Viva Las Vegas; Or, God Bless Us Every One

I’m not a ranter. This blog is about my books, my writing, and my researching, as are my Facebook and Twitter feeds. I post photos of books and Halloween decorations on Pinterest. I have my political opinions, certainly, but I vent those opinions in my fiction. From my main man Dickens I’ve learned that you can tell a great story and still make a political point or two (or three). My fiction is quite political (see The Loving Husband Trilogy or That You Are Here if you don’t believe me), but I’ve always kept that aspect under wraps. The deeper themes are there if readers care to dig; otherwise, readers are getting entertaining stories with characters they want to know better and plot twists and turns with maybe some romance (and a vampire) along the way. But today I have something else to say.

I have been a proud Las Vegas resident for 14 years. I taught in the Clark County School District for 11 years. I have spent the past three years getting my PhD from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, a goal I will complete this coming May. UNLV is just miles from the Las Vegas Strip and Mandalay Bay where the worst mass shooting in U.S. history took place. I was at home while the shooting was taking place, probably in bed reading, which is where I spend most Sunday nights, or most of my nights in general (party animal that I am). I admit I’m not a big news-watching person. Since the current resident of the White House took office, I watch the news enough to make sure that the world was where I left it when I went to bed the night before, and I have a general sense of what’s happening, but otherwise I’ve been so busy reading and writing and PhD-ing that I haven’t had time to be a news junkie. When I woke up Monday morning I checked my phone, saw an odd message from the emergency services at UNLV saying that the campus was open and to expect heavier traffic than normal. I’m not sure why the alarm in my head didn’t go off when I read that. I’m so used to seeing odd messages from here, there, and everywhere. Just two months ago I was on campus speaking to one of my professors when the university was locked down due to a shooting near the library. That time, no one had been hurt, so I just shrugged it off. This morning it wasn’t until my mother, also a Las Vegas resident, told me about the events at Mandalay Bay that I understood how serious it was. And then I realized that the world was not where I left it when I went to bed the night before. I did become a news junkie and watched CNN all day. It was like a nightmare, seeing this hotel, just miles from my home, a place I’ve visited many times, become a war zone, and for no reason at all. Let me rephrase that. I’m sure the shooter had his reasons. As I’m writing this no motive has been found, but there’s always a reason, even if he didn’t share that reason with anyone, although I’m sure more will be discovered as the days pass.

I wonder if as a society we ever pass the point of no return. I wonder if things ever get so bad that there’s nothing left to be done and we just have to accept that this is the way we have to live now, looking over our shoulders, wondering who is there, why they’re there, and what they’re planning on doing while they’re there. I wonder how one man can be so disturbed that he could premeditate this attack on peaceable Americans out for a fun night listening to country music on the Las Vegas Strip, and then I wonder at the selfless heroics at the scene of the tragedy with the courageous first responders, the off duty police, and the medical personnel. Family members and friends shielded each other, and strangers pulled strangers to safety and did their best to tend to the wounded.

But how can this be? How can we scream at each other on Facebook and Twitter for having different political opinions and then pull someone we’ve never met out of the path of a bone shattering bullet? How can we bark at someone at the coffee shop (where some angry man poked me in the shoulder and yelled at me for jumping ahead of him in line when it was the coffee shop manager who told me to join her so she could refund my money) and then use our bodies to shield others from danger? Why does it take a tragedy for us to recognize the humanity in each other? Why does it take madness, murder, and mayhem for us to realize that everyone is a story, and every story is valuable?

Not that long ago strangers held the door of the restaurant or grocery store open for whoever was behind them. It still happens sometimes, but not as much. Not that long ago strangers smiled at each other, said good morning, hello, how are you? What happened? I have had this discussion often with some teacher friends of mine. We like to blame technology, how we’re all spending so much time behind blue-toned screens that we don’t recognize the importance of flesh and bone human beings (I write this with with due irony noting that I am, of course, writing this behind a blue-toned computer screen; but writers get a pass, or at least a small one, I think). We can blame the weaknesses in our society on a lack of education, a lack of jobs, a lack of medical care, and, most importantly, a lack of concern about us ordinary folks from those who are supposed to be representing us in the Congress, the Senate, and the Oval Office. Hey, remember us? We’re the ones struggling to make ends meet, sitting for five hours in the doctor’s office waiting for decent medical care, seeking to educate our children and ourselves in order to find our own little slice of that pie that used to be called the American Dream. Does the American Dream even exist anymore? As a former K-12 teacher and a current university instructor, I wonder if the younger people coming up see themselves doing better than their parents, which is what I believed I would do, and which is what I did.

Then I wonder how racism is connected to this dis-ease. Racism has always existed, but never in my lifetime have I seen people so proudly displaying their bigotry. When I was a kid my Jewish mother told me that she was glad that our last name was Allard because no one could tell we were Jewish. That’s silly, I said. No one cares about that stuff anymore. My mother explained that we had lost relatives during the Holocaust, but at 10 I didn’t understand. Who cares if we’re Jewish? Today, sadly, I understand her point. And yet again, from the ashes (or the shit in this case) rises the phoenix, and there are more people protesting the haters than there are haters. But where does such hate stem from in the land of the free and the home of the brave? I know enough about American history to understand that this country has never been the land of the free, but I had some hopes that it was the home of the brave. It’s a hope I hold onto. We see flashes of bravery in the men and women who protest for human rights, and we saw it right here in Vegas in the angels who protected and cared for others. Has this anger always been there, hidden deep and dark in our collective psyche, only to lately be released, like an outraged genie in a bottle suddenly loosed to wield frustration and fury? And why, dear friends, why is it that the angry ones with orange faces and pointing fingers, or the friends of the angry ones with orange faces and pointing fingers, get all the attention while those of us who struggle through, day by day, the ones who believe in live and let live, the ones making the best lives we can for ourselves in the rubble of what used to be the American dream, are left nameless and voiceless in the shadows?

Sometimes people struggle so much they go off the deep end. I don’t know if the shooter had any of this in mind (whatever he had of a mind), but I do think it’s all connected somehow. People lose hope, and they don’t see change coming, or they perceive that too much change is happening, and they think things are getting worse. For the first time in my 48 years, I don’t see my country improving. I see it in decline. For whatever sins America has, I used to feel like at least we were moving in the right direction. The slaves, though it took a bloody war to do it, were freed. The Civil Rights Movement happened. The Women’s Rights Movement happened. The Gay Rights Movement happened. Can our problems now really stem from what they’re saying on the news? Is it a backlash because all people are gaining their independence?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Here’s the thing: there is not a limited amount of life, liberty, and happiness. The Creator is limitless, and because our Creator is limitless our unalienable rights are limitless. Because I as an American woman have my right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that doesn’t mean that any other American citizen has less of a right. But nothing is handed to us, dear friends. If we want our pursuit of happiness, we must work for it. Pointing fingers at others gets us nowhere. Believe me. I’ve tried. Whatever I have, I’ve worked hard for, and no one could have gotten it for me but me. Perhaps it’s because some people feel so hopeless at the state of things that they no longer feel the drive to try, and pointing at others and saying it’s their fault is the only thing we can do to make ourselves feel better.

So where do we go from here? We could hope our government figures out a way to keep Americans safer, but they’re too busy politickin’ to care that Americans are dying. This has always been a country of the people and their idealism. For all of our faults, we still have the greatest ideals of any country in the world. You can still be anyone born anywhere and rise as far as your hard work allows you. It might be harder now, but it can be done. So rather than relying on a broken government that cares for nothing but playing games and pointing fingers, we must rely on each other. We keep pressing forward. We peaceably protest. We write our Congressmen and Congresswomen and our Senators and our local government entities. We remember that the worst thing we can do to someone begging for attention is to ignore them. That’s harder in the Internet age where it’s so easy to respond, but the old fashioned method of ignoring is still best.

I wonder what the world would be like if we lived in that place of helping instead of hurting. Sometimes people ask how the Creator could allow such things to happen. My argument has always been that it’s not the Creator who does such things—it’s disturbed people. The outpouring of love, help, support, caring, and donations you see after a tragedy—that’s where you find the Creator. What would our world look like if we lived in that place—that place of love we continue to see after the tragedy in my hometown of Las Vegas or that place of help and concern we saw in Texas and Florida? And while we’re in a charitable mood, let’s not forget our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico who still desperately need our help.

We must remain idealistic. It is possible for us to look at each other, smile, and help each other every day. It shouldn’t take a tragedy to get us to acknowledge the humanity in each other. But we have to make a conscious effort to make things better. A change is gonna come, dear friends. Whether that change is good, bad, or indifferent is up to us.

Which is all I have to say. God bless us, every one.

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Researching the Victorian Era

I have an odd habit of writing historical fiction set in eras I know little or nothing about. I came up with story ideas about the Salem Witch Trials, the Trail of Tears, Biblical Jerusalem, New York City and Washington, D.C. during the woman’s suffrage movement, and the American Civil War, and for each of those stories I had to learn about the history to write the novel. I don’t mind when it happens that way, though. I’ve always been fascinated with history, and I enjoy learning about the past. I often get ideas for the plot from my research, so the research helps to make my novel even richer than it might have been without the historical background.

When It Rained at Hembry Castle was a different experience. Due to  my love for Dickens and my own research on the Victorian era, I was writing about a time I was familiar with. When I began writing Hembry Castle I realized that I could include aspects of my favorite TV show, Downton Abbey, to bring the story to life. The hero of Hembry Castle, the aspiring young writer Edward Ellis, became the focal point of the story, along with his love, Daphne Meriwether, but then I decided to include upstairs and downstairs elements of life during the Victorian era as well.

In order to write this novel, I started with the author I know best—Dickens. Of course, I’ve read all his novels, many more than once, some more than twice, so I started with the one I knew had the most in common with the story I had in mind for HembryOur Mutual Friend. From there, I went back to a few favorite books about the Victorian era—What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool and The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London and Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England by Judith Flanders. I had read those books previously but reread them for a refresher course. While reading about the Victorian era, I discovered a new favorite historian, Ruth Goodman, who impressed me with the fact that she doesn’t just talk about Victorian clothing, she makes it and wears it. She’s tried out many elements of living in the Victorian era, which gives her work that much more authority. Her book, How To Be a Victorian: A Dusk-to-Dawn Guide to Victorian Life, is a must read for anyone interested in life during the Victorian period. I also read The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England From 1811-1901 by Kristine Hughes. Edward Ellis is loosely based on a young Charles Dickens, but I didn’t need to read anything specifically for that since I’ve read pretty much every biography about Dickens. It was nice to be able to use information I had in my head for a change.

Victorian England 2

I realized that I needed to learn more about what the upstairs/downstairs world looked like in the 1870s. To my surprise, it wasn’t so different from the way it’s portrayed in Downton Abbey, which begins in 1912. While I picked up a lot about manor house living from watching Downton, as many fans of the show have, I felt I needed more specifics so I read Up and Down Stairs: The History of the Country House Servant by Jeremy Musson. I gleaned some great information from that book, and it provided good background for me so I could see how the country house servant evolved over the years. The upstairs/downstairs world isn’t part of our culture in America the way it is in England, and I wonder if that accounts for Americans’ fascination with Downton Abbey—it’s a glimpse into a lifestyle we weren’t familiar with.

The way I research historical fiction has changed a lot over the years. I used to do months of research before I ever started writing. Now I do a few weeks worth of preliminary research to get a feel for the era, and then I start writing. As I write, I get a sense of what information I need so I know exactly what to look for. As I was writing, I realized that if Edward was a political journalist then he would know politics. I needed to figure out the political climate of the time, but it wasn’t too hard since I knew what I was looking for—events in British politics in 1870. I remember learning about Gladstone and Disraeli in a history class about Victorian Britain, and it was nice being able to put that knowledge to use as well.

Through the writing process I realized that I needed information about Victorian etiquette. There were such specific rules for every aspect of life, and since part of Daphne’s struggle is to learn to live in this upstairs/downstairs world, she had to learn those rules. I found The Essential Handbook of Victorian Etiquette by Thomas E. Hill, which was written for Americans during the Victorian era, but after a little digging I discovered that the rules were the same in Britain so I used that book as my primary reference. The etiquette seems so antiquated now. I had a lot of fun writing those scenes because Daphne is rather amused by her grandmother’s nitpicking about how her manners aren’t refined enough for English society.

I was lucky enough to be able to visit England twice for research as I was writing When It Rained at Hembry Castle. Most of the London locations in the story were chosen because they were places I’ve visited myself so I had seen what I was describing. I stood on the Victoria Embankment near the Houses of Parliament watching the Thames roll as Edward is wont to do. I’ve taken some of Edward’s walks through the city. Many of the buildings are different (I’m pretty sure the The Gherkin wasn’t around in 1870), yet some of the buildings are the same, which is amazing to me. Here in Las Vegas buildings are imploded if they’re more than 20 years old.

In many ways, researching When It Rained at Hembry Castle was the easiest work I’ve done so far as an historical novelist because it was set in a time I was already familiar with. It’s always magical to me when I start to see how I can take this knowledge of history and weave it into the story I have in mind. What is even more amazing is when the history leads the story in directions I had never considered before. That, for me, is the joy of writing historical fiction.

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Character Inspiration: Sarah Alexander and Elizabeth Wentworth

Fans of the Loving Husband Trilogy are familiar with Elizabeth, the greatest love of James Wentworth’s life. She is the woman he sees across the dining room table in Salem Village in 1692, and her beauty and warmth capture his heart forever. But where did the idea for Elizabeth come from? And who came first, Elizabeth or James’ future love, Sarah Alexander?

To answer the second question first, trying to figure out who came first, Elizabeth or Sarah, is like a chicken and the egg question. On the one hand, you think the chicken had to come first because how can you have an egg without a chicken to lay it, but then you think it had to be the egg because where would a chicken come from if there wasn’t an egg to hatch from? You can’t have Sarah without Elizabeth. They’re too intertwined. Chronologically, Elizabeth was first since she married James in 1691, and James and Sarah married in 2011.

Writing the novel was more complex than following the chronology. My initial concept for Her Dear & Loving Husband was for it to be a completely modern novel. In my mind, Sarah came first. The bigger story that includes the Salem Witch Trials didn’t come to me until I decided where to set the novel. Once I decided to set the story in Salem and include the witch trials, then Elizabeth appeared. Are Sarah and Elizabeth exactly the same? Not quite. Obviously, they share similarities, but Elizabeth lives in the late 17th century; Sarah lives during our times. The differences between them are the differences you might expect from people who live in different centuries.

Sarah was easier to conceptualize since she’s a modern woman. I can’t say that there was any one major inspiration for Sarah. For most of the characters I write, I imagine a favorite actor in the “role” of the character, which gives me a sense of mannerisms and speech cadence. For example, for John Wentworth, James’ father, I imagined one of my all-time favorite actors, Sir Patrick Stewart, as John, which gave me a very clear vision of how John would sound as he spoke, what he looked like, and how he acted. I didn’t have a particular actress in mind for either Sarah or Elizabeth. They were completely figments of my imagination, which can work as well since I can allow my imagination to run wild. While we’re on the subject, I didn’t have a specific actor in mind for James. Every other character in Her Dear & Loving Husband had a well-known actor in the “roles.” Call it my Loving Husband dream team. But the three leads—James, Sarah, and Elizabeth—were all from my own imaginings.

Elizabeth is more of a mystery in Her Dear & Loving Husband. We see her in snippets throughout the novel, and we have some sense of her personality, and we see how close she and James are so that we undertand why James was so devastated by her loss during the witch hunts. But we don’t learn a lot about her. She’s there in the background, a shadow that haunts both James and Sarah, but by the end she’s relegated to her role as a memory. My inspiration for writing Down Salem Way came from the fact that I felt like there was more to explore about James and Elizabeth’s experiences in Salem in 1692. I wanted to know Elizabeth better. I wanted to see more of James and Elizabeth together, happy, content in their lives together, and I wanted to examine how it all fell apart, through no fault of their own.

Character inspiration can come from anywhere. It can come from books, movies, TV shows, music, people you know, favorite actors, or your imagination. My imagination was my main tool for creating both Elizabeth and Sarah. What I’ve learned from this experience is that you can go home again—at least when you’re writing fiction. I wanted to explore Elizabeth a little more, and now I’m able to do that through writing Down Salem Way.

You can see the first sneak peek of Down Salem Way here. It’s written diary-style from James’ point of view. I’m enjoying writing as James. It’s time he had his chance to share his side of what happened in 1692.

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