A Survey of Women’s Issues in the 19th and 20th Centuries

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Photo Credit: American suffragists,  members of the American contingent that took part in the Women’s Social and Political Union’s 23 July 1910 procession, monochrome photo, World’s Graphic Press Limited: LSE Library/Flickr/No known copyright restrictions

March is National Women’s History Month, where we look at all the accomplishments of women past generations. And we certainly have had a lot we’ve had to accomplish! 

I thought I’d do a survey of some of the important women’s issues throughout the years, particularly focusing on some of the eras that I’ve written about like the Gilded Age, the Progressive Era, and the era of “Occupation: Housewife”. There is so much we can say about women’s struggles throughout history, but there are issues that have always interested me and that have affected women’s psychological and social presence and progress more than others.

In the mid-19th century, the first dregs of organized suffragism emerged with names now branded in history such as Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. I introduced the struggles of women’s suffragism during this time in this blog post . During the 19th century, much of the effort was focused on one solitary goal: to win women the right to vote. The fact that women were fighting for this one fundamental but critical aim says a lot about how women were seen in the 19th century, and I talk here about the psychological and social ideology behind how women were treated during this era. 

In the beginning of the 20th century, when progressive movements were taking center stage, suffragism continued with women such as Jane Addams, Alice Paul, and Ida B. Wells. They continued to fight for the vote for women and achieved success when the 19th Amendment was ratified in the United States in 1920. But the Progressive Era also brought awareness to many women that it wasn’t just about the right to vote and have a voice in the public sphere. It was also about a psychological freedom and throwing off the shackles of 19th century rigid definitions of femininity that limited what women could and could not do and be. Thus emerged a new image of the New Woman who was active, athletic, and could move her mind and body more freely than her mothers and grandmothers.

If we jump to the mid-20th century, we find that things aren’t so empowering. After the fight for women’s suffragism and breaking the stereotype of the Victorian “angel in the house”, the post World War II generation brought it back. During this time, there emerged what Betty Friedan labeled the feminine mystique. Magazines, advertisements, the media, and the medical establishment all pushed forward the idea that women’s place was in the home and their identities tied up in their roles as mothers, wives, daughters, caretakers — in short, in their relationships to others rather than in and of themselves. Friedan found that these women in American suburbs who were living a life that fulfilled this destiny were not happy and suffered from what she labeled The Problem That Has No Name. This was a problem of discontentment, as many of these women felt that something missing from their lives that they couldn’t define.

Friedan’s book and others which identified the same disillusionment with the feminine mystique eventually led into the second-wave feminist movement in the late 1960s and 1970s with activists such as Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Bell Hooks, among others. These women, whose slogan was “the personal is political” went further than the political sphere of the 19th and early 20th century suffragists. They honed in on more social and personal oppressions of women, including issues such as domestic violence, rape, and reproductive rights. 

I discovered feminism when I was in college, and it opened up a whole new world for me. Up until then, I had very little sense of what women before me had been up against, nor did I really have a sense of my own oppression. This wasn’t because I grew up in a very liberated household. On the contrary, my well-meaning parents followed a very patriarchal model, both having come of age in the era of “Occupation: Housewife”. I discovered women’s fiction in college and started exploring historical texts like Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) and since then, my writing has always brought in elements of women’s psychological and social issues embedded with the characters’ psychological reality, even when the story was about something entirely different. For example, in False Fathers, the second book of my Gilded Age family drama, the Waxwood Series, the novel focuses on a male character, but the story also contains mentions of Vivian Alderdice, the unofficial protagonist of the series, whose awareness of women’s oppression is beginning to infiltrate her consciousness. This is a theme I will explore much more in the third and last books of the series coming out later this year. Similarly, my upcoming book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, the five stories were inspired by my reading of The Feminine Mystique and the idea of The Problem That Has No Name.

You can order Lessons at a special preorder price now on this page. You can also find out more about the Waxwood Series here=. And I’ll be launching a historical mystery series called The Paper Chase Mysteries featuring a turn-of-the-century New Woman sleuth in the future, which you can find out more about here.     

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100 Years of Identity Crisis

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This flier, published in the early 20th century, takes the argument of the separate spheres and the post World War II generation (that women belong in the home) and uses it as an argument as to why women belong outside of the home as well.

Photo Credit: Women in the Home flier, created by the Woman Suffrage Party of the city of New York, 1897-1911, Library of Congress: Picryl/Public Domain Certification

“[A]s the Victorian culture did not permit women to accept or gratify their basic sexual needs, our culture does not permit women to accept or gratify their basic need to grow and fulfill their potentialities as human beings, a need which is not solely defined by their sexual role.” (Friedan, p. 77)

I’ve been talking a lot in the last month or so about two historical concepts related to women and gender that were the inspiration for many of the stories and themes in my upcoming book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life. They both come from Betty Friedan’s 1963 ground-breaking book, The Feminine Mystique. The first is what Friedan called “The Problem That Has No Name,” an unidentifiable something that was wrong with the 1950s housewife whose life was supposed to be so fulfilling and so perfect. I wrote about that here. The other was the idea of the feminine mystique, an idealization of women in which their only destiny was as wives and mothers, which I discuss here

While I was reading Friedan’s book, I had a sense of déjà vu, like “um, haven’t I seen this stuff before?” In writing the stories in Lessons, it hit me why the characters were so familiar to me. It’s because the idea of the feminine mystique reminded me of the idea of the separate spheres I discussed a while back in this blog post. You might recall this concept (which originated in the 18th century but gained ground in the 19th century) was about women and men belonging in separate areas of life: men in the public sphere (politics, finance, law, etc) and women in the private sphere (home, church). The idea was that each gender fulfilled his/her destiny within that limited sphere and any man or woman venturing into the other’s sphere was considered improper at best, an abnormality at worst (like the New Woman caricatures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where women were pictured in bloomers, smoking cigarettes, and standing over their poor, overworked husbands while the men washed the dishes wearing aprons). 

Similarly, women of the 1950s, especially American suburban housewives were told by everyone and everything around them that their one identity in life was as an ultra-feminine wife and mother and their place was in the home. But, like their Victorian sisters, they felt uneasy about this and that something was wrong with this picture. Friedan, who compares the  the 1950s housewife and the feminine mystique to the Victorian woman and sex, notes: 

“The image of a good woman by which Victorian ladies lived simply left out sex. Does the image by which modern American women live also leave something out, the proud and public image of the high-school girl going steady, the college girl in love, the suburban housewife with an up-and-coming husband and a station wagon full of children?” (Friedan, p. 24)

It is, in fact, what the ideal left out that encouraged the women’s suffragist movement to gain more support in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, eventually leading to legislative changes, specifically, the ratification of the 19th amendment in America in 1920. It was also partly Friedan’s ideas about the feminine mystique and The Problem That Has No Name that led to the second-wave women’s movement in the late 1960s and 1970s, sparked by slogan “the personal is political” which completely overturned the concept of the separate spheres by insisting there were in fact no separate spheres. Both were equal in weight for both genders.

Some of the women in the stories from Lessons have to contend with not only the feminine mystique and The Problem That Has No Name, but also with the antiquated idea of the separate spheres. For example, in “Fumbling Toward Freedom,” Susan’s husband-to-be, a medical student, teases her about her desire to see “something cultural” during a weekend visit to San Francisco. Culture was considered the public sphere in the 19th century and Susan’s attempts to enter it earn her well-meaning fiancé’s doubt and mockery nearly one hundred years later. 

To read more about Susan and the other women in the stories, you can buy Lessons From My Mother’s Life at a special preorder price here. If you’d like to read more about another character, Leanne, you can read this blog post.        

Works Cited

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.

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The Feminine Mystique

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Photo Credit: Betty Friedan as photographed in her home, 1978, photo taken  by Lynn Gilbert and uploaded 6 August 2009: LynnGilbert5/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Until now, most of my blog posts have related to the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. I’ve made no secret about the fact that the late 19th/early 20th centuries have always fascinated me, and a lot of my fiction takes place during these time periods.

But I’m interested in other eras as well, especially those relevant to women’s social, psychological, and political position. One of these time periods was the mid-20th century, a breeding ground for the second wave feminist movement which came in the late 1960s. My upcoming book is a second edition of my first published book, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories, and the five stories in this collection are set in the 1950s and early 1960s. All the stories were inspired by Betty Friedan’s feminine mystique, a revolutionary way of looking at femininity at that time.

Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique introduced this concept to the American public. The book explores Friedan’s experiences talking with women in the 1950s. She takes a very comprehensive look at the feminine mystique and the institutions that allowed this image to emerge.     

The idea of the feminine mystique has been defined in many ways, but, for me, it’s the idea that a woman’s biological, psychological, social and spiritual destiny boils down to two things: getting married and having children. There is nothing else outside of these that a woman can, and should, want. In Friedan’s own words:

“[For] the feminine mystique, there is no other way for a woman to dream of creation or of the future. There is no way she can even dream about herself, except as her children’s mother, her husband’s wife.” (p. 59)

I think this is really the crux of the mystique: a woman’s identity, her fulfillment in life, her capabilities, and her intelligence are all tied to who she is in relation to the other people in her life. Her role in life is defined, then, as wife, mother, daughter, granddaughter, caretaker, lover, etc.

You’ve probably heard that the The Feminine Mystique led to the second-wave feminist movement in the late 1960’s. But, as Gail Collins, in her preface to the 50th edition of the book points out, that’s not, strictly speaking, true:

The Feminine Mystique did not create the women’s rights movement. Those commissions on the status of women were started by the Kennedy administration before it [the book] was published, and the Civil Rights Act was being debated in Congress while American housewives were still just starting to pass Friedan’s book around. (Friedan, location 128-132)

From a political perspective, this may very well be true. But I think from a psychological perspective, Friedan’s book did much to bring many “a-ha!” moments into the lives of the women (and men) who read it in 1963, when it was first published, and in the years to follow.

Friedan’s book has been heavily criticized, as any seminal work on gender politics would. For a start, her book is looking at a very narrow population of women: American, white, upper-middle class, and suburban-living. This was also an issue with the second-wave feminist movement — that it was addressing the needs of white middle-class women. The needs of women of color, working class or poor women, older women, lesbians, etc., were left out. In fact, the third wave feminist movement, which began around the late 1980s and early 1990s, was started to rectify this situation, as it strives to include all women and has earned the name “global feminism.” In addition, the book was also criticized for offering one single solution: that women defy the feminine mystique by getting out of the house and having careers. The implication that being a housewife and mother was somehow inferior to being a career women rubbed a lot of women (and rightly so) the wrong way. There were also personal attacks made against Friedan, more of which you can read about here.

My upcoming book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, brings to light fictional representations of the feminine mystique (among other themes). The stories are set in the 1950s and early 1960s, before the second-wave feminist movement. In each story, the main character is fighting against the feminine mystique in one away or another. For example, in my story “Fumbling Toward Freedom,” Susan is a nineteen-year-old college student about to marry an upright young man still in medical school. When she attends an exhibition of Circe sculptures by a local San Francisco artist, she finds they show her the consequences of letting love define who she is, so that her rush to get married at so young an age and quit college to become a housewife and mother, becomes less enticing. On the other side of the spectrum, Leanne, in “Two Sides of Life” is a seasoned mother of two grown children whose surprising bond with the wife of her husband’s lab assistant causes her to rethink her identity embodied in the feminine mystique.

Lessons From My Mother’s Life will be out on March 29, 2020. To learn more about the book, please visit this page.    

Works Cited

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.

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The Odd Duck: The Character of Jake Alderdice

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[Jake Teaser]

Photo Credit: Father and son (Thomas Hopewell and his son Timothy), Frank Buchser, 1861, oil on canvas, Galerie Koller: Botaurus/Wikimedia Commons/PD art (PD old 100)

In an earlier version of False Fathers, my second book in the Waxwood Series, Jake Alderdice tells his mother how people have always thought of him as an “odd duck.” To me, this summarized Jake’s character not only in the story but in the canon of my own writing.

I won’t lie. Writing about Jake was a struggle for me for many reasons. On the one hand, since the Waxwood Series is about the deterioration (physically, mentally, and emotionally) of the Alderdice family, Jake’s story had to be told since he’s Vivian Alderdice’s younger brother. But I was nervous about writing the story of a male main character, even though Jake’s psychological reality was familiar to me.

The story I conceived of Jake in the original 3-part novel about the Alderdice family (which I talk about here) included Jake’s story. In fact, his story is the only one that remains more or less true to my original conception of it from that novel, in the sense that Jake comes of age amidst psychological circumtances many young men usually don’t have to deal with. But I realized when I started rewriting the story that I didn’t really know Jake at all. My own uneasiness about writing male characters (especially central ones) kept me from really digging deep into his character. I knew some things about him — that he was an artist, taught by his grandmother, that his mother had a particular loathing for him she didn’t have for his sister, and that his identity as a man (and the only surviving male of the family) was instrumental to his evolution. I liked him, but he felt remote to me, much more so than his sister Vivian or Gena Payne, the main character in Book 3 of the series.

What gave shape to the character of Jake was the historical time frame. When I wrote the book as contemporary fiction, Jake didn’t seem all that much different from other young men. He didn’t go for “sowing his wild oats,” but so do a lot of young men these days. He was an artist, but so are many others. His mother treated him as if he were a mistake, but so do a lot of other mothers (unfortunately).

So why did the historical context change this? Simply, I started to see Jake’s character against the backdrop of the Gilded Age. The psychology of gender has always interested me, not only regarding women but men as well. When I started researching masculinity in the Gilded Age (some of which I talk about here and here), I realized how complex the idea of what it meant to be a man back then was, almost more complex than what it was to be a woman (since women had some support with the suffragist movement and the New Woman ideal). As I wrote the drafts for this book, I got to know Jake better and understood his struggle to figure out who he was, not only in the shadow of the family half-truths, lies, and myths, but with his own personality and quirks that did not suit the growing ideals of masculinity at the end of the 19th century. 

So he became a character I appreciated and thought I could make readers appreciate as someone looking for what he wanted to be in a chaotic world with contradicting messages and conventions (not unlike young people in our world today). I could see not only his struggles, but also what he learns about his family, those around him who profess to help him, and, most importantly, himself. 

To learn more about Jake, you can check out the series page here. To order your copy of False Fathers, which is now at a special preorder price, go here. Plus, you can read a bonus excerpt from the book if you join my readers group here.       

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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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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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