How I travel back in time, hold myself accountable, and refrain from smoking

How I travel back in time, hold myself accountable, and refrain from smoking

Mrs. Cole Porter Writing

I’ve been blogging a lot lately, just not here on WordPress. I’ve been using Pinterest and Tumblr for quick posts. The interfaces are simple, and the stakes are low because not a lot of people follow me there.

What am I blogging about? Well, they aren’t “essay-like” blog posts, as you are used to here. These are more visual, like a bulletin board or scrapbook. Or they’re more utilitarian, like a ledger. That’s why I don’t think to share them here on the Big Thing.

A few years ago, I went to an exhibit at the Morgan Library on diaries. I was especially interested in how artists use them.

I spent a lot of time looking at the writing journal John Steinbeck kept as he wrote The Grapes of Wrath. Here’s a great post from Austin Kleon’s blog about that.

steinbeckI want to hold myself accountable, too, like Steinbeck did. That’s why I started this little Tumblr blog called Every Day I Write the Book.

I also use Tumblr (and Pinterest) like scrapbooks. A place to archive the images and maps I find.

Sometimes I just reblog a picture.

Sometimes I add a picture to a scrapbook I keep for Linda.

Sometimes I make digital scrapbooks comprised of images and maps of one particular place, like Villa Trianon.

The pages I’ve been writing this week are set at Villa Trianon, and I look at these pictures to sort of “will” myself into that time and place.

exterior villa

I suppose it’s no different from cutting something out of a magazine and pasting it down so that you can go back and look at it later.

If you’ve seen Somewhere in Time, you know what I’m talking about.

Sometimes I do more than just clip images. I actually start writing about what they mean to me. Proto blog posts. Like this one on the so-called “classic” look.

In this article, Edwidge Danticat talks about how she creates bulletin boards so that she can see her ideas and the images that inspire her, as well as the overall plot structure.

That’s what I’m doing, too, I guess, except my bulletin board is digital. And share-able.

But this research can’t overtake the actual writing. Instead, I play with my bulletin board/scrapbooks as a way into the writing or when it’s time to take a break from writing–instead of smoking. (The urge to do so has been strong lately for some reason.)

I’ve also been watching period dramas to keep myself thinking in the past.

  • A Room with a View, both the 2007 and 1986 versions
  • Ridicule
  • Austenland
  • My Immortal Beloved
  • The Other Boleyn Girl
  • A Royal Affair
  • The King’s Speech
  • Agora

Another way that I will myself into the past isn’t digital at all. I read books that were published at the time I’m writing about. Right now, I’m reading a novel by the Duchess of Sutherland, who was a friend of Linda’s. It’s not very good, but the book smells old, the details are marvelous, and it definitely transports me into that milieu.

 

If you have any other suggestions for me, let me know. Good luck with your own writing projects. Thanks, as always, for reading.

[And so ends today’s writing warm ups. Time to start writing for real.]

Research Notes: Looking at Wedding Pictures

Research Notes: Looking at Wedding Pictures

Mrs. Cole Porter Writing

 

It should come as no surprise that during the school year, I blog a lot about teaching, and in the summer, I blog a lot about writing. Because that’s where my head is.

Last night, I did a little research on the technology that made it possible to print pictures in newspapers and magazines.

In a nutshell: for a long time, it was very hard.

But it got me thinking about how easy it is now. Think about how addicting Tumblr and Facebook are. Think about how addicting it is to be able to Google whatever you want to look at. I mean seriously, how do we even stop ourselves? How do we not gorge ourselves visually every single day? Continue reading

I was doing a little research the other day on Linda Porter’s very public divorce from her first husband. Here are some clippings (posted on my Tumblr) that tell the whole sordid story.

Further evidence of the fame and notoriety Linda brought with her into her marriage to Cole, who was pretty much a nobody when they met.

Back to the book…

P.S. This is the first blog post I’ve ever done from my phone. 

Thirteen years later…

Mrs. Cole Porter Writing

Birthday Cake with Number 13 Lit CandlesThree years ago, I wrote this post for my novel-writing students about my progress on my book about Linda Porter. At that point it had been 10 years. Sigh.

Finals are over. I’m back to the novel. I’ve got about 300 pages at this point. I’m not sure how many more I’m going to need because I haven’t made up my mind where to end it. I’ve got a notion. We’ll see if it works!

I’m going to try and go off the grid for awhile so I can get a lot of work done during May and June. Emphasis on “try.”

In the meantime, I thought you might enjoy reading this old post about the circuitous route writing a novel can take. May it inspire you to keep going with your own baggy monster.

The Day Cole Porter Died

Mrs. Cole Porter
Photo by Don Hunstein. Taken in 1958 during the rehearsals for Alladin, his last show.

Photo by Don Hunstein.

Cole Porter died on October 15, 1964 in Santa Monica, CA.

Reportedly, his last words were, “I don’t know how I did it.”

This is his obituary.

The picture I’ve selected isn’t one where he’s smiling. That’s because his last years were pretty bleak, honestly. Not long after this picture was taken, the leg that had given him pain for over 20 years was finally amputated.

And he never wrote another song.

Around the time that this photograph was taken, he was writing what would end up being his very last song called “Wouldn’t it Be Fun?” You can read the lyrics here, if you like. But they might make you cry.

I think it’s the saddest song he ever wrote.

What’s your favorite Cole Porter tune?

Here are mine.

(Next week, I’ll finish up my “Do the Math” series of posts about time management, but today, I wanted to take a moment to remember the death of my fellow Peruvian.)

 

Research and Serendipity

Research and Serendipity

Mrs. Cole Porter Writing

Research isn’t something I do to flesh out my ideas. Research is how I get my ideas.

Writer Mario Vargas Llosa has said that he requires “the springboard of reality” to ignite his imagination, and I would say the same. Here’s a story about why I love doing research and why I write what I’ll call “nonfictional fiction.”

So, in March of 1902, my main character’s brother-in-law tried to divorce his wife. Theirs was a tawdry story, and it made all the papers for about two years.

Since the trial happened in Chicago, I wanted to see how the trial was covered there vs. how it was covered in the New York press. This involved going to the library here at Ball State and scrolling through the microfiche.

Microfilm. Ah, the good old days!

Microfilm. Ah, the good old days!

Bingo. I found what I was looking for. Drawings of the principal characters. Testimony read into evidence.

IMG_20120524_144107

Now, I don’t know if my character actually went to this trial or not, but it’s certainly more dramatic if she was there. So I made it happen. Presto.

So, the other day, I was writing those scenes. Linda in Chicago at this divorce trial. March of 1902.

The Ladies' Entrance to the Palmer House.

The Ladies’ Entrance to the Palmer House.

I decided to have her stay at the famed Palmer House. Why? Well, I stayed at the Palmer House for AWP 2012, and so this way, I can write off some of my expenses.

Also, it’s gorgeous.

While I was staying there, I grabbed a flyer about the history of the Palmer House and gleaned two great details:

  • The floor of the barber shop was tiled in silver dollars.
  • The owner was so sure that his hotel was “The World’s Only Fire-Proof Hotel,” he promised that if any of his guests were willing to pay to remodel and replace their room’s furnishings, they could set their hotel suite on fire and close the door. Potter Palmer vowed the fire wouldn’t spread, and he was willing to prove it. (His original hotel burned down 13 days after it opened in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and Palmer rebuilt his hotel out of iron and brick.)

When I saw those details, I knew my character’s rich, bad-boy husband wouldn’t be able to resist setting his hotel room on fire, and that he’d want to show her that floor tiled in silver dollars.

So, I knew from the Chicago Tribune coverage that the divorce proceedings ended suddenly in a mistrial. My character had a whole day before her, plus I needed to give her husband time to set their hotel room on fire. What would she do with the day?

The Art Institute of Chicago in 1892.

The Art Institute of Chicago in 1892.

I decided to send her to a museum, the famed Art Institute of Chicago. Was it open in 1902? A quick Google search told me yes, it was.

Well, what would she have seen?

We all know from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off that the museum is famed for its Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, (like Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jette”) but in 1902, they hadn’t acquired much of that yet. So I Googled:

what would have been on exhibit at the art institute of chicago in 1902?

And I found this: a list of all the exhibits for that year with links to the digitized exhibit catalogs.

Three cheers for archivists! Three cheers for the digital humanities!

Can I get an amen?

Randomly, I clicked on the name “Charles Walter Stetson,” then Googled his name, and discovered that Stetson was married to Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In fact, when she first published “The Yellow Wall-paper” in The New England Magazine in 1892, she was still Charlotte Perkins Stetson.

from The New England Magazine 11:5 (January 1892), 647-657. Digital image available here: http://digital.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=newe;cc=newe;rgn=full%20text;idno=newe0011-5;didno=newe0011-5;view=image;seq=655;node=newe0011-5%3A12;page=root;size=100

from The New England Magazine 11:5 (January 1892), 647-657.

I also discovered that Stetson painted a portrait of Gilman shortly after the birth of their daughter, a time when she was likely experiencing the post-partum depression that she chronicled so vividly in the story.

"Evening. Mother + Child" by Charles Walter Stetson which portrays his wife Charlotte Perkins Stetson, later Gilman

“Evening. Mother + Child” by Charles Walter Stetson which portrays his wife Charlotte Perkins Stetson, later Gilman

So I came up with a plot device that would allow Linda to see this painting (although it actually wasn’t in the exhibit) and become intrigued enough to read her recently published book, The Yellow Wallpaper.

Published in 1899. Note the art nouveau cover and that she's still "Stetson," not "Gilman."

Published in 1899. Note the art nouveau cover and that she’s still “Stetson,” not “Gilman.”

There’s a library in the Art Institute. Was this book there in 1902? I don’t know, but I’m hoping the reader will permit me a little creative license.

So I sat my character down in the Ryerson Reading Room and had her read “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and she has a kind of epiphany that day.

She’d been needing an epiphany for awhile. I just had no idea what might trigger it. No idea that a simple Google search would end up determining a major plot turn in my novel.

Then she returns to the Palmer House to discover that her husband has burned their suite.

Sometimes, I think young writers feel that “creativity” means “making up out of whole cloth,” but I’ve never felt that way.

Serendipity means a “happy accident” or “pleasant surprise.” Specifically, the accident of finding something good or useful while not specifically searching for it. For me, serendipity is part of the euphoria I feel when I’m inside the creative process. I like it when my character’s “real” life (whether it’s my life or someone else’s) provides some plot points to shoot for.

But too much plotting can be…well, plodding. I find that when I’m writing and/or researching, I have to keep my plan, my goals rather loose to allow for serendipity, magic, and imagination.

I like following bread crumbs, like the trail I just described to you. It’s like playing detective.

That afternoon, I read “The Yellow Wall-Paper” not as myself but as my character. I found something out about her that I hadn’t known before. Or hadn’t been able to articulate before.

And who is to say that this wasn’t exactly the way that discovery was “supposed” to happen?

Thinking Like Edith Wharton

Thinking Like Edith Wharton

Mrs. Cole Porter Writing

For the last few years, I’ve had Edith Wharton on the brain.

See, I’m writing a book about the life of Linda Lee Thomas Porter, best known as the wife of Cole Porter. But before she was his wife, she was married for eleven years to the son of a robber baron/industrialist named Ned Thomas.

So: what’s the connection between Linda and Edith Wharton? Continue reading

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Making Things Up

Mrs. Cole Porter Teaching Writing

This week, my novel writing students have to think about whether or not they are “Outline People” or “No Outline People,” or (more likely) something in between. I decided to write about this, too.

What’s my process?

I'm probably on the left side of the spectrum....

I’m probably on the left side of the spectrum….

Here’s how I know I’m a plotter.

This is how I taught myself to write a novel. By writing a nonfiction novel rather than a fictional one, I didn’t have to “make up” plot. Actually, I had more plot than I knew what to do with.

Plot as a Given

What I’ve discovered is that I need a sense of the overall architecture before I start building, a blueprint, even if I end up modifying it.

Right now, I’m working on a novel tentatively titled, Mrs. Cole Porter. The first thing I did was create a storyboard. Cole and Linda Porter’s “real life” provides the base time plot, or at least a rough outline of it.

I spent a few months reading all the Cole Porter biographies, and these are the best.

  • The Life that Late He Led by George Eells
  • Cole Porter: A Biography by Charles Schwartz
  • Cole Porter by William McBrien

As I read these books, I used created “event cards” and “scene cards.”

Every time the biographers wrote “On such and such a date, Cole and Linda went to the Hotel Ritz…” I made an index card.

Since their lives are extremely well documented, I made a lot of cards, as you can see.

Obviously, I’ve got too many cards.

I remind myself daily that I’m writing a novel, not a historical biography.

My novel can’t cover all of those events, especially not in real time. I have to select specific episodes on that timeline that are ripe for dramatization.

Example: Trip to Egypt

One episode I very much want to dramatize occurs in 1908-1909. Here are the cards from 1908 to 1912.

1908-1912

Here’s what’s important in those cards: Linda’s douchebag husband, Ned Thomas, is going to have a car accident in 1908. She will nurse him back to health. His mother will be so grateful for this that in 1909, she pays for an Egyptian cruise down the Nile, which will include their friend and guide, Lord Carnarvon—who, like Ned, loves horses and fast cars.

Aside: All of that is true except that I don’t know for sure if Lord C was there, but in my imagination, he’s definitely there. I very much hope the reader will recognize Lord Carnarvon as the man who discovered King Tut’s tomb and the former owner of one Highclere Castle, also known as Downton Abbey.

I don’t know for sure if Linda ever went to Highclere, but in my novel, she’s going there. Fer sure.

This series of events—the car accident, the trip abroad—is important because

1.) It instills in Linda a love of travel and a love of ancient cultures, especially Egypt.

2.) She’ll equate her fastidious scrapbook practice with the burial practices of the ancient Egyptians, a way to live forever, which is important to the novel’s themes.

3.) As soon as her douchebag husband gets better, he returns to being a douchebag, but this trip to Egypt is going to give Linda the inner strength to finally leave her husband in 1912.

4.) when Linda marries Cole Porter, they will go on an Egyptian cruise just like this.

How many chapters do these ten cards represent? I’m not sure.

How many scenes do I need? To get from “Car Accident” to “Nile Trip” to “Leaves Husband”?

Do I dramatize Ned’s accident and her coming to care for him? Or do I start with them on the Nile and fill the reader?

I have no idea, but it comforts me to know that I’ve got something to head towards.

Give yourself an assignment

The way I’ve been writing the novel thus far is that the “real events” give me ideas for scenes, and I draft them quickly. Every time I sit down to write, I give myself an assignment.

  • Okay, write the scene when Linda goes to Ned’s side and says she’ll take care of him.
  • Okay now write the scene where they are going down the Nile and/or she sees the Sphinx. Explain what this does to her.
  • Okay now write the scene where she picks up the morning paper and sees in the gossip columns that her husband was out with another woman the night before.
  • Okay now write the scene where she confronts his family and demands the lucrative divorce.

This novel (which is based on a true story) requires me to be a plotter. I don’t want to stray wildly far from the way things happened. But it also requires me to be a pantser.

Playing with Dolls

Writing is like playing with dolls. I take up my Linda doll and move her around the dollhouse (a given). I know what her houses look like, because she had them photographed for Architectural Digest and other magazines, and because her house in Paris and her house in the Berkshires have recently gone up for sale.

“…I take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.”
–Sharon Olds, I Go Back to May 1937

But then I start speaking as her (not a given). Sure, some scenes have been already been scripted a bit. I know what choices she’s going to make in her life, but I’m free to invent how and why she makes those choices.

That’s the “pantsing.” That’s the part of the writing process that can’t be outlined or scripted.

That’s the part of the writing process that fills you with something like ecstasy.  

Realization

What I’m coming to terms with is that some of the scenes I’ve dramatized (or really, really want to dramatize) will have to be summarized or cut entirely or the novel will be 1000 pages long.

To use another analogy: I’m like the documentary filmmaker who has to cut hundreds of hours of footage down to a story that’s 90 minutes long. She can’t regret the time she spent shooting all that footage, and I can’t regret the time I spent creating more scene cards than I can ever use.

What I’m Working On

What I’m Working On

Mrs. Cole Porter Writing

I’ve been “tagged” in the Next Big Thing Blog Hop (this meme-type thing that’s been making the rounds) by writer/editor Jill Talbot (who was tagged by Barrelhouse editor Tom McAllister, who was tagged by writer Katherine Hill, etc.).

I have never met Jill Talbot IRL, but we like to talk about the hazy line between fiction and nonfiction. She edited the anthology Metawritings and was kind enough to include me.

(I think she’d like that I describe my WIP as “nonfictional fiction.”)

Here are her excellent answers to the 10 Blog Hop questions.

And here are mine.

What is your working title of your book (or story)? 

Mrs. Cole Porter

Where did the idea come from for the book? 

Cole Porter and I share the same hometown, Peru, Indiana.

What genre does your book fall under? 

I like to think of it as nonfictional fiction. A biographical novel.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? 

Well, Cole and Linda have already been played by Cary Grant and Alexis Smith (Night and Day, 1946) as well as Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd (De-Lovely, 2004).

Whoever plays Linda in an adaptation of my book would have to be able to play her both old and young. I’m going to go with Laura Linney, who’s already played a similar character in The House of Mirth.

Don’t you think she’d make a great Linda?

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? 

“During the Gilded Age, poor, beautiful, and naïve Linda Lee marries the playboy son of a robber baron, a high-profile match she survives by learning important skills which she brings to her second marriage—to a talented but unknown gay composer from Indiana named Cole Porter.”

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

If by this question you mean, do I have an agent? then yes, I have an agent, the amazing Sarah Burnes at the Gernert Company.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? 

Still working on the first draft.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? 

It’s got an outer and inner frame, and there’s a bit of archival detective work going on, a bit like A.S. Byatt’s Possession.

Maybe it’s also a bit like Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperonewhich I read this summer and loved to death.

This isn’t a novel, but it definitely inspired me: Coco Before Chanel. A possible backup title to my book might be Linda Before Cole. Or Cole Because of Linda Before Cole.

Who or what inspired you to write this book? 

There’s a little-discussed anecdote in every Cole Porter biography: he blew up his wife’s mansion in the Berkshires when she passed away. Not only that, he moved his bachelor’s cottage onto the foundation and expanded it to the mansion that’s there today.

His biographers all say Cole did this out of grief. I have other ideas.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?”

In the course of doing research for the novel, I discovered that 86 volumes of her personal scrapbooks were held at Harvard. I’ve made two research trips to the Houghton Library to study them.

And now I’m tagging four more writers. I wanted to keep it local; these are all writers who live within an hour of my house in Muncie, Indiana. You can read about the books they’re working on next week!

Ashley Ford

Michael Meyerhofer

Sal Pane

Kelsey Timmerman

What I’m Working On

What I’m Working On

Mrs. Cole Porter Writing

Before she was Mrs. Cole Porter, she was Mrs. Edward Thomas

I’ve been “tagged” in the Next Big Thing Blog Hop (this meme-type thing that’s been making the rounds) by writer/editor Jill Talbot (who was tagged by Barrelhouse editor Tom McAllister, who was tagged by writer Katherine Hill, etc.).

I have never met Jill Talbot IRL, but we like to talk about the hazy line between fiction and nonfiction. She edited the anthology Metawritings and was kind enough to include me.

(I think she’d like that I describe my WIP as “nonfictional fiction.”)

Here are her excellent answers to the 10 Blog Hop questions.

And here are mine.

What is your working title of your book (or story)? 

Mrs. Cole Porter

Where did the idea come from for the book? 

Cole Porter and I share the same hometown, Peru, Indiana.

What genre does your book fall under? 

I like to think of it as nonfictional fiction. A biographical novel.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? 

Well, Cole and Linda have already been played by Cary Grant and Alexis Smith (Night and Day, 1946) as well as Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd (De-Lovely, 2004).

Whoever plays Linda in an adaptation of my book would have to be able to play her both old and young. I’m going to go with Laura Linney, who’s already played a similar character in The House of Mirth.

Don’t you think she’d make a great Linda?

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? 

“During the Gilded Age, poor, beautiful, and naïve Linda Lee marries the playboy son of a robber baron, a high-profile match she survives by learning important skills which she brings to her second marriage—to a talented but unknown gay composer from Indiana named Cole Porter.”

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

If by this question you mean, do I have an agent? then yes, I have an agent, the amazing Sarah Burnes at the Gernert Company.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? 

Still working on the first draft.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? 

It’s got an outer and inner frame, and there’s a bit of archival detective work going on, a bit like A.S. Byatt’s Possession.

Maybe it’s also a bit like Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperonewhich I read this summer and loved to death.

This isn’t a novel, but it definitely inspired me: Coco Before Chanel. A possible backup title to my book might be Linda Before Cole. Or Cole Because of Linda Before Cole.

Who or what inspired you to write this book? 

There’s a little-discussed anecdote in every Cole Porter biography: he blew up his wife’s mansion in the Berkshires when she passed away. Not only that, he moved his bachelor’s cottage onto the foundation and expanded it to the mansion that’s there today.

His biographers all say Cole did this out of grief. I have other ideas.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?”

In the course of doing research for the novel, I discovered that 86 volumes of her personal scrapbooks were held at Harvard. I’ve made two research trips to the Houghton Library to study them.

And now I’m tagging four more writers. I wanted to keep it local; these are all writers who live within an hour of my house in Muncie, Indiana. You can read about the books they’re working on next week!

Ashley Ford

Michael Meyerhofer

Sal Pane

Kelsey Timmerman