The Virgin Cure and Professional Curiosity

On International Women’s Day

I’m reading Ami McKay’s The Virgin Cure, a novel set in Manhattan in the 1870s.  It’s always a bit of a gamble to read novels set in approximately the same time and place I’m writing about. If the novel is poorly done I can put it aside and forget about it; if it’s well done I’m wracked by curiosity.

The Virgin Cure is extremely well done. The story is about Moth, a little girl raised in the worst slums the city had to offer until her mother sells her to a rich woman to be trained as a lady’s maid. It would be a very short novel if the rich woman treated Moth well and trained her as promised. Or, to quote Jim Thompson: There’s only one plot: things are not what they seem. 

Moth escapes that  bad situation to find a place for herself among the city’s low life, setting out to become a first class thief. This is as far as I have got in the novel, and anything else I could say would be conjecture. The story has definitely kept my interest, but I have to confess that what really makes me eager to read is the historical detail.

It’s professional curiosity that gets in the way of just enjoying the story.  I keep coming across things that take me by surprise, and I have to stop and wonder where McKay found the details. Some of it will be invention, but some of it will be drawn from her research.

So for example, a friend directs Moth to the best fence in the city (the word fence was used then as it is today, someone who will purchase stolen goods from a thief and makes a profit by finding a way to get the stolen item back into circulation).  In this novel the person is Marm Birnbaum, whose Fancy Goods and Haberdashery is located at 79 Clinton Street. 

Because I’m familiar with the period I saw right away that  McKay had based the Birnbaums on Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum, a German immigrant who did in fact have a fine dry goods shop at 79 Clinton Street. Marm Mandelbaum and her husband were hugely successful both as shopkeepers and patrons to the criminal element. From a Smithsonian  article very much worth reading: 

Marm didn’t so much join the underworld as tweak it to her preference, treating crime itself as a commodity to barter. No mere receiver of stolen goods, she was, according to the newspapers of her day, “the greatest crime promoter of all time,” the person who “first put crime in America on a syndicated basis,” and “the nucleus and center of the whole organization of crime in New York City.” She dealt in plunder of all kinds—silk, lace, diamonds, horses, carriages, silverware, gold, silver, bonds—and could estimate the value of a thief’s swag with a quick and ruthless scan. A large portion of the property looted during the Chicago fire of 1871 ended up in and out of her possession, for a sizable profit. Her own hands, of course, remained unsullied; she cracked no safes, picked no locks, dodged no bullets. A student of the law, she understood that uncorroborated testimony meant little, and so took care to deal with one crook at a time. […]  By 1880, Marm was inarguably the most successful fence in the United States, selling to dealers in every major city along the East Coast and Canada. Over the course of her career, she handled an estimated $5 million to $10 million in stolen property. Dozens of preeminent bank robbers and thieves sought her business, and she mentored those who displayed exceptional cunning. Through Marm’s patronage and connections, Adam Worth became a notorious international art thief known as the “Napoleon of Crime.”

When you’re writing historical fiction you can’t follow every interesting lead, or you’d never finish anything. For McKay this particular minor character was worth pursuing, so I would guess that she sought out every source provided in the Smithsonian article, starting with a thesis:

Rona L. Holub. The Rise of Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum: Criminal Enterprise and the American Dream in New York City, 1850-1884. (In Partial Completion of the Master of Arts Degree at Sarah Lawrence College, May, 1998).

At this point I have to talk myself out of getting hold of this unpublished thesis. It is relevant to what I’m writing, but not relevant enough (or at least, that’s my story and I’m trying to stick to it) to interrupt the flow of writing. To which I have to return. Right now.

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Sandwich interruptus

Sometimes a sandwich can be a masterpiece. Just the right combination of things in perfect proportions. Textures, flavors, everything in harmony. This phenomenon has been explored on film. In Spanglish, a world-class chef makes a sandwich for himself alone. He is looking at it lovingly and croons, very softly as he picks it up: Ooooh, baby. At that moment, just as he’s about to take a bite, two people barge in, arguing.  Sandwich interruptus.

This scene was carefully planned, as noted on the blog FilmFood:

…in the stage directions [was] the notation that the hero of his film, a culinary genius, would make “a snack we will remember and copy.” Adam Sandler (playing the chef) was trained to make this sandwich by the famous chef Thomas Keller, culinary consultant for the film. 

 

So the other day I made a sandwich — not this sandwich, but one of my own design –and it was perfect. I ate half of it at lunch time, and then I covered the plate with a second plate to save  for later. You don’t mess with a perfect sandwich’s gestalt by putting it in the refrigerator or in plastic; it wouldn’t be the same sandwich when you come back to it. A perfect sandwich is a delicate thing.

I settled down to work in my office, which is just across the hall from the kitchen and I was actually getting some writing done, so I was concentrating very hard.  As some point the Used-to-Be-Girlchild comes dashing down the stairs from her aerie, late for class as usual. She yells BYE! grabs the car keys from the counter and whoosh, she’s gone.

Maybe a half hour after that as my concentration starts to wane I remember the sandwich, and a niggling little worry pops into my head. Surely not, I tell myself. She ran out the door at high speed. But once the idea had presented itself, it would not be banished. In the end I got up and walked into the kitchen…

Gone. The plates were there next to each other like empty clamshells, no sign of the half sandwich. 

The Used-to-Be-Girlchild, she is speedy. 

I couldn’t call her because she was either driving or in class. I couldn’t text her, because that would give her time to come up with a fiendishly clever explanation. So I waited. And I waited. 

It was about five when she called. There was a quality to her voice that reminded me of the time when she was four and she concocted a very effective scheme to fill her piggy bank with somebody else’s spare change. A story for another time.

Right now just know that I heared something in her voice as she was telling me about the exam that she got a 98 on, and the question she missed, and the questions she was worried about that did not, thankfully, actually show up on the test, and the person who gave up ten minutes into the test and just walked out of the classroom, on and on, the history of this test went, and I listened. I listened and every once in a while I made a little noise so she’d know I was listening.

I was luring her into a false sense of security. A trick all women learn early on in the motherhood game. 

When she had gone about five minutes in this marathon monologue on a test she wouldn’t remember next week, she drew a breath and I said, “Oh, I meant to ask you, did you take my sandwich?”

A whole universe of meaning bombarded me in the five seconds of silence that followed. I could almost hear her frantically sorting through excuses, denials, and fabrications, trying them each on for size and casting them aside, one by one, as too weak to try on me, the mother who knows. 

She finally drew in a big breath and she said, her voice very calm, “But mom, it was SO GOOD.”

Completely disarmed me. I laughed for ten minutes. When she got home, I laughed for another ten minutes. I’m laughing now, thinking about it.

The next time I make a sandwich masterpiece, I will have to carry it with me, wherever I go. You’d think the master chef in Spanglish would have known that much.

PS: Please don’t ask, I’m not telling you what was on my miracle sandwich.

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Falling in Love

A couple times in my life I’ve avoided falling in love. The first time I was aware of doing it was in 1985, which was a watershed kind of year for me: I had a breast cancer scare (that turned out to be benign); My father went into a steep decline and died; A six-year long relationship finally crashed and burned; I met the Mathematician; I started field work for my doctoral dissertation; and I saw a movie that I tried not to see.

The Eric Garden was a tiny theater on Nassau Street in Princeton, just across from the university. I didn’t often have money or time for the movies, but then one day I saw a new movie poster to the left of the ticket booth.  Recall that this was long before you could google a movie trailer to see what it was about, so the poster was all I had, but on that basis it was clear to me that this was a movie I would adore.

Look at it, this object of my reluctant admiration. I still get a flush when I see it, all these years later.

The odd part: I simply could not make myself buy a ticket and go inside. I waited until the last day of its run, and then, sure enough, I was very put out with myself for waiting.  I would have happily bought another twenty tickets and seen it twenty more times. Assuming of course my graduate school budget had stretched so far. Because I waited, it was a couple years before I could see it again, but I thought about it, a lot. 

So now this phenomenon has repeated itself, but this time with a novel. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came out in 2009 so it has been about eight years that I’ve successfully avoided reading it. I somehow knew that I would love it, and so I stayed away from it. 

I’m here to confess that again, I was wrong to wait. I just finished it, at 2 a.m., and I’m kicking myself because now I know that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is one of those novels that I will re-read every year. I’ll start feeling lonely for it first. Then the story will keep intruding into whatever I’m thinking about until I  give in, sit down and read it again. There are maybe six novels and just as many movies that have this ability to kidnap my attention.  

As I just finished reading this novel, I need to think about it for a while before I’ll be able to put into words why I like it as much as I do. Of course that will mean reading it again. Once or twice, at least.

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Software for Writers: ProWritingAid

If you add together all my published work — academic, popular press, fiction — I’ve got something like 1.5 million words in print.  To provide some perspective on this, I wrote my doctoral thesis (1985) with WordPerfect 1.3, and my first published short story with whatever version of MS Word that was floating around in 1990. 

Over the years I’ve tried all kinds of software to help with keeping my research, storylines, characters and timelines organized. Theoretically Scrivener does this, and for a long time I tried to get it to work for me. I gave up on that about four years ago (and explained why, here).  At various times I have tried LibreOffice, Mellel and Ulysses, all of which have loyal users for good reasons, but none of which work for me. There are dozens of other software packages, all of which do the same stuff with differing degrees of complexity and features. You can read about them here, here, and dozens of other places.

In the end I always come back to Microsoft Word as a word processor. Whether I’m writing a technical report with footnotes, tables and cross-references, or a novel that tops out at 300,000 words, it does the job. But it’s not enough. As an academic linguist and as a historical novelist I deal with research of all kinds, and keeping it organized is a ongoing challenge. My approach isn’t perfect, but it’s functional. I use

  • Evernote to organize and backup documents, web clippings, images and other bits and pieces collected for research;
  • Zotero to organize books and articles in pdf format;
  • Calibre to organize ebooks.

What I have never been able to find is software that does some basic analysis on style.  Grammarly is an online program a lot of people like, but it doesn’t work for me as a creative writer. I do not want to be scolded about passive constructions; when I use a passive, I am perfectly aware of that, and I use it for a reason.  However, I do want to know if I use ‘very’ three times in a paragraph. 

There is a program called SmartEdit that integrates into Word and does the kind of stylistic analysis I’ve been looking for. 

This is what I’ve been looking for: software that provides a list of adverbs in my manuscript, and allows me to go right to the little buggers so I can deal with them. Reports on repeated words and phrases would also be very welcome.  But of course, this is too good to be true. SmartEdit — which is free — is Windows only. Even if I went to the trouble of installing Parallels and buying a Windows version of MS Office, it wouldn’t work (according to the FAQ page on the website). 

This brings me to ProWritingAid, which is both an on-line and a desktop application and is available for Windows and Mac.  I spent an hour experimenting, and I can say now that maybe — just maybe — it will do what I need it to do. I imported a chunk of Where the Light Enters and let ProWritingAid go to town on it. The resulting report was eight pdf pages long and included analysis of everything including

  • Style
  • Grammar
  • Overused
  • Readability
  • Cliches
  • Sticky
  • Diction
  • All Repeats
  • Echoes
  • Sentence
  • Dialogue
  • Consistency
  • Pacing
  • Pronoun
  • Alliteration

Maybe sixty percent of the analysis is of no real use to me at all; as is the case at Grammarly, the people at ProWritingAid want to tell me about the passive. They are also fond of sentences like this one: “Avoid using prepositions such as “with” as the last word in a sentence.”  Apparently you can fine tune the analysis to exclude such observations while leaving the very useful observations intact. 

Now I’m trying to decide if it’s worth $40 a year to use this software. Anybody have experience with ProWritingAid? 

 

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What ails you?

I had an email from Cristy:

Hello,
I am most of the way through The Gilded Hour and loving it! Yet I am torturing myself trying to figure out what “common ailment” the slack faced young girl from chapter 43 suffers from?! Please enlighten me!

It’s a very short passage Cristy is asking about. Anna and Elise are discussing a patient who is very young and whey-faced, or pale. She is pale because she’s lost a lot of blood, which follows from abortion. A woman who takes too much of certain herbal combinations that stimulate menstruation can end up hemorrhaging.

If there is no infection present and the abortion wasn’t incomplete, there is a good chance the young woman can be saved. 

Cristy, thanks for taking the time to write and ask about what interests you.

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Next weekend: See you in Chicago

Actually I’ll be in Elgin, outside the city, for the Elgin Literary Festival on January 27 and 28.  It’s a big affair stuffed to the brim with interesting speakers and panel discussions, and it’s all free to the public. 

The Elgin Literary Festival is a free celebration of the written word for both readers and writers taking place in Downtown Elgin, a blooming center of the arts. The Festival aims to highlight bookish culture and provide writers and readers a place to create and appreciate the art of writing, all within the charming architecture and welcoming businesses that are the soul of the City of Elgin.

The program (pdf) is here or you can have a look at the festival’s FaceBook page. If you’re in the area please come by and say hello.  I’ll be traveling with Jimmy Dean, so look for the little white dog who owns me. 

 

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