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 ingĂ©nue 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).