I send out a monthly-ish newsletter (more like bi-monthly-ish). This is the the eighth one, sans photos and links that accompany it when it goes straight to your inbox (apparently copying them from the original newsletter is technologically beyond me). If you’d like to see the whole thing, pictures and all, sign up here!
This past week, the kid was on Spring Break from preschool. Though I missed my scheduled work-in-the-parking-lot (or lately, Starbucks) time, we enjoyed our leisurely mornings reading in bed, channeling the pre-Easter excitement with making decorations (thanks to my mom’s suggestion), and spending the gorgeous afternoons outside, mostly digging in the not-so-picturesque mud pit, but also playing with the goats and horses. All of a sudden, this kid has been excited about riding (by himself!) and I’ve been happy to oblige. The other day he asked me, “Can I have a riding lesson every day?” Don’t have to ask me twice!
We also made a visit to Table Mountain, where as a kid and teenager I’d hike and fly kites in the Spring. Since California actually got some rain this year, we wanted to see the wildflowers, for which Table Mountain is (locally, anyway) known, and also the seasonal waterfalls which run off the sides. We were hoping there’d be enough wind to fly kites, which as you can see from the kid’s picture, there kind of was, and it was thrilling! I also had another reason for wanting to go: there’s a scene in the new novel in which Josie dreams of Table Mountain and I wanted to reacquaint myself with it and its very northern California brand of beauty. The pictures below are just a taste!
New Beginnings, AKA Workhorse Mode
Speaking of Josie and the new novel, at the beginning of March, I spoke to Agent Dan about the draft I sent him (you remember: just sending it made me nauseous. It turns out waiting for Agent Dan’s verdict also made me break out in eczema–always super awesome). After talking to Agent Dan about Josie, I’m now firmly back in workhorse mode, working on a complete restructuring of the novel. It’ll be the same story, just a different shape. While it wasn’t exactly the news I wanted to hear, Agent Dan’s suggestions were what I *needed* to hear. This book is going to be better for it.
I spent several days reading Lisa Cron’s book Wired for Story, taking and re-reading copious notes, trying out new outlines, and basically cudgeling my brain as I tried to envision this new novel shape, and put the theory (which I like) into practice (which I confess to feeling crabby about). Then my friend, author Mary Volmer (hi Mary!), told me about her mantra when writing her second novel (Reliance, Illinois, which I just devoured and which hits bookstores May 10): “As long as it takes.” As long as it takes. Or as the teachers at the kid’s preschool say: Focus on the process. I’m taking that advice to heart. The point is to enjoy getting it right, not just get it done.
A Steal & A Giveaway
And now for my Easter bunny moment (because at our house, my husband is the Easter bunny), I have two announcements. The first is that my publisher, Crown, is offering the ebook version of I Shall Be Near to You for an absolute steal of a price ($1.99!) through May 1. I know most of you already have copies of the book, but if you could let anyone you think might enjoy I Shall know about the deal, I would be so grateful. I’d love to share Rosetta’s story with as many readers as possible.
You might wonder why my publisher would offer a book at such a crazy price. I’m not privy to all their reasons, but I’ve seen sales like this push other authors’ books onto the New York Times Bestseller list. That’s a huge deal– not just for the publicity it would bring, but because hitting that list makes publishers more interested in an author’s next novel (which is never a given). Even if the book doesn’t ever hit a bestseller list, each new reader who leaves a review on websites like Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Goodreads shows that there’s a readership for books like this, and encourages publishers to take chances on stories of women like Rosetta and first-time authors like me. Which is also my not-so-sneaky way of saying: If you haven’t already and feel so inclined, writing a review of I Shall (or any book you love) is a great way to show your support for the kinds of books you’d like to see more of.
But wait! I said there were TWO deals… Here’s the second one: I have two signed (and personalized, if you’d like) hard-cover copies from my personal I Shall Be Near To You stash to give away, in celebration of Spring and New Beginnings. Keep it for yourself and give away your old copy, or send it as a gift to a friend– whatever makes you happiest! To enter, just reply to this email (it’ll go straight to my inbox) saying you’d like in on the drawing. I’ll choose the two winners on Saturday, April 9.
By the time you get this, I’ll be on my way to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference down in Los Angeles. People tell me it’s *the* social event of the writing world, which strikes twin bolts of excitement and panic into my introverted heart (as does the fact that I’m going on an overnight trip sans kid for the first time in his life). I have two official events I’m participating in and the rest of the time, I’m looking forward to attending readings and panels put on by authors I admire, and catching up with (and for some, finally meeting in person!) friends I’ve made in my publishing journey (there’s some of the books by authors I hope to rub shoulders with, above). It should be a lot of fun. If you’ll be at AWP, let me know– I’d love to see you!
I’m also hoping to sneak in some time to put the finishing touches on that new Josie outline (yeah, I’ve lost count, but I think this is the 5th one… or is it 6th?) so that as soon as I get home I can start working on turning that outline into a shiny new draft. I’ll also be preparing for the next #HistoricalFix chat (on 4/24) and the second #BookClubFix discussion (on 5/26) of Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye. I’ve already read this one, and if you’re a fan of Jane Eyre (here’s a peek at my fave illustrated edition) and enjoy gleefully wicked vigilante serial killers, I think you’ll get a kick out of this book, which also manages quite a commentary about the plight of women and children, and the impact of imperialism. I really hope you’ll join us for the discussion, either on Twitter or Goodreads.
Here’s to new beginnings and a gorgeous Spring!
Recently a reader asked me whether the lemonade that shows up twice in I Shall Be Near To You was historically accurate. The short answer is yes! The longer answer is a little more complicated.
The account of the soldiers being offered lemonade by citizens of Maryland as they marched toward Antietam comes straight out of Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam by Stephen W. Sears, the main source I relied on for my information about Antietam. In it, Major John M. Gould of the 10th Maine is quoted as having written in his diary, “The women and young ladies opened their doors and windows to give us bread and butter, meat, apples, peaches, and preserves!” Sears adds that, “There were washtubs of cold water and lemonade at front gates along the roadside…” That little tidbit became the inspiration for the scene in the novel. Interestingly, while working on the answer to this question, I did more research (better late than never!) and came across the Civil War diary of Private Charles C. Perkins, a bugler in the 1st Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, written while he was on the Peninsula Campaign in June 1862. He recounts several purchases of lemons (at a price of two for 25 cents on one occasion and three for 17 cents on another) and sugar to make lemonade.
Now, the accuracy of the lemonade that Rosetta’s mama makes during haying is a bit more slippery. The honest answer is that I made it up. That said, according to The Land Where Lemons Grow: The story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit by Helena Atlee, by 1862 there were regular steamships transporting lemons from Italy to New York. Now, would any of those lemons actually made it out to Flat Creek? Well, with the canal nearby in Utica, it’s possible, and the nice thing about historical fiction is I can deal in possibilities. Would Rosetta’s family have spent the money to buy lemons? That seems less likely. I prefer to imagine that they might have had a lemon tree planted in a protected spot in the kitchen garden. It’s possible, right?
Who would ever have thought there was so much research behind such a simple detail like lemonade! It’s a perfect example of how, when writing historical fiction, you never know what you don’t know until you’re in the middle of a scene.
I send out a monthly-ish newsletter (more like bi-monthly-ish). This is the the sixth one, sans photos that accompany it when it goes straight to your inbox (apparently copying them from the original newsletter is technologically beyond me). If you’d like to see the whole thing, pictures and all, sign up here!
That’s the idea, anyway
The Kid went back to preschool almost a month ago. There he is on the first day. You probably can’t read the sign, but I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up and he said, “I haven’t decided yet.” Then he added, “I’m going to have a LEGO stand with Paw Patrol toys and nerf guns.” And that, my friends, pretty much sums up this kid right now.
I had visions of the amazing productivity I’d have working in the parking lot during the three days I’m not working in The Kid’s classroom. For various reasons I haven’t made the lightning fast progress I thought I would. One factor is that I’ve been really trying to slow down and do the hard work on the manuscript. Sometimes I find myself rushing because I really want to be able to say “I’ve got a new draft!” but I ought to know by now that fixing the tricky stuff now means I’ll be so much closer to a draft I can’t wait to share.
An Invitation or Two
and: A Cry for Help!
I have a couple events coming up that I’d love to invite you to take part in.
On Saturday, October 17, I’ll be reading as part of San Francisco’s LitQuake. If you’re in the city, I’d love to see you!
Then, on Tuesday, October 20 from 5:30-6:30 PM PST, I’ll be hosting another #HistoricalFix TwitterChat. It’s a great chance to add one million books (okay, maybe one hundred) to your “To-Read” list as historical fiction readers, bloggers, and authors come together to chit-chat about our favorite genre.
So now, the cry for help: My San Francisco reading will be in a bar and I’ve been told that in a bar it’s a good idea to read something funny… I’m stumped! What’s your favorite funny scene from I Shall Be Near To You?
Meeting a kindred spirit
Back when I was drafting I Shall Be Near To You, my professor Rosemary Graham mentioned how much she thought I would enjoy Mary Volmer‘s work. I read Mary’s first novel Crown of Dust[” target=”_blank”>Crown of Dust and loved it. I’m convinced that if her protagonist Alex and Rosetta ever met, they’d have so much to discuss. When I finally got to meet Mary, it was one of those experiences where I felt as though I’d known her for ages, that’s how easy it was to talk to her (and I love medium and large talk so much better than small talk). In any case, I had a similar experience reading this interview with Mary. So much of what she says about why her second novel felt more difficult to write feels so very familiar. And I love this idea she mentions: “Richard Bausch says to ask yourself, ‘Have you worked today?’ And if the answer is, ‘Yes,’ then you have been productive.” What a deceptively simple question to encourage really digging in.
(I can’t stop talking about seeds)
Speaking of digging, there are our baby pumpkin plants, limping along. When The Kid and I pulled out the pumpkin seeds we’d saved last year to plant this year (a month too late for even Thanksgiving– I don’t know why I find it so hard to just put seeds in the ground! We’ll see if we get any pumpkins before the frost kills them), I discovered some hollyhock seeds my mom gave me last year. They’re from a historic home named Glenwood, built in 1877. I thought I’d planted them already, but turns out I hadn’t (see above re. actually planting seeds). Even though we’ve already sprinkled one million hollyhock seeds about the yard, I’m going to find a special spot for these (I swear it). I want to see how they might be different from the ones we already have. It’ll also be a nice homage to Josie, because Glenwood makes an appearance in the pages of the new novel. Isn’t it a gorgeous place? Ever since I was a kid, driving past on the way to 4-H
meetings and the tack shop, I’ve spent many a moment daydreaming over this place and its oak trees. I still want to live there.
Oh, and that reminds me. Do you want to plant some hollyhocks too? Fall (right before the first frost) is the perfect time. I still have TONS of seeds saved and I’d love to share them if you’d like them. Just reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) with your address and I’ll send them right over!
The days are getting shorter
(which I really don’t like)
But here’s to my favorite parts of Fall– pumpkin pie, hot chocolate, and just recently, apple pie (which I made for research purposes, of course). If you need it, Mark Bittner’s pie crust recipe is the only one I’ve ever made that was actually worth the effort (every time!). For the record, I don’t have a food processor, and his best tip, which isn’t included in the link but is in How To Cook Everything Vegetarian: roll it out between two sheets of plastic wrap. Seriously, it’s like magic!
All my best,
(**I’ve tried to minimize any Spoilers here, but if you haven’t finished reading I Shall Be Near To You yet, SPOILER ALERT**)
In honor of Arbor Day, I thought I’d write a little bit about trees…
In November of 2008, I came across Bob Hicok’s poem “What I Know For Sure” in that month’s edition of Oprah magazine and was introduced to the idea of the witness trees at Antietam and Appomattox. I had not yet written the battle scenes in I Shall Be Near To You, but I knew they were coming, and I knew some of what would happen– had already written much of *that* scene at Antietam, in fact– although I didn’t yet know it would happen at Antietam. But the idea of witness trees stuck with me. Reading Hicok’s poem was the first I’d heard that phrase, in fact, and I tore the poem out and posted it to the bulletin board that was above my desk at the time. When I finally got to *that* scene at Antietam, the idea of a witness tree had taken root, and I have Bob Hicok’s poem to thank for the idea of Jeremiah’s tree.
In my search for a link to the poem, I also came across photographer Nate Larson’s poignant series of portraits of the remaining Witness Trees— the only survivors of the Civil War still living. Aren’t they beautiful?
Recently, while visiting Old Town Sacramento with The Kid and some of our friends, we were approached by a young man wearing camo pants and combat boots. He walked up to us and said, “Somebody say ‘Red Light’!” The Kid obliged, and the man stopped and stood stock-still. We watched in silence, wondering what would happen next. Time stretched. Finally the man, ventriloquist-style, said, “Somebody say ‘Green Light’!” Once released from his pose, the man asked if we’d like to see how well he could impersonate a character from Mortal Combat. Without waiting for our answer, he promptly froze in a fighting stance for perhaps a minute. When he unfroze, he told us he had done three tours in Iraq, quickly rattled off his rank and company, and gave a sharp salute.
I had no ready response. I wanted to thank him for his service, but though he was affable, it was also clear that he was troubled—he was slightly unkempt, sure– but really it was the way he approached us. Complete strangers. Two women and their young children. Later, my friend and I were both admitted we were afraid if we said anything, things might become less pleasant. Instead, we said nothing, which felt wrong too. In the face of our silence, the man asked our kids if they wanted to see how fast he could run, and he took off in a full sprint. Later that night, remembering our trip, my son said, “That guy was really nice. And he could run really fast.”
A few days later, my dad handed me a copy a friend had made of an article from The Smithsonian, written by Tony Horwitz, author of Confederates in the Attic (see below), entitled Did Civil War Soldiers Have PTSD? It’s an intriguing—if very sad—look at recent scholarship that has uncovered what happened to some of the soldiers who survived the Civil War but were unable to return smoothly to civilian life.
It’s a subject I thought about often as I was writing I Shall Be Near To You. The more I studied the Civil War, and watched soldiers coming home from the Iraq War as I wrote, the more I wondered how any soldier is ever able to return to domestic life and put aside the memories of combat. How does a soldier go from a battlefield to a grassy field in the park, sitting with women and children on a gorgeous Spring day? It’s a heavy expectation.
Civil War era physicians had almost no ability to help soldiers address that challenge. Today it still seems like we are often unable to effectively help soldiers return to the lives they left behind or pursue the dreams they once held. All too often, I feel like our collective response is the same as my friend’s and mine. The reality of a troubled soul is distressing and so very sad, and yet we’re left speechless and unable to offer anything of use. And even if we managed to say “Thank You,” it would never, ever be enough.