The Servant Question

When I was researching my first novel, “Prisoners in the Palace,” the most interesting details came from the lives of servants.  In the lives of the rich, famous and powerful – -there are always invisible servants. We don’t know anything about them — but they knew everything that was happening around them.  In Prisoners, Liza, a young lady discovers that life belowstairs is as treacherous as it is above. A major subplot in my novel was based on a single line in a book about Victoria’s childhood that “A maid, Annie Mason, had been dismissed for lewd and immoral behavior.”  How could I not explore Annie’s story?

All my other novels touch on the servant question too. Emily Dickinson confided the bulk of her secret stash of poetry to her maid’s care — asking her to burn them after Emily’s death. She gave them to Emily’s sister instead.  The servant that the Bronte’s had was important enough to them that when she fell on the icy cobblestones of Haworth (and nearly died of exposure), the Bronte girls insisted on nursing her themselves.  And Louisa May Alcott included a fictional devoted servant, Hannah, in her semi-autobiographical Little Women — because the March/Alcott girls’ life was too tedious without domestic help.

Check out this fascinating article about literature’s fascination with the help from the New Yorker.

Cover Reveal!!! Always Emily looks fab!

Always Emily is my next book from Chronicle. Here’s the cover — I love it. (and the blurb from Laurie Halse Anderson makes me so happy!)

Patience is Power!

I just read this fascinating article from an art history professor at Harvard. She forces her students to spend hours at a museum looking at a single painting.  She describes how this process forces us to change the way we learn. She illustrates her point with a description of a painting by Copley and demonstrating the levels of complexity in the painting that you only see if you spend the time. Then she walks it back to Copley’s process as a self-taught painter. When he asked for feedback from the folks back in England (he was a Colonial painter) it took a year to get an answer. So his paintings reflect that delay and his process of learning slowly.

I recommend!

The Highlights Foundation is as special as it’s supposed to be!

I’ve been on the Highlights Foundation mailing list for years and I’ve always been tempted by their Whole Novel Workshops with some of the top names in our business. But last week I had the opportunity to go to Highlights as a guest speaker for Carolyn Yoder’s Alumni Workshop.  Carolyn is the editor for Calkins Creek, the American History imprint at Boyd’s Mill. She and I are working on a project and she invited me to speak to her group who are all working on non-fiction or historical fiction.  The group was great — fun and engaged  — and I enjoyed meeting all of them. And I finally got to taste the Highlights magic!

“I must keep reminding you that this is a book for children”

I just read a fascinating article about Stephen Roxbourgh reminiscing about working with Roald Dahl on The Witches. (My agent I think was the kind of editor that Mr. Roxbourgh is — and he has these amazing stories too!).  It’s brilliant and fun and I recommend reading the whole thing. But the most interesting bit to me was when Mr. Roxbourgh suggested that the scene with the women teachers standing on their desks when a mouse was spotted was cliche.  Mr. Doald, in his inestimable wisdom, replied:

“This is not a cliché to children, it is a situation they will enjoy. I must keep reminding you that this is a book for children and I don’t give a bugger what grown-ups think about it. This has always been my attitude.”

I am writing a scene right now (historical fiction, set in 1904) where there’s a train car full of small children (57 under the age of 5!). They are being escorted by several nuns and nurses. I wrote it so that the kids have overrun the train by day three and the adults are exhausted.  That famous catholic school discipline has slipped. Could it have happened? Yes.  Did it? Maybe not. But it makes for a great scene that kids will like. So I kept it (for now!).

And check out Roald Dahl in his writing hut:

The Bank of England Doesn’t Appreciate Irony…

How exciting for lovers of Jane Austen (of whom I am indisputably one) — the new 10 pound banknote features Jane Austen and even has a quote from her work. Now my readers know that I love quotes.  What one, of all the great lines in Jane Austen’s novels, did they choose?

“I declare that after all there is no enjoyment like reading.”

Perfect, right? What could be better? Well, if the person who said the line actually liked books.  It’s spoken by Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice.  She’s desperately trying to attract Darcy’s attention by picking up a book (chosen only because it was the second volume to the book he was reading). She actually doesn’t like books at all. I’m a little disappointed in the Bank!