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Writing and reading and books, books, books (and anything that might relate)

May 2, 2013

Crime lab field trip

I love research that takes you places. Because there are some forensic elements to the next book, American Blonde, I’ve been studying up on all things crime-related.  Imagine how excited I was when I discovered LAVA and their monthly crime lab workshops held at L.A.’s impressive regional crime laboratory, on the campus of Cal State LA.

Professor Donald Johnson and investigator/author/educator Nick Guskos led the lectures and hands-on lab work (we worked with knives and blood!), and we got the lowdown on everything from reconstructing the crime to determining time of death to crime scene photographs to criminal profiling.  One woman fainted in her chair during the first lecture, but I found it fascinating.

Look how happy I am!


November 16, 2012

Lulu helps me research

This is the first week back at my desk in a month’s time. Now that I’ve been to Ireland for vacation and to North Carolina for the Southern leg of my book tour, I’m happily at home with my computer gathering ideas for the next story.

As many of you know, Lulu is my self-appointed Head Literary Cat– of my three wonderful kitties, she is easily the bossiest, and, after all, the two of us are always velcro-ed together.

Yesterday, I paused a documentary I was getting ready to watch because the phone rang. When I took the call, Lulu pushed a button on my keyboard and the video began playing again, and then she settled in to watch. As you can see, she was riveted. (She is deeply interested in social issues.)

October 13, 2012

Stick It

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , , — phoebe @ 12:00 pm

Reading, writing or researching, I am always sure to have sticky notes and a pen next to me. However I had never thought about how sticky notes came about. I found the research of such a seemingly simple object, to be quite fascinating.

First invented in 1968 by a chemist, they were unsuccessful because of their low adhesiveness. Years later in 1977 a colleague of his sold them under the name of ‘Press and Peel’. At this point they were still ineffective, however after a redesign, three years later they were launched as ‘Post it notes’. Yellow was accidentally used as the color, as the lab next to the Post it team had scraps of yellow paper. Today they are used in areas from art through to the virtual world.

Having progressed since the original yellow square, here are some unique sticky notes that can be found today.


April 2, 2012

Let the writing begin…

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , , — jennifer @ 9:30 am

I haven’t blogged for a week because, unfortunately, when something’s gotta give in my schedule, the blog is the first to go. I figure when it comes down to writing for my website or writing for Penguin, I will always choose the latter.

Last week was a mad scramble to get through some important research (not by any means the last of it, however) and do some last bit of outlining before I start writing book number seven. (I wish book number seven had a title so that I didn’t have to keep calling it book number seven, but until it does I’ll just refer to it as Velva Jean in Hollywood.) This weekend I took that outline– composed and arranged in a stack of virtual index cards through the writing program Scrivener— and presented it to my boyfriend. We sat on the sofa in our living room, surrounded by cats, and I told him the story from start to finish.

We did the same thing last year around this time when I was writing Becoming Clementine. I’m finding that nothing is more helpful, when you’re getting ready to write, than to tell someone you trust every single scene of the story. Some things don’t sound as strong or compelling or make as much sense when said aloud to an audience, and some sound even better so that you know you’re on the right track. He has questions or ideas, which lead to other ideas of your own, and before you know it you are reorganizing the puzzle pieces a bit until– oh yes– they seem to fit more naturally. You discard this and add that, and by the end of it you realize you’ve done a lot more good, solid work than you knew. As Louis said afterward, “You really know your story!”

Of course, it is fiction, which means things will change along the way. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “It’s like making a movie: All sorts of accidental things will happen after you’ve set up the cameras. So you get lucky. Something will happen at the edge of the set and perhaps you start to go with that; you get some footage of that. You come into it accidentally. You set the story in motion, and as you’re watching this thing begin, all these opportunities will show up.”

The important thing is to have a good, detailed idea of the first couple of chapters and know all the most crucial beats that follow. Inevitably the characters and story will veer from the path now and then, taking you places you don’t anticipate. But it’s good and necessary to have a road map.

So my road map is in place, even though the research will continue and the route will alter before I get to my destination. But now there are no excuses, no reasons to delay. The book is due in September and it’s time to draw the blinds and lock the doors and turn off the phone and start writing.

March 12, 2012

The Places a Book Can Take You

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , , — jennifer @ 8:56 am

Right now I am so busy juggling two books, that my readers and friends worry about me. Their primary concern is that my work is too isolating and that it keeps me too burdened down at my desk. I am at my desk a lot, especially at this moment as I’m editing what’s called the galleys or first pass of my upcoming book (to be released September 25), Becoming Clementine; producing, writing, directing, designing, acting in, and scoring a trailer for the book; and researching/outlining/writing the book that comes after, due to my publisher September 15. It’s true I’m at my computer or working somewhere for hours every day. But, while I may at times feel overwhelmed (to put it mildly), I never feel limited.

As a little girl, the thing I loved most about writing was that it could take you anywhere. Through my stories, I could see the world– the universe!– or imagine a new one. I could be anyone or anything.

Now that I’m all grown up and writing for a living, this is still the thing I love most about writing. I get to travel, through words and computer, to distant, exotic, foreign lands, often going back in time to long ago worlds or forward in time to ones that haven’t even been created.

One of the other best things about writing books is that they can literally take you to the most interesting places.

I’ve written each of my books because they were stories I wanted to read. I didn’t write them because I wanted to travel to this setting or that one to do research or because I hoped I might be invited on nice trips someday. But that’s exactly what has happened.

For research, I’ve been all over Scotland and Canada. I’ve been to Paris, London, Maine, New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta, Vermont, Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas, the Smoky Mountains, Missisippi, Newfoundland, and the tiny town of Wilson, North Carolina, to eat barbecue with the son of Arctic heroine Ada Blackjack, the subject of my second book. I’ve toured Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert and climbed around the imposing Devil’s Courthouse on the Blue Ridge Parkway and stood on the dock in Victoria, BC, where the men of the Ice Master expedition set sail in 1913. For my memoir, The Aqua Net Diaries, I even reunited with my high school classmates in our small Indiana hometown, retracing the steps of my big-haired, boy crazy teenage self.

With my publishing team from Pan Macmillan, I was one of the first to ride the London Eye, soon after it opened.

I traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, with the jawbone of one of the sailors I wrote about in The Ice Master to reunite his last remains with his great-nephew while teams of news crews filmed us.

I was invited to Venice, Italy, to speak to the Italian Explorers Club and receive the Giuseppe Mazotti Prize for Literature, Italy’s highest literary honor.

I’ve attended a ball on the Queen Mary, had tea at the home of Lord George Emslie, Lord President of the Court of Session and Lord Justice General, Scotland’s senior judge from 1972 until 1989, and drunk moonshine with gold miners in the mountains of Georgia. I’ve posed for pictures in front of icebergs and on top of mountains, in graveyards and ruins, and with puffins and moose and llamas. I’ve become good friends with the families of the men and women I’ve written about.

In 2005, a few years after the publication of my Arctic nonfiction adventures The Ice Master and Ada Blackjack, I was invited to the high Russian Arctic for two weeks aboard an ice breaker. With Quark Expeditions, I traveled up the Bering Strait, stopping at remote Inuit villages, before reaching Wrangel Island– the setting for those first two books– where I was dropped by helicopter with Bob Headland, then head of the Scott Polar Research Institute, and a Russian translator, and allowed a private tour.

I appeared at the Southern Spring Home & Garden Show in Charlotte, North Carolina, where award-winning designer Joycelyn Armstrong had created a kitchen inspired by Velva Jean Learns to Drive.

Just last year, I returned to my Indiana hometown for the official book release party for Velva Jean Learns to Fly, and listened to Mayor Sally Hutton proclaim it “Jennifer Niven Day.”

In 2014, I’ve been invited to go back to the Arctic– for a month this time– for the 100th anniversary of the Ice Master expedition rescue, and will once again travel by ice breaker up the coast of Siberia to Wrangel Island.

Most recently, I was invited to the San Diego Air & Space Museum for a Velva Jean Learns to Fly Aviation Adventure, hosted by Adventures by the Book. As we were on our behind-the-scenes tour, exploring the basement of the museum where all the planes are constructed and refurbished, my boyfriend said, “You get to go to the coolest places.”

And I do. But perhaps none cooler than the places I get to go to every day when I’m just sitting at my desk.

February 13, 2012

In Search of the Perfect Reading Chair

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , , — jennifer @ 12:03 pm

Now that I’ve handed in the copy edits, here are the primary things I’m working on:

~ Creating, shooting, appearing in (!), and producing a book trailer for Becoming Clementine. (More on this later…)

~ Updating my website for Becoming Clementine, building web pages for the book as well as redesigning my homepage to feature the cover (which means I’ll be revealing the brand new cover soon!). (No, I don’t actually do the implementing and the building– my computer genuis boyfriend handles that.)

~ Researching and outlining Velva Jean’s adventure in Hollywood (hereafter referred to as “Hollywood”), which means sifting through volumes of material from that era, including book after book on everything from the studio system to Max Factor to Hollywood nightlife to the story of MGM to Los Angeles and the mob to every movie star biography/autobiography ever written about or by a star of the 1940s.

With all this researching and outlining, I’ve been reading at my desk, averaging two books a day, hunched over in my office chair, going back and forth between the book and my computer, where I’m inputting notes. At the end of the work day, my back feels 150 years old, and while yoga and Physique 57 certainly help, the next session at my desk seems to undo most of the good they’ve done.

So I am on the hunt for a cozy, comfortable reading chair– this is in addition to my office chair– something I can sink into and relax in, and something that will ideally be big enough to hold me and several books and maybe a literary cat or two at the same time. Of course, it also has to have a nice sense of style and look good in my office.

And, perhaps most important, the cats have to like it. After all, they spend almost all day every day with me in my office and they are always looking for new and exciting places to sleep. (Usually on top of my work or on the computer keyboard.)

Any recommendations? If so, I’d love to hear them.

January 17, 2012

Behind the Book — Tangents

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , , — jennifer @ 7:37 pm

I have always wanted to be a private detective, ever since the days I collected Charlie’s Angels cards and pretended to be Kelly Garrett on the playground of Westview Elementary School. Once, a few years ago, I even looked into some part-time detecting work, in an attempt to realize that long-ago dream.

In my work as a writer, I do a lot of research. Actually, I get to do a lot of research. This is one of the things I most love about writing. It’s like being Kelly Garrett under cover on a case– on numerous cases– every single day. Set me down in front of the internet or in a library or archive surrounded by books and other materials, and I will lose myself for hours or, depending on the subject I’m dealing with, days.

The only problem is that I will almost always wander off on tangents. This is one of the amazing things about research. There’s so much to learn! Not just about the thing you’re specifically researching but about everything!

Today was a research day. Unlike yesterday, which was creatively frustrating, today was one of those days when I completely lost track of time and all sense of place and just disappeared into my story. For a while I stayed admirably on point and then, inevitably, I diverged. It’s much like going on a road trip and stopping at all the interesting and unexpected places along the route (which, incidentally, is the way I like to go road tripping).

The tangents always start the same way: “I’ll just check on this one thing, and then I’ll go right back to what I was doing…” And that one thing leads to another thing, which leads to another and another, until, before I know it, I’m about fifty or sixty miles (or more) off course.

Some of these tangents can lead to dead ends– they’re just ways to satisfy my curiosity on a random subject I’ve stumbled across. While others actually lead me to information I didn’t expect and didn’t know, but which I end up weaving into my books. These kinds of discoveries can influence and shape the plot and the story, but I just have to know when to get back on the road, back on track, and keep going.

Today I went on a small tangent which led to a a big discovery– an exciting plot addition! A huge plot addition! I always know when I’ve struck gold (as opposed to reaching that dead end) when I don’t want to stop reading about whatever it is or watching some sort of video footage of it or digging deeper and deeper till I uncover every last thing there is to know about it. When I’m this into an idea, it’s amazing how much I can learn about it in such a short time.

I’m dying to share my finds, but that would only spoil the story for you, so instead I’ll share a handful of great resources for the Charlie’s Angel in every writer:

National Geographic Map Machine
The Library of Congress
FBI Records
Info Please
Life Magazine
Real Military Videos
The Margaret Herrick Library
The Crime Library

December 17, 2011

Behind the Book — I Am Chuck Yeager for a Day

One of the best things about being a writer is doing research. Before I got notes back from my editor (last week) on the third Velva Jean book, and before I found out (this past Wednesday) that my own edits are due back to her by next Wednesday (!), I had scheduled a tour of Edwards Air Force Base for Friday, December 16.

The main reason for wanting to tour the base is that it was once the site of Pancho Barnes’s Happy Bottom Riding Club (made famous for a whole new generation in the movie The Right Stuff). Before she was a shrewd businesswoman running a bustling and popular dude ranch–complete with restaurant, hotel, casino, and rodeo– where she entertained Hollywood royalty and the test pilots who trained at nearby Muroc Army Airfield, Pancho Barnes was a pilot herself. She was, in fact, once the fastest woman on earth. In other words, she was a fearless pilot like Velva Jean, and someone Velva Jean might cross paths with when she travels to Hollywood in book four.

There’s not much left of Pancho’s now–a fire destroyed most of the ranch in 1953 and what was left became part of brand new Edwards Air Force Base not long after. The closest you can get to what used to be the Happy Bottom Riding Club is touring Edwards Air Force Base, which is why I got up yesterday at 5:00 am and left the edits at home (did I mention the entire edited manuscript is due NEXT WEDNESDAY?) and braved the cold (29 degrees for the first hour of the tour). Oh, but I’m glad I did.

First of all, the place itself– Rosamond, CA– has its own particular stark beauty. The closer you get to the Air Force Base, the more it feels as if you’ve somehow landed on another planet. Aside from the odd Joshua Tree here and there, it is so flat–except for mountains rising up miles away in the distance– and the horizon is so wide that I could almost see the curve of the earth.

The tour ran from about 9 am to 2 pm. Edwards has strict guidelines: no cameras, no cell phones, no open-toed shoes, no heels, no binoculars, etc. We met our bus outside the west gate of the base, and from there we drove to the museum, which has a collection of really cool stuff, including a door belonging to one of Pancho Barnes’s trucks, lots of things relating to Chuck Yeager’s historical 1947 breaking of the sound barrier, and some very cool planes, like one super-stealth SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest plane in the sky, which, I have to say, is one sexy plane.

From there, we toured the base by bus, and, early on, the tour guide waved his hand toward where Pancho’s ranch used to be (you really can see for miles and miles and miles), but where no one is allowed to go now because it sits right beside a light arms firing range. As if the tour guide could read my mind (I had a fleeting image of myself jumping off the bus and running for Pancho’s, just to see the ruins that I know are still there), he said, “Unfortunately we can’t even think about going there. If you don’t get killed from the firing range, you’d be sure to get arrested.”

Next we headed to NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, which is located smack in the middle of the base, right on the edge of Rogers Dry Lake, which is left over from prehistoric times, and which is covered with multiple runways, including the longest runway in the world. (The dry lake is so large that you can see it from space.) Yesterday’s tour of NASA was the last one ever, thanks to budget and personnel cuts, so we were very lucky to get to step through the main doors (apparently the same doors Major Nelson and Major Healey walked through every morning for work on I Dream of Jeannie).

After watching a 16-minute film, we toured one of the hangars, learning about each of the aircraft housed there and the roles they play in NASA’s research and development. We walked out onto the flight line and saw two of the specially-modified jets that have been used to carry the Space Shuttle, as well as a flurry of other aircraft, new and old, and– just off the flight line– a Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, not the one that landed on the moon with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, but the one they trained in.

Then it was lunch in the cafeteria and browsing the gift shop, followed by more bus-touring of the Air Force part of the base. By this time, the wind was picking up and our tour guide said the windy conditions (a daily happening) were why they only did test flights in the morning hours. We heard stories about Chuck Yeager and Pancho Barnes, saw the base housing, the movie theater, the shopping centers, one of the two chapels, the test pilot training school, etc. We learned the Marines have a couple of buildings there, and there is no hospital on base, even though the base is as large as Los Angeles and has some 11,000 residents. Except for that, it was really an entire self-sustaining world.

Before I knew it, it was 2 pm, and we were being dropped in the parking lot where we’d met the bus that morning. I may not have seen Pancho’s ranch, but the tour was an amazing experience that managed to go above and beyond just being a research trip. The only thing is, as inspired as I was by going and as much as I’m looking forward to being done with my edits (NEXT WEDNESDAY!) so that I can start in on this new Velva Jean adventure, I’m feeling even more inspired to become a test pilot. I can just see myself behind the throttle of that Blackbird…

(Interested in going on a tour yourself? You can get all the info you need here.)