One of the pleasures of my trade is reading the historical fiction other people are writing. This week it is my pleasure to give enthusiastic endorsement to a couple of wonderful books by female writers with female protagonists.
Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown
Mary Rowlandson is a contented, if repressed, minister’s wife on the Massachusetts frontier in the 1670s. When Indians raid her village in an early phase of King Philip’s War, she and her children are taken captive, with other English colonists, in a harrowing ordeal. Eventually she is released and resumes life as a proper colonial wife.
But her season of captivity has changed her outlook on the world, and she finds that extisence within the normal Puritan channels of the Massachusetts Bay Colony no longer is a comfortable fit for her.
Amy Belding Brown’s prose is straightforward and workmanlike, rising sometimes into the lyrical, as she tells Mary’s tale. We meet a number of actual historical figures besides Mary herself, including Increase Mather, King Phillip (Metacomet), his sister-in-law the female sachem Weetamoo, missionary to the Indians John Eliot, and James Printer (Wowaus)—one of Eliot’s “Praying Indians” who mastered English, worked in the printing trade, and lived in both worlds.
The external movements of this sweeping novel are all, in the author’s words, “consistent with historical records.” However, the heart of its narrative lies in the inner turmoil of Mary Rowlandson: the easy assumptions she finds shattered, the travail of adjusting her old viewpoints to fit often-unpleasant new realities of her life, and her fearless encounter of love’s contradictory pulls on her heart.
Anyone interested in history, in the mysteries of the human heart, or both, will enjoy this book.
Tinsmith 1865 by Sara Dahmen
In Tinsmith 1865 a young woman, Marie Kotlarczyk, transplanted to the Dakota frontier, must take up and succeed at her family’s trade of tinsmithing, despite being a woman. The voice of Marie, often tormented by the decisions she must make and the feats she must perform, is strong and compelling. Romance is a strong part of this story but it would be wrong to call it a “romance.” It is historical fiction, with emphasis on the real struggles of a community of well-drawn characters in the post-Civil War American West. The book highlights the varying ethnicities present in the fictional Flats Town—especially Marie’s Polish family and friends and several Norwegians who sometimes help and sometimes hinder her quest to be her own woman. I was fascinated by the story’s authentic historical detail and was continually drawn into Marie’s personal struggle.
The author, Sara Dahmen, says, “Today, I am, as far as I can tell, the only female coppersmith in America who builds copper cookware, re-tins and restores vintage pieces, and custom-designs them.” Besides the practice of smithery and the design and marketing of her own cookware line, Sara is the author of both nonfiction and fiction books, including her Flats Junction Series, of which Tinsmith 1865 is the second installment.
Hope you will enjoy one or both of these outstanding books as much as I did.
You were regaled last week with the tale of how I became a full-time writer and embarked on a major work of historical fiction. (If by chance you missed out on this gripping account, you can make up for lost time here.)
My novel, Freedom’s Purchase, tells of a young man, Anders, and a young woman, Maria, who sail from Norway to America and settle in Central Illinois just before the Civil War. Those were years when our nation was in great turmoil, when slave hunters roamed the prairie looking for escapees from Southern plantations, or even for free blacks they could kidnap into slavery. It was inevitable that my characters, Anders and Maria, would come in conflict with Slavery and its minions.
Anders and Maria are based on my real-life ancestors—but they are wholly fictional characters. In other words, they are not the real Anders Gunstensen and Maria Nybro from whom I am descended. But there is some basis, you see, in the common usages of our common past.
While starting to work out the plot for my novel, I attended the University of Wisconsin – Continuing Studies Program’s annual “Write by the Lake” conference; my breakout was a workshop on “Know Your Genre,” taught by Laurie Scheer. We learned what genres are: Mainly, they are categories that allow agents and publishers to know how to pitch your story, and booksellers to know where to shelve it. I told Laurie my idea for a historical novel about Norwegian immigrants in the time of the Civil War.
“An immigrant saga!” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “That’s it.”
She encouraged me to write it. Because of her encouragement, I started to think, “Maybe I could.”
How to Be a Writer, in 1,672 Easy Lessons
I was finding my niche. I had taken T.S. Eliot’s lines as my watchword—
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.
By the time I began writing the first draft of Anders and Maria, I had hooked up with a great writing critique group, Tuesdays With Story. We meet twice a month, under the leadership of Jerry Peterson—to read and comment on one another’s work. This task is indispensable to any writer who is serious about developing his or her craft. You need to hear just how your work strikes someone who does not have the big advantage you have—the advantage of living inside your own mind and already knowing what it is you’re trying to convey. It’s all too easy to write things that convey to readers something other than what you intended. The Tuesdays with Story Group is a valuable backstop.
Also, to be a writer in today’s market, you must become a Major Literary Figure on day one. Besides writing and revising your own work, you spend many hours reading and commenting on other people’s work. You do theirs because they do yours; one hand washes the other.
But you also find yourself constantly immersed in many already-published books, both within and outside of your genre. The good, the bad, and the ugly. You can learn something from each one of them, Grasshopper.
And let’s not forget magazines—The Writer and Writer’s Digest—which are de rigeur, and conferences, such as “Write by the Lake” and the UW’s annual spring Writers’ Institute. A good writers’ conference brings together hundreds of people who share this creepy compulsion to put words on paper and have people read them.
The first time I attended the UW Writers’ Institute, in 2018, I knew right away I had found my tribe. We are all different, yet all the same. We have to write. Whether or not we’re any good at it. Whether or not we can sell it. Whether or not we grab the brass ring of fame and fortune.
Later this month I will attend my third Writers’ Institute. I will see old friends and make new ones. I will pitch my book to bona fide literary agents and learn new and better ways to navigate the literary marketplace.
Standing on a Platform
Above all, experts say, “an author needs a platform.” But “platform” has no exact definition. Arnold Palmer, the golfer, had a platform, only it was called an army—“Arnie’s Army,” thousands of devoted fans who showed up and paid good money to follow Arnie across any golf course, in fair weather or foul, whether he was shooting well or ill. That is a platform.
Say you’re famous. You’re Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump, or Wayne Gretzky, or Ellen DeGeneres. You already have a platform. Just whisper a hint that you might write a book, and top publishers will give you a seven-figure advance.
If you’re a regular person and just hope somebody will read your book, a platform is harder to come by. If you’re already a published author, that’s a start. Readers who loved your cozy mystery The Chocolate Cake Caper might also buy The Apple Pie Fiasco. But if you’re not famous and have nothing in print, then all you have is friends and family. And—what else?—Social Media.
So, about the time I started writing Freedom’s Purchase, I added a “Larry F. Sommers, Writer” page to my Facebook presence. I didn’t know what I would do with it, and in truth, I have not done much. But I use it now and then to mention some little victory or struggle in my ongoing quest as a writer. Right now there are 227 followers on that page. I also have 611 friends on my regular Facebook page. What does that mean? It just means I have friends and followers. Which is good, right? (If you’re not already a friend and follower, I invite you to hop on the bandwagon at https://www.facebook.com/larryfsommers and https://www.facebook.com/LarryFSommersWriter/.)
Into the Blogosphere
Then, about a year ago, I decided to launch this blog. Let me assure you, Kind Reader, I did not do so lightly.
Some folks told me, “Oh, a blog is soeasy! No trouble, no time, a lead-pipe cinch.”
Well, Gentle Reader, Your New Favorite Writer is not among those who just fell off the turnip truck yesterday. No, sir. I knew it would be a grind. Nothing worthwhile is accomplished without significant time and effort.
I decided to do it anyway, because: This blog—titled “Reflections” and subtitled “seeking fresh meanings in our common past”—is not just a promotional device for my novel. Rather, it is a way to relate directly with you and others who like to read about old times and ponder what meanings we might derive from them. So it is not only a way to promote my writing; it IS my writing, so far more than 50,000 words and counting.
Though I approached the project with trepidation, I have been pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoy doing it. Especially I enjoy getting hints from time to time that my work has really connected with a reader. When I read a comment on my blog, or on my Facebook page, that just makes my day. Especially when that person says, “Your story reminded me of . . .”—and then proceeds to tell me a little story from their own experience and recollection. What I wrote stimulated their thoughts about their own past and its meaning.
That is why I am doing it, friends.
So I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you’ll spread the word to others—by mentioning this “Reflections” blog at https://LarryFSommers.com, by sharing it on Facebook, by tweeting it on Twitter, or whatever. And I hope you’ll come back often. We’ll explore a diverse range of human experiences and try to puzzle them out together. And when Freedom’s Purchase—or my new novel, which is completely different—is published, you’ll be among the first to know.
When I wrote my first novel, I had no ego. No expectations. No ambition.
I was planning simply to write a book for fun and give myself a place to escape. I had nothing but a girl on a train and a wisp of a half-dream to guide me. I didn’t know where she was going or what would happen to her. I didn’t know who she was, or her name, or where she was going. I only knew she lived in the past, and she was pregnant.
That was the very beginning of my “serious” career as a writer and novelist. I say “serious” because I have always been a writer. I wrote stories before I could spell (like when I would say “She went to the vigge” and “vigge” meant “village”) and when they were primarily cartoon drawings with a sentence or two explaining the plot, but the dialogue in bubbles over the people’s heads. I wrote a lot of angst-y stories as a pre-teen. It got worse in high school and then peaked in college, when I’d write epic, 250+ page dramas instead of studying for philosophy class.
And then I stopped. I actually stopped writing for years. It wasn’t writer’s block—I don’t believe in writer’s block—but it was simply life. I fell in love and got married. (There went the angst.) I had children. (NO TIME TO WRITE!) I built businesses. (That time thing again . . . .)
But then somewhere in the middle of running a household, cooking meals, running a company, and chasing babies (and having more babies!), I found my voice again. It was therapy of a sort, but it was also like discovering a long-lost skill. I am inherently a storyteller, and I pour all my heart, soul and gusto in telling any tale. Writing that first book was like coming back to my spirit and recognizing what I was capable of doing, once again.
After several starts and stops between self-publishing and working with small presses, I eventually landed a mid-sized publisher based in Canada. They have published Tinsmith 1865 and Widow 1881, the first two novels in my Flats Junction Series. It was vindication that I could indeed do something with this storytelling skill I could apparently not stifle no matter how busy I stuffed my life with activities!
While these two fiction books were in the middle of the hairsplitting process of editing, re-editing, and more editing, I had previously started to research cookware. So much of what happens in my novels is either about the building or using of vintage cookware. The women characters either create it or use it, and I wondered how I could learn more about how such things were made and used in the 1800s. I also believed such wares should be made again in America; so without much thought or preparation, I started to build an American cookware company.
This meant learning an entire new industry. Sales! Tax! Inventory! Cost of Goods Sold! Tooling! Metallurgy! It was one of the steepest learning curves I’ve ever had in my life. I’m horrible at math and chemistry, and this utilized both. I had to learn how to talk to engineers and fabricators. I had to research old cookware. I had to decide how much of my savings I’d push into this crazy venture.
By serendipity I discovered that one of the top metalworking artisans in the country, master tinsmith Bob Bartelme, lived near me in Wisconsin. He took me under his wing to show me the original methods of building cookware. By spending time in his shop, I organically became his apprentice! (Now, four years later, I still go up several times a week to his shop and we work the tools from the 1700 and 1800s to build cookware.)
Suddenly, I realized I could not only write about what I was learning, which I did in Tinsmith 1865, but I could actually build the cookware in my own line. Today, I am, as far as I can tell, the only female coppersmith in America who builds copper cookware, re-tins and restores vintage pieces, and custom-designs them.
All the work that went into building cookware meant I learned way more than I had ever bargained for as a historical fiction writer and novelist. It became obvious that so much of my knowledge was oral, gleaned from tales of old tinsmiths, from Bob, from my research, from translating books out of German and French and talking to makers around the country. It was impossible to find such information about cookware in one place, so I wrote a non-fiction book about the history, science, use and care of traditional cookware—ironware, copperware, and pottery. That book has been bought by William Morrow/HarperCollins and will be released on April 28, 2020 as Copper, Iron, and Clay: A Smith’s Journey.
So suddenly, I have a brand, and it’s very cohesive. I’m a fiction writer, who writes about 1800s women in the west who use and make cookware. I make the cookware using the tools from the 1800s. I wrote a non-fiction book about being a smith. And when people ask me how I became a smith, I point to the fiction books! Around and around it goes!
Now what? I suppose I have more ambition than when I started. I want to share information about cookware. I want to teach about coppersmithing. I want people to fall in love with my characters, since they are no longer simply my own entertainment. I want people to learn from my non-fiction. I want them to stop filling landfills with cheap cookware and invest in a few pieces that will last generations.
Ambition, it seems, is impossible to escape when one is an invested writer.
I hope you have enjoyed this glimpse at the life and work of Sara Dahmen, Wisconsin’s leading female coppersmith/businesswoman/novelist.
Three and a half years ago, in January 2016, I retired from other pursuits so I could try to write fictional stories that other people would like to read.
After a few small success with short stories, I got the idea to write a historical novel based on my ancestors Anders Gunstensen and Maria Nybro, who came to Illinois from Norway in the 1850s. We had scant information about their lives—a few dates, places, and milestones—not much more. Not enough real knowledge to support a detailed, book-length factual account of their lives—even if I had wanted to write one. But what I actually wanted was to use the bare facts as a framework on which to hang a made-up story, through which we might discover the world in which they lived.
I spent more than six months on the trail of Anders and Maria. I struggled to imagine a plot around the known and unearthed events of their lives that would make a good fictional story, yet would not much distort the known facts. At last, early in 2017, I began to write text.
The first draft of this novel, Freedom’s Purchase, took more than a year to write, at a steady rate of 1,500 to 2,000 words per week.This time also included research “on the fly” to support the detailed demands of particular scenes in the story.
My writing process is iterative. Contrary to what many great writers recommend, I invest a lot of time and effort, while laying down the first draft, in simultaneously revising passages already written. So by June 2018, when I finished the “first draft” of the novel, it was really anywhere between a fifth and a fifteenth draft, depending which part of the book you’re looking at.
I loved my book so much that I started to query agents, seeking a traditional publication contract. After nine months, I felt a bit stymied. At the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute in April 2019, I asked Laurie Scheer about this. She said, “How many agents have you queried so far?” I said, “Thirty or forty.” She guffawed. “Try three hundred!” she said.
Discouraged? On the contrary, I found myself reassured. The problem was not necessarily with my book; only that the literary market is tough to crack. However, that very reassurance gave me the freedom to consider the niggling little thought that if the manuscript itself were a bit better, that would make it easier for agents to see its merit. Perhaps a hundred fifty queries would be enough to do the trick!
My other friend in the UW Writers’ program, Christine DeSmet, read my first ten pages—the most important part of any book for making a first impression—and gave me very useful feedback. Her comments showed me how I could make the first chapter not a little better—rather, a whole lot better. So I did. But Christine also recommended dissecting the whole book scene by scene, then improving each scene as needed. I blanched at the thought. I decided to do it anyway.
Toward a Smashing Second Draft
I spent the whole next month just reading my book. I analyzed 159 separate scenes; I wrote down the overall purpose of each scene, its setting, its characters, their goals, their conflicts, the resolution of those conflicts, and the particular moments of dramatic change. This yielded an analytical document 54 pages long.
So now, I revisit each scene to fix the problems that have shown themselves through this process of analysis. A huge task. Yet, not enough.
After I work my way through a chapter of scenes, I do the next step, suggested by another friend, Tracey Gemmell, author of More or Less Annie, and other members of my Tuesday evening writers’ group. In Microsoft Word, I search for every “ly” in the chapter (many of these turn out to be adverbs); for every “ing” (present progressives, present participles, gerunds); for every “and,” “or,” and “but” (conjunctions); for every “is,” “are,” “was,” and “were” (verbs of being); for every “saw,” “heard,” “knew,” “felt,” “smelled,” and “tasted” (“filter” words). Then, I re-read the chapter in search of introductory time phrases or other introductory adverbial constructions.
That step is a lot of work, too.
Not that there is anything wrong with adverbs, a progressive verbs, passive constructions, conjunctions, or introductory adverbial expressions. All those things have their places in effective prose. But they can become crutches that allow us to write gimpy narrative, when overused. By considering each occurrence in isolation, one often finds a more vivid and robust way—a less distanced, less stand-offish way—to say what one meant to say. If you change even a quarter of those expressions to more powerful constructions, it’s worth the effort.
By the end of this process, I’ll have a book more worthy of readers’ time and attention. And, perhaps, a traditional publishing contract.