Tragedy Encapsulated: Ephemera

Ephemera is generally understood as bits of paper  originally meant to be transitory, but that have nevertheless become collectible.  Collage artists are fond of ephemera. So are historical novelists. Give me a stack of bills, ticket stubs, used envelopes, menus, newspaper advertisements, postcards, labels, instruction pamphlets and birthday cards from the 1880s and I’m busy for days. To get a sense of the kind of material out there, have a look at the eBay category Ephemera 1800-1899.  

Most ephemera is unimportant in the greater scheme of things, but every once in awhile you run across something breathtaking.  I was looking at 19th century prescriptions and pharmacy labels when I found  this handwritten cablegram dated 1873 in the Library of Congress American Memory collection.

It reads:

The Western Union Telegraph Company.
To [Horatio Gates] Spafford
159 LaSalle St.  Chicago [law office of H. G. Spafford].
Received at Chicago, Ill., Dec. 2d, 5:40 AM, 1873.  

“Saved alone what shall I do.  Mrs Goodwin  Children  Willie Culver  lost go with Lorriaux  until answer reply . . . Paris. Spafford.”- 

The Library of Congress provided more detail of the tragedy:

Anna Spafford, 1873

Mrs. Anna Spafford was writing to her husband, a lawyer in Chicago, to notify him that the Ville du Havre had sunk, and she alone of their party had survived.  Lost were her friend Mrs. Daniel Goodwin, the Spafford daughters Annie, Maggie, Bessie, and Tanetta, and a neighbor boy called Willie Culver. Mrs. Spafford had gone with Reverend Lorriaux (a French minister and a fellow survivor of shipwreck) to  Paris, where she waited for instructions on what to do.  

Wikipedia provides more information about the shipwreck and the Spafford family, which I excerpt and summarize:

On 15 November 1873, the Ville du Havre sailed from New York with 313 passengers and crew on board. A week into the voyage to France she collided with the iron clipper Loch Earn at about 2 am on Saturday, 22 November. At the time of the collision, Ville du Havre was proceeding under both steam and sail at about 12 knots.

The passengers were roused from sleep by the collision. Most went on deck to learn that the ship was sinking rapidly, broken almost in half.  Then, in the panic and chaos, the passengers found that the lifeboats had recently been painted and they were now stuck fast to the deck. Finally a few of them were yanked loose, and passengers fought desperately to be one of the few travelers to board those rescue boats. The main and mizzen masts collapsed, smashing two of the life boats and killing several people. It took 12 minutes for the ship to sink.

61 passengers and 26 of the crew were saved and taken on board the Loch Earn, while 226 passengers and crew perished. The Loch Earn, herself in danger of sinking, was subsequently rescued by the American cargo ship, Tremountain and all Ville du Havre passengers and crew were transferred to that ship. The Loch Earn, with its bow smashed in, commenced to sink as the bulkheads gave way, so she was abandoned at sea by her crew and sank shortly afterwards. 

Although Horatio Spafford was not a passenger on board the Ville du Havre, his wife (Anna) and four daughters were.  At the last moment Horatio was detained by real estate business, so Anna and the girls went on ahead for Paris. Anna was picked up unconscious, floating on a plank of wood, by the crew of the Loch Earn.

Nine days after the shipwreck Anna landed in Wales and cabled Horatio, Saved alone. What shall I do? Horatio immediately left Chicago to bring his wife home. On the Atlantic crossing, the captain of his ship called Horatio to his cabin to tell him that they were passing over the spot where his four daughters had died. He wrote to Rachel, his wife’s half-sister, “On Thursday last we passed over the spot where she went down, in mid-ocean, the waters three miles deep. But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe, folded, the dear lambs”. Horatio later wrote the famous hymn “It Is Well with My Soul” commemorating his daughters.

So that short, terse cablegram provides a door to a much larger, heartbreaking story.  It just so happens that there is a shipwreck in the beginning of Where the Light Enters (do not panic, nobody you know was on the ship that sunk). The temptation, when I come across something like this telegram, is to revisit the whole section of the novel to see if I can make it any more factually accurate. What does it means that the Ville du Havre was proceeding under both steam and sail at about 12 knots? 

But I will not pursue it. That’s my firm intention: to leave the matter of ships that sailed under sail and steam at the same time in the bin of unanswered questions. Because it’s not important. Nope. Makes no difference to me or my story.  

On the other hand, I will tuck this all away for consideration at a later date.

Edited to add this Youtube Video of the hymn written by Horatio Spafford. I am not at all religious, but this piece of music is very moving, given the history.

Visualizing Poverty

An impoverished woman in St Giles, looking after the baby of a friend who has been lucky enough to find a day's work. Picture: Museum of London

I depend a lot on images from museums when I’m trying to get a scene down that’s evading me. This particular photo has always worked to remind me what it means to be poor.

This image: An impoverished woman in St Giles, looking after the baby of a friend who has been lucky enough to find a day’s work. Picture: Museum of London

I’m Teaching at the Chuckanut Writers Conference

The annual Chuckanut Writers Conference takes place this year from Thursday to Saturday, June 23-25.  And I’m teaching. Or actually, Sara’s teaching. But I’ll be there too. I don’t do much teaching these days and I miss it, so I’m looking forward to this.

What I’m teaching

Ventriloquism on the Page

Master Class with Sara Donati
Thursday 1:00-4:00 pm

In the late eighteenth century a performer appearing on a London stage advertised his act as a curious discussion between himself and Little Tommy, an invisible friend.  The performer was Joseph Askins, who was to become one of the earliest popular stage ventriloquists. Askins didn’t have a puppet called Tommy sitting on his knee. Instead he convinced his audience that he was having a conversation with a personality separate and distinct from his own, sitting just out of sight. He did this by throwing his voice.

In creating characters, the writer must throw her voice.  If she does her job well enough the reader suspends disbelief and accepts the many voices on the page as distinct beings separate from each other and the author herself.  In this master class for intermediate to advanced writers, we will look at what goes into our kind of ventriloquism. Before you can throw a character’s voice, you have to be able to hear the character, and characters are not always forthcoming. We’ll be considering a couple ways to make reluctant or shy characters speak up, and we’ll experiment with throwing them.


Tell Me Who You Are: From Photo to Backstory

Friday 2:30 – 4:00 | Breakout Session 2

Some writers will tell you that everything begins with character. If you have built strong characters, this theory goes, you can set them free to interact on the page and a story will construct itself.  Except readers want story. It’s the most important thing, the reason they pick up the book to start with. If you don’t have a story to tell, you’ll lose that reader very quickly.  Character and story are equally important, I would claim, and you can’t develop one without the other. We’ll start with a series of photographs I bring with me, and we’ll talk about what we see in a given face. In short writing periods, we’ll construct very short backstories for each of the faces, and then ask volunteers to share what they’ve come up with. Some exciting and unexpected characterizations have come out of this exercise, often times in ways that surprise the writer him or herself. We’ll have time for five or six backstory writing prompts, but you will go away with a dozen new characters in your head.


 

 

There are a lot of interesting sessions this year, so please have a look. If you have questions about my two classes, I’ll do my best to answer them.

Chuckanut Writers Conference

Try your hand at snappy dialogue

You live around here?

This is an exercise I use when I’m teaching creative writing. I always get a kick out of it, and the students do, too. I’m thinking it might engage the interest of some of the people who stop by here — and who need another opportunity to comment and thus get entered into the giveaway.

To start, I provide a question. For example: Do you live around here?

Goal: Write a one sentence reply that gets the whole story going at a gallop.  

Example answers:

What kind of question is that? I look like a bum to you?

Sure do. That little yellow job over there is mine, all nine hundred fifty square feet. Shingled the roof myself, which is how I come to do such mischief to my back.

Detective, not to embarrass you or nothing, but you got mustard on your tie, did you know that?

————–

For each of these replies you should have a some impressions about the character. The third person is a smart ass who likes tweaking authority figures. The second one is  talkative old man who lives by himself, and is lonely, and tries to engage anybody who asks him a question. And the first … there’s room for some interpretation there. A female, a male, young, old, all you have for sure is an attitude. But it could take you places, that attitude.

So here’s another question to open a scene. See if you can come up with a one sentence (or so) reply that gets the story going, and gives us something solid about the primary character.

How did you get that black eye?

No restrictions on who is asking this question. Could be a spouse, a stranger on a bus, a barista, an ER nurse, anybody. See if you can come up with a response.