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

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

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After Downton: Try These Great Period Drama Series

After Downton: Try These Great Period Drama Series

General Writing

When Downton Abbey, Series 1 finished last spring, I was bereft. To cope, I embarked on a period drama frenzy. These were my favorites. Perhaps they will fill the void for you, too.

Click on the title to go to part 1 if it’s on YouTube, but most are streaming on Netflix as well.

The Forsyte Saga. When you get to the end of series 1, you’ll need to watch series 2. Trust me. A highly charged miniseries that follows the intrigues and scandals of a landed middle class London family, and the one woman who will turn their world upside-down.  Adapted from the novel by John Galsworthy.

North and South. Who knew the Industrial Revolution could provide so much opportunity for intrigue and romance? Basically, this is Pride & Prejudice, but it’s also about LABOR UNIONS. There’s an Elizabeth Bennett named Margaret Hale, and a Mr. Darcy, here called Mr. Thornton, played by Richard Armitrage, and he’s every bit as smoldering, growling, and mesmerizing as Colin Firth.  Adapted from the novel by Elizabeth Gaskell.

South Riding. A fiery young headmistress Sarah Burton brings her modern ideas to the conservative girls’ school in depression-era Yorkshire, sparking conflict — and attraction — with Robert Carne, a stubborn, brooding landowner mired in a troubled past.  Based on the novel by Winifred Holtby. Like North & South, a fascinating example of how a good love story can make a politically-minded novel sing.

The Way We Live Now. This adaptation of the Trollope novel is a satire of the financial scandals of the 1870’s, but it speaks perfectly to our 99% times, too. Again: Romance + Social Commentary = Love Stories that “Matter”

Wives and Daughters.  Adaptation of another Gaskell novel. Note: Gaskell died just before completing the book. She was obviously aiming at a happy ending, and the writer has supplied the lost denouement with surprise and style. 

Bleak House  Gillian Anderson leads this ensemble cast. Charles Dickens’ complex tale of young love, murder, and the quest for a mystery-man’s identity unfolds in this adaptation by screenwriter Andrew Davies. Bleak House features some of the most famous plot twists in literary history, including a case of spontaneous human combustion and an inheritance dispute tied up for generations in the dysfunctional English courts.

Is it bad to admit that at a certain point, I was watching so many of these things that I could recognize recycled dresses and country estates?

Sense and Sensibility 2008  This one’s not on YouTube. You’ve probably seen the 1995 version directed by Ang Lee. But this one’s wonderful, too, esp. because Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley) is Edward Ferrars.

What all these have in common is that they’re adaptations, and this, gentle reader, is why Downton Abbey succeeds so well. It is not an adaptation. Downton Abbey is Dallas with corsets and British accents. On the spectrum between “soap opera” and “serious drama,” it falls toward the latter only by virtue of its aristocratic setting.

Most of the series I’ve listed above are based on books of serious literature, which contain romantic subplots along with social commentary, as does Downton Abbey. But Downton, on the other hand, need not have any fidelity to a source text written long ago when narrative was simply a whole lot pokier. Downton Abbey may look like a Merchant Ivory film, but it “reads” as fast as Hunger Games.

That’s why we love it. 

Why Downton Abbey is Addictive (and Instructive)

Teaching The Biggest Things Writing

While the set and costumes of Downton Abbey are early 20th century, the plot is thoroughly 21st century: fast and full of tension.  People call it “addictive.” Gawker even says “It’s like crack.” What makes a narrative “addictive,” and what can we learn from it as novel writers?

Here’s a close reading of the first 15 minutes of Downtown Abbey, series 1, episode 1. 

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Why I’m Watching Downton Abbey


Because I’m working on a Big Thing, a work in progress that’s partially set in the Gilded Age and the Edwardian Era.

Because I need to time travel. I’ve been reading lots of biographies, histories, and fiction of and about the period. Sometimes I feel like Christopher Reeve’s character in Somewhere in Time, trying to will myself into the past. When I was writing The Circus in Winter, I practiced this same technique, immersing myself in movies and books and old-timey objects. (You wonder why the background of my blog looks like upholstery? Now you know…) In a period drama like Downton Abbey, the past is recreated with painterly precision, and I can study the brushstrokes.

Because Laura Linney introduces each episode. For episode 2, she reminds us of the limited options available to unmarried girls of modest means and how the typewriter changed lives. For episode 3, Linney discusses fashions in the context of social change, reminding us that “sometimes the engine of change doesn’t roar. It just quietly sits down to dinner.” The best historical fiction (on the screen or on the page) dramatizes individual lives taking place amid abstract “eras” and “movements.”

Because it stars Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, the Countess of Grantham. If, like me, you’ve spent the last few years reading biographies of Gilded Age women, then watching McGovern is like seeing two women at once: Consuelo Vanderbilt, the real person Cora is based on, and Evelyn Nesbit, the real person turned into a fictional character by E.L. Doctorow and played by McGovern in the movie Ragtime. Cora Crawley is no Evelyn Nesbitt, that’s for sure, but Cora, the heiress-auctioned-to-an-Earl, gets the happy ending Consuelo, the heiress-auctioned-to-a-Duke, never got. For further reading, I highly recommend Paula Uruburu’s American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl, (here’s a trailer for the book) and Amanda Mackenzie Stuart’s Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age.

Because of Maggie Smith. Period.

Because I love downstairs, too. The lives of the servants are just as interesting as the lives of those they serve. I hope the Bates and Anna story ends more happily than the end of Remains of the Day.

Because it’s a participatory event. On Sunday nights, I follow the live tweets of @edwardian_era, also known as Evangeline Holland, “Historian, Foodie, Novelist, Vintage Fashionista, and Edwardian enthusiast,” who blogs at Edwardian Promenade, a site that’s been an indispensible resource to me. Watching the show + following her twitter stream of info nuggets provides an intertextual, “Pop-Up Video” experience. When the Earl teases his mother about consulting the “stud book,” @edwardian_era tweets “stud book = Debrett’s” and includes a link to the Wikipedia entry, where I learn that it was the British equivalent of The Social Register. Bingo! How lucky is this? This show airs just as I’m writing about the period, and experts on the period are sharing their expertise as they watch the show. Wow.

Because relationships are inherently suspenseful. As Katie Roiphe says in her book, Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1910-1939, “Marriage is perpetually interesting; it is the novel most of us are living in.”

Because-I don’t know. I don’t know why I love period dramas. I asked my Facebook friends about this, and a friend suggested: “Women had much less power yet many women (myself included) can’t get enough of costume dramas. Is it that we relate, primarily, to the upper classes and imagine a life in which we had leisure, servants, beautiful clothes and went to balls, as a way to indulge our romantic selves, and then we can pull back, turn off the TV, and regain our authority?”

I don’t know. Maybe.

But I think it’s because of something like this: Downton and Gosford Park writer Julian Fellowes was asked, “What’s our fascination with turn-of-the-20th-century life about?” and he said:

“It’s almost our world. When you look at something going on in 1640, you don’t see a connection. But when you look at 1900, you see our world but apparently a simpler form of it where somehow everyone knows the rules, whereas we increasingly have a sense that none of us know the rules. And we’re in a slight state of social chaos. And it seems beguiling to watch an ordered world where everyone knew what they were doing.”

Or as Richard Drew at The Atlantic says: “For me, Downton Abbey is as complex and fascinating a study of the early 20th century as, Mad Men is of the 1960’s.”

And the last (and best) reason why I’m watching Downton Abbey: Because it’s helping me “get inside” my character, a young woman of that time and cultural milieu. In other words, I get to watch great public television and call it “research.”