Tag Archives: Nonfiction

Down the Rabbit Hole of Research

A few months into crafting the first few letters of my epistolary novel, “Imagining Violet”, loosely based on my grandmother’s life, I began to read what I could about violins and violinists. I was going to write about a young girl studying music at the Leipzig Conservatory in the 1890s, and I had never held a violin in my hands.

I read about the various schools of violin instruction over time and I watched some violin teaching videos, hoping to glean something of the basics of the instrument. But these explorations were superficial and did not generate the experience or knowledge needed to write with confidence and credibility.

As a 70th birthday challenge and to further my research, I decided to learn to play the violin. To begin, I rented a violin and tried a few tutorials on YouTube. That lasted about five minutes. I quickly realized that I needed to take real lessons. As I live on an island, population 10,000, my choices of teachers were limited. My neighbour Carolyn teaches kids, and she wouldn’t have me. I asked her how long it would take me to make a decent sound on the violin. Five years, she told me. I was seventy, I said, I didn’t have that long. A friend recommended Suzanne and my lessons began.

I knew I would be doing this for a while and decided to buy a beginner’s violin. I paid $100 for an outfit (violin, bow, case) from a local fellow, one he’d bought but never used. It seemed okay to me, but I knew nothing.

Six months into my lessons, Suzanne insisted that I upgrade to a better instrument. This I did, thanks to my neighbour Carolyn, the violin teacher who wouldn’t have me. Her luthier friend Ross comes regularly to our west coast island from his home in Calgary. Ross sold me a Romanian violin, almost new, for $700. That was as much as I could afford or was willing to invest.

After eighteen months of lessons, Suzanne tossed me out of the nest saying she’d taken me as far as she could. I come from a musical family, with musical genes on both sides. I sing in a community choir and I’ve played the piano since I was four years old. It’s fair to say that I’m musically literate. So some aspects of playing the violin came quickly. I’d always watched in awe as violinists found the right notes without any frets. I couldn’t imagine how they did it. But finding the right notes wasn’t as difficult as I’d expected and I seemed to be progressing well. I was stiff and tense and clenched my jaw when I practised, but I’d get over that.

Suzanne’s prompting coincided with the arrival on the island of the amazing violinist, Joan Blackman. Joan wanted to build a roster of students and to my astonishment, was willing to take on a geriatric beginner. Under her instruction, I moved quickly through Suzuki Book Two and Three. Joan concentrated on my bowing and constantly adjusted my bow hold. In the spring of 2016, she declared that I was ready to join Orchestra 101, an amateur group of string players led by ‘cellist Paula Kiffner, herself a superb player and highly regarded teacher. Throughout this period of about two years, I became more and more confident writing about my Violet’s progress at the Leipzig Conservatory. Now that I played with a group, I had a better understanding of the challenges that ensemble playing had presented to Violet back in the 1890s.

I could find the notes all right, more or less, but bowing was another matter. From the very beginning of my studies, Suzanne stressed that I needed more weight on the bow, I needed to relax, I needed to let my arm become heavy. I didn’t get it. Joan kept advising me to “play in the strings”. I didn’t get it. But it was fuel for my story: I opted to let Violet have the same problems.

Then something quite wonderful happened. I found out that one of my numerous first cousins had inherited our grandmother Violet’s violin. This was stunning news indeed. The cousin had kept it forever, thinking he’d return to his string studies once he retired. Retirement had come, but the violin languished in its cupboard. With a little nudging, he agreed to pass on the instrument. And it came with our grandfather’s gorgeous Brazilian rosewood case.

My daughter undertook to ship Violet’s violin from Toronto to my home on the west coast. It arrived via FedEx in a box that was over five feet high, full of packing peanuts which protected an inner box, which was itself enveloped in bubble wrap. Inside the second box was the violin case, also encased in bubble wrap. My generous daughter wouldn’t admit to the cost of this, but she did say she’d spent an hour and a half at the FedEx office while they packed it up.

Luthier Ross was on the island a month later and agreed to refurbish Violet’s violin. He told me it had been factory built in Germany around 1870 and was a good quality advanced student instrument. He thought he’d need it for about three months, but I was not surprised when it took six. It was glorious to have Violet’s actual violin and to play it. It has a lovely tone and it deepened my sense of connection with its original owner.

For my rather extravagant Christmas present, my dear husband arranged for a marvellous local woodworker to refurbish the beautiful old case. The veneer on the ends of the case was splitting off. Iltydd just happened to have some Brazilian rosewood veneer in his workshop and completely restored the case, which he then advised me to use only on very special occasions.

By early 2017, Joan had become too busy with teaching commitments off-island and touring with her string ensemble to give me lessons. All agreed that I should continue studying and so with fear and trembling, I went back to Carolyn and asked if she’d take me on, now. To my delight, she said “yes”. I didn’t remind her that she’d turned me down four years earlier.

Carolyn took me back to basics. She’s a born teacher and has all manner of tricks and techniques. It’s two years later, and I’m once again working in Suzuki Book Two. And I still play with Orchestra 101, rechristened the Salt String Ensemble to honour our development. The Salt Strings played at the book launch for “Imagining Violet” in November 2018, and we played another concert in April of this year.

Rehearsing with Salt Strings is the highlight of my week. There are eleven of us now, with a wide range of ages, skills, talents, musical experience, professions. Our double bass is a local GP. One of the first violinists is a former judge. Another is a carpenter. To no one’s surprise, there are at least three cyber-techies amongst us plus one graphic designer and one organic farmer, a woman who successfully grows tropical fruit on the west coast of Canada.

You never know where research will take you. “Imagining Violet” is finished and published but I’m a long way from being finished with Violet’s violin.


Born and educated in Toronto, Mary Elizabeth Hughes has called BC’s Salt Spring Island home since 2002. The author of two volumes of nonfiction, Frank Welsman, Canadian Conductor and The Life and Times of the Floathouse “Zastrozzi,” she published more than 90 feature articles in Canadian trade magazines. Additional publications in 2018 and 2019 include stories in The Muskokan, Cottage Life, More of Our Canada, Bunbury Magazine, The Peacock Journal, and Page&Spine. Her first novel, Imagining Violet, historical fiction and epistolary in format, was published in November of 2018.

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Productivity for Writers and Other People

By Meredith Allard

It’s interesting to me to see how conversations change over time. Not so long ago everyone was praising multi-tasking as the best thing ever. Hey, I can write the world’s greatest novel while reading blogs while checking every new email the moment it pops into my inbox while keeping track of every ping on Facebook and Twitter while walking the dog while doing my taxes while binge watching Netflix while juggling watermelons while yodeling to the tune of “O Solo Mio.” At the end of the day I’d wonder why I hadn’t written more. Had I really lost an entire day watching cat videos on YouTube? Then I realized that I didn’t want to spend more time working. I wanted to get more done.

Around this time, I started seeing articles about how multi-tasking may not be all it was cracked up to be. We weren’t putting all our attention and talent into any one task; as a result, we weren’t working to the best of our abilities because our attention was too scattered. Enter the discussion about productivity.

I think the reason there are so many articles about productivity is because so many of us are struggling with the same issue—how do we work more efficiently so that we’re getting more and better work done in less time? Here are a few tricks I’ve learned lately that have helped me stay focused while I’m working. I wrote this post from the point of view of a writer hoping to steal back some of her precious time to get more writing done, but I hope anyone who is having some concerns about their productivity will find these tips useful.

  1. I changed my homepage for the Internet.

Since I’ve had the Internet in the mid 1990s I’ve used AOL as my homepage. My email address is through AOL, so by using AOL as my homepage I could check my email as soon as I logged online. But you know how it goes…there are the news links, the entertainment links, the books links, along with any other links that might catch my eye. Once AOL and The Huffington Post joined hands, I was done for. I’d spend an hour reading blog posts and getting no work done in the process. Was it fun? For sure, though there were definitely times when I was wondering why I was reading about celebrities I didn’t even care about. I had just wasted an hour I could have spent getting my work done.

About three months ago I changed my Internet homepage to my own website. That might sound a little self-serving, but it helps me in two ways. First, I can do a quick glance at my site to see if there are comments I need to respond to, which I can often do in under five minutes. Second, there are no news feeds to distract me so I’m able to get right to whatever it is I need on the Internet. Yes, I have to click on one or two more links to get to my email, but it’s worth it to me to skip over the distractions.

  1. I check my email twice a day.

I check my email in the morning to see if there’s anything imperative that needs seeing to, and then I check my email at the end of my work day to see if there’s something that came in since the morning. That’s it.

  1. I removed the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone and iPad and stopped all social media notifications.

Now the only way I can access Facebook and Twitter is to log in on my computer. This extra step helps to scratch the itch that used to lead me to check my social media pages every five minutes to see if someone posted a new cute cat photo. I check Facebook and Twitter twice a day, quick scans to see what others are up to and if there’s anything I need to respond to, which, again, I can usually do in less than five minutes.

I also removed all social media notifications. I no longer get instant pings whenever I get a new email or message on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. When I was getting the notifications everything else stopped until I discovered who sent the message and what it said. One day, in a burst of wisdom, I realized that most of the pings were about things of extreme unimportance. I decided that I wanted to focus my attention on things that are important so I turned off the notifications, and I don’t even miss them.

  1. I schedule my Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn posts.

I use Hootsuite to schedule my posts on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It takes about an hour to schedule a week’s worth of posts, and then I’m done and don’t have to search every day for what to post on social media.

  1. I started using Google calendar to schedule my daily tasks.

For years I used paper and pencil notebooks and planners, but in my new wish to downsize my belongings (I love Marie Kondo’s books about decluttering) I’ve become totally electronic. Google calendar is heaven sent. It’s free, and all you need is a gmail account, which is also free. You can share your calendar with others, or you can keep it private. So now I know each day what I need to accomplish.

For example, today I had several tasks to tend to: complete my word count for the first draft of Down Salem Way, write this blog post, and find five sites to advertise Her Dear & Loving Husband, which is once again free. When those tasks are finished, I’m done with my work for the day, which is always a good feeling. Knowing what I have to do helps me stay focused. When I wasn’t keeping track of my daily tasks I just floated about looking at stupid stuff on the Internet because I was never sure what to do next so I’d go back to those cute cat videos on YouTube.

On a side note, I also find that it helps to know exactly what I’m looking for when I go onto the Internet. Right now, I’m back to researching the Salem Witch Trials for Down Salem Way, and I’m also looking for places to advertise When It Rained at Hembry Castle and Her Dear & Loving Husband. I have those tasks on my Google calendar too so I know what I’m searching for. It stops me from going back to (you guessed it–the cute cat videos).

  1. I turned off the TV.

The TV is not completely gone because I do love my Netflix and Amazon Prime streaming. For years, even if I wasn’t watching a show I had the TV on acting as background noise. Now the TV is off, as in off off, with a blank screen and everything. I started listening to music because music always helps to get my creative juice flowing. I’ve also started listening to podcasts because I realized I’d rather listen to some intelligent conversation than some TV show I don’t care about, and I can listen while I work. Rather than distracting me, the podcasts tap into my inquisitiveness about the world and they help me think, which is always a good thing.

My podcast tastes are pretty eclectic, like everything else about me. I love podcasts about writing and the publishing industry like Joanna Penn’s The Creative Penn. As I’m learning more about productivity, I’m also learning more about how to be centered and healthy in this crazy world of ours so I listen to Shawn Stevenson’s The Model Health Show and Pedram Shojai’s The Urban Monk. The School of Greatness with Lewis Howes is also pretty cool, and Shambhala features talks by famous meditation teachers in their podcast Meditation in the City. I recently discovered the History Chicks’ podcast, a great listen for a history buff like me.

  1. I had to learn to stop checking everything everywhere.

We’ve all heard of the social ill the Fear of Missing Out (affectionately—or not depending on your point of view—known as FOMO). I was right there with everyone else, checking my social media every five minutes, worrying that what was going on over there was more important than what was going on over here. Also, because I’m a writer I was constantly checking my stats on my website and my book sales. Why did I sell more books on Wednesday than Monday? How come this book’s sales have slipped? Why did this post get more views than that post? I’d check my Amazon sales page five or six times a day, as if things were going to be that different between 3 and 5 pm. And then when things were the same I felt disappointed that some magical sales boost hadn’t happened.

Not only is this kind of constant worry exhausting, it isn’t productive. When I was worried about book sales or website stats I should have been writing. There was some time there when I was a writer who wasn’t writing—or at least I wasn’t writing as much as I could have been. I was so concerned about all these other aspects, some of which were beyond my control, and you know what? They don’t matter. Sales don’t matter. Website hits don’t matter. The only thing that matters is how I feel about what I’m doing. I was allowing other people’s perceptions of me (or even worse, my own perception of other people’s perceptions of me) to affect how I felt about myself, and that, my friends, is never a good thing.

As a result, I put myself on my “no checking stats” rule that I live by to this day. I no longer check my Amazon, BN, or Kobo sales pages. I no longer check to see how many page views my latest blog post has. My one exception is that when I’m running a promotion I may check my book sales pages to see if the promotion is worth its weight in beans, but otherwise my Amazon page is a no-go. Because you know what? My books are going to sell as many copies that day as they’re going to sell whether I’m compulsively checking or not. Why make myself crazy and waste time in the process? Yes, it does takes some self-restraint to go from checking 10 times a day to zero times a day, but it is possible. If you’re not able to go cold turkey like I did, maybe try checking just once a day and see how that goes.

  1. I started paying more attention to my health.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when I wasn’t eating well. I was eating and drinking way too much sugar, and my exercise habits had all but disappeared. As I’m working toward becoming a more productive writer, I’m also learning more about health and wellness (mostly from the afore mentioned Model Health Show podcast from Shawn Stevenson). I’ll have more to say about this in a later post, but for now I’ll say that whoever you are, no matter what your profession, you have to get up and move. You have to put healthy food into your body. You have to drink more water. The better you feel, the more productive you’re able to be because you’re healthier. It’s hard to be productive when you feel lousy. Do what you can to help yourself feel better.

I am definitely getting more work done in less time. I’m no longer wasting time—or, more accurately, I’m wasting far less time. I still spend more time on Pinterest than I need to, but hey, no one’s perfect. For the first time, I’m writing two books at a time, which is something I’ve never been able to do before. By whittling away at time wasters and finding ways to streamline my work time, I’ve been able to get more done. From now on, instead of multi-tasking, I’ll be focusing on productivity.


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Researching Historical Fiction: The Victorian Era

Victorian England

By Meredith Allard

I have an odd habit of choosing to write historical fiction set in eras I know little to 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 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.

Writing When It Rained at Hembry Castle was different. I was already familiar with the era because of my love for Dickens. This time, it was more about reminding myself what I already knew (it had been 20 years since grad school by then) and figuring out how to use that knowledge in this story I had been kicking around for two decades. I realized early in the process that now I wanted to include aspects of my favorite TV show—Downton Abbey. The aspiring young writer Edward Ellis was still the focal point of the story, but now I wanted to include upstairs/downstairs elements as well.

To begin my research, I started with the author I know best—Dickens. Of course I’ve read all his novels, many more than once, so I started with the one I knew had the most in common with the story I had in mind for Hembry—Our 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’ Londonand Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian Englandby Judith Flanders. I had read both of 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

After my refresher course on Victorian England, 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 during the Edwardian era. 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 class I took years ago, 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 prior to 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 a couple 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 for a historical novel since I was already familiar with the time. 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.


Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review. Her newest historical novel is When It Rained at Hembry Castle, a Downton Abbey inspired story set in Victorian England.

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What I Learned About Writing From Coloring Books

By Meredith Allard

As I’ve said before (in this post), I’ve joined the coloring book craze. I loved coloring when I was a kid, and as it happens I still love to color. I consider myself a wannabe crafter, and I used to dabble in painting with acrylics, and while coloring isn’t actually crafting or creating an original work of art, it still allows me to play with colors.

I’ve found that, at least for me, there is a meditation-like quality to coloring because the coloring itself is all I’m thinking about while I’m engaged in the activity. I’m not worried about schoolwork I have to do, crazy professors, and all the writing I have to get through. All I’m thinking about is the page I’m coloring, what colored pencils, crayons, or markers I want to use, and which colors I think will look best. The more I have to do, the more I appreciate the simplicity of sitting down with some crayons and filling in the pictures.

As coloring became more popular, suddenly there were countless posts and articles about how to color. It’s similar to what happened with writing and indie publishing—suddenly there were all these experts shouting about the right way to do things. Something that should be relaxing and fun becomes stressful as we try to keep up. There’s nothing like an expert to take the fun out of something.

I had the realization (while coloring, of course) that my attitude toward coloring was the same as my attitude toward writing. I had to decide for myself how I wanted to color, just like I had to decide for myself how I wanted to write. Here are a few things I learned from coloring books and how they relate to writing:

  1. Use the colors you want to use.

The experts in coloring will tell you to choose your palette first—use a color wheel to help you determine which colors to use. They’ll tell you which colors go with each other, and if you use that other color combination, look out! The Crayola Police will hunt you down. Hey, they say, that’s how painters do it, so that’s how coloring people should do it too!

And then I realized that I could use any color combination I want, just as I can write my stories however I want. I don’t like choosing my colors ahead of time. I like to choose my colors one by one as I’m coloring in the picture. Sometimes I have an overall idea of the color scheme I want to use, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’m happy with how the pictures turn out, sometimes I’m not. When I’m writing, I have an overall idea of how I want the story to turn out, but I’ve also learned to get out of my own way and allow the story to find its own path. If I prefer choosing my colors as I go as opposed to choosing them first then I can do that. If I prefer letting my stories find their own way, I can do that too.

  1. Stop comparing yourself to others.

There are some amazing coloring websites out there where the coloring people post their finished pages. Some of those colored pages are indeed museum ready. They’re absolutely beautiful with shading and light and the way the colors blend together. My pictures don’t look like that (as you’ll see from the examples in this post). I love playing with colors, and some color combinations I try I like, some I don’t like as much, but so what? I wouldn’t know what I liked unless I allowed myself the freedom to experiment.

I have no desire to become a professional artist. Making myself crazy trying to make my pictures look like some of these artists’ pictures doesn’t work for me. I don’t have a lot of time to color because I’m so busy with other tasks, so when I do have time to color I don’t want to spend my time being stressed because my picture doesn’t look good enough compared to what other people can do. Where’s the fun in that?

Writers often have severe cases of compare-itis. We’re always looking to see which writers are selling more books, getting better reviews, or winning more awards than we are. We have to remind ourselves that we’re not in competition with other writers. This isn’t a race. Our careers as writers are just as unique as we are as people. No two writing careers are alike. We need to remember to focus on ourselves and helping our own careers move forward. Like runners, if we keep looking back to see who might overtake us we’ll lose steam and slow down.

  1. Outline if you want to (and it’s okay to color outside the lines).

When I was reading posts of coloring tips, a number of the experts said not to outline your drawing. Apparently, with outlining you’re not going to have a realistic looking product and that’s not how the professionals do it. Oh well. I’ve always liked to outline my coloring pictures. Even when I was a kid I’d outline the shapes with whatever crayon I was using. A lot of times, I’ll outline with a darker color and fill in the shape with a lighter color (as evidenced in the picture to the left here), and I like the way that looks. Is it wrong? Not to me. It’s my coloring page and I’m going to do it the way I want to. It’s the same with coloring outside the lines. I like it when my coloring pencils or crayons end up outside the line because then when I’m filling in the next color they blend a bit. How maddening, to feel like your coloring page is all wrong if your hand slipped and some color ended up on the other side of the black line.

There are many posts out there for writers about the right way to do things. Write in these genres if you want to make money. Publish this many books a year. Set your books at these prices. Grow your social media presence and build your author platform. But what if you don’t want to limit your writing to certain genres, or what if you have another life outside of your writing like I do and you can only publish one book a year? Does that mean that you won’t have any career as a writer? Not at all. It means that you get to decide what kind of career you’re going to have.

Here are my own tips for coloring (and they apply to writing as well):

  1. Choose what you want to color. You don’t have to start at the beginning of the book. You decide where to start. If you don’t love the picture, colorng it will be a chore. The same goes for writing. Write something you’re excited to get back to. If you’re not excited about it, it’s going to be hard to convince readers your writing is worth their time.
  1. Choose your own colors. You can use a color wheel to examine which colors go together, or you can choose whatever you want to choose because you want to choose it. You can choose them ahead of time, or you can choose them in the moment, whichever feels right to you. For writing, you get to decide how you use language. You have the final say in how you’ll string phrases together. You may not like the way some of it turns out. That’s okay. You tried it, you didn’t like it, so try again until you find something you do like.
  1. Don’t compare your pictures (or your writing) to anyone else. Find your own style.
  1. Coloring (and writing) should be fun. Listen to your favorite music. Turn off your electronic devices and other distractions. Make your coloring (and your writing) time special so you’re looking forward to getting back to it.

You can let the experts tell you what to do and how to do it, or you can find your own way. Whether I’m coloring or writing, I find it a lot more fulfilling to find my own way.


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Vulcan’s Torch

By James Miller Robinson

Vulcan’s monumental iron statue was unveiled at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.  At fifty-five feet tall and weighing 120,000 pounds, it was the largest individual piece in the huge exhibit hall.  It had been built, formed and cast in iron by an ambitious Italian sculptor named Guiseppe Moretti who was hungry for international recognition.  The statue was commissioned by the city of Birmingham to symbolize the city’s homage to the steel industry which formed the basis of its economy for so many years, and to the thousands of Italian workers who had immigrated there around the turn of the century.  Birmingham became the only city in the South watched over by the stern bearded face of  a Roman God.

When you zoom over downtown Birmingham today on the elevated portions of Interstates 65, 20, or 59, you see a different skyline from the one I saw when I rode through there as a child in the 1950’s.  The pointed apex of the original brick building of University Hospital still juts up in the center of downtown’s south side, but now a huddle of annexes with cross-bridge corridors gather around it on all sides for several blocks.  The giant iron statue of Vulcan still reaches up into the sky with his torch from atop a modernized tower at the peak of Red Mountain overlooking the city.

I felt the panic of vertigo when I stepped out onto the wobbly narrow balcony around the 120 ft. tower just below Vulcan’s feet when I visited there with my parents and my brother when I was five or six years old.  There was no elevator then.  We had to climb the iron staircase up a dozen flights amid the echoes of our own footsteps against the stone blocks of the original tower.

In those early days of high powered V-8 engines there was a public campaign to reduce the number of fatal car accidents on the streets and highways in and around Birmingham.  When dark fell over the city, Vulcan’s torch was lit—green, if no one had been killed that day; red, if someone had.  It was my older brother Chippy who informed me of these things.  We checked whenever we passed close enough to see Vulcan and his torch at night.

On the east side of the city the rusty girders, pits, tanks and loading docks of the Sloss Iron Works and its open-hearth furnaces stand quiet and mostly idle like the still heart of what once pounded blood into the city’s economy twenty-four hours a day.  When we passed the open hearths at night on Highway 78 returning to our suburban home in Crestwood, Chippy would tell me they were grilling hundreds of hamburgers there when I asked what they did on those glowing orange and red coals.  Four years older, he liked to pull tricks on me, but in the end he would always tell me the truth.  I was more grateful than disappointed when he told me about Santa Clause the year I turned six.

Crestwood was one of many suburbs that mushroomed up outside the old limits of the city in the fifties.  We went to school and church in Woodlawn four or five miles from our suburb and about halfway to downtown.  There were several boys in our neighborhood.  Just about all our fathers had served in World War II.  We spent hours playing army in the woods that surrounded the neighborhood.  The only girl my age who lived on the street was Carol Tillery.  She and I sometimes played “house” in her back yard, playing the roles of mother and father to a family of dolls.  For this I received a little chiding from the members of my usual platoon, and from Chippy, but it seemed logical to imagine that one day Carol and I would follow the footsteps of our own parents, have sons and daughters of our own, and move into another house a little farther down the street on Crest Hill Road in the only neighborhood we had ever known.

Several of us on Crest Hill Road turned six the same year, so our mothers made arrangements to form a carpool in which they or our fathers would take turns driving us to and from Minnie Holman School in Woodlawn.  These arrangements were discussed as our mothers talked over coffee at our kitchen tables up and down the street while we kids played in the yards or at the edges of the woods.

Once, Steve and Dave Uritz came over to our house.  Their mother visited mine in the kitchen over coffee.  It was probably my idea to build a campfire on the wooded hillside just beyond the old railroad bed that ran along the edge of the woods not quite beyond sight from the kitchen window of our house.  It was late in the fall of the year and the ground was covered with a thick carpet of dry fallen leaves.  Our campfire spread wild into a hungry circle of yellow flames and gray-white smoke.  There had been some good-sized woods fires near our neighborhood and I knew the damage and the terror they could cause.  I noticed that same panicked feeling in my chest that I had felt the time I stepped out onto the rickety balcony a hundred feet above the ground at the Vulcan Tower.  Our mothers came running up the hillside carrying brooms and rakes.  They put out our little forest fire in a few frantic minutes.  Steve and Dave were identical twins.  I couldn’t tell them apart before the wreck even though I saw them every day as we rode to Minnie Holman School in Woodlawn and back in our carpool.  Now they chanted in one indistinguishable voice and pointed at me.  “It was his idea!  It was his idea!”

I must have been the first one to the car that day in the middle of May in 1959.  Carol’s mother was waiting for us in her dark gray 1954 Plymouth parked along a curb  below the school with dozens of other cars waiting for other kids.  I took off my dark-green army-surplus pack and shoved it in the front seat beside Mrs. Tillery, then crawled in and sat beside her.  The twins came next.  They raced each other the last fifty feet to the car, scrambled in the same side door of the back seat and slammed it shut behind them.  I don’t know which one it was who got there first.  Carol was the last one to get to the car that day.  I guess that’s why she ended up on the right side of the front seat.  I heaved my army pack with my books and papers from the seat and set it on my lap to make more room for Carol to my right.  If Carol had gotten to the car before me, she would have sat directly beside her mother in the place where I was sitting, and things might have turned out quite differently.

I don’t remember if it was raining when we first got in the car that day.  Maybe that’s why we all ran to scramble into the car as fast as we could, heaving our book satchels in all directions.  In any case, by the time we got out of the hilly residential streets of Woodlawn with its houses from the 1920’s snuggled side by side and got on Highway 78, thick ominous clouds had darkened the day.  Rain pounded down in droves.  There was a swirling blur of taillights in front of us and on-coming headlights behind us.

It must have been about 2:20 in the afternoon.  I couldn’t see out over my army pack and the high hard dashboard of the Plymouth.  The evening shift at the Sloss Iron Works started at 2:30.

Highway 78, or “The Old Atlanta Highway” as it is now called, had four lanes divided by a narrow grassy median.  I really don’t remember anything of the collision itself except that there was a crash, a jarring, a jerking, spinning, sliding, and trembling; then a second jolt and smash, both impacts accompanied by a thud of hard-struck metal, a shatter of glass and a shower of fragments across the shifting pavement along with the grind and pop of roadside gravel from underneath the floorboards.

Then there was stillness.  All I could hear were the sounds of other cars coming to a stop on both sides of the four-lane highway, car doors slamming shut, trotting footsteps approaching , anonymous shoe soles slapping the wet pavement, and the constant drone of drizzling rain.  One of the twins was the first to speak.  “All out.  We had a wreck.”  His voice was chipper and matter-of-fact.  There was no reply.  I crawled across the seat to my right and out the door.  When I put my feet on the roadside gravel I saw that my right shoe was missing.  When I tried to stand up my right foot collapsed beneath the weight of the rest of my body.  I hopped a few steps on my left foot.  My right foot dangled loose and limp below the knee.  I bent down and lifted it in the palm of my left hand.  It was a dead log wearing a dirty white sock.

“What’s the matter with my leg?”  I asked the anonymous crowd of on-lookers who had huddled around me, all with that speechless look of tragic sickness on their faces.  Even though it had never before approached me, I knew that this was the face of death looking down at me.  One gray-haired man stepped forward, bent down before me and broke the awkward silence.  “It’s broken, Honey.”  He called me “Honey.”

A feeling of panic came over me.  I asked in a fretting voice, “Broken?  Can you die with a broken leg?”

“No Honey,” he answered in a kind voice.  “You can’t die with a broken leg.”  He picked me up in his arms and set me in the back seat of the car where the twins had been riding.  They were both on their feet outside the car, another huddle of curious people surrounding them, offering handkerchiefs to hold to their bleeding faces, reaching with umbrellas above their heads.  The gray-haired man knelt beside me between the open back door of the car and the seat itself, and explained that we would wait there out of the rain until help came.  More cars were stopping all along the sides of the highway.  A continuous line of faces approached, ducked down to glance inside the car, then quickly looked away and walked off shaking heads.

There was a distinct sour smell inside the car.  It was the smell of shattered glass, motor oil, gasoline, and blood.  The windshield was crumpled and shattered like a wad of wax paper.  Shards and slivers of glass covered the seats, the floorboards and the dashboard.  Drops and splatters of blood covered the seat beside me.  The back of Mrs. Tillery’s head was leaning awkwardly to the rear on the back of the driver’s seat.  It rolled from side to side as she moaned, groaned and cried, repeating over and over, “No.  No.  No.  No.”

Sirens approached from the direction of downtown.  There was a lot of moving and maneuvering of huddles of people and parked cars to make way for the arriving ambulances and police cars.  Two young men were driving the ambulance I was to ride in.  “Just let him ride up here with us,” one of the drivers said, as though I were an afterthought to the more-serious cases.  So, I rode on the front seat of the station wagon ambulance between the driver and his assistant.  They wore no uniforms or white jackets, just ordinary sport shirts and slacks.

I could hear the scream and whir of the siren shouting out in urgency all the way to University Hospital on the south side of downtown.  For years afterward I was fascinated with the sound of the sirens of police cars, fire trucks, and especially ambulances.  When I sped down the street on my bicycle for the next several years, it was usually to the siren wail of my own voice.

We had already entered the labyrinth of busy downtown streets when the attendant to my right looked over his left shoulder into the rear of the vehicle and said to the driver, “One of ‘em’s fallin’ off the stretcher back there.”

“It don’t matter,” the driver answered, “They’re both dead.”  He sped on through the afternoon traffic and the rain with a fixed expression on his face.

At the emergency room a platoon of nurses and orderlies hurriedly wheeled a high narrow cot to the ambulance where I was laid on my back and secured with canvas straps.  Inside, as soon as a young doctor looked down at me, I informed him, “I’ve just got a broken leg.”  One of the attendants took a pair of scissors and cut a slit up the right leg of my blue jeans all the way from the ankle to the inseam at the crotch.  I wondered what Mother would say about the jeans.  I was always getting into trouble for grass stains, rips and tears.

They placed a two-foot board on each side of my leg and wrapped it from the ankle to the thigh with gauze.  I heard someone say they would have to operate to set the leg.  They left me lying there behind some curtained partitions and rushed off to someone else.  This was when I noticed the tiny shavings and slivers of glass all over me, in my eyebrows, on my shirt, and in my navel.  My face and hands were covered with scratches and small cuts as though I had run through the blackberry patch at the edge of the woods behind our house.

When something terrible happens, rumor usually travels faster than truth.   When it got to be about 3:00 and we still had not gotten home from school, my mother decided to drive toward the school following our usual route over Highway 78 to see if anything had happened.  Just as she was about to turn onto the highway from Crest Hill Road, she was stopped by Mr. Cornet, our neighbor from two houses up the street, who was driving home in the opposite direction.  When he recognized Mother, he flashed his lights for her to stop and rolled down his window to speak.  His intention must have been to save her the time and trouble of getting stuck in the traffic on the highway.  He called in a commanding voice from the opposite lane, “Don’t go up on the highway, Jane.  There’s been a terrible wreck with four children killed.”

Mother was eight months pregnant with my younger brother Murray and was, of course, frantic when she came running up beside my high bed on wheels in the corridor outside the operating room at University Hospital.  Desperate tears rolled down her cheeks even though she was laughing when she bent down, kissed me, and squeezed my hands.  “Don’t worry, Mother.  You can’t die with a broken leg.”

The next thing I remember, I was lying in a room on the fourth floor children’s ward of the hospital.  A hard white cast covered my right leg from the ankle to the hip.  It was dark outside.  I was sharing the room with Steve Uritz whose face was covered with zippers and bandages.  He had been sewn up with more than fifty stitches.  A glass partition separated our beds.  His brother Dave had gotten only a few scratches to his face and was sent home with their dad.

They must have allowed only one parent in the room at a time.  Daddy came in and talked to me for a while with great kindness and affection.  Then Mother came in.  She asked me which of them I would like to spend the night in the room with me because one parent could stay all night in the hospital room with a child, but only one.  I told her I preferred to have my father stay.  There was a good deal of talking and discussion both within my hearing and outside the room between Mother and Daddy, and with Mrs. Uritz.  As it turned out, neither Mother nor Daddy stayed.  Mrs. Uritz stayed.  Mother’s late stage of pregnancy must have been a factor in the decision.

Before she lay down on the lounge chair beyond the foot of our beds, Mrs. Uritz told me to just wave my hand and she would see it through the glass partition between the beds if I “needed anything during the night.”  I wasn’t to get out of bed for any reason.  She held up a glass bottle about the size and shape of a pint milk bottle to make sure I understood.

I dozed for no more than a few sporadic moments that night.  Sometime during the wee quiet hours I was overcome with need.  I tried to ignore it, but after holding it for an hour or two I couldn’t stand it any longer.  The I-V they had given me during the operation to set my leg must have filled me with liquid.  I reluctantly gave in and waved my hand where I thought Mrs. Uritz would see it through the glass partition from where she lay on a reclining armchair beside her own son.  I would have preferred a nurse.  A nurse would have been a total stranger and a professional at this kind of service.  Mrs. Uritz was a neighbor from the other end of my own street, the mother of my playmates and the driver of our carpool once or twice a week.  It was humiliating to have to ask her for such personal assistance.  I timidly waved a second time.  Nothing.  Then again, and a couple of minutes later.  Nothing, only the dark sterile room with faint lines of light radiating from the linoleum floor under the door to the hallway, and the distant murmur of talk among the late-shift employees far down the halls.  I lay there examining the bland walls and the ceiling.  There was a window with open Venetian blinds, its glass dotted with raindrops, facing Red Mountain to the south.  Vulcan stood there on his tower, his cast iron beard jutting from his chin, his blacksmith’s hammer in his left hand, his torch lit with blood-red light raised high above his head with his outstretched right arm as though signaling from the earth to heaven.  Finally, I knocked on the glass partition with my knuckles.  Mrs. Uritz came to my side and offered me the bottle.  Embarrassed, I acquiesced.  She poked me into the short neck of the bottle with the ice cold fingers of a complete stranger.

The next morning the sun was out when Mother, Daddy, and Chippy came into the room.  I had heard that they give kids a lot of Jell-O, ice cream, and juice in hospitals, so that’s what I requested for breakfast.  I got only a small cup of juice.  I could sense a strange expression on the faces of the members of my family.  It was something similar to the expressions on the faces of the anonymous bystanders who had huddled around me at the wreck.

Mother and Daddy left the room to sign some papers for my release at the nurses’ station down the hall.  Chippy stayed in the room.  He had picked up a morning newspaper in the main lobby.  He held up the front page for me to see.  There was a black and white picture of the Tillery’s Plymouth with portions of two other mangled cars showing on either side.  Above the picture were sprawled the large block letters of the headline:  “Three killed on highway 78.”  Chippy told me the basic facts of the accident as they were presented in the article.  Four steel workers were speeding on their way to work for the evening shift when the driver lost control in the rain and skipped across the median into the oncoming cars in the opposite lanes.  Two of the men had been killed.  Chippy went on, now reading aloud directly from the paper.  “Among the deceased are Frank Quarles, 42, and Ben Lowery, 37, both of Leeds; and Carol Tillery, age seven, of 1416 Crest Hill Road.”  I didn’t believe him at first.  I thought he might be kidding me.  But I also knew that he always told me the truth in the end, terrible as it might be.


James Miller Robinson has had poems and short prose in Texas ReviewRio Grande ReviewSouthern Humanities ReviewGeorge Washington Review, and Kansas Quarterly.  He has two chapbooks of poetry—The Caterpillars at Saint Bernard (Mule on a Ferris Wheel Press, 2014) and Boca del Rio in the Afternoon (Finishing Line Press, 2015).  He works as an interpreter/translator registered with the Alabama Administrative Office of Courts.

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Unanswered: An Essay on Research

By Jane Harrington


Who was buying their hair?

In my ongoing quest to fully imagine the lives of my West Cork ancestors, I keep a running list of questions such as these—accumulated curiousnesses from the reading I do about Ireland’s Great Hunger, that cataclysm that sent my forebears across a sea. Scant genealogies have gotten me only so far in knowing who exactly I come from, so I mine for more general ores of origin, descriptions of a world, in the works of those who have done, well, the work. Today it is John Kelly I am reading, his The Graves are Walking the latest adit I lower myself into, and it is from these pages that I have scratched out this question, the one about the hair. And that right after—in fact, just sentences after—I found the answer to who was buying the clothing of these 1840s Irelanders.

The poorest of the poor, these people “occupied the same place in the western mind that Haiti, the Congo, and Somalia occupy today,” in Kelly’s words, and on the threshold of a winter that would find whole families staggering naked and humiliated on the hills of their homeland, they were selling their clothes for money to buy food. This I had learned from many sources, but none had mentioned who or what had need or desire for these tattered vestiges of dignity. Today, though, I know: English paper mills bought most of the pawned clothing. The mills were turning the cloth to pulp, perhaps pressing that very slurry into pages for the Times or Punch, popular rags (oh, that metaphor is suddenly making too much sense) that, in the same season the Irish peasants were on their knees scraping the ground for grubs or clawing the air for God’s mercy, were printing stories and cartoons about how their fellow citizens across the channel were overstating the extent of the potato blight and exaggerating their distress. What a horror of irony if threads from these same people’s backs were in the very fiber of the pages that called them “illiterate savages” and depicted their children as monkeys. (The reason for this recurring trope was a question on my list for some time; one popular posit is that hair grows on the faces of severely malnourished children.)

I do try to view Ireland’s Great Hunger in a balanced way, not blame the decimation of a people on neglect by government, not refer to it as a “gentlemen’s genocide.” I can’t, though, pass it off as many in positions of power did in the day: as divine providence sending Phytophthora infestans to destroy a food, thus destroy a people. And history tells me I should not make excuses for a British Empire that was repeatedly staining its soul around the globe in the name of dominion and free trade, no more than I should make excuses for the United States at that time, whose lawmakers were still arguing over the economies of buying and selling human beings. The fact is that my own Irish ancestors had, for generations, been oppressed by the Penal Laws, a body of legislation from which a direct line can be drawn to the abject poverty that would, on the eve of Europe’s potato blight, find millions of Irish “barely existing”—words from an 1841 British Parliamentary report. There could have been more charity from the sovereign that claimed Ireland as its own, and more willingness to stop Irish exports, as had been done successfully during 18thcentury blights to feed families and keep food prices low. But instead, the destitute were made to perform hard labor for pennies that could barely buy a loaf of bread at market, and the redcoats were dispatched to guard carts filled with meats and grains so they could be safely rolled past the grass-stained faces of the dead and dying. (There are ghosts of professors past admonishing me right now for watering down that sentence with passive voice.) One million perished on the streets and in fields and cabins in that awful season. It was technically more than a decimation—one out of every eight died, not every ten. Another million would flee as ballast in the coffin ships, and the writers of the Times and Punch would bid them adieu with bitter words and images now woven, perhaps literally, into the fabric of that sad exodus.

Be specific, I say to the college students I teach. When you write in generalizations, when you blame human suffering on a concept—laissez faire, states’ rights, God’s will—you can’t put a face on your body of knowledge. You can’t see the twitch of a child’s nose when he wakes to a strange stench of demise, or hear the low moans gathering over the potato fields like thunder. Irish author John McGahern said, “People do not live in decades or histories. They live in moments, hours, days, and it is easy to fall into the trap of looking back in judgment in the light of our own day rather than the more difficult realization of the natural process of living, which was the same then as it is now.” And so, in an attempt to understand the moments, hours, days that made up the Ireland my ancestors lost, I collect questions. What kind of education did my ancestors have prior to the passage of the Penal Laws? What did the Irish diet consist of before that oppression? Where was the Vatican when the potato crop failed and their Irish flock was suffering so? Why didn’t my ancestors (and those of so many Irish Americans I know) pass down the stories of the Great Hunger? Who was buying their hair?

In his research, John Kelly apparently uncovered a ship manifest that listed twenty-six bales of Irish hair in the hold of the Liverpool-bound Forget-Me-Not. That’s the extent of his reference. Maybe there was a market for wigs made from the hair of the forsaken, or a trade in plaster that may still contain this DNA in walls of houses. I don’t know. I’ll have to keep chipping away, sifting, looking for the answer.


Jane Harrington has written books for young adults (Scholastic, Lerner) and is now crafting literary fiction and creative nonfiction. She holds an MFA from Carlow University, her mentors in the program both Irish and US writers. A principle interest of Jane’s is understanding the lives of the poor during Ireland’s Great Hunger. Her research has included study in Ireland’s Folklore Collection (UCD), extensive reading of academic scholarship and writings from the period (including the poetry of Speranza, who would become Oscar Wilde’s mother), and multiple trips to Ireland’s west, where the landscape itself tells stories. Jane is a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA), where she has worked on a novel that explores migratory connections between Ireland and Appalachia. Her writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has been short-listed for literary awards, notably the Sean O’Faolain International Short Story Prize. Journals and magazines that have published her work include Chautauqua, Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Mom Egg Review, Irish America, and Portland Review.

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The Unhappiest Man I Ever Knew

By William Locke Hauser


“The mass of men,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “lead lives of quiet desperation.”

That would hardly have applied to my great-grandfather, a New York City businessman of the mid-19th century. Born in 1816 to a farm family in southeastern Bavaria, he’d been the only one of seven siblings to leave their native village, at first to study horticulture in the ancient city of Regensburg (Roman Ratisbon) and then to train as a landscape architect in far-away Paris. In 1840 (the same year Thoreau took up residence at Walden Pond), he crossed the ocean to America. Upon becoming a citizen in 1859, he changed his German-Catholic given names of Johann Nepomuk to John Nathaniel; and upon marrying the daughter of English immigrants, converted to Anglicanism, eventually becoming a vestryman of Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall Street.

Prospering as a florist, he built a chain of shops in Manhattan, with a flower farm out on Long Island. When his businessmen’s club supported the southern separatism that appeared to be leading to the Civil War, he led a patriotic minority in founding the Union League Club. His five children, whose graves now encircle his monument in Trinity Churchyard, revered him as a Teutonic patriarch. He died in 1897, shortly after making a nostalgic visit to his home village, where a plaque in the wall of the local Catholic church commemorates the visit and his gift of an endowment to the parish.

His son, my grandfather Louis Augustus, inherited one of the shops but not his sire’s business skills. Thoreau’s maxim applied all too well in his case, for in 1907, when my father, John Nathaniel (namesake of the patriarch), was a freshman at Cornell, Louis went bankrupt. For lack of funds, my father had to drop out after one semester and go to work as a laborer on a paternal uncle’s flower farm. He rebounded from this Dickensian setback by obtaining an appointment to West Point in 1908, where he did well, becoming a cadet officer and winning his letter as an equestrian gymnast.

I myself would regard such experience as a success story, in the American tradition of overcoming adversity. My father never spoke of those early years, however, which leads me to guess that his own parent’s business failure — after so favored a start in life — was a source of unutterable shame. In fact, though my father kept a portrait of the patriarch (full-bearded and gimlet-eyed, like some Old Testament prophet) on his desk, he displayed none of his father. I had to learn from my mother, who was his second wife (and from a sister of his deceased first), the story I am about to unfold.

After graduation, he served with distinction under General Pershing on the Mexican border; and though he did not get to France during World War I, earned such plaudits in training troops for the conflict that he was promoted to major at the boyish age of twenty-nine. He married Dorothy Ohmer, scion of a prominent German-American family in Dayton, Ohio (her father, a neighbor of the Wright brothers, had invented the eponymous taxi-meter), and seemed to be “on his way” professionally and socially.

In 1919, a year after the birth of a son, John Nathaniel Jr., he was ordered overseas, to postwar occupation duty in the Rhineland. Dorothy, who remained in Dayton, fell ill with appendicitis and died before he was able to make his way back by ship. Leaving John Jr. with the Ohmer grandparents while he returned to complete his duty tour in Europe, my father was then able to secure an ROTC assignment at nearby Ohio State University.

According to Dorothy Ohmer’s sister (who, decades later living in New York City, was kind to me while I was a cadet at West Point), my father was desperate to find a mother for his orphaned son. After being gently refused by that sister-in-law, he proposed to my mother, daughter of the judge advocate of the Army’s regional headquarters in Indianapolis. They were married in 1925, when my half-brother John was six years old. My brother Chuck was born in 1929, and I followed in 1932. John — whom I never knew well because of the thirteen-year difference in our ages — entered West Point as a cadet in 1937.

I cannot recall my father’s ever playing with Chuck or me as a child. I was conscious of being sent with other boys’ fathers or with my father’s military subordinates to go camping, to ride horseback, to fish and hunt, to play sports and attend athletic events. I used to think it was because of his being middle-aged when Chuck and I were small; but now I’ve concluded that he just didn’t know how to go about being a father to kids.

Though never actually unkind, he was given to stern monologues on industry and thrift. I was later told by my mother that the bankrupt Louis, who had spent his last years as an indigent living with our family, was a “miserable old man,” consumed with self-pity and intolerant of us little children. It may have been the contrast between Louis’s weakness and the patriarch’s strength that established my father’s pattern of disapproving rather than encouraging, as a technique of motivation.

I witnessed this once memorably, when brother Chuck, then about twelve, came home with a gashed knee. “I was sitting in the locker room at school,” he said, “when this kid walked by swinging his ice skates.” Our father, instead of sympathizing, scolded him. “You shouldn’t have been sitting,” he said. “If you’d been standing, the way a man ought to when putting on his clothes, that wouldn’t have happened.” Perhaps Chuck caught him in an exceptionally bad mood, but I suspect the contrary, from a general memory that our father, whenever either of us might express discouragement, would urge: “Be a man.”

In the spring of 1940, during John’s junior year at West Point, he had an equestrian accident. Emulating our father’s gymnastic success by attempting an acrobatic dismount-remount from a gallop, he fell under his horse and was kicked, fracturing his skull. He spent months in the hospital, and when he came home on summer leave, his jaw was still wired shut, requiring him to take nourishment through a straw. When we attended his graduation in June ‘41, he seemed to have fully recovered; but my mother, shortly before her death almost fifty years later, let slip to me that John was “never again able to think really straight.”

Had it not been a time of impending war, I believe he would have been discharged as psychologically unfit for military duty. Whatever the case, he was commissioned with his West Point class. On his first troop assignment, with an airborne division in North Carolina, he tried his best but (according to a contemporary with whom I later served) “just couldn’t hack it.” He was transferred to basic-training duty in Mississippi. I saw him only once more, when he visited home in 1943, while our father was overseas in the war.

John committed suicide on May 4, 1944, by putting a bullet in his head from an M-2 carbine. It was our father’s fifty-fifth birthday.

I was eleven at the time, and believed what Mother and Chuck told me, that John had died in a training accident. It was not until my own cadet years, visiting Dorothy Ohmer’s sister in New York City, that I learned the truth. According to her, my father had “lovingly bullied” her nephew into accepting commission as an officer. Suddenly, the awful significance of that date dawned on me. I never spoke to my father of this during his lifetime, nor to my mother or Chuck during theirs. Nor did I reveal to Chuck that I had come upon John’s suicide note when sorting through our mother’s effects after her death in 1989. I destroyed the note after a single reading, but its muddled cry of anguish is burned in my memory.

I cannot condemn my father for the role he may have played in this tragedy. It is enough that he seems to have condemned himself. At the time he got the dreadful news, he was head of a support command for the U. S. Fifth Army, halfway up the Italian peninsula. It was later confided to me, by the colleague (and old friend) who succeeded him in command, that he broke down into a state of abject depression. He was flown back to the States for John’s funeral, served briefly in Washington, and was then ordered to service in India for the balance of the war.

My father had a quick wit (indeed, “was too fond of irony for his own good,” that same old friend told me), with a ready supply of apt quotations, humorous quips, and comic rhymes. He was proud of Chuck’s heroism in the Korean War and success thereafter as a journalist, of my graduation from West Point and early-career progress, and of the grandchildren we each presented him before his death in 1967. He loved our mother and was grateful for the zone of comfort she created in their marriage, her hard work as a librarian (she was much younger than he and in better health) to supplement his military pension, and her outgoingness that made up for his brusque inability to suffer fools gladly. He proclaimed himself a happy man, but always, even on the merriest of occasions, I could always detect a profound sadness behind the joy.

If there is indeed a heaven where individuals meet as the individuals they were in life, I believe that John has forgiven our father and that our father has forgiven himself.


After military and business careers, William Locke Hauser is engaged in a third career of writing fiction. Twenty-nine of his stories have been published, most recently in Rosebud Magazine (“Das Schloss,” Spring 2015) and Conceit Magazine (“Heaven,” June 2015), and forthcoming in Stand (“Nice,” Spring 2016).  Originally from North Carolina, Hauser and his wife reside in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with a summer home in Reston, Virginia. They have two married sons.

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Defending Your ‘Based’: The Role of Invention in Fact-Based Historical Fiction

On June 22, 1917, the headline in the Waukesha, Wisconsin Freeman newspaper read: “Mary Roberts Found Murdered.” Mary Roberts was the beautiful socialite wife of Dr. David Roberts, a wealthy and internationally renowned veterinarian during the early part of the 20th century, and the article that followed the headline detailed how she’d been found dead from a gunshot wound in her home’s living room. Now fast-forward eleven months to May 30, 1918, and the headline in the same newspaper read: “Teacher Convicted in Mary Roberts’ Slaying, Love Triangle to Blame.” This time the article that followed contained the rather salacious details of the court case that had convicted Grace Lusk (the “teacher”) of the murder. As the trial revealed, Dr. Roberts and Grace had been involved in a multi-year love affair that began while she was helping him write a book about the history of cattle. In the weeks leading up to the murder, Grace—as so often seems the plot in such stories—had been pleading with the esteemed doctor to divorce his wife and run off with her. The story had all the intrigue of an article in the National Enquirer: reports of heated public confrontations between Mary Roberts and Grace; excerpts from love letters exchanged between Dr. Roberts and the girl; and descriptions of Grace’s desperate threats of suicide made in the days before the murder. Of course, there were also graphic details of the murder itself—the tragic central facts of the case undisputed even by Grace’s defense attorney—about how Grace had accosted Mary in her home, eventually shooting her in cold blood with a revolver.

These are the historical facts of Mary Roberts’s murder, and, captured as they were in detail in the court transcripts, they are as iron-clad of facts as a writer or an historian could hope to find. They are also the kind of facts that most people hear and immediately respond to by saying, “That should be a movie,” or “That would make a great novel.” Well, now they have been—been made into a novel, at least—because they are the facts upon which my forthcoming novel The Good Doctor is based. And note here that I say my novel is based on these facts, even though I take great liberties with the historical record in my novel (very great liberties, as you’ll later see). Now as I admit this, it logically raises the question about what responsibilities historical fiction writers have in negotiating the line between historical fact and creative invention? Just how far can a writer go creatively and still claim that his or her work is based on a true story?

It is an obvious understanding that an historical fiction writer’s responsibility, unlike that of a more pure historian, is less to the facts than it is to something else: to the meaning of the story, perhaps; or to the pure entertainment value of the narrative action, perhaps, if the story is more genre-oriented. For example, any number of writers could have been inspired by the same facts about Mary Roberts’s murder and then written completely different novels than mine. I can easily imagine the story being molded into a true-crime novel, for example. Or a suspense novel. Or a murder-mystery. Even a romance, I suppose. And in writing these hypothetical novels, each of the authors would manipulate the facts of the story in the ways needed to best serve the expectations of their genre and/or their own aesthetic values or conceptual interests. To consider this issue within the tradition of the historical novel, we could look at an author like Sir Walter Scott, godfather of the genre, whose central responsibility in his Waverly novels, for example, could be characterized as being to his interest in issues of religio-political upheaval and their related social consequences. In service to this authorial interest, the facts for Scott could be seen as secondary, mutable, or even dismissible, as I’ll argue later; because historical fiction, after all, is not merely about the history.

In a similar way for me, a writer with a literary orientation, my primary interest in my work is to use fiction to explore potential modes of being, the what-makes-someone-tick sort of depth and meaning we have come to expect in literary fiction, and so my primary responsibility in writing The Good Doctor was to exploring depth of character. So while the facts of Mary Roberts’s murder are important, they are secondary, because if anyone wanted to know just the facts of her death, then the details are just a quick Google search away. And about those fact, at the risk of sounding callous, so what? On their own, the facts of the murder make an interesting historical footnote, but in terms of their impact or their contemporary relevance to the broad audience beyond perhaps Dr. Roberts’s extended family living today, there is little inherent meaning. No, that is where fiction comes in, where my novel comes in. I, like other literary writers, am interested in finding and creating meaning, and in order to discover that meaning in a narrative (or the potential meaning in a narrative) we must explore character.

In my case, as history recorded it, there was the character of Dr. Roberts, a tragic hero in the most literal Aristotelian interpretation of that concept. There was the character of Grace Lusk, the quintessential trope of “the other woman” as she was represented in the trial. And there was the character of Mary Roberts, the ultimate victim: wronged by her husband, killed by his mistress. That is how history has framed the lives of those characters, and certainly the events of that love affair and the subsequent murder deservedly earned Dr. Roberts, Grace, and Mary those labels. Was Dr. Roberts the womanizing cad Grace’s defense attorney painted him to be? Yes, at least in part. Was Grace the lovesick, volatile woman the prosecution portrayed her to be? Yes, again. And was Mary the fragile and innocent victim? Definitely. But as we know, life is never as simple as history sometimes wants to make it. In addition to being a womanizer, Dr. Roberts was, by all accounts, also an incredibly generous man, eager to help farmers in need. Grace was also a caring and dedicated teacher, a farmers-daughter type, somewhat innocently swept up in the allure of the wealth and opulence of Dr. Roberts’s social circle. Therefore in my novel, as I sought to uncover meaning from those historical events, I was obligated to explore the totality of my characters, to examine the gray areas of human nature that exist between the somewhat simplified black-and-white distinctions the legal system and history often favor.

I should pause here to confess that early on I was not entirely aware of all this. Initially I was awed by the nearly perfect plot that history had handed me, and in my early drafts I had more of the sensibility of a genre writer, playing up the elements of suspense and sensationalism in the love scandal and murder, all the while being as faithful as I could to the facts. In my early drafts I was obsessively careful not to veer far from the historical record, only tweaking it enough to give the story a better narrative arc, because I was afraid that if I strayed too far from the facts then some idealized reader would object to my novel as being—gasp—“untrue.” In honesty, I had yet to consider where the line between strict adherence to the facts and wide creative liberty for invention was for a writer. I just knew that if I stuck to the facts, I was safe.

This of course is not where things ended up. With each draft and narrative refinement I came to realize that even in the most simple translation of fact into fiction, all writers, all story tellers for that matter, take liberties with the facts; for if not, then I argue that what is being written is not fiction, but rather an attempt at some more “pure” sense of history. The changes we see at this level in fiction are first order changes, changes that everyone makes in crafting a good narrative and, conversely, everyone is willing to accept as an audience member without calling into question the veracity of the story. Let us call them craft driven changes. They are changes, as I would describe them, to the spine of a story; changes that we make, for example, with the time sequence and/or the magnitude of certain events and actions, and we, as story-telling people, make them everyday, often without even knowing it. Everyday, we omit unnecessary information when recounting an occurrence from our day when talking at the dinner table. We vary the sequence in which certain actions took place to build suspense when telling a story at a cocktail party. And we amplify the emotions and dramatic tension when, to use a cliché example, we talk about the fish that got away. These changes are common, they are innately accepted by the audience, and they are indeed a necessary part of good narrative craft, whether employed in a fact-based historical novel or in banter over a glass of wine. Manipulation of the facts in service to effective storytelling in this way generally has no bearing on an audience member’s concerns about historical accuracy or even that more lofty sense of truth.
But this is not the end of the matter, and when I look back at the many liberties I took with the historical record in my novel, I recognize that there are other changes I made—bigger changes beyond those to the spine of the story—that might begin to push readers’ comfort level with accepting that my novel is based on a true story. These are second order changes or, as I call them, opportunity driven changes, where writers manipulate or even veer completely from the facts in order to serve their greater motivations as artists. These are not changes to the spine of the story, to the basics of the narrative arc, but rather to the flesh of a story. They are essential for deepening the story, providing material to enrich it, essentially fleshing the narrative out in ways that the facts alone might not necessarily allow. For example, for a politically-oriented writer like Scott, these might be changes to or even whole-cloth invention of material of socio-political importance, like his creation of personal hardships his characters faced living during a specific era, even if there might be no historical documentation to ground the creative inventions in fact (or perhaps there might even be evidence to the contrary).

For me, in my novel, examples of these second order changes would be the liberties I took with Grace’s teaching. According to ample historical evidence, Grace was an elementary school teacher at a rural and relatively poor public school near Waukesha. In my novel, however, she teaches at a high school, an exclusive prep school for the city’s elite—the Fox River Academy—where, in my invention, she teaches Latin and ancient history. On the surface this might not seem that significant of a change; however, what if I were to admit that there neither is now nor was there ever such a school in the city? No Fox River Academy, no private prep school for the elite at all? All of it is made up. Invented. Here, as some of my early readers voiced with concern, we are beginning to butt up to the threshold an audience might have for tolerating fabrication, for pushing that fine line of “truthfulness.” But as I argued earlier in a different context, so what? Grace in real life was a teacher—that is a fact—and I remained faithful to the fact of the character upon which she is based. No matter if she is teaching high school or elementary school, Latin or simple spelling and penmanship, her profession is the same, the power relationship with the students is the same, and the social status of the profession is still roughly equivalent.

So if all of that is true, then why bother even making that change, you might ask? Why lie as someone might call it? Why not just stick to the facts? Well, for one reason, by making Grace an instructor of Latin and ancient history, I was able to add a layer of literary complexity to the story by having the ability to draw material from prominent literature from history (the poems of Catullus play a large role in my novel). For an even more important reason, since two of the themes I am interested in exploring in my novel are wealth and elitism, by having Grace teach at a prestigious academy while having come from humble beginnings herself, I had a richer context for examining issues of classism that could have contributed to her draw to Dr. Roberts. These opportunity driven changes remained faithful at their core to the general historical record, but the creative inventions provided more flesh to the fiction from which I could draw in my efforts to create meaning.

Now here I have to admit, I’ve been sitting on a secret. A big secret. So far these changes I’ve used to illustrate my argument are but a trifle in the scheme of the some of the liberties I’ve taken with the historical facts in my novel, and the most egregious, as some might call it, concerns the ending of the story when Grace kills Mary. On this fact, the real life murder, the historical record is clear and unambiguous. Grace accosted Mary in her home, shooting and killing her in living room. It is, in all ways of considering it, a fact, as solid as any that can be; so surely such a detail is untouchable, unchangeable. Right? Or else it would be impossible for me to claim that my novel is indeed based on a true story at all, right? Maybe not.

Clearly, since I do admit to making some significant changes to the ending and yet still claim the novel is based on these events, I obviously don’t agree. I indeed argue that facts even as iron clad as those about Mary Roberts’s murder are mutable, while still earning the right for a piece of fact-based historical fiction to claim it is based on a true story. To explain this though, I’ll need to give a bit of a spoiler. In my novel, Mary Roberts does indeed die toward the end; however when she does, there is no gun and no body left in a pool of blood on the living room floor, the way the court transcripts describe. Instead, her death occurs out in the countryside, in a barn on Dr. Roberts’s property where he keeps his livestock, and rather than depicting Mary’s death as a murder, the novel ends more ambiguously, with her death occurring as the result of a loud argument between herself and Grace that startles one David’s horses, causes him to break through the stable door, and trample Mary. Quite a change. Yes. Quite deceptive, as some might argue. And so “untrue”, right?

No. Even with such a significant revision of history, I still argue the novel is based on a true story, and here is why: above all, artistically, I believe that literary fiction writers—historical novelists or otherwise—are ultimately the servants of our characters. As we seek to create meaning from the potential modes of being that our characters present to us, we must fully submit ourselves to the truths they reveal through the fictional lives they live on our pages. That is our primary responsibility, and what this means is that amid all that grayness of character I set out to explore in my novel, the character of Grace revealed herself to be someone who was not capable of the cold-blooded killing reported in those newspapers. Thus, even as I sought to remain faithful to the historical record, I also had to allow her—the fictional character of Grace—to be as she would be, surrendering even those most central facts about Mary Roberts’s murder to possible revision. This is a third order change, a change to the heart of the story, or a character driven change as I call it, where the truths of the fictional characters we are creating trump even the provable facts upon which our stories are based. But here, I recognize, even for me, such a significant creative invention could be difficult to accept, and so I will end with a brief excerpt from my novel’s epilogue, where I gently attempt to nudge my fiction back toward the facts, at least metaphorically. In the following passage, set thirty years after the death of his wife, David, now an old man incapacitated by a stroke, is lying in his bed, reflecting on the tragic events of his life:

“And what of that woman? That teacher, David thought? Grace. What about her? Did he blame her? Did he hate her, as some of his friends asked in the years since that tragedy? No. As difficult as it was for his friends to believe it, David felt neither of those things—not anymore at least—because blaming her, as David had come to understand it, would be like blaming a soldier for killing during a war; and if there was anyone to blame for that, anyone to hate, it was he, himself, for it had been David’s own transgressions that started the war in which Grace found herself. And what about that horse, one of those same friends had once asked him? Gloucester. Did David blame him? Did he hate that animal for what he’d done, accidental or not? No. For if Grace was a soldier thrust into war, then he, that horse, David thought, was nothing but a gun discharging in her unstable hand.”


Michael Kula is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Emerson College. His work has appeared in literary magazines across the country including: Porcupine, Reconstruction, Mars Hill Review, MidAmerica, Vehicle, and The Drum. He is the past recipient of grants and awards from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature, the National Park Service, and the Northwest Writers Association. He is currently assistant professor of Writing Studies at the University of Washington, Tacoma. He has recently completed his first novel, The Good Doctor, which is based on the life of Dr. David Roberts, one of the wealthiest and most respected veterinarians in the country during the early half of the 20th century.

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Visiting Kindred Spirits

By Charlie Britten

museumMy eyes brimmed with tears, one of those moments so intense I wanted to make it end, to run out into the safety of the hire car, the road and the twenty-first century.  Yes, I know it was all fiction and none of it really happened, but L M Montgomery’s Anne Shirley figured as large in my childhood as the flesh-and-blood friends I met in school every day.  And here I was, in this beautiful house, fitted out with its simple and functional furniture, but with lace everywhere – over the mantelpiece, over the tables, in the bedspreads, exactly as it would’ve been in her time.  Anne was here, and Gilbert, and Marilla, and Rachel Lynde, and all the others.  I’d travelled over three thousand miles for this and probably would never return.  I took a deep breath and carried on.

museum 2The Anne of Green Gables Museum is at Park Corner, on the north coast of Prince Edward Island, at a Gothic Revival farmhouse called Silver Bush, the former home of author Montgomery’s Uncle John and Auntie Annie Campbell.  The first Campbells settled in this house in 1776 and the family lives here still, managing the Museum, which appears on Canada’s Historic Places Register and Prince Edward Island’s Register also.  Although the real Lake of Shining Waters is just down the hill from the main museum building, this is not Green Gables, but Silver Bush, as featured in two of Montgomery’s other books, Pat of Silver Bush and Mistress Pat.  It was in this house, which she called the wonder castle of my childhood, that Montgomery felt comfortable, not in the official ‘home of Lucy Maud Montgomery’ in the village of Cavendish a few miles away, which is advertised in tourist literature.

museum 3The Museum has two storeys.  You enter (like Mrs Rachel Lynde in the first pages of Anne) through the kitchen, passing the leaded range to pay at the desk (in summer 2015, $5.50 for adults and $2 for children).  You move through into the lacy Edwardian parlour, where a clock ticks loudly and lugubriously and you see the small organ which was played at Montgomery’s wedding in 1911 to Presbyterian minister, Ewan Macdonald.  You think about small children, sitting still on hard chairs, in their best clothes – hopefully with puffed sleeves – longing for Sunday to end.  A letter in the parlour, written a year before the author’s death in 1942, thanks her nephew for sending $10, because, she tells him, she doesn’t have enough money for the nursing care she needs, even though by this time, Anne of Green Gables was enjoying huge popularity and Montgomery would have been earning from her many other books.

Upstairs are a family bedroom, a child or single person’s room and a hallway, where first editions of Montgomery’s books are on display – not just the Anne books, but a selection of her twenty-two novels, and the short stories she used to submit to magazines in the days before Anne.  You may touch these faded volumes, even read a little.  Hanging on the wall is the crazy quilt Montgomery stitched as a teenager, using any scraps of fabric she could find, and which she finished only after the fashion for crazy quilts had passed, but, as she wrote in her diary, she had had the ‘joy of making’ [1] –  a typically upbeat and stoical comment.  Born in Clifton (now New London) in PEI in 1874, Montgomery’s mother, Clara, died of tuberculosis when the author was twenty-two months old.  Mounted on the same wall is a journal entry, in which the author relates how, as an adult, she encountered a friend of her mother’s, who tells her how Clara entreated her to come and see her baby because ‘little Lucy Maud is so sweet today’. This is what brought me to tears in the warm yellow afternoon sunshine.

There is a danger that the whole of Prince Edward Island will be subsumed by the commercial opportunities offered up through Anne of Green Gables and her creator.  Everywhere you can buy red-haired Anne dolls, stay at several different Green Gables motels, eat at Green Gables cafes, bathe on the Green Gables Shore (the Island’s north facing beach), and, in the Homburg Theatre in the Island’s capital, Charlottetown, see Anne of Green Gables: The Musical, which has been running continuously since 1965.

I’m glad I went to the Museum first, when I had been on the Island only a few hours, because it captured the spirit of Montgomery’s stories, which were about people living a simple life in farming communities at the beginning of the twentieth century, their underpinning stoicism and joy in small things.  Montgomery loved to visit Silver Bush because here she was loved and that loving feeling lingers on.  The last words in Anne of Green Gables, were a quote from Pippa Passes, Browning’s long narrative poem (1841) – significantly – about an orphan.  “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world!” whispered Anne softly.”

For more information about the Anne of Green Gables Museum, visit http://www.annemuseum.com.

[1] http://www.gov.pe.ca/firsthand/index.php3?number=43770&lang (From The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery, Volume II, 5)


Charlie Britten has contributed to  Every Day FictionMslexiaLinnet’s WingsCafeLit, and Radgepacket. She has also written a couple of book reviews for Copperfield Review. She writes because she loves doing it.

All Charlie’s work is based in reality, with a strong human interest element.  Although much of her work is humorous, she has also written serious fiction, about the 7/7 Bombings in London and attitudes to education before the Second World War. Charlie lives in southern England with her husband and cat. In real life, she is an IT lecturer at a college of further education. Charlie’s blog, ‘Write On’, is at  http://charliebritten.wordpress.com/.

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The Intrepid Stagecoach Mary

By Walter Giersbach

Life in the 19th century was vivid and terrifying, colorful and amazing in its variety.  But you wouldn’t know it looking at yellowed news clippings and daguerreotypes.  It was explosively colorful, literally and metaphorically, where the times concerned Mary Fields.

Fields has several admirable and notorious claims to fame.  She’s best remembered, when remembered at all, as the second woman to officially carry the U.S. mail and the first African-American to do so.  Of more notoriety, she shot a co-worker and created enough problems to get her kicked out of the nunnery where she had been staying.

Fields stood six feet tall and reputedly weighed about 200 pounds, liked to smoke cigars, and was described as “black as burnt over prairie.”  She often had a pistol strapped under her apron, carried a 10-gauge shotgun, and had a jug of whiskey by her side.

This was not your 21st century woman.  Born a slave in Hickman County, Tennessee, about 1832, she was freed with the Emancipation Proclamation.  Unlike many slaves, Fields had learned to read and write.  She then worked at the home of Judge Edmund Dunne.  When Dunne’s wife, Josephine, died in 1883, Fields took the family’s five children to their Aunt Dolly, Mother Mary Amadeus, who was the mother superior of the Ursuline convent in Toledo, Ohio.

The following year, Mother Mary Amadeus was sent to Montana to establish St. Peter’s Mission.  This was a school for Native Americans in the town of Cascade, midway between Helena and Great Falls.  When Fields learned that Mother Mary was ill with pneumonia, she hurried west to care for her.  After Mother Mary recovered, Fields stayed on in Cascade to haul freight to keep the school functioning.  She also chopped wood, did stone work and rough carpentry, ending up as forewoman of the crew.  When needed, she made supply runs to the Montana Central (later Great Northern) train stop and even 25 miles north to Great Falls and 60 miles south to Helena.

While making one such run, Fields’ wagon was attacked by wolves.  The horses bolted and overturned the wagon.  Anecdotal evidence says Fields kept the wolves away with her revolver and rifle.  At dawn’s light, she got the freight to the school.  The nuns were relieved in no small part because they’d invested $30 for the food.  When a keg of molasses was found to have broken, Fields was docked a portion of her pay for the loss.

Native Americans in the area called her White Crow because “She acts like a white woman but has black skin.”  The local whites were a bit more mystified, and one schoolgirl wrote, “She drinks whiskey, and she swears, and she is a republican, which makes her a low foul creature.”

This was Mary Fields’ life for a decade until there were complaints and an incident with a disgruntled hired hand at the mission.  Everyone knew that Fields had a temper.  The Great Falls Examiner, Cascade’s newspaper, reported Fields broke more noses than any other person in central Montana.

The worker complained loudly that Fields was earning $2 a month more than he, and why was she worth that being only an uppity colored woman?  He voiced his gripe at the local saloon where Fields was a regular customer, then he took his grievance directly to Bishop Filbus N.E. Berwanger himself.

This made Fields’ blood boil.  Next chance, Fields and the hired hand confronted each other by the sheep shed behind the nunnery.  She’d gone after the man simply to shoot him as he cleaned the latrine, figuring perhaps to dump his body there.  She missed, he shot back and the fight was on!  Bullets flew until both their guns were empty.  The only blood spilled, however, came when one of Fields’ bullets ricocheted and hit the man in the left buttock, ruining his new $1.85 trousers.  Then the bullet passed through the bishop’s laundry, ventilating his drawers and two white shirts that had been shipped from Boston the week before.

The bishop, incensed, ordered Fields to leave the convent.

Ever resourceful, and with the help of Mother Mary Amadeus, Fields opened a restaurant in Cascade.  The restaurant went broke ten months later, quite possibly because Fields served food to anyone regardless of their ability to pay.

In spite of Fields being in her 60s in 1895, she was then hired as a mail carrier because she was the fastest applicant to hitch a team of horses.  She drove the horses and wagon, along with  her mule, Moses.  This earned her the nickname of “Stagecoach Mary.”  When  the Montana snows grew too deep for the coach to continue on a run, Mary would put on her snowshoes, shoulder the mail bags, and begin walking with Moses, never missing a day of work.

At the age of 72, Fields decided to slow down.  The mission nuns helped her open a laundry service in Cascade.  In addition, she tended her garden.

One customer, however, failed to pay up because she hadn’t put the extra starch into his shirt cuffs and collar.  Hearing him in the street, Fields left the saloon and knocked him flat with one blow.  She told her drinking companions that the satisfaction from this act was worth more than what she was owed.  The hapless customer also allowed that the tooth Fields knocked out was the one that had been giving him trouble.  Both were satisfied.

Stagecoach Mary grew to become a respected figure in Cascade, and for many years the town closed its schools to celebrate her birthday.  When Montana passed a law forbidding women to drink in saloons, Cascade’s mayor granted her an exception.

When Mary wasn’t cleaning, she babysat children, but spent most of the money she earned buying treats for the children.  During this time, a small boy visiting from nearby Dearborn, noticed her.  The young boy was a Montana native named Gary Cooper.  Fields got free food and liquor wherever she went, and attended every home game the Cascade baseball team played.  According to local sources, she gave flowers from her garden to any player who hit a home run, and would rain a fury of fire and profanity on any umpire who made a bad call against the home team. Despite her gruff exterior, Mary was also kind hearted, and so beloved by the townspeople in Cascade that when her home burned down in 1912, the townspeople helped build her a new one.

Fields died of liver problems in 1914 at the age of about 82.  Actor and early Montana friend Gary Cooper wrote of her in Ebony magazine, “Born a slave somewhere in Tennessee, Mary lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw a breath, or a .38.”

In these times of sanitized living, it’s hard to conceive of the drama of daily life more than a century ago.  And who’s to say what we’ve gained or lost since then?


Walter Giersbach’s fiction has appeared in a score of print and online publications and he writes frequently on military history and social issues.  Two volumes of short stories, Cruising the Green of Second Avenue, are available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other online booksellers. He has directed communications for Fortune 500 companies, publicized the Connecticut Film Festival, managed publicity and programs for Western Connecticut State University’s Haas Library, and now moderates a writing group in New Jersey.

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