Saturday, July 31, 2010

Shifty Business Part 1--Cutting

On How to Cut a Shift, and other cutting tricks that may prove useful to the historically sartiorally inclined.

Marathon of cutting and beginning of sewing this afternoon! I used the measurements, diagrams, and extant garment described in Linda Baumgarten's Costume Close-up to create the shift.

The extant garment, as pictured here, is pretty fascinating--it's not the grandiose, beautiful gowns pictured far more commonly in books and websites devoted to historical clothing, but its utilitarian facets, such as teensy stitches and meticulously placed reinforcing pieces, are incredible for anyone interested in historical sewing.

You'll notice it's not the full-sleeved, voluminous version seen in some prints and artwork, such as the unstayed prostitute in Hogarth's Progress of the Rake (below). This is because shifts slimmed a bit toward the end of the century, and because I intend to wear this one under tight-sleeved gowns and am getting tired of arm-bunching from full shift sleeves.

Baumgarten's cutting diagram is much cleaner than mine was last week, so you can see how the shift is cut out of one long rectangle and then pieced together.

Eighteenth-century linen was woven in standard widths, so shifts were made from lengths of the standard width. Today's fabric is much wider than eighteenth century fabrics generally were--7/8 (or 7/8 of a yard) was a common width, while 54"-60" is common today. So I cut a length of modern linen in half to create two strips that could be cut per the diagram above.

I'm not sure how common my cutting method is, so I thought I'd share it. I picked it up from watching Amish ladies at the Amish department store (yes, there is such a thing) near my hometown. They would mark the length for the fabric, then pull a thread to denote a cutting line. Not sure if this is because it yeilds a more precise cutting line than an inset metal table guide, or if it's because inset metal table guides are considered too fancy and modern for the Amish. Regardless, it's a great trick for producing a straight line at home.

Once I had my 30" width pieces, I cut the body, side gores, sleeves, and gussets from the length as shown in the diagram, and here:

I did not include the reinforcing pieces. For one, I'm using modern construction and seaming techniques rather than the period lapped seams that would lend themselves to this addition. For another, my shifts aren't worn daily, and don't get steaming baths in lye soap over and again, so won't take the beating that the originals would have.

Once all the pieces were cut, I would have been ready to sew...if Homer the Cat of Enormous Bulk hadn't decided to settle down on top of the sewing machine.
Sewing Escapades and a Malfunction...Next Time!
Interested? Like what you see? Enter to win a shift or shirt of your very own to begin, expand, or inspire your own historical wardrobe!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Things I Just Learned

Road trips and weddings...both opportunities for great personal reflection and growth. And an excuse to eat Hostess Cupcakes. Some things I discovered:

1) I can do my own hair without the help of false-rump hairdresser! I did have the help of a fellow bridesmaid with a jumbo can of AquaNet, though. Because this was super-easy and looked relatively professional, thought I would share the directions, in case you find yourself in the same boat.

2) Purple pens + car ride + half-edited manuscript = illegible scrawlings and woozy tummy. Balance that equation. Needless to say, I didn't get a whole lot done work-wise. But we're almost there on the edit, and am finding a few more tweaks I need to make. I think (gulp) the end is in sight; the problems now are little blips compared to gaping holes. Because my last unrealistic goal went reasonably well, I'm setting another one for this weekend: Finish the purple-pen edit. Retire purple pen. Start making changes in the document and choose a new color of pen for next round. Use super-reader-radar to find plot blips and eliminate them.

3) I love Patrick O'Brian! See yesterday's post for more gushing.

4) I found this Onion article large part because this title mimics so perfectly eighteenth-century conventions: On The Humourous Happenings That May Occur During Coital Relations, To Which Is Added Several Jests Regarding Defecation

5) Hostess Cupcakes are completely inferior to Mrs. Freshley's Cupcakes. I don't want to know what's in those things, but they were pure magic sometime around 11:45 p.m. eaten on the road in the middle of a miscellaneous midwestern cornfield.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

O is for...

Patrick O'Brian, the Aurbrey/Maturin series (Response to Historical Tapestry's Alphabet Challenge)

First confession--I say the series, but I haven't read nearly all of them. Only the first. But what a first! My husband loves these seafaring novels, and though I did enjoy the movie, I've never gotten too into the naval thing. Even watching the entire Horatio Hornblower series (which, again, enjoyed) did not spark an interest in reading one of the many series out there chronicling the lives and careers of fictional naval superstars.

Patrick O'Brian is changing that for me. After skimming a couple of other age of sail novels and finding the writing dull and lacking (or, uh, maybe I just don't like riggings and masts enough), O'Brian had me from the first page. He has an elegant, perfectly turned voice that immediately evokes the period about which he writes. Beyond that, the characters are envisioned by the reader and living on the page within paragraphs. The opening ought, from popular modern writing advice's perspective, be dull. Aubrey, our intrepid naval officer, attends a concert. His exuberent mannerisms while enjoying the music annoy his neighbor, Dr. Maturin.

That's it. For a couple pages. What sort of hook is that, you may ask? You couldn't get that published today, you might say. Stuff and nonesense, say I. It's all in the writing. Within phrases, a vivid scene is playing in your mind, complete with strains of music floating over the characters you have just met. You know that there's more to each of these men, that their personalities are simmering with interest below their starched and pressed surfaces.

We're enchanted, before our Aubrey has even set foot on his ship.

It's true, the books move somewhat slowly. But for someone who likes action and literary work, it's a perfect blend. Not to sound snobbish (and I don't mean to) but these are in many ways a thinking person's books. O'Brian sneaks in inside jokes, but you have to have some knowledge to see the humour, making them amusing in different places depending on a person's background. One exchange provoked me to laughter as my confused husband looked on. "What's funny in the first twenty pages?" he asked. "Plenty," said I, only the joke was in French and thus only made sense if you happen to know French swear words. Hilarity.

So, in short, a rousing round of applause for Mr. O'Brian. These are not books, mind you, to devour, and I don't imagine I'll tear through the series. But I will savour them, one book at a time.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Until next week...

I'm heading off to a wedding this weekend--am very excited as it's a dear friend and I am in the wedding party. The only downside? Have to fix my own hair. I am not skilled at dressing hair, and my hair is most obdurate. I need this guy:

So, think I'd get kicked out of the wedding if I showed up with ostrich plumes taller than the groom bobbing from my head?

Enjoy the weekend! Will be jaunting around a bit after the wedding, so I'll be gone 'til this time next week.

In the meantime, check out this week's bit on shifts (ever so exciting, shifts are) and enter to win one (or, fine, a shirt--for the maybe three boys who might be reading this rose-bedecked blog).

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Great Linen Giveaway!

Now Closed--Winner Announced The Week of August 9

The gist: My faithful blog readers have helped me to select a stockpile of shifts and shirts as my next project. As I'll be assembly-line producing a decent number of them, sewing one more for a friend is no great matter.

The goods: The winner may select a woman's shift or man's shirt. Ladies may select either an eighteenth-century three-quarter sleeved shift (Seven Years War/Revolutionary War/Georgian) or a short-sleeved early nineteenth century shift (Napoleonic/Regency). The item shall be of fine white linen, plain neck and sleeve finishing. Machine-sewn (sorry, no hand-sewing on this one). It's the perfect start for your period costume, or makes quite a romantic nightgown.

The rules:

1) Leave a comment here to enter. Include an email address, please, for verification that you're a real person. I'll ask that you email me if you're the lucky winner!
2) Must be a follower to enter--if you follow through an RSS feed or Google Reader and aren't showing up here...let me know :)
3) You may earn an additional entry for each way you link back to this giveaway--a blog post, Facebook link, Tweet, whatever. Let me know in the comments for extra entries. (Same comment or more than one comment is ok.)
4) Entry to remain open here until August 6th. Deadline may be extended at discretion of blog owner, but shall not be shortened.
5) A winner will be selected at random.
6) The winner shall be patient, as this project will be completed in stages--but you can see the progress online!

Good Luck!

Shifts and Shirts: An Introduction

What, precisely, is a shift, anyway?

Shifts and shirts are underwear in the eighteenth century. Shifts are the ladies’ equivalent of a shirt. They were the standard undergarment—ladies in the eighteenth century didn’t wear pantaloons or drawers, so this is it when it came to underthings. Petticoats, stays, and gowns are layered over the shift just as breeches, weskits and coats are layered over shirts. A shift also serves as your nightgown, just as a shirt serves as a man’s nighttime clothing. They are generally made of plain old linen, coarser stuff for the working class, finer stuff for the upper crust. Despite vendors’ attempts I have seen to jazz them up with lace trim and ruffles, most originals were super-plain, maybe having a ruffle of the same or finer fabric at the neck or sleeve hems. So, as you can see, quite boring.

Kannik's Korner patterns shift sketch--gives you the basics of the shape and construction. As a sidenote, decent pattern, but be warned--the sleeves were ridiculously short when I made the size small. They would have been short on a third grader...or maybe I have monkey arms. Will be cutting without a pattern this time for, hopefully, better results.

But shifts and shirts are quite interesting in another sense.

Fabric was pricey in the eighteenth century. Because fabric was so dear, women got the most out of each yard that they could. Therefore, shifts and shirts were cut in strategic rectangles and triangles that did not waste an inch of fabric. Fabric was woven in standard widths.

Be warned: this is a horrible diagram of shift cutting I made myself in Paint. It’s not to scale, and it’s really ugly. Still, I hope it gives you a good idea on how a single length of fabric could be cut to avoid any waste. The two larger rectangles on the end are sleeves, the two smaller squares are the underarm gussets. The triangles on the side are the sides of the shift, creating some fullness around the legs.

Linen was the cheapest thing you could come by, which explains why it was used for these utilitarian garments. It’s also a pretty strong fabric, and could withstand repeated washings. The fabrics for finer outer clothing, like silk and fine wool, could not withstand the abuse of frequent laundering, so underclothing was washed more often.

Given that bathing was less frequent for people, as well, clean linen would have been a vital part of hygiene. Clean linen would have reduced body odor as well as reduced chafing and other skin complaints caused by sweat and dirt kept near the body too long.

From a language point of view, shift is the proper eighteenth-century term for English speakers. Chemise is the French word for shift or shirt, and was adopted around the turn of the nineteenth century as a more polite way to say shift; at this point, shift became a baser term and chemise the more proper word. Funny how we say something in French and it suddenly seems ever so much nicer...

Now that you’ve heard all about shifts, I bet you want one…and because cutting and sewing these garments is best done in an assembly line manner, adding one for a friend is no trouble at all.

So, it's Giveaway Time! Check the next post for the details...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Writing, Reviews, and Writing Reviews

An interesting question over at fictiongroupie that speaks to those of us who share our reading experiences online--when you read a book that just didn't cut it for you, do you share that out there in webberworld? As the discussion emphasized, books are not babies (no matter the work a writer put into them, different rules apply.) I fall on the side that, while you wouldn't call your friend's baby ugly (and yes, saying "That's a really cute outfit you put it in. Especially since that bonnet covers its face" counts as calling your friend's baby ugly), there are ways you can say a book wasn't good.

For those of us whose blogs are focused on book reviews, it's expected and in fact vital that the review be honest and balanced. Readers trust book bloggers to share the highs and lows of new releases, to help us select what's worth our time. When we find bloggers who share our tastes--bingo, we've got book recs from someone we trust as much as a friend or family member. Maybe more.

However, for those of us who also write, it's a trickier question. Do you post unabashedly, share what worked and what didn't, rip into poor choices the author made--or do you stay quiet, knowing that a reputation is made online? Sarah J Maas at Let the Words Flow had a great post on how a reputation can be made or broken by what an aspiring author does online. Words for the wise for anyone, really. One point--don't be a drama queen, which could include tearing into a badly written book.

So what to do?

So here's the scenario. (I made it up.) You write seafaring historical lit. Being a responsible writer, you read quite a bit of seafaring historical lit to keep up with the genre. You read a new author's debut work's awful. It's terribly underdone, the characters fall flatter than flapjacks, and historical errors abound. (Bad ones--the writer said India was a Yugoslavian colony in 1800 and put pull-chain motors on the tallships.) Do you post your review on your blog or not? I would say, first, if you've not made it a practice up to now to post book reviews, I would skip it. Your regular readers will be surprised by it, it will probably seem a bit more vitriolic because of its singularity, and anyone sniffing around your page to get a better sense of you won't find a collection of reviews that seems balanced. S/he will instead find one seemingly angry diatribe.

If you do regularly post reviews, however, I wouldn't shy away from posting this one. I would, however, make it as balanced as you can. If you write, you already know how difficult the process is--how long the author worked (ok, maybe not long enough in your opinion, but clearly it still took some time), how much they poured into drafting, revising, editing, pushing toward publication. At the same time, it would be irresponsible to pour puppies, kittens, and rainbows all over a bad book--your readers trust your judgement. So I would look for the things you did like (there was something, right?) and use very balanced language. "I felt that" or "Didn't work for me" or "Would have preferred" all indicate that this is subjective--which it is, of course--and keep it in a reader's perspective rather than indicting the author.

My modus operadi, for now, is to be completely honest, provided I have something balanced to say. I have seldom found a book I disliked so completely that I did not finish it and find some redeeming things to say about the writing, characters, or plot. Heck, even the cover. (Usually more than just the cover.) I've promised myself, however, that if I read something truly, utterly, terrible, something I cannot find anything nice to say about--well, I will follow the old maxim and simply not say anything at all.

What do you think? If you're a writer, do you share your thoughts on books or keep mum to avoid rocking the boat? If you're a reader, do you turn to book blogs to get the real skinny? What do you think of bloggers who post scathing reviews--are you thankful for their honest, or appalled by their lack of restraint?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Victory Sauce

I took advantage of a short break between summer thunderstorms to visit our local farmer's market yesterday, and snagged a bunch of tomatoes. At least once a summer, I try to make a batch of homemade tomato sauce. Since the rest of my weekend included finishing the revision (yay) and starting edits (with purple pen!) on my WIP set in 1945, it felt just about right to engage in that quintissential home front activity--preserving fresh veggies.
I selected second-rate tomatoes--the ones my favorite Menonite seller keeps in little bins off to the side. These have flavor just as good as first-rates, but happen to look kind of goofy, or have dents. They're perfect for sauce.

Betty Crocker looks on.

Most people know how residents of the WWII home front planted victory gardens to provide their families with fresh produce, leaving the bounty of industrial farming to go to the troops. Of course, gardens only produce a few months out of the year, making wise preserving an important facet of victory gardening. Women canned, froze, and made jams and jellies--many techniques that had been part of home economics for decades but hit on a patriotic note during the war years.
Incidentally, though it's common enough knowledge that rural and suburban dwellers tilled their own gardens in their backyards, I had guessed that city and town residents probably wouldn't be involved in victory gardens. Then I chatted with a lady who volunteered at a museum I used to work at, who lived in a middling-sized town in the Midwest during the war. She told me how the town would set aside communal victory gardens, where apartment residents and homeowners with plots too small to garden could have their own parcel of land. So fascinating--a tactic of land division that was used for centuries in European and colonial communities, and a way to get urban dwellers gardening that's experiencing a revival today!

Anyway--back to the tomato sauce. It's time consuming, but pretty fun once you get down to it.

First, you have to skin the tomatoes. This sounds worse that it is--the old trick? Get one pot of water boiling, and another pot of ice water.

Cut an X in the bottom of each tomato, place in boiling water until the skins split and wrinkle (most sources say 30 seconds, but this never seems to be enough for me--about a minute or two, but no more or the tomatoes start to cook and get squooshy).

Then plop them in the ice water until they cool, and the skins peel right off.

No real reason for this shot except that I love the color and texture of the skinned tomatoes:

Somewhere around here I decided that a glass of wine and some Glenn Miller sounded pretty good to round out the afternoon's activity.

Point of interest--the spoons were my grandmother's--she was a housewife during WWII so I'm sure these saw their share of the trenches of canning!

Then, chop up the tomatoes. To keep things from getting too messy, I squeeze some of the juice out before I chop.

Meanwhile, I have diced onion and garlic sauteeing on the stove, in that same stockpot as before, minus the boiling water. I add red wine for more flavor.

Then I dump all the tomatoes in and let the whole thing simmer long as it takes. Kind of vague, I know. But I lost track of time. I do skim some juice off the top as it cooks to yeild thicker sauce. I add...herbs and spices...again, no proper recipe here.* This time there was red pepper flakes and rosemary. There's been basil galore before.

Of course, I don't throw away the juice I skim, or the juice I squeezed earlier--that wouldn't be a properly thrifty housewife at all! Instead, I strained it and popped it in the fridge--with a little extra flavoring and maybe some cream, it makes a lovely tomato soup.

If you've been thrifty, some skins, cores, and the wine cork should be all you've wasted!

*A quick note--I freeze my sauce for later. If you're going to can, you have to use a specific recipe that yeilds the right PH balance to avoid botulism. No one likes botulism.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Projects Galore!

First off, nicely done, you boring old shifts and shirts. Looks like you tied with the dream gown for first in the poll--which means I'm forced to tackle you next. You smug little white linen smocks, you.

So--decision is, I will be on the lookout for the perfect fabric for the perfect sacque. And as I don't expect that to materialize immediately, I'll spend the meantime cutting, piecing, and whipping together some basic undergarments. The bolt and the scissors will come out tonight or for pics and a quick tutorial on how to cut a basic shift! And not to worry, those who voted for the stays...those are still on the docket. Perhaps as a winter project. By the way, am I surprised or not surprised that boy clothes didn't garner a single vote? :)

This morning I took advantage of the summer farmer's market and bought a bushel (well, not quite literally, but close) of tomatoes. There's currently sauce simmering on the stove--and as canning and preserving food is synonymous with the Victory Gardens of WWII, the setting of the WIP, I'll be doing a post on my experience with the sauce soon! You know, if it doesn't taste like crap.

Finally...a highly productive evening, night, and morning has left me with only two stubborn scenes to write for my revision. End is in sign. Purple pens, I'll have work for you tomorrow...

Friday, July 16, 2010

Last Day to Help Direct the Course of... next sewing project. No, not exactly world-shatteringly exciting. Read a bit more about each potential project, pop a vote into the side column, leave me a comment petitioning for your favorite, tell me I'm bonkers for making more clothes...whatever opinion you have, I'd love to hear it :)

I'll get started on whatever the final verdict is this weekend--whether that means trolling for patterns, digging out my bolt of linen, fabric-hunting, or chasing my husband around the house with a measuring tape (no, amazingly, that isn't what a normal Saturday looks like for us).

And writer-friends...with a weekend mostly to myself, I am setting the wholly unreasonable goal of finishing my revision and starting line-edits this weekend. I dreamt of purple pen marks on lines of text last night. Yes, it's gotten that bad (and yes, I'm stealing a purple pen from work to fulfill this prophetic vision). What think you? Have I gone completely mad (or was I nutsy already?)

Of course--Happy Friday! Enjoy the weekend!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Crit Group Pitfalls and Digging Your Way Out of Them

Critique groups are pretty much the best thing to happen to a writer since the invention of moveable type. A communal effort where you gain on both sides of the exchange--your writing is improved when others look at it, and lo and behold, you improve your writing by looking at others' work! Incredible. Many writers utilize local in-person groups or online groups--in either case, however, there can be pitfalls. As is so often the case, those pitfalls are usually people.

I've been posting chapters of December on an online crit group (my nearest real-people group is over an hour drive away, and though they are super-helpful and supportive, I can't make that kind of time and gas commitment). It's been incredibly helpful, and the comments have driven some of the best revisions I've made. However, in reading others' critiqued works and my own, I've identified some potential trouble-makers in the ranks.

Before we begin--standard disclaimer. These are all made-up examples unless I state otherwise. No critiquers were harmed in the making of this post. And always, always thank a critiquer, even if their crit was not helpful to you. The person doing the critique most likely spent time and effort on it, so it's your job to wring as much use from it as you possibly can, even if it feels like there's not much there of substance. Depending on the culture of the group, do whatever else is polite, whether that's returning a crit, submitting a positive rating for hard work even if the advice wasn't great, whatever.

The Over-Eager Grammar Beaver : This helpful little sprite can cause more mischeif than good when their comments go awry. They tend to fall into two categories--the Know-it-All and the Missing-the-Mark. The Know-it-All may correct your grammar assuming that you don't speak the common language of syntax. That is, s/he spots a mistake and launches into an unwelcome lecture about the correct usage of the past participle (when you had, in fact, merely made a typo). How to Deal: For the most part, best ignored. If it really irks you, try slipping some grammar vocab into your message of thanks or your next critique of this person's writing--but don't expect him or her to take the hint. Falls under the 'toss what isn't useful' maxim of critique groups. The Missing-the-Mark is a bit more insidious. S/He purports a facade of deep grammatical knowledge, but scratch the surface and it's all wrong. This person may chide you for "passive voice" when in fact s/he would like to see more actual action (having nothing to do with active voice). They may berate you for using "had" in a legitimate past perfect context (and, again, call this passive voice, the cureall label for all things perceived as wrong in writing by the Missing-the-Mark). In short, their comments, well, miss the mark. How to Deal: Assume the golden rule of revision--even if the critiquer couldn't accurately describe what was wrong, there may very well be something off about the passage. Do a bit of searching and see for yourself what it is. Sometimes, of course, the individual is simply missing the point...and as long as you can identify that, ignore what isn't helpful.

The Over-Optimist : This person's work isn't all bad--s/he mounds praise on the parts of your passage that work well for him or her, heaps blessing on your word choice and plot structure, gushes that s/he would be best friends with your very likeable characters. In many ways, with most critiquers veering toward the negative, an optimistic voice pointing out the positives is a welcome--and needed--addition. Not just for morale, either--it helps to have feedback about what is working to compare to what isn't. But there are pitfalls... How to Deal: Avoid getting a big head. Yes, bask in the praise that is very likely well-deserved (heck, you had the courage to post work that you wrote for others to read--you earned the praise!), but don't assume that because one person loved the work that it's done. S/he very well might just be cautious about ever saying s/he doesn't like something (and likely spends a life eating anchovies on pizza because s/he never could get up the chutzpah to tell others s/he doesn't care for anchovies). Also, don't let one person's positive praise overshadow issues rasied by other critiquers. If one person loved the passage, but four others had problems, weigh these carefully.

The Just Didn't Get It : Sometimes someone just doesn't get your work. This can be hard to ferret out at first, but it may become quite clear after several traded crits that the individual is expecting something out of the story that just isn't there, doesn't appreciate your writing style, or that you have some other irreconcilable difference. The over-sensitive might assume that any critiquer with a negative comment doesn't get their work, but this simply isn't the case. The Just Didn't Get It is much rarer, and usually speaks to an innate difference between what the critiquer cares to read and what you care to write. A Just Didn't Get It crit, for instance, might demand more internal monologue and deeper connection to the characters' troubled childhoods out of your cyborg sci-fi thriller (and fewer cyborgs), or suggest throwing some "action" in on your character-driven literary love story--and s/he really means action. As in "flaming car expolosion building collapse" action. And sometimes it simply speaks to careless reading or misplaced expectations--I confess that I once had a critiquer who, after multiple chapters had been posted of the WIP and s/he had critted several, did not get that this was a multiple-POV story and kept demanding to know who the main character was. How to Deal: Take what you can use, as always. S/he may not get it, but might still have good comments about details like awkward phrasing or poor word choice. And avoid developping a long-term crit partnership as well as you can.

The Editorial Expert : This self-important poster will dispense bucketfuls of seemingly sage advice on the state of publishing, what editors and agents are looking for, the keys to success in the writing world. The problem? S/he probably has no real publishing experience--and even if s/he does, it's likely limited to his or her own journey to publication. It's highly unlikely that agents are hanging out, incognito, on online crit group sites to let you know that "editors don't like it when you use the term 'popsicle.'" This person is often identified a tendency to include block quotes from favorite industry blogs or books--one might feel that this person very much likes to hear him/herself type. When looking at your story, this person will point out things that could prevent getting your work published--and though some may be true, others may be way off the mark, especially if s/he doesn't know your genre or your intended market. Remember that this person gained their knowledge in the egalitarian ways that we all can--reading industry blogs, books on writing, trial and error. How to Deal: Become your own expert. Read the blogs, books, and keep up with the news that affects you. Read current releases in your genre, and see which ones do well. When someone says your use of flashback, multiple POV, or the use of the term "popsicle" is "a detriment to getting published" you can have the breadth of knowledge to know if this something to change--or a comment to ignore. Be suspicious of "always" and "never"--few things are always or never the case. If they were, nothing would be fresh! And of course, remember that sometimes a person will assign the wrong diagnosis to something that doesn't work--they may be saying "Flashbacks aren't common to this genre" as a wishy-washy way of saying "Look, this flashback is not working for me and really needs to go."

It goes without saying but...I also try to avoid being any of these Crit Group Crabapples when I'm critting! I'm sure I'm not always successful, but being a better critiquer, I truly believe, helps you to be a better writer.

What experiences have you had with crit groups? Do you prefer online or in-person groups? Any run-ins with these usual suspects? Have you--gulp--been one of them?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

When Nature Won't...Pluto Will

Our anniversary travels took us to southern Indiana, where I came across a curiosity I had never before investigated. The resort towns of French Lick and West Baden in Indiana grew up around natural mineral springs, and visitors the world over came to "take the waters." One foyer of the French Lick hotel had dozens of pictures of famous visitors on the walls--Glenn Miller, Clark Gable (swoon), President Roosevelt (who earned his party's nomination there), Irving Berlin, and Al Capone, among many other politicians, actors, musicians, and athletes. The two hotels are beautiful, and have both been recently renovated in the spirit of the turn-of-the-century grandeur in which they were created

Nestled in the interior of the hotel's grounds is the whitewashed gazebo housing Pluto Spring. Named for the Roman god of the underworld, the likeness is fitting--the spring's sulpherous odor is anything but pleasant. Though the spring isn't used any longer, visitors can peer down the well and catch a good, hearty wiff of the world-famous water. Pleasant gardens and tranquil forests frame the scene, and one could just about feel idyllic when you read the inscription on the inside of the spring house. In old-fashioned black script reads Pluto Water's famous slogan "When Nature Won't, Pluto Will!"

You see, I had never before quite realized just what "taking the waters" meant. The key mineral in the famous spring? Epsom salt, which is a natural laxative. That's right, in the days of yore, lack of "pep" and "verve" was often due to being just plain bound up. Not only did vacationers relax and um, refresh themselves in French Lick and West Baden, but a plant bottled and distributed the water nationwide.

Fortunately, there were other things to see and, ah, do in the area, including enjoying dixieland music on the front porch of the French Lick hotel:

And taking a gander at the huge domed atrium of the West Baden Springs hotel, once called the Eighth Wonder of the World:

Of course, a few hours in these places and story ideas featuring wealthy heiresses or rakish businessmen enjoying the cool breezes on the verandahs or dining in curtain-swathed rooms were running through my head. And then I imagined these characters bound up and was less inclined to explore them further...

Monday, July 12, 2010

N is for...

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky (response to Historical Tapestry's Alphabet Challenge)

I apologize in advance--blogger is refusing to let me do accents, which is bugging me as, you can see from the cover pic, I'm missing accents aigus et circonflexes all over the place. Sorry.

I'm cheating a little here. Suite Francaise is not, technically, historical fiction, as it was written during the period it portrays. Nemirovsky describes the 1940 evacuation of Paris and subsequent German occupation of France not from a researcher's perspective, but because she lived through these turbulent times. Yet, I felt compelled to share her work here.

Suite Francaise is two books of a series originally planned to be five books long. The first, Storm in June, captures the palpable apprehension of Paris as the German forces moved in on the city. Told from a variety of perspectives, we are introduced to characters from all walks of life and social strata as they attempt to escape. There's the wealthy family with the invalid patriarch, the arrogant writer and his latest mistress, the poor couple so deeply in love you can't help but love them for their devotion. As the migration swells and breaks at the train stations, roadside hostels, petrol supplies, these characters begin to cross paths. The results are often surprising.

The second book, Dolce, takes place during the occupation in a small town now overrun with a German resident. As the town adjusts to the presence of the foriegn force, some residents rebel, some are complacent, and some collaborate outright. Their decisions are varied and complex, and Nemirovsky does not paint a simplistic picture of the situation. Most delicately rendered is the growing understanding and, eventually, relationship between the jilted wife of a French POW and the German officer billeted at her house. Their clandestine yet chaste and subtle love affair may be the most beautiful, soulful romance I have ever read.

The two books appear unrelated, but plot outlines and skeletons for the subsequent books show how Nemirovsky intended for them to intertwine. Those books were never written.

Because Nemirovsky was Jewish by parentage (though she had converted to Roman Catholicism), she was sent to Auschwitz by the same invading force she writes about in Suite Francaise. She died, likely in the gas chambers, in 1942. The tiny notebook in which she wrote Suite Francaise was originally assumed by her daughter to be an actual diary of her mother's time evading the Nazis. Thinking it would be too painful to read, she didn't open it until her mother's papers were being prepared for transferral to the National Archives in France. At this point, she opened the notebook and discovered this final unpublished novel.

Nemirovsky's circumstances make her balanced treatment of the story's characters all the more remarkable. As a writer, she looked past the labels of "collaborator" or "occupying force" to see the people underneath their assumed roles.

All this aside, the writing is pure beauty. Prose to make you weep. And even though you can see spots where, perhaps, Nemirovsky would have improved upon her work had she been given the chance to edit it, it stands as a beautiful piece of literary fiction and a window into the storm of WWII and the moments of sweetness within the tempest.

I've discovered that Sarah at Reading the Past has also posted on Nemirovsky--she's written a lovely review of Fire in the Blood, another of Nemirovsky's WWII era novels.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Undead Darlings

A self-centered writing update...please forgive my self-indulgence :)

With the house to myself last night, I poured a glass of wine and sat down with the fat stack of binder-clipped pages that is my hot mess of a work-in-progress. And I started tearing it up. It's already gotten quite a thorough beating, but this one topped them all--anything with a tentative question mark next to it was brutally x-ed out, large notes about "missing XYZ" scrawled in the margins, arrows darting everywhere, moving sections and pointing to extensive notes on the backs of pages.

There's a maxim of writing or, more precisely, editing, that states that you must kill your darlings. Some of the loveliest, most cherished bits you've written are the least applicable to the story--and out they must go. And three of my very favorite scenes were counted among the many slain. One simply had no place, as the POV character in it had been reassigned to a less important role, and a scene of her inner monologue made no sense. Another just seemed extraneous, one of those bits that only the author need know about a character, and a third took the story in a direction I decided to prune away.

Giant pen marks through all of them, the pages tossed aside.

And then. There was a tiny, vital bit of info in that first scene that needed to go somewhere else. If the no-longer-POV character didn't know it and share it, who would? Something clicked. That scene was important--just in a different POV. And with a very different twist that, suddenly, fixed half the issues I had with the storyline.

Back in it went, slated for major overhaul, but with the same essence.

And another nagging question--a character has a major change of heart which causes him to contribute to the central conflict of the story. But why, I kept hitting a brick wall, why the change of heart? Well, duh. What happened in that extraneous scene would change anyone's worldview. So, again, slated for major revisions, but back in.

So it might seem that, after all, I'm reluctant to kill my darlings. In fact, these ideas never would have fermented had the scenes not been cut. If I hadn't said goodbye to them, they couldn't have resurfaced in new ways for me. I had to get them out, like weeds in the vegetable garden, before realizing that they might just be flowers that can go in the window box. And that third section? Deader than a doornail.


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Writing and Terrible SciFi : Part II, Plot and Plan 9

Ah, yes. Plan 9. If you haven't seen the celluloid abuse that is Plan 9 From Outer Space, get thee to a rental place or Netflix and view immediately. Considered by many to be the worst film ever made, Edward D. Wood Jr.'s Plan 9 has everything wrong with it--crappy acting, terrible writing, laughable sets, wacky editing choices. An example of the absurdity: Star of the film Bela Lugosi died before filming was complete, and a stand-in who looks nothing like him is used for the rest of the film. He holds a cape over his face, so you "can't tell." Another example: The flying saucers are clearly pie plates glued together and suspended by (visible) strings, making the world's wobbliest spacecraft.

But the worst might be the plot. The strings holding the story together are, unfortunately, much more tenuous than those suspending the pie plate saucers. In short, it's not one of those "good story, bad execution" problems--but I managed to glean some lessons for writing while giggling uncontrollably at the chaos.

You Can't Do It All : Cross-genre works are great. It's fun to read a romance with urban fantasy elements, or a historical mystery. But try to do too much and you have a hot mess. That's what happens with Plan 9. Somehow, Ed thought it would be a good idea to combine aliens with zombies with hardboiled cops with a nice newlywed couple with an anti-nuclear-weapons message. Yeah. And I had you thinking "bad idea" at aliens and zombie. Even the plan itself is a bit of a mess: Famously, the titular plan is "a long-range electrode shot to the pituitary gland of the recent dead" bringing them back to life. Sort of. Performed, of course, by the aliens. Lesson learned: Pare it down. Decide what the most important elements of your story are, and develop them into strong storylines, rather than creating plot soup of half-baked ideas (and how's that for mixing metaphors?).

The Character/Plot Balance : It can be debated into the ground whether characters or plot come first in developping a story. A lot may come down to whether it's an action-driven, plot-heavy story or a character-driven literary work, but regardless, there needs to be a balance. The plot nor the characters can drive the story by themselves--at least without it crashing and burning. One of the main problems with Plan 9's plot is that Ed Wood seems to have taken the collection of characters he had, and built a story around them. And who did Ed have to work with? Vampira, a late-night movie host who looks like, well, a vampire. Tor Johnson, a gigantic Swedish wrestler whose other film roles include "wrestler" "torturer" and "Lobo." And Bela Lugosi--or, more apt, stock footage of Bela Lugosi salvaged from another film Ed tried to shoot with him before he died. Stock footage that happens to include him bumbling about outside his home and standing in a cemetery. What else do you do with that creepy/kooky cast of characters but make a movie about alien-controlled undead? Ok, probably a lot of other ideas come to mind. But the lesson is, take a balanced approach to what goes into the work, and be flexible. Not every character who pops into your head needs to go in this story. Save some. Work on the plot, and see what characters the story might need. Stretching a story to fit characters that don't quite work is quite likely to produce something pretty warped.

Keep it Straight : Inventing strange new people, places and things is part of the fun of writing. But when you can't keep your newly formed creations straight it just comes across as sloppy. Take the ultimate destructive weapon in Plan 9 : Solarite. Or maybe it was Solarmite. Or Solarmanite. Let's ignore the fact that a chain reaction weapon that "explodes particles of light" is a pretty goofy idea and just go with the problem that it's called at least five different things throughout the course of a rather short movie. Lesson? You're the creator--if you can't keep your creations straight, no one else can, either. One particularly good idea for complicated stories and series is to make your own cheat sheet--more on this found here and also here.

And not exactly Plot-Specific, but...

Dont' Cut Corners : All the elements of writing and editing are hard work. It takes a lot of effort to ensure cohesion and smooth styling. And it's funny--the less attention you pay to the details, the more your audience's attention will be drawn to them. You want to create a flowing, realistic picture, but when something sneaks in that doesn't belong--an odd POV switch, an incongruous character trait, a police officer who gestures and scratches his head with his gun (above right), a scene that goes from daylight to night back to daylight again in the space of two minutes (Ed, come on!), the audience snaps away from the story and stares at that sore thumb jabbing its way into the scene. So, as they say, the devil is in the details, so keep an eye on them. Ed didn't. Learn from Ed.

And, in the meantime...

Do yourself a favor and escape with some popcorn and some Ed Wood awful-ness.

Bad Movie Writing Lessons Part I

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Documentary Fame

So one of the fun parts about the Independence Day weekend is the American Revolution documentary marathons on the History and/or Discovery channels. Yep, I'm a geek. But my husband and I zoned out for awhile on Saturday afternoon and watched a little bit, just for fun. (We also like to make fun of the bad costuming in some, but they're really getting a lot better than they used to be, so it's less exciting now.)

So we're watching about the Siege of Charleston, which I researched to a nearly unhealthy degree for the first novel I wrote (currently drawer-ed, but ideas fermenting about a vast rewrite...), nitpicking that they left out "the best part" (how the American forces in the city made one last effort, more symbolic than anything, before surrendering, firing a huge cannon barrage as all the bells in Charleston pealed together--how's that for great TV?), when my husband looks intently at the TV and says:

"Hey, we know that guy!"

And we did know that guy. One of the bonuses/perils of being a reenactor is that our groups often either get tapped to film documentaries, or stock footage of reenactments is used to fill in generic scenes. So if you're watching a documentary on the time period you reenact, you're likely to start seeing people you know--or even yourself.

So have I ever been in a documentary? None for the History Channel that I know of--but I've been at enough events where they were filming that it's possible I'm in a background somewhere. But our group was hired by another group--the Weather Channel. We did the episode of "When Weather Changed History" about the Revolution. You won't recognize me in any of the scenes--because I'm not there. My musket-toting, regimental-wearing alter-ego Obediah is. We didn't need women for the shoot, but to fill in the ranks, a few of us ladies dressed as men. (Sound familiar?). And I have to admit, it was pretty fun to watch the final product--friends of ours played main roles, including George Washington and Henry Knox. And I saw myself, a couple times--marching through the "rain" (ie water hose spraying across the road) and fighting the Battle of Trenton and Princeton in the "snow" (foamy, sudsy stuff that they sprayed on the ground in a big patch--it clung to your shoes and clothes like crazy!).

So Obediah was viewed coast-to-coast, and I was nowhere to be seen. Any brushes with fame you'd like to share?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Blog Awards...and Blogs You Should Check Out

The lovely Noelle at was kind enough to tag me in her recent spate of blog awards. So I am now the recipeint of:

Thanks, Noelle! The rules for the awards are:

1) Thank and link back to the person who gave you this award. (Check!)
2) Share 7 things about yourself. (Hmmm...)
3) Pass the award along to 15 bloggers who you have recently discovered and who you think are fantastic for whatever reason! (In no particular order…)
4) Contact the bloggers you’ve picked and let them know about the award.
So I see this as a chance to let you know some of the blogs I appreciate on a nearly daily basis--some of these have probably already been tagged, and if you as a recipient don't like to participate in these kinds of thingies, that's fine--I just want other readers to know about you!

Here's my list of fifteen blogs you should check out, in no particular order:

1) The Gentlewoman Thief : This lovely lady blogs about her forays into sewing, history, and most especially the eighteenth century. Her can-do attitude as she tackles new projects is inspiring!

2) Connie at A Merry Heart : A delightful pre-published writer whose work I can't wait to see on the shelf--if she writes a novel anywhere near as amusing as her observations on her day-to-day life, I'll be hooked!

3) Kat at The Katakomb : Another writer working in the trenches of drafting, editing, and preparing to query. Really insightful thoughts on writing, and always with an optimistic outlook.

4) Arabella at Jill's Writing World : Yet another writer, also a touch obsessed with history as am I. Watch for her to post lovely Spanish poems and their translations!

5) Lua at Bowl of Oranges : I'm on a roll with the positive writers who blog! And Lua is also a keen observer and always gets right to the emotional heart of what she wants to express.

6) June at Miss Bluestocking : A fellow lover of all things historical, June is well on her way to being your new favorite romance writer.

7) The Dreamstress : I could spend hours drooling over the myriad photos she displays of period clothing and her reproductions. Madam, you have convinced me that I want--no, need--a chemise de reine, post haste.

8) Corra, the Victorian Heroine : Beautiful, informative blog on history, often focusing on facets that touched women's lives. I always learn something, and she's pulling me into an era I never cared much for before!

9) Ax at Farm and Lit : Not only am I related to this fascinating woman, she writes a mean book review, description of how to deal with contrary cattle, and muses on life in general, all in one fell swoop.

10) Isis' Wardrobe : More historical clothing lovelies, and a charming seamstress. Plus thoughts and reviews on repro cosmetics.

11) Miss Rosemary at Disgruntled Writer's Circle : Wide-ranging topics from the aspiring writer for the fellow aspiring writer.

12) Cheating, but--Historical Tapestry's Alphabet Challenge. The entire blog is great, but this challenge is superb--easy to participate in, easy to meet and read other bloggers through it. Not to mention a great conduit for feeding your To-Be-Read Book Stack.

13) All the Ladies at Let the Words Flow : Read the blog, read their individual blogs, feel enlightened about the world of writing and publishing. It's that simple.

14) Leah at Accidental Adventures : A fellow history nut who's also into all things French? Yes, I'll read! Really lovely accounts of travels both physical and book-induced.

15) Symbolically left blank--for the many bloggers I know I haven't mentioned and those I am sure to discover in the future!

And, the harder one, seven things about me...and I'll try to not make these things you can already tell from the blog (it would be cheating, wouldn't it, to say "I like history" and "I make and wear silly old-fashioned clothes").

1) I majored in history in college--that's probably a given--but I also majored in French. Si on aime les livres anglais du 18ieme sielce, on doit lire les livres francais! I didn't grammar-check that. One of my favorite French profs once said that the best way to tell what gender a noun is was to ask me and then pick the opposite of whatever I said. Grammar was not my strong suit--I planned to minor in French but after sitting through grammar class (and managing an A, thank you very much) decided I'd better get the most I could out of that horrific experience and went for the major. Lit and history courses were much more exciting!

2) I used to work for a handmade paper and invitation studio. So I'm kind of anal about invitation etiquette. My lasting contribution to the business was the creation of the color "Smoky Blue"--we made all our paper by recycling other papers, so I spent hours with a blender and various colors of shredded paper, mixing it like paint to find the right shade.

3) I've been a bridesmaid in three weddings. For two, I had to wear bright pink. Bright pink, aside from neon green and wacky tangerine, is my least favorite color. Don't tell the brides.

4) I really like to sing, and I think (maybe?) I have a nice enough voice, but I'm horrifically shy about it. I'll sing in a group, but I clam up if I have to sing by myself. I was very proud of myself when my reenacting group started singing old sea shanties and other songs late one night and I led a couple (General Taylor and Old Maui for those interested).

5) I really like Scotch. It's an acquired taste, but I really, truly do enjoy it. I even get sort of snooty about it and will talk about where it burns and how peaty it is and any number of goofy little things. My father taught me to enjoy Scotch, and it's one of those unspoken things we appreciate about one another.

6) My favorite place in the whole world is this historical site where we have two reenactments a year. It feels like home. My father and I (and my mother and my husband, when they come) stay in the servants' quarters, and I am thrilled from each moment I'm there--when I wake up in a drafty attic, make coffee over the fire, ramble over the gardens and the grounds, cook and sing with the other women in the kitchen, sprawl across the wide steps after dinner, gather around a bottle of Scotch and a guitar in the evening, watch the stars wink through the misteltoe tangles in the old trees. Clearly, I'm a touch infatuated.

7) My husband and I swing dance--it was our first date and we'll often pop in the Glenn Miller CD and push the kitchen table aside and dance while the dishes soak. We once won a dance contest at my high school's annual swing dance (I had graduated years before, but we went back with some friends for kicks). Obviously not stiff competition...but the show choir kids were pretty cranky that a couple old codgers took first :)

Ok, that should wrap it up! Check out some of those blogs, really--enjoyable reading!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Happy Fourth!

All right, so it's a day late. I was gone for the weekend, but, given my clear obsession with the American Revolution, had to put up an acknowledgement of the holiday! While watching fireworks last night, I was struck by the fact that, in the eighteenth century, fireworks were a traditional way of celebrating the King's birthday. And how fitting that, two hundred and change years later, we celebrate our nation's birthday with the same fiery displays.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...

Feeling sentimental, I pulled up a copy of the Declaration to read it last night. Some powerful words...and, as a lover of words and a would-be writer, was struck by the fact that, rather than choosing the date of our victory at Yorktown or the signing of the Treaty of Paris for our birthday, we chose a day that's marked, simply, by words. Our break with England wasn't begun on a battlefield, but by a pen.

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

So--affirmation in the power of words, and a swell of pride in my country, in one fell swoop. We certainly have our issues and problems as a country, but what family doesn't? Lay those squabbles aside for a day and think on the outrageous beliefs that the signers of the Declaration had--and how we can still work together, people and government, toward their fulfillment. And if working together isn't working....Revolution is just a pen stroke away :)

We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace, Friends.

(Though I confess I prefer the option of holding others Friends in Peacetime than I do making Enemies in War.)