Research: Would She Say That in 1877?

Yesterday morning West Houston RWA enjoyed a terrific presentation on research, given by our own Deeanne Gist.  Dee spends an impressive five months on research before she begins to write a novel, and not just for her American-set historical tales.  Even her contemporary romantic suspense novel (Beguiled, written with J. Mark Bertrand) required detailed research on its Charleston setting).

It Happened at the FairDee brought along samples of her research material for her upcoming release, It Happened at the Fair, set at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and available April 30.  For this novel Dee accumulated numerous spiral binders of newspaper clippings and first person accounts of the Fair, as well as an enormous, disintegrating “Book of the Fair” she found on EBay, full of contemporary descriptions and photographs.

One of our chapter members asked Dee how she tracked down colloquial expressions appropriate for her characters, setting, and time period, and Dee laughed and said she bought every book on slang she came across.

I know my personal library doesn’t rival Dee’s, but I’ve written historical fiction, and I have shelves of research books on a wide variety of nineteenth century Americana, including several on language and slang.  My favorites are three volumes by the late Stuart Berg Flexner, not least because they are the sort of books one can open at random and be pulled into an hour of happy browsing.

Even the titles are tempting to a word nerd like me.  I Hear America Talking, An Illustrated Treasury of American Words and Phrases, was published in 1976.  Listening To America, An Illustrated History of Words and Phrases from our Lively and Splendid Past followed in 1982.  Speaking Freely: A Guided Tour of American English from Plymouth Rock to Silicon Valley, published in 1997 and edited by Anne H. Soukhanov (Flexner died in 1990) combines material from the earlier books with updates and additions.  All three appear to be out of print, but thanks to Internet sources like Amazon and, this no longer means unavailable.  The books are excellent resources for writers and great fun for readers.  They cover, with colorful phrases, historical vignettes, and (important to writers) dates, topics from religion to sex, business to sports, food to technology.  With indices, illustrations, and quotations.

Opening I Hear America Talking at random, I find on page 71 that “Canoes and Cannibals were two concepts Columbus and his men brought back to Europe from the West Indies (they also brought back syphilis, but that’s another story).”  On page 208, I learn that “gravy train” dates from the 1940s but came from the earlier (1910) use of “gravy” to mean profit or illegal gain through political conniving.  And on page 377 I see that “Zombi, often spelled zombie, was also now first recorded (in 1871) . . . Zombie was both the name of a snake god and of a spell that could animate a dead body.”

See what I mean?  I’d better put them back on the shelf right now, or I’ll get nothing else done this evening.

Party Season, and, of course, Books

I’ve been to three parties in the last week or so, more than I’ve been to in months; it’s the Christmas Party season.  One of the parties was actually a surprise birthday party, but part of the reason it was a surprise is that the victim–ahem, I mean guest of honor–was born on Christmas, not a good day for birthday parties.  So that lovely gathering was sort of a not-Christmas Party.

The other two were the annual Christmas parties for my two local RWA chapters.  For years we have played the White Elephant game at these parties, the game in which players steal increasingly strange presents from one another.  Frankly, it’s not a game I enjoy, and I’ve brought home enough ugly, tacky, and/or totally useless “gifts” over the years to last me a lifetime.  So when one of our group suggested we swap books instead of elephants this year, I was delighted when both chapters voted to try the change.

The plan was simple:  bring a book you’d like to share (or possibly get rid of), a novel you love, a writing book you’ve found useful, a strange book you don’t know what else to do with, etc.  The only rule was: not a book you wrote yourself.

Between the two parties (the membership of the chapters overlaps, so several of us attended both) we saw quite a range of books.  The big hit at West Houston RWA was Fifty Shades of Chicken, a rather unusual cookbook  (you can watch the hilarious book trailer here at Amazon).  Three copies turned up (the only duplicates at the party) and they were much in demand.  If we didn’t limit steals to two per book, the game might have gone on for hours.  One copy of Fifty Shades of Grey turned up at the Houston Bay Area RWA party; it wasn’t stolen at all.  The game produced a lot of fun and laughter at both parties, and I hope it will continue.

I decided to take novels I have loved, and I bought copies at Half Price Books for the parties because I would never give away my own copies.  In fact I took two to the West Houston party: one was an old favorite, one relatively new.

The older novel, written in 1949, was George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, a post-apocalyptic novel set after a mysterious disease has wiped out most of the human race.  Stewart was a scholar (I have two of his books on American place names and given names on my research shelf) and he wrote other novels, but Earth Abides is the one still being reprinted.  I haven’t read it in thirty years or so–finding a recent reprint only made me want to read it again.

The recent favorite was Farthing, the first in a trilogy by Jo Walton, published in 2006.  Farthing is one of those rare books that simply blew me away when I read it, and it’s always hard to explain that phenomenon.  Set in the 1940s in a Nazi-flavored Britain, it combines a house party murder mystery with solid alternate history.  The three books in the trilogy (I have also read Ha’Penny, but I’ve been saving Half A Crown until I have time to reread the first two) are tied together by the Scotland Yard inspector who solves cases while keeping a very dangerous secret of his own.

To the Houston Bay Area party, I took a copy of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, a collection of beautifully written short stories that any writer should enjoy, and a book I have always loved.

You may have noticed that I took three speculative fiction novels to share with my fellow romance writers, but then I’ve always read widely myself, and I think that’s a good plan for any writer.  Right now, though, it’s getting late, and I think I’ll go to bed with a good romance novel.


Happy Thanksgiving

I spent a pleasant afternoon with my neighbor, her daughter, and some friends at the Thanksgiving buffet at Moody Gardens down in Galveston.  It was a nice day for a drive, the food and the company were good, and there was no cooking, cleaning, or football involved.  (We might have been seated a trifle too close to the singing piano player and his repertoire of early Christmas carols, but he wasn’t bad, just a bit loud.)

I was particularly impressed with the display at the head of the buffet.  I wonder where one goes to learn the art of fruit carving?  Amazing what an artist can do with a watermelon, and I don’t even know what the birds are made of.  I think the flowers are mostly melon.

I’m working a short day tomorrow, avoiding the Black Friday sales, stopping by to see a friend who’s stuck in the hospital over the holiday.  Last year at this time I was writing furiously to finish a manuscript by the Golden Heart deadline.  That turned out to be well worth the effort, as Bathtub Jinn was a Golden Heart finalist.  This year I don’t have a new manuscript to finish, but I think I’ll enter the one I’m revising.  The deadline dates have changed, though, so I’m not tied to my computer chair for the rest of the holiday weekend.  I may even find time to read.

Today (and every day, I hope) I’m thankful for my health, my home, and my friends, so many of whom I have met through writing (my next-thing-to-a-sister, Jo Anne Banker, and my critique group, Barbara Ewing, Carl Miller, Charles Russell, and Jim Stanton)  and through Romance Writers of America (the members of my local chapters, West Houston and Houston Bay Area, and my Golden Heart sisters, the Starcatcher, the Firebirds, and the Golden Network).

Here’s wishing a happy holiday season to everyone.

As the Hurricane Lily Opens

It was still dark when I went out to retrieve my newspaper this morning.  I was leaving early to meet friends for the drive to our monthly West Houston RWA chapter meeting, about forty miles from my home, and I didn’t have time for my usual morning walk.  So I didn’t get a good look at my hurricane lily until I got home this afternoon.  It’s still the only flower, although a few other stems have popped up, and it’s now in full bloom.

This morning’s Houston Chronicle featured a timely article about three “naturalizing heirloom bulbs” that bloom in our area in September.  One of the three is my flower, Lycoris radiata, known as hurricane or red spider lily. The plant is a native of Asia, often found in abandoned landscapes, hardy and drought tolerant.  I had no idea that the lilies were not native to this area, since they’ve been here longer than I have, or that they would be considered heirloom plants. That’s a term usually applied to agricultural plants no longer grown commercially, and sometimes used, as in this case, for one-time landscape plants (heirloom roses, for example, are much prized) gone wild around old homestead sites.  Back when I was doing archeological survey work, I learned that such plants were sometimes all that remained of a long abandoned home place.

Near my advance scout I spotted a clump of bulbs.  I have a feeling they really shouldn’t be quite this close to the surface, but there they are.  I’ll keep an eye on this bunch to see if they sprout this year.  If they don’t, perhaps I’ll make a gardening effort in the spring.  The article suggests dividing mature bulbs (do I ask for proof of age?) in April or May and planting them in ground cover (I guess grass counts), in borders (I don’t have anything that formally landscaped) or even in pots (I could probably handle that–whether the lilies could is another question).

Meanwhile, weather widget on my computer screen says the temperature is down to 77 degrees a few miles from here at the nearest Weatherbug site, and predicts a low tonight of 68.  It hasn’t been that cool here in months.  That would mean perfect lawn-mowing weather tomorrow morning, but I’m going to wait another week, until the rest of the lilies come up.  It’s one thing to abuse the bulbs, but I don’t want to risk mowing down any low stems.

Couldn’t ask for a better excuse.


Catching Up

I’ve been home from the RWA Conference for almost three weeks, but I still feel like I’m trying to catch up–on sleep, at work, around the house.  Housekeeping is not my passion, but even I fall behind with a six-day absence.  I made a stab at catching up on writing, getting back on the “work every day” train, but I fell off that a couple of days ago.  I’ve gotten some rewriting done on the work-in-progress, but not as much as I’d like.

A couple of weeks ago I stopped at Office Depot for a box of my favorite pens, and noticed a rack of pocket-sized guide books, including Twitter for Dummies and Facebook for Dummies.  I’d been telling myself (for months now) that I’d look into more social media activities after the Conference, so I bought both books.  Twitter seemed simpler, and presented fewer privacy questions, so I spent part of a Sunday afternoon opening an account (@KayHudsonWriter).  I still don’t quite know what to make of it.

It didn’t take me long to decide that I did not want to follow any of the news sources Twitter had recommended during the sign-up process, and I unfollowed them before I could be swept away by the flood of tweets.  Instead I began following my writing friends–after all, they were the ones urging me to build a social media platform.  So I gradually added (I’m still working on this) friends from my local RWA chapters, West Houston and Houston Bay Area, and from my Golden Heart classes, the Firebirds and the Starcatchers, as well as a scattering of other writer friends.  That will probably total somewhere around two hundred women (I’m about halfway there), so it’s a good thing most of them don’t tweet a lot.  I seem to be averaging about two tweets a day myself.

The amount of trivia bouncing around the Twitterverse is amazing. with some folks seemingly throwing random thoughts out several times an hour.  Some are conducting conversations, some are promoting books (their own and others), some are telling jokes.  A lot of the friends I follow have followed me back, which is a nice friendly thing to do, but I’ve picked up other followers I don’t know at all.  They’re quite welcome, but I can’t help wondering how they found me.  Sometimes I feel like I’m eavesdropping, but I’ve also followed links and hashtags to some interesting articles, blogs, and web sites.

I’ve used the Twitter search function to look for some old friends from school and such, but haven’t turned anyone up yet.  Maybe they’re all hanging out on Facebook.  I did search for my own (very German) maiden name, expecting to find only a few people, one or two of them possibly my cousins.  I didn’t find anyone I recognized as a relative, but I was astonished to see far more people than I expected, many of them posting profiles in Portuguese.  Apparently I have a raft of (very distant) cousins in Brazil.  Who knew?

One of our Scorekeeper clients brought us flowers the other day, for no particular reason.  Mine are sitting on my coffee table, looking lovely.  I took pictures.  As you can see, I am still struggling with lighting.  Backgrounds that look perfectly well lit through the camera are much darker in the photograph.  Maybe because I’m fooling around with this indoors, and usually at night.  I’ll have to take some daylight shots of my horribly unkempt back yard, before I hire someone to clean it up.

I’ve been good (i.e. restrained) about buying books since I got home with two dozen or so from the Conference, so I was a bit puzzled the other night when I got one of those “your order” emails and couldn’t remember ordering anything.  Even more so when I opened the email and saw the title:  A Cat Was Involved.  I like cats, but I still couldn’t remember ordering anything.  When I checked my Amazon account, I discovered that I had preordered the short story by Spencer Quinn last May.  I’m a big fan of his Chet and Bernie mystery series, and this promises to be the story that Chet, the canine narrator of the novels, has been teasing us with, the tale of how he washed out of K-9 school and became Bernie’s partner in the Little Detective Agency.  The fifth book in the series, A Fistful of Collars, will be out next month.  Meanwhile, maybe this weekend I’ll find out exactly how that cat was involved.

RWA Conference: Thursday

On Thursday morning the Conference started in earnest, with half a dozen workshops to choose between in every time slot.  So where did I go first (after hitting the continental breakfast and chatting over coffee and muffins)?  Why, to the Book Fair, of course, where I bought three more books.  (Anyone who stops by here more than once a month knows how much I need more books.)

The first workshop I attended was a presentation by two authors and an editor from Sourcebooks on how sell the book you want to write, the first of many to include the pros and cons of digital self-publishing.  From there I went to a hour on “Writing Intimacy Across Genres,” both because the topic interests me and because three of the five presenters, Shana Galen (historical), Deeanne Gist (inspirational), and Sophie Jordan (young adult), are my chapter sisters from West Houston RWA.  I managed one more workshop before lunch, Voice Lessons: How to Pinpoint and Develop Your Voice, given by Darynda Jones and Liz Talley.  I love discussions of voice, as everyone (including me) attributes my wildly erratic contest results to a strong voice.  As good a reason as any, and more comforting than most.

At lunch, where I shared a table with old friends, new friends, and one three-month-old hero-in-training (the infant son of Firebird Liz Bemis), best-selling author Stephanie Laurens gave a keynote speech, “Weathering the Transition,” that truly struck the note of author power and publishing shift that carried throughout the Conference.  I’m not going to try to summarize it because you can read the whole thing (and see the illustrations) HERE on Stephanie’s web site.  Go read it.  Right now.  I’ll wait for you.

We were also treated to a preview of Love Between the Covers, a documentary film under construction (with a start-up grant from RWA) by The Popular Romance Project.  You can watch it yourself HERE.

By this time I already knew that not only was I unavoidably missing a lot of good workshops, even the ones I was attending were beginning to swim together in my fuzzy brain, so I stopped to order the Conference recordings, available every year from Bill Stephens Productions.  CDs containing the most popular workshops from the last two Conferences were also available at the booth, so I picked up one of each (haven’t had a chance to listen yet).

After one early afternoon workshop on using emotion in writing (Make ’em Cry, Make ’em Scream, Make ’em Laugh), I went to the Annual General Meeting of RWA, mostly because I’d never been to one, and because I’m a chapter president this year and felt I should have something I could report back to WHRWA.  The current membership of RWA is 10,051, making a quorum of only 10% a mere 1,005 members.  116 showed up.  Not the most popular event at the Conference.  Nothing was up for a vote this year, so the various board members (a very hard-working and under-appreciated team) cheerfully gave their reports.  There was, in fact, some interesting news, mostly of interest to RWA members, regarding changes in the Rita and Golden Heart contests, which has caused considerable discussion on various web sites and Yahoo loops.

After a pass through the Goody Room (where authors leave piles of promotional material, including free books, of which I picked up two more), I joined a group of Starcatchers at a very pleasant local Italian restaurant called Carolina’s for dinner and conversation.

Here are the books I brought back from the Conference.  The short stack I bought, but the books in the tall stack were freebies, in the tote bags, in the chairs at lunch, and in the Goody Room.  Talk about a Book Lover’s Heaven.  Some of the folks (local readers, I’m sure) left the Literacy Signing on Wednesday night with armloads of books they could barely see over.

See You Next Week!

I’m off to California in the morning, for the Romance Writers of America® National Conference in Anaheim.  I won’t have a laptop to use this year, so I won’t be reporting on my activities late at night, but I’ll tell you all about it next week.

I have more social activities than workshops planned this year, and maybe that’s what the conference is really for.  Last year I tried to go to as many presentations as possible, but this year I’m going to spend more time networking–and having fun.  I think I’ll order the recordings and listen to the workshops I don’t attend over the next few months.

Both the Firebirds (the 2012 Golden Heart® Finalists) and the Starcatchers (the GH Class of 2011) have plans to get together for meals (as do the other recent GH groups, I’m sure), and West Houston RWA is having Happy Hour before the awards ceremony Saturday night–our chapter has five RITA® nominees (for published works) as well as two GH finalists, and I think we’ll all be there.

I think I’m packed, but I haven’t locked up my luggage yet.  I have papers everywhere–reservations for airline flights, long term parking, and hotel room, my schedule from the Agenda Builder (very handy app) on the RWA website, invitations to a couple of parties, the schedule for the Golden Network retreat, the list of contents of the West Houston donation to the raffle at the Literacy Signing.  I hope I can remember where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to be doing at least half the time.

Nutmeg knows something is up, but I travel so infrequently that she’s not sure what it is.  Cats’ instincts run deep–the minute I opened a suitcase on my bed, there she was, trying to crawl into it.  What possible purpose does that mystical attraction between cats and luggage serve in the evolutionary scheme of things?


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