Sunday, July 14, 2019

A Bastille Day Celebration

Rachel Beauchene's idea of a Bastille Day picnic was her way of distracting Charleston's citizens from the serious business that had everyone worried. The date was July 14, 1861, and the Civil War had just broken out. It was a great idea, and for the most part, it worked. But the war had a way of intruding itself into the most peaceful of activities. This passage from Henrietta's Legacy describes one of those moments.

As the heat took its toll and activity slowed to a more languorous pace, the soft murmurings of summer gave way to a rhythmic drumbeat and the steady sound of marching footsteps. From the dock end of Queen Street came a small parade. Leading the way was the horse-drawn wagon of the German Fire Company. Then came a squad of uniformed firefighters carrying a banner proclaiming their name in German: Deutschen Feuer Compagnie. Next, a row of drummers beat out the cadence for all. In the following row, four soldiers carrying Austrian Lorenz rifles performed a series of precision moves. And bringing up the rear came a band of musicians, most of whom carried brass wind instruments of various kinds. Not quite believing what she was seeing, Rachel pushed her way to the front of the crowd and gestured for Roger to join her.
“What’s going on? Who are they?”
“Those are the firefighters who will shoot off your fireworks later. Smile and applaud them.”
“But those outfits! They look like a band of invading camel drivers left over from my Christmas pageant.” Her voice wavered as she struggled not to cry. 
“My dear girl. Those are their new dress uniforms, modeled after those of the famous French Zouaves, who are light infantrymen in Algeria. Elite troops all over Europe have adopted that costume of baggy red trousers over leather boots, topped with a short blue jacket and a red, tasseled fez. It’s the latest thing.”
“But they aren’t infantrymen. They’re firemen. Why are they putting on a military display of weapons in the middle of our Bastille Day? I wanted this to be a day to forget all the war talk, and they are beating drums and whirling their guns around.”
“Ah, but they are proud soldiers with approval to form a company of the First South Carolina Infantry Regiment under the leadership of Peter Gulliard. They are only volunteering to fight fires until war breaks out and offers them real battles. And this is Bastille Day, Rachel. You need to remember the storming of the Bastille was the start of the French Revolution—a military attack directed against a tyrant’s fortress. Guns and drums are appropriate. Besides, I approved it.”
“Without asking me?”
“I didn’t think I needed to. What they are doing is harmless. And look, they’re getting ready to serenade us.”
At that moment the band struck up the first chords of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. Their audience stood at attention, and a few voices sang along. Members of the church choir moved to the front of the crowd, and, by the end of the refrain, everyone had joined the chorus: 
Marchons! Marchons! 
Qu'un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!
The people cheered and applauded. Then they took up the chant. “Again! Again, Encore!
The band director looked at Roger for approval, and seeing his nod, gestured to the band to reorganize their music. Band members flipped pages of the small booklets attached to their horns and drained their mouthpieces. Drummers gave a flourish, and the music started again, this time with everyone singing along.
At last the musicians dropped their instruments to their sides, and the firemen on the water wagon worked their pump. They pointed the nozzle of their hose straight up into the air and let loose a spray of cool water. By the time the droplets came falling onto the crowd, they were nothing more than a refreshing mist, but the children raced toward the wagon to see it spout again. The accordions played a polka, and before long people were dancing in the streets.
“You see?” Roger whispered to Rachel, “Everyone’s happy. You have nothing to worry about. Your party is a great success.”

Want to read more? Henrietta's Legacy is available in both paperback and digital formats at:

French Foods for a Bastille Day Picnic

If you are still trying to decide how to celebrate Bastille Day today, here are some food suggestions. The passage also comes from my book, Henrietta's Legacy.

What do you think of this list?” she asked Roger. “We’ll have salade Niçoise, olive tapenade, French baguettes, cold ham, assorted cheeses, sliced tomatoes, tiny sweet cornichons, quiche Lorraine, vegetable tarts, gougères, warm lentil salad, macarons with raspberry jam, madeleines, and assorted wines. Sound good?”
“Sounds wonderful, except for those items I’ve never heard of. I explained French games to you. Now it’s your turn. What is salade Niçoise?”
It’s a lettuce-based salad with anchovies, tuna, boiled potatoes, and green beans. You might say it’s a meal in a bowl.”
“And gougères?”
“Little puff pastries flavored with your choice of grated cheese.”
“A spread containing chopped olives, capers, parsley, lemon juice, and seasonings. You can eat it plain or smear it on anything from bread to meats.”
“And quiche Lorraine?”
“A custard-like egg and cheese tart baked in a pastry shell, flavored with bits of ham, or even a vegetable such as broccoli. My goodness, Roger, what do you eat in your house?”
“Pretty much nothing but beef, potatoes, and peas. My father is not one to experiment with food. If we get him to come to this picnic, which I doubt, he’ll settle for a baguette filled with slices of ham.” Then he laughed at the worried expression on Rachel’s face. “My father’s Irish, through and through. You’re planning a party for a neighborhood of Frenchmen. They’ll love every bite you serve.”
“Even the Germans? You said we should invite the German volunteer firemen, but what if they don’t like French food?”
“They’re firemen. They’ll eat anything. Don’t worry. They’ll love it.”

Want to read more? Henrietta's Legacy is available in both paperback and digital formats at:

French Games for Bastille Day

In my recent book, Henrietta's Legacy, one of Henrietta's daughters is the parish secretary for Charleston's French Huguenot Church.  One of her ideas was to have the church put on a picnic as a  Bastille Day celebration. (That's today, July 14th, by the way) This passage describes some French games she and a friend came up with. You might want to try them if you are celebrating Bastille Day today.

The men of the parish can hold a pétanque tournament. It has room for two match fields and a children’s area for escargot and bilboquet. We can mark the fields with chalk that will wash away with the first rain. If you announce contests among our parishioners, people will flock there to play or watch.”
“Wait! Remember my deprived childhood. Pétanque is that game where men throw metal balls at a little wooden one, right? I watched them with my grandfather once. But the children’s games you mentioned—Escargot? Snails? Why are children’s games named for slimy things?”
“Because little boys love messes, and I imagine little girls do, too. Escargot is like hopscotch—ever play that?”
“Yes, sometimes.”
“All right. Escargot is like hopscotch in the shape of a snail.”
“A spiral?” 
“Yes, and it gets harder as the child moves toward the center because the landing blocks get smaller. I was never good at it because my feet were too big.”
“What was your favorite game . . . that other thing you mentioned . . . bilbo-something?”
Bilboquet. In English, a ball and cup. A string attaches the ball to the cup. The child tries to throw the ball up and catch it in the cup one-handed. You never had one of those?”
“No, but it doesn’t sound very challenging.”
“Ah, try it. You'll soon learn how difficult it is. I saw a whole box of those in the church attic when Reverend Howard and I were exploring. We’ll have contests, and you can try your hand.”

Want to read more? Henrietta's Legacy is available in both paperback and digital formats at:

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

My Schedule

Here (with thanks to Penny Sansevieri) is a chart of how my days have been going lately.  This will have to change, starting July First.

Monday, June 17, 2019

What's Your Book About, Anyway?

For me, part of the process of creating a novel involves committing to a specific storyline.  I've been mentally testing plot ideas for the better part of the last two months. Now, with just two weeks to go before the start of the July Camp NaNoWriMo writing marathon, I've finally settled upon the major plot elements: a heroine, a goal, a villain to stand in the way, a series of escalating crises, and a climactic denouement. Here's the synopsis.

Dr. Sarah Rebeccah Chomsky, accompanied only by her cat Elijah, arrives to assume her duties as Assistant Professor of History at Smoky Mountain State University at Birch Falls. She is excited and optimistic--determined to make a success of her new career. She harbors a romantic view of what a professor's office should look like--a Persian rug, a Tiffany lamp, an organized desk, shelves of wonderful books, and enough plants and tchotchkes to give it a personal touch. She envisions herself as an inspiration to her undergraduate students and a friend and colleague of her graduate students. Along the way, she might not even mind finding the answer to her mother's greatest wish--that Sarah might meet a "Nice Jewish Boy."

But one of those graduate students--Cassandra Jernigan McGehee--has other plans for her. As the youngest member of the graduate student cadre, she is determined to form an alliance with the newest faculty member and take over the department. Cassie's pushy personality soon takes on the characteristics of a stalker as she pursues her friendship with Sarah.

Then strange problems begin to crop up in the department--unwanted gifts, polarizing debates among the faculty and students, hate speech keyed into the car door of faculty members, unexpected illnesses and maladies, family problems, an April Fools prank that goes too far, and an unexplained poisoning.

As the problems increase in their intensity, the local police, represented by a definition-meeting "Nice Jewish Boy," will step in to hunt down the culprit, and Cassie is pushed to escalate her own attacks in response. Sarah's efforts to reach out to Cassie eventually uncover a diagnosis of a serious mental disorder, and the result is a life-threatening final confrontation.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

The Writer's Road

I suppose every writer has his or her own way of creating a new book.  I'm well aware that the weather affects my mood and therefore changes the way I write. After a soggy week of almost constant rain, flash flooding, and four-hour lightning and thunder barrages, I'm happy to report that the sun is shining brightly at my house. My porch flowers are lifting their soggy heads in delight, and two industrious spiders are creating new webs among my chive blossoms. The cats have curled up to nap in the sun puddles, while a neighborhood pooch is cavorting in leashed circles in the open area next door. All is apparently well in my world, and I was eager to get to work this morning.

Or so you might assume until you happen to stumble upon one of my workspaces--either mental ones or the physical desktops. I keep my Scrivener files on a new and powerful laptop computer out on my veranda, where I am surrounded with creature comforts--soft pillows, snacks, and three walls of windows looking out onto groves of cedar trees.  In that setting, I trust my words to flow, but this morning I find myself elsewhere.

For reasons too complicated to explain coherently, I do most of my internet research on an old desktop computer in my office. Here I'm surrounded by books, old notebooks, former tchotchkes that kept me on point with my historical period--everything from a jester's head on a feathered stick to a threatening gargoyle, a miniature civil war cannon, and a slave doll. My notes? On whatever scraps of paper come to hand. And my research topics? Also, purely random questions I need to answer.

What was the poison used on the pages of a forbidden book in "The Name of the Rose?" (Paris Green, aka arsenic) What herbs can be used to produce inching powder? (Dried baby's breath? Rose hips? Who knew!) Which order of nuns was most active in the United States after the Civil War? What facilities does a Veterinarian School need to have? What foods are traditionally served (or forbidden) on Jewish holidays? How does one address a rooky cop?

Recently an internet "factoid" has circulated, warning that people who drink their coffee black are most likely to have psychopathic tendencies. It's a silly idea, but there may be a germ of truth in it. As my mind jumps from one question to another, so does my focus. Heaven forbid anyone should explore my office, check my caches, or trace my browsing history!  The evidence of old coffee mugs with traces of some oily black potion would combine with the subject of my internet searches to condemn me for sure.

Nevertheless, I love this stage of creating a new book. A friend warned me yesterday that I was having entirely too much fun! So I am. The road a writer travels is a complicated one, and I wouldn't miss a single one of its crazy twists and turns.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

OK, Fine! I'll Go Camping!

It's summer, and I'm thinking of signing up for camp. No, not like the one in this picture. And not like the grubby, itch-inducing, week of torment I suffered through as a kid, either. Instead, I'm dithering over my annual invitation to sign up for the NaNoWriMo-sponsored July writing camp.  For those of you who have not heard of NaNoWriMo, it's not a fake Indian name, but rather the abbreviated form of "National Novel-Writing Month."

The original NaNo always took place in November, and what a terrible idea that was! November is arguably the worst time of the year to ask writers to put aside their other duties every day and pound out 1667 words of a new novel. Do that, the promoters argued, and by the end of the month, you will have written your novel--all 50,000 words of it. Don't think about it, don't read what you've written, don't go back and correct the typos--just write your heart out. That formula pretty much guarantees that at least half your words will be sheer gibberish. And even if what you have written makes sense, 50,000 words will not give you much of a fleshed-out novel. You'll need at least 25,000 words more, and maybe as many as another 50,000. Now add in the other distractions of November--there's Thanksgiving, Christmas shopping, the first snowfall, football games, and the run-up to final exams week. I've tried to do the November exercise, but I usually fail--spectacularly!

With those truths in mind, the NaNo sponsors came up with a couple of new ideas--do an abbreviated "camp"--one in April, another in July. I'm not a big fan of writing in April either. That's often the month I've just finished publishing my latest book and have sworn off writing for life. But July tempts me. It's too hot to be outside, most friends are off on vacation somewhere, and the tasks of September are still far off. To sweeten the deal, writers can choose their own word-count goals and share their writing problems with a small group of like-minded fellow campers--groups of 20 or so who share a virtual "cabin" and cheer each other on. Silly as it sounds, it works!

So once again, I'm seriously considering joining the effort this year. I started by looking at the picture above. Turns out I already have much of this scenery waiting for me. Somewhere, in another part of the house, there's a big, soft, comfy bed awaiting me. I have the rocking chair (two of them, in fact) to let me ponder and hatch some new ideas. My house sits in a grove of trees --not a forest, by any means, but enough to give me that isolated feeling. I have the soft lighting, the foot-cushioning rug, the desk, and the bottle of wine you can see on the table on the left. The clock is ticking and the candle burning down--both telling me it's time to get back to work.

But it's going to take more than an idyllic setting to jump-start a new novel. In the next few days, I'll be thinking about those requirements. What other preparations do I need? If you're a writer, what props do you need for motivation? Send suggestions, please, and then stay tuned for final decision time. (Note: the "Comments" function is open.)

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

So, What's Next?

I've spent most of the month of May vacillating between two very different story ideas for my next writing project. Should I venture off on a new tangent, leaving the Civil War behind and experimenting with a little cozy mystery/romance genre? Or should I respond to the request of a few readers of "Henrietta's Legacy" for Book Three, rounding out the story of what happens to the three Beauchene sisters?

I confess to being tired of South Carolina and the Civil War. I've been writing about them since 2005, and I'm running out of new ideas. There's safety in the familiar theme, of course, but also a risk of repeating myself and boring the daylights out of my readers. I have a good idea of what happens to the Beauchene family and their business after the war. I've covered most of the build-up and collapse of Reconstruction already in the Grenville Chronicles. The impact of Rachel's decision to stay in England will take her off on a different, though not happier, trajectory. Neither her desire to connect with a newly-located mother nor England's ventures as an imperial power promise successful resolutions. The over-riding problem with a "Book Three," however, is that I cannot see a way to weave a coherent and unified storyline out of those separate historical strands.

The much more tempting idea is one that I've been shoving to the back of my imagination for several years. If it is true that an author should write about what she knows, then I have a rich store of memories of what goes on within the walls of a graduate department or behind the fences of a small college campus. Oh, and the characters are so tempting! Graduate students and their professors tend to have certain quirky characteristics in common. Most are highly intelligent, more than slightly compulsive, and ambitious over-achievers. Toss in just a touch of jealousy, paranoia, and irrationality, along with a phobia or two. Put those characters together in a small space, add a bit of pressure, and they are likely to implode all over one another. Delusions, sabotage, and attempted murder are not out of the question.

I guess it's pretty obvious which way I'm leaning.

Monday, May 27, 2019

My Writing Life as Calendar Pages

I’m still trying to figure out a new breakdown of the seasons—one that will add some semblance of order to the way I approach writing a new book.  Here’s how I see my life at the moment (as revised from a couple of years ago.)


My new year (at least this year) starts with “Emergence,” during March/April/May. It's a period of new beginnings, of breaking out--triggered, perhaps by the swelling of tree-leaf buds that gives the bare branches a tinge of green. Maybe (as in spring) there's a daffodil poking up through the cold mulch or a single confused flower on my azalea. More importantly for me, there's a stirring of ideas, a shaking off of the past, an eagerness to start something new. During these past three months, I put the finishing touches on “Henrietta’s Legacy, which came out in mid-April, but those were simply details, cosmetic changes. The more important stuff has been going on in my imagination.  I’ve been planning, plotting, drawing story arcs, doing character sketches--all the first steps in creating a new book. (But more of that later.)


Now comes my season of "Implementation"—June /July/August.  Normal people would call it summer. My birthday falls in May, which always gives me a feeling of "OK, another year--here I come!" And then I'm ready to work hard. I've never been much of a summer person. I'm not a swimmer, I hate bugs, and I burn before I tan. So traditional summer will find me indoors, enjoying the air-conditioning, and eagerly pursuing my favorite pastimes of reading, researching, and intensive writing.  By the end of the season, I may be indulging in a Camp NaNoWriMo writing challenge, pounding out the first draft of a new novel.


My third season is "Fruition"—September/October/November--when I set firm deadlines to finish up my current project. I'm one of that weird bunch of people for whom September used to mean the start of the year. We're mostly academics, I suppose, our lives attuned to the start of a school year. There may be a few witches among us--those for whom harvest festivals and Halloween have special significance. And maybe some of us fall into both categories. (No one I know, of course, although a new character may fall into that category!) I still love September, when there's just a touch of crispness to the morning air, when trees start to put on their red and gold show, when gardens no longer need tending, and harvests load us up with delicious and healthy crops. I’m now ready to harvest those ideas that started to form in March and have been growing ever since. My daily planner will include several major goals, most of them involving book publication—editing, re-writing, polishing, and formatting the book I’ve been writing.


And then I head into the fourth period--"Hibernation"--covering the worst cold days of the year-- December/January/February. These three months are always the most difficult for me because of their emphasis on family and celebrations, while I am distracted by empty dinner tables, missing family members, and the anniversaries of some of the most difficult times of my life. But I will also enjoy the days when dusk falls very early and I can close the shutters and light the fireplace. There is a peace in solitude that allows deep breaths, a straightening spine, and hope for better days to come. Contrary to popular opinion, real hibernation involves much more than sleep. For a writer, it’s a period of drudgery—of reading the final versions of a manuscript over and over again. But it’s also a period of evaluation, self-reflection, and a marshaling of resources, a necessary period of hatching and rejuvenation for new projects to come.

So, there’s my rough schedule for the months that lie ahead. In the next few days, I intend to lay out my specific plans. Stick around and you’ll find out where my next efforts are leading me.