To learn more about my historical novel, Of Ships and Sealing Wax, please visit my other site, suzannejshaw.com. Thank you!
It’s not quite the end of daylight savings time, but I have brought in most of the outdoor furniture and coiled up the garden hose. The blue chair is still out front in case the weather allows. In the meantime, what are you reading? For entertainment, laughter, and distraction from grim news, I’m reading all the Chet and Bernie mysteries I can get my hands on. For reflection and improved understanding of the world at large, I have been reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Writing takes up a lot of my time these days. For news from that neck of the woods, hop on over here.
By the way, are you registered to vote? It’s more important this year than ever.
Poor neglected Blue Chair Blog. I’ve spent the summer months revising my historical novel-in-progress. That work has it’s own website and blog. If you happen to be interested in food that might be served at fictional meals in the late Eighteenth Century, hop on over here and read up. Your visit and your comments will be very welcome!
You will be able to read an excerpt on the new site, hear some music of the period (or music that inspired the author) on Spotify, and see some period images on Pinterest.
You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram, or see what I’m reading on Goodreads.
All the best,
I dawdled at Orca Books for a while on Friday before meeting a friend for lunch and, on a whim, I bought a slightly battered little book, Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth. A stamp and handwritten note on the flyleaf revealed it had been purchased at Dove Cottage, Grasmere in 1970. At the time, it cost 45 p. I am enchanted by it, and inspired. The first few pages of Helen Darbishire‘s engaging introduction, written in 1958, have me in tears. What better source for learning how to describe; describe nature, the natural world, and landscape but also people. She could sketch a character or a first impression indelibly in only a few lines. I bought the book without much investigation because it was cheap and because these early journals are close in date to the period I’m writing about — 1798 and 1800 to 1802. Isn’t it lovely to indulge in an inexpensive little whim and have that whim so well-rewarded? Dorothy did not want to be an author. She did not see herself as a poet. As Miss Darbishire wrote, she was a poet in prose:
There is something . . . that imagination does, the simplest thing, the central thing. It pierces through the familiar surface to something nearer to life itself than what we ordinarily see.
There is only one known portrait of Dorothy, a sad one made when she was quite old, and yet she lives. Not only through her own vibrant words, but in her brother William’s poetry — some of which is clearly sourced from her journals — and in Coleridge’s, too. And from the tender regard both men had for her. “[H]is exquisite sister,” Coleridge wrote, and you have to credit his perspicaciousness: “[H]her person is such that if you expected to see a pretty woman, you would think her ordinary; if you expected to see an ordinary woman, you would think her pretty!”
William Wordsworth was speaking more generally in the following quotation, but these journals are so beautiful, so captivating, that he could easily have been writing of Dorothy:
Of genius in the fine Arts the only infallible sign is the widening the sphere of human sensibility for the delight, honour, and benefit of human nature.
She was a great walker, along with her brother and Coleridge. In 1818, when she would have been about 46, she climbed Scafell Pike (the highest mountain in England at just over 3,200 feet) with another lady, a maid, and a pair of local guides. She never married. She fell ill from about 1829 and eventually her mind grew frail as well.
As ever, all we have is now.
Just as I returned home toward the end of July, BBC2 began broadcasting Life in Squares, about the Bloomsbury Set — Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and all that — of whom it was said they “lived in squares, painted in circles, and loved in triangles.” Very amusing, I’m sure. That particular set is gone but Bloomsbury is still known for its garden squares, literary associations, and its cultural, educational and health-care institutions. Over the years I’ve stayed in quite a few different areas of London — Swiss Cottage, Ebury Street, Bayswater, Earls Court, Sloane Square and several hotels in Bloomsbury, to which I keep returning. By way of contrast, last fall I stayed in a lovely hotel in Sloane Square but didn’t really enjoy the area — too upscale for me, I suppose. Bloomsbury (click for a walking tour) is comfortable, vibrant, multicultural, and wears its academic connections like a pair of old slippers. It’s slightly scruffy in places, but who cares? If I am within a stone’s throw of Russell Square and the British Museum, with the British Library not too far away, I feel perfectly at home.
If you travel in from Heathrow on the Piccadilly Line, you alight at Russell Square Tube station. Follow the Way Out signs, climb a short flight of stairs with your suitcase, wait impatiently for the cattle-car style lift, pop your Oyster card on the reader, walk across Bernard Street to Marchmont Street and there you are. For starters, have you seen the movie Pride? It follows events that actually occurred during the 1984 miners strike, when a group of gay and lesbian activists provided dedicated, direct support to some Welsh miners and their families. The two groups ended up making a deep and long lasting connection that is recounted in the film with humor, sensitivity, outrage, and yes, pride. The first time I saw it, I immediately recognized Gay’s the Word on Marchmont Street, a Bloomsbury bookstore that was a sort of headquarters for Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. It’s still there, a little bit of modern history where you can wander in and browse, or buy a T shirt. Anyway, the film deserves to be better known and more seen and I recommend it whole-heartedly. Also on Marchmont, there is a terrific place for breakfast at No. 49, helpfully named the 49 Cafe (lovely food, lovely staff), and Judd Books, which specializes in second-hand academic books and carries much else besides. North Sea Fish Restaurant and Takeaway (deservedly highly rated for fish and chips) is around the corner on Leigh Street. And Brunswick Centre, a shopping complex adjacent to the Tube station, will have everything you could possibly need and quite a few things you don’t.
There is a nice cafe, with outdoor seating, in the north corner of Russell Square, and one of only 13 remaining cabman’s shelters is on the west corner. When the weather is mild, I love to sit on bench or at the cafe with a book or notebook, people watch, and read or write, and day dream.
I’ve only skimmed the surface of what Bloomsbury has to offer. If you have a favorite London neighborhood, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!
I’m smack in the middle of rolling out several posts about my recent travels, but I just finished my friend Russ Cahill‘s new book and wanted to post a brief review.
In the tradition of epic story telling, Kolea takes the reader on a sweeping and dangerous journey among the Hawaiian Islands and eastward across the Pacific. Russ Cahill’s first novel demonstrates his deep understanding of Hawaiian culture and history as well as his knowledge and appreciation of native people of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. In particular, his descriptions of designing, building, sailing and navigating the great canoes are fascinating.
Because I’m a friend of the author (and grateful to be mentioned in acknowledgements), I’m only providing a brief review of Kolea, but I encourage you to read it. It’s available in paperback and on Kindle at Amazon, and also online in paperback from Barnes & Noble. If you are in the South Puget Sound area, you should be able to pick it up at Orca Books.
Next Monday, I’ll take you on a visit to my favorite neighborhood in London. Stay tuned!
Because I’ve just seen Far From the Madding Crowd, I’m temporarily wandering through a pastoral, gilded version of England that probably never existed outside of fairy tales. All the same, I expect the visual experience of the film will inform my writing at some point.
There are literary types far wiser, better read, and better educated than me to inform us about the possibilities and the impossibilities of reproducing the past. I may or may not be doing it “right” but here’s what I think: Writing a novel set in the past calls for imagination, interpretation, taste, and a dash of common sense. And a lot of information — historical fact, literature and essays of the time, fiction and literature set in the time, paintings, films, music, and — if possible — site visits. This research (a word that sounds far too scholarly for what is, after all, quite a bit of fun) is a kind of immersion, I suppose. And because research is so much fun, it’s a principle reason why I am writing historical fiction.
I am an unabashed magpie. Thomas Hardy comes after the time period that currently engages me, but no matter. His novels are closer in time to the late Eighteenth Century than my experience. So was the span of my grandmother’s life (1875-1967). To employ an expression my grandmother might have used, it’s all grist to the mill.
At the moment, I’m re-reading Persuasion in an annotated version, as well as one of Anna Dean’s Austenesque historical mysteries, A Woman of Consequence. My writing-related TBR list currently includes:
- In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815 by Jenny Uglow
- The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History by Linda Colley
- More Austen
- More Patrick O’Brian
- Favourite Poems of England edited by Jane McMorland Hunter
At some point, I will watch again the lovely 1995 film of Persuasion with Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds as well as Emma Thompson’s tender realization of Sense and Sensibility that same year. Scenes from these films have stayed with me for years and I have cribbed from them liberally. What I steal, however, tends to be atmospheric inspiration, so even with this confession I don’t think I’ll be caught red-handed. The films helped me understand how much in Austen translates directly to the present. In Sense and Sensibility, think of Robert Hardy’s character, Sir John Middleton, and his mother-in-law (played by the redoubtable Elizabeth Spriggs) arriving for a visit with a carriage full of yapping little dogs. I have seen these same gregarious, oblivious people drive up in a camper van with the same yappy dogs and get ready to settle in for an extended stay.
Fitting music, whether for background listening or to enhance a setting, is essential. I love the way music is immersive without distracting attention away from writing. Eighteenth Century music and earlier, especially dance music, is with me constantly. This version of English Country Dances, or this one are good examples and you can’t go wrong with Mozart or Purcell. It’s all part of the game. What would your characters have been listening to or reading? Do they go to the theatre? What would they see?
And back to Austen, who is a touchstone: More people should be writing as she did. The Internet says so: See The Jane Austen Manifesto: How we can save the world by writing like Austen by Ian Flitcroft, from The New Statesman via Poets & Writers. The article, which I intend to print out and might very well memorize, also shares a Jane Austen thesaurus (free online) and a related Twitter feed @WritelikeAusten. You can also follow the author, my new hero, @IanFlitcroft.
Back to the coalface, inspired.
If the online world sometimes seems both a blessing and a curse, this morning I know it’s a blessing because it connects me to other writers. In the real world, even. Like anything else, the more you sow the more you tend to reap. Writing comes first and reaching out does take effort, but it is SO worth it. I’m still a little high from a terrific book event I attended yesterday evening at Third Place Books up in Lake Forest Park. The event was part of She Writes Press spring book tour and featured Kamy Wicoff, author of Wishful Thinking; Leanna Lehman, author of Vote for Remi; and Celine Keating, author of Play for Me.
It’s a bit of a haul from where I live up to Lake Forest Park and Puget Sound traffic is a bummer. Also, the weather was dark and stormy. Before I left, it hailed. Hard. And there were a million other things I could have been doing, including putting my butt in my seat and writing a few hundred more words. But writers need to put some balance in their lives (at least I do, constantly) and they need to feel connected, because writing can be a lonely enterprise.
I was so happy to see a familiar face when I arrived — Louise from Hedgebrook, along with Bre, whom I had not yet had the pleasure of meeting. Pretty much everything Hedgebrookian brings me joy and of course there is a natural, sympathetic connection between She Writes Press and Hedgebrook. Finally meeting Kamy after reading and reviewing her book was a genuine pleasure. She, Leanna, and Celine gave delightful readings and of course I had to buy all three books. (An extra Wishful Thinking can’t hurt!) Writers are readers, too, and I imagine we all have tottering To Be Read piles, but isn’t that better than the alternative?
These warm, bright, and interesting women also know how to engage an audience! All of us (maybe 40 — I’m bad at estimates) introduced ourselves and shared what we were currently reading or writing. How much there is to learn this way! People were reading everything from mysteries to the sciences and writing about everything from nonfiction about serious illness to fantasy fiction. I was excited to meet the triple-threat writer, editor and instructor Lori A. May and hear about her book The Write Crowd, Literary Citizenship and the Writing Life (arriving on Friday, thanks to Amazon Prime).
Here’s to community and connection among writers. If you have suggestions for how to expand our connected universe, please do share them along with any other thoughts in the comments!
I happened to receive a galley copy of Hedgebrook alumna Kamy Wicoff‘s new novel Wishful Thinking and since I was invited to write a review, I did. It’s a delightful book. Here’s the review on Goodreads but I’m also posting the text of the review below. Please share!
We’re all pretty much trying to do our best in this life, and Jennifer Sharpe, the hardworking single mother of two young boys, is no different. She’s got an unreasonably demanding public sector job, only a little bit of outside help, a feckless ex-husband, and not much money. She runs from one obligation to the next, shorts herself on sleep, and would give anything for a few more hours in the day. Then she loses her phone (her phone!) and it comes back to her with a strange new app already installed. Wishful Thinking, it’s called — An App for Women Who Need to Be in More Than One Place at the Same Time.
Jennifer’s first reaction is, of course, disbelief. But she’s also a little bit desperate. When she sees an opportunity to show up at her son Julien’s guitar recital and therefore not disappoint him for the umpteenth time, she decides to give it a try. On the one hand she’s in the middle of a critical business meeting, but on the other, she’s watching her son play his guitar only for her.
Once she meets Wishful Thinking’s brilliant and mysterious creator, Dr. Diane Sexton, Jennifer makes up her mind to use this enticing technology — under controlled conditions of course — just to keep her head above water. Her best friend Vinita, who happens to be a doctor, is more than skeptical of the enterprise, but everyone else in her life is delighted with her sudden transformation into Superwoman. Now, she even has time to develop a relationship with Julien’s intriguing guitar teacher, Owen. Just like that, all her troubles are over. Or are they?
Among the joys of Kamy Wickoff’s warm, funny, and touching novel are its gentle insights about motherhood, friendship, love, loss, being human, keeping secrets and living in the moment. I found myself often reading with a smile on my face and at a certain point I could no longer put it down. I had come to care very much about Jennifer, her bright and lively boys Jack and Julien, her tough loving friend Vinita, the imperfectly perfect Owen, Dr. Diane Sexton (the eccentric genius behind it all), and even her ex-husband Norman. Once the app’s abilities and all of Jennifer’s obligations and relationships began to converge, I had to know what was next.
Can Jennifer have it all? Can any of us? Wishful Thinking — the book, not the app — just might have the answer.