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.

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.

Experiences Make You a Better Writer

Experiences Make You a Better Writer

It was three in the morning.  A slight tremor shook the windows.   The doors began to rattle in their frames.  The bed seemed to move.  Now the windows were banging against the shutters and a strange howling sounded in the air.

I leaped up and ran to the French doors of our room at the Hotel Tramontano in Sorrento, Italy.  I knew what was happening.  Mt. Vesuvius was erupting, just as it did in 79 AD, when it brought Pompeii and Herculaneum to its knees.  What a story!

I threw open the doors and peered through a curtain of mist, across the Bay of Naples to the majestic volcano. Nothing.  Not a wisp of smoke nor a glow of lava trails.  I was peculiarly disappointed.

My husband stepped outside to join me on the veranda.  He had just called the front desk.  “Just a strong wind.”  Combined with old windows and doors and perhaps my sub-conscious wish to be Pliny the Younger and witness the infamous eruption.  Nothing.  Bummer.

Earlier this same day we had traveled by train from Naples and my husband had been pickpocketed.   Now, of course, Naples is the pickpocket capital of the world.  But how could that happen to us?  It only happens to others.  Well, we lost our credit cards and cash (fortunately, not our passports,) and spent hours on the phone with Visa when we arrived.  Nice folks.

Not an auspicious start to a holiday in Italy.  Maybe that was it.  Instead of a mystery, I’d write a travel book:  Misadventures in Italy.  Uh uh.  Stick to mysteries.  How about an artifact newly discovered, buried under layers of excavation in Pompeii.  A humerus bone that was only two hundred years old.  How could it possibly be buried here along with remains almost 2,000 years old?  Whose bone was it?  A female, young, small, delicate with a knife wound slicing across the bone?  Maybe a swath of fabric is found near the bone.  How old could the material be?  What about a tool or a bowl or utensil nearby?

Clues.   Ahhh.  More, more.

And what about Pliny, the Younger and Pliny the Elder?  The life and times of Pompeiins, Napolitanos, Herculaneum— uh, ers, ites?  People from Herculaneum.  What a backdrop for a historical mystery.  And forensics can help resolve the bone, fabric, bowl conundrum.  (Maybe the forensics expert was pickpocketed on his way to the crime scene?)

Whether I  write a mystery about Pompeii or not, the point is, so many of our experiences can be evolved into a full-fledged story with characters, events, descriptions, and rich background.  Those incidents in our lives that are memorable are often traumatic when we live through them.  Find the humor and spin them into a grand story.

I can laugh at the faux volcanic eruption of Vesuvius now.  Trust me, it wasn’t funny at the time.

Women, Fight Back

Women, Fight Back

March 25, 2017 will be the 106th anniversary of the deadliest workplace disaster in NYC history prior to 9-11: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

It was significant not because 146 workers died, but because it instigated reform. At the time workplace safety was barely regulated and rarely thought about . . . except, perhaps, by the workers themselves. Other workplace disasters had occurred in the past and would again in the future. So why was the Triangle different?

One reason was a woman named Clara Lemlich. In my novel, The Triangle Murders, she appears as a feisty young woman who wanted to better the plight of the garment workers. Indeed, she was. In my novel she is beaten by a gang of thugs and rescued by Cormac Mead. Indeed, she was. (In truth, she was beaten but not rescued by Cormac or any other policeman.)

 Clara Lemlich, a skilled draper and member of International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Local 25, encouraged interested shirtwaist makers to meet secretly with the union and the Women’s Trade Union League to discuss workers’ needs and the union’s goals. Despite the risks, many went on strike in September, 1909. In an attempt to satisfy some workers, Triangle owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris formed the “Triangle Employees Benevolent Association” a company union, and installed relatives as officers. They also announced that any employee who supported ‘another union’ would be fired. Photographer: unknown, 1909 Photo courtesy the Kheel Center, Cornell University:

http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/primary/photosIllustrations/slideshow.html?image_id=842&sec_id=12#screen

Clara worked as a draper at Leiserson’s waist factory. She told stories of how workers were followed to the restroom and hustled back to work, lest they steal precious fabrics. She relayed how workers were persistently shortchanged on their pay and sometimes even charged for the use of materials, such as thread. And, at the day’s end, they lined up a single unlocked door to be searched before they exited.

She had had enough. In 1906, along with several other women, Clara joined the ILGWU, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Together they formed Local 25, to serve female waist makers and dressmakers. (A shirtwaist, by the way, is a blouse – See Clara wearing one in photo.) In many ways, they had to fend for themselves, for men in the unions did not take them seriously.

Clara was instrumental in organizing the female workers from shop to shop to strike for better working conditions. She made a difference.  Now 106 years later, women like Clara can still make a difference in reforming injustices. We all can.

Ideas welcome.

 

The Christmas Truce

The Christmas Truce

When it started, World War I was predicted to last only a few weeks.  (The same was true of the Civil War, by the way.) Instead, by December of 1914, WWI had already claimed nearly a million lives. In fact, over fifteen million died in a war that dragged on for four miserable years.

christmas-truce-5But a remarkable thing happened on December 24, 1914.

The front fell silent except for the singing of Silent Night.  A truce!  There are many examples of truces during wars, but none as famous as this one.  The Christmas Truce of 1914.

In the Ypres region of Belgium on Christmas Eve, guns stopped, leaving a deathly silence across the fields.  Then suddenly the British watched in astonishment as Germans began to set tiny trees along their trench lines.  Soon a familiar tune with unfamiliar words carried across No Man’s Land, the battered and desolate space between the enemies.  Silent Night.  Stille Nacht.

Soon the British were singing along with the Germans.  Soldiers on both sides crawled out of their trenches to meet in the middle and greet their enemy.  They exchanged cigarettes and souvenirs.  Perhaps a drink or two.  And they collected their dead and wounded, carrying them back to their respective sides.

Peace for the day.  Only one day because the next day they were back killing each other.
christmas-truce-4

The story of the Christmas Truce came to my attention after reading the non-fiction, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, by Adam Hochschild, an amazing story of WWI.  I highly recommend. http://www.amazon.com/End-All-Wars-Rebellion-1914-1918/dp/B008PIC0T8/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1356046840&sr=1-1&keywords=to+end+all+wars

I’ll leave you with this thought.   If Christmas can bring together mortal enemies for a day, why not for a week, a month, a year or longer?  Or forever?

I hope you click on the youtubes below.  They will make you sad and happy but most of all hopeful.  Wishing you a happy holiday and a prosperous and healthy New Year.

Belleau Wood: Christmas Truce by Garth Brooks. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xy9lg0aAhlE

Christmas Truce 1914, Music with captions to tell the story. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsCpLMPI7IY

Behind the Christmas Story: The Christmas Truce http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mgLcvjA8NDk

Christmas Truce of 1914. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p05E_ohaQGk

Thanksgiving: Puritans, Pilgrims, and Sexual Obsession

Thanksgiving: Puritans, Pilgrims, and Sexual Obsession

I found this article particularly interesting with the holidays coming and its ties to my research into my mystery about the Salem Witch Trials, Pure Lies.  Sexual obsession is not a concept usually associated with Puritans, but this sheds light on a grim and repressed period of time in American history.

1st-thanksgiving“America’s Thanksgiving holiday goes back at least 388 years to the year following the arrival of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts in 1620. The Pilgrims were among a number of sects called Puritans, and like many Puritan sects, the Pilgrims came to America essentially because they thought 17th Century England much too bawdy.(1) That England of the time was bawdy — a raucous bawdiness in full bloom — there’s no doubt. But the idea that the Puritans (and Pilgrims) suffered from religious persecution in England is probably a myth. What they suffered from was unease (and maybe too much temptation) at the general licentiousness of English life.

So various Puritan colonies were established in America, colonies with dictatorial repression of daily life, mostly of sexual behavior. It’s an American cultural heritage that few Americans ever talk about, except maybe when they read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a novel about the miseries of an adulterous couple in a Puritan community. Our custom is for three or four generations of family to sit down at a Thanksgiving dinner with hardly a memory that what the Pilgrims and other Puritans were all about was sexual obsession.

A set of ideas about human sexual behavior so strong that the ideas result in strict rules that govern a community by threat of physical punishment easily morphs from philosophy into obsession — and that’s exactly what happened once the Puritans came into control of laws in their colonies in the New World.

The background of the Puritan obsession with sex is a fascinating thread in the history of Western culture. The obsession apparently originated in a close literal reading of the Bible, a fervent belief that the main causes of the suffering of all mankind were 1) the disobedience of Adam and Eve in seeking knowledge of sex, 2) the shame of their nakedness, and 3) their sexual desire for each other. Taking these causes as axioms for social doctrine about sexual behavior led the literalists (fundamentalists) easily into social tyranny. The sexual act itself became the “original sin” — an irony, since the sexual act was the only means available to produce progeny to replace those who died.

The old New England children’s rhyme tells it all: “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”

first-thanksgiving2And the origins? The fervor against sexuality evidently originated in ancient Hebrew law, the ancient fear that man was weakened by sexual intercourse, ancient references to the sex act as the “little death” and a form of castration. In their morning prayers, Orthodox Jews still proclaim, “I thank Thee, Lord, for not having created me a woman.”

Sexuality was inherently evil, the sex act an abomination and a sin, women morally inferior and sources of temptation. If the sex act was needed to produce a new generation, let it be accomplished without lust. So much for the mechanics of Darwinian sexual selection. From a biological standpoint, it’s a wonder the Western world did not go extinct before the Renaissance. But it’s no wonder at all that countless women (and many men) were driven into madness by the incompatibility between the social tyranny of their Judeo-Christian cultural heritage and their evolved biology.

At the Thanksgiving table we think of turkey, children, and grandparents. Let it be so. We need the comforts, especially in our current time. But we should also be thankful that we’ve come out of the darkness of the past, the darkness of ignorance and social tyranny. That too is something that needs the giving of thanks.

Note (1). Whatever “persecution” the Pilgrims suffered in Europe was political rather than religious. The Pilgrims were Puritan separatists. The sect of Puritans who came to be known as Pilgrims wanted complete separation from the Anglican Church. Other Puritan sects did not demand separation. It was the vocal opposition of Pilgrim leaders to the Anglican Church and the King of England that caused their problems with government. The Pilgrims left England for Holland, were unhappy in Holland, and eventually achieved financing by English investors and migrated to America.”

Written by Dan Agin and posted 3/18/2010, updated 11/17/2011.  Reprinted from the Huffington Post.