H is for…History

In broad terms, I write what’s known as speculative fiction. Basically, this is an umbrella term encompassing fantasy, science fiction, horror, or anything with elements of the supernatural. While a few of my short fiction pieces (especially the ones about adultery) are straight up “regular” fiction, most everything I write has some aspect of “but that couldn’t really happen.”

Everything’s fair game in my imagination.

Anyway, even though Some Flew North happens entirely in a made up land (but oh so real in my head!), the novel I’m currently revising takes place in a made up town that looks an awful lot like several Minnesota towns. And it draws heavily on state history, especially the history of Blacks in Minnesota.

While I was on sabbatical during the 2013-2014 academic year, I delved deep into this history, reading a number of secondary and primary sources, including monographs and newspapers on microfilm. (Monographs? Microfilm? Oops- see how I just slipped into library talk.)

I was blessed with a flexible schedule and access to the collections at the Minnesota History Center. (I am also blessed with several friends who lived/worked nearby, and who were happy to take lunch breaks at various local restaurants.) I’ve continued the work this year, primarily through exploring federal and state census data (wait, did I just lose you – it’s cooler than it sounds. Kinda).

(Read more about one of my past research trips & a cool coincidence.)

The materials I’ve gathered have informed, inspired and helped shape the novel I’m writing. The historical research I’ve done has grounded the novel by providing natural constraints to wild plot twists. Finally, my characters are also doing their own research, so undertaking the same work helped me write about it from their perspectives.

But, as one of my archivist friends said, “Good luck making federal census data interesting to a teen audience.” We’ll see what my beta readers have to say…

A Parent & Writer's Ode to Mondays

photo (6)Every day is the weekend, if you’re on sabbatical.  (I suppose every day is also Monday, but that’s not a problem for me this year.)  My actual weekends are spent chasing after little ones, who have even more energy now that it is too cold to play outside for long.  It took several years before I realized how creatively draining it is to parent, at least for this introvert.  Hence, when Mondays roll around, I am one happy camper.

I’m a bit of a puzzle to the other parents at day care; our versions of “dressing up” vary.  Most of them are in fabrics that are dry clean only and (the women at least) are wearing makeup.  I’m usually wearing my jammies underneath my jacket. (There’s a reason the blog is Cemeteries and Pajamas, after all.)  I’m also a bit of a puzzle to some of my colleagues and other people I encounter in daily life, who tell me how nice it must be to spend so much time with my kids.  I’ve finally gotten over my shame of saying, “Well, they’re in day care.”

Why the shame? I love my kids and would do just about anything for them.  Yet doing just about anything for them doesn’t translate into having them home with me full time.  After sitting with this question for a few months, I realized that deep down I wondered if my reluctance to take them out of day care sprung from some kind of cap on my love for them.  In other words, the narrative I told myself went something like this:

  • If I really loved my kids, I wouldn’t hesitate to keep them home with me full time.

I’m aware of the inherent sexism in parenting; no one’s ever asked my husband (who is also on sabbatical) if he loves having the kids home full time, while I get this question all the time.   I also can’t count the number of times I’ve had people give me a sympathetic smile when I talk about my careers (both library and writing) and say it’s too bad I have to work and can’t just stay home with the kids.

I’m not wading into the work vs. stay at home debates.  I know women who love staying home with their children.  I know others who stay home because of economic reasons just as I know some who work because of economic reasons.  I know men who stay home with the wee ones or wish they could or who would hate it.  My point: we should speak the truth of our experiences and not denigrate others for speaking the truth about theirs.

One of my goals in life, as I edge toward middle adulthood, is to be more assertive in my actions and speech.  (Note: assertive, not aggressive.)  So this is my truth:  I love my kids.  Unconditionally.  And I love my work.  Those loves aren’t mutually exclusive.  I also love the time and space sabbatical gives me to pursue my writing full time and to recharge each weekday before those little feet start pitter pattering through the house.  (Read: leaping off the furniture and chasing the cats.)

Barrier to the page: Today’s barrier is very personal – a feeling of shame that I am not with my kids full time

Solution: Examine the narratives shaping those feelings, listen, kick back with a laptop and a warm fire to spill my thoughts onto the interwebz

The Project contest entry

Here’s my third and final entry for the Build Creative Writing Ideas 1,000 Prompts, 1,000 Dollars writing contest.  I venture into historical fiction with this entry.

The Project

Julie Gilbert

“Two gallons of lemon flavoring,” Lyle said, reading the front of the carton.  “These fancy scientists can’t do any work without their lemon flavoring, huh?”

Annie suppressed a giggle as her mother snapped at them from the storeroom.

“We stock what they send us.  No questions.”

“But still, you gotta admit the food was better before they showed up,” Lyle said, nodding at the door of the commissary.  From the street outside came the constant pulse and shudder of hasty construction, dormitories thrown up before the next round of recruits stumbled off the bus at the edge of the mesa.

“The company was better, too,” Annie murmured as the doors burst open and a gaggle of freshly-scrubbed soldiers entered, followed by a group of women in pressed uniforms.  Annie would never admit it, but she secretly admired the women with their crisp hair and polished lips.  She daydreamed sometimes about enlisting in the Women’s Army Corps but her mother would never allow it, even if she were old enough.

“Well, Little Miss Annie, did you just say something negative about our boys in uniform?” Lyle asked, a trifle too loud.

“Hush,” Annie said, flushing.  She muttered a curt hello to the new customers and hurried across the concrete floor to stand behind the register.

“Watch this, Bob!” one of the soldiers called, holding up three heads of wilted lettuce.  He proceeded to juggle them, casting furtive looks at the women, but they ignored him, even after the lettuce slipped from his fingers and landed with a dull squelch.

“Imagine, they think this place is a home for pregnant WACs,” one of the women exclaimed.  Her friends laughed, running newly-manicured fingers over rows of unmarked cans.

“What’s worse?  That or the truth?” Lyle muttered.

“You don’t know the truth,” Annie said.

“C’mon.  Something’s going on,” Lyle persisted, tugging at her elbow.

“You’ve heard the rumors just like I have.  Something big is happening.  I’m going to find out what it is.”

“Lyle, don’t,” Annie protested.

“Mr. Arsenault, back again,” a reedy voice interrupted.  Lyle dropped Annie’s arm and stepped out from behind the counter.  “Surely the kitchen must be missing you,” the man said, his eyes narrow behind his glasses.

“I’m working the dinner shift tonight.  Sir.”

“He was just leaving, Mr. Hilligoss,” Annie said, hoping to placate the assistant manager.

Mr. Hilligoss crossed his arms over his thin chest and pursed his lips.  “Miss Lopez, I’ve told you time and time again that you are not to fraternize when you are on duty.  Have I made myself clear?”

Annie was spared from answering by a groan emanating from the meat counter.

“Out of steak already?”

“And there’s only one chicken left!”

“Ladies, please,” Mr. Hilligoss called, hurrying to placate the group of housewives standing at the meat counter.  “We’re expecting a shipment of meat tomorrow.  Remember, we all have to do our part for the war effort.”

“Does doing my part include paying thirty cents for a dozen oranges?”

“Serves him right,” Lyle said as Mr. Hilligoss’ voice was drowned out by complaints.

“You should go.  I’m in enough trouble as it is,” Annie said, glancing at the door of the storeroom, where her mother stood scowling at them.

Annie tapped the fingers of her right hand over her heart.

“Why do you do that?” Lyle asked, his shoulder rubbing against hers.

“Do what?” she asked, stepping away.

“That thing you just did, tapping your fingers against your chest.  You do that when you’re upset.”

“Oh.  It’s something my dad used to do.  I started doing it after he died, I guess.”

The sound of bickering housewives and rowdy soldiers faded away as the same uncomfortable silence rose between them like it did whenever Annie mentioned her father.

“Why did he do it, then?” Lyle asked, his voice rusty.

“He thought it would keep the ghosts away.”

“Did it work?”

Annie’s fingers hovered over the cash register buttons.  Lyle wasn’t going to leave until she gave him an answer.  So she told him the truth.


Word count: 677

For this piece, I was inspired by the fifth prompt on the Memory page.  Once again, read more about the Build Creative Writing Ideas contest (and get 1,000 free prompts!) here.