While visiting my aging parents recently I attended a social gathering of their friends and neighbors. A man I was conversing with told me about his work at Eastman Kodak before its slow dissolution. When I mentioned I was an author of historical fiction and thought the history of the Kodak Company might make a good non-fiction book, he proceeded to tell me that more importantly, he wanted someone to write about the Hungarian revolt against the Soviet Union in 1956. He was part of the revolt as a teen. But he had to flee along with 200,000 other refugees, when the revolt was violently crushed by the Soviets after only 12 days. The ghost writer he had hired to write his memoir died and the idea that his story would never be written nor published was weighing on him.
This man had a best friend-a fellow comrade aged 16 who was captured by the Soviets. The Soviet's had a law that made it illegal to put someone under 18 to death, so they held his friend in prison until he turned 18 and then executed him.
My mother told me that as she ages she has been having flashbacks-vivid memories of her childhood that she had long forgotten. If this is so for most people as they age (and I have no idea if it is) then I suppose for this man, his visions of the tumultuous 12 days and loss of his best friend must be haunting him. He spent the better part of an hour discussing it with me. He told me not many people know about this time in history (it was only 12 days but had greater ramifications for the U.S./Soviet relationship.) He told me the citizens of Hungary were the only ones that revolted against the Soviets although so many in the Union despised the oppression. He eyes were filled with loathing.
I've met numerous writers at conferences who are there to learn how to publish a memoir. I wish my life was that interesting. Although I've used vignettes from my personal experience or people I've known for my fiction (specifically in Ephemeral Summer I wrote a scene where the main characters are tracking moose in Algonquin Provincial Forest for scientific research, something I did in graduate school), my fiction is mainly about other people's lives.
Just recently I picked up a book titled: Ithaca Diaries, written by Anita Harris about her days as a college student at Cornell University in the late 1960s early 1970s. How brave to write about coming of age during the race and anti-Vietnam War riots taking place on campus. Personally, I'd rather write a fictionalized version of someone else's past. But I have a high regard for writers who feel they have an important story to tell: their own.
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 from 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.
A friend--photographer--told me he didn't like to take pictures of raibows, they were too ephemeral he said, not meant to be photographed.
I happened to catch this one over the point by Silver Beach on Raquette Lake while sitting on the porch of a cabin I rented. It's faint, but we all know what it feels like to see a rainbow in the sky. Even though it's fleeting, we just sit and stare until it goes away, hoping to hang onto that magical feeling it brings for as long as we can.
Maybe that's why photographers chase rainbows, sunsets, full moons, shadows in the woods. Why artists paint capture scenes and authors write about them. These moments are why people create; to make something last, a feeling, an experience, a moment in time.
There's a poem called This Too Shall Pass Away, written by Ella Wheeler Wilcox 1900 which refers to a story about an ancient King who asks his sages to find words of wisdom that would guide him. One of them brought back a ring with the saying 'this too shall pass' inscribed inside (or so various versions of the story go).
The meaning, that all things are temporary, much like the rainbow, is hard to swallow. How can this moment of joy be taken away? Yet, the same goes for those times of sorrow. It is only temporary. If only we could remember this when things seem so bleak.
As I work on my novel about the Durant family I realize this may be what they were striving for, to leave a legacy, even if it wasn't in the form of wealth. The Durant's were creators. William built Great Camps in the Adirondacks, that would withstand the elements of the Northern Woods. Ella Durant published her poetry. Their father, Dr. T.C. Durant built railroads across the country.
I see how all of it, the hard work, the drive to perfection, to discover more about how to turn a vision into reality - all of it - is an attempt to fight that adage that this too shall pass. Maybe, what drives the creator of such works, is an attempt, like Ozymandias, to leave a behind a legacy that fights back at time. Maybe that's why I write.
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.
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.
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.