A Necessary Inspiration

By Marsha Nash Sultz

Sometimes inspiration sneaks up behind you and whispers in your ear. Sometimes it knocks you over the head with great vigor. In my case, frustration once drove me to create a solution for the unknowable.

Years ago, I was interested in family genealogy to the point of obsession. Where did I come from? Whose genetic oomph propelled me to become me? I was hip-deep in Ancestry.com when I discovered that my great-grandfather’s information ended abruptly. He was born during the Civil War in a small town in Tennessee and raised as an orphan. The courthouse records, and the courthouse, were destroyed by the townspeople to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Yankees. 

What? Who destroys their own records? 

After searching to no avail for another month I sat back, dumbfounded and upset. I wanted to know the beginning of Great-Grandpa Sam’s life. The only thing I knew from my Aunt Margie was that he was a sweet man, an orphan who was raised by neighbors. That wasn’t enough for me.

What does a writer do when confronted with a bad ending? She writes a new one.

I took the bare bones of setting, time period and characters and created my own small town, Benson’s Furnace, Tennessee. I led with a skirmish set during the Civil War in which a wounded Confederate captain is forced to remain behind, in secret. What ensues is forbidden love, betrayal and misunderstanding between certain female citizens of the town and our Captain. Twenty-five years later, he decides to return to Benson’s Furnace to atone for his past behavior.

My story becomes a saga of Southern post-war life in a small town where no one wants to talk about the past. Unfortunately, the captain’s appearance brings up memories of southern defeat and shame and the unthought-of parentage of Sam, an unintended result of the captain’s liaison with the wrong woman.

This story is wildly different from Sam’s real life. He married a local girl, fathered three children and moved to West Tennessee to become a cotton farmer. 

Do I owe Sam the truth? Did my imagination bend reality to the point of denying the existence of an authentic life? 

I can’t help but think that I’ve improved the story while paying tribute to a relative whose history remains a blank in the record book. As they say in bad detective movies, names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Besides, everyone needs a satisfying ending – to a story, to a novel or to a life.

A Journey through Chaos

my kingdom

By Janice McCaffrey

Where do creative ideas come from? I didn’t know so, of course, executed a Google search. One of the sites I found suggested that a person write down a word and follow that word with another that begins with the last letter of the previous word. And so on, and so on. The idea being that while your left-brain is busy thinking up words your right-brain will be inspired. H-m-m-m. I gave it a try.

Since I needed ideas for a Montana Women Writers blog entry, I started with the word “writers,” And this is how it went:

words for blog

How many creative ideas did I have at the end of this exercise? NONE!

Weeks later while working on another project I found an interesting article on creativity (of course, through a Google search). Nancy C. Andreason, M.D., Ph.D. directs research at the University of Iowa using brain scans and wrote a paper entitled: A Journey into Chaos: Creativity and the Unconscious.

The paper first describes four steps that her team established after interviews with creative people. 1). Preparation-when basic information and/or skills are gathered. 2). Incubation-a relaxed time during which the person does not work consciously to solve the problem. 3). Inspiration-what she calls the “eureka experience” when suddenly ideas come to mind and 4). Production-when the ideas are put into action.

Her group then ran brain scans on people while they were in a relaxed state. Their minds wandered freely without censorship. She reported that while the participants experienced a relaxed state, their neural level association cortices were working actively. She explains that while we’re relaxed our brains throw out feelers for concrete associations of colors, images, and concepts. These ideas collide until pairs interlock and make stable combinations. Then the brain’s self-organizing system spontaneously and frequently changes the pairs to produce something new. Her Take home message: The creative process is characterized by flashes of insight that arise from unconscious reservoirs of the mind and brain.

Oh, that’s why the good ideas come when in the shower, in bed but awake, or taking a walk alone.

So, need to enhance your creativity? Think about what you need…ideas for a blog, description of a setting, a character’s name, plot points, best color to paint your living room? Whatever. Find a quiet spot and relax, meditate or just sit in quiet (without falling asleep) and without thinking about what you need. Just float for 20-30 minutes. Inspiration will come to your mind either right then or some time later.

The journey takes our thoughts from chaos to creativity. Enjoy the ride!

Writing Historical Novels

historical fiction

By Janice McCaffrey

February’s Montana Women Writer’s meeting featured a discussion on Writing Historical Novels led by Karen Wills and me. Karen read the following quote  by Fiona Veitch Smith author of Pilate’s Daughter from M.K. Tod’s blog Inside Historical Fiction:

I build my worlds in concentric circles. The outer circle is the social, political, religious, economic and historical backdrop within which my story takes place … The next circle in will include the ‘props’ that the characters interact with … the innermost circle is the emotional core of the characters living in a particular period. 

An excellent segue into my favorite topic, research. Below is a handout listing some, I’m sure not all and in no apparent order, details historical novelists use to fill in Ms. Smith’s circles.

Facts of people’s lives – names, birth, marriage, death dates and places
Food – what, how produced, hunted, gathered, prepared, served, preserved
Water – supply, how does it get to people/animals
Other drinks – coffee, tea, alcohol, juices
Living quarters – structure, furniture, room set up

Lighting – inside and out
Social structure – social classes, details in each level, reactions, impact on society and individuals
Education – schools, apprenticeships, home learning
Manufacturing – for local use, exports
Imported/exported goods – what, from/to where, how transported

Purchasing goods – where, how often, from who, display or set up of goods, barter or currency
Money – coins, paper, denominations, country’s currency
Occupations and their how-to
Heating and cooling – homes, people, animals
Clothing – fabrics, colors, patterns, how are they made, by whom
Public Health – clean water, sewage, diseases, medical practices

Personal Hygiene – cleanliness, teeth, hair, clothing
Socials – what, where, with who
Games & Sports, pleasurable past times
Story telling – oral, books, legend, lore
Neighborhoods – city, town, rural

Patriarchal or Matriarchal – societies, families, governments, values
Rules spoken and unspoken – within family, community, groups, government
History of place – country, state, county, town
Civil laws – who writes them, how they’re upheld, justice system, consequences
Geography – terrain of land

Maps
Governments – leaders, issues, controversies – past & present
Politics – local, national, global
Military – preparedness, uniforms/armor, weapons, strongholds (fort, bunker, cave, etc)
Weather/Climate – seasons, temperatures, precipitation

Communication – (usually before phones at least before cell phones)
Travel – local and distant/international, land, sea, air, walk, ride, vehicles,
Ethnic & religious customs – national, local, family, personal
Religion – beliefs, ceremonies, conversion, spreading the Word
Stereotypes – common of the time and place

Language – written, oral, dialects
Death, burial, cremation – traditions, rites

            If you think of any that aren’t on the list, please let me know and I’ll add them.

Move Over, Southern Writers

By  Karen Wills

Since my roomy at the Historical Novel Society 2017 North American Conference, Janice McCaffrey, has written about sessions she attended, I’ll continue the thread.

Libbie Hawker, a young writer I admire both for her talent and prodigious output, was to moderate a panel discussion listed as Historical Fiction through a Pacific Northwest Lens. Emphasis was on the region as our last frontier.  pacific nw

Since NW Montana as part of the Inland Northwest is a sort of cousin to the Pacific Northwest states only without a coastline, I decided to attend. A former member of Kalispell’s Authors of the Flathead, Janet Fisher (A Place of her Own, and The Shifting Winds) presence on the panel became another incentive. Additional speakers were Kirby Larson (Hattie Big Sky, the Audacity Jones series, and others), and Janet L. Oakley (Tree Soldier, Timber Rose, and Mist-Shi-Mus).

Panelists first addressed how curiosity about their region determines what they write. It also leads to sources chosen for research. These include Metzger maps, documents such as deeds, historical societies, old letters, and professional historians to interview. The list also included early regional newspapers. As an aside, Oakley reminded us when we’re researching online, to look for sites ending in edu or org. Also, in order to save later grief, for every source record its date and where you found it.

Kirby Larson also spoke to the special temptations of using everything you’ve found in research. She once wrote an entire chapter on how to bake bread in a wood stove. As Janet Fisher said, of historical fiction, “The background is the brush strokes. Give a sense of your era without going into great detail.”

When asked about writing about minority populations, such as the Japanese Americans interred during WWII, panelists agreed on very minimal use of offensive racist terms. Writers need to be realistic about the era being covered, while still recognizing twenty-first century sensibilities.

The panel surprised us by expressing a desire to have the vibrant group of Pacific Northwest novelists become as recognizable and distinct by region as the Southern writers, think Truman Capote or Harper Lee. I caught up with Libby later, and suggested us Inland Northwesters be included.

river with no bridge

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Historical Novel Society Conference 2017

Sis. McCaffrey

By Janice McCaffrey

The Historical Novel Society North American Conference convenes in the US during odd numbered years with its counterpart in even numbered years meeting in the UK. This year Portland hosted June 22nd – 24th. Karen Wills and I attended with participants from across North America, the UK, Australia, Europe, and South American.

In two days we had at least 15 hours of informative sessions led by successful authors, editors, agents, and publishers. As well as an interview of and speeches by the two Guests of Honor: Geraldine Brooks and David Ebershoff. And we had time in between to meet, greet, exchange business cards, and chat with other attendees.

Since I love research, my favorite sessions were the ones where ideas were shared about what, where, who, and how to learn and verify historical facts to give our fictional characters, settings, and circumstances credibility.

I’ll share a few:

Paterson’s Roads by Daniel Paterson gives detailed information about English travel from 1775 to 1820. Originally maps and notes for the military these publications were used by travelers as they took road trips to see the sites. Elizabeth Bennett’s Aunt and Uncle used one to find Pemberley.

If there are horses in your story than the book Writing Horses by Judith Tarr is invaluable. Google “everyday life of series” and you’ll find books about everyday life, past and present, for all classes of society in many countries. Htpps://archive.org boasts a free non-profit online library with “millions of free books, movies, software, music, websites, and more.”

If you need historical clarification about military uniforms, weapons, transportation, etc. from ancient to modern times it’s http://ospreypress.com. For travel throughout the Roman Empire http://Orbis.Stanford.edu. Words from the past? Try the Oxford English Thesaurus. Books of Manners were first published in 1500. I found some online at http://openlibrary.com

To find experts to interview or ask them specific questions online try htpps://academia.edu and Profnet Connect at htpps://prnewswire.com/profnet. One presenter said that she takes classes or lessons to learn about and understand specific trades and suggested htpps://mooc.org which has free online classes to help improve your career. Another said she has studied religions and cultures through Harvard htpps://online-learning.harvard.edu.

And who knew? Google Scholar says with them you can “Stand on the shoulders of giants” because they provide “a simple way to broadly search for scholarly literature. From one place, you can search across many disciplines and sources: articles, theses, books, abstracts and court opinions, from academic publishers, professional societies, online repositories, universities and other web sites. Google Scholar helps you find relevant work across the world of scholarly research.”

The conference concluded with the first ever after party where members of the Portland Jane Austen Club taught us how to play whist, the forerunner of contract bridge and past time of the gentry in 18th and 19th century England. In fact Edmund Hoyle wrote the first book of instructions for Whist which was published in 1742. And yes, that’s where the expression “according to Hoyle” began.

But my very favorite party activity was when an instructor, accompanied by live music of the era, led us through several English folk dances. It was such great fun and since I played the male partner all evening, I can dance like Mr. Darcy!!