Thursday, January 31, 2013

Much More than Cooking in 1884

Mrs. Owen’s Cook Book and Useful Household Hints

Original publication 1884

More treasures.  This one hiding right under my nose.  I’ve been on a search for sleep remedies in the 1890’s and something jiggle-joggled my memory.  Wasn’t there an old cookbook in my grandmother’s things when we cleaned out her house?  And…where in the world did I put it?
Amazingly, I sniffed it out…tucked in a little used drawer.  But what a treasure it has turned out to be—not for the purpose of finding a sleep aid, but the contents of this book are incredible.  Especially the section in the back one third of the book that offers everyday advice to young wives of the time, beginning with a letter of advice entitled, “From an Old Citizen to a Young Wife”.  

The letter took up four single spaced pages, and when I got to the end, it was signed by—you guessed it.  A man.  Near the end he says: “You see, I mix medicine with meals; it cuts down on the doctor’s bills”  and then,  “Think how much longer your husband will live on first class food!”

I skimmed some of the other sections, but they were chock full of interesting items from Invalid Cookery and Dyes.  In between is everything from lamp care, bed care, laundry, nursery, and remedies.  (But no sleep remedies.) The book went on to talk about health care for the livestock, how to get rid of pests, and there was even a section with mathematical tables for the farmer who wished to build  “roads, levees or turnpikes.”

So far, I've just scratched the surface of what this book has to offer in the way of historical research.  It just doesn't get any better than holding a primary document with a broken spine and fluttering un-stitched pages in the palm of your hand.

BUT, one section of this book truly did stop me for a thorough perusal.  It was the two pages of charts under the DIGESTION section.   The chart was titled:  Average time required for Digestion, and it divided into columns:                   Article of Food……How Prepared…….Hrs…Min...

For instance,  a raw apple would take 1 hour 30 minutes to digest.  Fried heart would take 4 hours and cooked spinach 2 hours and 30 minutes.  At the end of the charts for the individual foods was a section marked INDIGESTIBLE FOODS. (Foods taking more than 4 to 5 ½ hours to digest.) (And eat these sparingly!)

Here are just a few of the items on that list:  hard-boiled egg, melted butter, nuts, cheese, and new potatoes...

This is what threw me.  I wouldn't have a clue about which foods I eat today are hard or easy to digest, so it made me wonder what science was applied to this process in the early 1880’s.  How did they figure it out?  Today we could probably use, ultra sound, MRI, chemical analysis… you name it.  But back then?  I’m not sure my mind even wants to go there.

The following section put my mind at ease.  It was entitled, SEASONS FOR EATING DIFFERENT FOODS: (In the Northern and Middle States) This section reminded me of Barbara Kingsolver’s book, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” on eating locally and seasonally.  Although for the life of me, I don’t know where I’d find EELS from April to November!

All in all this was a great reference, and even though I didn't find the remedy I wanted, I found much more…a snapshot into life of the 1880’s.  You may hear from me again on this book and topic.  The section on how to destroy an ant colony, how to keep the cream from frothing, or the reading of all the hand written notes in the book by some unknown women with a beautiful script and the initials C M S are calling to me. 

Friday, January 25, 2013



This fell right in my lap.  While cleaning and sorting things after my mom’s death a few months ago, I came across an envelope from Battle Creek Michigan.  It was paid by US Postage Permit #52 and marked: CONFIDENTIAL.

“What’s this?”  I asked Dad, picking up a slightly yellowed envelope.

Inside, copyright 1932 was an original membership book for the POST’S JUNIOR DETECTIVE CORPS.  (Manual No. 1 For Detectives, Edited by Inspector General Post)

My Dad was born in 1928, so he would have been four years old when this came out. The address on the envelope wasn't his, so it was either given to him or requested by someone else in his behalf.  He couldn't remember, but for whatever reason, he still had his membership at age 84.I skimmed through the book. 

 “Would you like to have that?”  Dad asked.

couldn't keep my fingers from twitching.  I’d gone through clothes and books, looked through jewelry and other personal items, but nothing pressed the “need to have” button like the contents of this little black and white booklet. It’s the curse of someone who loves to write historical fiction and loves a good find.

Finding clues:             
Written Message
Things Left Behind

I flipped excitedly through the book.  In a black box set off by itself at the bottom of one of the pages:

SPECIAL ORDER by Inspector Post “You are forbidden to play detective games with guns, pistols, revolvers, knives or any other weapon that may cause injury.” It went on to explain about not playing with guns and ended: “Don’t ever disobey this rule.”

Still holding the mailing envelope in one hand, something crinkled.  I looked inside and spotted another much smaller envelope.  I opened it carefully.  Wrapped in beige colored tissue paper was a shiny detective badge.  DETECTIVE POST’S J. D. C.


It was hard not to place that badge on a young character for a book.  It would have been the depression years when eating cereal from General Foods and sending in the box tops might have been the only way to get something new.

A full blown character came to mind…a precocious young boy and a neighborhood full of kids. They might have lived in Rockvale, Colorado where the packet was addressed to, or maybe in Denver or some other town.

The character could also have been my 84 year old dad when he was younger.  Someone who walked to school carrying a French horn, wore glasses, wanted to play football, but whose mom thought it was too dangerous…

I looked over at Dad, blinked and traveled back all those years in my imagination, suddenly knowing something about him I never would have seen without the envelope in my hand.  Instead of an 84 year old man, I saw the young boy: Junior Detective # 66954 

Somehow it brought me closer.  

I wrote earlier about whether story ideas find you or you find the story.  Ideas are everywhere, but the ones that capture your imagination and fill you with excitement are the very best…whether you end up writing about them or not.

Thanks, Dad.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

If it's Bland, put it in the Blender

A writer friend who is attempting her first historical fiction novel recently asked what to do with bland writing. I was hard pressed to answer because it’s something I recognize when I see it and feel it when I write it (stomach flutters and discontent).  She’s undertaking a very difficult thing:  creating fiction from a factual account.  When I first tackled the genre of historical fiction, it was hard for me to deviate from the “real” events which were so gripping in themselves, and shape them into a living, breathing narrative. It took some searching for the story in the material especially when I wanted to remain loyal to, and maintain the integrity of, the actual events.  

Not all historical fiction books do this or need to do this, but it’s different if you set out to tell a real story and fictionalize it than if you set out with a fictional story set in a specific historic time and place.  Both require accuracy of details, but I think fictionalizing fact is much harder than adding accurate historic detail to a story that deviates from a set timeline.

And believe me, I've been there.  A memorable example was during my first draft of Nothing Here But Stones when I suffered through the first 2/3 of the draft (bland bland bland) before stumbling on the suggestion of changing my tense from third person to first.  For this book, it was Key.  I scrapped the whole draft and started over in first person. This one “simple”(?) change provided an immediacy for the story that had been sorely lacking.  It also helped me to form a more personal relationship with the viewpoint character and helped me through the multiple revisions to come.

After sharing this story with my friend, I still wasn’t sure if I’d given her anything to grab onto. What is the fix?   As I was thinking this over, I was reminded of my work teaching fifth graders.  In the classroom, I was constantly trying to find ways to make the abstract concrete.  Each piece of writing varied, so there wasn't just one fix; there were many possibilities. But thinking about blandness, especially for fictional stories, two strategies popped into my mind: Snapshots and Thoughtshots.  

These terms were stolen from Barry Lane in his wonderful teacher resource on Revision, After the End.  If you’re a teacher, this book is chock-full of revision ideas.  

The “Snapshot” concept is pretty simple to get across to students:  Imagine you’re inside a photograph (or a movie).  What are the visual, concrete, physical things in the picture?  For kids, you explain this as the setting or where the characters are at the moment.  It’s basic description as we know it.

Thoughtshots are a little harder to explain because to use them requires a deeper leap into character. When you’re writing, it takes a pause and sometimes a full stop to analyze what is going on internally. What is my character thinking right now?  What is affecting him/her at an emotional level?  What does the character wish for that he/she does not have? How is what's going on right now affecting him/her?

Try the cat on the right:  "That guy next to me is on such an ego trip."
Thoughtshots require a different type of imagining:  imagining your way into someone else’s mind.  In this case the character(s) in your story.

With this said, it’s the balance between Snapshots and Thoughshots that’s important.  Setting and description are important for engaging the reader in the details needed to bring the story to life.  But spending too much time standing at the photographic overlook can detour a reader away from the main purpose of the expedition.

Readers want to fully experience the trip.   And the way they experience it is through the hearts and souls of the characters on the page--most often through the one viewpoint character you want them to care about the most.  

One way to make the journey more enjoyable is to blend and balance the outer world with the inner.Too much of either one will put readers to sleep, or start them dialing the telephone number for character psychiatric care.

At the end of their travels, a reader should be able to do more than give a list of motels and restaurants.   Readers want the full experience—one that will linger and resonate on an emotional level long after they've reached their destination.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Getting Hitched to a Genre.

Or Why Historical Fiction?  

Does a genre find you, or do you find the genre.  A little of both, I think.  All of us have reasons to write with either imagined or a “real” audience.  Initially my audience was very small, very real, and very personal. 

It was me. 

I won’t bore you with examples of high school drivel, meant to sooth wounds, or reach out to someone who wouldn't see the words in the first place.  There are plenty of those samples still around, tucked in a ragged file folder or hidden between the pages of an old journal.  And there are samples of greeting cards made for family members, and short articles written for a neighborhood newspaper, named the Saturday Blah.  I’m not sure if at that stage, I had any audience in mind, but the carbon-copied newspaper was the “Social Media” of the neighborhood, and I very much wanted to be a part of that lively enterprise. 

In college, besides a myriad of papers written for a specific audience, the professor, I created a few things for personal friends, but without the intention of them going much farther than that.   A short book about finding the importance of life became what I called my first “cardboard cover books”.  These books had very narrow intended audiences: my boyfriend, my stepson, and the children of our neighbors.  They used stick figure illustrations, and were housed between—you guessed it—two pieces of cardboard hooked together with snap-together binder rings.

The feedback for these books was very unambiguous and endearing.  And the joy and fulfillment of writing un-edited and un-censored projects (that I had full control over) was pretty much unrivaled by anything I've created since.  But having a bigger audience niggled at me, and the last of these cardboard books, which was written one chapter at a time and mailed out one section per month throughout the school year from birthday to birthday to my stepson in Billings, Montana became a springboard towards publication.

Not exactly a springboard.  This particular book was rewritten after every few rejections, and it was turned down thirty-five times before it was picked up by Scholastic Tab in Canada.  It stayed in print for five years, was reprinted under a new title and stayed in print another five years.  To date, it sold more copies than any of my other titles put together.  Praise be to Scholastic Book Clubs.  Praise be to tenacity.  Every draft improved the book. (It had a long way to go.)

So, why historical fiction? Did the genre choose me, or did I choose the genre? 

Two things:  (And one of them isn't that I’m now old enough for my birthday to be in an era of its own.)

First, during my adult life I have had the good fortune to live in rural areas both in Colorado and British Columbia that are rich in history and lived-wired to the past.  By this, I mean the path is still traceable and easy to follow via a relatively stable community of people who remember the stories of parents and grandparents who have lived in the area and remember the stories told to them by their families about floods, droughts, tragedies, disasters, births, deaths, celebrations, and other stories of the past, rooted in the land and the people that lived there.  
Dad on his horse on his grandparents about 1936

Family stories exist in urban areas, but the trail to discovery is less overgrown by the thick underbrush of packed calendars or social engagements focused on sports and media entertainment.  It’s more likely in rural settings for conversations to drift from the details of the day’s horseback ride or cattle check to the history of the people that traversed the same trails at an earlier time.  The geography and topography of our everyday living seems to link more directly to the past.  Or at least the past 150 years, which is where my focus lies. And although perspectives on history change, the facts and lifestyle information remain relatively constant.

Great grandparents family in front of stone house they built.

The second reason for “choosing” the genre of historical fiction is rooted in practicality.  Until recently I have worked full time, and the day to day demands of teaching, decreased the time available to research, write and publish a book. This pretty much eliminated any possibility of keeping up on contemporary stories, or something more timely like vampires, paranormal, or an interesting combination therefore.  I long ago figured out that I am not a “trendy" kind of person. I never seem to be able to keep up. 

Now is a different time in my life and the world at large, with blogging, social media, marketing, and a myriad of other things around our family ranch to sidetrack me from writing goals. Many days it seems like I still can't keep up which still makes Historical Fiction a perfect fit. And I’ll never have to worry about being passe. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Mind Sparks: Lighting the way into the New Year


Ideas that stick like strands of gray hair to a black sweater.

When I think back to the moments book writing topics come alive for me, I can usually pin point them pretty closely.   For instance, I remember the photo of my nephew and stepson in their baseball t-shirts, holding equipment and smiling into the camera in my brother-in-laws, back yard.  A whole story came from that one photo and the ideas it generated and eventually led to my first published book: The Insect Zoo and the Wildcat Hero…later published as Bees, Bugs, and Baseball Bats.

Another example is seeing the original Dog Soldier Ledger book art in the Denver History Museum for the first time.  It’s true I was actively in search of information for a new book, but this particular museum display and one nearby showing a Cheyenne Dog Rope led me down the trail of the Cheyenne culture and eventually to the events of the Sand Creek Massacre.

More recently, a mine tour down the Molly Kathleen Mine in Cripple Creek, spurred my interest in donkeys and their importance to Cripple Creek miners.  Maude Oliver, a fine specimen of a donkey, and her eleven year owner, are currently living a life of their own on the pages of Rescue in Poverty Gulch.  (LIKE Maude Oliver on FB)


The exact moment of the spark is hard to describe, but I recognize when my mind smiles; it feels like the figurative moment when you reach for the golden ring and wrap your fingers around it…just before the pull.

Of course, there is that “pull” to deal with afterwards. A book can’t be produced from a single “ah-ha” moment.  The fictional path is filled with research, combinations of ideas, twists, turns, ruminations, false starts, stall outs, and sometimes the  magical days of wind surfing.  All of the above and more, but without that first flicker, the fire never kindles. Hold the match and reach out.  You’ll know when the flame starts dancing in your mind.