Stranger than Fiction

I wrote–am writing–a series of contemporary romances set in and around American politics. The first one plays out against a budget negotiation. In the third act, the clock is running low on a possible a government shutdown when…okay, you’re going to have to read the book when it releases in April (APRIL!) to find out. But it should come as no surprise that as I’ve been working through my edits, I’ve been watching current events with more than my usual level of interest.

I am a very long-standing political junkie. When I was a kid, I embraced the gamesmanship of it, the pageantry. If war is politics by other means, as von Clausewitz tells us, then elections seemed like politics by metaphor. I was obsessed.

One of my earliest memories is watching the 1988 election with my family. They coded the maps differently then. I remember watching the country slowly filling up with Republican blue and imaging a blue tide sweeping the nation. As if elections represented something real and permanent and not a choice between not-all-together different candidates, likely all rich white men okayed by party bosses. The winners, chosen by a small majority of the percentage of the enfranchised who choose to vote, likely going on to careers of no import in a system where the outcomes resolve conflicts ground out in decades prior, like the 2004 election litigating issues from circa 1972.

In college, politics stopped seeming like a game. I became involved with a number of issue-based causes, including sexual and relationship violence response and prevention, which led to the years I spent in Washington <redacted>. Then I left DC for graduate school, for a far more healthy relationship with books and nineteenth-century periodicals. And by far more healthy, I mean not at all healthy.

For me, politics is 90% cynicism and 10% fervent, irrational, glowing hope. While I listen to Americans talk about the government shutdown today, I share all of their frustrations even as I want to scream, “But we have to sleep in the bed we’ve made! We are complicit in this system!”

And if we made it, we can unmake it. We can make it better.

Against history, against empirical evidence to the contrary, I believe that. I believe we are empowered and choose not to act. I believe we can be and do better. Alone and collectively.

So while I watch the news, I’ll be dreaming up plots. Plots about the overworked, largely powerless, aides who are working on too little sleep and too much caffeine to enact dreams conjured about a Washington that doesn’t, and hasn’t ever, existed.

And none of those plots will be stranger or less realistic than what’s happening on the Hill today.

(Edited for clarity.)

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Land Where Our Fathers Died

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The day was hot; summer announcing itself. There’s a smell in the south — warm earth and wilting verdure — that I forget every fall and rediscover in the late spring: the smell of summer. The breeze stirring my hair didn’t cool me, though it moved the wheat in which I stood. From the top of the hill, looking down over the field, I tried to imagine the scene 150 years earlier when the Battle of Chancellorsville raged.

I stood at the spot where Robert Lee’s Confederate troops flanked Joseph Hooker’s Federal forces. Among the Federal troops at Chancellorsville was the Connecticut Fifth, the unit to which the hero in my forthcoming novel, Brave in Heart, belongs. Without spoiling the book, the battle is significant to the story I’m telling. I’ve looked at engravings. Read survivors’ accounts. But I needed to see it for myself.

Continue reading “Land Where Our Fathers Died”

Anniversary of the Battle of Chancellorsville

One hundred and fifty years ago today in northern Virginia, the Battle of Chancellorsville began. It would take a week and claim 24,000 lives. That’s a number that requires a moment to sink in. Maybe it helps to write it out: twenty-four thousand men perished there in fighting over seven days.

Aside from the massive human cost, Chancellorsville is interesting to me because it was the beginning of the apex of the Confederacy militarily. Between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg it seemed quite likely that the Confederacy would win the war.

After years of study as a curious amateur, then as scholar, and now as a writer, I still can’t understand why things were so close for two + years and particularly for those two months. How could the Union — with more than twice as many people (the ratio gets even more unbalanced when you take into account Confederate unwillingness to arm the sizable enslaved population), almost all of the industrial production, and vastly superior infrastructure and wealth — not crush the Confederacy immediately?

The answers to that question (e.g., weak military leadership, hubris, bad luck, differences in culture, etc.) proved so costly it makes me ill. The American Civil War should have ended quickly, but it did not and thus 660,000 people died and cultural rifts were entrenched that still haven’t fully healed (see Confederates in the Attic).

But back to Chancellorsville! It was a decisive Confederate victory, though the death of Stonewall Jackson clouds this assessment, and it set up the dynamic for the war’s true turning point, Gettysburg. Because of his win at Chancellorsville — a win that occurred entirely because of tactics as he had been badly unnumbered — Robert E. Lee felt emboldened to invade the Union and that turned out to be a mistake, though the war wouldn’t end for two more years.

Chancellorsville has a long and prestigious literary history as the subject of Stephen Crane’s novella The Red Badge of Courage, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “A Night at Chancellorsville,” a poem by Herman Melville entitled “Stonewall  Jackson,” and a diary entry by Walt Whitman from the very underrated Specimen Days in America.

On July 1, I’ll be waltzing quite brazenly into the party with my novel Brave in Heart, a historical romance that finds it’s turning point on the Chancellorsville battlefield. I hope you’ll join me there.

To Book or Not to Book, Harriet Beecher Stowe Edition

Full disclosure: I’m a graduate student writing a dissertation on 19th-century periodicals. I’m going to get up on my soap box now. I know that my objection is tiny and esoteric and navel-gazey in the extreme, but I think this matters. Let me tell you why.

A few months ago, I was watching — and loving — The Abolitionists on PBS’ American Experience. And in general, I think it’s wonderfully well done examination of the people who fought slavery in antebellum America.

Except that in a nearly 10-minute long segment on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Abolitionists made what to my mind is a fairly serious error: they omitted the novel’s serialized history. The narrator gives the publication date as 1852, ignoring the first version of the novel: a 41-week installment in The National Era that ran between June 1851 and April 1852. This morning, PBS’ Makers (which was also awesome) repeated that error in their Twitter feed.

Now, the Era only reached about 50,000 people, which isn’t small potatoes for a periodical in that year but is nothing compared to the millions who would read Uncle Tom’s Cabin in book-form. But there’s no way Stowe’s novel would have been as successful, or as successful as quickly, if it hadn’t already made a big splash as a serial.

Why does it matter? Well, it’s a twentieth-century error to privilege the book as a physical object over other forms of texuality, which is what I think is happening when Uncle Tom’s Cabin is given the 1852 publication date. Until the late nineteenth century when the price of paper fell leading to the rise of cheaper books, books weren’t necessarily the primary way people read. Newspapers, magazines, journals, pamphlets: all of these were more important. So what I’m saying is that we can’t, or we shouldn’t, look back at the past using our own biases. We should look at publishing in the 1850s in all its glorious nuance, and that includes embracing the serialized novel in a periodical.

Given all the upheavals in publishing today, including the rise of the e-reader, the book may be in the process of being displaced. Non-book serials are certainly making a come-back, see the success of erotic romance writer Beth Kery for example.

At the end of the day, is it really a huge error to give the publication date of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as 1852 and to ignore the serialization? Probably not. What really matters is Stowe’s words — her gut-wrenching, patronizing, moving, troubling, complicated words — but we shouldn’t bring our own biases about what forms matter and how people read to a nearly 162-year-old work.

Thus endeth my rant.

Name Games

To follow up on my previous post, anyone who has ever written fiction can agree that naming characters so that the results are believable and convey everything you want a name to convey is…hard. It’s like naming your children, if you somehow already knew everything about them and were trying to come up with the perfect label for all that awesome. Also, if you weren’t hemmed in by your partner’s preference, family requirements, and social convention. But I digress.

One of my favorite resources is Baby Center, which has a tool to display other “similar” names. This is great if you’re like me and the process of naming characters goes something like this.

“What would a WASP name her son? You know, something like Bradley but not?”

Which is how I ended up naming the hero in the manuscript I’m finishing now Parker.

The Social Security Administration database is good too, particularly if you want to find the top names from a specific decade. Before 1900, I also like this site, which uses data that SSA doesn’t have online.

And we’re halfway through NaNoWriMo and I’m at 21,889 words. Still just a bit behind but I’ve made up some of the ground I lost when I had serious election fever. Bad planning on someone’s part, that was. John Adams, I’m looking at you.

Daily Newspapers

The past two days, I’ve written about 4,000 words for my historical novella. The heroine is very loosely based on Catharine Beecher and the hero on Theodore Weld. (Which is sort of hysterical given the fact that Weld’s wife, Angelina Grimke, had a very public conflict with Beecher about abolition politics in 1836, but I digress.)

I love that stage in writing when you have a very loose plan but then you start putting words on the page and other things just work themselves out. In this case, a backstory point that I thought was settled is playing out very differently than I had intended. But the shift creates more conflict between the characters. Since the project will be shorter than 40,000 words, there’s no room for filler. Every scene has to count. I feel like I need to turn the stakes meter up to 11, so to speak.

One resource that I’ve become addicted to is the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The paper was published between 1841 and 1955 and currently, you can access the period from 1841 and 1902 full-text, online, for free. Have I mentioned that it’s also fully searchable? If you want to know much women were paying for hoop skirts, what a recruit ad for the Civil War looked like, or how people discussed society functions, there’s no substitute for reading a daily newspaper.

Happy writing!

The Vagaries of Historical Research

I recently started working on a new project. It’s a set of three novels and a novella about four female friends who live and love in mid-nineteenth century America. My first recently completed manuscript is a contemporary and is set at a university, a world that I know intimately. This new concept is historical, however, which means that I have to do research.

Research doesn’t frighten me. I’m a Ph.D. student who’s writing a dissertation on 19th century print culture. I’m a database ninja. I’ve read in a number of archives, including the Special Collections at the Library of Congress, the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, and, next month, the New York Public Library. Hell, I’ve even made my peace with microfilm.

But as I began working on a outline for this project, I realized that the kind of historical research that I know how to do is not necessarily the kind that I need as a fiction writer.

For example, I needed to find a town in New England — I was thinking Connecticut — that had textile mills in 1860 but which was still fairly well-to-do and which contributed a significant number of troops to the Civil War. Whew.

Then, I needed to figure out which regiment an officer from that town who enlisted fairly early in the war might have ended up in. And it had to be a regiment that saw major action in approximately 1862 for a plot twist that I had in mind. Double whew.

Plus I wanted lots of pictures of said town, regiment, etc. for inspiration.

The coolest resource that I’ve found so far is the National Park Service Database of Civil War People. I was able to search all of the men from Connecticut who served in the Union and then, using the list, I worked backward until I found a regiment that met my criteria.

What are your favorite online databases for historical research?  Do you develop plot/characters and then try to find history to match it? Or do you research first and then develop plot/characters?