Writing “Living” History

Writing “Living” History

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.  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.

Music Stirs the Soul of a Novel

Music Stirs the Soul of a Novel

As I write this, I’m listening to Antonio Vivaldi’s “Violin Concerto for Violin, Strings and Continuo.”  I have a hard time writing to music with lyrics – the words tend to wind up on my page — so I opt for background music, usually classical.

Music is a terrific way to bring your characters to life.  Let’s take a peek at a fictional guy, Ray Salvo.  He’s eighty-five, fought in two wars, a widower with four kids, nine grandkids and two great grandkids.

Ray’s at home now, a small craftsman in southern California, dusty, threadbare, mostly because he can’t see well enough to care.  He’s alone, as he often is.  How can we paint a more vivid picture of Ray?  Use music.

He rises stiffly from his old recliner, ambles to the record player, an old Kenwood turntable, and his large assortment of record albums.  His kids want to get him a CD player, his grandkids, an iPod.  He’ll stick with vinyl.  As he sorts through his albums, memories blow in and out of his mind.  Is he thinking of his dead wife?  Good place for a flashback.

The albums are sorted by date, decade, actually.  The 30 and 40s, when Ray was a kid, he was one of the lucky ones to have a radio. The sweet sounds of Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey.   Maybe Ray’s picturing his old family home in his mind?

The 50s.  Elvis and Buddy Holly.  The Isley Brothers, twistin’ and shoutin’.  Ray picks up a photograph of his wife – ahh, she could dance the lindy.

The 70s brought the Disco craze:  Bee Gees, Gloria Gaynor and the Village People.  Ray gives a few hip lurches as he hums “Y.M.C.A.”   Ouch.  He remembers watching Saturday Night Fever with his kids.

He flips some more.  Classical albums: Ravel’s “Bolero,” hmmm.  “Scheherazade,” by Rimsky-Korsakoff.  Mozart, not his favorite, actually.  He loves the Russian composers better.  But classical is not the choice for today.  Too maudlin.  Good opportunity for description here.  Maybe Ray’s worried about his finances, his son’s cancer?

He smiles when he gets to some newer recordings stacked on a side table — CDs that his grandkids have given him, in hopes he’ll upgrade from his turntable.  He reads a jewel case label: “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons.  Or is it “Imagine Dragons” by Radioactive?  Argh.  Now he really feels old.

Which record will it be?  This is the defining moment for the character.  Is he locked in the nostalgic 40s? 50’s?  What does he want to listen to?  What is he thinking about, what is his mood?

Ray flips back to earlier albums and after a few seconds finds exactly what he’s looking for.  Not swing or jazz or blues.  His fingers grasp the music he loves best.  Classic Rock.  The Rolling Stones.  Yea.  Now, he can get some satisfaction.   So can you.  You have a better handle on this character, just through his music.

Ideas welcome.

Writing a Constructive Review

Writing a Constructive Review

There comes a time in every writer’s life when a fellow writer approaches and asks:

“Will you write a review for my book for my website or back cover?”

“Will you write a review for my book on Amazon or Barnes and Noble?”

“Would you “like” my book on Amazon or Barnes and Noble?”

“Would you “like” my book on Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, et al?”

What do you do?  On a number of online discussions, I’ve seen many requests for “likes” and many responses in both negative and positive.  Here’s what I do.

First, I decide if I want to read the book or not.  Except for rare cases (see below) I won’t write a review unless I’ve read the book.  If I agree to read, it’s with the caveat that I will try to get to it as soon as I can, particularly if I’m reading another book and have a top ten list of books in line.  If I don’t want to read it, however, I’ll be honest and say that I’m not the right person to write a review since I usually don’t read    . . .  name your genre: horror, sci fi, non-fiction, etc.

For those books I do wind up reading and don’t like, I think about the positives and begin with those:

“Great atmosphere”

“Spunky characters”

“Vivid setting”

“Provocative premise for the book.”

Every book has good qualities.  Really.  Find them.  Give that writer positive, encouraging feedback.

If the writer asks you to post a review on Amazon and you seriously don’t like it, I would be honest and say I can only give it two stars because:

“The writing is inconsistent”

“The characters are rather wooden”

“The setting is hard to visualize”

This might open the door for more conversation about how to improve the book– in your opinion, of course, which could be a good thing for both parties.  And, like in critique groups, both writers come away with something valuable.

I welcome your feedback.

The Looting of Art and a Modern Mystery

The Looting of Art and a Modern Mystery

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.

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.

Writers Are Reviewers Too

Writers Are Reviewers Too

I’m as guilty as the next person.  I read a lot of books, fiction and non-fiction.  I don’t often write reviews.  Yet I complain that I don’t get a lot of reviews on the books I write.  So, what’s going on?

I decided to examine the reasons why I don’t write book reviews so I can forgive those who don’t write reviews for me.  Maybe.

  1. No time. Classic excuse but I don’t buy it.  It takes only a few minutes to go to Amazon or other book venues, click on “write review” and write a few lines.
  2. Didn’t like the book and don’t want to write a bad review. Well, I don’t have to write a “bad” review.  I can constructively criticize without tearing the book apart.  This does take a little bit more time, however.
  3. What can I say? It can be as simple as “I loved this book” or “I couldn’t put it down.”  It helps to add some details such as “I loved the main character’s fortitude in dealing with her sick mother,” etc.  This does help the writer plus future potential readers who are looking for stories with strong characters.
  4. I could compare the book with others that I’ve read, both positively and negatively. Readers like to know, “this thriller was equal to The DaVinci Code in tension,” or “this writer should leave romance to Diana Gabaldon.”

Then there are the star ratings.  I definitely use them in selecting books and find them helpful when there are a lot (maybe 50 or more) of similar ratings.  I rarely will select a book that has 100 2-stars, but I might consider 100 4-stars.

As a reader, I do look at reviews.  I am remiss, however, in writing book reviews.  Still, I wonder, why can’t I get more reviews?  At the very least, from my friends, who, by the way, you cannot count on to write reviews.  And perhaps, you shouldn’t.

After writing this, I am setting my own goal to write reviews on books I read in the future.  I’ll let you know how that goes.

I would love to hear your experiences.  Please share.