Monday, December 3, 2012

A Gift to Give Yourself

A Note from Stephanie:   

In the middle of the madness that will be December (in spite of our best efforts to control it), I hope that you will find time to give yourself a gift, too—time with a favorite book. Time with your feet propped up. Time with a cup of joe or cocoa or tea. Time. The best gift of all.
I thought I’d share two of the books I return to at this time of year (and why).  

Journey into Christmas by Bess Streeter Aldrich. 

Bess Streeter Aldrich is my favorite story-teller. She’s “the other Nebraska author” that few seem to know about. (Everyone knows about Willa Cather.) Aldrich is “softer.” Her stories are gentle and filled with hope. Journey into Christmas (first published in 1949) is a collection of short stories guaranteed to bring tears to your eyes and encouragement to your soul. The themes are timeless (difficult economies and tough times) but hope reigns eternal. And hope wins. Aldrich’s gift with imagery resonates with me. For example:

     “Bellfield is similar to a hundred other small Midwestern towns. From the air its building look like so many dishes clustered together on a flat table. The covered soup tureen is the community hall. The red vase in the center is the courthouse. The silver-tipped salt shaker is the water tank.
     There are few changes in the ensemble from year to year. Only the tablecloth is different. There is a vivid green one for spring, a checkered green-and-tan one for  summer, a mottled yellow-red-and-brown one for autumn. Just now—the day before  Christmas—nature, the busy housekeeper, had dressed the table in a snow-white cloth for the first time …”

            In another story, where children think that Christmas has become too much work for their 81-year-old mother and decide they won’t be going home for Christmas, Aldrich writes, “…not one had understood how much less painful it is to be tired in your body than to be weary in your mind—how much less distressing it is to have an ache in your bones than to have a hurt in your heart.” Never fear, though—Aldrich always treats her readers to a happy ending.
             If I could, I’d send a copy to every blog reader. I like it that much.

The Day Christ Was Born by Jim Bishop. 

             “The road out of Bethany threw a tawny girdle around the hill they called the Mount of Olives and the little parties came up slowly out of the east leading asses with dainty dark feet toward the spendor of Jerusalem.”
            I’ve never been to the Holy Land, but with that opening and all the way to the end, I feel that I am seeing what Mary and Joseph saw as they journeyed toward Christmas. In addition, I begin to understand what Jerusalem meant (and means) to the Jewish people.
            Bishop’s Mary is a flesh-and-blood girl—not some other-worldly mythical figure I can’t relate to. In this book, Mary is faithful and aware of her heavenly Father’s care, but she’s also terrified and wondering. “God was everywhere. It gave Mary confidence to know that He was everywhere. She needed confidence. Mary was fifteen.”
            The book flap on my copy of this book says, “Bishop incorporates treasures of information … discovered by nineteen centuries of scholars in archaeology, linguistics and related disciplines, to create a tapestry woven from many threads of a gripping, ever-unfolding narrative that is biblically accurate yet filled with rich, dramatic, detail.”
            In plain language, Bishop’s account is the ultimate “you are there” experience (at least it is for me). He helps me see, hear, small, and feel what the most important event in all of human history might have been like for the real humans who lived it—Mary and Joseph, shepherds and Magi (in spite of the title, the story goes beyond that one day). Bishop provides the cultural context for the story in a way that helps me understand and appreciate “the players” far more than I ever have before. [Apparently the book is out of print, but abundant used copies are available online.]

            May your holidays be bright, and I hope you give yourself the gift of quiet time and reading. 

What’s your favorite holiday reading? 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Patchwork Christmas Collection

Quilts and Christmas.
There's no better combination.

Stephanie and I (Nancy) are happy to announce a new novella collection by the two of us and Judith Miller. Three historical novellas that revolve around Christmas—and quilts! What evokes a cozier feeling than quilts? And as a bonus, in the back of the book are recipes and directions to make a crazy-quilt ornament, a pair of knitted Amana mittens, and a patchwork doll quilt!

THE BRIDAL QUILT by Nancy Moser: A wealthy ingénue—the toast of 1889 New York—
inadvertently causes grave injury to a poor man who protects a street urchin from a rearing horse.
Remorse forces her to bring the man home, where she discovers he is someone she once considered quite a catch. Can she give up everything to love him?

SEAMS LIKE LOVE by Judith Miller: Jilted by a faithless fiancé, Karla Stuke of the Amana
Colonies packs away her wedding quilt in 1890, her faith in men destroyed and her hope for marriage and children shattered. Until an apprentice pharmacist arrives in town. Does Frank Lehner have the saint’s patience he’ll need to change her mind?

* A PATCHWORK LOVE by Stephanie Grace Whitson: Jane McClure, widowed too soon, is headed west in 1875 to marry a prosperous businessman she barely knows in order to give her daughter a better life. Given shelter when a show storm strands them both, Jane worries that her chance is slipping away—and so does the homesteader who rescued her. Will she see what’s
right in front of her?

Thanks for visiting, and may your holidays be bright.

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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Jane Austen's Writing Journey -- is our Journey Too

I’m at a writer’s conference in Dallas: ACFW. Over 600 novelists with big dreams and loads of talent. Not-coincidentally (it seems to me) I am editing one of my biographical novels, this one about Jane Austen called Just Jane (I'm working to get it back in print.)

But just a few moments ago, as I read about Jane's angst and her dreams, I thought of all of us writers, here at the conference, over two hundred years after Jane wrote her immortal novels. The years fall away as we see that her issues, doubts, and hopes are ours.

Read about Jane Austen’s writing life, from her point-of-view, as she struggles to be Just Jane. See how her struggles are our struggles… (FYI: her manuscript First Impressions became Pride & Prejudice.)

Just Jane (Chapter 4) 

I have always written. My first attempts at novel writing—Catherine, Lesley Castle, and Lady Susan—are evidence of that. But none is quite right. The latter two works are a bit scandalous, with adultery, abandonment of children, and permissiveness beyond the ken of polite society. Years ago, when I read them aloud to the family, Father’s eyebrows rose. Yet he didn’t chastise me or tell me to stop. I thank him for being patient with me, for what good is a rector who cannot see the joke in sins and sinners?

I have also attempted a series of letters called Elinor and Marianne. I enjoy the differences between the two sisters. Perhaps I have shown that a disparity in character does not indicate a lack of character. . . .

We have always been a family of readers—my father’s library has over five hundred volumes, and I have access to them all. And though it’s not always considered delicate to admit it, we adore novels. Those of Fanny Burney, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding—to name three. And though I hold Fielding’s Tom Jones dear—for the fact that book inspired the dialogue between my Tom and me—my favourite is Richardson’s masterpiece, Sir Charles Grandison. It’s a massive book, populated by friends. If only I could discuss their failings and follies directly with the characters themselves.

If a book is well written, I always find it too short. The boldness in the craft that these authors possess inspires me to try my hand at it. Not that my busyness will ever amount to much.

I remember sitting in my father’s study once, reading while the boys played outside. I heard Henry in the hallway talking with Father, wanting me to come join them in a roll down the green hill behind the rectory. But Father stopped him, saying, “Leave your sister alone, she is enmeshed; she is gone from us.”

Henry (being Henry) said, “No, she is not; she is right there in your study. I saw her through the window.” Thankfully, Father held fast, protecting my privacy. His words held more than a kernel of truth. When I read a novel I’m not here. I’m transported to far-off places, my eyes unseeing of the words on the page, busy with a scene being played out in my mind’s eye, with my ears engaged, hearing the voices carry from the pen to the present. What a lovely place to be—not here.

I enjoy working in the sitting room I share with my sister, Cassandra (the blue paper on the walls here is such a balm), and she respects my time here, though, in truth, I don’t mind her presence. By her own volition she never intrudes. It’s I who occasionally request her participation. I relish her comments when I read to her a line or two out of doubt. She is very wise, and, seeing beyond what I have said, she has an ear for what I mean. I often read aloud to Mother and Father after evening tea and also accept their comments, though I admit, with less alacrity. ’Tis a distinction I fear implies too much. Mother usually asks for more description of place and costume: “But what colour is her dress, Jane?” And though I have attempted to write more of these details, it’s a forced addition that intrudes upon the words that beg to be released. Her request reminds me of a child pulling on a mother’s gown, wanting attention. Sometimes attention to the child’s needs is required, but at other times it’s best ignored.

And so, I ignore Mother’s wishes and do what I must do, and write how I must write. If a bubbling stream forces itself to become a torrent, surely disaster will follow. I am what I am, and though I’m still learning this measure and meter of words, I must be true to my nature, and yea, even my gift.

For it is a gift—from God, if I may be so bold. I say this not to imply great talent, but to indicate my awareness that I have received something beyond my own choosing. Although in essence I realize I can refuse this offering, I also sense that the prudent act, the one that begs to be tinged with sincere gratitude, requires me to do what I can with this gift and offer it back into the void from whence it came. Whether it will prosper and move along or disappear like morning fog, I don’t know. I should not care. For the gift is not truly mine to hold, but mine to use and return. To someone’s benefit. I hope.

My musings have delayed my task for the day. I must acknowledge that I have finished that which I started nine months ago. I stack the pages and align the edges. So many hours. So many thoughts—some used and many discarded. But here it sits. First Impressions, the story of the Bennet family, which was inspired by my dear Tom’s own familial condition. The two oldest Bennet sisters: Jane and Elizabeth, their names taken from my own name and Cassandra’s middle name. If someone asks if I used us as the inspiration for our namesakes, I will have to tell them no. If anything, Cassandra gives the most to Jane’s character, and I to Lizzy’s. But even then, they are not us. Not completely. And never purely. But they are two sisters, dear to each other and different from each other. In that we share a connection.

I’m reluctant to be done, for I have long lived with Lizzy and her sisters, with Mr. Darcy, and even the duplicitous Wickham. I have invested and divested in them as much as I have in my own Austen family. I’m wont to say adieu to them, as I would to those with whom I share blood ties.

I set my hand upon the pages and let a breath go in and out. It’s hard to let go, yet it’s a necessity in the birth of any child. I tie a string around the pages, adjusting its bow. A pretty package all in all.

There is a knock on the door. “Come in.”

Father opens the door, a letter in hand. “’Tis a letter from Henry, addressed to you.”

I nod and reach for it.

Father sees the pages. “You have finished?”

“I have.”

“Will you read the end to us tonight?”

“If you would like.”

He gives me a chastising look. “Of course we would like. It’s a good work, Jane. A fine accomplishment.”

“I’m happy the family is pleased with it.”

He strokes his chin, his eyes on the neat pile of pages. “Actually, I know of a man in the publishing business and I was thinking—”

My words don’t align with my thoughts. “No, Father. It’s not good enough for that.”

“Nonsense. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” He turns toward the door. “Tomorrow I will write a proper letter of introduction. Then I will send it to this man, Thomas Cadell.”

“He will not publish it.”

Father points a finger, then flicks it toward the end of my nose. “We shall see.”

Once again I place a hand upon the pages that are mine, all mine. Until now? Until someone beyond the family reads the words? I shiver at the thought with dread—

And yes, excitement.


I hold on to hope. And a letter.

The letter Father wrote to the publishers in London—Cadell and Davies—is quite . . . direct. He allowed me to copy it before it was sent:


     I have in my possession a Manuscript Novel, comprised in three Vols. About the length of Miss Burney’s     Evelina. As I am well aware of what consequence it is that a work of this sort should make its first appearance under a respectable name I apply to you. Shall be much obliged therefore if you will inform me whether you chuse to be concerned in it; what will be the expense of publishing at the Author’s risk; & what you will advance for the   Property of it, if on perusal it is approved of?

     Should your answer give me encouragement I will send you the work.

      I am, Sirs, Yr. obt. hble Servt: Geo Austen

In many ways it’s an awkward letter, and if I would have had the chance to edit it . . .

I shove away such presumption. He is my father. He deals with businessmen every day. What do I know regarding the form of such correspondence?

I know that I care deeply about its outcome.

Although I’m careful not to make anyone else aware, I pore over the letter daily—actually, many times a day. I pull it out of my writing desk and imagine Mr. Cadell reading it and being intrigued, pulling a fresh piece of paper close. He dips quill to ink and writes, Sir. We would be happy to peruse such a manuscript. Please send post-haste. We have been searching for just such a novel and will surely publish it—at our expense.

I laugh at the presumption. Yet what good are dreams if they are grounded in logic and probability?

The letter also brings me great pride, for to know that Father thinks well of the story, enough to bother his day by writing a letter and by offering to have it published “at the Author’s risk” . . . I’m very blessed.

I hear Mother talking to Cook below. I have been alone in my daydreams long enough. There is work to do. Life does go on. With or without a published book by Jane Austen.


Tilly brings in the post, along with a gust of the November chill. I meet her near the door, eager to retrieve it. There is a letter from Aunt Leigh-Perrot in Bath, a letter from Edward, and . . .

My heart stops.

On top of the pile of three is a letter addressed to Cadell and Davies. From my father. Across the front is boldly written: Declined by Return of Post.

I turn it over. Father’s seal is broken and resealed.

They read the letter.

They returned it.

They don’t want my manuscript.

I have been rejected.

Father comes into the foyer, a book in hand. He sees me. “Ah. Letters.” He extends a hand.

I hesitate. For it’s not just I who have been rejected. All Father’s hard work, writing the letter on my behalf, believing in me . . . oddly, I feel I have failed him.


I give him the three, keeping the rejection on top. He deserves to see it.

He reads the front, turns it over, then reads the front again. “Declined?”

“They read it but—”

His voice rises. “Declined?”

I take the offending letter away, moving it behind my back. Out of sight. “It was a great risk, Father. I’m too great a risk. For who will take seriously anything penned by a parson’s daughter living in Hampshire? I have no standing, no right, no—”

“But declined?”

I point to Edward’s letter, which graces the top of the pile. “Go. Read what your son has to say.”

He nods and turns away, then back to me. “I’m sorry, Jane. It’s a good story.”

“You tried, Father. I will always remember that.” I kiss his cheek.

He goes back to his study.

And I?

I remove the letter from behind my back and stare at it. My silly imaginings of Cadell writing a far different response evaporate. I need to take the words I have just spoken with such false bravery to Father and hold them as truth: Who am I to expect a publisher to care about my work? I’m no one, beyond obscure, never to be known beyond the tight boundaries of tiny Steventon.

Who am I to expect more? Want more? Dream of more?

I retreat to my sitting room and close the door. I open the trunk that holds the evidence of my folly—my follies. Manuscripts written strictly for the amusement of my family. And myself. For I do enjoy the writing process. I do enjoy creating another place and time, populating it with people who could be as outrageous, vainglorious, courageous, or victorious as I will them to be. Through my writing I capture a smidgen of control—if not in my own life, in the lives of my characters. Their happiness, success, justice, or demise depends on me.

If only I had as much control over my own fate. My mind wanders to thoughts of Tom. . . . If only he would come home from his law studies and take me away from all this. Rescue me.

But alas, such happy endings happen only in novels.

Novels that will never be published.

I look down on the stacks of paper, so neatly tied. Hours and hours, days and days of my life . . .


I slip Father’s letter under the bow of First Impressions. The word Declined peeks back at me, teasing me.

Condemning me.

I close the lid of the trunk.

The lid of my dreams.


Nancy again: So, dear writing friends, take heart in the disappointments, the excitement, the hard work, and the rejections that come with the writing life. Know that every writer before and after experiences the same things.  And remember the rewards exist in all of those pesky emotions. The reward is in the journey//Nancy

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Craziness of Crazy Quilts

Have you ever tried to make a crazy quilt? I have. Zounds. It seems like it would be simple because the concept is to take odd-shaped pieces and put them together in any-which way you choose. Sounds good to me. Regular patchwork doesn’t always work for me because I’m not as exact as I should be.

Crazy quilts simple? Yikes. Hardly.

Quilt block by Janet Stauffacher

Unfortunately, I jumped into crazy quilting like I jump into a lot of artsy-crafty projects that catch my eye and make me stupidly think "Hey, I could do that!" For instance, I have a whole set of lace-making bobbins and a pillow with the lace pins on it. That fad lasted about a week before I realized it was far easier and wiser to buy my lace by the yard. Then, since my dad carves and paints birds (even at age 93) I assumed I should have the same talented genes. So I bought some balsa wood and carving knives and hacked off the corner of the wood. One little corner.  My hands hurt at the effort.  It was harder than I thought! I also remember getting paint and canvas after I was inspired by Bob Ross (Mr. Happy Clouds.) I still have them. Only slightly used.

I digress. But as I dove into the art of crazy-quilting, I decided I was going to make a king-sized spread (I know, I know. What was I thinking?) I went to the fabric store and spent over $100 buying luscious fabrics in deep jewel tones. I bought a couple books on the craft, ones that offered me different embroidery stitches. For you see, along the seam of each oddly shaped piece of fabric, you’re supposed to embellish it with embroidery and beads and bits of lace. I bought $30 worth of floss and thread and a packet of needles.  You can never have too many needles. And why not one of those nifty cutting boards with a rotary cutter? After 50 years of sewing, it was time to move up from mere scissors. $60?  Why not.

I was set to go.

But then, on the first day, I realized piecing together unusual, haphazard pieces of fabric was far from easy. It was hard to think in this abstract way. I gave it a couple more days, but I soon realized that I would be better off sewing together 3” x 8” rectangular strips and add my embroidery along those seams. So that's what I did.  For a short time. After creating about twelve blocks, I set it aside.

For now. Until the next surge of inspiration comes along.

But my experience with my ridiculously crazy quilt gave me the idea for a novella. The Bridal Quilt is just out in a Christmas anthology that I wrote with Stephanie Grace Whitson and Judith Miller. The book is called A Patchwork Christmas. Each novella revolves around the holiday and a quilt. Judith’s story is about the Amana colonies in Iowa, Stephanie’s is about Nebraska, and mine is set in 1880's New York City, during the Gilded Age. My character, Ada, is a wealthy ingénue and is making a bridal quilt out of all the lovely fabric scraps from dresses she’s worn since coming out into society. Ada’s quilt is a success.
Good for her.

Actually, good for me.  And you. Because included in the book are directions to knit Amana-style mittens, sew a patchwork doll quilt, and create a crazy quilt ornament like the one on the right  And there's a contest to win one of these finished pieces of crafty-artistry! Whoever wins this ornament better appreciate it because it took all my inconsiderable talent to make it.  Yes, I made it. And I'm giving it away.  See info about the contest here.   By the way, Lincoln Nebraska has an amazing International Quilt Study Center and Museum.  I heartily recommend it.  Awhile ago they had a display on Victorian crazy quilts.  Here's a link.  Browse through the rest of the website too.    Happy Creativity!//Nancy

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Home of the Friendless

The Home of the Friendless and The Shadow on the Quilt
            “Here lies Julia Adams … who died of thin shoes.” That’s an actual epitaph, according to a book of epitaphs I just tried to find here in my office. Sometimes my books seem to take on a life of their own and just when I need a specific title—poof—it’s gone. But that’s another blog post.

            Today, I thought I’d share a book idea that sprang up over ten years ago and then just wouldn’t go away. I saw this sign at a local cemetery. H. of F.? Hunh? I asked at the cemetery and was told the letters stood for Home of the Friendless. The phrase wouldn’t go away.
            Since I love prowling about in the historical archives here in my home town, I finally asked about the “Home of the Friendless” one day. (This was before we could “google” and know everything.) I learned: “In 1876 … charitable women of Nebraska organized a society known as the ‘Home of the Friendless,’ … to furnish a refuge for friendless children, girls, young women, and old ladies.” By 1881, “so many friendless and deserted children came to our doors requiring protections that the state legislature … appropriated the sum of $5,000 to assist the society by the erection of a permanent building.” Here’s a photo of the Home of the Friendless from around 1917.
            Most of us don’t really think of the 1870s and 1880s as a time when many people were “friendless.” We think of it as a kinder and gentler time. Sort of “little-house-on-the-prairie-ish.” But 1876 was a dismal time in Nebraska. Thanks to hordes of grasshoppers, “property fell to ruinously low prices, farmers had little to buy with, and hundreds not only left their farms, but the town of Lincoln also.”
            I spent several days at the archives squinting at hand-written meeting minutes from the early days of this organization, and the more I read, the more enthusiastic I became about writing a story that would revolve around this compassionate ministry.
            They hired a full-time Matron (for $25 a month.) A Matron. Ah … a character for a story. (You’ll meet mine if you read The Shadow on the Quilt).
            “Mrs. X will furnish the parlor and hall with carpets and curtains, parlor and back parlor for a bedroom …” Ah. Mrs. X must have been rich. (Enter Juliana Sutton, the heroine in my novel.)
            I kept reading. More story ideas emerged. In August of 1883 an “interesting old lady” was admitted at $3 a week board. “Two little babies were brought to the home … we do not think they will live.” A boy who had been adopted out was being brought back because of “dissatisfaction.” He was returned to the home and then taken by another couple “who had his little sister.” “Mrs D. was hired to work in the nursery for $8 a month plus the boarding of her three children.”
            A note in the meeting minutes from July, 1886, made me think of that sign at the cemetery. “The committee on cemetery grounds reported the old lots nicely planted with bedding plants from the greenhouse and the new lots to be graded and sodded by fall.” Ah. I could have someone interested in the final resting places of the “friendless.”
            And so, finally … The Shadow on the Quilt, just released by Barbour Publishing
            Some of the entries in those historical documents broke my heart. Some inspired me to thank my heavenly Father for the boundless blessings I knew when I was raising my four children. When I became as single mother,  I wasn’t friendless like this woman in 1881: “A young mother was brought to the gate of this Home with a three days old baby. I took the child as she came to the steps and carried it to the nursery. Also assisted her to a room. In a week she was able to work and we found her good help. Her child is healthy and growing nicely. She has given it to the home.”   
            Today, never-married mothers aren’t treated like pariahs. “July 8—I received a letter asking the admittance of a young girl, one of the deceived and deserted ones. At first my heart rebelled when this class of inmates came, but after knowing them better my heart turns toward them, and I have done what I could to lead them to a better life.”
             The Shadow on the Quilt is my tribute to the women who created the Home for the Friendless in 1876; God’s extraordinary women who saw a need and filled it. Extraordinary women who believed in an eternity where the word “friendless” will no longer be needed.

July 28, 1881 “Our dear little patient Hazel has gone to the home where sin and poverty will never enter, and where she will not be friendless, for Jesus has taken her to himself.”

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Home of the Friendless and The Shadow on the Quilt

I'll share the entire blog post here in a few days here ... but thought I'd mention that I'm talking about the real history behind my new release over at today (Monday).

Thursday, August 23, 2012

1879 at Fort Omaha, Nebraska

History lovers learn a couple of things fairly early on. One is DON'T TOUCH ... another is ASK before taking photos. I learned the last rule when I was a nineteen-year-old student standing atop this staircase staring with wonder up at La Victoire de Samothrace. Had Paul seen her on one of his journeys? I had to have a photograph. To remind myself that I'd been here. Happily, French docents seem less likely to toss a person out on their ear if they happen to be a pretty nineteen-year-old. I survived the scolding, but I had learned the rule. Never forgot it, either.

So imagine my amazement when I visited the gorgeous 1879 Victorian home pictured on the left a couple of Sundays ago and was invited to take all the photos I wanted to take ... to sit on the furniture ... so hold the teacup ... even to play the piano. The General Crook House at Fort Omaha, Nebraska, is heaven for the history-lover, and especially wonderful for someone like me who has to create imaginary worlds for her characters to inhabit.

The house would have been three-and-a-half miles outside of Omaha when it was built. "On the frontier," the docent explained. Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and Ulysses Grant both stayed at this house (I'll show you the guest room in my next post).

I have authentic house plans ... books of them. But there is nothing like 3-D to get my imagination going. That wallpaper! That arched doorway! That silver tea set! That lamp! That chandelier ... and the fireplaces burned coal.  Now I know how my people heat their house.

This is the piano I played. An 1858 model. And it was in tune.
I'll just share a few highlights, but if you are ever near this place and you love the Victorian era ...  you MUST GO. I'm going back at Christmas. Or before. Because it was impossible to see everything. I want time to savor. To close my eyes and imagine.

A step back in time ... although I wouldn't want to go back. I also saw the maid's quarters ... which is where I would have lived.

Everyday china in the breakfast nook.

MORE SOON! ..............................................Stephanie

And the view of the garden from the breakfast nook. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Well ... if you've checked us out recently you've seem one combination or another of ... a mess. So I've made the monumental decision to simplify and eliminate the chaos until we figure out the problem. We're back ... we just aren't as "pretty." Hope you stay tuned! 
--Stephanie G.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Then and Now...

I’m writing this blog from Saratoga Springs, New York. The birthplace of racing, the place where the rich from New York City went to get away from the crowding, the summer heat, and the bad city air. If they wanted the beach they went to Newport, Rhode Island, if they wanted racing and the Adirondack Mountains, they went to Saratoga Springs

Porch at Saratoga Arms
The main street of Broadway still boasts many of the buildings that were around in the 1870’s to 1890’s. Our hotel, The Saratoga Arms used to be a men’s boarding house.

The evening was perfect, around 70 degrees, and I sat on a bench to people watch. And then I closed my eyes and tried to picture myself back 120-40 years, as a woman sitting on a similar bench, on this very street. I’ve always marveled in how women are essentially the same now as in the past.

Essentially maybe, but not as much as I thought. The differences assailed me:

1. I was sitting alone, waiting for my husband. In 1880, as a woman of bearing (let’s just assume my 1880’s woman is wealthy) I would never have ventured down the street alone without a male companion as my chaperon.

2. As you see in the photo, I’m relaxed and casual. Comfortable is the key word. In 1880 I would’ve been wearing a corset, and would sport a bustle. No slumping allowed!

3. I’m sitting with my legs crossed. No proper 1880 lady sat in such a manner. And risk exposing her ankle? Never.

4. I’m wearing denim capris. Only workmen wore denim (thank you Levi Strauss—in 1873), no women ever wore pants, much less ones that revealed their bare calf and ankle. Brazen Nancy!

5. I wore a voile blouse. Comfy and cool. An 1880’s woman would have worn a dress or a blouse and skirt, to her ankles, with frilly sleeves and collar, perhaps made out of gabardine or cambric or silk. And underneath she would wear the corset, bustle, a corset cover, pantaloons, and a bevy of petticoats or underskirts. Although it was only 70 degrees on this day in Saratoga Springs, two days earlier, it was an unseasonal 100! How did the people of 1880 deal with that kind of heat? (I don’t know. I can’t imagine!)

6. Getting down to the issue of sweat… I’m pretty sure I didn’t offend anyone by my smell. But in 1880? Before deodorants sanitized our nasal palate? And with clothes that weren’t washable? I can’t imagine the aroma of the past.

7. I wore sandals with rubber bottoms, and expensive arches that keep my back from hurting when I walk a lot. In 1880 the ladies wore button-up shoes with hard soles, and of course stockings to above their knees.

8. I wore sunglasses to deal with the glare—prescription, bi-focal sunglasses so I can see far away and read. In 1880 sunglasses were rare. But I would have had a parasol.

9. I sat there with a bare head. In 1880 I would have worn a hat—and not just a visor.

10. I carried a purse containing a credit card, driver’s license, insurance card, makeup, money, phone… I collect antique purses and the ones that I have from this era are delicate and often made of beads. They could hold a small compact for powder, and perhaps a few coins. The women didn’t carry money. The men paid for everything. Sounds good to me.
11. My skin was pampered with wrinkle cream with SPF to protect my face from the harmful rays of the sun, my hands with lotion, my heels with foot cream, and my lips with Chapstick. In 1880 face cream and lotions were around, often homemade, but they were often greasy, and certainly didn’t make wrinkles go away (though I’m not sure the stuff we use now achieves that either.)

12. I took a shower this morning and dried my hair with a hair-dryer. Special, magical Ions made the frizz go away (sort of.) The woman of 1880 might have had a bath in her hotel—whether full or just a hip bath—but it was a big production that involved servants lugging hot water up many stairs. Many hotels, even the nice ones, only had one bathroom down the hall that needed to be shared. If you needed to go potty in the middle of the night? Pull out the chamber pot. But I have questions: were there public restrooms? What did people do when they needed to go? And how did they manage it wearing the many-layers of clothes?
13. The sounds of passing cars invaded the moment, but in 1880 it wouldn’t have been any quieter. Horses and carriages on cobblestones, whinnying, the sound of whips and drivers yelling at their steeds and other drivers. I read that the width of Broadway was determined by how much space was needed for a horse and carriage to turn-around.

14. Now on to my thoughts… Sitting on the bench I was contemplating an idea for a new business that my husband and I had been discussing. In 1880 most women weren’t interested in business, nor would they be consulted about any such decisions. Not because they weren’t smart enough or able enough, but because it just wasn’t a possibility for most of them. What did they think about? What excited them intellectually? What did a woman do when she had aspirations and ambition? Did she sit and stew about it? Or did she make waves? Or… was the idea of her limited place in society so deeply ingrained that she didn’t let such a thought cross her mind at all?

15. I had a caffeine headache and took an Excedrin—with water from my water bottle. The 1880 woman might have some headache powder, but she would have had to go back to her lodging to take it. And carrying around water 24/7? Forgeddaboutit.

16. Then I started thinking about my cell phone, checking the weather forecast, my email, reading reviews of restaurants and things-to-do… we can’t even venture into that arena, as there was no comparable opportunities for quick information in 1880.

17. Speaking of eating… we’d just gotten back from eating at a Mexican restaurant. Mentioning that cuisine, our 1880 woman might ask, “What kind of restaurant?” Burritos, enchiladas, and margaritas were beyond her realm of knowledge and taste.

Detailing the differences between myself and my fellow female in 1880 made me rather sad. Although I often say I would have loved to wear those luscious clothes and go to balls, and be courted and pampered for my femininity, when it comes down to the nitty-gritty listed above, I don’t think I’d trade places with her. Our lives today are so incredibly at-ease, with choices and ways to give ourselves comfort so we don’t need to suffer heat, pain, thirst, hunger, and lack of opportunity. We are capable and able to get (or at least try for) anything our minds and hearts can imagine.

With this knowledge I vow to appreciate more and complain less.

Oooh, there’s a frozen yogurt shop across the street . . .

If you'd like to read some of my historical novels take a look here.//Nancy

Friday, July 13, 2012

Victorian Servants and Their Uniforms

While writing novels about a Victorian manor house, I came upon an interesting tidbit—one that I didn’t believe at first. For it makes no sense.

When a girl became a maid of any sort—whether kitchen or chambermaid—she had to provide her own uniforms. A black dress and white apron for formal occasions when she was seen by the public, and a simpler dress to wear when she was doing the hard work. This would cost between £4-5 (equivalent to £228-285 today, or $354-442.) In 1900, with a yearly wage of only £22 pounds (£1255/ $1948) she had to provide her own clothes? She had to spend nearly 20% of her first year’s wage on her uniforms.  They also had to do their work wearing a corset. No thank you.  Ever, actually.

The Lady’s Maid, who was often of some social position, usually knew a bit about fashion so they could be of use in advising, dressing, (and mending) their mistress’ clothing. They could wear normal clothing, even castoffs from her mistress (£32 (£1824/$2831.)

The Housekeeper, earning £45 (£2567/$3985), usually wore a dark dress, and the butler--the highest paid at £60 (£3423/$5314)—wore a formal black suit. The cook (who I would consider the most important servant) earned £40 (£2282/$3543.)

Their employers only paid for the uniforms of the footmen—the fancy-dancy livery. The footmen were paid £26 a year (£1484/$2304.) The fancier the livery, the more status for the family. They even were given a stipend to pay for the powder for their hair. So the footmen, who made decent money, didn’t have to pay for anything. No wonder they often had a haughty attitude. And if they were over six foot tall? They got paid extra. And if they were a matching pair…zounds. Now that was something to brag about.  Having good calves was also important and some footmen wore "falsies" to pad their lacking calves. It looks like the two in the photo at the right could have used a little extra padding.  Sorry, chaps. I'm just calling them as I see them.

Just to give you the full picture, the lowest position was the scullery maid, who made £12 (£685 /$1063.). And the lowest male position of hallboy got £16 (£913 $1417.)

I’m still learning about servants—and there’s so much to learn. But paying for uniforms? That seems unfair. And yet… I remember working in a restaurant that had a uniform, and I had to purchase it. But no way did it cost 20% of my annual income.

The good thing about being a servant is that their room and board was provided, so they had few expenses. But they also had little time off and had to suffer the heirarchy of their employers--and the strict heirarchy of their own servant-world (more on that in another post.)

I’ll also be writing more about the duties of servants later. But I can tell you now, I’m very happy I've never had to empty a chamber pot.

Want to read more about servants in action? Try my Manor House Series (Downton Abbey fans will love it!) //Nancy

Monday, July 2, 2012

An Antique Weed

            Every year since my now thirty-something daughter was about twelve years old, she and I and an assortment of friends have spent the Friday before Father’s Day in Walnut, Iowa, at the annual flea market there. We do our best to get there as soon as vendors are open to do business, and we stay until they begin to fold up their tents (almost literally, sometimes). I’ve never worn a pedometer, but my aching knees and feet are testimony to the fact that the day includes a few miles of walking, punctuated by a pause to eat lunch at the Methodist Church lunch tent—and pie. Gooseberry, if I’m lucky.
             Then, on the drive home, we stop for a meal and share “war stories” from the day of haggling and treasure-hunting. And of course we have a grown-up version of “show and tell.”    Over the years, I’ve brought home quilts, quilt blocks, feed sacks, silver charms, stereoscope cards (I love to find ones of places in Europe I’ve visited), and my personal favorite—characters for my novels in the guise of those old sepia toned photographs.
            The silver charms were a passion of my daughter’s childhood. Other phases have included windows from old houses, architectural finials and corbels, and … vintage suit cases. Books are a perennial favorite. This year I changed my mind on a beautiful volume titled The Life and Times of D.L. Moody. The reason I didn’t buy it was that it was $2 until I handed over the money … and then the dealer showed me the “real” price … $50. I don’t mind a mark-up, but that seemed a bit much. And I gotta admit I was disappointed that the dealer hadn’t bothered to erase her purchase price before indicating her own price on another page. Sigh. I’ll read about Moody another way.
            I think that one of the reasons I love “old stuff,” though, is the connection it provides to women from the past. And this year I made a connection that I’ll treasure for many years to come. I bought a weed. Sewing machine. I was attracted to the machine—at the back of a vendor’s spot on the street—because of the simplicity of the design. When I got closer, I realized that once it was “put away,” the machine would look like an end table. The cabinet is lovely, the foot pedals intricately formed. And it works.
            But the best thing about the machine was the fragments of 19th century calico in the tool bin … the attachments … the “1871” pressed into the cabinet … and the fact that the dealer had the original manual. It’s a “Family Favorite” model. The manual was copyrighted in 1875, and some of the parts have patent dates as early as 1856. I’m fascinated. I’ve already ‘sprung’ for a page from an 1868 NY City Directory advertising this machine. And a trade card. Both for sale on ebay. I’ve talked to treadle machine enthusiasts and learned that my “weed” was made in Hartford, Connecticut.
            The machine works. And now it’s sitting to the left of my desk where I can wonder about all the women who’ve made work shirts and dresses and aprons and … maybe … quilts seated at this machine. And I’m already looking forward to next year’s caravan to 2013 edition of the Walnut, Iowa, flea market.
            Memories for sale … and memories made. Fun time with my girls. Priceless. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Mary Riggs and the Dakota War of 1862

            Last week I talked about a few of the pioneer women I’ve “met” who encourage me when I feel discouraged. This week I thought I’d share a little more about one of those women and how her story ended up in one of my stories. Her name was Mary Longley Riggs. I “met” her one day when I was browsing biographies at the library. An old book drew my attention, “oldstufflover” that I am. The title gave me goosebumps. I’d been researching the Dakota War of 1862, but I’d finished for the day, browsing and creating an ever more impossible “I want to read this someday” list. (Do you have one of those? I bet we all do.)
            Well. That old book? Mary and I, Forty Years with the Sioux, an autobiographical account of Mary and Stephen Return Riggs, who “just happened” to be a missionaries among the Dakota Sioux during the Dakota War of 1862. Within the pages of that book, I met yet another woman who is on my list of “invite her to coffee in heaven someday.”  (Do you have a list like that, too? Mine keeps getting longer. But I’ll have time. Ha.)
            What made me admire Mrs. Riggs more than anything was the fact that she willingly stepped WAY out of her personal “comfort zone” to answer God’s call on her life. She’d attended schools in Massachusetts and begun to teach when only sixteen years old. Eventually, though, she was teaching “in the west” when “the west” meant Ohio. In Ohio she met Stephen Riggs. The couple eventually journeyed into “the far west” and begin housekeeping in a 10 x 18 foot room on the upper level of a log dwelling at Lac Qui Parle, Minnesota. Mary wrote, “We fixed it up with loose boards overhead, and quilts nailed up to the rafters, and improvised a bedstead … that room we made our home for five winters … there our first three children were born … and there, with what help I could obtain, I prepared for the printer the greater part of the New Testament in the language of the Dakotas.”
            The work of white missionaries among Native Americans is a subject of controversy, and I understand that, but I still admire Mary Riggs. The Riggses didn’t force their students to abandon their language. Instead, they translated God’s Word and wrote text books in Dakota. Dakota men risked their lives to see the Riggses to safety during the Dakota War. Those heroic efforts inspired me to create Daniel Two Stars, the Dakota hero of my Dakota Moons series.
            Mary Riggs had a difficult time learning another language. She was made fun of more than once for it. That had to have been hard for a young woman who had once taught school in Ohio. Her first home in Minnesota burned to the ground, but Native women came to help, sharing what they had with the young mother from a different world. Mary Riggs raised several children, most of whom also became missionaries—a daughter to China and others among Native Americans in the West.

            A few years ago, I received a call from a member of the Gideon Pond Society, asking me to come to Minnesota and speak on my research (Agnes and Gideon Pond were early missionaries in the area as well). It’s a great memory, and I’m thrilled that my three novels, which have been out of print for a long time, will soon be back IN print and available as ebooks. (Valley of the Shadow, Edge of the Wilderness, and Heart of the Sandhills all feature Genevieve LaCroix, a half-French, half-Dakota student at the Dakota Missions and her true love, Daniel Two Stars.)

Here’s Kitty parked in front of the Gideon Pond House in Minneapolis. What would Mrs. Riggs and Mrs. Pond have thought of that!

Hope your Father's Day weekend is going well and that our Heavenly Father blesses your day.