Category Archives: romance

Write What You Know About

SUBJECT AND SETTING

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The interior of Berryman United Methodist in Richmond inspired the fictional Methodist church in Faifax.

The easiest subject to write about is the one you know the most about.   I knew before I wrote the first sentence of THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER that the book would feature a Methodist minister, his family, and his ward.  My dad was a Methodist minister, so I’m familiar with the underpinings of the United Methodist Church. As for wards, I had read about wards and guardians in novels, but never knew any in real life.  Like Augusta Evans Wilson wrote [in VASHTI]: “The only wards I ever knew happened to be fictitious characters.”

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Fairfax Court House built in 1800

The setting of a novel is like a frame around a portrait.  If the frame is too dark or too light and if it doesn’t complement the colors in the portrait, it will take away from the picture.

I wanted a nostalgic setting that enhanced the old-fashioned romance I had in mind.  I chose the City of Fairfax, not only because it is historic but because I lived nearby and spent many hours walking through the town and researching its role in the Civil War.  History is one of my favorite subjects and the City of Fairfax fit the bill.  I deliberately put the parsonage right in the middle of “Old Town” Fairfax City near the scene of “Mosby’s Midnight Raid.”

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The Moore House in Fairfax

The fictional parsonage was a conglomeration of houses I had written up when I had a real estate column in THE CONNECTION, a local paper in Northern Virginia.  Using the best features of some of the houses I reviewed, I created the interior; but the exterior of the parsonage was solely inspired by the antebellum Moore House, which is behind Truro Anglican Church and across the street from what used to be the Black-eyed Pea Restaurant.

copy-005956-r1-23-241-e1387249318579.jpgWhile writing the novel,  I got permission to tour the Moore House, which housed a business at the time.  I was delighted to see that the house has two staircases just like the fictional parsonage.  The Moore house has thirteen gables as well, so I created a parsonage with thirteen gables.

Thirteen gables added a nice touch to the modern gothic theme I was developing, not to mention the secret room on the third floor hidden behind on
e of the gables.

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ST. ELMO: Book Review

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ST. ELMO, by Augusta Jane Evans, was written in 1866. ST. ELMO was the third bestselling novel (after BEN HUR and UNCLE TOM’S CABIN) in the 19th century, equivalent in popularity to the 20th century novel GONE WITH THE WIND. In fact, according to Margaret Mitchell’s biography, Rhett Butler was modeled after St. Elmo Murray. The book inspired plays and was adapted to film in 1923. The ST. ELMO silent film, starring John Gilbert and Bessie Love, is sadly a lost film.

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John Gilbert in ST. ELMO (Fox, 1923)

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The story begins at the foot of Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee. (Today that part of Chattanooga is named after the book.) “Edna Earl” is an orphan of humble means living with her grandfather. Early one morning, Edna stumbles upon a duel in which a man is killed near her home. Having witnessed the duel from beginning to end, she is permanently traumatized by the incident. The victim’s body is laid out in her house. When the victim’s wife comes to see the body, she dies from the shock.

Edna Earl is horrified by the damage that the senseless duel has caused. Meanwhile, Edna adores her grandfather, who is a blacksmith. One day on the way to her grandfather’s shop, she encounters a gruff, arrogant man who is in need of a blacksmith to replace a horse shoe. Edna directs him to her granphotoMA31468942-0002dfather’s shop. The man is impatient, swearing as he waits for her grandfather to finish the job. As the man rides away, Edna’s grandfather says to her: “He is a rude, blasphemous man.” Edna notices that “the rude blasphemous man” drops a book as he rides away in haste. The book is a leather-bound copy of DANTE with the initials SEM inside the flap. Edna learns to treasure the book for its text and illustrations.

When her grandfather dies unexpectedly, Edna tries to make it on her own. Just 13-years-old, she boards a train bound for Georgia. The train wrecks. Many die but Edna survives and is rescued by one of the locals, “Ellen Murray,” a wealthy widow. Edna begins to recover under the widow’s care. The two bond and Mrs. Murray decides to raise the orphan, as if she were her own child. Then, something happens that shatters Edna’s contentment. Mrs. Murray’s son arrives home.

Edna hears his harsh voice in the next room and realizes that he is “the rude blasphemous man” who disrespected her beloved grandfather. She returns his copy of DANTE at the first opportunity, realizing that the initials SEM stand for “St. Elmo Murray.”

Throughout the rest of the novel, Edna Earl is torn between loathing and loving St. Elmo. He’s the Byronic type that women love to loath and loath to love. “He’s like a rattlesnake that crawls in his own track, and bites everything that meddles or crosses his trail.”  But in time, Edna is “disquieted and pained to discover” in “his bronzed face . . . an attraction–an indescribable fascination–which she had found nowhere else.”

The conflict in their relationship stems from the issue of dueling, a common practice in Augusta Evans day. But the sub-theme–feminism vs. anti-feminism–is the theme that catches the modern reader’s attention. When I say “feminism,” I don’t feminism as we define it today. The book was written long before women had the right to vote. So while “Edna Earl” disapproves of women in politics, she believes that men and women are intellectual equals and applauds women with literary careers.

The book is filled with explosive, romantic tension that just won’t quit. The characters are not particularly realistic; instead, they are larger than life, and that’s what makes the book fun to read.  However, ST. ELMO is not easy to read. You will find allusions to mythology mind-boggling at times, but if you like character-driven novels, you won’t be able to put it down. You have to read it more than once to truly appreciate this book. Parts of the book are hilarious, but you might miss the humor the first time around. Much of it is tongue in cheek.

ST. ELMO is enjoying a resurgence of popularity today. Deadra Lore of St. Augustine, Florida, is writing a ST. ELMO study guide that explains the foreign expressions, mythical references, and difficult words peppered throughout the story. Several years ago, filmmaker Robert Clem created a docudrama called “The Passion of Miss Augusta,” which highlights scenes from ST. ELMO and compares the fictional “Edna Earl” with her creator, Augusta Evans. He explores the feminist side of Augusta Evans with riveting drama and insight.

 

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ST. ELMO inspired THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER

 

 

 

“Oxalis” as a Literary Motif

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One of my favorite flowers is oxalis.  I never knew the flower existed until I read about it  in ST. ELMO by Augusta Jane Evans.  In the following paragraph, “Edna Earl” sees the flower and associates it with “St. Elmo Murray,” the man she is trying to resist.

Edna bent over her flowers, and recognizing many favorites that recalled the hothouse at Le Bocage, her eyes filled with tears, and she hastily put her lips to the snowy cups of an oxalis.  How often she had seen just such fragile petals nestling in the buttonhole of Mr. Murray’s coat.  (Page 290, ST. ELMO).

I was thinking about that and other passages in ST. ELMO  when i wrote the following scene between “Effie Beller” and “Gideon Baldwin” on page 69 and 70 of THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER.

“When are you fixing to come home?”

“In a few days.”

“Oh.”  Effie tried to hide her disappointment.  “I hope you’ll have plenty of sunshine at the beach.”

“And delay my return?”

They were standing in the sun room, and he was preparing to leave through the back door.  Impulsively she snatched a spray of oxalis from a ceramic pot and held it up to his lapel.

“What are you doing?”

“I’d like to put some flowers in your buttonhole if you don’t mind.”

“Why?”

“Because you remind me of someone.”

“Who?”

“St. Elmo.”

“I’m not a saint.”

“Neither was he.”  With trembling fingers, she slipped the posy into his buttonhole and started to walk away, but he seized her arm and turned her around.

I brought oxalis into the story again when “Effie’s” antipathy for “Rev. Baldwin” was near its peak:

He crossed the room to his mother’s dresser and returned with a handful of tissues.

As she dried her eyes, she heard him say in a voice unaccountably sweet, “I often forget  how sensitive you are.  You remind me of that dainty flower you gave me when I was leaving for Conference.  What was it?”

“Oxalis.”

“So incredibly small, so easily crushed.  Sometimes you wilt before my eyes and make me wonder what I have said or done to cause it.”  He paused for a moment, waiting for her to compose herself, and added, “Effie Belle.  Despite your belief to the contrary, I am not entirely the ogre conceived in your imagination, and If I can help you in any way–“

Every flower has a special meaning–or so I thought.  I based this belief on a book called “The Poetry of Flowers.” i was sure I could look up oxalis and find a romantic meaning.   However, the flower is not even mentioned in the book.

Some refer to oxalis simply as “clover” or “a creeping weed,” hardly a romantic description of my hallowed plant. Finally, I learned that oxalis is a member of the wood sorrel family.  Wood Sorrel means “Joy” and “maternal tenderness,” and that is an accurate description of the role that oxalis plays in THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER..

Often referred to as “shamrock,” oxalis is easy to find this time of year.  I found two different types of oxalis in a St. Patrick’s Day display at the grocery store.  My favorite is “snowy” oxalis, but you can also find oxalis with purple leaves and lavender flowers or with green leaves and pink flowers.

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Sunsets and Literature

photoMA31367462-0002How can anyone describe something as spectacular as a sunset?   Nothing can take the place of a photograph, can it?  Augusta J. Evans (1835-1909) creates a credible word picture of a sunset on page 116 of ST. ELMO, and the twilight that follows sets the eerie stage for the entrance of the Byronic protagonist “St. Elmo Murray.”.

The sun went down in a wintry sky; the solemn red light burning on the funeral pyre of the day streamed through the undraped windows, flushed the fretted facade of the Taj Mahal, glowed on the marble floor, and warmed and brightened the serene, lovely face of the earnest young student.  As the flame faded in the West, where two stars leaped from the pearly ashes, the fine print of Edna’s book grew dim, and she turned the page to catch the mellow, silvery radiance of the full moon, which shinning low in the east, thew a ghastly lustre on the awful form and floating white hair of the Cimbrian woman on the wall.  But between the orphan and the light, close beside her chair, stood a tall, dark figure, with uncovered head and outstretched hands.

She sprang to her feet, uttering a cry of mingled alarm and delight, for she knew that erect, stately form and regal head could only belong to one person.

“Oh, Mr. Murray!  Can it be possible that you have indeed come home to your sad desolate mother?  Oh!  For her sake, I am so glad!”

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It’s no secret that Augusta J. Evans is my favorite novelist and that ST. ELMO inspired me to write THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER.

Creating Fictional Characters

No one creates characters out of thin air. They are bits and pieces of people you know, have seen, or read about. Sometimes the main character has a lot in common with the author. I’ve never read a Stephen King novel, but I know that his main character is often a novelist.

While writing THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER, I identified with several characters, especially “Effie Belle Butler,” an airbrushed image of me, with all of my strengths and none of my weaknesses. Writing a novel is like daydreaming about who you would like to be and who you would like to be with.

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Romance and the Language of Flowers

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I found this copy of the POETRY OF FLOWERS (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co.) in an antique flea market.  The inscription on the flyleaf reads in part, “Miss Carrie Lawrence, May 18th 1891.”

People who lived in the nineteenth century assigned meaning to each flower.  Choosing flowers for a bouquet was a delicate matter because you wanted to send the right message.

For example, if you wanted to say “Let the bonds of marriage unite us,” you would choose the following flowers for your bouquet: blue convolvulus (bonds), ivy (marriage), and a few whole straws (unite us).

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If you saw the movie KATE AND LEOPOLD, starring Hugh Jackman and Meg Ryan, you might recall the scene in which “Leopold” shows “Kate’s” brother how to choose a bouquet for his girlfriend.  Sad to say, the language of flowers has faded with time.  I would like to see the POETRY OF FLOWERS in print again as a runaway best seller. 

Creating a Fictional Landmark

The church loomed before her like some aged monument preserving the memory of its founders.  Clutching vines of ivy encrusted the walls and  scaled the towering steeple, as if to hold the bricks in place and keep them from crumbling.  Like sentinels, a pair of massive, gnarled oaks guarded the entrance.

As Effie took the key out of her pocket, she recalled Mrs.  Baldwin saying, “I hope you’re not superstitious.  Providence is one of the oldest churches in Fairfax County.  It predates the Civil War.  Some say it’s haunted.  Can you imagine calling a church haunted?”

Timidly she unlocked the door and peered into the sanctuary, deluged with light from stained glass Palladian windows.  Each was part of a series depicting the life of Christ from the Annunciation to the Resurrection.  She walked down the center aisle, carpeted in red, towards the cross that loomed over the choir loft and dropped to her knees at the altar.  Surrounded by all the trappings of spirituality, she prayed and pictured the throne of God, the “sea of glass,” the cherubim, and “the four and twenty elders” clothed in white.

But the vision was short-lived.  Like a clap of thunder, the specter of doubt jarred her with a question:  What if her circumstances were accidental, not providential?  What if coming to Fairfax was a mistake?  She waved the notion aside and seated herself at the organ. 

A careful examination of the instrument found it nearly identical to the one she’d practiced her lessons on in Columbus.  “What harm is there in playing the organ?” she asked aloud.  Her words hung in the air, unanswered, undisputed, and soon “Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” resounded throughout the sanctuary. 

She poured herself into the composition, mindless of time and place, until a rapping sound arrested her attention.  Her eyes scanned the church before resting upon a stained glass window depicting the Crucifixion.  Like a metronome, a branch was tapping the pane. 

As she resumed playing, the melancholy fugue fired her imagination, bringing “The Phantom of the Opera” to mind.  A mental picture of Lon Chaney lurking behind one of the pews prompted the feeling that someone was watching her.  To counter the thought, she abandoned the organ for the piano and played a hardy rendition of “Oh Happy Day.”  But halfway through the song, a scraping sound sliced the air, immobilizing her fingers.

Excerpt from THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER (pages 7 and 8).

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St. Francis Methodist, Mobile, AL

St. Francis Methodist, Mobile, AL

When I started writing THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER, I wanted to give the story a familiar setting with historical landmarks.  I chose the City of Fairfax, one of my favorite stomping grounds.  Most of the landmarks mentioned in the novel are real, but Providence United Methodist Church is fictional.

The name “Providence” is not a coincidence.  Not only does it mean God’s will, but prior to 1859, the City of Fairfax was known as the village of Providence.

My description of Providence Methodist was partly inspired by the architecture of Berryman United  Methodist  in Richmond.  Truro Anglican Church in the heart of the City of Fairfax influenced me also.