Monday, April 17, 2017

. . . And Plot Ideas at the Wrong Times

If you are a writer, then you know this phenomenon. Plot ideas--or bits of delightful dialogue--always occur at the worst times, or at the weirdest. Or both. They come to you while you're on the can, or in the shower. They happen when you don't have a scrap of paper to hand, or when you're driving. Or, maybe worst of all, they happen as you're falling asleep. That one's a double-whammy. First of all, you're sure you'll remember that amazing solution to all your plot problems, but then you wake up and, you're like, "Crap, it's gone." Secondly, if you do remember it, it's usually to realize that it's actually a really dumb idea after all. "Dinosaurs? Why did I think that was the answer?"

In any case, I was thinking about this yesterday, because I've been reworking the beginning of a manuscript, and when that happens my subconscious is usually churning away at solutions and will provide them when my mind is half-relaxed. While driving home on I66, the traffic was minimal and my mind was largely unoccupied, and a new opening to the latest chapter occurred to me. I couldn't write it down, though I had pen and paper; I was driving and didn't want to pull over. I could enter it into my phone, but that's basically texting while driving, and I didn't want to do that, either.

So I settled on the voice recording app on my phone. And I discovered a few things:

1.) I have the worst, most monotone voice ever.

2.) Things that work in writing sound silly when spoken aloud. This might have to do with number 1 above. It gives me new respect for audiobook narrators.

3.) Really, you shouldn't narrate and drive. Not a good idea . . . No, I didn't get into any accidents or near-accidents, but I decided I probably should be more careful in the future!

All that being said, I got a great idea of how to solve a bigger, structure-sized problem for this ms last night while falling asleep, and I didn't forget it. What's more . . . it doesn't suck. So, hoorah for small victories. And for not sucking.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

. . . And Butler Island

Two years ago, in a twist of irony that seemed to portend imminent glory for me, I booked a trip to Savannah while waiting to hear a response from a potential agent who had a manuscript of mine set (partly) on the Sea Islands of Georgia in the 1850's. Just a few days before I left on my trip, I got The Call. I was officially represented by a literary agent, and I was off to visit the setting of my story, because I'd decided to rent a car and drive from Savannah to Butler Island, just south of Darien, GA.

Now, here I have a post all about that trip and my foray to nearby Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation. It was a magical trip. I loved it. Fast forward one year, and I got restless and decided to travel to another Southern city, this time Charleston. It's a further drive from Charleston to Butler Island, but I rented a car and drove there again because, well, I felt obliged. I blogged about meeting an alligator there. Fast forward one more year to, well, last week, and I was again in Savannah and Charleston. This time I drove down from my home in Virginia (a good idea in some ways, a bad one in other ways), and of course made it all the way to Butler Island, for the third time.

This time, because I drove, I was able to bring proper hiking shoes and a backpack, so I was better-prepared to hike the island a bit.

But let me back up. What does Butler Island have to do with my manuscript?

Well, as I've explained elsewhere, the seed that turned into "Channing" was the memoir of a young Englishwoman named Fanny Kemble, who married a slave-owner from Georgia in the 1830's. Apparently, going into the marriage, she wasn't aware that he was a slave-owner. There are two mitigating factors here: first, in that time, even a prospective bride wouldn't think it her place to ask a man where his money came from and, second, she met Pierce Butler in Philadelphia and the family lived in Pennsylvania, so she didn't necessarily have reason to think that their wealth came from a Sea Islands rice plantation. Fanny visited the plantation in the early 1830's and wrote a memoir, which actually wasn't published until much later, after she'd scandalously divorced Pierce Butler. Not long before the Civil War, Butler actually ended up in financial trouble and had to sell off hundreds of slaves in an enormous auction. It was called "The Weeping Time."

In any case, Butler Island is still there, as are some remnants of the old plantation. The house is gone, but the brick chimney from the steam-powered mill and remnants of the ride-powered mill are also still there on Butler Island, just south of Darien, Georgia. On the aerial images, you can see that remnants of the irrigation canals still cut the island into squares.

I used the image of the red-brick chimney sticking up into a clear blue sky in "Channing", as well as the imagery of the low-lying, boggy land, where the difference between land and water are slight. I even put an alligator--or the possibility of one--into "Channing": two of the girls blithely traipse off in search of one. For the record, the one I saw last year was smallish, not a man-eater. Still, I don't suggest anyone go looking for a gator, because even the small ones might like to chomp on your hand or foot. (Seriously, there are signs all over telling people not to approach the gators. I'm sorry, but if someone purposefully approaches a gator with the intention to, I dunno, pet it, then they might just deserve to lose a finger!).

Determined to make a real go of seeing all of Butler Island this time, I drove to the I-95 overpass. Yes, sadly, I-95 cuts directly across Butler Island. I don't think its construction really destroyed anything--it passes over a narrow isthmus of land, and it was just fields there. Still, it's a bit distracting even though there's no get-off. You have to take the next exit and come round, then rattle a mile or so down a dirt/sand road. At the overpass, that road comes to end. That's where I stopped, put on my hiking shoes, put on my backpack, and got going. Wary of gators, I picked up a random hook about the size of my hand that I found, thinking that if nothing else I could poke the bugger in the eye if a gator tried to attack me. I was, maybe, more worried than necessary about that as I walked down
a road heading roughly south, paralleling the highway. On either side was that watery, swampy, gray-blue-green-brown mix so typical of the area. The road was higher ground, and clearly some kind of vehicles sometimes used it. Still, I was wary. And maybe that's why, when I reached a bend, I said, "Alright, enough adventure for today," and turned around. I congratulated myself on getting so far. I had gone west the last two times, and I was sure I'd gone further this time than those two times. As it happens, I was wrong. BUT, I saw new parts of the island, which I'm grateful for.

It's a lovely feeling, to connect with a place like that. In the world of Google Earth, we can see and understand so much about places we've never been to. We can almost experience for themselves. But "almost" is the operative word here. I'd written Channing before I ever visited Butler Island, and I had built a strong image of the place in my mind and (I think) in my manuscript, an image that was largely confirmed by my visit there. And yet, being there was so much richer and fuller. The smells, the plants, the insects, the intensity of the sun, the emphatic vividness of the colors--it was similar to what I'd imagined, but not the same.

Which makes me think: what can we really know of the past? We can't see the places they inhabited, not really. Even preserved houses are no longer the living, breathing places they once were, and the setting around them will have changed dramatically. The light, the sounds, the things you see out those windowpanes--all of it will be fundamentally different. Oh, we can put together images in our minds--we can have a very good idea of what a place was like, in fact. But it won't be the same, will it? I guess that's true in a larger sense, too. We can't recapture the past. It's . . . . passed. And our memories can reconstruct it, but it will never be quite the same.



Sunday, April 2, 2017

. . . And my DNA

At the end of last year, I decided to get my DNA analyzed via Ancestry.com. They were having a deal, and I'd been meaning to get it done. It's not that there was any mystery about my background. I've always known that I'm English and German. The family names speak for themselves--Huhns, Schefflers, Russells, and Frowes. I wasn't sure when these various European contingents came to America, but I knew it wasn't all that recent--not in the 20th century, for sure. The way my dad told it, his family was in western Pennsylvania in the mid-1700's. Very early. My research on the Huhns runs cold in the early 1800's, so it's hard to say for sure.

While doing some desultory family-tree making at the National Archives (I was waiting for records to be pulled), I happened across the fact that some of my mother's relatives (William and Mary Moffitt) were Irish and came over in the 1850's. This wasn't a fact that I was aware of, and nor was my mother. Cool fact, say you? I agree, say I. It pops up a little later.

Anyway, after sending Ancestry a bottle filled with my spit (ew), I waited a few weeks and then got an email telling me my results were in. I eagerly clicked the link and logged in, to find, to absolutely no one's surprise, that I am the whitest person you'll ever meet. I was surprised the least of all, though it would've been interesting if something unexpected, like Pacific Islander, had shown up. In that instance, I might have called up Ancestry.com and told them there was a mistake.

My DNA revealed that I am, wait for it, mostly British and Western European. I am 33% British and 51% Western European. The WE ethnicity includes--wait for it!--Germany. It also includes some of France and England, but let's just say for the sake of argument that in this case it means Germany, because my parents' names are both purely German. The only small surprise was that I am 11% Irish--cool--and 4% Iberian. Not quite sure where that tiny bit of Iberian comes in, but maybe there's a Spaniard in my distant past. There's 1% of them not being quite sure-probably Scandanavia, they say.

In any case, it seems pretty clear that that 11% Irish comes from the Moffitts. It's kind of neat to trace a certain percentage of my genetic makeup to particular people (people whom I know nothing about aside from their names, I'm afraid).

As I was talking with a friend about these (thrillingly expected) results, she reminded me of something that I would have known if I'd thought about it a little. She mentioned that her siblings had done the test too, and their admixture was different from hers. I probably made a face, because I had to think that one through before it made sense. But, of course, we and our siblings don't get the same genes from our parents, or we'd be identical twins. Our DNA is different, pulling a little more from this ethnic group and a little from that other ethnic group. While I'm pretty darn German, I would not be surprised if my brother took the test and was even more German. He has a very German look to him which makes me think he has a pretty strong genetically German make-up.

Yesterday, I got an email telling me that Ancestry had added a new analysis. They've analyzed my "genetic communities". In addition to giving me a percentage of my various ethnicities, I now get sorted by--I *think--haplotype. This is a bit like a genetic family with a group of similar genetic markers. Using technology, they're able to put me into one or more of these groups and to trace the spread of that group from Europe (in my case) and across the world.  Ancestry DNA tells me I'm "likely" in the "Early Settlers of New York" community. The group came from England and Germany in the early-mid 1700s, then spread across New York and Pennsylvania. Sound familiar? It's basically the story of the Huhns. I'm also "possibly" part of the "Early Settles of the North East" and "Settlers of Ohio and Potomac River Valleys", which would also fit.

This is a fun exploration of what our genes can tell us. Isn't it remarkable how much of us is actually an artifact of the people who came before? Sure, our DNA is unique, but it bears markers of all the people we're descended from.


Saturday, March 25, 2017

When Novellas Attack (And Become Novels)


Hello, all! I bet you all thought that I'd fallen off the face of the earth, but I didn't, believe it or not. I've just been preoccupied with other things, and may continue to be. But for the moment, I have the urge to blog, so blog I will.

What's slightly amusing is that I wrote the title of this post apparently several months ago with the intent of writing a blog to go along with it. At that point, I'd just finished up a writing project. But I finished that up late last year, and in the meantime I--gulp--have written (well, rewritten) an entire 110k-word novel. It's hard to get myself back into the headspace of the previous project, even though I finished it only a few months ago. My computer tells me that the file for that manuscript was last edited in December, but I think I must have finished it up before then, because I couldn't have banged out 110k words in like two months. No way. Right?

See? My poor little brain gets so muddled. Talk to me about Civil War politics, or British royalty, and I'm clear-headed. Ask me to write a sentence--or a few hundred--and I'm your gal. But keep track of what I did last week, last month, or last year? Heck, no. That's why I have a calendar and take pictures.

In any case, this is the story of the Novella That Would be a Novel.

I set out to write a novella. That's an unusual thing to do, because there is no market for novellas, really. Novels are the thing, But after I wrote The Cotton Wars, a prequel to my antebellum novel Channing, I wanted to write something fun and quick--a palate cleanser. So I woite a novella set during the Civil War. A long novella, but a novella. And I loved it--still do--but I thought to myself, what good is a novella? Maybe--and it was just a theory--it would be more salable if there were two related novellas that could be smushed together into one book of novel length.

Now, novella #1 ("Hamilton Gray") is about a Confederate soldier who is coming home to his burnt-out cabin after losing his arm. He meets a woman who calls herself Missy and who isn't what she appears at first to be. He has delusions, and there are some adventures. It's a nice little story. What I intended for Novella #2 was a counterpoint to that story, with a Union soldier as a main character who isn't all that he seems to be. Along the way, the Confederate MC learns a lesson about slavery and empathy.

I began to spin a plot around that. I knew I wanted the Confederate woman, instead of the Confederate man, to learn a lesson, and for the Union man to learn a bit of a lesson, too. In my Civil War wanderings, I was struck in particular by the Battle of the Wilderness because of the rather grisly fact that fires broke out in the thick, impenetrable woods where the battle took place, and many wounded men were burned alive. It was almost a literal hell. I wish I could remember now where I read it, but I also read about a woman who lived near a battlefield who went out to nurse a man out in the field because he was too injured to be moved. And it clicked. I wanted my character to be burned and to be nursed by a Confederate woman who didn't realize he was a Union soldier.

From there, I built up the characters of Mazarine and Clara. Clara and her sisters were widows, living with the sister's six children in their uncle's house. Mazarine was a Yankee lieutenant sent to commandeer their house as headquarters for his commanding officer. This meant fleshing out the characters of Clara's sister and all her children, most particularly Eliezer, a 13-year-old boy who's itching to be part of the war.

Out of these elements, I began to devise a plot. Now, the way I work, I usually begin with a general concept--a beginning, an ending, or some highlight that I want to hit. With this story, I knew I had to start at the moment Mazarine and Clara meet, and that there would be a battle. And I knew where I wanted to end. What I began to build the story around was the moment of Clara recognizing Mazarine after she'd been nursing him for a while.

So, what would happen between the moment they meet and the moment she recognizes him? They have to bicker a bit and then part ways, and he has to get injured and be caught in the flames. I began to create some conflict between them, then used Eliezer as a catalyst to get Mazarine into the thick of the battle. And later . . . well, let's just say that Eliezer is also something of a catalyst for allowing Mazarine and Clara to understand one another.

As you go, you build in subplots. I started one involving the dead father, Liam, and whose fault it was that he went off to be a soldier and was killed. It occurred to me that Liam had his own story to tell, so I gave him his own chapters. Yes, he's dead, but that doesn't mean his story is necessarily done. I was enthused about this also because there's a supernatural element to "Hamilton Gray" (the other novella), and this added a similar element to "Mazarine" (the working title).

I won't reveal much else, but by the time I wound up all these story lines, I had a story of 86k words. And that is solidly in the realm of a novel. Plans change, and sometimes you just have to let the story lead you. In this case, the story led me to a novel I wasn't expecting.

Monday, August 29, 2016

. . . And the Search for James C. Huhn (Day 3)

As evidenced in two previous blog posts (here and here), last month, I took a trip into central Virginia--the Shenandoah Valley--to follow in the footsteps of my three-times-great-grandfather, James Crozier Huhn. He was a blacksmith in the 14th Pennsylvania Cavalry, and his unit took part in most of the major engagements of the Shenandoah Campaign of 1864.

The largest of those engagements was the Third Battle of Winchester. As the name might suggest, Winchester saw a lot of action during the Civil War, including three large-scale engagements. It was in a strategic point at the north end of the Valley, pointing right towards Washington DC to the east. Important roads and railroads led from the west--particularly from the Ohio Valley--to the east and passed through or nearby Winchester. The First Battle of Winchester took place in 1862; "Stonewall" Jackson routed Union general Nathaniel Banks. In 1863, Confederate general Richard Ewell defeated a force at Winchester on his way north into Pennsylvania, where he would take part in the Battle of Gettysburg.

In 1864, Union general Philip Sheridan had only recently been placed in charge of the army in the Shenandoah. It was an important election year, and Sheridan had been told specifically that whatever he did, he must not lose a battle. With the stalemate in Petersburg and with Sherman incommunicado somewhere in Georgia, Abraham Lincoln couldn't politically sustain another military loss. And if he lost the election, then the Democrats would win, and they were promising to negotiate a peace with the Confederates. Sheridan, as ordered, was cautious. Confederate general Early took this caution as cowardice. But by September, Sherman had taken Atlanta, and Sheridan had the green light to be more aggressive.

Sheridan (third from left) in 1864. To the right of
him are Merritt and Torbert, cavalry commanders.
In September of 1864, Early split his forces, and Sheridan pounced. Just outside of Winchester, the two armies clashed. Sheridan had problems getting his (numerically superior) men deployed, which allowed Early to bring up more of his men. The infantry battle raged just east of town throughout the day. In the afternoon, two divisions of cavalry,
including the 14th PA Cavalry under its commander, Col. James M. Schoonmaker, came sweeping down from the north along the Valley Turnpike. They came upon the Rebel defenses at Star Fort, directly north of town (which had been there since 1862). The 14th PA Cavalry charged unsuccessfully twice, dismounted, and tried again, this time with more success. Col. Schoonmaker won a Medal of Honor for his bravery that day.

With a successful cavalry assault to the north and west of town (on the Confederates' left) and the Union infantry finally cracking the Confederates to the east of town (on the Confederate right), the day went to the Union. The Confederates were forced to retreat, and they beat a path for Fisher's Hill, where there would be another sizable battle just a few days later. (See my blog post about Day 2 of my trip, when I visited Fisher's Hill.) It was the beginning of the end for the Rebels in the Valley; as with Lee's army across the mountains, the Confederates in the Valley really couldn't afford the casualties they incurred (about 3,600). They would be defeated at Fisher's Hill, Tom's Brook, and finally at Cedar Creek, precipitating what was known as The Burning. Like Sherman in his famous March to the Sea in Georgia, Sheridan cut a swath of destruction through the Shenandoah Valley, burning barns and supplies that might be useful to the army. To be fair, civilian property was generally not destroyed unless it could help feed or supply the Confederate Army. It was yet another factor in the breakdown of the Confederate war effort, since the Valley was so vital in supplying Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

Now, all of that is background for my and my dad's exploration of Winchester. Mostly, we explored outside of town, though there's plenty to see in town, as well. The first thing I wanted to find was Star Fort. It looked to me like it still existed in some form. On a Civil War Trust map, it was marked as being preserved, but the map made it difficult to decipher exactly where the fort was located on the modern map. I puzzled over it a bit, trying to get Google Maps to help out. But it wasn't on Google Maps, and a satellite view didn't help. (It turns out if I'd just searched it and not used the map function, I would have had more luck, since there are sites with directions.) But I hadn't found what I wanted so far. I just knew whatever was left of the fort was somewhere along Rt. 522 where it curved westward just north of town. So, after an early continental breakfast in the hotel, my dad and I set off in his truck with one of the trusty battle maps I'd printed out. We drove past a subdivision, frowning and squinting, trying to decide whether any of the bumps or ridges were anything other than modern development. We turned and drove back the other way, doing the same thing. Dad said we ought to try the subdivision, which seemed like it was in roughly the same spot. So we pulled another u-turn and pulled into the subdivision. I didn't have a lot of hope. If there had been a fort there, it seemed like the subdivision was right on top of it and had obliterated it. (I was wrong.)

The subdivision had street names like Sentinel Drive and Caliber Court, which we had to admit seemed like a clue. We could also tell that the subdivision was placed on a high spot looking down not only on the town of Winchester but also on the train tracks below. We agreed that if they were gonna build a fort, that was a fine place to put it. But damned if we could find it.

If we'd been paying closer attention, we might have noticed that the main road through the subdivision was Fortress Drive and that we had driven past a little sign that said "Star Fort."

On our way out, we saw the sign. We stopped and hopped out. I realized on this little trip to the Valley that you can never be quite sure what to expect of a historical site. Sometimes it's a few paths mowed through an open field on a hillside, like at Fisher's Hill. Sometimes there are houses and barns and tunnels under freeways, like at New Market. Sometimes, there are acres of fields, miles of fencing, and scores of monuments like at Gettysburg. Sometimes there's a wet, grassy path off a subdivision street that passes into a woods and then opens onto a grassy clearing, like at Star Fort.

For a small park that's pretty well-hidden (no signs from the main road, only a small sign out front with the actual park well-hidden in the trees), it's a pleasant, well-interpreted
spot. What's there now is the earthworks that were once part of the fort: grassy berms roughly sketching out a circle. Beyond the earthworks are the ditches that ran along the front of the fort's walls. Today, it's just mounds of earth surrounded by trees and then houses, but in 1864, the place would have been completely devoid of trees for quite a distance. What good is a fort overlooking the town if there are trees blocking the view?

There are a several interpretive signs telling about the building of the fort and its role in
the Third Battle of Winchester, so we trudged around and looked at them all. One even told about Col Schoonmaker's Medal of Honor-winning heroics ("Hey, that was my great-great-great-granddaddy's commanding officer!").

The grass was still damp from the morning dew, and it was already getting warm, so after walking around the old earthworks for a little while, we headed back to the truck, pleased to have found the elusive--well, sort of--Star Fort.

Our next stop was the preserved battlefield park east of town. If you look at the battle map (like here), this is where the infantry part of the battle took place. Today it's a good-size park (the Civil War Trust says it has saved 447 acres), with trails and markers. My dad and I hopped on our bikes again and went for a ride along the well-tended, paved trails. It was honesty hard to get a sense of the battle from the signs and paths, but the Confederates were lined up right along the creek we rode across. (Also, I'm not great at
visualizing battle maneuvers--just not my thing.) Later in the day, the Confederates were pushed back towards town and eventually broke and retreated (as I mentioned) to Fisher's Hill.

The ground there is pretty level, but there are a few little hills, and me being me, I awkwardly tried to get my bike into low enough gear to get up the hill, but I failed and fell off. The hills were steep enough that I couldn't get going again, so I just walked my bike to the top of the hills. Clearly, I'm not going to be making the Olympic cycling team anytime soon. In my defense, the bike was a bit too big for me, and my feet didn't quite touch the ground . . .

It was a nice morning bike ride, but the sun was getting intense and the heat thick as we called it a morning and headed back to the truck. We packed up out bikes, had lunch at a right across the road from the battlefield park, and then went back to our hotel so I could pick up my car. And that was it--that was the end our three-day adventure following the trail of a Civil War blacksmith. My dad went on to do some business deeper in Virginia, and I headed home.
Chik-Fil-A, which by the way is in a shopping center

Where will my research take me next? Well, I would like to learn even more about James, if I can. I'd love to visit the soldiers' home in Eerie where he died in 1920, to see if they have any kind of records pertaining to him. I'd love to visit the historical society of Fayette County, where James (and most Huhns until my father) was born and lived most his life, and check the newspapers for any mention of him (I have an obit). So the future may hold more information on my favorite Civil War blacksmith, James C. Huhn.

A few links:

http://www.shenandoah.stonesentinels.com/Winchester-Misc/Star_Fort.php
http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/third-winchester.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_Battle_of_Winchester

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Happy Birthday, National Park Service!

Feliz cumpleaƱos, National Park Service!

A hundred years ago, the NPS officially came into being. As Ken Burns would say, the National Parks was "America's best idea". It's a real treasure, to have all these fantastic places preserved and protected. We have a vast, varied, and beautiful natural and historical heritage, and we all have an interest in keeping that for future generations to enjoy.

One of the NPS's slogans is "Find Your Park". And I've found my park--two of them. I've been to more than a few national parks. There are a lot of them here in the DC region. The National Mall, for instance, is one, and the NPS runs Ford's Theater and Arlington House, too. You can't throw a stone without hitting a national park. I've been to other national parks, as well, like Olympia and Yellowstone. But if I had to choose which is my park, I'd have to go with . . . Gettysburg NMP and Shenandoah.

Why? Well, because this:

Shenandoah.
Shenandoah.
Shenandoah.
Shenandoah.
Shenandoah.
Shenandoah.
Gettysburg
Gettysburg.
Gettysburg
Gettysburg
Gettysburg
Gettysburg.
Gettysburg.
Shenandoah.
 And of course, there are many other parks as well:

Appomattox. 

Ford's Theater for the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's assassination.
The National Mall.
The National Mall from Arlington House.
The Wilderness Battlefield.
Washington Monument on the 4th of July.
Fort McHenry
Antietam.
Antietam.
Antietam.
Antietam.
The Old Stone House in DC.
The Old Stone House in DC.
Bull Run/Manassas.
Bull Run/Manassas.
Burnside's Bridge at Antietam.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

. . . And an Afternoon Out in DC

There are a lot of reasons to love living in Washington DC. I think most people picture DC as a marble city all-consumed with politics, where everyone runs around in pantsuits. Well, there is some of that. But it's also a city of culture and history. Yesterday, I spent the afternoon in the section of the city that probably conforms most closely to the general vision of the place: Capital Hill. But it's also a section of town that epitomizes the cultural and historical core of DC, too.

I started at the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, which is directly across from the Capitol. This is the main building of the expansive LoC complex. The Jefferson Building has a beautiful great hall, which is all white marble and gold accents, more or less just as you imagine. This is where tourists congregate. There's much more beyond that, though. I have a readers card (which, by the way, anyone can sign up to get), and I've gone behind the scenes, around the back, to where the work is done. The LoC isn't just a cool building, it's an amazing resource for all citizens. And it's not just books: the LoC has paintings, photos, maps, audio and video recordings, and artifacts of all descriptions.

On display right now is an exhibit called "America Reads". As a writer, it's an exhibit after my own heart, because many of the highlighted books have inspired me or are important to me in some way as a writer. Here's a selection:

UNCLE TOM'S CABIN: Written by Harriet Beecher Stowe in the 1850's, this is one of the most important novels in American history. It opened the eyes of many Americans to the atrocities of slavery. Although possibly apocryphal, it's said that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe, he said, "So this is the little lady who started this great war." For me, the novel is a vision of the world I write about written by people living at the time. As such, it's an important window into the 1850's.

HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain is one of my two favorite novels of all time. I listened to it on book tape many, many times as a child, and it's cadences and dialect seeped into my brain and became part of me. I think I owe a lot of my own writing style to this novel.

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS: Not everyone is interested in early American politics, but I've always found it to be far more intriguing than people have it credit for. The Federalist Papers were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, and is basically a lengthy vindication of the Constitution. See: Hamilton, an American Musical. In this case, it represents a cornerstone of the political world my characters live in, so it's very important to at least be aware of it.

GONE WITH THE WIND: In one way or another, everyone who writes in and around the Civil War era has to reckon with Gone with the Wind and everything it represents. The movie in particular represents the image that most people have of that place and time, and that's mostly for the worse. It has left a very long shadow.

I should note before moving on that the LoC has constant exhibits, and they're always worth seeing. I also took a look at a small exhibit of World War I artwork, some of it propagandistic, some of it representing the horrors of the war.

My second stop for the afternoon was the Folger Shakespeare Library. It's right behind the LoC, and it is, as its name suggests, dedicated to Shakespeare. There is also a theater attached. It's an indoor theater, but it's mocked up to be somewhat Elizabethan (I recently saw Julius Caesar there). The Folger, like the LoC, has a beautiful great hall, where they currently have an exhibit called "Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity". Here are a few images:

This is literally self-explanatory.

Colin Firth's shirt from the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice.

Figurine of Charlotte Cushman as Romeo and her sister as Juliet.

Now, I want to talk about this last one just a bit. It probably seems a bit perplexing. Charlotte who, you might say? Porcelain figurine why? We care because what?

Okay, okay, so it all has to do with me and my writing, so I'm going to be selfish and self-indulgent. You see, one of my manuscripts, The Cotton Wars, is set in a theater c. 1830. Obviously, I needed to do some research, and my main "point of entry" into the time and place was Charlotte Cushman. Shakespearean actors like Edmund Keane may be (relatively) better-known than Charlotte Cushman, but she was a celebrity in her day. I read a biography written about her by a lady friend. From her story, I got a bevy of details about how early 19th-century theater worked. (By the way, another "point of entry" was Fanny Kemble.) I also plucked just a bit from her life story: Charlotte was an opera singer until she and her handlers mismanaged her and she lost her voice. She became a (very successful) stage actress, known for her takes on Shakespeare. That was another thing that interested me about her, because I love Shakespeare myself and I knew that Shakespeare plays would be a very important motif in The Cotton Wars.

So, it was a small surprise to see this little figurine and realize that it represented an obscure actress I actually knew quite a lot about.

Anyhow, on my way back to the nearest Metro, I snapped a photo of the Capitol:



It's looking pretty spiffy, with the Dome newly refurbished and the scaffolding finally coming down. If you don't know anything about the history of the dome, then I suggest you read this Wikipedia entry. This is the dome that was built as the Civil War raged. It stood, half-finished, behind Abraham Lincoln during his First Inaugural Address as war loomed on the horizon, and it stood behind him, finished, during his Second Inaugural Address as the war reached its end.

And here, because they're lovely, are some photos of the fountain out front of the Library of Congress: