If Walls Could Talk: Find Your Weird

M.H. Norris

A couple of years ago, I was getting ready to take a roadtrip when I discovered that Felicia Day had written an autobiography. Seeing that the audiobook was almost the length of my drive, I grabbed it and on that trip I listened. She was already an actress I liked, and I was excited to hear her story. After all, this was the point where I was really starting to embrace my inner nerd and she was known for embracing her weird.

After listening to her and hearing the similarities between our stories, I realized something. If she could make it, then maybe there was hope I could make it.

So how does one make their way into this field?

You do what Felicia Day did, and I try to: forge your own path, create your own place and don’t settle until you found it.

1. Find What Works for You

There are thousands, if not millions, of writing advice books, blogs, magazines–all of them telling you their thoughts and opinions on this craft. Anyone and everyone can tell you what works best for them. But you have to figure out what works best for you. That’s one reason I like the premise of this blog. I’m more or less telling you my thoughts and musings week to week with the intention that you know that that’s what it is.

I can tell you a lot of things about writing. But I can also tell you this. I’m still figuring out what’s best for me and sometimes it varies project to project.

2. Don’t Settle

Write what speaks to you. Chances are, it will speak to someone else.

Don’t let what you write be influenced by what “experts” say is selling, or won’t sell, or what they think is the next big thing. Here’s a fun fact that I don’t mention often these days, when I first started writing more seriously, I thought I was going to write Young Adult. I’m still not opposed to the idea of revisiting that idea some day. When I wandered into the field of murder mysteries, I honestly didn’t expect to find the home I’ve found in this genre.  But if you’re not embracing what you love to write, and are doing it because someone told that something was “in,” then you are failing yourself and your potential. That would be settling.

But, both Felicia Day and I have learned that things don’t always go according to the plans we make for our lives.

This is going to be one of those times where I’m very honest with you all. Over the last couple of years, I’ve struggled with figuring out just what it is I’m supposed to be doing.

Ultimately the dream, the goal, is to be able to write and what not full time. But until M.H. Norris can pay the bills, Mary Helen has to somehow. And while it may seem odd to refer to two different sides of me like that, sometimes they do feel miles apart. Maybe that’s part of me learning to “embrace the weird” and not stick to the status quo. Figuring out how to make the two mesh a little better. If you haven’t had the chance to read Felicia Day’s You’re Never Weird On The Internet (Almost) by (or listened to her read the audiobook), that is something I suggest you pick up and read.

Especially, if you’re like me and wondering where your place in the world is. Maybe her story can encourage you like it did me.

At Awesome Con last weekend, I had the privilege of finally meeting Felicia Day and I told her how she had been an encouragement to me, and that even though I was still trying to figure it out and find my way–her story encouraged me that I would. figure it out.

Let me leave you with her advice.

She told me to always be proactive, to try new things and to always be doing something.

So, what did my meeting with Felicia Day teach me about writing?

It told me to keep doing what I’m doing and to find my place in the crazy world of publishing. Felicia Day has seen the good and bad sides of the internet and I’ve seen the good and bad sides of the publishing industry.

But I’m finding my place. Mystery Maven, Sci-Fi Sorceress. Award-winning author and co-host of the Raconteur Roundtable. Titles I never imagined holding but now are ones I hold dear. Embrace your weird. Even if it’s not the one you expected.

Literary Archaeology: Food for Thought

Jon Black

As writers of historical fiction, we are always looking for tools which provide information about settings by showing rather than telling and that allow us to engage a readers’ other senses when bringing worlds to life.

The First Thanksgiving, an example of the powerful connection between food and history.

Food is distinctive by time and place, but eating is universal. All of us require sustenance. That means that eating is something readers can relate to … which is important in a genre like HistFic where relatable events and activities cannot always be taken for granted. At the same, because eating is universal but what is eaten and how it’s eaten are not, food allows HistFic writers pair the familiar with the exotic. In addition, I think there’s at least a little bit of a foodie in all of us and, therefore, we are fascinated by descriptions of what and how people at in the past.

As long as it is not overdone, descriptions of food and eating offer writers a very powerful tool. While not HistFic, consider the scene in The Hobbit where Bilbo and the Dwarves meet for the first time as an example of how a meal can powerfully set mood and atmosphere.

Below, I’ve expounded on a few thoughts about using food in HistFic.

The Columbian Exchange

For most of history, many foodstuffs we today think of as universal were known only to the Eastern or Western hemisphere. And those barriers did not instantly come down in 1492. Except as rare novelties, it is not realistic to have a food from one hemisphere impacting large swaths of society across the ocean until (generously) 1500 or (more conservatively) 1525 or even 1550. Potatoes and tomatoes, two of the ultimately most successful, took centuries to catch on after being labeled poisonous, un-Christian, or actively satanic.

Beware the “Devil’s Fruit.”

Select List of Foods Exclusive to One Hemisphere, Pre-1492

Eastern Hemisphere Foods: barley, cattle, chickens, coffee, cultivated honey, goats, millet, oats, okra, olives, onions, oranges, peaches, pears, peas, pigs, rice, sheep, sorghum, sugar cane, wheat.

Western-Hemisphere Foods: beans, coca, chilies, maize (corn), manioc, paprika, peanuts, pumpkins, potatoes, squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, turkeys.

It should be noted the above lists are somewhat deceptive. In the century and millennia before the Columbian exchange, a given food was not necessarily known throughout its hemisphere. For example, the potato was unknown to North American groups and coffee generally unfamiliar outside of Arabia and parts of Africa. A regional breakdown of foods is, however, beyond the scope of this humble blog post.

Please, Sir, May I Have Some More?

Descriptions of food and dining in HistFic are often portray opulence or at least variety. Conversely, they can be shorthand for poverty, privation, or oppression. Consider the weevil-infested hardtack and salt pork (skin and hair often still attached) of the pre-industrial sailor. Or Oliver Twist’s celebrated gruel. Or the perpetually simmering porridge (“peas porridge hot”) that was standard fare for medieval peasantry.   

Eating Local

For most of history, food has been an intensely local affair except for the very wealthy. Refrigeration and improved transportation have conspired to gradually change that, making foods from around the around available to most people. For we who take such things for granted, therefore, it is worth briefly examining the history of refrigeration and transportation.

Ice harvesting in Massachusetts, circa 1850.

Refrigeration

The use of snow cellars and iceboxes used to preserved food dates back at least 3,000 years, with the earliest discovered examples coming from northern China. The systemic, widespread use of this process (known as ice harvesting) dates from the 1830s in North America. Inefficient and a largely experimental refrigeration machines, actually predate ice harvesting back to 1755. Such machines did not achieve commercial viability until the 1850s and didn’t really take off until the turn of the 20th century, when costs came down and concerns about pollution in naturally harvested ice grew.

Transportation

An expansive global shipping industry begins in the 18th century and accelerates drastically with the industrialization and advent of the steam ship in the 19th century. Effective inland transportation networks date from the construction of country-wide rail systems in the mid-19th century (slightly earlier in Britain, slightly later in some other locations) and enhanced by the emergence of comprehensive highway systems in the 1930s.

Home Cooking

On a practical level, what did all this mean for food before refrigeration and effective transportation? Canning and other forms of preservation like smoking and salting were practiced nearly ubiquitously. During winter months, such preserves could represent a significant portion of local diets. Unless preserved, meats and, especially, seafood were very much localized. The old maxim about “Only eating shellfish in months with an ‘R’ in them,” was not a quaint bit of folk wisdom. It was good way to avoid getting potentially lethal food poisoning (notice that months with ‘R’ tend to cluster in cold months and scrupulously avoid summer).

Resources

Let’s admit it, part of the fun of using food in HistFic is researching the recipes, drooling over them, and wondering “Hey, could I make that at home?” I’ll conclude with three good online resources for historical cooking.

The Historic American Cookbook Project: http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/cookbooks/html/browse.html

Historic Cookbooks Online: http://www.angelfire.com/md3/openhearthcooking/aaCookbookindex.html

Savoring the Past: https://savoringthepast.net/2014/08/28/18th-and-early-19th-century-cookbooks-digital-searchable-and-free/

If Walls Could Talk: Why Wandering Characters Aren’t So Bad

M.H. Norris

There’s a perk to working with a character over the course of multiple stories.

The Experience of Writing Rosella [(c) Bill Keane]

Yes, I do believe you can really get to know a character over the course of a single story. But to go beyond that, to start a series, there is just something extra about developing a character. It’s one thing to do it from start to finish and not necessarily worry about the repercussions of whatever fun things you have awaiting your protagonist in the climax.

With a sequel, with a series even, you have to take that into consideration. How does whatever happened affect them from that point further? How does it help them grow their character?

There’s different circumstances from story to story and as a result, the character might react different or show a different side of themselves.

I experienced that with Rosella this week.

Writing a scene, I had an idea of something I wanted to do and I thought she would react one way. And then, she surprised me and acted in a way I didn’t expect. Now whether that was to stick it to me and prove she does what she wants, that remains to be seen.

But I found it fun, and it does oddly fit her.

I think I’ve discussed it before, but it’s been awhile so I’m going to mention it again. Characters can take over your story and gain a life of their own.

And they like to wander.

And it’s annoying.

Rosella did that to me, she wandered off on a rabbit trail and I didn’t know what she was doing, and why she went there, and what she could see that had caught her attention.

What can you do when they do that? When they take over a scene rather rudely and without permission and wander off on their own adventure within the carefully constructed tale you’ve put together.

There isn’t much you can besides follow along. Let them take you where they are going and see where it leads you. Because, sometimes they can have a lot of fun and take you in a direction you didn’t notice previously.

Following Rosella’s rabbit trail helped me to set-up something earlier than I originally thought I would be able to.

Developing characters to use over multiple stories brings challenges you don’t see with one offs and those are what sometimes pushes you to work just a bit harder.

One thing I hate is when a character goes through this fantastic adventure and grows and learns something and then the next time you see them, it’s like it never happened and they haven’t changed a bit.

It drives me mad.

People are the sum of their experiences. Characters are no different. These moments make them who they are. Two roads diverged in a road…

Sorry, the Robert Frost cliche does actually fit here.

And with writing a series character, you get to explore that in a way you normally couldn’t can. There’s all the experience that led them to the point of the beginning of the series. But then each and every story in the series builds them more. Giving them more opportunities to show who they are, and wonder off away from your plans.

It’s a good thing. Embrace it.

Worthy of Stories: Filles a la Casquette

J Patrick Allen

The Casket Girls

In the early eighteenth century, New Orleans was experiencing a population crisis. A request was sent to the king of France for women of a wholesome persuasion. In 1728, a ship docked bearing blessings courtesy of the Bishop of Quebec. I imagine that the men of New Orleans, licking their chops at the hope of finding a wife, were stunned by what walked off the gangplank. Thirteen emaciated, sickly women walked onto the dock, bearing all they owned in the world in thirteen casquettes—the equivalent of a trunk or luggage.

Alas, the nature of the men of the colony of Louisiana, harbored an ill fate for the girls. Though they were under the watchful protection of the local Ursuline nuns, many were placed into abusive marriages or forced into prostitution. New Orleans, it seems, had no use for women of virtue. Insulted and horrified, King Louis demanded their return at once.

The girls were being kept at this time on the third floor of the Ursuline convent on Rue Chartres. They were protected behind sealed windows and a sealed door lest—I assume—they flee to a sinful life. The casquettes, still full of the womens’ possessions, were left in the room for the women to collect their belongings for the journey back home. When the nuns returned for the girls, the casquettes were present but their owners—and the contents within—were not.

The third floor attic has since been supposedly sealed—by locks, by blessings, with the shutters closed with holy nails blessed by the Pope. Despite this, local legend frequently has the Casquette girls breaking free of their bound windows to stalk the night for fresh victims.

Stories tell of paranormal investigators caught in their sleep while watching the convent. Supposedly, the tapes caught a window on the third floor of the convent opening. The next morning there was hardly anything left of the investigators but a greasy smear. Of course, there are no official records of a murder of this kind. It may all be sensationalism invented by New Orleans’ very healthy tourism industry.

Still, the Filles a la Casquette are certainly worthy of stories.

Further Reading:

http://www.historiaobscura.com/tag/casket-girls/

http://wgno.com/2015/10/30/casket-girls-ursuline-nuns-how-did-vampires-come-to-new-orleans/