All posts by WordsyWoman

ACROSS FIVE APRILS by Irene Hunt

I found this book on Amazon via a general search for civil war historical fiction. I was especially attracted to the premise because the story centers around the home front in Southern Illinois.

Since my books, Taming the Twisted and Taming the Twisted 2 Reconstructing Rain, also take place around the time of the civil war in the Midwest, I wanted to see how Irene Hunt handled the subject. It is a Newberry Honor book suitable for juveniles, and, with the historical information and story structure, would be a good read for them.

Across Five Aprils begins in April of 1861 with Jethro, a nine-year-old boy, and his mother, planting potatoes. Although the story does continue through April of 1865, the bulk of the story takes place in 1861 to 1862, with only the last few chapters covering the final years of the civil war.  Perhaps it was a choice or a coincidence, but I believe this reflects how the war itself seemed to drag on to those at home and, to those outside of active battlefields, perhaps became just a fact of life until the end neared. The book’s climax seems to coincide with the war itself’s as well.

The story was engaging; I read it in approximately a week and a half so on a can’t-put-it-down-scale of one for I couldn’t even finish it to ten for I was up until the wee morning hours, I would give it a five and a half.

At some points, I had the sense of having the benefit of the knowledge of the future rather than the story taking place in that time frame. For example, the author referred to a “cornshuck bed;” to be writing from the perspective of that time period, I think one would have simply written, “bed.” She also mentioned a field of study and clarified with it was “later called physics.” This is not bad and is likely beneficial for the young readers who comprise target audience. It was just something that stood out.

The point of view seems to be third-person omniscient but with the bulk of the story limited to Jethro’s perspective. I’m not sure if this so-called “head hopping” was intentional or not. Jethro is definitely the main character experiencing the character arc. During the story, he goes from being a naive boy excited about the prospect of war to a mature boy knowing first-hand the horrors of war experienced at home. In the end, the readers get a sense that the civil war made or perhaps allowed him to become a man earlier than he otherwise might have been. He is conflicted about his own views of the war; he’s influenced by those around him though he realistically doesn’t ever seem to form a solid opinion.

I enjoyed the plot points of this book. Of course, it contained the usual themes one would expect in a civil war period book: who will survive the war, who will die, who will desert, how hard it is at home, etc. This story’s plot also includes a deadly accident suffered by Jethro’s sister, Mary, prior to the story opening, the romance between his sister and his teacher, and strife between family members.

The author is adept at bringing in her descriptions and appearances subtly and naturally. She also does a good job of conveying the varying views about the civil war within the north, south, and individual households. The scenes about Jethro’s adventures spending the night at his sister’s beau’s home and going to town also adds to the tension and interest of the story.

As I’ve noticed in other books set in the civil war time period, the author sometimes resorts to summary, especially when talking about the battles and politics of the war. This has me questioning the necessity of these battle descriptions. One the one hand, the characters would be concerned with them, but other than what they actually say to each other about them or experience personally, I’m not sure it’s needed. However, if people were obsessed about the war as the characters in this book seem to be, perhaps it is necessary, but, instead of summarizing, I might make it a topic of dialogue more often than Ms. Hunt did. I think this is a personal author-choice that I must resolve in my own work.

Overall, the book was about a family going through a difficult time. I found the writing quality, pace, plot, and characters above average.

Source: Hunt, Irene. 2002. Across Five Aprils. Berkely JAM: New York.

AN IOWA SCHOOLMA’AM Edited by Philip L. Gerber and Charlotte M. Wright

An Iowa Schoolma’am Letters of Elizabeth “Bess” Corey 1904 – 1908 is a research book I found in writing my next novel which takes place in Camanche, Iowa, in 1908. This is sort of a prequel to Bachelor Bess: The Homesteading Letters of Elizabeth Core, 1909 – 1919, which I haven’t read. It is a non-fiction book containing Elizabeth’s letters almost exactly how she’d written them with notes by the editors of enclosures or explanations of certain people, places, or things.

I found the book interesting, though I didn’t get much concrete research material. It did, however, give me a feel of the time period, including how people communicated, traveled, and dealt with the weather.

The book contains letters Elizabeth Corey wrote mostly to her mother while she was either training to be a teacher or teaching students away from home, boarding with a local family. There are gaps, of course, when she was at home and didn’t need to write letters to her mother who kept the correspondence. Once chapter does contain letters Elizabeth wrote at home while taking over there while her mother was in Omaha, Nebraska, having and recovering from a surgery.

I love reading books like this with real artifacts of real people who lived in real times. It makes me a little sad that all of the emails, tweets, and social media posts are so fleeting. I suppose if you really wanted to, you could cull the Internet as nothing is ever really deleted. But there’s nothing to be passed down from generation to generation and discovered in some attic somewhere.

I read this book relatively quickly, so on a can’t-put-it-down-scale of one for I couldn’t even finish it to ten for I was up until the wee morning hours, I give it a six and a half.

Source: Gerber, Philip L. and Wright, Charlotte M., Editors. (2011) An Iowa Schoolma’am Letters of Elizabeth “Bess” Corey, 1904 – 1908. University of Iowa Press.

THESE IS MY WORDS by Nancy E. Turner

I bought These is my Words by Nancy E. Turner at a gift/souvenir shop near Phoenix, Arizona, when I was visiting in February 2017. I pulled it out of my to-read stack because I’ve read several civil war era stories recently and was in the mood for a change.

The book is written as a diary from Sarah Prine’s point of view, starting in 1881 when she was a girl until 1901. This point of view really allows Sarah’s humor, cleverness, and strength to come through. The fact that her writing gets better as she ages made me feel like I was reading an actual diary and not a novel.

Right away, you enter Sarah’s life on her journey from Arizona to Texas. With so many horrible things that happened to her in those first several pages and so much more of the book left to read, I found myself dreading what obstacles awaited this character who I already liked so much. Even though so many horrific things happen to Sarah, the book seems to give an accurate feel for the time period and how life was for some people, especially in the newer territories with Indians, robbers, and death so common. I wondered if someone could face such things today without going insane; I kind of doubt it.

To me, this is very much a character-driven book because even though there is what I would consider an overarching plot structure with a climax, etc., it’s more to me like a telling of a life story with all of the good things and bad things that happen in life. It felt very real and not contrived to fit a plot structure as a lot of novels seem to do.

I loved how Sarah was so naive at times, like about love and how she tried to be pious (I wanted to tell her she was just fine the way she was), but at the same time, she was also so gutsy.  I did enjoy Sarah’s and Jack’s relationship, but I was bothered by the front cover’s assertion comparing them to Rhett and Scarlett. I didn’t particularly like Rhett or Scarlett in Gone with the Wind, but I did like Jack and Sarah. Plus, Jack and Sarah are so much nicer to each other and more honest. I can definitely see a similarity in their passion for each other, though, so maybe it was to that which USA Today was referring.

This book stuck with me a long time after I read it, which took me just over two weeks, so on a can’t-put-it-down-scale of one for I couldn’t even finish it to ten for I was up until the wee morning hours, I give it an eight and a  half.

Source: Turner, Nancy E.. (1998.) These is my Words. Harper Perennial.

THE UNION QUILTERS, historical fiction by Jennifer Chiaverini

I heard historical fiction author Jennifer Chiaverini speak at a luncheon, but not being a quilter or even enjoying the act of pulling thread through fabric, I wasn’t so much interested in her books as I was in her as a successful author. That changed when I stumbled across her The Union Quilters novel on the bargain rack at my local Barnes and Noble because I was working on my first two Taming the Twisted books at the time which take place in a similar time period.

The Union Quilters begins near the beginning of the American Civil War. The main story ends prior to its conclusion with an Epilogue dated 1868. The story was well-told. I read it in a little over a month so on a can’t-put-it-down-scale of one for I couldn’t even finish it to five for I was up until the wee morning hours, I would give it a three and a half.

Though its historical fiction, the story provided a good history lesson of the Civil War. I enjoyed the letters that arrived home to the Elm Creek Valley from the enlisted men, although they got a bit long at times. The story contains many characters and it took many pages before I could learn who they were enough to keep them straight. It seemed that Gerda was the main character.

Other than the typical plot lines one would expect to find in a book covering the Civil War of who lived and who died, other plot lines included the missing Joanna and the scandalous alleged love affair between Gerda and Jonathan, this last plotline being most intriguing to me. Gerda also seemed to be the character to experience the greatest character arc, coming to accept her situation by the end of the story and realizing the greatest internal change. The story seemed to divert its focus away from Gerda and her story at times, which disappointed me since I perceived her to be the main character.

I also found myself a bit bored occasionally with all of the battle descriptions, but perhaps that’s because I’ve done so much research on the topic. I found myself wishing the story would’ve just stuck with the home front. There is already so much literature available about Civil War battles, but for the most part, it was interesting.

Overall, the book was well-written and free of typos as one would expect from Dutton. I found the pace, plot development, characters, enjoyability, and insightfulness above average. As a writer, I might have leaned more toward dialogue and scene-building than toward exposition. There was a lot of summary, but, overall, it was an easy read and beneficial to my studies.

Source: Chiaverini, Jennifer. 2011. The Union Quilters: An Elm Creek Quilts Novel. Dutton: New York.

GETTING THERE: THE ROLE OF RESEARCH FOR READERS

IMG_0029One of the questions I’m usually asked when I talk about my novel, Missing Emily: Croatian Life Letters, is, “Have you ever been to Croatia?” I have never been to Croatia. But I found photos of the area of the country in which my story took place and used those while writing. I also have a good friend from Croatia who I spent several afternoons with talking about Croatia and her experience during the civil war there in the early 1990s. With her permission, many of the descriptions and storylines from Nada’s story came directly from her.

IMG_0036With a story like Missing Emily, it is probably quite obvious that at least some degree of research was involved. But what some readers may not realize is that there is some degree of research involved in every book, even poetry collections. For example, I wrote the vast majority of poems in Crush and Other Love Poems for Girls while I was a teen or pre-teen (although they went through extensive revision before going into the book). To find the poems, I went back to my writings and journals from that period of my life and harvested the poems I’d written at that time. I also went to the bookstore to see if there were any poetry books for pre-teen and teen girls; finding none, I went ahead with the idea.

IMG_0051I completed similar research for my other poetry collection, The Other Side of Crazy. When I journal, I often simply write down whatever comes into my head, sometimes without even realizing the words have any meaning. I also write down snippets – one or two poetic lines. When I was putting together the initial poems for that collection, I reread my journals to look for material. I had some poems that were poems I wanted to include, but I also found poems. Some of them resulted from the random musings I didn’t find any meaning in until I went back and reviewed them. Some of them were spurred by the snippets, either into their own poems or combined into a poem.

IMG_0060For Taming the Twisted, though I grew up in Camanche, Iowa, I had to research to take it back in time to 1860. I completed extensive historical research through books, newspapers, and the internet, covering Camanche, specifically, but the time period and Iowa generally as well. I also completed character research wherein I searched for and found old photographs of each of my main characters. I kept them on a magnet board in front of me as I was writing, so I could always keep their appearances in mind.

IMG_0068I also took a “walk the ground” trip, as shown in the photos. I went to Camanche, parked, and walked nearly five miles over all the areas where my characters would have walked. I had a map of as near to the time period as I could find and superimposed the current street names and landmarks. I took photos and many notes, finding the exact spot of my main character’s home and the places she frequented. This research was invaluable because it helped to crystallize the setting in my mind.

IMG_0083When you talk to authors, you will likely find that in addition to enjoying words, writing, and stories, they also enjoy research. As you read, try to think of some ways in which research may have been needed to create the book. With a well-crafted book, it may not be obvious because the research will be weaved in with the story so well, it might seem as if the author had been there. But they may not have; it may just be a result of extensive and quality research.

Why Writing is my Passion

The Passion Test BookFor a long time now, I’ve thought periodically about passions, particularly, following them. My number one passion is writing. For a long time, I denied myself that passion because I believed it wasn’t worthwhile, valuable, or could support me financially. Now, I see how important it is to follow my passion somehow, some way, every day; if I don’t, I’m just not being myself and, in a way, I’m lying to everyone around me.

I previously signed up to get a copy of Janet Bray Attwood’s and Chris Attwood’s new book and, in doing so, I was reminded of their other book, The Passion Test. I had thought I remembered that I actually already owned this book, so I sifted through my bookshelves; sure enough, there it was, brand new and never read. I’ve had it a long time; I think I got it with my joining package for some book club I’d joined years ago.

I took the book out and read it. I started thinking about how sometimes it’s difficult to determine if something is truly your passion or just a necessity of life or something you need in order to fulfill all of your other passions. And then I came up with a test to see. When thinking about your passions, ask yourself, “Is this a means to an end or is it the end?” You can come to this answer by asking yourself, “Why?”

Let’s take being healthy and in shape. Sure, I want to be healthy and in shape but is it my passion? So I ask myself, “Why do you want to be healthy and in shape?” My answer is so that I’m alive and have the energy to spend time with my family and write. Okay, so why do I want to spend time with my family? This gets kind of tricky because I want to spend time with my family simply because I enjoy it which makes it somewhat of a passion, but I also need the support of my family, their encouragement, and the knowledge of their love to write. So why do I want to write? I love putting words on paper, having people read them, and sharing myself with others in that way. So, for me, writing is an end.

Writing is my passion. It’s as basic to me as breathing. What’s your passion? Feel free to talk about it in the comment section below.

 

DRESSING UP FOR THE CAUSE

As you can see, photography is not one of my husband's best skills...
As you can see, photography is not one of my husband’s best skills…

A couple of Sundays ago, I got to actually go back in time to promote Taming the Twisted. Well, actually, it was really just my wardrobe. Heritage Canyon in Fulton, Illinois, is a historic village with buildings recreated to reflect the 1800s in a wooded, canyon setting. When I first started to set up appearances for Taming the Twisted, I contacted them to ask if they’d be interested in having me attend one of their special events to sell my books.

The caretaker replied and said they would love for me to come to their Fall Festival at the end of September. But there was a catch. I’d have to dress in 1860s-appropriate apparel.

Oh.

I didn’t have anything, so the caretaker said I could borrow something. I warned him of my short, not-thin stature, but was assured they had something that would work. So I said, “What the heck. I’ll do it.”

On September 8th, after speaking at the early-morning Camanche Kiwanis meeting, I met one of the Early American Crafters members who helps to organize the events. I parked across the street and walked down the steep path to get to the main street area where I was to meet her in the ice cream shop. She arrived shortly after I did and led me upstairs to the dressing room with at least two racks of possibilities.

She left me to find something as she cleaned. So I went through the clothes. Too long. Too small. Too short (believe it or not). Until I finally settled on a blue skirt adjustable with Velcro, a white blouse I thought I could wear a camisole or a long-sleeved shirt under depending on the weather, a yellow shawl in case of chill, and a red dotted bonnet to hang down my back. None of the shoes fit, but I decided I had some basic black ones at home that would be close enough.

By the time I came down, it was pouring rain. Luckily, the EAC representative offered to drive me to my car. She dropped me off and I went home, 1860s garb draped over my back van seat.

The first weekend of fall was very warm, so I opted for the camisole and shorts underneath, and didn’t need the shawl. It was fun hanging out with people with the same 1860s-affinity that I have. I sold a few books and got to know some fun people a little bit. They even served me (and husband who came to help me) chili and cornbread for lunch. It was a great day and I hope to come back to one of their events next year.

Museum Hopping for Fun and Profit

One of the greatest things about writing historical fiction for me is the research, which often takes me to several museums. I love museums anyway, but since I’m using the information I gain for my books, it’s working – and I get to take the travel expenses off of my taxes.

In researching for my next book taking place in the early 1900s when people in Camanche camped along the Mississippi River to harvest clams for pearls and the button industry, I’ve been concentrating on that era and topic.

Muscatine Button Industry Exhibit

In case you’re interested, I thought I’d share about them so maybe you can check them out. Hands down, the best museum for learning about the button industry is the Muscatine History and Industry Center. The bottom floor’s entire display is about clamming and the button industry. Upstairs, they also have good exhibits about the history of local companies; not too far away is a great new brewery, Contrary Brewing, you could check out while you’re there, too (and, in case you’re wondering, I can’t take beer off on my taxes.)

Fort Crawford Museum

The Fort Crawford Museum in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, has a small clamming exhibit. Since clamming was so common in Camanche, Iowa, its historical museum has a nice, larger clamming/button industry display as does the Buffalo Bill Museum in LeClaire, Iowa.

Buffalo Bill Museum

I got a lot of good early 1900s information when visiting the Buffalo Bill Museum a couple of Saturdays ago, including from a great display on early 1900s clothing. This is a large museum complete with a real boat, the Lone Star Stern Wheeler, and tons of artifacts. You can likely learn about any era pertaining to life on the Mississippi River here. And, if you’re thirsty when you’re done, you can visit the new Green Tree Brewery, tour the Mississippi River Distillery, or visit the Wide River Winery tasting room.

Camanche Historical Museum

As you can see, I love museums and local beverages. It’s an especially great way to spend a Saturday that is too hot or too cold to spend outside.

Do you know of any museums, historical villages, or exhibits covering early 1900s America, especially everyday life in the Midwest, clamming/button industry, or the Mississippi River? I’d love to visit them. Please comment below.

Why I’ll never give a bad review

Photo by Margaret Ornsby, Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/60857146@N06/5546331816/
Photo by Margaret Ornsby, Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/60857146@N06/5546331816/

It probably won’t surprise you to know that I enjoy reading books. I usually have several going at the same time: a research book for my next book project, a historical fiction book, a business/book marketing book, and a writing craft book. When I’m done reading, I like to write reviews, especially the historical fiction since I’m basically “studying” those for my own projects.

It occurred to me not too long ago that I’ll never give a bad review. Not because I want to spare any feelings or because I’m trying to put forth a positive vibe. (I do those things, but that’s not the reason.)

The reason is because I believe I can only give a fair review if I read the entire book and give every word a chance. But I never finish reading “bad” books. If I’m not pulled in by the first few chapters or if something suddenly turns me off (like a recent book that seemed to be getting too soap-operish on me), I close it and put it away.

Life’s too short and there are too many “good” books out there to read to waste time on a “bad” one.

How do you read books? Will you never leave a bad review because you’ll never finish reading a “bad” book? Do you leave bad reviews without reading the entire book? Or are you one of those people who feels compelled to read a book all the way through once you start, no matter how bad it is?

I’d love to know. Just make a comment below.

KICKING OFF SUMMER

Front CoverMost of this past spring, I have been working on publishing and planning my marketing for Taming the Twisted, my book about the fictional Abigail Sinkey, a 17-year old girl who finds herself entangled in abandonment, her parents death, a murder, scandal, and romance after a tornado destroys her town of Camanche, Iowa, on June 3, 1860. I have been working with one of the organizers of Camanche Days, the town’s celebration taking place in mid-August. To give back to the community and get to the book’s roots, I’m officially launching there on August 15th from 2 to 5 p.m. and I’m donating $1 from each book sale (Taming or others) to the cause of the Camanche Days Boards’ choice.

So…I’ve been deep in revising, editing, formatting, and cover designing as well as researching options to figure out the best way to market Taming according to the book itself, its likely readers, my personality, and my goals for the book and my career. It’s a huge undertaking. And the temptation to not work on my next book is great. But I’m excited about starting it so I have been dabbling in research.

Photo from Muscatine History & Industry Center

So far, I’ve collected several books covering local history from the 1890 to 1910 time period and found several articles about Mississippi River life at the turn of the 20th century, clamming, and insanity, all of which I plan to need for the story with the working title of Shattered Pearl.

I know I still have a ton of research ahead of me, though. I will need to re-read the items I used for Taming the Twisted with a focus on the later time period as well as view microfilm newspapers. I’m also considering a trip to the state historical society library in Iowa City.

I’m excited about it because I do love to research. I’m hoping my schedule works so that I can take a Heuristic Fictional Character Research workshop offered by Midwest Writing Center and Robin Throne of 918studio; I think it will help me greatly in developing Pearl Sinkey. I already found a great resource about the button industry in Muscatine’s History and Industry Center, which has a large history on the button trade on its website.

So until next month, happy summer! If you have any questions, feel free to contact me or put them in the comments section below.