Monday, March 23, 2015

Evoking An Era

This morning on the Best Selling Reads blog I wrote about the methods I use and references I find valuable for creating a sense of time in my writing. As someone who reads all sorts of books—there is no particular genre I find all that compelling—I sometimes come across a story that purports to be set in a particular time and place but as I read I find it either inauthentic or riddled with cliches. The success of Diana Gabledon's Outlander books (which are excellent) prompted a rash of “Highlander” romances, most of which are not. Even when historical details are only the background to a story, that background has to ring true.

Recently I have been interested in Presidential biographies—I wrote about that in my last blog post. I finished reading Theodore Roosevelt's and last night began Thomas Jefferson's. The first thing that struck me was how differently those two men—both brilliant but separated by a century—used language. I am only a few pages into Jefferson's book but the writing is dry, flat, and definitely a challenge to read. If I were to write about that period for contemporary readers, I certainly would not imitate Jefferson's style but it is good to know that there are strong differences.

Another charming reference source I've come across is an online project to catalog and digitize historic American cookbooks called Feeding America. I'm finding this a fascinating resource. What is more prevalent in the lives of any characters than food? As I am working on my new cycle of Marienstadt stories—two of which are set in the mid-eighteenth century—I find myself constantly searching to learn what my characters would eat, how they would dress, what books they might have read, how they traveled, what jobs they might have.

The truth is I love to write and love writing in a way that not only amuses and entertains the reader but which also lets them feel they have entered another time and place. I view good books as little vacations—means of getting away and viewing life from a fresh perspective. Nothing makes me happier than a book that I can slip into and get away from it all for awhile so as a writer, that is often my goal—to give my readers that experience. Resources that make it possible to improve that experience are immeasurably valuable to me.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Presidential Reading Challenge

In the past few years I have gotten into a good many online “discussions” about politics—some informative, some a waste of time—and I realized something, some of the people who argue most vociferously have NO idea what the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Amendments are about, let alone how the Presidency is supposed to work. Over and over and over I have seen people argue that the Constitutions and its Amendments cannot be changed. When I point out that the Eighteenth Amendment was overturned by the Twenty-first they tell me I am wrong. And don't even get me started on those who claim that the Founders intended this to be a “Christian nation” when, in fact, the Founders intended that religion be kept out of government.

Recently I had the idea to see what some of our Presidents—you know, the guys who actually held the position—had to say after they had held office and knew first-hand what that was like. I downloaded Theodore Roosevelt's Autobiography and I am halfway through it. It is an eye-opening experience. For one thing, he is a good writer, a natural born story-teller with a droll sense of humor. He had such an impressive variety of jobs prior to being President that he got to see politics from many perspectives. I am learning a lot.

Consequently, I went back to Amazon and downloaded two more Presidential autobiographies/memoirs—Thomas Jefferson's and Ulysses S. Grant's. I intend to read them next.

This gave me an idea—why not have a Presidential Reading Challenge? In order to qualify for the challenge, each book must be written by the President himself, not by a different author, and it must be written after his Presidency, when he has experienced holding that office. I challenge all people who think they know how government works to read three such books. This could be interesting.

Naturally, there are a lot of great books about Presidents but those don't count. There are also a lot of books written by men who would become President some day—such as current President Barack Obama's books. But I think for this challenge the books should be written post-presidency.

It is easy enough to find lists of them. Goodreads and Wikipedia are great places to start. And since many of these books are in the public domain the digital versions are either free or very cheap. All three of the ones I selected—Jefferson, Grant, and Roosevelt—were .99 each. Since Lincoln didn't live long enough to write his autobiography, his collected letters and writing can also count.

Anyway, I think this could be an interesting experiment and I wonder if anyone is up to it. I'll keep you posted.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, March 16, 2015

I'm a Cowl-Knittin' Fool

And I'm having a great time doing it. A couple weeks ago I posted pictures of some cowls I made and I just keep cranking out more--I can't seem to help myself. What makes these cowls interesting to work on is the yarn. All of the projects in this post are knit with Lion Brand yarns and all are knit in the round using size 7 or 8 24"-circular needles. I use exactly the same method for all of them--I cast on the number of stitches listed below. 

Working in the round, I either knit entirely in Garter Stitch (k row, P row) or 6 rounds of Garter followed by as many rows as I like of Stockinette (all K rows when working in the round) then ending with 6 more rows of Garter. Doing that keeps the finished cowl from "rolling" like it would in all Stockinette stitch. Here are my latest creations:

Large Fischer Cowl

The yarn is Lion Brand Pelt in Fischer. It took 4 skeins. I cast on 120 stitches and worked in the round until most of the yarn was used.

Small Blue Mink Cowl

The yarn is Lion Brand Pelt in Blue Mink. It took 2 skeins. I cast on 80 stitches and worked in the round until most of the yarn was used.

Small Mink and Sable Cowls

Same as the Blue Mink Cowl except the yarns are Sable and Mink.

Large Champagne Infinity Cowl

The yarn is Lion Brand Fun Fur in Champagne. It took 3 skeins. I cast on 120 stitches but for this cowl I twisted the first worked row around once and worked in the round until most of the yarn was used.

Large Sparkly White Infinity Cowl

The yarn is Lion Brand Festive Fur in White. It took 6 skeins. Working with double strands I cast on 100 stitches and added a twist in the first worked row, then worked in the round until most of the yarn was used.

And that's it for now but I still have quite a bit of yarn and am looking forward to the net projects.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

The Past Is Always Present

When I wrote The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall: Secrets of Marienstadt I had no idea that so many people from backgrounds similar to mine would both enjoy it and relate to it. In writing the eleven stories that comprised that book I used stories told by family and friends as the inspiration for each story and, though I thought of them as my family's stories, many other people told me similar tales were told in their families. Because my heritage is largely German (with a little bit of Scottish and a little bit of Swiss) I wrote about German culture in my stories but a few people said, “My people came from Ireland (or Italy or Poland) and they tell stories like that, too.”

So, when I decided to write a sequel, I knew I was going to have to delve into the past as the background for my new stories. My friend Ray and I often talk about the proximity of the past to the present. We have marveled over how connected we feel to people who lived a century or more ago because we knew people who knew those people. Ray, who is my age, knew our home town's historian, Charles Schaut—I knew him, too, though not as well as Ray. And Charlie knew some of the town's original settlers. So even though the original Marienstadt was founded in 1842, even now in 2015, we knew someone who knew our founders. It is this, to me, remarkable gift of memory and story-telling that is ever-present as I am working on the next collection of stories.

I sometimes wonder if people still sit around and tell stories like they used to. In our age of instant electronic communication we are always connected to everyone but does that instant access inspire us to look back into our histories? I don't know. My nephew is backpacking through New Zealand right now and he uploads beautiful photographs to Facebook so we can travel with him. Much as I love looking at them, I wish I could hear him telling me where they are and what he experiences looking at them. I want that sense of his personal experience.

At Christmas time I was in my hometown for a few days and my brother had a wonderful party. There were over 30 family members there and a few of us old folks did sit around over way too many beers and tell some stories about things that happened when we were young. The young folks listened, laughed, asked questions. It made me happy especially because the function hall where the party was held was in the very room in which my mother had worked for several years and as her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren talked and laughed and shared their day, I could imagine her sitting in the corner smiling and enjoying every minute of it. And then I remembered that my Grandfather Valentine had once frequented the club next door, I thought maybe he lingered there, too, even though he died before I was born.

Technology is a wonderful thing—it provides the means for us to share so much. But it is the human act of communication, of telling stories and sharing memories, that keeps us connected to those who have gone before us. My youngest siblings never knew my father's mother. It is only when I say things like “Grandma Valentine had a canary that sat in the sunshine and sang so beautifully and Grandma baked delicious bread and hung bunches of herbs in the back stairwell to dry” that they get a sense of their grandmother.

The past is ever-present when we share our memories and this is something I find beautiful and important to knowing who we are. The other day on Facebook a second cousin of mine asked if I knew anything about where our mutual grandmother came from. So I wrote a post about how our Great-x-5-grandfather Abraham Kobel left Switzerland in 1749 to come to Pennsylvania and how he fought with Geroge Washington in the Revolution. She had no idea about that and was so delighted to read about it. We are flesh and blood but we are also memory and history. We have to take time to share. As long as there are older people who will talk to younger people the past stays alive in us. It keeps us connected. It helps us understand who we are.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Housebound and Crazy!

The past five weeks have been absolutely maddening thanks to the relentless snow. Because I live on a narrow, in-town street in Gloucester, we have to get our cars off the street when it snows and I have been parking at a friend's house because she has a large driveway. In years past, I would park there until the snow ban was lifted and then go get my car and park on the street again—not this year.

We have had a record amount of snow—over 90” in the past five weeks. My car has stayed buried in snow at my friend's house and, much as I am dying to go get it, there is no place to put it once it is dug out. Consequently, I have been fairly well stranded. Thanks to the goodness of friends, I have been well provided for—grocery delivery services and friends with cars and driveways have saved me—but this is a maddening situation.

In theory, this should be a peaceful break. A time to snuggle in and make lots of tea and write and read and knit and sew—all the things I love. But the fact is that I've been becoming increasinly nervous and irritated and I don't really know why. Worrying—worrying about my car, worrying about not getting anything done, worrying that I worry too much. Itell myself that worrying is a waste of time and energy and I just need to forget the situation and get to work. But it's never that simple. I find myself constantly on edge, jumping at every strange sound, checking the weather forecast over and over. This isn't me.

Or is it?

I am trying to figure out why this is so stressful. Is it just the absence of my car? Two years ago, before I bought the lovely car I have now, my old car was in really bad shape and I avoided going anywhere that I didn't absolutely have to go to. But then I had enough money to buy a new car and all was well. I don't remember this level of stress when I had a car that was close to useless, so what is the problem? Am I just getting old?

I can't say I have come up with any answers but this has made me think about how much I value my autonomy. It is hard for me to relinquish anything that increases my dependence on other people. In a way it is sort of like being an indie author/publisher—you have to be self-reliant and when anything compromises that reliance it is scary.

Spring is coming. Snow will melt. The street will clear and I will have my car once again—these things I am sure of. But this has made me think about how difficult it is for me to rely on others—far more than I ever thought. And that is something I need to think about, so this is time well-spent.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Another Cowl: Super Soft, Super Fast, Super Lovely

I am going cowl-crazy these days-- I made this from 1 skein of Lion Brand Hometown yarn in a color called Seattle Sea Mist. 

I just happened to have a Czech Glass button in my button box that was an exact match.

Cast on 24 stitches (on size 10 needles).
Row A. K3, ( P2,K2) 3x, P2, K3
Row B, P3, (K2 P2) 3x, K2, P3

Repeat 4 times.
Row C: P3, (K2 P2) 3x, K2, P3
Row D: K3, ( P2,K2) 3x, P2, K3
Repeat 4 times.
Keep doing that until it reaches the desired length. Before the last patter repeat bind off 3 in the middle to make buttonhole.

And speaking of gorgeous cowls, have you seen the new Outlander inspired ones floating around the internet. I am going to try my own versions of them and will post when I do.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Knitters Cannot Be Trusted

At least this knitter can't. This is in reference to my on-going failure to thin my yarn stash. Several years ago, when I wrote The Mermaid Shawl and other Beauties: Shawls,Cocoons, and Wraps, (it has stayed on an Amazon Best Seller list for 5 straight years) I knit up a mountain of patterns to use in the book. The book was very successful and I followed it up with a few smaller knitting instruction books under the Knit Your Tail Off series. They also sold well. But then something happened—I kept knitting but I started seeing so many new knitting patterns being published that I pretty much lost interest in writing any more knitting patterns. I had other books to write.

Consequently, I soon had a mound of knitted garments with no particular plans for them. In December, when I was packing my bags to drive to Pennsylvania for a family Christmas party, I filled up 2 shopping bags with scarves, headbands, cowls, shrugs, etc. and threw them in the trunk of my car. The day of the party, I spread all my stuff out on a table and told my family that they could just help themselves. It was so much fun. My sisters and nieces had a ball trying everything on and deciding what they wanted. Everybody claimed what they wanted and I was relieved that I didn't have to take that stuff back home.
Nieces Erica, Mia, and Abby--Erica and Abby wearing their new cowls.
So, I come back to Gloucester, determined not to buy any more yarn until I used up what I already had—right, like that would happen.
Four colors of Pelt

Normally, I knit in all natural fibers using lace-weight or fingering weight yarns. But I had seen a very cute cowl knit in Lion Brand's “Pelt” which is an acrylic yard in their Fun-Fur line. I decided I wanted to experiment with it so ordered a few skeins and that was the beginning of the end of my plans to clear out my stash. I made an ear warmer/headband out of the Fischer fur and then a cowl out of the Chinchilla and the next thing I knew Lion Brand had me hooked. They did something sneaky—they kept sending me discount codes and I kept using them. My stash is growing out of control again—and all with these adorable, funky, furry yarns.

The patterns I invented were simple. All of these cowls are knit on Size 6, 16” circular needles. The lavender one is knit in the yarn called Romance which looks more like feathers than fur.

Cowl in Romance, color "Sachet"

Feathery Cowl (2 skeins Lion Brand Romance):
Cast on 80 stitches. Knit in the round.
For the first 8 rounds alternate a K round with a P round (Garter stitich).
K next 25 rounds. (Stockinette stitch).
Repeat first 8 rounds (Garter stitch).
Bind off.
Cowl in "Chinchilla"

Furry Cowl (2 skeins Lion Brand Pelt):
Cast on 80 stitches, Knit in the round.
K2, P2, repeat for every round (2 stitch rib.)
Bind off.
Cowl in "Mink"

It's really pretty simple but I love the way these furry yarns knit up—I can make a cowl in 2 or 3 evenings. I have no idea what I'll do with them but they may wind up going to next year's family party with me again. I had a great time last year and it gives me an excuse to keep buying yarn.

Like I need one.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

50 Shades of Fed-Up

  • The books: I read about 50 pages of the first one, felt sick to my stomach, and gave up.
  • The movie: I have no intention of seeing it.
  • I am not in favor of censorship—if you can get through it, go ahead and read it.
  • I know it is fiction.
  • I know that many good people enjoy a BDSM lifestyle and that is their right.
  • I know that many people who read the books and who will go to see the movie got very hot and horny over them. I have no problem with that.

Here is what I have a problem with—romanticizing abuse.

The movie is opening on Valentine's Day, a holiday designed (largely by florists and chocolate manufacturers) to celebrate love. What happens over and over and over in the 50 Shades books is not love, it is emotional manipulation and abuse. I am not offended by the sex. I am not offended by the physical stuff—whatever you want to call it. What disturbs me is the way Christian Grey treats Ana—especially in the beginning. He is a rude, controlling, abusive stalker and what scares the living crap out of me is that so many women make excuses for him and view his behavior as being motivated by love.

Confession time: I have never been in a relationship as dramatic as the one in those books but I have had a couple of experiences with men who scared me with their controlling behavior. I was lucky—I saw what was happening early in the relationships and got out but it wasn't easy. It wasn't easy in no small part because my female friends told me I was crazy to let those men go!!!

The first one: When I was in college I met him at a party. Right from the beginning he was incredibly passionate and romantic. He wanted to spend every spare minute together. He frequently urged me to dress differently. I, like most college students in the 70s, lived in jeans and t-shirts. He wanted me to wear dresses and “girly” things. He sent flowers with notes that were embarrassingly graphic. He had no boundaries when it came to appropriate behavior and, after a few months of this, I was exhausted and fed-up. When I told my girlfriends about it several of them thought I was crazy. “He's so handsome!” He was. “He's so crazy about you!” Crazy being the operative word. Finally, I got up the courage, called him and told him I thought we needed to cool it for awhile. He argued passionately at first but then his whole attitude changed and he started screaming at me, calling me every filthy name he could think of—a tirade unlike any I have heard before or since. I finally hung up on him. I was lucky that time—he went from adoring me to complete indifference. I never saw him again.

The second one: Ten years later when I lived in Texas. I met a man in a pub where my friends and I hung out. He was a big, tough, ex-military south Texas petroleum engineer who went to Texas A&M on a football scholarship. Within months he was spending more time at my house than at his and finally he moved in with me. The first sign of trouble was when he stopped wanting us to do things with my friends. I worked for a big company—Enron, actually—and had a lot of friends who hung out together, went to happy hours, concerts, clubbing, to the beaches in Galveston on the weekend. In the beginning he joined us and seemed to have fun but before long he started complaining that he never got any alone time with me. We lived together—we had plenty of time alone.

My friends stopped calling me and inviting us places. At least I thought they did until the day I walked into the house and caught him erasing a message by one of them asking us to meet for happy hour. He also would make comments about things that happened in my past that I was sure I never told him. When I said that he'd say, “sure you told me that—you probably had too much to drink.” Then one day I noticed one of my dresser drawers was messy and, as I folded stuff, I realized there were several old journals—journals I kept through college and for years after—in that drawer. He had obviously been reading them because all the strange things he mentioned were in those books. When I told one of my friends she said, “Oh, that's so romantic—he wants to know everything about you!” I didn't find that romantic at all.

Then the physical intimidation started. I am a big woman—5'8” and have always been pretty muscular. But he was 6'4” with a 48” chest. He would back me into corners, and behave in a menacing manner. He would say, “Don't worry, I'd never hit you” in a tone of voice that implied the opposite. Luckily for me, I'm pretty good at not taking crap. It's strange when I think about it but when I'd look him in the eyes and say, “You better not try it” he'd back down. Like I said, I was lucky.

Whenever we had a fight and I was absolutely furious he would try to calm me down by saying, "Maybe we should get married. I think it would be good to start planning a wedding." In his mind that was what every woman wanted. I was so mad I wanted to clobber him and that would be his response.

I asked him to move out and he did but wouldn't give back my key. He called several times a day and would turn up on my doorstep any time he pleased. I was going through other changes in my life and I decided to move. I packed up and, within a week, was living in Camden, Maine. But he always got my new number wherever I was and kept calling. I found out one of my girlfriends was keeping him informed. When I moved to Marblehead I didn't tell him or her and the calls stopped.

Conclusion: Over the years, when I have talked about those relationships to other women there have always been a few who would say, “He must have loved you so much—I wish someone was that wild about me.” Unbelievable.

My stories are nothing like the 50 Shades story. I only tell them to illustrate my point—crazy, possessive, controlling, stalker-like behavior is not about love, it is about mental illness. It is abuse and it is NOT romantic. End of story.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Tutorial: Selling eBooks Directly from Your Site or Blog

I have had a few requests to repeat this tutorial from April 2011. Here it is:

Selling books for e-readers through Kindle, Nook, Smashwords, etc. is easier than ever but, with a little bit of work, you can also sell your eBooks directly from your own web site or blog. You can set your own price and the only cost to you will be what Paypal deducts for their services. I have sold hundreds of books and knitting patterns in PDF format this way. Below I'll walk you through the steps you'll need to take to do this. All the images below can be enlarged by clicking on them. What you will need are:
  1. Your manuscript in e-book format – PDF, HTML, TXT, DOC, EPUB or any other.
  2. An online storage site. If you have your own web hosting site that will work. If not you will need an online storage service like Dropbox, LiveDrive, etc. If you do a search for “online file storage” you can find one that will work for you.
  3. A Paypal account that is upgraded to a Merchant Account. If you already have Paypal you can use that by just upgrading the account. It's free.
  4. A web site or blog where you plan to sell your books.

That's it.

You can sell your book in any format that you have the capability of converting your book. Almost every word processing program (Word, Open Office, etc.) has the capability of exporting your file to a PDF (especially good for image/graphic rich books) and HTML. You can also Save As in TXT, RTF and DOC format. Once you have created your e-book and saved it to the format you wish to sell it in, follow these steps.

First: Upload your file(s) to your online storage site or server. Remember the URL of your file once it is on your server. For this demonstration we are going to call it:

Second: Go to PayPal and login. Select the Merchant Services tab from the top tab bar. Under Create Button select “Buy Now”. Fill in the form as indicated in Figure 1(above).
  1. Select the Buy Now button.
  2. Give the item a name.
  3. Set your price.
  4. Now Scroll to the bottom of the page and select Step 3: Customize Advanced Features.

Third: Once you are in the Customize Advanced Features screen check “No” for the first three items. Scroll down and follow the directions in Figure 2 (above). Check the box as indicated and then put your book's URL in the blank as shown. Scroll down and click “Create Button”.

Fourth: You will now be directed to the screen that gives you the code for your button as shown in Figure 3 (above).  Click “Select Code” and use Control+C or Edit>Copy to copy the code. You are now ready to insert the code into your web page or blog.

Fifth: If you have your own web page you will go to the place on your page where you wish to insert the Paypal button. Insert the HTML code in to the appropriate place using Control+V or Edit>Paste.

In order to add the button to your blog you will need an area that accepts HTML code. I am using Blogger for this demonstration but other blog sites should offer similar possibilities. 

For Blogger, log in to your Dashboard and select the Design tab (above). And do the following:
  1. Select Add A Gadget
  2. From the pop-up box select Add HTML/Java Script.

Once the HTML box popup apprears do the following (above):
  1. Give the box a title
  2. Make sure the “Rich Text” option is showing, this means you are in the HTML screen.
  3. Paste the Paypal code into the body of the box using Control+V or Edit>Paste.
  4. Click Save. (Before you click Save you might want to add information about the book, a picture of its cover, price, etc.)

That's all there is to it. I find that it is a good idea to include directions on my site advising people to wait until the link appears after they click the Paypal button but a lot of people do not. I get emails almost every day asking me to send the link which I email out promptly.

You can set up as many buttons as you like for different books and different versions of books (PDF, HTML, etc.) but you can only set up one automatic download per button. There are a number of services that offer secure storage for online files but they charge a fee so you have to decide if you think it is worth paying that. Check our E-Junkie.

So that is it. Please let me know if something is unclear or if I forgot something.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

The Creativity and Messiness Connection

Albert Einstein is alleged to have said, “If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, what is an empty desk a sign of?” I don't know if he said it or not but his desk was pretty cluttered and his mind was—well, anything I say about Einstein's mind would be laughable. But I understand his point. I read recently about a study by a psychological scientist named Kathleen Vohs from the University of Minnesota who did a study on the link between creativity and messiness. Her conclusion was that clutter and creativity are definitely linked for many people.

Does this mean that making a mess will make you more creative? No—at least not in my opinion. But the clutter that accrues while someone is creating is often inevitable. I see it in my house to a nearly embarrassing degree but there is a reason for it.

There is a small room off my kitchen that I use as my sewing room. It is, generally speaking, pretty messy. I have lots of storage bins and organizers but the thing is I have to have lots of stuff around me to get ideas. I tape pictures out of magazines to the wall. I pin pieces of ribbon and feathers and strings of beads and postcards and patterns to a corkboard over the sewing machine table. I stack folded fabric in piles according to color or texture or fiber. These things feed my creative soul.

In the room I use for writing I have books stacked all over the place. And magazines—many with post-it notes sticking out of them to mark something I don't want to forget. There are also books piled up around my bed. There is the book that I am reading plus lots of books I am using for research—I never know which one I am going to feel like reading. On the wall over my desk are lots of photographs of interesting looking people that I think might inspire characters. There are also a lot of rocks and crystals and little hand-sculpted figures of mermaids that people have given me because I have this peculiar notion that they bring me good luck. There is a stuffed doll next to my laptop of a bearded fellow in a Steelers uniform with the number 99 on his jersey because I think he is good karma. Plus there are bottles and jars of vitamins and herbs, empty tea cups, and candles. Because I need them.

See here is the thing—clutter does not inspire creativity. You can't mess up a room and then sit down and wait for inspiration. You have to start working on something and allow the clutter to accrue organically. Your clutter will be different from any other creative being's clutter. Your clutter reflects the way your mind wanders.

Even in the kitchen I tend to have too much on the counter at all times. I am very much an out-of-sight-out-of-mind cook. If I don't see something chances are good I'll forget it is there to be used. Just last night while cooking dinner I opened a cupboard door to search for something and I saw a jar I hadn't noticed in ages. It contained dried shallots and it was a very happy find for me but I had totally forgotten I had them.

I don't know if clutter is a good thing or a bad thing—I do know that for some of us it is an inevitable thing. Lucky for me I have only me to answer to—I'd hate to inflict my world on anyone else.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Warm Thoughts While Waiting for the Blizzard

I have been a very bad blogger lately, mostly because I have been busy with other things—all writing related, though, so I will not complain. According to the National Weather Service we have a blizzard headed our way so, in a little while, I will go out and do a few errands—stock up on any essentials that are not already sufficiently stocked—then come home and hunker down. My only concern is losing power for very long. However, since I live close to downtown and just 2 blocks from City Hall, even when we do lose power we are among the first to have it restored.

The first good thing that happened this week is the proof copies of th book I have been working on for Dick Dornisch arrived. Much as I appreciate the ease and convenience of digital book, there's nothing quite like a real book. The St.Marystown Saga is beautiful! The paper is a nice, sturdy, pure white that shows the drawings well and I'm happy with the cover.

The book is now live on Amazon and has been selling well enough to climb to #44 on Amazon's Local History list. That makes me happy.

The second good thing is that the boxed set of my three full-length novels is $2.99 for Kindle all this week. The novels are $3.99/each if purchased separately and the boxed set is normally $8.99 so this is a very good deal for a short time.

And the third good thing is that the new Marienstadt stories for the next collection are coming along. I finished a long one called The Memory Quilt of Lacey Mulhearn which turned into a very endearing story that I love. And I finished the first draft of a very short story called A Mystery in Porcupine Run. It's a combination of funny and sad but I like it.

So, that is my life these days—stay home, stay warm, work, be productive, and think about Spring. If you are in the path of the storm I wish you warmth and safety, and if you are not, I wish you happiness and productivity.

Thanks for reading.   

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Doing Research: Mail Order Brides & Arranged Marriages

One of the stories in my new series of Marienstadt tales concerns a mid-19th century marriage between a successful 30-something businessman in America and a pregnant and disgraced 15 year old from “the Old Country”—Ireland. In the story, Paddy came from Ireland as a teenager to work on the railroad but, being a very industrious young man, he made the decision not to marry until he had made his fortune and had a proper home to offer a wife. However, by the time he has made a success of his life, he discovers there are no suitable wives available. Then he learns that the teenage daughter of a friend from the Old Country has gotten herself “in the family way” by a married man. He sends for the girl, concocts the story that she was married but that her husband died to tell his friends, and promptly marries her upon her arrival. It turns out to be a reasonably good marriage and the story has a sweet ending.

As I was working on it I became interested in the customs and expectations about such marriages in the mid-19th century. The term “mail order bride” is commonly used for marriages at that time but it is misleading. It implies that the young women were just picked out of a catalog and sent for but the reality was quite different. Thanks to two factors—the building of the trans-continental railroad and the Civil War—there was a huge imbalance of unmarried people in the United States. The west was filled with single men who had worked their way west building the railroad. The east was filled with young women whose chances of marriage were slim because of the massive loss of men in the Civil War. It is estimated that in the late 1860s there were 30,000 unmarried ladies in the east with no husband material available. Consequently, if a woman wanted to marry her only option was to travel west. Thousands of women did.

At that time the generally accepted sentiment was that marriage was a matter of practicality and that love would come later. Usually marriages were arranged by a local clergyman or marriage broker. Though the betrothed couple sometimes communicated by letters before meeting, illiteracy was common so, unless there was access to someone who could write for them, they knew very little about each other before they met.

There are accounts of prospective bridegrooms meeting their new bride at the train station accompanied by a priest or minister who performed the ceremony then and there. The reason most often given was so that the couple would not be tempted to “sin” before marriage, but it is acknowledged that a far more common reason was that the men did not want to risk the girls taking a look at them and turning around to get back on the train. Among the Irish this was especially true because, being mostly Catholic, the marriage was not considered valid until it was consummated. A new Irish bride could expect to be married while still in her traveling clothes, then led across the street to a hotel where the marriage was “made valid”—so to speak.

All of this seems very scary and somewhat unsavory to us now but in the 19th century such marriages were often the only way many people would marry and have a family. In the west single men were not thought capable of managing a farm or ranch without a wife and children to provide stability and help as the farm or ranch grew. In the east single women were considered a burden that their families had to support if they couldn't find older widowers willing to marry them.

As I was doing this research I was somewhat surprised to see how many times married people described their marriages as happy or, at the least, content. They did not have the expectations of love and romance we have today. Both parties knew their duty and fulfilled it.

So my story of Paddy and Lacey follows the customs of the times. It will be interesting to see how it is received by contemporary readers. The Memory Quilt of Lacey Mulhearn will be added to the next Marienstadt collection. And all this research has added considerably to all the strange information swimming around in my brain.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Unique Approach to Story-telling

In my last blog post I talked about the book, The St. Martystown Saga, that I was designing. I was very excited about the project and, frankly, I have gotten very little else done since I started working on it. The deeper into the project I got, the more dazzled I was by the sheer complexity of what Dick Dornisch accomplished with this work. The history that he wrote is so detailed and so grounded in events around the world that it makes the growth of our community fully understandable in terms of what was going on in the world. As before, I am just in love with the drawings in these comic strips. I've isolated a number of them to use on the front matter and back matter of the book just so people can appreciate the art without being distracted by the words.

I read comic books when I was a kid—I loved Katy Keene but was also a big fan of my brothers' action comics. I remember reading the Incredible Hulk and the Fantastic Four and Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos. I also loved all the Classics comic books which told stories from world literature in comic book format. I avidly collected all of them and, to this day, there are a few classic novels whose characters still look like the drawings in the comic books inside my head.

Maybe this is why I was so taken by the whole notion of Dick's comic strips. I love the combination of images and words. Comic strips have been around as long as newspapers have but learning history this way is not something I would have thought of. And I cannot help but wonder if I would have loved history more back when I was in school if it had been presented this way.

As an adult I've occasionally picked up graphic novels and am awed by the workmanship. My problem, of course, is that I am not a big fan of fantasy/science fiction and it seems most graphic novels are in that genre. But the artwork continues to impress me.

So the paperback of The St. Marystown Saga is nearly complete and I am looking forward to seeing the actual books. This has been a labor of love for me and I hope that the results reflect that.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

St. Marystown Saga: A Publication Long Overdue

Although I was born and grew up in St. Marys, Pennsylvania, my inspiration for the fictional town of Marienstadt in many of my stories, I have not lived there since 1980. In some ways, I suppose, that makes it possible for me to recall the town in a spirit that is quite a bit more idealistic than realistic. One of the things I most remember from my young years there was the abundance of “colorful characters” that the town seemed to grow in great number. One of these was a man named Dick Dornisch.

I didn't really know Dick, though I knew who he was. He worked for the local newspaper, The Daily Press, and was the leader of a book club that was well-regarded. I knew him well enough to say hello on the street but that was all. By 1996 I was living in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and going back to St. Marys for visits about once a year. During that time I started hearing about a comic strip that appeared every Saturday in the local paper. It was called St. Marystown Saga and was a combination of history lesson and cartoons written and illustrated by Dick. My mother had recently passed away and my dad, living alone, began cutting out the comic strips and mailing them to me—especially when they mentioned people we were related to. I enjoyed them, pinned them on my refrigerator, and didn't think more about them.

In 2011 I wrote my first Marienstadt story, The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood, never dreaming it would grow into an entire series. That story grew into ten more which were published as The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall:Secrets of Marienstadt and the title story of the collection won the the eFestival of Words award for Best Short Story of 2013. People kept asking for more and as I began work on a sequel, The Christmas Daughter, I thought of Dick's comic strips and all the history they contained. I wished I had saved all of them to refer to for inspiration.

Then it came to my attention that a man named Dennis Lecker had scanned all of Dick's comic strips and posted them on a web site. There were over 350 panels posted. Not only did he tell the story of our town but he placed events within an historical context to show how our little St. Marystown grew in relation to world events. He drew pictures of people and events both local and global—fabulous little cartoons of our town's colorful characters as well as U.S. Presidents, world leaders, people in the news. His drawings were amazing.

I saved the web pages to my tablet and spent hours looking at the pictures and reading. The story was thorough and endlessly interesting but the drawings were what fascinated me. They were tiny but as I enlarge them on my screen I was endlessly charmed by the tiniest details—the ribbons on a little girl's pigtails as she ran, a man rushing for a train losing his hat, the buttons on the back flap of a lumberjack's long johns, or the coffee grinder on the counter of a housewife's kitchen. Beautiful, perfectly illustrated little touches that delighted me. I wanted all these comic strips in a book where people could see how talented this man was.

In December when I was in St. Marys I met with Dennis Lecker, a close friend of Dick's, who had scanned all the comic strips. I outlined my idea for a book to him and Dennis said he would talk to Dick, who is in his eighties now, about the idea. Dick gave him the go ahead. Dennis gave his high-res scans to me, and I set to work. In a little over a week, I cleaned up all of the cartoons and assembled them in an InDesign file. I was so taken with some of the illustrations that I isolate them and enlarged them to use as ornaments on the opening pages. Last night I sent the manuscript off to Dennis for his inspection and, if all goes well, this book will be available from Amazon within the next few weeks.

Even though I happily volunteered my time for this, I feel I got so much from it—I learned more about my hometown and got tremendous inspiration for additional Marienstadt stories. I cannot wait to see the finished books and I am honored and thrilled to play a part in bringing this talented man's work to the world. St. Marystown Saga by Richard “Dick” Dornish will be available soon. Stay posted.

Thanks for reading.

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