Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A Quick Announcement

Not that there has been any confusion of any kind, but I thought it best to note here that I recently split with my literary agent, Erin Niumata. I will not go into the whys and wherefores here but will happily email or talk with anyone who comes across this and has questions.

This is hardly the end of my literary career, though it's a severe blow. I'm working on some projects now that need to be whipped into shape before being sent to agents. I hope that I will be able to find an agent willing and able to take me on as a client and that from there I will (someday?) end up with a book deal.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

...And Buttons


It occurred to me today that I hadn't written here about a lovely trip I took this July to Winchester, Virginia. It was what I call a clean-up trip: I've been to Winchester a few times but didn't get through all the stuff on my list. I just wasn't satisfied that I'd gotten everything out of it that I could have or should have. So I went back. Winchester is only about an hour and fifteen minutes or so from here (Arlington). It was a fantastic day and a fantastic trip. I started at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley and spent a lovely morning walking through their gardens. It was overcast and a little damp, but the light was good and I was the only one there, so I could wander at my leisure around the formal gardens, the bowers, the kitchen garden, the knot garden, the Asian gardens . . .

After I got my fill of plants--which took quite a while, actually--I drove into town and parked near  George Washington's Office Museum. It's a delightfully small 18th-century building preserved from the colonial days when Winchester was a fort town and on the frontier of British settlement. It saw action during the French and Indian War, when ol' Washington himself used [part of] the building as his office. I liked the feel of the place in general but the examples of surveying equipment in particular.

My next stop, and the source of the above picture, was the Old Court House Civil War Museum in the heart of Winchester. As the name implies, it's a museum housed in the old court house. As it's website (http://civilwarmuseum.org) states, Winchester changed hands over 70 times during the Civil War. It was a very active spot, being at the top of the Shenandoah Valley. The Valley a major thoroughfare for the Confederates in particular, and they popped in and out of the Valley at its northern end, near Winchester (they also popped in and out of the passes up and down the Valley) as they made attempts to invade the North. The Valley was also important as a bread-basket. The North made some attempts to quell the Valley but was largely focused on the Eastern Theater over the mountains. It wasn't until summer/fall of 1864 that the Valley was finally conquered. The Union Army quite purposefully left a path of destruction in its wake. The result was similar to Sherman's famous March to the Sea. I'm not sentimental about this sort of thing: the destruction of crops and supplies that might have been of use to the Confederate Army was the price of supporting the Confederacy, or maybe just the price of war.

In any case, the museum is dedicated to the war in the Shenandoah. I chatted with the lady at the front desk about my three-times-great-grandfather, who fought in the Shenandoah on the Union side as a cavalry blacksmith. She invited me to go on upstairs to the museum proper and to ring the old bell--just once, though. I gave the rope a good tug, and it gave a satisfying bong as I stood below and smiled up into its cavernous underside.

Again, like in the gardens that morning, I was left to my own devices in a wonderland of delight. Minie balls and rusty cavalry swords and guns galore, oh my! Either the museum was in between exhibits, or they always have rather haphazard paper information plaques. I kind of think it was the former, since I can't imagine the paper signage was permanent. While there was signage for everything, it all seemed delightfully disorganized. I mean, there were swords with swords and cross-sectioned artillery shells with other artillery shells and whatnot, but each item wasn't carefully segregated from the others and stuck on a pin. And there was lots of everything--hundreds or thousands of bullets, scores of guns, hundreds of buckles, dozens of spurs, most of them found on or around the battlefields of Winchester (there were three Battles of Winchester and many more skirmishes).

The volume was a reminder of what a massive thing the war really was. There were millions of men involved, and they left behind a trace behind them. Just think of the men who were firing those bullets or--worse yet--being struck by them.

A case in point is the buttons. The picture above is just how the buttons looked--and there were several displays like this one, just crammed with buttons--buttons and buttons and buttons, all of them off of some man's coat. There were eagles and shields, and buttons with insignia. They're slightly tarnished and worn, and if you them on a peg in neat rows in a case, they would just look like old buttons. Somehow, jumbled together, their colors make them into artwork. When they're together, you get a real sense of what these items were and how many men were there.

Kind of cool, isn't it?



Friday, September 8, 2017

. . . And Hurricane Irma


These are the ruins of the steam-powered rice mill at Butler Plantation, on Butler Island, just south of Darien, Georgia. It's on the Altamaha River and is part of the Sea Islands of Georgia. [The house is actually a later addition--the original house is gone.]

And it appears to be in the path of the impending wrath of Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful hurricanes to ever make landfall. It probably won't be a direct hit; the storm will probably spend itself over the length of Florida (poor Florida!), after having left a wake of destruction across the Caribbean. But this is personal, and I do worry about what's left of Butler Plantation. I just hope that that chimney still stands. There's a national trend of removing anything that might remind us of the slave-holding past, but these things are very important. It's personal for me, because it's essentially the setting of two novels I've written. [For more about Butler Island, have a look-see here.]

So I'm going to cross my fingers, hold my breath, and hope for the best for Butler Island . . .

Sunday, August 13, 2017

. . . And The Virginia Room and Manassas

A flower in the gardens of the
Ratcliffe-Allison House in Fairfax.
Today was a success. Aside from getting a lot of writing done in the bright morning light while sitting in my corner spot in my favorite chair with a cat occasionally stopping by to ask why I wasn't paying her more attention, I also visited the Virginia Room at the Fairfax County Library and hiked part of the Manassas/Bull Run battlefield. And there was a milkshake involved, too, as a reward for 3.5 miles of hiking.

Because I had a great time and I think it'll be informative, I'd like to share a bit of my experiences.

First up, I stopped by the main library in Fairfax County, which is right downtown. The upstairs is the "Virginia Room", dedicated to the history of the state. Let me tell you, there's a lot of history to cover. There's a lot of great local history, too, all of it important stuff. Make no mistake, Virginia has seen a lot. I was focused on Civil War history. I had stumbled across a list of resources in the Virginia Room having to do with Civil War history in the area. There were books about battles, big and small, that took place there in Loudoun County, books about Quakers who remained loyal, and so on. I was interested in one book in particular: Where Did They Stand? This one is about how county residents voted on the secession question and then covers reparations that were (or were not) granted to residents for damages they suffered during the war. I was interested in this because one of my WIPs--in fact the one I'm working on now--involves civilians who suffer loses because of the war. Granted, the story takes place a bit further south, on the main stage of the war. But I figured that, in general, what was true of Loudoun County would be true of the Fredericksburg area.

And what did I learn?

1. General Phillip Sheridan sent a party to burn Loudoun County farms--not the homes, but the barns and crops--as he had done in the Shenandoah.

2. There was a special commission to deal with claims, but that more generally, the Southern Claims Commission dealt with repaying loses sustained by civilians.

3. Civilians could make claims for livestock/goods that were carried away, but they couldn't be repaid for damage to their property, e.g. burned buildings. So, considering that a lot of buildings were burned, the government wasn't very generous.

4. Those who wanted to be repaid by the US government had to show they were loyalists throughout the war. Secessionists need not apply.

5. Only property that had been taken as part of an official act was included. Looting and "inadvertent acts of war" didn't count (bummer for those who, for instance, got a canon ball through their front parlor).

Ratcliffe-Allison House, Fairfax, VA
6. SCC officers evaluating applications for relief reportedly kept on their desk voter lists from the secession ordinances. If you'd voted for secession, you were automatically disqualified. No soup for you.

7. A majority of claims were disallowed.

8. During the war, there was really no formality to how/whether residents were paid for the belongings that were requisitioned. An officer might pay the person on the spot, but more likely he would give them a receipt of some kind to be redeemed later (maybe) or vague promises that the US government would pay up at some later date (...maybe).

After finishing my dive into that book, I decided to glance at the books on the shelves nearby and found a book about field medical services during First and Second Manassas. And I learned:

8. The last of the wounded weren't removed to hospitals from Second Manassas until ten days after the battle. This is interesting/important to me because in my story I have the wounded men cleared out of a field hospital fairly quickly--within three days. However, it takes place two years after Second Manassas, and organization had progressed by that point. Also, just because wounded men lingered in some field hospitals/homes/wherever for ten days doesn't mean that other places weren't cleared out sooner. Say your house was turned into a hospital, and so was a schoolhouse down the street. Maybe all the wounded are moved from your house in two days, but it takes a whole week before they move the wounded men out of the schoolhouse. That's what I'm thinking.

I feverishly made photocopies of all this information, rubbing my hands together in delight like a mad scientist. Can you picture that? Okay, so from the outside, it probably looked a bit more tame, but that was definitely what was going on inside my head: evil genius stuff.


After gathering up my bounty of photocopies, I got in my car and headed for the Manassas battlefield. I wasn't going to see any particular site, and I've been there many times before. I was going there because I wanted to spend time out in the beautiful weather, and battlefields are some of the loveliest, best-preserved, and most peaceful places you'll find. Anyway, it was a beautiful summer's day--not too hot--and I had a blast. Here are some pictures for your edification:





Bull Run

Bull Run

Bull Run

Thursday, July 13, 2017

. . . And The Beguiled

[Warning: the trailer has SPOILERS. I actually would NOT recommend watching it before you see the movie. Also, my review below contains ALL the spoilers.]

This past weekend, I went to see The Beguiled, a movie based on a movie from the '70's starring Clint Eastwood and ultimately on a novel of the same name by Thomas Cullinan. It stars Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, and Kirsten Dunst, and is directed by Sofia Coppola. I want to pull this movie apart as far as history plot, and themes. Second WARNING: spoilers lie ahead. I'm not going to hold back.

It's a beauty of a film. It's set in "Virginia" in 1864; as the Civil War stretches into it's fourth bloody year, a wounded Yankee soldier is found in the woods and brought back to a young ladies' academy, which is abandoned except for two teachers and five students, all of them women. The scenery drips with mist, steamy sunlight, and Spanish moss. None of it is quite right for Virginia--because it was filmed in Louisiana--but it is undeniably pretty and very Southern.

Our first scene shows young Amy walking through the lush Virginia/Louisiana countryside in search of mushrooms, humming either Aura Lee or Lorena (I wasn't sure which it was at the time and my memory of the tune is too hazy for me to figure it out now). I want to point out that there is essentially no background music. The choice both to limit the music and to choose a few lesser-known, but period-correct and atmospheric songs, was spot-on. The movie is more intense because the only sounds we hear are the insects and the footsteps and the voices. The absence of a score also highlights those few songs that are used.

In any case, as Amy scours the woods for mushrooms, she comes across a wounded Yankee named John McBurney (Colin Farrell). She helps him to the school, where the no-nonsense Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) tends to his leg wound. Pretty soon, he's feeling well enough to sit up and talk. Farrell is charming and attractive as he gets to know the ladies of the seminary. Farrell's natural Irish brogue lends an extra air of romance, which apparently all the women fall prey to. Amy thinks she has found a kindred soul in Farrell's McBurney. Miss Martha find him a reassuring presence when her establishment is in need of some manual labor. Miss Edwina (Dunst), who seems to feel out of place at the seminary, believes she has found someone who can sympathize with her outsider status. Alicia, who is a student but older than the other girls, is a bit of a rogue and sees McBurney as an opportunity to rebel, have some fun, and prove herself a real grown-up. It's really not clear what the others girls think of him. We see much less of them, though they, too, start to simper when he's around. They seem alternately to want his attention and to be afraid of getting it--and sometimes to be afraid of him as a physical force.

There is a lot of tittering and pointed remarks, and the girls all break out their finery to impress McBurney, who generally reacts with barely-suppressed amusement. It all seems harmless (too harmless, perhaps; he doesn't seem threatening, though the story doesn't work well if he's no threat), at least until he whispers in Edwina's ear that he will come to her room that night. When he doesn't come, Edwina goes in search of him and finds him in bed--with Alicia. Edwina and McBurney get in a little tiff, and she ends up pushing him down the stairs (not in anger, exactly). It's not clear-cut really who was "wrong" here. Did McBurney owe Edwina a visit to her bed (maybe)? Should he have gone to Alicia (probably not, given her age)? Should Edwina have pushed him down the stairs (probably not)? But in any case, the fall badly reopens the leg wound that initially brought him to the seminary and that had been healing well. It's such a bad break that Miss Martha decides she has no choice but to amputate the leg.

When he wakes, McBurney is, understandably, upset at having lost a leg. He blames Miss Martha. Did she really punish him for going to Alicia's bed, as he claims? Or was it necessary to amputate his leg in order to save his life, as she claims? Is he justified in his yelling and screaming? Or is he really a danger to the women? As far as the first two, I don't know; maybe a lot of things went through Miss Martha's head when she made that decision. As for the third, I think he was justified, yes. He had just lost his leg, which meant his life was forever changed. He would be a cripple for life. That isn't easy to take. And while he did rampage, he didn't seem to be be making specific, immediate threats, and he could have.

The ladies manage to subdue McBurney and lock him in a room. Are they justified in this? Maybe, since he was on a rampage (though it's not clear they were in danger). But was it wise? Probably not. It only made him more angry. Eventually, he escapes the room and institutes a sort of reign of terror. But Edwina steps in and sleeps with him. The timing is peculiar and Edwina's motive is unclear. Was she trying to simply calm him down? Was she just super attracted to his anger and rage, to the fact that he was a damaged, broken man? In any case, it did (apparently--why?) work to calm him. But in the meantime, Miss Martha has been trying to think of how "to deal with" him. One of the girls--Marie, who's otherwise been fairly quiet--suggests that they poison him with mushrooms. Amy goes to pick some, and at dinner they feed him the mushrooms. He is calm, polite, and apologetic, but no one stops him from eating the mushrooms. The only one who isn't in on the plot is Edwina. She's shocked when he falls to the floor, dead. None of the women except Edwina even blinks.

In the final scene, they sew McBurney's body into a shroud and carry it outside the seminary's gate, tying a blue rag there to signal Confederate troops.

Although it flows logically, it didn't all quite click, maybe because nothing feels quite big enough. We have to justify  murder, after all. Although we see some primping and giggling, we more or less have to take it on faith that all these women are dangerously fascinated with McBurney. It all seems quite innocent and harmless, and the story would have come together much better if it had all felt more sinister. That goes for McBurney's role, as well. He seems like a man pleased but somewhat bemused by all the female attention. He doesn't seem threatening, in spite of the fact that his maleness in the presence of so many young women is (apparently) meant to be inherently threatening. Frankly, if he had tipped his hat politely and left the house, it would have fit perfectly well with the interactions that are depicted through the first half of the movie. And when he does end up in Alicia's bed, it doesn't feel (to me) like a grand betrayal of the other women. Perhaps that's why the ending didn't feel justified: the actual threat he posed seemed minimal (especially since he's hobbling around on one leg!).

Still, the final scene outside the gates fit on a plot level. But it didn't make practical sense. The blue rag on the gate has been mentioned previously as a signal to passing Confederates that there is a Yankee prisoner within to be picked up (in this case, it's McBurney's body). But it's been established that soldiers pass through at most every few days. So the body will be lying there for a long time, and will both rot and be torn into by wild animals in the meantime. And when Confederate soldiers do see their signal, they will. . . what? They won't take the body with them. They'll bury it, obviously, which the ladies would be better-served to just do themselves instead of letting it rot until someone else can do it. Why would they wait for the soldiers to do it, aside from a desire to avoid the physical labor? The only sensible course of action would be for them to bury the body themselves.

What does it all mean, all this murder and girl-on-girl jealousy? Who is in charge? Who is the victim? How did historical views of gender roles shape the characters? How did the (more) modern views of gender shape the characters (who were created by a 20th century writer)? As I see it, it's an intriguing look at both how women can work against each other and together--because the women here do both. For a large part of the movie, they are all at cross-purposes, because they are all hoping to get McBurney's particular attention. Now, I've heard that this is anti-feminist. Why should women lose their minds just because there's a man there? It's a legitimate question. But the answer is there in the premise. McBurney is charming and wounded and "other", and he's the first man who they've had much interaction with in a very long time.

Also--and this to me is an important point--women are not always strong and moral and upright. The world's problems would actually not be solved if women ran everything, because women are, actually, human. We don't all have the same wants and needs, and sometimes we feel the need to work against one another. Is this the fault of patriarchy? Maybe. Or maybe it's just because we're flawed human beings. Sometimes we make mistakes. So, no, I don't think that the women all vying for a man's attention is anti-feminist per se, and all the more so because at the end the women do end up working together to--oopsies--murder McBurney. In the end, there's a message of solidarity there. Even Edwina, who didn't participate in the murder and seems uneasy about it, doesn't overtly protest. Yes, there are some themes of female obsession with men and female jealousy, but there are also themes of female solidarity and triumph, of women trying to rescue a desperate situation, and of women who don't give in to a male presence.

Now, there is another, more troubling, matter that has been remarked upon extensively: the erasure of a mixed-race character and an enslaved black character. This Slate article http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2017/06/sofia_coppola_s_whitewashed_new_movie_the_beguiled.html makes astute points about the erasure of not one but two black/mixed-race women. The reason for the omission is fairly obvious: Coppola didn't want to delve into the deep, murky, and fraught waters of race relations. Also, I can understand from a story perspective that, as a director, she wanted to have a laser-like focus on McBurney and the women, and that race would create a whole new set of subplots and subtexts. The problem, as the Slate article points out, is that when you set a story in the South during the Civil War, and you have a Union soldier crossing paths with Southern women, those murky waters really can't be avoided. Or, rather, they can be, but the avoidance is painfully obvious. Saying once, offhandedly, that the slaves have left is really not nearly enough. And quite frankly, a bit more subplot and subtext would have done this movie some good. Basically, this is 2017, and in this day and age you simply can't get away with glossing over these issues. Plus, as the Slate article points out, the character Mattie, who is enslaved, isn't infatuated with McBurney like the others, which would have been a very nice counterpoint.

Lastly, I wanted to say a word about the costumes. The costumes were, on the whole, lovely and floaty and, well, white. The symbolism for purity and virginity is not subtle. I did find the lack of crinolines (hoop skirts) questionable, though I'm content to say that it was late in the war and the ladies were isolated, so being super-fashionable didn't matter, and that these women were doing things like hoeing the vegetable patch. There's no counter-argument to the fact that gardening in a crinoline ain't easy, but as for the first part, well, they all get gussied up when McBurney comes down for dinner, so surely they would break out the crinolines for the occasion. Besides, they each seem to have at least a handful of fine dresses left, so surely their crinolines haven't fallen to dust just because it's 1864. In any case, Frock Flicks gives a rundown of the costumes here.

Having just picked apart plot, character, and thematic issues, I probably sound as though I didn't like the movie. But I did--I enjoyed it for many reasons. The setting and atmosphere are almost worth the price of admission. I appreciated that the accents weren't over-the-top. Though the subdued tone made it a little hard to buy into the whole murder thing, it did strike me as a nice contrast to the bombast and melodrama of some movies. I enjoyed Miss Martha's cool, pious efficiency and that she didn't waver from that. The performances were uniformly strong, especially Farrell's. It also made for some tense, fun story-telling. Though I can nitpick and say that the tone didn't quite justify the ending, the story flowed along neatly and quickly. Though the movie is beautifully atmospheric, it doesn't ever slow down. These are no small things, and they make for a good movie--though not a great one.




Wednesday, June 28, 2017

. . . And a Shilling

When she was found, unconscious and bloody in the front seat of an abandoned car in the middle of the woods, she had a shilling in her pocket.

The shilling was found in the pocket of the blue pea coat she wore—a bit worn about the edges, old, with no maker’s label and the faint whiff of camphor about it. The rest of her clothes—t-shirt and jeans, simple espadrilles—were the same: well-kept but old, no labels and no sign of identification.

 Thus begins one of my completed WIPs (works in progress). The manuscript isn't ready to be shared with the world, but it is something I've worked on sedulously over the last few years (part of it set in 2015, which was the "present" when I wrote it!). It's undergone major overhauls and a complete rewrite. Finally, it's in a form I deem to be acceptable. It needs a polish, but eventually I will enlist the help of beta readers. Unfortunately, "real life" is keeping me busy at the moment.

The point is that the shilling that's mentioned in the opening line, while not integral to the plot, plays a part in the story--largely a symbolic one. It adds a touch of mystery: the setting is Pennsylvania and the "she" in question is a young woman who wakes from a coma with no knowledge of who she is or how she came to be in that car. The rest of the WIP is about her discovering the answers to why she was where she was, where the shilling came from, and why it's from 1913 (the date is later specified).

Me being me, I wanted a little memento. I enjoy making artwork or wearing jewelry that has some connection to my writing. In this case, the "she" of this story is alternately called Wendy and Alice. I have a bracelet with an illustration and quote from Alice in Wonderland, and I painted a small picture based on one of the original Alice illustrations. I plan to work on a Peter Pan-themed one, too, when I get a chance.

In any case, it occurred to me that a 1913 shilling is an actual object that exists and I might be able to get my grubby little hands on one. So I searched eBay, and lo and behold: 1913 shillings for $10. I'm hardly rich, but I figured I could afford that. So I bough it, and now I have my shilling and, well, I'm chuffed!




On the left is the profile of George V. The inscription is Latin for "George V, by the grace of god ("dei gra[tia]") King of Great Britain (Britt[annia] Omn[ia] Rex])". On the other side is the year, the denomination, and another Latin inscription meaning "defender of the faith" ("fid[ei] def[ensor]") and "emperor of India" ("Ind[iae] Imp[erator]").

Friday, June 23, 2017

Update on the Lock-keeper's House

I've written in the past about the Lock-keeper's House, one of the oldest buildings on the National Mall in DC, and a remnant of DC's less glamorous past.

I have two things to add. First, the work has gotten underway, thusly:



It kind of looks like it's been patched up with cardboard and duct tape, though I'm sure that not what it is. Also, though the picture is bad, it says that the Lock-keeper's House is moving "only 50 feet." Which is good, I guess? It will at least get it away from the (very) busy street.

Second, there's this article about the remnants of the Washington City Canal. The "lock" part of "Lock-keeper's House" refers to locks on the Washington City Canal, which ran under what is now Constitution Avenue. I had no idea, but apparently you can actually kayak right into part of the old canal, in a tunnel under the street:

http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/washington-city-canal-outfall

I seriously want to do that someday.