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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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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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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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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Why I Love (And Write) Women’s Fiction

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***This blog post was written in honor of Women’s Fiction Day, designated as June 8 by the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.***

I recently popped on to Amazon to take a look at the book page for my upcoming release, The Specter, since it’s now up for preorder and, scrolling down, I glanced at the categories. Authors get to choose two categories for their books but often times, Amazon will either recategorize them or add their own categories (and sometimes, Amazon logic is a little fuzzy, like when Amazon UK decided my first book, a collection of psychological literary short stories called Gnarled Bones and Other Stories belonged in the Mystery, Suspense, Thriller/Series category!). For The Specter, in addition to the categories I had chosen for the book, Amazon decided my book belonged in the Women’s Domestic Life Fiction category.

I was thrilled at this, because I do consider women’s fiction one of my genres, though not my primary genre. Since college, I’ve been drawn to classic works of fiction written by women. But is women’s fiction only about the gender of the author?

Different authors define women’s fiction (whether they write it or not) differently. My definition of women’s fiction is fiction where a woman goes through some kind of emotional and psychological journey and transformation, usually the main character or one of the main characters. That transformation doesn’t necessarily have to be a positive one, but one in which she learns something about herself and the world around her. And the book doesn’t have to be written by a woman either. I consider books like Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary women’s fiction, because the woman protagonist of each book goes through her own journey and transformation (however tragic), and we learn something about human nature and women’s lives in the nineteenth century. 

This last element is really why I love reading women’s fiction. The genre not just about women written for women and only relevant to women. It’s relevant to all our lives, male or female, or however you identify your gender. They also teach us about how women behave and are treated, and this reflects on the way human nature works in our patriarchal society, then and now. I make no secret of the fact that I don’t read many contemporary books but a few months ago, I picked up a book firmly placed in the contemporary women’s fiction category by K. L. Montgomery titled Fat Girl. Montgomery is a body-positive advocate and her protagonist is a plus-size woman whose trials and tribulations with romance, divorce, and raising a teenage boy speak to our time with the struggles of single parents and body shaming in our weight-conscious society.

Although not primarily, The Specter is in the women’s fiction genre because the book traces the revelations, both emotionally and psychologically, of two women — Vivian Alderdice, the unofficial protagonist of the Waxwood Series, and Penelope Alderdice, her grandmother. These two women, like many of my characters, were products of their time (in this case, the 19th century) and rebels of it as far as they could be. Vivian’s transformation continues throughout the Waxwood Series and will be completed in Book 4. Her revelations about family, women, and social expectations will hopefully speak not only of the paradoxes of the Gilded Age but also our time.

To find out more about The Specter and order 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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