Inaccurate statistics make for great writing prompts

“Last year in the US alone more than nine hundred thousand people were reported missing and not found…out of about three hundred million, total population. That breaks down to about one person in three hundred and twenty-five vanishing. Every year…Maybe it’s a coincidence, but it’s almost the same loss ratio experienced by herd animals on the African savannah to large predators.”

— Harry Dresden in Dead Beat by Jim Butcher, published in 2005.

“Actually, no, Harry,” I retort, rather disdainfully. “That loss ratio on the African savannah number is probably at least an order of magnitude higher than 0.3%. Maybe even more.* However,” I add in a softer tone, “I completely understand what you’re getting at.”

— Me…had I actually been there. ***sighs wistfully***

*No sources cited, don’t have to, na na na boo boo. I have a Masters of Science in Applied Ecology, so there!

It turns out that there are a number of other folks on the interwebs world who have already commented on this highly provocative quote and thought it “sounded correct.” One or two people actually did a little research on the statistic and did not agree.

***Disclaimer: Please keep in mind that Dead Beat is a novel, i.e. a work of fiction. Facts can appear to be grossly distorted because this story takes place in a different, albeit very similar, universe to our own. The big hint is that magic exists and there is any number of supernatural entities gadding about causing trouble for our wizardly hero, Harry Dresden, and generally raising Cain. Suspension of disbelief is essential, people!***

Obviously, Dresden’s example is a bit melodramatic – not to mention grossly inaccurate – but Harry is trying to clue in Waldo Butters to the dangers of the supernatural world. He uses the disturbing statistic trope to explain to Butters why the majority of people who have a close call might choose to rationalize events, deny whatever happened, and simply pretend the supernatural world doesn’t exist instead of going public about it. This conversation takes place shortly after the zombie attack in the morgue. Zombies, ick. What a horrible introduction to the things that go bump in the night. Personally, I think I’d rather deal with werewolves than zombie-wielding necromancers. Werewolves are way cooler, for one thing. At least, the Alphas version of the werewolf in the Dresden Files Universe is pretty awesome. Who wouldn’t want to be able to autonomously turn into a wolf while retaining human-level reasoning ability? Heck, yeah! Count me in.

Anyway, out of curiosity I just went online and did a search for the number of people reported missing annually in the USA. First, I found a transcript for a 2013 NPR broadcast entitled “The Majority of Missing Person Cases are Resolved,” in which they interviewed the director of communications for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. He claims that in 2012, there were 661,000 cases reported for missing people, but the vast majority of these were quickly canceled, leaving them with 2,079 unresolved missing person cases (3.145%).

And then I did a little more digging. The actual number of missing person cases filed in the US was 830,325 in 2004 according to the NCIC. I don’t know if this statistic represents missing person reports that are new starting in that year or is a cumulative total of open cases at the time. Probably the latter, but the website doesn’t specify unless you pay for the privilege of knowing. Therefore, Harry was definitely exaggerating the number by incorrectly rounding up but don’t be too hard on him. Most people who aren’t mathematically challenged would have done the same to make their point. As you know, 85% of statistics are made up on the spot.

In any event, if the proportion of reported cases to actual unresolved cases remains more or less constant year to year, that means that there were about 28,800 unresolved missing persons cases “last year” in the Dresden Files Universe. Yikes. Of course, this number is not taking into account the resolved cases where missing people are actually found dead. These folks MIGHT have been killed by supernatural predators.

Hmm…what if supernatural predators really DO exist?

Double yikes.

Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Hamlet by William Shakespeare.

Spot on, Billy Bard. Spot on.

All ghostly gibbering aside, how can anyone NOT love Shakespeare?

 

Gollum asks me an important question

“What has she gots on her bookshelveses?”

Why, thank you, Gollum, for showing an interest. Rather than simply listing off the books I currently possess, permit me a measure of self-indulgence in first explaining how my reading habits evolved and how it influenced my writing.

I have always been a voracious reader so it should come as no surprise that many authors have influenced my writing over the years. There is no way I can remember everything I’ve ever read, so I’ll just cover the highlights. From what I recall, during my earliest years I stuck primarily to nonfiction – particularly informational books about the systems of the human body and health, natural history books about animals but mainly books about dinosaurs, with which I was obsessed all through elementary school. The first “novel” that I ever wrote – and finished – was about a sibling trio of young orphaned dinosaurs trying to survive on their own in a dangerous world ruled by a “tyrannical” Tyrannosaurus Rex. Heh heh. That was in fifth or sixth grade and I think it was for a special school project. This book was most likely strongly influenced by A Land Before Time, since the movie came out in 1988 and I’m pretty sure I saw it in the theater. Too bad I can’t find that book anywhere now; I think I gave the only copy to the school librarian.

Foolish child that I was.

By the time I left elementary school, I had read every book in the school library by Dr. Suess, Bill Peet, Jean Craighead George, Jim Kjielgaard and any number of fiction books that were from an animal’s point of view, as well as Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and Pippi Longstocking series. Those were my favorites, but I also read the Sleepover Friends series and the Trixie Belden series, from which I moved on to the mystery/thriller genre in middle school. I also read a lot of Stephen King and Dean Koontz because my mom owns practically every book by them. My favorite Koontz novel is a tie between The Watchers and Lightning. I love The Dark Tower Series by Stephen King (of course, what else?) above and beyond anything else that he’s written, and I think most of his work is excellent.

Middle school was also the time period in which I finally read The Hobbit in its entirety and understood it. My life was never the same again. From then on, I was hooked on Fantasy and Science Fiction. This is not to say that I never read other genres, only that I had found my favorite genre. I adore various classic literature (especially Jane Austen) and I’ve plowed through all the gothic romances by Victoria Holt and many by Joan Aiken. I also enjoy reading Daniel Silva novels every now and then, primarily those featuring Gabriel Allon. I tend to pull in elements from these other genres when I write, however fantasy is the framework on which I have chosen I hang my stories.

From The Hobbit I naturally moved on to the Lord of the Rings and everything else by J.R.R. Tolkien, William Sleator, Madeleine L’Engle, David Eddings, Piers Anthony, C.S. Lewis, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, as well as many novels set in the Star Wars universe by various authors (we have several bookcase shelves full of these in paperback). & etc. & etc.

A sampling of the books in our household.

I could probably argue that I am fairly wide read in the Fantasy genre. I tend to pick an author and – if I enjoy their style and the sort of tale they weave – read everything by them that I can find in the public library. And if I really like them, I actually purchase the books. For example, we have an entire bookshelf dedicated to Jim Butcher (just about everything he has published so far), and another for the complete Wheel of Time series in hardcover. All seven Harry Potter books (also in hardcover) share a shelf with my growing collection of Usagi Yojimbo graphic novels. Sara Douglass, Michael Moorcock, Terry Goodkind, Simon R. Green, Kate Elliott, Elizabeth Hadyn and Jane Lindskold are also pretty well represented as well.

For awhile space was a real concern. Our house is rather small and there are only so many walls that we can line with bookshelves. However – now that such things as Kindle exist – I don’t have to worry so much about buying more bookshelves. Of course, all else being equal I still prefer to read a paper copy of a novel. Who doesn’t?

You’ve probably noticed that I didn’t mention the Bible in the litany above. This is not because I don’t consider the Bible an influence over my writing – it very much is a strong influence! – but because I thought it should go without saying that I incorporate God’s Word in my Teharan Cycle novels.

More on that later.

Now that I’ve shared my reading preferences with you, what sort of authors and titles tend to dominate your bookshelves? What do you read for fun?

Taming the Tongue

If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all!

My thoughts on James 3

How many times do you find yourself thinking: “Oh, I shouldn’t have said that to or about so-and-so” or “Maybe I could’ve worded that criticism in a kinder, more constructive way?” Perhaps snide comments you made out of spite or envy have gotten you into trouble. Well, you are not alone. I, too, have suffered from diarrhea of the mouth. We all have a sinful nature, a “restless evil” within us that poisons everything that we think, say and do. I’d wager that everyone on the planet has at some point in their life said things in a foul humor to someone else that they regret afterward.

Indeed, every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and sea creature is being tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no one is able to tame the human tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

James 3:7-8 (EHV)

My friends, this is a prime example of how desperately we all need Jesus Christ. Our vilest thoughts are always seeking expression and often burst out of our mouths despite our best efforts to cage them. We cannot tame the sinful nature on our own. Only Jesus vanquished that ravening beast.

It’s bad enough to think nasty and hateful thoughts about others, but once you utter the deplorable words aloud to someone it is too late to call them back. You might regret what you said as soon as you say it, but the fact of the matter remains: you spewed forth vitriol with the intent to harm. Unless your companion is completely oblivious to reality you most likely – at the very least – hurt their feelings. At worst, you have irrevocably marred your relationship with that individual and their perception of you and by extension whatever group with which you are affiliated. We are judged by others based on our words and deeds among them. This is especially true for pastors of church congregations and anyone who is prominently in the public eye. James, as inspired by the Holy Spirit, points out this struggle:

3 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. To be sure, we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a fully mature man, able to bridle his whole body as well.

James 3:1-2 (EHV)

The words we use and the way in which we speak shapes our relationships with other people and their perception of us ever after. Furthermore, how we choose to wag our tongues reinforces the spirit or attitude in which we speak, feeding back into our own unique worldview. You’ve probably heard the phrase “garbage in, garbage out” right? Well, I believe when one constantly vomiting forth negativity one also has a tendency to feed upon the same. Even worse, we not only hurt ourselves and others by giving voice to our spitefulness but we damage our relationship with God. The Holy Spirit inspired James to warn us that if left unchecked we could lose our faith and our wagging tongues will steer us straight into hell.

If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they will obey us, we also guide the whole animal. And consider ships: Although they are very big and are driven by fierce winds, yet they are guided by a very small rudder, wherever the pilot wants to go. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, yet it also boasts great things. Consider how a little flame can set a large forest on fire! And the tongue is a fire. It is set among the parts of our body as a world of unrighteousness that stains the whole body, sets the whole course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell.

James 3:3-6 (EHV)

The imagery James uses here isn’t accidental. The bits used to control horses – a large animal – are rather small pieces of metal. The rudder is a relatively small plank of wood but a single person can use it to steer a huge vessel in the water. And I think we all learned from Smokey Bear how a single small flame can set an entire forest on fire. James likens our tongues – our words – to a fire capable of raging out of control. We can all agree that words have more power than we’d like to think, sometimes. If left unchecked, our tongues can stain the rest of our members with unrighteousness through lies, sarcasm, ridicule, gossip, and approval of evil actions. Garbage in, garbage out, and garbage back in again in a vicious cycle.

It is difficult to think of our tongues “guiding” us anywhere, isn’t it? Don’t our brains consciously control everything that we say? Well, yes. But what James is really telling us is that we need to exercise self-control. And for that we need to ask God for help, because we cannot do this on our own. Not for long, at any rate…just up until the point that we have to interact with another person.

Indeed, every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and sea creature is being tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no one is able to tame the human tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people, who are made in the likeness of God. 10 Blessing and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way. 11 A spring does not pour out both fresh and bitter water from the same opening, does it? 12 Can a fig tree bear olives, my brothers, or can a grapevine produce figs? A salt spring cannot produce fresh water either.

James 3:7-12 (EHV)

Our words often show us to be hypocrites, don’t they? I praise God in a church service on Sunday mornings and not two hours later I’m cussing out someone for their failure to follow basic traffic laws. In front of my children, to boot! It is so easy to slip into unwholesome talk, diabolically easy when we are among those who thrive on malicious gossip. I have been guilty of feeling a delicious thrill when I heard some juicy, secret detail from someone’s life that really isn’t any of my business. Sarcasm is also one of my guilty pleasures; it is a popular form of humor that never seems to get old. Unfortunately, it is difficult to trust a sarcastic person because you can never be entirely certain that what they are saying is what they truly mean. But trust me when I say this: we as Christians have to maintain constant vigilance over our tongues and pray for the Holy Spirit to strengthen us.

13 Who among you is wise and intelligent? Let him by his good way of living show that he does things in wise humility. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not boast and lie, contrary to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but it is worldly, unspiritual, and demonic. 16 In fact, where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and every bad practice. 17 But the wisdom that comes from above is first pure, then also peaceful, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who practice peace.

James 3:10-18 (EHV)

Everywhere we turn – on the Internet, the television, the radio – we hear people saying nasty things about each other. Some of these nasty things might even be true. But in what spirit are these facts presented to the masses? Is it merely to entertain or provoke impassioned responses and thereby gain glory through a multitude of “followers” who “like” the information that one shares? Are people speaking out of a sincere desire to help or warn others of danger, or are they spreading negativity out of envy or selfish ambition? In this day and age, Christians – all of us, really – need to watch very carefully what we share on social media as well as the words that come out of our mouths.

And not just to save ourselves from looking like idiots. Although that might be a lost cause, in my case.

James might seem to dwell on the negative side of the tongue’s power, but don’t let that discourage you. It’s not all bad news. Never forget the power of God’s Word, through which the Holy Spirit kindles saving faith in unbelieving hearts and nourishes the struggling saint-sinner’s soul. We are empowered by faith in Christ to use the power of words for good, too! We can encourage peace rather than saying things in order to get people riled up. Even when it is necessary to rebuke someone or speak on an unpleasant topic, we can do so discretely and with compassion, always keeping the best interests of others in mind. We can avoid perpetuating vicious rumors – no matter how juicy – and avoid those conversations whenever possible.

Or, when all else fails in a tricky social situation and you don’t know what to say, you can always fall back on my great-grandma’s advice:

“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all!”

Day of Pentecost

I apologize for the late blog post; yesterday I was attending the graduation party for a person very special to me.

The Holy Spirit descends

Thus begins the season of Pentecost, which is the non-festival half of the church year. The first Pentecost occurred 50 days (Pentecost comes from the Greek pentēkostē, meaning “fiftieth”) after Jesus Christ rose from the dead on Easter. Just before He ascended into heaven, Jesus told His disciples to stay in Jerusalem because He would send the Holy Spirit to them. Sure enough, the Day of Pentecost arrived, and with it came the Holy Spirit in a sound like rushing wind and tongues of fire hovering over the apostles’ heads! In addition to the physical sign, He enabled the apostles to speak in many different languages so that they could proclaim the gospel message to Jews from different lands. And not only this, but thanks to the Holy Spirit, the apostles were able to fully understand everything that Jesus had taught them. If you are interested in learning about this miracle in more detail, the entire account is recorded in the first few chapters of the book of Acts.

The Holy Spirit is a heart transplant surgeon

Oddly enough, the sermon for today’s service was not on Acts 2. This morning, the pastor preached Psalm 51. Now, in order to understand the significance of this psalm, you first have to read 2 Samuel 11, which is the account of King David committing adultery with Bathsheba (who of course gets pregnant), and after all his finagling fails, the king then arranges the murder of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah in order to cover up his first crime. In the next chapter, the prophet Nathan rebukes the king with an allegory. The end result is that David repents of his sin and goes on to write a beautiful psalm.

Verses 10-12 and 17 are particularly of note:

Create in me a pure heart, O God,

    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

11 Do not cast me from your presence

    or take your Holy Spirit from me.

12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation

    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Psalm 51:10-12 (NIV)

The sacrifices God wants are a broken spirit.

A broken and crushed heart, O God, you will not despise.

Psalm 51:17 (Evangelical Heritage Version)

The NIV uses the word “contrite” instead of crushed in verse 17. I used a different translation for the last verse because even though the message is the same, the imagery of a broken and crushed heart is much more profound. King David had committed horrible sins and he was sick unto death because of the guilt crushing him. Now, not everyone is guilty of such serious crimes as adultery compounded by murder, but this is how we should feel about any kind of sin. Even those sins that the world claims are “not so bad” or denies are actually sins in this enlightened age of secularized society. After all, nowadays it is okay to live in ways that God frowns upon because nobody appears to get hurt.

But David knew better. He knew the agony and torture of his guilty conscience. He knew that even above and beyond what he had done to harm Bathsheba and Uriah, that his sins hurt God.

Well, now that our hearts are pulverized beyond all recognition due to guilt and grief, how do we continue to survive? Even the most ignorant person knows that you can’t live without a heart! But who will give us a new heart? When one receives a new kidney, there is a chance that the donor is still alive. However, whenever a patient has a heart transplant, you know that the donor gave up their life in order that another should live.

This is what Jesus Christ did for us. He died that we might live. And this is where God the Holy Spirit comes in. He is the heart transplant surgeon. He replaces our broken and crushed heart with a newly created one…from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who died that we might live forever with Him in heaven.

On a more “earthly” note, my toilet gardens are blooming! Go ahead and laugh. If you have any comments, please post them.

Curses! Foiled Again!

I’m sure there are plenty of authors out there who have been “cat-blocked” from their laptops and paper notepads from time to time.

My cat smells ambition and seeks to squash it…along with my chest.

A large, handsome, brown and white tabby tom cat with green eyes is sitting on my chest and blocking access to my laptop.
The ongoing, nefarious plot of Doctor Purr-nassus to block my writing attempts has once more succeeded. To the left and behind you see some evidence of work done: my storyboard for the Wyldling Series.

Did the Erin Hunters have this problem while crafting their Warriors series, I wonder? I’d like to think so. I’m sure there are plenty of authors out there who have been “cat-blocked” from their laptops and paper notepads from time to time. As you can see, this has not stopped me from typing. The Doctor doesn’t seem to mind that my arms – across which his butt and head are draped – keep shifting back and forth.

Well, since I’m already on the topic of cats I suppose I’ll just stay on it. I’ll share my opinion about that Warriors series by Erin Hunter that I mentioned. No, I am not going to provide a review with nitty-gritty details, but overall I would recommend the series for tweens and teenagers. The books are written for younger readers, after all. Also, if you don’t mind reading kid’s books as an adult – and you like cats – then I’m sure you’d enjoy reading it. The first series especially is well-crafted.

My eldest son started reading the Warriors books last year (he’ll be sixteen come September of this year) so of course I had to check it out and make sure that it was “appropriate” for my impressionable children.

Well, that was stupid of me.

Now I have the first six books and some of the “super editions” downloaded to my Kindle, and I’ve bought physical copies of books in the later series from second-hand bookstores. I couldn’t stop reading these books, even though the subsequent series were not as well-edited, I thought, as the first was. But, all plot inconsistencies aside, the books in the Warriors series are all worth reading.

If the story is good, I make note of any errors in my mind but I don’t let it keep me from enjoying the novel. I think to myself: this author (or authors, plural, in this case) has taken the time and effort to write a great story with engaging characters and I’m going to see it through to the end. And hey, they got published and have a pretty large following amongst young readers and adults alike, so they must be doing something right.

However, as Levar Burton would say: “Don’t take my word for it.”

Go check the books out for yourself.

By the way, the Doctor got sick of the rocking motion so he is no longer blocking me from my laptop. Hooray!

Well, that’s all for today, folks. Back to work for me!