Because I am a writer and belong to several writers' groups I know quite a few well regarded writers. Some of them would even admit to knowing me.
I have met and had conversations with many more. I'm sure Robert B. Parker, Sue Grafton, Lee Childs, and dozens more, had no memory of me once our conversation ended.
Was that name dropping? Well, this is going to be a blog about name dropping.
I often wonder why the near misses are the encounters I remember.
When I was newly married I worked on Cape Cod, an hour's ride from home. One of the people I worked with suggested we get our Christmas tree off her land. She had a stand of lovely cedars just the right size. Once we had chosen the tree and cut it she admitted that maybe we had crossed the line onto Kurt Vonnegut's place and actually stolen the tree from him.
One day walking past the Harvard Museum, I passed a man, clearly a professor, talking to parents about the use of the internet. This was back when I was doing my first draft longhand and my second on my typewriter. I knew that Stephen Jay Gould had an office in that building. I gobbled up his magazine columns and owned at least one of his books. I convinced myself that this man who was struggling to be kind to parents, was in fact SJG.
When I was in college I lived in Maine. I was in graduate school when my father died in a Maine hospital. Some years later I found out that at the time an unpublished Stephen King worked in the laundry in that hospital. Did he wash my father's sheets?
My favorite radio host keeps mentioning places on the air that are close enough for me to walk to. I know he is from around here and maybe lives here now, or his family does. Since he is a radio host all I have to go on is his professional photo, so I am sure I wouldn't recognize him in a restaurant or bicycling by my house.
When I joined Sisters in Crime, they sent me a list of mystery writers by zip code. I was able to track most of them down, but there was one I couldn't find no matter what. Charles Todd seemed not to exist at all. There was a perfectly good reason for that. It took me years to solve the mystery. Turns out CT is a mother and son writing team and neither bore the name Charles Todd. I did in fact track them down, and become friends.
Funny that I have saved up these near brushes with fame. I imagine everyone has them. I'd love for you to tell me some of yours.
Yesterday I baked all morning and at noon I put on my authentic period clothing and went to serve tea to 30 people.
Authentic period clothing…that's the magnificent dresses of Ann Boleyn, in any number of movies, or the finery of Martha Washington in the latest TV special, or the clothing from Downton Abby now on display an easy drive from my home. Oh, wait a minute those are costumes.
Most reinactors and interpreters are pretty picky about the difference. Costumes are made from a modern fabric that looks like to the proper cloth. They are made with modern methods, like sewing machines. They only have to look like the real thing, they don't have to be it. Costumes have to put up with a lot of rough wear and need to keep looking new and clean in spite of makeup perspiration and frequent cleaning.
Authentic clothing has to be authentic, not just look authentic.
At this tea several of us were in authentic period clothing, two from the 1700s and one from the Civil War period. We had a dress model wearing an 1820s high waisted empire gown.
One of the women said "I love your costumes." I whispered to her that they were authentic period clothing, not costumes. For the rest of the tea she called them authentic period costumes. You really can't win. But she did love them and that was the point. We do try to slip in a bit of education around the lemon cake and the tea sandwiches.
Let me describe what I wear in an attempt to portray the miller's wife in 1739 or the shepherd of a flock of sheep sometime in the early 1800s. My clothing has to be sturdy, but it also has to look like I have been wearing it for some time. It has to be clean, but not necessarily free of stains. It has to be mended if necessary, and the patches don’t have to match.
Why do I take all this trouble? For me it's all about education. I don't have to talk about what I am wearing. I look the part and people often ask questions. “Why are you using pins instead of buttons?” This usually from men, “what are you wearing under it?”
Is it really authentic? Well, more or less. The long inside seams may be machine stitched. The cloth itself should be a lose weave linen, or a rougher fabric like hemp. Everything I wear is made from new cloth. Nothing is cut down, or turned. While my shortgown and petticoat are different colors, they go well together in accordance with modern sensibilities. I use safety pins where they don't show and long straight pins where they do.
Instead my clothing is made of the heavy cotton used in horse blankets, and the fabric is made in a factory instead of on a loom in someone's chamber (bedroom to you).. Some of my long inside seams are machine stitched. I try to hand stitch as often as I can, but there isn't always the time. The pins I use to hold my shortgown shut are modern factory made pins. My miller's wife would not have worn panties, or a bra. But I find it hard to do without modern undies. My stays, which I should wear in place of a bra, lace up the back so I need someone to help me get in and out of them.
I find the clothing to be comfortable, cool in summer and warm in winter. I can work in it easily. I wouldn’t mind being a farmer’s or miller’s wife all the time.
After THE END
When I submitted my first manuscript to a critique group, I didn't know what to expect. I thought it was pretty good. I was shocked by the comments about how much the piece needed improving. Since my aim was to learn to write, I kept my mouth shut and swallowed my amazement. It didn't take me too long to figure out they were right.
Since that first eye opening experience, I have offered to read first manuscripts from many beginning writers. No, beginning isn't the right word. Anyone who actually finishes a manuscript is not a beginning writer.
Why do I continue to be surprised that their reactions are the same as mine were? Why do so many people, having overcome the first big step in writing, finishing a manuscript, think they are done with the process? No one expects to be a top player in any ball game the first time they step onto a court of filed. No one expects to be a good rider their first time on a horse. Everyone, including me, expects to be a great writer the first time out. The next lesson may be the hardest for any writer to learn. There are no perfect first drafts.
For me, the process of learning to take criticism came slowly. I got better at it and my writing improves as a result. I learned to listen to everything that was said to me, even if I didn't understand it yet. I might not be ready to hear everything my critique partners had to say. I had to work at making myself open to the process. "Nice, story, but it needs some story in it." Plotting has always been hard for me. A mystery writer who can't handle plot, either needs to learn how, or find something else to writer about. It was years before I learned to sift through the comments, to accept the ones that applied, save the ones I didn't understand, and reject the ones that were off the wall. I learned that any comment that made me angry was one I had to pay the most attention to.
Time after time we have had new members join a group, stay one session and never come back. I remember one guy whose writing was very funny, a great parody of the hardboiled detective story, but the plot made no sense. He really felt the humor was all he needed. He came so we would tell him how funny he was, and that we couldn’t understand why he had never been published. He could have been top notch if he had stayed and listened to the rest of what we had to say.
To read and comment on someone's work is to give them a gift. It is up to them if they wish to accept that gift.
A writer has to know the intended audience. A writer had to be prepared for an inbox full of rejections. A writer has to learn grammar and spelling, and update that knowledge as language changes. A writer has to know about points of view, character development, story arcs, and on and on. A writer has to practice the craft. I wrote seven novels and 50 or so short stories before I had anything published.
How many writers struggle through their first manuscript and give up because they are not willing to put in the hard work that comes after they have typed THE END?
I always read that part in the front or back of the book where the author thanked everyone they have ever met. Or at least everyone they can remember. I don't know why I enjoy these short essays so. I started reading the acknowledgements because they often contain the name of agents, so a writer can find agents who handle the type of work they write. I keep reading them because they are interesting, sometimes more interesting than the rest of the work.
I have long been aware that an author doesn't do it alone. Before I put my first Emily story on paper, I asked dozens of people about this that and the other. First there were the librarians at the Cambridge, Massachusetts Library, the interpreters at Plimouth Plantation, and the guides at the Longfellow House and the Old Manse.
These were the people who told me one way or another that I could write a story that people would like to read. I'm sure not one of them remembers me. Maybe because I didn't tell them I wanted to be an author.
There were the creators of Star Trek and Wild Wild West, who opened the world of fan fiction. Many writers start with fan fiction though most don't admit it. I long believed that I could never create an interesting character on my own. It was some time before I took the bull by the horns and came up with Emily and the others who lived in her boarding house. I am not convinced I made them up entirely. I am not going to tell you who I think the models were, since none of those people recognize themselves. OK, so some have been dead for a century or so, and probably wouldn’t care.
My family gets top billing. My mother's love for cozy mysteries made me wonder if I could write one for her. My husband was my first reader and a great critic in the best sense of the word. My daughter began to write her own brand of delight. Somehow I felt I had to keep up. So in her own way she is my most persistent encouragement. Look for her work under the name Elizabeth Inglee-Richards. No one in my family ever said, even once, I should be doing the dishes instead of writing.
I am always encouraging people to contact sources of information. I wanted someone to use a polo mallet for a weapon, but I didn't know much about polo. I had been to some games, talked to the people holding the strings of ponies. Each player needs six horses. I knew some of the rules. But I needed to know what went on in the stable, since that is where the murder was to take place. I looked up the local polo club on the internet and sent them an email. I got back a lovely response and suggestion for reading. Unfortunately, I was never able to make the story work, so it remains unfinished. I feel a tad guilty about that.
When I had my cast of characters, a setting and a complete novel, lacking a plot, and a few other essentials, I decide it was time to meet other writers. I signed up for a writers’ conference. I was going by myself, so I vowed, before I got on the train, that I would be as outgoing as I could be, given that I, like most writers, am an introvert. I can get up and show off if I need to, but I can’t keep it up for long and I find it exhausting. I met some great writers and every one of them made it easy for me.
I took my first Emily novel to a critique group in fear and trembling. It helped that the person who ran it was the father of my daughter’s best friend. I had never shown it to anyone except my husband. I didn’t know how critique groups worked, and I wasn’t sure what would happen. What did happen was that the group taught me how to write. I was with them for years. Since then I have been in two more groups. The members of the one I am with now are all mystery writers. It is a great help to be with people who understand your genre.
Since I write mostly short stories I don’t get the chance to have acknowledgments at the front of my work. So I am taking this opportunity to share my thanks.
Though I have not named names, I thank everyone mentioned here, and those not mentioned, from the bottom of my heart. I would never be a writer without you.
Some advice. If you are a beginning writer, seek out the people who can help you. If you are more experienced, find someone you can help. You may find your name in someone’s acknowledgements. If you are a reader, find some authors to talk to.
I guess I had better go do the dishes now.
The best advice anyone gave me about writing historicals was that you need to experience what you are writing about. The result has been not only more believable settings but a wonderful job teaching history to kids at living history museums.