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

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 v Plot

brokenguardrail

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.

Why is this important?  From Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction:

…Yet readers still want to wonder what happened next, and unless you make them wonder, they will not turn the page. You must master plot, because no matter how profound or illuminating your vision of the world may be, you cannot convey it to those who do not read you.

To illustrate the difference between story and plot, I’ve got outlines for two novels. In each case I start in with a list of events. (If you’re interested in how the process itself works for me, I’ve written about that in various places, for instance, here.)


One: Fatal Car Accident

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 traveling 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 traveling 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.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.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.

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.


Two: See what you can do with this story. Where does your plot start?

  1. Marge Lawson is born to a middle class family in Toledo in the spring of 1954.
  2. By the time she is ten, she’s the oldest of seven kids. Her mother depends on her help.
  3. She doesn’t do well in school but she’s highly praised by the parish priest and all the other mothers in the neighborhood for her dedication to her family, her housekeeping and childrearing skills.
  4. She lives at home taking care of the family after graduation, and is still there when all the other kids are in homes of their own, many in the neighborhood. Her mother dies and she takes care of her invalid father until she’s thirty-five, when he dies.
  5. Her priest introduces her to the new principal of the high school, and after a courtship Gordon Johnson proposes. Marge accepts because it seems like the thing to do.
  6. For the next twenty five years she raises two kids and takes care of the house. She is widely admired for her housekeeping skills and the care she gives her husband, kids and garden. She cooks every meal from scratch, launders and irons every piece of clothing. She has little time for activities outside the house, and doesn’t mind. Her family is everything.
  7. Her kids grow up more than a little spoiled, and once they go off to college they are gone for good. She doesn’t hear from them very often.
  8. One day she goes shopping and learns that the brand of spray starch she has always used to iron her husband’s shirts is no longer being produced. She spends the next week trying out every other brand she can find, and settles finally but unhappily on an alternative.
  9. Her husband, in a bad mood because his beloved baseball team has lost two games in a row, snaps at her when she bemoans the state of the shirts she’s just ironed. He tells her he doesn’t give a damn about the shirts, and would she just shut up finally about spray starch? Get a life, he tells her.
  10. Late that night, Marge gets up because she can’t sleep. She gets the iron, plugs it in, turns it on the highest setting, and then buries it under the blankets at the foot of the bed. Then she goes downstairs and makes coffee while she waits.
  11. When she is taken in to be questioned in the matter of her husband’s suspcious death, all she can talk about is spray starch, and how things will never be the same since they took away the only kind she could depend on.So this is a chronological accounting of Marge’s life. It could go on, of course. How she adjusts to prison or a facility for the criminally insane, for example. The letters she writes to her kids would be pretty interesting, I think. But to tell this story in order like this would be a mistake. Moving back and forth in time, across perspectives and points of view lends a certain kind of dramatic tension that keeps the reader engaged and turning the page. The reader is looking for a reason to keep reading, you know. The reader wants to be swept away, enchanted, engrossed, absolutely mezmerized, but most readers don’t have the patience for long build ups. They want some hint, pretty darn quick, about what kind of story this is, what kind of conflicts are going to be moving things along, and what the payoff will be.

Maybe I’d start when Marge’s story when she is twelve and angry that she can’t go out with her friends, so she’s careless and burns herself with the iron as her mother is praising her for her dedication. Maybe I would start on the day her father dies, the conversation she has with him. I imagine he tells her some truths she doesn’t want to hear. She would spend the first years of her marriage convincing herself that he was wrong, that she was happy taking care of her family. Then I might jump forward to her in prison, age seventy, writing a letter to her granddaughter. She could tell stories about her life, either in complete denial (in which case you’ve got an unreliable narrator to work with, where you tell two stories at once) or with some insight that comes with distance. Maybe she’s perfectly happy, working in the prison laundry, and she needs to explain why that’s reasonable. The scene where she gets up and gets the iron to put it in the bed — you could start with that, but then you’ve got to handle the pacing very carefully.

Plotting is the arrangement of elements of a story into a dramatically effective whole. This is not the only definition of plot, of course, but it’s most generally what people mean when they are talking about the writing process.