The Closet Scientist

My favorite part of ordering from Amazon Fresh is the dry ice packs.  I immediately open those little packs, pour them into my sink with water so I can turn my kitchen into a mad scientist lab.

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I love science. It’s a rather recent passion maybe because I barely had any exposure to it growing up. Back then (in the time of the dinosaurs) in my native country there was no science in elementary or middle school. And you only learned it in high school if you were following a science degree–which I was not.

When my kids started school here in the US, I found that I loved studying it along with them, and when I decided to go back to school the first classes I enrolled  for in college were in literature and science.

Ever since becoming an elementary school teacher I have grown in my love for science and found that just like language and technology I have a natural knack for it.

Crazy scientist. Young boy performing experiments

Unfortunately I’m an ESOL teacher, a teacher for English as a Second Language. I say unfortunately because the system still believes that language can only be learned through language arts and I am–more often than not–prevented from teaching science, one of the richest subjects in terms of academic language. Science has it all: language, problem solving, methodology, reading, writing… you could even add art in there for good measure. And get this–it’s also fun!

I absolutely love teaching language through other content areas and I’ve done it even through art. For children, learning language through content that is highly visual and hands-on really works. Yet, I often hear things like, “ELs (English Learners) have to have more guided reading, not science classes or art.” Don’t get me wrong. Guided reading has its merits, but I’m here to tell you that if my elementary school teachers had taught me how to read with guided reading I probably would hate reading now. Guided reading is abstract and most second language learners do not connect with it at all. Put a bottle of vinegar, drop a teaspoon of baking soda in it and you have an explosion of dialogue, observations, vocabulary exchange, true wonder that leads to new language and new love for discovery and problem solving.

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So, when I turn my kitchen into a mad scientist lab for a few minutes I think of all my little students who would love to see it, talk about it, come up with hypothesis- will hot water create more fog than cold? How long will it take for the ice to vanish totally?

So rich! So exciting! So underused in schools today.

The Strange Magic of Fiction

 

My upcoming book just went through several rounds of editing and this last one was based on comments from Beta Readers. I’m not going to lie; it was stressful. As I read through the manuscript with all its margin comments it became quickly obvious that readers all take in different meanings from the same words, the same ideas.

The biggest one was the ending. It was split straight up the middle. Half loved it and couldn’t have wished for a better ending, the other half was disappointed and wanted something different.

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I was very surprised by some of the comments. The peppering of made-up language (mostly specific to an item of clothing or a common expression such as thank you or sorry) apparently confused some of the readers. Here I was, thinking that the meaning was obvious in context but for some the words threw them off the story. As a reader, those words would have pulled me in instead because it gives the world of the story flavor and uniqueness. Then again, I’m a linguist and I am forever fascinated with language.

Another surprising comment was during a love scene. It was my MC’s first time and for reasons I won’t go into right now (no spoilers) I wanted this moment to be magical. Not perfect, just magical in terms of emotional pleasure. A reader thought I should add something about pain, considering it was this girl’s first time. Other betas thought I should keep it the way it was.

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Don’t get me wrong. Their comments were very helpful and I did change a few things that hopefully bettered the flow and the content of the story. But it fascinated me how different we all are when we read. Same story, so many different opinions.

That is the magic of fiction, I think. The fact that not two people take away the same from the same book. Every book club session I attend is an exercise in reconciling often totally different feelings about the same event or the same character. One particular book club was divided into extremes. Half of the readers had absolutely loved the story, the other half had almost violently hated it. One character was sweet and loving for some, a loser for others.

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Fiction is pure magic both for the writer who dreams it and creates it, and the reader who interprets it and believes it.

Reading of a good book is a non-stop dialogue where the book speaks and the soul answers.(unknown)

 

To kill or not to kill, that is this writer’s question

 

“In writing, you must kill your darlings.” –William Faulkner

 

Even though I am perfectly aware of the true meaning of William Faulkner’s words now, as a second language learner I took them very literally for a very long time. It was not easy. I did not want to kill my little darlings (which I at the time took to be my characters). I wanted to write happy-go-lucky stories with happy endings and pretty bows on top. I hate violence so why would I inflict it on my darling characters? It just didn’t make sense to me.

Growing up in to my teens and early twenties I was an avid reader of mysteries (thanks Dad) and these writers definitely killed a lot of their darlings…so should I? Would that put a little more grit and a little less fluff into my stories?

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When I started writing The Hawk, a historic/paranormal romance years ago I decided I was going to kill…something. It didn’t take me long to figure out I was not going to be able to kill anything major in the story. In fact I couldn’t even get myself to kill an animal much less a human being. So I compromised. I thought, “Since I can’t bring myself to killing them, maybe I’ll just hurt them a little bit.” I did. I put an arrow through my main character’s leg and had him bleed to near-death. After that I was on a roll. Poor Hawk went on to suffer from terrible hallucinations that crippled him physically and emotionally. In my next novel, In Her Eyes, I put the poor guy through hell and back, victim of a race crime. I was getting the hang of this even though I had changed the old adage to “In writing, you must torture your darlings”.

Neither of the two aforementioned novels ever saw the light of day. They are still in my drawer, half-typed, half-handwritten manuscripts that I may (or not) resurrect someday.

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Of course in the meantime I learned the true meaning of that advice and I do indeed spend a lot of my revising/editing time “killing my darlings”, but ever since my second-language blooper I have stuck to the idea that my darlings must suffer…at least a little bit.

In We Will Always Have the Closet, both the female MC and the male go through some scary, life-threatening events. In my upcoming novel, Desert Jewel, I outdid myself and put my poor male MC through hell. In Loved You Always (out for adoption right now) both MCs have their lives turned upside down in more ways than one. And in my WIP, a dystopian romance (yes, it’s a thing)…well, I think the genre says it all.

One thing hasn’t changed. I still wrap all my novels in a pretty bow of hope and promises of a better, very happy future. Do you kill your darlings?pexels-photo-14117

The 100-Word Challenge

The Thin Spiral Notebook blog issued a very special challenge this week: to write a 100-word story without using the letter “A”.

At first I didn’t think I could do it, but I did! Not my best writing ever (LOL), but it was fun to come up with alternative words.

Here’s my (very) humble contribution.

Ted and Tom were the best men in town for the job. Neither of them were timid or held much sense of decorum.

When Lilly decided to throw Millie the goodbye-to-single-life shindig, their very first thoughts were, “Let’s hire the Thompson brothers to strip for Millie.” But they didn’t know the brothers were both once Millie’s lovers.

The event didn’t quite go down like they expected it.  When the two erupted through the living room door, dressed in nothing else but the tiny loin cloths Ellie provided them, Millie first turned beet red, then killed over.

The boys, discovering they both knew Millie much too well, threw themselves onto each other, punching each other’s lights out. Coming to, Millie yelled bloody murder until her friends ushered the now-bloodied boys out.

The event would never be forgotten, being still the fodder for many fireside discussions.

A Song for Cape Verde

If you follow my blog (and I know I’ve been very neglectful of it in recent weeks) you know I have been a traveler all my life. Not by choice, mind you. Life just always took me on journeys I probably would never go on should it be left up to me. I’m not very adventurous and as an introvert as much as I love visiting new places and seeing new things I need something or someone to push me in that direction.

When I was about seven years old I lived in a small Atlantic African island called Sal in the Cape Verdean archipelago. Literally translated Sal means salt and there is a very good reason why that island bears this name. It’s been a long time so I cannot speak for the island as it is today. However, back then Sal was a small arid island that survived off the sea salt mines and lobsters. It never rained, there was not much to eat besides lobster and goats were about the only livestock that could survive the harsh environment.

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I was not too happy there at first because I was a minority of epic proportions. I was a white skinny girl in an island of dark-skinned people but, even worse, I was a poor white girl in a place where the only other two white girls my age were the daughters of officers. I was stuck between two worlds. The black girls hated me because I was white and the white girls hated me because I was poor. I won over the local girls by showing them I was almost as poor as they were, lived among them in a house with no electricity (eventually we were upgraded to a house with electricity, but not much more) and no running water and—brace yourselves—by telling jokes. Yes, I became a regular comedian as a survival strategy. I stole my “material” from my father’s old comedy records (by the great late Portuguese comedian Raul Solnado) and put on a daily show every day during recess. I can’t say I made a lot of friends, but at least I was able to get along with the other girls in school (not the white girls though. They truly hated my guts).

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Raul Solnado

Like most places where I lived in the great continent of Africa, Cape Verde holds a special place in my heart. There is something magical about Africa. We, the expatriates that lived there, used to say it was something in the water; once you drank it you could never remove Africa from your heart. For me one of the most magical things about Cape Verde (besides the wealth of lobster, which I ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner) was the music. Cape Verde were originally uninhabited islands discovered by Portuguese explorers and later populated with a mixture of Portuguese settlers and African slaves. Because of its geographic location and history, the islands developed a very unique culture and language. Creole (which I spoke once), a mix of Portuguese and African dialects, is the language spoken on the islands. Just like the language, the music also reflects the influence of both Portuguese and African traditional music. The coladeira is a fast dancing tune that sounds a little like a merengue; the morna is a slow, poignant, warm and sensual dance .

Coladeira                                                                             Morna

Thanks to my parents who loved music and dancing, I was exposed to all of Cape Verdean dances and by the time I left the island I was moving my hips just as well as the other local girls and their music was forever enshrined in my soul. I went back years later as a young adult to enjoy their beautiful isolated beaches for a few days. But nothing can describe the plight and harsh beauty of the islands better than the song Regresso by the great Cape Verdean singer Cesária Evora and later sang by the equally great Brasilian singer Alcione. I hope you have the chance to listen to it and enjoy it. Even if you don’t understand the words, the music says everything. Here’s a song for Cape Verde.

Regresso as sang by Alcione

The Power of Language

This morning sitting in my usual booth at Panera enjoying a book and coffee, here they come; I call them the German ladies club. I am not sure whether they are family or just friends that share a common language and culture. I listen to them for a while. It’s good practice for me considering I haven’t spoken German in over 20 years.  I understand maybe 30% of the conversation and that’s not bad all things considered.

From amidst all that German there are many words and phrases uttered in English. I hear “tornado watch” and “slight chance” sandwiched between German words. I smile. It’s always interesting to listen (or participate) in conversations between bilingual people. There is something weird about how our “wires” are connected. They often “shorten” and out comes a mash-up of words in different languages. Fascinating how a bilingual person can switch between codes without even thinking about it.

I speak (read and write) a few languages. Some of them have fallen into disuse since I haven’t really had the chance or need to use them in years but there are three in particular I use frequently; Portuguese (my native language), English, and Spanish. I have caught myself often speaking in the “wrong” language; meaning, speaking in Portuguese with English speakers and English with Portuguese speakers for example. In the brain of a true bilingual different languages or dialects become almost one. Because our brains can process all of them in similar, if not the same way, the “wires” get crossed sometimes and the wrong language comes out. One day while talking to the secretary in the school where I work and to a Spanish speaking parent,  I caught myself translating what the parent had told me into Portuguese instead of English. The total look of confusion in the secretary’s face was what made me realize what I was doing. My brain didn’t register the difference. We had a good laugh and she still reminds me of this incident once in a while. When I go home to visit  my mom, and especially when I bring my kids and husband (who do not  speak Portuguese), it’s pretty common for me to start speaking in English to my mom and Portuguese to my kids.

Bilingualism gives you a unique perspective into language. You begin “understanding” languages you know nothing about for instances. When I took a class in linguistics I was amazed on how easy it was for me to make sense of languages I had never learned as long as I knew just a few basic rules. Speaking more than one language is like owning your own Rosetta stone, a code-breaker of sorts that will serve you well throughout a lifetime and foster better understanding of other people and other cultures.

I come from a country where the learning of foreign languages is highly valued and encouraged. Everybody starts learning another language while still in elementary school. It always bewilders me that there are people in the US who are for English-only. Why? Doesn’t that foster cultural isolation? So many cultural strife comes from miscommunication. I always believed that people from different cultures would get along a little better if they could have a basic understanding of each other’s languages. How many times have I heard people be suspicious, sometimes angry, because someone is speaking in a language they don’t understand? The tendency is to immediately assume “they are bad-mouthing” you.  I really hope that one day soon everybody in the US will learn a second language starting in elementary school and become, if not bilingual, at least more knowledgeable of how other languages work. We have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

Things that really confuse English Learners

Being a non-native English speaker myself I love it when I come across some word, phrase or sentence in English that I know would have confused the hell of me when I first started learning the language. Here is an example that I just shot a few days ago while picking up some fast food for lunch.

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I can see myself scratching my head and thinking, “They have some tall ducks here in America!”