Monday, March 30, 2009

Mentor Monday: Research Rapture Redux

Last month I mentioned the phenomenon of Research Rapture –the delightful but dangerous risk of getting constantly and repeatedly sidetracked in following, intriguing bits of information, or constantly searching for one more elusive fact. Today I’d like to remind us of a related research risk, which lies perhaps at the other end of the spectrum-research laxity.

Laxity, or a lack of vigilance, is a particular risk if you are doing research primarily on the web. As we all remember from the old New Yorker cartoon “On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog.” Anyone can put up a website, fill it with stuff, and claim it’s all true. The poster doesn’t have to cite sources, be vetted by editors or fact-checkers, or accept responsibility. The author may be a brilliant scholar who’s an expert In your topic, or a total crank with an axe to grind. As a writer, it’s your responsibility to do good, careful research, so that you don’t perpetuate myths or misstatements.

On the internet, it can be helpful to rely on sites that are maintained by reputable institutions: universities, state departments of historic resources, the federal government, etc. Even there, however, we need to be cautious. (See cautionary tale, below!) Be alert for inconsistencies and double-check when possible.

Print materials are generally considered more reliable, but caution is still a good idea. Some editors are better than others, as are some authors. And even if everyone involved in a project was being conscientious, later research may change “facts” or their presentation or interpretation. Even a contemporary newspaper report may have been subject to later correction.

A good rule of thumb is not to cite a fact unless you find it in three independent sources. This is tricky with internet research, as misinformation gets repeated endlessly. (Genealogy websites are notorious for this, although they are fantastic as sources of otherwise impossible to find information!)

Keep track of where you find things! This is important not only for fact-checking (you may be asked to provide your sources to your editor) but also for tracking down the item that you noticed in passing but didn’t use, and then decide weeks later that it’s just the bit you need! You can easily save webpages on your hard drive for later reference (somewhere on your internet toolbar there is a “page” option, click it and select “save as.” If you didn’t do that, you can try to get back to a page using the “search” feature on your browser history. If you’re willing to add something to your computer, the Google Desktop feature caches and indexes every page (internet, word processor, email, whatever) you open on your hard drive, and allows you to find it later via their familiar search interface. Warning – I use Google Desktop and find it very valuable, but it does slow down your system, and presumably soaks up hard drive space.

With print sources that I own or have on loan I stick dozens of sticky strips (I cut up the memopads) in the book as I read, sometimes annotating them with a key word if I know I’m going to want a particular item. (Warning-I have been told that these wonderful stickies leave a minute but real amount of adhesive on the page. Please do not use them on ancient or valuable books!)

If I’m using a print resource in a library or archive, I will photocopy the page of interest (if allowed) and then write the publication data on the back. Failing all of the above, of course, good-old-fashioned note taking will suffice!

Now, this week’s cautionary tale:

After three weeks of research of a particular Notable Woman I sat down to write my profile. There was a quote in her biography that I wanted to use, but when I went back to it I discovered that the author had not footnoted it (although the book does have copious footnotes). This was puzzling. Knowing that my editor’s first comment on my draft would be “this is a real quote, right?” I went in search of the biographer’s source. I checked her bibliography. I googled specific lines from the paragraph in question. (Don’t miss Google Books and Google Scholar, both in the “more” drop-down menu at the top of the search page.) Finally, after a couple of days of intense work, I found the quote, in a book published in 1948 and available in full from the Internet Archive.

The biographer had misattributed the quote. Now I wasn’t actually shocked by this because over the course of my searching I had found several discussions of other books by this author in which she had apparently massaged the facts to suit her story or support her interpretation. One later scholar observed, in an effort to be kind, that the author was “a professor of English, not History.”

The result of this discovery was, of course, that not only could I not use the quote as I had wanted, but I became suspicious of everything else the biography said about my Woman. And since it’s the only biography of her, that meant extensive double-checking of other sources. In the process of which I found some other inaccuracies in other sources.

For example – one printed source (a coloring book) reported that at 18 my Woman had been travelling with her mother in Europe with the mother died. Another source – a website published and maintained by the State Historical Archives, reported that the mother had died 7 years later, attended by my Woman’s brother, who had gone to Europe with his mother for medical treatment. My immediate suspicion, based on an assumption about the validity of the Archive site, was that the coloring book author had been misinformed or had misinterpreted or misstated the facts. Fortunately, I had the sense to dig a bit further (since I now had two sources in direct conflict, the rule-of-three said to keep looking). Eventually (thanks Newspaper Archive) I found the mother’s death notice. She did die in Europe, attended by both children, shortly after the daughter’s graduation from school in France (the earlier date). Whether she had gone to Europe for a trip or for medical treatment I was not able to determine. I did learn, however, from another newspaper clip, that the two young people arrived back in the States with their mother’s body 7 months later! It hadn’t occurred to me that in a time before air travel, such a journey would be so prolonged.

I will probably send a note to the webmaster of the State History website with a pdf of the death notice and suggest that a correction would be in order. There’s nothing to be done about the biography, as far as I can see, except to annotate MY bibliography to warn future researchers who might happen upon it.

Can I be certain that I will not inadvertently pass on some incorrect “fact” as I write? Of course not. But I can make every reasonable effort to avoid doing so. Sometimes rabbit-hole research isn’t rapture. Sometimes, it’s just due diligence.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Write Sisters Road Show

Wednesday night The Write Sisters, and illustrator, Lisa Greenleaf, appeared at a talk in Hollis, NH sponsored by the Hollis Social Library. We had a nice turnout, but I was expecting kids rather than adults, since I thought that the program was being promoted to Girl Scout troops as a "Women's History Month" celebration. That's one rule I forgot--you never know who your audience will be until they arrive! So, always be prepared for a multi-generational presentation! Below are a few snapshots I took.

Sally, Barbara, Muriel, and Kathy of The Write Sisters

Apprentice Shop Books' designer/illustrator, Lisa Greenleaf

Audience members working on a promotional quiz for Women of Granite

"Conscripts" at the sales table

The 25 women profiled in Women of Granite


Saturday, March 28, 2009


I'm heading south of the border today to stroll the streets of Salem, Massachusetts and check out the Second Annual Salem Literature Festival. There are a number of events and workshops today and tomorrow, and I still need to decide which ones are calling to me. I think I'll attend Brunonia Barry's 2 pm workshop Creativity and a Sense of Place this afternoon at Old Town Hall. (Pictured here.)

If you've never been to Salem before, you're in for a treat. It's a terrific walking town brimming with atmosphere. Enjoy everything that Salem has to offer, not just the witchy thing. Granted, the witchy thing is a big thing, but Salem has so much more to give you. Visit the Custom House, where Nathaniel Hawthorne's three years of employment inspired The Scarlett Letter. From there, it's a short walk to The House of the Seven Gables, which needs no explanation from me. The Peabody Essex Museum is a must-see, even if they did gut the natural history section. (What the heck did the curator do with the buffalo, giant sea turtle and all those birds anyway?) If you're really interested in a trip in the Way-Back Machine, visit Salem Willows. Established as a park in the mid 1850s, the place has been hopping ever since. Just ask anybody who grew up on the Noth Shawa.

In spite of the fact it brought my girl Rebecca Nurse to such a wicked end, I still love Salem. Maybe I'll see you there this afternoon!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Poetry Friday: When Earth's Last Picture is Painted

When Earth's last picture is painted
And the tubes are twisted and dried
When the oldest colors have faded
And the youngest critic has died
We shall rest, and faith, we shall need it
Lie down for an aeon or two
'Till the Master of all good workmen
Shall put us to work anew
And those that were good shall be happy
They'll sit in a golden chair
They'll splash at a ten league canvas
With brushes of comet's hair
They'll find real saints to draw from
Magdalene, Peter, and Paul
They'll work for an age at a sitting
And never be tired at all.
And only the Master shall praise us.
And only the Master shall blame.
And no one will work for the money.
No one will work for the fame.
But each for the joy of the working,
And each, in his separate star,
Will draw the thing as he sees it.
For the God of things as they are!

--Rudyard Kipling

For more about the complicated and conflicted Rudyard Kipling, click here.

Poetry Friday is being graciously hosted by Julie Larios at The Drift Record.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Women of...Wednesday--Katherine Lane Weems

Some of the women we are profiling for our "America's Notable Women" series were incredibly poor, a condition that forced them to rely on their talents to survive. Others weren't necessarily poor, but used their talents to overcome come great adversity in the court of public opinion. And then, there were the wealthy women. Women who had enough "green" to let them live comfortably, but who weren't content simply to live a life of leisure. They employed their talents, and their money, to good use.

One such woman was sculptor, Katherine Lane Weems (1899-1989). Katherine was born into money--her father was a Boston financier and president of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. One look at Kay's baby picture and you can see the wealth that her family possessed--the baby is dripping lace!

Photo from Smithsonian Archives of American Art

Her father introduced her to the world of art, and on a trip abroad, also introduced her to the artist, John Singer Sargent. Katherine later recalled the visit in her memoir, Odds Were Against Me:
Mr. Sargent was charming and most kind to me. He explained the work, showed me how he was doing it, and even asked my opinion. It was the first time anyone had treated me like and adult, and I was captivated."

As it turns out, Kay was quite talented as an artist, and her wealth enabled her to study and work without the worries of making a living. She understood, though, that her situation was privileged, and wrote,
I decided not to seek commissions; I did not need the money and did not want to deprive another artist, but if I were offered a project that strongly appealed to me I would accept it and give it my best.

Kay was offered a grand project, the Biological Laboratories building, at Harvard University. From 1930-1937 she created a frieze, bronze door panels, and large bronze sculptures of two rhinoceroses, affectionately known as Bessie and Victoria. You can see the work on this online tour.

Later, she sculpted the dolphins that now stand outside New England Aquarium. She had found that dolphins were endangered due to tuna fishing. This bothered her greatly. She decided to create a sculpture to celebrate dolphins, and to bring to the public an awareness of these creatures and their plight. Kay wrote,
I was in my seventy-fifth year when I embarked on this ambitious but difficult project. I knew it would take time. I was eager to do it, and even though I was in good health there were moments when I wondered if I would have the strength to finish it.

Finish it she did--it took her five years from the time of her first sketches until the sculpture was unveiled in 1979. She gave her work as a gift to the Aquarium--and to the world.

Kay Weems was rich in fortune, talent, and concern for all creatures, and, we continue to enjoy her legacy.


Monday, March 23, 2009

MENTOR MONDAY Dialogue Draaaagg, Part Deux

In last week’s post we discussed the use of dialogue and how it should help move the story. One way that dialogue does this is to help the reader learn more about the characters:

Mrs. Smith towered over Joe’s desk. “It seems you didn’t hear me, Mr. Jones. I said I wanted all biology textbooks open to page 50. NOW.”

Joe looked up. “Make me,” he said.

What is your impression of Mrs. Smith? You might get that she’s strict, that she’s not afraid to confront her students. And Joe? Perhaps after reading his reply you thought, rude, obstinate, not easy to control.

Take the same dialogue from Mrs. Smith and change Joe’s:

Mrs. Smith towered over Joe’s desk. “It seems you didn’t hear me, Mr. Jones. I said I wanted all biology textbooks open to page 50. NOW.”

Joe looked up. “Yes, ma’am,” he whispered.

Do you picture Joe the same way? Probably not. He becomes a much wimpier character in the second version.

It doesn’t take a lot of words to create dialogue that contributes to characterization. The tag lines are basic. He said. He whispered. If I were using any of these dialogue lines in a novel, I might add a bit more movement, but my point here is that it’s not necessary to overdo it. Word choice, emphasis, and attributions all help to propel the story and develop characters.

In each of these examples, we also see that the relationship between the characters is very different. While Mrs. Smith is seen as basically an overbearing task master in each version, the way her student reacts tells us as much about Mrs. Smith as it does about the student. Each dialogue pair does something else. It adds tension.

In the first example, we certainly want to know what will happen next. Who will be the first to react? Will Mrs. Smith back down? Will she continue to harangue Joe? Will he fight back—maybe even attack his teacher? At this point, it’s difficult to root for either character. We don’t know if Mrs. Smith is a bully or tired. Is Joe reacting because he is fed up with an unfair teacher or is he a juvenile delinquent?

The second conversation provides a different kind of tension. This time, our focus might be more sympathetic towards the student. He’s obviously afraid and we want to know why.
Go through a work-in-progress and see if you can explore ways to further your characterizations without using too many words. The pen might be mightier than the sword, but sometimes you need a sword—to do some cutting.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sunday Sharing

Sharing is what it's all about! I want to let you know about a free program I discovered through a NH State Library blog. The program enables you to make photo colleges such as the one below. It's easy to use, but a word of warning, the fewer the photos used the better. I started off with dozens and after many eliminations, I ended up with only about 16 photos. The program can be downloaded from Shape Collage. Have fun!

Check back next Saturday when I'll share a little something else!


Friday, March 20, 2009

Poetry Friday: The Music of Language

In The Art and Craft of Writing for Children (edited by William Zinsser) children’s poet Jack Prelutsky says “Poetry is many things. It’s the music of language. It’s the stuff that doesn’t have to extend to the margin. It’s the stuff that can have meter and rhythm. It’s the stuff that at its finest says things that prose cannot say…It’s distillation of experience.”
Jack distills one experience for us:

Louder Than a Clap of Thunder
by Jack Prelutsky
(From The New Kid on the Block)

Louder than a clap of thunder,
louder than an eagle screams,
louder than a dragon blunders,
or a dozen football teams,
louder than a four-alarmer,
or a rushing waterfall,
louder than a knight in armor
jumping from a ten-foot wall.

Louder than an earthquake rumbles,
louder than a tidal wave,
louder than an ogre grumbles
as he stumbles through his cave,
louder than stampeding cattle,
louder than a cannon roars,
louder than a giant’s rattle,
that’s how loud my father SNORES!

Visit Jack’s web site for more.

This week's Poetry Friday Round-Up is being hosted at Wild Rose Reader.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Women of…Wednesday

Lynn Jennings: In It For the Distance

When it’s time to choose women to profile for the Notable Women series the problem never lies in finding enough interesting topics. The problem is deciding where to put them. Olympic distance running champion Lynn Jennings is a case in point.

Lynn was born in New Jersey, lived in New Hampshire, and retired to Oregon. In which state book should she be featured? We went with New Hampshire because most of her athletic accomplishments occurred while she was living in Newmarket, NH.
Stories about athletes are always inspiring because we know that in order to reach their goals they generally
a) worked very long and hard or
b) overcame some challenge or
c) both.

Lynn did work very hard but that is not why I found her fascinating. I was enthralled with the story of a woman who aimed for a goal that did not exist.

Even as a young child Lynn loved to run. When she was around six she was already asking her dad to time her as she ran. In high school, she ran with the boys’ track team because her high school did not have a girls’ team. Lynn loved speed but she especially loved the challenge of distance.

During her early teens, her parents took her to see some Olympic track competitions. The distance runs excited her imagination. This was her goal: to become a champion women’s distance runner. The only problem was, there were no distance competitions for women at the time. Lynn believed that the day would come when women would have their own distance trials in the international games. She trained accordingly.

She made mistakes, of course, as everyone does in life. She entered her first Boston Marathon at age 17. It was to be an unofficial time because the rule was that competitors had to be at least 18 to qualify. Lynn soon learned why the race was held specifically for adult runners. If her time had qualified, she’d have come in third. Instead, the grueling course damaged her knee and she needed surgery.

After college, Lynn moved to NH and trained herself. She eventually attracted the attention of a sponsor and a coach. In 1992, she reached her goal: she won a bronze medal in the 10,000 meter race at the Barcelona Olympics.

When the running world added distance racing for women and Lynn was ready.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Mentor Monday: Dialogue Draaaagg

In keeping with Barbara’s excellent piece last week on narrative drag, I thought I’d continue with another way a story can get bogged down: too much dialogue. For example

“Hey, Billy!”
“Hi, Tim!”
“I didn’t know you’d be here.”
“Yeah, it was a last minute decision. So how’re you?”
“I’m good. How are you? Whatcha been up to?”
“Not much. You?”
“Same old, same old…”

Are you tired of this conversation yet? I got tired of writing it after the word Billy. There are reasons to have conversation in a story. Dialogue can help with character development; it can show us the relationship between characters; it can provide information that otherwise would be difficult to introduce; it can move the plot along, and provide the reader with “white space” which is restful to the eyes.

What have you learned about my story based on the above conversation? Maybe you learned that the characters are both male. They seem to know each other. They’ve encountered each other unexpectedly.

That’s about it. We have no idea where the characters are. We can’t tell how old they are although they are probably older than 10 years of age based on the word choice. (What ten-year-old kid cares what another ten-year-old has been “up to?” We have no idea if these people are friends or relatives or former co-workers. We don’t know where the story takes place. The dialogue has not moved the story at all. In fact, like the characters, we are stopped, stuck in a place that seems ephemeral and useless.

Part of the reason this particular dialogue is so pointless is that it goes on too long. Yet, it is the sort of conversation we’ve all had. When writing conversation, we want to sound authentic but unfortunately, authentic dialogue is just as boring as what I’ve written above. The problem for writers is knowing what to leave out. What if we stop the conversation at the word “decision:”

Let’s try these same four lines and try to show a meeting between estranged brothers at a family reunion? Perhaps they’d be written them like this:

“Hey, Billy!”
“I didn’t know you’d be here.”
“Yeah, it was a last minute decision.”

How about former co-workers at a party:

“Hey, Billy!”
“Hi, Timmy!”
“I didn’t know you’d be here!”
“Yeah—a last minute decision!”

The different uses of punctuation, italic stressors, the elimination of certain words or addition of nicknames puts us more firmly in the moment. In the reunion example, we get a sense that the meeting is uncomfortable. In the holiday party example, we feel the delight of two old friends who’ve run into each other.

Next time, we’ll explore other ways to punch up your dialogue so that it moves your story rather than drag it.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Poetry Friday--Fillers

Looking through old newspapers I'm always delighted to find trivia, bits of advice, witty sayings, and poems filling out the pages between stories.

Here are a few samples from the 1930s and 40s:

You can't straighten out a crooked cop by transferring him. The thing to do is to get rid of him.
—Elliot Ness, safety director of Cleveland.

New York, March 9 (AP).—
Here's a new idea for your chiffon handkerchief. Take two of about the same size—in colors that harmonize—and twist them, in turban fashion, to fit your head.

Risky Business.
Doctor—Put out your tongue.
Little Tommy—Not on your life! I did that to the teacher yesterday and got a licking.—Brooklyn Life.

I have an old book of poems, published in 1937, that also used sayings and short "cute" poems to fill the spaces between longer pieces. I like this one since it is as appropriate today as it was when it appeared:


I remember, I remember,
Ere my childhood flitted by,
It was cold then in December,
And was warmer in July,
In the winter there were freezing--
In the summer there were thaws;
But the weather isn't now at all
Like what it used to was!

It seems a shame that poetry is no longer found stuck between news stories. For that matter, it's a shame that soon there will be no paper newspapers! I wonder how researchers in the future will search through online news sources where content changes hourly?

The week's Poetry Friday round-up is being hosted by The Miss Rumphius Effect, check it out!


Monday, March 9, 2009

Mentor Monday--Narrative Draaaaaaaag

"But Mom, everybody's doing it."

"And if everybody jumped off a roof, would you jump off, too?"

We've all heard that before. Some of us may have even said it. So, what does Mom's advice have to do with narrative drag?

Open any novel, and somewhere inside, you'll probably find narrative drag. All writers do it. The best writers just do it less often. And we all do it because we've seen it done many times and think we need to do it, too.

Photo by troycochrane

Here's an example--

Jack swung the ax. It missed the wood and sunk into his boot, the cold steel biting into his toe. He screamed.

Mom rushed outside. She was wearing a housedress and the Garfield slippers he had bought her for Christmas. The housedress was white with purple flowers, only now they were so faded, they were mostly pink. Her brown hair was cut short and curled to her neck just below her ears. She had worn it long until Dad died, because he liked it that way, but the day after his funeral, she had gone to the beauty parlor and had it all cut off.

"Jack!" she cried.

Now, even if you've never heard of narrative drag, I'm betting you can pick it out in that example. It's when we stop our story--when we prevent our characters from speaking, acting, or thinking--so we can interject and explain.

Did you care what color Mom's hair is. Or its length? Or why she cut it? Were you fascinated by the tidbit about her slippers? Are you dying to know where she bought her housedress? Of course not. You want to know if Jack cut his toe off.

Imagine if they did that in the movies. In the middle of a climatic scene the screen fades to black and the director comes on to tell us about the motivation behind a character's actions. and after he's bored us to tears and the tension of the scene has withered away to nothing, he says, "And now, back to the movie." The conclusion of that scene no longer has an impact--certainly not the impact it would have had if it hadn't been interrupted. Narrative drag does the same thing in your story.

So, how do you avoid narrative drag? How do you introduce those Garfield slippers that will be important later, or get across to the reader what Mom looks like?

Include them in the action, and attach verbs to them.

"Jack!" Mom cried. She raced across the yard, her Garfield slippers slapping the mud. She grabbed the ax handle and pulled it from Jack's boot. Blood dripped from the blade onto her faded housedress, turning a pink petal purple again.

And as the scene continues, you mention her hair in the same way and whatever else you need the reader to know. The verbs keep the story alive, and they keep the reader focused on the action. Things are happening, the scene is moving, and you've still relayed the same information as the first example. The difference is that the information has become part of the story, rather than an aside. The characters haven't stopped what they were doing so the author can explain. They are still acting, thinking, and speaking, and the author is nowhere around.

That's all there is to it. So, if you should find yourself sticking your nose in a story where it doesn't belong and explaining things to your reader, don't tell yourself it's just a few lines and everyone else is doing it. Stop it right away and cut it out immediately. (Literally.) You'll end up with a stronger story, and you'll have made your mother proud.


Friday, March 6, 2009

Poetry Friday: Spring in War-Time

Revisiting Caroline Gardner Clark Bartlett inspired me to search through war-themed poetry, specifically poems written in response to World War I. Sara Teasdale wrote Spring in War-Time at the dawn of World War I. As we edge closer to spring in our own time of war, Sara's nearly 100-year old words prove timeless.

Spring in War-Time
by Sara Teasdale

I FEEL the spring far off, far off,
The faint, far scent of bud and leaf
Oh, how can spring take heart to come
To a world in grief,
Deep grief?

The sun turns north, the days grow long,
Later the evening star grows bright—
How can the daylight linger on
For men to fight,
Still fight?

The grass is waking in the ground,
Soon it will rise and blow in waves—
How can it have the heart to sway
Over the graves,
New graves?

Under the boughs where lovers walked
The apple-blooms will shed their breath—
But what of all the lovers now
Parted by Death,
Grey Death?

Anastasia Suen is hosting today's Poetry Friday at Picture Book of the Day. Check it out!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Women of Wednesday: Caroline Gardner Clark Bartlett

Sister Beatrice was neither a nun nor a woman named Beatrice, but she sure could get things done. Born into poverty in 1868, Caroline Gott spent her first three years in Ohio before being adopted by the Clarks of Rochester, New York. Her singing talent was evident at an early age, and by 1890 Caroline was singing professionally.

Around 1898, Caroline married Dr. James Bartlett, a dentist some 30-years her senior. They bought a summer home in Warner, New Hampshire, and Caroline established Sunny Hill, a music school. Caroline researched voice production and even exchanged letters with Thomas Edison about voice. She developed her own way to teach singing called the natural voice method. She established such a name for herself that Lillian Nordica, the premier diva of the day, started training with Caroline in 1907. Just how much of a celebrity was Nordica? Celebrity enough to be featured in Coca-Cola advertising, that's how much.

Caroline's husband died in 1909, and Caroline did what all good widows do. She made a beeline for New York City and started another singing school. She and Lillian planned on working together, and set up a recital tour of Europe. Caroline, an eccentric who could have given P.T. Barnum lessons in self-promotion, arrived in London in 1914, but the tour was doomed before it even started. Lillian, who had just wrapped up a recital tour of Australia, never made it to London. She was shipwrecked on a coral reef à la Gilligan's Island. (Quite possibly Lillian was the inspiration for the Ginger character.) Although she was rescued, she was too weak to continue the journey and eventually died on the island of Java. Even if Lillian had found her way to London, the outbreak of World War I would have ended the tour in short order.

Not long after Lillian's death, Caroline was drinking tea with a friend when she had a vision of "Christ in the cowl." A few months later she started seeing fields of purple and eventually a purple cloak. She saw this cloak in such detail that she had a London seamstress create one for her based on sketches she had done. In an effort to determine what these visions meant, she met with an archdeacon. He told her she was being called to humanitarian work, but that ultimately she would be persecuted.

By this time, London was filled with Belgium refugees escaping the war, homeless and hungry. Moved by what she witnessed, Caroline became the Bob Geldof of her day. She walked around London asking people to help the refugees. She collected and distributed clothing, food and money. She was so good at her self-appointed relief work, that a doctor who saw what she was doing asked her to go to France to open a hospital for wounded soldiers.

Caroline went to France and saw the suffering firsthand. She traveled back and forth across the English Channel dozens of times, raising money and supplies which she brought back to France with her. She took her eccentricities to new heights when she started wearing a self-designed uniform to make herself more recognizable when traveling in a war zone. The uniform was fashioned around the purple cloak, and resembled a nun's habit. For reasons unknown, she started going by the name Sister Beatrice. Within two months, she had a hospital up and running in Yvetot and was appointed hospital director.

Caroline looked for money and resources anywhere she could find them, and her abilities as a performer served her well. She once spoke to an audience of 140,000 ship builders in Newcastle, England in her quest for funding. Attired in what had become her trademark purple cloak, Caroline raised money, supplies, and more than a few eyebrows.

Caroline was acquiring enemies along the way. For all of her media savvy, she was quite naive about the effect her strong, blunt personality had on people. Her successes as an independent relief agent were met with jealousy by officially sanctioned relief organizations. Caroline was already treading a fine line as a woman alone in a foreign country. Toss that purple cape and her unique personality into the mix and you've got a recipe for suspicion and ridicule. Rumors started swirling that she was a war profiteer and a German spy.

Caroline was accused of mishandling the monies raised for the hospital at Yvetot. In October 1915 she was dismissed as its director. On December 4, 1915 the New York Times front page headline read "'Sister Beatrice' Accused -- Mrs. Caroline Bartlett Called a German Spy."

Despite these blows, Caroline continued her relief work. Throughout 1918 she raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Serbian's Widows and Orphans fund. Caroline's relief work ended with the war in 1919. With her reputation in tatters, it was nearly impossible for her to find paying work.

Caroline returned to Warner, New Hampshire in 1929. In poor health and with few friends, she spent her last years trying to clear her name. She died in Warner on February 16, 1938. The woman who single-handedly raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and was responsible for saving countless lives bowed out of this world as poor as she was upon her debut. She died with only $59.60 cash in her estate.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Mentor Monday: But That's How It Really Happened!

Years ago I brought a picture book manuscript to my group for a critique. I was new to writing for kids, but I had done my homework. I knew how to properly format a manuscript. I'd read hundreds if not thousands of picture books so I knew the genre inside and out. I understood the importance of a critique group and was open to the process. I was the best little newbie ever!

I was a lucky little newbie, too. I'd been teaching preschool and kindergarten for 15 years and had acquired more story ideas than I'd ever be able to use. In fact, that particular story I'd brought for critique had been inspired by one of my students. Writing it was as easy as taking dictation, and there's the problem. I stayed too true to how the story really happened. I included too many irrelevant details and extraneous characters. I'd been so wrapped up in getting the retelling "right," that my voice was absent from the story. When my critique partners pointed these things out, I went straight into defense mode.

"But that's how it really happened!" I said. As if that would make them see the error of their critiquing ways.

It took a bit of explaining (I never said I was a smart little newbie) before I understood that this was why the literary gods created artistic license -- to save us from reality's tedious moments. Can you imagine how dull Shakespeare's histories would read had he been rigid with historical facts?

It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway, just in case) that I'm talking about fiction. Creating words to put in the mouth of your historical subject is verboten. Same goes for creating situations into which you place your historical figure. Nonfiction writers do not make up stuff. It's not nice to do to Oprah. (Think James Frey's Million Little Pieces.)