Research for my current book

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I’ve been digging around looking for images of Washington, DC during the Civil War trying to figure out exactly how “busy” the town was.  How many out-of-towners were hitting the streets?  Were people camped out in town, like in the mall area or on the grounds of the capital or White House?  Were all the regiments camped out along the edges of the town?  I’ve had trouble finding just generic pictures of Washington during these years.  Lots of images like this one–the capital at a distance with the dome shown under construction.

Writing historical fiction is challenging.  How to set the scene and create the “feel” of the time period while remaining true to both facts AND the story line/plot of the piece.

Add to that the challenge of writing in first person, and I’ve been struggling this week with the book.

Despite this, I’ve kept my butt in the chair and kept writing.  On chapter 8 of 17 in the first draft.  Still haven’t thought of a title for the book or the series–

New Year, Deep Intentions

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New Year.  I’ve set some deep intentions.  In the wake of realizing that nothing happened in 2014–lots of talk, no action–I’m determined to see action this year.  While I started calling ’em “goals,”  I’ve now moved to intentions. Whatever.  I’ve written them down, pasted them over my desk, and I’m holding to them.  Well, gonna try real hard, anyway.

Even though I think I have flu or maybe strep, I decided I can’t let that slow me down today.  I’m bundled on the couch, working on the novel I started LAST January.  But I feel good about my progress.  I’ve got character sketches done, a lot of the preliminary research complete, and a complete outline of book.  I’m now filling in the setting sketches, making sure the setting and characters are deep, rich, and complex.

Why do I already have an outline of the entire book?  I downloaded Countour and started mapping out the book this time last year.  Now I’m kinda working in reverse, filling in the character and setting sketches.  This is a backward from how I’ve worked before but it feels good.  Things seemed to develop more naturally this way.  Worth a try, anyway.

This is  YA novel, set in the Civil War.  I plan to write one book for each year of the war.  Thought I’d write some about the process and my thinking here, just in case anyone is interested in this process as it is moving along!

The plan?  To knock this thing out by March and find an agent.

I am also going to go back and continue to work on the second book in the Elizabeth Ryan series and get that out on Amazon.  Be looking for that in the first half of this year.

Folly?  Maybe so.  But I’m determined that come December 31, I won’t be sitting here feeling like nothing was accomplished toward my larger life goals.

How about you?  What do you have planned to accomplish in 2015?

Writing Memoir

“I don’t write memoir,” I thought, wondering why I was giving this book a second glance at the library.  But there was something about the subtitle that intrigued me–a “non-standardized text.”  What did Smith mean by that?

Turns out, I write memoir every time I make a blog post.  Not big important writing that will change the world, of course, but little thoughts.  Could be that these thoughts add up to something, though.  Like my life.

Marion Roach Smith’s book is an interesting read because she intersperses writing advice with first-hand examples and it’s in these examples that her writing style and life really shine.  She’s witty.  And good with words.

For example, I love this description of her mother going through the card catalog at the library, “My mother’s red fingernails, lacquered to match her lips, were flipping like sexy windshield wipers through the cards, one after the other.”

Wow–I love that description and can see it so clearly in my mind.  Of course, it’s only going to resonate with us old folks who’ve spent our lives in libraries.  How many kids today know what a card catalog is?  But still, for a select reader like me, the image is beautiful.  Vivid and clear.  I can SEE her mother.  And you know what?  That’s the only description we have as to what she looks like.  No height, weight, hair color.  I’ve been left to fill in all those details myself, which I did instantly, all based on those nails and lip color–and the way she “flipped” the cards.

This is a good read, even for those of us who don’t do much memoir writing.  The language is clear and colorful.  The approach fresh–disdainful, even, because Smith tackles so many well-known writing advice books and cuts them down.  But to say more would be a real spoiler.  I’ll let you enjoy this quick read for yourself.

Living History Museums: Would you do It?

Throughout our six-week road trip, we encountered many costumed individuals at living history museums.  Some looked accurate–and some not so much (I’m thinking about the red-headed pale Native American we saw at one place).  This woman sat outside a home at Colonial Williamsburg to gather tourists to view this home.  She knew a great deal about the family that owned this home and the work they did on behalf of the American Revolution.

I’ve been interested in living history museums and their costumed citizens for a while.  In some ways, this might be the ultimate job–you get to pretend to be someone else and some place else all day everyday.  Since I live in my head a lot of the time, it might just suit me.  On the other hand, I’d have to go all day everyday without all the comforts of my own time.  But is a little discomfort worth it?

I think a bigger question is, do costumed guides help you learn more about the past?  It’s nice to see a historical location in its own time–nice to imagine this home or campfire as it was in 1776 but imaging is really all we can do.  We can’t go back to the past and see it as it truly was then.  We can pretend, which is what living history museums do, but it’s not real.

Maybe what we want is just a sense of the past but without all the realities–the smells, the dirt, the daily grind.  Living history museums let us pop into the past for an hour or two and be entertained.  Seems like the people who learn the most from these encounters are the costumed individuals; the people who have researched into the past, read about their roles, and studied the social dynamics of the time.  And despite their efforts to relay this information, most of it doesn’t stick.  But that’s the nature of teaching–the teacher always learns more than the student.


Winter to do List: Earth Oven

I’ve been dreaming about  an earth (or brick) oven similar to this one for a long time.  I have a bread baking book that includes instructions for a clay version, and I’ve been looking at Build your Own Earth Oven on Amazon longingly.

This oven is at Colonial Williamsburg at the military encampment.  It was cold and quiet the day we were there–the only thing cold in Williamsburg.  It was unbearably hot and humid that day, so I’m not surprised that the camp follower didn’t have this oven fired up.  I’m not sure if she (the camp follower–probably a soldier’s wife) or one of the soldier cooks would have been in charge of baking bread in an encampment like this circa 1776 but if there had been a full enlistment of soldiers, a lot of bread would have been coming out of this oven.

I’ve been dreaming a lot about building an oven like this, and it’s moving up on my to-do list.  Maybe late this fall when the weather finally cools off.  Then I could bake bread outside when it turns cold.  Of course, I’m already dreaming of pizzas, casseroles, and all the other yummy things that can be baked in a wood-fired oven.


Colonial Cooking: What’s in your Kitchen?

Because I love to cook, I’ve been keen on all the colonial kitchens we’ve traipsed through over the last few weeks.  The one at the Governor’s Palace at Colonial Williamsburg was in full gear the day we were there, despite the high 90s heat and even greater humidity.  I sure felt sorry for these cooks working all day around the large fireplace, churning out food that looked iffy, at best.  I suppose this is what folks ate in 1770 Virginia, but I wasn’t ready to plunge in.  Seems to me, they need a new food stylist.

Reproduction food (is that what you call it?) always has this sort of off-plasticy look to it.  Why is that?  It certainly didn’t make me want to jump in and try my hand at any recipes, or receipts, as they would have called them.

But if you are more game than I, check out Colonial Williamsburg’s blog about colonial food or the Taste of History videos.  We had dinner at Chef Walter Stalb’s City Tavern in Boston and the food looked contemporary and tasted delightful.  So perhaps it’s just that the food at living history museums sits around all day and grows pale?

Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story

I was gone all last week and am trying desperately to catch up today–you know what I mean? Work, laundry, grocery shopping, etc. All those errands and tasks usually spread throughout the week but crammed into one day: today.

Anyway, this is the first day I’ve had any real time to sit and enjoy myself on the computer. I’ve been catching up on the good stuff on the net I missed last week.

I caught this TED talk today, listening to it while grading student papers. It’s so good to listen to smart people–people who have good things to say that really make me think. I wanted to share this so you could think about this, too–this idea of a single story line.

It is so easy to fall into this kind of thinking–single story line thinking. But it’s also a dangerous way to live and one that I find way too many of us exist in continually.

Listen, think, reflect. It’s the one advantage that humans have.