Rosetta-isms/True Bits: that spotted calf

When I wrote the first draft of I Shall Be Near To You, it had been ten years since I’d read the real Rosetta’s letters. I didn’t return to the actual letters until I had completed the draft because I was afraid that if I re-read the letters I would lose the voice I heard in my head, even though my intention was to make the character Rosetta’s voice as true to the feisty and tender voice that shone through in the real Rosetta’s letters. I was actually a bit surprised when I reread the letters to find how many phrases (what I like to call Rosetta-isms) or ideas made their way from the original letters into the novel, though not always in exactly the same context. Here’s an example:

Originals, from Rosetta Wakeman’s letters:
Nov. 24, 1862
…If you want to save anything to remember me by, keep that spotted calf and if i ever return I want you to let me have her again.”

“June the 19, A.D. 1863
Father I want you to Write, too, and let me know all about your Farming and how long do you intend to keep Fony?”

From the novel (one of Rosetta’s letters home): I want to know how that Spotted Calf does and if the Fields are planted and what in (Wheat or Potatoes or maybe Corn) and have you had Help to do it?

Writing Tips that Work for Me

The most important tip I have is do what works for you. That said, I have learned what works for me by reading about what works for other authors. So, in case my method might serve as an inspiration, here goes!

1. Have a regular writing schedule. I think pretty much every writer says this, but it’s because it really helps! When I was drafting I Shall Be Near To You, I shot for writing 5 days a week–like a job. Often I wrote more than that. Having a set schedule helps the ideas start and keep flowing. It’s much easier to get back into a scene I was working on the day before than one I haven’t touched for a week (or more).

2. Have a writing routine. I think of this as a gentle warm-up– a way to ease into the work and get ready to write. My routine when I was drafting my “practice” novel (and the beginning of I Shall Be Near To You), was to walk my dog and then immediately write as soon as we got home. Invariably inspiration would hit at about the time we turned for home. Now my routine is different–usually I make a cup of tea and then as I sit down to work, I turn on the playlist for the project I’m working on. I love working to music that helps set the mood and tone for the project.

3. Set a word count goal for each session I only do this when I’m writing my first draft. My goal is 1000 words. Though, at the beginning of a project, I often set my goal lower, say at 500 words. The idea is to make it something that feels manageable and then, once that gets too easy, increase it. Usually I find that once I get going, I hit my stride and it’s pretty easy to routinely hit 1000 words (and often more). This tip came from Anne Lamott.

4. Research just enough to get going. I start by researching my characters. Since they are always inspired by real people, finding out more about those real women–what their lives were like, what their childhoods were like–almost always gives me ideas for the events of the novel. Then, as I write, I discover other things I need to know, so I’m sort of constantly writing and researching; the two feed each other.

5. Follow the inspiration. If I have a scene that’s begging to be written, I write it! I take inspiration any time I can find it, even though it means I often write out of order (and curse myself for it later). I find it incredibly freeing (and fun) to write a scene I’m feeling driven to set down. Then, on days when nothing is begging to be written, I work on connecting the scenes I already have. It was an interview with Diana Gabaldon that first gave me the idea that it was OK not to write chronologically.

6. Quit when you know what’s next. I try to stop for the day when I’ve got two things: 1000 words AND a good idea for what comes next. That way I can sleep on the “what’s next” and my subconscious can work on it (and be ready to go) the next day. I can’t take credit for this idea–it came from Hemingway.

So there you have it! I hope something on this list will work for you too.

Women Who Thought Different

After I first learned of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman and the other women who fought in the Civil War, back in 1998, I started keeping a list of notable women who did important things. Many of the women who ended up on my list were women I had never heard of, while others were quite well-known (to me, at least). I surveyed other women in my life and asked them for the names of women who thought different, and added them to the list. Here it is, with admittedly somewhat arbitrary categories–so many of these women really belong in multiple categories).
I’m curious–how many of these women do you know? And who are some women you’d add?

Women Who Thought Different

Aphra Behn
Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz
Ellen Glasgow
Kate Chopin
Virginia Wolfe
Toni Morrison
Maya Angelou
Adrienne Rich (poet)
Sandra Cisneros
Mary Wollenstonecraft
Karolina Pavlova
Harper Lee

Georgia O’Keefe
Judy Chicago

Mahalia Jackson
Joan Baez
Marian Anderson
Yoko Ono
Ella Fitzgerald
Bessie Smith

Jane Grey Swisshelm
Margaret Fuller
Nellie Bly
Connie Chung
Katie Couric
Diane Sawyer
Pearl Stewart (1st African American to edit major national daily newspaper, the Oakland Tribune)

Margaret Thacher
Golda Meir
Joan d’Arc
Queen Elizabeth 1
Madeleine Albright
Mary Queen of Scots
Barbara Boxer
Geraldine Farraro
Eleanor Roosevelt
Hillary Clinton
Condoleeza Rice

Sandra Day O’Connor
Myra Bradwell (1st U.S. lawyer)
Clara Foltz (1st CA lawyer)

Sally Ride
Dr. Joyce Brothers
Annie Oakley
Madam C.J. Walker (1st African American millionaire)
Joan Brumberg (social historian)
Emma Goldman (anarchist)

Mother Teresa
Dr. Cicely Saunders (founded modern hospice movement)
Elizabeth Packard (lobbied for rights of the insane)
Rosa Parks
Clara Barton
Florence Nightengale

Florence Joyner (Flo Jo)
Billie Jean King (tennis player)
Elizabeth Robinson (100 m. gold medalist, 1928 Olympics)
Wilma Rudolph (first American woman to win three gold medals at a single Olympics)

Film/Actresses/TV Personalities
Oprah Winfrey
Marilyn Monroe
Jane Fonda
Shirley MacLaine
Jane Campion

Fashion Icons
Coco Chanel
Princess Diana
Jacqueline Onassis
Mary Kay
Elizabeth Arden

Suffragettes/Women’s Rights Activists
Lucretia Mott
Susan B. Anthony
Gloria Steinem
Betty Friedan
Mary Ware Bennett (advocated birth control for all women)
Maria W. Stewart (1st U.S. woman to give a speech to a mixed crowd)
Sarah and Angelina Grimke (abolitionists)
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Margaret Sanger (birth control advocate)
Charlotte Perkins Gillman
Helen Gurley Brown (author)

Deborah Samson (Revolutionary War soldier)
Sybil Luddington (known as the “female Paul Revere”)
Civil War Spies:
Belle Boyd
Rose O’Neal Greenhow
Sarah Slater
Mrs. E.H. Baker
Pauline Cushman
Emma Edmonds
Elizabeth Van Lew
Mary Bowser
Civil War Soldiers:
Sarah Rosetta Wakeman
Jennie Hodgers
Sarah Emma Edmonds
Martha Lindley
Mary Brown
Elizabeth Finnern
Elizabeth Niles
Charlotte Hope


When I wrote the first draft of I Shall Be Near To You, there was almost no swearing in the book at all. But over the course of the many rounds of revision, one of my editors pointed out that the men seemed awfully “tame” for soldiers.

It became clear to me that one of the major adjustments a woman disguising as a man might have to make was getting used to the way a group of men might talk to each other when they thought there were no ladies present. It was also clear from my research about the women that many of them adopted “male” mannerisms (chewing tobacco, drinking, playing cards, spitting, and swearing) in attempt to create a more convincing disguise. In fact, the real Rosetta wrote home on two separate occasions about what we might consider “vices”– once she reveals to her mother that “I use all the tobacco I want. I think it will keep off from catching diseases.” Later she mentions that “there is a good many temptations in the army. I got led away into this world So bad that I sinned a good deal. But I now believe that God Spirit has been aworking with me and ’til that I was aComing back to Him again and I hope and pray that I shall never be led away like it again.” I wanted to show what some of these tensions might be as I wrote about the fictional Rosetta.

I also consulted the book The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War. There I learned about the pornagraphic postcards (carte de visites) that soldiers often received in their mail–the inspiration for the one Edward’s brother sends in the novel. That same book also includes stories soldiers wrote in their letters (to friends, usually) about visiting brothels. It was from these accounts that I gleaned some of the popular (and vulgar) phrases used to describe various sexual activities, and from which all of the vulgarities in the book were inspired. I basically compiled a list of all the phrases which would make your ears burn and then, like the Shakespearean insult game, I mixed and matched. And while many people think of “the f-bomb” as a fairly modern word, it has been in existence (in publication!) since the 1500’s, according to Meriam-Webster; while there are no documented uses of the word in any Civil War correspondence, it is almost certain that it was a word the soldiers would have used.

The Real Rosetta

The moment I saw the real Rosetta’s photo on the cover of An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864, I knew I was going to have to read her letters. She captivated me then, and reading her letters even now, I still find myself surprised and tickled and saddened. She was remarkable, and here she is:


You wouldn’t ever guess the soldier pictured here is a woman, would you?