Carol Bodensteiner's Blog
March 11, 2014
Inner discourse. Deeper lives. To stay connected.
Why we read
11 Tuesday Mar 2014
A few months ago, my mother clipped an article out of the paper for me with the compelling title Why we (still) read. The author was Robert Fulford, a long-time and well known Canadian journalist.
Fullford discusses the benefits of reading and the way “books work on us”. Several bits stood out for me. The first is a quote taken from Mark Kingwell, a professor of philosophy:
…in reading books we construct our unique selves: “There is no self without reading.” Without the inner discourse that reading makes possible, self hardly exists.”
March 3, 2014
Software helps find repetition.
How to tell if you are using one word too much.
Posted by kaylacurry1 on February 24, 2014 in Writing
My upcoming novel, Where the Carnies Are is in the editing stage right now and I just ran it through a little test that helps me determine what words I used the most when I wrote it. I’m going to tell you exactly how to do that (for free!) in just a minute.
First, let’s talk about WHY it is important to do this to your manuscripts. When writing, you will often use the words you are most comfortable with. That isn’t a huge problem, but it might make you sound repetitive and boring. Let me give you an example….
February 26, 2014
Movies, reading & walking across Iowa uncover surprising connections.
Art and history, love and war intersect as I continue my virtual trek across Iowa.
There can’t be many who haven’t heard about the movie Monuments Men, George Clooney’s film about the men who set out to save art during WWII. Here in Iowa, we’re getting special insight because the real Monuments Man, the man on whom the movie is based – George Leslie Stout – was born and grew up in Winterset, Iowa, and later graduated from the University of Iowa.
I’ve looked ahead as I continue my walk across Iowa, looking for just the right point to cross Interstate 80. (As though that would be really hard in my virtual world.) Nonetheless, when I realized I could pass through Winterset before heading north to cross the Interstate barrier, I thought why not?
As I head toward Winterset, I’m enjoying other military history as I walk along the Red Bull Highway. The 34th Infantry Division of the Army National Guard, made up of military primarily from Iowa and Minnesota, served in World War I, World War II, Iraq and Afghanistan. The insignia of the division is a Red Bull designed by Iowa artist Marvin Cone.
As I look back on the titles that have passed through my hands this month, the overriding question is, What does it mean to love? Appropriate, don’t you think, since this is February, the month of love?
Setting the stage is a non-fiction work, The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm. A psychologist, Fromm explores love and loving in 120 pages packed with explorations of love in all its forms – parents for children, brotherly love, erotic love, self-love and love of God.
Fromm proposes that true love holds four elements in common: care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge. The other books I read – both fiction and non-fiction – show how difficult it is to find true love,
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn – This seriously disturbing novel explores the idea that “Marriage can be a real killer.” In alternating chapters, we come to know the husband in real time and the wife through her diary entries. Did he kill her or was she kidnapped and murdered? The tension in this novel is palpable and all of us can only pray we do not encounter a love like theirs.
Safe Keeping by Barbara Taylor Sissel - “My son is a murderer,” begins this family drama. Emily tries to say these words about the son who has given their family so much heartache. But she doesn’t believe it. Her mother love could never believe it. They just have to prove it. Sissel draws characters with depth and a plot with complexity. She is a master at dropping clues that inform and confound. Her cliff-hanger chapter endings compel you to keep reading. (I was fortunate to receive an advance review copy. The novel is due out in late March.)
Twelves Years a Slave by Soloman Northrup – I have yet to see the movie and I grabbed the e-book when it I saw it in a promotion. This first-person account of a free black man who is kidnapped and thrown into slavery causes one to despair of man’s inability to love his fellow man.
Late-breaking news (literally): I end this post abruptly because winter has taken its toll. I slipped on the ice and broke my wrist. As a result, I am reduced to typing with one finger, so my blog will be on hiatus for a few weeks. When I return, I trust spring will be here. In the meantime, happy reading and safe walking!
February 18, 2014
The famous cook’s experiences span the kitchen and publishing
Julia Child describes her book My Life in France as autobiographical stories of “the things she loved most in life,” – her husband, France, and the pleasures of cooking and eating. She does not mention writing.
Yet when I read this memoir Child wrote late in her life, in collaboration with Alex Prud’homme, I was struck by how much of Child’s life was spent writing, publishing, and promoting her now-famous cookbooks. I was also taken by how applicable her approach, even when she was talking about cooking, was to me as a writer.
Learn the craft. “Learn how to cook –try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!” – Julia never stopped learning about food, testing recipes, and enjoying every step along the way. She signed up for classes at the famous Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and continued to learn from chefs wherever she traveled and dined.
Writing workshops have sharpened my writing skills, introduced me to countless talented teachers and writers, provided constant inspiration. At some point, though, it’s time to stop going to class and start writing. Julia was tuned into that, too. She says of cooking: “The great lesson embedded in the book is that no one is born a great cook, one learns by doing.” So it is with writing.
Don’t give up – Because my own novel has taken five years to write, I was encouraged by Julia’s odyssey to write Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She began working on the 600-page manuscript her co-authors had compiled in 1952. In 1959 they submitted the manuscript (in its second, and “final,” iteration) to Houghton-Mifflin. Only to have The Book rejected.
Julia’s response? “We have only begun to fight.” With another publisher, a new editor who believed in the project, and yet another almost complete rewrite, The Book finally reached bookshelves in October 1961, and Julie and her co-authors came to view the rejection as a blessing.
Be open to input - Julia’s vision for The Book was far more grand than her publisher and editor believed could be successful. Julia’s first response was to reject the publisher’s opinion. She wrote a letter to that effect. The following day, she threw that letter away and wrote a letter agreeing to a more market-friendly version of The Book.
I’ve allowed myself a few nights of righteous indignation when comments have come in calling for significant rewrites. When I opened up to accept that the readers were right, I dove in to the rewrite. The result has always been better.
Build relationships – “The French are very sensitive to personal dynamics, and they believe that you must earn your rewards.” Julia espoused “the value of les human relations.” From fishwives to waiters to chefs to her writing partners, Julia took time to get to know people. Her interest was genuine, and those relationships paid off throughout her life.
As writers in 2014, we have far more opportunities through social media to be in contact with people. Social media takes a lot of time. But then what worthwhile relationship doesn’t?
Be bold. Promote. – “Knopf had agreed to take out a few advertisements, but most of the promotion job fell to us. I had no idea how to arrange for publicity, so I wrote friends in business and asked for advice.” Even a major publishing house did not provide much promotional support. So as all authors who hope to be successful must, Julia took hold of publicity herself.
Many authors find marketing to be the hardest part of writing. It is comforting, is it not, to find that even someone like Julia Child had to manager her own promotion?
Though I don’t have the passion for cooking, as I read My Life in France, I felt a genuine camaraderie with Julia as a writer. Her voice was so clear and so human. Her book both entertaining and encouraging.
Today I leave you with two thoughts from Julia that struck particularly close to my heart as I bring my novel Go Away Home to publication:
“Nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should. Good results require that one take time and care.”
“Alas, this book may not be as perfect as you might wish, ma cherie, but it will be finished.”
Ah, yes. Bon appetit!
February 11, 2014
Research indicates our brains edit the past to accommodate present views.
When we build a new memory, we gather little bits of information and store them together, say researchers at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Then, when we bring up an old memory, those bits of information are melded with new bits relevant to present life. The resulting “memory” may be far from the event that actually happened.
The research, shared in an article in USAToday this past weekend, makes me re-think the accuracy of memoirs.
When I wrote the stories of a happy childhood in my memoir GROWING UP COUNTRY, many of the memories were as clear in my mind as if the events had happened last week instead of fifty years ago.
Though I have no doubt my childhood was happy and I’m comfortable with that picture, another memoir I wrote but didn’t publish covers the years of my first marriage. My first marriage included plenty of happy times, but the memoir dealt with those times that were not.
When I began to write those stories, I couldn’t remember much at all. The process of pulling those memories out of the deep recesses of my mind was difficult and often painful.
I felt devastating conflict between what I remembered and the way I viewed myself. In the course of the writing and with the caring support of my writing partners, the memories – and perhaps more important – my interpretation of those memories, adapted.
According to the Northwestern researchers, the brain’s ability to edit to current circumstances may explain why we can be convinced something happened when it didn’t.
In writing about my first marriage, I came to realize that certain things that I was convinced had happened could not have. They were a logistical impossibility. Yet, I was as convinced that those stories were true as I am that my childhood was happy.
Our memories are “a record of our current view of the past,” says Donna Rose Addis of the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Addis suggests the Northwestern University research has implications for understanding imagination.
I would say so! As a writer, I recognize there are many “truths.” I realize that each of us gets to tell our own story, yet I feel an obligation to be as close to factual accuracy as I can when I write memoir.
With research like this shining a light on how the brain works, I am left to wonder: are the memories I’ve had stored in the dusty corners of my mind accurate? Are the adapted memories that emerged as I wrote accurate? Or have I simply created a memory I can live with today.
What do you think my friends? How accurate can our memories be? How accurate do you believe writers need to be?
February 4, 2014
Write a letter they’ll read after you’re gone.
In these days of electronic communication, fewer people put pen to paper. Gone are the days when everything from the mundane to the momentous made its way on to paper and into the mail. As a writer who’s mined hundred-year-old letters for insights into everyday life in the early 1900s, I lament the loss.
But letters are not completely gone, and some people are finding that letters can serve a deeper purpose.
A new Twitter friend, Debbie Gruber, brought my attention to the intriguing genre of posthumous letters — letters that carry very special messages intended to be read after the writer has passed away. I’ve invited her to tell us more.
Everything you always wanted to know about posthumous letters (but were afraid to ask) – by Debbie Gruber
It’s not creepy . . . really.
Just to give you some perspective, posthumous letters, also known as legacy letters or ethical wills, date back to biblical times. The Old Testament described them over 3000 years ago (Genesis Ch. 49) and references to this tradition are also found in the New Testament (John Ch. 15 – 19). In the Medieval 18th century, fathers wrote legacy letters to their sons, as did leaders to their followers. A critic at the time said these types of letters were often “intellectually poor, but of a high moral level.”
Today, examples of posthumous communications abound. One of my favorites is from Sherwood Schwartz, creator of “The Brady Bunch” and “Gilligan’s Island”, who wrote a farewell letter to his family and fans.
Even politicians have written posthumous letters. In 2009, Senator Ted Kennedy composed a letter to President Barack Obama with orders that it be delivered to the President on the occasion of the Senator’s death.
Because of technology, the possibilities for posthumous communication extend beyond pen and paper. We can leave behind an audio or video recording. This brings to mind Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture.” Randy Pausch was a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University who was diagnosed with incurable pancreatic cancer. In 2007, he delivered literally his last lecture, entitled “The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” The lecture, which he meant as a legacy for his kids, was devoured by the public, receiving over 16 million online views and spawning a New York Times best-seller.
For some of us, the word “posthumous” carries connotations that may make us uncomfortable. We envision morbid images – ghosts, graves, headstones, and the like. That’s how I used to feel. But one day, while contemplating a trip to Spain, that all changed.
As late-in-life parents of two teenaged boys, my husband and I were chomping at the bit to have a “parents only” vacation. I had always wanted to visit Spain. Traveling while our sons were at sleep-away camp seemed like the perfect opportunity for our getaway. We had left our kids before, but never for more than a few days, and never to travel overseas. As the trip approached, my anxiety grew.
Although excited about the prospect of a wonderful vacation, I felt increasingly uncomfortable about flying without my kids. I kept thinking . . . what if the plane crashes and I never see my children again? I realized my emotions were getting the best of me, but I couldn’t alleviate the anxiety that was gnawing at me.
That’s when it hit me . . . why not write them notes? This way, they’d have permanent keepsakes of my heart speaking to theirs. I found comfort in realizing that I could write notes. The process of writing the notes “sealed the deal.” If the unimaginable happened, my boys would have a permanent reminder of how much I love them and how they make my heart sing.
About a year later, I formed Heart Writing. My intent was to build a website where folks could create keepsake notes for their loved ones. As the business continues to take shape, I see that by writing notes, folks receive several benefits: peace of mind, a way to be remembered, and the assurance that loved ones always know how they feel. And, I hope that many years down the road, the “receivers” of these notes, the loved ones, will experience comfort and joy each and every time they read their notes.
A late-in-life, baby boomer mom. Debbie lives on the north shore of Long Island (no, unfortunately not the Hamptons) with her husband, two teenage boys, and her “furry child” Lucky (a good natured Havanese). Lucky is the only one of her children who doesn’t talk back and complain about stuff.
January 28, 2014
Dealing with homeless children 100 years ago
In the 1800s, boatloads of immigrants arrived in U.S. port cities. They came seeking the American dream; the reality they faced was often more a nightmare. Large families, poverty, and untimely deaths from childbirth or disease, left thousands of children on the streets. These children survived as pickpockets, beggars, or prostitutes. By the mid-1850s, it’s estimated that 30,000 children lived on New York streets.
What became of those children is a lesser-known part of American history that became known as the Orphan Train Movement.
The Children’s Aid Society (CAS) was a New York agency formed to help care for these “excess” children. Not all of the children were orphaned. Some were abandoned. Some were given over to the CAS because the parents simply couldn’t take care of them.
Orphan Train Riders
Workers at the CAS and another charity institution, The New York Foundling Hospital, sought better lives for the children, looking for homes with families in rural areas of the country. The Orphan Train Movement transported children–ranging in age from infants to 16–by rail to new homes. Between 1854 and the early 1930s, the two organizations placed between 200,000 and 250,000 children in homes across 47 states and several Canadian provinces. Some 10,000 of those children came to Iowa.
I learned about the Orphan Train riders in the course of researching an article on the subject for The Iowan magazine. The topic fascinated me so much that I’ve included an Orphan Train thread in my upcoming novel Go Away Home.
By the time I was doing my research, Iowa’s Orphan Train riders had all passed away. My interviews included the children of riders, and the stories they tell are both poignant and powerful. Mary McLain is one of those I interviewed.
Mary McLain’s favorite story when she was growing up was Little Orphan Annie. As a kindergartner, she dressed up as Annie for Halloween, wearing a dress her mother took out of a box tucked away in the back of a closet. It would be many years–long after her mother passed away–before McLain learned the story behind that dress, before she learned how closely her mother’s life mirrored that of Little Orphan Annie.
McLain’s mother, Viola Volkert, was born in New York in 1907. When Viola was three, her mother contracted tuberculosis and was placed in a sanitarium. Viola’s father could not care for his three daughters and one son, so he placed the girls with the CAS.
When Viola and her sisters entered that orphanage, they took the first step on a journey into this unique part of American history. Viola and her sisters rode the Orphan Train to Clear Lake, Iowa. The girls were all sent to separate homes.
In 1958, Viola handed a box to her daughter, Mary McLain, by then an adult. “She said, ‘I want you to have these; I know you’ll take good care of them,’” McLain remembers, “but I didn’t ask ‘Whose are these?’” Only after Viola died in 1977 did McLain begin to uncover her mother’s story.
McLain discovered that the three dresses in the box, plus three pair of underwear and a pair of shoes, were everything her mother owned when she came to Iowa.
Many Orphan Train riders did not talk easily about that part of their lives. Being an orphan was considered shameful. Speaking about it might be seen as disrespectful to the people who took you in. This was a generation that did not talk about private things. For some, their experience was not positive.
Bill Nelson was eight years old when he came to Iowa. His father gave Bill up to the orphanage, but kept Bill’s older brother, Arthur. Bill’s first family wanted him only for the hard work. The CAS matron who checked up on the placement removed him from that home. Ultimately, he was taken in by a woman whose children were all grown. But when the Depression hit, she could no longer afford to keep him. Bill was on his own at age fifteen.
All his life, Bill carried a picture of his brother and himself–the one connection he had to his former family. His daughter did the research to find her father’s brother, still living in New Jersey. When the brothers finally met, they were both in their 80s. Arthur carried the same picture with him.
All his life, Bill had carried the hurt of being rejected by his father. It was only after telling his story at an Orphan Train reunion, a story that he’d kept inside most of his life, that he was finally able to say with some pride, “I’m part of American history.”
The Children’s Aid Society and the New York Foundling Hospital continue in operation today. The National Orphan Train Complex is dedicated to saving the stories of Orphan Train riders.
January 20, 2014
Goals to keep mind and body fresh.
I’ve set two goals for myself this winter: one walking and one reading. In just the first few weeks of the year, I’ve found some interesting links to these goals, beyond the fact that I do them at the same time.
My walking goal is to traverse the diagonal distance of Iowa, from the southwest corner to the northeast. A map taped to the wall offers a ready reference for logging my miles and noting the towns I figuratively pass through as I take to the treadmill.
My reading goal, as I shared in another post, is to read 10 works of historical fiction in 2014 as part of the historical fiction challenge. That’s in addition to all the other books I know will pass through my hands this year.
I began my trek in Hamburg, the southwestern most town in Iowa. According to the 2010 census, Hamburg’s population was 1,187. This little town was nearly wiped off the map in 2011 when the Missouri River breached the levee protecting the area. Despite great adversity, the people and their town survived.
It’s interesting (to me at least) that Hamburg is named for Hamburg, Germany, since the book I was reading at this point was The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Set in Germany, The Book Thief tells the story of a nine-year-old girl who lives near Berlin during WWII. This child and her foster parents face great adversity as they risk their lives to befriend a Jew they hide in their basement. The book explores the ability of books to feed the soul.
Since leaving Hamburg (Iowa), I’ve traversed almost 50 miles, passing through towns I’ve never heard of – Essex – and some I have heard of but never visited – Shenandoah and Red Oak.
Coincidentally, I “walked” through Shenandoah at the time Phil Everly passed away. Phil and his brother, Don, grew up in Shenandoah from early childhood through early high school. They sang with their father on local radio station KMA before going on to achieve fame as The Everly Brothers.
Walking at 3.8 miles/hour, I can read comfortably and have completed several books, including:
Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. My choice for our book club to read this month, this novel took me to the coast of England to search for fossils with two nineteenth century women whose discoveries upset the scientific and religious worlds of the day. I found this book noteworthy because the author had a unique way to describe characters. One “leads with her eyes,” another “leads with her hands,” another “leads with her chin.” As soon as I read this descriptor, I realized I know people like this. I admire authors who trigger that spark of recognition in readers in an unusual way.
The Orphan Train: A Novel by Christina Baker Kline. This book about a lesser known part of American history, when some 250,000 children were taken by train from east coast cities to find homes in rural areas, drew me in because I have a thread on the Orphan Trains in my upcoming novel, Go Away Home. This is the one book I’ve read so far this year set in the United States.
Call the Midwife, Shadows of the Workhouse, by Jennifer Worth. The sequel to the book that is the basis for the the PBS series, this book caused me to consider the scope of creative non-fiction. Worth was a nurse midwife in London after WWII. Her life experience and writing are fully engaging. I do wonder, though, if it is appropriate to categorize much of this second book as memoir since several of the stories were not about things that happened to Worth or that she saw personally. Terrific stories, though, and a powerful look at a difficult time in English history.
As I continue to walk, I’ve crossed the Channel to France where I’m on a gastronomical journey with Julia Child in her memoir, My Life in France. She is making me very hungry.
Sharing goals helps ensure I stick to them. So, I’ll share updates of my reading and walking musings from time to time. If you’d like to chime in on books you’re reading or places you’re traveling or goals you’ve set for the year, I’d love to hear from you.
January 13, 2014
Early 20th century photos inspire writing.
Whether writing memoir or novel, I’ve found photos a great source of inspiration. Today, almost everyone has the ability to take photos. Digital cameras allow us to take pictures with abandon, of subjects important and mundane. It’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t so.
Yet 50 years ago – at the time covered by my memoir – Mom used a box camera with rolls of film that only had twelve exposures. She brought the camera out on special occasions. One hundred years ago, during the time in which my WWI-era novel Go Away Home is set, though Kodak was working hard to bring it to the masses, photography was most often the purview of professionals.
Because photography was relatively rare, I consider myself lucky to have an album of photos my grandmother took between 1905 and 1915. I grew up looking at these photos and they’ve been a constant reference point as I’ve written. Many of the photos have inspired scenes in my novel.
A good day hunting.
My grandmother was not constrained by the thought that everyone had to be dressed up to have their picture taken. This picture of two men just back from hunting made me think about clothes and dogs and rabbit stew.
One of the first cars in the neighborhood.
This picture of my grandfather and his car made me wonder how you drive a Model T and how anyone learned. I studied YouTube videos. My mother told me she and her sister taught themselves. Once they wound up in a ditch and a group of men simply picked up the car and set it back on the road.
Taking a break.
Taking her camera to the field, Grandma captured this happy moment between father and daughter on a corn wagon. My father told me he could pick 100 bushel of corn a day. In case you wonder, that’s a lot when you’re picking by hand.
This picture of a log house in South Dakota was in my mind as I wrote about one of my characters who went to Wyoming to homestead. They lived a year in such a log home.
Do you wonder how they kept whites white?
Accurately portraying life in the early 1900s has taken me lots of places to do research. I count myself lucky to find details and whole scenes springing from our family album of old photos.
January 10, 2014
Results of second annual reader survey released.
If you’re a reader or writer of historical fiction, you may enjoy digging into the results of the 2013 Historical Fiction Survey. In the second year of the survey conducted in cooperation with the Historical Novel Society, M.K. Tod, author of the recently released novel UNRAVELLED, drew responses from 2,440 people worldwide.
The results may cause comfort and concern for authors. Here are a few tidbits:
66% of participants read more than 20 books a year
Women are more likely than men to use libraries as sources of reading material
60% of respondents believe ebooks should be priced at less than $6 US
67% or respondents feel paperback books should be priced at less than $11 US
Visit Tod’s website to read the full report of the survey. Re-blogged from A Writer of History:
2013 Historical Fiction Survey Results
10 Friday Jan 2014
From the World of Historical Fiction is the initial summary of survey results. The data sheds light on preferences and habits of readers and offers interesting insights to writers and others in the publishing world.