How You Can Help Me Make a Dream Come True

Being a writer is full of “dream come true” moments.

Some happen with each book, like typing “the end,” or holding a hard copy in your hands for the first time, or celebrating your publication day.

Some happen more rarely, if at all, at least for most authors. Hitting a bestseller list is one of those, especially for an indie author since we don’t have the distribution power of traditional publishers.

This week I have the chance to make that happen. You see, I have a Bookbub featured deal in the United States today for my Guinevere’s Tale Trilogy. The whole thing (all three books in one volume) are only $0.99 in ebook through July 15. If enough people purchase it by then, I could possibly hit the USA Today bestseller list.

I’m a firm believer that God helps those who help themselves, so I am not being shy in asking for your help. I only ask one thing of you in return for a series that took me 19 years to write: please download The Guinevere’s Tale Trilogy by June 15. Even if you already have one or more of the books in another format, even if you don’t ever intend to read it, please consider spending $0.99 to support my dream.

If you aren’t tied to Amazon for your ebooks, please consider downloading from Barnes and Noble or iTunes (authors have to have a certain number of sales from there to make the list; Amazon alone doesn’t qualify.)

amazon-logo-icon nook-icon-150x150KoboIconWeb

Tell Me More
What’s the book about? You can read the full description here, but in short, it is the story of King Arthur and Camelot from Guinevere’s point of view—her life story.

  • Book 1, Daughter of Destiny, covers her early life as a priestess of Avalon and her first love during a time she never dreamed of becoming queen, as well as how she met Morgan and Arthur.
  • Book 2, Camelot’s Queen, tells the story we are all familiar with, Guinevere’s time at King Arthur’s side, but it also provides a twist on why she had her famous affair with Lancelot.
  • Book 3, Mistress of Legend, includes the fall of Camelot and Guinevere’s later life as she seeks to reestablish her identity once she is no longer queen and preserve the legacy of her mother’s people from the invading Saxons.

In case you are wondering what others have said about the trilogy, I’ll quote from a few reader reviews. (You can read the trade reviews on the book page.)

“The Guinevere’s Tale Trilogy shows us not a passive woman, but a strong one…This is a must-read for anyone who loves adventure woven with a touch of fantasy.” – K9freind1

“Loved this series! Strong, vibrant characters. The world building is detailed and pulls you right into the story…I’d highly recommend it for a great summer read.” – John

“I didn’t want this story to end!…This book is 100% book of a lifetime to read!” Kristinann

Going Above and Beyond
If you are so inclined, please also share information on the sale on social media. I’ve created a page that has ready-made images (just right-click on them to download) and sample tweets and links to where the book is for sale to make it as easy as possible to share.

What do you get in return? Three books that are my baby. If I could list with this single-volume boxed set, it would be especially meaningful to me because I originally imagined Guinevere’s story as one gigantic volume (ala The Mists of Avalon). While I certainly don’t mind it being broken up into a trilogy, I love that I can offer it the way I envisioned it as well.

If you’ve already helped my dreams come true by buying, THANK YOU. If you have time to leave a review, that is always appreciated and may encourage others to buy. Here’s the link to review on Amazon.

Thank You
Thank you for any help you can give. Know that your support makes you agents of fate in my life. Let me know how/when I can return the favor for you. 

In the meantime, if you need me, I’m going to be fighting the temptation to look at my Amazon rankings every five minutes…I’ll let you know in a few weeks if we were successful in hitting the list!

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Book to Screen is Becoming Easier

Image purchased from Adobe Stock.

There once was a day, not long ago, that the only way to get your book turned into a TV series/movie was to traditionally publish, sell a TON of copies, and pray your publisher’s rights department had really good connections. It was a rarity that anyone, even the bestsellers, got these deals.

But over the last several years this has been changing. I’m not exactly sure when it started–I first noticed it after the success of Twilight, but that doesn’t mean anything other than that’s when I was paying attention–but Hollywood began adapting more and more books. These were usually still traditionally published bestsellers. Enter Netflix, Amazon and Hulu with their constant desire for content to adapt, and TV/movie deals grew even more common.

Then came 50 Shades and The Martian, which showed that a rare few indie books might be worthy of adaptation, you know, if they sold like a million copies. Indie authors with sales numbers like that began to be able to contract with film/rights agents just as if they were traditionally published.

Now it seems everyone is in on the game. Hallmark has had a production arm for their TV channels for ages and now has a publishing arm to feed it. We’re all familiar with Reese Witherspoon’s production company Hello Sunshine. The Obamas and Hillary Clinton have formed their own production companies. Back in February, Wattpadd formed Wattpadd Studios. Just yesterday, Harlequin announced they are starting their own TV/Movie sector.

There is even hope for us indie authors. One of my friends just mentioned that more and more Hollywood people are attending major book conferences to hear pitches. (I think she specifically mentioned the Willamette Writers Conference.) If you write romance, Passionflix (I swear to you it’s not what it sounds like), will take a look at your book. (Although most of the books they’ve adapted to date seem to be traditional bestsellers.)

Then there is Taleflick, a relatively new company (first publicized last August), that aims to bring together Hollywood types (directors, producers, screenwriters, etc.) with books written by indie authors.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I got my movie/TV option for Madame Presidentess through TaleFlick. But I do not work for them, they have not paid me to endorse them or in any other way suggested that I should speak positively about them. I am just a VERY happy customer.

If you want a quick rundown on who they are, I was just quoted in a Publisher’s Weekly article about TaleFlick. I really like that they don’t care about your sales numbers. They are looking for a quality story and a professionally produced book. That’s it.

All of this means more opportunities for authors than ever before. Granted, they still say 99% of books that get optioned never make it to film. Alyson Noel, a YA author whom I consider a bit of a mentor, had her book, Saving Zoe, on option for 10 years before it was ever made into a movie. (Opening in select theatres and streaming online July 12.) She has several others on option that still haven’t been made. Deborah Harkness had A Discovery of Witches optioned several times (I know of at least four, including at least one major Hollywood studio) before finally landing with BadWolf Productions, a new company who made the TV series that aired in the U.S. earlier this year to much critical and fan acclaim. So options still aren’t guarantees, but they are opportunities that are getting more and more within our reach.

Even if my books, or your books, never make it to that point, being able to say they were optioned is worth it, at least in my opinion. It gives you credibility that is SO difficult to come by as an indie author. And you’ll make a little money (and I mean a little) on selling the option. What do you have to lose?

Rom-Coms: the Good, the Bad and the Mis-categorized

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I have a love-hate relationship with rom-coms. On one hand, they are lovely and sweet and much-needed female fantasy. On the other, they drive me crazy when they are overly contrived.

During the Memorial Day weekend I caught a marathon of Gary Marshal films on Lifetime. I started watching with Pretty Woman and then The Princess Diaries 2 came on. I watched until I literally couldn’t keep my eyes open (it was past midnight). These are the movies I love. They focus on the romantic and have (at least a little) themes of female empowerment. This is certainly true in The Princess Diaries, which ends with the proclamation *SPOILER ALEERT* that Princess Mia doesn’t have to marry to rule. And although Edward is the Prince Charming of most of Pretty Woman the nearly final lines of Pretty Woman hint at gender equality in a way that was uncommon when it came out in 1990:

Edward:” What happens after the knight rescues the princess?”

Vivian: “She rescues him right back.”

Last week I was trying to listen to a rom-com on audio (it shall remain nameless) that really had the potential to be cute, but was so OVER THE TOP (yes, so much so as to deserve caps) and ridiculous, I couldn’t finish it. The main character was utterly clueless time and time again. No one is that stupid or naive. And the author completely ignored how the real world works to point of pretending certain laws don’t exist and changing basic human behavior to suit her plot needs. Ugh!

Today, I read a review in USA Today of a much-touted soon-to-be released rom-com. This quote could so easily have been applied to the book I’m referencing above: “It’s a ridiculous plot that would never happen in real life − the perfect ingredient for an inherently idealistic rom-com.” Yet they still gave the book 3.5/4 stars.

I’m trying to figure out when this requirement for the farcical in a rom-com began. I guess I could blame Shakespeare (I mean, Hero pretending to be dead in Much Ado About Nothing is pretty out there.) But the movies of the 1930s and 1940s like and It Happened One Night (1934) were witty and intelligent. Now, I realize rom-coms have always had elements that would never happen IRL, from Bringing Up Baby (1938) to What Men Want (2019). That’s what makes them female fantasy. But nowadays its like you have to ignore the laws of life in a major way to be a rom-com, such as doing things that would actually get you arrested or that borderline on psycho.

When I was thinking about it, honestly, as much as I love the movie, I blame Bridget Jones’ Diary. Bridget is the first rom-com heroine (at least that I can recall) who was clutzy (which is fine–I totally am and I like being able to relate–but it has been taken to a terrible extreme). Plus as the movie went on (not to mention in the sequels), the plots became more and more outlandish. Because that was successful, that was the formula that was followed by authors thereafter.

Last night I watched the rom-com satire movie Isn’t It Romantic. It was really, really cute and it brought up some serious issues that I have with rom-coms. The biggest is that I HATE deception, especially when it could be remedied by a simple conversation that most normal people would naturally have–or you know, by not lying in the first place. But this has become a classic defining characteristic of the rom-com. So much so that when I wrote Been Searching for You, I purposefully didn’t include it and people told me I couldn’t call it a rom-com. Even screenwriting guru Micheal Hauge lists it as a must-have for the genre.

A few other pain points for me in rom-coms:

  1. Female colleagues must be mortal enemies; there is no other way. This is so stupid and does nothing for female-kind. In Been Searching for You, I never even considered making almost-entirely female agency have work enemies. We have plenty of other enemies and frienemies in the rest of life. I honestly think this idea came from male writers of early rom-coms who couldn’t conceive of women as good for anything other than bitchy cat-fights. Then again, I work for a non-profit and not a corporation, so maybe it is different there. Regardless, we should be building one another up rather than fighting with each other.
  2. You have to have a gay stereotypical sidekick who has no life outside of the heroine’s. And this is why Annabeth has two best friends, a guy and a girl, and Miles isn’t gay (Mia is bisexual, but that has nothing to do with her role in Annabeth’s life). I can’t suffer the disrespect of an outrageously gay male best friend character. Yes, I love very gay men, but to use them in this way is just wrong. Gay men come in all types, just like straight ones, and not all of them (or even most of them) want to be your fashion consultant/cheerleader/lap dog. And even if they do, they have their own lives. How about exploring their sub-plots a little and maybe even letting us see their happily ever after? The world is ready.
  3. The person you’re supposed to be in love with has been right in front of you all along. Yes, sometimes this happens in real life, but this is certainly not the case for every woman. I don’t currently have any close male friends, but when I did, ew, no! They were like brothers to me. Ick! This also reinforces the idea men and women can’t be just platonic friends, which I think is disingenuous. Just like not everyone marries their high school sweetheart, not everyone marries the guy they work with/live door next to/get their mail from, etc. Some of us actually have to go looking.

And if this isn’t enough, until recently (I’m not sure when it changed, but I just checked and it has) the books that topped Amazon’s romantic comedy category where really erotica. I don’t know how that happened or why, but it was a thing for at least a year. Thank God it seems to have been rectified.

Yes, Amazon, these are indeed rom-coms. (Click to enlarge)

But it looks like their sponsored ads may still need some work. I kid you not, when you look Been Searching for You up on Amazon, you get these “related” sponsored books. These are what used to top the romantic comedy category and could not be further from what a rom-com really is:

And these are related to my sex-off-the-page rom-com how? (Click to enlarge.)

Anyway, all this to say I fail to understand why “it could really happen” or at least only slightly fantastic rom-coms aren’t a thing anymore. Are we that in need of escape that anything that smacks of real-life isn’t acceptable? Do we secretly like watching other women make fools of themselves? (Because let’s be honest, that’s a LOT of what the farce comes down to, even in Bridget Jones.) Or have we lost/changed our definition of romance altogether? (I could get on a 50 Shades soapbox here, but I’m really so clumsy I’d fall off of it.) It would be really interesting to hear a publisher/producer’s perspective on this issue.

I’m going to keep writing what I write (there are two more books in the Chicago Soulmates series that Been Searching for You started), and hope for the best. In the meantime, I can’t wait for The Princess Diaries 3–which might actually happen!

What are your thoughts on rom-coms, both books and movies?

Hamilton: Three Lines That Grab Me as a Writer

I want this poster!

Earlier this month, my mom took me to see Hamilton in Chicago as an early 40th birthday present (my birthday is in August, but we were up there for a conference). I knew it was going to be good, but I was not prepared for how much it blew me away! I could go on and on about how great the choreography and lighting were, and how much of a genius Lin Manuel Miranda is, but this is about an aspect I never anticipated…how much Hamilton touched me as a writer.

I cry at musicals. A lot. It’s because I love theater and it makes me very emotional. But there were several moments that touched me deep down as a writer and made me sob all the more, but this time, they were happy tears because I knew someone else–and Lin Manuel nonetheless–felt the same way.

First, from a song called Non-Stop, which is the last song in the first act: “Write like you’re running out of time. Write like you need it to survive.”

HOLY CRAP! THIS IS ME! I have never felt so seen as I did during this number. I constantly feel the pressure (self-induced and otherwise) to write more and faster. I’m scared I will die before I get write all of the stories in my head. Writing is literally all I do outside of my day job because a) I LOVE it and b) I feel like if I do anything else it will just get in the way of realizing my dreams.

There is a certain obsession that can overcome a writer that I am feeling very keenly as I’m researching my first biography. I don’t know that I can explain it. It is an extra drive, a stronger sense of need, of owing the characters your all, of being put on this planet to write…so you have to do it ALL THE TIME.

Secondly, from My Shot, perhaps one of the most iconic lines:
“I’m not throwing away my shot.”

Yes, yes, everyone and their brother loves this song. But as an indie author, it has special meaning to me. People ask me all the time how I win so many awards, etc. I don’t want to sound flippant, but honestly, I win because I enter contests. Of course, you have to have a great product, but you can’t win if you don’t play.

Being an indie author is all about taking chances. Sometimes you win big, like I did with taking a chance on a new company called Taleflick and ending up with a movie option for Madame Presidentess. Sometimes you lose so much money you want to cry. *cough* print ad in a magazine *cough* But the key is you have to try. Pay attention to the opportunities in the industry, investigate them and if they sound good to you, inquire. That’s all it takes. If you see a shot, take it. If you don’t win, you’ve lost nothing (or as in my case with the ad, you’ve only lost money). But if you do, it could be your ticket to success.

Last, but certainly not least, from the closing number of the show: “And when my time is up, Have I done enough? Will they tell my story?…Who tells your story?”

First of all, “when my time is up, have I done enough?” OMG, the question every artist asks. And chances are good the answer will be no, because there is always something new to create. It’s both the blessing and the curse of being a creative.

As for the other half of the quote: I write biographical historical fiction and now biography because the idea of someone’s life being forgotten rips my guts out. That’s how strongly I feel about it. That’s why I choose the unknown/little-known characters. Everyone has done something worthy of being remembered and if someone doesn’t tell our story, it feels like we never lived. I want to save as many historical women from that fate as possible.

Will my story be worth telling someday? I certainly hope so. In the meantime, I’ll be over here “writing day and night like I need it to survive, not throwing away my shot” and eventually, winning a Pulitzer. Just you wait.

“It is Unknown:” The Joys and Frustrations of Biography Writing

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As many of likely know by now, I’m up to my eyeballs in research for my first biography, which is on suffragist Virginia Minor and her husband, Francis. (This is actually the second biography I’ve started researching, but the other one is on the back burner at the moment for various reasons.)

I never thought I would write a biography. (Just like I never thought I’d write fiction, write non-fiction, or blog, but that is another story.) I didn’t think I was qualified. Hint: As long as you are willing to put in the work, there are no qualifications; while many professional biographers are historians or journalists, those are not the only paths. All you really need is the ability to write and a passion for research. Beyond that, there seems to be no one right way to go about it.

If I have learned nothing else it is this: you must have a passion for your subject in order to write a biography about her/him/them. In the course of research, you will get to know these people inside-out, and backwards, and possibly even diagonally. You will chase down letters, diaries, wills, land deeds, birth/marriage/death certificates, follow their address changes through city directories, and read more newspaper articles than you ever thought possible. You’ll contact libraries and historical societies across the country (or maybe even internationally) and beg for information. You will also do a lot of speculating on motivations when the evidence doesn’t make them clear. In short, they will become like family. If you don’t have a deep love for them, chances are good you will either burn out before the project is completed or produce a sub-par product.

The research can be frustrating, especially when your subject didn’t leave behind personal affects like diaries, journals, or personal letters. Other times the historical record doesn’t match up or you can’t verify an un-cited claim in one of your sources. That’s where the “it is unknown” in the title of this blog post comes from. You’ll find yourself writing that phrase, or some variant, more often than you’d like. And sometimes you just have to delete a line of thought or a theory because you can’t back it up with facts — which really sucks if it’s something no one or not many people have reported before. And the footnotes, don’t even get me started! (I talked about the issues surrounding them a bit in my last post on plagiarism.)

But the joys far outweigh the frustrations, at least for me. I love going down a new path of research (Can I figure out why the Minors moved to Mississippi for a year? Why didn’t Francis fight in the Civil War? Does the fact Virginia only had one child indicate fertility issues or maybe marital strife?) because you never know what you will find. It’s kind of like being a private investigator. When you find the answer, it is a great rush. And when you uncover something no other book has touched upon, the feeling is like winning a gold medal. You feel like you are actually contributing something to the world.

I also love coming across really random facts…so random that I’m not sure they will make it into the final book. For example, I found a newspaper article that talks about an incident where Francis and a judge (Francis was a lawyer) got into an argument over the correct pronunciation of a word. Francis, being from Virginia, pronounced it differently from the judge, who was a native St. Louisian, apparently to much hilarity. (Why this made the paper I have no idea. Slow news day?)

You will also hold history in your hands. I’ve touched Civil War record books, traced Virginia and Francis’ handwriting with my fingertips and gazed upon documents no one has likely looked at in decades, if not for more than a century. (I’ve also gotten a crash course on genealogy, but the verdict is still out on whether that one is a joy or a frustration.)

One of the great joys is the community that you build when researching. Archivists, librarians, and historians are some of the nicest, most helpful people I have ever met. If you explain you aren’t from the area, most will gladly send you a photocopy or a scan of what they have, sometimes for a nominal fee. (There is only one place that basically told me I have to come to them and find the information myself. *sigh* There is one in every crowd.) I think the willingness to share information can be attributed to your shared passion for your subject and a desire to see that person/people recognized by the wider world.

I know sometimes we (I speak here as a reader) can be tempted to dismiss biography as a dry, staid, and boring genre. But I’m really coming to admire the work and dedication it takes to reconstruct or chronicle a person’s life. And I marvel at the commitment of the people who make it their career. (I don’t expect to have more than two biographies in me. But then again, I didn’t think I would even have one…) I don’t plan to give up my fiction and other non-fiction writing, but I can attest to it being a rewarding field.

One last note: I did a quick study of soon-to-be-published biographies on Amazon not long ago when I was looking for comparable and competing titles for my biography. What I found is the vast majority of them are about men by men. We women really need to start telling our stories and immortalizing the women who have come before us!

On Plagiarism

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You may have heard that there are (at least) two major plagiarism scandals going around the publishing world lately. In case not, here’s a quick recap:

  1. An “author” by the name of Cristiane Serruya has been accused of lifting whole pages of text from romance novels by bestselling authors Courtney Milan, Bella Andre, and several others and passing them off as her own fiction. She even went so far as to enter the books in the RITA awards, which are the Oscars of romance. When called on her actions, she blamed a ghostwriter she hired on Fiverr, who conveniently had already closed his/her account. However, she then deleted all of her social media and website. As of this writing, some of her books have been removed from sale, but others are still available. UPDATE – Nora Roberts has some new information on her blog.
  2. Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times, has been accused of plagiarizing passages from her book
    Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts. She, however, is not denying it. She blames a mistake with the footnotes in a galley copy (an early review version of the book), which she has corrected in the final version.

To me, the most frightening of the two is clearly the second. I’ll get to why in a minute. The first one is stupidity, plain and simple. It’s not that hard to avoid plagiarizing fiction. (Hint: write your own stuff.) But let’s for a moment assume Ms. Serruya is innocent and the blame lies with the anonymous ghostwriter.

  1. Who hires a ghost writer on Fivver? If you are going to do it (and I personally think it a stupid and expensive move, especially for someone whose name alone doesn’t have the power to sell books), there are plenty of reputable agencies out there who can put you in touch with ghostwriters. Or ask around the writing community. Many authors either have or currently do ghostwrite.
  2. Even if she did, did she not quality-check the book? You would think, given that these are HUGE names in the romance industry, that she would have read at least a few of their books before “writing” her own and could recognize their style or turns of phrase. Or at least that her spidey sense would have told her something wasn’t right.
  3. If you are innocent, a proper reaction would be to apologize, remove the offending works from sale, and publicly admit the error (on your website, social media, newsletter list, etc.) and tell people how you are going to fix it and/or avoid in the future. That is crisis communications 101. A public letter of apology to the defrauded authors along with remuneration would be nice as well. What you do not do is turn tail and run by deleting your online presence. Even if you are scared and trying to avoid trolls, all it does is make you look guilty.
  4. No, just no. Write your own work, dammit!

But I highly doubt she is innocent. Her reactions, especially deleting her online presence, follow the pattern established by scammers long ago. Chances are good she will pop up under another name and do it all again. But she may not get away with it since one of the authors she victimized is Courtney Milan, a former lawyer who clerked for the Supreme Court. Because Ms. Serruya was an RWA member and entered the RITAs, they have payment information on file for her. Assuming she didn’t use a false identity there, this gives Ms. Milan the possibility of pursuing legal action. And I hope she does. Watch this space.

Non-fiction Holds Greater Risk
The second example is my own personal nightmare as a non-fiction writer and a worry that plagues me pretty often. Obviously, when you write non-fiction, truth and attribution are everything. But did you know that even Big Five publishing houses don’t employ fact-checkers for their non-fiction books? That both floored and scared the living daylights out of me when I found out through this Vox article:

“So how do publishers generally handle it if factual errors creep into a book? Basically, the same way they handle plagiarism: They make it the author’s problem…So the facts are all up to the author. And different authors handle that liability differently. Some might want to hire a freelance fact-checker, but that can get expensive: Vulture cites flat prices of between $5,000 and $25,000.” 

I have a terrible fear of accidentally plagiarizing someone else’s work. And it’s easier to accidentally do than you might think. According to the University of Arizona,

“There are basically three kinds of plagiarism:

(1) Using another person’s exact words without including quotation marks *and* citation. If you use someone else’s exact words, then you must cite the original source (either in a footnote or in a citation in the text), and you must enclose the words in quotation marks or else set them off from the rest of the text by indenting them from the other text.

(2) Using another person’s words, but changing some of them, or rearranging them. This is plagiarism even if the source is cited.

(3) Summarizing or paraphrasing another person’s words without citation. If you use what someone else has written, but you describe it or summarize it in your own words, then you don’t need to enclose it in quotation marks, but you still must provide a citation to the original source, either in a footnote or directly in the text.

Note that it’s not enough to simply include a reference to the original source in your bibliography; “citation” of the original source means citing it where it appears in the text.”

(Note that I attributed this quote in the text and also used quotation marks, so it is clear this is not my own thought. The italics were an extra step I took to the same end.)

I tend to over-footnote my non-fiction works as a preventive measure. When I research, I am very careful to put quote marks around my notes if they are word-for-word quotations so I know that when I go back to actually write the book. And even if I restate an idea in my own words, I still footnote the source because it wasn’t my original idea.

Yet, mistakes still happen. It is very difficult to keep perfect track of footnotes when you are revising and moving things around. Editing changes can make an Ibid. (the footnote way of saying “same source as in the previous footnote”) no longer valid. I’ve learned not to put in any Ibids until I’m sure I’m on the final version or at least to the point where I won’t be moving anything. That way, the source and page number will always stay with the sentence.

I have to say, I sympathize with Ms. Abramson’s statement that she didn’t cite some sources (either in the text or footnotes) because she “was trying to write a seamless narrative, and to keep breaking it up with ‘according to’ qualifiers would have been extremely clunky.” (Source: Vox) We all want to write a gripping story and footnotes can be distracting for the reader, but they are necessary. In thinking about my experience in reading more non-fiction books than I can count for my research, I rarely notice the footnotes unless I read something I want to know more about and then drop my gaze down to read them or turn to the back of the chapter/book if they are end notes (which I personally think are a PITA for both the author and the reader, but I digress). And in most cases “according to” or some variation thereof instills a sense of trust in the author and her research when I hear/read it.

I’m sure there are more ways plagiarism can occur (besides deliberately) but these are the things that spring to mind for me. You would think that Ms. Abramson would know better given she was one of the most powerful journalists in the country and teaches other journalists, but she is only human. (Assuming, of course, that she didn’t do it on purpose. If she did, I am ashamed of her and she should be punished.)

What are the takeaways for writers? 1) Don’t plagiarize on purpose. (Duh!) 2) Be very, very careful with your notes when researching. 3) Take your time with your writing and triple check it. 4) Check over your footnotes one more time when you’re done editing 5) Pray.

I just hope it is a mistake I never make.

Adventures in Research

Yes, that title is a takeoff of the 1987 movie Adventures in Babysitting. I have totally just dated myself, but high five to anyone who has seen it.

Ahem. I’m currently working on several non-fiction book proposals (two books on women’s suffrage in the U.S. and a biography) and so I’ve been doing a lot of research. Today I thought I’d share some of the cooler experiences this has brought about.

One thing you need to know first is that one of my all-time favorite books is A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. It takes place in the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the main character, Diana, is an academic researcher.

From the TV version of A Discovery of Witches, which premieres today in the U.S. This is Diana in the Bodleian (yes, it really looks like that). Note the clear plastic book cradle and the white cord-like weights on each side of her.

Over the holidays I had my first experience with archival research at Washington University in St. Louis and at the Missouri Historical Society library (also in St. Louis). At Wash U, I worked with a book cradle (which is just a foam thing that holds the book while you are reading) for the first time and weighted cords that keep the book open (I didn’t end up needing those). I felt like a real researcher, even though what I read wasn’t centuries old; it was just a dissertation from 1965.

The special collections room at the Olin Library at Washington University in St. Louis
The dissertation I was reading on its cradle.

But even cooler was my experience at the Missouri Historical Society Museum. There, I totally felt like Diana Bishop. I had to surrender all my personal belongings into a locker and I could only either type my notes or write in pencil. They wouldn’t let me take pictures of the documents, but I was able to get a few of the room:

One part of the reading room of the Missouri Historical Society Library.

There, I got to:

  • Hold in my hand record books from the Civil War, hand-written by the husband of the woman I’m writing about. It was so crazy to trace his actual handwriting with my fingers. He was a claims agent so the books listed every pension/pay claim by a solider’s widow or orphan that he processed. I only looked at one book out of seven (that was all I needed for my purposes), but I bet each book listed at least 1,000 names. It was also sobering to think of the scale of the loss. Being able to touch history like that really brings it to life.
This isn’t the document, but it is similar.
  • Read the letter he wrote to the Historical Society bequeathing the books to them (Not a copy; the actual letter. It was tucked in the back of one of the books.)
  • Trace him and his wife as they moved around St. Louis over a 40-year period using old city directories (I guess they preceded phone books). I really felt like I was stalking them the old fashioned way, you know, before Google. It was also cool to see the city grow in size just by watching the directories get thicker each year.
  • BONUS: I also found the address for Victoria Woodhull’s second husband right around the time the two met. No records for Victoria, but that isn’t surprising since she was doing business under an assumed name anyway.

I’ll be going back to Wash U soon to finish the section of the dissertation I didn’t get to. Then in June I’ll be visiting the University of Virginia archives in Charlottesville to try to get a hold of their family papers for this couple. Who know what adventures that will bring?!!

I wish I could find the words for how cool it is to experience history in a whole new way with this type of original documentation. Awe and speechlessness are the only ones coming to mind. But it is more than that; there is an emotional component, a connection to the past that you feel in your heart. It’s totally different than seeing a picture/photocopy/scan or reading a book where the author describes the document. This may sound odd, but there is an element of humanity that lingers in those original documents, one you can feel.

If you ever get the chance to visit your local historical society, do it. Mine had really cool stuff like a whole series of books listing soldiers during the Civil War and others just on marriages in Virginia or New York (or another state. I think they had those for most states). I would imagine you could really slay genealogical research at a place like that. And they had two types of card catalogs, the one like we had when I was little and then a bigger one that didn’t list books, but rather was almost like researcher’s notes; snippets of information. Kind of like hyperlinks on the web, but physical.

In case you forgot what a card catalog looks like. Source: Adobe Stock.

I love having the ability to view documents online (like census records and old newspapers) because that is great when you can’t view them in person. But when you can it’s an experience like no other. I think if more people were given the opportunity to touch a piece of history (especially as kids), they would have more appreciation for it and for those who lived before us.