Time Exposure is a mystery that takes place during the Civil War. I wanted readers to abandon the present and immerse themselves in those brutal, tumultuous years of the mid-nineteenth century. Scene by scene, chapter by chapter. Well, I wasn’t there, so how could I paint a picture of that time period, accurately, vividly, and with painstaking detail?
Research, of course, but research using primary sources whenever possible. What does that mean? There are many books written about the Civil War. About the battles, about the people, about the politics — the operative word being “about.” These sources are written today by historians looking back in time. I wanted to go back there myself. How?
Primary sources are the ones that deliver the information firsthand. Photographs are an excellent way to learn about the past. In my case, tens of thousands of Civil War photographs are available, yes, through books and online, but also at the Library of Congress, where there are drawers upon drawers filled with folders of photos taken back then. The originals, if you can imagine!
Other primary sources of an historic period are letters or journals. Using the Civil War as an example, there are books of letters to and from soldiers and their loved ones. If you use credible authors, ie: Ken Burns, you can be sure these are the true words of the people of the time. If you are really lucky, you may be able to track down a diary written from the time period. A friend of mine’s ancestor was a soldier in the War and he passed down some interesting paraphernalia (no journal, unfortunately.)
Very important primary sources are books written by someone of the time period. An example, which helped me shape my scene at the Union Hotel Hospital, was a precious thin book called Hospital Sketches, by Louisa May Alcott. Louisa May was actually a minor character in my book. If you ever wondered what it would be like to volunteer as a nurse in a hospital during the Civil War, listen to Louisa May:
“My three days experience had begun with a death, and, owing to the defalcation (I had to look this one up!) of another nurse, a somewhat abrupt plunge into the superintendence of a ward containing forty beds, where I spent my shining hours washing faces, serving rations, giving medicine, and sitting in a very hard chair, with pneumonia on one side, diphtheria on the other, two typhoids opposite, and a dozen dilapidated patients, hopping, lying and lounging about, all staring more or less at the new ‘nuss,’ who suffered untold agonies, but concealed them under as matronly as a spinster could assume, and blundered through her trying labors with a Spartan firmness, which I hope they appreciated, but am afraid they didn’t.”
From this one simple paragraph, I learned about the hospital, the patients, the illnesses and Louisa May’s (and other nurses’?) attitude toward them all.
In addition to Louisa May Alcott’s writings, I examined photographs, I read letters, poems and the words of songs written during the time. As I kept reading, I got a feel for the rhythm of speech of the period. I learned some of the basics: what the people of the time ate, drank, smoked, what they wore, how they amused themselves when they weren’t killing each other on the field, what their sex lives were like (there are some bawdy postcards out there!) Essentially, I learned how they lived and, sadly, how they died.
Bottom line: If you write historical stories, (or even modern stories about places you’re not familiar with,) what you don’t know can hurt you. The best way to find out what things were really like, is to do your research through the eyes of those who lived it.
There are no shortcuts. Ideas welcome.
When I wrote The Triangle Murders, I researched the details of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in NYC, in 1911, and blogged about it in past posts. I fictionalized a murder set against the backdrop of the actual fire and detailed the forensic analysis of the fire after the fact. I also blogged about heroines like Clara Lemlich and Frances Perkins who helped raise awareness of the deplorable conditions the garment workers found themselves in every day, as well as the changes Clara and Frances helped institute to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again.
Reading stories from several years ago of fires at garment factories, first in Bangladesh, India, then in Karachi, Pakistan, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/08/world/asia/pakistan-factory-fire-shows-flaws-in-monitoring.html?pagewanted=all, you’ll notice the lamentable similarities to the Triangle fire in this country.
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But first, back up to Saturday, March 25, 1911, and a few grim facts: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory occupied the top three floors of the 10-story Asch Building on the northwest corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in Greenwich Village. On the eighth floor, fire broke out in a scrap bin. Perhaps someone tossed a match or cigarette butt into the bin. Soon flames leaped out and caught other fabrics. About 180 people worked on this floor. They rushed for the exit doors, which were locked to prevent the workers from stealing, and the fire escape. Many were trapped.
For various reasons, the workers on the ninth floor of the Asch building could not be contacted. It was estimated that 250 workers were on the floor that day. For an exquisitely poignant description of the events, you must read ‘Triangle-The Fire That Changed America” by David Von Drehle. https://www.amazon.com/Triangle-Fire-That-Changed-America-ebook/dp/B004RPY48I/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1533148223&sr=8-1&keywords=the+fire+that+changed+america
Many of the workers were women and young girls, trapped by locked exit doors and only one poorly designed fire escape. Fire hoses reached only to the sixth floor, safety nets were unable to break the falls. To avoid suffocating or burning to death, the girls jumped nine stories to the pavement and their death. 146 of them.
“My building is fireproof,” Joseph J. Asch insisted. You might recall that the White Star Line directors made similar proclamations about the Titanic.
Fast forward to recent times. On September 11, 2012 in Karachi, Pakistan, close to 300 people, many of them women and children, died in a factory fire, trapped behind locked doors and barred windows. “There were no safety measures taken in the building design,” said a senior police official. “There was no emergency exit. These people were trapped.”
A few months later, another tragedy occurred. Over 112 people, possibly seventy percent women, died in a fire at a garment factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh. Why? Bangladesh’s garment industry, second only to China, has a notoriously poor fire safety record. Most of the workers killed were on the first and second floors and died because there were not enough exits. One survivor on the fifth floor said he escaped by climbing out of a third floor window onto bamboo scaffolding used for construction workers.
Yikes. What am I missing here? With today’s lightning-fast communications, surely most industrial nations got the message about safety in the workplace. Right? Why must we wait for a disaster to occur before we decide to act?
There must be a more effective way to learn from history, to take those lessons and apply them today. History is not just hard facts that inform us about our past. History is the measure of our past deeds, good and bad. If we don’t take those lessons seriously, as a human race, we’re doomed to repeat our mistakes
We can do better. We must do better.
A few years ago, my third book, Deadly Provenance, was published. I had originally titled it Provenance until a friend thought readers might confuse it with a city in Rhode Island. Of course it is a mystery and contains several murders, so I decided to call it Deadly Provenance. The story revolves around the confiscation of art during WWII and a missing Van Gogh painting. “Still Life: Vase with Oleanders” is an actual painting by Vincent, which disappeared around 1944, and is, in fact, still missing.
The research on this book provided so many possible avenues to explore, it was hard to know where to begin. First, there was the Nazi confiscation of art: the logistics of stealing, storing and moving millions of pieces of precious artworks. Next, what happened to all that displaced art? How much was recovered and how? How much is still missing? Then there’s my world — the museum world. How have museums been involved? Have they helped or hindered the search for missing pieces of art?
Then there are the players. An important character in the historic part of the book is Rose Valland, a woman whose heroic efforts during the war truly saved a great deal of artwork. She is portrayed in Deadly Provenance as the heroine she truly was. Like Rose, another real character in history is Hans van Meegeren, art forger extraordinaire. Van Meegeren, a Dutch painter, bamboozled the art world in the 40s with a series of false Vermeers. Did he ever forge a van Gogh? In my book he did.
There is the modern story, where the mystery is solved years later. Protagonist, Maggie Thornhill, a digital photographer, must try to identify and authenticate the painting from a photograph. Can it be done? Has it ever been done? What is the science of art authentication today? How are x-rays, infrared and multi-spectral imaging used in scientific analysis? Don’t freak. I won’t get into this too deeply here.
Hitler in Paris
As mentioned in a former blog, I always visit the places I write about. During WWII, a great deal of art was stolen from Jews and other “undesirables” and stored in the Room of Martyrs at the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris. The museum is located on the west side of the Tuileries Gardens and is now a museum of Contemporary Art. Visiting was a treat, although the “Room” is no longer there. Most of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works originally housed there are now on display at the Musée d’Orsay, on the banks of the Seine, in an old converted railway station.
And last but central to the storyline, is Vincent van Gogh, the mad genius whose painting is lost, perhaps forever. “Vase with Oleanders” is not typical of his vibrant colors, his wheat fields or his starry nights. But there’s no doubt this is Vincent’s work, even if his signature wasn’t in the lower left corner of the painting. Which it is.
The painting was owned by the Bernheim-Jeunes, a French Jewish family of art collectors. When they realized their art was about to be confiscated by the Nazis, they hid their collection, including the Van Gogh, at a friend’s mansion – The Chateau de Rastignac, near Bordeaux. Unfortunately, in 1944, the Nazis raided and looted the Chateau then burned it to the ground. Was the Van Gogh trundled aboard a Nazi truck and whisked away? Did a soldier steal it? A civilian in the town? Was it burned with the Chateau?
Today, there is still a great deal of interest in this subject and the world of art looting and theft. I’ve spoken about it to a number of different audiences and each time I must update it because new information appears almost weekly in the news. Lost paintings found, fought over by heirs in the courts, and, sometimes, won. Like Maria Altmann and the portrait of her aunt, The Woman in Gold.
History can never remain solely in the past. Past events have a profound influence on the present and the future. I believe they should.
Your thoughts welcome.
As writers, we are all marketeers (without mouse ears.) Social media is an important venue for us and Facebook is perhaps the most significant of these venues. I’ve been watching closely to the posts that have come across FB over the last year. Many have been sketchy, others clearly false, and some downright scary.
Note: We’ve all received emails to take advantage of an offer from, as an example, Amazon@Susie.com, right? Need I say more?
FB has posted the following tips on how to determine which posts are, indeed, false news. I thought this was a small step in the right direction. For my blog, I decided to list these in case you’ve missed them. So here, in Facebook’s own words are tips to spot false news:
- Be skeptical of headlines. False news stories often have catchy headlines in all caps with exclamation points. If shocking claims in the headline sound unbelievable, they probably are.
- Look closely at the URL. A phony or look-alike URL may be a warning sign of false news. Many false news sites mimic authentic news sources by making small changes to the URL. You can go to the site to compare the URL to established sources.
- Investigate the source. Ensure that the story is written by a source that you trust with a reputation for accuracy. If the story comes from an unfamiliar organization, check their “About” section to learn more.
- Watch for unusual formatting. Many false news sites have misspellings or awkward layouts. Read carefully if you see these signs.
- Consider the photos. False news stories often contain manipulated images or videos. Sometimes the photo may be authentic, but taken out of context. You can search for the photo or image to verify where it came from.
- Inspect the dates. False news stories may contain timelines that make no sense, or event dates that have been altered.
- Check the evidence. Check the author’s sources to confirm that they are accurate. Lack of evidence or reliance on unnamed experts may indicate a false news story.
- Look at other reports. If no other news source is reporting the same story, it may indicate that the story is false. If the story is reported by multiple sources you trust, it’s more likely to be true.
- Is the story a joke? Sometimes false news stories can be hard to distinguish from humor or satire. Check whether the source is known for parody, and whether the story’s details and tone suggest it may be just for fun.
- Some stories are intentionally false.Think critically about the stories you read, and only share news that you know to be credible.
Please share your own experiences. Ideas always welcome.
Hart Island is a small island located in the Long Island Sound,
off the coast of the Bronx, in New York City.
It has been a public mass burial ground,
a colossal “potter’s field” for a million souls since 1869.
The crumbling remains of its buildings once served as:
a Union Civil War prison camp,
a tuberculosis sanatorium,
a boys’ reformatory and . . .
a woman’s lunatic asylum.
1902, New York City: Nineteen-year-old Ruby Hunt comes home to her Park Avenue apartment to find her family murdered. She is the prime suspect in these gruesome crimes but instead of being placed under arrest, Ruby is committed to an insane asylum for life.
The insane asylum is located on Hart Island, just off the coast of the Bronx. The island has served as the city’s largest potter’s field since the mid-1800s. Over a million lost souls are buried there.
Ruby’s life has irrevocably changed. Her only hope is a kindly caretaker at the asylum and a handsome young rookie police detective with the NYPD.
Detective Liam McCarty is convinced Ruby is innocent and sets out to prove it with the help of investigative reporter Nellie Bly, whose experience in an insane asylum makes her the perfect partner. Time is running out, however, because Ruby’s treatments are becoming increasingly debilitating. If Liam doesn’t rescue her in time, she will be scheduled for a lobotomy.
2016, New York City: A descendant of Ruby’s uncle is murdered and homicide detective Frank Mead soon realizes that the connection between Ruby’s case and his current murder is inescapable. It won’t be the first time Frank has solved a cold case from the distant past to resolve today’s crime.
Digging into the Hunt family is no easy task. Each relative has something to hide and unless Frank can uncover the killer soon, there will be more murders. Using the latest in forensic technology, Frank enlists the help of digital photo expert, Maggie Thornhill, to match photos found in an old suitcase passed down by Ruby’s descendants. Along with handwriting analysis and ballistics, Frank is able to piece together the puzzle that spans over a hundred years.
Hart of Madness. Now available in paperback and e-book. Check on this website.