reader mail

My side, your side: Fan fiction and The Gilded Hour

An email from an unhappy — and proactive reader.

Ms Donati, You have created a wonderful but unfinished story with very lovely and interesting people. Since you have written that you like to leave unanswered questions at the end of your books I will not be able to read your future works of art. I read– almost uninterrupted —” The Guilded [sic] Hour” and could not believe you would give up on the story without having an ending.—I know you think there was one—but I beg to differ. I have read the blog about this story—-and your answers to the comments were not satisfactory. I am writing my own ending to your story with each story line having a happy or unhappy closure and will not need to read any sequels. Thank you for your lovely start —now to start on my own end of the story lines.

My reply:

Ms Williams —  I take it as a compliment that you feel so strongly about the story and the characters. You are, of course, welcome to do as you please, as long as you don’t attempt to publish what you create. I wish you best of luck with it.

Harry Ransom Center, Austin, Texas Annotated pages from David Foster Wallace’s copy of C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Harry Ransom Center, Austin, Texas Annotated pages from David Foster Wallace’s copy of C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

I didn’t have to think very long about how to reply to this reader, and I meant what I said: she is free to write whatever she likes and resolve storylines to her satisfaction, as long as she doesn’t publish what she writes. It’s not in me to be angry or even irritated by this. I’m a little unclear on what she thought she might accomplish with her letter. Is she hoping I’ll change my ways? Ask her to collaborate in writing the sequel? Tell her I want to see what she writes? Maybe she’s just hopping mad and needs to vent in my general direction.

To be really clear: I have no problem with fan fiction. You have to really love and care about the world I created and the people in the world to go to this kind of trouble, and I really do see that as a great compliment. But I can’t and won’t read whatever she — or anyone– might write. The risk is that if I read fanfic, I’ll be accused of stealing ideas and sued.  Am I missing out on something? Impossible to know. Ms Williams is missing out on whatever I come up with in the sequel, which is her right. I can certainly  carry on without reading her endings to my stories.

So, I thank Ms. Williams for the compliment, but I can’t interact with her at all about this. 

I’d be curious what people think about this subject in general — not specifically the email from  Ms. Williams, but her need to resolve the story to her own satisfaction and timeline. 


Ms Middleton poses a few questions

Not every book is for every reader. There are many novels out there that don’t work for me, even well-written novels that are broadly praised. And yet, here I am responding to an email from someone who is very dissatisfied with The Gilded Hour

I have questions about The Gilded Hour.  I just finished reading it and, of course, I’m confused by the ending.  Why was the murder plot story not finished?

Also, I was confused as the story is supposed to take place in 1883 but, there is mention of cabs, hotels, and traffic.  Really?  In 1883?  The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel didn’t even open in NYC until 1893.  I felt like the setting kept jumping back and forth in-time and I had a hard time believing it was really 1883 since there was constant mention of “taking a cab”, “staying at the hotel” and “dealing with traffic.”  I’m curious as to why these were part of the setting if it was supposed to be 1883.  Any answers?

Also, I’ve never written to an author before, but, The Gilded Hour was very confusing for me since it jumped around in-time.  I’m looking forward to your explanations since you are the author.  


Rather than talk about the fact that the murders will be resolved in the sequel (as I did here if my regular readers want to be reminded), let me address historical accuracy.

Pictures may speak louder than words, but heck, I’ll supply both of them.

Gilsey House Hotel

Manhattan was a very crowded place in the 19th century.

The actress Jenny Lind  arrived to perform at Castle Garden (then a performance space) on September 11, 1850.   30,000 people met her at the dock and another  20,000 lined the streets to her hotel.  You can read about this in more detail at the New York Times.

But then you could just go to one of the many city guides such as The City of New York: A Complete Guide, published in 1876, and read the ads for the city’s many hotels. You can read this online; the list of hotels starts on page 65

The Gilsey House hotel, mentioned in The Gilded Hour  opened for business in 1871, and is still standing, and is still a hotel.  Daytonian in Manhattan — a blog dedicated to New York city history — has a great post about the Windsor Hotel, which was standing and in business in 1883. In general I’d recommend Daytonian in Manhattan when you’re wondering about history.

omnibus-horses-in-winter-stieglitzIn 1883 traffic was a major problem. It was worse, in many ways, because thousands of horses pulling wagons of all kinds meant manure, and no easy way to get rid of it. The photo to the right I like especially because I think it makes it clear what it was like to be on the street in the winter. It’s a Steiglitz photo. 

There were train tracks everywhere, and accidents were common.  You can read about one in heavy traffic in 1874 here. There were elevated trains, more accidents. And there were cabs. Such as this line of handsome cabs waiting for customers on the north side of Madison Square. That arm you see in the background is from the Statue of Liberty. While they were fundraising to build the pedestal in the bay, they put the arm in Madison Square Park and charged people to climb to the top.

All of the images at the end of this post date from between 1880 and 1890. You’ll note the large number of small horse drawn carriages — cabs. Lots of them. 

Ms. Middleton, I hope I have resolved your confusion. There’s more information about the historical aspects of The Gilded Hour on the novel’s webpage, in case more questions occur to you.

Union Square, cab line

Union Square, cab line

madison-square-1893 sixth-ave-shoppers washington market

Lower East Side

Union Square

Union Square

Winter traffic 1887

Winter traffic 1887

Fictional Hiccups, as I use them

Over on the forum there was an interesting question from CBigbee, which I answered there, but am duplicating here because links aren’t showing up over there properly.

The question:

First, I read the Wilderness series a few years back.  When I completed the final book I thought that I could never read another book again….So sad to see it end.  When I started Gilded Hour it took me a while to catch on to the connections back to Wilderness, and I was delighted! My burning (& odd) question is about hiccups.  I remember them from Wilderness.  Please help me understand what those are.  Do they sound like an actual hiccup, as in when one has the hiccups?  Because that doesn’t seem to work for me.  Is it a gasp?  What are those hiccups?  You are a brilliant writer and your novels complete me!

My answer:

Hi CBigbee —

First, thanks for stopping by.

When I use ‘hiccup’ metaphorically I’m thinking of the way people pull in a short breath in a noisy way. It’s heard a lot in European languages (Scandinavians tend to think of it as a feature of their languages alone, but it’s heard in languages across the world). You’ll hear it a lot of Scots English and less in American English, where you’ll most likely hear it as a sound of surprise.

Technically, in linguistics, this is called ingressive phonation. That sounds weird, but once you hear it you’ll know what I’m talking about. And thanks to the magic of the internet, you can hear it, right now, if you care to.

Eklund JIPA 2008 Figure 7b

Eklund JIPA 2008 Figure 7b

There’s an article on Wikipedia with a pretty good description of an inhaled affirmative, including a sound file. There is also a very technical website by Robert Eklund, here. Probably most useful from Eklund’s site is this sound file (and if you’re really interested, the corresponding spectogram, seen here.[1.This is phonetics, a branch of linguistics. Phoneticians (Robert Eklund, for example) study  the production of human speech sounds.] You will have to turn the sound on your computer way up and listen to it more than once, but the speaker of Scots English starts out the short sentence with what I have called a ‘hiccup’ sound to describe this phenomenon when I’m writing fiction.

See what happens when you hit my linguistics button? I miss teaching.


prequels, sequels, alternate realities and the wilderness series

There’s a page for the Wilderness series on Facebook, but I don’t often check it. Supposedly I get email notification when someone posts something on that page, but that doesn’t always work. Today I went over there to see if there were questions to answer, and found about ten of them dating back to the summer.

The common question I get — on Facebook or anywhere else — is about Ethan and Callie, but second most common are requests for new novels about specific characters. I’ve had people tell me they’d love to hear Blue-Jay’s story, as well as Wee Iona’s, Robbie’s, Nathaniel’s parents, even Jemima’s story. I am truly touched by these requests.  I take them as evidence that my characters live on in the minds of the readers, which is a great compliment. The series has been very successful over the years which isn’t so much about me writing as it is about you reading.

Here are the reasons I can’t just sit down and write (for example) Blue-Jay’s story.

1. Characters are not always forthcoming, If I can’t get into the head of a particular character, it is next to impossible to write a story focused on that person.

2. The biggest road block has to do with the nature of publishing.

Authors who produce true best sellers — books that top the NYT charts — those are the writers who have clout.  In this context, clout means the freedom to write the book you want to write and to know that it will be published. Most writers, even those of us who have had good, long-term success, don’t have this kind of clout. We have to submit proposals to the publisher to get a contract on a novel, and that is by no means guaranteed. Which is why almost all novelists have day jobs.

And that’s the simple truth about the way things work.