19th Century Chick Lit

Part of the Web site, www.19thcenturychicklit.com, this blog is about the connection between the popular women writers of the 19th century and today's women writers and readers. I'm actually interested in women writers from lots of different time periods and genres--the 19th century is just my starting point.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

My Reading Diet

I need a book on my nightstand at all times, plus a queue of books in waiting, otherwise I just feel very ungrounded and very hungry. That’s because I look at my reading list sort of like my food pyramid. I love to alternate between lots of different genres of books—like ones where I learn something about a historical period, person, or event (the nourishing fruits & veggies), ones that speak to my writing business (the all-important protein), and then the ones that are just pure entertainment/inspiration/amusement (the base of it all: My carbs!).

Here’s what I’ve been chowing down on this month:

My veggie: Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand. I’m not even a horse person, and though I grew up in Kentucky, I can’t say I’ve ever really watched or cared a whit about the Derby. But I got totally engrossed in the tale of this spunky horse and the unlikely cast of characters who made him. I skimmed over the parts that went into great detail about the races, but overall, I thoroughly enjoyed it. If nothing else, it’s worth it just to read the chapter about the awful things jockeys have to do to stay thin. And we thought we gals had it bad. Sheesh.

My carbs: Digging to America by Anne Tyler. I love how ordinary and real the characters are in Anne Tyler books. This is a great little book about two very different families who both adopt baby girls from Korea, and how their lives begin to intertwine.

My protein: On Writing by Stephen King. So I’ve never read (or seen) anything by Stephen King because I hate to be scared, creeped out, freaked out, or grossed out. But I was looking for a little motivation, and I heard from my writer friends that this was an awesome book about writing. So far, it hasn’t disappointed. I’m just to the point now where he and his wife are so poor they’re barely making it, and then he learns that he’s sold the paperback rights to his novel Carrie for $400,000, and his wife begins to weep. Good stuff.

Okay, one more protein-packed serving of writing wisdom: The Well-Fed Self-Publisher by Peter Bowerman. I picked up this book after reading a Q&A with Bowerman on the Renegade Writer blog I’m investigating various publishing options out there, and that Bowerman is one smart cookie. I’m totally jazzed already, and I’m only on page 5.

And here’s what’s in my queue:
First, I’m anxiously awaiting Query Letters That Rock by Diana Burrell and Linda Formichelli, authors of the above-mentioned Renegade Writer blog.

Second, I was listening to Kiran Desai being interviewed on Fresh Air on NPR the other day, and now I’m way intrigued to read her book, The Inheritance of Loss.

And finally, as we approach the holiday season, I’ve decided it’s the perfect time to re-read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I just never tire of reading about those spunky March sisters. Plus, I've realized that my companion Web site, 19th Century Chick Lit is shamefully lacking an entry on Little Women--which is most certainly a 19th century chick lit classic. This gives me an excuse to reread and update!

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Nesting Instinct

I’ve been doing the thing they call nesting lately. I think. Or maybe nesting is the thing you do when you’re going to have a baby (which I assure you, I’m not). But ever since my fiancé, Allen, and I moved into our house this summer, I have been obsessed with picking out fabric and making things. I have spent hours perusing at ReproDepot and Tonic Living, and checking out sites like Marrimekko and Amy Butler Design for inspiration.

I’m practically giddy with fabric overload, and I can’t seem to stop sewing. I’ve made window treatments (for some reason unbeknownst to me, I’ve fallen in love with the café curtain, which seems to totally go against my mid-century modern aesthetic, but what can you do?). I’ve made them for my office and kitchen. And I've never had so much fun making a Roman shade before.

Ooh, la, la, cafe curtains! Just don't let me start tacking up roosters.

My Roman shade (which actually works), courtesy of Amy Butler's amazing designs.

I found a great blue and brown retro flower print for our bedroom, and made some fun drapes.

Blue and brown are the bomb.

And the pillows, my god, don’t even get me started on the pillows. They are such instant gratification to make—you pop in a zipper, sew up the seams, insert the pillow form, and you’ve got a little piece of colorful art right there on your couch to snuggle with.

Pillows are like chocolate, but without the saturated fat.

Did I mention bags? I was obsessed with making bags in college. And the fascination seems to have returned. I’m already thinking about making some as Christmas presents. My lucky relatives.

Alright, so I'm a bag lady. It's Amy Butler's fault.

Allen thinks I’m insane. “Aren’t you ever satisfied?” he says. “The house is fine,” he says. Ah, men. So not the point. The house is fine, yes, but it’s even better with handmade, creative touches. There is a great scene in Ruth Hall where Ruth’s awful mother-in-law visits and thinks that Ruth is all hoity-toity because their parlor is so pretty. Ruth just gives off a smirk because in reality, it’s all very modest stuff: She just made all of it, so it has that extra special look.

This nesting thing is very 19th century really. Just about every female character in 19th century chick lit is crafty and creative—they’re knitting mittens, doing needlework, sewing dresses, and painting. It was their creative outlet, just like it’s my creative outlet. Which is why it’s also very modern. Jean Railla, who wrote the book Get Crafty: Hip Home Ec and runs the site Get Crafty argues that today’s crafty women are bringing about the new domesticity—where it’s hip and feminist to craft. I absolutely love this idea. (And it’s a fabulous, inspiring book, BTW!)

Craft on, ladies!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Marriage Plot Thickens

So I last wrote about my anxiety over wedding planning, and the books I got out of the library didn’t do much to assuage it. All I want is a simple, quiet wedding, something like what I imagine Jane Eyre and Rochester would have had. After all, Rochester was blind at the time. And he kept his last wife in the attic for years. What did he know about weddings?

But the details just seem endless and a tad ridiculous. One of the books actually suggests that to save money on hiring a band or a DJ, you should have relatives perform recitals for you. No, it’s not a joke. Another book suggested making a cake out of Styrofoam and covering it in icing. So are these the options I’m left with if I don’t want a big fancy spectacle? Make-believe cakes and nephews singing off key? Shoot me now.

Actually, Kathleen Kennedy’s book, Priceless Weddings for Under $5,000 is pretty good. She talks about priorities—as in, figuring yours out. And that’s my whole problem—I don’t know what mine are when it comes to a wedding. For so long, I rallied against this institution that now it’s a bit of a tough sell.

But I’m off now to start filling in my “Location Worksheet.” Apparently, a wedding has to actually be held somewhere. Ay ay ay . . .

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Marriage Plot

I’ve been so distracted lately—I’d like to say it’s all work related. And it’s true I’m swamped with assignments, but I am also way stressed about the idea of planning a wedding. My boyfriend and I bought a house together this summer, and decided to get married. We’re totally non-traditional in our approach to just about everything, including the wedding. The idea of being “a bride” doesn’t really have much appeal to me. It seems to be such a spectacle, and I’ve never been comfortable being the center of attention. I don’t want a fancy dress, don’t want to walk down an aisle, and certainly don’t want to spend gobs of money on one day, when we have the rest of our lives together—and a long list of places to travel.

So I’ve been telling myself that it’s just the idea of the wedding that’s stressing me. But I think it’s also the idea of marriage itself. Or rather, what marriage has historically represented for women. I can’t stop thinking about “the marriage plot.” Many literary critics have argued that for women writing novels in the 19th century (and earlier), there were only two options for endings: Marriage or death. Death is a pretty big downer, so marriage was the lesser of the two evils. No matter how radical or smart-talking the heroine is, she puts on the white dress and walks down the aisle in the end. Even the sassiest, most adventurous heroine, Capitola Black of The Hidden Hand, becomes a misses in the end. It feels disappointing.

It’s not that marriage is bad, it’s just that it’s pretty limiting as an ending because it’s so plotted and final, and it sends the message that this is how a woman’s struggle for independence is supposed to end. I was reading about women and marriage in Britain in the 19th century, and it sounds like pretty nasty business. Women had no protections once they married, and until the Married Property Act passed in 1882, they couldn't even inherit property. They were property. Talk about an institution with some baggage.

But I don’t live in the 19th century. And I certainly don’t have to get married for financial reasons. Marriage isn’t a necessity for me; it’s my choice. So today, I took a deep breath and checked out a bunch of books about non-traditional weddings and wedding planning "on the cheap" from the library. I’ve decided that my life with my guy will be a whole new plot altogether, not a convenient way to tie up an old one.

But no matter what anyone says, I am so not throwing any bouquets.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Sara Willis Parton: The Negotiating Diva

One of the toughest things about working for myself is negotiating money. I hear that there are writers who enjoy this and think it’s a fun and jolly challenge, but it’s always been tricky for me. A discussion about an assignment will be going swimmingly; everything sounds all well and good, and then the money question comes up. “How much do you charge?” the client or editor will say. My response? “Uh, well . . .” Gulp. Geez, why is this so difficult? This is my business!

I heard a speaker at a writer’s conference say that when asked your price, your answer should always make you gasp a little bit. Believing you are worth a certain amount in your head, and then saying that aloud, are two different things.

That’s why I’m so amazed when I look at someone like Sara Willis Parton, who wrote under the pseudonym Fanny Fern. Parton was writing in the mid 19th century, at a time when women were certainly making money from their writing, but it was still widely believed that their place was in the home, not out there in the public marketplace, negotiating with editors and publishers like—dare we say?—men.

But that’s exactly what Parton did. In her 1854 book Ruth Hall (a fictionalized autobiography, and a book I highly recommend), she writes about her encounters with egomaniacal editors who underestimate her and undervalue her work. She also chronicles how Ruth—who is really Parton herself—negotiates her way to a more lucrative deal with a tough-talking book publisher. Parton was a popular newspaper columnist; when she sold a compilation of her articles in book form, the publisher offered her $800 for her copyright. That was a pretty big chunk of change in the 1850s. Not only that, but at the time, Parton was a poor single mother (her husband had died), who was desperately trying to feed her two children.

In Ruth Hall, she writes: “$800 copyright money? It was a temptation, but supposing her book should prove a hit? And bring double, triple, fourfold that sum, to go into her publisher’s pockets instead of hers?” Parton knew how the game worked. She took a giant leap of faith, and instead of accepting the sure-thing paycheck, she negotiated for a percentage of the royalties. This turned out to be the right move. Her book sold extremely well and she made way more than the $800 that was once so tantalizing.

Parton bet on herself, even when every message out there told her she wasn’t worth it. She bucked it all and negotiated for what she deserved. I try to keep that amazing example of chutzpah that was way ahead of its time in the back of my mind when the scary money talk starts.

So tell me your stories of when you’ve negotiated your way to something better—I’d love to hear them!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A Room of My Own

Virginia Woolf was the ultimate kick-ass chick: She was smart as a whip, cheeky and charming, and a champion for women writers. I think that she’d be thrilled with the chick lit phenomenon, tickled pink that at long last, women were making good money from their writing, without having to hide their manuscripts under the embroidery on their laps.

What I love most about Virginia Woolf is that she so got women. She knew exactly what we creative girls really needed: A room of our own and a decent cash flow. She knew that for decades, women had been denied the same opportunities as men; they were snubbed and locked out of libraries, colleges, and publishing houses, and it pissed her off. She hated that throughout history, women rarely had the space and income they needed to pursue their creative passions. That’s exactly what led her to write A Room of One’s Own. Her theory was that if women had a room of their own and 500 pounds a year, they would have a fighting chance to produce the masterpieces their male contemporaries had been churning out for centuries. Published in 1929, A Room of One’s Own is one of the best long-form essays ever written, in my opinion. It’s smart, funny, sad, poignant, fiery, and it drips with irony in the most brilliant way.

Why am I kicking off this blog rhapsodizing about Virginia Woolf, who’s not even mentioned on my site (yet)? Because I just painted and decorated my new home office, and I couldn’t stop thinking about A Room of One’s Own the entire time. I’ve been freelancing full-time for going on 5 years, and until July of this year, I had been working in a corner of my bedroom. My files, books, and boxes of notes were practically stacked to the ceiling. It was, in short, a crappy way to work and live. Sure, technically, I already had a room of my own because I was an independent woman, living alone and making a living. But I never felt like a real writer because I never had the space I needed. I felt phony, uncreative, and very, very frustrated.

When my boyfriend and I bought a house this summer, I finally had a space of my own: A little attic room where I could write and think, build my business, or just breathe. I painted it lime and aqua, and stocked it with the most colorful file folders, shelves, and storage boxes I could find. It would drive some gals crazy, but it’s exactly perfect for me.

When picking color, why not go bold?

How many women in the 19th century could have been saved by built-in bookcases?

So am I writing masterpieces now? Well, that’s open for discussion. But it’s also beside the point. After all, according to Virginia, “So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.”

That sounds just about right to me.

Monday, September 18, 2006