Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Book Review - Firmament: Machiavellian

If you were to ask me which currently-in-progress book series I follow most eagerly waiting for the next installment, I'd answer J. Grace Pennington's Firmament series. The cast of interesting and endearing characters and their intricate, well-developed world aboard the starship Surveyor keep me coming back for more despite my unfamiliarity with and lack of interest in the sci-fi genre outside this series. (You can read my reviews of the first two books in the series here and here, and also check out Grace's guest post on series-writing here at The Second Sentence.)

Firmament: Machiavellian finds visitors aboard the starship again, this time the crew of a science station needing transport back to Earth. But the visit turns into something else altogether when the station's Captain, Felix Holloway, suggests a new endeavor for the starship, with a goal dear to the hearts of the Surveyor's crew (having to do with certain events in the last book, In His Image)—but one that requires them to break the law by traveling to an off-limits part of the galaxy. With Captain Trent seriously considering the plan, a strange wave of sabotage breaks out on the ship—is it someone trying to force the Surveyor into the journey, or trying to prevent it? And circumstantial evidence points to none other than Trent's estranged brother, the chaplain of the science station. Conflicted herself over the rightness of Captain Holloway's plan, Andi finds herself at the center of desperate efforts to figure out what's going on before it is too late.

The intricacy and suspense of the sabotage angle were some of my favorite parts of the book. Though I did guess right about the troublemaker almost from the beginning, through most of the book I felt there could have been several different twists regarding the identity of the culprit, and didn't know which it would be. I thought a few of the lighter scenes, like Andi's banter with Olive, didn't ring quite as true as the more dramatic ones, and honestly, I found Captain Holloway's effusive politeness and enthusiasm a little wearing. But regarding Holloway, I really liked how an early remark about Andi as an intuitive judge of character, which seemed a little off at the time, came into play perfectly at the climax of the story. I think the series also does a very good job referencing key incidents and relationships from previous books, without it feeling like re-hashing everything. And of course, it's always great to spend more time with these characters and learn a little bit more about them with each entry. So if you liked the first two Firmament books, by all means, continue with this one!

Firmament: Machiavellian will be released this week on October 23rd. For a little extra fun in the meantime, you can check out the Firmament personality test Grace has created, and see which of the series characters you are! I got Guilders, the grave, principled helmsman of the starship, which surprised me a little—I kind of thought I might be August or Andi. But it's flattering to be equated with such an upstanding chap as Guilders.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Chatterbox: Once it Was Ours


In a quiet country village stood a maple on the hill
Where I sat with my Geneva long ago,
As the stars were shining brightly we could hear the whippoorwill
As we sat beneath the maple on the hill
.
~ G.L. Davis

The Chatterbox theme for October is, very fittingly, maples. Maple trees are something very dear to my heart, but since at the moment I happen to be writing a novel set in Texas, where maples are conspicuous by their absence, this calls for another bit of rogue short fiction. A great deal of this was inspired by the little location-hunting trip I took last weekend—you'll probably be able to see how. With the setting and the mood of nostalgia in place, I gathered up a handful of childhood memories from several generations and invented a few fictional characters to play with them. The result is a smidgen longer than I expected.

“There’s the woodpile,” said Evelyn.  
“I think,” said Patrick, “that it’s the same woodpile that was there when we were kids. I always thought it was too far from the house to be any use.” 
Evelyn smiled a little as the three of them walked down into the little hollow at the base of the hill. The old woodpile had settled a few inches into the soil, the blackened ends of the logs moldered a little around the edges, the top thatched with a fresh layer of colored leaves. Above it the huge old sugar maple raised a hundred dignified arms toward the sky, its flame-orange leaves already a little sparse at the top against the October blue. The sunlight came through it with a wild, eager brilliancy, like a young and overzealous stained-glass window, with a jumbled choir of more muted reds and yellows and browns clothing the side of the hill beyond. 
Judy sat down on the flat, irregular-edged slab of gray slate stone by the end of the woodpile. “This was the table,” she said, “and it used to be big enough for a banquet.”  
“With pieces of bark for plates, cakes made out of mud—and the oak leaves were meat,” said Evelyn, leaning her shoulder against a sturdy young tree that had been a slender sapling when they had played there. She glanced around at the spare, arched brown lacework of the leafless wild-rose bushes that crowded round the hollow, enlivened by the sparks of tiny red rosehips.  
“And this was the bedroom,” said Patrick, glancing behind the woodpile. He grinned at the tangle of old wood and rotted leaves. “I don’t think we ever did much sleeping there.” 
“No, we just sort of stepped in and stood there for a minute, and then nighttime was over. Night and sleeping don’t have much place in child’s play—we got enough of that in real life,” laughed Evelyn.  
“We played a lot of imaginary people when we were really little,” said Judy, “and then later on it was mostly the Lost Boys.” 
“Nobody ever wanted to be Wendy—I was the only one willing to be her once in a while,” said Evelyn. “I was always kind of the literary guiding spirit of the bunch, making sure our play had some sense of story to it. How dull I must have been to the rest of you!”  
“No, I don’t think you were,” said Patrick. He came to a stop in the middle of the hollow, his hands shoved deep in his coat pockets. “There was a whole lot of high drama in our play when we were little—fire, flood, famine and what have you. Later on it was more like a constant madcap comedy. We almost never stopped laughing.”  
“Well, I can understand that,” said Evelyn, folding her arms against the crisp chill and leaning back against the tree. “When you’re little everything is equally serious, and you think everybody is the same way. When you get older your—well, your sense of drama becomes more important to you, but you kind of want to hide it, in case someone else should laugh at it. Comedy’s easier because it’s not meant to be taken seriously.”  
Judy, seated on the flat stone with one foot out in front of her, glanced up at each of her cousins. Evelyn saw the look, with its slight puzzled quirk of an eyebrow; and in the pause she felt that she and Patrick must be thinking the same thing. It was never quite the same discussing anything philosophical with Judy around. From a small child she had always been the most flatly literal of the cousins, taking every statement at its face value, which made her one of the challenges of their shared play. It was always a risk teasing Judy. Any flights of irony or fancy in her presence could mean long efforts at trying to explain—and if the explanation wasn’t done right, away went Judy across the autumn-dried field and up the creaking, chipped gray-painted steps of the screened-in porch to the assembled mothers with a jumbled complaint that bore little resemblance to what anybody had actually said.  
“Let’s go up the hill,” said Evelyn energetically, coming away from her tree trunk. Patrick helped Judy up and they climbed up the hill through the younger trees, shuffling in the slippery carpet of fallen leaves. At the top they turned left along the ridge, and followed it until the trees gave way to an open gap that looked down over a long expanse of fields and woods—the shorn hayfields divided by straight electric fences with each post a mass of wild grapevines, their still-green leaves speckled with yellow and brown, and white-feathered dry goldenrod leaning against the wires.  
Evelyn drew a deep breath, gazing away over the landscape. “I don’t know how they ever gave it up,” she said.  
“What?”  
She put her hands in her coat pockets and gestured to the fields with an elbow. “It all used to be ours. Our great-grandparents owned all of this land, and more on the other side of the train tracks. Just think, if it hadn’t all been sold off over the years, it could have belonged to one of us.” 
“I doubt any of us would know what to do with it,” said Judy. 
“We would have, if it had stayed in the family. Our parents would have been taught, and we’d have been taught,” said Patrick. “But the chain was broken somewhere along the line.”  
“What I don’t understand is how a link gets broken in one particular generation,” said Evelyn, kicking a half-embedded walnut out of the tangle of loose soil and twigs underfoot. “All the great-aunts and uncles talk about how wonderful it was growing up on a farm, but there’s a kind of mocking in it too, like they’re a little contemptuous of themselves for ever having lived that way.”  
“At some point, somebody convinced them that something else was better,” said Patrick. 
“Well, that’s what I find hard to understand,” said Evelyn; “how someone can be so loosely rooted as to just change along with the times.”  
Patrick cleared his throat a little, and glanced sidelong at Judy. Evelyn, her hands still in her pockets, turned and wandered further along the ridge, her head still turned toward the yellow and green spread of fields below.  
“Let’s go on up to the tracks,” said Patrick. “I want to see that old depot you told me about, Evelyn, before I go.”  
“All right. It’s only a little ways up here. I can’t believe I never found it before last week,” said Evelyn, jumping up to the half-buried ledge of granite at the crest of the ridge. Her cousins followed her, and in a few minutes they had arrived at the graveled railway embankment, where the burnished surface of the rust-brown rails showed they were still in use, but the leaning old telephone poles without wires betrayed the insignificance the track had fallen into from what it used to be.  
“Here’s where the last generation used to play,” said Evelyn. “Mom told me they used to play house here at the bottom of the embankment, and the top of it was the upstairs.”  
Judy smiled. “They got to go a little further afield. We had to stay in sight of the house—they just stayed in shouting distance.” 
“There’s the station,” said Evelyn, and they quickened their pace. Across the tracks, half-buried in weeds, the abandoned railway depot, with peaked roof, low eaves and wood-shingled gable ends, as blackened as the old woodpile, stood surrounded by a gradually encroaching thicket of young box elders and maples. They walked across the tracks, to where the platform must once have been. 
“Did they use this station still when our parents visited here, do you think?” said Judy. 
“I don’t know. Mom couldn’t remember anything about it, so I doubt it.” Evelyn looked down the tracks. “I’ll bet here’s where Great-Grandpa and his brothers used to pick coal off the tracks during the Depression. They lived across the river in the village, so they didn’t have wood to cut.”  
“Maybe that’s why they didn’t stay here,” said Judy. “They’d seen plenty of hard times, so an easier life in the city looked even better to them.”  
“Well—I don’t know,” said Patrick slowly. “When you’ve come through something hard, sure you want to relax and enjoy yourself a little when it’s done. But you don’t always let something in yourself go soft, so that you’re never the same as you were before.”  
Judy said nothing. They walked on past the station, looking at the boarded-up windows, and then crossed the tracks again and followed the embankment homeward, on gravel scattered with leaves. The wind blew a twinkling, fluttering flock of yellow aspen leaves from the tops of the trees and around them as they walked. When they had gone back far enough in the direction from which they had come, they slid down the embankment through a grove of fiery maples, and walked back through the woods toward the house.  
Evelyn tipped her head back to look at the bright latticework of maple against the sky. “Well,” she said to Patrick, “it may not be ours anymore. But at this time of year, on days like this, I feel like everything, whether it’s that old station, or these trees, or the fields…I feel like it all belongs to me.”

Read previous Chatterboxes here.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In the Footsteps of Molly Wood

When I read Owen Wister's famed Western novel The Virginian a couple of years ago, I was, ironically enough, particularly delighted by a few passages taking place in the East. Several chapters dealing with Wister's New England-born heroine Molly Wood casually drop the names of half a dozen places in Vermont and New York that I'm very familiar with in real life. It's delightfully strange to find mentions like that in the pages of a classic novel, especially of places that are smaller and not well known outside the area. I thought it would be fun to go on a photographic scavenger hunt of these locations, so readers who might know plenty about what Wyoming looks like could also get a glimpse of what Wister's Molly came from when she set forth to teach school in the West—or at least what it looks like today.

Bennington


Miss Mary Stark Wood of Bennington, Vermont...could have been enrolled in the Boston Tea Party, the Ethan Allen Ticonderogas, the Green Mountain Daughters, the Saratoga Sacred Circle, and the Confederated Colonial Chatelaines. She traced direct descent from the historic lady whose name she bore, that Molly Stark who was not a widow after the battle where her lord, her Captain John, battled so bravely as to send his name thrilling down through the blood of generations of schoolboys.
Molly's hometown of Bennington was the site of the Colonial storehouses that the British sent a detachment to capture just prior to the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. The actual Battle of Bennington was fought near Hoosick on the New York side of the line, but it is here at Bennington that the monument commemorating the battle stands, along with a statue of Brigadier General John Stark.






Monument Avenue is lined with beautiful old houses, most of which bear plaques with 18th-century dates and the names of notable people who once lived there. A statue marks the location of the Catamount Tavern, which served as headquarters for Stark and for Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys, and a little further on is the beautiful Old First Church, where poet Robert Frost is buried in the lovely old cemetery.



Mount Anthony



On a visit back East, Molly is taken for a drive to see the home sights by her Eastern suitor—though there are hints that Molly's heart is evidently elsewhere:
...While they drove up the valley of the little Hoosic: "I had forgotten it was so nice and lonely. But after all, no woods are so interesting as those where you might possibly see a bear or an elk." And upon another occasion, after a cry of enthusiasm at the view from the top of Mount Anthony, "It's lovely, lovely, lovely," she said, with diminishing cadence, ending in pensiveness once more. "Do you see that little bit just there? No, not where the trees are—that bare spot that looks brown and warm in the sun. With a little sagebrush, that spot would look something like a place I know on Bear Creek. Only of course you don't get the clear air here."
I had never been up Mount Anthony before this weekend. Though we were unable to reach the summit, which is only accessed by what is now a private road, the narrow dirt road winding around the side of the mountain, through colorful woods and past hidden farms tucked deep in the hills, was unbelievably beautiful. Above is the peak of Mount Anthony taken from below, and this is a view from the far side of the mountain:




An old chimney beside the road up on the side of the mountain, marking the site of a house long gone. I felt like we were up on Walton's Mountain.

Hoosic Junction & Eagle Bridge


At Hoosic Junction, which came soon, she passed the up-train bound back to her home, and seeing the engineer and the conductor,—faces that she knew well,—her courage nearly failed her, and she shut her eyes against this glimpse of the familiar things that she was leaving. To keep herself steady she gripped tightly a little bunch of flowers in her hand.

But something caused her eyes to open; and there before her stood Sam Bannett, asking if he might accompany her so far as Rotterdam Junction.

"No!" she told him with a severity born from the struggle she was making with her grief. "Not a mile with me. Not to Eagle Bridge. Good-by."
I found this little railroad crossing, with a bridge over the Walloomsac River in the background, not far from the location of Hoosic Junction. The junction itself, where the railroad tracks coming from Bennington join another line heading west toward Rotterdam, is hidden back in the woods after the nearest road stops at a dead end.


And at Eagle Bridge, less than five miles from Hoosic Junction, I made my most exciting discovery of the day: the old abandoned railway depot! I'd driven past this place many times (the main road runs parallel with the tracks, off to the left of this shot) but never even noticed the old building tucked behind the trees.




The railroad from Rutland, Vermont to Eagle Bridge, New York was originally built in 1851 by the Rutland and Washington Railroad. By 1870 it was a part of the Rensselaer and Saratoga Railroad, which was leased by the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company. If you look at this 1886 map of the D&H railroads, you can see the Eagle Bridge station prominently marked just east of the larger cities of Schenectady and Saratoga.

I had to wonder—was this the same building that stood here in the 1880s, at the time The Virginian is set? One can imagine it as a bustling little village station, with timetables chalked up by the ticket window, telegraph machine clicking away inside and passengers waiting on the platform—the center of the town, just across the road from a cluster of buildings that included a small brick hotel. I wonder if any real-life New England girl, excited, frightened, and watching familiar homelike scenes slip behind her as the engine picked up speed, passed through here on a westbound train, headed for unknown adventures in the wild West.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

"Our cousin Raymond was a writer. He left town right after the scandal."

Rachel started this one, Jenny continued it, and when I saw yesterday that Meghan Gorecki had kept it going, I thought, why not join in? There are certain aspects of the writing life that everybody seems to be able to recognize and identify with, but then again, there's also some writer clichés that have only taken root because perhaps some particular famous author began them, or because one particular joke got recycled enough times. How do they stack up against my experience?

#1: Writers Never Sleep
If I never slept, I'd never write. When I'm behind on sleep, I feel as if my mind is totally emptied out and will never be able to produce anything of substance again. I can only recall pulling an all-nighter a couple of times: once when I was really steamrolling along on the conclusion of a mystery during NaNoWriMo (a sure recipe for staying up late), and the night I finished the first draft of Corral Nocturne—midnight seems an appropriate time to wrap up a Cinderella story. The layout of our house means that a light on in one room will keep everybody awake, so I actually shut myself up in the bathroom and hoped nobody would notice the line of light under the door until I'd written "THE END." These days, I seldom write in the evenings unless I have some sudden wonderful and urgent idea that has to be put down straightaway.

And I wouldn't be able to tell you anything about the effect of caffeine on a writer, because I only drink decaf.

#2: Writers Obsess Over Naming Characters
I wouldn't  exactly say I obsess, but I have fun! Most of my characters slide into their names pretty easily, and when I need to go searching for a name, I enjoy browsing through lists, making shortlists and narrowing them down. I never really consider name meanings; it's more how they look and sound and how they fit the character's appearance and personality. (Writers have the advantage here of already knowing the character—parents go into it blind.) Only once in a while do I hit a stubborn character who won't take what they're given. When I was writing The Silver Shawl, Sheriff Royal's deputy, who appears in all of two scenes and has one line, decided he wanted his name to be Richard. I already had a couple other names beginning with R in the story, so I tried everything on him—I earnestly besought him to be Ethan, but he just wouldn't. So Richard he is and will be if he ever appears in the series again. My protagonist in One of Ours is currently on his fourth name, which I'm hoping will stick, but there were a series of special conditions affecting that: it had to be Irish, simple, and not too close to that of another key character who already had a death-grip on his surname and wasn't about to give it up.

#3 Writers Dwell in the Darkest Mental Corners
I'm willing to subscribe to the theory that we're all a little bit crazy, at least while working on a first draft. But the over-emphasis on darkness in stories is one of the things that I dislike most about modern fiction trends. As I've matured a little bit I find myself drawn to higher drama and stronger emotions, but I have no patience with unrelieved bleakness and  wallowing in darkness simply for its own sake. One of these days I'm going to make a colorful, declaiming print for my wall of a quote by a favorite Western author, Eugene Manlove Rhodes: "Why is joy not a fit subject for an artist?"

#4 Authors Are Always Killing Characters
You're talking to the girl who took years to come around to the point of being able to kill off any character at all, even a villain. It just seems terribly presumptuous to be able to take a life with the stroke of a pen, even when it's a life you invented in the first place. I don't think I could ever just randomly kill off an existing character mid-story; if the plot required the death of a character, I think it'd have to be somebody who was specifically invented to fulfill that purpose. If you know from the start what their fate will be, you can't get too attached to them.

#5: You'll Spend Half Your Time Hating Your Work
Well...yes, sort of. Usually there are two moments when my opinion of a story reaches its lowest ebb: right after I write "THE END" on the first draft, and right after I click "Publish" on the KDP dashboard. I kid you not. As far as the actual writing process, every story's different—there have actually been a few that I've loved and been excited about all the way through. Other stories, I slog my painful way through and hate it on every other day, until I've edited it into presentable form and slowly start to realize it's pretty decent after all. I regard this as more a shortcoming of mine, but it's comforting to know that it's an accepted enough part of the process to have become a cliché.

#6: All Writers Are Cat People
I know many people have cats and are very fond of their cats. But considering that I grew up hearing my parents say you can't trust cats, because you never know when they might suddenly jump on you (once jumped on, twice shy), I've felt slightly miffed at times to see cats portrayed as an accessory almost as necessary  to a writer as a pen (and that ubiquitous cup of coffee). My own animal companions are a fluffy, slightly eccentric ten-year-old mini Schnoodle and an exuberant year-old German Shepherd who's crazy over playing fetch and can clear a coffee table with a swipe of her tail. That's why I was charmed to read E.B. White's writings on dogs, and to see Mary Stewart and Agatha Christie write fondly of them: Real Writers who were also dog people! They do exist.

image by way of Vogue, 1948 | post title by way of The Waltons

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Long and the Short of It

Sitting down to rewrite One of Ours wasn't a snap decision. In fact, for weeks after I'd decided I was going to concentrate on writing a novel, it was a toss-up between rewriting One of Ours and writing Lady's-Slipper Ranch, another fully-outlined project, from the beginning. But choosing to write a novel in the first place was the bigger shift in focus.

It was mainly a case of multiple arrows pointing in the same direction. This summer when I gave my mom a couple of the short stories that are going in my next Western collection to test-read, she enjoyed them, but told me she felt there was enough depth in them that they should be full-length. There was enough going on with the characters that she would have liked to see it explored further. Then, too, I've observed a common factor in positive reviews of my published short works: readers comment that they wish the stories were longer. That's encouraging, of course (though part of me can't help saying, "Well, the story was meant to be short"); it means they actually want more!

I've always been a bit of a maverick in the short form anyway. The greats could package a scintillating story in 1,000-2,000 words; I typically require at least 6,000 to round one off, and most of the time it pushes higher than that. It's not large amounts of words that scare me; oh, no. It's the idea of sustaining a working plot for the length of a novel.

But then when I was working on "Wanderlust Creek," I started realizing that there was almost enough raw material in this story for a whole book. I had multiple threads of story linking to each other, multiple characters with conflicts of their own which eventually interlocked, a structure that looked a lot like a novel plot in miniature. Maybe I did learn how to plot somewhere along the way. While "Wanderlust Creek" stands complete at its shorter length, it gave me the confidence to think that I might actually be up to the task of structuring a bigger story.

The long and the short of it was (yes, that was a pun; yes, I meant it) that all these hints and realizations and bits of feedback, coming one after another, added up to what felt like the closest thing to divine guidance I've had with my writing. It was just time. I feel like I've served a valuable apprenticeship in short works, and I'm finally ready to apply what I've learned to writing a novel. The proof, of course, will be in the pudding. I think what I need to complete a novel has less to do with skill and more to do with plain old grit and patience. Acquiring the amount of patience required to finish a novel wouldn't do me any harm, anyway.

Friday, October 3, 2014

From the Top Again


I have at last begun the big project that has been looking over my shoulder and nudging my consciousness for the past four years—I'm rewriting my historical novel One of Ours. I began it in the spring of 2010, finished the first draft during NaNoWriMo that year, and then stuck the notebook away out of sight because I had an inkling even then that the draft was pretty bad. And I wasn't up to fixing it at that point. I'm glad I didn't try, because I've learned so much since then—just glancing at a few pages of the first draft reminds me forcefully of that.  

This is a total rewrite job, and by total I mean total. I've redone the outline at least twice since putting it aside in 2010; added characters and subplots and sorted out my ideas better. I did start in and rewrite the first three chapters or so once before, so the work I've done on those this week has been more like heavy-duty editing. But after a scene or so I plunge headlong into the wilderness of that raw first draft, and the real work begins.

It takes quite a bit of equipment to rewrite a novel, as you can see from the picture. Item I, binder full of loose-leaf notes used for the first draft. Item II, one-subject notebook containing notes for current draft. Item III, Great Big Notebook in which the current draft is being written. Item IV, old notebook containing the first draft. Pen for writing, red pen for marking stuff I want to rework from the first draft, permanent marker for checking off notes I needed to transfer from the binder. It may sound complicated, but honestly, all the fussing makes me feel like I'm getting something done.

Incidentally, I don't know why I once thought loose-leaf notes were a good idea, unless I had some vague idea of rearranging them if needed. But since I always scribble notes for multiple scenes together on one page, that never happens. Every project I've started with loose-leaf notes, I've ended up violently regretting it. Hence the one-subject notebook for the second stage of this project.

I shall be speaking more of One of Ours here in future, I suspect, but for now, you may get a visual glimpse on Pinterest.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Songs of Old: Bonnie Eloise

When Macie sung, it was The Mohawk Vale ev’ry time. Now, that seemed funny, bein’ she was mad at me and that was my fav’rite song. Then, it didn’t seem so funny. One of the eatin’-house gals tole me, confidential, that Up-State had lots of little chins with Macie acrosst the lunch-counter, and that The Mohawk Vale was “by request.”

~ from Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher by Eleanor Gates

I've been over the Mohawk River any number of times in my life, but I'd never heard of this lovely song until I encountered it in Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher by Eleanor Gates, a slapstick-style 1907 comedy about an Oklahoma cowboy with matchmaking propensities. The song is referenced or quoted around a dozen times in the book—serving as a warning to Alec's friends that he has matchmaking in mind, an all-clear signal when his sweetheart's temperamental father is out of the way, a melancholy reminder of home to a tuberculosis patient (or "lunger") nicknamed "Up-State," and the means of a romantic reconciliation near the end of the story. Here's a fine rendition by the Sons of the Pioneers, from a mid-1940s radio show:


"Bonnie Eloise," often referred to under its subtitle "The Belle of the Mohawk Vale," was first published in 1858, with lyrics by George W. Elliott and music by John Rogers Thomas, and in the next decade the melody became a favorite marching tune of both the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. (The melody is also said to have been used for two other Civil War songs, "Our Own Starry Banner" and "Heroes of '62.") Click here to view the original sheet music, which includes two more verses not performed by the Pioneers.

I couldn't find a birthplace for George W. Elliott  (1830-1898), but I'd hazard a guess he was a native of New York State. A newspaperman and poet, by the 1860s he was the editor of the Fort Plain Mohawk Valley Register (the American Newspaper Directory listed it as four pages, subscription $2, circulation 2,250 in 1872!). As the story goes, he wrote the words to "Bonnie Eloise" on a railroad journey from New York City to Fort Plain, as a tribute to his sweetheart and future wife Mary Bowen, whose father owned Fort Plain's largest and most popular hotel Montgomery Hall. In 1868, the Elliotts played host to Mark Twain when he lectured in Fort Plain, and Twain wrote the following to his future wife Olivia Langdon:
I have been the guest, all day, of my poet-friend, Mr. Elliott, & his wife. He is editor of the paper here. They are very handsomely housed, & I have enjoyed their free & hearty hospitality exceedingly...Mrs. Elliott is a good, genuine little woman...(she is the original of the “Bonnie Eloise” of the old song so popular ten years ago)...
According to Volume VIII of the National Cyclopedia of American Biography, published in 1898, John Rogers Thomas (1829-1896) was born in Monmouthshire, Wales, and began his musical career as a singer, making his debut as the bass soloist in Handel's Messiah at age eighteen. A concert and opera singer, arranger, and composer of popular songs, operetta and sacred music, he came to America in 1849 and had his first hit song, "The Cottage by the Sea," in 1856. Among the notes on his career in the Cyclopedia is the mention that 1873, he performed "The Trumpet Shall Sound" from the Messiah at a musical event in Albany, New York, not far from the Mohawk itself.

To read previous entries in Songs of Old, click here.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Bookshelf Challenge

Suzannah of Vintage Novels tagged me for this Bookshelf Challenge questionnaire, and I am always helpless in the face of challenges that ask me to talk about books. There's always something to say. I guess that's why I love Goodreads so much: discovering books, reading about books, talking about books...

1) Is there a book that you really want to read but haven’t because you know that it’ll make you cry?
Hmm. That's not really a typical reason for me to procrastinate about reading a book. Put it a different way: I've been kind of wanting to read and yet not wanting to read The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come by John Fox Jr., because I'm not sure I'd like an ending I've heard hints of.

2) Pick one book that helped introduce you to a new genre.

Well, I'll bend this one a little: I was already interested in Westerns and American history, but it was Land of the Burnt Thigh by Edith Eudora Kohl that got me hooked on reading old memoirs by people who grew up and lived in the West. A fascinating book, which I've followed up with several more excellent ones in the same vein.

3) Find a book that you want to reread.

I made myself a whole Goodreads shelf devoted to books that I want to re-read at some point, but I'll pick just one here and say The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart. I'm planning to read it again in December, since it has wintry and Christmasy scenes appropriate to the season.

4) Is there a book series you read but wish that you hadn’t?

Series? That's a little hard to say. Looking over the books I've read, I find I read standalones far more than I do series. I'm not sure if I actually regret it, but I wasn't terribly enthused about the Zion Covenant series by Bodie and Brock Thoene. It was more a case of having to keep reading to find out what was going to happen. I found the history interesting, but had mixed feelings about the believability and quality of the fictional characters' storylines.

5) If your house were burning down and all of your family and pets were safe, which book would you go back inside to save?

You know, I'd like to do a fire drill sometime just to see how long it would take to sling my precious handwritten manuscripts out of my bedroom window. But as regards my bookshelf, I'd probably go for my favorites among the vintage and therefore hard-to-replace titles: Thorofare by Christopher Morley or Five Furies of Leaning Ladder by B.M. Bower, say.

6) Is there one book on your bookshelf that brings back fond memories?

I still remember sitting out in the yard in a lawn chair devouring our paperback copy of Murder on the Orient Express, my introduction to Agatha Christie, in one afternoon. The other day I looked out the window and saw my sister sitting in exactly the same spot, reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time—it must be a good spot for introduction to literature.

7) Find a book that has inspired you the most.

Probably The Day I Became an Autodidact by Kendall Hailey. I've written before how it helped me clarify my ideas about higher education and gave me confidence and excitement about the learning course I'd chosen.

8) Do you have any autographed books?

Actually, no. Probably because the majority of my physical books are by long-dead authors, and autographed copies of vintage books would certainly be beyond my budget!

9) Find the book that you have owned the longest.

I'll stick to what's on my own personal bookshelf here, since I know there are plenty of books in the house that go back to my childhood or before I was born. It might be a pair of Barnes & Noble Classics hardcover editions of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations that I can remember being around years ago.

10) Is there a book by an author that you never imagined you would read or enjoy?

I didn't think I'd ever read Georgette Heyer—her Regency books, anyway; I'd liked a few of her mysteries—I had an idea that they were all flimsy one-size-fits-all Regency romances, and I had no interest in the Regency period outside Jane Austen. Then I was finally persuaded to read The Grand Sophy by rave reviews from just about all my online reading pals, and was delighted with it.

Suzannah tagged three bloggers to carry this on, so I'll do the same. I tag Rachel Heffington, Emily Ann Putzke, and Maribeth...and anyone else who'd like to join in is welcome to do so!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Don't Knock the Classics

I don't go off on rants very often. I don't like conflict, and most of the time it just seems futile anyway. But there is one thing that I see cropping up in the world of how-to publishing blogs now and again that always makes me boiling mad.

These are blogs that offer a lot of good basic advice to new authors on how to decide what form of publishing is right for them, how to behave online, how to avoid amateurish mistakes in writing and indie publishing, and so on; a lot of that stuff is very worthwhile. But mixed in with other tips on how to write a book that will sell, I often see advice that boils down to this: don't pay attention to the classics. Don't write anything remotely like the great authors of yesterday, because modern readers have no patience for elegant prose or description of any length. I've read posts that literally go so far as to claim descriptive passages aren't needed any more, because nowadays people have already seen pictures of practically the whole world, unlike the ignorant readers of past centuries who needed word-pictures painted for them. Modern readers, they say, are held by such a slight thread of attention that if we use too many long words they'll drop the book and look for something that's simpler and moves faster.

I can't think of a better response than this masterful, no-punches-pulled assessment by 19th-century author and minister J.R. Miller, which I read just this week:

We live in a time when the trivial is glorified and magnified, and held up in the blaze of sensation, so as to attract the gaze of the multitude, and to sell. That is all many books are made for—to sell. They are written for money, they are printed, illustrated, bound, ornamented, titled—simply for money! There was no high motive, no thought of doing good to anyone, of starting a new impulse, of adding to the fund of the world's joy or comfort or knowledge. They were wrought out of mercenary brains. They were made to sell, and to sell they must appeal to the desire for sensation, excitement, romance, diversion or entertainment. 
So it comes to pass, that the country is flooded with utterly worthless publications, while really good and profitable books are left unsold and unread! The multitude goes into ecstasies over foolish tales, sentimental novels, flashy magazines, and a thousand trivial works that please or excite for a day—while the really profitable books, are passed by unnoticed! 
Hence, while everybody reads, few read the really profitable books. Modern culture knows all about the spectacular literature that flashes up and dies out again—but knows nothing of history or true poetry or really great fiction. Many people who have not the courage to confess ignorance of the last novel, regard it as no shame to be utterly ignorant of the majestic old classics. In the floods of ephemeral literature, the great books are buried away.

Doesn't that sound like it was written yesterday?

Miller is talking about reading here, but it applies equally well to writing. That passage was written in 1880, but fast-forward to 2014, when hundreds of ebooks are being uploaded to the Kindle Store every single day, and it's even more relevant.

Now let's admit it upfront: we do want our books to sell. I want my books to sell. Not necessarily to be runaway bestsellers. I'd like to know people are reading and enjoying them, and I surely wouldn't mind making a bit of income off them. And I believe 100% that we should expend every effort to make sure our writing meets the highest standard of quality we can achieve, and that we should earnestly endeavor not to bore or confuse our readers. But I'm not in this business to trick a dollar out of someone with an attention span that's only long enough for things that can be done inside thirty seconds on a smartphone. I am not going to chop my sentences in half and write in words of one syllable with that goal in mind.

I don't dismiss all contemporary literature offhand either. I've read several excellent recently-published books this year, some of which will likely end up on my top-ten favorites list. But for each of those I can think of a dozen instances where I tried a few sample pages of a newer book and gave up in despair at the childishly over-simplified and uninspiring writing.

I know literary styles change over the centuries, and I know that we are not all of us Austens and Dickenses and Tolstoys and Hugos. But the works those authors produced still stand as the benchmarks of our literature, and we are doing a disservice to ourselves and to our own readers if we dismiss them as antiquated and only good for our great-grandfathers (most of whom probably forgot more than we'll ever know about literature and other things as well). Literature has suffered enough dumbing-down over the past fifty years; it doesn't need any more help in that direction.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Slices of Life


I unpacked my fall clothes at the beginning of the month, and the temperature promptly went back up to 90 degrees for another week. But now it has come back down to proper autumn levels, much to my delight. I'm really loving the cold, crisp weather this year. I guess you could call me a fresh-air fiend—I go around opening windows, and then as soon as my back is turned somebody closes them.

- Reading -

Most of the reading I've done or plan to do this fall seems to consist of hefty volumes. I felt it was time to toughen up my mental muscles and spend a while with some substantial and challenging books. I just finished Five Came Back and I've reached the epilogue in my re-read of War and Peace (whoever said you can't live in three different centuries at the same time?). Next up is Tarkington's National Avenue (in case you missed it, I found a copy of National Avenue!) and I've also got Howard Pyle's The Story of King Arthur and His Knights on hand. I figured it was about time I actually got acquainted with Arthurian legend, after years of going along with vague scraps of ideas amassed from literary references. It was between Pyle's version and Roger Lancelyn Green's for a starting point, but my library had only Pyle so my decision was made for me.

- Writing -

I finally finished "Wanderlust Creek" (to me that statement seems to warrant a whole row of exclamation points, but I'll spare you). As I might have mentioned already, it goes with a handful of other Western stories I've written over the last couple years, which I plan to edit at my leisure and release as another collection, likely sometime during the forthcoming winter. "Wanderlust Creek" ended up tipping the scale at over 17,000 words, but that's all right with me—I've read several good collections with a long story or novella as a centerpiece, and I thing that'll work well for this one.

Meanwhile, I'm wrestling with the midpoint of The Summer Country and beginning to plan for the historical novel that I want to make my major project from here on out (I had two ideas to choose between, and I think I'm about 90% settled on one). I read a really good and handy little book recently, Finding the Core of Your Story by Jordan Smith, which focuses on figuring out exactly what drives your story by creating a logline for it; and I'm doing some of the exercises in the book to try and get a coherent sense of what this novel is really about before I start serious work on it. (If it ends up being the one I'm 90% settled on, it's actually a rewriting job, which is mildly terrifying.)

- Listening -

The newest additions to my mp3 player are all Glenn Miller and Michael Bublé, so I guess I'm in a swinging kind of mood. I don't know if I mentioned it, but I got to see the modern-day Glenn Miller Orchestra live this past spring and it was fabulous. I loved every minute of it, but I think the most magical moment was when they launched into the opening bars of "At Last"—it was amazing hearing it live after listening to the 1942 version so many times that I know almost every note of the orchestrations by heart. My latest discoveries are "Begin the Beguine" (which I'd never heard till the concert), "Skylark" and "The Nearness of You."

I guess it's no surprise that my favorite Michael Bublé songs are his covers of old standards, but I'm getting to quite like a few of his more modern ones too, like "Hold On," "Haven't Met You Yet" and "Feeling Good." My favorite right now, though, is "You've Got a Friend In Me"—and I think it says something about my musical sensibilities that I thought it was a cover of an old song until I Googled it to find out who wrote it, figuring it was Johnny Mercer or Harry Warren or someone of the sort. Nope.

- Otherwise -

I seem to have taught Bär how to bring a toy back when she fetches it...which is really the main point of the exercise. Now she doesn't want to stop playing; she'll bring it back for the fiftieth time, drop it at my feet and look at me just as expectantly as she did the first time. Her energy is boundless.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Stagecoach Scenario


A number of years ago, I came up with a definition of my own for a plot device that I recognized as one of the most frequently-used and filled with possibilities. I call it the Stagecoach Scenario.

I borrowed the name from the classic 1939 movie Stagecoach, which demonstrates the idea in its most basic form. The setup is this: a group of people, usually (but not always) diverse in personality, background, profession and, depending on the setting of the story, social class—people who ordinarily would have little or no contact with one another—brought together in close quarters while traveling. Usually they are strangers to one another, sometimes there are unexpected (possibly unpleasant) reunions with past acquaintances involved. On the journey, some outside force poses a danger and/or strands them midway on their route, forcing them into closer communication with each other through a common struggle for survival. As a result, tensions and various relationships among the individuals come into play. The story's conflict derives from both the question of whether they will escape the threatened disaster and what will happen among them in the meantime.

All these elements are easily identifiable in Stagecoach: the close quarters are the stagecoach itself, the passengers the varied group of characters, the journey across the desert, the hostile Indians are the danger from outside. But once you've recognized the basic plot structure, you can see it framing dozens of different stories. A modern equivalent is the airplane disaster film, from The High and the Mighty onward. You have basically the same setup: the diverse group of passengers, the outside force of engine trouble or weather literally threatening the safety of the plane. With a few variations, you could have the same situation on a ship—or a train—or even a bus.

Introducing a crime and a criminal into the pool of characters adds another layer of complexity. Who is hiding something? Is one of the group not what they seem to be? Do they pose a hazard to their companions? The Stagecoach Scenario even serves as the frame for classic whodunits. Agatha Christie used it multiple times with stunning results. Murder On the Orient Express is a stellar example of the travel plot, with the snowbound train serving as the close quarters. In true Christie fashion she uses the basic setup, a crowd of diverse characters thrown together, as an integral part of her mystery plot. The limited amount of people present in a travel setting is helpful for a mystery writer, as John Curran notes in Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks; it provides a limited pool of suspects to concentrate on, and the usually remote location also gives the detective a free hand (as in Appointment With Death, for instance). It's the outside force, the stranding snow, that gives Poirot the freedom to make his investigation in Murder On the Orient Express. Christie successfully used almost every single method of transportation mentioned above, including the ship (Death On the Nile) and the airplane (Death In the Clouds), but Murder On the Orient Express remains the finest example of 'stranded murder.'

But the Stagecoach Scenario can be stationary too. Take the hostage story, for instance (The Petrified Forest is a textbook case). In war stories or in Westerns, a siege produces the same effect: trapped characters, outside threat and internal conflict. The Old West is a particularly propitious setting, considering that it's filled with potential outside dangers and a great diversity of character types that can be brought together. An excellent example of this in book form is Last Stand At Papago Wells by Louis L'Amour. In this story the group of characters—men and women, Army and civilian, innocent and guilty, fugitives and pursuers—are trapped in a desert stronghold, surrounded by hostile Apaches and with a diminishing supply of water, with the tensions and suspicion among themselves proving an enemy as dangerous as the Indians.

It doesn't stop there. I've noticed that some war movies share a similar structure—again you have the dissimilar group (the soldiers, recruited from all walks of life) the exotic locale (overseas) the outside danger (hazards of war), the characters forced into close association and dependence on each other. And then there's the classic English country-house mystery, another device for gathering a cross-section of characters together and watching the sparks fly.

The defining feature of this scenario, in whatever setting, is that it's character-driven. Outside forces may apply the pressure, but the interest lies in how the characters react to it and how they interact with each other while under that pressure. And this is where the author steps in, to craft their own unique characters and build their own story off the basic foundation. That's why I love this scenario—the possibilities are endless. Once aboard the stagecoach, anything can happen.

So what are your favorite examples of the Stagecoach Scenario in books and film? How many additional variations can you think of?

Adapted from an old piece on a now-defunct prior blog.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Cover Reveal: Anon, Sir, Anon by Rachel Heffington


The 12:55 out of Darlington brought more than Orville Farnham's niece; murder was passenger.

In coming to Whistlecreig, Genevieve Langley expected to find an ailing uncle in need of gentle care. In reality, her charge is a cantankerous Shakespearean actor with a penchant for fencing and an affinity for placing impossible bets.

When a body shows up in a field near Whistlecreig Manor and Vivi is the only one to recognize the victim, she is unceremoniously baptized into the art of crime-solving: a field in which first impressions are seldom lasting and personal interest knocks at the front door.

Set against the russet backdrop of a Northamptonshire fog, Anon, Sir, Anon cuts a cozy path to a chilling crime.

Remember, remember, that on the 5th of November, Rachel Heffington's debut mystery will be available for purchase! In the meantime, you can add it to-read on Goodreads (and look out for my own review there sometime soon). And if you'd like to help spread the word, you can take this graphic for use on your own blog, website, et cetera: