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Last summer, I had the privilege of attending a workshop offered by Ursula Renée, who writes historical novels set in the 1930s in New York City. Renée had a long list of ways to discover information about the time period, the activity, the product or just about anything a writer needs to make their book—whether fiction or non-fiction—authentic.

The book I’m writing at the moment takes place in the 1870s, in Maine, beginning in the summer, in a small village about six to seven years after the American Civil War. There are aspects of this story that are familiar to me, such as village life in Maine—regardless of the era—and human behavior.

Less familiar to me but researchable are:

  • When is the best time to prune a tree—in the manuscript, I have written that the male protagonist starts chopping away at an 100 year old oak in the heroine’s front yard at the end of summer. NO! I would be excoriated by my good friend, Paul (arborist and my former singing teacher) if I allowed that error to survive into a published novel. Laughable but it is the sort of error that can stop a reader and destroy our credibility.
  • My hero travels from Wyoming to Maine, part of the journey is by train. So. What type of train engine was hauled carriages up the coast and into Franklin County from Boston? It might be excusable to leave the details of the train as vague and non-committal. But, isn’t it better to add some meat on the bone? My research presented the Achilles. Perfect! The flawed hero of Greek tragedy carrying my flawed hero toward his destiny.
  • Speaking of post-Civil War travel, is it good enough to say coach or carriage or would landau be more authentic?
  • A young woman of this period doesn’t just wear a dress…she wears a steel hoop crinoline ‘pouf’ and pantalets, a corset with detachable sleevelets, a flat derby with ostrich feathers and bloomer skirt.
  • The American Civil War is thoroughly documented from every angle and perspective—a surefire cesspit of quicksand to sink my book to the unforgivably forgettable regions of ‘false history’. With so many truly magnificent non-fiction and fiction books available to the thousands of enactors/enthusiasts/history readers, how do I write this book?
    • Read wide – not just what is ‘accepted history’ but alternative views
    • Reject the notion that there is only one true side of history
    • Know that history is written by the victor but there is always an opposing view
    • Avoid capitulating to those who threaten you with “You’d better be on the right side of history”—see point directly above
    • Write as honestly and as judiciously as possible
  • No matter how well-researched we think our book is…someone will find a fault. Or disagree. Or think our book is the ‘worst book ever written’. There’s no remedy for this. We must write our best, write what we believe is important to say and take the criticism on the chin.
  • Writers of genre fiction have a particularly prickly relationship with the ‘expected’ but, Agatha Christie aside, a little curve ball (mixed metaphor acknowledged) can make a formula a chemical explosion. To paraphrase  Steven Pressfield from his book, The War of Art, following the recipe may make a soufflé but it doesn’t make a meal.

Of all the pitfalls we face as writers, getting our facts wrong can lead us into a hinterland from which there is no escape. Always get a second opinion.

Montgomery Street between Post & Sutter

Montgomery Street between Post & Sutter

All the wonders of traversing the financial district streets on a weekday in San Francisco.

This particular encampment is outside a popular Asian restaurant, an iconic often-filmed bank building, and a fashionable health gym.

It spans at least four feet of an eight foot wide sidewalk. On both ends, there are piles of rubbish, garbage, containers with leftover food.

Market Street between Montgomery & Kearney

Market Street between Montgomery & Kearney

Along Market Street between New Montgomery and Third Street, outside the Ritz Carlton Residences, the brick-laid pavement is littered with wet newspapers and plastic wrappers.

Lotta's Fountain - 1906 landmark a favorite tourist site and now a litter bin.

Lotta’s Fountain – 1906 landmark a favorite tourist site and now a litter bin.

At the junction of Third, Market & Kearney, Lotta’s Fountain is a landmark tourist attraction which is featured in many films set in San Francisco, including several by Alfred Hitchcock and, of course, the Michael Douglas and Karl Malden classic series, The Streets of San Francisco.

Every day of the year, visitors are taken to this island on the busy streets to hear guides describing the fountain’s origin and function during the 1906 earthquake.

At the entrance to the Metro Station, on the same corner as the world famous Palace Hotel, across the street from the sunny plaza of the McKesson Building, a man begs for change every day, scoots along the street in his wheelchair, using his feet to propel his vehicle, to the nearest coffee chainstore to spend his

Market Street at New Montgomery Metro Entrance - once a planter, now a garbage bin.

Market Street at New Montgomery Metro Entrance – once a planter, now a garbage bin.

panhandling gains. Behind him, is what remains of a planter that the San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority has abandoned from its once beautifying effort to this:

Some San Franciscans claim that their city is doing very well, thank you. Those of us who battle the litter, the beggars, the needles, the homeless off their meds, the stench from the gutters and drains, the dog messes (at least we pretend it’s dog mess), the acres of garbage and the dangers of physical bodily harm from all of the above, have a different opinion.

Farewell to a city that is one of the most expensive for residents while offering “sanctuary” for criminals who are here illegally, giving $300 a month to each homeless person (estimated to be about 795 homeless people per 100,000 residents [approximately 7,200]) of taxpayers’ money, (about $2,146,500 every month), satisfying the agenda of supervisors who justify their tax-grab, appease their constituents, and defend their rising requirement for more money, while ignoring the rising property crime and the disappearance of the people whose work built this once naturally diverse, working class urban paradise.

The city of neighborhoods of my childhood has been transformed by so-called liberal policies into a decaying relic that pretends to be the flower of Utopian Urban Life.

 

 

PennsylvaniaSeveral cultures include festivals in the Winter months, some to illuminate the darkness, some to celebrate the hope of a coming of new life. Many of us prepare a list of goals for the coming year, a list of resolutions for change and growth. For nearly 300 years, Americans have celebrated a family event called Thanksgiving.

The American version of Thanksgiving is unique because the celebration crosses all ethnic, religious and cultural groups as a family celebration. For many of us, it is a major family get-together, celebrating the creation of this country. Thanksgiving Day became a national holiday shortly after the greatest struggle America faced in the 1800s. Abraham Lincoln encouraged Americans to gather together to give thanks for the bounty of our freedoms.

In my family, my mother began her efforts days before the fourth Thursday of the month, making fudge, stuffing dates, decorating the house, ironing table cloths and napkins. We were (and still are) a large family. Until late in her life, my mother was the sole cook, hostess and bottle-washer. We young ones eventually stuffed the dates, mixed the fruit salad, prepared the stuffing (always made from scratch). But Mom was the only one of us who made the Parker House Rolls.

I have never been able to match her rolls, though I have mastered the stuffing and my basted turkeys are well-received. My husband is the king of the stuffed dates and one of my daughters-in-law has conquered the pumpkin pie.

Once again, this year, our celebrations will be much different because my husband and I are living far from our family. Chances are that we will share our Thanksgiving with friends but I wanted to share a Verrill/Rhys family traditional recipe that is always a big hit with adults and children alike.

Winter in WalesThis is also simple and great for children to participate in the preparations of this wonderful family event.

STUFFED DATES

1 package (or more) of dates (pitted is easier but not necessary: the pits separate from the fruit without much effort)

Cream Cheese, Peanut Butter, Hazelnut Chocolate Butter and/or other favorite creamy spread (Cookie Butter Cream, anyone?)

Open each date and drop a ½ teaspoon or so (personal taste is the final determinant!) of any of the above spreads into the center of the date.

Arrange decoratively on a pretty plate and try to get them to the family before they disappear.

Happy Thanksgiving to you all and best wishes for a joyful Christmas season too.

© 2014 Parts of this post were first published at ClassicandCozyBooks.blogspot.com

Photographs: © Leigh Verrill-Rhys

My hometown is a village located in the southwest corner of Maine. For the first five years of my life, I spent my days wandering the woods and groves of lilac bushes around my house or with the kids down the road, an older girl and her younger brothers.

During the summer before I turned six, my father found work in San Francisco and my mother drove across the country with my older brother as a relief driver and the car loaded with luggage, my younger sister and me.  We arrived in the city and moved into a flat in the Haight-Ashbury. My parents enrolled me for the first grade—my first experience in school as Maine didn’t provide pre-school/Kindergarten education—and my father taught me to read before school started.

From rural Maine to cosmopolitan San Francisco might have been a shock, but not for me. We were close enough to Golden Gate Park for me to disappear in the groves of cyprus instead of the lilac bushes. My school was Dudley-Stone which drew its student population from the north and western Haight, rich in cultural and economic diversity. Later, we moved a little south to the Cole Valley and I started third grade at Grattan School.

The Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood Council held many community events—potluck dinners, talent contests, street fairs. We didn’t call it ‘diversity’ then. We called it community, neighborhood, friends. When I moved to live in Wales in the 1980s, I was so proud of my roots in San Francisco, that I wrote articles and gave talks about the spirit of community, neighborliness and friendships formed in my early school years with people of every race, religion and culture from around the world.

There was no strained, self-conscious effort to accept one another. We just did. The kids in my neighborhood ran around together, played and commiserated, disagreed and had water balloon fights without any distinction about the color of our skin, the origin of our culture or the denomination of our faith. Of course, we saw and sensed the differences but they were celebrated. We were all inhabitants of a sunny neighborhood and enjoyed the experiences of a wide world.

These are my experiences and I do not pretend to speak for those children I considered my friends in that long ago time, but the interference of adults in the innocence of childhood has never been more pervasive than it has been in this century.

This school year in San Francisco, the Board of Education is forcing children to learn about matters that only concern adults. Parents have a responsibility to protect their children from undue influence, including their own prejudice. As one of my childhood friends, now a renown clinical psychologist, once said, children do not need to know about what matters to you, only what matters to them.

My parents did not teach me prejudice and I have never looked at anyone to judge them for their color, religion or position, only for their character. And I have faith that most of us are good, honest, optimistic people who want only to be left alone to live our lives and raise our families. These are the people I write about.

 

 

The Very, Very Basics of Writing Anything

There are three fundamental elements of every piece of written work—including film, non-fiction and grocery lists.

These three elements must be present or there is no point in proceeding.

In non-fiction, the three elements forming the basics of a book are:

  1. Idea – the Topic
  2. Reason – Information or Add Information
  3. Goal – to Educate or Refute Previous Thinking

9781870206129_bachBefore my publisher, Honno, agreed to consider Parachutes & Petticoats, which I edited with the renown feminist historian, Deirdre Beddoe, we had to convince the board of directors that 1) the Topic, Welsh women’s experiences during World War II, was worth the effort; 2) we could find enough material to make a full volume of women’s autobiographical memoirs; 3) the information we gathered, written by the women themselves, was of sufficient interest and relevance to warrant the expenditure, effort, and examination required to bring a collection of essays by unknown women to fruition.

9781906784119_bachThe resulting request for autobiographical essays brought in hundreds of submissions from women in Wales whose experiences had never been heard. The book was published in 1992, reprinted in 1994 and 2003, with a fourth reprint in a smaller format with minor editorial additions appeared in 2010. The essays that we couldn’t include in the volume were submitted to the National Library of Wales (Llyfrgell Genedleithol Cymru) to become a part of the national archive. Next year, 2017, will mark Parachutes & Petticoats’ 25th anniversary. Though neither edition is still in print, the book is still available at bookstores and online book retailers.

For fiction (of any kind, in any genre, in any medium) they are:

  1. Protagonist – the Hero
  2. Antagonist – the Villain
  3. Purpose – the Goal

For example, in my most recent published novel, Nights Before: The Novel (originally published as a novel in six installments), the above structure works like this:

  1. Protagonist – Jocelyn Tavers
  2. Antagonist – Jason, her ex-boyfriend
  3. Jocelyn’s Goal – to find a replacement boyfriend before the end of the year

Nights-Before-Final200_thumb.jpgThose three elements will not, in themselves, make a full sized story, let alone a full length novel but without them, there’s no beginning, middle or end. Jason also needs a goal to combat Jocelyn’s efforts to reach her goal. And Jocelyn needs a lot more than a boyfriend to make the essentially girl-meets-boy, girl-loses-boy, girl-finds-new-boy story something more than just that.

Though Nights Before is a romantic comedy, there had to be some depth to the story and that called for a secondary goal. This is usually something hidden, even from the protagonist—a long buried pain that has left a wound that will not heal without more pain. Enter an absent parent or two, conflicting potential new boyfriends, torn stockings and a lobster feast, a demanding employer, a car accident and abandonment issues.

With my upcoming American historical novel, Pavane for Miss Marcher, the three elements are shared between the Hero and Heroine, both of whom have Goals and Antagonists out to get them:

  1. Protagonists: Cathryn Marcher / Rupert Smith
  2. Antagonists: Susan Miller / Jericho Colson
  3. Goals: Staying in Maine / Moving to Wyoming

ggncMay2012Both Cathryn and Rupert have Deuteragonist supporters who get in the way for the best reasons and enemies who get in the way for the worst reasons.

The story is set in Maine five years after the end of the American Civil War and I am currently researching and reading on both sides of this terrible conflict in our history. Keeping faith with our nation’s past has complicated the process, especially with such an emotive background that plays an enormous part in our lives 151 years after the conflict came to an end.

With family members from the southern states and a strong New England heritage complicates the story on a personal level as well but I believe a writer’s duty is to write the story that comes from their own heart, regardless of possible consequences. As my mother always said, “Be true to yourself.”

Pavane for Miss Marcher is scheduled for publication in 2017.

Reposted from Classic and Cozy Books Blog, Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Traditionally, graves of Union soldiers were decorated with flowers. The Confederate soldiers were commemorated similarly, but on a separate day. By the 20th Century, the competing days merged into the one we now know, the last Monday of May, the beginning of summer.Every year, we commemorate the sacrifices of our military heroes on two days, separated by six months. Memorial Day is the most American of the two as it was initiated in 1868 as Decoration Day, following the end of the War Between the States (also known as the Second War of Independence), the American Civil War.

Veterans Day (originally known as Armistice Day and Remembrance Day in other countries in Europe) commemorates the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month when the guns went silent at the end of World War I. This holiday evolved from this WWI connection to honor the service of all veterans of the U.S. Armed forces. Memorial Day honors the military personnel who died while serving our country.

Along with many of my fellow Americans, I visited the graves of members of my family who served in the U.S. Army during World Wars I and II, and the Vietnam War. To my knowledge, no one in my family died in combat, despite a long history of service in the Armed Forces.This year, unlike so many in the recent past, the United States is not engaged in any major conflict on foreign soil, a reason to think of this year’s holiday as one to be set apart.

Since the 1950s, the Golden Gate National Cemetery has been the resting place of uncles, aunts, my parents and siblings. My father and uncle, both U.S. Army officers, are buried with their wives. My sister-in-law passed away a year before my brother and they were interred together in my parent’s grave.

These vast rows of white tombstones and flags are, at once, a majestic and a sorrowful sight.

This post is in Memory of

  • Moses F Verrill, Infantryman, US Army, 20th Maine, War Between the States
  • Hiram W Verrill, PFC, US Army, WWI
  • Thomas A Verrill, Sr. Captain, US Army, WWII
  • Charles A. Adams, Sargent, US Army, WWII
  • Owen K Nichols, US Navy, Korean War
  • Thomas A Verrill, Jr. 1st Lt, US Army, Vietnam War

And in Honor of

  • Maxine M Dillahunty nee Verrill, 1st Lt, US Army, Korean War,
  • William D. Dillahunty, Airman 2nd Cl, US Air Force, Korean War

And with especial thanks to every one of the veterans and serving personnel who volunteer and are prepared to give their lives to protect and preserve our liberty.

Disappointments come at every juncture of our lives. As children we face rejection as players on teams, aren’t invited to a classmate’s birthday party, fail a test or don’t get the grade we wanted on a paper. These are all learning experiences and prepare us for the inevitable rough treatment we will face in the adult world. As one of the teachers in my children’s school replied to a request that party invitations not be distributed publicly to save the ‘feelings’ of the uninvited, “They have to learn they won’t always be invited. Better they learn it now.”

A hard lesson for a six or seven year old when they are one of only a few who are not going. As parents, we want to protect our children from such heartaches but preparing them for the real world also requires we make some tough choices ourselves. Who among us has not faced the disappointments we hope our children will not? If we remember how our own parents’ handled our disappointment, we may have some insight into establishing emotional resilience in our offspring.

If we are not as fortunate, we may find other sources of support and strength. Motivational speakers and writers provide inspiration and occasionally help us clear the emotional blocks that stop us from achieving the success we want.

Writers are told to thicken their skins. We will need armor for what the world of agents, publishers, reviewers and readers throw in our direction. Several years ago, I attended a writers’ day workshop during which the audience was given a catalogue of the percentages of success of all the millions of us who aspire to publish (and especially to be read).

One statistic was that only 3% of writers are ever published. An even smaller percentage at that time saw their names on the cover of a published book. Self- and indie publishing has made a significant dent in those numbers. What hasn’t changed is the need for armor.

However, no matter what we write or the genre we write in, the foundation of our stories is the conflict of the individual versus the group. Our heroes and heroines stand up to evil and injustice, even if they are borderline immoral (scoundrels, vamps, tarts, disgraced cops etc) in their own right. Most of our primary characters have faced disappointments that have given them a mark which distinguishes them from their antagonists. And how they respond to that disappointment is their defining moment.

8aa17-51jt0rtvrl-_sl500_aa300_In my novel, Wait a Lonely Lifetime, Eric Wasserman sacrifices his best interests to those of his closest friend. Eric has several reasons for this, one of which is his past experience of inferiority in comparison to Steven Langdon’s presumed success.  The truth comes to light when the now divorced Sylviana Langdon searches for the man she fell in love with fifteen years before, surmounting her own disappointment and risking her happiness on the slim hope she and Eric can have a future together.

Although my publisher praised this novel as a ‘terrific romance,’ my armor was dented a little by the occasional harsh review.

I went on to write three more novels and am working on a fifth.

Not getting chosen for the volley ball team or not receiving an invitation to a sleepover is good preparation for the knocks we all face when we begin our professional work. Being shielded from any negativity in our formative years makes us weaker and more vulnerable to the real hurts coming our way.

Either that or we seek safety in the group, subvert our thoughts, talents and futures to the will of others, too delicate to face opposition and too easily damaged to be of use to ourselves or our society.

* * *

All of my novels are available on AllRomance eBooks, Amazon, Barnes&Noble, iBookstore, Kobo and Smashwords, as well as many other related sites. Further information is also available on my website, Leigh Verrill-Rhys.
af595-salsanewebook200ThisCantBeLoveCoverFinal200_thumb.jpgNights-Before-Final200.jpg