If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?

If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it? --Albert Einstein

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Diary: A Window into the Life

Lexington: trained by my great-great
grandfather, J.B. Pryor
In an online newsletter from The Reading Room, I found a good explanation of why I write historical fiction.

It asks, “Are you inquisitive, investigative and interested in almost everything? Are you looking for facts as answers?” YES

“If so chances are that you are an avid non-fiction reader.” ABSOLUTELY. IN BOOKSTORES, I ALWAYS MAKE A BEELINE TO THE NONFICTION SECTIONS.

“Do you want to know how it would feel to be in someone else's skin? Do you want to imagine what they would smell, hear, feel, see or say?” SURE DO.

“If so you are probably more of a fiction reader.” I DO ENJOY A GOOD STORY. 

“And what about readers who like the mix of both questions and answers? If you fall into this last category you will really enjoy…historical fiction…a very demanding genre [that] requires extensive research and great imagination.”


This research can include genealogy, a great source of ideas. I have written a good bit about how I stumbled onto the premise of my story, Aroon, but through family tree investigations, I have found a story that could write itself. (See sidebar, Pryor Knowledge) It seems I come from far more fascinating stock than I ever imagined. 

One of my favorite ancestors is my maternal great-great grandfather, John Benjamin Pryor. A prominent horse trainer, he was best known for his work with "Lexington," the premier racehorse of the 1850s and the leading thoroughbred sire since pre-Revolutionary days. Pryor worked for Colonel Adam L. Bingaman of Natchez, Mississippi, and married Frances Bingaman, who may or may not have been the colonel’s daughter by his black mistress, Mary Ellen Williams. The plot thickens.

Which brings me back to why I love writing historical fiction. I am very curious about people's lives in the past—their hopes, their dreams, what made them laugh, what made them cry. But usually, we know little more than their dates of birth and death. Fiction can fill in the gaps.

UNLESS—someone writes a diary or journal. Yesterday in the mail, I received a copy of William Johnson’s Natchez: The Ante-Bellum Diary of a Free Negro. It is the “lengthiest and most detailed personal narrative authored by an African American during the ante-bellum era in the United States” according to the introduction. And my ancestor, John B. Pryor, is mentioned seven times. Mary Ellen Williams, possibly my ancestor, is noted three times. And if Adam Bingaman is Frances’s father, another ancestor is mentioned seventy-seven times!

This book covers fifteen years of the day-to-day lives of free African-Americans in the pre-Civil War South. Through William Johnson's eyes, I'm hoping to peek in on my forebears, symbolically tap them on their shoulders and ask, "Who are you?" 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"Poetry in the Raw"

Do you have children? If so, you have been awarded the delicate task of naming a human being. This seems so simple to middle school girls; they can discuss the names of their future sons and daughters for hours. In the fifth grade, my daughter was to be named Abigail. I had three chances to use that name and it never happened.

One thing little girls forget is that their child will have a father, who may not have sat around his boy scout campfire comparing names with his buds, but who has definite ideas about the names of his own children. And sadly, he does have a say.

For better or worse, people have impressions about who you are as soon as they hear your name. As a kid, I once lamented to my mother that no famous person had my name, Mary Beth.

“Oh yes,” she said. “There was an actress named Mary Beth Hughes. But she didn’t fit the name.”
Mary Beth Hughes:
the Anti-Me

Me: “What do you mean?”

Mom: “She was very glamorous.”

Thanks, Mom.

According to Confucius, “If names are not correct, language will not be in accordance with the truth of things.” So I guess my Plain Jane name is in accordance with the truth of things. Sigh.

A quote from W.H. Auden: “Proper names are poetry in the raw. Like all poetry they are untranslatable.” I like that, too. It emphasizes the important task one has when naming someone.

It is not trivial, then, to consider the names of the characters of your novel. This chosen name will carry a piece of their personality to the reader. There are blogs and websites galore to help authors choose the perfect name, and an entire book (Character Naming Sourcebook) on the matter. When I googled it, I got over twelve million hits.

So I took it very seriously last week when a member of my critique group questioned the name of one of my main characters, Margaret or Marg with a hard G. It sounds too close to her antagonist, Maeve, for one, and the female lead should have a softer sounding name, for two.

I brought this up to my husband, who said, “I never liked that name.” Oh.

I first went to Ancestry.Com to look through the names of my paternal ancestors, almost all of whom were Irish. I came up with Ann. My husband vetoed that. Too plain, he said. The part he did like about Marg was that it was not ordinary.

Next, I googled "Irish girl names" and found This is a very marvelous site. Not only do they have lists of girls’ and boys’ names, they have the Gaelic version (with far too many consonants. sorry.), as well as the English versions, and their meanings. As a really cool bonus, they have Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, read each name so you can get the actual pronunciation. I love it!

My husband and I agreed that, of my short-list names, the best is Eveleen (pronounced Ay-Vleen). It is not too strange since Evelyn is another version of it, but has enough of the exotic to be, as Auden says, poetry. And it has no hard sounds; it is soft and melodious. So Marg becomes Eveleen. Um, it also has the benefit of being close to the name of my sister, Evelyn, and I owe her. But that’s a story for another day.

Friday, March 16, 2012

iPod Research

Mumford and Sons
I am going to confess to a guilty pleasure: I am enthralled by American Idol contestant Joshua Ledet’s performance of “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Maybe a better verb would be ‘obsessed.’

Since his Wednesday night performance, I have watched it online more times than I can comfortably admit. If you haven’t seen it, it's worth the five minutes. Click here.

Joshua Ledet
I am hypnotized by the passion in his voice, but also by his body language, and the intensity of his facial expressions. Every atom in his body is expressing the powerful emotion of this song. He brings chills to my spine and tears to my eyes.

It is my dream to engross my readers in the emotions of my characters in much the same way. Obviously, a very tall order.

While Google searches, interviews, books, and newspapers are great research tools for information, I find music is one of the best resources for the emotional tone of my writing. My iPod has African drumming for my Stono Rebellion research, Colonial music for my Revolutionary War story, and Gregorian chants for the Middle Ages.

As you can see in the sidebar, my story, Aroon, has the clash between the poor Irish and the English gentry as its primary theme. While walking this morning, I listened to the contemporary music of Mumford & Sons, introduced to me by my daughter. “They’re an Irish band,” she said. “You’ll love them.”

She got that half right. I do love them, but they aren’t Irish. They’re from West London, yet I believe they have an Irish flavor. My favorite song, “Dust Bowl Dance,” is speculated to have been based on Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Reportedly, the band has said they’ve been influenced by East of Eden, which I reviewed, ironically, in my last post.

However the writers were inspired, I find it speaks to my book and the struggles of the poor Irish during the time of the Penal Laws. The intensity of emotion in the song helps me imagine the suffering of my characters. Have a listen:

To me, both the music and the lyrics express the anger, despair, and even desperation of the oppressed in a way that cries out to the heart over the head.

That is why music is a critical resource. It immerses me as a writer into the feelings that create the emotional core of the story. In short, music will help me write the way Joshua Ledet sings.

Monday, March 12, 2012


After finishing John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, I have two thoughts: (1) I’m going to have to reread this book, and (2) I should have read it years ago.

Steinbeck uses his own family history to intermingle the stories of two families and three generations to probe the story of Cain and Abel of the Biblical book of Genesis. This is an exploration of good and evil, and sibling rivalry. Half-brothers Adam and Charles Trask struggle to win their dishonest, but formidable father’s affection and respect. Adam marries near-sociopath Cathy Ames, who also sleeps with brother Charles. They have twin sons, Aron and Caleb. Both sets of brothers are prototypes for Abel and Cain.

The most compelling theme of the book, however, is the very nature of our purpose here as people. Samuel Hamilton (Steinbeck’s grandfather), Adam Trask, and his servant, Chinese-American Lee, discuss the different translations of the Genesis story.

“Don’t you see?” he [Lee] cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin [do thou], and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel--‘Thou mayest’--that gives a choice. It may be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open.”

The concept of choice, free will, is central to the point of this story. We are not governed by our circumstance of birth and heritage. We may choose. The very idea frees the characters and can free the reader as well.

The philosophies in this book are deep and so I will need to reread. There are so many subtleties, I know I did not catch all in this first reading and I will read this book again, possibly many times. I give East of Eden the highest recommendation.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Execution by the State

Because he had expressed sympathy for the peasantry of their distress, Father Nicholas Sheehy was convicted on a trumped-up charge of murder, in the town of Clonmel in 1766, and was hanged, drawn and quartered. His grave in Shandraghan soon became and place of pilgrimage, and his death provided later generations of Whiteboys with a patron saint.
--“The Course of Irish History”, page 186

The above is the catalyst for my journey to discover Father Sheehy. That’s all that was written about the martyred priest in this history, but as I’ve told you before, my curiosity was piqued.

I had read the expression “drawn and quartered” before this, but to be honest, did not really know what that meant. What was the procedure for this form of state-sanctioned execution?

Well, if anyone tells you we are a more violent society now than the good old days, feel free to use the classic Joe Wilson line, “You lie!” We are justifiably squeamish about the electric chair (see The Green Mile) and unsettled over lethal injection. But a mere two hundred years ago, a more heinous method of legal extermination than many of us can imagine was performed before entertainment-hungry crowds.

If a person was convicted of high treason against the crown, he was first drawn by horse or sledge to the place of execution. He was hanged, but not until dead. Still alive, he was cut down so that his intestines could be pulled out and burned before his very eyes. I can only imagine the person became unconscious or dead at this point from pain and loss of blood.

But he then had his head cut off and his body ripped into four parts (quartered), usually with an arm or leg in each. Sometimes horses were tied to each limb and driven in different directions in order to tear the body apart. The heads were then spiked and left to rot in a prominent location--a grisly example to others.

Father Sheehy’s execution was held on March 15, 1766 (Beware!), the day after he was sentenced. According to an account by Jerry Griffin of Clogheen, he was brought out of the jail where he blessed the people and proclaimed his innocence. He also said of his persecutors and jury, “I forgive and pity them all, and would not change places with any of them.”

Since the hangman’s noose was directly across the street from the jail, it is doubtful he was drawn on a sledge. He was hanged until dead, so did not have to witness the burning of his entrails that followed. He was quartered and his head spiked before the jail for twenty years.

This horrifying death was typically reserved for treason. Yet, Father Sheehy had been charged, tried, and acquitted for treason. In evidence of the hatred toward this man, although the charge was murder, he suffered this most grievous punishment.

Below is a clip from the series, The Tudors, in which Catherine Howard’s “playmates”, Culpepper and Dereham, are executed. The first was fortunate enough to be decapitated, but the second endured the same terrifying execution of Father Sheehy. The clip portrays the horror of this death without showing the most gruesome parts.