It’s for the BOOK

I’m guilty of googling a lot of ecletic questions.*

How big is a Muscovy duck? Do any of the theaters in Long Island City have copper or lead roofs?  How many months before the wedding should you order a dress? What’s protein content of a North American common cricket?  How about a feeder goldfish?  What’s the trunk volume, in inches, of a Dodge Dart?  Is hazelnut-cinnamon ganache a real thing?  Is drawing on an inside straight really a sucker bet? What outfit can a werewolf wear so s/he isn’t arrested for public indecency on the way to potential trouble, but won’t risk faceplanting after a quick change?  What did they call garderobes in 14th Century Spain?**

Which doesn’t mean I received answers I could use—especially for that last one.  Sometimes, you have to put yourself out there and risk being judged.

“Honey? Can I ask you a question?”


“If a divorced couple has a pre-nup and one of them gets a settlement, but later it’s discovered that that person violated the pre-nup agreement, say adultery or whatever, are they legally required to give back the settlement, or can their ex sue?”

” . . . I don’t know. You should probably ask a lawyer.”

“Yeah, I probably should.  Thanks.”

“No problem.”

Twenty years ago, this kind of question might have worried my husband, for several reasons.  Either he had a better handle on my thought processes*** or he just assumes out of long experience that any question that doesn’t involve the kids or something mechanical making a funny noise is about whatever I’m writing.^

Not everyone is as calm about these things as he.^^ You can get a lot of strange looks at the coffee shop debating the logistics of stuffing a dead body (male, not quite six-foot) and thirty-five cartons of cigarettes (no tax stamps) into the trunk of a Dodge Dart.^^^  Even if you’re speaking to another human being. Who is visibly present.

Until one of you says, loudly, “I can’t wait to read your book.”

And then everyone will relax and the waitress will stop trying to refill your cup with hot liquid from a minimal safe distance, which isn’t quite your minimal safe distance.

Search EngineLibrarians, on the other hand, tend to take the oddest questions at face value, though that doesn’t mean we can’t get enthusiastic.  A few weeks ago, a group of us had an all-day, off-and-on reference discussion launched by a single question I technically asked the screen of my workstation, while—if any of my supervisors have tracked me here—on my break.

“If you clip a wereduck’s wing feathers, will his fingernails be shorter on that hand when he changes?”

Not one of them blinked—even those who didn’t know why I was asking.  And the questions they asked about that question were fantastic, touching on healing factors, and follicle to feather conversions, and clothing, and magic versus science, and mythic laws of association.

Librarians don’t need to know why you need to know—they just need to know how to get you the right answer.

In this case, there wasn’t one—the general consensus was that it depended on several different things that I hadn’t figured out yet.  But I do have a pile of notes, and a much better handle on what I need to figure out.  So even if I never use that bit—which is looking like the sane  easier option—I’m much better off than I was.

Never be afraid to ask the weird questions out loud.

Even if they’re not for the book.

You’ll always learn something about something.

And maybe get a blog post out of it, too.


*Don’t judge me, judge the people who posted the answers.

**AKA, “The word choice that got away.”

***Magic Eight Ball says Very Doubtful.

^Admittedly, he also knows we don’t have a pre-nup, nor any need for one.

^^He also helps me figure out ballistic trajectories and the batting stance I a character would have to take to use his a kneeling man’s head as a tee-ball and the position behind “home plate” (there are legs involved).  He’s a good man—and remarkably trusting.

^^^For some reason, my husband didn’t volunteer for this one . . . but he did check my math.

Rant of the Wild Librarian: Cranky Genealogist Edition

This is a sort of mish-mash update—with added footnotes, naturally of some genealogical pieces I did a few years back for a newsletter which has long since gone the way of the world.   

I can’t imagine why . . .


I work in the genealogy and local history department of my library.  This is the perfect job for a nosy show-off—I’m paid to dig up dirt on other people’s families.

Genealogy is a fun, additive, challenging, and rewarding puzzle that makes Sudoku look like a snap (sorry, Mom).  It gives one a sense of history, a sense of belonging, and can provide medical facts or even personal closure.

It can also be a lot like banging one’s head against a brick wall of ignorance—but genealogy doesn’t have to be as frustrating as some people make it, for themselves or for the librarians and researchers trying to help them.

Here are a few tips to make the experience better for all of us:


Take your time—Your Ancestors Aren’t Going Anywhere

Please don’t assume you can start your family tree on Thanksgiving and have the whole thing done back to Adam and Eve (or, depending on your belief system, Lucy) by the following Christmas.

Unless you don’t really care if any of the people you collect are actually related to you, it’s gonna take more than doing a search on Ancestry and copying all the “Smith” records into your files.  To do it right, you have to verify facts, document records, and check a freakin’ calendar once in a while.*

And documentation takes time.

Likewise, there’s no point in walking into a public library and demanding that they print out your entire family tree on the spot—I don’t care what you saw on TV.

Here’s the deal:  unless someone wrote a book about your family, registered with an organization like the DAR,** took the time to enter their charts in to an online database, or compiled and donated their research in the exact place you’re looking . . . those materials won’t be available.

The information may be, but some assembly will be required.

You’ll still want to look—I’m not knocking shortcuts, as long as you treat them as alternative paths instead of the One True Way.  Try Ancestry, try FamilySearch, and don’t forget to check the 929.2 shelves at the library—if the facility does Dewey—and ask the staff about their unpublished or accessioned collections.

And, remember, unless your family tree doesn’t branch much, every generation married into another family.  So, if Great-grandpa XYZ married a girl from the ABC family, maybe someone from that side published The Fascinating History of the ABCs that has some XYZ data in it.   Of course, by the time you do this, it isn’t much of a shortcut anymore.

But don’t be shocked if you’re the first one to bother putting something together beyond the three-generation smiley-apple tree drawings we all had to do in second grade.  Unless your ancestor was the founding father of a nation—or a town with an enthusiastic historical society—in the immediate line for a major throne, famous (or rich) beyond his or her fifteen minutes, or a genealogist, it’s doubtful anyone outside of your family is going to care enough to do the work on their own time.***

Family charts don’t spontaneously generate—someone has to do the work.

Odds are, that would be you.

And after you write your genealogy, please send copies to everyone you can think of, including every library and genealogy center in all the places your family has lived or passed through.  Your descendants may be looking through those 929.2 shelves someday.


Bring quarters.

A library is not a bank and most public libraries don’t take credit cards—sometimes there aren’t change machines and if there are, they don’t always take bills larger than fives.

Leave the fifties at home, Rockefeller, and get used to jingling when you walk.


Please don’t insist that your surname has always been spelled the same exact way for centuries.

Most Americans have heard Immigration Center (Ellis Island, Castle Gardens, etc.) stories about families changing their names, willingly or unwillingly, for assimilation purposes, ease of spelling and pronunciation, avoiding extradition, etc.

But what isn’t so well understood is that surnames change over the years, anyway—especially over those early decades when literacy was optional, typewriters were newfangled, and census forms weren’t mailed out.

The majority of official documents prior to the 20th century were filled out by a second party—a clerk or a census taker.  Often, the person supplying the information wasn’t given the chance to correct the spelling, supposing he or she would have been able to do so.

If the clerk was used to spelling XYZ with a final E, that’s the way it was spelled on the document—and if the writer heard “X-HY-G” instead of “XYZ,” then XHYG it was.

To make matters more interesting, census takers often depended on third party information to fill their quotas.  If your ancestor’s neighbor was used to spelling your family’s surname SCHXYZE, then that’s what went down.

Surnames are often a game of genealogical telephone—XYZ goes in one end and ABC comes out at the end of the line.  And don’t get me started on handwriting—that’s another post.

Some of these alternate spellings only lasted until the next document, but other families found it easier to change their name than correct the paperwork.

So what do you do?

Think phonetics.

The genealogists of my acquaintance may mutter to themselves because their relatives have driven them ’round the bend—but sometimes they’re sounding out surnames.

ETTS . . .WHY . . .TREE?


If the rest of the information matches, sure.

Any researcher who refuses to believe in the existence of alternative spellings is going to have a stumpy family tree.

But there’s no need to accept everyone into the clan, either—just because the third lady-in-waiting of Queen Elizabeth I was named Mary ABC, and your gggg-etcetera-great aunt was named Mary ABC doesn’t mean they’re the same person, even if no one ever saw them together at the same time.

Correlation and documentation are still necessary—every  XYZ in the phone book isn’t a relative of yours, either, except in the sense that we all presumably share the same origins.^

But some of the EXYZEs may be . . .


And please, please, for the love of my burgeoning aneurism, stop declaring that your great-great-great-etc. grandmother was a Cherokee Princess based solely on a family story and/or the shape of your nose, and not on anything as mundane as geography, dates, cultural considerations, or common sense.

This is a genealogical pet peeve of mine—I have several, but this is in the top five.  Because in my experience, it’s always a great-great-great-etc. grandmother, she’s always Cherokee, and she is always, always a princess.

Seriously—the first and only time someone came up to the desk and said, “Hi.  Can you help me? I’m trying to confirm that my great-aunt by marriage was a seamstress in the clothing district on the west side in the ‘twenties.  She was also supposed to be Pottawattamie, but that might be difficult to prove,”  I nearly hugged the woman.^^

Let’s set aside the fact that if your family always lived in, for example, western Illinois, your ancestors were far more likely to be Sac-Fox or Pottawattamie, and maybe Sioux, if they married into your tree around the 1870s.^^^

Let’s assume that both families were open-minded enough—we are talking several generations back— to agree to the marriage and/or the couple was wise enough to find a place they and their children could live in peace.

Let’s even set aside the fact that Native American chiefs weren’t kings, and their daughters weren’t princesses—we’ll chalk that up to poor cultural translations.

But unless every single female Native American from 1787 to 1912 was the daughter of a chief,° there simply weren’t enough chief’s daughters to be everyone’s great-something grandmother.

It’s a matter of logistics.

But if you’re determined to track down this elusive Native American ancestor, please take a good look at your motives first.  It’s one thing to look for family connections—it’s another to look for a monetary handout from people who most likely don’t have enough in the first place.


*And don’t leave your research where your pets or kids can get it.  Today, a man called up and requested additional copies of what had been a fairly complex request—he told us his dog ate his research.  I was rendered speechless.

**Daughters of the American Revolution.  The current documentations requirements for acceptance are far stricter than they used to be, but their older lineage books are still quite useful.

***I’m not counting the LDS Family History Centers, as the members I know don’t think of the time they spend on genealogy work as their own—it belongs to Someone Else.

^Except for that one great-great uncle of by marriage, whom every seems to have and who appears to have been some sort of extra-terrestrial.  He dropped from the sky, left behind a single marriage record, and departed from this earth.  Or so we assume, as we can find no no evidence that the man ever died.  Perhaps he was a vampire.

^^Found that great-aunt, too.

^^^Yes, people moved around and whole tribes were moved by force—but you have to know the history specific to the area. Anyone of Cherokee ancestry who moved up here probably did so during the near half of the twentieth century, which makes them a bit young to be a great-great-great anything and far easier to trace.

°I know it’s supposed to be good to be the king chief, but  even if some Native American tribes had a tradition of droit du seigneur—and I’m not implying they did, as I truly don’t know—this is highly unlikely, as these men became leaders by leading, which probably meant they were too busy to get that busy.  If you know what I mean.

Details, details . . .

“Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation after reduced-intensity conditioning as treatment of sickle cell disease.” (Schleuning M, Stoetzer O, Waterhouse C, Schlemmer M, Ledderose G, Kolb HJ.) Experimental Hemotology, Jan 2002, 7-10.

“Matched-related donor transplantation for sickle cell disease: report from the Center for International Blood and Transplant Research.” (Panepinto, Julie A.; Walters, Mark C.; Carreras, Jeanette; Marsh, Judith; Bredeson, Christopher N.; Gale, Robert Peter; Hale, Gregory A.; Horan, John; Hows, Jill M.; Klein, John P.; Pasquini, Ricardo; Roberts, Irene; Sullivan, Keith; Eapen, Mary; Ferster, Alina) British Journal of Haematology.  June 2007, Vol. 137, Issue 5, 479-485.

“A survey on patient perception of reduced-intensity transplantation in adults with sickle cell disease.” (Chakrabarti, S.; Bareford, D.). Bone Marrow Transplantation.  April 2007, Vol. 39 Issue 8, 447-451.

“Mixed blood.” ( Kleiner, Kurt) New Scientist.  23June2001, Vol. 170 Issue 2296, 19.


Just a little light reading so I can  add in the occasional off-hand comment or knowledgable sentence about a surgical procedure that will happen—if it happens, because that’s sort of the crux of the story—off-page. 

I may be overthinking things.

But I’m also thinking the next book is gonna be about a teenage wereduck so I can do my waterfowl research in the children’s section.

What’s that strangest place your research has taken you?

You can pick your friends. And you can pick your locks. But . . .

It appears to be a hard and fast Writing Rule that you should write what you know.

Don’t know about everyone else, but I tend to write what I intuit up to the point where I start using algebra—“She used X to pop the Y lock on the Z”—and then set forth to learn what I should know about what I’m writing.

Among the stuff I’ve learned so far:  You can fit two bodies or 540 cartons of cigarettes into the trunk of a ’78 Chevy Nova.  Always drop the mag before you clear the chamber.  Barbesol shaving cream takes the visual evidence of blood out of carpet.  Under certain very specific circumstances, ex-cons may own firearms.  You can break free of most zip strips—but if you’re going to practice, wear wrist guards (it stings).  Everyone needs to register as a bone marrow donor because the bigger the pool, the better the oddsand that goes double for rare blood types and persons of non-European descent.  If you’re going to hot wire a car, make it old enough so you don’t have to mess with a steering lock.  Love scenes take interesting turns when you’re listening to Chris Isaak and a little Depeche Mode.*

And the most difficult part of picking a lock is convincing the locksmith that you need it for a book, no seriously.**  But once you do, you’re golden, and not only will he help you with a few crucial details, but he’ll show you how to pop a double wafer lock with a hairpin and a paperclip and let you practice with a tension wrench and ball pick because you keep snapping the  &$%# hairpin in half.

It’s probably a good thing that I’m not particularly talented in some of these areas***—Writer of All Trades, Mistress of None?—but I don’t have to be.  I just have to find the people who are and listen to ’em.

Anyone have any cool stuff they’d like to share?


*Adolescent of the ’80s.  Sue me.

**It helps if you’re the library lady who helped his kid research a History Day project that made it to the regionals.  Just saying.

***I am a donor, though—blood, marrow, organs.   Don’t have to have talent for that.  Go forth and register, please.

More Learning Experiences . . .

I’m really not this bad.  I read instructions, mostly, and I enjoy learning new skills, although I sometimes wish innate talent wasn’t so important.

And when I screw up, I’ll take all the help I can get—which is why I spent this morning on the phone with the public information officers of two city police departments, a bemused federal judge, a very nice man who works for the local branch of the FBI,* and this one wiseass lawyer of my acquaintance. 

I’m sure I’ve mentioned several times that I can’t write guns.  I’m so used to screwing up some obvious detail of the mechanics or the physics or the size that I go over every word of a gun scene with my handy-dandy Encyclopedia of Firearms for the Ignorant before sending a flurry of worried e-mails to my ever-amused Gun Person.

Which is no doubt why I missed the obvious:  I’ve got a bunch of ex-cons running around my three-fourths-completed WIP casually toting Glocks and rifles and a sweet (or so I’m told) M110.  Some of them are professional security guards.

News flash:  felons aren’t allowed to touch guns. 

Damn it,  I knew this.   I index the local newspaper for the library and not a week goes by that I don’t jot down “Crime—Firearm Possession” at least once. But it didn’t hit me until late last night.  I snapped a pencil in half, stalked around the house ranting about my personal “Crime—Stupidity,” then sat back down and started thinking.

My main characters are ex-cons who work (or used to work) for a legitimate, private fraud squad / security company.   Some of them need to be legitimately armed—not all, necessarily, because I kind of like the idea of one or two them having to worry about the consequences (to them, the company, and their primary goal)  if they’re caught.

How could I get these three or four ex-cons armed, without having the resident superhacker machine a Deus Ex?  Did I change the characters, the company, or the circumstances—or all three?

This morning, I called a couple of people on the above list—the ones I knew personally—and asked.  They gave me information, new questions to consider, and  more phone numbers.  The people attached to those phone numbers did the same.  Not everyone I called could help and not everyone had the time, but at least everyone was polite about it.  And the people who could help were very generous with their time and knowledge.

By lunch, I had two provisional scenarios that could work—and knew exactly what would happen to my characters if they didn’t.

I’ve spent the rest of the afternoon figuring out where and how to make changes to the story.  Not easy, no, but it’s a necessary skill if I’m going to do more with my stories than stuff desk drawers.

So everything is  going well—or better than might be expected.

Plus, I just realized that I spent the whole morning introducing myself as a writer—which is definitely a new skill I’d like to develop.


*In a capacity he did not mention and I did not think to question.