Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Songs of Old: Bonnie Eloise

When Macie sung, it was The Mohawk Vale ev’ry time. Now, that seemed funny, bein’ she was mad at me and that was my fav’rite song. Then, it didn’t seem so funny. One of the eatin’-house gals tole me, confidential, that Up-State had lots of little chins with Macie acrosst the lunch-counter, and that The Mohawk Vale was “by request.”

~ from Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher by Eleanor Gates

I've been over the Mohawk River any number of times in my life, but I'd never heard of this lovely song until I encountered it in Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher by Eleanor Gates, a slapstick-style 1907 comedy about an Oklahoma cowboy with matchmaking propensities. The song is referenced or quoted around a dozen times in the book—serving as a warning to Alec's friends that he has matchmaking in mind, an all-clear signal when his sweetheart's temperamental father is out of the way, a melancholy reminder of home to a tuberculosis patient (or "lunger") nicknamed "Up-State," and the means of a romantic reconciliation near the end of the story. Here's a fine rendition by the Sons of the Pioneers, from a mid-1940s radio show:

"Bonnie Eloise," often referred to under its subtitle "The Belle of the Mohawk Vale," was first published in 1858, with lyrics by George W. Elliott and music by John Rogers Thomas, and in the next decade the melody became a favorite marching tune of both the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. (The melody is also said to have been used for two other Civil War songs, "Our Own Starry Banner" and "Heroes of '62.") Click here to view the original sheet music, which includes two more verses not performed by the Pioneers.

I couldn't find a birthplace for George W. Elliott  (1830-1898), but I'd hazard a guess he was a native of New York State. A newspaperman and poet, by the 1860s he was the editor of the Fort Plain Mohawk Valley Register (the American Newspaper Directory listed it as four pages, subscription $2, circulation 2,250 in 1872!). As the story goes, he wrote the words to "Bonnie Eloise" on a railroad journey from New York City to Fort Plain, as a tribute to his sweetheart and future wife Mary Bowen, whose father owned Fort Plain's largest and most popular hotel Montgomery Hall. In 1868, the Elliotts played host to Mark Twain when he lectured in Fort Plain, and Twain wrote the following to his future wife Olivia Langdon:
I have been the guest, all day, of my poet-friend, Mr. Elliott, & his wife. He is editor of the paper here. They are very handsomely housed, & I have enjoyed their free & hearty hospitality exceedingly...Mrs. Elliott is a good, genuine little woman...(she is the original of the “Bonnie Eloise” of the old song so popular ten years ago)...
According to Volume VIII of the National Cyclopedia of American Biography, published in 1898, John Rogers Thomas (1829-1896) was born in Monmouthshire, Wales, and began his musical career as a singer, making his debut as the bass soloist in Handel's Messiah at age eighteen. A concert and opera singer, arranger, and composer of popular songs, operetta and sacred music, he came to America in 1849 and had his first hit song, "The Cottage by the Sea," in 1856. Among the notes on his career in the Cyclopedia is the mention that 1873, he performed "The Trumpet Shall Sound" from the Messiah at a musical event in Albany, New York, not far from the Mohawk itself.

To read previous entries in Songs of Old, click here.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Bookshelf Challenge

Suzannah of Vintage Novels tagged me for this Bookshelf Challenge questionnaire, and I am always helpless in the face of challenges that ask me to talk about books. There's always something to say. I guess that's why I love Goodreads so much: discovering books, reading about books, talking about books...

1) Is there a book that you really want to read but haven’t because you know that it’ll make you cry?
Hmm. That's not really a typical reason for me to procrastinate about reading a book. Put it a different way: I've been kind of wanting to read and yet not wanting to read The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come by John Fox Jr., because I'm not sure I'd like an ending I've heard hints of.

2) Pick one book that helped introduce you to a new genre.

Well, I'll bend this one a little: I was already interested in Westerns and American history, but it was Land of the Burnt Thigh by Edith Eudora Kohl that got me hooked on reading old memoirs by people who grew up and lived in the West. A fascinating book, which I've followed up with several more excellent ones in the same vein.

3) Find a book that you want to reread.

I made myself a whole Goodreads shelf devoted to books that I want to re-read at some point, but I'll pick just one here and say The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart. I'm planning to read it again in December, since it has wintry and Christmasy scenes appropriate to the season.

4) Is there a book series you read but wish that you hadn’t?

Series? That's a little hard to say. Looking over the books I've read, I find I read standalones far more than I do series. I'm not sure if I actually regret it, but I wasn't terribly enthused about the Zion Covenant series by Bodie and Brock Thoene. It was more a case of having to keep reading to find out what was going to happen. I found the history interesting, but had mixed feelings about the believability and quality of the fictional characters' storylines.

5) If your house were burning down and all of your family and pets were safe, which book would you go back inside to save?

You know, I'd like to do a fire drill sometime just to see how long it would take to sling my precious handwritten manuscripts out of my bedroom window. But as regards my bookshelf, I'd probably go for my favorites among the vintage and therefore hard-to-replace titles: Thorofare by Christopher Morley or Five Furies of Leaning Ladder by B.M. Bower, say.

6) Is there one book on your bookshelf that brings back fond memories?

I still remember sitting out in the yard in a lawn chair devouring our paperback copy of Murder on the Orient Express, my introduction to Agatha Christie, in one afternoon. The other day I looked out the window and saw my sister sitting in exactly the same spot, reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time—it must be a good spot for introduction to literature.

7) Find a book that has inspired you the most.

Probably The Day I Became an Autodidact by Kendall Hailey. I've written before how it helped me clarify my ideas about higher education and gave me confidence and excitement about the learning course I'd chosen.

8) Do you have any autographed books?

Actually, no. Probably because the majority of my physical books are by long-dead authors, and autographed copies of vintage books would certainly be beyond my budget!

9) Find the book that you have owned the longest.

I'll stick to what's on my own personal bookshelf here, since I know there are plenty of books in the house that go back to my childhood or before I was born. It might be a pair of Barnes & Noble Classics hardcover editions of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations that I can remember being around years ago.

10) Is there a book by an author that you never imagined you would read or enjoy?

I didn't think I'd ever read Georgette Heyer—her Regency books, anyway; I'd liked a few of her mysteries—I had an idea that they were all flimsy one-size-fits-all Regency romances, and I had no interest in the Regency period outside Jane Austen. Then I was finally persuaded to read The Grand Sophy by rave reviews from just about all my online reading pals, and was delighted with it.

Suzannah tagged three bloggers to carry this on, so I'll do the same. I tag Rachel Heffington, Emily Ann Putzke, and Maribeth...and anyone else who'd like to join in is welcome to do so!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Don't Knock the Classics

I don't go off on rants very often. I don't like conflict, and most of the time it just seems futile anyway. But there is one thing that I see cropping up in the world of how-to publishing blogs now and again that always makes me boiling mad.

These are blogs that offer a lot of good basic advice to new authors on how to decide what form of publishing is right for them, how to behave online, how to avoid amateurish mistakes in writing and indie publishing, and so on; a lot of that stuff is very worthwhile. But mixed in with other tips on how to write a book that will sell, I often see advice that boils down to this: don't pay attention to the classics. Don't write anything remotely like the great authors of yesterday, because modern readers have no patience for elegant prose or description of any length. I've read posts that literally go so far as to claim descriptive passages aren't needed any more, because nowadays people have already seen pictures of practically the whole world, unlike the ignorant readers of past centuries who needed word-pictures painted for them. Modern readers, they say, are held by such a slight thread of attention that if we use too many long words they'll drop the book and look for something that's simpler and moves faster.

I can't think of a better response than this masterful, no-punches-pulled assessment by 19th-century author and minister J.R. Miller, which I read just this week:

We live in a time when the trivial is glorified and magnified, and held up in the blaze of sensation, so as to attract the gaze of the multitude, and to sell. That is all many books are made for—to sell. They are written for money, they are printed, illustrated, bound, ornamented, titled—simply for money! There was no high motive, no thought of doing good to anyone, of starting a new impulse, of adding to the fund of the world's joy or comfort or knowledge. They were wrought out of mercenary brains. They were made to sell, and to sell they must appeal to the desire for sensation, excitement, romance, diversion or entertainment. 
So it comes to pass, that the country is flooded with utterly worthless publications, while really good and profitable books are left unsold and unread! The multitude goes into ecstasies over foolish tales, sentimental novels, flashy magazines, and a thousand trivial works that please or excite for a day—while the really profitable books, are passed by unnoticed! 
Hence, while everybody reads, few read the really profitable books. Modern culture knows all about the spectacular literature that flashes up and dies out again—but knows nothing of history or true poetry or really great fiction. Many people who have not the courage to confess ignorance of the last novel, regard it as no shame to be utterly ignorant of the majestic old classics. In the floods of ephemeral literature, the great books are buried away.

Doesn't that sound like it was written yesterday?

Miller is talking about reading here, but it applies equally well to writing. That passage was written in 1880, but fast-forward to 2014, when hundreds of ebooks are being uploaded to the Kindle Store every single day, and it's even more relevant.

Now let's admit it upfront: we do want our books to sell. I want my books to sell. Not necessarily to be runaway bestsellers. I'd like to know people are reading and enjoying them, and I surely wouldn't mind making a bit of income off them. And I believe 100% that we should expend every effort to make sure our writing meets the highest standard of quality we can achieve, and that we should earnestly endeavor not to bore or confuse our readers. But I'm not in this business to trick a dollar out of someone with an attention span that's only long enough for things that can be done inside thirty seconds on a smartphone. I am not going to chop my sentences in half and write in words of one syllable with that goal in mind.

I don't dismiss all contemporary literature offhand either. I've read several excellent recently-published books this year, some of which will likely end up on my top-ten favorites list. But for each of those I can think of a dozen instances where I tried a few sample pages of a newer book and gave up in despair at the childishly over-simplified and uninspiring writing.

I know literary styles change over the centuries, and I know that we are not all of us Austens and Dickenses and Tolstoys and Hugos. But the works those authors produced still stand as the benchmarks of our literature, and we are doing a disservice to ourselves and to our own readers if we dismiss them as antiquated and only good for our great-grandfathers (most of whom probably forgot more than we'll ever know about literature and other things as well). Literature has suffered enough dumbing-down over the past fifty years; it doesn't need any more help in that direction.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Slices of Life

I unpacked my fall clothes at the beginning of the month, and the temperature promptly went back up to 90 degrees for another week. But now it has come back down to proper autumn levels, much to my delight. I'm really loving the cold, crisp weather this year. I guess you could call me a fresh-air fiend—I go around opening windows, and then as soon as my back is turned somebody closes them.

- Reading -

Most of the reading I've done or plan to do this fall seems to consist of hefty volumes. I felt it was time to toughen up my mental muscles and spend a while with some substantial and challenging books. I just finished Five Came Back and I've reached the epilogue in my re-read of War and Peace (whoever said you can't live in three different centuries at the same time?). Next up is Tarkington's National Avenue (in case you missed it, I found a copy of National Avenue!) and I've also got Howard Pyle's The Story of King Arthur and His Knights on hand. I figured it was about time I actually got acquainted with Arthurian legend, after years of going along with vague scraps of ideas amassed from literary references. It was between Pyle's version and Roger Lancelyn Green's for a starting point, but my library had only Pyle so my decision was made for me.

- Writing -

I finally finished "Wanderlust Creek" (to me that statement seems to warrant a whole row of exclamation points, but I'll spare you). As I might have mentioned already, it goes with a handful of other Western stories I've written over the last couple years, which I plan to edit at my leisure and release as another collection, likely sometime during the forthcoming winter. "Wanderlust Creek" ended up tipping the scale at over 17,000 words, but that's all right with me—I've read several good collections with a long story or novella as a centerpiece, and I thing that'll work well for this one.

Meanwhile, I'm wrestling with the midpoint of The Summer Country and beginning to plan for the historical novel that I want to make my major project from here on out (I had two ideas to choose between, and I think I'm about 90% settled on one). I read a really good and handy little book recently, Finding the Core of Your Story by Jordan Smith, which focuses on figuring out exactly what drives your story by creating a logline for it; and I'm doing some of the exercises in the book to try and get a coherent sense of what this novel is really about before I start serious work on it. (If it ends up being the one I'm 90% settled on, it's actually a rewriting job, which is mildly terrifying.)

- Listening -

The newest additions to my mp3 player are all Glenn Miller and Michael Bublé, so I guess I'm in a swinging kind of mood. I don't know if I mentioned it, but I got to see the modern-day Glenn Miller Orchestra live this past spring and it was fabulous. I loved every minute of it, but I think the most magical moment was when they launched into the opening bars of "At Last"—it was amazing hearing it live after listening to the 1942 version so many times that I know almost every note of the orchestrations by heart. My latest discoveries are "Begin the Beguine" (which I'd never heard till the concert), "Skylark" and "The Nearness of You."

I guess it's no surprise that my favorite Michael Bublé songs are his covers of old standards, but I'm getting to quite like a few of his more modern ones too, like "Hold On," "Haven't Met You Yet" and "Feeling Good." My favorite right now, though, is "You've Got a Friend In Me"—and I think it says something about my musical sensibilities that I thought it was a cover of an old song until I Googled it to find out who wrote it, figuring it was Johnny Mercer or Harry Warren or someone of the sort. Nope.

- Otherwise -

I seem to have taught Bär how to bring a toy back when she fetches it...which is really the main point of the exercise. Now she doesn't want to stop playing; she'll bring it back for the fiftieth time, drop it at my feet and look at me just as expectantly as she did the first time. Her energy is boundless.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Stagecoach Scenario

A number of years ago, I came up with a definition of my own for a plot device that I recognized as one of the most frequently-used and filled with possibilities. I call it the Stagecoach Scenario.

I borrowed the name from the classic 1939 movie Stagecoach, which demonstrates the idea in its most basic form. The setup is this: a group of people, usually (but not always) diverse in personality, background, profession and, depending on the setting of the story, social class—people who ordinarily would have little or no contact with one another—brought together in close quarters while traveling. Usually they are strangers to one another, sometimes there are unexpected (possibly unpleasant) reunions with past acquaintances involved. On the journey, some outside force poses a danger and/or strands them midway on their route, forcing them into closer communication with each other through a common struggle for survival. As a result, tensions and various relationships among the individuals come into play. The story's conflict derives from both the question of whether they will escape the threatened disaster and what will happen among them in the meantime.

All these elements are easily identifiable in Stagecoach: the close quarters are the stagecoach itself, the passengers the varied group of characters, the journey across the desert, the hostile Indians are the danger from outside. But once you've recognized the basic plot structure, you can see it framing dozens of different stories. A modern equivalent is the airplane disaster film, from The High and the Mighty onward. You have basically the same setup: the diverse group of passengers, the outside force of engine trouble or weather literally threatening the safety of the plane. With a few variations, you could have the same situation on a ship—or a train—or even a bus.

Introducing a crime and a criminal into the pool of characters adds another layer of complexity. Who is hiding something? Is one of the group not what they seem to be? Do they pose a hazard to their companions? The Stagecoach Scenario even serves as the frame for classic whodunits. Agatha Christie used it multiple times with stunning results. Murder On the Orient Express is a stellar example of the travel plot, with the snowbound train serving as the close quarters. In true Christie fashion she uses the basic setup, a crowd of diverse characters thrown together, as an integral part of her mystery plot. The limited amount of people present in a travel setting is helpful for a mystery writer, as John Curran notes in Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks; it provides a limited pool of suspects to concentrate on, and the usually remote location also gives the detective a free hand (as in Appointment With Death, for instance). It's the outside force, the stranding snow, that gives Poirot the freedom to make his investigation in Murder On the Orient Express. Christie successfully used almost every single method of transportation mentioned above, including the ship (Death On the Nile) and the airplane (Death In the Clouds), but Murder On the Orient Express remains the finest example of 'stranded murder.'

But the Stagecoach Scenario can be stationary too. Take the hostage story, for instance (The Petrified Forest is a textbook case). In war stories or in Westerns, a siege produces the same effect: trapped characters, outside threat and internal conflict. The Old West is a particularly propitious setting, considering that it's filled with potential outside dangers and a great diversity of character types that can be brought together. An excellent example of this in book form is Last Stand At Papago Wells by Louis L'Amour. In this story the group of characters—men and women, Army and civilian, innocent and guilty, fugitives and pursuers—are trapped in a desert stronghold, surrounded by hostile Apaches and with a diminishing supply of water, with the tensions and suspicion among themselves proving an enemy as dangerous as the Indians.

It doesn't stop there. I've noticed that some war movies share a similar structure—again you have the dissimilar group (the soldiers, recruited from all walks of life) the exotic locale (overseas) the outside danger (hazards of war), the characters forced into close association and dependence on each other. And then there's the classic English country-house mystery, another device for gathering a cross-section of characters together and watching the sparks fly.

The defining feature of this scenario, in whatever setting, is that it's character-driven. Outside forces may apply the pressure, but the interest lies in how the characters react to it and how they interact with each other while under that pressure. And this is where the author steps in, to craft their own unique characters and build their own story off the basic foundation. That's why I love this scenario—the possibilities are endless. Once aboard the stagecoach, anything can happen.

So what are your favorite examples of the Stagecoach Scenario in books and film? How many additional variations can you think of?

Adapted from an old piece on a now-defunct prior blog.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Cover Reveal: Anon, Sir, Anon by Rachel Heffington

The 12:55 out of Darlington brought more than Orville Farnham's niece; murder was passenger.

In coming to Whistlecreig, Genevieve Langley expected to find an ailing uncle in need of gentle care. In reality, her charge is a cantankerous Shakespearean actor with a penchant for fencing and an affinity for placing impossible bets.

When a body shows up in a field near Whistlecreig Manor and Vivi is the only one to recognize the victim, she is unceremoniously baptized into the art of crime-solving: a field in which first impressions are seldom lasting and personal interest knocks at the front door.

Set against the russet backdrop of a Northamptonshire fog, Anon, Sir, Anon cuts a cozy path to a chilling crime.

Remember, remember, that on the 5th of November, Rachel Heffington's debut mystery will be available for purchase! In the meantime, you can add it to-read on Goodreads (and look out for my own review there sometime soon). And if you'd like to help spread the word, you can take this graphic for use on your own blog, website, et cetera:

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Flash-Fiction Fest: The Letter

Apparently flash-fiction challenges are addictive. This one comes courtesy of Yvette at in so many words, and the starting point this time is not a topic but an image. Participants got to choose from three vintage illustrations Yvette posted at the beginning of the challenge, and the idea was to write a short bit of fiction to go along with the picture. My choice was the one seen here, by artist Robert George Harris, and here's what I imagined lies behind it:

I closed the door behind me. The warm, quiet dimness of the room seemed to be standing still and listening, and I stood still for a minute too. I felt like I had shut out the clamor and chaos that had followed me all day, just as if I had cut off a clamor of sound by shutting a door. It had been a strange, tense day, with the consciousness of what was going on in the world lending a distracted edge to everything. Word of a naval battle was filling the news, in stark black headlines on the newsstands; in the tinny, stentorian voices of the war correspondents coming over the radio, with an undercurrent of tight excitement to every word that made you feel like you might hear the boom of the guns in the background at any moment.

I had read all about it in the newspaper at the counter of a drugstore at lunchtime, and then had gone on through my afternoon with a with a feeling of unreality in everything I did and looked at—as if this everyday life was only show, and the real thing outside had intruded on it and turned it hollow. It was a relief to be back in the quiet, comfortingly familiar embrace of my own room—I felt normal again, but still with a lingering, more acute sense of that world outside.

I went over to the desk and took out the letter that I had slid away there before supper, so I could come up and read it in peace and quiet afterwards. I slit the envelope and took out the sheets of paper, and walked over to the fireplace. There was just enough of a flicker coming from the coals that I could see the words on the paper, so I curled up into the comfortable corner of the big flowered armchair, tilted the letter toward the glow, and settled down to read. The letter was the same as always: brisk, practical, bantering; mixing incidents of service life with answers to what I had written. I read it through slowly, quietly enjoying it, a faint smile touching my face now and then.

When I finished, I put the sheets back in order, and my eye traveled up to the heading in the corner of the first one. The date on it stopped me. It was the day after the fleet had been in action, according to the newspaper. I fingered the letter slowly, my eyes drifting upward from it to look into space. It had been written after that battle, only hours after the action. And it was the same as always. I’d always known where the letters were written from, sensed the things they left out. But I’d never made the connection so strongly before to the things not said, as I did now with the black-headlined newspaper containing the account of the battle still lying on a table in the same room. The feeling of something dark and threatening loomed up at me out of the shadows beyond the firelight.

I sat very still and stared out from the depths of the armchair across the room, and in my mind I heard the guns thundering, growing louder till the echoes quivered in the dark corners around me. I saw the hot sun and the violently sparkling blue sea and the metal of the decks, shaken with impact and veiled in black smoke. Behind all the cheerful teasing and anecdotes traded back and forth in our letters, this was the reality; this was the danger that he had to live through. It was always there, though it only became real to me in brief moments of clarity, like this night.

Something broke gently in the fire. I looked at the letter, and then I folded it slowly, the paper crinkled where my sweaty fingers had left spots of dampness. I was about to get up, to put it back in the desk, but I stopped. I leaned my head against the back of the chair and stayed there, very still, the folded letter clasped beneath my hand.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Monthly Verse

Thirty days hath September
April, June, and November
All the rest have thirty-one
Except for February, which, alas!
Hath broke my rhyme; it shall not pass
Without rebuke for letting stray
That twenty-ninth elusive day.

~ * ~

That ought to do as well as any; I can never remember how the darn thing actually ends.

And this is why I write fiction, not poetry.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Chatterbox: Three Crates of Pears

I failed at Chatterbox in July and it was on hiatus last month, but now it has returned! When I saw the announcement, I eagerly opened up the post, and found that Rachel had chosen for this month's subject...pears.

Pears? Honestly? I don't even know if I like pears; I'm not sure I've ever tasted one in my life. I suspect I may have consumed them in pureed form as an infant, but my memory does not go back that far. And I was firmly convinced there wasn't a shadow of a pear in any of my stories. If it had been onions, now—onions are a versatile vegetable, with many inherent dramatic properties. But pears?

Still, necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. If one must write about pears, one writes about pears. Somewhere a very small wheel started turning in my mind, and eventually kicked the others into gear. So here's the result. Since Rachel, to my mind, decidedly bent the rules by assigning us a topic she'd already written about, I feel entitled to bend them a little further and write something in the first-person again.

I am not going to tell you what this is from—or more accurately, what this could end up being a part of one day—because I've refused to let myself write it until I've finished about three other things. It ought properly to be a deep dark secret between me and the notebook and the private Pinterest board. I still don't know how I got hoodwinked into Chatterboxing it.

Dear Leo,

Please excuse the horrible handwriting in the latest installment of this thrilling serial. My pen is still leaking, and I’m too exhausted to write legibly tonight. The smudges could serve a purpose, I suppose; if you’ve got any fingerprint experts on board they can compare the prints with my last letter (similarly smudged) and confirm that it’s not a forgery and really from me.
Please excuse incoherence as well. I am writing this sitting at my desk with my aching feet up on the arm of an armchair. If you’ve a reasonably clear mind at present, which I don’t, perhaps you can help me solve a conundrum: how does one dispose of three crates of nearly-overripe pears? If the answer may be construed in any way as helping the war effort, so much the better.
I should explain. I spent most of today helping to set up a hall for a Red Cross charity supper which is, hopefully, taking place at this minute. I’d spent several hours running back and forth answering frantic calls for chairs, silverware, string, scissors, and someone to tame a wild tablecloth, when I was summoned to a back door to confront a totally original problem. It seems that a Leading Citizen whose name I never did find out (and it’s lucky for him I didn’t) had decided to do his part by donating three large crates of pears.
“Well, that’s nice,” I said, “but what are we going to do with them?”
Nobody knew. They weren’t exactly on the menu for dinner, and there didn’t seem to be any gap in the program that could suitable be filled by three crates of pears. My fellow-laborer, a short and ingenuous person named Mandy, suggested that we make pear preserves and send them to the troops.
“I wouldn’t wish that on the troops,” I said. “Anyway, it’s got to be something more immediate than that, because judging by their fragrance, these have about reached the peak of their usefulness. Well, let’s put them in the kitchen.”
Mandy and I took a heavy crate and shuffled into the kitchen with it, but were thundered at by a volunteer cook that there wasn’t an inch of space left anywhere. We shuffled back out into the hall, set down the crate, and looked around. “There’s just too many,” said Mandy despairingly. “Even if we put one at every place we’ll have tons left over. Should we put them around in baskets?”
“We are not putting a pear at every place,” I said firmly. “Not everyone likes pears. If they find the place lined wall to wall with them they might never contribute to the Red Cross again. We’ve got to be more unobtrusive. How do you hide a thousand pears in plain sight?”
I was looking at a table, and had my great inspiration. The flowers hadn’t come yet, and there was an empty space in the middle of the table. “I know what I’ll do,” I said, seizing a pear in either hand. “A fruit centerpiece always looks elegant—and it’ll look as though it were planned. The flowers can go somewhere else.”
I was never trained in fruit-arranging, but I think I did all right. In ten minutes I’d built a pyramid about a foot high. I was very carefully balancing the best-looking pear I could find on top, when Mandy came by again and looked at it admiringly. “That really does look nice,” she said.
At that moment the entire pyramid collapsed, sending a chinook-flow of pears onto the floor and annihilating a couple of place-settings (I’m afraid the china was loaned for the occasion). Mandy was too horrified even to speak. I sat down matter-of-factly in the wreckage and thought about staying there, supper or no supper.
“I’ll tell you what we’re going to do with them,” I said. And we did.
We loaded all the pears back in the crates and lugged the crates up to the front of the platform where the band and speakers were to sit. We swathed them in red-white-and-blue bunting, and plopped a large pot of flowers (also highly fragrant) on top of each. The result, we thought, was quite artistic, but it’s going to be very aromatic in the region of the platform when the room gets warm tonight. I hope the musicians are not too sensitive to smells; it would be rather awful to have horn players punctuating the national anthem with sneezes.
I don’t intend to be on hand when the pears are discovered tomorrow, and I hope Mandy isn’t, because I suspect she’s the kind who squeals. In that case, if you receive a suspiciously squashy and sweet-smelling parcel at next mail call, you have my full permission to toss it over the starboard rail (or the larboard; whichever’s closest). The Japanese are welcome to them.

Your exhausted and affectionate cousin,
Read previous Chatterboxes here.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Cover Reveal: Corral Nocturne

Here it is! Behold the gorgeous cover for Corral Nocturne, designed by Jenny Quinlan of Historical Editorial. It is just perfect for the story. Corral Nocturne is available for pre-order now, don't forget, and it will magically appear on your Kindle on November 1st, 2014. If you've pre-ordered it, that is.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Hardcover Happiness

Yesterday I reorganized and dusted my bookcase. (That's the one thing about neat library shelving: you've got to take all the books out and dust the shelves once in a while, because the dust collects in the space behind them.) I had two substantial hardcovers I wanted to fit in somehow, which looked like a forlorn hope, since it was already packed to capacity—but somehow, with the removal of one book and a great deal of shuffling the others around, I managed it.

Since I shared a look at my little library last spring, books have come and books have gone, but it doesn't look too different. I've parted with a couple I didn't really need; others that didn't belong to me have moved off to other locations. There's a few new ones. A volume of Robert Frost's collected poetry that used to be my grandfather's has moved in on the bottom shelf—I've only read a bit of it, but it just seems like a book to hang on to. And there's the copies of The Hanging Tree and City Editor I got last Christmas...oh, and a couple new paperbacks of my own creation, too!

Anyhow, the reason for this latest upheaval was the addition of those two hardcovers I mentioned: Alexander Stephens' History of the United States, which I want to read as a sort of refresher course on early American history—and most notably of all, this volume here, which is now one of the coolest vintage books in my collection:

I had finally come to the conclusion that the only way I was going to read Booth Tarkington's National Avenue was purchasing a copy myself, so I went browsing online booksellers and found something even better—all three books of Tarkington's "Growth" trilogy in one volume!

From what I gather, they may not have originally been written as a trilogy, but in 1927 Tarkington collected three of his novels with a connecting theme—the Industrial Revolution around the turn of the 20th century—in one volume under the name "Growth." Though there is no direct relationship between the stories themselves, all are set in what is presumably the same nameless "midland city," which is likely based on Tarkington's native city of Indianapolis. In this volume, they appear not in the order they were written, but chronologically, according to the time at which the novels were set. Thus The Magnificent Ambersons, written in 1918 but beginning in the 1870s, comes first, followed by The Turmoil (1915) and finally The Midlander from 1924 (it was retitled National Avenue for the trilogy collection). The first few pages of The Turmoil were moved to the beginning as a kind of prologue, and Tarkington added in a few sentences to the opening paragraphs of each novel to loosely tie them together. It's pretty neat. I can't wait to read National Avenue and re-read the other two.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Fall Fresh Start

Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.
~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

I'm grateful for the changes of the seasons. Aside from the pleasant sense of something new that comes with the changing weather, they make such nice well-defined points to regroup one's forces, reorganize one's closet and drawers and bookshelves, start fresh with a new daily schedule or start a new project.

Granted, the weather hasn't actually gotten crisp yet. But September 1st sounds like a nice starting-over point, even if the weather doesn't want to cooperate. And incidentally, I remembered while composing this post that September 1st is also the four-year anniversary of this blog. I shall be very cliché and remark airily, "How time flies!"

The big news of today is that Corral Nocturne is now available for pre-order on Amazon Kindle! To quote Miss Matty, pre-orders are something that I have wished for for an age, so you can imagine how delighted I was when Amazon rolled out this new feature recently. The official release date is November 1st, so mark your calendars, mark it to-read on Goodreads, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera...

I spent the last week of August on vacation, and finding myself in need of some serious de-stressing, avoiding any kind of writing or publishing work. Which involved swimming, re-reading War and Peace (yes, I am odd; I read Tolstoy to relax), listening to my favorite Michael Buble songs, one particularly lovely afternoon picnicking by a lake, and just "doing nothing" (Christopher Robin would approve). Before that, though, I was putting Corral Nocturne through the final step in the process of writing historical fiction: last-minute fact-checking. This involves things like double-checking the dates of origin for phrases and inventions and finding out exactly what the different parts of a farm wagon are called. There's always a few things to check on at the last minute, though I try to do these things as I go along too. One of my nicest evenings earlier this summer was spent sitting on a boulder on a hillside, watching fireworks over the city and river below, and calculating their distance from me and taking note of what they sounded like at that distance. A session with Google Maps a few days later to find out exactly how far I was from the fireworks proved to my satisfaction that either by instinct or fortunate chance, I had the fireworks in Corral Nocturne behaving just as they should.