Fatherhood in the 19th Century

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Photo Credit: A family in a drawing room, artist unknown, 19th century, Bonhams: FA2010/Wikimedia Commons/PD art (PD old)

As the title of the second book in the Waxwood Series, False Fathers, suggests, the idea of fathers plays a huge role in the story and in the psychological reality of Jake Alderdice, the main character. Like everything else in the Gilded Age, fatherhood was a complex and changing concept in the late 19th century.

Before the 19th century, the role of the father was less removed from the family. Since so many Americans lived in rural towns and kept farms or other small ma-and-pa businesses, fathers worked close to home and sometimes even alongside their families. Their involvement with their wives and children was more intimate because of their close proximity to their families.

But this changed in the 19th century, and the concept of the separate spheres played a role. As industrialization and urbanization became the norm for many families (that is, families moved to the cities, and men worked in larger companies owned by someone other than themselves), men’s “place” was regulated more to the pubic sphere. That is, their attention shifted to the larger spaces of business, law, and finance. As such, fathers were more detached from what went on in the home, though they still maintained a certain level of control as the main disciplinarians and educators of their children. The separate spheres also put women more firmly in private places such as the home. Their role as mothers and caregivers became more important, thus removing fathers even further from the day-to-day workings of the family.

We also want to remember the characteristics of the Gilded Age — success at any price, excess, and flaunting wealth. This was an ideal many American men wanted to achieve and, as such, they needed to put all of their focus on their business and financial endeavors to get it. This didn’t leave them much time or emotional energy to devote to their families. Thus, the identity of the father became one of the bread-winner.

There was something else that factored into the extrication of fathers from family life — public schooling. Up until the 1850’s, sending children to public schools was optional. As I mention above, many Americans were still living in rural areas and tending to farms or small businesses. In this atmosphere, children were often times given a very spotty education that depended more upon when they were needed to help out with the family (for example, on the family farm or during harvest seasons) than upon the idea that children should get a steady education. But in the 1850’s, that began to change as states issued laws that made sending children to public schools mandatory. Although the transition to mandatory public schooling for all states didn’t happen until the late 1910’s, it took the role of educator out of the hands of many fathers.

But while fathers lost their hold on their children as educators, their role shifted to business advisors, mainly for their sons (since most women did not and weren’t expected to work). This put the emotional connection between fathers and sons on a different level, a more authority-oriented level that we can imagine may have been somewhat less affectionate than it had been in earlier times. This is indeed the role various father figures take in relation to Jake in False Fathers. Much of his struggle for masculine identity lies in what his future success in the public sphere will look like. In this, he asks and receives help from a number of older men in the book.

I realize this paints a pretty dismal picture of fatherhood in the 19th century, since it makes it sound as if men were little more than bread-winners and business advisors for their families. This is not to say that fathers were emotionally remote from their wives and children by any means (as the painting above shows). And, in the 1920’s, when women had earned more of their rights, they began to demand men share in the raising of their families, both physically and psychologically. In turn, men themselves were advocating for this, starting a Fatherhood Movement which, thankfully, has gained a lot of ground today and continues to do so.

To read more about False Fathers (which is now on sale at a special preorder price), you can go here. If you want to find out more about Jake and other characters in the Waxwood Series, read the series page here. And if you’d like to read an excerpt from False Fathers, you can join my readers group.   

 

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The Gilded Age Masculine Identity Crisis

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Photo Credit: Men of Progress, Christian Schussele, 1862, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Washington D. C: ~riley/Wikimedia Commons/PD old 100 expired

The second book of the Waxwood series, False Fathers, is a coming-of-age story about the male protagonist, Jake Alderdice, transitioning from boyhood into manhood in the late 19th century. In doing my research on masculine ideals of the era, I came across an article that takes an interesting view at the subject. You can find the article here.

According to the author, John Robert Van Slyke, the Gilded Age brought about a crisis in the definition of masculinity for men. I have mentioned in my blog post about the Gilded Age how the chaos and the excesses of the era changed the way in which Americans saw themselves, socially and psychologically. We know how this was true for women, as the Victorian idea of the “angel in the house” was breaking down in the face of suffragism and the new American ideal of womanhood represented by the New Woman.

But many changes were going on for men as well. For Van Slyke, this was represented by “a shift from the term ‘manliness’ to ‘masculinity’” (pg. 2). These may seem like the same or similar, in terms of meaning,and perhaps in our modern way of thinking about gender, they are. But for the 19th century, they were very different. Manliness was a Victorian ideal rooted in abstract realities, a “‘honorable, high-minded’” idea that required “sexual restraint, a powerful will, and a strong character” (Van Slyke, pg. 3). Masculinity, however, was a concept emerging into the new century that implied “‘aggressiveness, physical force, and male sexuality” (pg. 3). So while the qualities of what made a man in the Victorian era (looking back from the Gilded Age) were intangible, those qualities of the 20th century (looking ahead) would be required to be more tangible and measurable.

One reason for this was that America was moving into a more “doer” century, where one’s deeds rather than one’s values would be the measure of one’s character. For men, success in the public sphere was imperative in the Gilded Age, and their worth was judged by their achievements. America was becoming bigger, richer, and more powerful on the world stage. Competition was becoming fiercer. Therefore, a more forceful, physical presence was necessary to succeed.

Van Slyke brings in a nice example of this from the business world. Many men in the 19th century began their business success by getting loans and gaining credit from the bank with which to build their companies (much as entrepreneurs do today). In the mid-19th century, a man could get a loan or credit based on his character. If he proved himself to be a reliable, upstanding, dependable citizen, a hard worker and moral man, those were enough. However, by the Gilded Age, this was no longer possible. It was a man’s prospects and his assets that determined whether he would be given a loan or credit.

This crisis of looking back to manly virtue and looking forward to masculine physicality presented problems for young men in the Gilded Age. Success in the public sphere was still the name of the game, but the means with which they achieved it were no longer based on their fathers’ and grandfathers’ manly virtues. They were based more on how aggressive they could be in business, how wily and cunning they were, and how much interest they had in commercial success.

This crisis is one Jake faces in the book. His artistic nature makes him more contemplative and dreamy, the opposite type needed to become a business titan like his grandfather, and this is contrasted by other male characters his age in the novel. One reason why he accepts Harland Stevens, a middle-aged man who befriends him during his summer in Waxwood, as a surrogate father is because Stevens seems to present the balance between Victorian manliness and Gilded Age masculinity. 

To read more about the book, coming out in December, go here. To read more about Jake and Stevens, take a look here. And if you’d like to read an excerpt from False Fathers, you can do so by joining my readers group here.      

Works Cited

Van Slyke, John Robert. “Changing ideal of manhood in late-nineteenth century America” (2001). Graduate Student Thesis, Dissertation, & Professional Papers. Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, The University of Montana. 

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COVER REVEAL for False Fathers (Waxwood Series: Book 2)

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Photo Credit: Portrait of a Young Man, Ferdinand von Wright, 1860s, portrait, oil on canvas, Finnish National Gallery: BotMultichill/Wikimedia Commons/PD old 100 expired

Yes, it’s cover reveal time! And here’s a little bit of background on the cover for Book 2 of the Waxwood Series, False Fathers.

I talked a little bit about the evolution of the title of the novel here. When I was searching for a way to approach the cover for this book, the first thing that came to my mind was to feature a father and son. Since I love using old paintings and images, I tried looking for something that would fit the time frame of the book (late 19th century), and would feature a paternal figure guiding a younger man. I couldn’t find anything that really suited my taste.

So instead, I went with the idea of being consistent with the cover for The Specter, Book 1 of the series. If you recall, that cover featured a woman in a pink dress holding a pink handkerchief with lovely auburn hair and pale features. As I mention in this blog post, the intent was to provide an inspirational portrait for Vivian Alderdice, the protagonist of that novel, and also allude to the other main character in that book, her grandmother Penelope Alderdice. So I went with the same concept here.

Portraits of a young man in the 19th century weren’t hard to find, since, at that time, photography was a rare and complicated thing, especially in the early part of the century. So having a painter do a portrait was quite common. It was a matter of finding the right young man who would inspire the character of Jake Alderdice. He had to fit not only Jake’s age (since Jake’s coming-of-age is paramount to the story), but also his personality and social status.

After quite a lot of searching, I came upon the image that you see above. I liked the clean-cut countenance on the young man with his smooth blond hair and the clean-shaven face that makes him look almost boyish. I also liked his aristocratic manner and the dark suit that accentuates his poise. But what struck me most were the eyes. It’s not only that they are blue, which fits the eye color of the Alderdice family, but they are also intensely gazing right at the onlooker. The mouth, also, is very serious and contemplating. This fits Jake’s personality perfectly.

The book will be out on December 28, 2019. If you want to know more about it, you can go here. You can also find out more about the first book in the series here and the series itself here. And if  you’d like to read an excerpt from False Fathers, you can do so if you join my readers group.    

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What’s in a Name: Title Change Reveal for Book 2 of my Waxwood Series

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Photo Credit: The Last Day in the Old Home, Robert Braithwaite Martineau, 1862, oil on canvas, cropped, Tate Britain: Enciclopedia1993/Wikimedia Commons/PD old 100 expired

It’s an old cliche: “What’s in a name?” The same might be asked of a book title (or the title of a song, a film, a painting, etc). Are titles really all that important to readers and authors? For readers, it might be just a way of identifying the next book on their to-be-read list. For many authors, titles are more than just identifiers. They are a way to situate the book (for themselves and the reader) and reveal a little something about it, even before the reader opens the book.

I try to put as much thought and creativity into my titles as I do in the rest of the book. Throughout the writing process, from first to last draft, the title becomes a part of the way I think about the book and its characters. Since my writing revolves around stories that come out of characters and their psychological reality, I often times explore several titles that relate to some important aspect of the book or main character that I find relevant and revealing. As I write and revise the book, it reveals itself to me, and I often end up changing the title.

This happened with the first book of the Waxwood Series, The Specter. The idea for the book emerged when I wrote a short story about the funeral of Penelope Alderdice, Vivian’s grandmother, and its effects on the family and others. I felt that story needed to become a full novel to set the stage for the deterioration of the Alderdice family that takes place over the course of the series. That short story was titled “After the Funeral,” and I originally planned on keeping that title for the novel. But as I wrote the book, the idea of the specter became front and center in Vivian journey to discover who her grandmother was (and, by consequence, how the past affects her and her family). Thus, the title of the book changed to The Specter.

With Book 2, the title change came was a little more complex. For Book 1, the idea of what happens after Penelope’s funeral was less significant than the idea of the specter that haunts Vivian’s psyche, so it was an easy decision for me to change the title. With Book 2, there were more conflicts.

The original title for Book 2 was The Order of Actaeon. This title was the name of a secret society that plays a role in the novel. Secret societies and fraternities were a big deal in the 19th century, something I go into in this blog post. I also conceived of the myth of Actaeon as a metaphor for Jake Alderdice, the main character of the novel, and his fate in the book (something I’ll talk about in a future blog post). That title stayed with the book for a very long time. When I started revising that draft, it occurred to me the idea of Actaeon as a metaphor could be expanded into some subplot ideas I had. At that time, I planned on creating two parts to the book that reflected different aspects of the Actaeon myth, and so I changed the title to Tales of Actaeon

But, as I mentioned above, my process in writing my books is an act of discovery, and the novel often times tells me what it’s about rather than me dictating to it. And the novel was telling me that, while the Actaeon metaphor is indeed a part of the story, it’s not what’s in Jake’s psychological reality. His entire psychological make-up has to do with the fact that he grew up without his biological father. Jake is a young man coming of age in the last years of the 19th century, where, as I mention in the blog post about secret societies, the definition of masculinity was in flux and fraught with confusion, as America was being hurled into the new century. So personal and collective history plays a role in Jake’s destiny. In the story, Jake is guided by several father figures. Though their intentions are honorable, their motives and ideas about modern masculinity may not be the best suited for the sort of character Jake is.

Because of this, fathers, and not always sincere father figures, became an important element in the story. I felt the idea of Actaeon was no longer appropriate for the title and hence, I came up with a new title: False Fathers.

I was intrigued by the idea of falsity, because it implies not only something that isn’t true, but something that presents itself as true but really isn’t. Coupling this with the idea of father, or, paternal figures, as they appear in the book, I felt readers would appreciate the significance of the new title when they read about Jake’s plight.

To learn more about False Fathers, please go here. I also have an excerpt from the book in my readers group. To find out about Book 1 of the series, you can check out this link. And if you want to know more about the series in general, you can go here.      

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Knowing Characters: Inside and Out

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Photo Credit: Procession of Characters from Shakespeare’s Plays, Unknown artist (manner of Thomas Stothard), 1840, oil on board, Yale Center for British Art: DcoetzeeBot/Wikimedia Commons/PD US expired  

In any kind of fiction, for authors to know their characters is essential because stories are (duh!) about characters. Plot, setting, themes, and narrative are all important, but they come out of who the characters are. The process authors take to know their characters really varies from author to author.

New authors are often told to create or find online a character dossier or character questionnaire like this one which forces them to create a character down to the last detail. There is sometimes, I think, an expectation that authors know these things about their characters even if they never make it into the actual book. An awesome writer’s group I belong to on Facebook recently had a series of posts related to these sort of character details, posing questions like “What’s your character’s favorite color?” and “What’s your character’s favorite drink?” These questions can certainly be helpful for an author to know a character, specially if that character is running through a series where he/she will appear many times in many books. But I often think they don’t tell the whole story.

My fiction is about characters who face their past so they can find their future. They face their personal past and their collective past, the historical era in which they live. I talked about this in my blog post for this year’s OWS CyCon blog tour. Because there are deeper issues that my characters have to face on their journey to finding their future through their past, I have to be selective about the sort of details that make up their character and discover who they are through the process of writing and rewriting.

Therefore, I rarely do character dossiers or questionnaires. When the posts went up in the Facebook group, I honestly couldn’t comment on them because I don’t know what drink or color Vivian Alderdice (the unofficial protagonist of the Waxwood Series) prefers. These details were simply not important in my construction of Vivian as a character for the series. They may become important for the series later on and if they do, they will come up on their own. Vivian herself will tell me, in the writing and rewriting process, the answers to these questions if they become vital to the story and to her character. But until then, I feel like trying to impose this sort of detail onto Vivian  as a character would feel artificial and contrived.

Author Anais Nin wrote about this sort of selectivity in details in her book on writing, The Novel of the Future. For Nin, such details as what the character drinks or what he or she has in her closet do not add to the reader’s knowledge of the character and, in fact, take away from it. She describes here an example from one of her books:

“A reviewer said when I wrote Stella (novelette included in the collection Winter of Artifice): ‘Stella is not real because she does not go to the icebox for a snack.’ This kind of reality I take for granted and would distract me, the author or the reader, away from some other more important observation.” (Nin, location 846)

For Nin, authors need to use the sort of selectivity with character details that I spoke of earlier. It’s not about quantity, but quality:

“A concentrated lighting thrown on a few critical or intense moments will illumine and reveal more than a hundred details which dull our keenness, weary our vision.” (Nin, location 496-502)

So discovering who the character, whether over the span of one book or several, is, for authors and readers, a process of selectivity and focus.

From a more psychological perspective, it took me quite a few drafts to get to know Jake Alderdice, the protagonist of Book 2 of the Waxwood Series, Tales of Actaeon. I did several rewrites (not just editing and tinkering with scenes, but actual “throw most of it out and do it again” kind of rewrites) of the novel, all based on the kind of character Jake was evolving into. The details of his plight in coming of age during the last years of the 19th century come not only from his position as a twenty-one year old young man in 1898 but from who he is, what his psychological reality is, how he was raised, what he’s discovering about his beliefs and values, and what his relationships are. Small, concrete details do matter, like the fact that he’s an artist who favors wooded landscapes as his subjects. But, like Nin, I include less of the details that would prove to be irrelevant to who he is in the story, like what drink he prefers or what his favorite color is.

To find out more about Tales of Actaeon, due out in December, go here. And you can find out more about the series itself here.   

Works Cited

Nin, Anais. The Novel of the Future. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2014 (original publication date 1968). Kindle digital file.

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Secret Societies and Fraternities in the Late 19th Century

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As mentioned below, the Freemasons boasted of some pretty important people among its members. In the photo above, Prince Albert and King George VI are among the Grand Masters of this Freemason lodge in Scotland.

Photo Credit: Photo with, among others, Prince Albert and Duke of York, who later was to become King George VI from Lodge Glamis No. 99 in Forfarshire, Scotland. Photo taken by Peter Ellis on 2nd June 1936. Masonic Centre, Queanbeyan, New South Wales: Scribedia/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 4.0

Sometimes things come up in novels that you never thought you’d find yourself dealing with. The entire writing and rewriting process of Tales of Actaeon has been like that for me. As I mention here, much of my fiction is about women. My historical fiction is loaded with ideas about women’s place in the 19th and early 20th centuries, their isolation and limitations within the separate spheres. Most of my protagonists are women.

But for Tales, I chose to write the story of Jake Alderdice. Jake is the younger brother of Vivian Alderdice the unofficial protagonist of the series. As a young man coming of age in the last years of the 19th century, I was interested in definitions of masculinity in the Gilded Age, this transitional time between Victorian and modern (ergo, 20th century) values. In his story, then, the idea of secret societies and fraternities came up.

Although such societies were nothing new in the 19th century (the Freemasons established a foothold in America as the granddaddy of all secret societies in the 18th century and boasted of such members as George Washington, Paul Revere, and Benjamin Franklin), their heyday occurred in the late 19th century. In fact, editor Alfred C. Stevens wrote a book in 1899 called The Cyclopaedia of Fraternities that claims to document more than 600 of these societies active in America at the time. 

Why did secret societies and, I should add, specifically male fraternities, flourish in the Gilded Age? There were practical reasons, of course (such as secret societies based on business interests where members could make valuable connections) but I’m talking here of the more psychological reasons. I didn’t find much in my research about this, but I have a few ideas of my own. As I mention in my blog post, this was a time in America for great change and innovation. The nation was shifting from Victorian to modern very fast, and, in the eyes of many, not necessarily for the better. Excess, commercialism, and corruption abound. The life many people once knew was rapidly being hurled toward the new century. In this chaotic atmosphere, secret societies offered a sanctuary. Many based their ideals on “old-fashioned” values and established rules, rites, and rituals that remained static amidst the armageddon of the changing world. They also offered a stable identity for many of their members (for example, the Knights of Pythias was organized in the mid-19th century based on the ethic of brotherly love). They gave Gilded Age men a sense of identity, belonging and protection, the feeling that someone “had their backs”. They also gave men (predominantly white, Protestant, and middle class) the feeling of superiority. The assurance of these men of their domination had been theirs for much of the 19th century but was starting to crumble with the advert of labor unions, immigration, and women’s rights. Even the sometimes bizarre and frightening initiation for new members was a sort of badge of courage for members to wear after they became members. 

Unfortunately, many of these secret societies have a bad reputation. Popular media has portrayed many of them either as silly and junior-highish or dangerous. One great example is in a film I talked about on my old blog called Smile. Make in 1975 at the height of the women’s movement, the film is a social satire of the worship of beauty in America in the form of beauty pageants. One of the film’s subplots involves a male fraternity with a rather disgusting and humiliating initiation that involves kissing a rather unsavory part of a raw chicken. The enthusiasm and excitement that “Big” Bob (Bruce Dern), already a member, shows toward this ritual as he explains it to his friend, Andy (Nicholas Pryor), who is about to be initiated, makes a mockery of the more serious initiation rights of many secret societies and, in the context of the film, serves to show male ideas of fun and fulfillment (like the beauty pageant itself) as absurd and immature.

In Tales, Jake is introduced to a secret society of men called The Order of Actaeon. Their philosophies are based on Theodore Roosevelt’s ideas of combining manly virtue and honor with masculine aggression and cunning. However, many of these philosophies become twisted into a definition of modern masculinity that lead to tragedy at the end of the novel.

To learn more about Tales of Actaeon, due to come out in December, please see this page. To find out more about the Waxwood Series, please go here. And if you’d like to read an excerpt from Tales that involves the secret society in the book, you can do so if you join my readers group in Facebook, Tam’s Dreamers.   

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The Writer’s Art of Killing Your Darlings

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Photo Credit: The Murder of Rizzio, John Opie, 1787, painting, Gildhall Art Gallery, London: DuncanHill/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

Many writers have heard William Faulkner’s advice to “kill your darlings” in the revision and editing process of their work. The phrase succulently describes the kind of tender, attached feeling many authors have for a turn of phrase, a scene that seems to work out perfectly, a beloved character, a grand location — that just doesn’t belong in the book we’re writing. There is no doubt that killing your darlings is a little about writer’s ego — we wrote this stuff and we hate to admit that it doesn’t belong or that it’s overdone and not as great as we thought it was when we wrote it — but it also involves thinking about the reader. Writers must do what’s right for the story to take the book where they think readers will get as much as possible out of the reading experience. That might include learning something, experiencing another place at another time, making emotional connection with characters and just having a good read and forgetting about the troubles of everyday life. Hopefully, a combination of most or all of these.

I’ve had ample opportunity to contemplate what it means to kill your darlings this past month while working intensely on revising and rewriting the first draft of Tales of Actaeon, the second book to my Waxwood Series. I’ve been digging deep into the story and its themes and characters, and it’s made me realize that killing your darlings can come at every level of the complex tapestry that makes up a novel, especially a novel in a series.

On it’s most basic level, killing your darlings might mean taking out some of the most lyrical passages in the story. When I began writing and publishing in 2017, I was heavily influenced by the work of Anais Nin. Nin was a strong advocate for poetic prose, a style of writing that involves the use of poetic language and tropes to present imagery that creates multiple layers to the story being told. Her book Under a Glass Bell and Other Stories, which I read when I was sixteen, completely changed my perception of what fiction is and what it can really do, how it can touch readers and evoke emotions in the subtlest ways. So much of my writing developed in this direction and my first published work, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories is a book of contemporary short stories in this vein. The Waxwood Series, as I explain here, was originally a novel in three parts and in its evolution, the storyline in Tales of Actaeon was the only one that survived more or less unchanged. At the time, I was very much engrossed in the poetic prose style, so much of the first draft taken from that novel is in that style.

However, like all writers, my style has strengthened and evolved. I am now more careful with my choice of language and imagery and I try to use splashes of poetic prose where the story really benefits from it. Subsequently, I found myself killing a lot of those darlings in this book. For example, here’s a passage of poetic prose I took out of the first draft of Tales during this rewriting process:

“A circle of shanties appeared through the dim, looking as if they had been constructed by hand in a hurry. Bare mud led up to narrow doorways except for one shanty where someone had tried to plant roses. But the flowers were charred as if a fire had rolled right through them. The only color among the shades of black, mud and gray were sprigs of wild spearmint. Their pointy leaves and pungent scent made his [the protagonist, Jake’s]  eyes water.”

While I won’t deny I’m proud of this passage, the story has changed so that it no longer needs this lavish description of what is a minor element in the story. Had I left it in, it would have slowed down the pace.

Killing your darlings isn’t just about removing pretty words that don’t fit, though. It’s also sometimes about the bigger stuff in stories, like subplots that distract from the main storyline. For example, I’ve mentioned here that Vivian is the unofficial protagonist of the Waxwood Series and her character appears in every book of the series. To this end, I wrote the first draft of Tales (which focuses on Jake, Vivian’s brother) with a subplot involving Vivian told from her point of view. But when I began to dig deeper into the story and uncover more of its themes, I realized Vivian’s voice didn’t need to be there. The book is about Jake and his emotional and psychological maturity as a Gilded Age young man. So I took out Vivian’s voice and the subplot, though Vivian herself still appears in the book.

Killing your darlings can also mean killing off a character. When I wrote the short story “The Rose Debutante”, a sort of prequel to the first book of the Waxwood Series, I found myself including a character whom I thought would fit into Tales. But I found the more the character inserted himself into the plot, including the climax of the story, the more he detracted Jake from the emotional and psychological journey he takes in the book. The character didn’t have a logical place in Jake’s journey, though his absence did have an effect on Jake’s psychological reality. But to convey that in the story, I didn’t need to have him appear as a character. So I removed him. He may or may not make an appearance in the later books, but for now, he is one of the darlings that needed to be killed off to make the story strong and complete.

To find out more about Tales of Actaeon, go to this page. And if you want to learn more about the Waxwood Series, I have a page for that here.  

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What I Read: A Confessional Post

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Photo Credit: The Librarian, Guiseppe Arcimboldo, 1570, oil on canvas, Skokloster Castle, Lake Malaren, Sweden: Armbrust/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

August 9 is Book Lover’s Day. As an avid reader and writer, books are as essential to me as breathing. Books were my dreamworld, my refuge from an emotionally difficult childhood.

This Book Lover’s Day, I decided to make a confession to my readers here. I am not like many authors who read voraciously in their genre. I hardly ever read books written by contemporary authors. I don’t mean contemporary literature, which you might expect of a historical fiction author. I mean books written by contemporary authors, even historical fiction. Most of my reading is classic literature, books written fifty or one hundred years ago or more.

Part of my upbringing involved people who lived in their own fantasy worlds. That, combined with my highly sensitive nature made me developed my own dreams and fantasies. My psychological reality growing up was an isolated childhood couched in strangeness and trauma, and my way of dealing with it was to live outside of reality as much as I could with daydreams, journaling, and writing. I was never out of touch with reality (neither were my parents). I just preferred this fantasy world I had built for myself, which was my safe, happy world. A large part of that world came in books I read. Books gave me an escape into a world far more controllable than mine was.

While I was always a dreamer in love with the fantasy world of books, it wasn’t always true that I was in love with classic literature. As a teenager, I read the classics only when they were assigned at school. My leisure reading was contemporary to my time. But when I entered college, I discovered an entirely new world. As an English major, I was exposed to what is known as the “literary canon” from the birth of English literature to modern times. I read the likes of Dante, Dickens, Bronte (all three of them), and Fitzgerald, among many others, for the first time in my life, and I learned about all the important literary movements, like Romanticism and Modernism. I lived in these books, in the world of the characters, far removed from what I had ever experienced as “real life”. They took me into another time as well as another place, where I could rest my imagination. Most English students hate literary analysis and a colleague of mine once complained that learning how to analyze a literary text made her stop enjoying the books she read. But for me, literary analysis taught me to pick apart language, characters, and themes, so that I saw how relevant the passions and pains of, say, an Anna Karenina or a Daisy Miller were to me, even though my life was so different from theirs.

After college and after grad school (again, in English, so I got to read even more classic texts), I continued to read these books. My Kindle app is probably about 90% classic fiction. Some of the authors are well-known but others are more obscure, such as Gertrude Atherton, Anais Nin, and Jane Bowles. 

Last year, when I started to work on my Waxwood Series, I made an attempt to read historical fiction written by contemporary authors. I did this mainly because I wanted to see what other authors were doing and the old adage given to authors of “read in your genre” was making me feel guilty for not having sought more of these authors before. The majority of books that I started to read I would put down at some point. It had absolutely nothing to do with the authors or the quality of the books. It had to do with my personal comfort zone. Reading is so necessary to my psyche that trying to read these books, which made me feel like a fish out of water, I felt as if I were slogging through a field thick with tall wheat without a sickle. There were a few I enjoyed with, such as Anna Hope’s The Ballroom and Gregory Harris’ The Endicott Evil but the majority of these books just didn’t speak to me. I wish I could tell you why.

So after a long, hard struggle with myself after a year, I realized I am just not going to enjoy reading if it feels like a chore. So I’m now back to my beloved classics.

I’ve discovered beyond enjoyment there are also practical benefits to reading the classics. These books prepare me better for writing historical fiction because they put me inside the language and everyday life of the past as well as give me windows into the attitudes, morals, and mentality of the people living at that time. There is no denying that the rhythms of the past are very different from the present (as they should be) and it’s very difficult for historical authors writing today (myself at the top of the list) to capture those nuances. Reading classic fiction puts me in this mindset. 

These books are also a surprising source of information for me, sometimes better than all the research books I can find. For example, it’s been very difficult to find a lot of information on the aristocracy of San Francisco in the Gilded Age, a major component of the Alderdice family in my Waxwood Series. While there is a lot out there about this distinct class during this period of American history, most books and articles focus on those who lived on the East Coast, like New York City and Boston. But much of the research I’ve found seems to neglect the West Coast aristocracy in this time. However, I discovered a wonderful writer who wrote many of her books about this class in San Francisco and the Bay Area in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries —Gertrude Atherton. Her detailed discussions of the rise of the aristocracy in San Francisco in the mid-19th century in one of her more well-known books, The Californians, gave me a lot of information I couldn’t find anywhere else that helped shape the Alderdice family past and present. A few of her other books that tackle this society in the Gilded Age and at the turn of the century have also been very helpful to me. 

To find out more about the Waxwood Series, you can go to this page. Book 1 of the series, The Specter, is out and you can find out about that here. Book 2 is now in the works and set to be released in December of this year, so here’s the information about that.  

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American Reform and Progress at the Turn of the 20th Century

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Although this cartoon refers specifically to only one of the reforms during the Progressive Era (women’s suffragism), it is visually a great example of what was going on with all reforms during this time.

Photo Credit: Political cartoon about suffrage in the United States. Four women supporting suffrage on a steamroller crushing rocks “opposition”. Illustration in Judge, v. 72, 1917 March 17, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: Unsubtlety/ Wikimedia Commons/PD 1923

I’ve talked a lot about The Gilded Age here and here because much of the Waxwood Series takes place during this time but also because the excess, glitz, and innovation of that age fascinates me. The Gilded Age led into the turn of the 20th century which proved to be as significant, if not more so, for American society, politics, and culture, than the era before it. If, according to humorists Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, the last quarter of the nineteenth century in America were gilded, the start of the new century tarnished that image somewhat. We might even venture to say that the progressive reforms of the turn of the 20th century came as a sort of backlash to the decades preceding it.

Life was good in America after the financial shock wore off from Panic of 1873. America was making a name for itself on the world stage, and there was promise and hope for a better life for most people with new inventions and attitudes. But the era also had a dark side. Excess was the name of the game, especially for those who became millionaires for the first time in their lives and had no qualms about flaunting their new wealth and social standing. Social and economic divides were becoming more prevalent and consumerism and commercialism more important to American life. Wheeling and dealing in politics and business ran rampant, and things were out of control. 

Enter the Progressive Era. There had always been civic-minded reformers, largely white and middle-class, who vocalized their concern as to the consequences of Gilded Age extravagance but at the turn of the 20th century, there began more aggressive push for the government to pass laws and make reforms. While much of this was positive, these reform had hidden agendas, kinks in the road, and unanticipated consequences.

Political reforms spring to mind when we talk about the Progressive Era, of course, like government clean-ups and the fight for the vote for women. But, as my fiction involves more social and psychological history, I prefer to focus on these issues in light of turn-of-the-century reforms. 

The settlement house movement was one of the best known reforms of the era. Settlement houses conjure visions of white, middle-class women whose privileged lives and separate sphere ideals left them with little space in which to exercise their energies. One of the few outlets for nineteenth century women to show their creativity, learning, and efficiency was in aiding those in need. But settlement houses were about more than this. They set out to educate the working-class with the goal of giving them skills they needed to get better jobs and build better lives for themselves. This included not only practical subjects such as reading and writing but also more culture-oriented topics like art appreciation and music. These well-meaning women, though, were not without their hidden agenda, which was to “Americanize” the largely immigrant population which they served. Many of their teachings was firmly grounded in white middle-class values and beliefs that these women held to be true and right. There was not the awareness of or respect for other cultures that we have today. In other words, the settlement houses offered help and education in exchange for acceptance of a narrow view of American life and values that was based on a privileged population.

One of these white, middle-class beliefs was that a pretty environment bred pretty thoughts and manners. Since urbanization grew rapidly in the second half of the 19th century, these reformers abhorred the filth and neglect of city streets and slums, and lobbied for better sanitation and housing conditions. They also started the City Beautiful movement. It’s no coincidence many city parks we have today were established in the late-19th century. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, for example, was conceived in the 1860’s, but construction began to fall into place from the 1880’s when this movement was in its infancy. Of course, there were detractors of the movement who argued that these reforms were meant more for the eyes of the middle-class and did nothing to address some of the real issues many Americans living in the cities were facing, like shameful house conditions and lack of sanitation. 

Photo Credit: Photo of Modernist author Djuna Barnes (working as a reporter) being force fed, like so many of the suffragists of the Progressive Era with the headline for her article, “How it Feels to be Forcibly Fed”. World Magazine, 6 September 1914: Celithemis~commonswiki/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

Many of my protagonists are women, so it’s no surprise women’s suffragism plays a big role in my fiction just as it did in the Progressive Era. Suffragism started to gain ground in the late 19th century after a hiatus of sorts from mid-century reformers and, indeed, this movement plays a role in several books of the Waxwood Series. At the turn of the twentieth century, women across the country were protesting the social and psychological limitations placed on them. Many of their guerrilla tactics are now more familiar to us since the film Suffragette was released in 2015. One of the most revealed articles that gave people a glimpse of what the suffragists went through was written in 1914 by Djuna Barnes who later became an icon of Modernist literature. The article describes in detail what it was like for these women reformers, who often went on hunger strikes to protest their treatment by government authorities and police, to be force-fed, one of the hallmarks of the more radical tenants of suffragism.

While the Waxwood Series is set somewhat earlier than the height of the Progressive Era, my upcoming historical mystery series puts Adele Gossling, its main protagonist, right in the center of these reforms. As a young, outspoken woman of this era, she embraces suffragism and other reforms and, in fact, earns the stigma of being a “radical” from some of the more Victorian-minded people living in Arrojo, a small town where she resides after her father’s death. She helps the police solve crimes, many of which are form fitted to the era and expose some of its rising tensions.

To find out more about this upcoming series, you can check out this page.

To find out more about the Waxwood Series, go here. The first book of the series can be found here.

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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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