When writing historical fiction, don’t forget to include the fiction: Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman

By Sharon Kay Penman
MacMillan, 2011

In Lionheart, Sharon Kay Penman continues her saga of the Devil’s Brood — the warring children of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. This installment focuses on King Richard I who set off to the Holy Land, leaving England under the uncertain guardianship of his brother John. Yes, that King Richard. That brother John. Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham don’t appear in this book, because Penman’s fictional account isn’t that speculative, but I enjoy a good historical narrative, even ones in which the outlaws are all aristocrats.

I hadn’t read much about this time period in England’s history (other than Robin Hood, of course), so when I came across this book at a used book sale, I thought I’d give it a try. Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to dress American servants in 1828: Roberts’ Guide for Butlers

RobertsGuideRoberts’ Guide for Butlers & other Household Staff
By Robert Roberts
Original Publication: Munroe & Francis, 1827
Reprint: Applewood Books, 1993

This week’s editing job required me to revise a scene from the point of view of the butler in order to give it a much needed dose of humanity. For various reasons, the butler was the best choice for this. But as I hadn’t ever planned to have him say much more than “Very good, sir,” I had only done the most cursory research into the life of butlers in 1800s America.

That meant I needed to brush up on some things stat. Fortunately, at some point in my many years of meandering around Boston, I had acquired a reprint of Roberts’ Guide for Butlers and Other Household Staff.

Originally published in 1827, as The House Servant’s Directory, Roberts’ Guide for Butlers goes into exhaustive detail about every moment of a servant’s working day.

Continue reading

Posted in 1800-1850 | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Man Booker Prize Long List saves the day

You may have noticed on my last Book Bingo update post that while I’ve bingo’d the heck out of the To Be Read, Genre, Series, and Mix It Up columns, I am struggling a bit with the New Releases column (9 books to go).

(Scorecard: Shala Howell)

My 2014 Book Bingo Reading Scorecard. Completely unchanged since July, although I promise I’ve been reading. Really, I have. Just ask The Seven-Year-Old. Reading breaks out all the time at our house. Honest. (Scorecard: Shala Howell)

Sadly, when I pick a book to read I pay absolutely no attention to the year it was written. I only think to check when I’ve closed the cover and am ready to power up the old computer to add the title to my Book Bingo scorecard. Not too surprisingly, given that most of my new reads this summer were acquired by hitting up the library and used book stores, the vast majority of the books I’ve read lately were written before 2014. Well before 2014. As in I may have read a couple of books from the current decade, but I doubt it.

So, while I read diligently over the summer, I found myself making absolutely no progress on the New Releases column of the scorecard. If I’m going to READ ALL THE BOOKS by Christmas, something’s going to have to change.

Thank goodness for the Man Booker Prize long list, shown here in handy dandy picture form. If I stay focused on reading it, I might, just might manage to pull this one out.

Related Links: 

Posted in Book Bingo | Tagged , | Leave a comment

2014 Book Bingo Update

Blogging may be getting short shrift from me this summer, but reading continues apace. I have high hopes that refueling my word tanks now will mean great things for the fall.

A while back I promised you updates on my Book Bingo Reading Challenge. Here’s the update:

(Scorecard: Shala Howell)

(Scorecard: Shala Howell)

I still haven’t read ALL THE BOOKS, but there’s a bingo or two in there nonetheless.

You’ll notice the list includes a ton of Elizabeth George books. That’s because I’ve embarked on a campaign to read all of her mysteries in the order she wrote them. I do this every once in a while with a writer I like so that I can see how they honed their craft over time.

I picked Elizabeth George for this year’s Author Binge because she does a great job managing emotional tension in her stories. I’m hoping that watching a master at work this summer will teach me a trick or two that I can use when I return to writing my own novel this fall.

Related Links:

Posted in Book Bingo | Tagged | 1 Comment

Memorable quotes from somewhere in the middle of a book: The Brian Moore Edition

From The Doctor’s Wife, by Brian Moore:

“The future is forbidden to no one. Unless we forbid it to ourselves.”

If I could emblazon this on the walls of our freshly repainted office I would.

Posted in Adult Fiction, Great Quotes | 2 Comments

Wordless Wednesday: The Seven-Year-Old drops a hint

Or, what I found on my desk when I sat down to write this morning.

(Art: The Seven-Year-Old Howell)

(Art: The Seven-Year-Old Howell)

Guess she’s tired of waiting.

I don’t normally do posts like this, but I haven’t been around for a while. Here’s what I’ve been doing instead:

  • Managing painters, plumbers, electricians, and flooring guys
  • Hiring movers
  • Packing up our current place
  • Cleaning/prepping our new place (we move again in June)
  • Paying taxes (in three states!)
  • Camp NaNoWriMo (a mini-National Novel Writing Month event held in April–and again in July, if you’re interested)
  • Trying to figure out how donations work in Chicago
  • Trying to figure out how emotions translate into body language and body language into words on a page
  • Binge reading Elizabeth George mysteries
  • Debating with Michael on the ideal functionality of a master bathroom

Here’s what I’ve not been doing:

  • Blogging

Sadly (?), all my spare words have been going to my novel lately. Hopefully I’ll return to my regularly scheduled blogging output soon. In the meantime, enjoy the spring!

Related Links:

Cross-posted on Caterpickles.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Lives They Left Behind

coverThe Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic
By Darby Penney & Peter Stastny
Photographs by Lisa Rinzler
Bellevue Literary Press, 2008

The Six-Year-Old has been stuck at home most of the week with a nasty cold, which means that rather than get the writing I’d originally planned done, I’ve been doing other things. Among them–finally getting around to reading The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny.

What Inspired the Book?

When the Willard Psychiatric Center in upstate New York closed in 1995, 427 suitcases were found squirreled away in the attic of the institution’s Sheltered Workshop Building.  Recognizing this as a tremendous find, Craig Williams, a curator at the New York State Museum, boxed up all of the crates, suitcases, doctor’s bags, and hat boxes and carted them off to the museum’s warehouse.

Some of the 427 suitcases discovered in the attic of the Willard State Hospital. (Photograph: Lisa Rinzler)

Some of the 427 suitcases discovered in the attic of the Willard State Hospital. (Photograph: Lisa Rinzler)

A few years later, Williams mentioned the suitcases to Darby Penney, who was working at the New York State Office of Mental Health at the time.

Penney, psychiatrist and documentary filmmaker Peter Stastny, and photographer Lisa Rinzler decided to use the suitcases as a way to reclaim the lives of some of the long-term patients at the Willard.

Their collaboration resulted in a major exhibit at the New York State Museum in 2004, a website (www.SuitcaseExhibit.org), and of course, a book.

How did they decide who to include in the book?

In selecting which people to research, Penney and Stastny first eliminated any empty cases. They then sifted through the remaining cases looking for suitcases that appealed to them, either because of the size of the collection (one woman had brought with her 18 pieces of luggage), unique characteristics of the suitcase’s contents, or because of the markings and monograms on the case itself.

“By the time we had gone through all 427 cataloged containers, we chose 25 individuals for further study, either because their belongings called out to us in a loud and clear manner, or because the relatively few items remaining in their trunks hinted at unique personal traits and backgrounds.” (Prologue, p. 17)

In other words, the authors weren’t trying to assemble a representative sample of the mental health patients at Willard to support a rigorous scientific study. Instead, they were looking for patients with an interesting personal story. The lack of scientific rigor might disappoint social scientists, but as a writer, I find the idea of extracting a person’s history from the possessions they left behind extremely compelling.

(Photograph: Lisa Rinzler)

(Photograph: Lisa Rinzler)

The Chosen Ten

Lawrence Marek, who worked at the asylum as a gravedigger for 31 of his 52 years at Willard. (Photograph from the Willard Suitcase Exhibit online)

Lawrence Marek, who worked at the asylum as a gravedigger for 31 of his 52 years at Willard. His brown leather suitcase contained a pair of black leather dress shoes, shaving mugs and brushes, and heavy white suspenders. (Photograph from the Willard Suitcase Exhibit online)

In the book, we meet:

    • Lawrence Marek, who worked for more than 30 years as the institution’s unpaid gravedigger until he died in 1968 at the age of 90
    • Rodrigo Lagon, a young Filipino immigrant who worked as a house servant in Buffalo, NY until he was committed at the request of his employer in 1917
    • Therese Lehner/Sister Marie Ursuline, who at age 20, was ejected from her Dominican convent in a leadership dispute (she sided with the former prioress, so was kicked out of the convent along with that prioress), but who was never granted a dispensation from her vows, even though the church no longer allowed her to wear a habit or present herself as a nun
    • Ethel Smalls, who after divorcing her alcoholic, abusive husband, and while grieving the death of her father, was committed at the request of her landlady when, instead of meekly allowing herself to be evicted, Mrs. Smalls decided to take to her bed and not get up
    • Margaret Dunleavy, a former TB nurse, who was committed to Willard on the advice of her physician after she admitted to feeling persecuted by the administrators at the hospital where she worked
    • Herman Graham, an epileptic who was transferred from the inpatient care center at Craig Colony to Willard after his portrait photography business unraveled and his behavior became increasingly difficult for Craig Colony staff members to control
    • Dmytre Zarchuk, a WWII refugee who was committed after his wife died of a miscarriage and he began visiting the White House repeatedly in an attempt to convince Margaret Truman, President Truman’s daughter, to marry him
Frank Coles, a WWII army veteran who stayed at Willard for only three years before being transferred to the VA. (Photo: Lisa Rinzler)

Frank Coles, a WWII army veteran who stayed at Willard for only three years before being transferred to the VA. Frank Coles’ neatly packed trunk and Army duffel contained his army uniform, shirts, underwear, shoes, and boxer’s hand wraps, along with a collection of photographs, letters, and diaries. (Photo: Lisa Rinzler)

  • Frank Coles, an African-American WWII veteran who after receiving a medical discharge from the Army, lost his mother, his job, his girlfriend and his temper in rapid succession, and was committed after he was arrested for kicking a restaurant’s trash can in response to being served dinner on a chipped plate
  • Madeleine Cartier, a former French literature teacher who was committed to Willard after her emotionally turbulent nature and belief in spiritualism began interfering with her ability to keep jobs and housing
  • Irma Medina, who became extremely paranoid after she made a public claim that her former employer, the Roger & Gallet perfumery, was being used as an illegal distillery to manufacture whiskey during the Prohibition

What Happened to Them?

Lawrence Marek (age 90), Rodrigo Lagon (age 83), Sister Marie Ursuline (age 69), Ethel Smalls (age 83), Margaret Dunleavy (age 81), Herman Graham, and Irma Medina (age 92) all died at Willard after spending several decades there.

Margaret Dunleavy's trunk included photos, postcards, letters, tourist brochures, and maps from her many travels before her admission to Willard. (Photo: Lisa Rinzler)

Margaret Dunleavy’s trunk included photos, postcards, letters, tourist brochures, and maps from her many travels before her admission to Willard. Margaret carried with her the most of any of the Willard patients. Packed away in her 18 boxes and cases were a vast supply of mint condition 1930s kitchen ware, books, clothing, small appliances, and even small bits of furniture–none of which she had any access to while at Willard. (Photo: Lisa Rinzler)

Dmytre Zarchuk became an accomplished folk artist, and was eventually released first to the Tompkins Country Home in Trumansburg, New York and later to Preston Manor in Chenango County.

Frank Coles stayed at Willard for a mere three years before being transferred to the Veterans Hospital at Canandaigua.

Madeleine Cartier was formally released from Willard at age 78 to a board and care home in a nearby town, where she spent the last seven years of her life.

So Was Willard the Hotel California of the Mental Healthcare System?

The authors of the book (and indeed many Goodreads reviewers) seemed surprised and appalled to find that so many of the people profiled in this book lived and died after decades at Willard.  The stories definitely give the impression that you can check in to Willard, but you can never leave.

Herman Graham's case was filled with equipment and books from his days as a photographer. (Photo: Lisa Rinzler)

Herman Graham’s case was filled with equipment and books from his days as a photographer. (Photo: Lisa Rinzler)

I would be very careful, though, before I used these anecdotal findings to paint a picture of life at Willard as a whole. In my opinion, the method Penney and Stastny used to select the people for their study almost guaranteed that everyone — or nearly everyone — in the book would turn out to be a long-term patient.

While I don’t know the details of the discharge process at Willard, it seems reasonable to suppose that discharged patients would be allowed to retrieve the things that they had brought with them. Maybe that’s naïve, but at the very least, it seems plausible that short-term, transient patients would have remembered to collect their belongings when they left.  That alone would weight the contents of the Willard attic toward patients whose stays were of longer duration, or who never left.

The isolation of the profiled patients doesn’t really surprise me either, although it is heartbreaking. Again, logic implies that most of the suitcases left to linger in the attics of a mental hospital would belong to people who had little, if any, family around to claim their belongings after that patient died. Sister Marie Ursuline, Margaret Dunleavy, Lawrence Marek, Dmytre Zarchuk, Irma Medina, Madeleine Cartier, and Rodrigo Lagon were all immigrants and didn’t have an established family network in America to prop them up. Ethel Smalls did have a family, but her mother was too old to take her in, and her two adult children, both of whom were recently married, refused to.  Small wonder that their suitcases would languish in Willard’s attic.

Should You Read It?

Whether you will enjoy this book depends a great deal on what you are looking for from it. Readers looking for a dispassionate scientific study of the human toll of institutionalized mental care will be disappointed. This book is many things, but dispassionate is not one of them.

Dmytre Zarchuk and his wife Sofia on their wedding day. (Photo from The Suitcase Exhibit online)

Dmytre Zarchuk’s suitcase included this photo of Dmytre and his wife Sofia on their wedding day, along with paper patterns for wooden cutouts of various animals, a glider plane, crèche figures, and a small doll’s carriage. (Photo from The Suitcase Exhibit online)

Penney and Stastny have spent their lives advocating for changes in America’s mental health system and their biases shine through nearly every line, as does their compassion for their subjects. At times they seem unwilling to acknowledge that the people they describe may have had real, enduring — or at least recurring — mental illnesses. Dmytre Zarchuk, for example, regularly referred to himself as Jesus Christ. The authors make a good case for how the language barrier between Zarchuk and his doctors (Zarchuk was a native Ukrainian speaker) could have created the perception that Zarchuk was saying that he was Jesus when in fact he was saying something else entirely–a poorly translated native Ukrainian prayer, perhaps. It’s possible. Unfortunately, this does not explain why Zarchuk repeatedly referred to Margaret Truman as Mary Magdalene.

The authors also argue passionately, and with some evidence, that the institutionalized approach to mental care actually made many of the people in this book worse. The longer she stayed at Willard, the more adamant Irma Medina became that she was in fact Princess Leticia of Naples. Ms. Medina was surely not the only patient at Willard to create and retreat into a fantasy world in response to her confinement.

Other long-term patients, like Madeline Cartier, developed irreversible neurological disorders in response to the neuroleptic medications they were given daily.

Even those who seemed to adapt reasonably well to their surroundings, like Lawrence Marek, who took charge of the asylum’s graveyard and built a wooden house for himself on the cemetery grounds, may have been exploited to some degree for the free labor they provided the asylum, which had to remain self-sufficient if it were to survive.  Although Marek was not treated for any mental disorders during the last 32 years of his confinement at Willard, the subject of releasing him was simply never brought up until he was in his 80s, at which point his doctors decided that since he had nowhere else to go, it would be kindest to let him stay.

The anecdotal stories are compelling, but these ten patients are clearly not a truly representative sample of the more than 54,000 patients who have been treated at Willard over the years. That’s ok with me, though, because I am interested in this book as a writer, not as a sociologist.

A Goldmine for Writers

And for a writer, this book is a goldmine of biographical detail. The short biographies include lots of wonderfully detailed information about the various roads that lead to a life in a mental hospital, the seemingly insignificant triggers that can lead to a person’s commitment, and the ways in which people adapt to life in an institution.

Sister Marie Ursuline's doctor's bag was filled with tattered Ace bandages, small dried out bottles of iodine and gold leaf, dessicated acorn seeds, black shoelaces, and a hollowed out apple filled with buttons, needles, and sewing notions. Farther down, the authors found a large collection of religious items, including a worn Bible, dozens of votive cards, hymnals, and a package of letters, including several letters Sister Ursuline sent to her local bishop requesting clarification on her religious status. (Photo from the Willard Suitcase Exhibit Online)

Sister Marie Ursuline’s doctor’s bag was filled with tattered Ace bandages, small dried out bottles of iodine and gold leaf, desiccated acorn seeds, black shoelaces, and a hollowed out apple filled with buttons, needles, and sewing notions. Farther down, the authors found a large collection of religious items, including a worn Bible, dozens of votive cards, hymnals, and a package of letters, including a letter Sister Ursuline sent to her  bishop requesting clarification on her religious status. (Photo from the Willard Suitcase Exhibit Online)

In her book Writing with Emotional Tension, Cheryl St. John proposes a writing exercise to help you understand your protagonist. Suppose your character must leave quickly, and has only five minutes to pack everything that’s important to her in one small bag. What would she put in it?

In many ways, this is a real-world application of that writing exercise. In this book, Penney and Stastny attempt to reconstruct the entire life of a person based on the contents of his or her suitcase. I find that absolutely fascinating.

Related Links:

Posted in 1900-1920, 1920-1940, 1950-2000, Book Reviews, Nonfiction | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Rebuilding my attention span with the 2014 Book Bingo Reading Challenge

Sometime around Christmas, I realized that I was spending a lot of time noodling around on my iPhone, and not very much time browsing my bookshelves. This might be fine, because as Michael says, there must be some sort of neurological pay-off for doing all those games or they wouldn’t suck us in so easily.

But I’ve noticed there’s a bit of a cost to all this small-screen time. I used to lose entire afternoons to a good book. Now I’m lucky if I’m able to lose an hour. Picking up books and reading them is a rather fundamental practice for writers, so I’m not ok with losing this skill.

This year, I resolved to read more mindfully in an attempt to build my attention span back up. I was hunting around the Intertubes to see if anyone had good ideas for managing a rather vague resolution to read more when I stumbled upon Reading in Winter’s 2014 Book Bingo Reading Challenge.  I signed up right away.

Imagine sorting your to-read pile into a Bingo scorecard. That’s what this reading competition does. Contestants are asked to read various numbers of books from several different genres, as well as up to 15 books of their choice from their To Be Read (TBR) pile.

As my To-Read list on Goodreads currently boasts 248 entries, I thought this might be an excellent way to motivate myself to browse through the books on my shelves and maybe read a few things I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise. You can win by completing a row across or up and down, just as you would in a regular game of Bingo, but only the Most Awesome Readers will be able to read ALL THE BOOKS. And yes, I intend to be Most Awesome.

That’s why I made a fancy little scorecard to track my reading.

Feb Scorecard II

My favorite t-shirt at the moment says “I have CDO. It’s like OCD, but with the letters in alphabetical order, as they should be.” I can’t think why that appeals to me. (Scorecard: Shala Howell)

As you can see, I’ve made some progress this year, although I can’t help but feel that the old me would have read ALL THE BOOKS by now.

Still external accountability is a marvelous incentive, and my reading brain needs the exercise. So periodically I’ll post my progress here on Boston Writers.

I’d love to also promise to review the books for you, but the next period of my life is going to be consumed with movers, painters, floorers, plumbers, electricians, and six-year-olds fretting about keeping their Top Secret Dragon Lair secure with all these workers milling about. Whatever spare time I have to write is most likely going to be spent improving my craft, rather than critiquing the craft of others.

Related Links:

Posted in Miscellaneous Musings | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The Villains of Children’s Fiction in the Dock

(Cross-posted from Caterpickles.)

Over the weekend, a Caterpickles reader in London sent me a copy of an infographic from Lovereading detailing the sentences famous children’s book villains would have received, had they been tried in a European court (Thanks, Joe!).

I had two responses to it:

  1. I cannot believe the terrible things that happen in children’s books.
  2. Mr. McGregor TOTALLY deserved what he got.

Take a look and see what you think.

Villains in Court JoeShervallRelated:

Posted in Chapter Books, Young Adult Books | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Hoarding — I mean — Preserving your ebook library

I have a love/hate relationship with ebooks. My husband reads them almost exclusively on his iPhone. He loves it because it frees him to use pockets of the day to read that were just lost time before.

I’m less enthralled. I find it hard to read on an iPhone. The screen is too bright. The words per thumb click ratio is too small, which I find very distracting. I like reading on larger form eReaders better, and now that I have upgraded to the Kindle Paperwhite, the one advantage of the iPhone (its bright screen meant I could read it in bed) is gone.

But while the Paperwhite’s larger screen makes for a less distracting reading experience, there’s something about the feel and smell of paper. I simply can’t do without it for too many weeks at a time.

Not to mention the fact that my digital horde of ebooks isn’t nearly as satisfying to browse through as a room full of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves crammed with little paper friends. Having my Paperwhite lying on the desk next to me while I write simply can’t match the visual inspiration and motivation to keep typing just one of those bookshelves provides.

Having worked in the telecommunications industry for so many years, I’m also extremely dubious that my ebook library can be preserved through the ages. Something will inevitably come up to make my digital horde inaccessible, whether it’s a change in the digital rights management software that makes older eTexts unreadable, the manufacturer deciding to phase out production of my eReader of choice (Barnes and Noble eliminated a huge chunk of its Nook hardware engineering group recently – not a good sign for Nook users), my choice to travel to a country where my Google Books can’t follow, my eBookstore going out of business, or worse, deciding I’m a terrible person and deleting all of my ebooks (yes, this apparently happened to someone on Amazon).

Which is why, whenever I read a book on my Kindle that I know I’d like to read again or lend out to someone I always buy a back up paper copy of it for my bookshelves.

There is another option, though, for those of you who like to keep your cubby holes clutter free (or who want to retain access to ALL of the ebooks you have bought, not just the ones you like the best): Back up your digital libraries using whatever combination of cloud storage, portable media (SD cards), or external hard drives works for you.

If you are one of the unfortunates who must transfer your digital library from one eReading platform to another (or if you want to protect yourself against your manufacturer stopping production of your particular eReader), you may want to investigate using a program like Calibre to preserve your access to your existing ebook library over the long term.

Want to outsource the worry about losing your ePub library completely? Stop buying ebooks and start checking them out from your local library.

Happy reading!

Related Links:

Posted in Miscellaneous Musings, Publishing News | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment