column: "Great Courses" Reads Minds


            Now that I’m out of school and don’t have to take tests anymore, I love learning. That would freak some people out, I suppose – far too many take the end of school as an excuse to stop learning, unless they’re learning about the latest contestant to be dropped from The Biggest Losing Apprentice Housewife Chefs of New Jersey Shores.

            I suppose part of it for me is that whole book-writing thing. A lot of time goes into a non-fiction book: When I was researching my history of the fire department, I spent enough time at the library to qualify for retirement. But you’d be surprised how much research goes into novels, too. The young adult mystery I finished last year required me to learn about police and private detective work, Native American history, firefighting (well, I kinda already knew that), and how an amusement park operates behind the scenes.

            All that for a story I “made up”.

Storm Chaser required a good working knowledge of meteorology, because, hey – storms. (It turns out meteorology is not the study of meteors. That’s called, ironically, Rock-rainology.)

Like many people in Indiana, I already had some working knowledge of weather. It’s a survival thing:

“Hey, it’s 80 degrees and sunny out!”

“Take your coat.”

“But it’s 80 degrees and – where did that cloud come from? Is that – snow?”

“It’s April. Take your coat, and some sunscreen, and a life jacket.”

As a storm spotter I’d also learned certain things: Harmless scud clouds mean people are going to call 911 and report a tornado on the ground. Quarter sized hail hurts. The tornado siren is a statewide signal for everyone to go stand in their front yard.

Still, when you write a character who makes her living following disasters around the country, you’d better have some of the same knowledge she does. Despite my already well known fascination with The Weather Channel, I learned as much as I could about meteorology without actually taking a class. (They charge for those. Who knew?)

I fudged a little on the opening of Storm Chaser, because I inserted a tornado into weather conditions that probably wouldn’t produce one. (It’s not a spoiler – that’s quite literally how the book opens.) Still, I had to know the rules in order to even consider breaking them, just as I had to know the rules of a good story – including the rule about getting the reader’s attention with page one. Tornadoes are notorious attention grabbers.

Now, I told you all that so you’ll understand why I was bothered by a catalog I received in the mail. My fiancĂ©e, who I’ll call Emily because that’s her name, is just as fascinated by learning as I am, and together we ordered a couple of DVD classes from a company called “The Great Courses”.

You people who hate learning, you’d better brace yourselves for this.

The Great Courses allows you to order an illustrated lecture series – in a sense, you’re taking a college course in your own home, only without being tested or graded. Also, without getting college credit … there’s always a catch.

In other words, we were learning just for the sake of learning. Somebody get chairs for those drop-outs in the back row, who are swooning at the very thought.

There are courses on history, science, literature, even math. There will be no math in my home, by the way – you gotta draw the line somewhere. The courses we ordered had to do with history and writing. Remember that.

Okay, so I’ve set it up for you. We ordered two courses, which of course resulted in a flood of catalogs from the company, a tactic that would have done what they desired if I had the money: I’d hold up in my living room, watching DVD’s, all winter. Since I don’t have the money, I’m writing a column instead.

Ah, well. The catalogs were a kind of torture, but interesting to browse through and useful for kindling fires in January, just in case the worst-case scenario comes along. Then, one day, a new catalog came in that caused me to stop in my tracks.

Naturally, the companies have a customer list and will personalize their categories, I understand that. But this one was a bit too personal, especially since they knew nothing about me except my name and address:

“Mark, we’ve placed a course on sale especially for you! Order now and take $15 off the sale price of:


Um …..

Okay, so I wrote a novel about a meteorologist/storm chaser, and the weather plays a key part of the story. But – how they heck did they know that? It’s not like they shot me a personalized cover every week with a different subject on it, just to cover all their bases.

What next? Will my fire history book put me on the mailing list for Fire Chief Magazine? Will my mystery net an internal memo at the FBI? Will my anti-Congress columns get me blacklisted by Harry Reid and John Boehner?

Actually, I’d probably brag about that last one.


  1. Humorous post, Mark. I'll be expecting a course from Victoria's Secret pretty soon about how to get into modeling, if their unsolicited catalogs are any indication of things to come - LOL. :)

  2. For my third novel in my trilogy, I screwed up royally...I wasn't knowledgeable about mammograms and radiation treatments, but being a nurse, I thought I could wing, I wrote what I thought was true. Then I started reading up on it, and my time line was off....way, ended up re-writing some parts.

    The internet is the only place where I've done research...if it's on the internet, then you can find out what you need. Plus, I'm too cheap and totally disinterested in going back to school.

    Great post, Mark.

  3. Those marketing know-it-alls have ways that could rival WWII plotting strategy.

    Great post!

  4. Scary how they find these things out. That's usually when I drop anything to do with them.

  5. Love everything you said! It's funny how you start yearning to learn once you stop being required to!

  6. Awesome post mark. It's good to be as knowledgeable as possible. When you're a NYT bestseller, people will analyze what you wrote.

  7. Thanks, everyone! M.E., I'd be happy to take a course allowing me to discover all of Victoria's Secrets. ;-)

  8. Beth, I've also had my experiences with screwing up research. There's also time to consider: Some of the places I describe in Storm Chaser have changed considerably, because it's been ten years since I originally conceived the idea for the book. There are descriptions of meadows down at our state park that are now covered with young trees now, for instance.

  9. Advertising people can be way off, but also scarily accurate. However, I wouldn't want to bet on them predicting me to be on the NYT list!