newspapers.com: the agony and the ecstacy

Despite the very high price, I subscribe to Ancestry.com for two reasons: First,  it’s an outstanding resource for a historical novelist, because it gives me access to images of documentation (for example, birth and death certificates; citizenship applications) and to census pages which in turn tell me a lot about the way people lived. If I need to name a character and I’m stuck, Ancestry.com will rescue me. If need a sense of how much a bricklayer earned in 1880, a little digging there will provide that information. 

Before you ask: yes. I do need this kind of information. Historical novelists are the personification of OCD.

Second, a full Ancestry.com subscription gives me access to Newspapers.com.

Not so long ago I had to have access to a university library’s off-site research databases before I could look things up in historical newspapers. Now there are many free online sources, including the Library of Congress. Newspapers.com is not free (and not cheap) but the database is huge, and includes papers from small towns as well as big urban centers, going back in some cases to Revolutionary era publications.  If you are writing about the Civil War, there’s nothing you can’t find through Newspapers.com.  

For my own purposes, I have looked for (and found) reliable information on a wide range of topics including:

  • The materials used in different kinds of clothing, and the price ranges;
  • What vegetables could be put on the table fresh from the market on a given day;
  • What an 1884 obituary  looked like, and who they were about (hint: not poor people);
  • Society wedding details;
  • What was being sold in which stores, for how much;
  • Public opinion on matters as diverse as elevated trains and vaccinations;
  • What a dressmaker did, and what s/he earned;
  • Crimes, small and large, in detail, including robberies, kidnappings, assaults, gang fights, forgery, impersonation, and fraud
  • Arrests for gambling and prostitutions.

Here’s an interesting example of an unusual story that I clipped. I may never use it, but it caught my eye.  From the New-York Tribune, Friday, 30 November 1883. Page 2:

As useful and wonderful as Newspapers.com is, it is not flawless. Its usefulness depends on the quality of its search engine, which is iffy and can be terribly frustrating at times. So for example, I used it today because I wanted to get a sense of when the term ‘intern’ began to be used for medical students. I searched ‘intern’ in newspapers published in New York (state) from 1875-1885, and I got 3,613 results. While I didn’t go through every return, I’m fairly sure that ‘intern’ was not used to refer to medical students in a clinical training setting. In fact, only one of the returns had anything to do with medicine. In an 1880 NYT article intern was defined as a “representative of the [medical] staff” in describing a hospital internal dispute.

The problem is that optical character recognition still has some way to go, and the proof is right here. In searching for ‘intern’ Newspapers.com gave me newspaper articles with the following words highlighted:

  • systems
  • Winters
  • interest
  • lantern
  • of
  • tavern
  • interview
  • letters
  • intend
  • William
  • interpose
  • intense
  • interment
  • patent
  • association
  • Eastern
  • internal
  • international

‘Internal’ and ‘international’ make sense, but William, tavern, patent, Eastern?  So I wasted an hour looking through multiple pages with false returns like these. This has happened in the past, and I wrote to customer support at the time outlining what was going on. I never heard back from them. 

Is Newspapers.com worth the expense, given this unfortunate glitch? For me it is, but then not many people worry about the price of a lamb chop in 1884. Or how infants were offered for adoption:

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 23 Mar 1881, Wed, Page 3

Sex

I had a very earnest email from Cynthia with a question that deserves an answer:

I am captivated by the life, struggles, and victories of the characters in your Into the Wilderness series. The one thing I find dissonant and disturbing is this intense and at times shocking elaborate sexual revelation. Being a Christian woman who discerns what to read by God’s directive moral command, it leaves me uncomfortable to say the least. Especially the homosexual endeavor in Lake in the Clouds. I know my option is to put down your books and not pick them back up, but there is a quality to your storytelling that I find enjoyable except for that. Why? include it at all. It seems to me it does not enhance your characters, and without it, these books are appropriate for women of all ages. Just curious.

One of the basic truths about storytelling and fiction, in my view of things,  is this: not every book is for every reader. There are well-written, important novels out there that don’t work for me personally.  I can have objections to a novel that are about style, or approach, or subject matter. Hundreds of critical review praising it to the heavens, thousands of five stars reviews by readers: if it doesn’t work for me, that’s something for me to wonder about and explore for myself. It’s not about the novel. For every novel I come across  I have to decide whether the novel is worth my time.

Cynthia is disturbed by sex scenes in my novels because, as she puts it, they are in conflict with her beliefs as a Christian.  

For me personally, religion is not an issue; my understanding of right and wrong is not founded in any scripture or any faith. I am what is generally called a Freethinker. Wikipedia has a good general definition:

Freethought (or “free thought”) is a philosophical viewpoint which holds that positions regarding truth should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and rationalism, rather than authority, tradition, revelation, or other dogma. In particular, freethought is strongly tied with rejection of traditional religious belief. The cognitive application of freethought is known as “freethinking”, and practitioners of freethought are known as “freethinkers”.  The term first came into use in the 17th century in order to indicate people who inquired into the basis of traditional religious beliefs.

So I have to take religion out of Cynthia’s question and answer it from a different direction: is there any logical, rational reason to omit sex scenes from my novels?

My goal is to tell an engaging story with characters who are as close to life as I can make them. They may face unusual challenges, but in the end they deal with universal issues, things that are common to all of us: simple survival, connections and responsibilities and expectations in relationship to other people and to communities. What makes life worth living, in a more general way.  The way people relate to each other sexually is not a secondary or unimportant element of their lives.

If I write a sex scene, it is because I believe that the scene will contribute to the understanding of the characters.  I don’t write sex scenes to arouse the reader, to titillate or irritate or shock.  Some people enjoy erotica — and there is some beautifully written erotica out there to enjoy, if that interests you — but I don’t fall into that category. In an 800 page novel a handful of scenes that involve sex do not indicate an overwhelming preoccupation with that subject.  

So I write sex scenes for the same reason I write scenes where my characters argue, or laugh, or weep: to tell the whole story. I am sorry to lose a reader because his or her world view requires them to turn away, but I tell the best story I can, and leave this ultimate decision up to the individual. 

after thirty-five years of marriage

source

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.

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.

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.

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.