Friday, 13 April 2012

Dreamspinner: Alix Bekins and the Joy of Research

I squealed like the little girl I am not when Alix asked to promote her book, Written in the Stars. Thank you so much for joining me, Alix. I asked her to talk about the joys of research... and just look at the areas she covered.

Sometimes when you’re writing, you find yourself distracted by the strangest things, following paths through Wikipedia and Google that you never would have predicted even an hour before.  While writing “Written in the Stars,” one of my favorite ways to amuse myself at the end of the week was the look at my browser history and contemplate how it would look to an outsider.

As an example, here’s my Wikipedia list from one individual chapter:  the Fibonacci sequence, other numerical sequences found in nature, restaurants in the Castro area, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the De Young Museum, Cubism, Dada, de Stijl, minimalism, the London Gherkin building, and cathedrals with flying buttresses.  And that was just for one of nineteen chapters!

In addition to the bounty of information on the internet, I also consulted with real-live friends and family about the physics of music, the best online dating sites, favorite restaurants in San Francisco, and with a former judge about libel law (he happens to be my father-in-law).  “What on Earth are you writing about?” was probably the question most-asked of me in 2011, followed closely by heartfelt “Why?”s.

Frankly, I love research.  It has this huge downside of taking up the time that I had set aside to actively be writing, putting words on the page.  But I love the little twists and turns, the weird things I never even thought to wonder about before that very moment, and the instant answers at my fingertips.  Or not instant – I also love the challenge of having to hunt down a real book, send an email to a friend who is an expert, or even pick up the telephone.  The look on my father-in-law’s face as I picked his brain about libel laws over a family dinner was sort of priceless.

The thing is, I know that writing a story that is essentially a silly romantic comedy means it doesn’t have to be 100% accurate.  But me being me, I like to know things.  I like to know when I’m making shit up versus when there’s an actual answer out there.  So I look up little details I’m not sure of – or am totally ignorant about – and can only hope that the end result makes me slightly more well informed and my story a tiny bit more realistic.

I got to learn about how Bach can be math, about nuclear reactions that occur in nature, about art movements, international energy conferences, green roofs, CERN, the Neutrino Factory, the CNRS, Smart Boards, Bobby Fisher, genius savants, science geek jokes (which included tagging a bunch of stuff at for gifts for my sweetie), the chemical composition of nail polish, the most valuable currencies, Shakespeare in the Park and the San Francisco symphony, hang gliders, small airplanes, homing pigeons, Bay Area airports, flying lessons, and so much food.  And that was just the random unpredictable, unplanned stuff!  I also learned a lot about libel laws in journalism, the court process, online dating sites/experiences, how people write horoscopes, and the entire fields of astronomy and astrology in general.

The aspect I love the most about writing is that it always takes me somewhere I didn’t expect to go.  No matter how well-plotted a story is, there will always be something unexpected.  I don’t claim to be one of those writers who sits and lets the muse pour through them, but I do often feel an itch while I’m writing, a niggling urge to know how a story ends, only to recall a moment later that I’m the one writing it.  In the end, that’s why I write – to see how my story ends.

Written in the Stars by Alix Bekins
Written in the Stars


Bailey McMillan’s life is a mess. The general public blames him for his former employer’s nuclear pollution, resulting in professional disgrace. Humiliated, he takes a job as an editor at a science magazine run by his best friend, John. That part isn’t so bad; Bailey is fond of John, who seems to find Bailey’s abrasive nature amusing.

Unfortunately, working for John also leads to writing an astrology column in exchange for getting free rein in some op-ed articles—and then being sued over one. The (totally coincidental) accuracy of the column offers opportunity for further professional disgrace if anyone discovers its author—and then Bailey digs himself a little deeper.

In an attempt to prove astrology is bogus, he agrees to an experiment to date someone from each star sign. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Bailey’s got a stupid crush on John, who stubbornly insists on a detailed breakdown of every date—bad and otherwise. Bailey’s luck has to improve sometime… right?

Chapter 1 - Heavens Above

“NO. NO, no, no, and no!”

“Yes,” John said, not even looking away from his computer screen.

“You can’t possibly be serious,” Bailey insisted. He slammed his hands down on John’s desk, finally getting the attention of the magazine’s editor in chief.

“Serious as a funeral,” John said.

“This will ruin our credibility! Everything we’ve been working for over the last year, ever since we started! You’re going to destroy it all just to pander to the masses? They don’t need any more pandering! I refuse to be a part of it,” Bailey said definitively. “I won’t do it. I’ll quit first.”

John’s attention had shifted back to his computer, irritating Bailey. He’d probably done it on purpose. “You won’t quit.”

The sound of sputtering frustration filled the office for several minutes until Bailey managed to get ahold of himself. His boss was many things, all of them annoying, but stupid wasn’t one of them. “Why won’t I?”

“One, because you’ve seen the numbers and know that we need to make some changes to keep afloat. Two, because appealing to a broader, more mainstream audience is the best way to do that. And three, because I have a bribe for you: I’ll let you write the review column you’ve been bugging me about.”

“But an article like you’re suggesting is going to dumb down the whole magazine!”

Baaaaaileeeeey,” John said, the name sounding about three syllables longer that it actually was, each brimming with John’s world-weary suffering of his senior science editor.

Bailey closed his eyes for a moment, thinking. “So you’re proposing that I get to write a scathing commentary of my former peers’ latest research developments every month?”

John nodded.

“I get to be rude to people, in print, every month—for at least twelve issues?” he clarified.

John nodded again, a smile starting to creep onto his face, starting in the fine lines around his eyes.

“And in return, you’re going to make me—over my most vehement objections—write an astrology column?” Bailey managed to load an impressive amount of scorn into the word.


Huffing in justified frustration, Bailey thought for a moment again and then jerked his chin in a quick nod. “Fine. I’ll do it. But!” he hurried to add before John’s grin became overly smug, “I want you to guarantee the twelve-month minimum for the review column, and I insist that That Other Thing be completely anonymous. No byline, John, and no one else at Spark knows about it who doesn’t have to. If word got out, it would destroy my remaining credibility.”

“Oh, you still have some left?” John asked, eyes twinkling with laughter.

“Bite me.” It was always going to smart, how the idiots at Stellar Energy had cost Bailey his reputation by refusing to listen to his advice. Well, him and the other scientists on the research team, but still.

John reached into a tray on his desk and pulled out a sheet of paper. “Here; I knew you’d want it in writing.”

Bailey took the agreement back to his desk to look over thoroughly. John Forrester might be his good friend, maybe even his best friend, but he wasn’t signing anything without reading the fine print. He and John had known each other too long and given each other far too much shit for him to be quite that trusting.

The two had met nearly a decade ago, when John had still been enlisted and Bailey was contracting with the military. He’d been working on a still-classified project which would one day revolutionize energy production, and John had been one of a small team of soldiers assigned to keep the scientists somewhat grounded in reality. It had turned out that John was actually quite intelligent, even had an MA in mathematics—something Bailey found difficult to believe of someone who had voluntarily signed up to be shot at—and despite the constant arguing and insults, they became friends.

They hadn’t stayed in touch once the project had been completed and they were both reassigned. Bailey had finished out his contract and then gone to work for those fools at Stellar Energy. While he was grateful that John had sought him out and offered him a job at Spark, his gratitude only went so far. To Bailey’s eternal mortification, John instinctively knew the right buttons to push, the same way he had all those years ago, to prod Bailey into doing whatever he wanted. Just like with this ridiculous astrology column.

Bailey reviewed the proposal carefully and tried not to get too upset that John had been able to predict his demands that the editorial be for a year minimum and that the astrology column remain anonymous. He signed his usual assertive scrawl and took the agreement over to Lauren, John’s assistant, detouring to make himself a photocopy first.

John popped his head out the door. “Buy you a beer after work to wash away the bitter taste of defeat?” he offered.

“Go to hell. But yes, buy me a beer first.”

John grinned. “So long as I know I’ve got company for the trip.”

Bailey shook his head, flapping his hand dismissively as he headed back toward his desk. Damn John for always knowing how to get under Bailey’s skin. Bailey sat down at his desk and shuddered as he started typing in search phrases to learn how to predict horoscopes.


THREE months later, John was back at the bar down the street, buying Bailey yet another in a very long—endless, maybe—string of conciliatory beers.

“I still can’t believe you are making me do this.”

John shrugged, bored by the same dialogue they’d had a million times but willing to recite his lines once again if that was what Bailey wanted. “People want to read about sex and romance. It’s not my fault.”

Bailey sat hunched over in misery, staring hopelessly at his half-empty pint glass. “This has to be punishment for something I did.”

“Buck up. If you want to write the editorial column, then you have to write this one too. You’re the only one who’s qualified,” John said, resting a consoling hand on Bailey’s shoulder.

The reaction was explosive; Bailey sat up sharply, turning on John with a vengeance. “You take that back!” he spat. “I am not qualified to write such blatant drivel and quackery. I am so far overqualified, so far beyond qualified—” 

“Whatever; you’re the one who is writing it. It’s your assignment; I’m your boss. Write the goddamned column,” John said, rolling his eyes. Bailey’s melodramatic outbursts, which had lost him most of his potential friends and pretty much all of his dates in the last five years, had never had very much effect on John.

“I hate you,” Bailey grumbled.

“And yet somehow I manage not to cry myself to sleep at night.” John smirked as he raised his glass and then drained it. “Only you would have a meltdown because your column—in an obscure new scientific journal—got praised on a morning talk show.”

“That’s exactly it! My astrology column—the one with no scientific merit whatsoever—has gained national attention, and I can’t even decide if I’m more appalled that people think this bullshit is real, or that people finally approve of my work but it’s this, or that I’m apparently shallow enough to somewhat wish I was actually getting recognition for this drivel. What am I saying—I absolutely do not want my name associated with this crap! John, under no circumstances are you allowed to ever reveal that I write this column. On pain of death,” he said, giving John the most threatening look he could manage, which wasn’t very.

John laughed. “Do you honestly think anyone would believe me anyway? Bailey McMillan, the double-PhD genius, mastermind behind Stellar Energy, writing Spark’s astrology column?”

Bailey signaled to the bartender for another round. “I know; you’re right, of course. But seriously, John, promise me—not even in your memoirs.”

John rolled his eyes but nodded.

“I just don’t get it. I mean, I tried—I honestly tried—to find some scientific basis for this garbage. Some way to use the latest research of, oh, the last two centuries of space exploration to find patterns in radiation or magnetic shifts, or anything at all that had the tiniest hint of a possibility of correlation between astronomical phenomena and human behavior, and aside from some very minor reports of a higher incidence of homicides during lunar eclipses, there is nothing. Nothing!

John dared another pat on the shoulder as Bailey buried his face in his hands on the table. “It’s the fact that it kind of works that really gets your goat, isn’t it?”

“Yes! It’s driving me insane that so many people are reporting how accurate the random crap I make up is turning out to be!”

“Only you would be so upset. Most normal people would simply stop worrying about it and enjoy the ride. It must suck being a genius.”

Hate you.”

“Love you too, buddy.” John laughed.


A WEEK later found them back at the same bar. It was getting to be a regular habit for them. Any time Bailey’s—or rather Spark’s—astrology column was mentioned in the news, John added an hour or two at the bar with Bailey to his evening plans. The column was turning out to be shockingly popular, and it was a good thing Bailey had insisted on keeping his agreement a secret from the rest of the staff at Spark, because the media had started questioning anyone they could find when neither John nor Lauren would give up the writer’s name.

It seemed as if Bailey’s inability to simply make up the column without doing some sort of research—mostly to prove that astrology was totally bogus—had backfired. He was running numbers, correlating everything from the levels of radiation the sun was emitting on a particular day, to meteor showers, to the slight wobble of the earth’s axis and comparing it to behavioral studies, lottery winners, crime statistics, and data from suicide prevention hotlines. He remained absolutely convinced that there wasn’t a shred of evidence to support any sort of relationship between the two… and yet the magazine was being flooded with e-mails from people who claimed Bailey’s predictions were spot-on, including some from well-known astrologers who wanted to know his secret.

It almost made Bailey want to weep over the sheer stupidity of their readers.

“It boggles my mind that people would rather believe their lives are influenced by the movements of big chunks of rock and enormous clouds of gas two kiloparsecs away than simply accept that chaos theory makes far more sense.”

“People don’t want logic, Bailey, they want a sense of order in their lives.” John sighed. This was becoming a very familiar conversation.

Bailey made a face. “People don’t make sense! There are no numbers that are ‘luckier’ for a Taurus on a particular Wednesday, and there’s no specific cosmological configuration that means Virgos should be careful with money or that Geminis should watch out for tall, dark strangers. And don’t even get me started on the nonsense about ‘love matches’. These idiots might as well be reading sheep entrails for all the ‘science’ involved.”

“The romance stuff pisses you off the most, doesn’t it?” John asked, grinning. “It’s like a personal insult to your finely tuned sense of the utter randomness of love, which of course is why you haven’t found the right person yet: sheer chance.”

“It’s a better answer than looking to the stars to find my soulmate,” Bailey answered, tone full of distaste. “Part of it is my fault, sure, but most of it is just life—not ever meeting the right person at the right time under the right conditions. It doesn’t have a damn thing to do with where Venus is in my chart.”

John shook his head and finished his beer. “So prove it.”

Bailey looked at John like he was nuts, which clearly John was, and this was simply more evidence. “Prove what, how?”

“Prove that the romance crap is wrong. Wow me,” John challenged him, grinning.

“Of all the idiotic, pointless, futile theories to waste my time on…. You might as well ask me to disprove the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.”

“Praise His Noodly Appendage,” John said, raising his glass in a toast.

“Oh for….” Bailey sighed but raised his glass to clink against John’s. “Seriously. The only way to ‘prove’ that something doesn’t work is to try it and see what happens. But anything involving human behavior is so subjective that trying to apply the scientific method is just asking for skewed results.” He glanced across the room at a particularly attractive young woman seated at the bar. “I could go over to that woman and be charming and wonderful, ask her out, and then attribute her rejection to the month she happened to be born in not meshing well with the month I happened to be born in. Or I could give the same attribution to something slightly more logical, like the fact that she’s got a tan line on her hand where a ring used to be and she might not be ready to date again yet. Or maybe she had a crappy day, or maybe her goldfish died, or maybe she hates men with blue eyes!”

“So try just the basics, like a general compatibility test,” John suggested. “See which signs you’re supposed to get along with the best and then date them and see if it’s true.”

Bailey gave him a look. “Oh please. What, you think that if I go out on a few dates and somehow magically end up getting along best with the one I’m ‘supposed to’,” he said, complete with air quotes, “then that will prove anything?”

“Maybe not, but you’ll have a handful of dates out of it, at the very least.” John smirked.

“I weep for your college professors if that’s what you consider logic.”

John kicked him under the table. “What do you have to lose? You go out on twelve dates, and you get to have a tiny bit of proof—”

“Flawed, subjective proof,” Bailey interrupted.

“—that astrological love matches are bogus,” John continued, ignoring Bailey. “Maybe you’ll even get laid,” he added, wiggling his eyebrows in what was probably supposed to be a suggestive way but instead looked like he had a facial tic.

“In order for an ‘experiment’ like that to work, I’d need to date at least one person of each sign. And I couldn’t know who was who or I’d bring my own biases into it—which is going to be difficult enough to ignore, given that there is no way in hell this can work, because, and let me say this very clearly since you seem to be missing my point, astrology is completely bogus.”

John ignored him, as usual. “So you go out with one person of each sign within a close enough time period that you can realistically make comparisons. It’s like you’ll suddenly be popular,” John teased. “Twelve dates in a few months; I bet that’s more action than you’ve had in years.”

Bailey made a face at him. “Why are we friends?” he asked, trying to sound genuinely curious. “I’m pretty sure I loathe you.”

It wasn’t as if he needed John to rub it in that Bailey didn’t date much—or at all—and that the idea of finding even two dates in one month made his palms sweat. Not everyone could have the looks John had: tallish, fit, runner’s body, tanned skin, hazel eyes. His hair was a perpetual disaster of cowlicks that tended to make him look sort of goofy, but even though he was nearing his midforties, John had a grace and self-confidence that drew women to him like bees to honey. He’d always been able to charm his way into any pants he’d wanted.

Bailey never even tried to compete. Sure, he was a genius and he had money, but he simply wasn’t good with people and had given up in his late teens, when he’d realized that being super-intelligent didn’t seem to make people want to sleep with him. He had huge blue eyes, which were his best feature by far, a stocky body that tended to look more pudgy than strong, and hair that had sadly started thinning in his midthirties. He liked sex—loved sex—but rarely found dealing with other people’s emotions worth the effort involved.

“What have you got to lose?” John asked, a smile beginning to tug at the corners of his mouth. “Maybe you’ll even find Miss—or Mister—Right.”

Bailey shook his head, knowing he’d already given in the moment he’d begun thinking about all the variables involved. “I’ll bet you a steak dinner that at the end of this pseudo-scientific farce, I’m still sitting here in this bar with you.”

John grinned. “You’re on.”

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