Sunday, February 27, 2011

Mother's New Jacket--Part I

Wouldn't you know it, after fretting last week that my fabric (the chintz from India) hadn't yet arrived, and what was I going to do with my weekend, and had just about decided to dive into the wool for the short cloak when...

...the doorbell rang and our nice Postal Carrier was holding a very large, thick envelope that would not fit into the mailbox.

The chintz had arrived. You may recall that we had planned on a blue-on-white print from ReproductionFabric.com. Well, I scrapped that plan. The fabric arrived, and though it's very nice, the color is totally off from what I exptected--tan rather than cream, navy rather than a medium blue. And the weight of the cotton leaves something to be desired for a flouncy, delicate jacket and petticoat. Mother is getting some new curtains or a tablecloth out of it instead.

So I went back to an old standby--ordering Indian block-print cotton from ebay.

Gratuitous shot of chintz:

What I love about this fabric, aside from the gorgeous hand-done block print, is the hand. It's just plain old cotton, but it shows you what cotton can be--whisper light, crisp, drapes beautifully. It's incredible the difference between this stuff and the cotton you buy for quilting or whatnot.

Another gratuitous fabric shot, this time crumpledy:

I found myself with an otherwise free weekend, so hosted a little craft party with some friends from work. We knitted, scrapbooked, and played with invitation designs for my engaged friend's wedding, all while enjoying a bottle of wine, homemade bread with Brie, and laughter explosions. And I sewed. First I took out the basting seams from the lining/muslin I made to fit on my mother. This was a novelty to the other ladies--why the heck would you stitch something up and then take it apart? I explained that I had cut the lining first, basted it (which hardly counts as sewing up) and then fitted it on Mother. Then I used the adjusted lining (barely adjusted--I can eyeball my mother's figure pretty well at this point!) to cut the fabric.
Then I did up the long seams on both the lining and the chintz. Unfortunately, I haven't a dress form, so this is the best I can do in terms of an "in progress" shot:
You can get a nice idea of the flare and sweep of the bottom portion of the jacket.
The stomacher. So cute. I think I might jazz it up with rosy pink ribbon.
Finally, I had enough darting up and down stairs to stitch up seams on my sewing machine, missing the fun in the great room with the other ladies, so I started working on some pinked-edged, box-pleated trim. This will probably be for the sleeves. Since this fabric is so sweet, it lends itself well to some extra flourish.

Still to come--setting the sleeves, attaching the lining, press-press-pressing, playing with trim and flounce, and whipping up the petticoat. I am very tempted to order more fabric to ruffle out the bottom of the petticoat...but I think I'll refrain.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Mantelet? Short Cloak? Decisions?

I'm in sewing limbo--I had intended Mother's new outfit to be the next item on my list, so held off on ordering fabric for the 1940s day dress. However, Mother's block-print fabric is held up in India (that sounds so very 1800s, by the way--"Dratted schooner and its slow chintz shipment!"). So I am fabric-less.

Except. I do have the two yards of brilliantly beautiful blue wool. I've wanted a short cloak or mantelet for eighteenth-century wear for a while, especially as my only cold weather outerwear options are a) spare regimental coat or b) scrap of wool from making regimental coats. While both of these are appropriate wraps for a lower-class sort, when I am being The Officer's Wife I really ought to have something more ladylike. When I found the wool last fall I snapped it up for that purpose.

Then I let it sit in my fabric pile because I had projects that I could wear more quickly, like the 1940s Cocktail Dress. However, now that spring is on its way and the reenacting season is approaching, it's definitely a wear-soon project.

Which means I need to decide what I'm doing.

I'm between options--I could either do a short cloak (essentially, a cropped version of the long cloaks you often see) or a mantelet, which is a shaped garment that drapes (theoretically) delicately over the body.

See--the short cloak is pretty much a cropped cloak, even hem all around. This one may--I can't quite tell--have slits in the front so you can poke your hands without opening the front of the cloak (and defeating its purpose by letting in a nice draft of freezing cold air).

Can I mention that I am In.Love with the idea of trimming whatever I do with fur (preferably reused vintage--I'd like to avoid faux) like this cloak does? I'm thinking either a rich auburn or a snowy silver to play off the blue of the wool.

And here, a sketch of a mantelet. The hemline of the mantelet is curved so it drapes over the arms, but is long in back and front for warmth. You could keep your arms warm with mitts.

Either piece would have a hood. I'm debating adding a lining--this is not strictly accurate from what I've seen. Not that it's not plausible, but I can't find an extant or description in which the cloak is lined (historical clothing geeks--if you have documentation for lining cloaks, let me know!). Still, there is nothing--and I mean nothing--in this world warmer than wool lined in silk.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Yay for Nerdiness

This week is, apparently, You are Beautiful week. I don' t know if this is national or just on the college campus where I work, and I wouldn't have realized this if both my husband and my work friend hadn't gone to our campus rec center yesterday. According to their eyewitness reports, there are posters and signs everywhere with affirming statements, including a large white board with "What's your favorite body part?" written on it, surrounded by a cloud of answers. (Sidenote: when you're on a college campus, this is NOT a wise question to ask . Ever.)

Despite the failings of certain elements of the campaign (and I do consider saccharine quotes pasted on the ellipticals not-quite-successful), the concept is a good one. Especially on a college campus--there's so much pressure to look, behave, be seen a certain way. Honestly, it's not like that ever goes away. I bet there are ladies in retirement communities who are still trying to fit the model of what an octogenarian beauty queen should be. And there are always things, even as a purported grown-up, that just aren't "cool" and get you a funny second look from those people who care about things that are "cool."

This is why I love writers. I feel like every writer I meet out here in blogoworld has some wacky hobby or interest (in addition to writing) and they own it. I have met some writers who are into Dungeons and Dragons, have met others who get really into steampunk, or are so obsessed with sci-fi or fantasy that they've learned conversational Klingon or Elvish.

This is so awesome.

I mean, hi. I'm a person who makes historical clothes, calls a cannon by its first name, and thinks rifling through two-hundred year old documents is fun. I dress up in authentic stays and gowns and run around a fake battlefield and debate the proper use of artillery in various combat scenarios. I AM A NERD.

I love finding all these people who embrace their nerdiness, do what they love doing, whether it's "cool" or not. You know what? Not only do I think it makes them better people, I think it makes them better writers, too. You can't care if other people think it's "cool" that you hole up in a coffee shop and make up characters and places and get 100K words invested in them. You have to forge out on your own, and if you tell people "Yeah, I write " you don't really care if they reply with "Wow, that's so cool!" or "Um, and you're not published?" or "Uh, lame." Embracing your nerdy pasttime is just one step in being confident in yourself.

How do you fly your nerd flag?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Nook Cozy

I took on a simple project this weekend: a cover for my Nook. I mentioned a couple of months ago that I was the happy recipient of a Nook as a birthday gift. I'm still enjoying reading on it--as a self-avowed "real book" lover, I was surprised that I'd enjoy using an e-reader as much as I do.

One little problem--I didn't have any good storage/travel solution for it. I still have the box, but one doesn't want to pack up the thing in a box every time one is finished, and for travel the box takes up a ton of space. Plus it isn't pretty. It's a box. They sell cases and covers for Nooks, but the $40 price tag on the ones I like seemed a touch steep.

So I made a Nook cozy.


It was very easy and inexpensive. All you need is:

A piece and a half of crafting felt
One skein embroidery floss and needle
Two buttons

I folded the piece of felt in half and cut it to form the main pocket, and then used the second piece to cut the flap and the pocket for the front. The whole thing it just blanket-stitched (link to how-to video) with the blanket-stitching used for the side seams and seams attaching the flap and pocket, and for a decorative binding on the closure flaps.

The pocket on the bottom is for the upload/charging cord and plug--I made the corner of the pocket open at the top to slip the plug in.


Back of cozy, showing the flap that closes the pocket

I suggest stitching the top seam of the pocket to the backside and the bottom seam of the flap to the frontside before sewing up the sides to form the pocket--I didn't, and it was kind of finicky to stitch through one layer only.


Is it a little odd to make something akin to grandma's tea cozy for one's sleek, modern e-reader? Yes, probably.

But that's me in a nutshell. Or in a felt cozy.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

How Borders Closing Doesn't Really Affect Me...But It Still Does.

And I don't mean in the larger, overarching, Borders closing affects all of us that love books and write and want to see the industry thrive level. I mean personally.

The Borders in my town closed months ago. It's not on the list because the space is already empty, the tables and shelves already sold off, the books discounted until they sold, too. I admit--I got some good deals when the place went under, and never has that store been more packed than when all the vultures like me were buying the leftover merchandise at 50% off sticker price.

I was sad to see the store go, but I'm certainly not in the group that just lost its only bookstore for miles. There are three indie bookstores on our town square alone. I love visiting my favorite, Howard's, and browsing the small but always enticing selection, and petting the kitties who live there. There's a Barnes and Noble across the street from the vacant storefront that used to be Borders, and I confess that I preferred the B&N--more space to read and write, larger book selection, the ladies who work in the B&N cafe are incredibly nice. Even so--I still loved going to Borders. I thrive on changing scenery, and the cheerful reds and oranges in our Borders were a welcome change from the dour greens and burnished wood in our B&N. Beyond that--I think the more places for books to live and book people to congregate, the better.

Still, it was already gone, so I'm not quite sure why I even opened the list to read other stores closing. It doesn't affect me.

But it did.

The store I used to visit in Chicago, the one right downtown, with the windows overlooking Michigan Avenue, with the ever-changing rush of people flowing in and out and underneath, is closing. I used to go there with my uncle on trips to the city, and spent a couple air-conditioned hours there with my husband on our mini-vacation two summers ago.

The location in Indianapolis, where I would hide out while waiting for friends to come in on the bus, or take a break from Christmas shopping, is closing as well.

And finally, the Borders in my hometown, where, after closing the sandwich place I worked in high school on weekend evenings, I would go and read for an hour or so before their closing time, is shutting its doors, as well. I recalled immediately, when I saw the fuzzed, off-kilter print on that PDF list, memories of studying there, history book in one hand and a mocha latte frappe fluffy drink in the other. My dad and I would visit on weekend mornings, between errands, and he would browse the Sci-Fi section while I poked around the literature shelves.

In some ways, this nostalgia is very silly. These are not hometown bastions, small independent stores that carved out niches years ago and maintained their footholds, defying hardship time and again. They are not family-run enterprises that just bit the dust and took a few generations of hard work with them. They're consumer experiences replicated nation-wide, created by a corporation. Yet--they're still spaces where I and millions of others grew to love books a little more, and shared that affinity with one another, even if silently.

I'm going to miss that Borders in my hometown, even if all I really miss is the reminder of the times I spent there.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Happy Feet, Motivated Typing

I've mentioned that I'm taking swing dance lessons; I've mentioned as well that I'm working on a new 1940s WIP. What I didn't mention? I'm doing it at the same time.

Well, almost. Monday nights are swing dance nights, and they're also mad-drafting nights for me. Here's how it works: Husband and I go to lessons at 7. We dance our socks off (currently learning Charleston). He sticks around for the beginner lesson at 8 (they need more leads, so he lends a hand), and I dash off to write for a solid, extremely productive hour before returning for open dancing at 9.

And it's crazy--that hour I get on Monday nights is one of my most productive. Maybe this is because I've worked the jitters out by dancing for an hour beforehand. Maybe it's because I only have an hour, so I use it really well. And maybe, just maybe, it's because I've imbued myself with elements of the era I'm writing about right before sitting down with my laptop. I'm usually wearing vintage or vintage-inspired clothes, I've been dancing in a style close to or taken directly from the era I'm writing about (depending on what style dance I'm working on at the moment), and I've had period music piped into my ears for a solid hour.

I would never say I'm a "Method writer" in the same way some actors are Method actors--I don't have to do these things to get into the mood to write, and I don't feel the need to dig out all my eighteenth-century clothes and a glass of port to draft, for instance, a Revolutionary War-set piece. I don't stay in character or time period (well, some would say I'm a little outdated all the time, but that's another post). But diving into research has always motivated me, and perhaps the most basic of research--tactile experience--can do so all the more. Seeing, tasting, smelling, and, yes, dancing all make me excited to translate what I've experienced onto the page for others to enjoy, too.

Regardless--it's working! Do you ever put yourself, physically in your character's shoes? How about your character's dancing shoes? Ever inspired to try something yourself by a character in a book you enjoyed?

Below--some Happy Feet for you, if you're so inclined!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

1940s Cocktail Dress: Debut and Pattern Review II

I finished the cocktail dress yesterday and am pretty happy with how it came out! It went dancing last night for the first time, at a big swing event our dance club hosts. Unfortunately, I am not a fantastic model nor is my husband a whiz with a camera, so the pictures are a touch iffy. Funny story--I asked him to take a few shots, and he obliged, then handed the camera back to me. "Hon, why are they all of my face?" "You look pretty." "Well, thank you, but...I needed pictures of the dress."

And the profile view. The dress looks rumplier in these shots than it really is--it actually lays quite straight:

One of my favorite parts is that, with the darts fitting the back and the shoulder pads, the silhouette is really authentic. Hard to see in this shot, with my arm in the way, but the waist is very slim and the shoulders have a bit more volume, with the upper back somewhat loose--just right for acheiving the 1940s look.

A close up of the neckline, featuring me looking rather perlexed and with terrible posture:


Review of the pattern and overview of the process:

The pattern is from the Vintage Pattern Lending Library, which, unlike the name would suggest, sells reproduction patterns. As I had guessed from my first look at the pattern, the markings and directions are super-easy to follow. If you're not too confident about vintage sewing, this is a great place to start--between the step-by-step instructions and the clearly marked pattern, it was very hard to go wrong.

I used an eggplant polyester crepe--I had hoped to find rayon, but this was close enough to the look I was going for. The dress is unlined, so, if you use a thinner fabric like I did, you may want to wear a slip with it.

I chose to make the short-sleeved version, with the side-bow. There is also a version with a peplum and a front cascade. I may make the long-sleeved version with the cascade sometime--had so much fun with this that I want to keep playing!

I finished this project in several sessions, but it could easily be done in one day's worth of sewing. I cut the fabric and sewed the darts one evening, then did all the long seams on a weekend afternoon, and did the finish work this weekend, off an on with reading books and baking gingersnaps.

The one major change I made: The original calls for the gathers at the front neckline to be pulled into a circle--so you'll have a little dot of skin peeking through both sides. I wasn't too fond of that, for some reason, so made the gathered circle slightly smaller, pulled it closed, and added vintage-esque post earrings (a bit of hot glue daubed on the inside ensures they won't fall off). The earrings were in the clearance bin at Target!


Issues I had:

Barely any. The only thing that went majorly wrong was that, inexplicably, the self-belt was about two inches too short. The dress waist fit fine, even a touch loose, but the belt was way shorter than the dress waist--either I cut wrong, sewed something goofy, or the pattern is just a touch off. No biggie--I just added an extension that goes under the bow-floof so it's not even visible.

Also, with the thin fabric, I wish I'd added some interfacing to the front and back facings. They have a tendency to flip a bit more than they should, probably because the fabric is very thin and flimsy.

I had some issues with the shoulder pads--I may end up taking them out, even though they do add to the authentic 40s silhouette. They're causing a bit of bunching, so I may need to re-position them. In the end, I have bony shoulders, and it may be that these particular pads are too much for them--making my own rather than purchasing pre-fab ones might be a good idea.

Finally, since it's unlined, if you're used to leaving seams untreated (no serging or anything) the fraying may get out of hand. Consider using seaming techniques that leave no raw edges, or do as I did and faux-serge the seams with a zig-zag stitch over the raw edges. Probably not a big deal in the end, but I'm anal like that.

Final Thoughts:

This was such a fun project, and the end result so wearable, that I'm planning on doing a day dress next!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Ghost Dress

The 1940s Cocktail Dress is nearly finished--I'm just letting the hem hang overnight before I stitch it. Then, tomorrow night, it's going dancing for the first time!

While I was readying the zipper for stitching, I hung the dress from an unused curtain rod:


What I hadn't realized was that the window is right by a vent--so when the heat kicked on--Ghost Dress!
Once I exorcised the spirit of the dress (aka moved it away from the heating vent), I sewed in the zipper. I do this by hand--let's play a fun game and guess why this is. Is it because a) I'm terrible at zippers and have a bit more control by hand than sewing machine; b) my cranky old sewing machine threatens a coup if I suggest a zipper and, in fact, is not even in possession of a zipper foot or c) both of the above?

If you guessed c) both of the above, you are correct! But there's one more reason. Though I love the ease of a sewing machine, I also love the feeling of sewing by hand. I don't sew everything by hand even when it would be historically authentic to (well, sometimes I do, but we can discuss my neuroses another time), and it's more correct for a 40s dress to use a machine. Still, I like doing some finish work--a hem here, some topstitching, a zipper--by hand. I like maneuvering the needle through layers of fabric, getting to know my fabric by touch and seeing the glint of the silver needle's eye as it slips through. I like the taut control when the thread pulls through all the way, and the crisp sound it makes as it moves through the fabric. I like seeing just how small I can make my stitches (pretty darn small, if I say so myself).

And even though sewing by hand leaves raw spots and dents on my fingers, not to mention the occasional needle-prick, it's worth it. Perhaps even beneficial--when I sit at work next week, maybe a little bored, maybe a little frustrated, I can look at the callouses I've worn into my fingers and know that I made something pretty.

Can't wait to share pictures of the dress in action!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Tiny Traces of History Between the Buttonholes

I have plans to start a 1940s day dress after finishing the cocktail dress (it's nearly done! photos coming soon), and one version of the dress has sweet little buttons down the front bodice. I started poking around the webbernets for buttons, to see if any inspired me to deal with the hassle of stitching on a couple dozen buttons.

And some did.

I found these vintage buttons in my browsing, and was smitten--some of the wee little ones are darling, some of the larger ones make a statement. I know they seem simple-and they are--but it was the note on a few of the products that really captured my imagination.

Made in occupied Japan in 1947.

Now, I love vintage clothing and old hats and antique photographs and any number of items with histories just as storied as these buttons. But I've always, I think, thought of the individual people who owned the items, not the incredible chain of hands that touched the materials that created the items. In pre-industrial eras I think we consider this more--the hand-quilted petticoats, the deftly embroidered pieces. Handmade thread buttons.

But manufactured mother-of-pearl buttons? I had forgotten that hands made these, too. And what an interesting pair of hands--hands working in a factory in an occupied country shortly after a devastating war.

There's a story in those buttons.

I'll be wearing a story on the dress I sew, and it won't even be my own.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

High Concept?

So this morning, the electronic messenger pigeon that is Twitter dropped an interesting link on my virtual windowsill, a blog post from agent Scott Eagan discussing how to tell if your query letter problems are the query or--eep--the book itself. One of the points he made was that, if your book isn't "high concept," you've got a problem. Without high-concept appeal, he notes, your book isn't going to hook an agent, editor, or reader.

This raises two questions. One, what is high-concept? And two, related to one, does your book really it?

Eagan's post described a high-concept idea as something different, something unique enough to stand out from the pack. Following the oft-repeated phrase that everything's already been done, and there are no new plots, you have to create a new twist on an old plotline and really make it something.

Trove of publishing advice Nathan Bransford further elaborates on high-concept, noting that you can spot a high-concept book by the ability to give an attractive but succinct description.

So: Girl must battle 23 other teenagers in a televised fight-to-the-death? Hunger Games is definitely Bransford high concept. Through a clerical error, elderly siblings are sent an orphan girl and slowly learn to love her, and many hijinks and shenanigins ensue? I'm not quite sure Anne of Green Gables succeeds at Bransford high-concept. Much of the appeal is in the storytelling and the sidetracks, not the main concept. Yet, the story--particulary the character of Anne--isunique enough that the book stands out, Eagan high-concept style.

So maybe we've got a variation in what people mean when they say high-concept--Bransford's definition of something very punchy, fresh and immediately graspable (and Tweetable) is a bit more legalistic than Eagan's definition of something unique that breaks it away from the pack. Which edges me toward my other question...really? My book really needs to be high-concept?

Well...yes and no. Perhaps it doesn't need to be a gut-punch of a high-concept. Perhaps it doens't need to be something so fresh and unexpected that the concept rivals Hunger Games. (But maybe it helps.) Regardless, as Eegan says, your book should be different enough from the other stuff out there, and unique enough that it stands on its own.

To the original question--how to tell if it's the query or the book that's causing problems--perhaps it is a good litmus test that, if you can't write a decent query for the book, try as you might, the book might need some more scrutiny. If your query is a meandering mess, you probably should make sure the book doesn't suffer the same malady. If there's nothing new and appealing in the query, is it missing from the book? If the query is banking on the writing alone--and not the story--is that what the book is trying to do, too? In no way am I saying query writing is easy; I stink at it, and there are some stories that do defy quick and dirty queries.

What do you think--does query trouble sometimes--always?--point to book trouble? What's your definition of high-concept--and does a book need it? As readers, does a high concept attract you, and are your favorite books high-concept?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Charleston with DIY Video

Two weeks into Charleston lessons, and I've hit the zenith of my ambitions--learning face-to-face Charleston. It's been a blast. The fun thing about Charleston is that it can be danced by yourself, with a partner, or with a big group of people. So there's never an excuse not to dance! Also fun--in partner Charleston, unlike other partner dances, you get a bit of autonomy to "play" on your own--your partner might do a kick while you do a tap, or might do a wobbly-legged jazzy move while you dance the steps straight. And that's ok, and part of the fun.

Want to pick up the Charleston yourself? Enjoy this vintage video--be warned, the basic step-by-step is the most white-bread version of Charleston you can find. But it gives you a good start--and the solo dancers at the beginning and partners on the top of taxi cabs (!) give you a good idea of how to play with the dance.



Want to mix it up a little? I love this video--vintage Charleston with Daft Punk dubbed in. Craziest part is, it works!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Writing and the Confused Puppy

I'll preface this post by sharing with you, dear readers, that my day job is in student services at a large university. If I wanted to I could probably go all anonymous and write a snarky blog about the stuff I run into on a daily basis. Suffice to say, answering dozens of student (and faculty) emails and phone calls a day led me to the following conclusion: There are no stupid questions. But there are questions that will get you laughed at in the staff room.

This is related to writing. Stick with me. Promise.

When I get a question that is particularly ludicrous--something so bizarre that I can't even imagine how they thought of it or why they assumed I'd have any clue whether the Universtiy of Galaxy Galgamex7 has a course equivalent to A502, which they don't need for their major, but could it be substituted if, in fact, the Universtiy of Galaxy Galgamex7 does offer an equivalent course, and would it matter if the course is taught by a fruit bat (but if they could harness that imagination they'd write some damn good books)--I have a facial expression that I try to control, but it usually slips through.

I call it the Confused Puppy.

You know, that expression that dogs get when they have no clue what's going on? Kind of a slight head tilt and a wrinkle in the forehead, between the eyes? One eye probably raising a bit from the other?


The Confused Puppy.

But writing? I keep the Confused Puppy in mind. The reader should never do Confused Puppy while digging into your book. Your query letter shouldn't induce a head tilt. Your opening chapter should be captivating, not result in a wrinkled brow. I know what the heck I'm talking about, but I have to remember--nobody else does.

So--step back, whenever is good for you, whether it's during drafting or at that first revision or a few times in edits, and pretend you know nothing about your characters, your world, your story. If you do Confused Puppy, it's time for changes.

Better yet, get yourself a beta reader--if your guinea pig does Confused Puppy, you're not only in danger of cross-species mixed metaphors, you've got some revision to do.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Secretly Writing in the Cubicle in the Corner...

Well, the Pink Blob of Doom reached my little town yesterday, leaving first ice, then sleet, then more ice, then snow in its wake. It's now a treacherous, deadly fairyland outside. I trekked my way to work only to discover...I'm the only one here.

And I got all my work done super quick because there's no one else here to, you know, bother me.

And I made up a couple random projects and did those, too.

And I don't have any bosses around to suggest new projects or coworkers to collaborate with on old projects.

And I draw the line at cleaning the coffeepot.

Again.

So...I did what any self-respecting writer with a computer and the gift of free time would do. Despite the fact that I'm at work and should be doing work-y things (don't tell!). I wrote.

I wrote something totally random with nothing to do with either Sweltering WIP or Wintry WIP. What is my world coming to? if I can randomly write with no preset goals or conditions? (It's called being creative and enjoying creativity and valuing writing for its own ends...oh, right...)

Because it's winter...and icy...and I'm starting to feel creepily alone in here...I thought I'd post some of what I wrote. Not part of an official WIP (perhaps never will be), not even historical fiction (though very much inspired by historical elements). Enjoy (or tell me what you didn't enjoy! I love to learn :) ).


A sliver of moon remains suspended above the trees, paling slightly as dawn threatens the horizon. I tie my snowshoes carefully—I don't know when I will have a chance to stop and tighten them, so I am diligent to pull their leather straps taut as I cross them and tuck the ends into the top of my boot. My fingers begin to stiffen with cold by the time I’ve finished, and I stuff my fists back into my sheepskin mittens, flexing life back into them. Father takes longer to arrange his pack and tie his snowshoes, and I stamp my feet against the cold and my own impatience.

Father begins to break trail and I follow. I quickly see why the winter run makes Father the most nervous. In any other season, his trail would be hard to spot; even he would disappear behind leaves and between branches. But in winter our trail is obvious and we’re exposed, dark silhouettes against bright white snow.

A person can snowshoe for hours at a steady pace without tiring overmuch. The morning overtakes us as we walk, trees drawing long shadows in our wake, and before I’ve thought about how far we’ve come, Father points out the first marker.

“See that stunted oak?” he says, pointing to a dark, knobby tree. “It never sprouts any leaves, but it’s been there for years. And see the tall beech next to it?” I see the smooth, pale trunk of a regal beech. “They’re like a gate, Nora—our trail starts between them.”

I commit them to memory, sketching them in my mind, the contrasting trees forming an archway. There will be more of these markers, I know, mere scraps of landscape, but our only signs to show our way to the other settlements and back again.

A half a mile from the mismatched pair of trees, we come to flattened piece of land, like a riverbed, but level with the rest of the ground. My snowshoes scrape on something hard as we cross it, a hollow echo in the still woods.

“What’s that?” I ask, as we cut back into the trees and swing north to stay parallel to it. I think I may know already.

“It’s an old road. You can see it better when the snow’s melted—it’s black, but faded. Asphalt. Broken up in places, there are trees growing through it now—there weren’t on my first runs to Havilah Settlement twenty years ago. We’ll keep it on our left until we hit the river.”

I glance at the road again, glimpsing traces of the black through the scoured snow, and, occasionally, a spatter of yellow in the black.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Military Sort of Hat

Anyone who's ventured into the eighteenth century knows about the tricorne hat. If you've been to Colonial Williamsburg as a small child or with a small child, he or she probably nabbed one up in the gift shop. You've probably envisioned gentlemen in historical fiction parading about town in them, looking quite dapper.

But I have a weakness for another eighteenth-century hat--the military cocked hat. I've seen it called a bicorne, though costume resources seem to indicate this term refers to the later, more Napoleonic-era hats--clearly, military nomenclature is not my forte. Colonial Willamsburg notes that no one quite knows where the term cocked hat came from--that it may be from the angle at which the hat was worn, to show off a gentleman's well-curled wig, or it may come from flattening of one side due to holding under the arm.

This piece is from the Met's Costume Institute--more info on provenance, etc. there. I can't tell for certain if it's a military style hat or not (my guess is yes, though it's rather beat-up and I'm unsure if the bit on the side is a military cockade or just decoration) but the shape is the same as the hats worn by many regiments of soldiers during the American Revolution.

The gentlemen with whom I reenact, however, have another explanation for "cocked hat" in the military sense. The hat (like the one above) was worn, not with the point right over the nose, but off to one side by soldiers. This was because the musket, when carried at the shoulder (as it was the majority of the time), would have bonked against the side of the hat were it worn straight on, so it was turned "cockeyed." You can sort of see that in this reprodocution recruiting poster, which shows a soldier going through the Manual of Arms, or standard drill.

Unfortunately, the dashing style of the hat was not terribly practical--with a pointed front, it did nothing to protect the wearer's face from sun or rain. So, many hats incorporated a brilliant mechanism for having your fancy pointed style and eating it too--one of the sides of the hat was tied rather than stitched into place. After all, these hats all started as round "blanks" and were then shaped into whatever suited the wearer's fashion--or regimental regulations.

The hat from the Met shows this perfectly--one of the sides unties and folds down (you can see the ties, probably leather strips) so that, on long marches or work detail, the soldier could turn his hat so that this part would shield his nose from sunburn or his eyes from raindrops. On parade, the hat would always have been worn with this bit folded up, in proper military decorum.

I'll leave you with a couple of pictures of cocked hats in action. You can see from photo #1 that the hats were "decorated" (ummm, can you use that word for military-ish trappings?) depending on rank and on regiment. The fellow in the back (full disclosure--my dad!) has white taping visible, per his regiment. The fellow in front (full disclosure--my husband!) has a green doo-hickey stuck on the front of his hat to show his rank--Lieutenant (this changed dependant on time period and region).


Finally, a shot of the folded-down hat in action on a sunny day (on a friend of mine).


Stylish and sensible!