my weekend with michael palmer


(photo courtesy of Dr. Donald Palmisano)

Over the weekend, medical thriller writer Michael Palmer and I taught our annual course in Cape Cod for doctors who want to be novelists. About 120 docs attended the intensive two-day conference, taught almost entirely by Michael and me. By the end of the first day (after I’d been on my feet in front of the class for almost eight hours) I was completely exhausted. But it’s always a blast talking about the business and the craft — and it inspired me to come home and get back to my next book.

Florence Nightingale (vs.) Oliver Wendell Holmes

One of the downsides of being a published author is the whacks over the head you’ll get from readers who are angry at you for one reason or another. And sometimes, an author just has to respond publicly, so the whacks can (for a while, at least) cease.

Recently I’ve been taken to task by a number of nurses who are outraged that in my novel The Bone Garden, a book about childbed fever, I make no mention of Florence Nightingale. Instead, my book focuses on Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes and how his theory of infectiousness revolutionized American medicine. How dare I write a story focusing ONLY on a doctor’s contributions, and ignore the contribution of Nightingale?

Here I offer my defense.

The Bone Garden takes place in 1830, the year in which my character Oliver Wendell Holmes is still a medical student. The story unfolds against a background of a childbed fever epidemic. In real life, in 1843, Oliver Wendell Holmes went on to present his groundbreaking paper: “On the Infectiousness of Puerperal Fever” (childbed fever) to the Massachusetts Medical Society. Within twelve years, his entreaties for medical personnel to wash their hands before attending women in childbirth were finally accepted by American physicians.

Florence Nightingale was an English nurse whose contributions to the practice of medicine were also revolutionary, leading to vast improvements in sanitation in hospitals, both civilian and and on the battlefield. Much of what she advocated came as a result of her observations during the Crimean War (1854). In 1859, her book Notes On Nursing was published, which documented her observations on the link between sanitation and health.

I hope it will be apparent to my critics that a book which takes place in 1830 could not possibly involve characters talking about Nightingale’s contributions — because those are a good 24 years in the future. Also, it was not the age of the internet. A medical breakthrough in America would not necessarily be known in Crimea or England. In fact, the necessity of handwashing to prevent childbed fever was something that had to be discovered several times over around the world. Holmes publicized it in 1843. Meanwhile, in Vienna, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis was conducting his own studies on contagion and handwashing during the 1840’s. They both had to make these discoveries independently.

Even if Holmes and Nightingale were contemporaries, what one discovered would not be known by the other.

So please. Before you feel the need to write me an angry email or make an angry comment about how Gerritsen dissed Nightingale, think about the chronology. And the geography. And the fact that I can’t be blamed for not mentioning a person whose contributions were still 24 years in the future.

Read my latest interview

I talk about the genre, how I approach a story, and about literary vs. popular fiction. It’s over on the web page “The Crime of it All.”

More gravity parallels. Weird.

I ran across this description of Alfonso Cuaron’s film, “Gravity,” which I had noted earlier had eerie similarities to the plot of my novel, “Gravity.” Here’s how the film is summarized according to “Scriptshadow”:

Everything that can go wrong does go wrong as the movie becomes a series of near death experiences. Ryan must jump from point to point – whether it be to a vessel, a station, or an oxygen tank – and survive long enough to make the journey to the next point after that (and so on). Each destination is accompanied by dangerous debris, dropping oxygen, and the strong chance that whatever she’s trying to get to might not be there. Think Apollo 13, but with the odds stacked 1 million times higher against you, if that’s possible.

Now here’s the eerie similarity. For years, when I’ve been giving lectures about my research for my books Gravity, I’ve used almost that exact same phrase. I used it again in a blogpost I wrote a year ago for the Maine Science Teachers Association:

I started off by months of reading — every book I could get my hands on about astronaut training, the history of NASA, the shuttle program, and aerospace medicine. I found children’s books surprisingly helpful — they often have great illustrations and they focus on just the oddball things I wanted to know, such as how do those toilets in space work? I was also able to pull tons of information off the NASA website. I downloaded blueprints of the space station (which hadn’t even been launched yet.) And I downloaded close to 1,000 highly technical pages from their shuttle flight manual. (After 9/11, however, many of these pages were removed from their website.) I became familiar with how missions are supposed to work in space.

But I didn’t know how things might go wrong. And the theme of GRAVITY is “Titanic in space” — in this story, everything that can go wrong does go wrong. I needed to find out how to make those disasters happen. Clearly, it was time to visit NASA.

Has Cuaron been following me around?

French book covers make me scratch my head

While cruising through the French Amazon.com site, I noticed a weird and creepy cover design trend on mystery and thriller novels. Get a load of these books, which are all in the top-50 bestselling mystery novels:

French covers often flummox me. Now more than ever. Interesting how a trend gets started, and pretty soon that’s all you see wherever you look.