A revolution is quietly taking place in libraries. Challenges to copyright law grow as the importance in sharing research in the Digital Age becomes evident. The high cost of peer-reviewed journals is breaking library budgets. As with the traditional publishing model, there is a great need for change in order to maintain a sustainable model. Open access is the key to this in academic research. A couple of weeks ago, I attended an event hosted by the Harvard Alumni Association where two advocates of Open Access talked about the university’s DASH project. DASH collects scholarly articles, theses, and dissertations from across the university’s schools. To date, more than 19,000 works can be searched, viewed, and downloaded. Started in 2009, DASH’s global reach has grown significantly. Articles and theses have been downloaded more than 3 million times. The contents of the projects are indexed by major search engines like Google. People from around the world share accounts of how DASH has helped them, and DASH solicits these testimonials on every download. For example, a person wrote to say they had found vital information to bring to the doctor to find a treatment that may be more effective. The doctor agreed, and the experience provided a successful outcome. One of the speakers, Peter Struber, is director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communications and director of the Open Access Project. Harvard is the first university to adopt an open access policy, and the faculty vote was unanimous. At least 50 other university have adopted Harvard’s model, and more are doing so all the time. Faculty have the option to opt out of sharing their work, but many see the value that has previously not been possible in peer-reviewed journals. Unlike expensive journals that have a limited reach, making research openly available enhances scrutiny and the ability to check the reproducibility of results. Outside of the academic world, policymakers, journalists, nonprofits, and citizens from anywhere in the world can view and use the research for their own purposes. Peter Struber’s book on the topic, Open Access, is (of course) freely available on DASH, and well worth the read. Kyle Courtney, an attorney affiliated with the Harvard Library and the Office of General Counsel, talked about the inaugural Fair Use Week, which took place from Feb. 24 to 28 of this year, and will go national in 2015. The future of libraries lies in digitization, and as the ambitious efforts of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) have shown, a thorough review and reform of copyright law is essential to the future of libraries and academic institutions. Newly staffed with a “copyright first responders” team, Harvard Libraries now provide guidance to those seeking insight into open access. And as with DPLA, the biggest challenged is with orphaned works—books whose authors (or rights holders) or publishers are unreachable, and the copyright is indeterminate. This is one of the key issues to be resolved. How has DASH come in handy for me as an author? My “How Do They Feast?” series delves into how food is portrayed in fiction. Cooking is a passion, and I love to be able to feature food in my stories. I believe it helps readers connect to the stories, and I love the challenge of accurately showing the cuisine of a particular culture. I have a novel set in the Ancient Near East in the works, and a preliminary search on the term “culinary” gave me a paper on the early advances in agricultural life in Sumer. Avoiding anachronism is all that much easier when you can see what food people had access to. A search on Mesopotamia in general gave me access to several papers by scholar Jason Ur (students of Mesopotamian history will get the irony of his surname). The release of formerly classified images from satellites show roads and locations that were not known. Dozens of other papers in this topic can help me better establish the cities, culture, war, and trade in ancient Sumer. It’s an amazing resource that will help everyone collaborate and learn in new ways, and is one of the highlights of innovation in the Digital Age. Go check it out—and see how it can help you. *And in addition to DASH, you can also scroll down to the right sidebar on this site and search what’s available in the DPLA’s archives as well. Many thanks to the DPLA for developing this useful and widely sharable app!
This is a novel I never thought I’d write, but that’s what happens when the Muse visits. Sometimes there are surprises. Most of my inspiration comes from the ancient and medieval worlds—both European and Middle Eastern. My shelves are lined with books about Mesopotamia, the Abbasid Dynasty of Baghdad, Irish, Norse, and Germanic history, and Moorish Spain. I’ve spent months studying Herodotus, Xenophon, and Thucydides, chasing yet another idea for a new novel. I’m very, very close to delving into the epic fantasy series that I started in high school, which finally saw the light of day in the form of a short story in the anthology Shadows of a Fading World. So how did I come to be visited by a Muse inspired by the Old West?
In 2008, as the world’s economy headed for disaster, I was considering a move to Tucson, Arizona. With a new master’s degree in a shining frame on my wall, I headed out west in hopes of setting a new path and pursuing a PhD. I had been to New Mexico in the mid-90s and fell in love with the desert. Friends said Tucson was worth checking out. I spent some time there to get a feel for the place, and really dug it.
While wandering the city, I found myself at the Arizona Historical Society. I was warmly welcomed by two people at the entrance. “This is a big place, you know,” said the woman who greeted me. “If we don’t see you in a few hours, I’ll send my partner here to look for you.” And truly, it was the largest historical society I have ever visited, complete with a massive replica of a mine, with mannequins dressed as workers. Nearby was a replica of an apothecary from the 1800s, and rooms and rooms of interesting items from the state’s past.
The glass display case I came to stand before seemed innocuous at first. A framed police report caught my eye. A women nicknamed “Roadrunner,” who was known for consorting with the cowboys (a pejorative term at the time, mind you!), had shot her lover. The defense held that she suffered severe mental side effects from herbal abortives and an insanity plea was used. Just months before, the man who shot President Garfield also used the insanity plea—the first major case to use it in US history. I took a few notes and went on my way.
Weeks later, I couldn’t shake what I had read in the police report. I contacted the historical society and asked if they had any additional information. Not only did they have the complete court transcripts and press clippings, but also subpoenas and the decision made by the jury which was handed to the bailiff at the time of the woman’s conviction. After sending a small donation to the historical society, they made copies and sent me a large file containing everything.
What was fascinating was that May Woodman wasn’t allowed to testify. Men spoke for her. There was no doubt she shot her lover, Billy Kinsman, but there was also evidence that she was beaten while pregnant. Some shady testimony from a doctor suggested that this medicine—whatever it was—did negatively impact her state of mind. She tried to commit suicide twice after being convicted of manslaughter. She was sent to Yuma Prison, where she was the only female prisoner. She got involved in an illegal cigar-manufacturing scheme, and during an inspection, federal officials found thousands of cigars hidden in her cell. To avoid a brewing scandal, she was released, and put on a train to California and told never to return to Arizona territory again. And that is the last we hear of her.
To date, Whiskey and Rue is the most unusual story I’ve ever written. It’s far from the style of the ones I’ve done in the past. It took less research, there were far more thematic elements and a certain writing style that echoes my love for Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, and for the first time, I didn’t use an outline. The novel has undergone three massive revisions since I started working on it in 2011. It takes a sliver of my thesis, in showing the quest for women’s rights and the negative influence of control and conformity. One could say Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Yellow Wallpaper is a strong influence as well in terms of developing these thematic elements.
What makes May Woodman interesting is that she provides an interesting perspective of Tombstone’s history. When we think of Tombstone today, the gunfight at OK Corral is the first thing that springs to mind. Much ink has been spilled over what happened that day. May’s story is but the briefest of descriptions in books about Tombstone, living in the shadow of the Earps and Clantons. She lived there at the time, and no doubt knew many of the men involved. She operated a cigar stand in Barron’s Barber Shop on Allen Street, across from the Cosmopolitan Hotel, and a block away from where Virgil Earp was shot out of vengeance for the gunfight at OK Corral. May shot Billy on the same street corner where Virgil was badly injured.
There are some difficult issues here. I’ve said it’s the darkest thing I’ve written, and that’s saying something for an author whose first book is about Vlad the Impaler. It plumbs the depths of a desperate and isolated woman who constantly finds herself in trouble. However, May’s voice is very strong, and she was determined to have me write this story. I’m moving ever closer to sending it off to an editor, and it’s on track to be released in fall 2014. Hopefully in time for the 132nd anniversary of the gunfight at OK Corral. If dark westerns are your thing, stay tuned.
While a displaced group of Satanists (and those curious about them) wandered Harvard Square in search of a venue to perform a black mass after the on-campus event was canceled due to rabid controversy, I waited in line to see Michael Pollan, who was giving a talk about his latest book, Cooked. Michael Pollan is a witty and engaging speaker. I can’t say the same for whoever performed the black mass—though finding out their costumed procession, reportedly including a caped man in a white suit and horned mask, led them to the sometimes-infamous Hong Kong restaurant, was highly entertaining in itself. Sadly, no photos have been posted that I can find.
The Michael Pollan event hosted by Harvard Book Store, however, was as orderly and interesting as one would expect from the august shop. The author discussed the evolution of his books, starting with the Omnivore’s Dilemma, which explores the development of industrial agriculture and the food business and how it connects to any number of dietary fads and the dangerous rise in diseases such as type 2 diabetes. In Cooked, he gets to the source of food production, and takes the reader back to the origins of cooking and its relationship to the natural world.
Divided into the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water, the book discusses man’s initial use of fire and subsequent evolution. With the advent of agricultural societies came steaming and boiling, and cooking became a collaborative effort. To explore each element, Pollan takes on a mini-apprenticeship. He begins with fire, at a famous BBQ place in North Carolina. He’s given a tour by the pitmaster—a place flanked by grills, where the meat is slow cooked at low temperatures overnight. Out of this “smoky crypt” comes the whole hog sandwich, a delight of various cuts of meat. The practice harkens back to ancient times, when priests were in charge of sacrifices.
For water, he describes the process of processing grain. Soups and softer foods provide an opportunity to wean babies at a younger age, and the ability for elderly people to better eat. Life is prolonged. Civilization grows.
With air, he takes us to breadmaking. He spent time with Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, where he learned everything about the importance of sourdough starters and how the smell of a starter is key to the success of the finished product. An avid surfer, Robertson balances two passions, and Michael Pollan spoke with great enthusiasm about his time at the bakery. What we learn is that in cooking, the essential factors are practice, patience, and presence. You have to be there—no dithering about on social media—lord knows how often I’ve burned something after losing track of time while answering an email, leaving an abandoned pot of something to burn on the stove. He’s right. It’s a consummate hobby that requires keen focus.
But industry sped things up, and it’s become the norm. Recipes are falsely sped up to shorten preparation and cooking times. Best-sellers carry titles like “30-Minute Wonder Meals.” Many people are clueless in the kitchen without the help of a microwave. Pollan’s argument is that it all needs to slow down. Let the dough rise for hours. The slower the process, the more flavorful, the more nutritious the result.
With the invention of the flour mill came pristine white flour. The nutrients were stripped. Immediately, people began to get sick. So industry added the nutrients back in—but in the form of fortified stuff…like Wonder Bread. It was all fake, filled with chemicals, and it’s been hurting us ever since. He made an interesting comparison: with the rise of the labor movement, Europe fought for time. They spend more time cooking than we do. In the US, we fought for money, and there is a difference in rates of diabetes and obesity, though numbers are now rising all over the world.
Finally, with earth, he talked about cheesemaking. As someone who adores naturally produced cheese—the more odiferous the better—I was fascinated by his description of cheese left to age in barrels. While steel is industry standard, it’s been found that the powers of lacto bacilli kill of dangerous bacteria, which actually flourishes in steel. The barrel is more effective, and produces a more authentic and flavorful cheese.
“Cheese is all about the dark side of life,” Pollan said. While other scents are more thoroughly described, there is a tendency to avoid describing cheese in too much detail. It’s earthiness is visceral, it “puts us back on all fours.”
This unique perspective of cooking and how humanity and civilization evolved with food production was a powerful experience. It led me to think more deeply about how food is portrayed in fiction. Fiction is about transformations—primarily in characters, but also in places and situations. How are characters impacted by their food supply? In an apocalyptic scenario, how does a linchpin serve to cause an environment collapse? If a society is in the early stages of collaborative cooking, how does it change as more people build settlements and rely on grains? What happens if a crop is blighted? In a futuristic setting, what would happen if a city entirely dependent on high tech went black, and people couldn’t access proper food?
There are any number of ways the essence of this book could be incorporated into a story. One of the best things about worldbuilding is to sit back and think—what if? Cooked provides plenty of fodder to answer that question.
It wasn’t necessarily a theme I set out for when I started writing. Yet over time, a pattern became clear: I was mostly inspired by history, and I had a knack for finding extraordinary women who were often little more than footnotes in history books. Sometimes they had a few paragraphs, and legend and facts intermingled. It didn’t seem fair, and I realized it wasn’t always the fault of the writer (well, except in cases such as Professor Jared Sparks at Harvard, who threw out the letters of Ben Franklin’s sister while working on a biography of Mr. Franklin). Such details were simply not recorded, depending on the era and culture. When I researched the woman known as the wife of Prince Vlad Dracula (though evidence indicates she was a consort), her actual name was unknown. My portrait of her is based more on reading about medieval life in Eastern Europe. Even when I went to Romania to talk to historians, they shrugged helplessly when I pressed for detail, though they were very helpful in filling in many gaps I couldn’t obtain in books.
When I worked on Dark Lady of Doona, I found many of the stories about Irish pirate queen Granía O’Malley were repeated with variations on details from book to book, and there weren’t that many reliable biographies to use. The novel I’m currently working on, about a woman who lived in Tombstone, Arizona, during the time of the gunfight at OK Corral, has had its challenges as well, and that’s as close to modern times as I’ve gotten as I add to my list of stories to tell.
The biggest obstacles come when studying my favorite era: ancient history. Sumerian tablets provides precious few mentions of incredible women, from High Priestess Enheduanna to the only woman on the King’s List. If it weren’t for Herodotus, I doubt we’d have ever heard of Artemisia of Caria. How lucky that she now is immortalized in the sequel to 300, Rise of an Empire! I keep kidding to my husband that I’ll carry Herodotus’s time with me to the theater. He jokes that the old historian won’t be there to autograph books.
The list of novels and stories to write has become so long that I sometimes fear picking up another history book, for fear I’ll discover another woman with a compelling tale to tell. There are several novels on the list that stray from historical fiction entirely, with an epic fantasy and some speculative fiction. I can only hope that future advances in nanotechnology can prolong my life and ability to keep writing, or upload my consciousness into a computer so my thoughts translate directly into Scrivener (or whatever writing program will exist!)
The first week of March has been celebrated as Read an Ebook Week for the past few years. March is also Women’s History Month. While the focus is often on American women in history, I always look globally. Amazing women who have changed the course of history are everywhere. They may have been behind the scenes, people may have deliberately erased their names, or were forgotten as cultures merged and evolved, but I intend to tell as many of their stories as I can, and share out the best works I can find of others who have found themselves on a similar path.
A small selection of books that have inspired me, in no particular order:
- The Memoirs of Cleopatra, by Margaret George
- The Whip, by Karen Kondazian (a story about a women who lived as a man, driving stage coaches, in the Old West)
- Boudica by Vanessa Collingridge
- Granuaile: Ireland’s Pirate Queen, by Anne Chambers
- Princess, Priestess, Poet: The Sumerian Temple Hymns of Enheduanna, by Betty De Shong Meador
And to honor both Read and Ebook Week and Women’s History Month, my two historical novels are available for free, exclusively on Smashwords, through March 8, 2014: The Veiled Mirror: The Story of Prince Vlad Dracula’s Lost Love and Dark Lady of Doona. Use code RW100 during the check-out process. Please enjoy, and celebrate by sharing the stories of the women who have inspired you.
How important is the accurate portrayal of food in historical fiction? Do you ever trip over a detail which takes you out of the enjoyable rhythm of a story—such as knowing there’s no way a potato would find its way into an Irish stew until well after Sir Walter Raleigh’s voyage to the New World? If you are a writer, what steps do you take to avoid anachronisms?
There are a few essential books for every writer’s shelf: for me, it’s been the Chicago Manual of Style, Roget’s Thesaurus (which was recently supplemented with Powerthesaurus.org, my new favorite resource), and a legion of history books. A subset of those history books has expanded greatly over the years, and they all have to do with food. A recent addition was What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank: A fantasy Lover’s Food Guide, which I learned about through author Krista Ball’s guest post on David Gaughran’s blog. I was hooked.
Krista Ball addresses many important facets of world history and asks writers to consider using them to make their stories more authentic. Food riots stemming from extreme inequality is a main feature of her argument, as is the harsh punishments visited upon hunters who poach or even tread upon royal land (accounting for “common rights,” during which English farmers could let their pigs feed on acorns during autumn). She also called for more variety in the open markets, citing the difference between what would be available in Thailand, North America, and the Middle East.
There’s a wealth of information packed into this 250-page book. Among the most interesting facts:
- Roman soldiers carried a patera, an all-in-one bronze utensil that was used as a cup, cooking pot, and bowl. About seven inches in diameter, it is an item every traveling hero could have.
- Imagine this sight: a Tuareg caravan with some 40,000 camels, carrying salt to trade. Ancient techniques included boiling or evaporating seawater. This was also done in eighteenth-century France to avoid paying salt taxes.
- In the days before baking powder, people made potash, which was a mixture of ashes boiled in water then left to settle overnight. The liquid would then be removed to leave a grey residue to be used in the same way baking powder is today. Think of that the next time you make cookies!
- In sixth-century China, some rulers decreed that grain surpluses be stored and not sold to foreign lands in order to be able to feed the population during times of famine (a way to prevent food riots, to be sure).
- As early as 6000 BC, clay jugs were used to store wine, and by 4000 BC, rose wine was being exported from Persia.
- In ancient Rome, barrels were used to collect rain water. They were set along roads for travelers as well as by homes.
- Something to consider for sieging well-fortified castles: The attacking army had to protect their supplies from people who slipped out of the castle via tunnels to steal everything they could carry and set fire to the rest of the supplies.
Several excellent resources were suggested for further research: from al-Baghdadi’s Book of Dishes (1225) and The Forme of Cury, compiled by the master-cooks of Richard II in 1390. Krista Ball also goes through the detail process of planning for a massive royal feast, which takes place months in advance. It’s one of the more fascinating sections within the appendix. One of the key take-aways from the book is how much food culture can change through influences of trade and war—showing how a culture’s cuisine can change through outside influences provides a lot of potential for writers. What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank is a wonderful guide that offers great details on food in fiction and inspires the reader to search for more. When I first read it, I left a review on Goodreads pining for more—and was surprised to receive a note from the author that a sequel is in the works. I look forward to seeing what comes of it.
In early June I went to Eastport, Maine, to help my mom do some research on our family. My great-grandmother, Amy Frost, grew up in the area with four sisters and two brothers. Her youngest sister, Hilda Mitchell, ran a small variety store with her husband in Eastport through the mid-twentieth century, and after they retired, they still lived above the store that overlooks a former sardine canning plant right by the water. As a young woman, my great-grandmother worked there, waiting for the whistle to blow to call them to work. These days, the sardine industry is closed, but sardines have made a permanent mark on the town’s culture. Each New Year’s Eve, a giant sardine is dropped from the roof of the Tides Institute and Art Museum downtown.
For many years, I’d hoped to see where my great-grandmother’s family had lived. It’s the only side of my family I really know anything about. Eastport’s current population is about 1,322, and the town was known as a significant port in the nineteenth century. A fire wiped out the business district in 1886, and my great-grandmother was born there in 1898 during the rebuilding effort. In 2005, my mom and I compiled what family history we could into a heritage cookbook, including snapshots of my great-grandmother’s handwritten cookbook, what few family photos have been salvaged over the years, with a collection of recipes. I formatted it in QuarkXpress and printed it on lovely handmade paper. A print run of about twenty, it was given to close friends. It was a wonderful project, but we soon realized it was insufficient. Our current goal is to revive the project and publish it under the Her Raven Domain imprint. It’s in the early planning stages, but we’re looking forward to working on the revised edition.
Our research efforts were hampered by bad weather, but fortunately, online resources will help us find out more about our family. I assumed I’d take a few pictures, find a few family records, maybe find homes where family lived (we did find one home, that of Hilda, but without more resources available at the time, that was it). I never considered myself the type to draw inspiration from family history. No plans for memoirs lie in my future. However, inspiration came when I learned Eastport was a hotbed of smuggling and espionage during the War of 1812. If I can only find out how far back my great-grandmother’s family goes in the region, I suspect there may be some colorful characters in the family’s past. Unfortunately, the Fort Sullivan Barracks Museum was closed while we were in Eastport, but perhaps someday, I’ll have an opportunity to visit, or at least do research remotely.
As I strolled the streets of town, I was struck by its rustic beauty. I could still see what my great-grandmother must have seen decades ago. Yet, Eastport strives to foster an artistic community, and I was surprised by how many galleries and artsy locales lined the streets (and I was also surprised to find Eastport was home to an art school back in the 1920s—a tradition I didn’t expect to find!). We stayed in an apartment above an artists’ coop, The Commons, run by a group of innovative women doing their best to help the town grow. In addition to the building we stayed in, they recently bought a nearby warehouse to be converted into businesses and residences. We ate at a Greek restaurant called The Liberty—seriously—some of the best Greek fare I’ve ever had. May it live long and prosper.
Eastport is known as the easternmost point in the continental US, and it is the first to see the sun rise each day (though some contest that the nearby town of Lubec is). It was well worth my while to get up shortly after 4:00 am to see the sun come up over the horizon. A fierce rain storm impeded the view for two days, but even the rainy weather created a moody atmosphere that seemed essential for me to understand how to write about the town.
Over a meal, mom told me a family story that stuck in my mind and haunted my nights. An idea grew—and I spent hours thinking about how this story could be placed against the backdrop of the War of 1812. And who knows how this will evolve as I do my research…another historical novel has been added to the works in progress list (making the grand total 18, with two published: guess I ought to get to it!).
I know for my mom, this trip was an important pilgrimage. It was for me too, I just didn’t realize how powerful it would be. I do hope to maintain that connection with the past and see what comes of it.
(Originally published June 2013)
The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study has become an amazing place. It serves as a hub for collaborative projects that span Harvard University, and all disciplines, from humanities to the sciences, are explored in a variety of symposia and events. I seem to be going there a lot lately. I missed the Julia Child celebration, but fortunately, all of the panel discussions are available online.
This week, I attended an event hosted by Radcliffe and Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center, entitled From Author’s Hand to Printer’s Mind: When and Why Do Literary Manuscripts Survive?—A Lecture and 20 Questions with Roger Chartier. I really didn’t know what to expect, except that it has to do with books, and of course I’ll attend any event about literature and publishing. The topic dovetailed nicely with the stellar Why Books? conference from two years ago and the Take Note conference.
Roger Chartier spoke about archiving literary manuscripts, generally focusing on 1750 onward. Much has been lost before 1750, but he did discuss the Shakespeare folios and how literary historians try to piece together a biography of not only the author, but the works themselves, by collecting drafts, revisions, notes, letters, anecdotes, and anything that will help piece together the history of a play or novel. Much ado was given to the “genetic perspective” of a text—and the importance of being able to study the creative process. The various challenges of literature throughout history were also presented: the restrictive effects of the Licensing Act of 1737, which sought to control the content of plays. After a manuscript was approved, the printer had to send a copy back to the licensing office to ensure no offensive or seditious material made its way in. A major theme was authenticity. Interesting questions arose: in the nineteenth century, when serialized fiction was popular, there was a distinction between the individual chapters printed in the magazines and the final, collected novel. Charles Dickens had to be concerned about deadlines and space constraints for the serialized works—so when the entire story was compiled and he had the opportunity to revise, which is more “authentic,” the original pieces from the magazine, or the entire novel as he intended it to be in one piece?
Out of the many topics that went deep into the realm of literary research, a common theme kept coming up: How does it relate to today’s method of archiving literature? Consider the popular writing software Scrivener. In it, I can make countless annotations, compile my research, keep a history of my revisions, all in one place. One need only archive my hard drive to compile a biography of my writing history.
When someone posed the question about self-publishing, and how literature was “written for the general public, but is now written by the general public,” and is this democratization of publishing a good thing, I waited, poised to jump in to defend indie publishing. Not a single person spoke out against it. Roger Chartier even compared today’s indie publishing movement to the age before literary agents and big corporate interests. Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard Library, champions the Digital Public Library of America, spoke about copyright and how the laws are being used a foils by lobbying groups and has a negative impact on the digitalization of works. That could have been a symposia topic of its own. But it isn’t new. Authors such as Diderot and Milton railed against monopolies and what is truly in the best interest of the artist.
All in all, it was a fascinating discussion. I was amazed at how much information was packed into two hours. My favorite bit was summing up an author’s creative work as a “unity of hand, heart, and mind.” And I’m glad to see the abundance of interest in preserving it as best as our society can.
(Originally published October 2012)