• Weird inspirations: Wisconsin Death Trip

    Weird Inspirations: Wisconsin Death Trip

    “Nowhere in this great continent of ours can be found a more desirable residence than Black River Falls…”

    Wisconsin Death Trip

    It’s amazing what you can find trawling through old newspapers from long ago. For fiction authors, old newspapers are a gold mine – from old classified ads to local and national stories. Forgotten names and forgotten faces. Eccentric ghosts from the past. People who actually lived, who were ordinary yet extraordinary in their own way. Funny, tragic, even frightening.

    Their stories are there to be dug up if you’re ever looking for inspiration for your current or next book.

    Sometimes you hit gold dust as Michael Lesy did for his 1973 book, ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’, later adapted as a documentary film.

    The Background

    Between 1890 and 1900, the town of Black River Falls in Wisconsin was subject to a bizarre catalogue of murders, suicides, insanity, pyromania, a diphtheria epidemic, mutterings about witchcraft, window smashing and other acts of violence and vandalism.

    Just the sort of colourful and mysterious series of events that can or should pique a writer’s curiosity.

    These events were reported by Frank Cooper, an Englishman who edited the town newspaper The Badger State Banner.

    Charles Van Schaick, the local photographer, also recorded many scenes and faces from the town, while the records of the local asylum complete the picture.

    The Book

    Michael Lesy first brought the strange tales of Black River Falls to light in his 1973 book, ‘Wisconsin Death Trip.’

    He began his project in the late 1960s while studying for a masters degree. One day he found himself at the Wisconsin Historical Society where the curator of iconography introduced him to the photographs of Charles Van Schaick. Lesy was struck by the portraits. Later he would say that “The whole experience that day seemed like a separate universe.”

    Eager to know more about the people in the photographs and life at the time, Lesy started searching microfilm records of period newspapers. His project ultimately became his doctoral thesis.

    Using the newspaper reports, the photographs and asylum records, Lesy’s book offered an alternative take on America’s self-mythology, all the more timely because of the book’s release during the era of the Vietnam War and the Watergate affair.

    Of Van Schaick’s photography, Lesy would say in the book’s introduction: “Commercial photography, as practiced in the 1890s, was not so much a form of applied technology as it was a semi-magical act that symbolically dealt with time and mortality.”

    There were 30,000 negatives left behind in the photographer’s studio after he died in 1940. The Wisconsin Historical Society acquired 8,000 of them. (They have since acquired more.) Less than 200 were used in Lesy’s book. They included post-mortem photos of children in their caskets, a common practice at the time.

    Sometimes these were the only visual records grieving parents had of their deceased children. Something to remember them by. It seems morbid today, but in the 1890s, death was very much a part of life.

    Lesy’s book does not connect the snippets of newspaper articles to the photographs. It’s impossible to know if a particular face refers to the person in an article. There is also something cinematic about the book and Lesy originally wanted to make it as a film but couldn’t find funding at the time.

    However, the book would go on to be adapted years later.

    The Film

    The documentary film, ‘Wisconsin Death Trip,’ the adaptation of the book, was made by James Marsh for the BBC’s Arena series, though HBO Cinemax also provided funding.

    Marsh opts for a documentary collage that blends photographs of the period with black and white re-enactments of scenes acted out by ordinary people of the area. The modern day town threads through the film in colour, featuring Homecoming Parades and church meetings.

    The early scenes of the film include a photographer taking the picture of a dead child. Children often appear in the film, as killers, or victims.

    But the mayhem cuts across the generations.

    Middle-class teacher Mary Sweeney, one of the film’s recurring characters, goes on a window-smashing spree, aided by a fondness for cocaine. At one point, after completing a tour of the state, she claims to have caused $50,000 worth of damage.

    Mary would make a great character for a novel. A rebellious figure, kicking against societal norms and leaving a trail of destruction in her wake. How much fun could an author have with someone like her?!

    Then there’s the young teenage Polish girl who sets fire to her employer’s barn and his house because she is lonely and homesick and wants some excitement.

    A fourteen-year-old German boy, in the company of his younger brother, shoots an old man and takes over his house, only to go on the run later. When he’s caught and sentenced to imprisonment, he does not react, unable to comprehend either what he’s done or what his own punishment means for him.

    A famous opera singer from Europe turns up, believing herself to have bought a nice property in a resort only to have her expectations disappointed. She sings for the locals, looking for a patron, but her ill-fitting false teeth interfere with her singing and some doubt her identity.

    Again, this woman seems like a great template for a fictional character.

    On a more frightening note, the grave of a woman is opened for the purpose of removing her remains, only to find that she was buried in a trance. The body has turned over, one hand up to the mouth, the fingers half bitten off. It’s assumed she woke up to find herself buried alive and bit off her fingers in terror.

    The film includes poignant stories, including that of the fifteen-year-old girl who drowns herself. She leaves her dress on the bank, with a note inside: “My father and mother abused me and kept me working hard, so I thought it best to end my life. Here is my dress. Goodbye all.”

    A mother drowns her children in the lake, and sits on the bank. She believes that devils are after her.

    The town – past and present (as of 1999)

    Black River Falls in the 1890s is a town with many German and Scandinavian immigrants. With harsh winters and an economic depression, the town becomes gripped by a wave of deaths and acts of violence and insanity.

    The American myth lies in the suburbs and the small towns and countryside. The Western is the archetypal American genre where nature and the local indigenous peoples are supposedly tamed by the civilising forces of the white man’s culture. The Winnebago people of Black River Falls, forced out of the area, return to live on the outskirts, but do not feature in the stories of ‘Wisconsin Death Trip.’ The events are very much centred on the violent heart of the area’s white population.

    The town’s immigrant population must have arrived in the area expecting to better themselves, to participate in the American Dream. ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’ suggests that many of them found something else.

    And yet the town is still there and, as one resident claims, it’s a great place to raise children.

    Cheerleaders, majorettes, church goers, Homecoming Queens are all there in the brief slashes of colourful contemporary footage. The residents of a retirement home are treated to an all-male choir singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ in a scene that in its own way is just as bizarre as the events of the 1890s.

    In fact, the modern day town has its own dark undercurrents: a human head is discovered, and Jeffrey Dalmer and another serial killer are associated with the Wisconsin area.

    The film’s events are narrated by Ian Holm, together with a whispering narration of patient cases from the doctor at the asylum.

    There’s a documentary about the making of ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’ on the DVD which is well worth viewing. James Marsh and the film’s director of photography also provide a commentary.

    In choosing ordinary people to play the characters, and shooting the re-enactments in black and white at 30 frames per second rather than the standard 24, Marsh and Eigil Bryld, the director of photography, create a strange, dreamlike collage that still retains a hold on reality.

    Holm’s narration of the newspaper reports is laced with irony, while the musical soundtrack is perfectly in tune with the period and location. Recurring characters like the wonderful window-smashing Mary Sweeney and Pauline L’Allemand, the Opera singer down on her luck, appear among the one-off stories.

    ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’ is a hypnotic piece of documentary film making. There’s a haunting beauty in its black and white photography, and the film’s themes transcend time.

    It’s also one of those films – and this is true too of Grey Gardens – where historical eccentrics can be inspiration for modern writers. I can also recommend going through old newspaper articles on microfilm. I’ve spent a good many hours poring over forgotten stories.

    If you’re ever looking for inspiration, a visit to a newspaper archive is definitely worthwhile. You never know what rabbit holes you might find.

    It’s certainly true that Lesy’s original book, Wisconsin Death Trip, has inspired numerous artists, from composers and song writers, to authors like Neil Gaiman and his book American Gods and Stephen King’s novella 1922.

    This post is adapted from a review on my Substack and an original review I wrote for an online site many years ago.

    References and useful links

    Wikipedia article on Michael Levy’s book, Wisconsin Death Trip.

    The real story behind eerie Wisconsin Death Trip.

    Winona Daily News 1973 review of the book.

    Philadelphia Inquirer 1991 review.

    Charles Van Schaick photos at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

    Need Feedback on Your Manuscript?

    If you need developmental feedback on your novel or memoir, I offer opening chapters developmental edits, full developmental edits, and manuscript critiques. All three options offer a wealth of feedback, structured to help you polish the next draft of your book. Feel free to use the contact form on the page link below.

  • Writing Your Memoir

    Writing your memoir

    When writing your memoir, you’re not telling the story of your whole life. Instead, memoir focuses on a specific period or event in your life which you dig into, reflect on, often addressing the issue in ways that are closer to a novel than a chronologically written autobiography.

    This is why memoir is seen as a form of creative non-fiction.

    A memoir offers readers intimate glimpses into your life and experiences. It’s also a chance for them to see what lessons you’ve taken away from your experiences.

    But writing a memoir comes with a set of problems – from reliability of memory to many other issues including the right to privacy of those around you.

    Memoir versus autobiography

    Some people confuse memoir and autobiography because they are both usually a first-person account of the subject’s life. It’s true that there are similarities. However, there are also major differences between them.

    Autobiography is more concerned with a whole life and with facts, dates, etc, given greater importance. There can also be less focus on a central unifying theme. Other than the story of a life.

    A long life can produce more than one autobiography. This is especially true if the author writes the first book when they are still relatively young. Years or even decades down the line they can write a second book if they have a lot more to tell about their life. This often happens with celebrity autobiographies.

    Memoirs, on the other hand, tend to be more focused on a unifying theme or particular time or experience in the author’s life. They are much narrower in scope. One life can still produce several memoirs precisely because they are limited in scope. It depends on whether you have the material to cover more than one book.

    In Let Me Go: My Mother and the SS, author Helga Schneider visits the elderly mother she has been estranged from for decades. Her mother left home when Helga was still very young and went to work for the SS at a concentration camp. Helga hardly ever saw her mother from that point on. Her memoir circles between her visits with the old woman at a retirement home and what happened in the past. The book does not cover Helga’s entire life.

    But Helga returned to the trauma of her abandonment in a second memoir, The Bonfire of Berlin: A Lost Childhood in Wartime Germany.

    Meanwhile, in Until The Final Hour, Traudl Junge does not write about her entire life. The book is about her experience working as one of Hitler’s secretaries and includes the final days with him in the bunker.

    In all three of these books, the scope is narrow. This allows for a deeper dive into the subject.

    13 points for memoir writers

    For obvious reasons, writing a memoir is a deeply personal form of expression. It can be intimidating, especially when it comes to revealing intimate details or events in the past. It can also be cathartic and therapeutic.

    But writing memoir also comes with particular challenges and dangers. Here are some common problems or topics you might face when writing a memoir:

    1. Telling the truth versus privacy

    Writing your memoir means revealing intimate details about your life, including your actions (positive or negative), and your thoughts and emotions.

    This can mean talking about things you’ve kept secret from those around you or shared with very few. Putting these things down on paper inevitably leads to emotional vulnerability.

    But in striving to tell your truth, you can also expose the intimate secrets and breach the privacy of others, including loved ones. There is a delicate balance here between authenticity and privacy.

    Some writers change details to protect the identities of those they are writing about. In that case, the exact truth is sacrificed for privacy, but there is still an emotional truth.

    However, if a writer is clearly making things up and it comes out later, readers will cease to trust them.

    2. Memories are subjective and unreliable

    In autobiography and biography, there is a greater emphasis on facts.

    This is particularly true of biography.

    In memoir, the author is using their own memory of events – which of course can be aided by diaries and letters from the period concerned.

    But no one has a completely objective take on their life.

    Memories can change over time. Things can get added or subtracted in your mind. You can start to misremember things like seasons, or even years.

    Memories – even diaries and correspondence – are not 100% reliable. It’s one person’s subjective take on what happened and may clash with others who were around at the time.

    Consequently, it’s not unusual to start doubting your own memory! Especially if you talk to others who don’t remember events or remember them very differently.

    3. Emotional vulnerability

    Writing a memoir is like putting your intimate diary out into the world for all to read.

    Of course, you can edit some things out. But in exploring your most intimate thoughts, feelings, and experiences, you’re often revisiting painful or traumatic events.

    And this can be triggering and lead to shame, fear, embarrassment, or discomfort. There is also the sense that once you let the cat out of the bag, you can’t stuff it back inside. When your truth is out there in the public domain, it’s out for good. Or for at least as long as the book remains in print.

    This realisation can lead to writer’s block and other avoidance strategies when it comes to writing things down.

    4. Structure, story, dialogue, and scene versus summary

    Even though you’re not writing a novel, you are still writing a narrative. And there are many overlaps between fiction and memoir.

    For one thing, you need a coherent narrative arc in memoir writing.

    While you can circle around in time, it must make sense. And the reader must be able to follow you.

    Memoir writers must also decide which events to include, how to order them chronologically or thematically, and how to keep readers engaged from beginning to end.

    As I’ve said, there are similarities between fiction and memoir. In both, you should have a proper story structure, fleshed out characters, sensory details, and a strong theme.

    You are also more likely to have dialogue in a memoir, compared to an autobiography. Of course, this can mean having to recreate a distant conversation as best you can. No one remembers exactly what was said decades ago, unless they carefully recorded it in a diary.

    Another technique borrowed from fiction is scene versus summary. There will be times when you don’t need to write out an event as a whole scene. You can just summarise it. You can also weave in your reflections about it in the summary.

    But including summary, action, dialogue, etc, will bring the more important parts of your narrative to life.

    This results in a far stronger and emotionally gripping story.

    5. The importance of musing

    In addition to scene versus summary and dialogue, you also have something that is particularly important to memoir. And that is musing or reflecting on past events.

    The reader wants to know what you have learned. And if you’re writing a memoir, going over the past, trying to understand it better, it will be imperative to have some level of musing.

    Otherwise, you are simply recreating your own version of the past, without learning from it or offering up conclusions. And that means you’re leaving out a crucial ingredient of memoir.

    Musing can be done in various ways. You might reflect on some events within the period itself, but much of it will be done from a distance of years or even decades, as you look back from the present.

    Musing can occur in fiction, but it is even more important in memoir.

    6. Finding the universal in the personal

    While memoirs are always inherently personal, the best ones resonate with readers on a universal level. Yes, even when the experiences described are far removed from the reader’s own life. This is because, as a memoirist, you can still connect your experiences to broader themes and emotions your readers can relate to.

    In Let Me Go: My Mother and the SS, Helga Schneider’s narrative deals with a less common problem – a Nazi mother who served in a death camp. But in spite of Helga’s personal distaste for her mother’s actions, there is also some compassion for the forgetful old woman who sits before her.

    In that example, many readers can have the same experience of being estranged from family, yet find themselves having to deal with them in their later years. The reader will also wonder what they would do in Helga’s position.

    Would they refuse to visit the elderly Nazi war criminal who abandoned them when they were young, or try to do the decent thing as Helga does?

    Helga’s narrative, complete with the research she has done on Nazi atrocities, offers the reader food for thought. What would any of us do in her position?

    In Traudl Junge’s case, her experience working with Hitler raises issues about our complicity with wrongdoing around us. At what point are we accountable? Can we really blame youth and ignorance? Ultimately, Junge realised she could not.

    7. Perspective, voice and tone

    Determining the perspective of the memoir can be challenging. Writers must decide whether to narrate from their current time/perspective, which can lead to a greater degree of self-reflection, or go back in time to capture the voice of their past self.

    It’s a case of striking a balance between authenticity and readability.

    First-person narration though is the norm. Problems like head-hopping are far less likely to occur, compared to fiction.

    When it comes to tone, we’re really talking about writing in a humorous way versus anger, etc. Some memoirists deal with difficult topics from a position of humour. Sometimes that’s the best way they have to approach an otherwise painful subject.

    It’s worth thinking about the kind of tone you want to aim for in your memoir. Of course, it can vary somewhat as you circle between different scenes, but an overarching consistency of tone will bolster your narrative and theme.

    8. A sense of time and place

    I’ve already mentioned the importance of sensory details. This also applies to fiction writing.

    Here’s another thing important to both memoir and fiction writing – a strong sense of place and time. When you’re writing many years or decades after the events of your book, it’s important to try and recapture that place and time for your readers. You can include sensory details and also cultural references – music, film, fashions.

    With memoir, you can transport not only yourself back to that distant time, but your readers.

    9. Legal and ethical concerns

    Writing about real people and events can raise legal and ethical concerns, particularly when it involves portraying others in a negative light, making allegations, or revealing sensitive information.

    Writing about the living is a tricky subject!

    Memoirists should be mindful of potential repercussions and consider obtaining consent, legal advice, and changing any identifying details including names and appearance where necessary.

    10. Revising and polishing your manuscript

    Like fiction and other forms of non-fiction, your manuscript will require careful revision and editing to polish it to a publishable standard.

    But while it can be difficult with novels to ‘murder your darlings’ and cut out cherished characters or scenes, it can be even more difficult with memoir. Writers can feel that removing an important event distorts the truth.

    They might also find editing and rewriting painful events over and over again emotionally triggering. In this case, it’s best to take breaks and give yourself some time and space from your manuscript.

    11. Fear of judgement, criticism and rejection

    Memoir is the most personal of writing genres. Matched only by diaries or published letters. But people don’t usually plan to publish their diaries or letters, least of all when they’re writing them. Whereas memoirs are usually written with the intention to publish or be shown to others.

    Putting deeply personal truths out into the world can feel intimidating. All writers feel fear when their books are about to be published. Bad reviews and bad sales are common fears. But with memoir there is the potential for deeper and more personal criticism and judgement.

    And not just from readers or reviewers – but from loved ones and family. The people whose opinions often matter most.

    Fear of rejection can lead to self-censorship and suddenly deciding to remove parts of a book. Often to the detriment of the memoir.

    Yet, some memoirists have undoubtedly alienated family and partners/ex-partners with their published books.

    12. Will you find closure?

    For many memoirists, writing their account helps them make sense of their past and find closure. However, please be mindful that this is not always possible.

    If you are writing to help others in the same situation, that can offer a kind of closure in itself.

    But it’s worth remembering that with publication comes criticism and reviewing, and the reactions of those you’ve written about.

    This does not mean you shouldn’t proceed. It’s simply a matter of being realistic about the outcome.

    13. Leaving behind something for your family

    Sometimes writers are telling their story to share with family. This could mean private publication rather than a book put into general circulation. But it’s also about leaving behind a legacy after you’re gone. Something for loved ones to read and remember you by. Even descendants who are not yet born.

    Some memoirs are deeply rooted in a particular geographical location and will contribute to the larger tapestry of local history.

    Memoirs can tell us about the lives of women and other groups in the past, opening a door on experiences that are often forgotten today. Even though the memoir is not concerned with facts in the way an academic book is, that doesn’t mean it has no relevance to social history.

    Because history is more than facts. History is about people.

    Developmentally editing memoir

    I’ve edited a few personal stories. Some were very personal accounts of difficult childhoods where the author wanted to get their personal story out into the world. Often with the intention of helping others.

    One author I worked with used her childhood diaries to craft a narrative that read more like a novel. And it was one of the most memorable manuscripts I’ve worked on. I can still well remember scenes from the life of this young girl back in the 1960s as she walked around San Francisco and the likes of the Tenderloin district. The people she mixed with often lived on the margins and I found myself wondering what happened to them. Though some are dead now, they still live on in her manuscript and in my head. I will always associate Dionne Warwick’s Walk on By with her story.

    There is something really magical about vividly recreating the past, the emotions of that period, incorporating the fleeting nature of time and youth.

    It also gives those who never lived in that place or period a brief chance to walk in the author’s shoes and see through their eyes.

    Need feedback on your memoir?

    If you need developmental feedback on your memoir, you can contact me about your manuscript. I offer opening chapters developmental edits, full developmental edits, and manuscript critiques. Feel free to use the contact form on the page link below.

  • Laurie McBain

    Laurie McBain

    This post is dedicated to Laurie McBain, who instilled in me a love of historical fiction and helped populate my bookshelves with non-fiction history books.

    Young adult fiction wasn’t really a thing when I was at school so, being a precocious reader, I moved to adult fiction around the age of twelve or thirteen. Early on I was reading horror from James Herbert and some mainstream bestsellers. As the years passed, I would continue to scan the bookshelves of the town’s old bookshop, a place with a narrow passage and a rickety twisting staircase to the next floor. I also browsed newsagent shelves and the local library.

    There were books that caught my attention like Robert Heinlein’s science-fiction novels Stranger in a Strange Land and Friday, Stephen Donaldson’s books, and other titles that I filed away for future reference. I still haven’t read the Heinlein books. I suppose this is where I should put them on my 2024 reading list.

    But one book that caught my attention was a silvery reflective cover with a crescent moon, and the title Moonstruck Madness. Taking it off the shelf and scanning the back, I saw that it was about a highwaywoman.

    In fact, it was a historical romance set in the eighteenth century.

    But a woman passing herself off as male to rob people on the open road caught my attention most. I’d likely already seen The Wicked Lady with Margaret Lockwood and James Mason.

    So I spent part of my pocket money that week on Moonstruck Madness and took it home. I must have been about fifteen or sixteen by this point.

    When it comes to modern historical romance, there are a few standout names from the 1970s. The first is Kathleen Woodiwiss. Then came Rosemary Rogers, a writer whose books I never really got on with, and others, including my then favourite, Laurie McBain. Published by Avon, they were the Avon Ladies. And they sold millions.

    After a few years, I moved on from the genre. I’d always read other genres as well as literary fiction. But I retained a fond memory of some of those historical romances, particularly the one that led to my bookshelves filling up with non-fiction on the eighteenth century. I have continued to enjoy historical fiction and have developmentally edited a few historical books, including historical romance.

    Woodiwiss passed away some years ago and McBain mysteriously appeared to stop writing after her seventh novel. Her Wikipedia entry says that she retired from writing or publishing after the death of her father. But this is not true. At least, she didn’t stop writing then. Both authors were huge bestselling authors in their day and this post briefly revisits their contributions to the genre.

    While I wanted to focus on McBain, it’s impossible to look at her success without examining her predecessor first. Especially since McBain herself credited Woodiwiss and her first novel, The Flame and the Flower, as her inspiration:

    I can still remember so very vividly standing in front of several rows of books and trying to find something to read, but nothing interested me until I caught sight of a big historical novel with a startlingly white cover and bright purple lettering, and by an author I’d never read. Intrigued by the story, I bought the book, little realizing the impact it would have on my own life.

    (McBain, Romantic Times, 1988)

    Kathleen Woodiwiss: The First Avon Lady

    Kathleen Woodiwiss wrote her first novel while living at an air force base in Kansas. This Regency novel, The Flame and the Flower, launched the modern racy historical romance. At 600 pages, the manuscript was not what either agents or hardback publishers were looking for at the time.

    Indeed, an agent advised Woodiwiss to rewrite the novel, cutting it down to one fourth of its current length. The agent also told her to add ‘grabbers’ at the end of each chapter to propel the reader on to the next, to add more sex, and to double space the manuscript since single spacing was not acceptable.

    She only took the last suggestion and retyped the novel. Then, hearing that hardback publishers took too big a percentage of the royalties, she decided to go with paperback publishers instead.

    And the reason she ended up at Avon? She looked up the list of publishers at the back of Writer’s Digest, starting with the A-names. Avon wasn’t the first option, but it was the publisher who asked for longer manuscripts.

    At Avon the manuscript fell into the slush pile where it was found by editor Nancy Coffey. Coffey had intended to go swimming at the beach that weekend. But the weather forecast was rain. Forced to spend the weekend indoors, she pulled the huge manuscript from the pile. Soon she couldn’t put it down. She was up all night finishing it and by Monday morning she was recommending that Avon publish the book.

    Avon would release the book in paperback as an ‘Avon Spectacular’ with the kind of promotion usually reserved for bestseller reprints.

    Woodiwiss received $1500 for the rights and 4% of the royalties.

    To get an idea of just how much faith editor Nancy Coffey and Avon had in this novel – the first print run for The Flame and The Flower was for half a million books. The actual print run was 600,000 after a good review from Publisher’s Weekly. It was a gamble since the book was different – epic in scope, long, with much steamier sex scenes. Yet the gamble paid off. A popular new subgenre was born. And The Flame and the Flower sold just short of two and a half million copies in its first four years.

    Woodiwiss credited word of mouth by readers for contributing to the book’s success.

    Kathleen Woodiwiss - The Flame and The Flower

    In a groundbreaking move, Avon published the novel in paperback first, not hardback. From its initial publication in April 1972, the book had gone through 40 reprints by 1978 and by then had sold 4.5 million copies. In spite of having what today is clearly problematic content including rape, the book is still in print now.

    When Rosemary Rogers’ Sweet Savage Love landed at Avon, addressed ‘To the Editor of The Flame and The Flower‘, Coffey told the next editorial meeting, ‘I hate to tell you, but I think we’ve got another one’.

    By the time The Flame and the Flower had gone through 40 reprints, Sweet Savage Love had gone through 32. Avon was the first publisher of choice for historical romance writers – many of them starting off as inspired readers – and the company received around 500 fan letters a week.

    Meanwhile, not all the authors were who they seemed to be. Jennifer Wilde was a popular historical romance writer and one of the ‘Avon Ladies’.

    In an issue of New York Magazine from February 13th 1978, there is a list of bestsellers. Rosemary Rogers took the top three positions, followed by Kathleen Woodiwiss at number four, six and seven. Jennifer Wilde is at number four with 2.5 million copies of Love’s Tender Fury sold. Wilde’s Dare to Love meanwhile appears lower down at 1.3 million.

    Jennifer Wilde was actually Tom Huff, a six-foot tall Texan guy. He wrote romance under a number of pseudonyms. When he moved to historical romance, he adopted the name Jennifer Wilde. Immensely successful, he won a Romantic Times career achievement award but sadly died of a heart attack in 1990.

    The timing of this wave of historical romances coincided with the women’s rights movement. Female sexuality was a more acceptable topic of conversation. Nevertheless there was a tension or conflict between feminism and some of the subjects covered in the historical romance novels of the 1970s and 1980s.

    But the new and epic historical romance was popular. So it was inevitable that Nancy Coffey and Avon would be scouring for new authors in the same new genre. Soon writers like Laurie McBain and Rosemary Rogers followed.

    Laurie McBain joins Avon

    Born in 1949, California-born Laurie McBain was a graduate of California State University.

    She’d already read The Flame and The Flower when she saw a notice in Writer’s Digest from Avon looking for unagented writers. Encouraged by her father, she researched and wrote her own Regency romance Devil’s Desire.

    Not only was my writing style influenced by Kathleen Woodiwiss (as well as by the novels of Daphne du Maurier, Georgette Heyer, and Mary Stewart), but because of The Flame and The Flower, when I completed my first historical novel, Devil’s Desire, I sent it to the publishers of Kathleen Woodiwiss.

    Laurie McBain, Romantic Times

    McBain wrote Devil’s Desire after months of research. She was 26 when her first novel was published. The first run was over half a million copies.

    Laurie McBain - Devil's Desire

    Many years later, in a letter she wrote for the Romantic Times, she said she still had the Special Delivery letter she’d received from Nancy Coffey, confirming Avon’s interest in acquiring her book.

    …from that moment my life was changed forever.

    Laurie McBain Romantic Times

    There were only minimal changes suggested and Coffey would become McBain’s editor.

    Fascinated by history, McBain admitted to feeling very privileged to land a career in historical fiction.

    Moonstruck Madness

    There is a note inside Laurie McBain’s novels that says:

    Laurie McBain is of Scottish descent and members of the McBain Clan were killed at the battle of Culloden Moor in 1746.

    This link to Scotland and Culloden is particularly relevant to her second novel, Moonstruck Madness. It was the tale of a young impoverished half-Scottish aristocrat, Sabrina Verrick. By day she’s a young lady of a declining manor. By night she’s Bonnie Charlie, a highwayman, who robs the rich, including Lucien Dominick, a duke and the book’s hero.

    For Moonstruck Madness, McBain’s research into the post-Culloden period in England shows a good grip of the period language without overdoing it. From the opening pages, when a group of male aristocrats are about to be interrupted at dinner by the mysterious Bonnie Charlie and ‘his’ accomplices, McBain quickly sketches in period and character.

    It’s easy to picture these men sitting around in their powdered wigs, only to be spluttering in outrage at the mysterious figure who emerges from behind the curtains. Lucien, the book’s scarred hero, is present and he and Bonnie Charlie clash from the first scene.

    Lucien has no idea at this point that she’s a woman. In fact, Sabrina took to the road to support her siblings and aunt. Forced to leave Scotland after the defeat at Culloden, she harbours some enmity towards the English.

    Lucien is determined to catch up with the cheeky highwayman who robbed them all. But he also has his own problems with the expectation that he should marry or lose his estate. A pair of siblings provide the antagonistic forces along with the dowager duchess who won’t tolerate Lucien staying single. He must marry or else the estate passes to a cousin – the male half of the siblings.

    Meanwhile Sabrina’s estranged father lurks in the background, ready to reappear, which only adds to her problems. Every night on the road she risks discovery. Every night she goes out as Bonnie Charlie she might never return, or be caught and hanged.

    Given that this is a historical romance, it’s not too hard to guess whether this book has a happy ending. And given it was published in 1975, it perhaps won’t fit entirely with modern sensibilities. However, it was a rip-roaring success, selling over a million copies, and was the first of the Dominick trilogy.

    McBain also wrote other historical novels including Tears of Gold and Wild Bells to The Wild Sky. In Tears of Gold she mined the history of her native state of California, San Francisco, and the Gold Rush period (which ran from 1848 to 1855). Wild Bells covers a longer period of time and includes privateers, castaways, gypsies, Elizabethan England, spies, treason and treachery.

    Laurie McBain - Wild Bells To The Wild Sky

    Her final novel was When The Spendor Falls, a sweeping story set against the backdrop of the American Civil War and the devastating impact on two families. It was published in 1985. Two other previous novels continued the story of the Dominick family into the next generation.

    And then it was over…

    But then, seven bestselling books in, it was over. Laurie McBain vanished from the publishing industry.

    Common mythology (and Wikipedia) says she retired after her father died. He had helped and encouraged her from the time of her first novel, Devil’s Desire.

    However, this is not true.

    Old cuttings posted by Rob Imes on the internet, including Twitter/X, show that she was working on another book, set in medieval England. One cutting mentions a reader receiving a letter from Laurie McBain saying the book was complete and delivered to Bantam. Though it didn’t yet have a title, the likely publication date was either 1992 or 1993. I contacted her former editor who confirmed she was Laurie McBain’s editor at Bantam. She was unable to tell me anything else.

    There was a later reference in the Romantic Times to a novel that McBain was finishing – this was in 1995. It’s not clear if it’s the same one or a ninth novel.

    Where is the eighth novel?!

    So, what happened to the eighth novel? And is there a ninth? For such a successful author to suddenly disappear is odd. But there were changes in the industry in the 1990s. My next author post will likely be about SF/F/H author Tanith Lee. Lee found it increasingly difficult in the 1990s to get her manuscripts or pitches accepted by publishers she’d worked with in the past.

    I think Laurie McBain’s fans would dearly love to see the eighth novel. The idea that it’s out there, never to see the light, just doesn’t seem right.

    Her career lasted from 1975 to 1985. At the time of this post Laurie McBain will be around 74 years old. It’s difficult to think of a writer coming to prominence in her field in her mid-twenties only to exit in her mid-thirties, when her fans were still eager to read her work.

    And since her other novels are almost entirely re-issued in ebook versions, it would surely be possible to issue the eighth and any others the same way.

    I have contacted Laurie’s current ebook publisher to see if I can find out anything else. In the meantime, I would like to thank Laurie for the floor-to-ceiling history books I’ve gathered over the decades. I couldn’t have done it without discovering her second book. I started collecting eighteenth century history books, and then worked out from there, in both directions. Back to the Stuarts and beyond, and forward to the Regency, Victorian period, etc. Here are just a few examples:

    I’ll leave the last words of this post to Laurie herself:

    Throughout my career, I’ve attempted with each novel I’ve written to tell the most entertaining story I can. For a few brief hours, I’ve tried to take the reader on a journey of adventure, romance, and discovery into another century. And if I’ve managed to bring pleasure, and ultimately satisfaction, into someone’s life with my writing, then that is what brings me the most gratification.

    Laurie McBain, Romantic Times

    References and further reading

    The Tempestuous, Tumultuous, Turbulent, Torrid , And Terribly Profitable World of Paperback Passion by Alice K Turner, Feb 13 1978, New York Magazine

    Interview With Kathleen E Woodiwiss by Angela Weiss, October 2000, Bertelsmann Club

    Scans of cuttings relating to Laurie McBain are available from Rob Imes Twitter/X post here.

    Other blog posts on authors:

    Joan Lindsay and Picnic at Hanging Rock.

    Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith.

    Maeve Brennan.

  • How narrative devices support a novel’s theme

    How narrative devices support a novel's theme using the example of Sebastien Japrisot's novel, A Very Long Engagement.

    How narrative devices support a novel’s theme

    Writers are often more concerned with plot, character, and world building when they’re outlining or writing their novels. Consequently, theme is often something that gets lost.

    Theme and subject are not the same thing. Theme relates more to the message of a story – be it a film, play, or novel. In Sebastien Japrisot’s novel, A Very Long Engagement, the subject matter is World War One and its aftermath. The theme is the horrors of that war and of war in general.

    The subject matter supports the theme. But there are other narrative devices in this novel that contribute further to Japrisot’s message. In this post I’ll examine some of these devices.

    A Very Long Engagement

    Once upon a time, there were five French soldiers who had gone off to war, because that’s the way of the world.”

    So begins Sebastien Japrisot’s 1991 novel, A Very Long Engagement, winner of the Prix Interallié.

    Japrisot was a crime writer, screenwriter and film director. But his real name was actually Jean-Baptiste Rossi – his pseudonym is an anagram of his birth name.

    By 1991 he had already written a number of extremely successful crime novels. His career started off in literature and A Very Long Engagement is both a crime/mystery novel and a literary meditation on the horrors of war.

    From the first page, A Very Long Engagement immerses us in the horrors of World War One, and we are introduced to five condemned soldiers. We learn something of their backgrounds, their personalities, and the reasons for their terrible predicament.

    This is also the first time their families back home are referenced, and most of their wives and partners will later appear in the narrative.

    Then, before these soldiers reach their destination, the novel cuts away, leaving us to wonder about their fates.

    The rest of the novel is an investigation into what happened.

    The central character of A Very Long Engagement is Mathilde. Still a teenager at the beginning of the book, she makes it her life’s goal to find out what happened to her fiancé who was one of the condemned men. She does not know at the outset that he was sentenced to death, believing instead that he died in the course of the war.

    She’s a memorable heroine – determined, loyal, not above lying and plotting to get what she wants, and immensely stubborn in the face of opposition.

    The theme

    As previously mentioned, A Very Long Engagement is a novel highly critical of war. More specifically the First World War which saw an enormous loss of life without the moral purpose of defeating something like the Nazi regime. It was a senseless war, a crime against humanity which contained many smaller crimes, to be hidden by the relevant authorities if necessary.

    Indeed, the novel begins with a crime – the sentencing of five men to be shot by enemy soldiers. This is the novel’s opening hook. The deliberate withholding of the letter of reprieve is also a crime of a different sort, and we find out about that much later.

    There are many comments throughout the book about the futility of war. The novel criticises both the military and political hierarchy.

    The characters, from different classes and walks of life, also show through their experience how the war impacted different parts of society.

    One of the condemned men, Six-Sous, a trade unionist with family connections to the Paris Commune, dreams of a time when countries no longer go to war.

    The men who mutilated themselves to be invalided out and sent home are portrayed with compassion and sympathy. They are not seen as either cowards or traitors. Their actions come from desperation, from fear, from a longing to see their loved ones, wives and girlfriends, or because they’ve simply had enough of the whole nightmare.

    Furthermore, the author never condemns the German soldiers in the opposite trenches. They are portrayed with sympathy and at times show more compassion for the condemned men than some of those responsible for sending them over the top.

    While there are many comments condemning the war, what’s more important is the way Japrisot illustrates his theme by showing the impact on those left behind, and on those who made it out alive. He accomplishes this through a layering of narratives from different people from different backgrounds.

    Characterisation merges with viewpoint to illustrate theme.

    Point of View

    The central narrative belongs to Mathilde and is reported in what appears to be omniscient present tense.

    However, the author leaves clues throughout that the narrator who sometimes comments on things from their god-like perspective is really Mathilde – old Mathilde, looking back on the quest of her youth, to find her lost love.

    She has a mahogany box in which she stores all the paperwork collected over the years, including her own notes where she represents herself in the third person.

    The rest of the book is mostly first-person past tense, including the letters that make up so much of the book, as well as the accounts told directly to Mathilde.

    So, the novel uses different point of views: present tense third-person, omniscient at times for the present story (which is actually being told decades later), and first-person past tense for the witness accounts.

    I never found the switch in point of view styles to be inconsistent or abrupt.

    The advantage of the first-person viewpoint in accounts of the past is that it makes those events more vivid for the reader.

    The advantage of the third-person and omniscient point of view is that they provide a commentary, emphasising the war theme by showing humans used as pawns, their lives disposable from an almost god-like perspective.

    First-person accounts told directly to Mathilde are not presented within quotation marks. This embeds them more firmly into the main narrative.

    The use of first-person voice also distinguishes these narratives from Mathilde’s sections.

    Japrisot is so deft with his use of viewpoint and tense that the reader should easily follow the past and present narratives without confusion.

    Looking at the point of view alternatives – a constant omniscient or distant third would have led to a less engaging and poignant novel, characters forever kept at a distance. A close third following Mathilde would have made the first chapter, the men marching through the trenches, impossible. The opening scenes of the novel could then only have come through a witness statement.

    As it is, the opening chapter is the hook for the novel, with the events of that January night up front and centred.

    The use of a commenting omniscient voice, with a close third, and then an intimate recollection of events through first is probably what makes this novel so successful.

    Each of the points of view has a function that ties in with the book’s themes, the structure, and the method of delivering information, emotional impact, and rueful commentary.

    To mix these different points of view creates a highly complex and layered narrative. This occurs partly through additional devices such as the use of letters.

    A large proportion of the book is made up of letters. They enhance the narrative rather than disrupt it. They present layers of evidence and witness statements.

    This is an excellent device when it comes to a mystery or crime novel. Indeed, it also worked very well in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where the body of phonographic recordings, letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings and a ship’s log built a body of evidence for the existence of the vampire. In the case of that novel such devices added credibility to the story and aided suspension of disbelief.

    In this novel, the letters also offer clues which Mathilde and the reader can piece together. Because they are date stamped, they also contribute to a clearer chronology in the main narrative.

    Timeline and chronology

    Chronology and time are incredibly important to the structure of this book and the subject matter and themes. Many novels are told in a simple chronological or linear manner. Japrisot opted for a different way of telling his story, since there is a mystery that needs to be solved.

    Mathilde must return again and again to the events of that January night and the days that followed, listening to different accounts, piecing it all together.

    These accounts become a multi-layered testimony.

    It helps that chapters begin with date headings, or with dated letters. The puzzle within the narrative and the complex chronology demand clarity on time and place. This keeps the reader straight on the timeframe of each scene. Letters within the narrative are also dated, and there is much reference to particular dates, and also the use of transitional phrases like ‘some days later’ or ‘the next day’ and so forth.

    Japrisot uses another technique too – as mentioned before, Mathilde’s third-person viewpoint is almost always in present tense, whereas the accounts are in past tense (and usually first person).

    This helps separate the different narratives further in terms of time.

    Yet, Japrisot is in some ways playing games with the reader when it comes to time and the omniscient narrator. As we discover, Mathilde is the omniscient narrator.

    Towards the end of the book, the narrative jumps decades ahead, more than once, ending in 1965. Periodically Mathilde has still, in those future years, added more pieces of evidence to her box. Since the narrative’s latest time period is 1965 (though merely in a passing reference), this leads to the assumption that Mathilde is remembering her search and investigation as an elderly woman. But she is reliving it, through the detailed notes she made and the letters and other paperwork she received.

    If the real ‘now’ of the novel is the 1960s, even though it’s barely touched on, then this explains the reflective voice of the omniscient narrator who knows so much about Mathilde and some of the other characters (who in the future have become friends).

    This presents two ‘nows’ for Mathilde – the future and the present time of the book. The Mathilde of the present doesn’t know what the Mathilde of the future knows. But the Mathilde of the future understands the young Mathilde perfectly.

    Japrisot’s narrative has a very complex approach to time and moving around in time, yet there is an underlying pattern. Letters and first-person accounts are presented in order. And Mathilde’s thread is also presented chronologically. So there is a definite structure in place when it comes to dealing with time.

    Given the many viewpoint threads, the different accounts of the past, and the present meanwhile moving forward, structure and chronology are intimately fused, and they fuse again with point of view.


    In this example, the author has utilised a number of devices to illustrate and strengthen the book’s theme. This is perhaps a more complex example with the layering of different narratives, points of view, etc, and the complex use of time.

    Of course the central mystery of what happened to the men sent to their deaths at the beginning drives the plot, allowing the truth about the war to spill out over the rest of the novel.

    There are other devices like characterisation – even when it comes to the more minor characters – where the impact of the war resonates on them years down the line.

    No one who survives fully escapes the fallout of World War One.

    A Very Long Engagement was made into a film starring Audrey Tatou and directed by Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. It is very much worth a watch.

    Other blog posts

    Narrative devices in Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life

    How editorial feedback changed Interview With the Vampire

    How editorial feedback improved The Great Gatsby

    When publishers drop the ball