It's cold, dark, and there might be gold

The world is full of hidden treasure.

In northern Idaho, head west along the Salmon River Road. Follow the river on your left and stay out of the mountains on your right. (It's hard to do otherwise.) In about twenty minutes, you'll come to a small house with a cluttered front porch and a curious wooden stand to the side.


There you'll find the home of John Houlihan, former professor of chemistry and software entrepreneur. Current vegetarian and badass. John is in his nineties and spent three weeks last winter hauling water into his house every day when the pipes froze. 

He also owns a gold mine.

It's an old mine.

It's an old mine.

The mine prompted a bit of a gold rush in the late 19th century. Local men and men from as far away as California (including large groups of Chinese immigrants) came to hammer and blast their way through the mountain in hopes of striking it rich.

Unlike with some other gold rushes, the ore here wasn't found in the river -- so there weren't the large nuggets that years of coursing through water will cause. The gold had to be ground out of the mountain.

John showed us the original and replica equipment used back then.

In the early days, they'd get the rock out of the mountain with a hammer and a pick.

We have electricity now. In the mine's early years, they definitely did not.

We have electricity now. In the mine's early years, they definitely did not.

It was a long way down into the mine -- at least half a mile before the first vein of gold appeared. (John said a "vein" just meant a crack in the rock. So I guess my mental images of gold glistening like a creek running through the rocks were wrong.)

Miners worked 12 hour shifts. They were paid $4 a day plus three candles. Can you guess how long three candles lasted? Not twelve hours, that's for sure. So the miners would light the candle just enough to find a place to put their pick, then they'd blow the candle out and hammer away for as long as they could. In the dark.

One of the original candle holders.

One of the original candle holders.

Once all that gold-bearing rock was broken apart, the gold was still threaded through the rocks. So they had to get it out.

First, they used a jaws crusher to break the rocks into grit. 

This is a miniature version of the large (ten-feet high, I think) actual crushers.

This is a miniature version of the large (ten-feet high, I think) actual crushers.

Then they poured the grit into the cylinder mill, which was filled with large lead balls. The balls would grind down the rocks, wearing themselves down in the process.


Water washed the grit out of the cylinder mill, and the waste rocks would sink to the bottom. Then the workers would add pine oil to the water to get the gold to rise to the top. They'd heat up the results and have an impure bar. The onsite mill processed tons of gold in its lifetime.

Humans are ingenious. We'll think of all sorts of ways to break, bend, and sort the earth (and each other). We'll also go to extreme lengths to live amid beauty or preserve history. We're a fascinating bunch, no?

The view of the river headed back east.

The view of the river headed back east.

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Recreating lost art

In June, I was in Portland for the Historical Novel Society's conference, and of course I had to visit the Portland Art Museum. The museum is filled with stunning art work, both ancient and contemporary, and I highly recommend it. At the time, they were showing an exhibit titled, "Reunited: Francescuccio Ghissi’s St. John Altarpiece," which brings together eight parts of a segmented altarpiece and adds a ninth recreated panel to provide the complete image.

The recreated panel, by Charlotte Caspers

The recreated panel, by Charlotte Caspers

Gorgeous, right? But what most caught my attention was the display on just how the ninth altarpiece was recreated. Dutch conservation specialist Charlotte Caspers used both the techniques and the materials that the 14th century artist would have used originally.


My geek radar started flashing all over my mental screen. See, my debut novel is about a 17th century Dutch artist, and I spent a lot of the time trying to research just what sorts of materials she would have used, and what her process would have been like. So resources like this exhibit are like a glass of Malbec wine to me. Which is to say, irresistible and slightly intoxicating.

In case anyone else out there is curious about how artists hundreds of years ago made their paints, I figured I'd share the photos I took. Many thanks to the Portland Art Museum for putting this exhibit together!

Azurite, plus some blending tools in the background

Azurite, plus some blending tools in the background

Obviously, paints didn't come premade in tubes back then, so artists had to make their own. Some recipes were fiercely guarded; others might have been so widely known as to not have merited writing down (to the dismay of historical novelists everywhere). But generally artists needed at least two components -- pigment and a binding agent to get the powder to coalesce into paint. In the photo above, you can see an eggshell. Egg is one possible binding agent, and I guess that's what they used in the 14th century, though it doesn't work as well as others that later artists used. In my novel, as in real-life 17th century Haarlem, the artists preferred to use linseed oil as their binding agent.

Three plant-derived pigments: Madder (red lake), weld (or yellow lake), and grape black.

Three plant-derived pigments: Madder (red lake), weld (or yellow lake), and grape black.

Artists also had to get pigment. Pigments were discovered at different times throughout history, so if you're writing a story about artists set in the past, make sure the pigments (and color names) your artists are using are appropriate to the time period. (Yeah, I learned that the hard way.)

Three fabricated pigments: Verdigris, lead tin yellow, and lead white.

Three fabricated pigments: Verdigris, lead tin yellow, and lead white.

Hopefully you can see in the photos above the original materials used to create the pigments.

Two mineral pigments: Yellow ochre and brown earth.

Two mineral pigments: Yellow ochre and brown earth.

There's certainly a lot more to recreating materials and technique than what I've provided here. In some ways, historical fiction is a bit like art conservation (and recreation). We take hints and guesses about the past, accumulating enough evidence until we can connect the dots and create a convincing world. Art conservationists certainly know a lot more than I do about 14th century or 17th century art (that's putting it mildly), yet I'm willing to guess there are still things they don't know. So here's to trying to fill in the dots, whether it's through research or imagination.

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Loving your writing

When you're in a partnership for a long time, you eventually learn to eat crow. (Maybe literally, if that's the kind of culture you're in, but I'm talking metaphorically.)

Seven years ago, when I was neck deep in query rejections from literary agents, I had the idiotic idea to send my novel manuscript to my father for his opinion. 

It felt like someone had cut my arm off.

It felt like someone had cut my arm off.

Well. I was young.

His unvarnished opinion hurt, a lot. Not that my father wasn't nice -- he was -- but just that he pointed out all the places where I was falling short. I was reduced to tears. I curled up in bed sobbing, and all I could think about was how terrible my writing was, how my novel had been rejected countless times and would never improve. You get the picture.

When, soaked with tears, I asked my spouse what he thought, he looked at me in confusion.

"But don't you write because you love it?"

I think I threw a pillow at him and stormed back into the room to cry some more.

But over the years, I've realized that yes, my dearly beloved was right. I do write because I love it. I can't imagine not writing. My only tattoo is a reminder to myself that no matter where my writing goes, I am still a writer. 

Me being a writer, in spite of the madness.

Me being a writer, in spite of the madness.

Still, it can be hard to remember how much we love the writing itself, for itself, when we're caught up in the drama of trying to find an agent, sell a book, get on a best-seller list, win an award, or whatever. (Or trying to get into Pitch Wars!) 

So I thought I'd share some ideas for how to keep in touch with the core of your love for writing. Sure, it's fine to enjoy the thrill of chasing the dream. But I'm learning that the more I focus on the delight I find in the writing, and the less I stress about the auxiliaries, the more content I am. (I've written more about that tension between publishing dreams and personal happiness here and here. It's kind of a passion of mine.)

Some ways to find and hang onto your love of writing:

  • Focus on the process. What do you love most about the act of writing? Is it the fugue state you fall into when you're building a new world? Is it the opportunity to learn new things when you're researching a story? I use my historical fiction writing as a prod to explore aspects of humanity I might not wander into otherwise, like reading Rene Descartes's Meditations on First Philosophy because I wanted him to have a cameo in my novel about 17th century Holland.
  • Be proud of what you've learned. Whether it's the concrete facts that you've picked up through your research ("the Spanish Civil War started in 1936") or the insight you've gained about humanity (people doing bad things rarely see themselves as the villains) or simply the craft progress you've made -- revel in it. Be proud of how you're using writing to grow as a human. And emotional, spiritual, and intellectual growth are arguably the true meanings of life. (Not publishing deals!)
  • Embrace the challenge. In the same vein, look at how you put your nose to the grinding stone to address whatever challenge faces you. From the difficulty of churning out enough words to combine into a "novel" to the feat of shaping those sentences into a narrative to maybe just learning how to spell better, you're like an athlete, working to improve. That's pretty awesome.
  • Separate your dreams from your actions. It would be nice, of course, to be a best-selling novelist. I'd love it for me and for you. But we can't control that. I really want to earn enough from my writing to be able to quit my day job in a few years so I can be home when the kids get out of school. That's a burden, however, that I can't place on the writing itself. There is too much chance and luck and talent, all things I can't control, factoring into that particular future. So I pluck the dreaming out, admire that dream, and set it apart from the actual writing.
  • Ask for a compliment when you need one. Everyone has their low moments, and we don't need to walk alone. It's ok to occasionally ask a friend or a critique partner for something nice. Since you don't want to do that all the time, take that compliment and file it away. Maybe you're good at description. Maybe it was just one particular sentence that was beautiful. Treasure the praise that you get.
  • Give your writing as a gift. This isn't my idea, it's Ann Lamott's in her fantastic Bird by Bird. (Read it, if you haven't!) She suggests writing a story or a poem or essay for a loved one. If you write something truly personal and heartfelt, it will be appreciated. And even if, like with most gifts, the gifter feels more gratified than the receiver, that's ok. You'll get pleasure out of it. The last Christmas of my father-in-law's life, I gave him a story about my relationship with him, and I'm so glad I did.
  • Keep a private journal. If you're having trouble conceiving of your writing as anything other than destined for massive readership and fame, try crafting something that is purely for you. Write a journal that you never, ever intend to share with another person. Not your spouse, not your child. Consecrate your intention for privacy by writing something deeply embarrassing or private in the journal. Digging that deep might prove beneficial to your writing too -- but ultimately, learning to write for yourself and you alone is the true reward.
  • Take a break. If you're getting too caught up in anxiety about publishing or not writing as well as you want, step back. Read some wonderful books. Feel the drive to write build up. If that urge doesn't manifest itself ... continue to take a break. When you need to write again, the words and the stories will make themselves known, and you won't have a choice.

Do you have any other tips? I'd be glad to learn of them here or on Twitter.

Happy writing.


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My Pitch Wars Wishlist! Also Titled: I Love Old Stuff

Welcome, prospective #PitchWars mentee. Here's I'm looking for this year:

Adult fiction

Historical fiction, fantasy, or literary ghost stories

Pitch Wars writers, congratulations on writing and polishing your manuscript. Even more fist-bumps for dedicating yourself to learning more about writing. If that lovely manuscript of yours is either historical fictionliterary-styled fantasy, or literary-styled paranormal, I'm really hoping you'll send it to me! (If that's not you, check out more of our fantastic mentors at the blog-hop homepage.)

Old stuff, magic, haunted places, all with beautiful style -- that sums it up.

Old stuff, magic, haunted places, all with beautiful style -- that sums it up.

This is my second year doing PitchWars, and I'm so excited to be back here interacting with other writers and talking shop. If you're considering submitting to me, it might help to know that I write and edit as part of my day job, I have published numerous short stories in literary magazines around the country, I'm a senior editor with a book review, and I am represented by Shannon Hassan of MarsalLyon. A day cannot pass without at least four cups of tea. Let's be honest -- six. 

Georgia. As in the country. It's just amazing.

Georgia. As in the country. It's just amazing.

But let's talk about YOU, or rather, your manuscript. Chances are, I am most likely to fall in love with your historical fiction. That's what I write, and it's approximately half of what I read. But I'm open to fantasy and paranormal stories as well (last year I mentored one historical, one fantasy), and am hoping to find a story that has: 

  • Characters you love and I can fall in love with, be they ghosts or humans or some fantastical beast. 
  • A rich setting. I adore textured world-building, and I want you to transport me. Take me back in time or deep into that haunted house or across the magical world of your own imagining.
  • A conflict that's at least hinted at from the beginning. I don't need a plot-heavy book, but there has to be some conflict.
  • A story that surprises me, in concept and setting. I'm not worried about hitting market trends, but I am wary of reading things that I've seen too much elsewhere (World War II is going to a difficult one for me, for example). In that vein, retellings really have to knock my socks off.
  • Sentences that reflect a professional-level understanding of grammar and style. This is mostly because we just don't have time to fix the sentences and the book's structure.
  • An ambitious story that has something to discuss (but not preach) about human life. This is really important. That means plot-heavy pot boilers aren't the best fit for me. But note above how I also want to see some plot there too.
  • Tears? If you can choke me up, I'm putty in your hands.
  • Art or war. I mean really, if you have a story about an artist or a war (or, dear lord, an artist in a war), I will keel over if you don't send it to me. I particularly love stories about painters, sculptors, and musicians. I have some favorite wars, but really, they're all fascinating. 
  • Also, it should go without saying, but just to be certain -- I'm definitely up for #ownvoices and all sorts of diversity. Love love love.
If you get excited about 9th century monastery caves with creepy clouds looming, we might be soulmates.

If you get excited about 9th century monastery caves with creepy clouds looming, we might be soulmates.

You have a lot of wonderful mentors to choose from, so I hope it helps you narrow your list if I mention a few things that I don't like.  These are quite subjective, and there's a very good chance that the next mentor around the corner is looking for the exact same things that do not float my boat. (In fact, I know they are!)

  • There are exceptions (including among the books listed below), but first-person POV is a hard sell for me. This is not an insta-reject, just something I thought you should know.
  • I will not swoon for swooning. Which is to say, I'm not interested in story lines that are primarily romantic.  There are amazing romance mentors in this contest -- I'm not one of them. (A sprinkling of romance is fine; I just don't want to see that as the main conflict.)
  • I wish this weren't true, but I am apparently too stodgy to really get into humor writing. And even if I fell in love with a humor manuscript (which I can imagine doing, if it's knock-your-socks-off good), I probably wouldn't know how to help it.
  • Religious stories aren't my cup of tea (and I do love tea, did I mention that?). I don't mind curiosity about questions of faith or worlds where religion is a key part of the social tapestry, but I am not a church-goer and wouldn't be helpful for inspirational or faith-based writing.

What would I love to see in a mentee? Oh, I'm so glad you asked.

  • Someone who makes the time to read. We're all busy, but we make time for the priorities. Writers who don't read are like people who talk all the time and never pause to listen. 
  • Someone who has the time and energy to work hard on revisions. My two amazing mentees last year worked their tails off for the two months of PitchWars and got an incredible amount of work done. 
  • Someone who can take tough feedback. I'm very serious about PitchWars being a learning experience. This isn't about winning a golden lottery ticket to fame and riches -- it's about meeting a critique partner who wants to work with you on making your novel even better. It's ok to need a little cheerleading every once in a while (we all do), but that can't be the primary purpose of our partnership. (Most PitchWars entrants are phenomenal on this front -- they come ready to roll up their sleeves and work. You all rock.)

Hopefully that clarifies things, but I know I left a lot out. I would love to answer your questions on Twitter. Of course I can't say exactly if your story about the 19th century Polish explorer who loves to bake muffins will be a good fit for me, but I'm happy to answer general questions. Or give general advice about writing. Or just be a supporter if you need one! We all need encouragement; this is a tough business.

(No really, please feel free to interact on Twitter. I know it might feel weird -- I was a prospective mentee once, lurking in the shadows -- but it's fun for us to interact with you all. We're here to make connections, so please say hi and ask any questions you might have.)

Speaking of interacting, I hope you'll join me and some of the other Adult mentors on Monday, July 24 at 9pm EDT for a Google Hangouts live show - come watch and ask questions! (Look for details on Twitter or on Brenda's page.) It's always a lot of fun.

Above all, good luck and have fun! Don't stress. Be gentle with yourself.  You're amazing for living a creative life and opening yourself up to constructive feedback!

A modest selection of books I love, and which I'd fall head over heels for in my inbox:

  • The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck
  • Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
  • Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
  • Slade House by David Mitchell
  • The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff
  • Song Yet Sung by James McBride
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novak
  • Frog Music by Emma Donoghue
  • Grudging by Michelle Hauck (yes, PW mentor Michelle!)
  • The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
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Scavengers, here's your word. Accessibility: It's in RED, and the word is "all" followed by a comma.

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Historical layers (no, not hoodies)

What does a 14th century vampire have to do with a parasol?

We'll get there.

The mountains of Transylvania are dotted with castles, citadels, and crumbling fortresses, but only one castle bills itself as Dracula's Castle.

Which is strange, since the closest the historical "Dracula," Vlad Tepes, came to living in the castle was maybe spending a handful of nights there while fleeing invaders. The labyrinthine Bran's Castle is named after the pass it guards, but maybe it was the echo of Dracula's author's first name as much as Vlad's brief visit that solidified the castle's place in the world's imagination.

The castle started its life in 1378, when construction first began. Over the years, explosions, storms, and fires toppled parts of the structure, but people kept rebuilding and adding. The result is a maze of rooms that feels a little like a muggle version of Hogwarts.

If that architectural layer cake weren't sufficient complication for one castle, then there are the uses the castle's occupants have put it to over the years. After defending against invading Turks, then helping collect custom taxes from passing merchants, the castle served as a retreat for Romania's new monarchy in the early 20th century. The beloved Queen Marie and her daughter, Princess Ileana, used the castle as their summer residence. 

Finally, under the Communists the castle became a museum. It reverted to the royal family at the beginning of the 21st century, and after a couple of years, they decided to turn it back into a museum. It's now an extremely crowded (in the summer at least) tourist highlight.

But isn't it strange that one pile of stones can house both the blood of tortured Turks and the cozy porcelain fireplace alongside which a modern queen used to take her naps? Some windows still swivel out to allow defenders to shoot out crossbows (see below), while others have charming mullions.

Of course, historical fiction writers and readers know that history is made of layers. We live on top of an ancient city, metaphorically at least (and often literally). Beneath us are layers of civilization and culture left by those who came before us. Our economy is built upon knowledge gained and passed down, our writing is made of styles discovered and modified by those who created before us. As Susan Vreeland wrote in Luncheon of the Boating Party, "Art was collaboration, and standing on the shoulders of those who came before."

Queen Marie's charming bedroom.

Queen Marie's charming bedroom.

The best historical fiction exposes those layers, and shows how at any moment in time, humans are reaching both backwards, to receive the flame, and forwards, to pass it along.

A writing desk in Castle Bran.

A writing desk in Castle Bran.

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Communicating without words: Historical tidbits #1

I write historical fiction, which means I spend a lot of time researching the way people lived their lives in, say, 1632 Holland, or 1936 Spain, or 1880 Guadeloupe. As L. P. Hartley famously wrote, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." There may be more commonalities than differences in our shared humanity across the years, but I find comfort in the uniqueness of a particular era. Maybe because it suggests the uniqueness of our own times -- and thus, ourselves. So here is one in an irregular series of historical tidbits from my research.

Four hundred years ago, most people weren't literate. They might be able to puzzle out the alphabet, or scratch their name onto a document, but that would be the extent of it. In 17th century Holland, school was more like daycare for children, a place for their parents to leave them as soon as they were weaned and walking, and the beleaguered master or mistress had to manage them all. Children aged three to seven attended infant school, then they were passed off for five more years of primary school. Both boys and girls attended, and neither learned much, though apparently the boys faced slightly stiffer expectations. 

I suspect the situation was worse elsewhere in Europe and certainly in the European colonies. Parents needed children to work, and few had the resources to allow those littlest workers to invest in their own futures for fifteen or twenty years.

So yeah, many people couldn't read much. But they still needed to communicate beyond face-to-face conversation. Writing has the advantage of permanence and portability; before recording, speech was neither. So naturally, people resorted to images. (*I don't want to overstate the case. Certainly there were many literate Dutch citizens, as evidenced by the relatively robust publishing industry of the 16th and 17th centuries.)

In some Dutch towns, the birth of a baby was announced with a small placard made of wood and covered in red silk, trimmed with lace. For a girl baby, the proud parents would place a square of white paper of the center of the board. Stillbirths were announced with black silk (or linen, for poor families), instead of red. Twins, naturally, had two placards. 

Babies weren't the only things that needed announcing. People had to have a way of finding the right store they sought, even if they were new to town. So, in a precursor to today's branding, different types of stores labeled themselves in different ways. An apothecary would hang a stuffed crocodile outside the door. A craft guild (say, St. Luke's guild for painters and silversmiths) would display its emblem and heraldry on the exterior facade of its guildhall in a public demonstration of guild strength and contribution to the town's prosperity. (I've used quite a few of these images in my novel about artist Judith Leyster.)

Criminals' bodies left to rot in the elements, swinging from the trees, were an eloquent way of expressing the consequences of disobeying the law. So too the heads of traitors left on London Bridge in England -- and I suspect seeing those reminders kept the stories circulating. A new visitor to town is sure to ask how that not-yet-decomposed body got himself into so much trouble.

Even the signature economic craze of 17th century Holland was an effort to communicate without words: the tulip. Owning a tulip and letting it flower was an incredible, ostentatious display of wealth. The highest reliably documented price paid for a single tulip bulb was 5200 guilders, and other less prized tulips still went for hundreds and thousands of guilders, at a time when eight fat pigs were 240 guilders, two hogsheads of wine were 70 guilders, a silver drinking cup was 60 guilders, and a ship (yes, a ship!) was 500 guilders.

Interestingly, clothing in the United Provinces (today's Netherlands) during the first half of 17th century was not used much as a means of communication. Reportedly, the mistress and the servant would be nearly indistinguishable in their humble brown dresses. Protestant modesty prohibited flashy clothes, at least for a time. Eventually, it seems, people couldn't help but express themselves, and skirts got brighter and doublets more colorful.

I could go on -- paintings alone were a major method of communicating using known iconography. Even the way a figure posed or splayed his legs told the savvy viewer something about the artist's intention. But that's enough for now. Certainly the advent of wider literacy doesn't preclude the use of communicating with images. We do that every day, with baby photos on Facebook or brand symbols on our jeans. Though I'm still waiting to see CVS switch its logo to a stuffed crocodile.


Daily Life in Rembrandt's Holland, by Paul Zumthor, Trans. Simon Watson Taylor

Tulipomania, by Mike Dash

Craft Guilds in the Early Modern Low Countries, Ed. Prak, Lis, Lucassen, and Soly

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Schooling a President

Apparently I'm on a "presidential boyhood home" kick. (Who's looking forward to hearing about presidential girlhood homes someday?) After touring George Washington's birthplace (and curious reconstruction) in January, we visited the place where Thomas Jefferson lived from the ages of two to nine, and also where he first attended school.

Tuckahoe Plantation, outside of Richmond, Virginia, is actually still a private residence. The grounds are open to self-guided tour (with an honor system payment), and guided tours can be arranged by appointment. We took a beautiful Sunday afternoon to wander the grounds ourselves, while the owners of the home unloaded groceries from the car and shot hoops. 

The Randolph family built the home between 1730-1740, and it's in a distinctive H-shape, with two large portions of the house joined in the middle. Thomas Jefferson's family moved to the house in 1745 so his parents could care for the orphaned Randolph children, in accordance with Mr. Randolph's will. He moved out when the oldest son came of age.

It's easy to imagine the young (white) children running out the door of the big house and following the chiding call of their teacher into the small schoolhouse to the left of the house. Even my five-year-old daughter, who affects to know everything, was surprised at the tiny scale of the school room.

But this is a plantation in Virginia, which means enslaved African Americans. Probably a lot of them for a farm that reached 25,000 acres at its height. To the right of the main house are three slave cabins. (The third cabin isn't visible in this picture; the building in the background is the stable.)

The stair treads up to this slave cabin door looked like stone to me, which suggests they are original. My heart ached to imagine all the pain those stairs carried, both at the beginning of another harrowing day of enslavement and at its exhausting conclusion. I imagine a good number of those children and their parents looked with longing to the other side of the lawn, where young Thomas and the other white children scampered into the schoolhouse. (Side note: I just finished James McBride's phenomenal Song Yet Sung, and I can't recommend it enough. He follows a cast of characters escaping, enduring, or perpetuating slavery in Maryland's eastern shore in the 1850s.)

The kitchen. Imagine working there on a hot Virginia day.

The kitchen. Imagine working there on a hot Virginia day.

I wonder too what Thomas thought as he watched those other children. I don't know enough about his history to have an opinion, and who knows, maybe he didn't have an opinion either. Maybe he had internalized the dehumanization of those enslaved black children so easily that it didn't occur to him to think they might yearn to join him. I'm sure that was the case for a lot of rich white children at the time. But who knows, maybe this particular boy had some other thoughts. That's where historical fiction comes in, right?

In 1752 the house returned to the Randolph family, and I guess some of them must have stayed there for a while. There's an appropriately creepy little graveyard with Randolph graves from the early 19th century. From what I could read, at least.

I don't believe in spiritual ghosts (though I wish I did). But I do believe in historical ghosts -- those echoes of history that reverberate through the generations. The legacy of slavery is an obvious one, and the inheritance of knowledge and education that we pass along every time a child steps into a schoolroom is another. The modern curriculum is probably almost unrecognizable from that which the young Tom learned in the 1740s, but I suspect the ghosts of what he learned and what he did are with us still.


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Conferences for Historical Fiction Lovers

I'm a huge fan of writing/reading conferences. Over the years I've learned a ton, met some incredible people (including my fantastic agent :) ), laughed at late-night raunchy readings, drank too many cocktails, and, most of all, been inspired.

Since there are a few great ones coming up this year, I thought I'd share. Most of these are writing conferences, but some are great opportunities for readers too.

Books Alive 2017 | Washington Writers Conference. My beloved colleagues at the Washington Independent Review of Books always put together a fantastic conference, filled with unique panels and top-notch keynote speakers. The organizers take advantage of the wealth of writing talent in the DC-area to put together a fun event (like, oh, Ron Charles of the Washington Post and Marita Golden, among others this year). This year there's a panel on writing "across the cultural divide," which certainly applies to historical fiction no matter where your story is set. April 28-29.

The Muse and the Marketplace. This was the first conference to capture my heart, and though it doesn't focus specifically on historical fiction, there are always a couple panels that are aimed at history writers. Muse is exceptionally well-run, always with great speakers who have specific knowledge to impart. And if you can afford it, their unique Manuscript Mart is an amazing way to get honest feedback from agents and editors. This year the conference is April 29-May 1, and it's always in Boston.

RT Booklovers Convention. RT is huge, and like the previous two, the convention isn't exclusively for historical fiction. But they're having a panel on historical romance, a historical homes tour of Atlanta, and some great authors. May 1-7.

Historical Novel Society | North America Conference. The wonderful thing about this conference (aside from the amazing costume party and the roster of historical fiction rock stars), is that it's aimed at both readers and writers. I loved the event in Denver two years ago, and I'll be seeing you in Portland, Oregon this year! June 22-24.

Historical Writers of America. I attended the HWA debut conference last August, and it was one of the most fun things I did that year. The intimate conference brought together historical fiction legends like CC Humphreys and Margaret George in an atmosphere that encouraged conversation and connection. HWA is for both fiction and non-fiction writers, so there's always something to learn. This year's conference will be in New Mexico, September 21-24.

What conferences do you love? I've only listed US-based conferences, and I know HNS has some fantastic events in both the UK and Australia. What else? (And how do we find someone to pay for us to all go?!)

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History's Fictions

On February 22, 1732, on a prosperous farm along the Potomac River, Mary Ball Washington gave birth to her first son, George.

I think you know which George I'm talking about.

His birthplace is now a National Monument, though the house where 22-year-old Mary labored is no longer standing. The periphery of that original house is outlined in the grass, and behind the phantom house presides an elegant manor house. But there are more ghosts than just a missing house at this site.

See that rectangular outline on the ground? That's the original house.

See that rectangular outline on the ground? That's the original house.

The congenial folks of the National Park Service will give you an excellent tour of the site, filled with details about life in the rural countryside of the American colonies. At this time of year, in the winter months, the white farmers would be hosting dances and parties in the broad entry hallways of their houses. (There were enslaved African Americans too, but they didn't get much mention in our tour.) The master of the house had the finest bedroom at the front of the house, the better to show off his fine embroidered counterpane and luxurious curtains.

Putting the "master" in Master Bedroom.

Putting the "master" in Master Bedroom.

But at the end of our tour, our guide let slip a bombshell.

This old manor house wasn't actually that old. In fact, it was built in the 1930s. And in fact, it's not really that historically accurate.

The house, he explained, represents more what the people of the 1930s thought about 18th century life than what modern-day scholarship tells us. But the National Park Service keeps this flawed reconstruction, in honor of those people from the 30s and as an interesting representation of how those people thought about the past.

I thought the cabinetry in the dining room looked suspicious ...

I thought the cabinetry in the dining room looked suspicious ...

The history-lover in me bristled at this. What a charade! What a misrepresentation! This wasn't really how people lived. 

But then, after a few moments reflection, the novelist in me thrilled to the site. This was, after all, historical fiction in the flesh (or the brick). The house was built to tell a story about how people thought other people lived. Today, we find that story still worth listening too, even if we acknowledge the flaws. 

What is "history" anyway? Is it some concrete truth that, with only enough scrubbing and dusting, we can eventually reveal in its entirety?

Of course not. The "true" George Washington is just as elusive to us as he was to our 1930s predecessors. Through research and study we can probably construct a narrative that comes close to the man, but he himself is irreparably gone.

The honesty of confessing that construction is exhilarating. We reach toward history and truth, but we are, in the end, telling a story.

Historical fiction writers are constantly balancing between the exigencies of "history" and narrative. How much of the known record can we tweak in service to our stories? There's no answer, of course, and writers will differ in their preferences. I just read two novels dealing with the same historical event, yet aside from the names and a general sequence of events, they could have been continents apart. Or put another way, my description of my mother would differ from her own, but neither of us are exactly wrong or right. We're both grasping and filtering details in our own manners, and trying to make sense of a complex person.

We all tell stories. Stories drawn from our own memories to craft a tale about our identities and our shared histories. We are wired to order the nonsensical into a "plot," a sequence of events with cause and effect. This is one of the things that makes us human.

The more we recognize that we are grasping in the dark, the more we grow comfortable with the discomfort of our inability to ever truly know, the better we will be. We realize we aren't walking on solid ground. But with enough confidence to balance all the uncertainty, we will find we are, instead, flying.

And in that sense, I salute the National Park Service's monument to fictional history.

The view from the manor house out over Pope's Creek and, beyond that, the Potomac.

The view from the manor house out over Pope's Creek and, beyond that, the Potomac.

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Citizen in the World of Letters

Yes, New Year's resolutions tend to be good intentions that crisp and crumble under the glare of real life (though I really will be nicer to that guy at work this year). Nonetheless, I can't resist the tradition of taking stock at the end of each year.

Reading and writing are among the two most important activities in my life. Like many of you, I imagine, books are woven into the fiber of my soul, and my time on this Earth would mean much less to me without them. So it's important to me that I do right by this literary world.

Since I read Dan Kobolt's great essay on the importance of protecting reading time, I've been thinking about what we can do to increase the number and variety of books thriving in the world. For those of us who want to publish books, this is a deeply personal quest. Books need readers. And for those of us who read like we breathe, we want a marketplace that can thrive and support the broad array of authors we love and will love to discover. So how do we become better literary citizens?

In the spirit of goal-setting for the new year, I have a few suggestions. I'd love to hear yours too.

My Book Diary.

My Book Diary.

  • Read more books. That sounds both obvious and impossible, right? Well, let's examine the goal more closely. This year, according to my Book Diary, I read 46 books, not including multiple manuscripts and many literary journals. The books ranged in length from 1200+ pages (that would be The Complete Essays by Michel de Montaigne -- fantastic) to around 90 pages. That's not as many books as I had wanted, so this year I'm going to try to aim for 50. With a full-time day job outside of the house, two small kids, a marriage, a writing career and well, life, how can I make that happen? There's only one answer, really. Make reading a priority. Which brings me to ...
  • Watch less TV (or fewer movies). I realize that's an unpopular suggestion, and people tend to get defensive when I bring up television. Listen, watching TV doesn't mean you're a bad person! There are great programs out there. But our leisure time is limited. If you want to read more books, switching out TV is a straightforward way of finding time.
  • Carry a book at all times. I used to be fastidious about tucking a book into every purse or car door or bookbag. But since I've become more fond of my smartphone, I've sometimes let this slip. This is one area where I'm going to push myself. When I'm on the train or standing in line, even for a few minutes, I'll feel more contented if I pull out a book to read a paragraph, or a literary journal to read a poem, than if I scroll through Facebook. 
  • Read in public. Showing books out in the world makes them part of our cultural fabric. Strangers might wonder what you're reading, and friends might ask.
  • Talk about reading. If we ask people what they're reading these days, that increases the social relevance of books. Maybe the conversation might prompt someone who has forgotten about their love of reading to pick it up again. In the same way that talking about The Walking Dead gets folks excited to go home and watch it, talking about reading can increase our anticipation. We're social creatures, after all.
  • Read with children. Don't just read to your kids, but read in front of them. Modeling reading as a leisure activity is the best way to teach it.
  • Buy books. Whether your budget allows only a discount paperback at the used book shop or a new hardcover from the local bookstore, buying books helps them move through the marketplace. Money speaks, for better or worse. Even checking out books from the library is a form of buying, since the library pays for copies. Do what you can to support the literary ecosystem. (A corollary to this is giving books as gifts. Even if they're used books.)
  • Subscribe to literary journals. This should go without saying to writers who are trying to get published, but all readers can find delight in the many carefully-assembled litmags out there. A few are quite pricey but most are a great deal, particularly given the volume of beautiful writing they contain. A few of my favorites are: Silk Road, AGNI, Post Road, The New England Review (especially for their translation and global view), Natural Bridge (the three-part interview is so fun), The Cincinnati Review, Cossack Review, Ploughshares ... 
Some of my current litmag bounty.

Some of my current litmag bounty.

  • Read outside your genre. Prose lovers, read poetry. You'll see words and rhythm in a new light. YA lovers, read some of the classics. (My friend Dorothy Reno is writing a fun column about her tour through some of the classic cannon at WIROBooks, if you want a guide. Frankenstein is up next!) Procedural mystery lovers, read a YA historical fiction verse novel. Everyone, read writers from marginalized communities, and whose original language is not your own. You'll find something you love, I promise. (Then I want you to tell me about it so I can enjoy it too!)
  • Socialize literarily. Take your friends to book festivals, and spend happy hour at author readings. Pull up a barstool at a poetry slam, or cozy up with a book at a Quiet Reading Club. 
  • Review the books you love. This is definitely an area of improvement for me. I write some formal reviews for the Washington Independent, but I rarely go onto GoodReads or Amazon to write up my thoughts. I should.
  • Contact the authors you adore. Humans love to know their efforts are appreciated. Send a letter, care of the author's agent or publisher. Or contact someone via their webpage. If nothing else, send a quick shout-out on Twitter. I've been amazed at how grateful writers have been when I share my enthusiasm -- even the very famous ones. We can all use a little warmth in our days, so spread the love.

I'm expecting next year will be a difficult year for many of us, for all sorts of reasons that we may foresee or not. I hope that books are an anchor for you. Thank you for the beautiful literary community you've created.


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