When Your Writing Needs a Kick-Start

Kick-start:  to start something, to give something energy. Literally, to kick a motorcycle into life. Figuratively, to jump-start something.

Like that writing project just sitting there?

If you’re anything like me, the last few months have been a downhill slide. Slow, sure, but steady. Yes, there have been moments where things have leveled out; you’ve felt okay, things seem to be going well – for me, that was two weeks ago when I rescued this adorable little thing that had somehow become impaled on a barbed wire fence –

Hammie 2

but then something else happens and suddenly you’re on that downhill slide again, just trying to figure it all out and stay afloat.

Like, I suspect, a lot of writers, I had kind of thought that this time spent social distancing and staying home more would mean I could write more. I even printed out the last draft I’d done of my novel Ghost Hunt and went through it, making notes, reading over the notes I’d left myself. When I stopped that project last October so I could focus on the research for the Kimmel case, I left myself a pretty good blueprint to follow. The pages and pages of notes I’d written were excellent, and I was able to start to see where things needed to change, to be rewritten, in some cases where entire scenes needed to be deleted so that the blueprint could be followed.

And then, depression began to set in.

I don’t know about you, but when depression hits me – and it does often, and no, I’m not talking about ‘the blues’ or just feeling down in the dumps, but real, true depression, the kind it takes monumental effort to rouse yourself from, if you even can – I can’t write. At all. Some writers can write through it; some use writing as a way to raise themselves up from the depths, or to work through the causes of their depression. More power to them, and to you, if you’re like that. I wish I was! But when it hits me, I find myself unable to write a single thing. Can’t even look at my manuscript. The very idea of turning on the laptop and putting fingers to keyboard is just too exhausting, mentally and physically.

Especially not when those rewrites are so intense. 

I went through the manuscript in late May. But the more I thought about jumping in and starting those rewrites, the more overwhelming it all became. Because it’s a lot. And I’ve been doing rewrites to this thing for a long time. Add in the fact that I had planned to go to England in late May – in fact, I was about two days from booking the trip when everything shut down, I even had the itinerary putting me in London for at least one performance of Hamilton and the seat picked out, damn it! – just made it a thousand times worse. Because this novel is set in Oxford, and I just do not know how to write it when I’ve never been there. Hence, the need for that trip. I need the veracity, the sounds and smells of the city. I need to walk it, to know the streets and what you see when you turn this way on this corner. I know how the colleges are nestled next to each other in the heart of the city, but not how they mesh together. In short, how can I write about a city that’s beloved by thousands, when I’ve never been there? I can’t.

And so the rewrites became even more daunting, and I said screw it.

And that’s where it’s all sat for the last thirty days. I can’t go to my coffee shop and write in the afternoons, as I usually do almost every day in the summer. And it’s hard for me to write anywhere else. Home is congested, busy, full of things that need my attention. And sitting outside when it’s 102 in the shade is not happening. Besides. Those rewrites. Those daunting, exhausting rewrites. I couldn’t even think about them. And for the past month, I haven’t. Well, that’s not true. I’ve thought about them a little, in that fleeting, guilty way we think about projects that need to be done, those projects that skitter off into the abyss because we just can’t face them. Hunt was in danger of being one of those projects.

So a few days ago, I decided I had to do something.

The fact is, none of us knows what’s going to happen in the next two months, or two years. God help us all. And my depression isn’t going to magically go away on its own. There will be good days; there will be bad days. There will be days when I can barely function (except that I have no choice but to function, or the cats will eat me). I have to accept that, and jump in on the good days, and give myself a break on the bad ones.

So, I signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo. 

We’re all familiar with NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. But it’s evolved beyond that, and now every July, you can join Camp NaNoWriMo. Here’s the website:  https://nanowrimo.org/

There are a few reasons why this is so great – and in fact, it might even be better than November:

  • First of all, we’re stuck indoors anyway; we may as well put that time to good use.
  • Second, some of us have drafts we started last November (or before) that need to be finished; this is a good time to revisit them.
  • Third, you set your own goal. If 50,000 words is way too much, set the bar lower, like I did. I set my goal for 20,000 words – I don’t know how much rewriting I’ll be doing yet, but that seemed reasonable.
  • Fourth:  it keeps you accountable on those long, hot summer days when we could so easily just lay on the couch and watch reruns of Bones and Supernatural and Dr. Phil, eating ice cream and dreading the coming of August.
  • And fifth:  I needed the kickstart. 

As my friend is always telling me:  “You know how you get momentum? You go out there and you get it.” If I don’t write, the novel will never get done. If I don’t find a way to encourage myself, or even force myself, to write, I’ll never get the momentum going. For example, I tried all last year to lose weight. Fluctuated up and down, and by the time the year ended, I was right back where I’d started. I just couldn’t get the momentum going. But this year, I hit the ground running – literally – got a FitBit, and now I’m doing 3.5 miles per day, plus core workouts and some small hand weights, and I’ve lost 9lbs already this year. I went out and got the momentum. I kickstarted myself. And the FitBit keeps me accountable. I know what calorie count I need to hit every day to continue to lose weight. Just like I know what I need to do to finish this novel.

So I signed up. Did the whole thing – typed up a short synopsis of the novel, uploaded a short excerpt, and put in my word count. Maybe by doing just a bit at at time, I can get the momentum going. I have the blueprint. I know what needs to be done.

And hopefully, this is the kick-start I need to get it done.

 

The Brink of Revolution

Like everyone else, I am watching the world’s events unfolding in utter disbelief.

Martial being declared by an orange bastard, hiding in our White House’s basement. Protests by those who are rightfully angry over yet another murder of a black man by a white police officer. Riots that are breaking out all over, destroying businesses and homes and lives and which are prompting that same orange bastard to incite racial wars and try to limit our freedom of speech.

And that’s just us, and that’s not even counting the global pandemic. That’s not counting the people in India, for example, who are literally dying of starvation at the side of the road as they try to get home from other states, where they have been working – but they no longer have jobs, nor even enough money to ride the train. So they walk, unable to afford food until they collapse from starvation and exhaustion and die. Nor is it counting the horrendous typhoon that has recently hit that area, nor the fact that on this, the first day of hurricane season, we already have our third named storm of the year.

HOW did we get here?!

I am overwhelmed by the rapidity of the breakdown of our nation. I am overwhelmed by the fact that the real leadership in this country is coming not from the federal government – and anyone who knows me knows I am a dyed-in-the-wool Federalist – but from the mayors and governors, who are soldiering on and making calm, rational choices in the face of government opposition, in the face of government interference, in the face of government ineptitude. From Christine Todd Whitman, who just today tweeted to Trump to basically STFU, to the Houston Chief of Police who did the same thing, real leaders are stepping up where it counts. They don’t give a damn if it’s popular. They only care that it’s right.

If there is a silver lining to the protests, it is this:  #blacklivesmatter is trending, not just here, but around the world. Liverpool’s soccer team took a knee in solidarity (https://www.bbc.com/sport/52875059) My Muslim friend in Hong Kong let me know that around the world, Muslims are speaking up in solidarity with the movement. Across Africa, especially in South Africa, marches and protests are being held to show solidarity. https://www.npr.org/2020/05/31/866428272/george-floyd-reverberates-globally-thousands-protest-in-germany-u-k-canadaNot only that, but across the country peaceful protests are being held as well – right here in Wichita, this weekend – and police officers are taking a knee and taking part. (https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-us-canada-52883495/george-floyd-uplifting-moments-from-peaceful-protests?intlink_from_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.bbc.com%2Fnews%2Fworld&link_location=live-reporting-map#) I would like to think that this time, it will take hold. I would like to think that this time, we’re there, we’ve got it, that this time, the world is sick and tired of the discrimination and prejudice and the double standards and that this time, we’ll get it right.

To be clear, it’s not the protests and riots that bother me. We’ve done this a lot in our nation’s history. We did this in the 1760s, the 1790s, the 1830s, the 1860s. The Zoot Suit Riots of the 1940s and all the riots and protests of the 1960s and 70s, and into the 80s. We’ve been here, done this, before. We are always okay. Protest = change. Always has, always will. When the oppressed finally rise up, we have revolution. It’s not pretty, but it gets the job done. (God, I sound like Thomas Jefferson.) No, that’s not what bothers me.

What bothers me is the utter lack of responsibility from anyone at the top of the food chain in this country.

A real president would have been in the ground already in Minnesota. In Los Angeles. Birmingham. Meeting with the governors (or at least, meeting with them via Zoom), brainstorming, offering solutions and aid, but not dictating to them. A real president would be addressing the issues, offering real solutions. But we don’t have that. We have a whiny ass toddler who couldn’t find a coherent sentence – or an ounce of intelligence – if it bit him on the ass.

A long time ago – spring of 2016 – I wrote a couple of pieces that asked a simple question:  what the hell did Trump want with the presidency? I postulated then that he would never abide by the Constitution, that he would use it to enrich himself, that he was only interested in what he could get from it. I was right on every single point. The one thing I did not foresee – or rather, did not want to consider – was that we would have a perfect storm in which he might want to grab total power, overthrow our Constitution, and wreck the very foundation of our democracy.

That’s where we stand today.

That’s what scares me. Not the rioting. Not the protesting. Not the coronavirus.

Just that.

That this nation we love, whose history I have studied most of my life, whose Founding Fathers fought and died in order to create it, will be destroyed. That the reputation we started to build with Teddy Roosevelt as a world superpower and peace broker will be irrevocably destroyed, and we will become instead the largest banana republic in the world.

Is this how American colonists felt, in the 1760s and 1770s? When their protests and non-importation agreements worked, they were happy to remain part of the British Empire. When they stopped working, however, it was time to ask:  what do we do now? Do we take the step off, into the abyss? Do we suck it up and continue on? At what point is living under tyranny no longer tolerable or possible?

Is this what it felt like in the 1950s, and especially the 1960s, as Freedom Riders were attacked, as men like Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. were killed, as Watts burned and men like Bull Conner vowed that he would ‘die trying’ to keep segregation as the law? As peaceful marchers were met with fire hoses and attack dogs as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge – a bridge, I might add, named for a KKK Grand Dragon of all disgusting things?

No. It couldn’t have been. Because both times, we had real leadership. We had rioting Sons of Liberty, yes – but we also had the Committees of Correspondence, and later the Continental Congress, to lead the way. We had men like George Washington to lend a steadying hand. We had men like Kennedy, Johnson, and Eisenhower to provide us with thoughtful, real leadership and guide us through two of the most turbulent decades in our short history. We had men in the highest office of the land who were real leaders.

But we don’t have that now. Not from the top. For the first time in history that I can think of, what we have is leadership from the states. Not the federal government. The states. 

We stand at the brink. It will take only a small thing to tip us into the abyss.

 

“Begin at the beginning . . .” Where should your novel start?

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end:  then stop.” 

Sounds easy, right? When you’re telling a story, you always start at the beginning, don’t you? Fairy tales always start with “Once upon a time,” and continue through until the prince rescues the princess and carries her off for a life of drudgery and misery, never letting her have a job or a life outside being his trophy wife. (I digress, sorry. I dislike fairy tales.)

The King of Hearts, of course, says this after the White Rabbit asks him where he shall begin to tell the story. For writers, finding that beginning can be hard. Especially when the book is still very much in draft form! Those first few drafts (or, ahem, first few dozen drafts), are where you’re finding the story. Getting to know the characters. Figuring out their problems. Figuring out if their problems are really novel-worthy. You don’t know the beginning, because you don’t know the story, not yet.

A few weeks ago, when all the craziness started and Kansas, along with every other sane state in the Union, instituted stay-at-home orders, I – like probably a lot of other writers – thought, well, this sucks, but I can stay home and write. Get back to my novels, and my research. So, I picked up two of them – my ghost story, and Nicky, my 14-year old rumrunner. I started with Nicky, knowing that of the two, it was the one I might find easiest to get back to.

Yeah. No.

I got to page 36.

Nothing was happening. 

No, that’s not quite right. A lot was happening, actually. But I felt no connection to the story. Or the characters, if I’m honest. I had no idea why. All I knew was that I felt sick to my stomach. I’d spent three years writing a 300-page draft that wasn’t even finished yet, for what felt like nothing. I’d spent three years thinking this is the best thing I’ve ever written! Nicky is the best character that’s ever come to me! and the truth was – I was staring at 36 pages that told me otherwise.

I put it away. Went back to Ghost Hunt. Fell in love with it all over again.

But today, two things happened coincidentally that made me realize maybe there was a lesson in those 36 pages.

The first was that I started editing the first few chapters of a book for a friend. As I read the first two pages, I realized that they were essentially backstory – things that were important, yes, but also things that could be easily worked into the narrative later. Page 3, however, seemed to be where the real story began – with a great hook, an engaging and precocious six-year old, and several questions that I wanted answered. It was just that she hadn’t quite started in the right place. Almost – but not quite! (She just messaged me a bit ago to say, “I thought the same thing – I deleted them a few days ago!”)

Then, I talked to another friend, and in that conversation, I mentioned that failed attempt to start up with Nicky again. He asked why I felt that way.

“Nothing was happening. No tension. It felt like it was all backstory,” I said.

“Aha,” he said. “So does the story start in the right place?”

Me:  (stunned into silence for a minute, because how could I possibly have started a story in the wrong place?!) “Um. No. I mean, I thought it did. When I was drafting it and getting it all down on paper, that’s how it came to me. And it’s all important – we need to know about his dad dying in the war, and the fact that he was accused of disorderly conduct and that’s why Nicky has to support his family and get into the rumrunning . . . but even though there should be lots of tension there . . . there just isn’t.” 

“When I read it, I thought it should have started with your rumrunner doing something, in the middle of a car chase or something,” he said. “Get into it with a great beginning that drags the reader into that next chapter.”

For a split second, I almost said, What? Then why the ever-loving bleeping bleep didn’t you bleeping tell me that BACK THEN?! But then I realized that even if he had – I would have argued with him, because I wasn’t ready to hear it back then. (BTW, if you’re wondering, he read it about two years ago.)

“Yeah,” I said finally. “Because the story doesn’t really get going until they start running whiskey.”

“So all the other information that needs to be in there, you can intersperse. Don’t tell the whole story at one time.” Then he told me about Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, which no, I’ve not read. Apparently, it starts in a courtroom with two thugs getting six months for beating and raping a girl. The judge just feigns interest, already knowing what sentence he’s going to hand down. And as the smirking bastards walk out of the courtroom, the girl’s father realizes that “for justice,” he must go to Don Corleone. We don’t know who Don Corleone is. Apparently, we then find out, embedded in fragments over the course of the entire book, that yes, Don Corleone will help, but that he also set up that whole thing just so the girls’ father would come begging on his knees to him. But it’s not told in a linear fashion. You’re given snippets. Hints. Never the whole story. Not at once.

So. In a single ten-minute conversation, I finally understood what was wrong with Nicky. Why my instincts kept shoving it away. I just needed to hear it from someone else. I needed another, honest point of view – but I also needed to realize first that something was wrong with the novel, something inherently wrong.

I really did think that I needed that exposition. Because at heart, that’s all it is – exposition. The kind that eighteenth-and nineteenth-century writers were so good at boring us with. Which is what I ended up doing to myself.

Obviously, my friend is right. That exposition has to go. Truthfully, when I think of how to fit it all in to the rest of the narrative, I find that if I’m not telling the story in a linear fashion, there isn’t any way to fit it in – and if I can’t fit it in, is it truly necessary? I mean, it’s necessary to me, to Nicky, to his background, to understanding him. But is it necessary for the reader? Is it necessary to the overall story? Those are some hard questions! And I won’t know until I start those rewrites.

So, with all due respect to the King of Hearts, I have to say that sometimes, beginning at the beginning is not, in fact, the way to truly start your story.

The World Turned Upside Down

You know, I read back over my last post – about the Erik Larson signing – and think how long ago that seems. Only four weeks – but it feels like forever.

The world has turned upside down.

Like most everyone, my life has been upended by the pandemic. Though I have to admit that my life has not been as badly upended as many – I still have my job, and as I’m considered essential, I still go to my office daily. There are no students, of course – the campus is a ghost town – but I see my colleagues. I go to the store. I am not as housebound as others. Thank God, or I’d be sitting on the roof in my pajamas spouting poetry to a plunger by now. But the scary fact is, the world has been turned upside down, and nothing is going to be the same for a long, long time.

Since this began, however, I – like many – have been comparing the way the world is now to the way the world was in 1918, when the Spanish flu ravaged not on America, but almost every nation on earth, killing 50 million in three separate waves. But as a historian of medieval history, I am also thinking back to the Black Death – which might be an even more appropriate comparison.

I don’t mean appropriate in terms of the devastation, or the number of deaths – though let’s be honest, we’re nowhere near the end of this thing yet and won’t be for some time, at least a year – but in terms of how stunning it is for us to live though. I’ve taught the Black Death in my World History classes for over fifteen years. I’ve read a great deal about it. But like many things in history, it’s hard to get it, because we’ve never lived through anything quite like it.

plaguemap1The Black Death, if you don’t know, came to Europe in 1347. By 1349, it had reached every part of Europe, including Siberia, and by the time it ‘ended’ in 1350, it had killed somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of Europe’s population. Historians are still unsure precisely what it was, though most agree it was likely the bubonic plague – but a bubonic plague that could take multiple forms. The dead were buried in mass graves – often a grave would be dug and the bodies piled into it for more than a week before it would be covered over again, only to be reopened and used again the next week, or the week after. Peasants fled the country for the city, desperate for work; city dwellers fled the city for the country, desperate to escape. The famous ditty ‘Ring Around the Rosy’ is reputed to come from the plague years.

So as I cover this in class with my students, I would talk about the spread of the plague. How we believe it was transmitted (from fleas to rats to humans, or from rats to fleas to humans, depending on your source – and then, from human to human contact in some cases). The mass graves. The fact that some people did survive – and others never contracted it at all. The crazy things people believed about the plague – that it was a curse wrought by God upon the earth, that the Jews had poisoned the wells, that it was an unlucky conjunction of planets . . . and all these, with the distance of six hundred years and modern science, I frankly found silly. We talked about the memento moris, the reminders of death that riddled literature and poetry and gravestones and artwork. We talked about the fact that people would often stick Grandpa outside to be collected by the death wagons – even if Grandpa wasn’t quite dead yet (and yes, I’d recite the Monty Python skit – “But I’m not dead yet!” “Here, I can’t take him.” “Oh, but he will be very soon, come on, do us a favor!”). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSMaL5c19-c

All the while, not getting it. 

Not really.

It was an anecdote, really, something to wake up my classes and get their interest going. Pique their interest in one thing, you can get them interested in something else. That’s just how it is, and the Black Death was one of those entry points. It was also a great gateway for talking about the changes that occurred afterwards, which largely led, a couple of centuries later, to the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance.

But I never put myself in that moment. Let myself really wonder what it would have been like to live during those three terror-filled years. Seeing half your town die, wondering when it would be you. In an age of no television, no newspapers, no CDC or World Health Organization, no real doctors, no understanding of viruses, it must have been absolutely terrifying to encounter this disease, to see the pustules and swellings (on the lucky ones; the unlucky ones got the pneumonia too, or went septic) on family and friends and know that there was nothing you could do to save them – or yourself. Especially at a time when most people simply never traveled far from home, and were therefore blindsided when the pandemic hit their homes.

Their world had turned upside down.

I could never quite understand how people could believe all the rumors and crap floating around Europe about the plague. But now . . . now, it seems a little less silly.

Faced with such a horrific, massive event, would you not reach for anything that would sustain you, even if those things were lies? Because let’s face it – how would you know they were lies? The same priest who absolved your sins and told you what was in the Bible was the same man telling you that this was a scourge from God. Would you dare doubt that? What about the Flagellants, who traveled from town to town to whip themselves in order to try to alleviate the sins of the area – would you consider them crazy, or self-sacrificing heroes?

And what about your family? Then, as now, many were quarantined inside their homes, with their family. If one person started to show symptoms, the town would order everyone in that household to be locked up together, to either live or die. If you woke up one morning to find your parents showing symptoms, what would you do? How afraid would you be, knowing there was almost a 100% chance you already had it, or would get it? Would you try to run away before the authorities found out? Would you, too, put Grandpa out for the knacker cart, even if Grandpa wasn’t quite dead yet, knowing he’d likely be buried alive (as many were)?

We have no answers now, either. I hear the same stories. Today, people are blaming Asian-Americans, not the Jews (though I suspect that’s coming; it always does, freaking Neo-Nazi asshats). Wondering if it really is a punishment from God. (I haven’t seen the Flagellants show up yet, but hey, never say never, right?) Because so many rumors are floating around the world about military cover-ups and political agendas, and everyone is so afraid, no one knows quite what to believe. And that’s today, people – with the CDC, with modern medicine, with widespread education, with 24-hour media coverage and information being disseminated almost as soon as it becomes available. In an age where 90% of the population was illiterate, though, and what they knew of the world came from the Church and the authorities, it’s easier to see how they would have believed some of the more far-fetched things. Easy to see how desperate they would have been for an explanation, any explanation. Because when you don’t know what the root cause of something is, can you truly discount anything?

For the record, I believe none of the crazy rumors. I’m educated enough to know that humanity has faced pandemics in the past, and we’ll face more in the future. Viruses, like any other living organism, want to live, and to live, they often mutate. It’s just a fact. Likewise, this pandemic, like most before, will go through cycles. Don’t believe those who say we’ll be ‘back to normal’ by May or June; we won’t be back to normal for quite some time, perhaps two or three years. And I suspect that ‘normal’ will be as revolutionary as the new ‘normal’ was in Europe after 1350. Our normal ended sometime around March 15, 2020.

Our world has turned upside down, too.

Four weeks ago, I saw Erik Larson live. Four weeks ago, I was going to see Hamilton for the fourth time – sixth row orchestra, in Fort Worth, in June. Four weeks ago, I was not looking forward to graduation but was ready to suck it up and go anyway because it’s required. Four weeks ago, my biggest worry was not whether I have enough toilet paper to get me through April – or how many Americans were going to die because, despite every warning, our government decided it was okay to let people die – but whether I was going to hit an estate sale on a Friday afternoon, or go write at the coffee shop.

Four weeks ago, the Black Death was just a historical fact.

Funny, how in four weeks, the world has turned upside down.

An Evening With Erik Larson

“Courage is infectious. He taught people the art of being fearless.” 

This is how Erik Larson summed up the subject of his latest work, Winston Churchill, two weeks ago in Wichita. I was lucky enough to get to see him live in Wichita, on what was probably one of his last stops for a while on his tour to promote his new book, The Splendid and the Vile (which focuses on Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister). It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to go see an author, and I bought my ticket as soon as they went on sale last December (birthday present!). Thank goodness we were still able to get to see him.

Larson is the author of several works, including probably his most famous, Devil in the White City, and Dead Wake. It may surprise you – it did me – to learn that Larson isn’t a historian. He’s a reporter by trade, who started out working at small papers, got hired by the Wall Street Journal, and then one day, “hit on something I absolutely love – which is writing about history.” He refers to himself as an ‘animator of history’ – “My job is to produce a historical experience.”

Larson was interviewed by Ed O’Malley, local politician turned nonprofit starter, and the interview was charming and affable. So was Larson. 🙂 He spoke for a while about his first breakout book, Devil in the White City, a dual-narrative book about the building of the White City for the Chicago World’s Fair, and the work of serial killer H. H. Holmes. Because of the subject matter and the dissonance between those main subjects, Larson said he was sure the book wouldn’t sell. In fact, he admitted that on the eve of the book’s publication, “I was convinced my career was over.” No one, he was convinced, would even like the book, let alone read it.

Of course, we all know differently. But it surprised me to learn that Devil in the White City was a story that took a while for Larson to warm up to. The idea started when he first read Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, and fell in love with how evocatively Carr wrote about New York City in the 1890s. He also liked the serial killer aspect of it, and decided that he might like to write about a well-known murder, so he started to research (literally went to the library and got a copy of an encyclopedia of murder) and came across Holmes. But, he says, he didn’t want to do what he calls “crime porn,” and so he set the idea aside, wrote another book.

But the idea hadn’t left completely. One day, he realized that when he’d read about Holmes, he’d also read about the World’s Fair. In fact, he’d read a book about the World’s Fair that he described as dry and boring. “But sometimes the most boring history can yield the best stuff – if you read the footnotes.” In this case, the footnote he read was about Juicy Fruit gum. Yeah, that Juicy Fruit. It was first introduced to the public at the World’s Fair of 1892. And since he knew Holmes was working in Chicago at that time, the two narratives began to work together in his mind for the first time. Dark and light, he called it.

The inspiration for The Splendid and the Vile came when Larson and his wife moved to New York, specifically, Manhattan. After moving there, he realized that New York had experienced 9/11 in a much different way than the rest of the nation. Of course, that seems obvious – but to the rest of us, watching the wall-to-wall coverage on TV, it was more that our nation had been attacked. For New Yorkers, though, the reality was this:  their city had been attacked. They had been attacked. They had lived it. Breathed the ash. Walked the empty streets. Felt the rumble as the towers collapsed – and the piercing heartbreak of knowing that hundreds of their own were still trapped inside. They were the ones walking home at midday, and the ones who saw the Missing posters for days and weeks on end, until winter finally took the last of them. (Okay, Larson didn’t actually say all that; I did, sorry. New York is my city, too.)

But New York – and more specifically, Manhattan – had lived through the worst. And it made him think:  what would it have been like to live in London during the Blitz – those terrifying nights when the Luftwaffe seemed unstoppable, dropping incendiaries and regular bombs not only on London itself, but across the major cities of Britain? How would you deal with what were essentially fifty-seven September 11’s in a row?

So he began to think about how to frame it. He wanted to do it differently – through the lens of a family living in London at the time, perhaps. And the most famous family living in London at the time, aside from the royal family, was the Churchills.

Of course, there are hundreds of biographies of Churchill, and more about World War II itself. Where do you even start a project like that?! Larson realized that “if I set out to read them all, it’d be a fool’s errand. I had to address that early on.” So he decided to approach the research strategically – his word, not mine – and to read just enough about Churchill and the war to ‘get it.’ Then, he’d “jump into the Archives and get my own personal Churchill.”

I’m reading the book now – nearly done with it, in fact – and what I love is that he does indeed focus on the family. While Larson does, of course, tell us what life was like in London during the Blitz, he does so mainly through the eyes of Winston, Clementine, and Mary Churchill; Pamela Churchill is there too, along with Churchill’s other family, his ‘military’ or ‘political’ family. And by doing this, he also makes us feel how Churchill managed to walk an icy razor’s edge of military and political danger. One wrong step, and the world today would be a much different place.

Towards those ends, Larson was lucky enough to be able to use the diary of Mary Churchill; he petitioned for permission to read and use it. Luckily, Mary’s daughter had read Dead Wake and had liked it, so permission was granted. Mary was seventeen when the war started; she turned eighteen during that first year. “Fatherhood informs this book in so many ways,” Larson said; Churchill not only had to worry about the day-to-day running of the war, but also his family. “Mary Churchill kind of makes the book for me,” Larson said. “She’s smart . . . she adored her father, and (she’s) in a situation that is dissonant – she wanted to be part of the war, but they (her family) wanted her in the country.”

Another major source of information for Larson was the diary of John Colville, one of Churchill’s secretaries during that crucial first year. Colville’s diary is published – but while he was at Cambridge doing other research, Larson decided, almost on a whim, to compare the published and original versions of the diary. What he found were massive omissions, and “these were not trivialities.” First, Colville wrote about things in his diary that were top-secret; he worried about what would happen if it ever fell into the wrong hands, but he didn’t stop. Second, Colville was desperately in love, “and the object of his desire,” Larson said, “was not interested!” So this became another theme of the book. Other authors, using his published diary as a resource, have kept Colville in the background, Larson said, but “I felt he wanted to step forward.”

Obviously, even for a seasoned writer like Larson, taking on a challenge like the Churchills was daunting. “Along the way, I found myself . . . I could stand before a mirror and ask myself, ‘If not you, then who?'” Asked how good he is at murdering his darlings, Larson laughed. “I am not good at killing my darlings,” he said “I rely on my wife to kill them for me.” And for those of us who drone on and on and on in that first draft, take heart! Larson’s first draft of this book was 800 single-spaced pages. After revisions, it’s 500 pages. “I feel comfortable if i have 100% more than I need,” he said.

One of the best things about going to see published authors is the sense of camaraderie they instantly give us. Even if we’re not yet published, or if our books sold four copies, it doesn’t matter. They know. They understand the process, and the difficulties and doubts, and knowing that they got through them to the other side is comforting to the rest of us. So thank you to Watermark Books, and to Erik Larson, for making this evening possible.

Research – In Too Deep

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” – Zora Neale Hurston

Fun fact:  research can also be a slow slog through half-frozen mud three feet deep, while a light sleet coats everything.

But Zora Neale Hurston is right about one thing:  research IS about curiosity. It’s the curiosity that keeps you going. No one has to research anything. Just ask Trump supporters. But for some of us, there is a deeper need to know. An itch about something that won’t leave us be. Benjamin Franklin, wondering how electricity is conducted. Louis Pasteur, wondering if there was a way to keep milk safe. That random weird guy, thousands of years ago, who looked at an oyster and thought, “Hell, yeah, I can eat that!”

Of course, sometimes that research becomes quicksand. You take a step off into it and . . . suddenly, you’re sucked in, with no end and no rescue in sight. You’re curious – you’re burning with it, in fact – and so you have to dig . . . but in the digging, you uncover more than you thought.

Truthfully? It sort of becomes your neighborhood dealer. That initial thing, that first question, was the freebie. We did a little digging, and we found something! Suddenly, we’re excited, because we think we’ve hit the jackpot. So we go back. We dig deeper. We get sucked in. The research starts to say, Hey, good to see ya! Back for more? Sure. Ah, but this time, it’s gonna cost ya. Cost what, we ask? Time. Effort. Frustration. (Yes, at times, actual money.) Your sanity, too.

At some point, the doubts start to manifest. Sure, you found something, and it was fun. But it didn’t answer your question. Or worse, it only spawned more questions, which you must answer . . . By the time we realize we’re in too deep, it’s too late. We wake up one morning and realize that initial question, that first mystery . . . that was the gateway, my friend. Now, there’s no escape.

“Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought.” – Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

newspaper clippingWhenever I talk to people about my research into George Kimmel, the inevitable question is:  how did you find out about this? I explain the story of seeing those little tidbits in the newspaper, those dozens of clippings that littered my desk for months and months, the fact that those clippings eventually weren’t enough. Those were my gateway, those tiny scraps of mystery that begged and enticed and mocked. Others saw the same thing. But I was the only one who followed them.

I’m currently reading a book by Australian historian Shane White called Prince of Darkness. It’s about Jeremiah G. Hamilton, the first African-American man to become a millionaire on Wall Street – and he did it in the 1800s. I’ll review it when I’m done, but one reason I picked it up was because of the extensive research White had to do. Like me, White stumbled across his subject almost by accident. His subject, like mine, left almost no written trace of himself; we know our respective subjects not from what they said, but from what others said about them. There are no other biographies to rely on, no other secondary sources that mention him. Hamilton moves in the shadows of New York in the 1830s and 40s, a man walking between two very distinct worlds, fitting into neither. George Kimmel – at least, the more I dig and the more I discover – seemed to do the same.

So how do you write about them?

In fact, this is the very question White asks himself in the introduction to the book:  “Is it possible to recover the story of someone who, for well over a century, became all but invisible?” (7)

And it’s the very question I ask myself almost on a daily basis.

White, at least, does have quite a lot of primary source material in Hamilton’s hand; letters and articles he wrote, court cases he was involved in, testimony he gave. He knows how he spoke and wrote; he can extrapolate some ideas about him. Me? Not so much. I am seeing Kimmel completely through the eyes of others – and everyone involved in this case had something to hide.

For instance:  George built a grain elevator and mill here in Arkansas City. They existed. Of that, I have no doubt. I have a newspaper article in which George is looking for stone masons to build the foundation. There are advertisements in the papers. It existed, it operated. I know it did. But the insurance company claims that this was nothing more than a dummy corporation to cover up George’s illegal speculating on the grain market. And the men who served on the company’s board all testified – later – that they didn’t think it was a real corporation; they invested no money in it, and recalled no meetings. Yet it did exist. And in the very next breath, they testify that George made money from it. I’ve even discovered advertisements for the elevator published months after George disappeared – advertisements made in the names of the very men who denied its existence.

Here’s the thing:  You don’t advertise something that doesn’t exist. You certainly don’t advertise a business that doesn’t exist, in a small town, where you are a well-known and respected man.

So what do you believe?

Sometimes, historians try to determine what someone may have done based on what kind of person they were. With George Kimmel, this simply doesn’t work, because I don’t know what kind of person he was – because I can only see him through the eyes of others.

When I read the affidavits and testimonies, I get two ends of a spectrum:  on one end, friends and family; on the other, the insurance company. According to his friends, he was social, friendly, honest; a good businessman; loyal to his friends and more devoted to his mother and sister and uncle than almost any other person on earth; the kind of man who could never, ever leave them without a word. According to the insurance company,  George was a consummate con artist – a charming, sly embezzler and forger who got in over his head and orchestrated his own disappearance. An 1890s Neal Caffrey, if you will. And while it is possible for a man to be devoted to his family and a con artist . . . where, along this spectrum, did the real George Kimmel lie?

And, if I keep going, can I find out?

When you study someone at a distance, you may never know them, not really. Historians spend two years, five years, maybe eight years, researching a particular topic, a particular person, and never feel they get the entire story. There’s always a curtain of distance and history separating us from them. Thanks to the newspapers and their intrepid reports, I have a better idea of what some of the other key players were like. They’re described at the trials. I can see their reactions in the transcripts.

But for George, I have none of this.

So when I doubt my ability to find the truth, I have to fall back on curiosity. It was curiosity that got me in too deep to back out, after all. And hopefully, curiosity will keep me in the game.

 

https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/march-2016/wall-streets-first-black-millionaire-shane-whites-prince-of-darkness – More information about Shane White and Prince of Darkness. Yes, White is Australian!

Inspiration, Derivation, Plagiarism – The Fine Lines in the Murky Fog

Where do you get your ideas? 

This may be, aside from when will you finish your book?, the most-asked questions of writers. It’s one we all struggle with.

Some will say – and I am among them – that we can find inspiration everywhere. In old photos, in overheard conversations, from NPR broadcasts, from books we read. In fact, I think most fiction writers will tell you that. Sometimes, it seems like the ideas come so fast and thick that we’ll never get them all down. And some of them – the most ephemeral, the ones we doubt – will drift away, maybe to find another home with another writer at another time.

In Founding Brothers, Pulitzer-Prize winning author and historian Joseph J. Ellis gives credit for the structure of this book to author Lytton Strachey. Ellis says:

My problem, at least as I understood it at that early stage, was a matter of scope and scale. I wanted to write a modest-sized account of a massive historical subject . . . His (Strachey’s) animating idea, a combination of stealth and selectivity, was that less could be more. (p ix)

Ellis already had the idea for the book he wanted to write; however, the scale was an issue. It always is, when you deal with history. What he needed was the example, the tacit permission. Once he had that, the Pulitzer wasn’t far behind.

That may not be the example you were thinking of. But consider the TED talk I heard this week, by Steven Johnson, “Where Do Good Ideas Come From?” Here, Johnson makes the point that in the 18th century, no scientists or inventors kept things to themselves. They shared their ideas in salons and coffee houses and colleges and pamphlets and books. They had large circles of acquaintance and friends with whom they communicated regularly. This gave them freedom. This inspired innovation. As Johnson says, Benjamin Franklin “sent his ideas out into the world so that they would attract the attentions of the ingenious.”

Here’s the thing:  ideas cannot be conceived in a vacuum. Again, as Johnson pointed out in his TED talk, epiphanies that are truly original hardly ever happen. Instead, “more often than not, they’re cobbled together from whatever parts that happened to be around nearby. We take ideas from other people, from people we’ve learned from, from people we run into in the coffee shop. And we stitch them together into new forms, and we create something new.”

soapboxWithout Ron Chernow, there would be no Hamilton. Without the novels of Jane Austen, or the Gothic novels of the Bronte sisters, there would be no romance genre today. Without Dracula, there could be no Twilight. (Remind me to hop in my TARDIS and go stop Bram Stoker, okay?). But without the myriad legends and cultural tales of vampires, there could have been no Dracula, either. And where did those legends and stories originate? They had a cause, once. There was inspiration, and no doubt centuries of re-tellings and innovations by successive generations.

Writers – whether we write fiction, nonfiction, or both – are readers. As we read, we get ideas. I can’t tell you what some of my historical books look like – barely legible scribbles in the margins where my imagination starts to take over and push past the sentences on the page to a totally different meaning and view. Oh wait, I can! Here’s a photograph of my copy of Founding Brothers, chapter 1. Those notes sparked the desire to know more about not only the Burr/Wilkinson Conspiracy, but also a nascent Federalist plot in the early 1800s to have New England secede from the United States (also, not surprisingly, something Burr may have been part of). And I still want to know more about that – so I’m reading about it now. Before you ask, yes, most of my historical books look like this. 🙂 73019443_1593261380815453_4079028731337768960_o (1)

Historians, fiction writers, scientists . . . if you do research, if you’re a professional or even a very gifted and devout amateur, then at some point you’ll be inspired by something you’ve read or heard about. BUT. Being inspired is one thing; being derivative is another entirely. So we’re clear, I’m defining derivative as “Imitative of the work of another artist, writer, etc., and usually disapproved of for that reason” (Google).)

220px-Cassandra_Clare_City_of_Heavenly_Fire_book_coverFor an example of this, just go Google ‘Cassandra Clare criticisms’ and see what pops up. Forget the bad writing (and the incest storyline, which I still don’t get; were they, or were they not, brother and sister and who, precisely IS Jace and which freaking Shadowhunter family does he belong to, because I still don’t know!), and focus on the plagiarism charges instead. Very eye-opening. I begin to see the reason why I loved her Infernal Devices series more. But is the Mortal Instruments truly derivative? If you didn’t know she’d written a Harry Potter fanfic/ romance novel about Ron and Ginny (ewwww, right?!), would you think the Mortal Instruments series was, essentially, Harry Potter fanfic? (I’m off to take a shower now, with bleach. Ugh. Seriously. RON AND GINNY???)

Okay. I’m back.

Now, I admit, I read the Mortal Instruments series before I even knew Clare had written that fanfic. I didn’t see echoes of Harry Potter then, and I still don’t (of course, I haven’t read the fanfic, and no, I never will! EWWWW!). But sadly, with Cassandra Clare, it’s not just the Harry Potter fanfic (ewwww!) – she was also sued by fantasy novelist Sherrilyn Kenyon in 2016 for plagiarism. The charges (according to Clare’s website) were dropped at a later time, but still . . . the taint remains.

As I try to explain to my students, the lines that separate inspiration from derivation from plagiarism are fine indeed, lost somewhere in a murky gray swampland covered in fog. Sometimes, it’s clear as day – you steal three paragraphs from three different sources and turn them in as your original essay (dear students, please stop doing this, for there’s really no sport in it anymore for me). Sometimes, it’s great – you see a way to improve an existing idea or technology, and as long as you’re not violating any copyright laws and you’re creating something new and better, why not? But is that derivation – or inspiration? And does that depend on the end result?

If you’re wondering why I’ve spent the last 1100 words wandering around in this murky realm . . . frankly, so do I . . . no. Truthfully? It’s because for the past few months, I’ve been toying with the idea of returning to graduate school.

More and more, I want my doctorate in history.

It’s a scary thought, for a number of reasons – the most important being that I haven’t been in school in ten years, and the second most important being that I never did a thesis. Normally, your thesis in some way lays the groundwork for your dissertation – at least, that’s always been my assumption. But I couldn’t think of one, back then. I was pretty sure my little obsession with the Kimmel disappearance didn’t qualify as a thesis (even if I could have pulled it together in a year, which I now know I couldn’t have).

But now . . . that’s changing. I’m tired of lying in wait. And more importantly, as I dig and read and work and investigate, as more and more ideas come to me, as more and more questions beg to be answered (either by me, or by me finding that someone else already has), I realize that I really, really want to do this. And my big question is:  are these ideas, which insist on keeping me up at night (one decided to arrive at the most inopportune time of 11:45pm Tuesday night, as I was trying to sleep) worth investigating? Are they original enough? Am I being inspired by the works I read – or am I going over well-trod ground? Is there anything new there?

I suppose time – and a hell of a lot of groundwork and research – will tell.

 

 

The 2020 #ReadICT Challenge Is Here!

The #ReadICT Challenge is back!

Every year, the Wichita Eagle sponsors a reading contest. Twelve books, twelve categories, in twelve months. Last year, I finished early (this despite reading two extremely long biographies by one of my favorite authors).

If you’ve never done a reading challenge and are sitting there now wondering why anyone would want to – well, for one thing, it gets you out of your comfort zone. With this particular challenge, we have 12 different types of books to read. For many of us, at least one category will give us trouble – it’s way out of our comfort zone, maybe. Or maybe we just stare at the category with a hopeless, blank stare, with zero clue how to even find a book like that!

Reading challenges push you. Some don’t have categories; instead the challenge is to read X number of books in a year. Usually, that number is 50 or 100. The more you read, the more you keep reading. Call it Newtons’s First Law of Reading. The more you read outside your comfort zone, the more you learn what you like and don’t like. Never read a romance novel because you’re too embarrassed to read the sex scenes? Well, there are all kinds of romance levels. Some only feature a kiss; others are full-blown BDSM. You never know what you might like until you try it! 🙂  Or, do you barely remember anything from your history classes, or were you one of those poor souls with a lousy history teacher? Please, go get a really good one. Joseph Ellis, or Gordon Wood, or Ron Chernow, or David McCullough or Jon Meacham. And read.

Plus, if you’re a writer, reading is necessary. It’s how we hone the craft. Learn voice Learn how to pull off certain sly tricks of the trade. Learn description, pacing, characterization, dialogue. If you don’t see it in practice, how can you learn what to do – or what not to do? Even reading a bad book can teach you something.

It was a lot of fun to complete this challenge last year – I read a lot of great books, and pushed myself to get back into reading. To be honest, I hadn’t done much reading in the previous few years and I’d forgotten how much I loved not only reading, but specifically reading nonfiction. I actually read very little fiction last year, and I’m good with that. Plus, I just bought 30+ books this fall. Hopefully some of those will fulfill some of these categories.

So you should go forth this year and make it a resolution to find a reading challenge and participate in it. Because 2020 is upon us, and the #ReadICT challenge is here, with all new categories!

1. A book with a number in the title
2. A fix-it, how-to or self-help book
3. An epistolary novel (I will probably read The Guernsey Literary and Potato-Peel Pie Society, unless someone has a better one to recommend)
4. A speed read (less than 100 pages) (100 pages? That’s it? That’s not a novel, it’s a short story! Happily, Neil Gaiman has some excellent short stories, and 84 Charing Cross Road has been recommended to me, too.)
5. A book about someone you admire (I have a new biography of Abigail Adams I will probably read for this one. Do you know that while John Adams was serving in the Continental Congress, and then later as ambassador to France and Britain, she ran their farm, raised their children, and earned money to keep everything afloat? That woman was amazing.)
6. A book that has been (or is being) adapted to the screen (Yes, I see that it says screen, not stage. This one, I’ll have to think about because there are so many to choose from!)
7. A selection from a celebrity book club (Who besides Oprah has a book club? Any ideas?)
8. A book by an author who is new to you (I think I have this covered with the 30+ books I’ve acquired over the past few months.)
9. A book that features a strong female lead (I don’t read any other kind! Should be easy. But if you’re looking for one, let me recommend some of my favorites:  The Alice Network, Code Name Verity, Divergent, Outlander, The Charley Davidson series . . .)
10. A book that everyone’s talking about (What I love about this one is that it’s really up for interpretation. Who is ‘everyone?’ Talking about it – in what context?)
11. A “cli-fi” (climate fiction) novel or book about a natural disaster (This may turn out to be the one I have the most trouble with.)
12. A book by an author slated to visit Kansas in 2020  (Erik Larson is coming to Wichita in March – I already have my ticket!)

Happy reading, and Happy New Year!

“Even If It Rains . . .” Dialogue and ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

Dialogue.

Some writers adore writing dialogue. Characters leap off the page, verbal weapons in hand. Some writers are naturals at it – each character has a completely different voice, inflection, accent, use of words. For others . . . well, given the choice between writing dialogue and spending a night on Alcatraz, they’d be packing the sleeping bag.

But no matter what, if you’re a writer, you can’t avoid dialogue.

When you’re writing a story – be it fiction or nonfiction, a short story or a novel – there are building blocks you have to include, or else it will all fall apart. Things that not only provide your story with structure, but breathe life into it, make it come alive. Possibly the most important of these is dialogue.

Plot? Sure, we need it. But let’s face it:  unless you’re James Patterson, you’re hopefully writing fiction that’s more character driven than plot driven. And dialogue is one of the most important ways our characters leap off the page. It tells us, more than description, more than backstory, more than interaction with others, who these people are. Where are they from? Do they have an accent? Do they mispronounce certain words? If so, why? Do they use regionalisms? (Example:  a friend’s grandfather lives in Tennessee. He asks “You wanna Coca-Cola?” You say, “Sure!” He says, “What you want? We got Sprite, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper . . .”) And along with that, how’s their diction? Is their speech liberally peppered with idioms? Do they use African-American Vernacular English? Or is the prim, proper effect of boarding school evident in every sentence?

In short:  dialogue should tell us nearly everything we need to know about your character.

But. It can also provide so much more! Through dialogue, we should be able to see how they interact with each other. Do your characters have nicknames for each other? Do they reference jokes and incidents from their past that even you, the author, don’t quite get? When do we sense antagonism? And for whom do they feel it?

Dialogue can provide a sense of the characters lives prior to this point in time. It can tell us about their relationships. It can tell us how others see them.

mmmOne of my new obsessions is the Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Haven’t seen it? You must. If you drool over 1950s fashion (me!), you must see it. If you love comedies (me!), you must see it. If you like to be flabbergasted by how women were treated in the 1950s (me, apparently!), you must see it. And if you don’t know how women were treated in the 1950s, this show shall be your education!

In Season 1, Midge Maisel is left by her husband, for a woman with no discernible brain cells. So Midge decides to become a comedienne. She’s very good at it. But it’s 1958. She’s 26 years old. She has two children, overprotective parents, and no income. I’m seven episodes into the first season, and bang my head against something (sometimes the table, sometimes the cats . . .) every time Midge’s parents, especially her mother, makes remarks about how she ‘has’ to get her husband back, and her father gives her a curfew. At twenty-six! (This clip here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uetOWf7jU2Q)

The dialogue, though! There is a reason this show has won so many awards.

For starters, the two halves of Midge’s life – the proper Jewish housewife who shops at Neiman-Marcus, and the abandoned woman who gets drunk and does totally improv comedy laced with profanity (and, at times, nudity) – are delineated neatly, and nowhere more so than through the dialogue. Midge’s manager, Susie, is a streetwise alley cat (think an adult, jaded, f-word-dropping, Oliver Twist who never got adopted), while Midge’s father is a maths professor and her mother seems to only leave their Riverside apartment to go to her synagogue and her psychic.

For another thing, almost every line sparkles. It’s witty, it’s fast, it’s a current that carries you through every single scene, and every single episode. It’s what dialogue is supposed to do, and it does it in a way that is both hilarious and biting.

But even among this incredible deluge of dialogue, there are lines that rise above the rest. For me, the pinnacle of these lines was in Season 1, Episode 5. Midge, tired of living with her parents and having a curfew, has gotten a job at the makeup counter at a department store. The next morning, she announces this to her parents.

(For a short clip of this scene, start watching at :54 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=adG3j9n5fl8.)

For the next thirty seconds or so, her father bombards her with questions. But for me, the kicker, the one that made me both howl with laughter and scream in frustration, was this one:

“If it rains, you still have to go in.” 

This one line suddenly rises above all the hilarious one-liners her father throws at her – utterly ridiculous statements like, “And they’ll pay you? In money?” and “You’ll need a bank account” – to suddenly reveal multiple levels of what’s really going on here. 

1.) There’s obviously the overprotective dad thing going on, evidenced by Midge’s patient acceptance of the litany. But . . .

2.) Think about what this line says about Midge’s father. About how he sees Midge. What does it say about him? Does he really think she’d rather quit her job than get her Neiman-Marcus heels wet? Is this a patronizing line from a male chauvinist pig? Or is it something else?

3.) And think about what this line says about their relationship. He doesn’t even know she has a bank account. What does he know about his own daughter? And is anything he thinks he knows accurate? Can we extrapolate 26 years’ worth of relationship from this one line?

4.) And now let’s take it one step further. What does this line say about Midge? She’s 26. She married at 22, straight out of college. Never had a job. Never needed one. But even if you didn’t know any of that, what would this one line say about her, and her life up until this point? Does he ask this question because he’s insulting her – or because he truly thinks she would stay home rather than go out in the rain? And does he think this due to past experience?

5.) And when we put it in context of the entire conversation (go watch the very short clip, I beg of you, start at :54), is her dad happy she has the job? Does he think she can actually do it? Is he trying, in his own way, to be encouraging? Is he trying to undermine her confidence, or bolster it? Does this conversation potentially signal a turning point in their relationship?

Yeah. So this one line – again, out of thousands of fantastic ones in this series – was the one that made me hit the Pause button and listen to it over and over. It hit me so hard, made me think on so many levels. And that’s what dialogue should do. It should make us think. It should stay with us, haunt us, confront us days after we read or hear it. It should stay with us. 

It should say something more. 

 

“The American Story” -Part Review, Part Inspiration

My birthday was a couple of weeks ago. Typically, I go find myself something small – my mom and I used to hit a local antiques shop, but the shop has been shut for a few years now and frankly, let’s face it:  I saw Hamilton three times this year, along with Les Mis. What else could I possibly give myself that would top THAT?! 🙂

Well . . . as it turns out, there is something.

the-american-story-9781982120252_lgBack in November, I picked up an amazing book, The American Story:  Conversations With Master Historians. This is a collection of discussions hosted by the Library of Congress, for Congressional members, facilitated by David M. Rubenstein. If you have ever wanted to know why and how historians do what they do, this is the book you want to pick up. It’s part historiography, part inspiration, and completely unique in its approach.

This series was conceived by Rubenstein:  what if major American historians were invited to speak before members of Congress to talk about their work and the major figures they have studied? So in this amazing book, we have conversations with some of the most eminent historians of today, including Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, Jon Meacham, Cokie Roberts, A. Scott Berg, Robert Caro, and yes, of course, my favorite, Ron Chernow. (I am such a freaking fangirl.)

As a historian, this is a fascinating look into not just the men and women these historians have studied, but also into the process of history. We get an up-close, intimate look at the men (and women!) immortalized in their works, and you may definitely learn some new things – I sure did! For instance, did you know that Thomas Jefferson burned every letter his wife ever wrote, even those she wrote to her friends? We don’t know why. He just did.

Each interview covers at least one book written by the author (sometimes, two or even three). So we have broad overviews – and yet, each author has the ability to choose small kernels of insight, those moments that make each person come alive. Those are the tiny details I strive to put before my students, and those are the tiny details that enliven almost every page of this book.

But there are also amazing insights from the authors themselves about the process of writing history. And yes, anyone who has ever done even so much as a decent research paper will tell you that there is a process to it. Even when you think you know everything about a person, as A. Scott Berg thought when he wrote Lindbegh, there are things you don’t know. The records don’t exist. No one talked about it. And Berg realized that when  he met seven of Lindbergh’s illegitimate children, after his book was published. But he knew Lindbergh so well that when one of the German children faxed him letters Lindbergh had written to her mother, Berg recognized his handwriting on sight. It was true. But no one, ever, had talked about their existence.

For me, though, the greatest takeaway from American Story isn’t the knowledge – although that is a fantastic takeaway – but the insights into the authors. If you know anything about my blog, you know I’ve been on again, off again obsessed with the George Kimmel disappearance for years. I get obsessed . . . and then I back away. And I wait six months, maybe a year, before I re-submerge myself into the research, only to back out again as soon as I feel those tentacles of mystery start to grab at me. Obsession isn’t healthy, everyone says, and so I get cold feet. Get out.

That ended as soon as I read the interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin about Team of Rivals. Rubenstein asks her why she wrote another Lincoln book, when we have hundreds already, and she said:

“I don’t think I thought that the world needed another book. I just knew that I wanted to live with him Because it takes me so long, as I was saying, to write these books, and because I get so involved with whoever it is – I haven’t written twenty books like a lot of my historian friends. I knew that I wanted to live with Lincoln.”

I paused.

Underlined this.

And then, in the margin, I scribbled, Okay. So it IS okay. 

Ask Robert Caro about obsession. He’s been writing the master work of biographies about Lyndon B. Johnson for decades. He spends almost every day at Lyndon Johnson’s presidential library, at the Archives, at the presidential libraries of Roosevelt and Kennedy and Nixon. Digging. Talking to those who knew him. Not taking no for an answer. Coming back time and again, as long as it takes, to get the answers he needs. (I actually just finished Working, Caro’s book about his process in writing – extremely interesting and well-worth the read as well.)

So for me . . . this was a revelation. I don’t think we covered ‘Getting Obsessed With Your Subject 101″ in grad school. Because we cover so much, so fast, there isn’t time to get obsessed – unless you’re writing a thesis, of course, and even then you may not dig deep enough, because you don’t have the time. Robert Caro moved his wife into the middle of Texas nowhere in order to understand Johnson better. Goodwin simply wanted to spend as much time with Lincoln as she could.

And it suddenly occurred to me that Ron Chernow did not write Alexander Hamilton in five years without a slight bit of obsession. (Well, and full-time assistants, I’m sure.) Robert Caro has not spent two decades writing about Johnson without a teensy bit of obsession driving him. Bottom line:  historians become obsessed. It’s what drives us. And it’s okay to give in to it. Because if we don’t, then how will we ever finish the research? How will we find the courage to ask the hard questions? To stay at the desk a little longer, to look in one last file folder, to dig deeper?

It’s necessary. 

It’s what has driven me to the National Archives, to keep returning to those files again and again. Only this time, I’m sticking with it. And that was my birthday gift to myself this year:  permission to stick with it. Permission to remain obsessed, to follow the trails, to get lost in the research, to try whatever it takes to find the truth.

So if you, too, struggle with those kinds of issues – or if you just want further insight into some of the most important historical people in American history and their biographers – go pick up American Story. There are a handful of editing issues – mostly dates, as on page 62 when the wrong election year is given – but I adored this book. It’s a master class not only in American history, but in American history writing. 

And it was precisely the book I needed, at precisely the moment I needed it.

 

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-american-story-david-m-rubenstein/1130641281?ean=9781982120337#/– link to the book at Barnes & Noble