Friday, July 28, 2006

Quixotic Queries and Projecting Professionalism

As writers, we spend a great deal of time focusing on things like point of view, plotting, pacing, passive voice and the craft of constructing sentences that convey the right message to the reader.

But we dread writing query letters and synopses, even though they are the very first “impression” an editor has of us and our skill as a writer and our professionalism overall. Too often, we don’t give these valuable selling tools a lot of thought until it’s time to write one. And that can seem a pretty daunting task when you’ve just pulled a clean, warm copy of your latest MS off the printer.

But broken down into the necessary pieces, the query is not such a big deal. (Don’t tell my critique partners I said that – me of the trembling hands and sweaty palms at the very mention of the word “query”!!)

We all know the basics needed for a good query letter. Who is the story is about, minus the physical descriptions, what is going to pull them apart (Conflict!!! – please imagine this word as a flashing neon sign. Conflict!!) and how they are going to over come it. A little bit about who you are and why you are qualified to write this story and you’re done – right? Right!

Not so fast…

In recent months, in my capacity as senior editor at The Wild Rose Press, I have had the opportunity to see things from the “other” side of that envelope (or in my case, the e-mail inbox). So maybe it would be easier for me to talk about what not to do when querying an editor.

Dear Nicola…That was how the most recent query I received began. It pretty much went down hill from there. Call me old fashioned (it’s okay, I write historicals! I am old fashioned!) but having a stranger – let alone someone in a business situation – address me by first name just makes me bristle. Having them get that first name wrong just leaves me annoyed. Didn’t the author double check her information? Was my given name that difficult? Just a few weeks ago I sat through a three-hour-long high school graduation where nearly every other female student graduating was named Nicole or had Nicole for a middle name. Surely this author has heard it once or twice before. So what was this – a typo?

Slow down. Take your time. Have a friend or CP read the letter over. Set it aside for a day or two and re-read it before mailing it – and by all means, double check the accuracy of your information, right down to the spelling of the editor’s name and title.

Another query that comes to mind left me puzzled rather than interested in the author’s story. This author went on for several paragraphs in an attempt to convince me her story was appropriate for one specific line – a line that features non-American set historicals (i.e., regency, medieval). Yet the story was set in Colonial Virginia. This tells me she didn’t do her homework. Simply taking time to familiarize herself with our publishing company, and maybe a few minutes spent browsing the web site, would have been well worth her time. She would have seen that there was, indeed, a line for American-set historicals. Instead of wasting valuable “selling” time telling me how I could twist her story to fit this one particular line, she could have told me about the story itself. Do your homework. Familiarize yourself with the publisher you’re querying.

Lastly, mind your manners. Over at Wild Rose, we have a wonderful forum populated by our authors and wannabe authors where they share their successes, struggles and more. As editors, we often stop by to offer words of support, encouragement, and just to say hello. We enjoy the regular contact with the writers –heck, we’re writers, too, and the authors, in turn, have told us how much they like the “open door” feel of things on the forum. But it’s possible to get too comfortable. Not long ago an author posted a message complaining that she had sent a partial to an editor “like a month ago” and still hadn’t heard back. A month? A month you say? True our turn around time is a bit different than a big New York publishing house, and some editors aren’t quite as deluged as others and can respond more quickly --but posting the message to the forum was wrong. E-mailing the appropriate editor and inquiring about the status of her submission would have been appropriate.

Another author, mere minutes after I e-mailed her a detailed, two-page rejection letter pointing out to her exactly why I couldn’t accept her story as it was written and giving her in-depth suggestions on what areas of weakness she needed to focus on – went on the same forum ranting about editors “who don’t know what they’re talking about” and who asked her to “make changes that would compromise the historical accuracy” of her work. (Since when does learning the correct rules of PV affect historical accuracy?? ) She didn’t name me personally, but her intent was clear. Did she honestly think I wouldn’t see that message? What does that say about her to the other editors who saw it? She’s probably a wonderful person, but her angry, unprofessional response reflects poorly on her to everyone who sees it. Remember, whether you’re in a ladies room stall at a conference, or blabbing on a forum – you never know who may be listening.

One other common mistake I’ve seen is in the “bio” part of the query letter. You know, those last couple paragraphs where you say I’ve been writing for X number of years, am past president of my local chapter, etc. This should be about you, the writer. It’s important to convey to the editor how long you have studied your craft, how active you are in writing-related organizations, and any contests you’ve won or finaled in, particularly if it relates to the story you’re querying. But for me, personally, I don’t care if you have six goldfish, two cats and a dog named Ralph or that your husband is a retired marine biologist who can speak Dolphin. They aren’t querying me. You are. Save that stuff for the bio on your web site.

Perhaps my “favorite” query, or should I say the one that stands out in my mind as the worst I’ve ever received begins with “I’m querying you on behalf of so and so…” No mention of why this writer was querying me on behalf of someone else or the relation to that someone. Not to mention the whole sticky mess that opens up. Do you even know this person you’re querying for? And why couldn’t she do it herself? Too shy? Too busy? So for that one -- just don’t do it. Ever!

Thanks to Jenn and Christine for suggesting this blog, I never would have thought of it myself.

For more information about The Wild Rose Press, you can visit their website at . You can also visit their “Greenhouse” for more information on writing query letters and synopses.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Researching Our Work

I love research, and can lose myself in it. Recently, I've been working on the details needed for a fake foretune teller in Victorian England. She reads palms and uses tarot cards in her routine for wealthy English ladies. The first mistake I made was in ordering a lovely set of tarot cards. Oops, I didn't realize that there were period tarot cards and discovered I'd ordered a contemporary deck. So, back to the drawing board--or world wide web.

This is just and example of the problems of writing in a historical time period. None of us wants to use an anachronism. Research is very important. Fortunately, there are wonderful references and experts on writers loops to help.


Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Engagement Ring

Thanks to Dee for this. I know she’s on her way to Atlanta for the RWA National Conference, so I thought I’d post what she’s helped me find on Victorian engagement rings. Her information was also a reminder to increase my Victorian book collection. I’ll shortly be buying Hands and Hearts: History of Courtship in America.

Queen Victoria also wore an engagement ring, a serpent symbolizing good luck. [6] And, of course, what the queen wore, society copied. As with many things from the Victorian Era, our traditions date from what they did.

Rings were often given as a sign of a marriage promise, though often only the wealthy could afford to do so. It wasn’t until 860 AD that the Catholic Church mandated all marriages were to be symbolized by a ring. “In 860 Pope Nicolas I decreed that a ring was a requirement to signify betrothal or engagement and it was also stipulated that it should be a gold ring…” [1]

But that was a wedding ring, not an engagement ring. The first recorded occurrence of a woman receiving a diamond engagement ring was in 1477. The Archduke Maximilian of Hamburg gave it to his betrothed, Mary of Burgundy. [2] Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find anything on the ring itself.

“By 1890 engagement had become a distinctive stage in the transition to marriage—a stage with its own rites of initiation (the announcement), its own ceremonial object (the engagement ring) and its own rules of conduct” [3]

A diamond ring symbolized innocence; sapphires, immortal life; rubies, affection; emeralds, success in love. No pearls or opals - they were considered harbingers of bad luck. [4]

By the mid 1870’s colorless stones were more fashionable. By the 1880’s, diamonds were considered far better taste than the brightly colored stones of the 1860’s. And by the 1890’s, colored stones were completely out of fashion. In 1857 diamond mines were discovered in Brazil, and in 1867 they were discovered in South Africa. [5]

3. Hands and Hearts: History of Courtship in America by Ellen K. Rothman
4. Illustrated Encyclopedia of Victoriana: A Comprehensive Guide to the Designs, Customs, and Inventions of the Victorian Era by Nancy Ruhling and John Crosby Freeman
5. Victorian Jewelry by Margaret Flower

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Bonnets & Hats

Victorian Ladies' Headwear
The main type of headwear worn by women of the 1860s was the bonnet. Women's diaries of the period often contained comments about altering or re-trimming a bonnet to update it. During the 1860s bonnet brims grew taller at the top with the sides curving back to form a "spoon" shape. A curtain, or short gathered piece at the back of the bonnet rested just above the nape of the neck, covering a woman's bun (the usual daytime hairstyle of the period). Bonnets tied under the chin with long, wide ribbons and were trimmed with an assortment of ribbon, flowers and other fabrics.
Most bonnets served the purely decorative purpose of framing a woman's face. But one style of bonnet worn by women working outdoors was truly functional. The sunbonnet made of a variety of fabrics, shielded a woman's face and neck. Stiffened slats sewn into the brim of the bonnet projected over the face. A cape on the back of the bonnet covered the neck, keeping the sun's rays at bay. Sunbonnets could be plain or decorated.
Hats were also worn by young women and girls of the period. Most had low crowns with brims extending completely around the hat. Material used could be fur, felt or straw depending on the season. Straw was popular when visiting the seaside. Most hats were trimmed with ribbons, flowers and sometimes veils.
In the home, a hat or bonnet wasn't necessary for receiving company, as long as the hair was neat and confined, but a lady never ventured out in public without a hat or bonnet.
For more on women's hats and bonnets consult: Who Wore What? Women's Wear 1861-1865 by Juanita Leisch
Thomas Publications 1995 ISBN 0-939631-81-4

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Let’s see the country

Cross-country vacations were ‘invented’ by Samuel Bowles (1826-1878). The Springfield Republican newspaper editor, he traveled across America and wrote about what a wonderful time he was having doing so, Across the Continent (1865) [1]. Apparently, he believed that crossing the continent might help to med the schism caused by the Civil War.

By bringing “harmony the heretofore jarring discords of a Continent of separated peoples,” Bowles promoted travel as patriotism – businessmen promoted it as tourist dollars. However, with travel becoming easier and more accessible to the masses, it also helped transform the American West from cattle towns to industrial cities.[2]

Queen Victoria promoted her own version of cross-country traveling when she first made the trip – partly by the new invention of train – to Scotland in 1842. “Their exploration of Perthshire, walking, reading and deer-stalking, was so pleasurable that they returned annually. In 1852 they bought Balmoral and had the castle built. The Queen’s Scottish memoirs and paintings of the scenery were extremely popular and her love of tartan ensured publicity and a healthy business for the tweed industry.” [3]

Tourist dollars provided a boom to Scotland. If the Queen went to Scotland, so, too, could everyone else. When the railroad extended north in the early 1850s, travel became much easier for everyone as more and more people traveled both to and from Scotland to seek their fortunes.

2. The New York Times Sunday Book Review, July 2, 2006, Bruce Barcott

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Nineteenth Century Rail Travel

By Caroline Clemmons
Rail travel’s hypnotic rhythm, unique smells, and the sense of adventure stir the imagination, but a few basic facts offer enlightenment to the advent of personal travel by train. The first commercial rail cars were in England in—believe it or not—1630—and were drawn by horses over wooden rails to transport coal. By the mid 1700’s, iron rails had replaced wood. The first steam-powered land vehicle built by Frenchman Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot in 1769 laid the foundation for future locomotives.

In the United States, Congress had invested heavily in the Eerie Canal and other waterways and resisted the idea of railroads. Public opinion eventually won. In 1827, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was the first railroad charter granted in the United States. By 1852, its three hundred miles of track made this the longest railroad in the world. At first used only for transporting goods, passenger service soon developed. Once the transcontinental rail lines were completed in 1869, America was opened to settlers from all over the world.

A wide variety of facilities awaited passengers. On some lines, the coaches were little more than rough structures that offered no comfort. Wooden benches with high backs—many times without a cushion of any kind—tortured passengers on a long journey. By comparison, it probably was no worse than riding in a wagon, and the train made the trip faster. Other lines had coaches with padded bench seats, and still others with movable armchairs. Toilets sometimes were no more than a curtained off chamber pot offering minimal privacy. Summer forced passengers to choose between tolerating soot, smoke and dust with the windows open, or sweltering with windows closed. In winter, passengers near the potbellied stove roasted while those at the other end of the car froze. Sometimes cars were reserved for women and their escorts and no males traveling without family were allowed in these coaches. Often as not, all travelers jumbled together.

Soon lines developed luxury cars designed to mimic fine hotel lobbies. A major advance occurred when George M. Pullman began his line of luxury cars called Pullman Palace Cars. His company developed hotel cars, sleeping cars, club cars, dining cars, and drawing room cars. According to George Deeming, Curator of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, these coaches required high fees similar to luxury hotels and were not available to the masses. The first Pullman sleeping car appeared in 1859 at only forty feet long. It was a reconstructed wooden day coach with metal wheels and a low, flat roof. A tall man was likely to bump his head. It had ten upper and ten lower berths with mattresses and blankets, but no sheets. A one-person toilet stood at one end. Two small wood-burning stoves furnished heat and candles provided light.

In 1865, the first real Pullman sleeping car came into service. It featured the first upper berth that folded out of sight for daytime, heated air from a hot air furnace under the floor, upper deck window ventilation, and roomier wash rooms. This car had black walnut interior with inlay or mirrors between windows. In another ten years, the length had increased to seventy feet with even more elaborate wood interior and luxurious plush seats. Pullman coaches offered privacy with curtained off sleeping quarters or wood paneled compartments, and separate toilets for men and women.

At first trains stopped for passengers to debark and eat or even to spend the night in a hotel, as depicted in stories of the Harvey Girls and Harvey Hotels. Time always pressed diners and the traveler had no control over what food was available. Some dining places—due to necessity for speed—served the poorly prepared rations. A few sites deliberately cheated travelers with slovenly hygiene and half-cooked food. Others, such as Harvey, maintained high standards. At a dining stop, passengers rushed off the train for a hasty meal, then rushed back on board when the gong sounded. Travelers were forced to gulp and run if they were lucky enough to beat the crowd and get served.
The advent of the dining car meant passengers could eat a proper meal on board, provided they had the cash. The first dining car, the Delmonico, came into service in 1868 on the Chicago & Alton line. Within ten years, they were on most lines. In 1878, a full meal cost seventy-five cents, at a time when a common laborer made less than that for an entire day’s work. Pullman dining cars marketed luxury. Fine tablecloths had PPCC woven into the cloth, for Pullman Palace Car Corporation. Uniformed servers delivered well-prepared food to tables set with fine china, crystal and silver. Some cars had fresh flowers in built-in silver vases at each table.

Shipping also changed, with railroad cars providing speed and more protection for cargo than horse or mule drawn wagons. For a fee, rail cars could be temporarily or permanently customized for specific products. In the Kansas, Texas & Pacific Railroad Museum in Dennison, Texas, books intended for railroad employees detail modifying and repair of shipping cars for a variety of purposes.

The Great Western Railway constructed a bridge across Niagara Falls to link the United States and Canada in 1855. It was not until 1882 that a bridge crossed the expanse of the Mississippi River at Memphis. Prior to that date, trains departing West from Memphis were ferried, one or two cars at a time, across the Mississippi.

In 1869 (this date really surprised me) the first refrigerated rail car appeared and soon allowed the transport of fresh produce and meats. One of the significant changes brought about by the railroad in the West was elimination of the great cattle drives to the Midwest or Northern markets. Centralized rail shipping allowed ranchers to ship from locations near home.

After the Civil War, train robberies occurred, particularly West of the Mississippi River. Former soldiers carried out many of these, some returning home and others looking for an easy income. Usually no one was injured, but watches, wallets, money and jewelry were collected from the passengers. Sometimes robbers forced passengers to drink liquor or sing as added aggravation.

Towns grew and flourished along the railroad. Those communities bypassed by the line often withered and disappeared. Competitions arose between communities to attract the railroad, often with bitter result. For those fortunate enough to live near a rail line, products never before seen became available. Railroads brought easier travel, dependable shipping, and availability of goods to change America forever.

For those interested in more details about rail travel, consult your local library for their selections or ask for one of the following:
The American Railroad Passenger Car; John H. White, Jr. 1978, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore MD 21218.
Hear The Wind Blow: A Pictorial Epic Of America In The Railroad Age; Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg, Grossett & Dunlap.
The Overland Limited, Lucius Beebe, Howell-North Books, Berkley CA. [This has a large section on Pullman cars.]
The Pacific Tourist: Adams & Bishop’s Illustrated Guide of Travel, The Atlantic To The Pacific; Frederick E. Shearer, Editor; Adams & Bishop, 1881.
Railroads Across America; Mike Del Vecchio, 1998, Lowe & Hold, Ann Arbor MI
The Railroad Passenger Car; August Mencken, Johns Hopkins Press. [This includes personal accounts by passengers over 150 years.}
Visit Caroline Clemmons at her website at for release information, excerpts, recipes, writing tips, and her contest.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Cowboy Mystique

Cowboy. Gambler. Gunslinger. Soiled Dove. Law man. Funny how the very names bring to mind a certain image, one largely created by Hollywood and popular fiction, both romantic and otherwise. These are the characters who live in my imagination, and around whom I like to create my stories. I’d like to speak about these colorful characters over the next few blogs.

Let’s start with that honor-bound “knight of the plains”, the cowboy.

The earliest cowboys were a far cry from the image that probably jumped to your mind with the very mention of the word. For one thing, they spoke Spanish, and rather than the stereotypical chaps and Stetsons, they wore brightly colored costumes and did most of their riding, roping and branding in the Mexican provinces of Upper California and Texas. They called themselves Vaqueros (the pronunciation of the name is similar to that of the word “buckaroos” which is where the term originated) from vaca, the Spanish word for cow.

But these vaqueros created the legacy that lives on in the American cowboy as we think of him today. So where did that code of conduct come from that tells us – in one simple word – that this is a man of noble deeds and few words?

When defeated Texans returned to their run-down farms after the civil war ended in 1865, they found a land teeming with wild longhorns (a breed of wild bovine that resulted from the breeding of the American cow with Spanish cattle. These guys were lean, slab-sided—and ornery). A longhorn steer worth four dollars in Texas could fetch as much as $40 up north where there was an insatiable demand for beef. Cattle were also needed to feed army troops, railroad crews, as well as Indians newly confined to reservations. A new western industry was about to boom – and the cowboy would play a central role.

Most cowboys were young, from their late teens to early twenties. And they were a varied lot, made up of both former Union and Confederate soldiers (a large percentage were ex Confederates from Texas), Mexican-Americans and a small percentage of African Americans as well. Some were simply young men looking for excitement.

A cowboys’ past was a private matter – the origination, perhaps of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He was just as likely to be a preacher’s son, a dropout from an Eastern university or the youngest son of an English nobleman sent to the American West to make something of himself as he was to be a wanted man. But the way he threw a saddle over his horse was all his peers needed to know whether he understood his business or not. That was all that mattered.

The cowboy was no mere farm hand. He had to be a superb horseman, excellent ropester and tough enough to subdue a 1,000 pound steer. It goes without saying that such a man would carry himself with pride, knowing he was admired – even envied – by other men who hadn’t the wherewithal to withstand his nomadic lifestyle. Spring and fall would find him on roundups – collecting the cattle and driving them in so the calves could be branded and bulls castrated in the spring; cutting marketable steers from the herd in the fall (females were kept for breeding). And that wasn’t even the dangerous part.

On the trail, a cowboy faced a multitude of dangers ranging from violent weather to raging rivers, illness and disease, marauding guerilla gangs and even groups of angry farmers determined to keep the longhorns, which carried a virus fatal to other breed of cattle, away from their fields. Stampedes were also an ever-present threat. Two or three thousand longhorn steer could be controlled only when they wanted to be and were capable of erupting into mass hysteria any time of the night or day, particularly during bad weather. So no matter how cold, wet or sleep-deprived a cowboy might be, he had to be prepared to leap into the saddle at the first rumble of a herd on the run.

Spending months on a trail drive meant he would go long periods of time without seeing a woman, let alone touching or speaking with one. Since his lifestyle precluded him from forming romantic entanglements, (marriage and family was out of the question as long as he remained in that line of work) the only women he could hope to meet on equal terms were prostitutes, or the “soiled doves” awaiting his arrival at the end of the trail. Because of this, his attitude toward “respectable women” was primly Victorian, almost worshipful. And when the opportunity to be in the company of a decent woman arose, the cowboy would go to great lengths to make the most of it.

As one story goes, neighbors from a distant spread attended a dance at a Texas ranch one rainy evening, bringing their newly-hired governess with them. When leaving for home with her employers, the young governess forgot her overshoes. The following Sunday, an eager young cowboy showed up at their door and presented the young lady with one shoe. “But there were two,” she protested. “Yes,” answered the cowboy, “I’ll bring the other one next Sunday if you don’t mind. And ma’am? I sure do wish you was a centipede.”

In 1886 a severe drought that left the herds in poor condition by summer’s end was followed by a series of blizzards. Livestock on the range was devastated, with some ranches losing up to ninety percent of their stock. This was the beginning of the end of the open-range cowboy.

So no matter what image his names brings to mind for you, the cowboy was, courageous, strong, dedicated, trail-wise, and respectful of women. A true American hero.

For more information on cowboys and the Wild West I recommend:

The Wild West” by Warner Books
“Cowboys of the Old West” – by Time Life books

Happy Dominion Day!

Or, as we’d say today, Happy Canada Day!

The Canada Gazette published by Authority,
Ottawa, Saturday, June 20, 1868

By His Excellency the Right Honourable Charles Stanley Viscount Monck, Baron Monck of Ballytrammon, in the County of Wexford, in the Peerage of Ireland, and Baron Monck of Ballytrammon, in the County of Wexford, in the Peerage of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Governor General of Canada, &c., &c., &c.
To all to whom these presents shall come, or whom the same may concern -- GREETING:
JOHN A. MACDONALD, Min. of Justice.
WHEREAS by Royal Proclamation dated at Windsor Castle on the 22nd day of May, in the year of our Lord 1867, Her Most Gracious Majesty did ordain, declare, and command, that on and after the 1st day of July, 1867, the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick should form and be one Dominion under the name of Canada;
AND WHEREAS the anniversary of the formation of the Dominion of Canada falls upon Wednesday, the 1st day of July next ensuing:
AND WHEREAS it is meet and proper that the said Anniversary should be observed and kept;
NOW KNOW YE, that I, Charles Stanley Viscount Monck, Governor General of Canada, do hereby proclaim and appoint WEDNESDAY, the FIRST day of JULY next, as the day on which the Anniversary of the formation of the Dominion of Canada be duly celebrated. And I do hereby enjoin and call upon all Her Majesty's loving subjects throughout Canada to join in the due and proper celebration of the said Anniversary on the said FIRST day of JULY next.
Given under my Hand and Seal at Arms, at the Government House, in the
CITY of OTTAWA, in the said Dominion, this TWENTIETH day of JUNE, in the year of Our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-eight and in the thirty-first year of Her Majesty's Reign.
HECTOR L. LANGEVIN, Secretary of State

Thanks very much, Queen Victoria