Category Archives: Nonfiction

When a Book Changes Your Life

By Meredith Allard

How often does a book change  your life? I’m not talking about books you love so much you read them again and again. I’m not even talking about books that prompt you to think differently. I’m talking about books that cause you to do something, to take action. Just because I’ve loved a book doesn’t mean I make any changes in my day-to-day life after reading it. When I’m reading the book I’m engrossed in it, but then I close the covers and go back to my life, doing the same thing at the same time most days of the week, most weeks of the year.

About a year ago I read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho when it was one of the books available for a literature class I was teaching. The books in the textbook room were brand new, as in no one else had used them. The pages were crisp, the covers unmarked, but that didn’t deter me. When I read the book I fell in love with the simple yet profound message of finding the power of dreams and staying true to your destiny. The Alchemist is a parable about how what you’re looking for is already within you (think Glinda the Good Witch telling Dorothy she’s always had the power within her—only without the sparkly red slippers). It’s the story of Santiago, the young Andalusian shepherd who has always wanted to travel and ends up on a journey of self-discovery:

“My heart is afraid that it will have to suffer,” the boy (Santiago) told the Alchemist one night as they looked up at the moonless sky.

“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams.”

Of all the characters in The Alchemist, the one I most related to (as I would guess most people do) is the crystal merchant. Santiago is stranded after his money is stolen, and he goes to work for the crystal merchant, who treats Santiago with kindness. Though the merchant is afraid of change, he takes Santiago’s advice and makes changes to his crystal shop. Because of Santiago’s ideas, the crystal shop thrives. The crystal merchant has dreams of travel like Santiago, but he’s full of excuses. He reminds me of that complaining relative everyone has—I can’t do this because… I can’t do that since… You think you’re not feeling well? Let me tell you about not feeling well… Like many of us, the merchant hides his heart’s desire behind worries. He can’t go to Mecca because… It’s not a good idea since… The crystal merchant fears that if he does finally go to Mecca he’ll have nothing else to look forward to.

I wasn’t dreaming of Mecca, but I had been wanting to visit London for more than a decade. As a student of English literature, a trip to England seemed somehow necessary. But, like the crystal merchant, I made excuses. England, especially London, is too expensive. It’s too far. I don’t like flying. England is an entirely different country! How would I know what to do or where to go in another country? I didn’t have a passport. Don’t they use different money there? Oh, did I mention how expensive England, especially London, is? But after reading about Santiago’s journey of self-discovery—how he achieved his dreams despite the obstacles—I realized how flimsy a lot of the crystal merchant’s excuses sounded. And if the crystal merchant’s excuses were flimsy, and I made the same excuses, then I’m not any better than the crystal merchant.

I began examining my excuses about not visiting England one by one to see what, if any, validity they had. Here’s what I found:

1. England, especially London, is definitely expensive, but the truth is I had the money. I’ve been fortunate enough to have sold a fair number of books and I had money set aside. When I looked into airfare, hotel, and the cost of meals and attractions, I had to cross too expensive off my list because it wasn’t true—I could afford it.

2. London is far from Las Vegas, Nevada, 5235 miles to be exact, which is ten hours airplane time. True, I don’t like to fly, but I had already discovered that just because I don’t like to fly doesn’t mean I can’t. Whenever I do travel by plane I get an aisle seat and pretend I’m on a bus or a train. And it’s not like I have to know how to work the controls in the cockpit. I just have to sit there. I didn’t want to be one of those people who are so afraid of flying they never go anywhere. I had been that way for a while, but there are places I want to go so I had to get over my fears. Not wanting to fly ten hours was no longer an excuse.

3. It’s true that England is a different country thanks to that little squabble called the American Revolution circa 1776. I often think of that quote from George Bernard Shaw: “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” But they do speak English in England, English an American can understand, even, and from reading so much British literature and watching so much British television I like to think I speak conversational British English. So yes, England is a different country, but since I wouldn’t have trouble communicating with anyone that wasn’t an excuse—at least not a good one.

4. No passport? Seriously? Two filled-out forms, two hours in the post office, one bad photograph, and $150 later the lack of a passport was no longer an issue. They do use different money in England, but a trip to the ATM gave me a few hundred dollars, which the nice man at my bank exchanged for ten British pounds (that’s an exaggeration, but not by much).

Regent Street in London

I realized I didn’t want to look back and know I missed my chance to go to London. I booked my flight and hotel room, I bought a few tourist guides, signed up on Rick Steves’ travel website, and a few months later I was there, in London, seeing places I had dreamed of for years. I wasn’t disappointed when I got there the way the crystal merchant expected he would be disappointed. I loved being in London. It’s a truly international city and an easy place to visit for tourists who haven’t been there before. I even went to Paris. Despite my French surname, I don’t speak a word of French (American English and conversational British English are as far as I go), but I managed to get around and back to the airport on time and in one piece. In other words, my trip wasn’t a colossal failure as the crystal merchant thought his journey would be. It was a joy, and I’m already making plans to visit again next summer.

I wouldn’t have visited London if I hadn’t read The Alchemist. Goes to show how inspiration to follow your dreams can come from anywhere—even an unused stack of books in the textbook room.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review. Visit her online at www.meredithallard.com.

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Janet Fitch and Avoiding Cliches “Like the Plague”

By Meredith Allard

I love that old saying by Dorothy Parker, “I hate writing. I love having written.” Has it become a cliché? Probably. But I love it anyway because as a writer myself I know it’s all too true.

My “I hate writing” moments happen when I’m drudging through a first draft. You can see my posts with tips for writing a first draft here. After I finish my first draft, that’s when I’m on the journey toward my “love having written” stage. That’s when I sit down at the computer no longer wanting to pop my eyes out with spoons or pluck my hairs one by one. Finally, in the second draft stage, I’m able to find the poetry in the prose. When I find the flow, that’s when the fun of writing begins for me. How do I find the flow? It’s a challenge, one that started 15 years ago.

In 1999, Oprah Winfrey interviewed Janet Fitch, author ofWhite Oleander, for the Oprah Book Club. Fitch talked about how a writing instructor told her that a “cliché is anything you’ve ever heard before—so never use a description anyone has heard.” As I remember it (it was 1999), Fitch spoke about a time she challenged herself to describe a tree with her own unique phrases. I was already well into fiction writing at that time, and her words struck me as truth. I learned that writers should reach to find their own descriptions, and they should never be lazy and allow others to do the work for them.

In a 2006 interview for O Magazine, Fitch explained that when she began writing fiction she had to work on word choices and the music of language. That was what I wanted too. I wanted to work on word choices and the music of language. I wanted to avoid clichés “like the plague” and create images “as sweet as pie.”

It’s a lesson I still hold close to my heart. When I’m molding sentences, I stretch, hands out, fingers pointing there, there where that inchoate image waits, sometimes patiently, sometimes not, for me to probe my vocabulary for the exactly right string of words to illuminate what I see the way I see it. If I’m describing a storm, a small town, a person, an emotion, I need to do it my own way. In their 2006 interview, Oprah mentions to Fitch that such a stretch “seems as if it would be quite difficult.” Fitch responds, “It is. But it means that everything you give the reader is absolutely fresh. We read so that we can be moved by a new way of looking at things.”

I learned a lot from Fitch in 1999, again in 2006, and I continue to learn from her whenever I read one of her novels. Reaching for phrases I’ve never heard before becomes harder with everything I write, but that’s the part of writing I thrive on—creating poetry in prose. And when I do finally find the right words, that is when I love having written.

If you’d like to lose yourself in the poetry of Janet Fitch’s prose, check out her novels or the short pieces on her blog. The 2006 interview for O Magazine can be found here.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

 

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Seven Tips to Create Memorable Historical Fiction Characters

By Michael Murphy

In historical fiction, creating realistic and memorable characters can present challenges not faced in other genres. Characters, like real people, are shaped by many factors, culture, heritage, religion, physical characteristics, birth order and life events. Memorable characters rebel at some of these influences. A classic example is Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Her rebellion from southern culture, Irish heritage and what is expected from a proper southern belle makes her one of the most memorable historical fiction characters ever.

I often turn to other writers for help and guidance. Therefore, with two historical mysteries that will be released by Random House Alibi later this year, I’ve come up with seven tips to create realistic and memorable characters.

  1. Character study. Get to know your characters before you begin your manuscript. Drafting a detailed character study is a valuable tool in any genre. Write one for each primary and key secondary character, addressing the character’s culture, family, physical characteristics and what has led to that character rebelling against them. Another important area to address is the change your character will go through during the story.
  2. Conflict. Enhance your character through physical, personal and professional obstacles to overcome. Let the era you’re writing about provide the conflict.
  3. Nobody’s perfect. Authors often hesitate to give their favorite characters flaws, or despicable characters redeeming traits. No one is one hundred percent good or bad. If your protagonist is ninety percent heroic, it’s the ten percent that will give him or her depth and leave lasting impressions with your readers.
  4. Historical figures. Historical fiction provides opportunities lacking in other genres. Consider ways for your characters to interact with readily identifiable historical figures. Their interaction with those larger than life characters will enhance your story and their characterization. In my historical mystery set in 1933 New York, my characters encounter Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, Cole Porter, Babe Ruth, Joseph Kennedy and more.
  5. Attention to detail. Historical fiction writers are excellent at creating vivid settings with attention to detail. Make sure your characters benefit from the same detailed research that make your scenes so clear to the reader. And avoid clichés. How do your characters feel and react to the choking smoke of a locomotive, or the salty spray of an ocean voyage? What do your characters wear and more importantly, why do they wear them?
  6. Behavioral traits. As you would in writing any genre, give your characters memorable, if not quirky behavior and traits.  Show them displaying mannerisms that make them unique. One might chew tobacco, or comb their hair at inopportune times. Give your characters identifiable quirks and mannerisms, just like real people.
  7. Humor. Historical fiction devoid of humor can result in a novel appearing dull and listless. Life is full of humor, embrace it and utilize your sense of humor in your characters. If you’re not experienced at writing humor remember, like drama, humor is driven by conflict. Drama or humor often comes from a character’s reaction to a scene’s conflict. A suspected haunted house, for example can be chilling or hysterical depending on your character’s reaction.

We write and read historical fiction for the opportunity to join vivid characters in past cultures and historical events. I hope these seven tips help make your journey easier and your characters more memorable.

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Michael Murphy is a full time writer in Arizona. He’s been writing novels for the past fifteen years. His most recent novel, Goodbye Emily, journeyed back to Woodstock. In August, Random House Alibi will release the historical mystery, The Yankee Club, Murphy’s ninth published novel. Coming next January is the second in the series, All That Glitters.

Murphy’s website www.mjmurphy.com

Goodbye Emily www.goodbyeemily.com

Murphy’s Mystery and History blog: http://blog.mjmurphy.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/mmurfy68

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mmurfy86

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What I Did and What I Didn’t–Blogging

I’ve taken a lot of advice from others who have come before me. That’s what I did. But there’s other advice I’ve left aside—for various reasons. That’s what I didn’t.

What I Did

I started a blog.

There are many posts out there about the Blogging Commandments, and somehow the Commandments change depending on whose blog you’re reading. Thou shalt not blog off topic (whatever your topic happens to be). Thou shalt blog regularly (some say more regularly, 2-3 times per week, some say less, about once a week). Thou shalt not have more than 500 words per post. Thou shalt have pretty pictures in thou’s posts or the masses shalt not read thou’s words. Thou shalt not…

Whatever.

I don’t adhere to the rules of blogging, as you plain well know since you’re reading this. I don’t adhere to the rules of blogging because I don’t want to. So there.

It’s fair to say that most of my posts fall under the theme of writing, but I write about whatever I feel like writing about. Sometimes it’s news about my books, blog tours, interviews, etc. Sometimes it’s writing ideas. Sometimes, when I’m wearing my editor’s hat, it’s advice from an editor’s point of view. Sometimes it’s my odd observations about whatever is tickling my fancy at that moment. Sometimes it’s book reviews. Most readers find me through the Loving Husband Trilogy. Some find me through Victory Garden or Woman of Stones. Some find me through The Copperfield Review. However you find me, I’m glad you’re here. I love that readers can (and do) post messages and use the Contact Me form to drop me a line. I’m always amazed that there are people in the world who have read my books and will take the time to get in touch with me. The blog isn’t merely a way for me to share information or ideas. It’s a two-way lane of communication, and I love that aspect of it.

I like to post once a week, but you know how it goes. When I’m in writing mode (as I am now) I don’t have time for much else. That’s just the way it is for me. When I’m writing fiction I’m so engrossed in my imaginary world that it’s easy to forget there’s this thing called the real world so I may not post as regularly as I would otherwise.

Mainly, I’ve learned that I have to do what works for me. There are many blogging articles out there that say if bloggers don’t post in a regular fashion they’ll lose their readers. Oh no! Don’t go! The result was I felt like “It’s been two weeks since I’ve posted!” and I’d stress about it. But after a while I realized I’d rather post once a month with something I’m happy with instead of scrambling to slap up whatever comes to mind as fast as I can because it’s Monday and I’m supposed to post on Mondays. I’ve read many blogging articles that say you shouldn’t nitpick over your blog writing, but words are what I do so I can’t be careless with them. It takes me a few running leaps to get the words lined up exactly right. According to WordPress, I’m currently working on the ninth revision of this post, and I’ll work at it for another nine revisions if I have to. If the Powers That Be of Blogging think I’ll lose readers because it takes me longer than others to write a post, I can live with that.

I don’t like it when I’ve signed up for e-mail updates and my inbox is bombarded with posts. That’s my personal preference, obviously, but I’ve unsubscribed to more newsletters than I’ve kept because it was too many e-mails to weed through. I figure if I post only once a week or so, then I won’t outstay my welcome. So far it’s working.

There are many great sites out there with blogging tips. Copyblogger and Problogger are the two I turn to most often. But I’ve learned that you have to read any and all advice as simply that—advice—especially since so many articles contradict one another. It’s not that one “authority” has better information than another. Those who write about blogging are sharing their personal experiences, and everyone’s personal experience is different. As a result, we get articles that say, for example, that the sweet spot for blog posts is 300 words, and then the next day there’s another article that says blog posts should be 750 words but no more than 1000 words. If your post contains 1001 words, such posts say, people will run from your site screaming as they evaporate into cyberspace, never to be seen or heard from again.

I have deliberately not put any pretty pictures in this post. Are you still reading? I didn’t think so.

Apparently, people need pretty pictures to read words online. In theory, I don’t have a problem with that. I like pretty pictures too (hence my current addiction to Pinterest), but random pictures don’t add to my interest. I read an article because I want the information or insight offered. If I have a picture that makes sense, book covers for an article about the book, for example, then, sure, the picture goes in. But I’m not adding a photograph of a bear cub hitching a ride in an article about blogging. I don’t care how cute the bear cub is. I won’t do it. I might repin it on Pinterest on my Bear Cubs Hitching Rides Board, but I won’t post it here.

If I have any lesson here, it’s for authors to play around with blogging to find their personal sweet spots. If once a week works for you, grand. If you have the time to post more often, go ahead. If you only post sporadically because you feel you only need to post when you have news or something important to share, that’s fine. If you try blogging one way and you’re not happy with the results, try something else. It’s all good. There are examples of authors who have been successful with no blog at all. Experiment. That’s my magic word for the day.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

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19th Century Life: Bodily Functions

By Ruth Hull Chatlien

Two years ago when I was visiting Baltimore to research my novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, based on the true story of Betsy Bonaparte, my husband and I visited the Homewood House Museum. Homewood was the mansion of Charles Carroll, Jr., son of Charles Carroll of Carrollton (the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence). Today, Homewood is beautifully restored, decorated, and furnished to authentically represent how it originally looked. It’s located on the campus of Johns Hopkins University, and I strongly recommend visiting it if you’re ever in Baltimore.

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte almost certainly attended parties at Homewood in its heyday. Not only were the Pattersons and the Carrolls both leading Maryland families, they were also intimately connected. In 1806, Betsy’s older brother Robert married Charles Carroll, Jr.’s niece, Marianne. So Homewood was a must-see for me. The day we visited, I told the woman who was going to be our guide that I was there to do research for a historical novel, but I did not name my subject. I was scrupulous about keeping that information private until I finished my manuscript.

As we toured the mansion, our docent led us into a room they have furnished as Mrs. Carroll’s dressing room. Almost directly in front of where I was standing was what looked to be a small, low mahogany table with slender neoclassical legs. Set within an arch-shaped opening in the “table” was a recessed silver basin. The docent announced in a somewhat amused voice that this piece of furniture was a bidet that had once belonged to Betsy Bonaparte. The docent didn’t elaborate—and because I was keeping my particular interest in Betsy a secret—I didn’t press her for information. I must admit that I had a very difficult time keeping a straight face.

You see, up until that moment, I hadn’t really thought about Betsy in terms of her bodily functions, so running unexpectedly across her bidet was disconcerting. It turned out, however, to be enormously helpful to me as a novelist, because it allowed me to think of her in an earthier way. She became more of a flesh-and-blood woman to me than a shadowy historical figure who existed only in the yellowed pages of old letters and biographies.

After we returned home, I did some Internet research and found an article originally published in the Baltimore Sun(Rath, Molly, “You Never Know What Will Turn Up Among the Collectibles at the Maryland Historical Society,” November 20, 1994). According to that article, the silver basin in the bidet was inscribed with the name of Napoleon’s own silversmith. I can only assume that Jerome Bonaparte gave Betsy that particular item after they married.

The article also mentioned that Betsy carried a porcelain bourdaloue with her when she traveled. A bourdaloue is basically a fancy, French porta potty shaped something like a gravy boat—a handy thing to have for those long 19th-century carriage rides. I find it difficult to imagine Betsy hiking up her skirts and taking a tinkle in a public coach, but maybe she used it in the shrubbery during stops along the way. And she and Jerome did travel extensively in their own privately owned coach and six.

Both the bidet and the bourdaloue were left to the Maryland Historical Society (MdHS) by Betsy’s grandson. At first, the curators at MdHS didn’t realize what the bourdaloue was. Thinking it was an extra large sauce dish, they put it on display as part of a table setting—until a porcelain expert enlightened them about its true function.

Since Betsy was known for her sharp wit, I feel certain that she would have had something saucy to say about that.

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Ruth Hull Chatlien has been a writer and editor of educational materials for twenty-five years. Her speciality is U.S. and world history. She is the author of Modern American Indian Leaders and has published several short stories and poems in literary magazines. The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, coming out in December 2013, will be her first published novel.

She lives in northeastern Illinois with her husband, Michael, and a very pampered dog named Smokey. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found gardening, knitting, drawing, painting, or watching football.

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Using Information Lag in Historical Fiction

By Ruth Hull Chatlien

My forthcoming historical novel, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, is based on the true story of Elizabeth “Betsy” Patterson Bonaparte, the American beauty who married Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jerome, while he was visiting the United States in 1803. As I was planning the plot, one of the things I had to deal with was something I call information lag. In our current age of instantaneous communication, it can be hard to remember how long it once took for news to travel.

In the early 1800s, it took a day to travel the 45 miles from Betsy’s hometown of Baltimore to Washington. It could take four days to go from Baltimore to New York. The times for transatlantic travel were obviously much worse. An exceptionally fast ship could make the crossing in three weeks, but six weeks to two months was more typical. Not only were the travel times long, but mail was not secure. Travelers sometime amused themselves during long journeys by opening and reading packets of letters that were in transit.

Sometimes I had documentary evidence in the form of letters and news articles that told just exactly how long it took for specific pieces of news from Europe to reach the United States and vice versa. At other times, I had to dig around to find out what typical travel times might have been. Another complicating factor was that stormy weather made sailing the Atlantic in winter very difficult. Mail from overseas tended to slow down in the rough-sailing months.

As a result, information lag had a huge impact on the love story in my novel. Once Jerome and Betsy realized they wanted to marry, they had to decide whether to seek the blessing of the Bonapartes before they proceeded. At the time, Napoleon had not yet become emperor, but he was the First Consul, the chief executive of France, and he believed he had the right to direct his sibling’s lives. Betsy’s father wanted the marriage delayed while they waited for Jerome’s aide to travel to France to find out Napoleon’s reaction—or at least, gain the blessing of Jerome’s mother. Jerome vehemently opposed the idea.

Think about it. You’re a lusty young man, impulsive by nature, who is accustomed to using your position as Napoleon’s brother to get what you want. On a brief visit to the United States, you meet the most beautiful, witty girl you’ve ever encountered. You know your brother would expect you to ask him before you decide to marry, but frankly, you’re tired of being treated like a child—and it’s obvious you have many rivals for the young woman’s hand. Would you want to wait four months for a ship to cross the Atlantic and back again to find out what your family thinks of your choice?

No, I didn’t think so.

Although I’m sure the information lag was exasperating to Betsy and Jerome, as a writer, I was grateful for it because it added considerable tension to the plot. The delay in learning the Bonaparte reaction to the marriage, the months it took to learn the astonishing news that Napoleon had become emperor, and the lag in communication between the lovers once Jerome returned to naval service—all these played a significant role in my characters’ ability to make good decisions and chart the course of their lives. If Betsy and Jerome had better means of communication, their lives might have turned out quite differently than they did. But then again, if that had been the case, I probably wouldn’t have written my novel.

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Ruth Hull Chatlien has been a writer and editor of educational materials for twenty-five years. Her speciality is U.S. and world history. She is the author of Modern American Indian Leaders and has published several short stories and poems in literary magazines. The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, coming out in December 2013, will be her first published novel.

She lives in northeastern Illinois with her husband, Michael, and a very pampered dog named Smokey. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found gardening, knitting, drawing, painting, or watching football.

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Books Are Dead? Not While Powell’s Lives.

By Meredith Allard

Today I saw an empty store where a Borders used to be, and I sniffled when I realized the building is now a Ross Dress-For-Less. I have nothing against Ross Dress-For-Less—I found some cute luggage there once—but as I drove past I found myself thinking that, while the world is a sadder place with fewer bookstores, we would survive all right without another half-off department store. I know there are hobbiest bargain shoppers out there who want, no, need more discount stores, but I’d still rather see a bookstore.

During my recent trip to Portland, Oregon, I went, as all book lovers must, to pay homage at Powell’s City of Books, an independent bookstore in Downtown Portland. I’ve known about Powell’s for years. Friends who visited Portland told me about Powell’s. I had read about the store on the Internet. I started following @Powells on Twitter. I hadn’t even been there when I started following them, but for someone who loves history as much as I do, I couldn’t resist following such a relic—an independent bookstore. When I knew I was going to Portland, Powell’s was the first stop on my to-do list.

I don’t know what I expected to see when I walked into Powell’s. Having read all about the death of books, I thought maybe I would find a dilapidated cellar with a few books hanging by their threadbare bindings from a cobweb-covered shelf, the scent of mold and mortality heavy in the air. Or maybe I would find a zombie apocalypse, where hundreds of undead, grunting and groaning as they dragged their corpses across the rotting wooden floor, would wave disintegrating hardcovers and paperbacks in the air and yell, “See! Look what you have done!”

Instead, inside Powell’s I saw people—living, breathing people, and a lot of them. They were ordinary-looking folks. They didn’t have two heads or ten eyes. They were boys and girls, men and women, tall and short, doing regular bookstore stuff, pulling books from the shelves, flipping through them, reading the back covers and the insides, putting back the ones that didn’t strike them and holding onto the ones they liked. Some people asked questions of the knowledgeable staff. Even children were reading in the well-stocked, fun-looking young person’s section. I saw a line of people waiting to spend their money, and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw they were buying books with that money. And as for the people behind the register…they had the audacity to smile at me while I made my purchase. In other words, the place was thriving. So, I wondered, how has Powell’s held on while other bookstores have faded away?

First, to call it a city of books is an understatement. The place is huge. I read it takes up an entire city block, and having been there I believe it. It has several floors, and each floor is divided into color-coded nooks with every possible category you might want. I was thrilled when I found the ceiling-high shelves of vegetarian cookbooks. I’m so tired of cookbooks with titles like 101 Ways to Cook Rutabagas. I have all the respect in the world for rutabagas, and I’m certain without ever having eaten one that rutabagas are tasty and nutritious. I only mean that even we vegetarians like variety in our diets, and at Powell’s I can find a cookbook to help me. In less-stocked bookstores all I’ll find, if I’m lucky, is something like Vegetables 365 Days a Year and that rutabaga book.

At Powell’s,  you feel comfortable enough to browse around and get lost in the stacks. The staff is there if you need them, but otherwise you can look around for hours, which is really all any book lover wants—to find something you didn’t know you were looking for. I found my treasure in the Classics section in the Ds—an entire ceiling-high shelf of Dickens. Every kind of Dickens. Big Dickens and small Dickens. Long Dickens and short Dickens. Popular editions of Dickens and lesser-known versions. Plain text Dickens and illustrated Dickens. Biographies of Dickens. Critical studies of Dickens. The only thing missing, I thought, was Dickens. Not that he’d look all that propped onto a shelf at 201. But still.

Another thing Powell’s does right is buy and sell used books, which gives their customers more variety, more choices. They sell new books at Powell’s too, and I’m all for recently published books, but often there’s something wonderful to be discovered when browsing used books. I didn’t even realize the copy of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel I bought at Powell’s was used until I got home and noticed the label. And Powell’s has a thriving website. While the store itself is a fun place to spend time, the Powell’s people haven’t ignored the online world and they understand that sometimes you just want to browse and buy books over the computer while relaxing at home in your jammies. Or maybe that’s me.

I’m glad I took the time to visit Powell’s. I’m glad I got to see actual people reading actual books. I had been believing what I was reading—about how people don’t read any more, how people only skim nowadays, how reading seems boring compared to everything else we could be doing, how there are more people writing books than there are people who read them, which is a worrying thought for someone like me who lives to read and write. But never fear. They’re still out there, readers. I saw them myself, pouring over books, scanning the shelves, and looking for their next great read. I feel better already.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

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Eugene

By Francine Marie Tolf

I found out what happened to Eugene Vukelich one bright December day in 1969 when my sister Gwen told Mom and me about it over lunch. Gwen was in eighth grade and I in sixth. It was the week before Christmas vacation started. Nothing of substance ever got done at St. Patrick’s Grammar School during this pre-vacation week. Classes held parties and rehearsed for the Christmas play (in which I was an angel and got to wear a white gown and halo). Instead of grammar lessons, we had spelling bees.

I wish I could remember that lunch hour more clearly. Its heft sank into my consciousness and never left, but particulars are vague. I am sure only of what I learned: Gwen’s class had presented Eugene, a slight boy with a shy smile, with a festively wrapped present. Inside were giant containers of mouthwash and deodorant. Accompanying these gifts was a card signed by nearly every one of his classmates as well as the lay teacher, Mr. Gleason.

Eugene burst into tears after opening the present. He fled the classroom. This joke was only the most recent act of cruelty towards him – more elaborate, but entirely in keeping with the way kids tortured Eugene Vukelich daily. Basketball stars blocked him in the hall and dared him to pass. Girls in the popular clique performed a song about him on the playground. They sang about his “BO,” how he picked his nose and was scared of being beat up by their boyfriends.

Gwen decided during that lunch hour that when she returned to school, she would address her class about what happened. Our mother had nothing to do with this. As I knelt under the Christmas tree trying to guess what was inside various presents, my sister must have discussed her milestone decision with Mom, adult to adult. The braveness of it still stuns me. Gwen was herself the target of teasing. My sister was the tallest, smartest girl in her class – and she stammered.

I loved Gwen but I was grateful I wasn’t tall like her, didn’t wear horn-rimmed glasses. I wasn’t popular but I was pretty and knew how to fit in. Now I look at a photograph of my sister when she was in eighth grade and think, Wow. She is all legs, the face behind those glasses is lovely and fresh, and her thick blond hair hangs half-way down her back. Strangers would linger over that snapshot in a way they would never linger over a picture of me at thirteen.

Those long legs of hers must have trembled when she walked to the front of her classroom later that day and met a sea of indifferent or defiant faces. Gwen’s class was brutal. It had chewed up and spit out three teachers in the past two years. It had cowed its current one into behaving deplorably in the hopes of gaining acceptance.

My sister was one of the few students who had not signed Eugene’s Christmas card. Yet when she spoke to her classmates, she did something rhetorically brilliant: she included herself in the blame. We should all be ashamed of ourselves, she began, looking straight into the eyes of cheerleaders and athletes. (How do I know what my sister said when I wasn’t there? How do I know that her class actually listened? Gossip, the grapevine, perhaps asking Gwen myself. I don’t remember how I know, but I know.)

I can imagine Mr. Gleason’s crimson-splotched face as he watched a girl half his age school him in courage. Decades after the incident, I cannot bring myself to feel sorry for this man – dismissed by our principal, Sister Leo Margaret, that afternoon – yet I understand why in a moment of weakness he did what he did. He must have entered his classroom every day sick over what awaited him: boys with shoulders broader than his purposefully ignoring his pleas for quiet, girls applying eye shadow as they imitated his warnings.

And then one morning unexpected camaraderie as the ringleaders of his class approached him. “Hey, Mr. Gleason, you’re a cool guy. We’re planning a little joke on Eugene Vukelich, just a Christmas thing, and we want you in on it.”

Mr. Gleason might first have objected after hearing the details. “I don’t know, guys,” (guys, he heard himself saying, just like a popular teacher would). “I’m not sure this is such a good idea.”

“Mr. Gleason, everyone’s signed the card except you. C’mon, it’s just a joke.”

“Pleeeaaase, Mr. Gleason.” This from the prettiest of the girls who tormented Eugene on the playground with her clique’s song. “Pleeeaase?”

So he signed the card and broke a boy’s heart. It’s entirely possible that Ronald Gleason taught grammar school to avoid being drafted, for in 1969 America wasn’t yet sending teachers of children to Viet Nam. His immunity ended that day.

If Gwen and I were closer, I would ask her what she remembered about those moments she stood in front of her class. Was she terrified, did students talk to her about it afterwards, did kids in the popular clique treat her differently? But I think my older sister – now happily married, by the way, with three spectacular kids and a lifestyle several tax brackets above mine – would dismiss the incident and appear puzzled at my immense admiration for what she did. Gwen once claimed she had no interest in recalling her years at St. Patrick’s. They were dead to her, she had moved on.

How many victims of bullying can do this? How difficult it must be to lift yourself from a childhood of hurt and humiliation and walk into the future with an open heart. The irony is that bullies might be even less likely to experience such a future. Children capable of inflicting cruelty on a daily basis can’t imagine how it feels to be the other. And without this leap of faith, how can compassion, or wonder, or joy, take root in their hearts? When I consider this, I almost feel sorry for the students who tortured Eugene. If you have no imagination by the age of thirteen or fourteen, it’s difficult to develop one. You’re trapped under the dome of your own limited perspective with no window, not even a chink, revealing blue air beyond.

I hope Eugene breathed that blue air. His parents removed him from St. Patrick’s that day, but more than forty years later, my memory of this boy I barely knew survives. He was small, with freckles and a shy smile. His red hair was always neatly combed. His brown eyes were meant to be merry.

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Francine Marie Tolf has published two poetry collections, Rain, Lilies, Luck (North Star Press of St. Cloud) and Prodigal (Pinyon Publishing), as well as a memoir and a number of poetry chapbooks including Eighteen Poems to God and a Poem to Satan by Redbird Chapbooks of Minnesota. She has received grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board; Barbara Deming/Money for Women; and the Elizabeth George Foundation. Francine recently won First Place in the 2013 Outrider Press/TallGrass Poetry Contest. She lives and works in Minneapolis.

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Ribbons: Commitment Ceremony (a.k.a Gay Wedding)

By Dennis Milam Bensie

Breaking the Code was a play about British mathematician Alan Turing, who was a key player in the breaking of the German Enigma code at Bletchley Park during World War II. The play thematically links Turing’s cryptographic activities with his attempts to grapple with his homosexuality.

I was doing hair and wigs for a production of the play at Alice B. Theater in Seattle when my friends Matt and Scot first met. Matt was the Assistant Stage Manager and Scot was playing a young street hustler. It was delightful to watch their relationship blossom over the next several months.

Gay activism got even more personal for me when the two of them announced that they were going to make their relationship official and have a commitment ceremony. This would be my first gay wedding, and I was thrilled.

Both sets of parents supported the union and planned to come to town for the event. I was jealous. I doubted that my parents would ever come to a commitment ceremony of mine. They had never even come to Seattle for a visit.

I realized as I watched the guys plan their wedding in detail that there were no established traditions for gay weddings. They could pick and choose what they wanted to do and make the event special for them. Their friends and guests were sure to be open minded enough to love anything they did.

The ceremony was to take place at Aha! Theater, a Seattle fringe theater the couple was involved with. Their invitations paid some homage to tradition, but with their own twist. A friend and aspiring baker agreed to make their wedding cake—a three tier pink triangle cake with two grooms on top. Care was given to make sure the grooms looked like Matt and Scot. They planned a festive reception in the same space with a rented karaoke machine and gay door prizes for the guests.

I was honored to be asked to help the boys select new outfits for ceremony. We had serious discussions about what would work best. Since the wedding wasn’t being held in a church and they wanted to be comfortable, they decided to go with dressy, casual looks. We spent a Saturday shopping downtown and came up with ensembles that looked sharp, but didn’t match or say “wedding.”

I still felt that the boys needed some element of a bride (or at least a bride doll) at the event: a wink at tradition. In 1977, Mattel created a Super Size Barbie that was eighteen inches tall rather than the tradition eleven and one half. In 1992, they introduced My Size Barbie, which stood three feet tall and was sold with a stretchy outfit that, ideally, the doll’s owner would be able to wear and share. Mattel hadn’t planned on a twenty-eight-year-old gay man buying the doll.

I bought a My Size Barbie for myself when she came out on the market. I decided Matt and Scot?s wedding was the perfect opportunity to indulge my never-ending interest in wedding dresses. I made the My Size Barbie a beautiful wedding dress fit for a queen. The guys loved the doll and the dress and decided the enormous bride doll would look perfect presiding over their gift table at the reception. She was much bigger than my cousin Libby?s bride doll, who had presiding over the gift table of her wedding years before. I was touched beyond belief. I was, after all, making a white wedding dress for a gay wedding. Ladyman Dennis would have been proud.

As the big day grew closer, the grooms had plenty of jitters. Jitters turned to deep sadness when a fellow thespian friend named Vinny died of AIDS only a few days before the ceremony. It was a shock that such a sweet and vibrant man, only twenty-five years old, would vanish on the eve of such an uplifting celebration of life and love.

Emotions ran high as Matt and Scot’s wedding day finally dawned. The black box theater space was decorated with gay pride paraphernalia. They had decided to do a variation of the traditional European ritual called Handfasting, symbolizing “tying the knot.” Guests were all given a mysterious piece of ribbon about two feet long (in one of the six colors of a gay pride flag) as they entered and signed the guest book. They were all warned not to lose their piece of ribbon. A round platform about two feet tall had been erected in the middle of the space. People walked around the platform without realizing its purpose. All would be revealed later during the event.

There was a lot of hugging and tears: an odd mix of happiness and sadness. The day had become both a gay wedding and a memorial for our friend Vinny. The timing seemed unreal and unfair. However, as people filed into the theater, I saw that the timing couldn’t be more perfect. Vinny was with us; he was a reminder of how important gay people are. We would never forget Vinny.

I couldn’t help thinking about the play where Matt and Scot met. In Breaking the Code, Alan Turing’s homosexuality resulted in a criminal prosecution. He accepted chemical castration as an alternative to prison. Turing allegedly committed suicide before his 42nd birthday. It seemed appropriate that Matt and Scot met working on a play inspired by his story. In many ways, their ceremony was breaking the code, too.

The handfasting ceremony began. Matt and Scot and their parents all got up on the platform in the middle of the room. Close to seventy-five of their friends and loved ones surrounded the platform in a complete circle. Each guest was told to tie his or her ribbon to another guest’s ribbons. The mothers of the grooms tied one end of their ribbons to the guests’ chain. Matt?s mom then tied her ribbon to Scot?s ribbon, while Scot?s mom tied hers to Matt?s. The men each held one end of the trail of ribbon not yet joined.

There was no one officiating the ceremony. My friend Ruth was in charge of sound. On cue, she put a cassette tape in a portable cassette player. A beautiful song, “Stay for the Ride,” underscored the ceremony. The song was by a local lesbian singer, Lisa Koch, from her album Colorblind Blues. Lisa’s song was the perfect accent to the occasion: hauntingly romantic and sincere. Matt spoke first of the difficult week that had begun with the death of Vinny. He began sobbing.

“Today is dedicated to Vinny,” Matt said as the two men tearfully exchanged vows they had written themselves. When the vows were completed, the two grooms tied their end of the ribbon to each other, uniting the room in gay pride colors. The gesture was special and I knew I would never forget the special day as long as I lived.

Finally I understood weddings. I had witnessed what I wanted to see my whole life—two men in love coming together in pride. The dress wasn’t important. Walking down the aisle wasn’t important. Matt and Scot indulged a tradition and no one could convince me they were wrong.

I wished there was a bouquet to toss, one that I could have caught. I loved Matt and Scot so much, but it was hard to contain my jealousy. Two distinct images of gay life: the happy couple and the boy dead of AIDS. I was very scared.

Was I going to die of AIDS that I had caught at a bathhouse while looking for true love?

Matt and Scot kept the yards and yards of tied ribbon from their ceremony in Seattle.

I gave them the My Size Barbie wedding dress to keep as a memento.

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Dennis Milam Bensie grew up in Robinson, Illinois where his interest in the arts began in high school participating in various community theatre productions. Bensie’s first book, Shorn: Toys to Men, was nominated for the Stonewall Book Award, sponsored by the American Library Association. It was also a pick in the international gay magazine The Advocate as “One of the Best Overlooked Books of 2011.” The author’s short stories have been published by Bay LaurelEveryday Fiction, and This Zine Will Change Your Life, and he has also been a feature contributor for The Good Men Project. One Gay American is his second book with Coffeetown Press and it was chosen as a finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards and the Indie Excellence Book Awards. He was a presenter at the 2013 Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans. Dennis lives in Seattle with his three dogs. You can find out more about Dennis Milam Bensie, his memoirs and World of Ink Author/Book Tour at http://tinyurl.com/lhtvxyt. To learn more about the World of Ink Tours visit http://worldofinknetwork.com.

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How to Read an Old Book

By Susan Brown

First you must get the book. Find a book made before the birth of the most elderly person you ever met was born. Find one written before there were computers or astronauts or Hitlers, before there were airplanes, cars, central heating, or electric lights. Find a book that crossed the Atlantic in a ship with sails, and was hauled from the wharves to the booksellers by horse. Find a book that hasn’t been opened in a hundred years. Choose one written under a kerosene lamp with a fountain pen, or by candlelight with feathers. Study the books you inherited, the books curated by eight generations of your family.

Buy a spinster’s estate and find books in her attic. Go downstairs to the basement of the University’s library. Sign in at Special Collections. Place all your belongings in the locker. Fill out the request form with the call letters of an old old book, then sit at the table under watchful eyes and cameras, and wait. Spend your weekends searching garage sales, thrift stores, antique shops. Wreck your budget buying books at auction.

When you have become the custodian of an old book hold it in your hands. Feel the covers. Are they crumbling and cracking? The book might fall apart as you read, however carefully you turn the pages. Is the cover embossed and gilt? Is it linen or leather? Is it battered and faded? Has it ever been repaired? Notice the scent. Does this book smell of wood smoke, tobacco, perfume, old hide and glue, or mildew? Where has it been? Do the pages have decorative edges? Are they deckled? If they are smooth and marbled, or gilt, the book was likely meant to lie flat on its shelf.

Open the cover of an old book. You are an historian, an archaeologist. Be alert for inscriptions and artifacts. Look for penciled prices, library stamps, bookplates, signatures, gift inscriptions, childish scribbles, doodles, handwritten notes and comments. Keep the loose pages, but resist the urge to erase and fix. Leave the names and the children’s drawings. Use no tape or glue, but search for inclusions and remove damaging items. Things that leave shadows on paper hasten its crumbling to dust. You might find bits of tape from failed repairs, old newspaper clippings, pressed flowers, feathers, butterfly wings, calling cards, colorful ribbons and embroidery thread, letters, prescriptions, drawings, handwritten recipes, or grains of cinnamon and sugar. Throw the destructive bits, the shadow-makers, away. Keep the rest.

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Susan Brown is currently living near Seattle and working on her MFA at the Creative Writing and Poetics program at the University of Washington. In 1999, she attended the Writer’s Workshop at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Her previous publications include visual art that recently appeared in Breakwater Review, Mayo Review, Inscape 2010, Chaffey Review, and 322 Review. In 2007, San Diego University’s Pacific Review published her short fiction, “The Clues,” under the pen name Alice Indigo.

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