Inspiration

  • 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.

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  • Maeve Brennan

    Maeve Brennan
    Maeve Brennan

    Maeve Brennan was an expatriate Irish writer who spent most of her life in the United States. There she worked for Harper’s Bazaar as a fashion writer until 1949 when William Shawn invited her to move to The New Yorker.

    Some of her short stories had already been published in the magazine before she started writing her ‘communications’ or vignettes of New York under the Talk of the Town column. Her by-line was the Long-Winded Lady. Her real name would not be revealed until William Morrow published forty-seven of her columns as The Long-Winded Lady in 1969. While two of her short story collections were published in the United States during her lifetime, she was largely unknown in Ireland.

    Maeve Brennan: The Long-Winded Lady
    The Long-Winded Lady – Maeve Brennan

    To some extent, Maeve Brennan’s life has parallels with that of Vivian Maier, a nanny who lived a low-key life of anonymity, while taking thousands of photos. Vivian was an incredible street photographer, capturing ordinary people in fleeting moments. These photos would only be discovered after her death.

    But Maeve was more glamorous than Vivian. Petite and barely over five feet tall, she wore her auburn hair back or in a pony tail and was always impeccably dressed for a good part of her life. Her fashion writing doubtless helped establish her personal style. She wore strong lipstick, drank, and swore like a longshoreman.

    But while she had short stories published at Harper’s Bazaar and The New Yorker, like Maier she was never famous in her lifetime and was almost unknown in Ireland. And like Maier, Maeve captured ordinary fleeting moments in these vignettes. But her portraits of city life were captured in words, not film. In a letter to her editor and close friend William Maxwell, she said she wanted to write as though the camera had never been invented.

    In her author’s note to The Long-Winded Lady collection, she writes:

    It is as though the long-winded lady were showing snapshots taken during a long, slow journey not through but in the most cumbersome, most reckless, most ambitious, most confused, most comical, the saddest and coldest and most human of cities… 

    Maeve Brennan

    The attention to detail shown in these vignettes also appears in her short stories and her novella, The Visitor.

    Early life

    Maeve was born in Dublin in January 1917 to Irish Republican parents. She was one of four children. She and her two sisters were all named after ancient Irish queens: Emer, Deirdre and Maeve.

    Irish politics was at the centre of her parents’ life back then. Both participated in the Easter Rising in 1916. While Maeve’s mother Una was only imprisoned for a few days, her father Robert was condemned to death, though his sentence was commuted. He was in prison when Maeve was born.

    Robert, a de Valera supporter, continued to clash with the authorities, including Michael Collins’ Irish Free Staters who raided Maeve’s childhood home, an event she revisits in one of her short stories The Day We Got Our Own Back.

    The move to America

    In 1934, da Valera appointed Robert to the Irish Legation in Washington. Robert’s wife and children moved with him, and so Maeve’s American life began. She attended a Catholic convent school and went on to study English at the American University, graduating in 1938. She was fiercely Irish in the United States, and a glamorous American when she visited her home country.

    Her parents and brother returned to Ireland in the nineteen-forties, but she stayed behind, along with her two sisters. She had moved to New York and was soon writing fashion copy for Harper’s Bazaar.

    Thanks to Harper’s Irish editor Carmel Snow, Maeve got to meet other Irish writers and was often to be found at Costello’s Bar on Third Avenue. There she would come into contact with future colleagues from The New Yorker. She had already started writing her short stories during this time as well as her novella, The Visitor.

    Maeve was only seventeen when she left Ireland. But her childhood home, the street and the neighbourhood in Dublin would come to feature over and over again in the stories she penned while living in New York.

    Interestingly, Maeve never wrote about the biggest disruption of her life – the move to Washington. Her writing looks back to her childhood in Dublin, or later to her life in New York or her observations about the wealthy and their servants in an exclusive Hudson River enclave.

    The short stories

    From the time I was almost five until I was almost eighteen, we lived in a small house in a part of Dublin called Ranelagh. On our street, all of the houses were of red brick and had small back gardens, part cement and part grass, separated from one another by low stone walls…

    The Morning after the Big Fire by Maeve Brennan

    When you read Maeve Brennan’s stories set in Dublin, you sense that there’s a biographical truth in a character’s home, their street, or the furnishings of a room. She’s mining her past, her childhood, her family and heritage from thousands of miles away. And perhaps distance in space and time sharpened her memories.

    The opening to The Morning after the Big Fire reads like someone reminiscing about their childhood – going into detail about the houses in the street and the common end wall, and the tennis court at the back. Nostalgia is a big part of Maeve’s writing. The story is told from the perspective of a young girl whose father reports a fire at the shop and garage next door.

    The next day, the girl tells the neighbours, revelling in being the bearer of news. But she’s suddenly very annoyed when it seems one of the men might go round and check out the ruins and be a greater authority than her. She’s already been banned from going near the remains of the building.

    This is exactly how a child might feel when there’s a moment of drama. Suddenly the centre of attention and authority, and aware that it could all be lost any moment when an adult steps in. When the other children go round to see the wreckage, she is no longer the authority and pretends to be disinterested.

    When the new garage is built, she secretly hopes it will catch fire and watches to see if it does. But there is no other fire before her family leave the house years later. The story ends with her thinking that if some child went round there with a match, she wouldn’t blame them, as long as she got to tell the story first.

    The Morning after the Big Fire is a very short story – about three pages long. It’s built on nostalgia, her childhood home, and wryly observes child psychology.

    In another story, The Old Man of the Sea, the girl, her sister and mother are plagued by an old man who comes round to sell apples. Her mother always takes pity on beggars, so she buys two bags.

    After that, he comes round every week with two bags prepared. The mother can’t get rid of him. She doesn’t want all those apples. The situation escalates from week to week, while the girl is reminded of the old man Sinbad carried on his back. An old man who seemed to get heavier and heavier as time goes on.

    The story is simple and full of humour as the mother, a soft touch for anyone who comes to the door, eventually hides in the kitchen and then the back garden. The mother in the story has a lot in common with Maeve’s mother.

    Religion comes up in some of the stories – the girl narrator in The Barrel of Rumours is sure the poor Clare nuns sleep in coffins, and that they have to be measured up for their coffin the first day they enter the convent. Her mother thinks this is nonsense and wishes she would shut up about it.

    All these stories and more appear in The Springs of Affection. This was the first of Maeve’s collections to be published after her death.

    Maeve Brennan: The Rose Garden
    Maeve Brennan: The Rose Garden

    In another collection, The Rose Garden, there are five stories set in Dublin, while the rest are set in the US, whether Manhattan or a wealthy community on the Hudson.

    In real life, Maeve married The New Yorker’s managing editor, St Clair McKelway. The marriage shocked some of their friends and colleagues who did not expect a good outcome. McKelway was an alcoholic and indeed the marriage would only last five years.

    But during that time they lived in the exclusive Hudson River retreat of Sneden’s Landing. A place that would offer Maeve more inspiration. She later recorded the snobbery of the wealthy in her satirical stories set in the fictional Herbert’s Retreat. The maids in these families are invariably Irish. In her biography of Maeve Brennan, Angela Bourke speculates that the stories may have been building to form a novel. Six were published in The New Yorker but most critics failed to interpret the coded messages about how the privileged appeared through the eyes of their Irish maids.

    With her marriage coming to an end, Maeve and McKelway agreed to divorce. In late 1959 she moved back to Manhattan. She had a cat and kittens with her, but her other cats and her beloved black Labrador Bluebell had to wait until she found better accommodation.

    Bluebell and the cats appear a few times in Maeve’s short stories, but perhaps one of the most poignant examples is the one that opens as the preface to the short story collection, The Rose Garden. One of her Long-Winded Lady vignettes, she’s lying on the beach at East Hampton, where she lived for several years. Bluebell and the cats are there, but it soon becomes clear it’s a dream. The beloved pets are long gone. The year is 1976. Maeve is almost sixty.

    The Visitor

    Maeve Brennan: The Visitor
    The Visitor

    Maeve had already written her novella, The Visitor, before she went to work at The New Yorker. She was still in her twenties. The novella wasn’t discovered until 1997. It was first published in 2001, less than a decade after her death.

    The story of The Visitor follows Anastasia King, a young woman who has been living in Paris with her mother. At the beginning of the novella, she is returning in a train to Dublin. Her mother is dead, so she is coming back to live with her grandmother. But Mrs King, who never liked Anastasia’s mother, is nursing a grievance. And while she is never rude to her granddaughter, it’s clear that the old woman has no intention of letting her stay for long.

    It is tale of loneliness, and a thirst for love, undercut by a beautifully understated cruelty and revenge. A story where daughters and granddaughters suffer at the hands of their older female relatives. Not only Anastasia herself, but an older woman she befriends whose own mother stopped her marrying the love of her life. But even Anastasia’s friendship with this woman takes a darker and crueller turn when she deliberately fails to carry out the woman’s last wish. On a first read it seems almost unfathomable that the simple request isn’t carried out.

    The manuscript of The Visitor was discovered in 1997 at the University of Notre Dame Library. It was among the papers of Maisie Ward from the Catholic publishers Sheed and Ward.

    It’s not clear whether Maeve failed to keep her own carbon copy. No copy was found among her own papers. It’s believed that the novella was written between 1944 and 1945 while she was living in a sixth-floor apartment at East 10th Street. She was in her mid-twenties and still writing fashion copy for Harper’s. The bitter heart of the story would stand in contrast with the writing in her day job.

    The Long-Winded Lady

    Maeve moved to The New Yorker in 1949. And in 1954 the first of her Long-Winded Lady pieces was published there. While Maeve’s Dublin stories mined her memories of her childhood, her Talk of the Town vignettes were very much rooted in the present. It wasn’t that she didn’t reflect on the past in these prose pieces. In fact, she was very aware of the constantly changing nature of the city – of buildings always being torn down to make way for the new.

    In one story she writes of a farmhouse which was moved to a different part of the city to preserve the building. But she also writes about people like herself who lived in hotels and dined in restaurants and wandered the streets.

    She observed what was going on around her, and recorded fleeting moments that most other writers would probably ignore.

    One particular 1969 vignette titled The Solitude of Their Expression has Maeve looking out her window. She is living in a Forty-ninth street hotel with two big rooms, high ceilings, and big windows on three sides. She can see the Empire State Building. But one memorable part of this piece has her observing an elderly woman in another hotel. The woman’s window has two red geraniums.

    Maeve remembers recently watching this woman sitting at her window, two floors down from the roof, reading a letter. The thin and aging white net curtains were fastened back to let in all the light and air. It was a hot day.

    ‘Without turning her head she put her right hand with the sheet of paper in it out the window, stretched her arm to full length, and let the paper go. It fluttered down and away, and she went on reading.’

    The woman reads the second sheet of paper, then stretches her arm out the window and lets it go. A third sheet of paper soon follows. Then she stands up and vanishes into the dimness of the room.

    Everything from the geraniums in the window, the thin white net curtain of the hotel, the hot weather, the sheets floating down the outside of the hotel are transient. Both women are long gone. Brennan captures moments like these that would otherwise never be known. How could this elderly woman imagine people reading about her over half a century later?

    Maeve lived in hotels like this, moving from one to another. She walked the streets, dined in cafes, and watched the people around her. The Long-Winded Lady is an observer recording the changing city and its inhabitants.

    The Springs of Affection

    After Maeve divorced McKelway she became something of a wanderer. She continued to write. Her masterpiece long story The Springs of Affection was published in The New Yorker in 1972. The story clearly mines her memories of Ireland, Dublin, Wexford, her parents, and her wider family.

    The central character is Min Bagot. The Bagot family appear in a number of Maeve’s stories. But in this one Delia and Martin are dead. Min, who was Martin’s twin, reflects on her memories, including the day when everything changed – the day Martin married Delia. Nothing was ever the same again. Their mother never approved of Delia, and neither did Min. Min’s two sisters will also go on to marry, but she will remain with her mother. She wanted to be a teacher but instead becomes a dressmaker.

    Her bitterness seeps through the story. Yet to her, the triumph is that she is the last one standing. Her sisters, her brother, her mother and father, and Delia are all dead. You can be jealous of those just starting out, but you can’t be jealous of the dead. She sits among the furnishings, books, and possessions she’s taken from her brother’s home. She returns in her mind to the day of her twin’s marriage and the in-laws’ farmhouse.

    These families went a long way back in time, and they remembered marriages that had taken place a hundred years before. They didn’t talk, as Min understood talk. Here in the country they wove webs with names and dates and places. The dead were mentioned in the same voice with the living, so that fathers and sisters and cousins who had been gone for decades could have trooped through the house and through the orchards and gardens and found themselves at home, the same as always, and they could even have counted on finding their own names and their own faces registered faithfully somewhere among the generations that had succeeded them.’

    Maeve’s biographer, Angela Bourke, notes that ‘Almost every fact in ‘The Springs of Affection’ is true, and yet the story is not. The relationships in two families over three generations, the appearance of houses and countryside, the people in the story, the work they do and the room where they do it, all are precise in their details and historical fact.’

    However, there were parts that were very much not true. Going by the biographical details, Min Bagot was clearly modelled on Nan Brennan, one of Maeve’s older relatives. Yet Nan was very far from the cold and spiteful central character of the story. She was well liked in her community, independent, visited daily by relatives, friends, and neighbours. She was also eighty-five years old at the time of publication and The New Yorker had a way of reaching all the way to Wexford in Ireland. So much so that Nan wrote on the back of an old photo of Maeve and Bluebell, ‘Greatly changed for the worse, 1972.’

    Meanwhile, Maeve was becoming increasingly eccentric. Her beloved Bluebell had died, leaving her adrift. Her parents back in Ireland were dead. Maeve’s mental health began to decline and she became paranoid. Her appearance changed, her makeup sloppy. Homeless, she took up residence next to the women’s room on the nineteenth floor of The New Yorker. There she took in a sick pigeon, and gave money to people on the street.

    Maeve claimed that her younger sister Derry, who had already moved back to Ireland, had stopped speaking to her after the publication of The Springs of Affection. Nevertheless, when Maeve visited Ireland in 1973, she spent some time at her sister’s house. She spent about a year in the country, not always living in the same place. Her appearance improved but she was again showing confusion even before she returned to America. There her mental health continued to decline. She was hospitalised more than once. She also vanished for periods of time, leaving her American friends worried.

    Her daydream piece about Bluebell and the cats at East Hampton was published in The New Yorker column in 1976. Maeve’s biographer Angela Bourke speculates that Maeve may have written the piece from a hospital bed.

    Maeve’s last Long-Winded Lady communication was published in 1981. She died in 1993 in a nursing home. She was seventy-six. The staff of the home were surprised to learn she had been a writer.

    Although there was already a growing interest in her work before her death, it was with the publication of The Springs of Affection collection that Maeve Brennan began to achieve the fame she never saw in her lifetime. A second collection, The Rose Garden, followed, along with the rediscovered manuscript of The Visitor. Angela Bourke’s biography was published in 2004.

    Lessons from Maeve’s writing

    Maeve didn’t write on a huge canvas. Her fiction and her vignettes are focused on the small things. Incidents from childhood are mined, family members become inspiration (and not always in a flattering way).

    Where bigger events enter the scene – the Republican struggle and the clash with the Free Staters – they are viewed through a child’s eyes. Maeve gives some context through the lens of someone looking back in time. But the story The Day We Got Our Own Back is very much a child’s view of what should be a frightening event.

    Maeve is equally detailed in her vignettes recording Manhattan as the city changed around her. Her eye for detail picks out people and fleeting moments that other writers might overlook. It’s a lesson in attention to detail, something helped by her time writing fashion copy at Harper’s Bazaar.

    Just as actors observe the people around them, so must writers. But writers should also view the world around them, fleeting moments, memories from the past.

    Writers are told to write what they know. Maeve Brennan is a good example of someone who did just that. She wrote about a transitional time in Irish history. She didn’t write about the famous people. Instead she detailed the lives of the people she grew up with, the family, neighbours, children, nuns, priests, and others.

    In New York she sat at her window, walked the streets, sat in cafes, and watched the world go by, noting the details and reporting them in her Talk of the Town column. She satirised the snobbery of the wealthy at Sneddon’s Landing on the Hudson, wrote stories about characters in Manhattan, and immortalised her beloved pets, like Bluebell.

    Her writing is not only seeped in nostalgia, and homesickness at times, but there’s also spite, satire, warmth, and humour.

    Maeve Brennan was revered by younger writers at The New Yorker, but her stories of Ireland failed to take off in her own country. Part of the reason was her mining of an increasingly distant past. But during her lifetime, Irish literature was dominated by men. It was only after her death that interest in her work grew, on both sides of the Atlantic.

    In her short story A Free Choice, published in The New Yorker in 1964, Maeve wrote:

    She began to believe that she had been remembered at some time far back, at some moment when she had thought herself down and out and forgotten and derided. It had all been only in her imagination, that she had been forgotten. She had not been forgotten at all.

    Recommended reading

    Maeve Brennan: Homesick at the New Yorker by Angela Bourke (biography)

    The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan (short story collection)

    The Rose Garden by Maeve Brennan (short story collection)

    The Visitor by Maeve Brennan (novella)

    The Long-Winded Lady by Maeve Brennan (Maeve’s collected vignettes from the New Yorker)

    Related IndieCat Editorial posts

    Here are other posts on authors and their work:

    Joan Lindsay and Picnic at Hanging Rock – IndieCat Editorial

    Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith – IndieCat Editorial

  • Historical fiction as a time machine

    Fifth Avenue, Vanderbilt mansion and Plaza Hotel, 1910

    Historical fiction as a time machine

    What is the appeal of historical fiction – does it function as a time machine?

    If you’ve ever pored over an old photograph like the one above, it might be the mystery and appeal of a lost world.

    There’s something romantic about vanished buildings like the Vanderbilt mansion – the largest private residence ever built in New York City.

    No one will ever walk up those steps to the entrance ever again. No one will ever walk the hallways. No one will ever pull aside the curtains and look out onto Fifth Avenue.

    It is a ghost house that recently drew my attention when a coloured version was posted on a Twitter account.

    The family who lived there are all dead. The maids who dusted and cleaned are long gone. The street looks very different today.

    The only way to visit this world is to study photographs. Or to read accounts of the area and the vanished house itself.

    Of course, with fiction, we can not only visit the past but use it as inspiration for new stories.

    What if there was a similar mansion belonging to a fictional family? Who might this family be? How did they build their fortune?

    And what dramatic events might take place in the house? What mysteries and secrets? Not just among the family, but also among those who worked there.

    Lost houses and mysterious houses are a common theme in fiction.

    Cornelius II Vanderbilt Mansion

    The real house was built in 1883, along the west side of Fifth Avenue to West 58th Street. It was a product of the Gilded Age and possessed 130 rooms.

    The owner, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, was the eldest grandchild of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, founder of the family fortune.

    It wasn’t the only house Cornelius II owned, and 13 years after moving in, he suffered a stroke. His last three years were spent in a wheelchair.

    The house was six stories tall, not including the basement. On the first floor, there was a two-story ballroom and a two-story dining room, plus a salon, a smoking room, a den, an office, a library, a breakfast room, and much more.

    His wife’s bedroom, boudoir, bath, closet and dressing room were on the second floor. Cornelius’s bedroom was also there, along with his bathroom, dressing room, closet, and private study.

    In addition to the 130 rooms, there was a stable and private garden next door.

    After Cornelius’s death, his wife Alice lived on at the mansion with the 37 servants required to run the house. But she no longer entertained guests. Eventually she sold the house in 1926. Since the developers were only interested in the land, and not the house itself, it was demolished and replaced by the Bergdorf Goodman department store.

    Vanderbilt mansion, 1908

    The Gilded Era

    In The Age of Innocence (1920), which is set in the 1870s, Edith Wharton describes a house of this type early on. I’ve bolded anything relating to the description of the Beaufort house:

    The Beauforts’ house was one of the few in New York that possessed a ball-room (it antedated even Mrs. Manson Mingott’s and the Headly Chiverses’); and at a time when it was beginning to be thought “provincial” to put a “crash” over the drawing-room floor and move the furniture upstairs, the possession of a ball-room that was used for no other purpose, and left for three-hundred-and-sixty-four days of the year to shuttered darkness, with its gilt chairs stacked in a corner and its chandelier in a bag; this undoubted superiority was felt to compensate for whatever was regrettable in the Beaufort past.

    To be able to shut up a ballroom for 364 days of the year is a sign of pure luxury… and pure waste. Further down the page, Wharton says:

    … and two years after young Mrs. Beaufort’s marriage it was admitted that she had the most distinguished house in New York. No one knew exactly how the miracle was accomplished. She was indolent, passive, the caustic even called her dull; but dressed like an idol, hung with pearls, growing younger and blonder and more beautiful each year, she throned in Mr. Beaufort’s heavy brown-stone palace, and drew all the world there without lifting her jewelled little finger. The knowing people said it was Beaufort himself who trained the servants, taught the chef new dishes, told the gardeners what hot-house flowers to grow for the dinner-table and the drawing-rooms, selected the guests, brewed the after-dinner punch and dictated the little notes his wife wrote to her friends. If he did, these domestic activities were privately performed, and he presented to the world the appearance of a careless and hospitable millionaire strolling into his own drawing-room with the detachment of an invited guest, and saying: “My wife’s gloxinias are a marvel, aren’t they? I believe she gets them out from Kew.”

    And further down still:

    The Beaufort house was one that New Yorkers were proud to show to foreigners, especially on the night of the annual ball. The Beauforts had been among the first people in New York to own their own red velvet carpet and have it rolled down the steps by their own footmen, under their own awning, instead of hiring it with the supper and the ball-room chairs. They had also inaugurated the custom of letting the ladies take their cloaks off in the hall, instead of shuffling up to the hostess’s bedroom and recurling their hair with the aid of the gas-burner; Beaufort was understood to have said that he supposed all his wife’s friends had maids who saw to it that they were properly coiffees when they left home.

    Then the house had been boldly planned with a ball-room, so that, instead of squeezing through a narrow passage to get to it (as at the Chiverses’) one marched solemnly down a vista of enfiladed drawing-rooms (the sea-green, the crimson and the bouton d’or), seeing from afar the many-candled lustres reflected in the polished parquetry, and beyond that the depths of a conservatory where camellias and tree-ferns arched their costly foliage over seats of black and gold bamboo.

    Newland Archer, as became a young man of his position, strolled in somewhat late. He had left his overcoat with the silk-stockinged footmen (the stockings were one of Beaufort’s few fatuities), had dawdled a while in the library hung with Spanish leather and furnished with Buhl and malachite, where a few men were chatting and putting on their dancing-gloves, and had finally joined the line of guests whom Mrs. Beaufort was receiving on the threshold of the crimson drawing-room.

    Edith Wharton’s book was written long after the 1870s, but it still acts as a time machine. Wharton herself described it as “a momentary escape in going back to my childish memories of a long-vanished America… it was growing more and more evident that the world I had grown up in and been formed by had been destroyed in 1914.”

    In an article in 2020, Hillary Kelly wrote that Wharton’s “status made her story more than believable—it made the story real … Novelists before Wharton understood that storytelling was an act of exposure, but she built it into the architecture of The Age of Innocence and weaponized it.”

    The Age of Innocence is available on Project Gutenberg for anyone who wants to read it. The excerpts above are from Chapter three.

    Wikipedia article on the house.

  • Boost your writing with the Pomodoro technique

    Boost your writing with the pomodoro technique!

    Procrastination is a problem that besets most writers at some point.

    Why is it so hard to sit down and write? Why is it more tempting to rearrange your pencils, tidy your desk, check Twitter or another social media app? All of this has a massive impact on productivity.

    And since most writers don’t have the luxury of being full time, they have to fit their writing in around other activities, including nine-to-five jobs. This means they have to maximise their writing time.

    While there are numerous apps that can help with blocking social media distractions, in this post we will look at how you can boost your writing with the Pomodoro technique.

    Why do people procrastinate?

    But first things first – what is going on with procrastination? It’s a common problem that isn’t just confined to writers.

    One sad truth is that while most people dream of success – including writers – they don’t necessarily dream of the hard work that’s involved.

    It doesn’t help that you hear overnight success stories that don’t always show the long hard slog to get there.

    Writers are already gifted with imaginations – they can picture the book deal, the reading events, the signings.

    What they can’t or won’t picture so well is the more monotonous task of writing, rewriting, and editing. It’s solitary work that requires time away from others.

    And this connects with one of the two main human drives – the desire to avoid pain.

    Humans are primarily driven by two things – the desire for pleasure and the desire to avoid pain.

    Dreams of success relate to pleasure. The hard work and delays relate to pain. Because the work involves sacrifice – you have to give up watching TV and browsing social media. You have to say no to that night out at the pub.

    It’s not that you can’t have any fun, but writing a book takes a lot of hard work, and the book doesn’t write itself while you’re chatting to people on Twitter.

    Success is scary

    That brings us to another problem that also commonly hits business owners and freelancers when they’re trying to get off the ground.

    Success can be desired, but it can also be feared.

    This is why there can be a lot of self-sabotage going on. You sometimes see writers panicking when their books are about to be published.

    It’s not that they’ve changed their minds, but as well as the possible success they are facing potential pain in the form of poor sales or bad reviews.

    They are now committed and there’s no way to back out. If they’re a newer author, it will be all the more intimidating.

    Perfectionism

    And part of this relates to perfectionism. Is the book good enough? Which in turn leads back to pain – will I get bad reviews?

    Perfectionism can really bog people down, leading to procrastination, never being quite ready, or finding ways to avoid the task.

    As a writer, you probably know that what you put on paper rarely lives up to what’s in your head. Certainly not in earlier drafts.

    The frustration of bridging that gap can lead to you putting off the work. You avoid the pain by looking for something more pleasurable instead – like dreaming about your story which is much easier than writing it.

    All of this, along with the usual social media distractions, gets in the way of productivity. And if you’re failing to get the writing done, you feel a loss of confidence, and perhaps a sense of failure.

    This is also counter-productive.

    It’s easy to get stuck in a negative loop of endless procrastination.

    But there’s another issue too – writing a book can seem like a huge endeavour. Especially when you add in rewriting and editing.

    To deal with procrastination and the massive overwhelm you might be facing, it’s worthwhile looking at the Pomodoro technique of time management.

    Pomodoro – what is it?

    Actually, it’s a tomato.

    Pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato.

    In the late 1980s, Italian student Francesco Cirillo developed a time-management technique involving a tomato-shaped timer.

    This technique breaks tasks down into 25 minute time intervals. Each interval is known as a pomodoro – after the timer Cirillo used. These intervals are broken by short breaks of three to five minutes.

    This makes work more manageable, less intimidating, and more achievable.

    Boost your writing with the Pomodoro technique

    Here’s an example for writing tasks:

    • Make sure you have a goal or set of goals you want to tackle in the work session
    • Decide on what you’re going to tackle – for example, a scene in your book or short story
    • Set the timer for 25 minutes – this can be any timer, or an Alexa app, or an online timer
    • Get to work (and turn off social media to avoid distractions)
    • Stop working when the timer goes off and if you’ve completed your task, tick it off
    • If you have fewer than four ticks, take a break of three to five minutes
    • This break is also timed with an alarm going off to mark the end of the break
    • Then you return to your task or the next one for another 25 minutes, before another break
    • You should aim for four 25 minute work periods with breaks in between
    • After that, take a longer break of 15-30 minutes before starting again

    Beware of the social media rabbit hole during breaks

    All of this depends on the overall writing time you have to play with.

    It might be tempting to go and check out Twitter during a break, but this can disrupt your concentration. Once you start checking emails and social media, even if you don’t check it for long, you might take a while to get your concentration back.

    A short break can lead to lost time that goes well beyond a few minutes.

    And then you’re staring at the word-processing screen again, frustrated that you can’t get back into your story.

    Beware of misusing your breaks, unless you are good at managing yourself.

    If you finish a task before the end of the 25 minutes, you can use the extra time to review or edit your work.

    Set goals, then rinse and repeat

    If you’re really stuck for time, you could just do two hours and repeat again the next day.

    Be sure to set out your goals before you start and check off whether you accomplish them.

    A rough draft of a scene is a good goal. Reworking dialogue or filling in some location details in a rewrite session is also a perfectly good goal.

    By breaking writing into chunks of time, the task becomes more manageable. Yes, you should have the longer goal of writing an entire book. But you also have the shorter goal of dealing with it bit by bit.

    Examples of a Pomodoro timer

    pomodoro.io is a website that offers a Pomodoro timer with the ability to list the tasks you want to tackle.

    You can also try out this YouTube Pomodoro timer – the channel has other timers you can check out.

    Boost your writing with the Pomodoro Technique

    Other IndieCat posts you might find useful

    Social media blockers – how to block social media distractions that interfere with your writing.

    How to establish a writing routine – writing is like a muscle that needs to be built up over time.

    When is your novel done? Or, do you want to write and rewrite it forever?!

    When dialogue ruins your scenes – because it can you know! It can make or break scenes. Find out how.

    When is the best time for a developmental edit? Since developmental edits are not beta reads, this is a good question.