I’ve decided to start my monthly newsletter in earnest … just as soon as I figure out the proper format for it! Writers newsletters in general can be rather boring, so I’m trying to make mine brief and interesting. I’ll be including a very short story in each of them – 200 words or less. Readers are welcome to submit prompts for the following newsletter’s story.
Intrigued? Well, of course you are!
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People are sometimes surprised to find out that I never studied writing formally. Instead, I majored in history – both for my undergraduate and graduate degrees. Why? Because history is nothing but stories. And you know the saying: truth is stranger than fiction.
So it is that while researching mountain men for one of my freelance projects I came upon the story of an amazing woman in the Old West: Stagecoach Mary. This 6 foot tall, 200-lb woman picked up and moved into Montana at the age of 52 years. There, she first worked for the Jesuits and next for a convent, where she chopped wood, dug holes, tended as many as 400 chickens, and grew vegetables for the nuns. Though she was devoted to the nuns and their Indian students at the mission, she was well known to have “the temperament of a grizzly bear.” She smoked, swore, and engaged in rounds of fisticuffs with her fellow hired hands. These behaviors got her banned from the mission in 1884 despite the protestations of the nuns.
Yes, indeed, Stagecoach Mary could kick ass and take names with the best of them. She smoked homemade cigars and was once attacked by wolves while alone on the prairie. I guess you know who got the bad end of that deal. After the nun debacle she tried to run a couple of restaurants, but because she kept giving meals to the down and out, she couldn’t make a go of it. In 1895, at the age of 63, she got a job delivering mail for the post office. As a job interview she and a dozen young cowboys had to hitch a team of six horses to a stagecoach as quickly as possible. She won to become the second woman – and the first black person – to manage a mail route. For eight years she carried mail back and forth to Montana pioneers. With the help of her mule, Moses, she braved icy blizzards and heat waves in the remote land.
Stagecoach Mary, also known as Black Mary, was christened Mary Fields when she was born into slavery in 1832, in Hickman County, Tennessee. After the Civil War guaranteed her freedom, she worked for a time as a chambermaid on a steamboat named the Robert E. Lee. She witnessed the steamer’s race against Steamboat Bill’s Natchez in 1870. During the race, the men tossed anything they could get their hands on into the boiler – from barrels of resin to slabs of ham and bacon. Other men sat on the relief valves in order to increase the steam pressure.
At 71, she gave up her postal route to run a laundry – and famously punched out a customer who hadn’t paid up the $2 he owed her. Reportedly, she spent more time drinking whiskey and smoking cigars than washing clothes. So she took up babysitting the local kids. One of those local kids was actor Gary Cooper, who visited her hometown of Cascade, Montana from nearby Dearborn. He wrote a story about her for Ebony magazine in 1959.
The only black resident of Cascade, she had plenty of friends in the townfolk. One was Kirk Huntley, who, when he sold his hotel in 1910, stipulated that she was to be offered all the meals she wanted free of charge. Her house burned down in 1912 and the town pitched in to build her a new one. She was also a baseball fan who sponsored the Cascade baseball team and made sure that each player had buttonhole bouquets of flowers from her garden.
At the age of 82 she grew ill, and stole away to die in the tall grass near her home. But children who she had babysat found her and she was spirited off to the hospital in Great Falls, where she died a few days later, in 1914.
If I had unlimited time, I would probably spend several hours a day, every day, learning Latin and perusing old newspaper articles. Alas, I do not have unlimited time, but in my research for various fiction and nonfiction projects I do come across some interesting bits now and again. You may recall my rampaging monkey post. This is another post in the same vein.
First we will start with the wild. Bears! I do believe this has the makings of an American nursery tale.
Goodness gracious, great balls of fire! Hyenas can be pretty dangerous, too.
Dogs in danger always pulls at the heartstrings! It seems that Jack London’s Call of the Wild may have inspired some unsavory people:
And last, but not least, apparently dogs have been accompanying folks on car rides for quite some time.
You will notice that these articles are from around the turn of the 20th century. That’s the setting of my latest project, a quirky romance between a dog musher/postman and a bicycle-riding pastor in 1911 Alaska. Check out my newsletter to keep apprised of its progress and to read free flash fiction while you are at it.
When I began my master’s degree program in history I quickly discovered that the ancient history professor believed in books. He taught all the best classes–ancient history was my primary interest–and so I saw a lot of him. He would routinely assign twenty books per semester-long class. We would then discuss the ideas and approaches the writers took. He also said that you cannot really understand a civilization without two things: knowing their language, and reading their stories.Language wasn’t my strength. But books? Yes, I could get behind that.
We read Gilgamesh when we studied the ancient Mesopotamian hero, and parts of the Bible, and Greek poetry, and Roman plays. He told us the story of the Roman Triumph, when a victorious general, at the height of his glory and manliness, would ride a chariot through the streets of Rome with the crowd lining the streets in adoration. Occupying the chariot next to him was a slave, who held a gold crown above his head. He would also whisper in the general’s ear, “Remember, you are mortal.”
There is a time for life, and glory, and triumph. And there is a time for death. Medieval people knew this as well, surrounded by death as they were, from plagues and accidents and wars. They would often show a skull in art, a memento mori. A reminder of death.
A popular poem during this age was “Erthe upon Erthe”, written in Middle English. It was often inscribed on the front or back pages of books.
Earth has been miraculously created out of earth Earth has attained a high position on earth out of nothing Earth has fixed all his thoughts On trying to raise earth to heaven on earth
Earth wants to be an earthly king But earth doesn’t have a clue how on earth to go about it When earth breeds earth and brings his reward home Earth and earth will have to bid each other a tragic farewell
Remember, o man, that you are ashes And into ashes you will return
Earth conquers castles and towers on earth Then says earth to the earth, “All of this belongs to us” When earth has built up his defences on earth That is when earth will really get his come-uppance from earth
Earth is piled up on earth like dirt on dirt He who swans around the earth, glittering like gold As though earth won’t really have to return to earth Will soon find earth indeed becoming earth again, no matter how much he tries to fight it
I really wonder why earth loves earth Or why earth should toil and work for earth’s sake Because when earth is brought to the earth of his grave Earth back in the earth will stink to high heaven
In Middle English:
Erthe out of erthe is wonderly wroghte Erthe hase geten one erthe a dignite of noghte Erthe upon erthe hase sett alle his thoghte How that erthe upon erthe may be heghe broghte
Erthe upon erthe wolde be a kinge Bot how erthe to erthe shall thinkes he no thinge When erthe bredes erthe and his rentes home bringe Thane shall erthe of erthe have full harde parting
Memento, homo, quad cinis es Et in cenerem reverteris
Erthe upon erthe winnes castells and towrres Thane sayse erthe unto erthe, “This es al ourres” When erthe upon erthe has bigged up his barres Thane shall erthe for erthe suffere sharpe scowrres
Erthe goes upon erthe as molde upon molde He that gose upon erthe, gleterande as golde Like erthe never more go to erthe sholde And yitt shall erthe unto erthe ga rathere than he wolde
Whye erthe lurves erthe, wondere me thinke Or why erthe for erthe sholde other swete or swinke For when erthe upon erthe has broughte within brinke Thane shall erthe of erthe have a foul stinke
You can see from this poem that memento mori was on the anonymous author’s mind. To dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.
We no longer put such morbid thoughts in our book dedications, instead choosing to honor loved ones or mentors. Perhaps, though, we should remember, like that Roman general of old, that one day we, too, will be gone. I try to do so in order to keep from being lulled into the complacence that everyday life brings. It reminds me to work, to create, to write while I still can. Memento mori.
My mom passed away last February, old and full of years, as the Bible says. With her passed a bygone era, at least for me: farm life in rural Pennsylvania. From a family of Mennonites, frugality, simplicity, and family were the paramount values. She carried these with her whole life, as well as other things.
Yes, I said it. I love my mother dearly (I can’t use the past tense because I still love her even though she’s gone) but she did tend to keep things way too long. Going through her stuff is a lengthy process that involves much head-shaking. Why did you keep this 1980’s era badge from when you worked in a convenience store, mom? Why did you keep every piece of crappy jewelry I had as a teenager – even when it was broken or missing pieces (one earring)? Just … why?
I think the answer lies in the “frugality” I mentioned above. Born in the late ’30s, she came into an America still in the grips of the Great Depression, when jobs were as scarce as consumer goods. Her frugality would be considered poverty today. And as anyone who has struggled with it knows, it leaves scars. And also thrifty habits. Believe me, I am grateful for learning how to get a dollar’s worth at the store. I’m also grateful for the memories of button boxes, homemade clothes, and the do-it-yourself ethos. Reusing the old green toilet cover as landscaping did seem to be taking it a bit too far, though.
Anyhow, along with the junk she also kept lots and lots of pictures, slides, and cards. I came across these lovely 1920s postcards during my search, some which were sent by my grandfather, who passed away in the ’70s. We live in a much different world today when it comes to travel. I’ve crisscrossed the country several times and flown all over the world. But up until the interstate system came into being in 1956 (and not completed for 35 years) it was a royal pain to go any distance. And of course the vehicles were not so comfortable and quick-moving. You can get a good sense of the difficulties and challenges involved in Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck’s cross-country travel memoir.
It was a real thrill to go somewhere different. Like Virginia:
Where you could see all manner of things, which fold out accordion-style, like this image of Monticello:
Or the Hudson River:
Photos within this package (look close for the old-timey cars):
And, a world away from small-town Pennsylvania, Chicago:
So many sights to see, there! Why, sailboats, even:
There’s more, but these are the most fascinating to me, history-lover that I am. My latest fiction project takes place in 1911 America, so finding these was particularly relevant.
Like most fiction writers, I have a day job. Mine happens to be as a writer. Of nonfiction for kids. What can be better than to research, write, and edit nonfiction for kids? Especially when my writing projects are historical. Let me tell you, it beats my past jobs with a stick: project manager, administrative analyst, administrative coordinator, accounts payable clerk, and some others that have faded into the past like a rancid odor.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for the ability to support myself and my family at past jobs, but they’ve all been stepping stones to where I am today. Which is in my home office with my dogs all around me, my hair in disarray, dressed in yoga pants and sweatshirts, and wearing away at the paint on my computer keyboard.
It’s glamorous, all right.
I’m a freelancer and happy with the independence it brings me. Sure, there are downsides, too, but I can’t see myself headed back into an office environment any time soon. Or any time at all.
Last year I wrote a fun historical book on Francisco Vázquez de Coronado (2017 publication date). He’s that failure of a 16th century explorer who set off to find the Seven Cities of Gold. That didn’t exist. But at least he had fun along the way, leading a motley crew of soldiers and missionaries across the broiling hot deserts of northern Mexico and southern Arizona. They stumped across rocky defiles and cactus-choked deer paths in their heavy plate metal armor (which they evidently scattered here and there, to the delight of archaeologists), and abused American Indians at every opportunity. You see, if Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro could overtake gold-rich Central and South American civilizations, then certainly Coronado could too. When he heard the “credible” tales of the Seven Cities of Gold that lay north of Mexico from a wily and perhaps demented friar, Marcos de Niza, he seized upon them.
Perhaps Coronado should have fact-checked de Niza’s reports a little closer. Because he and his men traveled hundreds of miles north, then east, then north again, following rumors and pipe dreams. They crossed from Arizona to New Mexico, into Texas, the Oklahoma panhandle, and finally central Kansas. Poor Indian villages were all they found, no wealth other than the clear air and endless grasslands.
The revelation that de Niza lied about these gold and jewel-bedecked cities deterred the group only temporarily. The hints and lies of another man, an Indian slave nicknamed The Turk, kept them traveling on into Kansas. The Turk hoped that a local tribe would slaughter them. Alas, The Turk ended up being the one slaughtered when his deception was uncovered. At last, Coronado determined to turn back, but he would have gone on if his men and the Spanish government would have given him more support. He and his men slunk back to Mexico in disgrace. He did not receive the riches and fame he sought, but he did penetrate a previously unknown land and pave the way for later explorers and settlers.
The Spanish left behind horses, which the Indians bred and used to legendary utility. Before the coming of the Spanish, Indians only had dogs as pack animals. They also left behind diseases that the biologically separate Americans had no natural immunity to. Such began the Indian’s long decline and eventual near-extinction.
You can still hear echoes of long-ago drumbeats and see the crumbled remains of Indian dwelling places on the Coronado Trail Scenic Byway, a stretch of narrow, winding highway in eastern Arizona. This section of US Route 191 is said to have 460 curves, which make it “exciting” or “terrifying” depending on your perspective. Perhaps you, like me, find yourself drawn to remote historical adventures, though, and if so you may enjoy the 120-mile drive.
I just hope that my own life’s adventures do not end in infamy like Coronado’s.
Recently, I had one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. A transcendent, awe-inspiring, utterly magnificent experience.
No, not that kind of orgy, you naughty thing. Rather, an orgy of artistic and historic wonder. A plethora of beauty and splendor as can only be seen in Italy. Rome, in particular. My husband and I celebrated a significant anniversary in La Bella Italia. We’d been a number of years ago, but it is Italy – one could spend years discovering its treasures. More than 2,000 years of history leaves lots of remnants behind. During this trip we concentrated on places and experiences we had missed during the last one. So we visited innumerable churches, cathedrals, quaint hilltop villages, and packed-to-the-gills museums.
One church in Rome stands out among the others. It lacks the gold- and jewel-bedecked opulence of others such as St. John Lateran or St. Peter’s Basilica, but has something in abundance that the others lack: mystery.
Here it is, the Basilica of San Clemente, a rather non-descript spot, though quintessential what with the cigarette-smoking Italian out front. It sits near the Colosseum.
Inside this 12th century church you will find incredible mosaics well worth a visit. The Official Site provides a virtual tour.This drawing gives you an idea of its insides.
In 392 AD, St. Jerome spoke of a church in Rome that preserved St. Clemente’s memory, and this was thought to be that church. In 1857, Father Joseph Mullooly decided to see whether that was true. Down he dug, and was rewarded greatly for his efforts. He discovered the original basilica underneath the current church.
Statues, marble columns, Roman brickwork, fantastic frescoes, and a bubbling spring were all revealed to him.
But. What if? What if there was something beneath this lovely original basilica? The digging began again. And again, the effort was rewarded. This time with a 1st century sanctuary to Mithras, a mystery cult, about which little is known.
Here you will find a plainer, more ancient structure, with close hallways and small rooms, arches, and concrete. And that spring, bubbling and cascading, refreshing. Before it was a sanctuary, the structure is thought to have been a private home, or perhaps a mint.
Down, down, down. Modern-day Rome bustles on the surface of the city, and rises into the blue Italian sky. But, oh, what lies underneath it all. Much more just waiting to be discovered.
This post lacks images, I know, partly due to a lack on my part to find decent ones of the magnificent mosaics, and part of which because the church prohibits photography in the lower reaches. But there is one remedy for that, dear reader.
Visit Rome yourself. The Eternal City beckons. Will you heed the call? I have done so long before actually physically going there, through reading and writing. Such influences saturate my fiction, in some pieces more than others.
Yes, I am resurrecting my blog from the dead. Lazarus, come forth! I am not so sure about this header photo, but it is a bit quirky and has books on it. Plus it gives the illusion that I look like the woman on the bed, which I most assuredly do not.
I have decided to change the focus of my blog from an unfocused mishmash of travel posts and writing/marketing ideas to something near and dear to my writer’s heart:
Ah, research. I could spend my life on you if I had all the time in the world. Now, on the face of things you might be saying, “How boring!” But, my friend, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Case in point being this article from the June 15, 1908 edition of Perth, Australia’s The Daily News:
Now don’t tell me that rampaging monkeys released by a baboon and subdued by alcohol doesn’t give you a chuckle.
I came across this while browsing for material about my latest Work-in-Progress, an early 20th century gay romance set in remote Alaska.
Stay tuned every Monday for something equally enthralling. Err … I hope!
1. Bede is known as the ‘Father of English History’. Bede, also known as Saint Bede and as the Venerable Bede, was born in around 672 and died in 735. Bede’s great work is Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, or History of the English Church and People, which he completed in 731. The book charts the establishment of Christianity in the British Isles, particularly in England. In 1899, Bede became the only English-born person to be recognised as a Doctor of the Church.
2. However, Bede wrote around 60 other books in addition to his History. What’s even more remarkable, given the Vikings raids on the British Isles which followed shortly after Bede’s death, most of his books have survived.