roses in march

In 1883, Easter fell on March 25.  On the east coast the weather is unpredictable  at that time of year; it can be balmy or miserable, and has been both.  According to the The Sun, one of the many daily newspapers printed in Manhattan during this period, it was a beautiful sunny day (“A sky and a temperature in keeping with the season.”). The Sun goes into detail: What women were wearing, how churches were decorated, who was singing what in which ceremonies, and of course, who gave the sermons.

Charitable events were also documented, and a few oddities jump out there:

At the Five Points Mission there was no dinner. The old rule of giving meals only on working days was adhered to, but on Tuesday next colored eggs will be added to the regular bill of far in honor of Easter.

And then this interesting tidbit:

Three hundred young voices united in singing Easter songs at the Howard Mission and Home for Little Wanderers at 40 New Bowery yesterday afternoon [Easter Sunday].

If I made up the name The Howard Mission and Home for Little Wanderers, I would be the object of scoffing.

Flowers seem to have been everywhere. The ones mentioned most often: violets, lilies, roses, and smilax (a type of greenery somewhat like holly).  As I was reading all this I could imagine it quite clearly, and then the question came to me: roses in March?

Clearly, there must have been greenhouses and gardeners who supplied out of season flowers. There’s no other explanation for  roses in March. I had assumed the normal flowers of the season — lily of the valley, crocus, daffodils.  The roses took me by surprise (and come to think of it, the lilies, too). Now I’m all curious about professional gardening, where the greenhouses were, and how all these flowers were transported.  But I won’t go searching for this information. Nope, I won’t. I am making a vow because you know, really, that’s not relevant to the story. Unless of course I can fit in a character who is in fact a gardener…

Miss Zula's garden

Zula's garden, via Mo Reilly

Zula's garden

I think I’ve mentioned before that I use a lot of visual cues when I’m writing. If I’m stuck on something, I can stare at a related image for a while and most times that will make something click.

Sometimes, though, I don’t have an image that will work. It happens more times than not that I run across the perfect image after the book is published. For example, this picture which captures Miss Zula’s place in the world exactly.

This was taken by Maureen “Mo” Reilly and uploaded at Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Miss Zula

spring 2007
My camellias are all blooming; the magnolia tree is in full flower. The rest of the garden is a disaster. But one thing at a time.

On another front, I got some feedback on Tied to the Tracks which I have been trying to process:

I wanted Miss Zula’s story. I wanted to hear her voice. I wanted her sister’s story. Those were the storylines that interested me, and there wasn’t enough of them.

I’ll try to reflect back what this reader is telling me:

This reader would have liked Tied to the Tracks better if it had been all about Miss Zula and her family, from Miss Zula’s POV.

Some time ago I posted about my old friend from grad school, Steve Huff, and what happened at his doctoral dissertation defense. That post was about the way readers sometimes respond to authors, and how authors respond back.

So my first impulse is to write back to this person with this set piece:

I see your point, that would be an interesting story. If you’d like to advance me $100,000 for approximately two year’s work with the standard Author’s Guild contract in place, I’ll see what I can do.

On the other hand, I do appreciate the fact that my secondary characters made such an impression. So I’m going to do something I rarely try to do: I’m going to say something about my intent in how I wrote TTTT. In the next post.

getting started

Everybody approaches a new novel in their own idiosyncratic way. Some people do no prep work at all, and don’t need it. With a germ of an idea they sit down and struggle through, page by page. Some take a year or more to get organized and comfortable with the material and characters.

Historical novelists can approach a new novel in a variety of ways, but in general terms you’ve got two choices: do the research up front, or leave all that detail work for later and simply put brackets in the text where research is necessary. Of course most people use a combination of these two approaches.

Historical fiction requires a lot of background work no matter how you approach it. A writer who is an avid gardener may decide to write a novel about André Le Nôtre who designed the Sun King’s gardens at Versailles. The writer’s interest in gardening will make the research more pleasant, but it won’t necessarily make it easier. Luckily various scholars have looked into the life of André Le Nôtre and his relationship to Louis XIV, so you’d have some place to start (for example, Ian Thompson’s The Sun King’s Garden: Louis XIV, Andre le Notre and the Creation of the Gardens of Versailles . Another thing: if you’re really serious about the time and place, you’d have an easier time if you happened to be able to read 17th century French.

Which face it, most of us are not. My advice to anybody thinking about historical fiction: don’t commit yourself to a topic unless you are really, really intrested in it. Because if you are not so keen on Egyptology, it’s going to be hard to write a novel about Cleopatra, no matter how much her character interests you. I learned my lesson about this one day when I was trying to make sense of a diagram of an East Indiaman, and I realized that I had had more than enough of ships, and really, had never much liked them to start with. At that point I had no choice but to muddle through.

So here I sit with the Wilderness world spread out around me. The first five books, the lists of characters in those books, timelines, age charts, maps, notes. The first thing I do is to construct the world in which the new book is set. That means determining year and month, and once that is done, looking at what’s going on in the world in general. From there I work my way down to the specific: where are all the characters? What are they doing? Are they settled? Any major problems or conflicts pop up while I was busy with Pajama Jones?

All this stuff gets written down in a chart where I can draw connections and write notes. I ask myself questions. Where did Anna go? What did she die of? Is her husband thinking of remarrying? Most important I look at major issues of the time and place. Is there a war brewing? How will that effect the village? Was there a drought that year? That might be the key to the whole structure of the novel.

This process takes a couple days. When I’m done I’ve got lists and pages of notes and drawings, a long series of subjects I’ll have to research, and also, if things go well, an idea of the major and minor conflicts that will drive the story.

So I’m getting my paper and colored pens and drawing pencils organized. Stay tuned, and I’ll see if I can describe the process as I go through it.