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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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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From Novel to Series: The Evolution of The Waxwood Series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read more about the Waxwood series here

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

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