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…

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.


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:;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 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

Continue reading

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