Why the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) Online is a Godsend for Writers of Historical Fiction–A Demo

When I am writing historical fiction, one of the biggest (and often most fun) challenges is to make sure my characters are speaking the way they would have spoken in the time period in which they lived. While I usually adapt the vocabulary and styles of speech to be a little more accessible to modern audiences, I never let them use an anachronistic word or phrase if I can help it!

Before I discovered the OED online, this could involve long searches thorough standard dictionaries, etymological dictionaries, and thesauruses (both on and offline). It often seemed endless and frequently provided me with uncertain results. Enter the OED online, and I have the best tool possible for such questions. While a subscription to the OED online isn’t cheap (unless you belong to a library that will give you a log-in–make sure to check), the following little demo should show you why it is ‘pure gold’ for anyone writing about events in the past (fiction or nonfiction, come to think of it).

In the OED online, they call one etymological function the ‘historical thesaurus,’ which includes all usages of the word in question back through the ages, dated, and with relevant quotes from each era included. This is what I find most wonderful.  For example, I had a character in 1811, saying something like “Funny, I wouldn’t think that would have upset her so.”  I thought funny might be too modern a usage and went to the OED. The main online entry for “funny” gave me this sub-entry of FUNNY (which would exist in the paper OED, but would take much longer to find in the many volumes of the full OED):

OED - Relevant portion of "funny" entry

This showed me immediately that funny  wouldn’t have been used this way in common parlance in the US in 1811 (the woman speaking was a housekeeper in upstate New York), so I clicked on the Thesaurus link in the upper right of the FUNNY sub-entry (see image above)—that took me to the historical thesaurus for a dated collection of words used in this same sense:

Historical Thesaurus - relevant entries

The list is much longer, but you can scroll up and down and see what appeals. Note that funny is dated 1806 here. Taking into account that this looks first at usage in Great Britain (though American usages are always noted), and that my character was far from the UK in 1811, I thought this usage couldn’t have gotten to her yet.  In this case, I thought most of the other words listed here were likely a little too off-putting for a contemporary audience (‘queerish’ would sound very different to a modern reader, certainly!), but noted that strange was used in most of the definitions.  So, I went to look at the primary entry of STRANGE to see if it would work, and found this entry:

Relevant Sub-entry for "Strange" definition

Bingo! This was the word then . . . it was in wide usage in this sense by that time, it wouldn’t sound too “funny” to contemporary readers, and it seemed to fit the character.  So Mrs. Ewing now says, “Strange, I wouldn’t think that would have upset her so” (about a critical little clue that could reveal the affair the character in question is trying to hide).

These little excursions in search of ‘le mot juste’ often provide me with wonderful fun in my writing! Don’t know if that says more about the OED, or about my somewhat nerdly predispositions, but I bet anyone else who loves words will understand!

Posted in Historical Fiction, Marketing Fiction, Professional Writer, Social History | 2 Comments

Picnicking at the First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas 7/21/1861

In honor of the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Bull Run/Manassas, I am posting an account of what it might have been like to attend it as a group of civilians. Things did not go well for the spectators. Visions of champagne toasts to celebrate a glorious, easy Yankee victory were shattered as dishonorable retreat drove the civilians from the field along with the soldiers. 


Going to the Watch the Battle of Bull Run –  Virginia Countryside –
July 21, 1861, Sunday

Using threats to leave them behind if they didn’t behave, Roxana, Lettie, and Katie managed to get the children ready and loaded into the Franklins’ wagon quite
quickly on the morning of the battle. The Franklins’ old flat buckboard was equipped with three slightly padded seats with low metal and wood bars for backs and packed with a stack of blankets, several large water jugs, picnic baskets, some changes of clothes, and a few parasols to shield them from the anticipated heat of the day.

As they drove through the dawn, Katie Franklin summarized the information she had gotten in a note she had received from a Mrs. Foster, another officer’s wife. Mrs. Foster
had said that they could view the battle from Centreville Ridge, and that they
all were to meet by six thirty that morning in Arlington, just across the
Potomac from Georgetown. From this point, they would proceed together down
the Warrenton Turnpike to the spot where they were to watch the engagement
which, according to all accounts, would occur on that day.

While Lettie tried to believe it would be the fun and inspiring day all promised, she
still found herself pushing away some private nervousness. Catching her sister Roxana’s
eye inadvertently at one point, she saw some of the same fear there. They held
the look for a moment until Lettie, feeling it had to be her role to put a
positive face on things, said “This is going to be fun! I’m sure we’ll have a
grand time and be back before evening to eat supper while we all talk about all
the wonderful things we’ve seen!” She was glad to see Roxana relax some at
this, and felt a little of her own fear dissipate as she tried not to think about
how they could be watching men fighting, even to the death. Nevertheless, she
reminded herself that all the experts were predicting that it would be a quick
and glorious Federal victory. Considering that, there really didn’t seem to be
much cause for alarm.

When they arrived at the meeting point, Lettie guessed there were as many as a
hundred people gathered in about thirty wagons, chaises, and carriages. She saw
that some appeared to be journalists, mostly young men. She also saw that some
had the large strange-looking boxes that she knew, from having seen them in
Boston, to be photographic devices. Katie also saw them and said, “It appears
they are preparing to photograph the battle! I wonder if Mr. Brady might be
among them? He has become so famous in Washington, as I’m sure you know, since
he set up his studio and started taking pictures of absolutely everybody! Let’s
see if we can spot him!”

Lettie craned her head to look in the direction of the reporters as she found herself feeling even more certain that this would just be the lively picnic the loud excited voices, numerous food baskets, and many bright parasols seemed to promise..

She further noted that some of the other carriages contained important-looking men
and young women in colorful dresses. She wasn’t at all surprised when Katie
identified several of the men as prominent Senators and Congressmen and then,
bending toward the sisters and whispering behind her hand, added that they
appeared to be with companions who were not their wives.

The officers’ wives and families identified each other and grouped together where
they would not risk “contamination” from the journalists or the politicians and
their “ladies.” Old Colonel Brewer, a veteran of the Mexican War and an
inveterate Washington hobnobber, had assumed command of the expedition and had
appointed himself the particular protector of the officers’ wives.

He told them the drive of a little over twenty miles would need to be leisurely on
this warm day, and that it would likely take at least four hours. As they were
managing to depart right at seven, he said he anticipated their arriving by
noon. As he hauled himself into his groaning chaise, he added in the loud voice
he probably had once used to address his troops, “I assure you we shall have
little to do but eat our picnics and rejoice by the time we arrive. I
anticipate that the battle will be over and we will have driven the Rebels from
the field. I hope you all packed plenty of champagne for the celebration!”

After some time, however, as they drove, chatting and laughing, through the lush
slightly rolling farmlands southwest of Washington City, they began to hear
sounds unfamiliar to most of them. With some regularity, they heard muffled
booming that Colonel Brewer informed them was the sound of an artillery
barrage. He then began an extended anecdote about the great artillery barrages
at the siege of Vera Cruz in ’47.

Lettie noted that he appeared to have lost the close attention of much of his audience
by the time he concluded with the perhaps more pertinent observation that this
artillery must be firing with such regularity at this hour to drive away the
last retreating Rebels. She was close enough to him to see his expression and
thought she noted a slight dimming of his bravado as he said this. She guessed
Colonel Brewer might not be certain regular artillery fire was consistent with
a quick and decisive victory.

As they got closer, the booms of the artillery became ever louder and a thick haze
of smoke and dust became more and more visible to the southwest. Soon they
began to hear many smaller percussions. Colonel Brewer, looking ever more
grave, informed them that that was the sound of rifles, many rifles, and, if he
were an accurate judge, the noise of a large battle fully engaged.

All these sounds grew louder and louder and the cloud of dust and spent gunpowder began to engulf them, quickly covering their garments with a thin layer of grime. They also noted a steady flow of birds flying away from the battle and saw many small rodents and rabbits, also running away, underfoot.

At about twelve thirty, they arrived at Centreville Ridge. It was a high
outcropping of a bluff that provided a wide panorama from which, for the first
time, they could see the battle. To the ladies, it appeared as only a
disorganized mass of tiny men and horses almost obscured by dust at quite some
distance to the southwest. Colonel Brewer, however, pulled out his spyglass,
surveyed the scene for some time, and was able to give them a more
sophisticated analysis.

Pointing to an area of extreme dust and noise near a small hill several miles away, he
said, “From what I can see, the Federal army appears to be engaged with the
Confederates in that area and looks to be pushing them back. Many other Federal
troops seem to be marching forward—perhaps to be ready if they are still needed
to join the fight.”

He paused then, looked through the glass a little more, and then said, in a
somewhat lower voice, “Hmmm . . . I also see a good number of men who appear to
be leaving the field in some disorder, and who are heading back in this
direction,” and then added, in an undertone, almost as if to himself, “I do
hope this doesn’t indicate a problem with desertion and disobedience.”

Joey and Lyndon and Clayton pulled on their mothers’ skirts until they paid
attention to them. They apparently had organized to present a petition to their
mothers and Lyndon was the spokesman. He said to Lettie, “Mama, mama, we all
want to see in the looking glass, too! Please, please, could you ask the
gentleman to let us try it!”

Lettie, feeling it could do no harm and would be such a thrill for the boys, told the
boys to wait with the others. Controlling a little trepidation, she then
crossed the several yards to where the formidable older gentleman now stood
next to his chaise. Determined to exert all her charm, she said, “Colonel
Brewer, it is so lovely to have you with us and willing to share all your
experience and wisdom! I am Letitia Humphreys, lately of Boston, and I am
accompanied by three little boys who are very excited to be here. They have
asked if they could look through your spyglass to see the battle more

Looking up at him and smiling in the way she knew usually had a profound effect on
gentlemen, she reached with her white kid-gloved hand to lightly touch his also
gloved wrist, as she added, “I would so appreciate it if you could allow me to
provide the boys with this special treat.”

He responded very genially and, she was pleased to see, with the particular sort
of gallantry her beauty still could generate, saying, “Well, Mrs. Humphreys,
was it not? I would be more than happy to be able to perform this service, but
I am afraid it might not be the wisest course of action at present. For, you
see, while from this vantage it appears to be little men and horses and dust,
when one looks through the glass, one sees much more—more, I am afraid, than
you would wish the young gentlemen to see.”

He paused for a moment, looking at Lettie again as if measuring her fortitude, and
then said,  At risk of offending your sensibilities, Ma’am, I must tell you that were you to look through the glass you would see many men who are dead or who have been substantially injured lying on the field.

“And, to an old soldier like myself, the even more horrible sight is men apparently
lost and confused and unaware of their orders and even, in some cases, running
from the field in what looks like disorderly retreat. There does not appear to
be sufficient honor or discipline on that field, and I have yet to spot an
officer who seems to be in charge. I do not think you want the boys to see
these sights while they still have the blessing of their childish innocence.”

Lettie was a little shocked to hear this, but she realized she already had been
ignoring many evidences that this was not the glorious battle she had
anticipated. Looking out across the smoking field, she began upbraiding herself
for having let juvenile romantic fancies tarnish her supposedly more mature
perspective. As a harsh lesson to herself as much as for any other reason, she
decided she must face the reality of this battle and this war to shatter her
pernicious and impractical romantic tendencies once and for all.

She screwed up her courage a bit more to say, “I am not generally squeamish,
Colonel, and I would like to know how things in war really appear. I suspect I
hold many false notions about the beauty of a battle, and it would do me good
to put those behind me. Even without the glass, I can see this isn’t at all
what I had imagined. Please, may I look through your glass? I need to see
what’s really happening!” She realized she had spoken with greater force than
she had intended, but found herself feeling somehow desperate to face the reality
of this battle.

With some reluctance, but also apparent admiration for Lettie’s courage and
conviction, Colonel Brewer handed her the glass, and Lettie took it and put it
to her eye. For a moment, she could see little and then realized she had to adjust
the focus to suit her vision. As she turned the lens casing to focus it, she
stilled the lens on a blurry image of red, white, and blue which slowly emerged
as a man in a blue uniform, jacket unbuttoned to reveal a bloody white shirt,
lying on his side on the ground, with blood all over his face. Horror mounting,
she remained focused on him and realized he was not dead, only grievously
wounded. He appeared to be slowly pulling himself along the ground, on his
side, dragging useless, broken, blood-soaked legs behind him.

As she scanned the field further, she saw many other wounded men, some walking, some
crawling, all moving toward her and away from the battle. Others were lying
still, perhaps dead, perhaps only exhausted from the battle and their wounds.
Some were more wounded than the first. As she scanned across the field, she saw
another who appeared to be clutching an empty area where his jaw should be.
Another, who had lost most of one arm and an eye, and who was soaked in blood
from his head to his feet, was nevertheless still standing and, when she
focused on him, was staggering toward her like a terrifying specter of the
walking dead—she felt she could hear the scream of pain and fear his open mouth
and strained neck revealed.

Lettie took the glass from her eye and handed it back to Colonel Brewer. “You are right, Sir, this is no sight for young boys. But, what can we do for these men? They need help! Where are the doctors and the people who can help them?”

“I am afraid, Mrs. Humphreys, that there rarely are sufficient medical personnel at a
battle. I am certain that there must be ambulance wagons and medical officers,
but they would be nearer the front line. These men may well have left their
regiments and struck out on their own. Whatever their condition, they cannot
depend on finding care if they do not follow regular procedure. If they do not
follow the rules, they cannot depend on others to help them. You see, it’s just
. . .” Colonel Brewer trailed off, dropping the hand holding the spyglass down
to his side while bowing his head slightly and shaking it in a gesture that
looked much like defeat.

This is an excerpt from Year of Disunion: A Novel of the Dawn of the American Civil War.  I was inspired to write this novel as I imagined who might have been the civilians who watched the Battle of Bull Run/Manassas and what their experience might have become. This excerpt is taken from Chapter 14, which goes on to outline how Lettie does find a way to help and how they all experience the horrific remainder of the battle.  If you want to read more, go to this link where the book is available in Kindle and Paperback formats:  http://www.amazon.com/Year-Disunion-Novel-American-Civil/dp/1456586114/ref=tmm_pap_title_0

Posted in Book Promotion, Historical Fiction, Sesquicentennial Events, Social History, Uncategorized, Year of Disunion - Excerpt | 2 Comments

Top 5 Things I’ve Learned About Being an Author at a Book Signing

Available in Kindle and paperback formats at Amazon.com

As I’ve been building my marketing efforts for Year of Disunion: A Novel of the Dawn of the American Civil War over the past several months, I’ve gotten myself placed in two group signings – one at a local bookstore, and one at a living history event at the Manassas Railroad Museum. They were both lots of fun, and  great learning experiences. Since the first one was more traditional, I will talk about it in this post. The other had different lessons about being in costume at an historical event that I will address in a later post.

One view of about half the authors

This first book fair was at the Barbed Wire Bookstore in Longmont, CO.  http://www.barbedwirebooks.net/  Kathe Heinecken, the store owner, had organized this event for 38 local authors.  It included a full range of genres: fiction, non-fiction, children’s, and young adult  The bookstore is quite large, and Kathe was very creative about designing groups of authors, loosely categorized by genre and type of writing throughout the store.

My Author Station with Kathe Heineken behind me

I got a spot next to Jon Chandler, as he also writes books about the Civil War, such as Spanish Peaks, and Devin OBranagan, who has written, among other things, a hilarious book about the real estate market, Red Hot Property.  One of the best parts of the event was the opportunity to meet and greet other authors. It was a great bunch!

I have been to plenty of author events as a customer, but never before as an author, and I learned quite a few important things-some a bit the hard way!

1. Setting up your station.  It is important to make your books visible, but not to hide behind them! A woman near me was an author of about five lovely books of poetry and reflection.  She seemed a shy sort, and I watched as she unpacked stack after stack of books and placed them in a huge pile in front of her. Then she, a rather petite woman, sat down behind them entirely obscured. Kathe, who blessedly had both experience and tact for such matters, gently suggested she move a few. While she obliged, you could tell the exposure made her a bit uncomfortable. Remember, you are there to see and be seen!

As I look at my station in the picture above, it is OK, as it suggests sufficient quantity available and does not hide me.  You also want a fine balance of enough to make them look like they could be in short supply, but not so many that someone might be taking the last one (something most people are reluctant to do).  Keep extra copies out of sight under the table and replenish as necessary to keep the “just right” balance.  Give yourself a note pad of some sort–many conversations will give you something to jot down–recommendations, suggestions, names for follow up, and it also gives you something to do to show you are listening and responding.

2. Candy and Tschotskes? Many of the authors (most of whom were much more experienced than I am), had dishes of candy at their stations.  I welcomed this as the show was long and no food for authors was planned.  (Next time, I’ll remember to pack a snack of some sort like a fairly unobtrusive energy bar.) When things seemed slow in my area, I would stroll around the other author stations and pick up a piece of candy here and there.  I would feel obliged to stop and chat if I took candy.  I didn’t see, however, that the candy bowls drove sales much for those authors, but it did draw some more people in, so had the potential to increase sales.  One woman, who had written a book about dogs, had a couple of adorable stuffed dogs on her station. This drew in a lot of people, especially with children, to pick up and play with the stuffed dogs. It seemed almost to draw a crowd. But it turned out that people were more curious about how they could get the stuffed dogs (which she wasn’t selling) than they were about her book (which was about dog training & very much a grown up book). So, pros and cons  . . . such things do draw people in and can create a sense of connection or even obligation, but that is only the bait, you still need to set the hook.  And that is the next topic.

3. What to say? As the first potential readers began to mill around the show (over the course of the 4 hour event, several hundred probably came through),  I began to notice that most of them seemed quite reluctant to approach the authors.  I found myself remembering times I’d gone to book signings in the past, and how nervous I would feel approaching an author. I remembered that I would feel an uncomfortable blend of not knowing what to say (even if I’d read the book, but especially if I hadn’t read it), awe of the author (people do seem to find writers a bit intimidating for some reason), and fear that they would hit me with some sort of hard sales pitch that it would be stressful to resist.

From the newly fledged author point of view, I can now see that all such things are groundless. The author, in most cases, is nearly as uncomfortable as the prospective buyers and not at all geared up for slick sales pitches. I’m honestly not that shy by nature, but the evident nervousness of the people approaching me put me off my game a bit. My question became how to make them feel comfortable and make them feel they wanted to buy the book without creating any sense of unpleasant obligation . . . I began to wish I had a stuffed dog prop . . . even though it would have had nothing to do with the book . . .

I cast back to all the lessons I used to teach when I was a Sales Trainer for a large telecommunications company.  (It, incidentally, is much easier to sell other people’s products than your own! And it is also easier to teach how to sell than actually to do it!)

I remembered that  Rule #1 of Sales was always ‘Don’t Sell!’ That is, don’t push the product or feel you have to pitch it first, but build a relationship and see if there is anything they tell you that indicates a need for the product.  Now, that is very different when you are talking about a suite of telecommunications products, but I decided to see how I could apply it.

The first woman walked up tentatively and reached out to take a copy of the book gingerly looking as if she feared I or it might bite her.  I smiled, I hoped warmly, and just said “Hi there.” She flinched.  I smiled a little more broadly and rejected saying “So, do you have an interest in the Civil War?” Too ‘sales-y’ and too specific to open. “I tried, “So, quite a gathering here, isn’t it?” thinking that this was the book fair equivalent of the weather. I got a slight nod and hardly a murmur with a tight smile.  I certainly hadn’t set any hooks yet. I then remembered Rule #2 of Sales, was ‘Ask Open-Ended Questions’ that require an answer beyond a yes or a no. My first question failed on that count. I decided it was still too soon for “So, do you have an interest in the Civil War?” (Which also wouldn’t be open-ended.) So, I tried “What kinds of books do you usually like to read?” and was gratified to see her light up a bit.

She then began to tell me how much she loved romance novels, and how she recently had started reading vampire romances and really enjoyed them. I tried not to let my smile dim as I debated telling her my novel was a juicy romance with several vampires . . . she might not realize I was lying until she bought the book and actually read it . . .   But, even though people often talk about how marketing your book requires the skills of a mountebank and a charlatan, I couldn’t do it. This is something I have felt very strongly about as I have stuck to my plan of making a true historical novel work without making it an historical romance of the Harlequin variety or including zombies or a vampire.

As I gently told her that this was a real historical novel that works to show how a 19th Century family responded to the first year of the American Civil War, and that it includes several real relationships including a good marriage, a bad marriage, and even an illicit affair, I watched her eyes dim. I really thought the marriages or at least the affair might hook her, but I’ve realized that romance means a very beautiful very young woman who is threatened with losing her purity to some handsome but dangerous slightly older man.  I’m afraid I can’t really say that fits any of my characters without stretching things further than I’m willing to go.  I sent her on down the line to Devin O’Branagan, recommending Glory, Devin’s wonderful book of vampires, witches, and paranormal end-of-world events all besetting a 17-year old girl.  The woman looked relieved and then very happy as she trotted down the line to Devin.  Devin told me later that she did make a sale to her. (Another rule – when you see it’s not to be your sale, see if you can help someone else out.)

I could see, however, that getting her talking about her reading interests was a good tack.  The next woman who approached (they were mostly women), came up much more confidently, asking about historical fiction.  When I told her my grandmother had also written historical fiction and revealed that she was Anya Seton, the woman was thrilled and told me how much she had loved her books.  I sometimes hate to use my grandmother, as I’d rather fly on my own merits–but I know you have to use all you’ve got. And not that many know of my grandmother anymore, so doesn’t always work.  But this time it did make a sale!

4. Marketing Collateral.  I quickly saw that all the other authors had a variety of marketing collateral along and available all across their stations.  This included book-specific cards, author-specific cards, sell sheets, postcards with information about various books. In one case, it included a book-specific t-shirt.  All I had brought, knowing I should have something, was my consulting business card.  I also realized it was good to have something to hand people that was not as much of a committment as getting them to buy the book.  And I noted that the amount of collateral did not seem to correlate with whether people were independently or traditionally published-though some of the slickest did seem to come from traditional publishing houses. But I also noted that people didn’t pick up the slick materials much–they probably seemed too expensive-looking and too much of a committment. My generic consultant card didn’t seem to do much–at least if the fact that I got no follow-ups from it indicates anything.  I resolved to make a card specific to the book, and I did before the next show.  I’ll include details about what I did for that in my blog about the historical event at Manassas.

5. Signing the Book.  When the moment comes that you sell a book “live,” people always want them signed.  A few things to remember.  You can sign on the first or second page, but I find that it makes most sense to sign somewhere near where my name is printed on the main title page.  Ideally, I chat with them a little bit to put in something personal, but, generically, I do say how happy I was to see them at this specific event and sign with “Enjoy!” and my full signature–which I have gotten used to signing in a slightly stylized way for such things.  I bring a nice pen.  Also, ask them how you would like you to sign it–what name, spelling, etc., and ask if they do want a message. Some people want just the signature–I think this may be with an eye to potential resale value some day? The more I know a person, of course, the more complete a message I will write.  But I think people don’t love to see their book written all over, even when you have a close relationship with them–there is a fine line between giving them something they will value and their feeling you have somehow marred the book.  So, play it by ear and, in general, less seems to be more.  This is just what I’ve observed, especially as I have a little bit of a tendency to write a bit in a slightly extravagent hand–not sure everyone has always been thrilled!  I’ll value thoughts on this from other readers and writers.  What do you think are best practices here?

Results. In the end I sold five books, which Kathe told me was a higher number than many.  Part of the reason for my sales was that my mother had promoted it to her whole retirement community–and they brought a bus load with about 20 people.  As Kathe said, “those ladies sure had their wallets open.” I also did some promotion at my yoga studio and among my friends and that brought some people in.  And Kathe had done great promotion for many weeks before the event that generated a lot of interest.

In the end, I guess I am learning that this sort of event is more about general exposure and meeting other authors than about selling many books, and I’m finding my blog and twitter work achieves much more. The importance of signings seems to be another thing that has been impacted by the changes in the industry. But it sure is fun to ‘play author’ for a day.

And for additional perspective on what “Building the Brand” means for an author, check out this New York Times article http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/01/books/review/how-writers-build-the-brand.html  It charmingly shows how much authors (back to the Greeks!) have always had to market themselves and their works to be most successful!

Posted in Author Publicity, Book Promotion, Historical Fiction, Marketing Fiction, Professional Writer, Selling your Writing, Sesquicentennial Events, Social History, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Dressing for 1861 – My Hoop Skirt Arrives!

I knew the hoop skirt (or hoop crinoline to use proper 1861 terms) for my Civil War outfit was due to arrive, and I kept a look out for a big box of some sort . . . I wondered how in the world they would ship it!  The mail truck stopped by yesterday afternoon to drop off a standard Priority Mail mailing box, about 12″ x 15″ and 4″ high.

The Box Carrying the Hoop Crinoline

I assumed it might be something else–perhaps the corset I also had ordered and also was expecting.  I opened the box and there was a round gauzy  object wrapped in clear plastic – about  10″ across.  I opened the package and pulled out the object, luckily in an open area and “Poof!” There was my hoop skirt- all opened up and about 2 feet across with three graduated hoops at various places up the petticoat. 

Suddenly a mystery was solved for me. I had wondered how in the world 19th century women traveled with their hoop crinolines.  I did a little more research and found that theirs also were made of light weight fabric and flexible hoops – then made of spring steel.  You could fold it up to a relatively small package with a quick sleight of hand, gathering the hoops together and then turning them a bit like a figure-eight to make it fit into an amazingly small bundle that, placed in a little bag, could be transported easily.  While I plan to transport mine in a suitcase in a plane, I can see now that it would have been no trouble to have a few in the bottom of a trunk.  I’ll have to make sure to add this detail to the next volume of my Civil War novel series . . . I sort of skipped over it in the first one and assumed there must have been a way . . .

I ran to my closet to get the dress and then, in the large closet, stepped into the hoop crinoline and pulled the dress over it.  They worked together beautifully!  But, then I realized I had to get out of the closet – the skirt spread a good six inches wider than the door of the closet on either side.  I decided to just see what happened if I walked through .  It actually bent a little bit and compressed easily and I was through!

Then I began to walk around – I couldn’t believe how comfortable it was – my legs were entirely free underneath and it floated lightly and gracefully.  I remember hearing that 19th Century women really loved them instead of the stacks of heavy petticoats they wore before to give skirts a look of volume.  I can now see why!

I headed downstairs and realized steps could be a little bit of a problem.  Being a modern 21st century woman, I simply lifted it and walked down the stairs.  My husband was on the couch and he clearly thought it was quite interesting to see me in this get-up.  Funny, but he seemed to find it attractive immediately – maybe those 19th century ladies knew something we don’t anymore.  Could be some primal instinctive thing involved, perhaps?  But then he laughed and pointed and said, “I saw your ankles!”  I remembered then something that I had once told him about how notions of modesty change, and that it was considered very shocking and risqué if a 19th Century woman lifted her skirt even slightly so her ankles showed!  I guess he does remember some things I tell him!

In any case, he was right, I had actually exposed about half my calf as I navigated the stairs.  As he watched, amused, I went back up the stairs carefully lifting it only a few inches from the front by holding the fabric of the gown and lightly gripping the top hoop through it.  Then I could climb the stairs.  I turned on the landing, loving the floating, spinning feeling of the hoop. (My husband could still see me, and I could see he continued to appreciate.) I then headed back down the stairs, again carefully lifting the skirt only an inch or two in the front.  He clapped, and with a wry smile said, “Bravo! Nary a glimpse . . .”  I had mastered my first challenge of hoop skirt wearing!

How to Sit in a Hoop Crinoline

Next lesson, I’ll have to try sitting down without it flying up in front of me–I hear that was a embarrassing risk inexperienced 19th century ladies sometimes faced.    Here is a contemporary image of how sitting properly was to be done.

But enough for the first lesson – I’m getting a much better sense of what it all was like – corset next!  Funny thing, when I took off the hoop skirt and dress and got back into the jeans and t-shirt I had been wearing, the jeans felt very uncomfortable, and my husband hardly looked up when I came back down the stairs.

Hmmm . . . when I put it all together, I wonder if I’ll ever be able to achieve an effect as elegant as this dress below?  I’m beginning to understand a little better what this was all about . . . and, for me, a true believer in women’s liberation and not at all ‘girly,’ it’s a very strange thing!

A 19th Century Dress Requiring a Hoop

Posted in Sesquicentennial Events, Social History, Uncategorized | 14 Comments

Dressing for Manassas, VA in June – 1861 Style

I have been asked to attend the Manassas Railway Festival and Civil War Living History and Weekend Encampment, to take a table in the ‘Author’s Tent.’ Many at this event will be dressing in period garb and I decided to undertake the challenge.  I want to know how my characters really felt in a typical outfit on a warm summer’s day!  So, here goes.    http://www.virginia.org/Listings/EventsAndExhibits/

There are many resources online, I find, and the cost of putting together an outfit, with a little ingenuity and willingness to search is not that exorbitant.  First of all, there was the dress.  I found a woman who makes such dresses and sells them on ebay.  

After looking for a while, I found a beautiful one that seemed like it would be the right size, so I ordered it.  This could be a typical day dress for a middle class woman dressed to leave the house.

I was so pleased when I got it.  Beautiful workmanship and it fit about perfectly.  It’s a tiny bit snug, so, with the corset underneath, will be just right!  She even included the lace collar in the picture and some crochet fingerless mitts. One person who dresses in period told me that a woman never is without gloves of some sort in public-very rude to have bare hands. She told me it had as much to do with cleanliness notions as propriety. She also told me that on a hot day, crocheted fingerless gloves would be the thing.

Then I knew I had to get a hoop crinoline.  I was a little worried about how I would get one in Colorado and get it to Virginia in my plane luggage–yes, so authentic to travel that way!  But I was told that actually there are ways to twist and fold them so that they become a bundle only about 12 inches in diameter.  I plan to take my large suitcase, so that will work.

After much additional searching, I found the best option again on ebay.  It was a wedding supply source that makes hoop crinolines (a surprising number of 21st century women, especially in south, seem to want to wear hoop-skirts for their weddings!). I also needed a fairly long one–I’m tall–and that was the hardest part.  I finally had to compromise and order one that was made of polyester mix–not entirely authentic–but since it won’t really show except in the effect it produces, decided to go with it.  Not that expensive, actually.

Next I had to think about what to do about the Corset.  One person suggested a modern long-line bra could work–but, one thing that is important for a proper profile is that the bust must not be obvious for day dress–the traditional corset actually does quite a bit of compressing of the whole upper torso.  The look is quite compact.  So, I decided this was a place where I had to go traditional.  Again, after much searching, I found the best offer on ebay–a woman actually makes traditional 19th century corsets to order.  Not that inexpensive, but worth it.  This is one thing I really wanted to know exactly how it felt–something a typical 20-21st century woman doesn’t get to experience.  It should be interesting!  They made a point that it was not about taking many inches off the waist (Gone with the Wind exaggerated), but more about getting a firm and compressed silhouette.  Looks like this will do it!

Now I need a bonnet–I found one Espy that was reasonable–I decided navy blue would be the right color, with some white lace added peeking out around the face.  And I need some pantalettes to go underneath–I hear that makes all the difference on a hot day.  Still have to work on that one.  I can sew, and I might actually make them.  Then, a camisole to go under the corset, and I’m good to go.  Hmmm . . . maybe a parasol, and maybe a light shawl . . a reticule . . . this could continue a bit more, eh?

I’ll give you an update as the pieces start to come together!  And I’ll make sure to get photos of me in the whole regalia as at the Manassas event. On my way to an authentic experience . . .

Note: This is all in the name of research for my Civil War novel series.  I’m working on Volume II (Year of Atonement, set in 1862) now, but I am going to Manassas to promote Volume I, set in 1861:  Year of Disunion: A Novel of the Dawn of the American Civil War.  It is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.  http://www.amazon.com/Year-Disunion-Novel-American-Civil/dp/1456586114/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1300588219&sr=8-1

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Real Life in 1861 – Momentous News – Learning of the War

Reverend Joseph Tilton returns from his monthly circuit of parishes with ‘momentous’ news to tell his wife Roxana, her sister Lettie visiting from Boston, and the rest of their extended Vermont family. Roxana had recently survived a difficult childbirth. I’m posting this in these early days of the first sesquicentennial  year to illustrate how learning of the ‘first shots of the war’ might have felt . . .

April 16, 1861 – Roxana was a little surprised when Joseph asked that she and Lettie, and all the children,  gather in the parlor so he could address them. At first, she couldn’t imagine what he had to say so formally—but then she realized he likely wanted to provide a blessing to thank the Lord for her safety and the baby’s arrival and composed her face to look appropriately sanctified and grateful.

       He opened, “I must begin, of course, by thanking the Lord for the baby’s safe arrival and my dear Roxana’s survival of her ordeal.” He took a breath after this, and Roxana prepared to endure a sermon delivered entirely in her honor and once again mustered an appropriately beatific expression as he continued with, “However, as you all know, we have been cursed by the abiding evil of slavery for lo these many years of our Republic, and, as you also know, President Lincoln has taken a strong stand against the Southern slaveholding states and all their various treacherous and disloyal ways, particularly as they have been rebelling against and seceding from the Union!”

       It took Roxana a moment to process the words he was saying and realize they had nothing whatever to do with her, and that he had moved to an entirely different topic. More than a little disconcerted, she tried not to allow herself to feel irritated as she recognized it must be an extraordinarily important topic for him to handle it this way. She took a deep breath and forced herself to think beyond herself and pay attention to what her husband was now saying.

       He continued, “With the good Lord as his guide, Mr. Lincoln has now taken a step that has the potential to chastise the rebelling Southerners and perhaps end the cursed institution of slavery once and for all! With the guidance of angels and the undoubted inspiration of our Father in heaven, we find ourselves on a new course, a Godly course, that will lead us all into new pastures of virtue and light. . . .”

       As he continued on in this vein for a minute or so more, Roxana noted all beginning to fidget. Finding the length of the preamble frustrating herself (especially as she was a little annoyed that Joseph had hardly acknowledged her difficulties and had barely blessed their new baby), she took the opportunity of his drawing breath to break in with, “Yes, yes, dear, but please, I cannot bear the suspense. Whatever has happened?”

       Joseph paused a moment and Roxana guessed he was irritated that his narrative had been interrupted and that he was being forced to alter his planned delivery. Knowing him, she was certain he had planned and rehearsed this “impromptu sermon” all during his several hours’ ride from Rutland that morning. With a bit of a frown, he said: “Well, if you insist, I will get straight to the point, though I do believe momentous news should be delivered with appropriate gravity.”

       He paused again to gather breath and, Roxana knew, to draw things out a bit more before he revealed the “momentous news.” Then, raising his head high, opening his hands and holding his palms up in a gesture of delivery, he looked slightly above all their heads as if receiving divine inspiration and said, “Yesterday, in Rutland, I learned that three days before, on the twelfth of April, eighteen hundred and sixty-one—a date I am sure schoolchildren for generations hence will be taught to remember—Secessionists deliberately fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, thereby in effect declaring war.

       “In response, President Lincoln has issued a proclamation declaring an insurrection exists and asking militia from all Northern states to respond. We, the North, are now at war with the seceding states of the South! And, as I had begun to tell you, I cannot but see this as a holy war and one that we must all engage in with our hearts and our souls and spirits to . . .”

       As she began to absorb the full import of what Joseph was saying, Roxana barely continued to listen as she tried to fathom what it meant. While there had been conflict about the slaves for as long as she could remember, and there had been much discussion of secession, especially as a series of states actually had seceded over the past months, she had never dreamed it could come to war. The whole concept of a war with the Southern states seemed unfathomable.

       She realized after a moment or two that she had no idea what Joseph now was saying and briefly paid attention enough to realize he still was delivering his sermon about the holiness of the war. She then looked at Lettie, who was sitting in a chair next to hers, and who didn’t look as shocked as she would have expected. While she tried to appear as if she were still attending to Joseph as much as possible, Roxana leaned over to whisper, “Lettie, this is horrible news, is it not?”

       Lettie, seeming not to have as much concern about appearing to be listening to Joseph, said in an only slightly lowered voice, “Yes, I imagine it is, but it’s no real surprise. It’s all anyone has been talking about in Boston these past months. I’m sure it will all blow over.”

       Seeing he was losing his audience, Joseph’s expression changed from ministerial and inspired to practical and irritated as he gave up his efforts to make salutary remarks and said to their son, “Joey, please go and tell your Uncle Samuel the news and tell him to bring his family over for supper so we can discuss it.”

       And he answered one of their daughter’s questions with “Well, I have no real idea how long it will take to end the rebellion, but I heard in Rutland that most believe it will be a quick and decisive engagement. Because the North is reported to possess vastly superior resources, they say one significant battle will be sufficient for the South to learn how overmatched they are and end their foolishness.”

       Some hours later, after they had finished supper, the adults remained at the table drinking coffee, eating sweet biscuits, and intending to discuss the war news while Bridget began clearing the table and doing dishes. They sent all the children outside. The two older boys had pleaded to stay and hear more, as they were already immensely excited by the war and were talking about enlisting. But the adults made them leave because they didn’t want to include them until they were more certain how they themselves felt and had decided how they would best present their thoughts to the children. The boys accepted this for the moment, joined the six others, and apparently became opposing generals as they all began to play war. While the adults prepared to talk, the children’s “battles” coursed in and out of the house. Shrill yips and deeper barks accompanied shrieks and yells, as Buster, the Porters’ half-grown puppy, also had come over and he and their dog Rufus were joining in the fray.

       The elders sat silent for a few minutes, savoring the pleasure of the good meal and the strangely consoling sounds of the children’s mock engagement. Roxana found herself to have no impulse to shush the children or try to rein in the growing noise and disorder of their play, and she could see none of the others seemed to wish to do so either. She knew she sensed, and imagined the rest did as well, that this change in their world might somehow make such frolics more rare. Roxana guessed they also felt, as she certainly did, that talking about this war would make it more real, so she happily remained quiet and waited for someone else to break the silence.

       It was Sam who apparently felt he must talk first. As if the words were bursting from behind a dam, he said, hammering a fist on the table, “I cannot conceive how we’ve arrived at this pass! The whole notion of a war between the states seems incredible. While I know there have been problems about the slaves, I fail to understand how on earth we have gotten to a point where war is required!”

       Joseph sat up straight, took a deep breath and, Roxana knew, spoke as a preacher when he answered, “War is indeed required, for, as I see it, this call to arms is divine intervention. How could the Lord not see slavery as an institution which must be abolished? I believe President Lincoln and his emerging military to be tools of our Lord in His righteous indignation. I cannot but want to do all I can to support this great and glorious cause!” he finished, placing his hands together in front of his chest and bowing his head toward them, saying, “Let us pray . . .”

All dutifully bowed their heads.

       As Roxana bent her head with Joseph’s words still in her ears, she wondered what he might mean by “doing all I can to support the cause.” It suddenly struck her that he could plan to become involved with the war effort. This then shaped the prayer she made as she found herself petitioning God that Joseph would not do this, and that he would not choose to go, or at least that he would turn out to be too old or would be found unfit in some other way. She then tried to force herself to make her thoughts and prayers more charitable—she knew she did believe in the cause—but she also could not bear to see him go away on such an uncertain mission. She prayed further then that it all might be over very quickly, or at least too soon for him to become involved.

       Not liking the almost panicky feelings these reflections and desperate petitions were creating, she stopped herself and looked up. She saw that Lettie had already raised her head and wondered if she had ever bowed it. Lettie rolled her eyes slightly when she met Roxana’s, and Roxana felt a slightly confused mixture of agreeing with her sister’s impatience, trying to quell her own fear, and still retain pride in her husband’s faith, as they waited what Lettie apparently thought a very long time for the others, and then finally Joseph, to raise their heads to signal the end of the prayer.

       When all eyes were raised, Lettie cleared her throat lightly to bring their attention to herself and said, “You must all know—while this conflict is about slavery—that that’s really just a small part of it. This actually is all about who will control the country, Southern landholders or Northern leaders of industry! There have been all sorts of debates about things like tariffs, states’ rights, and foreign trade that have been making social gatherings in Boston more and more tedious all this past year!”

       Partly in an effort to support her husband and partly because she did need to believe this was a worthy war, Roxana knew she didn’t want to allow the focus of the discussion to shift in this direction and said with a smile and in what she hoped was a peaceful tone, “Yes, Lettie, be that as it may—and I have seen some reports of these things in the Boston papers—but I still think any conflict has to be about saving the poor slaves. For many years, Joseph and I have been devoting all our energies and our prayers to supporting the abolitionist cause and see nothing to be so significant as ending this dreadful institution. All I can say, along with Joseph, is hallelujah!”

        Lettie apparently saw herself to be challenged by what Roxana had hoped would seem a reasonable statement and raised her head a bit higher to say even a little more forcefully, “Yes, of course, hallelujah. But honestly, from listening to my husband and his associates, I think this war is really all about their wanting to get cotton at a lower price! I see them to have no interest whatsoever in freeing the labor force that provides them with the cotton that supplies their mills!”

       Roxana was a little taken aback. She wondered what rules of social propriety Lettie had learned in Boston as she bit her tongue and waited to see if Lettie would moderate her approach and remember that it was not Christian to contradict so blatantly, or ladylike to speak so forcefully. As Lettie didn’t say anything else immediately and lowered her head a bit, Roxana guessed she was remembering these things as well. She was glad Joseph remained silent and chose not to join in the fray. She was a little dismayed, however, to note that neither he nor Sam appeared irritated, but rather seemed to be looking at Lettie with the sort of indulgent fondness one might direct toward an adorably precocious child.       

       Sam shook his head a bit then, as if returning to business, and spoke up next. Apparently thinking a change of topic was in order, he said, “All I can hope is that this won’t set back any of the work the boys and I have done to make my farm profitable. God knows what disordered times this might bring!”

       Tabitha reached out to grasp her husband’s hand as she said, “And, yes, the boys—Matt is nearly seventeen and Frank is fifteen. Oh, Lord, I couldn’t bear it if this lasted long enough that they become old enough to go off to war—I do hope that would be at least eighteen! I’m afraid it might be impossible to persuade them not to. I pray you are right, Joseph, that this won’t last long . . .” She took her hand back from her husband to clasp it with the other in prayer as she bent over with intense energy, apparently making the same petition directly to the Lord.

       Roxana knew she knew so little and had so many things she would have to learn about this new world they had entered. As she looked around, her own eyes feeling full, she noted that all whose heads were not also bowed in prayer had eyes glistening with unshed tears. She reached out to Joseph on one side and Lettie on the other and took each of their hands while they all sat together, the children’s “war” still echoing in the background, as they all realized in their own ways that nothing from this point on could possibly remain the same.

If you would like to read the rest of the story, take a look at Year of Disunion: A Novel of the Dawn of the American Civil War.  This selection is taken from this novel. It is now available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.  http://www.amazon.com/Year-Disunion-Novel-American-Civil/dp/1456586114/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1300588219&sr=8-1

Posted in Sesquicentennial Events, Social History, Uncategorized, Year of Disunion Exerpt

Most Useful Books on the American Civil War – Listmania

Listmania List: Most Useful Books on the American Civil War I have cataloged (with comments) some of the books I have found most valuable in my over twenty years of studying the Civil War era.  Please feel free to make any suggestions for additions to this list by adding comments to this blog. I will happily add valuable suggestions to the list along with your name and your recommendation ( 400 characters allowed).

List: http://www.amazon.com/lm/R2UB1GUJKFQ2DA/ref=cm_lm_pthnk_view?ie=UTF8&lm_bb=

I introduce the list in this way:  As I wrote Year of Disunion, I found myself consulting certain resources over and over again. In recent years, the Internet has also been invaluable, but I continue to rely on these books. Year of Disunion set in 1861, so the resources tend toward the beginning of the war. But, now, as I begin Volume II, Year of Atonement, set in 1862, I’ll be adding some new resources that treat some of the new areas I plan to explore including: the war in Charleston, SC; early settlements in Boulder, CO; slaves escaping to Canada and settling there.

This is just a start . . . they are simply in order of how quickly they came to mind, and how quickly I found them on my bookshelves. I am scanning my bookshelf and see many more . . . I’ll keep adding as I use them and/or remember them being useful.

As I get suggestions, I will add to this intro to explain that it is becoming a communal shared list based on posts to my blog.

Posted in Social History, Uncategorized | 5 Comments