Monday, December 23, 2013

Big Ideas


A few weeks ago I once again jumped into the deep end.
I signed on as a volunteer for a regional FLL competition. My assignment: Project Judge!

After donning my volunteer T-shirt I met up with the other judges to receive my instructions. A room full of enthusiastic volunteers, mostly engineers, all willing to give up their weekend in support of science, technology, engineering and math learning for kids. Oh, and fun with Legos of course. FLL and jrFLL use the Lego Mindstorm robotics.

I teamed up with two other judges and we went into the assigned classroom (my offspring’s high school hosted the competition and the robotics team kids volunteered set up, running, and clean up) to rearrange the desks the way we thought best. Then we tested our seats, decided we needed coffee and water, as well as pens, to look professional. We studied our rubric sheets and decided who would write what portion.

Each team would have 5 minutes to present followed by 5 minutes of Q&A. After they’d left, we, the judges, would have 5 minutes to score the rubric for that team. No time for goofing off or deep discussion, we were on a tight schedule. There were 40 teams competing each day that weekend.

A quick overview: in FLL the teams are given a challenge for the Mindstorm robot they build and that one will be judged on how well it does in competition. It will also be judged on mechanical and programing aspects in a separate judging. Then there is the challenge of creating a presentation that solves a problem in relation to this year’s challenge, which was Nature’s Fury.

As project judges we got to see these presentations. A few teams had barely prepared, some presented their solution as an acted-out skit, and others still, were very prepared and showed us prototypes of their solution to a problem that might arise during or after a natural disaster.

After the third team left the room I felt much more comfortable in my role as judge. I also realized something very important ... These kids almost all had phenomenal ideas. Some went so far as to price out what their solution would cost and how it could be implemented. The writer in me sat back and soaked up the imagination, letting it spark mine. Will I ever use any of the ideas I heard there? Maybe, maybe not, but the main thing is, it sent my thoughts off in different directions. It allowed me to think more creatively and consider subjects from different angles. It also made me realize how important it is that there are books out there that hold the attention of these kids as they grow up.

I’d love to share some of the ideas these kids came up with, but as they might go on to compete in the state championship I think I should keep it quiet for now.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

December Book Review

                                                Deadly Provenance

Deadly Provenance
By: Lynne Kennedy

After interviewing Lynne Kennedy and learning more about her book ‘Deadly Provenance’, I decided I really wanted to read it. A mystery, a Van Gogh, and history... just the thing to read in the dreary days of early December.

A quick click at Amazon and the book was downloaded into my E-Reader.

I was not disappointed. From the first page I had trouble putting it down. Every free moment of my busy weeks I would pick up the reader and dive back into the story. Each time getting sucked deeper into the search for the missing Van Gogh, the history of the massive and systematic confiscation of art by the Nazis, and the (private and professional) challenges of the main character; a spunky redheaded professor of digital photography and forensics. Of course I adored her dog, Rosie, too, modeled after the writer’s own yellow labrador.

The historical segments blend seamlessly into the fiction. The writer’s passion for history is very clear in the details she puts in without cluttering up the story.

Her descriptions of Paris made me feel like I was there on the terrace having a coffee and watching Parisian life go by in all its chaotic glory. Her use of occasional French in the story seemed completely appropriate. I know there are people who have trouble with authors who do that, but even if you don’t know the language, you can extrapolate the meaning from the story.

I found the main characters very warm and human, and the thrill of the chase like those you would find in any satisfying detective story.

I look forward to more by this author! Do keep an eye on her blog where she chronicles her ongoing search for that missing Van Gogh painting. It would be wonderful if it was found again.

Monday, December 2, 2013

November/December interview with Lynne Kennedy

                                          Lynne Kennedy 
Blog interview with Lynne Kennedy

This month I welcome author Lynne Kennedy who deftly combines fiction, history and science to create gripping mysteries. Her latest is “Deadly Provenance” about a Van Gogh painting that’s been missing since it was taken by the Nazis in WWII. I have eagerly started reading the book, curious to find out where this author will take me during the dreary and dark December days.

Lynne, welcome.

1. You write fiction yet use real life mysteries, or unsolved crimes, as the jumping off point and then you apply a healthy dose of science to solving the mystery. It’s a neat concept, how did you come to it?

For almost thirty years I was a science museum director, so science is my life. I particularly loved our programs and exhibitions on forensics and loved working with the police department to solve mysteries with modern forensic technology. 

History is my second love so naturally I looked for a way to blend the two in my writing.  The first book I wrote was “Time Exposure,” a mystery which revolves around Civil War photography.  The idea happened by chance.  The Smithsonian was in San Diego presenting programs at the various museums. We sponsored two talks at our science center.  One on space science and the other, ironically, on Civil War photography.  I sat in on the second one and was hooked.  I knew I wanted to write about Civil War photography.

But how would I blend this with modern forensics?   Through digital photography.  It really worked.  My modern character, a digital photographer, stumbles upon a mystery through a Civil War photograph.  Through her analysis, she comes up with the killer.  Well, something like that.

2. Your latest book “Deadly Provenance” deals with a beautiful Van Gogh painting, missing since WWII. How did you even find out about its original existence? And where has your search led you so far?

Besides the Civil War, World War II has always fascinated me.  Years ago, I saw a movie called “The Train” with Burt Lancaster.  It made me start thinking about the Nazi confiscation of art.  I started reading up on the subject and found a book (and later a movie) called “The Rape of Europa.”  I was astounded to learn the extent of the looting that was done at the time.  I knew this was going to be a book.

As I kept researching, I found a number of paintings that were still missing, one of which is Vincent Van Gogh’s Vase With Oleanders.  Since he’s one of my favorite painters, I decided to check further and found this amazing story of what had happened to it. 

I wrote “Deadly Provenance” and came up with a fictional ending to the painting.  But now I wanted to find the real painting.  You can read about my “hunt” on my web page: 

By the way, I’m still looking!  Got quite a bit of publicity on it too.  This is a KPBS radio interview several months ago:

I was even featured on the front page of the San Diego Union Tribune:

What’s amazing is that Nazi stolen art works keep appearing in the news today.  History never ends. 

3. How do you start one of your books? Do you have an idea of where it will go before you even start your research?

My last weekly blog is on this subject exactly.  It’s about jump-starting your book.  Rather than repeat, here it is.

4. What has your journey to publication been like and why did you choose self-publishing, as so many are doing these days? 

I landed an agent for my first book but she was not able to get a publisher interested.  The general response was: great writing, characters, etc, but too complicated a story to market.  Right.  So I tried with my second and third books, but, frankly the response was the same.  Marketing was always the issue.  Is this a mystery?  An historical mystery?  What?  The two storylines threw them into a tizzy.  You’d think they’d be excited to have something different.  So I decided to self-publish. I’m not sorry, but learning how to do it correctly was a real struggle.  So I wrote a blog about this in two parts.  The first part is “Self-Publishing: Dream or Nightmare.”  Kind of says it all.  Here’s the link:

The second part is “The Good, The Bad and The Real Ugly:”

5. eBook vs Traditional?

This was a no-brainer.  I wanted to hold my precious books in my hands so I had to do a traditional, albeit, paperback version.  E-Books were the wave of the future (still are) so of course, I produced that version too.  Now I’m a real e-book fan.  I rarely buy hard or paperbacks anymore.  Sad in a way. 

6. Pen & Paper or a computer?

Always the computer, although, occasionally, when I’m out having a Starbuck’s or something will jot down notes with a pen and scrap of paper.  I make too many changes to not be able to delete!

7. What do you think is the most important thing a writer can do, aside from write well, to increase their odds of a successful career?

Read, read, read. Re-write, re-write, re-write.  Find a fabulous critique group and do it all over again.  Basically, the first step is to write the best book you can.  Then, whether you self-publish or publish traditionally, you will have to learn the marketing business.  Social Media is key, but other marketing avenues are necessary too.  Wrote another blog on that, ha! The point is not to let marketing take over your writing life:

8. What secret talent do you have, which everyone reading this blog will keep secret? Or, what’s the craziest thing you’ve done in the name of research?

Oh, if I had a secret talent, it’s hidden from me too.  Or have something crazy I did in the name of research.  Nah, I’m just persistent.  I try to find answers to fill in the details of my stories.  What kind of dress would my character have worn in 1911, if she only had $2 to spend?  What sort of camera would a Nazi photographer use in 1942?  What kind of foods would be on the table of a rich patron during the Civil War?  Those are the details I love to ferret out, and hopefully, my readers enjoy!

Thank you, and I look forward to your next mystery!