Monday, February 29, 2016

Meet Liz Mugavero, Author of the Pawsitively Organic Mystery Series

by Shari Randall

The word "Pawsitively" perfectly captures the qualities that shine in Liz Mugavero's work: originality, creativity, positivity, and a passion for animals. I'm so glad she stopped by WWK to talk about her current series, her new series, and her "furries."

Liz, tell us about the latest release in your Pawsitively Organic Mystery series.

My newest book, Murder Most Finicky, is the fourth in the Pawsitively Organic Mystery Series. It was released on December 29, and in this installment, my protagonist Stan Connor leaves Frog Ledge on a weekend adventure to Newport, Rhode Island with a select group of gourmet (human food) chefs. Here’s the blurb:

The dog days of summer have arrived in the small town of Frog Ledge, Connecticut, and business is booming for Kristan "Stan" Connor. Her Pawsitively Organic pet food has even caught the attention of celebrity pastry chef Sheldon Allyn, who helps Stan open a fancy pet pastry shop in Frog Ledge. A partnership is born, and Sheldon invites Stan to Newport, Rhode Island, for an appreciation weekend he's hosting for all his independent chefs. But the gourmet getaway turns sour when one of the chefs turns up dead, and a second one goes missing. . . .

As Stan tries to figure out who had a recipe for murder, the pool of suspects expands. And if she can't sniff out the culprit soon, this killer may just serve up a second helping of murder. . .

I had a ton of fun writing these chefs. To prepare, I watched some cooking reality shows and envisioned a few characters that were even more over the top. Plus Stan’s family plays a bigger role in this book, and Nutty is traveling with Stan so there’s a whole lot of Maine coon cat love. Getting out of Frog Ledge opened the doors for new and different things too. I hope you have as much fun reading it as I did writing it!

You'll be kicking off a new series this year. Give us the details!

I’m working on a series for St. Martin’s Press tentatively titled the Cat About Town Mysteries. The premise is a cat cafe, which is a place where people can go to spend some time relaxing and playing with cats. The cats come from rescue organizations, so if anyone wants to adopt one, they can. Usually they’re affiliated with a human coffee shop, so you can have a cup of coffee while you’re spending time with the furries. 

My cat cafe series will be located on a fictional island off the coast of Massachusetts, which is an interesting place for a cat cafe. My cat, Junkyard Johnny, is the muse for the story—he’s got a starring role in the action. And of course, there’ll be murder and mayhem! I can’t wait to share a launch date for this series, and I’ll be sure to let you all know when it’s coming out. It will most likely be sometime in 2017.

How do you manage to write two mystery series along with a full-time job? Any helpful suggestions for other writers doing the same thing?

It’s not as easy as it sounds…oh, wait, it doesn’t actually sound that easy, does it? I certainly don’t think I’ve perfected a technique or anything. I just try to stay really focused on what I need to do, and I’ve been trying to be better about my time management. With my new day job, I’m able to work from home more often so I’m able to spend that hour in the morning and afternoon when I’d usually be commuting on writing—theoretically. Some days that works better than others. I’d also like to say I work on one book at a time, but sometimes I get a flash of inspiration for the book I’ve set aside and feel like I need give it attention while it’s hot. It works for me to jump back and forth a bit, and I usually just pay attention to whichever cast of characters is talking to me at the moment. 

Advice? I’d have to say be brutal with scheduling your time, and stick to it. I haven’t mastered this either, but I find that when I make the writing time a priority and schedule other things around it, I have better success than waiting until I’ve finished everything else that needs to get done and it’s nine at night and I haven’t written a word yet. That technique has brought me a lot of angst over the past year! 

Your website has a page devoted to your writing crew - your furries. Are they your muses?

Absolutely. The crew on the website have all been part of the books, or will be in an upcoming book. My Maine coon cat Tuffy was the start of everything, and the inspiration for Nutty in the Pawsitively Organic series. In those books, Stan seems to find a new animal to love in every installment, so keep an eye out for new additions in the future! Visit me at 

You are very active in the animal rescue world. Tell us a little about that work.

I’ve been doing cat rescue for about 20 years, and it’s been some of my most rewarding—and challenging—work. I started in New Hampshire, and was privileged to work with the best of the best there. I learned a ton and met so many amazing animals. Of course, I adopted some! Today, I don’t do as much hands-on as before (unless you count the mini-shelter in my house!) but try to help out in other ways. Social networking for animals that need homes, transports and donations are some equally impactful ways to contribute. In fact, I just collected almost 30 books from fellow authors to donate to the Pat Brody Shelter for Cats, a Massachusetts shelter near and dear to my family’s heart.

My newest project is #ProtectOurPets, a program I’m working on with some of my colleagues at Safe Futures, a domestic violence and sexual assault center at which I’m a board member. We’re starting up a program that will offer temporary shelter for animals when their person needs to leave an unsafe situation and won’t leave her or his pet behind. If you’re interested in reading more about it, you can find info here

Rescue dogs have also come into my life, and I’m hoping to do some fostering in the future. Whatever happens, animals will always be a huge part of my life.

Since it's WWK, I must ask: Beach or mountain?

Ha ha! Beach, baby! 

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Of campus visits and character development

Last week, my husband and I accompanied our son on a college visit. The outcome of the visit was never in doubt. My husband and I both received our undergraduate degrees from this university, and I've worked at it for almost 20 years. We know it well. Our son, who didn't even look at any other universities, applied and was admitted to the program of his choice last fall.

Still, we encouraged him to make an official visit on the off chance that he, as a prospective student, might not like what he saw. The visit was everything a parent could hope for: Demonstrations of beloved traditions, a walking tour of campus, meetings with his future professors, opportunities to explore extra-curricular activities. At the end of the day, he believed he'd made the right choice.

As expected.

What I didn't expect was my reaction to the visit, on two fronts.

First, I didn't expect that visiting campus as a mom would be so different from the way I experienced it as a student or see it now as an employee. But the mom lens colored the whole day. Will he be happy in the dorms? Will he and his stuff be safe? What supports are available if he struggles in any of his classes? Will he have opportunities to connect with mentors, pursue internships, participate in study abroad?

Will he get enough to eat?

As a mom, I have different priorities and different responsibilities and different questions for my alma mater.

Second, I didn't expect to get sideswiped by nostalgia. Our walking tour of campus took us through the journalism school building, where I practically lived for my last two years at the university. I've only been back inside once or twice since graduation 30 years ago, and the changes were unsettling. They moved the student newspaper newsroom, the center of my life for half my college career? I felt my heart break a little. I guess I expected time to stand still, even though I haven't?

These two unexpected reactions, part of the roller coaster of my emotions as my kiddo grows up and prepares to leave home, got me to thinking about a problem I'm having with one of the characters in the manuscript I'm working on now. She started off strong but lost her voice halfway through the story. The problem, I think, is that she's not layered enough. She has only one role at the moment, not the multiple roles (alumna, employee, mom) that give characters depth and inspire the strong, sometimes conflicting, emotions that motivate them and make the story sing for readers.

I have more work ahead to write her well. As I tackle revisions, my goal is to get to know her better as a whole person who has diverse interests, a lifetime of experiences, and, maybe, unexpected reactions to the fictional world around her.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Life, a Plot in Three Acts By Kait Carson

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how life imitates art and art imitates life. The conclusion: It’s all a plot!

Yep, no getting around it. We’re all familiar with the traditional three-act structure. Beginning, middle, ending. Any writer will tell you that’s how to set up a story, play, or movie. The beginning holds the inciting incident. It’s where you and the reader meet the characters, the problem, and the story world. In a good story, this part is a slam bang. An in and an out. Think of it as the man in the bowler hat who danced across the vaudeville stage. Enter stage right, exit stage left. Nope, I don’t remember it either, but it’s an appealing image! When done well, this section is no more than a quarter of the book/story/play. Sort of like birth through college in human years.

Some say the beginning should have its own arc and the arc should complete within the first quarter of the book. I respectfully disagree. The beginning should introduce a character arc that should arch across the entire book and not conclude until the very end of the book. After all, the beginning is about making us care about the character and the story. And, in mysteries, the victim. Don’t forget the victim. Without him, there wouldn’t be a story! So, in the beginning, there is—a beginning.

And that brings us to the middle. It encompasses approximately the next 50% of your book. Figure college graduation to retirement. It’s the meat of the story, and it has its own arc. This one is complete in the pages. It’s all about trial, success, failure, and renewal. The character makes a choice. Again, using mysteries as a genre, the choice is usually to take up the investigation. Something has to happen that forces your character to leave her comfy ordinary world behind and earnestly pursue an end goal. It’s time to leave the nest and venture beyond the known. The choice is also a big reason why the beginning has to be short. It’s hard to keep a reader’s interest once they have a handle on what the problem is. The reader craves action, and the middle supplies it. The middle also brings the book and the reader to the twists and turns of the plot. Two steps forward, one step backward, trial and error, red herrings and solutions to the red herrings. The middle needs two plotlines, one that shows progression toward the ultimate goal, and one that shows the forces of evil pulling the rug out from under that nice neat progression. Just like life.

The middle arc has an ending. In life it’s retirement and the new start we’ve worked so hard to attain. In plotting, it’s a disaster with the seeds of solution. The middle climaxes with the big twist. It traditionally takes place three quarters of the way into the book and it leads to the end.
The overarching character arc of the middle is also ongoing. There’s more work to be done to reach a satisfying end.

The last quarter of the book also has an arc. This one ties it all up. The protagonist builds on the knowledge gained in the twist and hatches a new plan. This part of the book moves swiftly, but deliberately to the climax. It can never feel rushed. There’s usually one more twist here. The protagonist has solved the main story problem, but there’s different problem, something personal to the character, that ups the stakes. A personal investment is at risk. And it‘s the solution to the personal investment that brings the character arc begun in the beginning of the book to a close.

The last bit of the ending is wrapping it all up. That’s not to say it’s a rehash of the story and how the protagonist got there, the reader already knows. The wrap up gives the reader a sense of closure and ties up most, but often not all, of the loose ends. It’s the sigh of a life well lived, of goals attained, dreams discovered, and moving on.

Life imitates art, a story in three acts.

What about you? Do you recognize a three-act structure in the stories you love? Do you see a three-act structure in your life?

Friday, February 26, 2016

Reviews of The Hollow Needle and The Profiteers

THE HOLLOW NEEDLE by Maurice Leblanc
A Review by Warren Bull

      Originally published in 1911, The Hollow Needle is one in a series of work about the criminal mastermind Arsene Lupin. Lupin’s daring exploits, clever escapes, extraordinary physical abilities and ability to outwit the police make him larger than life. He is a character like d’Artagnan.  Reading requires a greater suspension of disbelief than most novels.  The heroic Lupin interrupts the action from time to time to make florid speeches about his own brilliance. 
Lupin does not appear for about the first third of the book.  One chapter was written in the first person while all others were written in the third person.  I noticed that every false message sent tricked whoever received it.  Every disguise was successful.  An English detective named Holmlock Shears put in an appearance.
     But none of that detracts from the breathless pacing or sheer fun of the novel.  It opens in the middle of a robbery and continues with action and suspense.  I think I would have enjoyed this even more as an adolescent because throughout the book a seventeen-year-old student matched wits with Lupin.  The contestants were well matched.

     I recommend this for a fun read with the flavor of the early 1900s.

The Profiteers by E. Phillips Oppenheimer A review by Warren Bull
     The novel was published in 1921. It was one of many novels, written by Oppenheimer. He is credited with at least fifty works of fiction.
     The Profiteers is very much a book of its time. The hero is intrepid, i.e., brave, wealthy, handsome, brilliant, relentless, athletic, a gourmet, a patron of the arts and well mannered. The heroine is completely desirable, i.e., beautiful, refined, resourceful and intelligent. The villain is dastardly, i.e., rude, crude, lecherous, cunning and not handsome.
     None of them changes in any substantial way over the course of the novel. The hero has problems to overcome, but once he enacts the scheme he hatches, he suffers no setbacks along the way. 

The language of the book is stilted, but more readable today than other novels of the time. I was not able to predict the way the hero would act. For a novel where not much happens, the pace is good. It is an entertaining work and a good read. I can see why the author was popular.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Story of Willie Sutton - sort of

Last week my Third Thursday’s book club discussed the book SUTTON by J.R. Moehringer. The author noted at the beginning that when Willie Sutton was finally released from prison on Christmas Eve 1969, he only granted one interview to a reporter the next day. The reporter and the photographer and Sutton are now gone, and as he said, what happened that day and in the preceding years is anyone’s guess. So he wrote a fictional account of Willie Sutton’s life with what facts he could find.  He added sections in italics about Willie the day after he was released with the reporter and photographer. He ends the beginning comment with “This book is my guess. But it’s also my wish.”

Some background from Wikipedia – which also gave a disclaimer that all facts might not be true.

Willie Sutton was born June 30, 1901 into an Irish-American family in a Polish 
neighborhood in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He was the fourth of five children, and did not go beyond 8th grade of school.  He turned to crime at an early age, though throughout his professional criminal career, he did not kill anyone. Described by Mafioso Donald Frankos as “a little bright-eyed guy, just 5’7” and always talking, chain-smoking.” Frankos stated also that Sutton “dispensed mounds of legal advice” to any convict willing to listen. Inmates considered Sutton a “wise old head” in the prison.

Sutton was an accomplished bank robber. During his forty-year criminal career he stole an estimated $2 million, and eventually spent more than half of his adult life in prisons from which he escaped three times.  For his talent at executing robberies in disguises, he gained two nicknames “Willie the Actor” and “Slick Willie.” He usually carried a pistol or a Thompson submachine gun. “You can’t rob a bank on charm and personality,” he once said. In an interview in the Reader’s Digest published shortly before his death in 1980, he was asked if the guns that he used in robberies were loaded. He responded that he never carried a loaded gun because somebody might get hurt. He stole from the rich and kept it, though public opinion later turned him into a perverse type of Robin Hood figure. He allegedly never robbed a bank when a woman screamed or a baby cried.

After his first escape from prison, eventually he was captured and recommitted in June 1931 and charged with assault and robbery. He did not complete his thirty year sentence because he escaped on December 11, 1932, using a smuggled gun and holding a prison guard hostage. With the guard as leverage, Sutton acquired a forty-five ft. ladder to scale the thirty ft. wall of the prison grounds.  

On February 15, 1933, Sutton attempted to rob the Corn Exchange Bank and Trust Company in Philadelphia. He came in disguised as a postman, but an alert passerby foiled the crime. Sutton escaped. Less than a year later, he and two companions broke into the same bank through a skylight.

According to an FBI record “Sutton also conducted a Broadway jewelry store robbery in broad daylight, impersonating a postal telegraph messenger. Sutton’s other disguises included a police officer, messenger and maintenance man. He usually arrived at banks or stores shortly before they opened for business.”

Willie Sutton was apprehended on Feb. 5, 1934 and sentenced to serve 25 to 50 years in the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia for the machine gun robbery of the Corn Exchange Bank. On April 3, 1945, he was one of twelve convicts who escaped the institution through a tunnel. They were recaptured the same day.

Sentenced to life imprisonment as a fourth time offender, Sutton was transferred to the Philadelphia County Prison, Holmesburg section. On Feb. 10, 1947 Sutton and other prisoners dressed up as prison guards. The men carried two ladders across the prison yard to the wall after dark. When the prison’s searchlights hit him, Sutton yelled “It’s okay!” No one stopped him.

In February 1952, Sutton was captured again. He was convicted of another bank robbery, and sentenced to a sentence of thirty to 120 years in Attica State Prison. However, in December 1969, his lawyers managed to get him released because of his good behavior and his deteriorating health due to emphysema. At his hearing he said, “Thank you, your Honor. God bless you” and wept as he was led out of the building. In 1970 a separate 30-years-to-life handed down in Brooklyn in 1952 was also commuted on similar grounds, and he was released on parole.

After his release Sutton delivered lectures on prison reform and consulted with banks on theft deterrent techniques.  He was supposed to have said when asked by a reporter why he robbed banks. “Because that’s where the money is.” He denied saying that and in his autobiography, he said if anyone had asked him, “Why did I rob banks? Because I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life. I enjoyed everything about it so much that one or two weeks later I’d be out looking for the next job. But to me the money was the chips, that’s all.”

These facts came from Wikipedia and we’ve all heard that not everything can be believed there. However the basic facts are true.

The book is another story, and it’s referred to as a biography on Wikipedia, but even Moehringer, admits it’s largely fiction based on facts. What one of my fellow book club members called faction. Everyone in my book club enjoyed it and fell in love with the Willie in the book. We agonized over the brutal treatment he often received by police and prison guards in those years when it was overlooked, although apparently there was at least one warden who seemed to like him. That Moehringer had become fond of the Willie Sutton he’d extensively researched was obvious. When the book ends, we were wondering how much was true and how much was invented by Willie or the author. That Sutton was an avid reader who loved books of all kinds I believe to be a fact Moehringer learned from Sutton’s biography and probably from other resources he read, too. What the author emphasized was the times Sutton grew up in, with banks failing, people out of work, starving, and the hatred most people had for the banks and bankers, which they blamed because they lost all their savings. Thus it made sense that much of the time, Willie Sutton was considered a hero by many people at that time.

What do you know about Willie Sutton or other outlaws?

Do you think you’d like to read the book?

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Interview with David Burnsworth

by Grace Topping

Burning Heat

As darkness blankets the holy city of Charleston, South Carolina, Brack Pelton, an Afghanistan War veteran, steps out of a rundown bar after a long night. Before he gets to his truck, he finds himself in the middle of a domestic dispute between a man and a woman on the sidewalk. When a little girl joins the couple and gets hit by the man, Brack intervenes and takes him down. But the abuser isn’t finished. He pulls a gun and shoots the woman. Brack saves the little girl, but his world has just been rocked. Again.

The next day, while sitting on a barstool in the Pirate’s Cove on the Isle of Palms, his own bar, Brack scans the local paper. The news headline reads: Burned Body of Unidentified Hispanic Man Found at Construction Site. Nothing about a dead woman in the poor section of town. Brack feels a tap on his shoulder and turns around to see an eight-year-old girl standing behind him. She’s the little girl he rescued the night before, and she wants him to look into her sister’s shooting.

Violence and danger make up Brack’s not-too-distant past. Part of him craves it—needs it. And that part has just been fed. Things are about to heat up again in the low country. May God have mercy on the souls who get in the way.

David Burnsworth’s love of the South and Charleston, South Carolina, was evident in his debut novel, Southern Heat, in which he introduced some fascinating and memorable characters—ones that will have you anxiously awaiting each new book in his series. His latest book, Burning Heat, was recently released and is even better than his first.

Welcome, David, to Writers Who Kill.
Grace Topping

In your first book, Southern Heat, we learn that Brack is a widower, still mourning the loss of his wife. Her loss has shaped his life in dramatic ways, and he talks about his vow to always protect the good and innocent. Do you think the loss of his wife has made him more empathetic than he might have been?

David Burnsworth
First of all, thank you for taking this time for me and for sharing this interview with your followers. This is a very good question. I’d say the answer is yes. Before his wife’s death, Brack’s life was what he would call perfect. He was a rising stock car racer, which was his dream, and he had the beautiful, supportive wife to share his upcoming success with. The next steps were kids and the mansion. And then his wife becomes terminally ill and within six months she is gone. She had been his foundation. In general terms, he did what I would have done in the same situation: he freaked out. I probably wouldn’t have gone to war like he did, but I would not have been good for anyone for quite a while. 

Living through all of that changed Brack, I believe, for the better. He became less self-centered, although he is still working on that one. And he realized that life is hard, and sometimes bad things happen to good people. Because he understands this, he knows how far a helping hand will go at the right moment.

In Southern Heat, Brack becomes an amateur sleuth, forced to discover who murdered his uncle. At first glance that would put him in the traditional mystery category. However, it’s not long before his activities have him entering the thriller category. How would you categorize your books?

Southern noir mysteries with some thriller aspects. I like fast paced books and every author likes when a reader says that they stayed up too late because they couldn’t put their book down.

It’s been said that writers who can tap emotional responses to a place (loneliness, loss, fear, innocence, etc.), make those places come alive for readers. You’ve done that quite effectively with Charleston. What’s your secret?

Thank you for the compliment. I lived in Charleston at what I would call the right time in my life. I was still single, still finding myself. And I drank in the whole slow-paced, sultry low country lifestyle, along with more than my share of libations! I love everything about Charleston, both the good and the tragic. It is like no other place on earth, with its rich history, tropical weather, artistic culture and beautiful island beaches. I befriended many locals and experienced a lot of Charleston from their perspective, such as having tea with a little old lady in her front row Battery home to sitting on a rock barrier wall on Sullivan’s Island at high tide and getting a visit from a dolphin late one night who swam right up, raised his head out of the water and looked at me.

Southern Heat and Burning Heat show a side of Charleston most tourists don’t see. What would you say to readers who have never been to Charleston?

As beautiful as most of the pictures of Charleston are, they barely do it justice. And Charleston is rich in American history, from the founding of our country to recent events. Come to South Carolina and see for yourself. As for what’s not in the tourist books, part of my Charleston is changing. After the new bridge went in, the section of town where the old Cooper River Bridge used to dump travelers off into the city has changed. It used to be, shall I say, a unique part of town, one best viewed while passing through in your car at a speed slightly faster than the posted limit. I believe that part of Charleston is now experiencing a bit of gentrification.

Some characters are so outstanding that the writers who created them should be giving thanks for whatever inspired them. Brother Thomas is one of those characters—a man who helps bridge the gap between the races and social-economic classes in Charleston and someone you want to quote. Who inspired Brother Thomas? Have you known someone like him?

Some writers will say a character shows up and takes over. Brother Thomas is one of those characters. He started out as a minor character and became my protagonist’s living conscience. Brack would be lost without him. There is no one person who influenced Brother Thomas, but there are many attributes of people that I pieced together to form him. Brother Thomas and Shelby, Brack’s rescue mixed-breed dog, are the two most loved characters by my readers.

Uncle Reggie, Mutt, Brack, and other characters are military veterans. This common background gives them a special bond, even if they served in different forces and fought in different conflicts. What accounts for this?

I didn’t serve, but my father did as well as all of his brothers. I grew up in a home that respected and glorified our armed services. And I feel that Uncle Reggie, Mutt and Brack are more confident, better able to tackle life, and honorable men because they had served.

Which writers have inspired you the most?

So many. The big ones most have heard of: Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, Lee Child, Walter Mosley, Michael Connelly, Clive Cussler, Susan Boyer, Stieg Larsson, Hank Phillippi Ryan, and John Sanford. And some people should know more about like my friend Bob Strother.

Brack is involved in a number of gunfights in both of your books, and he easily purchases guns. Is it as easy as it sounds in your books, and, if so, does that concern you?

When I completed the final draft of Southern Heat in 2013, someone could go to a pawnshop, show a photo ID, and purchase a handgun. And attendees at gun shows could do so with even more freedom. I think today, 2015, is maybe a little different, but I still believe it is not too difficult to purchase handguns. My concern is not for the ease of purchasing them, but for law enforcement and what I perceive to be an eroded and warped view of the honorable and difficult jobs they have.

Your books would translate well to film. If that happened, who would you like to see play Brack, Brother Thomas, Mutt, Darcy, and some of your other characters?

Brack is mid-thirties and six foot tall with dark hair and a deep tan. He is not a “pretty boy,” but women like him. In Burning Heat, he is described by one of the secondary characters as looking “so much like that guy from Mad Men that I call dibs.”

Brother Thomas is in his fifties, six foot three, and three hundred pounds. Like Brother Thomas, Mutt is also African American, about the same height, but more muscular and missing some front teeth.

Darcy, ten years younger than Brack, is described by him as a younger Elizabeth Shue.

To be honest, I haven’t been a steady movie watcher since I started writing. I’d be interested in whom readers of the series envision could play the characters.

Tell us about your journey to publication. Was it a bumpy ride?

Like most published authors, I have a drawer full of rejection letters. I will keep them forever. All told, I have twenty-four physical rejections, plus about that many more verbal and electronic ones. What would have happened if I had stopped at the forty-seventh rejection and quit? Persistence is one of the many things I have learned from my wife, Patty. Writing is more than talent. It is believing in yourself, having a thick skin, and finding the right person who will say yes.

What’s next for Brack, Brother Thomas, and your other characters?

I recently turned in the manuscript for the third book in the series. It departs from the first two in a few ways, which are going to be a surprise. Most of the characters return, and of course there will be a few new ones. I am really excited about what readers will think of the changes I’ve made. And I have begun working on book four.

Thank you, David, for joining us at Writers Who Kill.

You can learn more about David Burnsworth at his website:

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Science of Story

I am a writer; therefore, I am a collector of stories. I pick them up the way that magpies pluck trinkets from the side of the road. They are seashells on the beach, haphazard treasures left behind by the outgoing tide. They are rivers running from the highlands to the silty deltas. And they are everywhere.

This is because stories are organic. They are as natural and dynamic and symbiotic as the redwood forest. Like all creatures, they have lives of their own, and there's a lot to be gained by viewing them through the lens of biology and anthropology and neurology. Don't believe me? Here are some interesting tidbits about the science of storytelling that I hope will convince you.

1. Stories have DNA. Durham University anthropologist Dr. Jamie Tehrani recently analyzed fairy tales – you know, those popularized by the Brothers Grimm – using techniques borrowed from evolutionary biology. The study employed phylogenetic comparative methods (don't ask me what that means) to investigate the connections between populations and their cultural phenomena, isolating key elements and exploring those "genetic" roots. They discovered that these stories were born 4,000 to 6,000 years ago, some going as far back as the Bronze Age: You can read more about the study at BBC News.

2. Stories rewire the human brain. Psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano have demonstrated that reading literary fiction – stories of some depth and complexity that they dubbed "writerly" – enhances a person's ability to detect and understand the emotions of others. And what is more, this empathetic effect lingers long after the subjects finish reading. In other words, simply reading certain types of fiction – and the authors have been insistent that this could include genre fiction, such as mysteries – creates real world, measurable effects in the human brain. You can read more about this in The Guardian.

3. Reality is really just a story with different authors. Cops have known this for quite some time – eyewitness testimony is one of the least reliable pieces of evidence. That's because even though we have this idea that the brain makes careful distinctions between reality and fiction, and that anyone who mixes up the two is either lying or delusional, the truth is much more interesting…and subjective.

It seems that the memory-making part of our brain is entangled with the story-making part of our brain. As Jonathan Gottschall explains in The Storymaking Animal, once we start delving into memories, we find that they're substantially fictionalized: "Some of the most confident memories that are residing in our brain just didn’t happen the way we think they happened," Gottschall explains. In other words, we're all editing the plot of our lives in ways both big and small, every day. You can read more about Gottschall's work in this PBS interview

So there you have it – weirdness at the intersection of science and art. What about you? Told any good stories lately?