“Writer’s Inspiration” – how it happens

on October 5, 2018

A working writer of any kind (technical, marketing, short story, historian, etc.) can’t “wait for inspiration to strike”. Nope, if you’re a working writer, you’ve got to choose your story, sit your butt down in a chair, open up the computer, and get to work.

For all of that hard work, your first draft will probably be mostly crap.

But somewhere in that draft (or in the next or in next, next draft), because you did sit your butt down in a chair and get to work, you might be inspired. You’ll start to tingle, because you’ve come across something that’s so right for you. You might even have a hard time breathing, because, dayum, that something sure is thrilling.

But to get that thrill, you’ve gotta work for it. And here’s how I did it recently.

My husband and I went on a road trip. California to Nevada. Through Utah and Wyoming. Into South Dakota. Back to Wyoming and into Montana. Crossing Idaho and lingering in Seattle. Down Highway 101 to Oregon (loved you, Florence!) and back home to California.

Since this was a vacation, I was not going to write or edit any of my own fiction. I was only going to read three or four novels that I had lined up on my Kindle.

As we traveled along Highway 80 from California to Nevada and we passed Donner Summit, my thoughts lingered on the horrible true story of the Donner Party, those pioneers who–when confronted by the harsh winter of 1846–47–ate each other. Or as Wikipedia writes “Some of the pioneers resorted to cannibalism to survive.”

I began to wonder about the men and women who “resorted to cannibalism”. Specifically, I began to wonder about Mrs. Donner, although I didn’t know if there even was a Mrs. Donner. Or if there were several Mrs. Donners, or if there was only a Miss Donner.

Donner Pass, 1870s, via Wikipedia

I began to wonder…What if Mrs. Donner was ready to resort to cannibalism, and not just to keep herself and her family alive? What if during the wagon trip, she had been fighting with other women and she had been wishing them dead for weeks?  Was there a new interpretation, a new way of looking at the historical character of Mrs. Donner that I could work on? Was there a quick-flash-of-unexpected-character-thing that was dramatic enough for a 100-word short short story? (Keep in mind: I still don’t know if Mrs. Donner existed during the winter of 1846-47, so please understand that I’m taking a short story writer’s dramatic point of view rather than a historian’s accurate point of view.)

And so I mused on Mrs. Donner for a while, even creating a few titles for the short story I might write. Which I’ve already forgotten.

I enjoyed musing on Mrs. Donner so much that I decided that on each day of our vacation, I would muse on another historical American woman, one specifically drawn from the locations that we travelled each day. So in Utah, I thought about Mrs. Smith or Mrs. Young and what their untold-and-dramatic stories might be.

My musing continued until we reached Cody, Wyoming, where–since every day of my vacation I had been musing about American women of the historical west–I was rewarded with INSPIRATION.

It happened at the most unexpected location ever: the Cody Dug Up Gun Museum. Which is a blog post for another day.

New–and very short–contest!

on August 1, 2018

I’m a guest blogger on Suzanne Adair’s Relevant History blog this week. Enjoy my Sanborn Fire Insurance Map post and enter my contest to win a 13 oz. can of New Orleans’ Cafe du Monde’s French Roast Coffee and a Kindle ebook copy of Fanny Newcomb and the Irish Channel Ripper.

To enter, just comment at the end of the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map post. The winner will be chosen Friday (that’s August 3!) at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available in the U.S. only.

The starts and stops of writing a historical mystery

on July 30, 2018

Since Fanny Newcomb is set in Gilded Age New Orleans, I want to start with a short word association game. When I say “New Orleans”, I’m guessing that you’ll say “Mardi Gras parades! Streetcars! Beignets! Hurricanes! The French Quarter! Jazz!”

And when I say “Gilded Age New Orleans”, I’m guessing that you’ll ask “What’s the Gilded Age”? And that’s a very fair question. The short answer is: in American studies, the Gilded Age is the time period from 1877 to 1900, which is about the same time period as Britain’s late Victorian era.

On Canal Street, NOLA

I didn’t know about America’s Gilded Age until I studied history at Florida State University (FSU) in Tallahassee. FSU was also where I learned about women’s history. I was awestruck by the stories of late 19th century American women who lived life on their own independent terms while at the same time helping to improve the lives of other people.

My new heroines were women like settlement house founders Jane Addams and Ellen Starr Gates, social reformer Florence Kelley, and women’s suffrage advocate Alice Stone Blackwell. And of course, I adored the female adventurers like “around-the-world-in-72-days” journalist Nellie Bly and presidential candidate Victoria Woodhull!

By the time I started working on my graduate history degree, I also adored the city of New Orleans (only six hours from Tallahassee). I was totally seduced by the romantically shabby French Quarter, the magnificent mansions of Audubon Place, the non-stop tropical greenery, and the overwhelming feeling that this old, old city was expecting me to love it. And reader, I did.

Not surprisingly, my fascination for Gilded Age heroines and the city of New Orleans intersected! I was inspired to write my master’s thesis about the women (and men) who championed charitable and progressive social causes in late 19th century New Orleans.

To research my thesis, I lived in New Orleans for one very hot and very humid summer. I stayed on the top floor of a rickety Queen Anne house in the lower Garden District and rode the St. Charles Avenue streetcar to Tulane University (or the Public Library or the University of New Orleans) archives every weekday. On the weekends, I walked the narrow streets of the French Quarter, strolled along the riverfront, and haunted the air-conditioned historical museums. My thesis was entitled “Voluntarism in New Orleans, 1878-1905” and focused on citizen efforts to prevent yellow fever outbreaks.

On St. Charles Avenue, NOLA

After I received my master’s degree, it seemed so natural to write a novel that incorporated everything I had already learned about New Orleans. Specifically, I wanted to write a novel about clever, educated New Orleans women who had fresh ideas about life and who worked in a settlement house. And I wanted to write about smart women who wanted to solve difficult problems like…well, like murder. Because in addition to my love of history, I also loved to read the mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers (who was one of my favorite smart women). Not to mention that I loved Arthur Conan Doyle’s Victorian detective stories.

But before I could start that first novel about New Orleans, I became captivated by the mythology of London’s Jack the Ripper.

So I put my New Orleans manuscript in the drawer and tried to write a murder mystery which included (1) A very clever 25-year-old spinster living in (2) Late Victorian London, who (3) Worked and lived at the Toynbee Hall Settlement House in Whitechapel, and is so (4) Fascinated by Jack the Ripper’s gruesome murders of prostitutes that she (5) Decides she must do some detecting on her own.

Still with me?

After many false writing starts, I realized that as much as I loved stories set in England, Victorian London just wasn’t “my town”. But Gilded Age New Orleans was.

In the French Quarter, NOLA

Once I brought my mystery “home” to New Orleans, much of the Fanny Newcomb & the Irish Channel Ripper story fell into place. I still had a lot of research to do: reading issues of the 1889 Daily Picayune newspaper, vacationing in New Orleans as often as possible (hard work, I know; but an author must make sacrifices!), and—my favorite type of research—touring through Gilded Age buildings that still exist, such as the awe-inspiring St. Alphonsus Catholic Church.

So although I was momentarily seduced by Jack the Ripper and Victorian London, in the end I returned to Gilded Age New Orleans and wrote about a courageous southern woman pursuing a Jack the Ripper copycat. And I got to write about Mardi Gras, streetcars, and the French Quarter.

Maybe in Fanny Newcomb’s next Gilded Age adventure, I’ll get to write about hurricanes, beignets, and jazz.

This Oldie-but-Goodie blog post was originally published on Jennifer C. Wilson’s Historical Fiction with Spirit!

Gilded Age New Orleans: So much more than hookers, hurricanes, and Mardi Gras!

on July 28, 2018

Although late 19th century New Orleans was renowned for the hookers of Storyville, the devastating hurricanes of the 1880s, and the elevation of Mardi Gras to a state holiday, there’s so much more to know about the Crescent City during this time!

For starters, there was an assassination that was followed by lynchings (1890), an all-out political insurrection (1874), and a riot that killed 28 people (1900). There were duels in City Park and gunfights on Canal Street. There were too many bankruptcies, lottery swindles, and drunken sailors to count. And every year there was a long, hot summer and the constant threat of yellow fever or other maladies.

With a quarter of a million citizens and ships from the mighty Mississippi river depositing strangers in the city every day, someone was always causing trouble for someone else. Truly, Gilded Age New Orleans is a dream city for a historical mystery writer!

But back to summer…when the heat truly hit in late May, New Orleanians of means retreated to breezy coastal cities in Louisiana and Mississippi. During this “dull season”, those citizens who remained in town stocked their iceboxes, lightened their wardrobes and rooms with cotton fabrics, and, as advised by the daily newspapers, stopped working by 3pm.

And into this humid, hot mess of a city I toss my heroine, Fanny Newcomb. And ask her to solve a murder. Twenty-five and learning to make a living on her own, Fanny finds herself teaching typewriting to the hard-working factory girls of the city’s Irish Channel neighborhood. It’s a grim life.

Fortunately for Fanny and her crew, in addition to the problems mentioned above, New Orleans was also the entertainment oasis of the South.

Throughout the late 19th century, New Orleanians reveled in what the city maps called Places of Amusement. For grand music, they attended the French or Grand Opera Houses or the Academy of Music. For dramatic entertainment, they visited the St. Charles, Avenue, or Faranta’s Theatres, stages where Edwin Booth and Sarah Bernhardt both made appearances. For a peak at circus curiosities or a bit of common sensationalism, they bought a ticket to Robinson’s Dime Museum.

Horse lovers and gamblers alike visited the Fair Grounds, home of the Louisiana Jockey Club and their racecourse. New Orleanians in need of a quiet place for contemplation could visit a former racecourse, because the 1830’s Metairie Race tack had been transformed into the elegant and fashionable Metairie Cemetery after the Civil War. Even in traditionally laissez-faire New Orleans, a cemetery could not be called a Place of Amusement, but because the city had above-ground burials, many of the cemeteries did become celebrated centers of beauty and relaxation.

When New Orleanians tired of the hustle of the Canal Street business district or the bustle of the Mississippi river roustabouts, they retreated to resorts on Lake Pontchartrain, only a few miles from the heart of the city. The “pleasure grounds” of Milneburg, Spanish Fort, and West End offered a variety of hotels, restaurants, casinos, theatres, shooting galleries, and bathhouses. A visit to New Orleans was never considered complete without a “trip to the lake”.

Many New Orleanians were more charitable than cultural. Like all large American cities in the late 19th century, the city was home to churches, synagogues, charity hospitals, Young Christian Associations, a Woman’s Exchange, and—most vital to Fanny Newcomb’s story—a settlement house to assist immigrants in assimilating to their strange and dangerous new city.

Fortunately for me, there is a lot more to Gilded Age New Orleans than hookers, hurricanes, and Mardi Gras. Which means that there’ll be a lot more murders for Fanny Newcomb to investigate.

This blog post was originally posted on Jenny Q’s excellent letthemreadbooks.blogspot.com.

Double your chances!

on February 6, 2018

If you’d really like to win an autographed copy of Fanny Newcomb and the Irish Channel Ripper…head over to Amy Bruno’s Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour. The Giveaway ends around March 19.

AND…check out my book tour schedule. Fun for all!

Additional ideas for Writing a Killer First Chapter…

on January 27, 2018

On January 28 I’ll be sharing ideas on “Writing a Killer First Chapter” with the Redwood Writers (a Branch of the California Writers Club) in Santa Rosa.

Here are some links with more info….

For novels:
10 Things Your Opening Chapter Should Do: A Check-List for Self-Editing
Finding the Perfect Place to Start Your Novel
4 Approaches for the First Chapter of Your Novel
How to write a murderously good mystery

For short stories:
Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction
How to write a mystery story

Fanny Newcomb Kindle sale!

on December 9, 2017

For two days only (Saturday December 9 and Sunday December 10), Fanny Newcomb & the Irish Channel Ripper for Kindle is on sale for 99 cents!

ALSO this weekend….all SAND HILL REVIEW PRESS Kindle editions  are available for 99 cents!

Roast Turkey with Truffles from “The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book”

on November 22, 2017

Here’s the recipe directly from “The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book”:

And here’s the 2017 easier-to-follow version:

Roast Turkey With Truffles.

Dinde Truffle Rotie.

1 Fine Young Hen Turkey.
1 Pound of Lean Ham, Cut into Dice.
2 Pounds of Truffles.
1/4 Nutmeg.
1/4 of a Teaspoonful of Pepper.
1 Bay Leaf, Minced Fine.

1. Clean and prepare the turkey for roasting as directed in the above recipe.
2. Put a saucepan on the fire and put in the ham cut into dice.
3. When hot add two pounds of the very best truffles and the grated nutmeg, the pepper and a minced bay leaf.
4. Stir over the fire for about fifteen minutes.
5. Then take off and let cool.
6. When it is cold stuff the place at the neck of the turkey whence you take the craw, and sew up and arrange as indicated in the directions for dressing a turkey.
7. Stuff the body of the turkey with the remainder of the truffles and sew it up and truss it.
8. Set it in the oven and roast according to the above recipe, serving with a Sauce aux Truffles.
9. This is a very expensive dish.

Stuffed tomatoes from “The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book”

on November 21, 2017

Here’s the recipe directly from “The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book”:

And here’s a rearranged version:

Stuffed Tomatoes.
Tomates Farcies.

6 Tomatoes.
1 Tablespoonful of Butter.
1 Cup of Wet Bread, Squeezed Thoroughly.
Salt, Pepper and Cayenne to Taste.
1 Clove of Garlic (if desired.)
1 Onion.
1/4 Inch of Ham.

1. Wash the tomatoes, selecting fine, large, smooth ones for this purpose.
2. Either cut the tomato in two, or else cut one slice from the stem end.
3. Scoop out the inside of the tomato, and put it in a dish and save the skins.
4. Take one onion and one quarter of an inch of ham and chop very fine.
5. Put a tablespoonful of butter into a saucepan, and add the onion, letting it brown nicely.
6. Then add the ham. Let it brown.
7. Add the insides of the tomatoes, and then add, almost instantly, a cup of bread that has been wet and squeezed.
8. Beat all well together as it fries, and add salt and pepper to taste.
9. Let it cook well, and then take off, and stuff the tomatoes, cut in halves or whole. The former is the daintier way.
10. Sprinkle the tops with bread crumbs, and dot with butter.
11. Place in the oven for fifteen or twenty minutes, till brown, and serve hot with filet of beef or chicken, etc.

Pineapple fritters from “The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book”

on November 20, 2017

Here’s the recipe directly from “The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book”:

And here’s a rearranged version:

Pineapple Fritters.

Beignets d’Ananas.

½ a Pineapple.
Fritter Batter.
½ Cup of Sugar.
1 Gill White Wine.

1. Slice the pineapple, and cut the slices in halves.
2. Sprinkle with sugar and White Wine, and let them soak for an hour.
3. Then proceed as in Apple Fritters:

    a. Make a batter à la Créole and have ready a deep saucepan of boiling lard.
    b. Drain the pineapple.
    c. Dip the slices, one at a time, into the 
batter, lift out with a large kitchen
s poon, drop into the boiling lard, 
and fry to a golden brown.
    d. Then
 lift out with a skimmer, and set on
 brown paper, in the mouth of the
 oven, and drain.
    e. Sift powdered white
 sugar over them, and serve hot, piling high in pyramidal shape, and
 sprinkling again with powdered
 white sugar.

4. Or, simply sprinkle with sugar, let them stand one hour, add the juice to the fritter batter, and proceed as above.

Ana’s notes:
A Gill (sometimes called a “teacup”) is equal to a quarter of a pint.

Here’s the recipe for the batter à la Créole:

1 Cup Flour.
2 Eggs.
2 Tablespoonfuls Brandy.
14 Teaspoonful of Salt.
Cold Water.
1 Tablespoonful Butter, Melted.

1. Beat the yolks of the eggs well, and add the flour, beating very light.
2. Now add the melted butter and the brandy, and thin with water to the consistency of a very thick starch.
3. Add the whites of eggs, beaten to a stiff froth.

 

George Brookshaw (1751-1823)