Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Conferencing and This Writer

What did the ancient poet say to the historical novelist?

 “Fancy meeting you here!”

 

            I have written about the importance of writer conferences in my life and that of others, here and elsewhere (Redwood Writers June  newsletter.) Today, I am just barely off the boat from the seaside San Diego fourth bi-annual conference of the Historical Novel Society in the United States. The Society began in Great Britain some fourteen years ago and has spread its wings to varied parts of the world as historical novels have flourished. This was my third conference, having missed the 2007 in Albany, NY.  Like Topsy, the sessions have grown in number and relevance.

Invariably, HNS attracts the likes of Susan Vreeland, Diane Gabaldon, Cecilia Holland, and Harry Turtledove. With sessions devoted to a multitude of topics, some may be thought to favor male writers (who attended hugely!) but were found to be attractive to both sexes: World War II and Naval History. Sessions included: Historical Fiction Goes Digital with Women Writing the West’s Michelle Black, Ann Parker(also of WWW) and others spoke of Keeping a Series Fresh, and Persia Woolley (of WWW and Redwood Writers) spoke of Second Harvest: New Life for Your Earlier Works…a smattering of the 25 meetings available to 300 participants in thee days.

Famously published, debut writers, the “pre-published” met, dined and socialized with agents and editors looking for new clients. Then, there were the Friday Night Fight Scenes readings after the dinner and Turtledove’s keynote. Saturday evening’s comments by Cecilia Holland with gorgeous display of period costumes from ancient Rome to 19th century Americana found me ” too tired, dear,” to stay for the Saturday Night Sex Scene Readings.

What purpose did the conference serve me?  Persia as a charming friend and roommate; meeting the incoming president of WWW, Pam Tartaglio; chats with Ann Parker, Brigitte Goldstein,  and new acquaintances; immersion in the gifts and energy of other writers; free books(10?) and those I purchased.

I also gained the interest in my work by one agent and two editors. Not a bad ratio out of three pitches, hmm?

Readers: sorry I haven’t mastered the use of photos or this page wouldn’t be so gray. I will keep writing until I build that skill.   Next up: travel tales and book reviews. Watch out world, Arlettawrites is back!

WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH

Women’s History Month has its roots here in Sonoma County, CA. In 1978,  the local Commission on the Status of Women called for a week in March to be set aside to acknowledge the struggles and accomplishments of women. By 1980, the Women’s History Project was underway and Congress declared March our month.

Many women have influenced my life but in this day of attacks on the labor movement and hard-won labor rights I want to honor one woman who led the way, often with controversy. I hope you enjoy this tale. 

Excerpt from HUACHUCA WOMAN     Benson, Arizona   July 1917

Wiping her face of rivulets of sweat, she walked away from him and took a shady bench seat under the eaves of the station house, right alongside me. She was a smallish woman, getting on to thirty or thereabouts, fine featured with a full head of soot black hair, her crowning glory. She had the look of too many miles, too few good nights’ sleep and too much bad food. Her color was off and dark circles pooled under her gray blue eyes. She gave a faint smile.

             “Don’t think I’ll ever grow accustomed to the Arizona sun,” she said, fanning at the heat waves with her bit of the El Paso Herald.

            “I’m Arizona born and bred,” I said. “I’m still not used to it. Name’s Josephine Nichols.”

            “I am pleased to make your acquaintance. I am Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.”

            “The one they call ‘the rebel girl?’”

            “My main claim to fame,” she answered.

            “Believe I’ve read about you. You went out and made speeches for those lady silk workers in New Jersey about three, four year ago. Newspaper picture didn’t do you justice and I ‘spect they didn’t do so well by your speech either.”

            “You have that right. The newsies tend to intentionally garble what I say most of the time. Fortunately, the workers heard my message for themselves. It was a time.”

            “Is that what you do?  I mean, travel around the country and talk folks up?”

            “That and some writing,” Elizabeth answered. “What are you doing in this god forsaken place?”

            I laughed. “That’s my machine and trunks they’re trying to get loose. I’m heading back to my folks’ ranch with my boys.” I watched my sons horse around, in their usual fashion, and smiled when I caught Willy’s attention. He waved back. “Their daddy has gone off to the war.”      

“A soldier?  You’d think men would learn from their women to gather over the back fence or a cup of coffee and settle their differences before rushing off to kill one another.”

            “You sound like my Peter. He’s spent the last year or so saying that to anyone that’d listen. When the United States joined in the fray, he studied on it some more until he found a way to help. He’s gone off to drive ambulance for the Red Cross.”

            “Good for him. I hope he returns safely to you. And soon.”

            Wanting to shift the discussion away from Pete, my constant worry, I asked, “Who’s that man y’all were talking to? Your husband?”

            “No, no. He’s Big Bill Haywood, chief organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World. Some call us ‘Wobblies’ or the IWW. Some call him a ‘rabble rouser.’ There’s no one quite like him for getting the attention of working folks and management alike.”

            “Where y’all headed?”

            “There’s been some ugly business in Bisbee.”

            “Land’s sakes, those mines are so dangerous that it’s big time news when a month goes by without an accident,” I told her.  “Makes the headlines hereabout.”

             “They‘ve been saying the IWW down there is full of traitors and immigrants, people who don’t belong here.”

            “I’ve heard it said,” I responded. “Along the border here, most Mexican laborers come over for a time but go home when they want, and take their money with them.”

            “You might be surprised. The mining companies, at first, recruited Cornish, Welsh and German Austrian miners for their skills.” She took off her jacket and undid a few buttons of her blouse.  I followed suit and found some relief from the heat. “Now, these folks are a long ways from home and, for most, there’s no going back. They’ve settled here, become citizens, own land, have bank accounts, kids in local schools.”

            “German friends of ours just got chased out of El Paso a couple of months ago.”  I could see their sad faces as we saw the Kohls off at the station. “You’re right, there’s no going back to Germany for them. Just back to New York to be with more German Americans, to spare the children not fitting in.”

            “It’s a sad time for some, no doubt about it. Most of us have only a generation or two to look back to for immigration stories. My own family is lace curtain Irish.” She looked blankly into the distance as if seeing her ancestors.       

            “True enough,” I said. “Though to hear some talk, you’d think their people built and rowed the Mayflower across all by theirselves.”

            We both shifted in our seats as the sun moved further west and the shade slid off the bench. We fanned ourselves with more vigor. Late afternoon was coming on quickly toward dusk, still the heat held on. Shimmering light danced off a rock wall across the tracks. Flies hovered over horse patties on the parallel trail while a lizard, long and lean, scurried from under the station platform to begin its trek along the rails.

            Willy and Jim-boy, tired of supervising the repairs, collected coins from the crowd and went in search of cool drinks at the drug store down the road.  I felt drowsiness come on me. Elizabeth’s head lolled to her shoulder, causing her to shake awake. She shifted again in her seat and offered an embarrassed grin.

            “Your sons are quite a nice twosome.”

            “They’re good boys. Do you have children?”

            “I have a son, Fred. We call him Buster,” her face lit up. “He’s seven and spending the summer at the shore with the family. Mama and my sister Kathie look after him since I am away so much.”

            “It must be hard to be so far from him. I mean, if he were to get sick or something.”  I felt I had blundered badly here.

            “You’re right for he’s a thin one and has been sickly. He gets the bronchitis in his lungs and he had appendicitis last fall. Fortunately, I was home at that time. We kept him out of school for the rest of the year, fearing he’d get the infantile paralysis. It’s really bad back in New York.”

            “So I’ve heard. I had a brother die of lung disease,” I said. “Most of the lung problems out this way comes from the mining, but William Ebert didn’t have a chance to burrow under even if he’d a wanted. My first husband was a rock hound, but mostly on the surface.”  She asked after him and I repeated that sad story.

            We talked more of our families and their beginnings. Elizabeth much admired her well-read mother who inspired her daughters to go out into the world and make their mark. She spoke of her son in a wistful way, like a fancy doll she could take off the shelf and hold on special occasions, but didn’t dare get dirty. She worried that Buster would grow to resent her work for keeping her from him. I had no answer to that for I’d never had that particular fear, despite my own work.

            Talking of this and that, in the way women will do, I was interested in how she had traveled all about the country. In my limited experience, few women traveled alone. She had been in the Minnesota mines, the Mesabi Range, that summer, to Seattle and Boston and points in between. I thought she was very brave and told her so.

            “I don’t know that it is bravery, but I thank you. It’s just the way I am. I guess I’ll be fighting for better wages and working conditions until the end of my days. How about you, what do you see for yourself?”

            “I don’t rightly know,” I answered slowly for in contrast, I felt my life to be of  little social worth. “For now, I want to work the ranch. Get up before the chickens, ride the fence line, go on roundup with my daddy and sons, gossip with Mama and be pampered some by her. All the time praying that Peter comes home safe and sound.”

            “I’d say you have your work cut out for you.” She smiled warmly at me, as if knowing my doubts. “What’s Bisbee like?”  Elizabeth asked.

“It’s not hardly like any place else you’ve been, I ‘spect. There’s scarcely a level plain in the whole town. It’s all hillsides and topsy-turvey buildings, a bowl of a town with the houses barely stuck to the sides. And dominating it all are the mines with their sulphur fumes, dust, noise and saloons.”

            “Sounds lively,” said Elizabeth.

            “It’s had fire and floods and horrible epidemics, but it just keeps on thrivin’ and survivin’. One thing about Bisbee, you never know what’s gonna happen next. But something will. That’s Bisbee.”

            “Did you know the miners at the Copper Queen went out on strike?”

            “I been so busy packing up my household, I didn’t get many details,” I said, apologetically. “Is it settled yet?”

            “Far from it. Two thousand good citizens of Bisbee, including company men and spies from the Justice Department, took it upon themselves to run some twelve hundred men out of town, county and state.” Elizabeth stood up and paced on the platform in front of me. “Dragged them out of their beds, and crammed them into boxcars. By sizzling hot noon, they were out in the middle of the desert, at some place called Hermanas in New Mexico. Kept locked up overnight, with little water or bread and no sanitary facilities.” She turned and stared at me.

“Good heavens,” I said. “I’ve heard of pogroms in Europe where they gathered up the Jews and run them off like that. Who’d have thought that could happen right here to home. What’s happened since?”

She took a big breath, came and sat with me again. Her shoulders slumped, perhaps in sorrow, perhaps in fatigue.

            “A few were able to make it back to Bisbee, including our IWW lawyer who was caught up in the transport. Most, though, are sitting it out at the Army base near Columbus with no funds or way to get back here, and under a death threat if they do come.”

            “Now, that ain’t right. I imagine there’s family men amongst them?”

            “Absolutely. Most are citizens. Maybe half registered for the draft, have families and property. There’s even local businessmen caught up among the deportees.”

            “I’m shamed. War or no war, that ain’t right. But you still haven’t said what you’re doing out here, so far from New York.”

            A red capped porter was waving folks to board the branch line, the flatcar affixed in place. Willy and Jim-boy had long since settled down on the platform to wait and were now jumping on board and calling to me. We gathered up our satchels and climbed onto the train.

            “I was headed back east when I got a telegram from Big Bill, asking if I’d come down and speak to the strikers, try to give them heart,” Elizabeth said. “I’ll do that and then be on my way.”

            “All I can say is, you got grit, girly, and out here, that’s saying a mite.”

            She gave me a wide open smile and a pat on my arm. We said our goodbyes as I headed to the forward car and my boys, and she moved to the rear with her escort and the men he’d gathered to him. The boys and I wouldn’t be going as far as Bisbee, but unload at Hereford and head to the ranch. Pity was, I liked that young woman. I think we’d have been fast friends, given the chance.

FROM MY READING CHAIR

Writing gurus have said over the years, “write what you love and love what you write.”  That comes easily for me for Historical Fiction is what I read and write. Of course I depart on both counts from time to time. I love a good mystery/suspense/adventure story or a biography, usually of  a writer.  Then, there are the mainstream novels I should read but barely get to a smidgen of them. Since this is my Blog, from time to time, I will share with you my impressions of books I read.  Today, it is a batch of historicals.

Child of the Northern Spring: Book One of the Guinevere Trilogy (Paperback) published (re-issue) 2010 by Sourcebooks, 545 pages

Persia Woolley has walked the walk in her research on King Arthur and his Queen Guinevere. She brings the times (6th century Britain) alive with poetical visions and imaginings of the people and characters of Camelot and its origins. Accurate in detail and filled with the tone, habits and customs of the day, we are thrust back into an historical time coated with mystery and mythology. More than this, Woolley develops stories of what might have been the early lives of Guinevere and Arthur, drawing on legend, history and extrapolations of her imagination. The characters come alive as people with strong feelings, dreams and hopes…and flaws. The reader is granted a glimpse into the strife, political and religious, that was the emergence of a united Britain. Woolley is, indeed, a gifted writer and Arthurian specialist. Sourcebooks is to be commended for re-issuing this wonderful trilogy.

Dina’s Lost Tribe (Paperback) published 2010 by iUniverse, 402 pages

Brigitte Goldstein holds a PhD in history and I am tempted to say it doesn’t show; by that I mean that her story is not a thesis, a lecture or dry accounting. It abounds with heart and the lyricism of poetry. The story is complex, weaving its way from the 13th to the 20th centuries. A secret village and culture hidden in the Pyrenees for centuries is gradually brought to light through the codes of its founder and the interpretations and fears of its successors. When historian Nina Aschauer seeks her mysterious birthplace, she meets the love of her life and fades from view. On finding Dina’s codex, Nina enlists the help of her scholarly friend Etoile and cousin Henner. The unraveling begins. Rich in the history of Judaism and of French culture, Dina’s Lost Tribe offers a unique worldview from an author well-versed in both…and captivating adventures well-told.

Clara and Mr. Tiffany (Hardback) published 2011 by Random House, 397 pages

Susan Vreeland gained access to a treasure trove of Clara Driscoll’s letters that reveal a 21st century truth about a 19-20th century icon. The amazing output of work that came from the Louis Comfort Tiffany studios nearly always carried his name with seldom a nod to other designers. The letters to her family came to light in 2005 and, with them, Clara Driscoll’s design history of Tiffany lamps and windows emerged. Vreeland has drawn a dynamic sketch of Clara, her loves, her skills and her turmoil. As she leads the Women’s Department strike for equity of wages with the Men, she is magnificent.  In love, she is tragic and vulnerable. In dealings with the genius who is her boss, she is both timid and brave. The book coats a vivid picture of the times as well as the characters.

The Shanghai Girls (Paperback) published 2010 by Random House, 314 pages

Lisa See writes passionately of her Chinese heritage no matter the era or place. In this, perhaps the darkest of her books, we see two sisters mired in the falsity of the glittering life that was Shanghai of the 1930’s. As “beautiful girls,” they are ill-prepared for their father’s fall into ruin or the invasion of the Japanese army; their arranged marriages to two “American-Chinese” helps them in their flight but confounds them in their new reality that is Angel Island and Los Angeles. This is a book of relationships, the ins, outs and twists of sisterhood, parenthood, marriage and extended family. As the book draws to a close, the sisterhood that has dominated the story evolves into a new understanding and depth. Can a sequel be far behind, one that marks the return to 1970’s China?

All of these books are available through Amazon or your favorite independent bookstore.

CLARA’S AIR

For thirty-five years, February has been National Black History Month.  Celebrations, rallies, and special events happen across the country in schools, parks, churches and other venues.  I wrote the poem, CLARA’S AIR, on a warm spring evening four years ago and it was published online by Janet Riehl on her blog site www.riehlife.com that summer. To commemorate the sacrifices, endurance and accomplishments of Black Americans, I offer it up again.

 CLARA’S AIR

 Old Mom-Mom told her,“it’s a track without a train,

a railroad running north and, sometimes, underground.”

In the dead of night,with more stealth than wealth,

they slipped onto the barque of a Louisiana swamp.

Three dark panthers melding into the shadows’ thin cover,

where a white man at the helm did hover.

Fear and quiet made the slither of pole on green water

seem to shout upon the wild river.

Near to dawn, they put in at land, there to await,the next helping hand.

In a slimy cave they rested, in Mom-Mom’s lap, Clara’s head softly nested

Sullied water and moldy bread,a wormy apple or bright berries,

it was on these they fed.

Night two or was it more?

Gators snapping as carefully they stepped in mud and gore.

Sounds of tiger growls rent the air,

when the tree snake reached down to dust Clara’s curly hair.

Dawn found them on a sandy beach,

here to hide and keep watch all day against the sound of dogs at bay!

When Clara’s feet began to bleed, Mom-Mom tore her turban

to wrap those tiny feet beyond the scent of any breed.

Night after night, they traveled on. Hiding again at first light,

always searching for guide or clue to carry them from all they knew.

Until Clara wondered at seeking more, hiding from the searchers,

 their dogs and gun, when hope itself had nowhere to run.

Hiding in cramped attics or soured hay, behind a secret wall,

under a bed or up a tree, caused them often to pray.

A thin soup, a crust of bread, an ear of corn to chew, where came the next meal, they seldom knew.

Drained of hope by pain and sorrow, their next stop caused them to burrow.

To Illinois-land they came, trackers’ hounds at their heels.

A house, a barn, a cellar, promised respite from their flight.

Thin, tired to the bone, with blistering feet and soul,

they fell into a restless sleep.

Awakened too soon and pressed below ground,

no light by which to see,  the shifting dirt drifted down.

Clara, Old Mom-Mom and the others, too,

huddled against a sudden outcry,when a critter ran across a foot,

fear doubled and took root.

On and on they sat in silent dream, thinning air adding to their sleep

sending them into a well too deep.

Clara shuffled close to Mom-Mom’s ear,

“Air’s there. See the mole mice at they’s mother’s teats?”

“Hush, child. You wants the mens to hear?”

Old Mom-Mom’s voice faded,her lungs stretched thin.

“Y’all gots to smell the air,” Clara wanted  to scream.

Tugging and pulling, she made Mom-Mom’s face fit the hole.

A gasp, another and then a whisper,“I declare, child, you’s right.

Dem moles is drinkin’ they’s mama’s milk, sure as we kin drinks the air.”

And so the time passed, each had the luck

to suck of Clara’s air until the last of the slave-seekers left.

The lid popped open from above and the whites declared,

“A miracle from God” that all still lived.

But, Old Mom-Mom and the others knew, it was Clara’s air

that saved the day and them, too.

Excerpt from BY GRACE

 In my last post, I showed how journaling becomes a writer’s tool. This time, I want to share how journaling finds a place in the content of my historical fiction. In this case the book manuscript is BY GRACE , the second book in The Huachuca Trilogy. Can you find the journaled material I’m referring to?

Characters: Sam, a trail guide in her 30’s; Glenda, 19, heroine on the run, real name Grace; Hiram,  Orphan Train boy,6, adopted by Grace/Glenda

Setting: Idaho, 1900

 They continued south, meandering over the prairie with its thin array of spring grasses, watching for access to waterways and shade. Sam gave them stern warnings that hard times awaited as they approached the lava beds. Before heading across the rocky and ankle-breaking terrain, they filled up every possible container with water. A burlap sack was wetted and then expanded to hold a goodly amount of water. Canteens, empty cans collected over the last few meals, pots, and feed sacks were all filled to insure the safety of the trio and their beasts. Hats and neck scarves were similarly soaked against the heat of the day.

Sam got them moving well before dawn. A weak moon shone down just enough to guide them. With Sam in the lead, the others followed with their reins loose to let the horses find safe stepping. The mules, Bruno and Sarry, were let to follow as they would. By now, Bruno was very attached to Sarry and tended to follow her actions. Sarry, for her part, was so accustomed to traveling with Sam that she never faltered from her path behind or alongside the woman.

“Now, I don’t want to have to shoot a horse or mule dead for a broke leg, so take it slow and easy. Don’t force any of ‘em to go one way or t’other. This lava is full of hidey-holes and is sharp as broken glass. If’n your horse goes down, jump clear to keep her from fallin’ on you.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Glenda. She felt Hiram nod his assent into her back where he clutched tightly to her.

They pushed on for hours as the sun rose in the eastern sky and headed to its zenith. Radiant heat from the day before kept them warm in the cool of the very early morning. As soon as the sun climbed into the sky, the pumiced ground seemed to absorb and multiply in successive layers of heat that assaulted the senses. Warned ahead of time of the need to dress in layers and to keep as covered as possible, Glenda had made rough shirts for them all from the one gingham dress in her satchel. Removing their outerwear, their shirts of brightest white and yellow billowed around them and offered respite with a cooling effect. Hats dried quickly as did their lips and faces from the heat attack.

Mirages appeared as soon as it was light and haunted them in the long ride, always out of reach. Oddly, an occasional cactus or stray wildflower poked up from out of the harsh terrain, suggesting water somewhere below. The lava was crystalline black in some phases and a burnt red-orange in other areas. Several times, Sam called a halt, dismounted and checked the ground for crusty shelves that might collapse under their weight. Glenda was duly impressed by Sam’s expertise and knowledge of the vast country they had so far covered.

Mid-afternoon found them all panting, animals and humans alike. The relentless sun beat down and flashed back up at them in heavy curtains of undulating heat. Their eyes were dry and scratchy and no one had anything to say as their struggle continued. A brief stop had Glenda wetting Hiram down and tying him in front of her as he drowsed.

When Sam called a halt, Glenda was taken aback. “Are we to stay out here overnight?”

“Yup. Only we’ll be down there.” Sam pointed to a slim trail that led down to what appeared to be a cave.

As Glenda looked and listened, she thought she heard the gurgle of water. Shaking her head in disbelief, she followed Sam’s example and dismounted, bringing the sleepy Hiram down with her. The trail was short and soon brought them to the entrance of a huge cavern where shafts of light entered through funnel-like gaps overhead. The sound was stronger now and Glenda turned to Sam with a question on her face.

“It has hot and cold running water for that bath you been wanting,” said Sam. “’Course you might find the smell a bit strong. Them minerals are good for what ails you.”

Setting up camp proved a little unusual. Parts of the cave floor were studded with smelly bat guano. Finding a dry area and something to sweep it with was a challenge. Hiram was let off his usual wood hunting duty. The horses and mules welcomed the relief and soon were asleep. Sam filled their empty containers with the highly mineralized and smelly water, allowing it to cool overnight to offer succor the next day. Flurries of emerald green swallows flittered in and out of the cave.

Despite their great fatigue, all three were ready for the mineral baths soothing waters. Glenda was first in, with admonitions from Sam to be careful of drop offs and soft crusty flooring that might give way. Human footprints were evident in the sandy slope leading to the pool and remnants of animal bones, perhaps from a meal, lay scattered about.

“Hiram and Sam, come on in. The water is wonderful, so warm that it is taking my aches away.”

Tentatively, Hiram put a foot in, then another and sat down at the edge. He made his way to Glenda by inches until he was fully beside her.

“How does it stay so warm, Glenda?”

“Remember what I told you about the molten rock that exploded out of volcanoes to make the lava beds?  Well, some of that magma still roils around down in the depths of the earth, warming the water, sometimes to boiling, and then sending it to the surface.”

“Is that lava gonna get us,” the frightened little boy asked.

“Mercy, no, love. I didn’t mean to scare you. The water has traveled from way, way down in the earth and, by letting some of the heat escape, it serves to cool things down. In some places, the water would be too hot for us to bathe in, I’m sure.”

It took until late in their third day before they were clear of the volcanic lands and back onto high desert. Sam promised that the Snake River would soon show itself and the town of American Falls would be a good place to gather more provisions.

* * *

A visit to Craters of the Moon National Monument resulted in a journal piece that ultimately wended its way into the novel. Our cave was much smaller than depicted and the water cooler. Green swallows were plentiful and fearless as they swooped in and out of the cave, nearly alighting on us.