Friday, January 28, 2011

An 18th Century Bookshelf

"Elijah Boardman, 1789" by Ralph Earl
My characters, as it turns out, are readers. I didn't anticipate that development when I began writing Kindred in 2004. I couldn't have told you on that rainy April day what year the Revolutionary War ended, much less what literature was being published and read during those final decades of the 18th century.

Quite a learning curve I set for myself.

Over the course of writing two (so far) novels set in the Federal era of American History, I've had the fun of researching what books my characters might have kept tucked under their pillows for a bit of late night candlelit reading, or gathering dust on their bookshelves as symbols of their comparative wealth.

In Kindred there's Ian Cameron, son of a Boston bookbinder, who collects books on cabinetmaking designs such as Chippendale's Directory. And Thomas, a free black man from Boston who finds the course of his life irrevocably altered by the published slave narrative of Olaudo Equiano. And Judith, the true bookworm of that story, who is partial to the novels of the day like Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, and the poems of "that young Lowlander, Burns".

Even in his uncle’s room the trappings of former wealth were evident. Fine hangings on the high-post bed, a rich turkey carpet spanning the pinewood floor, and the Hepplewhite desk at which Ian sat, with its triple finials and glass-paneled bookcase, gave the illusion of increased income. 

Ian opened the case above the desk to visually caress the wealth—Defoe, Swift, Johnson, Locke, Boswell, Smollet and Fielding. A collection of poems by that young Lowlander, Burns. Outdated copies of Franklin’s Almanack. Most were bound in leather, some worked in gilt. A familiar spine caught his eye, a book of Norse legends he’d read as a lad. Ian tugged it free. Inside was an inscription in his father’s hand:
1767. Inverness. My first Bound Book. 
“Hugin and Munin fly each day the wide earth over. I fear for Hugin lest he fare not back—yet I watch the more for Munin.” 
As we fly the earth over, Brother… Think and Remember. 
The book, twin to one his parents owned, bore early evidence of Robert Cameron’s distinctive tooled style. Ian brought it to his nose, smelled the aging leather, and for an instant was back in his father’s shop in Boston.
~from Kindred, Copyright 2011 Lori Benton All Rights Reserved


In The Quiet in the Land there is Neil MacGregor, graduate of Edinburgh University, trained physician, and botanist. He's partial to the more scientific works of naturalists such as Carolus Linnaeus and John and William Bartram. And there's Willa Obenchain, daughter of a frontiersman and a lover of the popular epistolary novels of Sir Samuel Richardson's Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded and Clarissa: Or a History of a Young Lady, books her grandmother maintains lead only to slothfulness, so she's forced to hide them and read them on the sly.

It's too early to tell with Jesse, one of the new frontier novels I've begun planning, whether or not the characters will have access to books, much less be readers, but chances are they will be.

In Over Jordan, the second novel I've begun, an early chapter opens in a book shop where a character is enthusing over the poetry of Philip Freneau, an American poet know for his anti-British writing during the Revolutionary War (before and after his six-week stint as a prisoner on a British prison ship). Important to my character are his poems about Native Americans. Freneau is considered something of a transitional writer, the images, tone and themes of his work anticipating the "romantic primitivism" of writers such as James Fenimore Cooper and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the early 19th century. He was perfect for the scene in which I placed his work, which helps foreshadow much of what that particular character will experience as her story unfolds.

We're all affected by what we read. That held true in the 18th century as well as the 21st. Showing this in my stories has helped bring my characters to life, whether it's social, moral or political commentary, business and scientific journals, or poetry that most engages them. But I have to say the one development in the field of 18th century literature for which I am most thankful is the "rise of increasingly realistic fictions" (Wiki).

In other words, novels.

photo credits: stacked books, Lin Pernille Photography (flickr); shelved books, guldfisken (flickr)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Burns Night

O my Luve's like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve's like the melodie
That’s sweetly play'd in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I:
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

~from A Red, Red Rose

January 25th is the birthday of Scotland's national bard, Robert Burns (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796).

Burns, the son of a tenant farmer, is also known as Scotland's favorite son, and the Ploughman Poet. And just as the Scots have gone abroad and settled all over creation, love for Burns' poetry has followed like a faithful collie. Burns' lyrics were written mostly in the Scots language (or dialect, depending on which side of that argument you fall on), a language I'm particularly fond of having crowded my novels with plenty of Scotsmen and Scotswomen, and having no intention of swearing off that habit any time soon.

Around the world on January 25th, a celebration of Scotland's best known bard's life and works, called a Burns Supper, will take place. The first Burns Supper was held in Scotland in 1802. "The basic format starts with a general welcome and announcements, followed with the Selkirk Grace. After grace comes the piping and cutting of the haggis, where Burns' famous Address To a Haggis is read and the haggis is cut open. The event usually allows for people to start eating just after the haggis is presented. This is when the reading called the "immortal memory", an overview of Burns' life and work, is given. The event usually concludes with the singing of Auld Lang Syne." ~from Wiki
Wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
                     Wi' bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
                    Wi' murd'ring pattle!
~ from To A Mouse, On turning her up in her Nest with the Plough


Burns died tragically young, but many of his poems, or phrases from them, have become universally known.
O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursel's as others see us
Nae man can tether time or tide

The best-laid schemes o' mice, and men
Gang aft agley

Should auld acquaintance be forgot
     And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
    And auld lang syne?

To read more about the man, visit the Official Robert Burns site.

Because Burns first published his poems in the late 1780s, I was able to work mention of him into a scene or two in Kindred, set in 1794. Here's a clip from the story, in which I've disguised the identity of a particular character with X, to avoid spoilers:

They ate with little conversation. Before X finished Ian lay back on the pillows, the scent of roses sweetly painful, but roused at the clink of dinnerware and took hold of X’s hand. “Leave it. Would ye like me to read to ye?”

Her face brightened. “Mr. Burns?”
Ian smiled flatly, but capitulated. X liked him to read the man’s romantical works, Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, with his faint accent ridiculously broadened. “I can manage a verse or twa. But first….”

X had set the tray by the door and was reaching for the volume.
[break for unrelated spoilerish stuff before they get to the reading]
Outside the day was fading. Ian lit a candle while X settled on the bed beside him.

“Aye, right.” Ian pitched his voice to mimic his mam’s lowland speech, and began the poem of the son who left the honest work to which his father had reared him, to seek an easy fortune. “My father was a farmer upon the Carrick border, O/And carefully he bred me in decency and order, O….”

In the middle of the fifth stanza, as the son left off his failed schemes and returned to work the soil—to plough and sow, and reap and mow—X interrupted him.

“Do you like being a farmer, Ian?” 

“Aye, lassie. I like it weel.” He’d answered flippantly, but hearing the words out of his mouth he knew them for truth. He stared at his hand, splayed on the page, noting new calluses from spade and axe and plow. Minding the slaves’ lighter steps coming in from the field that evening he said, “Today’s Saturday.”

“And tomorrow’s the Sabbath,” X said. “Though there’s no meeting for us to attend.”

“Aye, there is… if ye wouldn’t mind a bit of manure on your shoes.”

“You mean the Reynolds?”

He’d surprised her with the notion. But why not? He’d yet to tell John of what happened on the ridge, the night he followed the slaves. It was time he did so. “Would ye come with me tomorrow, to worship with our neighbors?”

The tiredness lifted from X’s face. “I’d like that, Ian. Yes.”

~ from Kindred, Copyright 2011 Lori Benton All Rights Reserved

And last but not least, a Burns poem not to be missed:
Ha! whaur ye gaun, ye crowling ferlie?
Your impudence protects you sairly:
I canna say but ye strunt rarely,
                  Owre gauze and lace;
Tho', faith, I fear ye dine but sparely
                  On sic a place
~ from To A Louse, On seeing One on a Lady's Bonnet in Church

photo credits: quill by neil conway; Scottish landscape by Shandchem; Trossachs bridge by kyahl. All photos used under creative common license.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

1790s Clothing

This is an email I sent earlier today to several fellow 18th century writers. Because I'm so immersed in the subject this week, I'm posting it here too (Pardon the references to personal trials and tribulations. I usually try to reserve them for Facebook. ). 

I'm feeling too ill today after back-to-back bugs (taking care of a hubby home-stranded by sickness in the brief interlude between them! Oh,what a month it's been) to do more than a little scene plotting today, the first day I might have written undisturbed since Jan 7th, had I not come down with the second bug yesterday. I'm here though, propped up on medication. This is the most sickly winter for our household that I can remember for many a year.

But enough of that, back to writing! Since my upcoming chapter will contain more references to dressmaking than any I've previously written, I've been immersing myself in 1790s fashion, fabrics, patterns and sewing (via Tidings from the 18th Century, by Beth Gilgun), while resting comfortably in my recliner near the warm and cozy stove. Gilgun has a lot of great leads in her end of chapter references, and I'm off to follow a few. But first....

The early to mid 1790s were such a transitional decade. Not quite Rev War fashion, but not yet quite the Jane Austin Empire waist fashion either. My specific year is 1796, so I'm going with the the round gown with its lengthening sleeves as the established fashion, and the chemise dress with its thinner fabric, gathered neck, and wide bright sash as the most fashionable thing to be had for a middle class young lady. Perhaps they've heard about or seen the Empire waist gowns with their sheer fabrics and short puffed sleeves, and wonder would they ever be daring enough to wear such a thing, much less during a New England winter, just drawing to a close in my chapter.

Apparently some did just that. There was "quite an uproar from the pulpits and in the press over the scantiness of the Empire style. Timothy Dwight, a Congregationalist minister and president of Yale College, [penned in a 1811 pamphlet,] "A young lady dressed a' la Greque (or Grecian style, meant to emulate Grecian statuary) in a New England winter violates alike good sense, correct taste, sound morals, and the duty of self-preservation." From Tidings from the 18th Century, by Beth Gilgun.

The 1790s are a bit later a time period than most of you are writing, but if any of you have a good reference for this time period in regards to fashion (particularly New England/Boston), I'd appreciate a mention. I've just tracked down Janet Arnold's Patterns of History (1660-1860). It's always a joy to find our library carries a research book, and they do have this one. Another I will track down is Fabric of Society: A Century of People and Their Clothes, 1770-1870, by Jane Tozer and Sarah Levitt.

Anyone read either of those? Do you have another indispensable resources for the period to share? I'd love to add to my resource collection!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Wednesday Wrangling

Time was I reserved rounding up the latest and greatest books and writing posts I've found roaming the Wild Web for a Friday, but I've run across quite a number of great posts already this week, ones that fall into my Don't Miss It category. So without further ado, here they are:


Dale Cramer talks about keeping writing tight and trim. It's a subject I never tire of reading about.

Jody Hedlund discusses the ever-growing importance of a novel's first chapter. I have to agree!

Latayne Scott asks the question, should we unplug from all this on line social connectivity? I wish, sometimes. Other times... I'm still okay with it all. But then, I'm not published yet.

Steven Pressfield tells us why panic (for a writer) is good. Always love Pressfield's encouraging posts on all pursuits creative.

I'll stop with those four. Have you run across a great post on writing or reading or things creative lately, one you wish everyone could read? Please share the link in the comments.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Writer's Voice

In a recent blog post, Books & Such agent, Wendy Lawton, commented, "And reading good books, fresh books, starts to infiltrate your own writing. You develop your voice by osmosis, not by technique."

That statement resonates with me.

Many years ago I showed a story I'd written to the members of a writing critique group I was part of in my early twenties. The story had been an art class project I did in high school (at the time I was more concerned with the illustrations and the book binding process/design we were exploring in class, than in the story itself). Anyway, years later I showed the story to my critique group, who by then were familiar with my (ahem) serious adult writing. One writer after reading the first page said, "I can already recognize your voice in this."

That was the first time I'd encountered the term voice applied to writing, yet I instinctively knew what he meant. So, I thought, I have a voice. That sounds like a good thing to have as a writer.

Fast forward a few years and through discoveries of many favorite fiction writers (Diana Gabaldon, Ellis Peters, Stephen Lawhead, Francine Rivers, Laura Frantz, Linda Nichols, Susanna Kearsely, James Alexander Thom, Charles Martin, too many others to name), and I began to see how each of these writers had influenced that thing called my voice. Over time my writing has taken on a slight nuance of one writer, a certain sense of humor shaded by another, a rhythm of sentence structure faintly reminiscent of yet another. 

There were times I worried that I was letting other writers influence me too much, but I don't worry about that anymore. Here's why: if I'm reading Ellis Peters or Charles Martin, for a few days my writing might reflect their voice in a more noticeable way, but given time that influence is going to sink down deeper and have a far more subtle affect than if I were trying to write like Peters or Martin or whomever.

I liken the process of developing a writing voice to taking vitamins. The pill is there for a moment on the tongue, then it's swallowed and becomes a part of the body, strengthening and enriching where it's needed. You can't see the vitamin, but you can see, and feel, its influence.

Just like our bodies are either strengthened or weakened by the foods we give them for fuel, our writing voices are affected by what we feed them, in the form of recreational reading.

If you are a writer then I encourage you to feed your voice with intention, with writing that's fresh, that has substance, that energizes you. Think of the books you read as nourishment, and (as mom would say) make good choices!

photo: cover for Books are for Reading, by Suzy Becker

Sunday, January 09, 2011

My First (creative) Love

The summer after high school I worked in the graphic art department of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. It was an internship position I earned on the strength of an essay, (ironically, because I was far more interested in becoming an artist than a writer at that time in my life), competing against high school seniors across the country. It was a fun, albeit brief, interlude before I entered art college that fall.

One of the unexpected bonuses of that summer was that my bus into DC, from the Maryland suburbs, arrived at the Mall an hour before I had to be at work, downstairs past the elephant in the rotunda entrance. That meant I had an hour to wander through the Natural History Museum, exploring all the corners I had missed on childhood trips, with no one around but the cleaning crew, Monday thru Friday, all summer long. How I wish now I could have the opportunity to do something like that at the American History Museum! But at that point in my life, this was the ideal situation to have landed in.

It was during that summer internship I learned that Robert Bateman, my favorite wildlife artist, whose work I then aspired to, would soon have a large showing in the downstairs gallery of the museum.

After my internship ended and Bateman's show opened, I went back into the city several times to see his Portraits of Nature collection in person. It's one thing to see these paintings in the pages of a book (no internet back then), reduced from their original sizes. It's quite another to stand in front of them, many large as life, and see the brush strokes, the surprising color choices, the textures, the little squiggles of paint. I learned more about painting in the hours I spent standing and gazing at this collection of Bateman's work than I did in two years of art college.

Paintings from the Portraits of Nature showing, Washington DC, 1987:

Paintings 1983-1986

Paintings, 1980-1982

Paintings 1977-1979

Paintings 1967-1976


Robert Bateman's main page

It's been nearly twenty years since I've painted professionally. About that long ago I began writing, which quickly became and remains the master creative passion in my life. But I've decided it's time to set up shop again to paint.  I'll still be writing full time. In fact this month I've begun a proposal for a sequel to Kindred, just in case a publisher is one day as interested in seeing it as I am in writing it. I'm also working on a proposal for a third stand alone book set on the frontier of western North Carolina/eastern Tennessee in the 1780s.

Anyone else starting up new creative pursuits in 2011, or like me, reviving old ones?

photos by cliff1066, and krossbow

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Historical Fiction Challenge Review: Panther in the Sky, by James A. Thom

The Historical Tapestry blog has the post up for the January reviews, and since I haven't finished a novel, historical or otherwise, yet this month, I've decided to review the last historical novel on my 2010 Reading List, James Alexander Thom's Panther in the Sky.

Panther in the Sky is based on the life of Tecumseh, the Shawnee chief who resisted American settlement of the Ohio country during the late 18th century, until his death during the War of 1812. In a smaller measure it's also about his nemesis, William Henry Harrison, though Harrison doesn't make an appearance until late in the book, which begins on the night of Tecumseh's birth, under the auspicious sign of a shooting star, green as a panther's eye; hence the name he is given (Tecumseh translates to panther in the sky), and the expectations placed upon him as one who will do great things for his people.

For many years Tecumseh fulfilled those expectations, sometimes in spite of his own people, who didn't always share his understanding of the bigger picture of the ongoing conflict with the Americans--both settlers and armies--which often had them fleeing their villages at harvest time to face cold winters of deprivation. An aspect of the book I particularly appreciated is the balanced portrayal of all sides in this conflict, native tribes, British/Canadian troops and Americans, civilian and military. There are well-meaning and flawed men on both sides, men (and women) of courage as well as cowardice, the wise and the foolish, those who can see beyond their race and upbringing, and those who tragically cannot, at least not to the measure needed to see victory. The latter includes Tecumseh's strange, disturbing younger brother, Loud Noise, who would grow up to be The Prophet called Open Door, who, for a time, helped Tecumseh unite the tribes of the frontier against the ever encroaching American settlement.

Thom's prose is vibrant, powerful, sometimes lyrical, and he's quickly become one of my favorite historical writers. Most of the story is told either from Tecumseh's point of view, or that of his older sister, Star Watcher, and the authentic feel of those points of view never faltered. It was eye-opening to view this clash of cultures on the American frontier from the Shawnee perspective. Though I knew how the book had to end, being familiar with this portion of history, I couldn't help hoping for Tecumseh's intelligence, determination, and love for his people to win out in the end, even as the Shawnee and their allies were hemmed into ever more restricted lives by broken treaty after broken treaty.

The book is long, over 700 pages, and it wasn't a quick read. Two factors, time, and the need to occasionally put the book aside to let the events of the story (and of history) settle in my heart, contributed to the long read. The sense of the inevitable lies heavy on the pages, and as admiration for Tecumseh grows, so does the regret and even grief for where it all will lead. Yet Thom has created a character and a late 18th century Shawnee world convincing enough to sweep a reader along on the tide of optimism, courage, and conviction that marked the majority of Tecumseh's life.

If you're interested in late 18th century fiction, native culture, or American frontier settlement (and you are unbelievably late in finding Thom's work, as I've been), then Panther in the Sky isn't to be missed.