Would you like arsenic with that?

Happy Sunday, everyone! I’m back, finally, with a historical post.

The book I’m working on now is more mystery than romance–my penchant for killing people off in my books suggested I ought to go in the mystery direction, although so far I’ve killed off fewer people in this book than in all the others. Go figure.

Arsenic makes an appearance in the book, largely because it was hands down the most prevalent poison in the Victorian era. Believe it or not, many of the deaths from arsenic poisoning were actually unintentional. Arsenic was a component of many commonly used products, including cosmetics and soaps, fabric, and wall paper. 

Arsenic cleared the complexion of blemishes and produced the pale skin popular at the time. (Of course, they used lead too, which is another issue entirely.)

 

Arsenic was also the main component of lovely green pigments and other colors that adorned Victorian walls–wallpaper was very trendy (between 1834 and 1874, the number of wallpaper rolls produced in Britain rose by 2,615%), and the same colors were used on toys, clothing, even artificial flowers women wore in their hair.
Although doctors began sounding the alarm of the dangers of arsenic exposure in these materials in the early 1850s, they were dismissed as hysterical. It wasn’t until the demands of the market changed in the 1870s (and after Queen Victoria had all the green wallpaper removed from Buckingham Palace in 1879) that British manufacturers began to change their practices. It has even been hypothesized that Napoleon was murdered by wallpaper.

 

There was plenty of deliberate arsenic poisoning in the Victorian era as well. In 1851, Parliament passed the Sale of Arsenic Regulation Act, which required those who sold arsenic to maintain a written and signed record of sales (as we do in the U.S. now with pseudoephedrine), and it demanded that no one could sell arsenic to someone unless they knew the purchaser. It also required arsenic, with some exceptions, to be colored with soot or indigo before sale.

When I first started researching this, I discovered the 1851 act as originally written only restricted children from purchasing arsenic, but I also found several articles which noted an amendment to the law, added at the last minute, restricted women as well.  Unfortunately, I can’t find any proof of this, which is making it somewhat more challenging to write the book. I may actually have to darken the doors of my law school library. Update: Some days I’m unable to stop researching, so I found this snippet about the provision barring sales to women, which in the end was NOT included in the final legislation: “…sales would be restricted to those of full age though not, as Carlisle, the PMSA, and the Pharmaceutical Society would have preferred, to men only, the decision to discriminate against women being dropped ‘owing to the indignant remonstrances of ladies’.” Thank goodness for indignant remonstrances of ladies. 🙂  And now excuse me as I head off to rewrite three or four chapters…

James Marsh

Arsenic poisoning was so prevalent that it was one of the first compounds for which a toxicology test was created. Although a test to detect the presence of arsenic had been developed in 1775, in 1832, British Chemist James Marsh was asked to analyze a cup of coffee that had allegedly been used to poison a man. Marsh did so, but by the time of trial, the substance had deteriorated. The man, John Bodle, was acquitted. When Bodle later admitted he had actually committed the crime, Marsh was determined to develop a more stable test that could be successfully used in court. By 1836, he had done so, and the Marsh test was first used in France to convict Madame Marie LaFarge of killing her husband.

And now, just for fun, I will leave you with this clip from Arsenic and Old Lace

Sources:
http://www.historyinanhour.com/2012/09/08/the-dawn-of-forensics/
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/you/article-2335464/Whats-poison-Easy-buy-tasteless-lethal-tiny-doses-arsenic-regarded-perfect-murder-weapon.html
http://nymag.com/thecut/2013/12/most-dangerous-beauty-through-the-ages.html
http://hyperallergic.com/329747/death-by-wallpaper-alluring-arsenic-colors-poisoned-the-victorian-age/
http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1851/13/contents/enacted
http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1851/13/pdfs/ukpga_18510013_en.pdf
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/you/article-2335464/Whats-poison-Easy-buy-tasteless-lethal-tiny-doses-arsenic-regarded-perfect-murder-weapon.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marsh_test

 

It’s NaNovember so this will be short…

typewriter-801921_1920It’s NaNoWriMo–National Novel Writing Month–for many of us in the writing world, that crazy time of year when we are glued to our laptops for an entire month, even more antisocial than usual, vomiting at least 1667 words per day for a total of 50,000 by November 30. I’ve spent the latter part of this week catching up to the first part–Election Day put a wee hitch in my stride–but for the first time in several years I’m reasonably close to being on target to finish (knock on wood).

Although I was planning to write a futuristic dystopian I plotted during the RNC, it was far too depressing. So I’m writing a romantic historical mystery instead, and I am completely pantsing it. Other than knowing who killed the odious Clive in the very first scene, I’m playing everything by ear. This is usually a recipe for disaster for me, and trying to do it with a mystery is likely to be incredibly stupid. But I was trying to finish the last book before this one, so I didn’t have time to plot. We shall see if I still manage to get through the middle without flying off the rails, but so far the words are flowing with minimal obstruction. (Knocking again.)

Are you trying NaNo this year? How’s it going? Words flowing? Not so much? Take a little break and share!

Conquering Fear

Yesterday I spent the day with writer friends from the Northeast Ohio chapter of RWA, participating in a workshop presented by Bob Mayer. He spoke about many things in his six-hour talk, including turning ideas into stories, recognizing and developing conflict (my biggest problem, perhaps), outlining and plotting, characters’ needs and flaws, and story arcs. But for some reason, the part that resonated with me most was his discussion of fear.

FullSizeRender (1)Fear, Mayer said, is “a feeling of alarm or disquiet caused by the expectation of danger, pain, or the like.” It stems from uncertainty. Since life is one long uncertainty, all of us have fears. We fear failure, rejection, criticism, loss. We fear making the wrong decision, making mistakes. I can remember three times in my life when I was truly fearful: the day I graduated from college; the day I made a commitment to start my own law firm; and the day I sent off my first manuscript to an editor who’d requested it. Every one of those marked a decision to leave the safety of the known and start on an unknown path potentially fraught with peril. Graduating from college I realized it was the first time in my life I really had no clue what I was supposed to do next. The entire world was before me, and absolutely anything could happen. Starting my own law firm, I left the security of a regular paycheck in exchange for freedom–to take the work I wanted, to get away from the backstabbing bullshit of my old firm, and to spend more time with my four-year old son. And the day I sent that manuscript was the first time I faced either real acceptance or true rejection of my writing.

That editor did reject my manuscript, which stung. I am extremely fortunate in that another editor was waiting to see it too, and when she did, she bought it, and my life as a published author began. But all three of these moments in time taught me that to act in the face of fear is, while scary as hell, worth every tear shed and every night spent tossing and turning, asking yourself whether you’ve done the right thing. Mayer said yesterday, “Heroism is taking action in the face of fear.” While I certainly don’t consider myself a hero for facing my fears, perhaps all of us who take that step into the unknown do have a bit of the hero inside us. Although you’re never going to see me jumping out of an airplane. No way.

If fear is preventing you from accomplishing your dreams, take a closer look at yourself. I’ll bet there’s a hero inside of you too.

The Grammar Grump: Dialogue Tags

A few years ago, when the kid was smaller and far less lippy, he was obsessed with a series of children’s books. Wonderful books, with interesting story lines and well drawn characters, and there were at least fifty of them at the time. One Christmas, we got a few of them on tape and listened as we drove across the country to the grandparents’ house. Nearly every line of dialogue was followed  by a ‘said.’ When you read these books to yourself, you don’t notice them. But when they are read aloud, wow. It became a game as we all shouted ‘said!’ every 30 seconds as the book progressed.

wordle 2I was thinking of this today as I judged a contest entry. After nearly every line of dialogue, there was a dialogue tag–those words used to convey information about the speaker. But because this author had probably heard somewhere that using ‘said’ is boring, she used other words too, including: remarked, explained, asked, instructed, huffed, purred, challenged, inquired, sniffed, whispered, concurred, warned, murmured, intoned, and added. And all of those were in the first few pages. An occasional asked, explained, or whispered is fine, but one doesn’t speak and sniff at the same time–go ahead, try it. In addition, many of the tags were peppered with adverbs–softly whispered, quickly explained. I should add that this entry was otherwise quite well written, but the ridiculous dialogue tags and excessive adverbs may have ruined the author’s chance to final in the category.

So, how to fix this problem? I am not saying a writer should never use dialogue tags. They are essential to clarify who is speaking, especially if there are more than two people in a scene. But you don’t need them all the time. Try a line of dialogue followed, or preceded, by a character’s action or expression. For example:

“You must be joking.” Robert laughed at the thought.
Evelyn sneered. “You’ll see.”

When you do use a dialogue tag, keep it simple. As I noted above, I hadn’t realized the children’s book author used ‘said’ so often, because when I read her stories, ‘said’ faded into the background. It conveys the identity of the speaker without beating the reader over the head. If you want to show a speaker’s emotion, or expression, try it another way:

His smile faded. “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t care, my lord.” She shrugged and turned away.

Pick up a book by your favorite author. How do they use dialogue tags? You may be surprised when you look more closely. The following exchange is from Julia’s Quinn’s On the Way to the Wedding. The characters are discussing what it must feel like to know you’re in love:

She lifted her eyes to his, made breathless by the gravity of of her own revelations.”It’s too much,” she heard herself say. “It would be too much. I wouldn’t. . . I wouldn’t. . .”
Slowly, he shook his head. “You would have no choice. It would be beyond your control. It just . . . happens.”
Her mouth parted with surprise. “That’s what she said.”
“Who?”
And when she answered, her voice was strangely detached, as if the words were being drawn straight from her memory. “Hermione,” she said. “That’s what Hermione said about Mr. Edmonds.”
Gregory’s lips tightened at the corners. “Did she?”
Lucy slowly nodded. “Almost precisely. She said it just happens. In an instant.”

There are plenty of other posts out there that go into more detail, and even a few books. Some of the better blog posts are these:
http://www.writing-world.com/grammar/said.shtml
http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/how-to-eliminate-adverbs
http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/keep-it-simple-keys-to-realistic-dialogue-part-ii
http://querytracker.blogspot.com/2012/06/using-dialogue-tags-and-punctuation.html
http://theeditorsblog.net/2013/12/04/another-take-on-dialogue-tags/

How do you feel about dialogue tags, as a reader or a writer?

 

 

 

Musings on an Anniversary

StirringUptheViscount_w9340_750This weekend marks a year since my first book was published. I actually almost missed it–I was sitting in a hockey rink (as usual) watching the kid practice, when I got that Facebook “you’ve got memories” reminder, and there it was. A year ago, I was giddy with excitement, celebrating with many friends, drinking champagne, basking in my accomplishment. This year I’m in my pajamas at 6:30 am, drinking tea, hoping the menfolk will sleep in long enough for me to get some work done on the third book without interruption.

So I thought that I’d throw out some of the lessons I’ve learned after a year in my tiny corner of the crazy publishing world.

  1. People are always impressed when you tell them you’ve written a book. It IS an impressive accomplishment to write a book, let alone publish one, whether you are traditionally, independently, or self-published. It’s okay to be proud of yourself.
  2. On the other hand, it’s not okay to rest on your laurels (unless of course you only intended to ever publish just one book). Just because you’ve been successful once doesn’t mean you’ll stay successful. Authors get dropped by publishers or agents, even in the middle of a series. This realization was a bit of a shocker for naive little me, although it shouldn’t have been. I suppose we as writers tend to believe that once we find that agent, that publisher, who loves us, they will always love us, no matter what we do. Nope. Keep learning, keep writing, pay attention to the market for which you write, and above all…
  3. Be nice. Don’t write a snarling one star review of someone else’s book. Don’t take someone down to build yourself up. Don’t be an arrogant shit to other writers, readers, or your editor. Most of the writers I know are the loveliest, kindest, funniest, wackiest, most generous people you’ll ever meet. But there are always a few out there who are not. Don’t be one.
  4. You’ll never be Nora Roberts, or Stephen King, or JK Rowling. Deal with it. Find your own success and your own happiness, and don’t try to be like anyone else.
  5. Not everyone will like what you write, including the people who know and love you. Some of them will be very excited to read your book, but then they will never say anything to you because they hated it and they are–see number 3–too nice to tell you so. That’s okay. But if you are a friend of a writer and you did like their book, please tell them, or write a nice review on Amazon or Goodreads, or both. Writers need to hear praise. It’s kind of pathetic, actually, but it’s true.
  6. There’s always more to learn. There’s a tendency to think that once you’ve published a book, you know everything you need to know as a writer. You don’t. Not even close.
  7. Hang out with writers. They are the only people who will truly understand your writer side. This is not to say you should only hang out with writers–goodness, no. But if you have an opportunity to go to a writers conference, or join a writers group, or just have coffee with a writer friend, you should take it.
  8. Write with writers. Writing is, for the most part, a solitary endeavor. But I have discovered lately that writing in the same room with other writers (even if it’s a virtual room) is a wonderful spur to productivity.
  9. Keep reading. My biggest mistake in the past year was to stop reading so much. I have always been a voracious reader, and have always considering reading to be my escape from the harsh realities of life. My happy place. But when I started writing, I thought that I shouldn’t read so much, and I certainly shouldn’t read many historicals. I found it distracting, I was afraid I’d inadvertently stick someone else’s words in my own work. Huge mistake. HUGE. Not reading stifled me in ways I didn’t realize until I started reading again. Don’t be afraid to read the kinds of books you write, and plenty of others besides.
  10. Keep writing. A couple of weeks ago I blogged about getting stuck in the middle of a book, consumed by doubt, yadda yadda. I don’t call this writer’s block, because I no longer think a writer ever gets blocked. There are always words to be written, and if a writer sits her ass down in the chair, she will write them. They might not be the words she wants to be writing, but those will come eventually. Just keep writing.

 

The Middle Muddle

The Beginning

The Beginning

Every writer has his or her way of doing things.  Some writers write only one book at a time, beginning at the beginning and writing in an orderly fashion until the end. Other writers write one book at a time, but in pieces, writing a scene here and scene there and then weaving them all together.

Not me. I write several books at a time. I love, absolutely love, starting a book. The blank page is so full of possibility. Every book might be fabulous, might be a best seller. Every book has the potential to be written in an orderly fashion until I’m done.

Alas, every single book I write fails to meet that potential. Every. Single. One.

When I get to the middle–known by many writers as The Dreaded Middle–I come to a screeching halt. I have no idea where to go next. I am consumed by doubts:  This book is boring. This book is TERRIBLE. I suck at this. I’ll never write another book. 

So I fret. I try to plot a bit more, to think of situations to toss my characters into so they can get out of the mess they’re in. I re-read the outline, the synopsis, or the beat sheet I’ve prepared to get myself back on track. I stare at the last sentence I’ve written and type nothing else. I read writing books.

Then I get another idea for a book, so I plot that. I write a synopsis. I tell myself–and my writer friends, who are probably tired of hearing it–that THIS time, I will avoid the Middle Muddle. I will storm right through and take no prisoners. It will be AWESOME.

But of course it’s not. I get stuck in the middle, and the cycle starts again.

The EndWith every book, though, there comes a moment when the words flow again, where I get past the middle in a flurry of activity that sometimes causes me physical injury. I pound out the last 20 or 30 thousand words in half the time it takes to write the first 30,000.

Yesterday was such a moment. I went to a NEORWA meeting in the morning, learned about a great new writing center in the Cuyahoga County Public Library, then went to lunch with some of my chapter sisters. I bitched about the middle muddle, and when I got home, I pulled out the manuscript that’s been idle for 5 or 6 months, and started typing. I wrote 1400 words before dinner, and another 300 words before bed. I got past the middle. It felt amazing.

I have no idea why this happens. I don’t have any epiphanies, or sudden realizations about the characters or the plot that take me past it. I just start writing again.

Last night I realized that this is okay. It’s simply the way I write. Although I will continue to read writing books and talk to writer friends and plot and try to avoid the Middle Muddle, I have made my peace with it. I’m never going to write fast, never going to be like this prolific writer or that super organized one. I am my own writer, and I do things my way, even if that way is weird and confusing and occasionally demoralizing. Anyone who knows me is probably not at all surprised.

So, writer friends. How do you write? Orderly, piecemeal? One book at a time or several? Middle muddle or not?

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