Monday, October 25, 2010

Tudor England and Susan Meissner, author of Lady in Waiting

When my fiction book club chose to read and discuss Susan Meissner's
The Shape of Mercy, I had no idea I would be drawn into the worlds of
both a modern-day researcher and the Salem Witch trials. I loved it!
When I learned that Susan was researching Lady Jane Grey, Tudor
England's "nine-day-queen" (who was beheaded), I hoped Susan would
be willing to share some footnotes from history with us. Enjoy!

--Stephanie G.

What artifact, place, historical event, or woman from history made you want to write this book?

I have long been intrigued by the historical account of Lady Jane Grey and have wanted to write a novel that dove
tailed her story with contemporary tale for several years. She lived during a time when women of noble birth had few opportunities to make their own choices – about anything. We live in a culture today, especially in the Western world, where women can and do make many choices but sometimes life deals you a hand that seems to leave you unable to choose what will happen next. What do you then? Are you ever truly without choice? I created a contemporary fictional character named Jane Lindsay to consider this question. She is an antiques dealer in Manhattan and one day she finds a very old ring hidden inside the binding of an ancient prayer book. Her first name is engraved inside: Jane. But she doesn’t know whose it was or how it ended up hidden inside an old book. The ring then becomes our gateway to the past.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about “the real story” while researching this book?

I was most surprised by the decision that Lady Jane Grey made all on her own. It was life-changing, life-defining, and I hadn’t really connected with it until I researched her story for this book. I thought I knew all the details that defined her. I can’t tell what you what decision was because it would be a spoiler! To give you just a snapshot of who Lady Jane Grey was, she was fifth in line to the throne of England when Henry VIII died. A few years later, at the age of fifteen, she was named Queen of Engl
and by Henry’s 15-year-old son Edward VI as he lay dying. She reigned for nine days.

Is there a historical photograph that inspired you you’d like to share?

Since Jane Grey only lived to be sixteen, there are few portraits of her, and the picture of the one I am sharing here is the one I like the best; the others make her seem so much older than she really was. I actually picture her in my mind looking younger still than this portrait. There is another painting of her I like because the artist told so much with the composition of the painting. It’s beautifully done. But it is of her last moments on earth. So, a sad painting that is beautifully done.
What one non-fiction book helped you research the most (for those who want to learn more)?

Alison Weir’s Innocent Traitor is actually a novelized treatment of Lady Jane Grey’s life and although she paints a different picture of Jane Grey’s personality than I do, Innocent Traitor was a helpful resource and entertaining at the same time. Ms.Weir is a trusted historian and a stickler to detail. She has written many non-fiction titles on the Tudor monarchs and is very respected in the realm of British historians.

What spiritual encouragement did you draw from what you've learned?

I was reminded that love is not a feeling that you must tease into perseverance, nor is it something -- when it seems to have disappeared -- that you idly wait on to see if it will return to you, it's a deliberate choice you make every day of the relationship. It is something that defines you, not simply inspires you.

Visit Susan at

Lady in Waiting
is now available
from your favorite book seller.


I was the original "horse-crazy" girl. Forget playing with dolls. When I wasn't up in my favorite tree with a book in hand (remember Thunderhead? remember The Black Stallion?), I was riding my two-wheeled "horse" with a rope tied to the handlebars for reins. At the state fair, I roamed the stables reveling in the smell of sweaty horses, hay, and manure (it was safe for parents to leave a girl to do that back then).

In Junior High school I wrote a novella set on a place called the Triple Crown Ranch in Wyoming. Never mind that I'd never been to Wyoming, never been on a ranch, never owned a horse. I designed a brand and named the three stallions running with my three herds of wild horses. I
wrote poems about "pounding across the track of life" and "racing across the turf."

Growing up did nothing to change my love of horses. In the wake of the recent film about Secretariat, I hope you don't mind indulging me a personal "footnote from history" as I remember my encounter with Red. What follows is an edited version of the letter I wrote to the editor of the newspaper in Paris, Kentucky, October 4, 1989, when Secretariat died.


As an emotional adolescent, I watched Secretariat run his last race on television. Far removed from the horse-racing world, yet caught up in the saga of a great thoroughbred's career, I cried. Tears streamed as I saw him thunder down the stretch with that great, bounding stride. I felt sure I would never see such a horse again, and my love for horses -- specifically for THAT horse -- swelled my heart.

It was not until I married that I found a kindred spirit in my love for Big Red. My husband and I read books about him together. For our most memorable anniversary celebration, he surprised me with the film "Secretariat's Last race." In those pre-video recorder days, it took many long distance phone calls to locate and have the film reel shipped from New York State, and then to locate and rent equipment so we could view it. What a gift of love.

We'd been married twelve years and had two children when a vacation trip to the east brought another surprise and dream-come-true. My husband called Claiborne Farm and, unbeknownst to me, arranged for us to visit Big Red. Watching Secretariat race across his paddock towards us literally took my breath away. Here he was, in the flesh, and I was actually touching, petting, feeding the great one peppermint candy. It was a moment to cherish, and one I've never forgotten. Later, in the barn, our escort pulled a handful of long hairs from a curry comb and gave them to me. "The black ones belong to Riva Ridge, but if you want to divide them out, the red ones are Secretariat's." Others might laugh at my childish happiness, but I didn't care. I still have Secretariat's "tail-feathers," along with framed enlargements of photos we took that day.

And so tonight, when my husband shared today's sad news, I sat at the supper table and wept like a child whose puppy just died.

I am one of those "born-again Christians" who subscribes to a literal interpretation of the Bible. In the New Testament Book of Revelation there is a reference to the armies of heaven being astride white horses. I expect to be among that army of riders, and if heaven is really a place where all our wishes come true, I know one thing for certain -- I may ride a white horse in God's army, but when the war is over I'll ask to make a trade. And then my horse will be Red.

--Stephanie G.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Day at the Park

I've always been in awe of Central Park. Knowing the perniciousness (ooh!  big word) of the American penchant for letting commercial properties expand their domain over whatever stands in their way, I’m shocked that it hasn’t been gobbled up by some developer during its 151 year history. Its exceptional existence is best realized with an aerial view. Someone had foresight. Someone had vision.

It all started in 1853 when some of the wealthy residents of Manhattan put out the idea that a park should be created in New York City. They’d seen the lovely parks in London and Paris and wanted their own bragging rights in the United States. It could be a park where they could take carriage rides and where working class people could find recreation. In 1853, after three years of public debate, the city took over 700 acres of land via eminent domain (that’s when the state seizes private property—with compensation but without the owner’s consent—for public use.) What existed at the site at the time were poor neighborhoods. Sixteen hundred people had to move for the sake of the park. Irish pig farmers, German gardeners, and a vital African-American community called Seneca Village, were displaced for the greater good. But the 700 acres wasn’t great land to begin with—which is why it hadn’t been developed commercially. It was swampy and rugged, with rocky outcroppings. The original boundaries were Fifth to Eighth Avenues, from 59th and 106th streets. In 1863 it was extended to 110th Street, which brought Central Park up to its current 843 acres.

Bethesda Terrace under construction 1862

Bethesda Terrace today
Central Park became the first landscaped public park in the United States. Its design came about because of the country’s first landscape contest. The winners were Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.
They wanted to combine a pastoral feeling like the Ramble and Sheep meadow (that had sheep present into the 1930’s!) with more formal areas like the Mall (the Promenade) and the Bethesda Fountain. Bowing to opinion, they adapted their design to allow separate paths for carriage, horse, and pedestrian use. To do so, they had to create forty bridges--no two the same.
They also had to blast out solid rock to make the reservoirs and change the terrain. They used more gunpowder for blasting than was used in the (then future) Battle of Gettysburg. Over 20,000 men labored on the park, moving 3,000,000 cubic yards of soil and planting 270,000 trees and shrubs. Imagine all those seedlings and baby plants. The vista was obviously not as lush as it is now. But it was a beginning. The park officially opened in winter 1859, just in time for ice skating. Soon after, the park had over seven million visitors a year!

Yet originally, the park was bedeviled by rules of who could use it—and how. Group picnics were banned, and if you were a tradesman you couldn’t take your family on a ride in the park using the wagon you used for your business. If kids wanted to play ball? They had to have a note from the principal of their school! Stupid rules meant to keep the park pristine for the upper class. There was of course a public outcry and eventually the rules were eased. A zoo was added in 1871, a carousel, lawn tennis and such, making it much more democratic. Many changes (additions and deletions) have been made over the years, adapting to the times. The original Central Park Reservoir—that used to provide water to the city—was renamed the Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis Revervoir in 1994. Jackie O had an apartment overlooking the park and jogged there for years. Also, over 200 movies have been made using areas of the park. If you’ve seen the movies "Enchanted" (love the dance scene!), "Serendipity", "Breakfast at Tiffany’s", "When Harry Met Sally", "27 Dresses", and a myriad of “Law & Order” episodes . . . you’ve seen clips filmed in Central Park.
The Mall (Promenade)
In my novel Masquerade, I had my characters at the Bethesda Terrace (shown above as it was being constructed in 1862.) I have them comment on the Angel of the Waters fountain. I have them taking a stroll down the Mall… It’s somehow comforting to know that my 1886 characters saw what I can see today.//Nancy Moser

Monday, October 11, 2010

History's Mysteries

Once upon a time, when my family was hoping to move to the country, we drove up a rutted dirt road ... and found a story.

The house was damaged beyond hope, although it took a while for a contractor to convince us that rotted sills did not a "fixer-upper" make. Still, something about the place remains with me yet today. In fact, this house is probably "the house that built me" as a writer. The rooms were knee-deep in the lives of people who'd lived here. Literally, knee deep. Photographs like the one with the family. School assignments. Quilts. Clothing. No furniture ... only the things that you and I would think of as the personal things that we wouldn't want to part with.

What's the story here? Let's talk story.
--- Stephanie

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Fill 'er up!

How many kids can you fit in a shopping cart and still shop? From personal experience, the answer is two: one in the baby seat, one in the main compartment—as long as he sits still and is willing to hold cans of soup, boxes of cereal, and various fruits and vegetables. With three kids this was our usual routine—with the eldest, Emily, helping me choose items from the shelves. Now that I have three grandkids, and take care of one of them every Monday, I have come to fully appreciate shopping carts. As soon as little Lily was old enough to sit in a cart I was free to use a portion of my Mondays for errands. At age three she's become quite the shopper.

There's no way I could take Lily with me to shop if it weren't for carts. Yet believe it or not, they are a rather new phenomenon. Sylvan Goldman, of the Humpty-Dumpty grocery chain, invented them in 1937. One evening he was trying to think of ways to get more business and happened to spot a folding chair. What if he raised it up, put a basket on it, added another basket beneath it, wheels, and a handle? With the help of Fred Young, a maintenance man at the store, he invented the first "folding shopping cart". But it was an unwieldy thing because the baskets had to be removed at the check-out and to store the cart, and the carts tended to fold when they shouldn't.  Remember, most stores weren't designed for storing a bunch of carts, or maneuvering around with them.

What is shocking is that people didn't take to the carts right away. He advertised his new invention in the paper, making a big deal about how it would change the shopping experience. This, from Goldman: "I got down to the store about 10 o’clock in the morning waiting for the time when people’ll start coming in, and this right on a . . . Saturday when it’s your biggest day, and I knew that I’d be seeing people lined up at the door to get in to get the merchandise and see what the dickens it was. And when I got there, I went into our largest store, there wasn’t a soul using a basket carrier, and we had an attractive girl by the entrance that had a basket carrier and two baskets in it, one on the top and one on the bottom, and asked them to please take this cart to do your shopping with. And the housewives, most of them decided, “No more carts for me. I have been pushing enough baby carriages. I don’t want to push anymore.” And the men would say, “You mean with my big strong arms I can’t carry a darn little basket like that?” And he wouldn’t touch it. It was a complete flop."
 To sell the idea to his customers, he hired handsome models of all ages and both sexes to pretend to shop around his store (in fur coats, no less.  This woman must have a passel of kids to feed at home.) Once these shills (he admits that's what they were) were traversing the store, the pretty girl near the front handing out carts could say. "See? Others are using a cart, why not you?" It worked.  For more about Goldman go to: Sylvan Goldman & the Shopping Cart  

Shopping carts became such a phenomenon, that the "Saturday Evening Post" featured one on its cover in 1940.

In 1946, Orla Watson from Kansas City invented the telescoping shopping cart that could fit together for easier storage. He tried to patent it, but Goldman objected. They came to an agreement that Watson could have the patent if Goldman could have the license on a few other things. I'm no lawyer, but it sounds like they worked together, which after all is a good thing for two businessmen to do.  Because of this one invention the entire layout of stores and check-out lanes had to be redesigned.
In 1947 they added a child's seat, and in 1952 someone invented the plastic flap in the seat that flips up so small items didn't end up on the floor. In 1954 someone decided to add color-coordinated, personalization to the cart handles. And in 1961 wheeled casters made the carts easier to handle. For a time there were even "power lift" carts that made the baskets rise to the level of the counter. It amazes me how people are so creative, constantly thinking of improvements. But it still comes down to the fact that someone has to start the ball rolling. Someone has to have the initial vision.

There have been studies done proving that stores that have carts (like Wal-mart and Home Depot) sell more than stores that do not (Penney's and Sears.) Our propensity is to fill up the space we have. Hey, we do it with our houses, why not shopping carts?//Nancy Moser