Frost has crept into the mornings. At the day job, there are a few hours during which I rely on a woodstove. If there’s no fire, there’s no heat in the building, and there’s really only so long that you can shiver and watch your breath rise dragon-like to the ceiling.
Last week, the woodstove required a fair bit of running around. First, I had to remember to bring newspaper to start the fire, because I knew we were almost out. Then there wasn’t any wood, so I had to go to another building, collect some, and carry it over. Once I’d gotten the wood inside, I had to go find the ash bucket and clear out the oven. Then, finally, I could set about building my fire.
Now, the thing with woodstoves and hearths is that each one is different. You need to know their quirks. This particular stove has a small fire box. That is, it can’t take very much wood, especially not at first.
So I’ve learned to burn just one log at a time, until there’s a good bed of hot coals. Once you’ve got that, the stove will burn just about anything—and quickly!—and the building starts to warm up. But you can’t rush it. If you stuff the box with logs, the fire smothers and you have to start all over.
It takes time to do it properly. Look at how many little tasks comprise starting the fire! It’s been a nice thing about working in a historic setting: this acknowledgement of the fact that sometimes things take longer. There are more steps involved.
It’s especially nice given how preoccupied we often are with convenience and instant gratification. We can pop dinner in the microwave. Summon a car on our phones. Send messages immediately—and see when the other party’s read them. We’re so used to the instant, I think we’ve forgotten how to slow down. We’ve forgotten how to take the smaller tasks in their own turn.
I’m guilty of wanting instant gratification too. Watching more established writers can feel like watching other people tend a roaring fire whilst you shiver in front of an empty stove.
But it takes time to do things properly. As we move through our careers, it’s like we’re all building fires. You can’t just toss matches at logs and expect a blaze. You have to move through the other steps first: writing apprentice pieces, trying new things, failing, getting rejections, getting the first publication, the first good review, the first convention, the first rejection that really hurts…
All the little tasks add up. They’re all part of the process. And so, just as I’m patient with my fire, I’m learning to be patient with myself, too.
That’s the plan, anyway!
What I’m Listening To This Week
Since it’s Halloween tomorrow, all my favourite autumn songs have featured prominently. Specifically, the Souling Song. It’s one of those songs with many versions. I learned slightly different lyrics, but this rendition is good fun too.
Ah, I do love the year’s turning….
I’m tired, and depleted, and there is so very much to be done. But in fairness, it’s not wholly unexpected; this is a transitional period. Heavy lifting and shifting ground comes with the territory. As my mom put it, it’s like a monkey swinging through jungle: you can’t let go of the old vine until you have the new firmly in hand.
(Well, you can—I have done in the past—but you have to accept the risk of falling.)
I’m mostly just whining, to be honest. Because I’m uncomfortable, because I’m tired. But I keep telling myself that things will be better on the other side—I just have to get there.
I have noticed one thing, though: this whole past week, I’ve been yearning to find a secluded cabin and stuff myself with art. Paintings. Books. Music. Preferably surrounded by woods and lakes, with no people around. Introvert heaven.
Which is how I know I’m tired. It’s the spiritual/creative equivalent of my anaemia-driven oyster cravings. This is my subconscious’ way of trying to replenish the energy I’ve put out.
And so I’ve taken some concrete steps (I believe in taking concrete steps). In a month’s time, I’m heading north to Georgian Bay for some trees, water, and dark starry skies. Only for a long weekend, but I’ll take what I can get.
In the meantime, I’ve been stuffing myself with art. Late last week, I took a rare day off. I went to the Art Gallery of Ontario, which is rapidly becoming one of my favourite refuges. (The knot in my chest dissolved within minutes of entering the galleries.) It was a fairly short excursion; I mostly wanted to see my favourite paintings and splurge on fancy espresso.
But I did play a little game. Sometimes when I’m learning about my characters, I take them to museums. That is, I wander museums and I let them chatter quietly in the background. What’s familiar to them, what’s weird, what are they drawn to?
For instance, I like Victorian Romanticism and Impressionism, like this:
My protagonist very quickly decided she likes twentieth-century abstract art: “The ones that look broken, but aren’t.”
So I suppose I was working even while off, but I know her better now. I’m not ready to start writing this novel yet, but we’re getting closer…
Then I explored the new Grange Park (gorgeous) and hit the library to restock on books (more CanLit, plus a collection of Octavia Butler shorts).
While I feel vaguely guilty for not working in the midst of so much happening, these are the things which keep me going. They give me enough energy to get through the woods, grab the next vine.
This feels like a turning point. I just need to hold on a while longer.
What I’m Listening to this Week
Back with my pal Handel, and the “Amen” chorus from the end of Messiah. I’ve been absentmindedly singing this all week, albeit with the words to the Sanctus. Not sure what’s happening there.
In any case, enjoy the supporting strings and percussion, along with the graceful dance between the vocal lines. The tenors have a particularly beautiful moment around the 2:19 mark. And at the very end— no uses expectant silence like Handel!
So I had a visitor recently that did the whole, “Don’t you wish you lived in the 1800s?” thing, and I gave my usual response of enjoying twenty-first century plumbing, medicine, and women’s suffrage. But then he asked,
“Is there anything you like better about the past?”
And I had a think. Because, yes—there is something I like better.
I appreciate the closer ties to the natural world and its rhythms. I passed our raspberry bushes today and the raspberries are all gone: their season is over. It’s a sign that summer is winding on. Conversely, the hops are developing later than they ought. The vines themselves are fairly lush (one seems to have become particularly virulent) but the blooms aren’t as far along as I’d expect.
But hey, the Queen Anne’s lace and thistles are coming into their own, and soon enough the leaves will turn (the maple by the front gates first—always—probably in another three weeks if it keeps to schedule), and then I’ll be able to get good Ontario apples again.
The geese will fly south; the frogs and turtles will disappear for a little while. The Summer Triangle will dance offstage, and we’ll all greet Orion before the winter holidays. Then sometime in March, I’ll be on robin-watch.
I live in Canada’s largest city.
While I like indoor plumbing and heating, the insular nature of modern living is something I do regret. For many people…well, it doesn’t matter what season it is, does it? Turn on the lights, adjust the furnace/fan/AC, and it can be a bright and balmy 25 C all year around. There’s a convenience to that, but it also fills me with a vaguely horrified, un-moored feeling.
I need shape to my year. I need it as surely as people did centuries ago, with their patterns of saints’ days and agricultural markers. The raspberries are gone, and that means something to me. Being aware of the greater tapestry grounds me. It brings me outside my head, and I’m learning—if I’m too much within my own thoughts, I burn out. My nerves wind too tight to create, to write.
Beyond my day job, I’m trying to find ways to keep this contact with nature and its seasons. Whether it’s slipping out into the ravines more, or finding more of Toronto’s parks and gardens, or actually heading up north next summer.
I’ll be waiting for the hops to bloom.
What I’m Listening to this Week
The liturgical calendar also structures my year quite nicely. And we’ve hit the part of summer where I dearly miss my choir. “If Ye Love Me” is a delightful old chestnut. Particularly love the altos’ harmony around 0:30, and the cascading repetitions of, “That he…” around 0:40.
I feel like if you’ve sung this piece, you fall into one of two camps: “E’en the SPEERT of truth,” or, “E’en the SPRIT of truth.” (I am the latter.)
My life seems to change drastically every seven years or so. We’re not quite due for a shake-up yet, but it’s been on my mind. Maybe it’s the whole “turning 26” thing. My friends are buying houses, getting married, having babies. Stuff’s getting real…
…whilst I continue to frolic about like a bohemian Peter Pan. There’s a quotation from the end of Barrie’s book that haunts me:
[Peter] had ecstasies innumerable that other children can never know; but he was looking through the window at the one joy from which he must be forever barred.
But then I started actually thinking about the future. I have no idea how things are going to end up, and it seems a bit silly to fret too much. It all changes every seven years, right?
And so I started thinking slightly differently. Not what will happen?
What do I want for myself?
I’ve never cleaved closely to the conventional narrative, after all. I know that I won’t buy a three-bedroom semi-detached home in midtown Toronto. I know my relationships and family won’t look conventional. We’re not just outside the box: we left it squished three miles down the road. So if the “should be” isn’t a thing…
What do I actually want?
There’s another poem that speaks to me:
Mine be a cot beside the hill;
A bee-hive’s hum shall soothe my ear;
A willowy brook that turns a mill,
With many a fall shall linger near.
The swallow oft beneath my thatch
Shall twitter from her clay-built nest;
Oft shall the pilgrim lift the latch,
And share my meal, a welcome guest.
Around my ivied porch shall spring
Each fragrant flower that drinks the dew;
And Lucy at her wheel shall sing
In russet gown and apron blue.
The village church among the trees,
Where first our marriage vows were given,
With merry peals shall swell the breeze
And point with taper spire to Heaven.
-Samuel Rogers (1763-1855)
That’s all. That’s it.
Essential. Real. Meaningful.
Just need to keep that close.
What I’m Listening to This Week
I’ve been working on a thing that’s required a lot of fantasy-style music. Here’s a lively piece from Heather Alexander!
Well, I was right. It was another immensely busy and stressful week. Honestly, it feels like I’m spinning my wheels and getting nowhere fast. That said, I’m hopeful things will calm down once Canada Day is behind us. Once I’ve put myself back together, we can talk about forging ahead.
But for all the worry and work—there have been times when the breeze shifts just right, or the morning light hits, and the past few summers come rushing back all at once.
I loved the summer I started working at the museum. You know that feeling, early in the morning, when the light is gold and the air is fresh, and all things seem possible? Like you’re poised at the beginning, in the moment that holds all the potential? That’s what it felt like, all the time: forget-me-not-sky and dewy grass, lingering lilac and gravel crunching underfoot. It felt like I was finally getting something I’d been craving for such a very long time.
It’s the Southern Ontario Summers of my childhood. Sometimes I feel them when I look at paintings: line and colour flooding all five senses at once. And so, since I’m really too tired for a coherent post this week, here are a bunch of pictures that send me straight into summer.
Mostly turn of the century. Mostly meadows and fields. Mostly light.
I’m sure that says something about Southern Ontario, but I need to sleep now.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Henry Purcell is a cool dude. His semi-opera, “The Fairy Queen” (1692), is also cool. Bright and sprightly, as the Renaissance ought to be, but with quite a bit of depth, too. Heads up: it’s a long one.
“When I am fabulously wealthy,” I tell myself, “I shall buy the fanciest of desks.”
After all, I am a writer. My desk is my ship’s bridge, my nest, and my second home. Nor am I alone in pondering my desk. Most writers tend to be a little finicky about their work setup. Sometimes it’s rooted in superstition—if I have the right workspace, I will make the right words. Sometimes, it’s sheer, Pavlovian habit—when I sit in this spot, with the light so and the music thus, the words come.
Here are some of the desks that I tell myself I would buy, if I had the money.
That last one is important for me. I need space to spread out. There are plenty of secretary desks out there that would be sufficient for my laptop, but not the stack of notes, papers, and books.
Drawers are important too: for pens and pencils, scissors and business cards, vitally important records and the pieces of paper that aren’t quite as important, but that I’ll probably need close to hand. Bonus points if the desk comes with a secret drawer.
So that’s my ideal desk: enormous, historic, handsome wood, lots of drawers.
Here is my current desk:
It’s actually a really good desk. I’ve had it since I moved out from my parents’, so maybe…five years, almost? It’s a solid wooden desk with sufficient storage space, but what makes it a really good desk is the top.
The top, you see, did not come with the desk. It is a massive, heavy, beautifully treated piece of wood that we placed atop the desk. It’s not connected or anything. No nails, no screws, no joining. It’s just so heavy that it sits there without moving. Mostly I forget that it’s a separate piece.
When I dream of super fancy desks, I’m mostly just indulging in idle dreams of luxury. Because here is the ironic thing—
I don’t write at my desk.
Or, to be more precise, I don’t draft at my desk.
I write blog posts at my desk. I handle correspondence and social media from my desk. Research, essays, audio, video, and prose editing…that all happens here. But drafting fiction?
Nearly all of the Creepy Play and Sing to the Bones were written on my couch. Most of my short fiction has been written either in odd corners of Tennessean cabins, or at my kitchen table.
I don’t write at my desk.
Sometimes, I wonder why that is. It might well be a mental thing. Writing at the kitchen table or the couch implies that we’re just messing around, it’s not Serious For Real Writing, and thus my inner critic shuts up. I’d say there’s an element of physical comfort, but I wrote “The Love it Bears Fair Maidens” variously half-lying on a bed and scrunched on one end of a couch.
(I realize that’s not terribly ergonomic. I promise that I do try to avoid the injuries that come with the writing life. Mostly.)
We may become superstitious about our workspaces, but we don’t need much, do we? Just a place to sit or stand, and a place to rest a notebook or laptop. That’s it. And there is something special about those late nights at the kitchen table—when it’s just you and the words, spinning whole worlds from memory and dream. Maybe the connection feels easier to grasp with bare hands.
After all…it doesn’t really matter where you write, as long as you are writing.
But one day, I’m buying that desk.
What I’m Listening To This Week
You thought we were done with madrigals, didn’t you? Hahaha, no. Here’s another piece from our good friend Thomas Morley. It gets me in a spring-like mood—about time, after this last burst of winter.
Particular things I dig: the drum like a skipping heartbeat under the flute, and the harmonies around the “fa la la la’s.” The parts don’t weave around each other as in other examples from this period—but it’s still delightful.
Okay. Wow. Hi. I just spent the last week performing for six hours a day in the museum’s Sherlock Holmes program. It was incredibly fun, and also very taxing—both physically and mentally. But hey, it’s over, so life should settle down somewhat.
Besides that, I was reading The Ladies’ Guide to True Politeness and Perfect Manners: or, Miss Leslie’s behaviour book, written by Miss Eliza Leslie and published in various editions from 1839 onwards (I had the 1864 edition). And guess what?
It has advice for authors!I sat there reading and shaking my head—because it’s more-or-less the same advice we get today. I greatly enjoy the image of hoop-skirted young ladies eagerly setting about preparing their manuscripts. Because of course, I did the same (minus the hoop skirt). Some things don’t change—wannabe writers are one of them, apparently.
I’ve pulled out some choice tidbits. Enjoy!
Chapter XX: Conduct to Literary Women
“On being introduced to a female writer, it is rude to say that “you have long had a great curiosity to see her.” Curiosity is not the right word. It is polite to imply that, “knowing her well by reputation, you are glad to have an opportunity of making her personal acquaintance.”
Still good advice for conventions, I think.
“When in company with literary women, make no allusions to ‘learned ladies’ or ‘blue stockings,’ or express surprise that they should have any knowledge of housewifery, or needle-work, or dress; or that they are able to talk on ‘common things.’ It is rude and foolish, and shows that you really know nothing about them, either as a class or as individuals.”
Admittedly, I don’t get this much. But it is interesting to place it in historical context—Miss Leslie is trying really hard to show that authoresses are women, too!
“Recollect that to a woman who gets her living by her pen, ‘time is money,’ as it is to an artist. Therefore, encroaching on her time is lessening her income.”
Yep. I love people. I love socializing. But yep.
“Long manuscripts are frequently sent for the revisal ‘at leisure’ of a person who has little or no leisure. Yet in the intervals of toiling for herself, she is expected to toil for some one else; probably for a stranger whom she does not know, in whom she can take no interest, and who has evidently ‘no writing in her soul.’ If, however, the modest request is kindly complied with, in all probability to the corrections will only give offence, and may perhaps be crossed out before the manuscript is offered to the publisher, who very likely may reject it for want of these very corrections.”
Something tells me Miss Leslie has personal experience with this. Something tells me that many modern-day authors do as well.
Chapter XXI: Suggestions to Inexperienced Authors
“Before you commence your manuscript, take a quire, and prepare each sheet by splitting it all down the folded side, with a sharp paper-cutter, thus dividing it into half-sheets. You can do this better on a flat table than on the slope of a desk. Keep your left hand pressing down hard on the quire, while you are cutting it with your right.”
Scrivener? Microsoft Word? WordPerfect? An app on your iThing? Whatever you use, just remember—at least we don’t have to prepare our own writing paper anymore.
“The printers will gladly dispense with covers, ribbons, and fairy-like penmanship, in favour of a plain legible hand, pages regularly numbered, and leaves written on one side only.”
No coloured paper, no extra fills, no fancy fonts. Standard manuscript format, my friends.
“If the publisher lives in your own town, it will be sufficient to roll up the manuscript in clean white paper, twisted at each end, and wafered in the middle. But however short the distance, write on the outside of the paper the full direction of the publishing office; that, in case of its being dropped in the street, any person finding it may know exactly where to take it.”
The thought of a Victorian urchin finding a rolled-up manuscript in the street, reading the address, and hustling it off to the appropriate publisher’s just makes me happy. And also glad for electronic submissions.
“Keep a memorandum-book for the express purpose of setting down whatever relates to your literary affairs. Insert the day when you commenced a manuscript, the day when you finished it, and the day on which it went to the publisher.”
Still good advice. I have an Excel spreadsheet.
“If the printer’s boy can wait, you had best correct the proofs while he stays.”
Of course. What else is the printer’s boy doing? This was the very last sentence in the two chapters concerning literary etiquette—and it strikes me as quintessentially Victorian.
And now – more rewrites on the Creepy Play!
What I’m Listening to This Week
Tchaikovsky this week—the “Hymn of the Cherubim.” It’s a slow, heavy progression of chords, with the darkness and richness that I associate with much Russian choral music. Until the sopranos have a glorious surge around 2:30. A little disquieting, but very beautiful.
We’re getting into the last weeks of 2016, which means it’s time for year-in-review posts! Next week, we’ll get into What I Did in 2016. This week, I want to talk about what Other People Have Done. So, here are some things I Read and Loved in 2016. (I did read and love much more than this, but alas, I cannot fit them all.) Not all were published in 2016, but that’s okay. In no particular order:
The name “Alex White” should be familiar. He wrote the theme music for Six Stories, Told at Night! Alex is a ridiculously talented Renaissance Man, and I was excited to crack into his debut novel.
Ghosts have always been cruel to Loxley Fiddleback, especially the spirit of her only friend, alive only hours before. Loxley isn’t equipped to solve a murder: she lives near the bottom of a cutthroat, strip-mined metropolis known as “The Hole,” suffers from crippling anxiety and doesn’t cotton to strangers. Worse still, she’s haunted.
It’s an evocative world, but for me, the novel’s greatest strength is its protagonist: Loxley. She’s neuro-atypical, difficult, flawed—and oh, so very real. Plus, there is a veritable arsenal of Chekhov’s guns, which pleases me.
At Can*Con this year, I was asked, “Have you read any Elizabeth Hand? I think you’d like her.”
“Oh!” I replied. “I love Liz!”
And I do—as former student and reader. I read the back cover copy of Mortal Love at my graduating residency and had to have it:
In the Victorian Age, a mysterious and irresistible woman becomes entwined in the lives of several artists, both as a muse and as the object of all-consuming obsession.
Liz writes everything from sci-fi to noir thrillers. The books I’ve read are beautifully-wrought, vibrantly-coloured fever dreams. Completely entrancing, even as the colours keep shifting, shifting….
This was a “Sure, I’ll try it!” find from the library:
Nevada, 1869. Golgotha is a cattle town that hides more than its share of unnatural secrets. A haven for the blessed and the damned, Golgotha has known many strange events, but nothing like the darkness stirring in the abandoned mine overlooking the town…
1860s setting aside, I did not expect to enjoy this as much as I did. It’s not so much a single, linear plot as immersion into a world. Nor is it a single genre: Weird West, epic fantasy, and Lovecraftian horror all come together. Some reviewers aren’t convinced of the execution; I think it worked, but you have to play by the novel’s terms, rather than your own expectations.
Another library book: “I like Peter S. Beagle, so I will probably like this!”
Jennifer Gluckstein moves with her mother to a 300-year-old farm in Dorset, England, to live with her new stepfather and stepbrothers, Julian and Tony. Initially lonely, Jenny befriends Tamsin Willoughby, the ghost of the original farm’s owner’s daughter.
Peter S. Beagle writes beautiful fiction, okay? Beautiful, unassuming fiction that wallops you with emotion. While I loved the way history exerts its inexorable power over the plot, I adored the nuanced relationship between Jenny and Tamsin. But then, I am a sucker for strong friendships and (pseudo-) sibling relationships in my fiction.
I bought this the day it was released. Howard has a discomforting ability to punch my very specific emotional buttons. And we seem to have very similar tastes and interests. And styles. And we were clearly both taught by James Patrick Kelly. And it’s a little uncanny, actually. Anyway—
Imogen and her sister Marin escape their cruel mother to attend a prestigious artists’ retreat, but soon learn that living in a fairy tale requires sacrifices, whether it be art or love.
Sibling angst? Check. Musing on art and artistic obsession? Check. Faerie? Check.
Goddammit, Kat Howard. There’s a little unevenness here and there, but I loved this, finishing in a tearstained rush on the bus.
Marie’s a pal of mine from my Dragon Moon days – I was stoked to pick this up at Can*Con. It’s a French translation of her novel Destiny’s Blood.
Layela et Yoma Delamores – des jumelles – ont passé la majeure partie de leur vie dans la rue, survivant grâce à de multiples petits larcins. Maintenant dans la vingtaine, Layela a convaincu sa sœur de se ranger : avec l’argent amassé, il est temps d’ouvrir un commerce. Mais quelques jours après l’inauguration de leur boutique de fleuristes, Yoma disparaît…
(Tl;dr: Epic space opera: twins try to open a flower shop after a life of petty crime, but then one disappears…)
My French is okay. I can make myself understood (clumsily), and I mostly understand when I’m listening/reading. About 1/3 of the way through this novel, I felt like I stopped translating in my head and just started reading. As is typical for Marie’s work, this is both surreally funny and bitterly dark. I was shipping two characters pretty hard, but I think my hope arose mostly from my spotty FSL skills.
Bonus Short Story: “Three Letters from the Queen of Elfland,” by Sarah Monette.
Found in a collection of shorts from Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. I’m sensing a theme with what I like: Victorian things, Faerie, and unconventional relationships. This story has all three in spades, and the emotional undercurrent nearly melted even my icy heart.
So that’s my 2016, reading-wise. What about you? What did you read and love?
What I’m Listening to this Week
Christmas music! John Gardner’s arrangement of “Tomorrow Shall be my Dancing Day” is delightful! It really does need to move quickly: the sprightly organ is perfect. Especially when the descant hits in the last verse: it sounds like we’re about to dance off the rails, but then we don’t.
Good news, everyone! The audiobook version of HEARTSTEALER is now available from Audible.com! If you recall, I spent a good chunk of this off-season editing this thing, so it’s delightful to have it out in the wild, ready to be purchased.
Blythe does a fantastic job narrating. Naturally, she was my first choice. Both for sheer talent, and also, becomes this book comes from such a specific period of my life.
“Grief hadn’t made me weak. It had made me stronger than I’d ever known I could be.”
It was such a strange, full-circle feeling, hearing her speak those words. Because it’s true. I figured that out about grief a long time ago: I believed it then, I believed it when I wrote it, and I believe it now.
The thing with spending 130 hours listening to someone read your words aloud is that you hear more in them. Yes, HEARTSTEALER came from a place of great grief…but also from a place of great love. Love for a place, and love for the people I found there.
So, thank you. Thank you to everyone who’s had a hand along the way…and thank you most especially to Blythe. I know it was not an easy project—luckily, I also knew your talent would be more than a match for it!
Now before we get too maudlin, here’s some fun statistics:
Total word count: 105,000
Total running time: 12 hours, 9 minutes.
Total editing time: 130 hours (best guess)
Total time between first handshake and audiobook release: Seven months.
Distinct speaking characters: 61
Distinct voices: 65
Distinct voice actors: 1
Buildings gleefully borrowed: I count 10, but probably more.
Voice talent cursed: Lost count.
Voice talent praised: Also lost count, but it was more.
So—check it out, tell your friends, and most importantly:
If you enjoy it—either the story, the performance, or both—please, for the love of Cthulhu, leave a review. It honestly helps so very, very much. And in this case, it helps both me and Blythe. So hey, boosting two artists for the price of one. Sounds like a deal I could get behind.
Or very craftily and deliberately orchestrate. You know. Either way.
Cheers, everyone. Thanks again, and enjoy the ride to this remote northern village, full of old hurts, older magic, and things that stalk the night…
What I’m Listening To This Week
MOAR VERDI AND TRAVIATA!
La Traviata is still my favourite opera. When I hear the prelude, I’m fifteen again. Because I was a really, really cool fifteen-year-old, obviously. Anyway, the prelude pretty much encapsulates the entire opera in three minutes. The first minute or so is super moody, delicate strings with a wilting-flower melody (spoiler: La Traviata does not end well).
Alfredo is our main romantic man here. His theme starts around 1:20. Hear how earnest he sounds? Only then—scary minor chords at 1:53. This is the operatic equivalent of going DUN DUN DUN. Our lady Violetta herself follows at 2:10 or so: a lovely, flippant little tune. You can practically see her bare shoulders and flipping hair. Listen to the contrast between the two…
The opera in a nutshell. 🙂
Yesterday, I pushed back my chair in the Historic Programs office with a heavy, exaggerated sigh. Supervisor glanced up. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“This monologue. I can’t make it good.”
Assistant Supervisor popped his head up too. “What are you having trouble with?”
“Making it good.”
As I then tried (partly successfully) to explain, it was more a struggle of art than pedagogy. Museum theatre, as we’ve discussed before, holds museum and theatre equally. I knew my historical information. I knew the concepts I want the visitors to learn. But I was struggling to make good theatre—to map history onto theatrical architecture and create some semblance of story arc and character development.
I think I got it in the end. Maybe. We’ll see. I’ll feel better once my partner-in-crime has taken a look.
But it was interesting, because the one thing that’s coming much more easily is voice. My character is a sixteen-year-old tavern-keeper’s daughter named Delilah. She lived in the inn with her mother and older brother (her father died when she was eleven). Then her mother died when she was sixteen. Then her brother died three years later. Then Delilah married some farmer’s son in a township quite far away, had five children, and died herself in 1908.
The way we chose these characters was thus: we looked for people who were a) connected to our buildings, and b) roughly the right age, at c) roughly the right time.
Delilah fit the bill, and I like taverns. And so we began getting acquainted.
It’s a different process than, say, writing a musical about Alexander Hamilton. There are no biographies of these people. There are biographical facts, which you can compile into a vague sketch, and then you take your best, most responsible guesses.
So Delilah was sixteen in 1872, not going to school. Her mother had been running the inn for a while. The 1871 census reveals they were taking in boarders, which suggests that the railway that was laid in 1856 really did take a bite out of the business they’d been getting from the stagecoach line.
Okay, so, what would the experience of a person in that situation be like? How would different types of personalities react to that situation? Maybe Delilah loved helping around the inn, and flitted about like a bright, spirited young belle. Maybe she was super moody, and bitter that she was no longer in school.
There’s no way to know.
So you take what you do know, and you blend it with art. I am most comfortable playing characters that are freaking Energizer Bunnies. So by virtue of the actor playing her, we see a version of Delilah that’s a little naïve, very earnest, and who wants so, so badly to be helpful. She’s a puppy on a sugar rush.
But the deeper you dig, the more details emerge to fill in the picture you’re creating. I’ve sorted out most of her family tree. Delilah lived surrounded by aunts and uncles (all from her mother’s side). She had about a million cousins, approximately half of whom are also named Delilah. And it’s a family that seems to shuffle relatives around as needed. Elderly Grandpa James is living at the inn in 1861. By 1871, a cousin mini-Delilah is staying there (oddly, mini-Delilah’s brothers are staying with yet another uncle across the street…I wonder why they split the kids up, but I also wonder if that’s where both my Delilah and mini-Delilah went after her mother dies).
Again, there’s no way of telling what it was really like. But you want to believe the best, don’t you? This pattern of taking relatives in suggests—to me, with my eternal optimism—that it was a fairly tight-knit family. The fact that all of Delilah and half of her million cousins are named after their grandmother suggests the same.
You take what you know of history, and you take what you know of people. Delilah marries some guy named Wesley, from a township really far away. It perplexed me, until I realized he had relatives who lived near Delilah. Among them: a girl named Celestia who was a year older.
So…a girl about your age, who lives nearby, and you marry her cousin (I’m not sure of the degree of cousin-hood, but it’s something). Of course, I’m going to project my own history onto it, and hope that Delilah and Celestia were friends—that of course, Delilah married her friend’s relation.
No way to know—maybe Celestia was incredibly bitter about it. But the census tells me that Celestia also wasn’t in school (seems about half the teenagers in Scarborough were). It tells me that she has two siblings who probably needed a lot of help—“unsound mind” is a terrible and vague term, but it’s all the census provides.
So two girls the same age, both not in school, both with fairly heavy family obligations.
From what I know of people…I imagine it was nice to have someone who understood. In my art—related to, but ultimately separate from the pure history—I make the choice that they were friends. And so another bit of shading, another bit of context.
I’ve been deeply involved in this girl’s history for about a year now. It’s very strange, because I do feel a connection and emotional investment, and I know her family tree about as well as my own…and I have no way of know what she was really like. More than anything, I’d love to see a photograph—I’d love to see her face—but I don’t even have that.
But that’s what museum theatre is all about, isn’t it? Translating those stark facts into something human, and forging connections out of smoke and dust.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Well, actually, I’m listening to the song “Non-Stop” from Hamilton, but it’s not online anywhere. With June looking like a crunch month, it’s been my motivation/training montage song:
How do you write like tomorrow won’t arrive?
How do you write like you need it to survive?
How do you write every second you’re alive?
Of course, based on the way the musical ends, I probably shouldn’t identify with Hamilton too much… But as I said, no versions online. So here’s a general Hamilton montage.