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.

Story Prompt: Newes from the Dead

Anne Greene
Anne Greene

Whores of Yore (yes, a catchy title) at Twitter  is stuffed to the gills with crazy interesting historical tidbits having to do with women’s lives and sexuality. The description on Twitter: ‘A catalogue of jilts, cracks, prostitutes, night-walkers, whores, she-friends, kind women & others of the linnen-lifting tribe.’  (18+)’ 

Often the bits posted there are just too good for a storyteller to ignore, as is the case with the life of Anne Greene. If you have been looking for material for a historical novel, this might be it.  It’s true that Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost includes a character based on Anne, but she is peripheral in that otherwise very dense and challenging novel. 

The case is so interesting that there was an 1982 article about it in the British Medical Journal: “Miraculous deliverance of Anne Green: an Oxford case of resuscitation in the seventeenth century” which you can download as a pdf.  

Anne was convicted of infanticide and hanged. The next day when the anatomists were getting ready to start a post-mortem exam, they realized she was still breathing. This was considered a miracle and act of God, and she was pardoned.  Her father saw the possibilities, and once she returned home, starting charging people to come have a look at her. From the BMJ article:

This collection and a subsequent financial appeal on her behalf produced many pounds, which paid the bill of the apothecary, her food and lodging, and the legal expenses of her pardon. Anne Green’s fame continued after her full recovery, when she returned to some friends in the country taking with her the coffin in which she had lain. She then married, bore three children, and lived for 15 years after her famous execution and resuscitation. 

If I were to take this on, I’d start with the day she was revived and the aftermath. I keep wondering what use she made of that coffin. 

Researching Names for Writers of Historical Fiction

I read a lot of 19th century newspapers for all kinds of reasons, but this clip from the NYT (November 1885) is a great example of one of the ways I find names.

NYT November 1885
NYT November 1885

Here we have Giuseppe Giudici who shot and killed Maggiorini Dagahiero, as well as Ling Chun, Ling Yum, Chun Fong and Lung Mow who are all involved in a perjury case.

central reporter title page
Click for full size. Central Reporter. 1886 on cases heard in September 1885.

A word of warning: even the NYT was really bad at getting the names of immigrants right. Maggiorini Dagahiero strikes me as off, anyway, so I see if I can turn up either half of it elsewhere and find that even mighty Google produces  not a single example of the name Dagahiero beyond the one in this very newspaper article. However, Daghiero does come up — in fact, if you search it will bring up a whole story that is in itself interesting.

Death penalty cases were appealed, I assume, automatically, as they are today. This publication provides both details of the crime and the legal ruling. Because the book is long out of copyright, you can download the whole pdf through Google Books or archive.org (my preference). I can almost guarantee that if you sit down to skim through a volume like this, you will find many stories waiting to be told, the majority of them tragic in one way or another. Some of them bordering on the farcical. 

In this case the details just raise more questions, for me at least. 

I haven’t yet looked into Ling Chun and Ling Yum, but I can predict, based on past experience, that it will be next to impossible to get any details. First, because the crime was minor and didn’t involve bloodshed (newspapers then, as now, subscribed to the ‘if it bleeds it leads’ rule) but also because Asian names were so regularly and extremely mangled.

In case you’d like to know more about the murderous baker (the details of the legal appeal are missing):

Appeal to Death Penalty Case
This is a large graphic. Click to open it on another tab, and be patient.

 

Mea Culpa, Mea Cliffhangers

This post is 1 year old.

I hear from readers who are confused or irritated by unresolved storylines in The Gilded Hour.  Specifically two storylines seem to raise the most questions.

  1. The Russo children (where was Tonino, and where is Vittorio?)
  2. The identity of the individuals who were responsible for the deaths of at least six women.

Here’s an email from Nancy. 

Dear Sara I just finished your new book the Gilded Hour. I have a question. On page 696,after looking for a killer through most of the other 695 pages Oscar says, no reasons to give up now, in reference to finding the killer. Then there is not another word in the remaining 36 pages about finding the killer. What???? Who was the killer??? It turned out to be a very disappointing read I must say.

I am hoping for a reply .

This next email is from Sandra, who is also curious, but in more general terms.

Hi Rosina/Sara

I have never written to an author before but I had to write you. I loved The Gilded Hour and was heartbroken to finish it. When I saw on your webpage that “a new series was launched” I assume that means you are going to write more. Whew! I just have to know what happens to all these people. I am in love with them and am imagining futures for each one of them. I want to read more about Anna & Jack, Sophie & Cap, Rosa & her siblings, Ned, Aunt Quinlan, Margaret, Elise. I feel like I know them now so want to follow their lives.

My first thought:  It’s really uplifting to hear from readers, even when they are irritated. It means the story got under that reader’s skin. My second thought: I hate disappointing readers.   Then back to the first thought: These are people who have read the book I wrote and felt strongly enough about it to write to me. That’s good. That’s what I focus on. 

There are only a few things I can say to this kind of letter from a reader: I’m sorry that the story didn’t work for you, and/or:   I’m writing as fast as I can, and I hope that the next novel will both answer your questions, and be worth the wait.

But there’s also one thing I need to say about the nature of storytelling.  As I see it, good storytelling never tells it all.  A well done novel  leaves questions open to be considered and answered by the reader.   So it is true that you haven’t heard in detail about what Tonino went through, and you don’t know where Vittorio is; his adoptive family is gone. You may never know some of those things; in the end they may be for you to decide.

The question about the murders is, of course, far more pressing. Some people raced through the last part of the book because they just had to know who was responsible … And then were disappointed.  Really disappointed. One star irritated.  [Edited to note that this question comes up in the comments, below.] An old friend pointed something out to me that I hadn’t considered: in the mystery genre, it’s pretty much expected that you’ll know who the guilty party is by the end.  I don’t read much mystery, or I would have realized that.  If I had been aware of that expectation, I’m not sure what I would have done differently.

Could I have written a better novel? Certainly.  I doubt there has ever been a novelist who is totally satisfied with a piece of work.  I know a writer with a t-shirt that reads IT’S ALL A DRAFT UNTIL YOU DIE.   It’s the nature of the beast, and still:  I don’t like disappointing readers, and I do hope that when the next book comes out, those I’ve irritated or frustrated will find that the answers they were expecting really were worth the wait. In the meantime, there are a lot of documents about the murders dragged from the archives of the police department, sitting over there at The Gilded Hour  site. You might well figure out the answer to this question on your own. 

Story or Plot?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Craft
This post is 2 years old.

brokenguardrailNote: This is a reworking of an earlier post. I am making an effort (slowly) to gather all the posts about craft into a series.


The distinction between story and plot is a deceptively simple one.

Story: what happened

Plot: the artful rearrangement of what happened in a way that keeps your readers engaged.

A police report is a story told as a series of facts, in chronological order:

August 29 2008. At approximately 10:16am Officer Rodriquez and I were dispatched to the site of an accident on northbound State Route 12, approximately 500 yards north of Exit 15. Witness J.M. Corrigan had called 911 and was still at the site with his passenger, Maria Corrigan, of Tyler. The witness stated he had been travelling behind a 2004 Ford Explorer when that vehicle suddenly veered sharply to the right, left the highway, broke through the guardrail, hit the cement barrier, flipped end-over-end and then plunged over the precipice falling approximately 200 feet. While the witnesses did not see the impact, they heard it clearly.

Witness JMC stated he had been travelling at about 70 mph, as was the accident vehicle. On examination and photographing of the scene we discovered no skid marks. Witnesses JMC and MC both stated unequivocally that the vehicle’s brake lights never flashed.

Multiple fire departments were at the impact site at the bottom of the cliff. The fire had been put out by the time we reached them. Two victims released to the coroner at approximately 11:45 am. No identifying documents survived the fire. The wreckage is still being processed. The case has been handed over to Detective Ann Uribe.

These are the facts, and they are singularly unsatisfying. Was this a mechanical malfunction, or something more sinister? Detective Uribe’s report will not directly address this questions. It will simply provide more facts and raise further questions.

The victims have been identified as Georgia Jackson, age 34 and her daughter Milly, age 3.

Forensics report no immediate evidence of mechanical failure. Preliminary findings from the coroner indicate no alcohol or drugs in the driver’s system. The mother’s driving record was clean. No criminal history. No history of psychiatric illness. The driver was a pediatric nurse at Stanley Memory Hospital. No overt hostilities with coworkers.

Married to Robert Jackson, a pediatrician. The marriage was, by all reports, a functional one without conflict or financial difficulties. One son survives, James, aged six.

Robert Jackson has no document history of drug abuse or any other compulsive behavior. Both father and son were visiting with Robert Jackson’s sister Rayanne and her family in Springfield, and had been there for three days at the time of the accident.

Six weeks ago Milly Jackson was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. According to the doctor treating her, she was responding well to treatment and her prognosis was very good. Interviews with family members, coworkers and friends indicate that there were no overt suicidal gestures. We have been unable to contact the driver’s mother, who is traveling in South America. An interview with her might provide more insight into her daughter’s state of mind.

There are some strong indications here of what might have happened, but we only have part of the story. And still, the facts you do have, the things you know add up to something that won’t let go. You want to know what happened, and why Georgia and her daughter died.

Every novelist will approach this differently, but here’s a method that has worked well for me in the past. My experience is that old-fashioned index cards are the best way to proceed. On each card I enter one fact about Georgia’s life based on what I know already. I lay out the cards in chronological order, and consider. What other events in Georgia’s life are important? As I work, facts and scenes, bits of dialog come to me. Each goes on a card, until I have a chronological accounting of major facts in her life:

1. Georgia Adams is born into a middle class family in a small town.

2. When she is three, her younger brother Michael is born.

3. In grade school she is praised for her meticulous, careful ways.

4. At age seven, her brother dies of leukemia.

5. She gets through high school and nursing school, still careful and thorough in all her work.

6. As a pediatric nurse she is fiercely protective of her charges, who love her. However, she never manages to make a connection to parents.

7. She marries a pediatrician she works with, someone she admires for his skill and perceptive way with children.

8. They have two kids, a boy named James and three years later, a daughter they call Milly.

9. At age three, Milly is diagnosed with leukemia.

10. On a cold February morning, Emma takes her daughter to the hospital for a chemotherapy treatment and everything goes as expected.

11. On the way home, Georgia purposefully drives the car off a cliff.

spellingbeecardNow you’ve got something – but it’s still only in its infant stages. We know the facts, but it’s all very clinical. We don’t have a plot. This is where you start shuffling your index cards, because the truth is, you could start telling this story anywhere. As the characters take on form, possibilities suggest themselves:

Card #6: start with a scene in which Georgia is being peppered with questions by the oblivious and disruptive parents of a sick kid, and she comes close to losing her temper – but doesn’t. She never does.

Card #11: Officer Rodriquez tells his mother the story of the accident. He’s only been on the job for three months, and he’s finding it difficult to cope with such a tragedy.

Card #3: Georgia wins a city-wide spelling be because she is the only fifth grader who can spell intravenous. Her parents are absent.

Card #11: We experience the funeral from Paul’s perspective, or his father’s.

Card #7: From Georgia’s own POV we walk through the house she and her husband are thinking of buying when they are newly married. In her mind she keeps comparing it to her childhood home.

Card #11: Detective Uribe interviews Georgia’s husband Paul.

There are dozens and dozens of possible starting points. Any of them could work, but only one will work best for you.

Column written for and first appearing at WriterUnboxed

You’re wondering why you can’t tell the story from beginning to end. Of course you could do that, but most authors can’t afford to take the chance. You’ve got maybe two pages to hook your reader. You might be able to do that with beautiful prose about Georgia’s childhood home, her mother’s diffidence about having children, the stunted apple tree outside the kitchen window. There is one genre that values prose and imagery and characterization above plot. If you’re hoping to catch the interest of the lit-criterati, that stunted apple tree might be the perfect place to start.

On the other hand, most readers don’t think of plot as a four letter word. They don’t think of it as a word at all. They want a compelling story, and a reason to turn the page. The trick is, finding that starting point.

The index card approach works well for me, because it makes me really think. Once I find the right place to start, I may never refer to my index cards again. Or if I do, I might see how the story evolved in a different direction than I had anticipated.

Best of all, it gives me a way to watch Georgia grow up and turn into the woman who drives over that cliff with her three year old daughter strapped into her car seat. Because I understand how she got there, I can, if I do my job right, make you see it too.

Cinderella Revisited: The prince speaks

This post is 2 years old.

Have you ever been disappointed in a book or movie, but not been able to say why?  This short intro to storytelling might help you figure that out. Revised from an earlier, ever evolving post.

At the center of any story is at least one conflict. A person can be at conflict with him- or herself; a town can be in conflict with a corporation or a bully or a plague; every relationship, ever, has experienced conflicts, small and large.

Of course, not every conflict is interesting.

Universal storytelling truth 1: Well adjusted, happy people do not make interesting fiction.

Sometimes conflicts are completely inside one person’s understanding of themselves. Take Ellen, for example. She’s been obsessed with the granddaddy of a trout her father could never catch. Woman vs. trout? Or maybe there’s something else going on here. Maybe Ellen has a hard time of letting go of relationships, has regrets about her last conversation with her father, or is having second thoughts about shipbuilding school.

A place can be at conflict with nature. A town and a river; a farmstead and a drought. A conflict can be very obvious and in-your-face (he loves her but she loves somebody else) or very subtle (can he face the truth about himself?).

Universal storytelling truth 2: The conflict on the surface masks some larger conflict. “I want you to pay my parking ticket” might really be “I want you to accept responsibility for me and everything I am.” “You never take out the garbage” might be “I’m angry at you for messing up my life and I’m going to make you pay.”

Universal storytelling truth 3: Good storytelling is about many conflicts, small and large, layered together in interesting ways A conflict only works if the two parties are truly equal in some way. It might not look on the surface to be the case, but they are.  A woman incapacitated in a wheel chair, unable to feed herself, hardly able to talk, can be a powerful presence in the life of a young, healthy daughter.

Power takes many forms.

Universal storytelling truth 4: Conflict moves. The power in any relationship is not static; it shifts back and forth, and the friction is what moves the storytrain forward. This is how tension is created. This is why the reader turns the page.

Take for example the classic fairytale of Cinderella, and her story arc. But where do you start? Here’s a way that works for me: I sit down with the primary characters and ask them some questions, the most basic one of which is simple: an interview.

Me: Hey, Cinderella! What’s important to you at this point in your life? What do you most want, right now?

Cindy: I’d like a pretty dress.

Me: And why do you want a pretty dress?

Cindy: Because my step-sisters have pretty dresses. You need a pretty dress to go to the ball.

Me: So, go out and get yourself a dress.

Cindy: I have no money, and my stepmother won’t give me any. And anyway, I have all this housework to do.

Me: It sounds like your stepmother is a bitch.

Cindy: It’s all my father’s fault for dying.

So we started with the dress, but we ended up with a lot more. The bottom line is that Cindy’s life has been miserable since her father died. She misses him. She’s furious with him. She feels powerless in the face of her stepmother’s cruelty and stinginess. And she’s not especially smart or willing to think. So that’s one main character. We know quite a lot about Ella of the Cinders now, but we don’t know the stepmother.

Another interview will be necessary.

Me: What is your name anyway? I’ve never heard it mentioned.

SM: Of course not. Of course you’ve never heard my name. It would be inconvenient for me to have a name, then you’d have to think of me a a person. My name is Georgia.

Me: Georgia, can you tell me what you want right now?

Georgia: Yes. I want to be free of this house and responsibility for these teenage girls. They’ll drive me to drink. My own two are bad enough, but then there’s Henry’s girl. Married a week and he drops down dead, leaves me with this old junk of a house and his kid. I can just see myself in twenty years with three cranky old maids whining for more bonbons and Manolos.

Me: So really what you want is…

Georgia: I’m so angry I don’t know what I want. I’m so angry that every time I look at Cindy I want to pinch her. She looks just like Henry, you know. I’ll tell you one thing, I won’t keep her here unless she’s willing to earn her keep. I need all my energy to find husbands for my two, or I’ll be stuck with them forever. Wait, I know what I want. I want to open up a kiosk at JFK. Perfume and makeup. I’ll get all free samples, and I’ll look good all the time for all the pilots and businessmen who go through the terminal. I’ll find a healthier husband. One with a lot of money, but no kids.

One more interview. 

Me: We never really get to hear much from you during the story. What are your goals for yourself by the time it’s all over?

Prince: Look, I have to get married and produce an heir. And you know, this royalty business isn’t easy. Every day it’s something else: supermarket grand openings, new bridges  to be christened, speeches made to Young Mothers Against Violence in Fairytales, the list goes on and on. I need a wife who can help me with all this. Somebody organized, who can prioritize. And who won’t ask me a lot of questions.

Me: Really, that’s all you’re hoping to get out of this ball? A wife-business partner-mother-of-your-heir?  If that’s the case, let’s imagine for a minute that the fairy godmother comes to you. What would you ask her for?

Prince: You’ll laugh.

Me: I will not. I promise. 

Prince: I want to go to college to study medieval German literature. You know, old those old Norse myths. Brunhilde and the Nibelungen, can’t get enough of that stuff. I want a library card and a peaceful life so I can read about Siegfried and Loki for days at a time.

Me: Um. So you don’t want to be a prince at all?

Prince: Hell no. But a guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do.

So now we know three of the characters. We understand why Cindy and Georgia are in conflict. The underlying anger, the resentments, the dashed hopes.  Of course, unless we decide to give Cindy a backbone and a real personality, we’re going to have to inject another element to even out the playing field. We’ll have to bring in fairy godmothers or good witches or something to make up for Cindy’s insipid self.

If we pursue the story as traditionally told, we now have the option of continuing on past the marriage vows. And things don’t bode well. Insipid Cindy is going to end up with a husband who really wants a social secretary — something she has no training for — who will give birth once in a while and otherwise leave him alone. She’s a little dim, but she’s not going to be happy for long. And Georgia will have the last laugh.

Unfortunately, this interviewing of characters isn’t as easy as it might look. Characters aren’t always forthcoming. You can’t just ask the character what they want; you’ve got to figure out why they think they want what they say they want.

One tool you can’t do without: patience. This is not something that will happen in a hurry.

So now you’ve got the core of the story, and the story arc comes next. The basics:

Almost always, a satisfying story has three basic elements: conflict, crisis and resolution of the conflict. This is true of stories on a screen or stage or on a page. Think of: Romeo & Juliet, Terminator, Moby Dick, Emma, Clueless, The Help, The Time Traveller’s Wife.

With those points in mind, have a look at this simple schematic of how tension and story arc work together is adapted from Janet Burroway’s classic text on writing fiction, now in its sixth edition (click on the image to enlarge).

 

If you study it, you’ll see how power moves back and forth between the forces of good (Cinderella) and evil (the Stepmother). Kinda like capture the flag, but without the flag. You can take any novel or movie or play or episode of television and look at it in these terms to figure out how it’s structured (or where the narrative begins to lose its rhythm).

One of the movies I sometimes use when I teach this stuff (specifically because it is seriously flawed) is Notting Hill. If you think through the points above and try to fit that movie into this schematic, you’ll see where it goes wrong. An important point: sometimes a novel or a movie goes wrong, but you forgive it because some other element you truly admire (the acting, the cinematography, something) convinces you to overlook the flaw. But the flaw is still there, and figuring it out will help you with your own writing.

———

You could sit down and think up conflicts all day long. When I taught creative writing I had a little store of games that generated conflicts where you wouldn’t expect to find one. What conflict could there possibly be between a grandmother and a kitten? Between a soccer coach and the old deaf lady who is his neighbor? If you’re starting with a new character or a character you know very well, you still have to figure out the underlying conflicts — both the bigger and the smaller ones.

Good, balanced, healthy people in happy situations are sweet, but boring. You want to be related to them, but you do not want them populating the only novel you’ve got to keep you busy on an eight hour flight.