Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Weekly Schedule

While I was growing up, Mondays were for washing clothes. Spring, summer and fall, Mom would wash clothes in the basement using a wringer washer. Then she'd carry baskets of wet clothes up the steps to hang on outside clotheslines. In winter or on rainy Mondays in warmer months, the clothes were hung in the basement. If it started to rain before the clothes were dry outside, she'd have to take them off the line and carry them back down to the basement and rehang them there to finish drying.

Tuesdays and probably stretching into Wednesdays she ironed. She'd sprinkle the clothes with water then rolled them up until they were evenly damp before ironing. I still remember the smell of warm freshly ironed clothes.

Friday evenings Dad, Mom, my brother, Jerry, and I went out to eat and then did the weekly grocery shopping before going home. When my parents had more kids, Dad did the grocery shopping on his way home since Mom didn't drive. Eating out became very rare then. Fridays always meant either fish or macaroni and cheese for supper.

On Saturdays my dad and one of my uncles took turns taking my brother, two cousins and me to catechism classes at St. Cyril and Methodius in town. If it was my dad's turn to pick us up, we often stopped at the library, too.
Sometimes on a Saturday evening, we'd visit Aunt Margaret and her family. It was the day she baked for the coming week. I remember the many loaves of fresh baked bread lining the kitchen counter. What  we enjoyed most - in addition to playing with our cousins - were deep, fat, fried prune rolls sprinkled with powdered sugar served with a glass of cold milk. Nothing tasted better.    

Sundays were for Mass and almost always in the spring, summer and fall, for picnics afterwards.  We went with my mother's sister, Aunt Millie, her husband and their four kids. What fun those picnics were. We traveled anywhere we could go in two hours or less and rarely visited the same place more than once in a summer. This was before innerstate highways and roads with more than two lanes. Family reunions were on Sunday's, too.

Now most of my days don't follow a set schedule. I get groceries when I need them, wash clothes when I have enough light or dark clothes to make up a load. I still hang clothes outside if the weather permits. Ironing? I seldom do any ironing. Thank goodness for wash and wear clothes. Sunday morning I still go to Mass, and twice a month on Thursdays I deliver Mobile Meals and/or attend one of my two book clubs.

Because for the most part I don't have a set schedule, I rely on my calendar and my weekly list of things to do. I've always kept a "To Do" list. Once my youngest sister looked at it and said it made her so tired reading it that she had to lie down and take a nap. My lengthy list is never finished at the end of the week. Some things have been rolled over to the following week for quite a few months now. This week I'm going to write a long overdue letter to a friend of mine and also send congratulations to a former student for setting a world record in a running event. Yes I am. I really am going to do those two things this week. That is I will after I finish planting the squash . . . or maybe after the beans are planted.                             


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Library Love

I LOVE libraries!  I love being surrounded by so many books, knowing that I could step into a different world, by simply choosing a different one. I liked libraries when I was a kid, and read a lot, but like turned into love when I decided to pare down my selection of books at home.

I had read a book called Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, and there was a section that talked about people looking for love.  It mentioned how hard it can be for people to find a mate when they surround themselves with books; especially when those books are placed in the "Relationships" Bagua .  Since books dominated most of the free spaces around my apartment, I figured that was part of my problem; the other part being that I just hadn't met the right guy up to that point.

When I started to cull my collection, I realized that I had kept books that I had no intention of ever reading again.  Not that I didn’t enjoy the books—those I simply got rid of right away—but in most cases, I felt no need to go back and reread the story.  After cleaning my shelves of books whose pages I didn’t plan to open again, I began going to the library.  The benefits were two-fold: 1) I was able to save money by not buying a book I'd only read once; and 2) I was able to search the library's shelves for older titles by some of my newly-found favorite authors.  I was living in Chicago at the time, so I even had the network of all Chicago area libraries at my disposal.  They were willing to do the legwork for me and let me know when a book I wanted came from a distant location.

But not only was I able to check out books there; music, movies, and even learning a foreign language were all ripe for my choosing.  In this day and age, where entertainment moguls like to scream about the evils of media piracy, I want to point out to them that libraries have been “pirating” books for centuries.  And, if the book swaps I’ve been to are any indication, publishers don’t seem to be in too much danger from people not buying hard copies.

Another reason I love libraries is that you can physically touch the books.  There’s something satisfying about feeling an actual book in my hand, as opposed to reading the words on a computer screen.  Because I spend eight hours a day staring at a computer screen at work—not to mention the hours at home—I don’t want to put any more strain on my eyes than I already do.  Plus, as Ruthie says in the above cartoon, there’s a wonderful smell to books that you just can’t get from a piece of plastic and bunch of electrical parts.

Yes siree, Bob!  Whether it’s for research purposes, or a chance to experiment with a new author, a library suits my needs to a “T.”

How about you?  What do you enjoy most about a library?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Ben and Me

The trip-ups for historical writers are not the big events which are reported in history books or can be found with a bit of digging. Trying to figure out who was the sheriff of New Castle County in 1752 is fairly easy but figuring out what life was like without clocks or matches is another matter altogether.

I spent eight hours last week reading the Pennsylvania Gazette, Benjamin Franklin's newspaper. It was for my paid job, but there is so much overlap between my work and my writing that the hundred or so pages of articles I pulled will suit very well for work on my novel.

I try to use as many primary sources as I can. Primary sources don't always give you correct information but they do give you a feel for the people and the way they thought and acted. Journal entries, letters, wills and other documents are not always easy to find. My job as historical interpreter gives me opportunities to operate a water powered grist mill, cook in a wood fired oven, fire a musket, and wear the clothes of the period. Everyone who writes historicals needs this kind of first hand experience.

Some things I knew already but the paper gave me a feel for: I knew that women took part in business affairs in this period, but the number of women named as business owners, estate executrixes, and educators brought it home to me.

October 1, 1741 These are to give notice that Mary Cowley (Widow and Administratrix of Matthew Cowley, Skinner, deceas'd) does still continue with the Assistance of her own Family to carry out the business of Buckskin Dressing, she being of Ability to secure to the Owners that they shall think fit to intrust her withal.

Descriptions of land sales showed that a homestead was a center of commerce.

To be sold, a grist Mill having two pair of stones, also a dwelling house, a store and Cooper's shop.

I also learned some new things:

Items bought and sold are advertised here, sometimes with prices. Can you identify all these cloth types sold by Thomas Hatton?

Ell wide sheetings, Irish Hollands, Huckabacks, Shoe Tickings, Girth Webs, Inkles, Tapes, Thread Lace and Buckrams.

Runaway indentured servants and slaves are listed in detail. Runaways in order of their frequency are Irish, English, African, Dutch. I had expected most would be second generation African slaves.

Run away a servant Man named David Steadman, an Irishman.

Most fun were the pirates and privateers. Ships were brought to Philadelphia so the prizes could be sold. One prominent pirate Capt. Sibbald (I never heard of him before) was from Wilmington, in what is now Delaware, but what at that time were the Three Lower Counties of Pennsylvania.

Many lost strayed or stolen horses were black and all were pacers. Pacing is faster than trotting so a pacer is desirable. They averaged around 14 or 15 hands (56 to 60 inches).

Then there were the funny items, well funny to me, but probably not to the original readers.

August 12, 1736: A shark judged to be near 10 Foot long, was seen swimming up and down in the River near this City. April 3, 1746 Notice is hereby given to the Constables of the Province of Pennsylvania, That by a late Act of Assmembly for the more effectual Suppressing profane Curing (sic. Cussisng?) and Swearing, they are enjoined to affix a Copy of said Act in the most publick Place in their Districts. June 5, 1735: Lent and forgot to whom a large Geographical Dictionary of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and Plantations of America. July 18, 1751 On Friday last two Men went into the River to wash themselves; that one of them (not being a swimmer) got out of his Depth, and the other going to his Assistance, they both drowned.

Best of all for my purposes, I have a complete list of local officials election results from the 1730s through the 1750s. So I know that the sheriffs of New Castle County who were the bosses of my hero Cobbs Crossing constable, were George Monro and William Golden.

And a few that might find their way into a mystery:
June 19, 1735: Sunday last one Rachel Twells of this City died suddenly and the Coroner's Inquest having sat on the Body brought the body brought in their Verdict, that be drinking too plentifully of Rum and other strong Liquors.

Monday, May 28, 2012

On Memorial Day: Remember Ben Franklin

Women Can Save the U. S. Governmental Bureaucracy. Women are mothers of invention. We discover solutions for everything. For example, we like clothes, but most of us end up with a jam-packed closet, of which we wear about one third of what we’ve bought. Because of the space problem, it’s hard to organize or find a particular item. Since we can’t find anything, we forget what we already have bought. How many of us have two nearly identical blouses?  
To temporarily solve the problem, we put ourselves on a clothing budget to limit our spending and to save space because the closet is already full. Budgets usually don’t work. We find ways to spend on clothing that technically isn’t clothing. Accessories, like jewelry, aren’t stored in the closet, nor are cosmetics. Sweaters aren’t hung because of stretching so they don’t go into the closet equation either.

Since we’ve neatly circumvented our budget (Where there’s a will there’s a way—thus the source of our invention.), we invent Rule #2 to limit ourselves. For every new garment we buy, we must get rid of an old one. We still spend money, but at least we don’t have to add the cost of building an addition to our houses for more closet space, and since we only really wear about a third of what is in the closet anyway, getting rid of something we don’t use is a positive self-affirming action. Adding to this process, we give away our old clothing to charity, get a tax write-off, reducing taxes, and feel good about the entire process.

Clothing/closet/charitable giving/tax problem solved!

Now, let’s look at Congress. Congress’s function is to pass laws. Problem? Laws take money to implement and enforce. Do we need more laws? Just like clothing, the answer is probably no. Will budgets help? We already know that they won’t. So, let’s mandate Congress with Rule #2 in the clothing/closet dilemma. For every law passed, Congress must get rid of an old one. We’ll still spend money, but in getting rid of the old laws, our tax money will go further since with the repeal of old laws they won’t need oversight.
Just like our charitable clothing donations, give those legislators a personal tax incentive if they vote to get rid of a law. New rules won’t be accepted for a vote unless paired with an old law to repeal. Think of the savings. All of those buildings that house the administrative offices for implementing and enforcing the old laws could be converted for administering new ones—thus—no new government buildings and staff will be needed. With newer laws, we will know and understand our law inventory. And as an added bonus, if we limited the quantity of our laws, perhaps we’ll need fewer lawyers.

Sorry to sound so Erma Bombeck--because I'm quite serious--we've lost all common sense. Teaching self-restraint by example is best—as any woman knows. We don’t have enough money to pass more laws. The country is broke. Let’s recognize the mess we’ve created and do something about it. Ben Franklin, my hero, said it best. “A penny saved, is a penny earned.” Ben got us the money to win our freedom. We're letting him down.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Planning Mysteries and Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks

In 2009, my sister gave me Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks for a Christmas present. My sister and I had always shared our love of mysteries, and we were both huge fans of Dame Agatha.

The book was fascinating. John Curran, who compiled the notebooks and wrote the book about them, helps the reader to see how Christie’s mind worked when she was developing characters and a plot. I found it fascinating to see the notes she had made, written evidence of a writer’s mind at work in the difficult planning and plotting stages of a novel (though some of the notes deal with revision also).

I read them and watch as Christie changes her mind about who is the hero or heroine and about who is the killer. One character may audition as hero before landing in the killer spot. Another may spend a while as killer before being elevated to the protagonist’s position. Settings, titles, and murder methods can and do play musical chairs also. Christie is always seeking the combination of title, setting, killer, and hero that will meld with the perfect method of murder to make a great book.

This book is a great source of inspiration to me when I’m planning and plotting, as I am now. Not that I can use any of her ideas in my own work. They’re very much of her time—each period of time in which she wrote a book over the length of her long life. However, watching her fertile mind work, seeing all the alternates considered and rejected, watching the fantastically successful mysteries come to life always kicks my own brain into high gear.

More than inspiration, though, reading through the notebooks and glimpsing Christie’s mind in the midst of her work confirms for me that it was work. She didn’t come to any of her great, clever books by anything else. Nothing was predetermined. Christie played with combinations of the elements of a good mystery novel until she ended up with something so taut she could carry water in it, and she worked hard to make each book so watertight and startling. 

After following the course of her mind for a few of her books, I’m ready to roll up my own sleeves and go to work without expecting to hit the right characters or plot on the first try without effort. I believe it was Albert Einstein who said, “Genius is the capacity for taking infinite pains.” Christie’s notebooks illustrate this perfectly. So, now, I’m off to juggle setting, characters, motives, and murder methods myself, following in her footsteps.

What helps you in the planning stages of your books, if you’re a writer? If you’re not, how do you feel about seeing all of Dame Agatha’s sleight-of-hand revealed this way? Would you rather remain blissfully ignorant of how she managed her magic?