Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Learning from the Masters: 101

Here I begin a series of blogs that I have been thinking about for a long time.   As I have confessed in these precincts in the past, I regularly reread the classics.  Often I find an author from the past, in the midst of telling his story will address the reader directly and talk about what he is doing and why.  The last one I have come across who got away with such shenanigans was John Fowles in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.  But that was nearly fifty years ago.  One cannot get away with that sort of the thing in the 21st Century.  But these musings can be very instructive and consoling to the modern writer.  Readers will also find them amusing, I think, because they open a peephole into the way writers think.  Today I offer a preface to Arnold Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tale.  It doesn’t exactly fit my bill because it was an addendum, not part of the novel’s original text, but it sure speaks to me about what it meant to be a novelist a hundred years ago, and how similar it is to today—when it comes to inspiration and when it comes to pleasing one’s publisher and one’s readers.    

In the autumn of 1903 I used to dine frequently in a restaurant in the Rue de Clichy, Paris. Here were, among others, two waitresses that attracted my attention. One was a beautiful, pale young girl, to whom I never spoke, for she was employed far away from the table which I affected. The other, a stout, middle-aged managing Breton woman, had sole command over my table and me, and gradually she began to assume such a maternal tone towards me that I saw I should be compelled to leave that restaurant. If I was absent for a couple of nights running she would reproach me sharply: "What! you are unfaithful to me?" Once, when I complained about some French beans, she informed me roundly that French beans were a subject which I did not understand. I then decided to be eternally unfaithful to her, and I abandoned the restaurant. A few nights before the final parting an old woman came into the restaurant to dine. She was fat, shapeless, ugly, and grotesque. She had a ridiculous voice, and ridiculous gestures. It was easy to see that she lived alone, and that in the long lapse of years she had developed the kind of peculiarity which induces guffaws among the thoughtless. She was burdened with a lot of small parcels, which she kept dropping. She chose one seat; and then, not liking it, chose another; and then another. In a few moments she had the whole restaurant laughing at her. That my middle-aged Breton should laugh was indifferent to me, but I was pained to see a coarse grimace of giggling on the pale face of the beautiful young waitress to whom I had never spoken.
I reflected, concerning the grotesque diner: "This woman was once young, slim, perhaps beautiful; certainly free from these ridiculous mannerisms. Very probably she is unconscious of her singularities. Her case is a tragedy. One ought to be able to make a heartrending novel out of the history of a woman such as she." Every stout, ageing woman is not grotesque—far from it!—but there is an extreme pathos in the mere fact that every stout ageing woman was once a young girl with the unique charm of youth in her form and movements and in her mind. And the fact that the change from the young girl to the stout ageing woman is made up of an infinite number of infinitesimal changes, each unperceived by her, only intensifies the pathos.
It was at this instant that I was visited by the idea of writing the book which ultimately became "The Old Wives' Tale." Of course I felt that the woman who caused the ignoble mirth in the restaurant would not serve me as a type of heroine. For she was much too old and obviously unsympathetic. It is an absolute rule that the principal character of a novel must not be unsympathetic, and the whole modern tendency of realistic fiction is against oddness in a prominent figure. I knew that I must choose the sort of woman who would pass unnoticed in a crowd.
I put the idea aside for a long time, but it was never very distant from me….I was already, in 1903, planning a novel ("Leonora") of which the heroine was aged forty, and had daughters old enough to be in love. The reviewers, by the way, were staggered by my hardihood in offering a woman of forty as a subject of serious interest to the public…. I have been accused of every fault except a lack of self-confidence, and in a few weeks I settled a further point, namely, that my book…must be the life-history of two women instead of only one. Hence, "The Old Wives' Tale" has two heroines….I was intimidated by the audacity of my project, but I had sworn to carry it out. For several years I looked it squarely in the face at intervals, and then walked away to write novels of smaller scope, of which I produced five or six. But I could not dally forever, and in the autumn of 1907 I actually began to write it, in a village near Fontainebleau, where I rented half a house from a retired railway servant. I calculated that it would be 200,000 words long (which it exactly proved to be), and I had a vague notion that no novel of such dimensions (except Richardson's) had ever been written before. So I counted the words in several famous Victorian novels, and discovered to my relief that the famous Victorian novels average 400,000 words apiece. I wrote the first part of the novel in six weeks. It was fairly easy to me, because, in the seventies, in the first decade of my life, I had lived in the actual draper's shop of the Baines's, and knew it as only a child could know it. Then I went to London on a visit. I tried to continue the book in a London hotel, but London was too distracting, and I put the thing away, and during January and February of 1908, I wrote "Buried Alive," which was published immediately, and was received with majestic indifference by the English public, an indifference which has persisted to this day.
I then returned to the Fontainebleau region and gave "The Old Wives' Tale" no rest till I finished it at the end of July, 1908. It was published in the autumn of the same year, and for six weeks afterward the English public steadily confirmed an opinion expressed by a certain person in whose judgment I had confidence, to the effect that the work was honest but dull, and that when it was not dull it had a regrettable tendency to facetiousness. My publishers, though brave fellows, were somewhat disheartened; however, the reception of the book gradually became less and less frigid.
With regard to the French portion of the story, it was not until I had written the first part that I saw from a study of my chronological basis that the Siege of Paris might be brought into the tale. The idea was seductive; but I hated, and still hate, the awful business of research; and I only knew the Paris of the Twentieth Century. Now I was aware that my railway servant and his wife had been living in Paris at the time of the war. I said to the old man, "By the way, you went through the Siege of Paris, didn't you?" He turned to his old wife and said, uncertainly, "The Siege of Paris? Yes, we did, didn't we?" The Siege of Paris had been only one incident among many in their lives. Of course, they remembered it well, though not vividly, and I gained much information from them. But the most useful thing which I gained from them was the perception, startling at first, that ordinary people went on living very ordinary lives in Paris during the siege, and that to the vast mass of the population the siege was not the dramatic, spectacular, thrilling, ecstatic affair that is described in history. Encouraged by this perception, I decided to include the siege in my scheme. I read Sarcey's diary of the siege aloud to my wife, and I looked at the pictures in Jules Claretie's popular work on the siege and the commune, and I glanced at the printed collection of official documents, and there my research ended.
It has been asserted that unless I had actually been present at a public execution, I could not have written the chapter in which Sophia was at the Auxerre solemnity. I have not been present at a public execution, as the whole of my information about public executions was derived from a series of articles on them which I read in the Paris Matin. Mr. Frank Harris, discussing my book in "Vanity Fair," said it was clear that I had not seen an execution, (or words to that effect), and he proceeded to give his own description of an execution. It was a brief but terribly convincing bit of writing, quite characteristic and quite worthy of the author of "Montes the Matador" and of a man who has been almost everywhere and seen almost everything. I comprehended how far short I had fallen of the truth! I wrote to Mr. Frank Harris, regretting that his description had not been printed before I wrote mine, as I should assuredly have utilized it, and, of course, I admitted that I had never witnessed an execution. He simply replied: "Neither have I." This detail is worth preserving, for it is a reproof to that large body of readers, who, when a novelist has really carried conviction to them, assert off hand: "O, that must be autobiography!"

I have taken out a few sentences, but this is pretty much the whole preface.  I laughed out loud when I read “Neither have I.”  I hope you find it as amusing as I did.


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Every picture tells a story, don't it?

How often do we get to quote Rod Stewart - not often enough IMO. But enough about Rod.

Who are these women? Famous? Infamous? Distant relatives? None of the above.

For my first (and not quite finished) historical novel I did a tremendous amount of research. Sadly most of it is now sits on a clipboard, perhaps never to see the light of day. But it was not time wasted. Everything I read or did related to my time period (1899) was worthwhile - except perhaps the trip to Chicago to see the museum exhibit on the 1893 Columbian Exposition. That was a bust. Should have just re-read Devil in the White City…or waited for the movie.

One of my fave research activities (and way cheaper than flying NY to Chicago) has been collecting old photographs. It's all well and good to read about the whalebone and the mourning jewelry or see it in a museum but it's pretty cool to see real women of the time. To wonder who they were and why they had had these pictures taken. Were they given to sweethearts? Sent off with men going to wars in the Philippines or Cuba? I started to channel the older woman in these pix whenever I wrote about my heroine's stepmother. The younger woman became her best friend. The little girl with the flowers could have grown up to be my heroine.

New technologies - including tintypes - and the proliferation of studios with painted backdrops and props brought the cost of portraits down to a penny a picture. And they took less time than daguerreotypes. On the back of my toddler pic are the words Instantaneous Portraits of Children, A Successful Specialty.

So who were they? I'll never know. That's for me to make up. To be inspired by.

One special find - a stereograph viewer and a box of pictures. Two images side by side on a card but when viewed through the handheld device they appear as one - in 3D. I didn't bite the first time I saw them. Kicked myself for the rest of the day and then went to a second estate sale held by the same company and scooped them up. Endessly inspiring including pix of the Columbian Exposition! That prompted me to check out Pinterest - which up until that point I thought was for pix of shoes and desserts. Wrong. Positively addictive. I was able to search some of the places my heroine visits on her picaresque journey and see what they really looked like. Particularly helpful if they no longer exist.

I'm not even going to get started on the vintage books, maps and newspapers I've been collecting. (My office is beginning to look like my last name should be Collyer. Google Collyer Brothers if you don't get it.) As I said, much of this info will never make it to the printed page but hopefully my total immersion in the time will come across in the writing.

So what non-traditional things have inspired your writings?

© 2015 Rosemary Harris

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Will Michael Dirda Convince Me to Read Science Fiction?

Michael Dirda and Maureen Corrigan (of NPR) are my two favorite book people.

I avoid the word “critic” here because Dirda insists he doesn’t have the sort of mind needed for literary analysis. However, this collection of essays, which appeared originally on The American Scholar’s homepage, shows a real genius for enthusiasm.

Because we have so much in common, he makes me want to read every single book he recommends. For starters, Mike (if I may be so bold) and I have read the correspondence of George Lyttleton and Rupert Hart-Davis. It is, as my favorite “bookman” describes it, “the book chat to end all book chat.” George Lyttleton is an Eton master who complains that no one ever writes to him and Rupert Hart Davis, publisher, biographer of Hugh Walpole and editor of the correspondence of Oscar Wilde, takes up the challenge of keeping his former teacher amused and informed. 6 volumes (collected in 3 paperbacks) later, I was sad to see George die and the correspondence end. (Though I have to say I never figured out what a “test match” was). Mike and I also yearn to hang with the same English writers: Evelyn (Waugh), Cyril (Connolly), Paddy (Leigh-Fermor) and the Mitford sisters.

Oh, and we both love Wonder Books, a used bookstore I’m familiar with because I’m lucky to have an amazingly wonderful cousin who lives in Frederick, MD. Mike buys collectibles and I do not, but the regular stock is fabulous.

Where Mike really shines is in his championing of books that most people haven’t heard of, much less read. He exhorts us all to look further than the best seller list. He loves classic adventure books, weird tales (what most of us would think of as horror fiction) and science fiction. The organizations he belongs to will give you an idea of his taste: The Baker Street Irregulars, North American Jules Verne Society, The Ghost Story Society, The Washington D.C. Panthans (devotees of Edgar Rice Burroughs) and The Lewis Carroll Society. More recently he has been made an honorary member of the Science Fiction Writers of America. He attends meetings of Capital! Capital!, the Washington D.C. Chapter of the P.G. Wodehouse Society and within the last few years has joined Mystery Writers of America.

Mike and I have one decided difference. I now buy more e-books than “real” books. (Sorry, Mike). He has many lovely things to say about the superiority of print over pixels.

“Michael Dirda still buys books,” I said to my husband. “He has boxes of them stored in his basement.”

“How old is he? Does he have people who help him carry them around?”

I do have a “real book” version of Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural edited by Phyllis Cerf Wagner and Herbert Wise. It’s a favorite of Mike’s and it is absolutely wonderful. I recommend “How Love Came to Professor Guildea” by Robert Hichens.

So while reading Browsings I’ve downloaded collections by M.R James, E.F Benson, Lord Dunsany, Margaret Oliphant and a formerly banned novel of lesbian love called Twisted Clay.

Mike is coaxing me to try science fiction, a genre for which I’ve not felt much affinity. A few of my my dearest and most intelligent friends (That’s you, Bill and Suzanne) are avid readers of speculative fiction. A former boss of mine, known for his odd way of communication, once shouted at me, apropos of nothing, “Philip K. Dick! You’d love him.” I now have a Library of America volume of Dick’s novels.

But I’m trying one of Mike’s recommendations first, Bears Discover Fire and Other Stories by Michael Bisson. The first two stories are among the best I’ve read recently.

When I read books about what other people read, I’m looking for a kindred spirit and book recommendations. In Browsings, I found both.

Thanks, Mike!

© 2015 Stephanie Patterson

Friday, August 28, 2015

A Visit to Ringing Rocks

This week I suspended thriller-writing operations to entertain visiting family from Ottawa. We spent a lot of time eating, because that's what I like to do best, but we also went for walks and hit a tourist spot or two. One of the more interesting places to visit in the Lambertville area is a county park in Pennsylvania called Ringing Rocks, so named because of the curious property of the rocks to ring like iron when struck. A beautiful and not exhaustingly long hiking trail passes by the rock field and leads to a waterfall and a cliff that overhangs a gorge.

The rock field is a terminal moraine left behind by a glacier at the end of the last ice age. Nobody knows why these particular rocks ring like that. If you're young and spry it's fun to hop from rock to rock. We neglected to bring a hammer with us, but many tourists have brought hammers with them over the years and banged on the rocks until cup-like depressions formed in them. Members of the Sierra Club would faint at the very notion of vandalizing a natural formation in this way, but, hey, what do you want? It's Pennsylvania.

We were pleased to find a simulated rescue operation in progress. We had noticed a heavy rescue truck from Virginia in the parking lot, and a pile of large, brightly-colored backpacks beside the trail as we approached the waterfall. When we came to the end of the hiking trail we found a group of men standing on the cliff. They had strung up a zip line leading deep into the gorge, and when they saw us, they promised to give us a show. "We're going to rescue a kid," one of them said jovially, in a thick Virginia accent. You could tell it was just for practice, first of all because nobody seemed upset, and secondly because they had come so far. If a real accident victim had to wait for a bunch of guys to drive a truck up from Virginia there wouldn't be much left of him by the time they got here.

How I cursed myself for having lost the camera before we left the house. All I had was my cheap old IPhone, with no zoom function.

If I were any sort of journalist I would have asked the guys why they came here when there were so many cliffs and gorges in Virginia, whether they were training the locals or simply working out, and a number of other questions that didn't occur to me until just now. I have a confession to make. I am terrified of heights and declivities. Standing by the side of a gorge, and especially watching my beloved relatives teetering on the edge, causes me to feel a nearly intolerable degree of terror. The only thing worse is the presence of small children. So when another family with two small children showed up, and the five-year-old took the three-year-old's hand and skipped up to the edge, I had to leave or start screaming. Luckily they went away again. The rescue began in earnest. Slowly the rescuer and the simulated accident victim in a Stokes basket (a real kid) worked their way back up the zip line to the waiting men on the cliff.

So that was the visit to Ringing Rocks. The gorge is lovely. You should go there. Bring a good camera and a small ecologically approved hammer.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Little-Less-Labor Day

I’m going to rant a little. But there’s booze at the end of it. I promise.

As we head toward Labor Day, I dream of a leisurely transition in which we stretch, take a deep breath of sunblock and bug spray, slowly pull ourselves from lawn chair, beach chair or hammock, and ease back into our work lives, having spent a quiet month because our career workload slows down in August.

But that’s hardly true for anybody anymore.

I read business-page stories now and then about how American productivity has stalled. In them, I rarely find consideration of the number of workers who are already doing the job of three and they just might be tapped out.

We have people who dread vacations because when they return to the office, they’ll have to put in more miserable hours catching up on the work that didn’t get done while they were gone because there isn’t enough staff to do it.

Some companies talk about their commitment to creating a balance between career and personal lives, but for most, it’s largely lip service. I was thinking about that even before I read the New York Times article about Amazon. At least Amazon appears to be upfront: Forget your personal life; if you come to work here, you belong to us 24/7.

And then there’s Walmart’s approach to labor. They recently blamed lowered earnings projections on the increase they made in employee salaries, even though the company hasn’t strayed very far from their old business model, the one where their employees were more like lightly reimbursed volunteers.

If you work in the Consumer sector, don’t even think about getting Labor Day off (or most holidays, come to that). And while you’re on the job, customers will blame you because the place you work is short-staffed and those who are there have been too often astoundingly under-trained. If a business pays low wages, it’s more likely to suffer high turnover. Training new staff well isn’t cheap, so if the company doesn’t want to pay for it, it must rely on overworked employees to carry the new guy till he gets trained by osmosis. There has to have been a cost-benefit analysis done somewhere that says the cost in the number of disaffected customers isn’t great enough to justify adequate training. But I wonder if the people who did the analysis are the same ones who declared subprime mortgages would never default.

Okay, I'm almost done.

The transition into Labor Day ought to be much less stressful for all of us; we ought to have more time to enjoy it.

It seems the least I can do—and it really is the least I can do—is share a recipe for a homemade treat that is easy, easy, and—did I mention—easy. Maybe you'll get to spend a few more precious minutes in the hammock reading a mystery before the guests arrive.

Easy Peasy, Fresh and Squeezy Sangria

Two things to keep in mind: One, if you like your red wine really sweet, this recipe is not for you; two, re-read One.

What you’re going to need.
1 pitcher; a bit of clingy plastic wrap to cover the top
1 ounce of brandy. Use the cognac you bought last Christmas when you planned to look sophisticated
4 tablespoons sugar
1 bottle of red wine (750 ml). Please don’t use any wine you wouldn’t drink straight
1 lemon, cut into 4 wedges; leave rind on
1 large orange, cut into 6 wedges; leave rind on
2 cups club soda (added right before serving)

What you’re going to do
Add the brandy to the pitcher
Add the sugar and stir till the sugar is uniformly distributed
Add the bottle of red wine, pouring slowly down the side so you don’t splatter it all over yourself
Stir till wine and sugar mixture are combined
Add lemon and orange wedges. If the fruit is “seedy”, dig out as many seeds as you easily can with your thumbnail
Stir, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate till well chilled, about 4 hours
When time to serve, uncover the pitcher. Squeeze the fruit wedges’ juices into the pitcher. If the fruit was seedy or you have an abiding fear of pulp, squeeze through a strainer. Discard wedges.
Add the club soda, stir and serve (straight or over ice)

This sangria also goes very well with hearty fall and winter dishes, so you can enjoy it as well at Thanksgiving and Christmas when we get Labor Day on steroids.

Copyright 2015 Sheila York