series in progress

You Can Dance

Right now I’m trying to get Little Birds off the ground, and it has been a struggle. It’s always a struggle, but these characters are not at all clear yet, and until I get a better sense of them everything is stalled.

Today I had a kind of breakthrough, which doesn’t happen often. I’m writing about it here so I will remember exactly what happened, and also to entertain readers who happen to wander by.

Two of the primary characters in Little Birds are pretty well established in my head (they are  Lily’s children, but you don’t know them), but a crucial third character — somebody entirely new — is missing.  This has been causing me some distress. Of course I did what all writers of fiction do in this all-too-common fix: I found a way to procrastinate and went out to run errands.

Driving home from errands, I decided to turn off the audiobook that was playing (dry, but interesting) and turn on my current music playlist, which is set to shuffle. The song that started took me by surprise because I forgot it was on the list:  Save the Last Dance for Me — the Drifters original recording.  

And suddenly I had that third missing character.   I don’t even know his name yet, but I can see him leaning against a wall, arms crossed, watching people dance.  Or maybe, just maybe, somebody has offered him a fiddle and he’s playing and watching the dance floor.

Where did this come from, you might be wondering.  I had to think about it to sort out the associations, but it ties into my own experiences while I was living in Vorarlberg in my early twenties.  I did a lot of dancing. There were dances, all the time. Simple weekend dances.  Big fancy dances for Mardi Gras or annual celebrations of one guild or another. Big or small they all featured local musicians and dancing. And lots of beer. And schnapps. You’re thinking ump-pa-pa, but no. That’s not what it’s like at all and I’m not sure I can make it clear how un-umpa this experience is, but I’m going to try.

Imagine  a lot of people crowded onto the dance floor, some proportion of them much the worse for beer, still cheerful as they bumbled along.  Some small portion — maybe fifteen percent — were there because they really liked dancing and were good at it. I was in that fifteen percent. 

This is a video from Helsinki, a polka dancing competition.  The music is scaled way way down, but I’m posting this here so you can see the dancing. You can hear the excitement in the audience, and hear them yodeling in appreciation. This captures part of what it’s like. 

In your imagination you have to speed this up some, and also imagine it is happening in a hazy smoky dance hall (ca 1980), and now imagine the dancers are just regular (and somewhat younger) in their nice-casual clothes. But they can dance. Speed it up again. If you’re good at this there’s a lot of improvising, double and triple steps, stamping, things I can’t really describe but I could do, and do well. If I had stayed there I’d probably weigh 120 and be able to carry a calf around, no problem. It’s exercise and cardio exercise all rolled into a single package that you WANT. And that’s the trick, of course. 

One of the chapters in Homestead was meant to capture what this kind of dance was like.  Now, today, while I was listening to Save the Last Dance I had a flashback to the dance I described in that chapter.  This is what happened in real life: Someone I didn’t know asked me to dance toward the end of the evening, when the musicians had had a couple shots of schnapps and they were just on a tear.  I had noticed this guy dancing and hoped he might come ask me, because watching him I knew that I would dance well with him. 

Here’s the thing, in this kind of dancing. If a guy who is strong and lithe and confident puts a hand on your waist and takes your other hand in his, and then he just takes off — and you can follow him — it’s the most exhilarating thing in the world. If you can follow him, and then assert yourself a little, and he responds to this … I’m going to say this but you won’t believe me. Better than the best sex.   To this day I remember the feel of the stranger’s arm muscles through his shirt.  I remember the way he smiled down at me, and winked. I remember he didn’t ask and I didn’t hesitate when the set ended, we just kept dancing.

I never saw him again, never learned anything about him, but we were absolutely in sync with each other in a way that is distinctly more than dancing.  There were a lot of unplanned pregnancies in Vorarlberg at this time (and maybe still are, but apparently this kind of dancing is out of favor, to which I say NO NO NO), and I am convinced that some large percentage of them happened after two people click like this on the dance floor.

Now I have to go figure out who this character is. While I interrogate him you can watch this Bruce Springsteen cover of Save the Last Dance. It gives me chills, because: well, nobody can do a song like this better.  After you watch this go look for his Tougher than the Rest. 

 

I have great beta readers

This is the first feedback from one of my beta readers on the first 3/4 of Where the Light Enters

I think I will have to have it framed and hung right where I can see it when I look up from the screen.


If you put the space shuttle scene this early in the book, I’m not sure what Jack is going to do for the rest of the second act. Killing zombies is only going to hold the audience’s interest for ten or so pages at a go. I’ll have more observations as I get further in, but I will add that this is the best time travel scene I’ve ever read. A lot of authors have tried to describe the idea of a fourth dimensional space, but you nailed it here.

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: