Historical Research: A Chicken and Egg Paradox

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Photo Credit: The Bookworm, Carl Spitzweg, 1850, oil on canvas, Museum Georg Schafer, Bavaria, Germany: Iryna Harpy/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 70)

I’ve been working on Book 2 of the Waxwood Series this entire month very intensively with the help of Camp NaNoWriMo. This book goes into some unfamiliar territory for me in many ways. The story takes Jake (the Alderdice family son and new patriarch) through his coming-of-age and, in the process, he has to come to terms with who he will become in the shadow of family lies and half truths, as a person and as a man. Over the years, I’ve done a lot of reading and research on women in the 19th century because of my interest in women’s fiction and women’s history. Gender roles and gender politics in the past (and present) have always interested me. But until I began writing this book, I hadn’t really delved into the psychological realities of men or masculinity in the Gilded Age.

Many writers do some kind of research for their books. Even contemporary authors often need to research experiences in life of which they have no first-hand knowledge. This could be anything from what a five-year-old will and will not eat (if you’re like me, with no kids and not much exposure to young kids) to the ins and outs of a career as a registered nurse. Historical authors have the added burden of researching the past, and this isn’t always in the form of its main events (like the Civil War or the signing of the Declaration of Independence). Historical research could be as minor as how people stored meat in the 17th century (if they did at all) or as obscure as whether French women were involved in the suffragist movement in France in the 1890’s (yes, I had to research this). And research isn’t needed for just a major plot twist or main character, either. My search for women’s suffragism in France was for a comment made by a minor character about a French opera singer she had just met.

There is no hard-and-fast rule about researching for authors, and every author finds his or her own comfort zone. Some authors prefer researching everything down to the last detail before they begin that first draft. Others prefer to get the story down without worrying about historically accurate details until they finish the book, and then they go back and “fill in the blanks”. And many others do a combination of both. 

I research certain aspects of a book before I begin the first draft, usually once I have my outline down, and I know where the story and characters are going. Some details I already know from previous books I’ve written. For example, death and mourning play a small role in Tales of Actaeon (Waxwood Series, Book 2). I researched rather extensively these very specific and elaborate practices in the 19th century when I wrote Book 1, The Specter. So there was much I knew already before I started Tales. Other details I know little or nothing about but make a great impact on the book, so I prefer to research them before I start. A group of college-aged young men appear in Tales, and I knew very little about college life in the Gilded Age, so I did some research before I started the first draft.

But even with an outline, my first drafts often take on a life of their own. It’s not uncommon for me to be working on the draft and then realize the direction in which I’ve been going isn’t giving me what I want for the book. I’ll mull over this and at some point, a better vision of where the book needs to go will appear to me (usually at about 3 o’clock in the morning…), and I’ll find myself making new chapter notes and sometimes rewriting previous key chapters or scenes I need in order to continue with the story. 

In this way, research will take an unpredictable path. There are many small details I find myself needing to know as I write the story because they come up unexpectedly in the creative process. The French suffragist was one of these in Tales. Another one was burlesque houses. As I was writing, an idea for a scene with the college-aged boys I mention above taking Jake to a burlesque house in another town. I had no idea what sort of atmosphere there would be there, what the shows would be like, what the performance schedule would be like, and what sort of costumes or dress the performers would have. I found myself taking all day to research these things for the chapter I had to write so I could feel confident in writing with the emotions of the scene and relate it to Jake’s overall quest, the main focus of the book.

So doing research can be like the old paradox of the chicken and the egg — do you research first and then write or can you only research once you start writing because you don’t know what you’ll be researching until you write? For me, it’s a combination of both. 

To read more about Tales of Actaeon, check out this page.

If you’d like to purchase a copy of Book 1 of the Waxwood Series, The Specter, you can do that here.

And for more about the Waxwood series, I have a page on my website here.    

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An Objective Look at the Gilded Age

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The idea behind the cartoon is that big business controlled government during the Gilded Age. In this cartoon, big business is represented by “the robber barons”, the name given to railroad company tycoons (and the businesses that made them possible, such as steel), pictured as bloated bags of money lording over the tiny mice of the senate. 

Photo Credit: The Bosses of the Senate cartoon, Joseph Ferdinand Keppler. First published in Puck, 23 January 1889, lithograph, colored: P. S. Burton/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 100 1923)

“‘I wasn’t worth a cent two years ago, and now I owe two millions of dollars.’” (Twain and Dudley Warner, location 2837)

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post taking a personal look at the era which I chose to place my Waxwood Series. This post is a sort of prequel to that. 

I love this opening quote from Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, published in 1873, as it personifies one of the main philosophies of that era – it was all about faking it until you made it. Indeed, the Gilded Age wasn’t so much about how much success or wealth you had as how well you made everyone think you had.

There is some dispute as to what timeframe constitutes the Gilded Age. Many historians and scholars agree the era began in the 1870’s (with the publication of Twain and Dudley Warner’s book). But as to its end, that’s up for debate. Some consider the mid-1890’s the end of the era while others push its end all the way to 1900. Bcause the new century brought about the Progressive Era and its backlash ideals of the Gilded Age, I prefer to consider the era as ending at the turn of the century.

Ironically, the title of Twain and Dudley Warner’s book wasn’t intended as a label (just as no one intended to put labels on our more modern eras, such as the Lost Generation, the Baby Boomers, and the Millennials). Since both writers were well-known humorists, the title their book is a tongue-in-cheek dig against the social and political events of the second half of the 19th century. But, like many humorists, their dig turned out to be wildly accurate. Twain and Dudley Warner observed what was going on around them and used it as fodder for their fiction, as many writers do. They had a keen eye toward not only toward the staggering opulence and excess of this period but also its more parasitic cousins, greed, graft, and corruption.

When Twain and Dudley Warner published their book in 1873, America had just gone through a rather heavy recession that ended in the Panic of 1873. Americans intended to bounce back, financially and politically, with full force, showing that the United States could compete with any other global power. The problem was that, in politics and finance, many used ingenious but dirty methods to do it. Well known was the political corruption of the Grant administration and the graft and crime prevalent in “Boss” Tweed’s administration in New York City, for example. If you’ve been reading my books, you know I am largely a San Francisco/Bay Area writer and San Francisco didn’t exactly escape these more devious characteristics in the Gilded Age. Many of the well-known San Francisco millionaires were made in the city during this time, such as “the Big Four” railroad barons Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins. In addition there flourished of one of the most infamously sin-laden spots in America at that time, the Barbary Coast

This painting represents the kind of gaudy glitter and extravagance common among the very rich during the Gilded Age, especially when they entertained.

Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Hofball in Wien. Aquarell, Wilhelm Gause, 1900, Historisches Museum de Stadt Wien: Andrew0921/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old)

All this wheeling and dealing created a new class of wealth. Novelists such as Edith Wharton and Henry James wrote about “old money” families who were forced to make way for the nouveau riche. Interestingly, San Francisco was both similar and different in this respect. Gertrude Atherton’s book The Sisters-in-Law https://www.amazon.com/Sisters-Law-Gertrude-Franklin-Atherton-ebook/dp/B0082SWSW0/, which I’ve mentioned on my blog before, gives an interesting snapshot of Bay Area aristocrats during this time and at the turn of the century who held on to strict codes of society (such as snubbing any woman who wanted to build her own business) but accepted more readily the nouveau riche because the youth of the west made old money families more scarce than they were in the east. 

The rich in America considered it their privilege to flaunt their wealth with lavish homes and summer homes, balls and social events, and an outrageously expensive lifestyle that most could only gape at. The very rich became very extravagant, sometimes ridiculously so, displaying their money and social power even in the face of the growing poverty and working class resentments that would explode into violence and social change herding America in the Progressive Era.

The Gilded Age, then, became notorious for gaudy, show-offish displays of the socially privileged. Shady dealings made millionaires out of people of humble origins who were eager to get into society and, in fact, one might argue the opulence of the age prompted this widespread corruption as making money became “the thing”. A notorious example of this sort of personage is Simon Rosedale in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Rosedale is rather aggressive, seedy character whose rags-to-riches rise to fame made him an unavoidable parasite in the New York social circle in which the protagonist Lily Bart moves. 

The more I write of the Waxwood Series, the more the realities of the Gilded Age come into conflict with who the characters are. This happens with Vivian, the unofficial protagonist of the series. She begins as a Gilded Age debutante of a wealthy San Francisco family (whose wealth was actually made well before the age) and gradually realizes the expectations put on her by her social status and the separate spheres conflict with her psychological reality and her journey through the last years of the century bring her to a different place in the world. Similarly, in my work-in-progress, Tales of Actaeon, Jake, Vivian’s younger brother, comes of age in a skewed and chaotic era when the meaning of masculinity was transitioning from the Victorian gentleman of honor, responsibility, and hard work to a more Teddy Roosevelt ideal of aggression, sportsmanship, and ambition.  

To read more about The Specter and order your copy, check out this link.

To learn more about the Waxwood Series, click here.

And if you’d like to get your hands on a short story that is all about Vivian’s revelations as a debutante during her coming out ball, sign up for my newsletter here.

Works Cited

Twain, Mark and Warner, Charles Dudley. The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. Project Gutenberg, 2006 (original publication date: 1873). Kindle digital file.

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Women and Men in the 19th Century: The Separate Spheres

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Photo Credit: OpenClipartVectors/Pixabay/CC0 1.0

I’m not ashamed to say I’m a feminist. I became a feminist in college when I began studying literature and women’s fiction. I came from a very patriarchal house where my parents supported the idea that men ruled, and women’s purpose in life was to serve everyone around them — parents, husband, children, community. I don’t blame them, as they grew up in an age that still believed in these antiquated ideas about gender roles. Thankfully, much has changed.

In my guest blog post for Lisa Lickel’s Living Our Faith Out Loud, I talked about Vivian and her destiny as a Gilded Age debutante and the expectations put upon her. But where did these expectations come from? Partly, from the upper class society in which she lives but also from an idea that emerged in the 18th century and carried through well in the 19th — the separate spheres. 

I first learned about the separate spheres when I was in graduate school. One of the signature academic texts on the subject is Barbara Welter’s “The Cult Of True Womanhood: 1820 – 1860” written in 1966 (not coincidentally, not long before the second wave feminist movement began making its appearance on the political stage). The article made a huge impression on me, especially the discussion of the separate spheres and its sister ideology, the cult of true womanhood . In the late 1960’s, writers, theorists, and scholars were beginning to take a more critical look at gender roles, stereotypes, and gender ideologies from the past, and they were exploring their relevance and repercussions on the present and future.

To put it as simply as I can, the term “separate spheres” embraces the idea that men and women each have a very specific “place” in the world. I use the word “place” here a bit ironically, because confinement in the physical, emotional, and spiritual sense has been one of the greatest battles women have had to fight against socially, politically and psychologically. In the 19th century, philosophers, religious leaders, and intellectuals believed men were born for the public sphere (which included politics, business, and law) and women for the private sphere (home, family, and community). In other words, men’s purpose in life was to go out and make money, make laws, and run the country, and women’s purpose was to take care of the home, have and raise the children, and participate in community events. This is a very simplified vision, of course, but it gives you an idea of how the spaces which men and women could occupy according to this ideology were limited.

What’s interesting when we look at the separate spheres more closely is not only do they define what women (and men) could do but what they couldn’t. Women were expected to stay out of medicine, for example, because they “did not belong there”. Similarly, the idea of a stay-at-home dad was inconceivable in this ideology since the home was the domain of women. Of course, each was allowed to reap the rewards of the other sphere. For women, this meant financial support, for men, it meant a comfortable home and loving family.

What is most relevant about the separate spheres when it comes to my fiction is not so much the physical spaces it represents but the psychological ones. In the mid-19th century, the world of business, politics, and industry were developing at a rapid pace. Because of this, jobs were opening up in the cities and people flocked to them, leaving behind the slower, simpler life they had had in the country. At the same time, in the minds of many people, industry was a big bad monster (hence Frank Norris’ allegory of the octopus to illustrate the brutality of the railroad industry in his book The Octopus) capable of luring people, especially the young, into greed and sin, soiling their minds, souls, and bodies. 

In this atmosphere of dirty business and dirty politics, the home became an idealized symbol of purity, comfort and refuge (which is one reason why Victorian homes were so ornate and overstuffed). And who better to take care of it than pure, unsoiled women? They were the “angels in the house”, the eyelash-fluttering sweethearts who spent their days cleaning, cooking, shopping, attending children, and, for some, engaging in religious and charitable work. This ideal of the angel in the house had always existed, but it took on a more important role in the minds and hearts of people living in the nineteenth century. Many saw the divide of the spheres so distinctly they couldn’t fathom allowing women into the arena of politics, business, and law, all notoriously corrupt and dirty at that time. Women had to be protected and, even more, they were the protectors of the morals and values of men. Is it any wonder that author Virginia Woolf once wrote that for a woman to get any significant work done, she had to kill the angel in the house?

The ideal of the angel in the house actually derived from a poem written in 1854 by poet Coventry Patmore and the model for this ideal was Patmore’s wife, pictured above.

Photo Credit: Portrait of Mrs. Coventry Patmore, John Everett Millais, 1851, oil on panel, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge: PKM/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD old 100)

The description above might sound like a gross stereotype, but it illustrates the whole idea behind the separate spheres. It was, after all an ideology – the way people wished things would be or believed they were supposed to be. In Book 1 of my Waxwood Series, The Specter, the image Patmore’s angel in the house becomes the defining characteristic of the public persona of Penelope Alderdice, Vivian’s grandmother. It is, in fact, such a domineering archetype that her gravestone is carved with a verse from Patmore’s poem. In the book, part of Vivian’s journey leads her to pick apart this persona to reach a deeper understanding of who her grandmother really was and, in doing so, understand her own future. 

The problem with the angel in the house and the separate spheres was that they created a model of womanhood most women found impossible to live up to, not to mention greatly unsatisfying (think: 19th century version of Betty Friedan’s “The Problem With No Name”). A great example of this comes from Natalie Dykstra’s book Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life. Dykstra describes historian Henry Adams’ mother in typical “angel in the house” terms: 

“Mrs. Adams, lively but pampered, had been a social ornament when young. What had charmed her wealthy father… had also captivated her husband — her buoyancy, her love of conversation, her open affection.” (location 949). 

However, as with many women, Mrs. Adams’ role as the angel in the house proved anything but satisfying:

“[F]ollowing marriage and the birth of seven children within fifteen years… Mrs. Adams found little to engage her beyond her family. Simmering unhappiness had become tightly braided with chronic physical debility — crushing headaches, sleeplessness, and constant noises in her ears.” (Dykstra, location 949). 

It was not uncommon for women to become ill because their temperaments did not fit into the sphere to which they were confined. A famous example of this is Charlotte Perkins Gilman story “The Yellow Wallpaper”, which I discuss here. Welter refers to the cult of true womanhood, but it should really be called the myth of true womanhood. Ideologies take on the proportions of myths because these narratives cannot be realized as anything but legends.

Thankfully, the idea of the separate spheres was beginning to crumble by the end of the nineteenth century when women began to enter the public sphere through politically progressive movements like suffragism and worker’s rights (which is a topic for another blog post). The images of the New Woman and the Gibson Girl (also topics for future blog posts) emerged during this time. Both overshadowed the image of the Angel in the House that had kept so many women chained in previous decades.

One of my passions is to give a picture of characters who were both products of their time and rebels of it. So it’s not surprising that many of my characters (the women especially, but also some of the men) refuse to stay in their sphere and venture outside of it. In my Waxwood series. I talked earlier about Vivian Alderdice, whose journey takes her away from the confined space of the separate spheres. Similarly, In Book 3, goes through her own journey when the darker consequences of this ideology present themselves in her mentally unstable Aunt Helen. In my upcoming historical mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries, Adele Gossling rubs the people of the small town of Arrojo the wrong way precisely because she is a one of these New Women mentioned above and not ashamed to proclaim it.

Both the separate spheres and the cult of true womanhood weren’t just about where a woman should be, but what she should do while she was there. It overlooked more salient questions such as whether she wanted to be there at all, and what the consequences of her being there if she didn’t could be.

To find out more about my book, The Specter, and purchase a copy, go here.

You can read more about the Waxwood Series here.

And if you like mysteries, you can read up on my upcoming Progressive Era historical mystery series here.

Works Cited

Dykstra, Natalie. Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co., 2012. Kindle digital file.

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A Prequel Short Story: The Rose Debutante

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Photo Credit: Painting of a pink rose with purple background, uploaded 8 August 2017: G4889166/Pixabay/Pixabay license

A few months ago, I announced to my readers group and author page that I would be updating the free gift I was offering for my newsletter subscribers (present and future). I would be giving a short story related to my Waxwood Series. The story gives some insights into the Alderdice family and, in particular, the character of Vivian Alderdice, the unofficial protagonist of the series.

I call the story a prequel, which it is on one level. Dictionary.com defines the word prequel as “a literary, dramatic, or filmic work that prefigures a later work, as by portraying the same characters at a younger age” (“Prequel”, 2010). I’m not entirely satisfied with this definition, as it leaves out what I think is one of the most important elements of prequels — story (or series) importance. Authors and filmmakers create prequels for a reason. A prequel usually contains some keys to a richer understanding of the story or the characters, a sort of “this is how they got here” element in a separate work. This, then, gives readers a reason to read the story outside of the fact that they (hopefully) loved the characters enough to want to know about their lives before the story/series began.

This is why I wrote the short story “The Rose Debutante”. As I was writing The Specter, Book 1 of my Waxwood Series, I realized one of the keys to understanding both Vivian and her grandmother Penelope Alderdice (whose role in the story and series I wrote about here) was to understand their position as 19th century debutantes. I could have chosen to discuss the debutante in a factual blog post (and probably will do so sometime in the future), but I started getting more intrigued by the psychological aspects of this role thrust upon Vivian a little before the start of Book 1. I wanted specifically to explore what that role meant for her in light of Gilded Age thinking about women, money, and marriage.

In Book 1, there is reference to one of the most salient events in a 19th century wealthy young woman’s life — her debutante “coming out” ball. Researching this, I was fascinated by the undercurrents of this seemingly gay event, when a girl stopped being a girl in the eyes of society and became a woman. I wanted to explore the question, “What did that really mean for  her, beyond the obvious (putting a young woman into the marriage market?)” I wanted to examine Vivian’s psychological reality as it related to this one very important event in her life that becomes the pinnacle of her thoughts and actions in the evolution of the Waxwood Series.

So it was natural for me to write a story about Vivian’s coming out ball. The story isn’t only a glimpse inside the excitement and lavishness of this event in wealthy Gilded Age society, but it’s also about the apprehensions, the expectations, and the fears encountered by a young woman who, with her hair up and in her first pair of high heels, is no longer seen as a girl but as a young woman with a role to play in her very structured and class-conscious society. For Vivian, perhaps, more than for many young women who took their coming out ball as a matter of course, the event brings the epiphany that her days of psychological liberty are over and now begins the straight and narrow path of womanhood as experienced by so many 19th century women of all classes. The story also gives readers a foundation on which Vivian’s later epiphanies, explorations of the past, and discoveries of the future are based in the series.

This is the first time I’ve written any kind of prequel to any of my stories, and I discovered in the process not only a way to let readers know about Vivian with more psychological depth but the beauty of making connections. In this story there appears several characters who later make a more standing appearance in Book 2 of my series, Tales of Actaeon.

To receive a copy of the short story The Rose Debutante, you must either already be signed up for my newsletter or you can sign up for it here.

To find out more about The Specter, the first book in the series, and get your copy, check out the links on this page.

And you can find out more about the Waxwood Series here.  

Works Cited

Prequel, 2010. Retrieved from https://www.dictionary.com/

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The Specter (Waxwood Series: Book 1): Release Day Blitz

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The Specter Front Cover Photo Credit: Portrait of Sonya Knips, Gustav Klimt, 1898, oil on canvas, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria: Aavindraa/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 100

Title: The Specter

Series: Waxwood Series, Book 1

Author: Tam May

Genre: Historical Fiction/Women’s Fiction

Release Date: June 28, 2019

To what lengths will one go to exorcise a specter?

One rainy morning in 1892, people gather to mourn the death of San Francisco socialite Penelope Alderdice. Among them is a strange little woman named Bertha Ross, who claims to have known “Grace” in the 1850’s in the small town of Waxwood. But Penelope’s granddaughter, Vivian, has never heard of Grace or Waxwood.

Bertha reveals surprising details about Grace’s life in Waxwood, including a love affair with Evan, an artist and member of Brandywine, Waxwood’s art colony.Vivian’s mother, Larissa, insists Bertha is an imposter who has come not to mourn a woman she knew in her youth but to stir up trouble. 

Vivian, however, suspects the key to her grandmother’s life and her own lies in Waxwood. She journeys to Brandywine where she meets Verina Jones, Evan’s niece, and discovers a packet of letters her grandmother wrote forty years ago about her time in Waxwood.

As Vivian confronts the specter that holds the truth to secrets buried in the family consciousness, she examines her grandmother’s life as a mid-19th century debutante and her own as a Gilded Age belle. Will she find her way out into the world as an autonomous being, or will she be haunted by the specter of her grandmother’s unhappiness all her life?

You can pick up your copy of the book at a special promotional price at the following online retailers:

Amazon US

Amazon UK

B&N

Apple iBooks (iTunes)

Kobo

Excerpt

Larissa patted her head. “You’ve done all I asked of you thus far, Vivian. But lately, you’ve forgotten your position.”

“My position?”

“You’re the granddaughter of Malcolm Alderdice,” her mother said in a firm voice. “That means something in San Francisco.”

“I was the granddaughter of Penelope Alderdice too,” Vivian said. “Doesn’t that mean something?”

“In so far as she was Mrs. Malcolm Alderdice, dear.” Her mother sighed.

“A door has opened,” Vivian said. “Mrs. Ross opened it, whether we wanted her to or not.”

Her mother gave her a rueful look. “One need not walk through every open door, especially if a madwoman holds the key.”

“Mrs. Ross wasn’t mad,” Jake murmured. “Confused, but not mad.”

His mother gave him a look. Then, in a more congenial voice, she said to her daughter, “Not every door is the door to heaven, dear.”

“Let it be the door to hell, then,” Vivian declared.

Advanced praise for The Specter

“An absolutely fascinating story” — Jackie, Goodreads reviewer

“Could not put this down, read from cover to cover in one sitting.” — Melanie, Goodreads Reviewer

“May’s historical fiction picks apart the delicate façade of American gentility in upper class, well-heeled families on the wild West Coast at the end of the nineteenth century.” — Lisa Lickel, author and blogger, Living Our Faith Out Loud blog.

About the Author

Tam May grew up in the United States and earned her B.A. and M.A in English. She worked as an English college instructor and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher before she became a full-time writer. She started writing when she was 14 and writing became her voice. She writes fiction about characters who must find their future by exploring their personal past and the collective past (the time in which they live).

Her first book, a collection of contemporary short stories titled Gnarled Bones And Other Stories, was nominated for a 2017 Summer Indie Book Award. She is currently working on a Gilded Age family saga, of which the first book, The Specter, is now available. She is also working on a historical mystery featuring a turn-of-the-century New Woman female sleuth. Both series take place in Northern California.

She lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area home. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature and watching classic films.

Tam May grew up in the United States and earned her B.A. and M.A in English. She worked as an English college instructor and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher before she became a full-time writer. She started writing when she was 14 and writing became her voice. She writes historical and contemporary fiction about characters who must examine their past and the time in which they live to move on to the future.

Her first book, a collection of contemporary short stories titled Gnarled Bones And Other Stories, was nominated for a 2017 Summer Indie Book Award. She is currently working on a Gilded Age family saga, of which the first book, The Specter, is now available for preorder. She is also working on a historical mystery featuring a turn-of-the-century New Woman female sleuth. Both series take place in Northern California.

She lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area home. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature and watching classic films.

Social Media Links

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Amazon Author Page 

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Ghost From the Past: Penelope Alderdice in The Specter

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Photo Credit: Aquamarine, Blue sapphire and diamond necklace and earrings, cropped, designed by Ernesto Moreira, Houston, TX, 2006, Wikipedia Loves Art Photo Pool: File Upload Bot (Kaldari)/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 2.5

A lot went into my upcoming historical family saga, the Waxwood Series. Here I talk about the way it evolved from a novel into a 4-book series. A similar evolution occurred with Penelope Alderdice, one of the main characters of the first book, The Specter. She basically went from being a persona non grata to a specter.

I never intended for Penelope to be more than a background character. The original novel focused on the immediate family, and my thinking for the series was that it should do the same (with additional characters making an appearance). But Penelope’s voice was so strong, so insistent on being heard, I couldn’t ignore it.

Penelope’s story, which takes up about half of The Specter, had its roots in an incident from an old draft of the original book, which I then expanded into a short story. I wrote the story and offered it as an earlier gift to my newsletter subscribers. At the time, the first book was about Jake Alderdice, the brother of the series’ unofficial main character, Vivian (you can read more about Vivian in a blog post for Lisa Lickel’s Living Our Faith Out Loud blog later this month – watch this blog for the link). I wrote a story “After The Funeral” about the wake of Vivian and Jake’s grandmother, Penelope. Since Penelope was influential in Jake’s childhood, I thought knowing a little about her would help readers understand Jake better.

In the story, an old friend of Penelope’s crashes the funeral reception and starts to reveal elements of Penelope’s early life that Vivian and Jake were never told. Later, after the reception is over, Vivian confronts her mother about the lies they were told about who Penelope really was. It becomes an important moment between mother and daughter. 

When I wrote the story, I realized Penelope was a much more complex character than I had first envisioned her and I wanted to know more about her and, more importantly, let readers know more about her. I felt, in fact, that there were incidents in her life that were the driving force behind what was to happen to the family later on in the series. And I knew there was a connection between Vivian and Penelope that couldn’t be denied.

So I began to dig deeper into who Penelope was. I saw her as a woman whose seemed the perfect image of the pre-Gilded Age era, the sort of woman you would expect to see as a character in one of Gertrude Atherton’s books about San Francisco’s high society in its infancy in the 1850’s and 1860’s. Her angelic demeanor, her charming socialite countenance, and her performance in the role of the wife of a successful San Francisco businessman hid a more complex woman who had, in her youth, fought the expectations put upon her as a wealthy debutante. Her passion for art, at one time, exceeded her desire to please her parents and the society around her, and there was one moment, one rebellious moment in her life. Her own insight and intelligence couldn’t fight the strength of the conventions and social position into which she was born, so this one moment had a bittersweet ending.

That, then, is part of what The Specter is about. We hear Penelope’s own voice in letters she wrote to her mother from Waxwood in the 1850’s, when it was a quiet, quaint coastal town a stone’s throw away from San Francisco. And her strong voice and rebellious streak, squelched by the expectations put upon women of her time, follow Vivian throughout the book. She is, in fact, the specter of the title, at least for her granddaughter.

To find out more about The Specter and pick up your copy, go here.

Want to know more about the Waxwood Series? I’ve got you covered right here.   

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How Small-Town California Inspired Waxwood, The Series

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The old Southern Pacific train depot in Benicia. It used to be the entrance of the town and the last stop before passengers boarded the ferry that took them to the East Bay and San Francisco. I was told in the visitor’s bureau that the depot was placed there in 1902 and was functional until the 1940’s, when cars began to replace train travel in that area. Personal photo.

Last year, I was able to visit the San Francisco Bay Area, one of my favorite place of all time. During my trip, I saw Benicia, a small little town that I had researched quite extensively and I wrote a blog post about it here.

At the time, Benicia was the inspiration for the location of my upcoming historical mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries. What I didn’t realize until after I started to revise my upcoming book The Specter, was that parts of Benicia had infiltrated into my idea of the town of Waxwood, the town on which my Waxwood Series is based.

Element of Benicia make Waxwood a character as much as any other of the human characters. It’s a small, quiet, little town with the kind of slow-paced rhythm you would expect from small-town America. Right on the Carquinez Straight, it has a small pier where you can walk and enjoy the view of the hills and the Benicia-Martinez Bridge. People are laid-back and friendly. There’s a rich art community there with local artists displaying their work in small shops down First Street. 

Here’s Vivian’s first impressions of Waxwood from The Specter:

By the time Vivian stepped off the train at the Waxwood station, early afternoon had settled in. She saw immediately what Mrs. Moore meant about there being “nothing there.” Compared to the city, Waxwood was half-deserted and nearly pitiful in its emptiness. She could see only the train tracks trailing a bay whose size was paltry compared to the one bordering the city. And yet, Vivian was at ease in this small village with its slowly moving waters and nearly deserted street. Even the station agent’s expression seemed bucolic as he smiled at her from his caged window.

Not an auspicious view for a town, perhaps!

As I mentioned above, Waxwood is a character in the series. It’s not just the place where the Alderdice family goes for their summer vacation, or the place where other characters in the series end up. Waxwood is as alive and changeable as the characters themselves. 

The Waxwood Vivian visits in Book 1 of the series, which takes place in 1892, is not the same Waxwood she sees six years later in Book 2. Like all of America in the Gilded Age, Waxwood goes through some rapid changes. It becomes more commercialized, more touristic, less quaint and quiet. It has its own ominous presence and ghosts, much like the characters in the series. In this way, it mirrors the evolution of the characters, especially Vivian. 

Why did I name the town Waxwood? The idea of the wax wood trees (which do not exist in real life, as far as I know) intrigued me. In The Specter, Vivian encounters the forest with another character, Ruth:

The hill they had ascended, though not so very steep, was crowded with tall trees with umbrella tops and a strange, glossy wood. Vivian slipped off one of her gloves. Her hand moved to touch the shiny tree. The matted sheen felt almost rough to the touch and a little sticky. 

“The surface softens with the sun and hardens with the moon,” Ruth said. “It’s why they call them wax wood trees.”

Certain elements have always fascinated me and wax is one of them. Wax can be both pliable and unyielding, it can be creative, molded and shaped into anything you like. And it can be dangerous, as when a candle tips over with the potential to set a curtain or a room on fire. The wax wood forest has its own significance in the series, which is the subject for another future blog post.

To find out more about The Specter and pick up your copy at a special preorder price, you can go here.

To find out more about the Waxwood Series, go here.   

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A Personal Look at the Gilded Age

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This is one of the most iconic cartoons of the Gilded Age. John D. Rockefeller’s monopoly that sparked the anti-trust acts in America (not to mention a slew of progressive reforms that would characterize the era following the Gilded Age).

Photo Credit: Political cartoon showing a Standard Oil tank as an octopus with many tentacles wrapped aro und the steel, copper, and shipping industries, as well as a state house, the U.S. Capitol, and one tentacle reaching for the White House. Keppler, Udo J., Puck, v. 56, no. 1436 (1904 Sept. 7): Animalparty/Wikimedia Commons/ PD US

Several months ago, on my old blog, I posted about the Gilded Age, which is when my upcoming book and series takes place. I focused on how it was a time of excess, commercialism, dirty politics and class divides. I’ll be posting a revised version of that blog post on this new blog at some point in the future, but for now, you can read it on my old blog here.

Because the first book of my series is coming out and already available for preorder, and I’m working diligently on the second book, I thought it was time to offer a little more personal insight on what brought me to this time in American history, and why I am so fascinated by it.

My exposure to the Gilded Age began in 2007. I was back in Texas and searching for some direction in life. I already had a master’s degree in English but was a little bored with teaching college English courses. So I decided to enroll in a master’s program in History to broaden my teaching prospects. It was a logical choice for me, as I loved literature and writing, but I also loved history and felt I was missing background and knowledge both from a professional and artistic perspective.

One of the first courses I took was about the history of America in the  late 19th century. Our course textbook was The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America, a collection of essays written by different historians subjects relevant to that time and our time (big business, politics, popular culture, etc). While some essays interested me more than others, I was compelled by how much  of the foundations of 21st century America were set down more than one hundred years ago. I was inspired by this course to look back at the past and see its connection with the present and future.

Although the idea for the Waxwood Series didn’t come until much later, I knew right away I wanted to eventually write fiction set in this time period. It was such a vibrant time of change not only on the practical level (like politics, business, and entertainment) but on the societal and psychological level, with shifting ideas and values. When I started to conceive of the Waxwood Series, I wanted the Alderdice family to be stuck in the past of old Victorian ideals of family, loyalty, and life. I could envision them being in direct conflict with their environment, where the world was changing all around them (especially in San Francisco, the hub of the Far West at that time). I saw the conflicts between the older generations of the family (the grandparents and the mother, Larissa) and the younger generation (Vivian and Jake). These conflicts I knew would be subtle, cryptic almost, embedded within the family drama and they would come out in the unwritten and unspoken acceptance of family behavior and values based on those old ideals. 

Since the Gilded Age is thought to span approximately the last quarter of the 19th century, I had quite a few decades to choose from when I thought about when I would set each of the four books in the series. I chose to place the last 3 books at the very end of the 19th century for a reason. Hurling the Alderdice family into the new age by Book 4 offered a fascinating way to look at how this family would cope, leaving open questions for their future.

Part of writing historical fiction, for me, is about more than just reliving the past. It’s also about how characters react to the changes around them and adjust themselves (or, in some cases, don’t adjust). In the Gilded Age, changes in America were happening so rapidly that a family like a wealthy and influential family like the Alderdices would be reeling from the impact. These families were the most reluctant to change for obvious reasons — the old world ways were working for them, so why rock the boat?

So in the Waxwood Series, history plays an important role, but what the story is really about is the Alderdice family within their historical time. As I explained in my recent blog post for the OWS CyCon blog tour, history comes alive for me when we see the people in it. That’s what  I hope to give readers in my fiction.

To learn more about The Specter and get hold of a preorder copy, go here.

You can learn more about the Waxwood Series here.    

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From Novel to Series: The Evolution of The Waxwood Series

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Photo Credit: Biarritz – La Grande Plage – L’Hôtel du Palais – L’Église Orthodoxe, Rafael Toussaint, 2013, oil on wood: Colibrix/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 3.0

If you were to poll most writers, you’d probably find many of their books and series have a story behind them — how they came to be, what sparked the idea, what real life people inspired the characters. That’s because we take inspiration from everywhere, everything, and everyone. There’s an old joke that says, “Don’t piss off a writer or you might find yourself as the character who gets killed off in their next book”. This is an exaggeration, of course, but the fact remains we gather threads of inspiration from the world around us, just like any creative person.

The inspiration and evolution of Waxwood Series is a little complicated but I’ll try to explain it. 

The Waxwood Series began as a single, stand-alone work of contemporary literary fiction in 2004. I was going through some heavy-duty family issues at the time (which I’m not at liberty to disclose) that forced me re-evaluate the meaning of family and look at my own psychological reality. I saw for the first time some of the denials and illusions I had been holding on to since a child. It was a difficult time for me, and while I had no interest in writing a memoir or a “based on true events” kind of story, I was interested in this idea of how, when we face our past as adults, we see things as they really are, which aren’t always as rosy as we think they are or were. But only through this kind of self-honesty can we start to heal those wounds, stop repeating past mistakes, and move on to the future.

I knew I wanted to write a complex story about one family where the members were in denial of their dysfunctionality and the toll it had taken on their lives. I wanted to write a story where circumstances forced member os the family to face those demons, and I was curious who would be able to handle them and who wouldn’t. The book I ended up writing had 3 separate narrative voices: The adult daughter’s, the adult son’s, and a voice that belonged to the young woman who came into their lives and changed them all. The story was about a well-to-do San Francisco family spending their summer in a resort hotel whose relationship crumbles because of an ambitious, ruthless young woman looking to exploit the vulnerable, needy mother and her wealth to get ahead in her career as a chef. 

I finished the first draft, roughly 85,000 words. But when I set out to revise the book, I kept coming up against a brick wall of dissatisfaction, doubt, and anxiety. I kept changing the story, the characters, putting the book aside, then going back to it. I was convinced it was just an amateur effort and should be shelved, for, although I have been writing since I was a teenager, this book was my first serious dip into psychological literary fiction. 

And yet, the family in the book wouldn’t let me go. It took me many years to realize why I was so attached to them — although their background and situation was entirely different from mine, they were dealing with emotional and psychological issues that were close to my own experience.

When I began self-publishing in 2017, I picked up the book again. Reading through it, I realized the story of this San Francisco family needed to be told so that their psychological evolution was the focus rather than the idea of a stranger infiltrating into their lives and ruining that relationship. The ruin had to come from within the family structure and not from without. Their interactions with the outside world would force them to face the past, but it couldn’t override the life-changing revelations that the family members had to reach on their own.

To that end, the three separate voices became three separate books for the series. I considered the daughter of the family (who eventually became Vivian Alderdice) the main protagonist of the series, but I knew I didn’t want the series to be just about her. Her brother had his own story in the original novel, which I have kept (and which will be Book 2 of the Waxwood Series). The young woman who, in the novel, was the catalyst for change (alibi, not a very positive one) has her own story as well, which will be Book 3 of the series. 

I also knew I wanted to change the original book from contemporary to historical fiction, and that both the collective and personal history of this family were relevant. Therefore, I conceived of the story of the previous generation (the grandparents) and the effect of their past on the present generation.

You can read more about the Waxwood series here

The first book in the series, The Specter, is now available for preorder on Amazon and other online retailers. You can find out more about the book and the links to those retailers here

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