Category Archives: Writinhg Fiction

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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Pass the Salt, Please!

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Before the invention of salt shakers, people used “salt cellars,” a.k.a. “open salts,” “salt dips” or “salts.”  They are fun to collect because most are inexpensive and don’t take up much room. Some are glass, usually clear.  Some are porcelain.  The smaller ones are “individual salts,” and the larger ones are “master salts.”

Years ago my sister Linda and I were in an antique shop in Clifton, Virginia, that sold pressed glass.  Linda showed me a tiny dish that I mistook for a candle holder.  We took it to the manager who explained that it was a salt cellar.  She asked if we had heard the expression “seated below the salt’?”  In Victorian times, the farther away you were from the salt, the less important you were in society.

individualsaltsLater, after learning about salt cellars, I was reading my favorite novel, ST. ELMO, by Augusta Evans Wilson, when I stumbled upon the following passage on page 124.  “He did not look at her, but resumed the conversation with his mother which her entrance had interrupted, and during supper Edna could scarcely realize that the cold, distant man, who took no more notice of her than one of the salt cellars, was the same whom she had left leaning over the Taj.”

abbysaltFrom that day on, I began collecting salt cellars and was so intrigued with them that I made mention of a salt cellar in Chapter 12 of THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER.  “Gideon’s a magnet for attractive women.  Their hands gravitate towards him.  Have you noticed?  Even your little friend Clara follows him with her eyes.  Women make a mistake chasing after men,” Mrs. Baldwin added with mild disdain.  “I know it’s politically incorrect to say this, but men are natural born hunters, not prey.  They like a challenge.  What a shame that Gideon has never found one, although Eleanor could prove to be the exception.  Effie, if you don’t steady your hand, you’ll drop the salt cellar.  It’s an antique you know.”

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In addition to individual salts and master salts, you can find double salts as well as mustard, pepper, and salt combos in flea markets, antique stores, and even thrift stores.spoons

Salt spoons are collectible also. They come in glass as well as sterling silver.  The glass spoons break easily.  I like the silver ones best, but they corrode if you forget and leave them in the salt.

Kosher salt works best in salt cellars because the grains of salt are larger than regular table salt.

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Most of the salt cellars I’ve seen were made in the 1800s, which makes them conversation pieces.  But collecting salts has a practical side too. I use my salt cellars not only for the dinner table but also for tea candles   If you’d like to learn more about salt cellars or start a collection of your own, consider 5,000 OPEN SALTS: A Collector’s Guide by William Heacock and Patricia Johnson.

“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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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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