Dialect and the hamster/grandfather issue

imagesMy novel in progress is set here in Appalachia a century ago, when dialect was strong. Which raises a constant writer’s dilemma: verisimilitude and historical accuracy versus out-of-area comprehension. One doesn’t want to replicate my grandfather/hamster confusion.

I grew up in the Northeast and had never lived in the South when I moved to Knoxville, TN and got work teaching college. The class was in developmental reading and my task, among others, was to develop study, academic discipline, and time management skills. So in the first week, when a young woman stayed after to say she couldn’t do the assignment because her “pepaw” was sick and they were really close, I was ready.

Now, locally, “pepaw” or “papaw” is grandfather, but I didn’t know that. I heard “paw” and thought, well, some pet with little, wee paws. Like a hamster, maybe. I’d had one; we were sort of close, but I did my homework anyway. This girl needs to buck up. It didn’t help that I’d just moved from Italy, where the state pays university tuition with the message: “We admitted you, but we don’t have to keep you, and we sure don’t have to make nice.”

Then there was Memaw,* also troubled.  A little hamster family with cutsie-pie names? So the conversation lurched along, me getting annoyed by the litany of woe, worried that if word got out that a sick hamster gets you out of homework, the semester was doomed. She thinking I’m an ice queen, or worse.

An aunt was coming in . . . diabetes, and I’m still thinking: Rodents recognize aunts? They get diabetes? Maybe it was at “intensive care” and “my dad’s really broken up” that I considered an alternate construct: “Ashley, your pepaw—”

“He’s on my dad’s side.”

Scrambling a bit: “Your . . . grandfather’s still in the hospital?”

“Yes.” Things went better from there. Pepaw improved; Ashley passed; I learned something.

Writer’s moral: Provide context to avoid confusion.

  • Memaw is grandmother, but I’m sure you figured that.
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Posted in Writing

Cheese straws and lies

imagesIn my novel in progress, set in Tennessee, 1919, the cook makes cheese straws for a garden party that never happens. Too bad. They’re easy, addictive, and very southern. The recipe follows, adapted from Nathalie Dupree’s New Southern Cooking.

I got her book years ago through work desperation. I was offered a job writing a video script on New Southern Cooking. Needing a job, I assured the producer that nothing passed my lips that wasn’t New Southern Cooking. Then I hurried out to get Ms Dupree’s excellent book and study up on Southern cooking, new and old. I didn’t know much.

Funny, because my mother grew up on a poor Texas farm, which she fled at age 18 for the sophistication of New York. To her dismay, as a young parent, all she could afford were down home dishes. When our finances improved, she dropped her culinary roots like a hot potato.

A family story has me at age 3, being served roast beef by my relatively (to my parents) wealthy German-American grandmother. Noting my curiosity, she asked slyly if I had ever eaten roast beef. I must have seen my parents cringe, so I helped them out by earnestly assuring my grandmother that, oh, we ate roast beef at home “all the time, every day. We just call it different things: rice and beans, pancakes, bacon and eggs, creamed corn . . . ”

Anyway, here are Cheese Straws, from Nathalie Dupree and my Texas grandmother.

2 C white flour (soft wheat if possible)
2 C grated sharp Cheddar
1 1/2 tsp salt
3/4 tsp paprika
1/2 C butter
2 well-beaten eggs
1 tsp Worcestershire Sauce

Mix flour, salt, paprika, & cheese. Cut in butter very well, but without mashing. Mix beaten eggs and W sauce. Add to other ingredients, mixing lightly, as for biscuits. Turn on floured board, kneading sightly, adding a bit of water if needed. Roll out about 1/2 inch. Cut into finger-size strips and put on greased cookie sheet. They don’t spread much. Cook at 425 until slightly brown. This should be about 8 min but watch carefully. Remove from oven. Push around slightly on the sheet so they don’t stick. Let cool. Store air-tight, freeze, or eat right away. Makes about 4 dozen.


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Glockenspiels, not Glocks!

imagesA billboard near me (Knoxville, TN) proposes December 3 as Glock Day. As in: Celebrate this season of joy by gifting your loved ones a major handgun. I do not believe that this is a solution on any micro or macro level of society.
However, what about Glockenspiels? Easy to play, blends well with many voices and musical traditions, cheerful, portable, relatively inexpensive, uplifting, and enduring.
Go ahead, make our day. Give your loved ones a Glockenspiel . . . or listen to fine music with someone you love.
And now, looking at what I can do that won’t hurt anybody, I’ll turn to the task at hand . . .outlining the next chapter of my next book, with some classical guitar music in the background since I don’t have a Glockenspiel CD (yet).

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Posted in Just life

Where invention comes from, maybe

04e2f70ac58235b253a7e3a69dbc6accThis the Palazzo Donn’Anna, in Naples, the memory of which launched my second historical novel, Swimming in the Moon (2013). My Italian teacher grew up in the vast apartment on the second floor, full of marble, Venetian glass, and monumental 18th C oils. The enormous dining room window was rimmed by a gilt frame that looked out on the Bay of Naples, with Capri floating in the blue distance.

It’s often said that scientific invention does not begin with “Eureka!” as often as with “Hum, that’s odd.” Maybe it’s similar with fiction. I was living in Tennessee when I had an image of the Palazzo Donn’Anna and wondered what it would be like a century ago to be a servant there, so it was you who cleaned that great window and dusted the gilt. How about a servant pair, a mother gifted with a magnificent voice (but who cares?) but shackled by mental instability, and a daughter who loves her but wants something more in life (but how?) and then they are both cast out from all they know, lovely as it is. Hum, that’s odd. What then?

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Those we welcomed

EllisIsland1My first three books recounted the European immigrant experience. These photographs taken by an Ellis Island clerk show the incredible diversity of people who braved the journey and the soul of the country that received them.

You will be stopped by various ads when you scroll through, but persist. It’s an astonishing voyage.


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Rome airport, behind security

Some years ago, when I was living in Naples, I drove to the aiport in Rome to pick up my father, who had come for a visit. Parkinsons had already dimished his strength and he walked with a cane, but he was determined to travel as long as possible. I’d told him to present his passport, get his bags, and follow the crowd through the security doors. I’d see him there. Seemed foolproof.

But I  waited and waited, long after the last Philadelphia flight people had come out and we were deep into Stockholm, Paris, and Cairo flights. This was before cell phones. Had he missed a flight? Some incident? Gotten sick? Worse? It was nearly an hour since his flight had landed. Now in a panic, I decided to slip through the security doors when the airport security guy with a submachine gun wasn’t looking.

And was immediately nabbed. “Signora, what are you doing? You can’t go back there.” I explained about my father. I should be patient, he said, and wait with the others. I said I had been patient, and now I was worrried. “This is a security gate,” he repeated more firmly. “Entry is forbidden.” Glance down at his serious weapon.

I played my last card. “Sir, if you had an old father, who was sick, and alone in a strange country, tired after a long flight, and not speaking the language, what would YOU do?”

He looked at me as if I were an idiot, or more accurately, one of those Americans with no sense of family. “I’d go find him,” he said.

“Will you take me back there?”

“Certainly, signora. Come with me. And don’t worry. We’ll find him.” And we did. He’d presented his passport, gotten his bag, and sat down at the first available seat.

The policeman politely wished my father a pleasant stay and went back to work. Viva Italia!

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Peeking Behind the Myth

imagesHere’s one of the 10-minute exercises from a writing workshop I just did for the Knoxville Writers Guild on using real people in fiction or memoir. In this exercise, we looked at making a more rounded vision of a historical figure. Several people used the prompts with great results for someone in their families (living, dead, or long dead).
There are only two rules: 1) Don’t overthink. Finish this in 10 minutes; and 2) Be bold. Make up what you don’t know.

1. Name a historical/famous person (or family member) with a strong persona or image.
2. What quality stands out?
3. What other quality (perhaps a weakness, dark side, or unlikely ability) might s/he also have?
4. Name a little-known quirk, behavior, or dream.
5. A deep memory/scar/loss.
6. A secret ambtion.
7. One day, your character wanted . . .
8. But . . .
9. So your character chose to . . .

Have fun and if you had good results with this, please share in the comments section.

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Can you blame Helen (of Troy)?

images 09-45-08It’s good thing for this country that the Puritans never quite figured out how to combine a theology of predestination with an ethical system. And it’s a very good thing for novelists. Free will makes plots much more interesting than “as you know, dear reader, I’m predestined to do X.” Characters have to plan their course and make choices without knowing what is supposed to happen. The reader doesn’t know either, and this keeps us engaged.
I’m listening to Margaret George’s epic Helen of Troy (30.5 hours). Everyone knows the basic story but the abundant back and side stories and local color bumps you along. Still, at every key plot point, Helen does exactly what she wants (leave her husband, daughter and kingdom and get it on with Paris) regardless of guilt or ownership of consequences with the handy out: “Well, this was all foretold, so what’s a pretty girl to do?” One is caught between annoyance and envy. She’s not responsible for the nasty Trojan War with all those bodies and walls torn down because, sigh, she’s only Aphrodite’s pawn. Interesting that some centuries after Homer, the Oedipus plays somehow managed to grant Oedipus free will inside of the prophecy that he’ll kill his father and marry his mother. So he doesn’t shrug like Helen and say: “Gee, sorry folks, Mom, Dad, but you can’t really blame me.”
It’s a struggle for George, one can see, to design new complications, and create suspense with a main character who keeps behaving like a divinely entitled, spoiled little bitch. One has to admire George’s willingness to take on what feels like a huge writer challenge. And as an addendum, one of her early books, The Autobiography of King Henry VIII, with Notes by his Fool, Will Somers, is a fabulous read for anyone remotely interested in Tutor England, or brilliant, somewhat contorted minds.

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Carrot Soup, Blue Sky

images-1I made carrot and ginger soup last night for my book club which was reading Under the Same Blue Sky. In theme with the book, I’d challenged myself to a brightly colored, light, vegetarian German summer menu. A 6-year old honorary club member declared it “delicious,” so the recipe seems worth sharing. The thickener is carrots, not flour, so it’s gluten free, with a true taste of carrot. Freezes well and goes well with historical fiction.

Carrot & Ginger Soup (for 4-6)
3T butter
1 onion, peeled & chopped
I T ginger root, peeled & sliced thin
2T white wine
1 1/2 lbs carrots, peeled and sliced
2 C vegetable broth (or chicken broth)
1 tsp salt
ground pepper
ground nutmeg to taste (I used about 1/2 tsp)
1 – 1 1/4 C whole milk.
1 T butter
juice of 1/2 lemon (or more)
parsley or mint for garnish

Saute the onion in butter until soft. Add carrot and ginger, saute briefly, add wine and cook for 30 sec. Add broth, salt, pepper, nutmeg. Bring to boil, then simmer until the carrots are tender. Put in food processor or (better I think) use an immersion blender. A few chunks are fine. You can store for a day or so at this point or, to finish, add milk and return to simmer. If you want it thinner, you can use water or broth. I happened to have some carrot juice, but other times I’ve used broth. Just before serving, add butter and lemon juice. Stir until butter is melted. Garnish as desired.

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Invitation to Time Travel

I was recently asked for an interview with the Pittsburgh Examiner. This turned out to be questions about History in general, with an invitation to time travel. Here are my answers. You can imagine yours.


(I’m traveling without much internet, so I can’t pretty up this post. Sorry).

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Posted in Just life, WWWS

Sunday, May 6, 2pm reading from latest work at Hexagon Brewing Company, Knoxville, TN.

Thursday, May 10, 6-8 pm presentation on research on the historical novel, Blount County Library, Maryville, TN.

When We Were Strangers, Italian translation, to be presented in Pescasseroli, Italy, August 2018.

Recent Review
“Absorbing and layered with rich historical details, in Under the Same Blue Sky, Schoenewaldt weaves a tender and at times, heartbreaking story about German-Americans during World War I. With remarkable compassion, the author skillfully portrays conflicted loyalties, the search for belonging, the cruelty of war, and the resilience of the human spirit.”—Ann Weisgarber, author of The Promise and The Personal History of Rachel Dupree

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