On reading and being read

I really enjoy reading.  I was a voracious reader as a kid.  My reading included several Jack London books from my grandmother’s bookcase and whatever caught my fancy at the library.  If it had animals in it (mostly horses) I’d read it, which included Black Beauty and Flicka, of course.   When babysitting, in my teenage years, I perused the parents’ bookshelves, two of whom were doctors – a  a child psychiatrist (his kids were a challenge) and a neurosurgeon.  There was a plethora of illustrated medical textbooks, and I found lots of pictures of gross anatomy.  When I say “gross” I don’t mean it in the medical sense.  Another gal for whom I frequently babysat had a copy of Mandingo by Kyle Onstott next to her easy chair.  Yowser!  That was definitely not young adult lit, and I couldn’t wait to babysit again and read the rest.  I was too embarrassed to ask if I could borrow it when she was done, and worried she’d tell my mom in any case.  Gasp!

That was then.  Now I have grown children of my own and even grandkids who are reading and one who is starting to write stories.  Be still my heart!  When I read now, it’s usually on the Kindle app on my iPhone.  Not only is it easier physically on my wrists and hands (I have carpal tunnel syndrome) but it’s backlit so I don’t have to keep a light on when I read in bed.  Best of all, though, is the built-in dictionary.  I can highlight a word and up pops the definition.  Technology is a wondrous thing.

I’m kind of a techno- and info-junky in as much as my pocketbook will allow.  My husband and kids will tell you I should lose the “kind of.”  As a result, when I read a book, I’m more than likely going to look things up beyond definitions.  For instance, I was reading Death Calls by Caridad Piñeiro and the main characters, who were in Miami and of Cuban descent, ate a take-out dish called ropa vieja.  I’d never heard of it, so I went online and found not only a definition but a recipe.  Now we eat it regularly, and love it.  By the way, ropa vieja is Spanish for “old clothes” and is a popular dish in many Latin countries.  One of the sources assumed “old clothes” was a metaphor for a throw-in-what-you-have stew.

Another of my favorite resources is Google Maps.  I was reading the Riley Jenson Guardian series by Keri Arthur, and again I had to act on my curiosity.  The author lives in Australia, and the series takes place there.  In one scene, the protagonist was in Melbourne, Australia, on Lygon Street, which she said was famous for its ethnic eateries.  (Do you detect a theme?)  I thought if it were a real street, it would be on Google Maps, so I entered Lygon Street, Melbourne, Au . . .  and clicked on the entire address when it popped up.  Bingo!  There was not only Lygon Street, but a row of flagged restaurants and other landmarks complete with phone numbers and addresses.  Since I wouldn’t be visiting other than virtually that didn’t matter, but it did put me in the right section of the street.  I grabbed the little guy on the top of the map’s scroll bar and put him on one end of the street, which brought my view down to street level.  From there, I coasted down the street and took a look around.  I didn’t even have to worry about driving down the wrong side of the street.

One day at work just after aquainting myself with Lygon Street, I had occasion to speak with a gentleman who was in Melbourne, Australia, and time to chat with him while I was looking up what he needed.  I told him about reading the book and looking around Lygon Street on Google Maps.  He knew the street and said it was known for Italian restaurants.  Must have been his favorite cuisine – I also saw, Greek, Thai, Mexican and lots more.  He also coached me in how to say Melbourne like a local (MEL-bǝn) and had me practice until he said I’d sound like a local as long as I didn’t say anything else.

What does all this mean to me the writer?  This world we live in is getting smaller all the time.  (I was going to say “exponentially” but I try to avoid buzz words that don’t really mean anything.)  I am not the only one who can say to myself, I wonder if that’s right? or I wonder what that looks like? and find out almost immediately.

One of my favorite authors, who shall remain nameless for the moment, turned her protag into a ferret, which she said was a rodent, and another character entered her into rat fights as just another rodent.  I didn’t have to look that one up – I’ve had ferrets.  They are not rodents; they’re carnivores who eat rodents.  They have fangs, not two long front teeth in the middle.  Due, I’m sure, to the lag between writing and publishing, it took two more books before her protag said something to the effect of “everyone knows ferrets aren’t rodents.”  Oops.  I felt bad for her.  When I had ferrets I found that lots of people mistakenly think they’re rodents.

As a writer, if you don’t know if something is possible or true, you’ll probably look it up.  The danger is those things you assume are true and don’t bother to look up.  Stephen King has confessed he hates to do research and it has come back to bite his backside more than once.

It’s something to keep in mind.  If it does happen to you just say, “Rats!” and know you’re in good company.

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