, but I’ll be there visiting family, and it will be fun to talk about the Curies and Sophie Germain in their home country.

At a lecture, I can often sell twenty to fifty copies of MAGNIFICENT MINDS or REMARKABLE MINDS, and one site bought two hundred, so those are good events.

And then there’s family or kid-oriented events. Once a co-author and I created a trivia contest. For LOST IN LEXICON, I worked with the wonderful Kirsten Cappy to create a “Lexicon Villages” event. At schools or in libraries, I set up nine stations of playful word and math-related activities for kids. We pulled in teacher or parent volunteers to help staff the tables. At one of the very best of these events, a school in Brookline held an event on a snowy evening. Parent volunteers even served pizza. A third of grades 4 through 6 showed up with their families, and I wandered among the villages and signed books for two happy hours.

But even having great activities is no guarantee of a good event. Once an enthusiastic bookstore owner in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who urged me to come do an event. She could get 200 schoolchildren there, she promised. Eventually, I decided to stop in Albuquerque on my way to California for a work trip.

At the airport I rented a car. The event was going to be the next day, but I decided to scout out the store ahead of time. That was a good idea that I carried out badly–by locking the car keys in the trunk in the bookstore parking lot. It took AAA an hour to come, and my trip expenses rose further. I also learned that the bookstore owner had recently suffered a heart attack. She was much bettlil-coverer now, but she had never managed to contact her partner schools to make arrangements.

Next day, I arrived in plenty of time to set up my activity tables in the aisles of the bookstore. Then I sat. And sat. Finally, a young black woman came in with her daughter, who must have been around five years old, and asked about the special event. I started to show her some of the activities, but the proprietess bustled up and told the visitor that her daughter was too young and could not participate. Frustrated that she had come our for nothing, the lady muttered angrily as she swept her daughter away.

Nobody else came.

So that was that. Two thousand miles, two days, and one angry, rejected customer.

That was my worst book event ever.

What would you most like to see or hear at a book event? Do you like to hear the author read? Talk about how the book was constructed? Hear about what the author is working on next? Play games?



Character 2: Writing the Middle-Grade (or YA) Novel

In the last post, I addressed round vs. flat characters. Now let’s discuss how to create round characters.

First, a confession. In many of the middle-grade books I’ve written, character has taken second place to plot or to concepts I’m trying to get across. Two books, I think, have really deep character exploration. One is THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE, where virtually all the characters are round enough to have shadows–darker, more complex facets to their personalities. You can imagine them having bad dreams. But BEECHWOOD FLUTE is a young adult novel; it has a little more room than the average middle-grade novel.

The same could be said for THE ICE CASTLE, which is the second book in my Lexicon series. It’s written for ages 10 to 14 or so, but it’s longer than many books for that age range. In it, my characters Daphne and Ivan become much more complicated and individuatedice-frontcov-rd3101-hires than in LOST IN LEXICON. They clash about social justice in a world where all that matters is how well a person sings, and they take action in separate spheres. But perhaps I had the most fun delineating their spoiled but constricted cousin Lila, a child singing star who wakes to her own sense of freedom.

But I think my best characters yet are in a middle-grade novel that will be coming about a year from now called . The heroine is a seventh-grade girl, half-Kenyan like my nephews, and her conflicts involve identity (not just racial identity, but her identity as a young scientist) and justice. If any of you out there are interested in seeing an advance copy to review it, please let me know!

Now that self-promotion is out of the way, on to how to create characters. Many writing manuals will suggest that you should know everything about your character before you begin: looks, fashion choices, age, family tree, hobbies, schooling, greatest hopes and fears, house and neighborhood, favorite foods and TV shows and bands, etc. I’m not so sure. I’m always wary of the assignments we give ourselves to put off actually sitting down and writing a first draft.

I like to get to know a character the way I get to know a friend: by observing him or her, hearing her speak, gradually learning more about his background as we become closer. Characters start to inhabit the writer’s head; they become clearer over time. Yes, it can be helpful to ask yourself questions like the following:

What does this character fear most?

What does she hope for?chemistry

What is his happiest memory?

Who are her heroes?

What embarrasses him?

What does she carry in her pocket?

But I think these questions are better asked over time, as you see how your character speaks and acts.

Think of a dating app. Imagine filling out an extremely lengthy questionnaire, and then choosing a date based on answers to something similar. By the time you go on your first date you might already be a little bored by your partner, or you might find that despite all the careful screening there’s just no chemistry.

With your characters, you have to have chemistry first. There’s no way you’re going to want to spend a year or more with someone who never reveals more layers and never surprises you. Let character be something that deepens and reveals itself over time, even to you.



Character: Writing the Middle-Grade Novel III

In Tuesday night’s middle-grade novel class, after reading and discussing students’ first chapters, we moved on to discuss how to portray character in middle-grade fiction.

There are two categories of characters, flat and round, and there is a place for each of them. Not every character can be complex and nuanced. Some characters serve a simpler purpose in driving the story forward.A flat character should be simple but memorable. We don’t expect subtlety or growth from such a character. We do expect unusual or highlighted features that help us remember the character, so we aren’t scratching our heads and searching our memories when he or she makes another brief appearance.

Examples of flat characters include Mrs. Micawber or Miss Havisham in Dickens. We remember one thing about them (“I shall never leave Mr. Micawber,” or a faded wedding dress) and we don’t expect them to change. Think of characters in the Harry Potter series like Malfoy’s goons Crabbe and Goyle or the ghastly, sickly sweet Doris Umbrage. Flat characters often have memorable names that characterize them, along with odd looks and mannerisms. Flat characters can also provide comic relief.

Round characters are complex, and often they grow, change, or surprise us. Neither fully black nor white, they have shadows playing across their surfaces. Heroes have weak spots, like Dumbledore’s weakness for a Dark wizard in his youth or Sirius Black’s depression and foul temper. Even villains (or seeming villains) have redeeming features, like Draco Malfoy’s regrets at the end of the Harry Potter series (though I believe both Malfoy and Snape are failed characters, since both remained flat for far too long). Another example is Long John Silver in Treasure Island. He may be a murderous pirate, but he has a genuine soft spot for Jim Hawkins.

In my novel The Beechwood Flute (which is young adult, not middle grade), I round out as many as possible of the characters around the hero, Kiran. Their complexity lies in their stepping out of the charactersKiran grew up believing them to be. Kiran’s mother and father disappoint them, one with disloyalty, one with bitterness. The stepfather who always mocked him surprises him by placing great faith in him. His longtime rival Ryan becomes a temporary, complicated ally. The priest who taught him music shows himself to be cunning, treacherous, and ultimately pathetic. And Kiran struggles to figure out the girl Myra and the savages who enslave him.

Understanding other people’s point of view is a major task of adolescence, and reading has been shown to increase out powers of empathy. But even The Beechwood Flute makes use of characters who are simple and straightforward. These include the wise herb-woman, Nora, and Kiran’s two younger siblings. These characters are meant to be convincing and distinct, but they act and stand out clearly, without unexpected shifts and gray areas. A reader can take only so much uncertainty!

Soon I’ll add a post on ways of depicting character.




Do wooden flutes sound different?

Three flutes, three sections to the book: that’s the organizing principle behind my young adult fantasy, THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE.  Kiran, the flute boy who wants to become a warrior to avenge his father’s death, first plays a flute made of birchwood. He plays mystical or patriotic tunes in the temple and lighthearted songs for village festivals. He takes his flute along on his trip downriver to the capital, but in the disaster that follows, the flute, half-destroyed, has to serve a new function. When he returns home, the priest who has mentored him throws the ruined flute into the fire.

The pattern repeats itself in each section of the book. Each time, a new flute, built from a new kind of wood, represents Kiran grasping onto hope again. Music is his way of shaping the swirl of emotion inside him as he realizes that the world is more complex and fraught with cruel folly than he knew. Each flute has a darker tone than the last, and each one finishes by serving a vital role that is not its intended one.  The birchwood flute gives way to the cedar flute, and the cedar flute to the beechwood flute.

It is a conceit of the tale that each kind of wood carries its own tone into Kiran’s music. Whether this really happens is unclear. An instrument’s pitch depends on its length. The stiffness of its walls might influence the reverberations that constitute tone.

Most of what I have read about how the medium of manufacture affects tone has addressed the difference between wooden flutes and metal ones. Wooden flutes are often characterized as having a “breathy” or “reedy” tone, while metal flutes have a tone that is more “bright” and “loud.” However, I particularly like this comment from the Abell Flute website:

… the pungent, reedy tone produced with a wooden flute is unequaled in any other material. While the brilliance of tone produced in the metal flutes is exquisite, there is a quality of sound, a dark rich fullness in the wooden instruments, which the metal flutes can only approach.

Other musicians sometimes characterize the tone of wooden flutes as “sweet” or “warm.” For Kiran, each flute has its own voice, which echoes his own mood and understanding. Each flute invites him to explore music in a new way, even as he is exploring new ideas, making new judgments and girding himself for new ways of acting in the world.


Writing the Middle-Grade Novel II

In the second session of my novel-writing class, we explored how to structure a plot. There are two main schools of writers, I told my students: those who just plunge in and write without certain knowledge of where they’re going, and those who plot and outline. (Members of the first group are often called “pantsers,” because they say they are proceeding by the seat of their pants.)

Steven King claims to be a pantser. He says he starts with a character in a situation and then just lets the ink ccontest-coverflow, writing at least 2000 words a day.

I contrasted King with engineering professor Peter Wong, with whom a wrote a middle-grade mystery called THE CONTAMINATED CASE OF THE COOKING CONTEST. The book was complicated, with four kids investigating an outbreak of foodborne illness. We had to weave together cooking challenges, meals aboard a cruise ship, trips to visit scientists, and lots of clues. Peter laid it all out in a spreadsheet with a timeline that showed everything from food to restaurants to encounters to how long it takes different bacteria to grow. Then we just had to put life on the bones.


Map of Lexicon
Map of Lexicon


Most books, I suspect, are written with a combination of the two methods. I started my first middle-grade book, LOST IN LEXICON, with two children entering a world of words and numbers. I had only the vaguest idea of where they would go or how they would return home. But before long I began mapping episodes and trying to figure out the form of the book’s final confrontation between intellectual freedom and control.


My most recent book, a young adult fantasy called THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE, began with a character facing a dilemma–his failure of courage at a pivotal moment. I knew themes I wanted to explore, but I had to build a world and an entire plot around those themes. I cycled between writing scenes and working out where it was all going. And yes, I drew maps for myself. Because the phase of the moon in different scenes mattered a lot (How dark is it at night? How does the moon guide Kiran, the hero?), I worked out a detailed timeline. Lots of sticky notes were involved.

During the class, I gave the students a few different approaches and tools for plotting. We talked about concept mapping and about writing ideas and brief notations of scenes on sticky notes arranged on a wall. We talked maps and timelines. We discussed rising action, and how it hits a high point very close to the end of the book (95% of the way through, we discovered, in looking at a couple of examples of middle-grade fiction). We discussed how the climax of action may occur at a different point from the climax of character, when the character embraces a new understanding or identity.

Then I briefly introduced the students to Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake method, which begins with a one-phrase plot description and one-phrase descriptions of main characters. Alternating from plot to character, the author builds out with ever more detail sections, chapter, scenes, and a complex history for each character. It’s like the fractal crystal growth of a snowflake as it forms.

One of my students really latched onto the snowflake method, while others felt more drawn to concept mapping. They split between outliners and pantsers. (I think I’d rather call them “plungers,” but maybe that sounds too much like plumbing.) I sent the students home with a big challenge for the week: to come in next time bringing either a full book outline or the first draft of a full first chapter. I’ll let you know what they came back with!

Writing the Middle-Grade Novel I

Right now, I am fulfilling an old dream. I’m teaching a community-based course on writing the middle-grade novel.* True, I have only three students and we’ve met only twice so far, but Tuesday evenings are now delightful. To my relief, I’ve found that I actually do have something to offer.

I asked my students to come with a novel in mind and perhaps already started, but in fact each arrived with only a vague sense of what she wanted to write. That was fine; we talked a bit about the length and sophistication of a middle-grade  novel (around 9 – 12 years old, or around grades 4 – 7, and usually 20,000 to 40,000 words long). Then we discussed our ideas in all their vagueness and tried to get a glimpse of the emotional core motivating each writer’s story.

In that first class session, we followed up with ten minutes of free writing, or what I call “writing around the story.” I asked each woman to write in the voice of her main character, quickly, without thinking, just letting the wormarbleds flow out. This way, the character can speak to the writer, helping them get to know one another.

The “homework” assignment for the week was to do ten minutes of free writing a day. Once again, I asked the students to “write around” their main character, any other key characters, and the characters’ story, while trying past and present tense, first and third person narrative.

And how did the week go? The women succeeded in writing for ten minutes on at least four of the days in their busy lives, writing on the train, in a coffee shop, or with the door closed on their family at home. More importantly, they discovered things about their main characters and their stories. One found herself drawn to the story of her character’s mother. One found that instead of writing a time travel story she wanted to dive straight into historical fiction.

I was happy to learn that free “writing around” worked for my students. Just write, I told them, and the story you are carrying with you will begin to make itself clear, just as the statue inside the block of marble called out to Michelangelo.

* My own most recently published novel, THE BEECHWOOD FLUTEis geared to a slightly older readership, ages 12 and up, called “YA” or young adult.