Writerly Wednesday–The Key to the Enigma

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: writing is weird. Being a writer is weird. As a writer, you spend most your time thinking about people and situations that aren’t real. You hear voices in your head and see visions. And yet, you aren’t schizophrenic or delusional. It’s a good thing. It’s encouraged.

The weirdest thing about a writer’s mind is, maybe, how it just bubbles away beneath the surface. How all the pieces hover there, just waiting for that bright, shining thread to connect them into something coherent. I’ve had the experience before, and I recently had it again with my current WIP. You’rr struggling with a plot knot, or with a character who just isn’t working. You beat your head against the wall. Nothing. And then! Then the idea is there-your subconscious has somehow worked through it and in a moment of calm, the subconscious pops into your conscious with a solution.

I had been struggling with one half of the setting of my WIP. Something just wasn’t working. It wasn’t anything I could name, but everything was coming out loosey-goosey. It didn’t cohere. I tried a hundred different things: I tried adding characters and switching up the particulars of the setting. It still just wasn’t working. One day as I sat on the bus reading some nonfiction research on the topic, it came to me in a blaze of understanding: move the MCs out of the relative quiet and isolation of an English country house and move them right up to the front lines of war. And bam, just like that, everything seemed to click. In a lot of ways, the setting wasn’t that different. But it was just different enough.

I had a similar experience with Channing. For the longest time, it was set in Baltimore. It took me a while, even after I moved to the DC area, to have that “duh” moment. I don’t know why it took so long, and it’s hard to say exactly what it was about Washington City (i.e., DC) that clicked. It just did.

More recently, as I was writing the prequel to Channing, I found myself battling with Emily’s storyline. Most of it worked, but it just didn’t come together properly. Then, I was reading one of the Outlander books, and there was a scene on a dock and, boom! I knew how to rearrange Emily’s story. Just like that, I found the winning formula. Then another revelation as I walked home from the bus stop one day: pride. That was Emily’s defining trait. That and the idea for a scene at the docks came together and, finally, I had a storyline I was happy with.

I think this kind of eureka moment is a sign that I’m getting better at this whole plotting thing (you’ll notice most my duh moments have to do with plot). It’s not my strongest point, and it doesn’t come all that naturally. I have to push and prod my ideas into a compelling plot. And it seems that my brain is learning how to work that out. It’s coming up with solutions. Years ago, on much earlier projects, it was just fumbling around, and those moments of clarity didn’t come. I was still learning how to make it happen. Now my mind, at least the subconscious part of it, has some idea what it’s doing. If only I could get my conscious mind to do the same . . .

Vigée Le Brun at the Met

Every once in a while, there’s something to post regarding the 18th century in France. This happens to be one of those times. After all, the original intent of this blog was to write about the Affair of the Diamond Necklace and ancien-regime France.

Just yesterday, I came across an exhibit on right now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC that is so directly related to the Diamond Necklace Affair that it hurts:

http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2016/vigee-le-brun

The Met is putting on an exhibit of a very large number of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s portraits. She was one of the most prominent portraitists of her age (and her art is absolutely beautiful; her style is just my taste). This is even more remarkable, of course, given that she was a woman. She happened to be one of Queen Marie-Antoinette’s favorite painters. In 1783, she painted the queen in a filmy white muslin dress, a style that was sometimes referred to as “en gaulle” or a “chemise” dress, since it so resembled the chemise, an under-dress. And therein lay the problem: it looked like the queen had been painted in her underclothes! When people saw it hanging in the salon, they were shocked. The resultant scandal did the queen’s already-spotty reputation no favors. Vigée Le Brun quickly painted a replacement with the queen in the same pose and still holding a rose, but this time clad in a dress of blue silk and with an elaborate coiffure.

All of this, of course, was part of the milieu in which Jeanne de La Motte-Valois plotted her jewel theft. Specifically, though, the portrait seems to have been the inspiration for a little bit of play-acting in the gardens of Versailles: Jeanne hired a young prostitute (Nicole Leguay D’Oliva) to play the part of the queen. She dressed Nicole in a white muslin dress and gave her a rose to hold. Sound familiar? It’s exactly the image from the scandalous portrait. This performance was meant to trick a Cardinal into believing he was back in the queen’s favor, which was part of Jeanne’s plan to get said Cardinal to act as guarantor for a very expensive diamond necklace. The necklace went missing, and a massive scandal ensued, one that Marie-Antoinette never recovered from.

You can click OVER HERE for a blog post all about the painting.

Now, the exhibit is only at the Met until May 15, so there isn’t much time to go see it. I know I’m going to do my best to get up there while I can!

Writerly Wednesday–Bouncing Around

This is going to be an informal kind of blog post, just an update of where I am in my writing. I recently finished editing a manuscript (The Prequel) in response to beta-reader comments. I got back one set a while ago and got the last of the second set of comments about two weeks ago. I was overall pretty pleased with the response. Both readers enjoyed the manuscript, and neither of them had any major problems with it. There was, funnily enough, some disagreement on a few points. One was the title, which one reader liked and the other didn’t. It came from a particular paragraph, which one reader noted she liked and the other noted she didn’t like. So, go figure! In instances like these, I go with my gut, which usually tells me to keep what I have! Both readers agreed that they didn’t like two of the four main characters, but they weren’t written to be likable, and both readers realized that, as well.

I sent the manuscript file off to my agent yesterday, so we’ll see what comments she has. This ms is a prequel to Channing, the story set in Washington DC and the Sea Islands of Georgia in 1854-1858. It’s titled The Cotton Wars and is about the parents of several of the characters in Channing (specifically Harry’s father, Everett’s father and mother, and Hannah’s mother). It takes place in Philadelphia and Georgia starting in 1829. For the record, I do have some very nebulous plans for a sequel, as well, set during the war and Reconstruction.

I finished writing The Cotton Wars ages ago now. I edited the hell out it, especially Emily’s story line, which took forever to get right (the key to Emily, I came to realize, was “pride”). I, however, couldn’t stand not writing new material, so I began a new project. This has been one bear of a project, let me tell you. After banging away at it for months, I finally came to the end of a horrible pile of dreck that weighed in at a whopping 125k words. Well, to be fair, it wasn’t entirely dreck, but it was massively flawed. I allowed it to sit for a while and have finally gotten back to it over the last two months or so, having worked out some of the kinks (funny how the subconscious works away at these problems while you go about your daily life). I’ve been rewriting it and am up to about 65k words. There’s a ton more story to go, but I’m going to hope for the best in coming in under 120k.

You’ll notice that I’m thin on the details. That’s because of the “dreck” thing. This manuscript is a departure for me, as it isn’t exclusively historical and since there’s a framing story. Most the story is historical, but it’s not an era I’ve written in before. All of that is why the project has been such a bear and why I don’t think it’s anywhere near presentable. In fact, this one might end up abandoned in that lovely trunk where sad little novels go to . . . well, maybe not to die, but to molder. We’ll see. This’ll be my last major attempt at a rewrite of it. If I’m not content with where I am–a bit of smoothing-over notwithstanding–then I’ll abandon it. I have at least two other projects to fall back on, projects that are more in my comfort zone (though challenging in other ways).

Time will tell.

The Snake and the Alligator

I have been lucky enough to have the time and resources to take modest trips in recent years. Last year this time, I took a fantastic trip to Savannah to get a look at the location where I’d set my historical novel, Channing. This year, I went to Charleston just because it seemed like a lovely place to go. Both times, I drove down to Butler Island, Georgia, which is the specific spot that inspired Channing. Between those two trips, I had the distinct pleasure to visit Skyline Drive, along the Blue Ridge overlooking the Shenandoah. I even took a hike down to the ruins of a few cabins that belonged to inhabitants of the area before the National Park Service took over the land. I wrote a novella set there during the Civil War–it was inspired, in part, by my ramblings along Skyline Drive.

What did these two trips have in common? Reptiles.

I mean, that and history and writing, of course, but mostly reptiles. This isn’t particularly apropos of anything, but I thought I’d share the stories.

In both cases, I should make clear, I was venturing out of my own. That becomes important to my reactions to said reptiles.

Last summer, I parked my car near mile marker 38 on Skyline Drive and started down the 20150516_122056mountain, towards the ruins of the Nicholson family cabins. It’s something like a mile and a half down (and I mean down; it’s steep). I reached the cabins, looked around a bit, rested by the river, and then started back. At one point, the path crossed a big, flat rock that overhung the river. I was merrily traipsing across this boulder when something made me stop and look to my left. And there it was, three feet away: a big old snake, the same dusty gray as the rock, maybe four or five feet long, stretched out in the dappled sunlight, its mouth open to hiss at me.

 

My reaction? A very melodramatic gasp, accompanied by a sudden dash for safety.

A hundred or so yards away, panting for breath, I started laughing. That snake hadn’t been interested in attacking me, but it hadn’t been interested in having me around, either. It was a little bit of adventure to spice up my hike, nothing more.

20150516_113430

Flowers in the Shenandoah

Now, fast-forward to this March, and I was on Butler Island, in Georgia. To set the scene, it’s a very small, coastal island that’s as much water as land. 1-95 soars across the island on a 50-foot-high bridge and at 75 miles an hour. Below, its mostly swamp and a waterfowl refuge. Route 17 also passes through at ground level, right by the ruins of Butler Plantation’s rice mills, but it’s just a two-lane road passing through; there’s nothing much on Butler Island. Once you get off 17 and head west, towards where 1-95 passes overhead, the land turns very quickly into sandy swamp. Now, I happened to know that the rice fields used to be there and that from the air you can still make out the line of the ditches and dikes (holla, Google Maps). So I took the windy dirt road as far as I could go (to where I-95 passes overhead) and got out to take a walk around the larger, uninhabited western end of the island.

It was sandy and deserted, and two miles away from the road. I started off confidently into the sunny day. I heard things plopping into the water, mostly to my left, where the broad dirt path (wide enough for vehicles, but clearly not used often) gave way to still blue water. I told myself it was frogs, though I knew well enough that there are alligators in that part of the world. The splashes are too small for a gator, I told myself. And honestly, I was probably right. But there I was, now a mile away from my car, which in turn was two miles down an unused dirt road, and all alone on a path through a swamp, feeling

20160322_124655

Butler Island,Georgia

more and more uneasy. Then I turned a curve in the road and “plop!”, an alligator does a belly flop into the water about thirty feet ahead of me. I saw his pebbly skin and whip-like tail. He wasn’t a particularly big gator–maybe five feet snout-to-tail. But that was more than big enough for me. I turned on my heel and started walking rapidly back towards my car, making as much noise as possible.

 

When I got back to the car, my pulse was up, but I couldn’t help laughing. I murmured to myself, “Sorry, Ann!” You see, Ann is a character in Channing who I have running down to the water to look for gators. I didn’t exactly feel like I was betraying her, but I suddenly respected her much more as a character.

And that, my friends, is the story of the alligator and the snake.

Mercy Street-Episode 6

So, I’m finally getting around to putting down some thoughts about the final episode of season 1 of Mercy Street, the PBS drama about a Civil War hospital in Alexandria (I already recapped episode 1, episodes 2-3, and episodes 4-5).

We left off with the hospital preparing itself for a visit from the president and First Lady. The Knights of the Golden Circle are preparing for the visit, too, but they don’t want to welcome the Lincolns. They want to blow them and the entire hospital to Kingdom Come.

We start with a bit of drama about Doctor Foster being promoted. Doctor Hale and Nurse Hastings have been conniving all along to get rid of that terrible, no good, very bad, clearly-more-talented-and-therefore-unbearable Doctor Foster. I found it all a bit unnecessary. Also unnecessary was the scene a bit later where Nurse Hastings gets so drunk that she’s literally falling all over herself. It seemed pretty far from the conniving, fake-it-’til-you-make-it-even-if-you-are-less-skilled attitude she’s shown previously. Continue reading

Mercy Street Episodes 4-5

I am more than a little behind in my recap/review of Mercy Street, but I’ll make an effort to get to the end of this season (there were six episodes) by the end of this week. Time will tell if that actually happens.

And there will be spoilers. You are hereby warned.

Episode 4 picks up on and runs with a thread that was only hinted at earlier: the efforts of the ladies of the Green family to help the Confederate effort in whatever way they can. It’s easy to forget the role that women played in wars throughout history, and I don’t just mean on the home-front waving their flags. There were simple efforts like sewing socks and shirts for the boys, but when organized (by such groups as the United States Christian Commission and the United States Sanitary Commission), these efforts proved to be of no small importance to the war overall. First of all, notice the “United States” in the name of both organizations. There was certainly organization in the South, but it wasn’t at quite the same level as in the North. Second, these organizations rallied incredible amounts of supplies, medical and otherwise, for the troops. The armies in general were much better-provisioned than in previous wars (thanks to railroads, industrialized production, and a more mature government than, say, the Continental Congress, which had to beg for money from the colonies to feed the Continental Army). Third, think about the word “sanitary” and what that means in a military context. During the Civil War, disease was still by far the biggest killer of soldiers, but following Florence Nightingale’s efforts during the Crimean War in the 1850’s, people were beginning to wake up to the necessity of good sanitation and cleanliness.

(As an aside, I quite like Nurse Mary’s repeated, half-goading references to Miss Nightingale when she’s speaking with Nurse Hastings, who made such a big deal of having trained under Miss Nightingale.) Continue reading

Finding Neverland: A Reaction

So, this is something of a tangent, but it’s directly related to a WIP I’ve been playing around with lately (you know, to the tune of nearly 175k words, but no big deal). Half of that WIP is set in first decade of the 20th century. That story thread procees through time to the Great War. As a result, I’ve done some research on the era. And one of the more interesting entry points into the era was the story of J.M. Barrie, the Llewellyn Davies family, and Peter Pan.

Peter Pan has become a part of our collective consciousness, and he has a place in most everyone’s childhood, thanks to various adaptations (most notably the Disney cartoon version, the one I watched on VHS as a kid). Most people aren’t aware of the story behind Peter Pan, however, which–for me as an adult–is more interesting than Peter Pan itself. There have been multiple books about the relationship between J.M. Barrie and the boys who inspired the play, and there’ve been a few stage, television, and feature film adaptations. The most recent, and probably best-known–and likely least-accurate–is Finding Neverland with Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet.

There are a lot of things to like about this movie. It’s lovely, of course, and does some very interesting work with weaving the characters’ fantasies in with their realities. The acting from Depp and Winslet and the children is fine. The arc of the story is depressing but uplifting at the same time, which is a pretty hard feat to pull off.

I know the target audience was a younger crowd, and I know that in a feature film there are constraints, and I also know (having listened to the commentary) that the writer and director were really going for a theme (the power of imagination). As far as achieving what it aimed to achieve, I think the movie succeeded. Yet, I still felt it was lacking. And, yes, I am a historical fiction writer with a certain point of view and maybe–just maybe–something of a chip on my shoulder when it come to taking historical liberties. But I think that the choices made by the director and writer resulted in a portrayal that was disingenuous.

Keep in mind, again, that I’m approaching this from the viewpoint of a writer of historical fiction. I know that film is constrained by certain limitations that I, as a novelist, am not. I try to make allowances.

The Biggies

Let’s get out of the way a few big things first.

The film omits two very important people: the boys’ father, Arthur, and the youngest of the five brothers, Nico. That’s right, Arthur Llewelyn Davies was very much alive when Barrie met his sons, and he was very much alive when Peter Pan was first performed in 1904. His attitude towards Barrie’s suddenly insertion into his family’s life isn’t easy to gauge (he was a stiff-upper-lip sort). But he seems to have been quietly disapproving of the situation until near the end of his life, when he seems to have recognized that he was dying and that Barrie could (and would) offer assistance to the large family being left behind. (Arthur had cancer of the jaw and underwent a harrowing surgery that essentially removed most of one side of his face; the cancer returned anyway, and he died in 1907 after a long illness.)

Nico was the youngest of the boys and, at the time of Finding Neverland, that is 1904, he was an infant. This is a pretty egregious omission. In the commentary, the writer and director said that they didn’t want to have to deal with an infant being lugged around all the time, presumably getting int he way. They also pointed out that to have an infant would mean that the father had died fairly recently. Since Sylvia is dead by the end of the movie, that would mean that both parents died within maybe a year of one another. That’s perfectly logical–well, the second point is; the first one strikes me as somewhat lazy. The culprit here is the compression of the timeline. There’s an obvious solution: have Nico in the picture, but make him a bit older. You might have to bump up the other boys’ ages slightly, but it would work. Or, even more simple, just have Nico as a baby  and don’t worry about the fact that that means the boys lost both parents in very short order. If you’re going to compress the timeline, don’t solve the resulting problems by erasing a real person from existence. (The irony here is that at one point in the film, Nico’s daughter and granddaughter are extras.)

Though this may seem odd, my biggest problem wasn’t these larger omissions (though they bugged me) or the more minor fabrications or rearranging of facts (which honestly didn’t bug me much). Perhaps my biggest problem was where the film dropps us. Sylvia is dead. Barrie is helping Peter to process his grief. And . . . roll credits. Fade to black. Not a title card about the real family, not any explanation of the boys’ later lives (which is most of the story, in my mind), not even a dedication to them. The movie-makers’ near-indifference to the real story of these real people seems to extend as far as excluding them from the credits! We just stop while the boys are all very young, not bothering to acknowledge that, unlike Peter Pan, they all did grow up. I know the story is uplifting, and the subsequent lives of the boys is less so, but it would fit perfectly well with the movie to have added a few cards at the end with photos of the real Barrie with the real Llewelyn Davies boys.

A brief tangent to explain why I feel strongly about acknowledging the rest of the boys’ story, however briefly: Peter Pan was really only the beginning of Barrie’s relationship with the boys. He became guardian of all five boys and was involved in their upbringing, especially that of Michael and Nico (George and Jack were a bit older; Peter was in between). In 1915, George–who was the original inspiration behind Peter Pan–was killed at the age of twenty-one in the Great War. Michael, who was perhaps the closest of the boys to Barrie, drowned at the age of twenty (it might have been suicide, though we’ll never know for sure). Peter and Jack, like George, both served in the Great War, though they survived it. In later years, Peter committed suicide. Nico was perhaps the best-adjusted of his brothers (except maybe for George) and lived to a ripe old age. You can see how all of this might clash with the tenor of the movie, so I don’t blame them for not going there. But there are plenty of pictures of happier days, when the boys were young and playing fantastical games with Barrie.

The Little Stuff

Because I think it warrants it, I’m going to list a few of the smaller things from the movie that don’t match up with reality. This isn’t comprehensive.

Peter wasn’t the favorite. Okay, so this is a mid-to-low level change, but it isn’t a biggie in my opinion. In Finding Neverland, we see Barrie making particular friends with Peter, which might seem inevitable, given that Barrie named his character Peter Pan. But in reality, while Barrie clearly cared about all five boys, he just as clearly connected most with George and Michael, both of whom tragically died very young (those deaths crushed him, by the way). Peter and Jack were much more wary of Barrie as boys and young men. (Peter did eventually reconcile with Barrie, though he always viewed Peter Pan as a mixed blessing at best.)

Barrie did meet the boys in Kensington Gardens, but their mother wasn’t with them; their nurse was. Barrie met Sylvia a little later at a dinner party and when they got talking, the penny dropped and he realized that the boys he’d befriended were Sylvia’s sons. This one doesn’t bother me. The more roundabout way of meeting Sylvia doesn’t add anything to the story.

The aforementioned nurse, Mary, was in the boys’ lives as long as Barrie was. In Finding Neverland, her role as Barrie’s most prominent adversary is taken over by Sylvia’s mother. This one actually doesn’t bother me a whole lot: Mrs. Du Maurier represents Sylvia’s family (she did have family, and so did Arthur) who were willing to take care of the boys but simply didn’t have the resources that Barrie did. Sylvia had told her mother that she didn’t want the boys separated; if Barrie hadn’t taken all five, they would have had to divide the boys up among relatives since none were able to care for all five. All along, Mary the nurse disapproved of Baryr’s influence, and so did members of Sylvia’s family. It makes some sense to concentrate that disapproval in one person with such limited time.

George breaking his arm while “flying” and Peter putting on an amateur play are both fictional events. And they’re perfectly fine by me. The play is more acceptable than the broken arm, which to my mind doesn’t serve much purpose. (Peter did end up going into the publishing business, though not as a writer; it was Michael who apparently had great literary talent before his untimely death.) Still, there are plenty of real-life events they could have pulled from instead.

The performance of Peter Pan in the Llewelyn Davies household really did happen, though it was put on not for Sylvia but for Michael.

In the movie, Sylvia doesn’t want to talk about her illness, and that *sort of* mirrors reality. Sylvia doesn’t seem to have known until very late in her illness that she was dying. This seems to have been due to a combination of her own unwillingness to think she was ill and to everyone else’s collusion to keep her in the dark. So, not far from the truth.

The Good Stuff

My discomfort with the whitewashing notwithstanding, this movie did get a lot of things right. First and foremost, it faced the pedophilia rumors head-on and made it clear that Barrie cared for the children as children. Most people who know the story well would agree: Barrie was not abusing these boys. Yes, they had an odd relationship, but the circumstances were odd, extraordinary even. Nico himself later said there was nothing sexual about Barrie’s relationship with the boys.

There were some nice, authentic details, too. Gilbert Cannan was a real man who came between Barrie and his wife, Mary (and, no, their marriage was never happy, and though the divorce was public and ugly, the two of them don’t seem to have borne each other much malice). Barrie created a real book titled “The Boy Castaways”, which was a set of photographs from his time at Black Lake Cottage (portrayed in the movie) with fictionalized captions (in the movie, it’s the title he puts on an empty journal for Peter). Barrie’s relationship with the producer Peter Frohman is basically accurate (Frohman died in the sinking of the Lusitania). Barrie really did create a cricket team called the “Allahakbarries”, and famous literary people like Arthur Conan Doyle really did play on it. And Barrie really did stick stamps to people’s ceiling by putting them on the back of a coin and tossing the coin at the ceiling. There were just enough little details like that that I wasn’t totally outraged by the movie–but the overall tone still made me uncomfortable. Perhaps I’ll come up for a more articulate reason at some point, but for now I’ll just say the tone didn’t do justice to the reality lived by the people it portrayed.

If I had to quantify this one, I’d say 3.5 out of 5 as a movie and 2.5 out of 5 for the accuracy.

ETA:

For further reading, I HIGHLY recommend J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys by Andrew Birkin. There was a miniseries made in the ’70’s based on that book (The Lost Boys) which is exactingly accurate and very well done (it has some flaws, mostly due to a limited budget and the necessity of casting a bunch of different actors to play the boys at different ages). It isn’t available new, but used copies are available (I have one).