The importance of research

I’ve spent most of this week sitting at my desk scribbling ideas about the who, what, when for a piece of fiction lurking in my brain. But, I can’t decide if it is linked stories or a full novel.  I think it takes place in Afghanistan, but maybe Iran, or even perhaps Turkey. Is it in the 21st century? I know there are refugees and I know there is an American nurse. All good things to know, but not nearly enough to begin creating.

In a moment of clarity I decided I needed more information.  Most importantly, I decided that research, i.e., reading, is ‘work’, is ‘writing’……maybe I’ll call it ‘pre-writing’.

Happily, I’m fully prepared for this moment.  An entire shelf of travel books describing foreign places during various centuries awaits my indulgence…..I mean, ‘research’.  I’ve begun with Mary Lee Settle’s Turkish Reflections. This is a wonderfully written memoir of her several years spent living in and learning about Turkey.  Personal, historical, descriptive.  It’s a joy to spend hours touring with her.

turkish reflections by MaryLee Settle 001

Next up is: Twelve Days in Persia, by Vita Sackville West, Somebody’s Heart is Burning by Tanya Shaffer, and A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Somewhere along this journey I will feel inspiration and direction to face down that empty pad of yellow paper again.  In the meanwhile, bon voyage to me.

The Song of the Lark celebrates 100 years

I am rereading my favorite Willa Cather novel, The Song of the Lark.  This is a novel about a young woman discovering herself and her talent; of learning how to become herself as an artist.  Thea Kronborg is an unusual person in her small Colorado town of Moonstone.  She has a destiny that she cannot discern. Cather allows us to feel that unformed urge that is looking for expression; a young girl, unconsciously dissatisfied, but not knowing what it is or what it means.  She is fiercely intelligent and stubborn. She must come to understanding music, feelings, actions entirely on her own terms in her own way.  And Cather puts us there, allows us to feel the development of a unique artist as she finds her truest self.

As always with Cather the land is a full character.  There is nothing ‘gooey’ in her descriptions of the young, undeveloped country: it is beautiful and dangerous, unknowable and indifferent. It has its own history, separate from human history.  What a relief that she rarely gets sentimental about the place or the people who find themselves living, often stranded, in wilderness. Life is lived hard; death can come unexpectedly and must be incorporated into one’s world view. And yet, the indifferent physical world is beautiful when noticed by another of Willa Cather’s extraordinary women.

sound of the lark 001I am grateful for this 100 year anniversary because I have been reminded of a wonderful novel by a great American writer.

work in progress

“Of all the diversions of life, there is none so proper to fill its empty spaces as the reading of useful and entertaining authors.” Spectator 93, 16 June, 1711.

I recently discovered this comment and it has helped me decide on my next project.  It will be something diverting, entertaining, and perhaps, even useful.  For several years now I have been following a fascination with all things Middle Eastern.  It began when I purchased a frayed, but beautiful Oriental rug at a local auction.  It’s a double tree-of-life design and I began researching its origins.  That led to books about carpets, about Persia, about Turkey.  I found histories, stories, including the wonderful Arabian Tales (1001 nights), and travel books. My study is filled. I want to know about the lives of women there and then.

One extraordinary woman, Lady Mary Wortley Montegu, fascinates me. She was a British, titled, educated woman in an unhappy marriage who took the opportunities offered to her to investigate and taste the larger world.  In 1716 (yes!) she traveled overland with a young son and her husband to Turkey (the Ottoman Empire).  She wrote letters rich with details and delight of a foreign way of living, dressing, eating.  It changed her profoundly.  She also is credited with bringing the information about small pox vaccination back from the East a full generation before Edward Jenner’s ‘discovery’.  In fact, since she had suffered disfigurement from small pox as a young woman she allowed her young son to be vaccinated in Turkey.  A very daring and intelligent decision.

I didn’t discover someone unknown, but I would like to make her better known, and hope to do so through a novel.  Why a novel? Well, because I don’t believe I have the fastidiousness required for a biographer.  I like to indulge in flights of fancy, and I have a fertile imagination which needs regular feeding.  I want to color in the unknown bits of her life.

welsh women’s classic literature

When traveling I usually take a book on the plane based on where I will be traveling.  The Count of Monte Cristo was perfect for the year we visited the South of France.  Italian mysteries based in the particular city to be visited (Donna Leon for Venice, Iain Pears for Florence) are wonderfully discovered on the website ‘italian-mysteries. com’.  You can find the who, where and what there. England provides all kinds of choices from Agatha Christy and Conan Doyle to Shakespeare, the Romantic poets, to the moderns like Virginia Woolf (Oh, did I mention Jane Austen?).  But, Wales presented a challenge.  Before leaving home I read the poetry of the favorite son, Dylan Thomas.

Wales is a proud country with an independent spirit and a strong identity distinct from England.  I met some Welsh people and wanted to know more, wanted to feel that difference.  I wasn’t until the last day in Wales that I found a truly Welsh book.  I was in the bookshop of the Cardiff Art Museum. The museum is a wonderful place filled with, among other things, Impressionist art.  A lovely Renoir I had never seen before!  In the late 19th and early 20th century Wales industrialists grew rich shipping mined raw materials around the Empire.  There was money being made and art being bought.

But, back to the bookshop where I discovered “Welsh Women’s Classics”series.  This is an imprint. previously called the Honno Classics series, that publishes out-of-print books in English by women writers from Wales.  I picked up Hilda Vaughan’s “The Soldier and the Gentlewoman.”  It is a beautifully written book from the 1930’s describing life in a rural community just after the First World War.  The tension is built around a woman of the land who has been cheated out of her home by an entail (still a factor in women’s lives well into the 20th century!) and a weak, wounded war veteran who assumes ownership in complete ignorance of the traditions.The use of language, the novel’s structure are wonderful to read.

soldier and gentlewoman cover 001

Unexpected discoveries are the joy of travel!

traveling in wales

Wales is a delightful place to visit! We had a list of things to do which, naturally, was too long for the time we had.  Since neither of us was interested in driving on the wrong side of the road (a trip should be pleasurable, not scary) two places on our list were scratched off.  Public transportation (as wonderful as it is in Britain) could not easily take us up to Dylan Thomas’ home. And getting to and from Hay-on-Wye would have taken one day more than we had available.  I had hoped to get a picture of myself surrounded by uncountable numbers of books, but it was not to be. On the other hand, looking around my study I could probably accomplish that same thing right here!

We did go to Tinturn Abbey.  “Lines Written Above Tinturn Abbey” by Wordsworth might be one of those poems more famous for it’s name than the poem itself.  I read it before leaving for Great Britain and although I thought I knew Wordsworth and that poem….well, it was entirely unknown by me.

We took a train and a bus from Cardiff.  The lovely, small town where we caught the bus is situated in soft rolling hills. The bus driver was friendly and helpful.

tinturn abbey

Tinturn Abbey was looted and destroyed when Henry VIII left the Catholic Church. It is worthy of a visit and a classic poem (title!).  We found beauty and peace among the ruins left behind in this out-of-the-way countryside place.
inside tinturn abbey

My imagination moved into historical eras.  Thanks to Wolf Hall and Ivanhoe Tinturn Abbey was well populated as I quietly meandered through.

Jane Austen’s Chawton

I have just returned from a trip to England and Wales.  I traveled with my good friend, Lynn, who is a fellow ‘janeite’.  It was essential to visit Chawton where Jane Austen lived and wrote her novels.  We took the train from London to Alton, the nearest large(ish) town, and walked the remaining few miles.  Alton is a modern town but there are several buildings and churches from the 17th and 18th century.  So, despite fast moving cars on roadways and roundabouts we knew somewhere beneath the concrete our favorite writer had trod this same path.  The village of Chawton is quaint in that English pubs, grand houses, peaceful way.

Our first stop was the Chawton House Library.CHL with leslie

Chawton house library  As you can see from the pictures it is a 17th century estate. The connection and story behind it is one of my favorites to relate.  Jane’s oldest brother, Edward, by changing his last name to Knight, inherited the estates and fortunes of a childless relative.  This was one of his homes.  Because of his wealth he was able to support his widowed mother and two unmarried sisters (Cassandra and Jane).  They lived in a cottage down the road and they visited here and the other estates (as well as the other relatives) with great regularity.  The Austen extended family provided comfort, support and entertainment in a time when women’s activities were limited, especially if they had no money of their own.

The second part of the story which I love as much is that sometime in the 1990s this house and land went up for sale.  The myth is that Nigel Nicolson (Vita Sackville-West’s son) spoke to a group of Janeites and mentioned that ‘if anyone here has an extra million dollars the house is for sale’.  Lucky for all, Sandy Lerner, a co-founder of Cisco Systems was in the audience.  She is a lover of early writing and decided to take on the project. Over the years she has restored and renewed this lovely manor house and grounds, and has transformed it into a research and learning center for the study of early women’s writing from 1600-1830.  Among other books one can find the original libraries of Jane Austen’s brother….and by extension some of the very books Jane Austen read. I plan to apply for an internship to study there.  Here is more information if anyone else is interested. info@chawtonhouselibrary.org. http://www.chawtonhouselibrary.org

We then wandered down the road to the JA house museum.  This is a lovely place to drift through, seeing the world she lived in and getting a feel for what that life might have felt like.  I was humbled beyond all expectations by the sight of her writing table, and scolded myself for requiring a computer, a room of my own, and just the right paper and pencils. Jane Austen's desk!  Genius doesn’t require more that a table and a quill pen, a quick wit and lively imagination.

We returned to London having spent a time out of time.

thoughts on light

I have been re-reading a yellowed article clipped from the New York Times in June, 2001.  In the Arts section was an essay about an art exhibit I regret never having seen, yet seems to live in my personal curio cabinet of ideas.

Artificial light changed the world.  We will never be able to see it as it was seen before gas and electricity lit it; as it was seen from the beginning of time until a mere two hundred years ago.  Imagine!  Oh sure, we can go to a desert or mountain top to experience the absence of artificial light.  But, can we really see what it must have been to live a day to day existence throughout one’s life without a flash light to guide us, a light bulb to read by? I struggle to put myself there.

The Carnegie exhibition posited that “light was different before the 20th century, and the way people experienced it was different.”   Literature, which shows us emotions, psychology, and physical life falls silent regarding light. Light is natural, essential, assumed, and incorporated into our lives.

Visual artists show us what life looked like.  Vermeer and Rembrandt, for two, painted the effects of natural light.  And then there is Monet, Van Gogh, Turner who tried to actually paint the light itself through reflections and changing qualities as it fell on objects.

Painting the light, striving to paint the light seems to me to be a heroic, even quixotic, endeavor.  Those artists determination and curiosity expand my world beyond words.  I am grateful to them.

While writing historical fiction we pay close, loving attention to details of clothing, transportation, finance, speech patterns, social norms.  It’s important to get it just right.  I like immersing myself in the time; projecting myself to there and then.  The one piece lost to me is how my characters, how people in the past, actually saw the world.  I can imagine how it smelled without plumbing, with food carts in the streets, with horses trotting.

We know today what morning light on a rainy day looks and feels like, just as we know the shadows that close in as daylight fades. But, happily, I click on a lamp to dispel the gloom of weather or night.  I wonder how must it have been to struggle day and night with tallow light or gas lanterns, and how dim the world away from those fragile lights appeared.

No, I have no desire to live in that darkness.  Yet, I can’t help but wonder what the world looked like without artificial light.

self publishing means self promotion

The research to find out how to self-publish was not nearly as fun as the research had been for Lena, but it was as necessary.  The amazingly insightful and talented women on the Women Writing the West List-Serve don’t know how much they inspired and helped me.  What I learned from them is that it is entirely possible to take charge of your publications and promotions, and that there are kind people willing to offer aid and comfort.

Sadly, I am not naturally or comfortably an advertisement for myself.  I published with Outskirts Press, I filled out the Amazon author page, I notified everyone I knew, I signed on to Facebook for those I didn’t know or didn’t know I knew, I joined Goodreads (great fun!). I placed announcements in the Historical Novel Society and the Women Writing the West catalogues.   Oh yes, I also regularly checked my sales ‘stats’ on Outskirts.

Then I allowed the distractions of the rest of my life take over.  I did not visit local bookstores to promote my book or offer to give a reading and I did not gift my local library with a copy of Sound of Her Own Voice. I did not even send an announcement to my local newspaper. I gave in to my natural inclination, no doubt, to the detriment of Lena.

This year I have promised myself to assert myself as a writer in the world while continuing to write the next book, which is wholly different.  I have printed post cards and business cards to promote The Sound of Her Own Voice.  More daring, for me, is that I have signed up to attend the Historical Novel Society’s annual meeting in June in Denver.  Since I’m paid up, I will actually go and learn the art of networking and promotion.  Stay tuned and wish me luck!!

How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading too Much, by Samantha Ellis – A Review

I haven’t yet read this book, but it sounds right up my alley. Maybe it will appeal to you too.

Austenprose - A Jane Austen Blog

How To Be A Heronie, by Smantha Ellis 2015 x 200From the desk of Jenny Haggerty:

Those who don’t enjoy reading may assume it’s a solitary activity, and they’d be partly correct because page turning (physical or virtual) is usually done alone. But we literature lovers crave community as much as any social animal. It’s why we join book clubs and haunt web sites like Goodreads, BookLikes, and of course Austenprose. We love to connect with other readers to share passions, recount experiences, and exchange opinions about books. And reading about reading is an irresistible meta-pleasure that’s almost as fun as getting lost in a novel. For all these reasons Samantha Ellis’s, How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading too Much piqued my interest.

Her book opens on the Yorkshire Moors with Ellis and her best friend arguing about which Brontë heroine they’d rather be, Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw. Ellis made what to her was…

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What’s Next?

The Sound of Her Own Voice was completed.  It had an arc of time through which characters grew and developed into their inevitable selves.

During the entire process of researching and writing I fell upon new ideas for novels, questions about what it means to be an American, a Jewish American, Jewish American woman; I thought about what assimilation takes and gives to a people, how greed can change a person, what it means to undertake nation building, and what makes one person strong and drives another to madness.  I had discovered a fountain.  It seemed that where to place the final period was almost arbitrary.  So much was left for another time, another book, or the cutting room floor.

Now, I faced the hard part: who would publish my masterpiece?  I knew who my audience was, but how was I to convince an agent or publisher that this book would interest and reach them?  It seemed so simple to me at the time.  But, I was not the only unknown writer in the world trying to catch the attention of someone on the inside of the publishing business.  I needed to learn tricks and techniques about advertising that had nothing to do with the years of learning how to create fiction.  Between being pissed off and disappointed at rejection after rejection I worked on how to write a catchy elevator pitch and a jazzy synopsis.  I’m sure my basic resistance to it didn’t help move anything along easily or quickly, or for that matter effectively.

While friends, and friends of friends helped rewrite my first attempts at pithy and catchy lines describing 350 pages, I scoured the my bookshelves for indexes and bibliographies that suggested agents and/or publishers interested in my themes.  And I collected form rejection letters.

I liked The Sound of Her Own Voice and I believed others would too.  What to do about that stumped me.   I began lurking in the the Women Writing the West chat room where I asked a few questions to the seasoned, knowledgeable women I found there, and decided to step into self-publishing.  That, too, was an education I hadn’t bargained on.