Friday, December 30, 2011

Welcoming 2012

My bouquet of GRANDchildren.
Do you begin each New Year with a list of resolutions? It seems almost required ... right along with those "the best of" lists that abound regarding the year we've just come through. The more "mature" I become, the less inclined I am to make exhausting lists of things I intend to change in coming months. However, one resolution I know I'll keep regarding my personal life is the one that involves spending more time enjoying the little people pictured to the right. 

When it comes to my writing life, I'm also going to spend more time learning about CRAFT this next year. Other than an English minor in college, a correspondence course in journalism, and a community college class in writing, I'm mostly self-taught when it comes to writing. So in 2012 I'm challenging myself to teach myself more ... a book a month on the nuts and bolts of my job. With the help of some writers I admire, I've compiled a list (given here in alphabetical order by author):

Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
Characters Make Your Story by Maren Elwood
The Key by James Fry
Plot Vs. Character by Jeff Gerke
How to Write Best Selling Fiction by Dean Koontz
Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas
Story by Robert McKee
Fiction is Folks by Robert Peck
Fiction Writing Demystified by Tom Sawyer
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
Stein on Writing by Sol Stein
Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain
The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler
The Moral Premise by Dr. Stanley Williams

If you're counting, that's FOURTEEN titles. We shall see. 

In my educational life, this year in May I'll do the walk in the funny hat to receive my Masters' Degree in history. I'll post a photo of the funny hat, and even though I'll turn sixty before graduating, I'm honestly thinking of dancing down that aisle, because this is the fulfillment of a dream I've had since earning my B.A. in 1975. Perhaps there's a message in there ... never give up and you're never too old!

Lest I leave this blog without actually saying something history-related, let me share one of many fascinating things I'm gleaning from David McCullough's book The Greater Journey about Americans in Paris. First, I'm astonished by the number of "great Americans" who spent time studying in Paris. I'm not even half-way through the book, and already I've met Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Fenimore Cooper (did you know he WROTE The Prairie while in Paris?!), Samuel F.B. Morse (did you know he was a painter before inventing the telegraph?), Emma Willard (gotta learn more about her), Elizabeth Blackwell (first female physician in America), William Wells Brown (African-American abolitionist), George Catlin, Ioway Indians, P.T. Barnum, Charles Sumner, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Goodness! My mind races with amazement and joy as I devour this book. 

"Hatty" Stowe, "gazing upward within Notre-Dame, felt a 'sublimity' she found impossible to analyze or express." I relate to that. I've been there and felt that. At the Louvre, Stowe began to compare painters to her favorite writers. A fascinating thought. Rembrandt seemed to her to be like Hawthorne. Here's what she said:

"He [Rembrandt] chooses simple and everyday objects, and so arranges light and shadow as to give them a somber richness and a mysterious gloom. The House of Seven Gables is a succession of Rembrandt pictures done in words instead of oils. Now this pleases us because our life really is a haunted one. The simplest thing in it is a mystery, the invisible world always lies round us like a shadow ..."

I love being challenged to see familiar things in a new light, and McCullough has succeeded in making me do that on nearly every page of this wonderful book. Once again ... the man is my hero as a writer/historian. 

For me personally, there is no better place to spend the week approaching a new year than Paris. Since I can't be there in reality this year, I'm grateful for McCullough's taking me there in my imagination ... and combining Paris with history puts two of my favorite subjects in tandem. Let the good times roll!

I wish you each one a blessed New Year.                                                                  ---Stephanie Grace

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Seizing the Moments

Me and my cousins, 1955. That's me sucking my thumb.
 At this special time of year I’ve been thinking back on a bit of personal history, and the issue of time passing too quickly. And what to do about it.

I’d like to say I have the answer to making time slow down, but alas, that bit of quantum physics or science fiction or Divinity escapes me. But I have figured out a way to minimize my regrets.

My concern about time-passing started a few years ago when I realized I didn’t remember my 30's. An entire decade was a blur. Why? Because the years were consumed with the logistics of being married, working, and raising three kids. My days were completely filled with have-to-dos and should-dos and love-to-dos. When I looked to the left then looked to the right, ten years had passed. Whoosh!

The prime years of my life a blur? That made me incredibly sad. But recognizing this made me stop a moment to think about the happy moments in my life that I did remember vividly. Chaotic Christmases with extended family, the abundance of cookies and laughter filling us up. The family vacations where I packed a Goody-Bag full of small surprises to be doled out to wiggly children when the miles seemed to go on forever. Or waiting backstage for my entrance in a community theatre production of “My Fair Lady”, looking up into the dark recesses of the ceiling where catwalks, lights, and scenery lay waiting, thinking about the joy I got from being on stage. These snippets of my life still make me smile and feel warm inside. But they were snippets that couldn’t be retrieved because life has gone on.

In hindsight I recognized how special these times were--but did I know it at the time? Did I stop and think, I need to appreciate this moment because it’s precious?

Not often enough. And the regret made me ache inside. Why didn’t I wallow in those moments? Why was I so busy with today and the next day, that I took those treasured times for granted?

How could I eliminate this regret in the future?

It was a wake-up call. I had to find a way to more fully appreciate the moments of life because now, at age 57, the years are rushing past way too quickly. Ten years from now I do not want to look back on this year and find it a blur.

And so I became determined to have no more regrets—at least not about this. I vowed to enjoy each moment and appreciate it for what it is. To pause just a wee bit and think, This is special. This is good. This is what life is all about. To really see and hear and touch and smell and taste life.

To pause. That’s the key. To pause and relish it all.

I'm not always successful in remembering “to pause”, but I'm getting better at it. For instance, we now have all three kids and their spouses in town and see them and the grandkids often. I do not take that for granted, but fully engage myself in now, and absorb the moments we have together. Like a sponge in water, I soak it all in.

This attempt to appreciate the moment has also made me more defensive of my time. Recently I've dropped two big, weekly obligations that I was involved in for years because I realized where I wanted to be was home. It was a been-there-done-that realization that has given me the gift of time. Free time. When we're younger we feel an obligation to DO. But that's fading for me. I'm content to HAVE DONE things, and move forward with fewer HAVE-TO-DO burdens.

To remind myself to appreciate the here and now, I created a plaque in my house that says, "Now is the most wonderful time of the year." It’s displayed every day, through every now, because the truly memorable moments of life aren’t always connected to the big celebrations, but to the small moments, the tick and the tock of two seconds that are perfect and splendid because we are simply alive.

And so dear readers, start giving yourself the gift of NOW. Now. Amid the busyness of life find peace and joy in one fine moment. And then, another. And another. For God is good, and life is a gift to be cherished.

And now is the most wonderful time of the year.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Book Lover's Christmas Tree

This isn't my tree, but I couldn't resist sharing it ... an editor I work for sent me the photo.

Hope the holiday is bringing you joy.

My own Christmas decorations await in the boxes I stored them in last year ... stay tuned! And perhaps I'll even have something to say about Christmas in the 1800s. Sorry I've been away.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Resurgence of the Fan

Nancy with parasol at Colosseum
 We went to Europe this summer, and one of our stops was Italy.  I adore Europe and have visited a dozen times, but they don't do air conditioning the way we Americans are used to air conditioning.  I know we're spoiled.  I admit it.  And actually, much of the time we weren't inside, but outside.  Walking around Rome or Venice or Florence in 103-degree heat made us melt like gelato on the pavement. 

I don't do heat.  My favorite temperature is 60--with clouds (I should live in Seattle.)  Other than searching for a breeze, or hunting out shade, I discovered two things that saved me.  A parasol and a fan.  Fantastico!
Honestly, I cannot imagine walking around any American city with either, but in Europe I didn't feel foolish at all.  And strolling through Rome's Forum, or waiting to ascend the Eiffel Tower, they helped me survive the heat. 
Woman with Parasol by Renoir

It made me wonder why we've abandoned the parasol and fan.  The parasol probably went by the wayside because we now embrace having a tan.  But a hundred years ago, having porcelain skin revealed breeding.  Only people who worked for a living had tanned skin.  So I'll surrender the parasol--even though I don't do tans either.

But... the fan... 
Lady with a Fan by Aviat

Being a woman of a certain age, who goes through her own personal heat waves, I've started using one of two pretty fans I bought in Florence and at Ford's Theatre in Washington D.C.  Yes, I receive a few odd looks, but I don't mind. It's far more elegant than fanning my flash with a menu or page of coupons.

In my research, I learned there was a Language of the Fan, where women could say secret things to the men in their lives by the flip of their fan.  Fanning with the right hand in front of your face meant "Follow me." Fanning with your left hand meant, "Don't flirt with that woman." Slowly fanning yourself meant, "Don't waste your time, I don't care about you."  While quickly fanning yourself meant, "I love you so much." 

Lady with a Fan by James Tissot
Yikes, would I be in big trouble!  Because I tend to fan with both hands (as one hand gives out) and at different speeds depending on the outer--and my inner--thermometer.  Any man who was trying to understand my fan-language would run in the other direction--with good cause. No wonder men complain that they can't understand women.

Which leads to a bigger question:  did men really understand this special, intricate language?  Not to disparage the other sex, but I've noticed that most men I know don't pay attention to what a woman is wearing, if their hair is worn up or down, or even if they wear glasses, much less notice whether the woman runs her fingers over the fan's ribs (meaning "I want to talk to you") or carries the fan closed with the left hand (meaning "I'm engaged.")  Sorry, but it ain't going to happen.  

Lady with a Fan by Mary Cassatt

Either men have changed drastically over the centuries, or the whole Language of the Fan is something women created and talked about amongst their friends, while the men never caught on.  Or if a rare one did . . . I bet he was very popular.
Also, there's the secrecy thing... why did they feel the need to be secret?  For instance, if you wanted to say goodbye to some man, why not go up to him and say goodbye, or even wave from across the room.  But saying goodbye in fan-speak, by placing the fan behind your head with a finger extended . . .  Goodness sakes. 

Besides, if every lady in the room knew the language, there wasn't much secrecy in it.  Imagine a room full of women all gesturing with their fans.  It would be like an opera when everyone sings their own line at the same time. Or the sideline of a football game, when the coaches are all gesturing frantically to get their play in.  Ha.  Women with fans were certainly getting their play in!

There is one message I could use on occasion: passing the fan from hand to hand means, "I see that you are looking at another woman."  But I've found that clearing the throat, or an elbow in the ribs works just as well.

For cooling purposes, and even as a fashion accessory, I'm all for the resurgence of the fan.  But for everyone's sake, let the language die.//Nancy

Friday, November 11, 2011

Mourning Dress

The August, 1891 Ladies Home Journal published this advice about mourning dress:

"Widow's, which is the deepest of all mourning, consists of a plain gown of Henrietta cloth or bombazine, with crape upon it or not ... the length of the veil differs, of course, according to one's height, but the real widow's veil should reach to the edge of the skirt, back and front,
and be finished by a hem a quarter of a yard wide. This is worn so that the whole figure is shrouded for three months; after that it is s thrown back, and at the end of another three months, a single veil, reaching to the waist, is worn. This may be worn for six months, and crape then be laid aside."

Since the veil in the photo on the right has been "thrown back," we can assume that this young widow's husband died over three months ago.

Prior to the Civil War, the widow's first year mourning attire consisted of black silk, with undersleeves and collar of black crepe, black crepe trimming, and black jet jewelry. The second mourning, after the first year, would have allowed white trim. As the 19th century wore on, customs required longer periods of mourning and "the rules" became more carefully defined. It was difficult for those who were less wealthy to keep all the rules. They could purchase ready-made mourning costumes from "mourning warehouses," and sometimes resorted to dyeing clothing they already owned black in order to follow the customs. Half mourning after 1860 allowed for women to wear soft mauve, violet, pansy, and lilac.

The ladies who read the 19th century article titled "Mourning and Funeral Usages" posted here:
would have shunned me. After all, when my husband died in 2001, I wore red to his funeral. Red. Horrors! Well ... his long cancer battle was over ... he'd graduated to heaven ... and ... it seemed right at the time.

Last week Nancy showed us how the photography profession was affected by the mourning industry. When we realize that over half a million men lost their lives in the Civil War ... when we think that a man's wife, mother, and children all went into deep mourning, we can also imagine the demands put on the textile industry. Just think what it was like on the streets of every city and town in America. Just think of all that black silk.

The textile industry responded to mourning customs with more than silk and crepe. Cotton mills began to produce specific prints known today as "mourning prints." In her book Clues in the Calico, textile historian Barbara Brackman writes, "the 1902 Sears catalog offered mourning prints 'at 5 1/2 cents per yard. Very Best Quality of Mourning Prints. These prints are very swell, and are worn by ladies or misses, are neat and will wash without fading."

While I wore red ... as the months went on and I was still in mourning, I realized that, while the Victorians may have taken it to the point of excess, there is something to be said for a public display that says, "I've lost someone dear to me ... please be kind."
I hope ever single widow pictured here is rejoicing in heaven even as we feel sad for them more than a century later.

May you know the reality of God's promise to turn out mourning into dancing .....Stephanie

Friday, November 4, 2011

A Lasting Memory

To cap off Halloween week, I'm going to share one of the most bizarre things I've ever encountered in my research:  family portraits that include a dead relative.  At first this didn't surprise me.  In their sorrow, the families surely wanted an image of the lost loved one--case in point this poignant photo of a grieving couple and their dead child from the mid-1800's.

But what disturbed me was finding out that often the photos were taken as if the dead were still alive.  They would paint eyes on the eyelids, and even add pink to their cheeks on the print.

But the most odd custom was propping the deceased up beside their living relatives.  There was even a special stand created for this purpose.

During the Victorian era this type of photography was very popular.  Actually, before photography, the wealthy often had portraits painted of their deceased relatives, often as they appeared alive, though there were sometimes a symbol of death in the portrait. 

This child was probably painted after he died

The girl in the photo at left is deceased.  Eyes have been painted on, there is an odd placement of the hands, and you can see the stand behind her feet.

Honestly, I understand that having images of their relatives might have given the families comfort, and I don't mind (as much) the photos of the deceased--looking deceased.  But propping them up . . . it seems to reveal a desperation.  But I can't judge them.  Grief confronts everyone differently, and who knows the sad stories behind their often untimely deaths.  Plus, since photos were expensive (though less expensive than having a portrait painted) rushing to get one last photo of a child, parent, or spouse is understandable.

There are many of these photos out there, but I'll let you explore the subject more at your own discretion.  Here is a very good website that also offers a good explanation about the evolution of photography.  Victorian Post Mortem Photos

May they all rest in peace . . ./Nancy

Thursday, October 27, 2011

On Halloween and History

My relationship with Halloween has evolved over time. As a child subject to an entire menu of scary dreams that tended to repeat themselves (I was known for waking up screaming), I wasn't much for thinking that being frightened had a thing to do with having fun. In fact, I distinctly remember the very last time I attempted to walk through what was called a "fun house." My poor brother had to reverse our way and find our way back OUT when I refused to take a nother step past that hand sticking up out of the grave. I knew it was pretend. I didn't care. I wanted OUT. That was my very last voluntary experience with "fright night."
As a young parent, I was confused. I didn't want my Christian faith to be a list of "what we don't do because we are Christians," but I also didn't want to be involved in "the other side" of the spiritual realm I very firmly believe exists. My children dressed up as cowboys and princesses and we "trick-or-treated" on our very safe and boring block where no one put out lighted skulls or set up speakers so they could broadcast shrieks and moans into the night air.
As a historian, as I ponder the connection between history and Halloween ... I think more about mourning and funeral customs, which I find fascinating and not in the least macabre. So my next few blogs are going to be about the history of mourning customs, funerary art, and memorial practices in America. I only intended to do ONE blog post ... but then I started gathering up the things I reference when someone dies in one of my novels (and someone always dies) ... and realized readers might find some of this stuff interesting. And just so you know ... the doorknocker I photographed above in Florence, Italy, is about as scary as I intend to get.
I've always found cemeteries to be fascinating places, and the symbolism and artistry evident in many of the older graveyards in America seem to me to be "stories in stone," as Douglas Keister said in his book by that name (subtitle: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography). While I grew up visiting old cemeteries (we invariably stopped at old cemeteries on vacation), my first visit to Colonial Williamsburg's Bruton Parish churchyard as an adult captivated me. I'd never seen such ancient stones, never seen entire stories carved into memorials, and never been surrounded by so "death heads" (I learned that term later). Apparently the Puritans were big on this symbolism. It's interesting to live in an age where our own rituals involve removing the reality of death as much as possible and be confronted with a graveyard where death heads meet the eye every which way you turn. I don't find it bone chilling ... just interesting.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Inventor You Never Knew

If I said the name "Walter Hunt" I’m betting most people would say, “Who?”

He’s the inventor no one knows, yet the inventor of many things that are still used today—or that evolved into things we use today. Then why don’t we know him?

Because he worked behind the scenes and because he made mistakes--mistakes we can learn from today…

He was born in 1796 in New York state. As a young man he lived in the textile mill town of Lowville, New York. His family worked in the mills. The entire town depended on the mills. When the mill owner wanted to lay people off because he was losing money, Hunt convinced him it wasn’t because of the workers, but because the machines were inefficient. To fix the problem, Hunt invented a better flax spinner and the workers’ jobs were saved. Bravo.  Way to go.

But then Hunt made the first of a series of mistakes.  And so our lessons begin. . .

PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE: Good things come to those who wait. Throughout his life, Walter Hunt went for the quick gain rather than being patient and looking at the bigger picture.  After inventing his flax spinner he went to New York City and sold the patent. He got quick money up front. But by doing so he ended his chance to reap any profits from the machine over time.

LEARN FROM YOUR MISTAKES: As an inventor, Hunt had to try and fail, try and fail many times before he finally succeeded. That succession of steps was ingrained into his work ethic. But when it came to business, Hunt tossed aside this method. He failed at not profiting from the spinner, so you would have thought he would learn from his mistake of selling the rights. Nope.

Just a year after the spinner was invented, he witnessed the death of a little girl under the wheels of a carriage. It affected him greatly (as it certainly would.) Hunt recognized the problem at hand: coachmen had hand horns to beep, but in an emergency, they had to keep both hands on the reins. So Hunt invented a foot-activated gong. Problem identified, problem solved.

But once again he sold the patent before it was manufactured.

BIG GAINS INVOLVE BIG RISKS: This was a reoccurring lesson not learned in Hunt’s life. The need to pay the bills caused him to sell now rather than wait for the possibility of a larger gain in the future. Admittedly, waiting was a risk, but history shows that in most cases, the risk paid off—for someone else.

So it went with a knife sharpener, a stove, a globe caster, fountain pens, ink stands, bottle stoppers, ice-cutters for boats, paper collars, innovations in guns, and the first sewing machine. Invent it, sell it, move on. In Hunt’s defense, he was married and had four children to support.  He needed money.  Now.

He tried his hand at real estate, but his mind was always working, seeing a problem and inventing an answer.

For instance, while trying to figure out how to pay a $15 debt, he was fiddling with a piece of wire—and invented the safety pin. He sold the rights. The rest is history.

Sewing machine drawings

PAPERWORK PAYS & TIMING IS EVERYTHING: Hunt invented the first sewing machine in 1833. He didn’t patent it, but sold the idea to George Arrowsmith. But then there was a recession, a cholera epidemic, and labor issues—seamstresses thought the new machine would put them out of work, so Arrowsmith also let the idea slide.

A decade later, when the world had calmed down, many inventors started expanding on Hunt’s idea.  In 1846, John Greenough received the first patent for a sewing machine.

Then more inventors jumped into the game, and in 1853, Elias Howe and I.M. Singer—two men who took Hunt's idea and expanded on it—were in court, battling for the rights to this very lucrative product. Howe claimed he invented the first workable sewing machine. Singer’s defense involved showing Hunt’s original drawings, dated 1834, which proved Howe wasn't the first, Hunt was (therefore Singer shouldn't have to pay Howe anything.)  In the end the courts acknowledged Hunt as the first inventor, but ruled that because Hunt never filled out the proper paperwork for the patent, Howe could have it. I’m sure Hunt kicked himself on that one.  The lack of paperwork, added to inventing the right idea at the wrong time, equaled nothing. Actually, Issac Singer agreed to pay Hunt $50,000 to end the patent controversy, but Hunt died before receiving the first payment.  Once again, bad timing.

KNOW YOUR STRENGTHS: Even as I reveal my frustration with Hunt’s choice to sell the rights to his inventions and not take the time and energy to manufacture them, I wonder if he was wiser than I give him credit for. Perhaps he knew his strengths—and weaknesses. He clearly was not a businessman. He was good with his hands, he had a mechanical mind, but to develop a factory to manufacture his products, to think about owning a building, hiring workers, marketing the product to the public… Did the breadth of that task overwhelm him? I can imagine him most content in his workspace, tinkering with odd parts, working alone but for the churnings of his mind.

Hmm. Perhaps I need to cut the man some slack. For as a writer I often feel overwhelmed with the new world of publishing and e-publishing and networking and websites and marketing—and just want to be left alone in my workspace, tinkering with odd characters , working alone but for the churnings of my mind.

For even though Hunt didn’t reap great monetary reward (I can feel your pain, Walter) he was highly respected. On June 8, 1859, he died of pneumonia in his workshop—working until the end. I can relate to that, for on more than one occasion, I’ve found myself at my computer through sickness and surgeries and exhaustion. I’d love for my family to find “THE END” typed on the computer when I die.  Dying with your boots on isn't a bad way to go.

RESPECT AND SATISFACTION ARE WORTH MORE THAN MONEY:  All this begs the question of "What is success?"  Is it measured by money?  Fame?  Walter Hunt never earned a lot of money, but he provided for his family.  He wasn't famous, but he enjoyed his work.  After his death, the New York Tribune wrote this about him: "For more than forty years, he has been known (for his) experiments in the arts. Whether in mechanical movements, chemistry, electricity or metallic compositions, he was always at home: and, probably in all, he has tried more experiments than any other inventor."

Which leads to a very important life lesson:   IF AT FIRST YOU DON'T SUCCEED, TRY, TRY AGAIN.  Life is all about trying.  And failing.  And trying again. Hunt did that better than most.

Walter Hunt, inventor extraordinaire, I owe you an apology.  Because hindsight is 20/20 I can look at your life and see your blunders. Yet I cringe when I think of someone in the future dissecting my life, my mistakes, and my missed opportunities. You used your gifts, which is more than a lot of people do: "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." Luke 12:48

So here it is.  My apology and my kudos.  You did good, Walter. I understand you better now--and I appreciate you./Nancy

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Quilts and Historical Fiction

I readily admit that “it’s the history” that draws me to historical fiction. And it’s a good thing that I love history, because writing historical fiction means that before I dress, move, or feed anyone … I have to do research. I’m never happier than when I’m in my studio surrounded by piles of “dry” (to others) history books, historical documents, sepia-toned photographs, and enlargements of historical settings (see photo at right) for my current

work-in-progress I literally end up in a “nest” surrounded by ephemera and, on occasion, patchwork.

Patchwork?! Yep. I'm an avid textile geek. I adore old fabric and have several running feet of antique quilt

tops and quilts stored in a walk-in-closet just off my office. In fact, one set of quilt blocks in particular played a role in my beginning the story that became my first novel back in 1995. I’d stood in the hot sun for hours waiting for an auctioneer to sell a box of rags … because among the “rags” were some diamond-shaped quilt blocks that, had they ever been finished, would have made the center of what quilt lovers call a Blazing Star or a Bethlehem Star quilt.
It was only natural for me to imagine my heroine stitching those blocks together … and only natural for me to wonder why she never finished them. Those bits of cloth led me to take a class in dating quilts … and another class … and, eventually, a class in appraising quilts … and then another … and so it goes. I continue to have a passionate fascination with antique fabric and American quilts, and as I’ve collected quilts and tops and blocks, I’ve always wondered about the women who made them. Why, for example, did his woman cut up what appears to be a devotional book to make these hexagons? It’s a technique known as English paper piecing, but I find
myself wondering about the papers used and wondering … was she upset with God when she cut up that devotional book or Sunday School manual?
And I love "meeting" frugal women who pieced bits together to get a larger bit for patchwork. If you look carefully, you can see where the seam is on the triangle in
the center.

Over the years, as I’ve read women’s diaries and reminiscences, I’ve collected references to quilts and “comforts,” and I love including references to what historians call ‘material culture’ in my stories. In Sixteen Brides I had fun helping a woman who ran a store get rid of some awful orange fabric by marketing it as fabric that would make quilts “shimmer.” As it turns out, one woman takes on the challenge and makes a beautiful dark blue and orange quilt. I keep thinking I should try it. But I’m a quilt lover, not really a quilt-maker.

Since my books are usually set in the 19th Century on the Great Plains, I can reference quilts as bedding, room dividers, front doors and more … and I can use quilting bees as natural settings for conversation and competition among women. A courthouse steps quilt plays an important role in next year’s release with Barbour titled The Key on the Quilt.

I sometimes give a lecture called “Dress Your Beds Fashionably” that shares general guidelines for what a bed would “wear,” in a given time period, but my knowledge of quilt history helps me dress my ladies, too. The book Dating Fabrics, A color guide 1800-1960 by Eileen Jahnke Trestain includes color plates of popular fabric divided by era: Pre-1830, 1830-1860, 1860-1880, 1880-1910, and so on up through 1960. It’s a wonderful resource that helps me “see color” in my sepia-toned photograph collection.

The more I learn about antique quilts and textiles, the more I want to know. I’m fortunate to live near the International Quilt Study Center and Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska, where exhibitions never cease to inspire more questions and lead me on new quests to get to know the women behind the quilts. I never know when a new idea will spring up as I ponder patchwork.

If you’d like a copy of the hand-out I provide when I give my “Dress Your Beds Fashionably” lecture, I’d be happy to e-mail a copy. Just send your request to, and indicate “Dress Your Beds” in the subject line.

"Life is just a patchwork quilt of births and deaths and things ... and sometimes, when you're looking for a lovely piece of red, you only find a knot of faded strings ..." May your weekend bring all kinds of lovely reds!........................Stephanie

P.S. It is nearly 1 a.m. and blogger has won for today ... I apologize for the odd font sizes and margins.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Tudor England and Sandra Byrd, author of To Die For

I've been away from the blog for a few weeks, scrambling to finish up a history course for my masters, begin a new course (they overlapped...YIKES) AND my next year's novel, attending a women's conference, and welcoming a new grand-child. This week I introduce you to my writing friend Sandra Byrd and her latest ..... while I work on a blog about KEYS .... and another about SHOES .... back soon! Steph


I have been drawn to Anne Boleyn since I was a girl, curled up in a beanbag chair, dog-earring books about her as I read and re-read them. My research journey took me to

Meg Wyatt, narrator of my novel, whom I came to love and admire. {I will quickly note that in my book I have switched the names of the Wyatt daughters so that the eldest is named Anne/Alice and the younger Margaret/Meg so that the story could be told without two "Annes" to confuse the reader.} My story idea was sparked by one solitary clue, an offhand comment in a link that said that Anne Wyatt attended Anne Boleyn till her death, and that, at the end, Anne Boley

n had given her friend her prayer book, a very personal gift indeed, and just before her execution whispered something in her friend's ear.

I'm a lifelong lover of historical novels, especially all things English. On road trips, I was the nerdy girl in the backseat of the car reading Victoria Holt and Jean Plaidy streetlight by streetlight well into the night. I even named my daughter Elizabeth! Therefore, it's a dream come true to pen my own novels set in the Tudor court. Those reformation years were critical to refinement and revival in Christianity. Yet I found that while Anne's faith, and the faith of her friends, was well covered in nonfiction, fiction only infrequently highlighted her convicti

ons, often though not always portraying her as either vixen or victim. I wanted to add some new shading and nuance to the genre and telling it from Meg Wyatt's point of view allowed me to do that. Historian Eric Ives, Anne's principle biographer, says, "The absolute conviction which drove Anne was the importance of the Bible. For that reason, if her brand of reform needs to be given a label, that label must be 'evangelical.'"

My research led me to London, which was fantastic, and many fascinating details. I loved, for example, the Eavesdroppers, little faces carved into the high eaves of the Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace.

(Eavesdropper photo copyright Helen Newell, http://tinyurNewall,

They looked soft and sweet. But they were there to remind courtiers that someone was always listening, there was always a secondary audience to anything said at court, and that behind a pleasant face could be a heart of malice. I think it's interesting, too, that being a servant or highborn attendant was a position of honor. Your status wasn't determined by the job or tasks assigned to you, but by the rank of the person you served. That's good for us to remember, too, as Christians.


Learn more about Sandra's books here: or purchase her new book about Anne Boleyn, told from the point of view of Meg Wyatt, here: To Die For

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Dime by Any Other Name...

Recently, I went to a coin show with my husband and heard the most fascinating story that ties into my biographical novel Washington's Lady. It adds another layer to the respect I feel toward our first president and his wife, Martha.

When this country began as thirteen colonies, and even after we gained our independence from England, we continued to use British money. But since we were a free nation, it seemed logical that a new money system had to be created. American money. On April 2, 1792, the “Mint Act” was passed, giving the nation the go-ahead to mint its own coins. There were to be silver half dollars, quarter dollars, and half dismes—half dimes.

At that time George Washington was president and Thomas Jefferson was his secretary of state. As was usually the case with these patriots, they saw a problem and came up with a solution. For isn’t that the American way?

To make coins they needed someone to create a design—a die. So they put an ad in the paper and hired someone. Check. They needed a company to press the coins. So they put an ad in the paper and hired someone—John Harper, who had a press in the cellar of his house on the corner of Cherry & 6th Street in Philadelphia, just down the street from the construction of the new U.S. Mint building. Check check. But then came the biggest problem: you can’t make coins without precious metals. Where would they come up with those?

What follows could simply be legend, or it could be the truth. Knowing George and Martha Washington as I do, I choose truth, as the story fits with their character and continued sacrifice for their country.
Mt. Vernon Plantation
Needing silver, George stepped forward and said that he would give Jefferson a letter to take to the Washington’s Virginia plantation, Mt. Vernon, authorizing Jefferson to take some silver that Washington had there to use for the coins.

It’s fun to imagine Jefferson riding up to Mt. Vernon, knocking on the door, perhaps being greeted by Martha, home for a visit from the nation’s capital of Philadelphia. “Thomas. How nice to see you. What brings you to Mt. Vernon?”
I’d love to have seen the look on Martha’s face when Jefferson handed her the letter from her husband, indicating she should hand over some of their personal silver. It’s said they gave between $75 and $100 worth of silver to the cause of new coinage. Considering most people earned $1 a day, $100 was a large amount.

In 1792 fewer than 2000 “half-dismes” (pronounced “deems”) were cast, but it’s not known whether they were ever circulated or just given away as souveniers. There’s a notation in Jefferson’s diary for July 13, 1792: “rec’d from the mint 1500 half dimes of the new coinage.” But there’s also some evidence that Washington handed the half-dismes out to friends and dignitaries. So the mintage could have been more than 1500. Perhaps George was given some half-dismes for his own use, as a repayment toward the silver he provided. Whether circulated or not, the half-disme was the first step to the minting process that would follow in the newly formed U.S. Mint being built. The first widely-circulated American coins came out in 1796.

There’s also an unsubstantiated story that Martha’s profile was the inspiration for the woman’s head on the coin. I’m not sure what I feel about that story. Martha did not like being First Lady. She had the heart of a patriot, but she also had the heart of a woman, the heart of a wife. When George agreed to become the head of the Colonial army during the war—and ended up being away from home for eight years, she accepted their separation as a sacrifice for the good of the cause, albeit, not without a few complaints. But when the war was won and George was asked to be its first president, she rebelled and virtually said: Enough. Haven’t we given enough, George? When is it someone else’s turn?

But George was an ambitious man and had trouble saying no. He was president through two terms, and was the the only president to get 100% of the electoral votes. But Martha was a reluctant First Lady (though actually, the term hadn’t been invented yet.) She did not like being in the limelight and just wanted to be home with George in Mt. Vernon, “under our own vine and fig tree.” So for her to agree to have her likeness on a coin? I don’t think so.

Actually, Congress thought about putting George’s portrait on some coins, but he dismissed the idea as “monarchical”.  Only kings did that while they were alive. So the Mint Act specified a "portrait emblematic of liberty."  The woman on the half-dismes—whether Martha’s likeness or not—is representing Lady Liberty.

George Washington was in his second term of president in 1792, when he addressed Congress on November 6 about the new coins: “There has been a small beginning in the coinage of Half Dismes; the want of small coins in circulation calling the first attention to them.” It would seem by his statement that the half-disme was intended to be put in circulation.

Around its circumference the coin has the words: INDUSTRY - LIB - PAR - OF – SCIENCE.  Translated, that means, "Industry and liberty on par with science". There is no mint mark, as there was only one minting place at the time: Philadelphia.

I saw one of the few remaining half-dismes at the coin show (it's said that fewer than 200 remain.) It was smaller than a modern dime, and weighed less. It could have been mine for $175,000. One half-dismes, in mint condition sold a few years ago for over $1 million. Yet to think that George and Martha and Thomas might have held that particular coin in their hands…or Benjamin, or John or Abigail… I get heady thinking of it./Nancy

Friday, August 12, 2011

Dead and Buried

Sometimes when visiting Europe’s cathedrals and churches, they begin to blur together. St. Peter’s in Rome is one that always stands out, and another is Santa Croce in Florence, Italy. And in this last case, it’s not as much due to the architecture (which is lovely) as much as for the graves and tombs it holds.

For one thing, there are some pretty important people-of-history buried inside: Michelangelo, Galileo, Rossini are buried there (to name but three.) An artist, a scientist, and a composer. The years of their deaths span centuries, Michelangelo in 1564, Galileo in 1642 & 1737 (more on this later), and Rossini in 1868. Because so many famous Italians are buried here, the church has been known as the Temple of the Italian Glories, for these men certainly brought glory to their country.  We still celebrate and marvel at their achievements.

Michelangelo's tomb
Michelangelo was the brilliant sculptor (the David), painter (the Sistine Chapel), and architect (the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome.) Irascible and driven—and pushed beyond his limit by various Popes—when Michelangelo died in Rome, his body was taken to his beloved Tuscany, to Florence, to Santa Croce for burial. Michelangelo was the Renaissance, so being buried in Florence, the birthplace of Renaissance, was very appropriate. The three figures on his tomb represent his talents: artist, sculptor, and architect.

Galileo's tomb
 Galileo, a talented mathematician and astronomer, pursued the notion that the earth rotated around the sun, but he added a layer.  He insisted that such an idea did not contradict the Bible.  The scientific idea was not new, but the church objected to him stepping out of bounds--acting as theologian in addition to scientist.  It's said he was excommunicated for heresy, but others say it was more of a censure, a cease-and-desist to stop him talking as if what he said was a solid truth. A few years later (1632) Galileo wrote a book that caused his real trouble.  For in it he told both sides, but in doing so, made the pope look like a fool.  Not a wise thing to do.  People were executed for less.  He was allowed to live, yet was under house arrest until he died in 1642. This earth/sun issue was such a hot button, that Galileo was not allowed a Christian burial until 1737.  It’s interesting to note that his tomb has a relief of the solar system—with the sun in the center. It wasn’t until 1992 that the pope apologized for the church's treatment of Galileo.

The last tomb to mention... even if you don’t know Gioacchino Rossini by name, I bet you’d recognize his music. He wrote 39 operas. The "William Tell Overture" is the theme music to the 1950’s TV show, “The Lone Ranger”, and there was a Bugs Bunny cartoon featuring Rossini’s "Barber of Seville". Surely the composer would turn over in his grave. He was originally buried in Paris, but at the request of the Italian government, his remains were moved to Santa Croce in 1887—nineteen years after his death. Florence wanted to lay claim to this “Italian Mozart.”

Beyond these grand tombs (and there are many more), I was most moved by the gravestones on the floor, grave after grave that we walked upon. Most were worn from the tens of thousands who have visited the church over the centuries. I mentioned to our guide that it felt wrong walking on them, but she said that being walked on, having their graves worn by the masses, was considered part of their penance. Don’t tread on me!

But the most intriguing graves held the outline of a person, etched in stone. These graves told an enormous story. For some of the graves had the head at the altar end, with the feet pointing toward the front door. And some were placed in the opposite way. There was an explanation for that. People who were godly had their feet at the altar end, so when Jesus Christ comes to earth again in glory (apparently through the front door) and the godly rise from their graves (as the Bible says), they will be standing with Him, as his children. People who weren’t on good terms with the church had their head near the altar so when they rise at the Second Coming, they will face Jesus for judgment. Whoa. It appears they’ve already been judged by man! My question is, if they were so bad, or not “in” the church, why were they allowed to be buried there in the first place?

One other tidbit I found interesting. The walls of the Santa Croce used to be vividly painted with depictions of Bible stories so the priests could teach the illiterate poor the stories. But in Renaissance times, the priests didn’t like that old style of painting so white-washed it over. Sigh. Every age thinks newer is better.

The point is, the dead do tell tales.  Very interesting ones./Nancy