Throwback Thursday: Dead Wake by Erik Larson

This review was originally written in 2015

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I am a big fan of Erik Larson.  In the Garden of Beasts kept me up late at night, The Devil in the White City creeped me out, Thunderstruck left me, well, thunderstruck.  With great anticipation I opened my e-galley (Thank you Crown!) and settled in.  Needless to say, I remain a devoted fan having stayed up late into the night and arisen early the next morning to find out what happened to my favorite passengers and my not so favorite submarine commander.  As is his usual habit, Larson tells the story from two viewpoints—in this case the passengers and captain on the Lusitania and the submarine captain of U-20, who sunk the ship.  Both sides are compelling and offer the reader an almost omniscient view of what is happening.  Larson’s work is copiously researched;  he includes quotations from letters, newspapers, official war records and numerous other primary sources, but the story is anything but dry.  I came away with a new understanding of just how dangerous crossing the ocean could be;  the Lusitania was by no means the only passenger ship to go down.  Many succumbed to accident, like the Titanic, but with a frequency I had not previously realized, and there were many sunk by torpedo during WWI.  And yet, people still traveled on them and in many cases felt quite comfortable doing so.  There was one passenger from the Lusitania, a salesman, who had survived two other ships that went down.  Packed with information, but written with a narrative flow that many fiction books could benefit from, Larson’s latest is on the NYT bestseller list and deserves to be so.  Most intriguing to me is the possibility of a conspiracy involving Room 40–you will have to read the book to find out what that is, but it will be worth it!.  I had heard the occasional theory before, but the evidence as presented definitely seems to tip in favor of conspiracy being a strong likelihood.

Enjoy!

Thomas Jefferson Day is April 13, 2022

Last year, my daughter decided to move to Maine, so we loaded up her SUV and began a five day road trip across the country from Central Texas to Portland, Maine.  We both love to travel, and decided to make the most of our journey.  I planned the route to stop at several places of interest, mostly historic sites since that is where our interests lie.  We saw Central High School in Little Rock Arkansas, took a ghost tour in Nashville, and went just a tad out of our way to visit Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Since April 13 is Thomas Jefferson Day, I decided this would be a good subject for a blog post this month.  

We arrived in the morning, having made our reservations the day before on the motel wifi.  It was August, so the trek up the hill, and it is a big hill, was a little sweaty.  On the way to the house, we saw the family graveyard, as well as the kitchen and test gardens. One of the projects that the staff at Monticello work on is continuing Jefferson’s botanical pursuits.  He liked to try out different types of seeds and ran his farm almost like a laboratory.  The construction of the house was also an ongoing experiment, as our guide explained. Jefferson created a seven day clock that would show what day of the week it was, used a specially designed roof for drainage, and continued construction on his house his entire lifetime.  It was one of the many reasons he died in massive debt. He was a man with a questioning mind and a restless spirit.  We heard so many interesting stories that day about Jefferson, his family (both of them), and the various people who had owned the house after Jefferson died and preserved it.  

In the last several years, many historic sites have begun the important work of expanding the stories they tell to include previously marginalized people who lived and worked on the properties.  We heard many of these stories during our tour of Monticello, and my favorite was the story of Peter Fossett.  

Peter was born at Monticello as an enslaved person; upon Jefferson’s death, he was sold at auction—separated from his family.  His father, who had been freed in Jefferson’s will, eventually saved the money to purchase Peter’s freedom, along with other members of his family, but Peter’s new owner refused to sell him and the rest of the Fossett family made the difficult choice to move to Ohio in search of opportunity, leaving Peter behind.  At this point, the whole tour group was hanging on the guide’s every word.  Peter continued to read and to teach other enslaved people to read.  After over twenty years, he was again auctioned.  This time, his family were able to free him and he joined them in Cincinnati.  It is a tale of persistence in the face of difficulty; a happy ending for a family reunited in love. It is a story that twenty years ago, may not have been on the tour of Monticello.

As a Historical fiction and historical mystery coach, I work with clients to write the stories, real and imagined, of those whose voices have been muted. Extraordinary people whose part in history has been left out, glossed over, willfully forgotten.

Whose story will you write?

Read more about the Fossetts here:  https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/peter-fossett  

Buc-ees and Writing

If you’ve ever taken a road trip through Texas (and now a handful of other lucky states), you’ve likely seen or stopped at a Buc-ees gas station. Buc-ees is actually more than a gas station, it is a road trip icon! During my last stop at this celebrated oasis of gas pumps, snacks and clean bathrooms, I got to thinking how Buc-ees could be a metaphor for genre fiction writers.  Bear with me, dear reader, I promise, I’ll get there.

When you stop at a Buc-ees you know what you’re getting, much like when you pick up a genre fiction book.  You know Buc-ees will have tons of gas pumps so you don’t have to wait, lots of clean bathroom stalls, so you don’t have to wait OR worry about germs, and loads of snacks, so everyone in your vehicle can get the munchies of their choice and you can all drive away happy.

The point of genres for readers is that they know what to expect.  That is not to say that they don’t want originality from writers, but they expect certain things to be in the novel. For example, if I pick up a Women’s Fiction novel, I expect that there will be a strong female POV character with some growth in her arc.  If I pick up a Historical Romance, I expect a historical setting AND a happily-ever-after or happy-for now ending.  If I pick up a murder mystery, I expect the first body to fall pretty quickly and I want a satisfying puzzle to solve.  Give readers what they expect so they can be happy readers!

Genre fiction can be of high literary merit, but if it purports to be of a certain genre, readers have expectations to meet.  I would be horrified if I walked into Buc-ees and they were out of my favorite cherry sours, just like I would be angry if my mystery novel did not contain clues and red herrings.  If I had to actually wait in line at a Buc-ees to use the restroom, I would be shocked. Likewise if my Historical fiction book has a bunch of anachronisms.  People love Buc-ees BECAUSE they know what to expect AND their expectations are met each and every time.  Your readers will love you the same way if you are careful to meet genre expectations with originality AND do it consistently.

You could be the Buc-ees of your genre…

Throwback Thursday; My Year with Eleanor by Noelle Hancock

This book originally came out in 2011 and it was one of the many that I read on my Kindle back when everyone thought print was DEAD.  Well, as the saying goes, rumors of the death of print were greatly exaggerated and it is still with us!  Usually Throwback Thursday features a book review that I wrote several years ago when I read the book, but alas, I did not find the review for this one.  

There was a moment when a lot of nonfiction involved doing X for a year, and this book came out during that flurry.  If you look it up on Goodreads, you will see it gets a lot of shade.  Here’s the thing, though.  Eleanor Roosevelt has never gotten the respect she deserves and this book was the beginning of a re-examination of her as a historical figure.  Therefore, I love it, if for no other reason.

Is it gimmicky?  Sure.  Is the writer a little entitled and privileged? Yep, but let’s be honest, times were different in 2011 and people hadn’t yet noticed, or if they had noticed, they weren’t mentioning it. I liked this book a lot for the idea it proposed—doing things you are afraid of to conquer your fears.  Do things scared, because if we are honest, we all have to do that or else we would be homebound and never go out or do anything…wait…Covid…  :O

The point is, do something.  Live your life.  Do it scared.  You won’t stay scared.

Women’s History Month Roundup

Women’s History Month is one of my favorite months of the year.  I love March, because it’s my birthday month, because the daffodils are up, at least in Central Texas, and because we celebrate women. As a feminist, it makes me happy.  Of course, I wish we celebrated women every month, but we’ve got to start somewhere.  

The links below are a gathering of some of the best sites I’ve found and that have been sent to me by others.  First up, sent in by a reader, is this fantastic online exhibit featuring my favorite authoress, you know her, you love her, Jane Austen.

Publication and Prejudice at Yale

Women’s History Month (LOC and NARA)

Women’s Story at Story Corps

She Resisted by PBS

Women and the Civil War

National Women’s History Alliance

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity forWomen Worldwide (Documentary)

Women’s History Month on Biography

30 Important Women in History You May Not Have Heard of from The Archive

Early Women’s Writing at the Chawton House Library


It is not too late to get everything you need to make history come alive in your novel.

A Room of One’s Own, Does it Matter?

How important is a room of one’s own?  Virginia Woolfe was convinced that a writer would never be able to produce without a room and an income.  This frees the writer from some of the distractions of life.  Sometimes, I find myself wishing for a space that is mine, unshared, uninterrupted, and undivided.  

I recently visited Jane Austen’s house in Chawton.  It was in this location with the help of both her brother, who provided the house, and her sister, who took care of running the house, that Jane did most of the work of writing that we know about.  She revised her earlier works and readied them for publication.  She wrote new works.  She blossomed as a writer.  Is Virginia right?  Does a writer need a space and some assurance of an income in order to really write seriously?

I read a lot.  I am a librarian, and though there are those who fight the stereotype of librarians as readers, I embrace it.  I read because I love to read, but I also read because I write.  The best way to be a better writer, besides writing, is reading.  I have recently begun reading the flaps about the writers on new books that I admire for their style, or their literariness, or the plot, or some other aspect of writing.  I look to see what their habits are, how they work, what they do.  I have found, much to my envy, that many of these writers live in beautiful places and are supported by a spouse, a trust fund, a former corporate gig from which they saved a ton of money, or some other means equally unavailable to me.  I have also seen the occasional story about the writer who just decides to go for it.  Live on Ramen and see how long it takes to make it—see whether their fortitude or their dream gives out first.  

What’s a writer to do?  I don’t have a room of my own, and I definitely don’t have a trust fund.  

Here goes, and trust me, dear reader, this advice may not be what you want to hear, but it’s my job as a book coach to tell you hard things.  Deep breath—in the words of Teddy Roosevelt, “Do what you can with what you have where you are.”  Yep, I pulled out that chestnut.  It may be a cliche, but that doesn’t make it untrue.  I recently attended the History Quill Writers Convention and it was wonderful.  One of the most memorable things I heard was from the author of Sisters in Arms, Kaia Alderson.  She wrote the novel, her first full length one (her earlier works were mostly Novellas) in 10 and 15 minute snatches on her work breaks, lunch and after her baby went to sleep.  One attendee asked her what I am sure we were all wondering, how was that possible? She replied that it was the time available to her and she organized her writing in such a way that she could manage it.  She was able to get around 1000-1500 words per day that way.  

So, think about your days, the rhythm of your job, your activities.  Even without a room of your own, is there a way you can squeeze in an hour or two to write? Maybe not every day, but most days?  If you want to be a writer, you will!

Link to learn more about Kaia’s novel:  https://www.kaiawrites.com/sisters-in-arms  

Need accountability as a writer?  Get writer support from Robin here.

Read Like a Writer Book Club Recap; The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier

For February, we read The Anomaly. If you are interested in joining us for the next meeting, in April, please send Robin an email at readerlybooks[at]gmail.com

Background:  This book was on several “best of” lists for 2021, including the New York Times.  Here is a sampling of reviews and the publisher’s page:

We all agreed it was a beautifully written book, both Science Fiction AND Literary, with a touch of tongue in cheek humor that made some of the bitter pills of human nature a little easier to swallow.

What we loved about Le Tellier’s writing and want to emulate as writers:

  • His ability to weave the backstory in just enough to fill the reader in on the character.  No infodumps here, just clean prose with a Goldilocks amount of backstory to make the reader keep reading and understand what is going on.
  • His ability to seamlessly integrate multiple POV characters AND make us care about them all.  No easy task.  
  • His use of foreshadowing was both elegant and subtle.

Some of our favorite passages:

  • p. 40-41  “THE FICUS is thirsty. Its brown leaves are so dry they’re curling up; some branches are already dead. Standing there in its plastic pot, it’s the very incarnation of hopelessness, if indeed the word “incarnation” can be applied to a green plant. If someone doesn’t water it soon, David thinks, it’s going to die. In all logic, it must be possible to find a point of no return on the continuous thread of time, an irretrievable tipping point after which nothing and no one could save the ficus. At 5:35 on Thursday afternoon someone waters it and it survives; at 5:36 on Thursday afternoon anyone in the world could show up with a bottle of water and it would be No, babe, sweet of you, thirty seconds ago, I can’t be sure, maybe, but now, what are you thinking, the only cell that could have set the whole thing going again, the final viable eukaryote that could have rallied its neighbors—Come on, guys, let’s see some motivation, let’s have a reaction, fill yourselves up with water, don’t let yourselves go—well, the last of the last has just left us, so you’re here too late, with your pathetic little bottle, ciao ciao. Yes, somewhere on the thread of time.”
  • p. 250  “ No author writes the reader’s book, no reader reads the author’s book. At most, they may have the final period in common.”
  • p. 360  “But I still don’t really like the word ‘destiny.’ It’s just a target that people draw after the fact, in the place where the arrow landed.”

I hope you will join us for the April meeting, when we will discuss Henry James’s The Aspern Papers.  This novella is available for free at Project Gutenberg here.

Creating a Calendar for Your Novel

Legend has it that Jane Austen used calendars for the years in which her novels were set to make sure she was accurate about dates, days of the week, and also to help make sure she was making sense of her timeline.  

Well, dear reader, you can do this too, whether it is historical fiction, or a modern mystery, try out this calendar making tool to get the dates right and even the moon phases.  After all, if your antagonist is planning a murder, she won’t want a full moon!

https://www.timeanddate.com/

  1. Select “Calendar Creator” from the “Calendar” drop down menu.
  2. Fill in the fields
  3. Oila! 

You can download it as a PDF and write on it the old-fashioned way, or make a spreadsheet by transferring the data.  Then when you plot your story and think about story present, you will know what day it is, what season, etc.  You could use this calendar to keep track of weather as well.

Infoplease has a perpetual calendar that will let you look at other types of date keeping and see what happened in a certain year between 1900-2014.  https://www.infoplease.com/calendar

What other tools do you use to keep track of time in your books?

A Useful Woman by Darcie Wilde

Howler Alert!

I discovered Wilde’s series by accident when I was doing some checking on Austen Fan Fiction for the JASNA Bibliography.  What a fabulous pseudonym! 

I mostly enjoyed this entry in the Cozy Mystery genre and found it delightful, except for one ENORMOUS Howler.   If you are a fan of historical mysteries, female sleuths, and the Regency period, this series should perhaps be added to your TBR pile.  

But wait, what was the howler?  Well, dear reader, let me tell you.  The action of the novel mostly takes place in February-March of 1817 and references something called the “Little Season.”  According to the novel, the Little Season was the ramp up to the London Season and took place between the opening of Parliament in January and Easter week (p. 14).  Unfortunately, this is not accurate.  The Little Season actually ran from September or later to the Christmas Holiday and the opening of Parliament.  It is true that the height of the Season was not until after Easter week, but the earlier portion of the Season from January to Easter was not called the Little Season.  (Georgette Heyer’s Regency World and other sources confirm this, while this website questions the existence of a Little Season during the Regency at all, though says it did exist in Victorian times.)

Okay, now we have that out of the way, as historical cozies go, this one was fun.  Our heroine, Rosalind Thorne (yes, Rose Thorne), lives on the margins of the gentry and titled classes.  Her father lost all his money and abandoned Rose and her mother, though inexplicably taking Rose’s sister with him, years before.  

The combination of the humiliation and impoverishment puts her mother in an early grave and ends Rose’s marital hopes to Devon, Lord Casselmain.  Rose must now survive on her wits and her ability to manage difficult situations for London’s hopeful hostesses and marrying mamas.  The plot revolves around Almack’s posh Assembly Rooms and powerful patronesses. When a dead son and heir threatens to wreak havoc among the elites, Rose is determined to find out the truth, whatever the cost.

She makes an unlikely ally in Honoria Aimesworth and meets a beguiling Bow Street Runner in the process.

A quick and entertaining read, I will give more in this series a chance, whilst hoping for no more Howlers!

Lemon Madeleines from Martha Stewart to enjoy with this novel…

Book Club for Writers

The Read Like a Writer Book Club begins this month!

It will feature book discussions of great novels both past and present through the lens of a writer.  We’ll deconstruct their work looking for lessons in craft, style, and story, so we can apply those lessons to our own works in progress.  

Our first book Discussion will be about

The Anomaly by Herve Le Tellier

The club meetings will be held via Zoom with a private forum on Tribe for online discussion.

Here is the framework we will use as we think about the novels we read:

  • Questions to ask as you read:
    • What are the basic “facts” of the book?
      • Genre
      • Characters—who is the central character?
      • Basic plot events—what is the most important event?
    • Character Arc
      • What does the MC want?
      • What stands in her way?
      • What does she do to overcome this block?
    • What is the POV used by the writer?
    • What is the beginning and the end—is there change over time? 
    • What is this book trying to teach/show you about the world?
    • Do you agree with the message of the book?  In other words, has the author done her job convincing you?
    • Choose a passage you find particularly beautiful and analyze it looking at things like rhythm, word choice, metaphors.  What does it teach you about language?
    • What about the author’s writing did you find particularly enjoyable?  What not?

I hope you will  join me as we read both for enjoyment and enlightenment; and engage in spirited discussions along the way.  For more information, write me at readerlybooks@gmail.com .  Use the subject line:  Read Like a Writer Book Club.