Five Things: 2/8/16

Five Things: 2/8/16

Five Things Mrs. Cole Porter

1. It’s okay to be rude sometimes.

So far, what I like most about this residency is how anti-social you’re allowed to be. You can behave in ways that would be taken as rude under almost any other circumstance. Let’s say I leave my computer to walk into the kitchen to make a cup of tea and I’m still thinking about what I’m writing and I find that someone is already there. She’s absorbed in a book while she eats some cereal, doesn’t say hello how did you sleep are you have a good day how’s the writing going? She smiles and returns to her book. I can make myself a cup of tea and walk right out of that kitchen. Or I’m eating dinner with everyone at 6:30 PM, the only time of the day we all come together and eat a nice meal prepared by Chef Linda, served buffet style. It’s sort of like going to a dinner party every night, except you get to wear sweats and slippers if you want to. So, I’m at this dinner party in my slippers talking to the guy sitting across from me about, I dunno, the Lusitania or football or ice cream, and when he’s done eating, he stands up and says, “Back to work,” and I say bye and that’s that. No long goodbyes. No hard feelings. Everyone understands. If only real life could be this way!

2. My space.

"The Beach Room." Not sure why it's called that except that there is a large conch shell on my desk.
“The Beach Room.” Not sure why it’s called that except that there is a large conch shell on my desk.

This is a picture of my room at Ragdale, although I had to move the twin bed against the wall because I kept waking up terrified I was going to fall out.

How long has it been since I slept in a twin bed? College, I think.

Studio with skylights!
Studio with skylights!

And here’s a picture of the studio they gave me, too, so that I can storyboard my novel on the nice white walls.

3. Things I worry about even though I shouldn’t.

A great essay I read this week: “Children of the Century” in the New Republic. Alexander Chee asks the question, “Can a historical novel also function as serious literature?”

Jesus, I hope so.

When I tell people I’m writing a book about Linda Lee Thomas Porter, long-time wife of Cole Porter, I get one of two reactions: 1.) Oooh, I love books like that. 2.) Oh, I didn’t realize you were writing a book like that. Re: #2, by “like that,” they mean what we’ve come to think of as “the wife book,” the “woman behind the man book” like: Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, The Paris Wife by Paula McClain, etc. Why don’t the #2s think that I’m writing a book like The Women by T.C. Boyle, Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow, or Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel? Is it because I am a woman writer or because I’m writing about a female character? Or both? The second set of books are also novels about real people and real events, what I like to call nonfictional fiction, but they were all written by men or have primarily male characters.

Sometimes, as I’m writing a scene or making a decision in my novel, I find myself thinking about how that decision will affect the way the book will be presented to the world–commercial or serious? genre or literary? “male” or “female”?–when what I need to do is just write the damn thing the best way I know how and let my agent (whom I trust) guide me. Every single day, I get anxious about this, especially now as I come closer to finishing, but then I tell myself its useless to borrow worry. Reading an essay like Chee’s reassured me that I’m not the only writer who worries about these matters. Note to self: keep working on my essays related to the subject of my novel and pitch them to The Atlantic and The New Republic; this definitely sends a message about how you want to be read.

4. Nonfictional fiction. 

Linda's first husband, E.R. Thomas, hanging out with Clarence Mackay, the guy in the middle with the enormous mustache.
Linda’s first husband, E.R. Thomas, hanging out with Clarence Mackay, the guy in the middle with the enormous mustache.

Most of the characters in my novel are based on real people: Linda, of course, and Edith Wharton, Emily Post, Bernard Berenson, Elsie de Wolfe, Bessie Marbury, Anne Morgan, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon.

Today, I’m working on a chapter in which Linda is being courted by Clarence Mackay.

The book that gave me permission to write my novel the way I want to write it is Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. Which features real historical figures like Evelyn Nesbit Thaw, Harry K. Thaw, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, and J.P. Morgan, alongside purely fictional characters. There’s one scene in particular in which Gilded Age “It Girl” Nesbit goes to a socialist meeting where Emma Goldman is speaking and then ends up taking off her corset and allowing herself to be massaged by Goldman.

Now, this never happened. And once I reminded myself that I wasn’t writing a biography, that I could invent, the book started to flow.

5. “altgenres” 

And speaking of genres and subgenres and labels, another great read from this week was this article from last month’s Atlantic, “How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood.”  Believe it or not, this article got me going on a essay about “selling” the English major, the humanities, and a liberal arts education. Stay tuned…

Five Things: 1/25/2016

Five Things: 1/25/2016

Five Things

For a long time, I enjoyed reading my friend Ashley Ford’s “Five Things” posts. I’ve decided to give it a try, too.

I’m hoping that doing this will:

  • help me stay off Facebook
  • force me to share my thoughts and interesting links but won’t involve me getting sucked into the Borg
  • help me start blogging again
  • give me a place to put my thoughts so that I can come back to them later

Note: I’m not on social media much these days and don’t plan to “push” these posts via social media. So: if you’re reading this, it’s either because you subscribe to my blog or some nice person shared the link for some reason. 

  • My novel is about Linda Lee Thomas Porter, who will eventually marry Cole Porter in 1919, but right now, I’m writing about her before she meets him. She was married from 1901-1912 to a rich dude named Edward Thomas. I like to refer to him as “the Charlie Sheen of the Gilded Age.” Ned and Linda were friends with the 5th Earl of Carnarvon who will eventually discover King Tut’s tomb, but in 1910 he was just getting started as an Egyptologist. Carnarvon and Ned both loved horses (they bred and raced them), racing cars, and had really automobile bad accidents that almost cost them their lives. 
  • I finished a chapter on Saturday night that I’ve been working on for a week or two. It’s set at Carnarvon’s country estate, Highclere Castle (which you know as Downton Abbey) in 1910. I’ll admit that when I realized that there was a connection between Linda and Carnarvon, I got really excited about the prospect of “visiting” Highclere in my imagination. Because of the popularity of Downton Abbey, there’s a great deal of information on the web about Highclere: blueprints, detailed descriptions of the furnishings and architecture and the grounds, historical background. And thanks to this book, I know what what happening at Highclere around the time of my fictional visit. For example: on September 10, 1910 (my birthday as a matter of fact) a famous aviation innovator named Geoffrey de Havilland successfully flew a bi-plane prototype, and so I made Linda’s visit coincide with that that event so she could bear witness.
  • I purposely did NOT start watching season 6 of Downton Abbey while I was writing this chapter; I was afraid I’d lose my nerve or that I’d see the “real” space on the screen and think “I haven’t described the place enough!” or “I got that wrong!” or even “I’ve included too much!” The trick  is to balance the real and the imaginary, to keep yourself from over-researching, to use the real as a springboard. I’ve always enjoyed this quotation from Mario Vargas Lllosa, who was asked by the Paris Review to explain what he meant when he said he “wanted to lie in full knowledge of the truth.”

“In order to fabricate, I always have to start from a concrete reality. I don’t know whether that’s true for all novelists, but I always need the trampoline of reality. That’s why I do research and visit the places where the action takes place, not that I aim simply to reproduce reality. I know that’s impossible. Even if I wanted to, the result wouldn’t be any good, it would be something entirely different.”

  • I’ve written before about how writing fiction is like time travel to me,  and that’s a lot about what this chapter was about, actually. On top of the hill where de Havilland’s plane began its journey is the spot where Carnarvon wanted to be (and is) buried—Beacon Hill. He’s buried within the walls of a prehistoric hill fort, a place where people lived before England was England, even before Rome invaded. I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that Carnarvon was a time traveler too, someone who wanted to connect with the past, not through fiction writing but through archaeology and artifacts. It’s kind of meta, I know—a writer in 2016 imagining people walking around in 1910 who are imagining people walking around in 1000 B.C. 
  • So: I watched a bunch of movies and TV shows set in distant past. The Eagle with Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell. Ironclad with James Purefoy. The Vikings TV series on the History Channel. Holy crap are these shows violent. I watched them in my home office. My writing regimen was this: I can’t write at a desk anymore because of my back, so I kick back in a chair and ottoman. When my fitness bracelet buzzed me that I’d been sitting for an hour, I got up and hopped on my elliptical and watched 15-20 minutes of people hacking each other up, then sat back down and wrote some more. Man, I’m glad I’m done with that chapter. I celebrated last night by watching Downton Abbey
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.]

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.

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

For Cole Porter’s Birthday: My Personal Playlist

For Cole Porter’s Birthday: My Personal Playlist

Mrs. Cole Porter

If you think this is going to be all You’re the Toppy, ha! think again.


Miss Otis Regrets

[Follow the title links to hear the songs!] Supposedly, Cole Porter wrote this hilariously maudlin song on a dare: his friend Monty Wooley gave him the worst title he could think of and challenged him to make a song out of it. This was the result. It’s a “story song,” told by Miss Otis’ maid or butler (depending on the gender of the singer), and the plot is reminiscent of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” I’ve linked to a particularly amusing rendition of the song performed live by Fred Astaire. Continue reading

Add it Up

Add it Up

Mrs. Cole Porter Writing

“Wait a minute honey, I’m gonna add it up…” — The Violent Femmes 

Everyone gets their picture taken at the John Harvard statue, so I did, too.

I just spent a month thinking and writing and reading and researching. I lived like a monk, haunting the libraries, completely focused. There were no distractions other than the ones I created for myself. Do you know what it’s like, someone giving you money to think about something for a month? I’ll tell you what it’s like: it’s pretty freaking awesome.

This is what I accomplished:

For my novel-in-progress:

I wrote two new chapters (25 pages) and completed a 10-page synopsis.

For my nonfiction project (for which I got the funding):

I read and/or reviewed 16 books and 15 articles or book chapters. I generated 100 pages of notes. Single spaced. I took 400 digital photographs of Linda Porter’s scrapbook pages. There are 86 volumes of her scrapbooks at the Houghton, and I reviewed all but a few of them, along with scrapbooks belonging to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Eliot Norton, and Josephine Prescott Peabody, just to name a few. I also interviewed Daren Bascome, who owns his own branding business, Proverb.

How was this idyll made possible?

  • I received a Beatrice, Benjamin and Richard Bader Fellowship in the Visual Arts of the Theatre from the Houghton Library at Harvard University and an ASPiRE Research Grant from Ball State University. Thank you.
  • My colleagues at Ball State Tony Edmonds, Robert Habich, Mark Neely, Rai Peterson, Elizabeth Riddle, and Joe Trimmer looked over my proposal and/or showed me their own research proposals. Thank you.
  • My husband Eric Kroczek took care of everything during the month I spent hammering out these proposals, and he took care of everything during the time I spent at the Houghton Library. Thank you.

And because I couldn’t work all the time, I took breaks with my former TCNJ colleague Michael Robertson, my old college chum Karen DeTemple, and my new writer friend, Lise Haines. It was also great to meet Elizabeth Searle, who was kind enough to let me sit with her at a production of Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera, one of the funniest and saddest and most wonderful things I’ve witnessed in quite some time.

A typical day included 6-9 hours in the Houghton Library reading room, a very pleasant place to spend the day, especially when it’s 100 degrees outside. To save money, I’d bring something to nibble on outside rather than go out for lunch. Some days, I’d go to the Lamont or the Widener libraries to work and write, and a few days (not very many), I never left my little studio apartment. In the evenings, I found that I couldn’t read. I think the human brain can only absorb so many words in a day. So, I watched a lot of BBC and Masterpiece Classic series on Netflix or YouTube. My favorites were North and South (based on the novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, and no, it doesn’t have anything to do with the Civil War) and Daniel Deronda. Many thanks to the Facebook group British Period Drama for the daily suggestions.

It was a great month. And now I return to real life with a purse full of receipts for the other kind of accounting that I will no doubt have to do.

Midnight in Paris & Fantasy Linda

Midnight in Paris & Fantasy Linda

Mrs. Cole Porter Writing

A sincere thank you to everyone who wrote me to make sure I knew about Midnight in Paris. This is the conversation I imagined having with all of you about the movie.

Hey, you said, do you know that Cole Porter is a character in this new Woody Allen film?

Yes, I do know this.

Continue reading

Linda Died 57 Years Ago Today

Linda Died 57 Years Ago Today

Mrs. Cole Porter The Biggest Things Writing

Note: If you’d like to follow the progress of my book, follow Linda on Twitter, @MrsColePorter. Believe me, if Linda were alive today, she would totally use Twitter.

Linda Lee Thomas Porter died on this day, May 20, 1954. She died in her apartment in the Waldorf Towers after a long battle with emphysema.

Linda described her illness as “smothering spells.” Imagine that: smothering to death over the course of a decade. She once said, “I suppose I shouldn’t want to stop coughing as I have coughed for so many years, if I stopped, the shock might kill me.” Continue reading