Some years back I took my daughter to a bookstore for an appearance by Ann Brashares, who was at the time promoting the third in her four-book Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series. Ann read an excerpt, and spoke a bit, and answered questions from the overflow audience. And two things in particular have stayed with me from that Q & A:
1) How sincerely interested she was in the opinions of the teen & tween girls who’d shown up to hear her. “What do you guys think of the cover? Is the color okay?” she asked in the same way you might ask your best friend about a shirt you’re trying on in a department-store dressing room. (This has nothing to do with the rest of today’s post, but I’ve remembered it vividly.)
2) What she said about writing the character of Bridget, the soccer jock. Ann herself was not at all athletic, and so Bridget was her chance to sort of try on that life; to think about how a supremely confident athlete’s mind would work; to educate herself in the things Bridget would know about soccer, etc.
This is on my mind today because I’m struggling with writing a heroine whose brain readily grasps things that confound me. Lydia is a gambler who possesses, as she describes it, “a certain facility with numbers and an excellent memory for what I’ve seen.” People like that fascinate me, all the more because I’m not one of them. Writing Lydia gives me a chance to try on a numberish brain at the same time I’m trying on life for a woman in the early 19th century, which is an irresistible double challenge.
But it’s also hard, hard work. I’ve spent the morning taxing my poor non-numberish brain over Charles Babbage’s An Examination of some Questions connected with Games of Chance. (Published in 1820, so Lydia couldn’t have read it, but it does give an idea of what a mathematically gifted person with an interest in gambling might have come up with around that time.)
I make it through page 1 okay. Martingale betting; yup, I know about martingale betting. I’m with him through most of page 2, when he introduces variables of p and q to represent number of hands (or coin-tosses, or whatever) won and lost.
But at the bottom of the page he assigns the value of 2u to the gambler’s bet. And there’s got to be a reason for the 2, right? Otherwise he would just call it u. However he offers no explanation for the 2. So I’m troubled. But I’m forging ahead.
And then comes this: we may represent the gamester’s profit after one event is decided by 2u(-1)a, a being any whole number; for since the nature of the number a is left undecided, whether it is an even or an odd one, the expression just given will represent either a profit or a loss.
Okay, but where does a come from? What does it represent? Dammit, Lydia would know this on first reading.
Seven lines later he’s brought in a cosine. Okay, I can see that the cosine is optional. But it’s still deeply troubling. Then come thirteen lines of plain old text, and I’m actually following along for a bit. But suddenly he’s referring to a b and a c in addition to the a, and a peek ahead shows grim pages of successively longer and more recondite equations, and I am feeling like a cartoon character with my fingernails dug into the side of a cliff, sliding inexorably down. What on earth possessed me to write a character who was good at math?
Well. One thing that possessed me, undoubtedly, is that I do have a numberish brain in the family. My brother has by now grown used to receiving e-mails with requests like “Please review these rules for a 19th-century version of blackjack and tell me how strategy would differ from modern blackjack strategy” and sending replies like “Well, the obvious big difference is you get to see your first card before determining your wager.”
(Right. Obvious. Totally obvious.)
So, off goes Babbage and his Examination, hopefully to be translated into understandable terms. And next time, I swear, I will write a heroine who’s a spelling prodigy or something.