This is an ode to those public historians who went out of their way to write and publish local history that would otherwise have been forgotten. Whether it was about their own past experience, or the history of a place, these books are gems for those of us writing historical fiction. They are accounts of the ordinary people, ones who may not have been famous, but whose lives are the fabric of the past. I've found my share of these treasures while researching my novels.
My current novel in progress has a section set during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. This epic military campaign began in the foreboding Ardennes Forest December 16, 1944 and was not concluded until January 1945. The Germans had amassed a large army hidden in the forests along the ridges and deep ravines of the Ardennes mountains of eastern Belgium and France. The Germans' objective was to take the city of Bastogne and the port of Antwerp. Unsuspecting American soldiers from the 110th Infantry were recuperating from the brutal battle in the Hürtgen Forest in the town of Clervaux. And when the Germans began their offensive, the Army was taken by surprise. Although the Germans would eventually be defeated, it was an epic battle. Infantrymen recount the eerie presence of German soldiers camouflaged in white outer-coats to match the snow, moving like wraiths in and out of the cover of fir trees on the battlefield. By the time it was over, 75,000 American and 80,000 German soldiers perished in the Ardennes.
While looking for primary sources I landed on a book titled: I'll Be Home for Christmas. It's a compilation of soldiers' letters and essays from the U.S. Library of Congress focused on the period of time soldiers' memories of home were most precious. The chapters include passages where they describe the movement of the infantry through the dark fir forests of the Ardennes, trudging through snow up to their thighs, hiding in fox holes, reminiscing about the holiday. More than once, the gravity of the moment was interspersed with small wonders and gestures of humanity. As one of the survivors, who was holed up in a cellar on Christmas Eve recalled: "At the stroke of midnight, without an order or request, dark figured emerged from the cellars. In the frosty gloom voices were raised in the old familiar Christmas carols. The infantry....could hear voices two hundred yards away in the dark, in German,...singing Silent Night."
They decorated random trees with tin ration cans. They made the best of a situation while pining to be home. Some of the men who were separated from their units ended up in cabins of the locals who gave them refuge and food on Christmas Eve. A medic was given a wooden carving from a piece of packing crate with the word Weihnachten 1944 (Christmas in German) from one of the German prisoners of war he treated.
A Belgium schoolteacher, returning to his classroom after the battle found this written on the blackboard by a German officer:
May the world never live through such a Christmas night. Nothing is more horrible than meetings one's fate, far from mother, wife, and children..... Life was bequeathed us in order that we might love and be considerate to one another. From the ruins, out of blood and death shall come forth a brotherly world.
One of the more poignant stories comes from bomber pilot Philip Ardery who knew all too well that fate might never give him another Christmas. He was reminded of this everyday while flying over Europe during the month of December of 1943. Growing up, he never opened any presents before Christmas Day. By late November family members of the pilots were sending packages to the headquarters where he was stationed. Many sat unopened, a 'Return to Sender' stamped on them when a soldier failed to return from a flight. Yet when Ardery was sent out on a mission in the inky dark of a bracing cold dawn, he had to decide: should I open one of my gifts just in case I don't make it back?
His family and friends made sure he had plenty to open. Each night he considered them from the perch of his bunk; the packages, sitting there waiting for him to rip open and discover what was inside.
Making it even more difficult was the fact that the weather was horrendous. Heavy fog and cold, damp air was hindering the pilots' efforts. Because they had not received their pathfinder equipment on time, they were flying without the instruments needed to guide the bombing. As a result, there were many mid-air collisions. In addition, lack of adequate gear meant men returned from their mission with frostbitten hands and many had to be hospitalized.
As the casualties mounted, each day, Ardery asked himself: should I open my presents just in case I don't make it back alive? Indecision plagued him through the month of December.
He didn't. He said the gifts were magical because of who sent them, those he held dearest. Maybe it was the taboo of opening anything before Christmas. Maybe it was hope. Hope that he would make it through his mission to eventually return home to those people he held dear. Hope may have been the greatest gift he received that year, that along with his life. He eventually opened his gifts on Christmas Day. One of the lucky ones to return home to family.
While attending a writers conference recently the speaker, a literary agent, was asked what he viewed as a trend in the industry. His answer was publishers were looking for women who write about women. He predicted, like most trends, this was fleeting and would either end or balance out. I began to wonder if what he deems a trend is really just an adjustment in a long history of marginalization of women authors. Just cursory research shows women authors have been under-represented for awards. Since 1901, the Nobel Prize for Literature has only been awarded to 14 women. There have only been 35 women winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction since it was first awarded in 1917.
While disconcerting, it also doesn't match up with the trends in women readership. I was intrigued by all of this because I've been in a book club for over 15 years. As an author I've been invited to speak with several book clubs. All organized and attended by women. Just recently, I spoke to my largest audience ever - 140 ladies in Charlotte, NC - who call themselves the JULIETS (Just us ladies interested in learning, eating, talking and sharing).
And as an author, I've been privileged to be able to network with other women authors in such online forums and memberships groups as the Women Fiction Writers Association and Women Writers Women's Books. Both organizations have a strong following. They offer guidance, mentoring, educational and promotional opportunities for women from diverse backgrounds.
It sounded like a good idea at the time: a week at a cabin built in 1890 on Raquette Lake, NY. The perimeter of the lake is 95% public land, part of the Adirondack Park wilderness and the cabin is part of a compound owned by a state college. It has no electricity, no wi-fi, no cell phone coverage, and is only accessible by foot or boat. It would be idyllic, a haven of peace away from the tumultuous clamor of modern life. A place to write my novel.
Here in the Finger Lakes we were 'blessed' with an early snow storm. A few years back I took these pictures when in November, we got a dusting. When it snows here, the skies are gloomy, filled with moisture. I was having a hard time getting just the right shots. For three days in a row during the Thanksgiving break I woke each morning at the required time for this season of the year (7 am) and it was always overcast. One morning I got lucky enough to capture the sun rising in the gloom, and paid for it with a nasty fall on the ice as I took a picture from the boat launch.
Then it happened. The perfect-picture-taking-dawn. I arose at 7 am and the sun was rising with just wisps of clouds in the sky, and magically, it had also snowed overnight. I grabbed my coffee, my camera and my boots and waded through the newly fallen snow in the farms fields at the end of my road. And I was rewarded with crystal images.
So, it was worth it - waiting - for the right moment in time to take the pictures that would capture the beauty of this landscape that I live in; that shows itself when it wants, not when you need it to. A lesson well worth remembering when days get shorter and the darkness sets in. A lesson to keep in mind in general.
A few years ago I spent my ephemeral summer writing my first novel. There is nothing like the feeling of accomplishing something; especially when it is a labor of love. That is how I feel about my novel Ephemeral Summer. So I was especially pleased when I recently received an email from a women's book club in Twin Cities of Minnesota who are coming to the Finger Lakes region and want to meet and speak with me about my novel.
Ephemeral Summer is a coming of age story about a young woman named Emalee who loses both parents die when she is 15. After the tragedy she is sent to live with her Aunt Audrey who summers at the family camp on Canandaigua Lake in Upstate New York. Emalee is beset with the usual problems of a young woman, but her familial relationships and 'lake friends' make her life even more trying. In her twentieth year she falls in love with a young intellectual philosopher named Stuart, whom she can't seem to get over even after years away from him and the lake setting where they met.
Although a love story, Ephemeral Summer weaves in a sense of place, the wonders of the environments Emalee inhabits. Starting and ending in the Finger Lakes region, this story takes the reader from the shores of Canandaigua, Seneca, and Lake Erie, to the Canadian wilderness where Emalee finds herself tracking Moose as part of a research project in Algonquin Provincial Park.
I wrote and edited this book (with the help of many people) over the course of a few years. My purpose was to educate about this great place - the Finger Lakes - where I live in an entertaining fashion. I hope I've accomplished this and hope you'll enjoy read Ephemeral Summer.
Writing placed-based literature is a great experience because there are always stories embedded in the culture of an area that a writer can use as a springboard.
When I wrote Ephemeral Summer I placed my college-age protagonist, Emalee, in settings that were familiar to me. She attends college in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York because I know the area well. However, like most college-age students she moves around, and in the last chapter, she visits the Canadian wilderness to assist a fellow graduate student track moose in Algonquin Provincial Park in Canada.
Although I had stayed in Algonquin twice myself during graduate school (tracking moose), my research on Algonquin went beyond the ecological setting and into the realm of art. While conducting my research I was surfing the Internet for information about the Northern Lights to include in the novel, and stumbled upon the artwork of Tom Thomson, (1877-1917) an artist from the early 1900s who painted landscapes in Algonquin.
Thomson first visited Algonquin in 1912 and fell in love with the place. He stayed, found jobs as a ranger, firefighter and any other occupation that the woods would allow, and painted in his spare time. His paintings are considered the forerunner of a movement of painters called The Group of Seven: a group of Canadian landscape painters who spent considerable time painting in Algonquin from the 1920s-1930s.
As I delved into his story I found parallels to my plot. There is an accidental death by drowning in my story Ephemeral Summer, and Thomson likewise drowned under mysterious circumstances. In 1917, at age 40, he went out canoeing and was found dead a week later. Foul play was suspected but never confirmed.
Like many artists, Thomson did not make a lot of money on his works. Although he did have a patron, and some of his works sold, he became more popular after his death. And that is what is most intriguing about Thomson: his drive to create art whether it sold or not. His story folded neatly into my narrative for Ephemeral Summer. Indeed, for many artists, who create for art's sake, because they feel compelled.
I launched a project to fund my research on a historical novel with a crowdfunding site and it failed. Specifically, what lured me into trying crowdfunding on the site I chose was a podcast interview with one of the founders where she stated that artists are finding backers for their creative projects on their platform, and that 60% of the backers come from within the crowdfunding community itself. Hence, with the thought that I might find a community of like-minded artists, trying to fund projects, who would back the research for my next novel, I gave it a try. Nothing is failure if it is a learning experience and hopefully you can take away some tidbits of advice before you spend a lot of time and effort on your own crowdfunding campaign.
I’ll start with the positive aspects of my experience.
Now the Negatives:
Why am I doing this? As a writer, this question pops into my head all of the time, especially when I am doubting whether all the effort I've put into my work with play out. You know, like I'll win an award, sell enough books to pay my mortgage one month, grab the attention of a literary agent or better yet, a publisher. It can be a lonely existence inside my head; these thoughts swirling with no place to land. I was reminded of this just recently while waiting for a response to a query I sent out to some agents. What if they have no interest in my work? The rejections and doubt can get rather depressing. And then I was reminded of a quote from a book that I've read more than once: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.
“Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock looks loose. From this place the snow is less visible, even though closer. These are things you should notice anyway. To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow."
Sheila Myers is an award winning author and Professor at a small college in Upstate NY. She enjoys writing, swimming in lakes, and walking in nature. Not always in that order.