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.
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.
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."
There's been an ongoing joke in my house that I've spent too much time submitting my work: short stories, essays, and novels, to contests that I never seem to win. It's like the lottery or something, the chances I'll win are a long shot in today's competitive publishing world. In addition, some contests charge reading fees, hence I've also spent a considerable amount of money on these contests.
Well, it finally paid off for me when my novel The Night is Done won the Adirondack Center for Writing's Literary Award for Best Book of Fiction 2017. After some car trouble and a late start from my home in Upstate, NY and a five hour drive to Lake Placid, I got to the award ceremony just as they were announcing the winner.
I'm a mother, wife, educator. I'm a writer. Although I try to remain in the present, I find my mind wandering to the depths of my imagination, attempting to tease out the next scene in my novel, a character flaw, joy, despair. I am stretched to capacity to create. Between lesson plans on critical thinking, what to make for dinner, how I'm going to kill off one the characters in my novels, my mind has limited time to stay in the moment.
Even in the car, while driving to and fro different campus sites, I listen to podcasts, gleaning inspiration on writing, marketing, thinking. Oprahs's Super Soul Conversation reminds me what I should be doing: "Time to be more fully present.....starts right now."
I'm soooo sorry Oprah - I listen to your podcast once a week, gaze at the rural landscape streaking past my window, warm earth interspersed with golden corn stubble from last year's harvest, a flock of white geese taking flight, sparkling like dust motes in the March sun. And oh, what did Amy Purdy just say about resilience? I was framing the moment for a scene in my next novel.
I can't be the only one with a creative mindset trapped in the mundane day-to-day responsibilities that keep the family going, the heater operating as winter clings; I learned from a New York Times article, it's true. Many famous artists and writers maintained separate, working lives. Does it mean they produced better art? I know I feel a pressure to create whenever there is a moment: an hour on a Saturday, winter break, spring break, summer. I develop timelines around my school schedule, can I get to 50k words by May? How many weekends and breaks do I have? How much grading to do? Will one of my daughters be in town for the weekend?
If I had more time, if my life weren't segmented into pieces of me, I'm not sure I'd be any better at my craft. As someone close to me once said, 'you work better under pressure, with deadlines'. I don't meander once I sit down to write, the words come to me, have been building over time, while driving, in my journals, in my dreams. My characters speak to me. And I don't let them down.
Writing historical fiction, I have come to learn, is like navigating a slippery slope along a precarious cliff. God forbid you get a fact wrong. Anyone who knows anything about the time period you are writing about will let you know that you did: in the reviews, on the internet, for all to see.
Let’s face it. Getting the clothing down, the setting, the politics and social graces of the times is the easy part. Keeping people entertained in another time period is what makes the story a story. So I have had to take liberties as well in my saga about the Dr. Thomas C. Durant family and their quest to open up the Adirondack wilderness to the New York City elite.
Here are my list of reasons why a writer may look beyond known facts to add more drama to a story as a way to lure in the reader/viewer.
1. When your main aim is to entertain the readers more than educate them.
This is a fine line. Many readers of historical fiction, and tv audiences want to see the characters in the appropriate dress, eating customary food, and displaying the correct mannerisms of the time period. Indeed, I read a review of the Downton Abbey fox hunting episode and equestrians from all over the world had written in complaining that one of the female characters was not holding her riding crop correctly. Jeesh. Were people really paying attention to that? I guess so. That kind of scrutiny puts a lot of pressure on the writers of these scenes. I am convinced however that what really keeps the majority of the tv audience watching Downton Abbey is the soap opera happening upstairs in the dining hall, and down stairs in the scullery.
2. When the known facts don’t explain WHY something happened, or to clarify the characters and motives of the protagonists, even if you have to invent them.
I am dealing with this one. One of my main characters: William West Durant, spent a huge portion of the family fortune building Great Camps in the Adirondack wilderness that never turned a profit. Indeed, when he sold these camps off to the Vanderbilts and Morgans, he LOST money. As he was bleeding out the family fortune with these artistic ventures, he also had the audacity to commission a $200,000 yacht (that’s close to $4 mil. in today’s US dollars) and used it to sail to Cowes and hang out with his old aristo buds at the annual royal yachting events. In the meantime, his sister was suing him for her share of the inheritance. Why then, did he flaunt his obvious wealth to all of their family friends while she was on an allowance of $200/month in London? Did he think she wouldn’t notice? Because William W. Durant didn’t keep a diary explaining all of his motives, he only admitted years later to his oral biographer that as a youth he had never learned how to make money, just how to spend it. But is that an excuse for his scandalous behavior toward his sister? I have to get into William’s head somehow, and use fiction to help the reader believe his motives as I predict them.
I stumbled upon a review of my first novel in the Durant Family Saga: Imaginary Brightness. It was not entirely unflattering, not glowing either, but I appreciate anyone taking the time to post on social media their opinion of my chronicle of the family of the famous robber baron Dr. Thomas C. Durant. However, I realized while reading it, the reviewers were dismayed I ended the story abruptly because they wanted to know more about what happened to Durant family siblings.
So to be clear, readers, understand this: I wrote a trilogy. I had to. I don't like reading long books. Maybe that's why, in a recent visit to the library, I picked up The Gilded Hour, Sara Donati's 737 page fictional tome about two spinsters, both medical doctors working in New York City in 1883. I started reading it against my good judgement and have not been able to put it down since. This does not bode well for me, as I have to finish other books for work, and for my monthly book club meeting.
In all fairness, I can't behoove any author who chooses to write these long works of fiction. If one has the time and inclination, one can get caught up in a time and place for hours, days, and at the rate I read, weeks.
But when I had to decide what to do with all of my research, I decided early on to write a trilogy. I had too much material to cram into one book, or so I thought, knowing I favor books that are 300 pages in length. And there has been an advantage to me to do so.
Firstly, I kept discovering new material. Old newspaper articles that I may have missed before would pop up in my research to reveal that one of my characters spent time training to be a nurse in England. An archivist for New York City court emails me he found a long lost divorce case file, now if I could just get my hands on it. I had time. It would all come out in book three after all.
Secondly, the brief interlude between books allowed me the luxury to mull over my characters and their motivations. A recent breakfast meeting with one of my beta readers changed my whole perspective on how I was planning to write the narrative of the downfall of one of my main characters in book three. We contemplated: was he an egotistical maniac or a true artist at heart?
These types of meandering thoughts come at a snail's pace. They don't just pop up in my head without a lot of debate and thought. I like the process of peeling away at the characters in my story, one book at a time. And I like the idea that my novels are readable in one month for those people, like me, who live busy lives.
I'd hate to think people might be racing through my descriptive narrative to get to the end of the story, which is what I sometimes find myself doing when I become impatient with a story. Or maybe I'm just spoiled, like so many people these days, expecting instant answers to my question: what will happen next?
To be honest, I'd have to admit that at least the author of The Gilded Hour provided me closure in one reading. My poor readers had to wait until I figure out how to write the last book in the trilogy. Lucky for them, the third book, The Night is Done, is now available.
An Amish family came out of the train station. They marched in a line, Father, Mother, son, two daughters; plodding along with their hats and bonnets, coattails bobbing, skirts swishing along the sidewalk. It struck me as odd to see them there of all places, (as if the Amish don’t need or use modern transportation) even though there are several Amish communities in the Finger Lakes region where I live. But I still couldn’t help but wonder: where were they going? No van was waiting to pick them up, the nearest bus stop was at least a mile away, and yet, they weren’t fazed by this, they had—purpose.
Soon after they passed by my windshield my daughter came ambling out the doors of the station, iphone in one hand, her eyes plastered to its screen, her other hand dragging along luggage. I hadn’t even noticed if the Amish had luggage. I scanned the parking lot looking for them. Poof, they were gone.
“Did you see that Amish family?” I asked her when she got in the car.
“No,” she replied.
“But weren’t they on your train from New York?” I said.
She shrugged. “Possibly.” And she went back to examining an email from work.
Months later as I read David William’s When the English Fall, a dystopian novel set in an Amish community near Lancaster, PA, my mind wanders to the vision of that family and wonder if I have sacrificed my own sense of purpose to stay connected to a virtual reality. In William’s novel, a celestial storm knocks out the power grid throughout most of the world. Planes fall from the sky, villages, towns, and cities go dark. Only the Amish appear unfazed by the event as they are used to living off the grid.
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.