Bread and Roses

What Historical Novelists Live For

Yesterday I visited another world. I’d come out of nearly 100 degree heat in Vineland, New Jersey into the nicely air conditioned office of Jane Detweiler, the Executive Director of Elwyn New Jersey, one of the foremost sites for work with intellectual disabilities. I was there because of the facility’s past as the Vineland School for Feebleminded Children, one of the settings for my novel in progress.

“Feebleminded?  How archaic!” I imagine you saying, and you would be right. Much has changed since the early days of intelligence testing in the United States, when it was essentially a pseudoscience designed to make the case for the natural superiority of affluent white males, and a means of getting the upper hand on what was seen as the menace of low intellect to the American gene pool. Henry Herbert Goddard, the director of research at Vineland in the early 1900s, advocated institutionalizing the “feebleminded” in colonies like Vineland, to give them the opportunity for a dignified and productive life and of equal importance, to take away the opportunity to “breed” future generations.

Here I was, at “ground zero” of the eugenics movement in early twentieth century America.  I’d come for little more than to get a few details to add color to my novel and fix anything I had imagined incorrectly.  Now, however, I was hearing the words that historians and historical novelists may wait in vain to hear once in their entire careers:  “There are a lot of boxes of files upstairs.  Would you like to take a look?”

“It’s not air conditioned on the top floor, and the books and files were just dumped there when Goddard’s laboratory building was torn down,” Jane Detweiler explained.  She wasn’t kidding.  It was brutally hot, worse than outdoors for lack of any breeze. Dozens of boxes, many with their contents littered on the floor, filled several rooms that had once served as dormitories for some of the residents.  In one, a rotting wooden file cabinet held decrepit drawers, full of hundreds of file folders, each containing the records of a young person living at Vineland in the early twentieth century.

Faces of those who might have lived in that very room looked out at me from photographs.  Lives of the long-dead pieced themselves together before me.  A world that had been vibrant and real only in my mind was literally in my hands.

Intakes at admission were done in the neat hand of an era when penmanship mattered and spelling not so much.  Checklists of possible characteristics, like “sullen,” “whiny,” or “cheerful,” were marked.  Test results, and even raw data like the pencil tracks made by a patient trying to complete a maze, were in the file.  Quarterly reports revealed whether they made their bed neatly, dressed and bathed themselves, ate well, got along with others, and remembered what they had been told.  Because Goddard believed that weak intellect and poor morals went hand in hand, the reports were full of value judgments about the character of these children.  Diseases and conditions such as tuberculosis, epilepsy, and left-handedness were all treated as corroborating signs of degeneracy.

In another box, I found tools used for the tests–puzzles matching wooden shapes of stars and squares to the outline of the shape on a piece of paper;  cards with keys, dogs, and other objects used for identification and sentence-generation exercises; and cubes with different patterns of dots used for matching.

Elsewhere, I found a field notebook of visits to the families of children living there, containing information about the presumed mental capacities of family members, including guesses about the “moron” status of people dead or disappeared, based on anecdotes.  Again the snap judgments about the morality and intellect of these human beings made me wince.

Sweat-drenched, I left when everyone was preparing to close up for the day.  I sat in the car for a moment pondering the fact that there is no money to do anything with these files.  They’re brittle and crumbling from exposure to heat and constant light, and will be lost unless someone sees the value of a funding a project to preserve them.

I had one more stop, the Vineland School’s cemetery. On rows of markers so small the weeds nearly obliterated them, I saw the names of the dead. Experts now suggest that some of those lying underneath my feet spent their life at Vineland as a result of a misdiagnosis of a learning disability rather than any real retardation. Goddard himself lived long enough to recant many of his views about the prevalence and problems of “morons” in American society, and Vineland changed over the years to accommodate– and pioneer–better diagnostics and treatment plans.

How do we weigh the freedom these children lost by being confined at Vineland? Were the people whose files I read better off there even if they were misdiagnosed?  Many of them were from destitute families living in total desperation, children whose lives improved immeasurably when they came to Vineland. How do we evaluate the tradeoff of enforced childlessness in exchange for opportunities to live a peaceful, more interesting, and higher functioning life? Was it a “Village of Happiness,” as Goddard liked to call it?  I’d like to think so, but in a culture that values freedom above all else, it’s more than a little difficult not to squirm.

Files at Vineland





Soaking Up the Scenery

I’m off tomorrow to New York to do research for my novel-in-progress.  I get asked sometimes about what I get out of going to the places my books are set–other than a great vacation!–and the answer may be a bit surprising.

Historical novelists rarely get to visit the places they write about, because those places aren’t there anymore.  I learned this most dramatically last summer researching THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD. The interior of the cathedral in Sevilla contains almost nothing–from chapels to altars to decorations–that would have been there when my heroine attended mass.  Granada is filled with a great deal of beautiful architecture, but baroque buildings have replaced medieval ones.  The palace where Isabella spent her childhood has not a remnant remaining of it.  You can get a sense for the warrens of medieval streets and countless tiny squares in some parts of the city, but I often feel a little bereft of what I am hoping for.

Rural locales are better.  The countryside probably hasn’t changed that much at least in places, and the plants and animals are presumably the same.  I get color from this–kinds of flowers, butterflies, shapes of hills–and the books are always the better for it. I had no idea, for example, how truly rural much of the Champagne region of France is, and I was  able to build that into FINDING EMILIE.

The main thing about going to the sites is avoiding awful mistakes.  Whoever said the devil is in the details must have been a historical novelist.  I had my heroine in THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD looking out across some hills to the sea and discovered that despite the proximity to the ocean, there was no sea view there. I like to avoid having characters watch sunsets out of north facing windows, or cross bridges that aren’t there, or not cross bridges that are. This is especially important for places that many readers may have been to.  One doesn’t want to get details about Paris or Venice wrong!

I do have have characters do things like stop at ruins I didn’t know existed until I saw them, or spend the night in a town too minor to make the guidebooks. One good part of travel is getting special details like that. I discovered, for example, that Sagres, where my heroine in THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD spent several years of her childhood, is unbelievably windy all the time–something one wouldn’t know from pictures.

I’m a college professor, so I can’t simply decide to take a trip when it suits me.  I need to go in summers or on winter break, so it’s not a matter of going before I start writing, or when I’ve finished a draft, or any other specific point.  At first I thought it would be best to go before I started writing, to soak up the flavor of a place, but it didn’t work out that way, and I think now that would have been a mistake. I can only afford to go once per book, and it’s working well to go after the first draft is done, or close to it.  That way I know very specifically what information I need.

I know where all the scenes are set, which makes it easier to put myself in the story. I stand in a garden and try to hear the characters talking.  I drive down a road and imagine what it would be to galloping on horseback. Even if I have to peel away the new housing development to see what was there before, or ignore the cars on a narrow cobblestoned street, I am there, letting it all soak in.

How much difference does travel make?  I’d say the books are ten percent better because of it.  Fiction still needs a great plot and wonderful characters way more than anything else. I’m about two-thirds of the way through the first draft of my new novel, tentatively called BREAD AND ROSES, and I have a very good sense of every local I need to go see.  I won’t see Jewish peddlers on the Lower East Side, and it will be tourists crowding the Registry Hall at Ellis Island, but I’ll do what I always do:  pack light and take a good imagination.


The Ruthlessness of the Long-Distance Writer

The provocative title of the much acclaimed 1962 film “The Loneliness of the LongDistance Runner” came to me the other day as I was thinking about some of the strange things novelists do to develop and sustain their stories.


People often ask if I work from an outline, or if I know from the

beginning pretty much everything that is going to happen in my novels.  I tell them absolutely, positively yes.

Here’s the rest of the truth. I write all this down in a roughly three-page treatment, which I then put in a drawer and don’t look at again until I’ve finished, at which point I say, “I was going to write that?”


I suppose there are authors who just start writing without any plan and see what happens, but I don’t know any.  I suppose there are others who have thorough outlines they stick to, but I don’t know them either.  For me, as I imagine for just about every novelist, fiction is a combination of planning and inspiration.


There are a few reasons for this.  At the first keystrokes I can’t know the characters as well as I eventually will. In my work in progress, the main character was originally fairly sensitive to social problems, mostly because I liked her that way.  As the draft went on, I realized how unlikely that was and went back to introduce–at some peril of losing a bit of the reader’s sympathy–hints of the unthinking bigotry she would have inherited with mother’s milk.


And speaking of mothers, there’s been a complete role reversal in my protagonist Zora’s parents.  My original thought was an overbearing father and docile, rather caved-in mother, but I discovered the plot worked much better the other way around.


Plot is the key.  Other than “what are my characters like as people?” the biggest question is “what makes the best story?”  For historical novelists, this usually involves figuring out a way to get the main character into the right place at the right time.


Here’s where the ruthlessness comes in.  If a character is getting in the way of the story, the or she has to be disposed of. Novelists kill off characters right and left.  They force them into exiles of all sorts whether they want to go or not.  Sometimes they don’t need to be disposed of, but they must influence the plot in an unpleasant way.  “Wait a minute!” I might hear a fledgling character complain.  “I don’t want to be a jerk!”  Tough luck, I say!


Ruthlessness has a bad name.  Sometimes it’s simple expediency.  In my work in progress, I needed a means for Zora to break away from family and friends who were constraining her to remain in the aristocratic social circle of wealthy, turn-of-the-century New York.  So many exciting things affecting women, such as suffrage and unionizing, were happening in the years before World War I, and I had to get Zora out of the house.


How to do this?  Invent an acquaintance with a different point of view, one who exposes her to new things.  Give this person exactly the traits that fit the needs of the plot. Piece of cake!  Enter Sophia. I create characters out of thin air to aggravate problems and facilitate solutions.



As I go further into writing a novel, things start to fall into place. I know how people will react (and if I need something different, I go back and change them). I know how the characters will get from here to there. At this point I can’t type fast enough. Still, there are plenty of surprises ahead, plot twists the characters will tell me about as they are happening, things they will say I am not expecting.



Fiction is driven by what is called “the arc of the story.”  As my sense of that arc is honed, necessary revisions are clearer. This brings up another form of ruthlessness.  Sometime whole scenes, whole characters just have to go because they aren’t helping.



At this point, the novel has its own feedback loop.  Just this morning I went back through the first hundred pages to add small details I couldn’t have put in earlier, little hints of the inevitability, or at least the natural progression, of what lies ahead.  Zora is now a little snobbier and thoughtless at the outset, and her growing dissatisfaction with herself and her world more clearly linked to specific events.  A new character is introduced quickly a hundred pages before she will show up in earnest to enter the story.  I see whole conversations that need to change in focus or subject, or be eliminated altogether.  I see new words that have to be put in characters’ mouths or minds.  I see how, once they have said or thought these things, I can go back and foreshadow.


Gradually, through new drafting and this feedback loop, I reach the full potential of the story.  Pass after pass, the novel is layered into what you eventually read. For right now, I’m just holding on for the wild and wonderful ride.