Of New Years and Calendars

One of the challenges in writing historical fiction is preserving accuracy while at the same time making context and meaning clear to 21st century readers.  This is especially tricky when using a first-person narrator, who would take her world for granted. A 17th-century New England Puritan, for instance, wouldn’t go around explaining that no one she knows ever celebrates Christmas because December 25th is just like any other winter day. She would just take it for granted that everyone already knew. There are often ways a writer can subtly insert this information but it can be difficult to pull off without sounding like a history textbook.

In writing Flight of the Sparrow, I came face to face with a context problem I’d never dealt with before – the calendar.  If we were to count backwards from today, the historical date of Mary Rowlandson’s capture was February 20, 1676, but in her narrative Rowlandson lists it as February 10, 1675.  That appears to be more than a full year’s difference!  The discrepancy is because in Rowlandson’s time England was still using the ancient Julian calendar, dating all the way back to Julius Caesar.   In the 9th century New Year’s Day was set as March 25th to coincide with Assumption Day.

In 1582, a new calendar, the Gregorian, was instituted by Pope Gregory XIII.  However, under Queen Elizabeth I, England refused for religious reasons to adopt it along with the rest of Europe.  Instead they stuck with the old Julian calendar.

It wasn’t until almost 200 years later, in the 1750s, that the Gregorian calendar was adopted by England and her colonies.  In 1752, 11 days were dropped and January 1st officially became the first day of the new year.   Some historical records began to identify dates between January 1st and March 25th with a slash mark between the years that overlapped.  For example, the date of Rowlandson’s captivity is sometimes written as February 10, 1675/76.

As I wrote Flight of the Sparrow I kept the calendar change in mind. Not because I incorporated the dates in my narrative, but because those eleven days can make quite a difference in February weather temperatures. Especially in southern New England.  

With January 1st behind us, we’re turning our attention to what lies ahead.  Here in Vermont that means several more months of snow and ice and bitter cold.  It’s not likely I’ll be seeing much evidence of spring before the end of March.  So while I’ve been wishing everybody a Happy New Year, I’ve also been quietly keeping a Julian calendar in the back of my mind.  Because March 25th strikes me as a particularly appropriate time to welcome a new year.

 

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A Writer’s Aria

Last weekend my husband and I visited our youngest son and his family.  Whenever we go there, a highlight for me is the chance to play with our four-year-old granddaughter, whose beauty, spirit and energy dazzle me.  She spends much of her play time in a world of her imagination, which appeals to me as a writer of fiction.  As she climbs and jumps and runs and skips, she acts out imaginary dramas, often narrating them at the same time.  Like many children, she also spontaneously composes songs, especially when she doesn’t think anyone’s watching.

Aria

Saturday morning we were in the backyard, where she’d been running up and down the little hill waving a dance ribbon.  She stopped for a short rest at the far edge of the yard, about forty feet away.  After a few minutes I realized she was singing, quietly but intently.  Four-year-old’s narrative songs are sometimes difficult to follow. They remind me a bit of operatic arias — they tend to be complex and unpredictable.  This time the tune wasn’t easy to follow, but the words captured my attention.

“I will try my best,” she sang. “I will never give up.”  There were other words I didn’t catch or don’t remember, but she kept coming back to the same refrain.

I was stunned.  And thrilled.

I don’t know who she was pretending to be or what situation she imagined herself in at that moment.  But her song was a gift and a blessing to me.  For it couldn’t have come at a better time.  I’ve recently begun a major revision of my novel-in-progress.

Novel writing is daunting, and it’s easy to get discouraged, especially when I’ve put in months and months of effort only to come up with a draft that’s clearly not working.  It means going back to the drawing board and starting again.  Not from scratch, exactly, since I’m working with the same basic material.  But from a new perspective, a fresh take.  It means rethinking the story and rebuilding its structure and remolding the characters.  In other words, I have a lot of work ahead of me.

My granddaughter’s little aria really hit home.  Like any aria mid-opera, it didn’t assure a happy ending, but tapped into the deep energy and hope of the human condition.   So as I embark on my next draft, I’m going to be using it as my personal mantra.

I will try my best.  I will never give up.

Aria 3

Harvesting

In the back yard
this autumn afternoon
it’s just the squirrels
and me.

They’re all busy
opening the sticky packages
our butternut’s hung out
while I am writing poems
on the grass,

both of us scratching away,
making a general mess of things,
and having the time
of our lives.

 

I

 

 

 

 

Dickinson’s Letter to the World

Lately I’ve been studying Emily Dickinson. I’ve read biographies and novels about her and spent days pouring over her poems. Like many who encounter Dickinson, I find her maddeningly enigmatic. She never married, spent all her life close to home, and in the second half  became so reclusive she claimed she never stepped off the family property. Yet her poetry is universal in scope and displays such rare sophistication and insight it’s hard not to conclude it comes from wide-ranging experience. How is this possible?

Emily Dickinson is considered by many to be the greatest American poet. But during her lifetime only a handful of people knew she wrote poetry at all. In her later years she shared some of her poems in her correspondence. But she kept at least two-thirds of them – about 1,300 – completely secret even from family and friends. And near the end of her life she ordered her maid to burn them after her death.

Some of these secret poems are now her most frequently quoted, including “Because I could not stop for Death,” “Wild Nights – Wild Nights!” and “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” And – intriguingly – the poem “This is my letter to the World.”

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me —
The simple News that Nature told —
With tender Majesty

Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see —
For love of Her — Sweet — countrymen —
Judge tenderly — of Me

This is one of the poems preserved in the forty booklets Dickinson made by copying selected poems onto folded sheets of paper and sewing them together with string. These packets – later called “fascicles” – have been the subject of extensive Dickinson scholarship since the early 20th century. Handwriting analysis has enabled scholars to order them chronologically. “This is my letter to the World” is the 14th poem in the 24th fascicle.

The first two lines can be read as the grief of a writer who was never recognized in her lifetime. But if Dickinson wanted recognition, why did she keep the bulk of her work secret? Why does the poet caution against judgement if she offered nothing to judge?

Maybe context will help. Some scholars who study this poem have looked at the poems surrounding it in the fascicle and suggest the secret “news” is ominous. In the poems before and after death is ever-present, and bliss is pierced by annihilation.

Did the poet intend a hidden, darker meaning? Is she commenting on the very nature of secrets? Is she writing about some specific event that happened to her or to someone she knew? Or is the whole scenario of the poem a work of her imagination? With Dickinson’s poems I’m always left with questions.

Part of Dickinson’s genius as a poet is the way she weaves paradox and contradictions and questions into the fabric of her work. Which shouldn’t surprise me since they also make up the fabric of her life.

From here, it looks like Dickinson’s letter to the world is one long and rapturous question.

 

 

Gilmore Girls: Guilty Pleasure in a Hair Shirt

gilmore-girlsOkay, I admit it – lately I’ve become addicted to Gilmore Girls. It wasn’t on my radar when the original series was broadcast in the early 2000’s. And I wasn’t sufficiently appreciative when my son pointed out the town set in 2010 when he was showing me around LA. But when the recent sequel A Year in the Life dropped on Netflix around Christmas last year my visiting daughter and daughter-in-law eagerly watched it, and drew me in. I wasn’t exactly wowed, but my curiosity was spurred to take a look at the original series and after a few episodes I was hooked.

Many things initially annoyed me about the characters, especially the mother-daughter role reversal and Lorelai’s over-indulgent and often juvenile approach to child-rearing. Yet when I finished an episode it wasn’t long before I wanted to watch the next one. And then the next. It’s become my latest guilty pleasure.

But it’s a guilty pleasure with a hair shirt. Even as I relish the fast-paced, smart dialogue and Lauren Graham’s remarkable acting prowess in portraying the wounded vulnerability of the flawed and charming Lorelai, I get annoyed. Not by the characters or the sometimes silly plot lines or even the stereotypes of rich and working class characters. I can put up with all that. It’s the inaccurate details that get to me.

gilmore-girls2The series is set in a fictional town in Connecticut and in nearly every episode there’s at least one detail related to the setting that’s wrong. These inaccuracies probably wouldn’t bother me at all if the series was set in a region I wasn’t intimately familiar with. But it’s set in New England, where I’ve lived most of my life, so each time a detail doesn’t ring true, it jerks me out of the story.

In my writing I take the details very seriously. I go to great lengths to keep it real enough so that anyone who’s personally familiar with the setting won’t find the novel jarring. I spend years researching details. Perhaps I’m too obsessive. But I want to avoid doing anything to “break the spell” of the novel I’m trying to bring to life on the page.

Most of these Gilmore Girls details I’m grumbling about are small, it’s true. Such as affixing a “the” to the interstate number, e.g. “the 95” instead of simply saying “95” as every New Englander does. Or winter scenes in which snow falls on fully-leafed out trees. Or a character complaining that it’s too cold to be outside because it’s forty degrees. They don’t have an impact on the plot lines or the wonderful dialogue. And maybe most viewers don’t even notice – let alone care.
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But it happened again yesterday when I watched an episode that was supposed to take place on Valentine’s Day. The main characters took a trip to Martha’s Vineyard, off Cape Cod. And though they wore hats and jackets, the lawns were all bright green, the trees were fully leafed out, there were flowering plants on the patio and sailboats plying the water, and the characters had supper outside on a deck overlooking the ocean.  Supposedly in the middle of February. On an island off Cape Cod that a month ago (in 2017) was digging out after getting a foot of snow.  All wrong!

Sometimes there’s nothing to do but laugh.

Okay, now that I’ve ranted, I feel better. I’m going to continue watching the rest of the series. Then I plan to re-watch the sequel to catch its nuances. And I expect to enjoy it. I’ll try not to let the inaccurate details bother me. Instead, when they pop up, I’ll think of my son, who’s lived in LA long enough to consider 40 degrees “cold.” And who recently attended a party on the Warner Brothers lot, complete with gently falling fake snow.gilmore-girls-winter

Fear Itself

My parents were married during World War II and I was born a few years after it ended, which makes me a Boomer. My generation has often been unfavorably compared with our parents’ generation. We’re often portrayed as self-absorbed, narcissistic, and materialistic. Sometimes we were called the “Me” generation. On the other hand, we were generally idealistic, optimistic, and remarkably lucky. We were the beneficiaries of sustained economic growth, and incredible scientific and pharmaceutical advances. We were shaped by the Cold War and the Vietnam conflict. We questioned everything.

rooselveltsWe grew up in the shadow of Franklin Roosevelt. He was both revered and reviled. The two sides of my family held opposing views of his presidency, so for many years I was confused about how to think about him. When I was quite young the animosity was so strong on the paternal side that some relatives elected to call my mother “Ellen” rather than her given name. “Eleanor” reminded them of Eleanor Roosevelt whose only crime seemed to be that she had married Franklin.

My mother’s family, on the other hand, was generally favorable toward the Roosevelts and particularly admiring of Eleanor’s accomplishments. (My mother dearly loved her in-laws and never objected, in my hearing at least, to being renamed.) Eventually I formed my own view of the Roosevelts based on what I learned in my reading and studies. My political coming-of-age was during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, which were exciting and tumultuous times, so Roosevelt was tucked in the distant background of my consciousness. In my mind, his administration belonged to my parents.

But his words have become starkly relevant to me as I’ve reflected on our current social and fearpolitical climate. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he proclaimed in his first inaugural address during the depths of the Great Depression. How I wish we had political leaders who could inspire us with that kind of courage and optimism! But to me it seems that from every side most of what we’re hearing today is aimed at stoking fear.

But in my experience the American people, for all our faults, are not cowardly or pessimistic. We don’t like consuming fear with our morning coffee. At our best we are helpful and generous. Even us Boomers. So maybe I’m looking in the wrong place. Maybe it’s not our leaders we need to be listening to right now.

Maybe it’s our neighbors.

ok

Stories in Stone

cemetery2I love to poke around old graveyards.  Partly because they’re often located in beautiful places, but mostly because they’re full of stories. Real-life stories short enough on details to give my imagination a work-out.

New England is full of such graveyards, often tucked away on winding dirt roads or set on hillsides overlooking beautiful valleys. Quiet, uncrowded, peaceful places.cem2

In the second half of the 19th century graveyards were often favorite spaces to spend leisure time. People took afternoon walks in cemeteries, visiting loved ones and even picnicking amid the stones. Some cemeteries, such as Sleepy Hollow in Concord, Massachusetts and Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts, were designed by famous landscapers and architects, to maximize the experience for visitors.

cemetery5But it’s the stories I come for. I could see them all as sad stories, I suppose, since they’ve all ended in death  – sometimes after many decades, sometimes after just a few weeks. Some of the most poignant stories can be read in the graves of children, sometimes more than one in the same family. Reading the dates may hint at an epidemic that swept through the entire town. It’s not unusual to find consoling or admonitory verses on 19th century stones – sometimes excerpts from old hymns, or original poems written to memorialize the individual buried there. Once in a while the words indicate the cause of death. I’ve seen gravestones stating the deceased was killed in an explosion while digging a well, and one who was described traveling to restore his health only to die in Italy.cemetery4

But I don’t think they’re all sad. There’s so much more than death there – there’s faith and hope in the words and the engravings. And love. That’s what comes through to me with the most power. The love.

Whenever I visit a graveyard I come away feeling overwhelmed by all the stories. I’m aware that beneath each stone lies the remains of what was once a living, breathing human being, a person whose life – whether long or cut short by illness or accident – profoundly touched other lives. A person who was loved.

twinsI recently saw a photo of my great-grandfather as an infant, a man I never knew, and in fact knew very little about. Sitting beside him in the perambulator is his twin sister, who died at the age of two, probably not long after the photo was taken.

I imagine her death affected my grandfather and it surely affected his parents. Her short life became part of the family story that came down to me in subtle ways I wasn’t even aware of. I’ve never visited her grave. I don’t even know where she’s buried. But I kind of hope that at some point a stranger walked by her stone and stopped long enough to try to read her story.