When The Feedsack Dress came out in 2007, I started a blog on Typepad that focused on life during the late 1940s and early 1950s. I stopped posting there in 2012, but you can still link to The Feedsack Kids. I’m posting some new blogs and my favorite old ones here.
I wrote The Feedsack Dress to portray life as the era of the unmechanized, pre-electricity family farm ended. Readers view late 1949 through the eyes of a 13-year-old farm girl called Gail. Like the nation, she is making a major transition, in her case from the small one-room school to the much larger junior high in town and from the homemade feedsack dress to ready-made clothing.
Saturday the Sullivan County (MO) Historical Society invited me to help celebrate a special exhibit of clothing made from patterned cotton sacks. I read a scene in which Gail and her mother perform a then familiar and unforgettable chore: chasing down, killing, and plucking chickens to fry.
Gail’s mother, like mine, used the chop and toss method. She held the chicken down on a stump, cut off the head with a hatchet, and threw the blood-spurting chicken a few feet away to jerk around until the heart stopped. Then Gail picked it up by the legs, dunked it in a bucket of hot water, and held the carcass at arm’s length to pull out the stinking feathers.
Several women shared some of their childhood memories, including the following.
*** One’s mother killed a chicken by putting a sharp-edged coffee can over the head and stepping on it.
*** A common killing technique was holding the chicken by the head and swinging it round and round until either the head came off or the neck was wrung.
*** One person always put the chicken’s neck between two nails driven into a board to hold the head in place for the hatchet.
*** Some people hung a beheaded chicken from the clothesline while the blood ran out.
*** Another mother refused to kill a chicken. The father always did it.
*** A nauseating odor greeted you when you cut open the chicken and disemboweled it.
*** The rural letter carrier delivered big boxes of baby chicks in the spring. By mid summer, families ate fried chicken several times a week.
*** Strong odors, including from the necessary place (outdoor toilet) and cow manure, were more common and less remarked upon then. One woman recalled milking a cow by hand each morning and sometimes going straight from the barn to catch the school bus.
*** The sacks in which you bought sugar or flour were a finer weave than those in which you bought chicken feed. Underwear made from coarse feedsacks was scratchy.
*** All of us farm girls learned to drive a tractor—often having to stand on the clutch or brake to make it work—years before we drove a car.
*** In the 1930s and 1940s, almost everyone used feedsacks to make clothing, tea towels, and quilts.
Most farmers had a small flock of hens up into the 1950s. They provided fresh eggs to eat and to sell, meat to fry in the summer and bake or stew in the winter, and chores for kids all year round. As a fringe benefit, the feed came in pretty sacks now treasured by collectors and quilters.
After working on a manuscript almost a year, I’m waiting for my two chapter-by-chapter readers’ to offer comments on a one-gulp read before doing the final polish. This gives me time to start catching up on repairs (e.g., hinges on cabinet doors), life-business tasks (e.g., comparing rates for car insurance), and cleaning (e.g., the whole house).
More important to me, the short break gives me an opportunity to decide what to write next.
For three years I’ve concentrated on the Show Me mystery series. The latest manuscript completes a five-book arc. In the six months covered in the books, my major characters’ lives have changed significantly. Before I build a new three-book arc (three more years of work), I need a break.
A short project appeals to me. Short stories? Not my favorite medium, but I’ve used them before to explore the desirability of characters and situations for novels. One idea I really like could become a series of hefty short stories rather than a novel.
If I opt to go that route, I won’t seek a publisher, a time-consuming, frustrating, and likely fruitless process. Instead I’ll publish each short story online and, if readers like them, eventually turn the collection into a volume.
One idea that intrigues me is writing a short story from the point of view of Achilles, the Belgian Malinois popular with readers of the Show Me mysteries. Maybe I’ll try one short and, if it works, test it on my website as a free read. Or perhaps turn it into a children’s book.
Historicals for young readers?
Another possibility is to write more MG/YA historical novels. These run a third to a half as many words as the adult books and take less time to write and revise. For several years, I’ve been thinking about an MG/YA set during World War II. Or I could do a sequel to The Feedsack Dress, which many readers have loved, or to Thunder Beneath My Feet, which will be released in January.
Historical novels require considerable historical research. The libraries here provide excellent resources, and I enjoy digging into the past. On the other hand, research adds one to three months of work time to a manuscript.
Revise an earlier manuscript?
During another break several years ago, I pulled out the manuscript of The Feedsack Dress and revised it with the help of my critique group. Then I sold it.
I’ve learned a lot as I’ve written the Show Me series. Enough to turn an earlier manuscript into a viable series opener? Even a major revision would take much less time than writing a book-length manuscript from scratch. If, upon rereading the old manuscript, I still like my characters and plot, I’ll give the manuscript another chance at life.
Stay tuned. I’m determined to plunge into a new project by Labor Day.
Fifty years ago this week I began my writing career as an editorial assistant for the NEA Journal, then one of the country’s best education magazines. I just signed a contract for my eleventh book, Thunder Beneath My Feet, a middle grade/young adult novel set during the powerful New Madrid earthquakes in late 1811 and early 1812.
Those eleven books represent a relatively small part of my output. For twenty years I worked mostly on magazines, including as the editor of Industrial Research & Development News. The United Nations Industrial Development Organization in Vienna, Austria, published this international technical quarterly.
I didn’t enjoy editing technical articles from experts who spoke English as their second (or third or fourth) language and left in fear the bureaucratic writing style would damage my writing. On the plus side, I formed close friendships with wonderful people from different cultures, and the interactions of colleagues from some fifty countries fascinated me.
My Favorite Job
The job I held the longest (almost five years) and liked the most was as editor of Synergist, a magazine published by the National Center for Service-Learning, iWashington, D.C., for leaders of secondary and postsecondary student volunteer programs. Over those years, service-learning blossomed and moved into the elementary schools.
Much of my time went to locating model programs and soliciting (and editing heavily) articles from the outstanding educators who ran them. I also traveled around the country to write and photograph inspiring programs. I resigned to become a freelancer when I thought I had taken the publication as far as it could go under the politicians who then determined what we could publish.
Computers began to replace electric typewriters while I edited Synergist, and editors and designers struggled to stay close to the “bleeding edge” as publications moved into desktop publishing. Such programs as PageMaker enabled quick, relatively inexpensive turnaround and prompted the golden age of the newsletter.
Over the next twenty-plus years, writing and editing monthly newsletters paid my mortgage and covered most of my basic expenses. Relying on my journalistic skills, I took on many topics, including career tips for dental hygienists, innovative programs for chambers of commerce, and issues affecting sales of oil production equipment.
My major steady client over those years was Communications Concepts, a small company that produced a series of monthly subscription how-to newsletters for corporate communicators. I did most of the planning and wrote most of the articles. For each issue, I interviewed four to six people from around the United States and Canada, reviewed a book or two, and edited a contributor’s article.
The publisher gave me considerable autonomy, and the articles kept me up to date on the field. The newsletters also gave me credibility with other clients and led me to a sideline of teaching graduate-level continuing ed writing and editing courses and giving workshops for writers’ groups.
Other freelance assignments included subbing for an ailing magazine editor, writing a calendar for the National Portrait Gallery, writing the proceedings for a Library of Congress conference, writing and editing textbook material, and covering an International Red Cross meeting in Geneva. For several years I financed much of my travel in the United States and abroad by writing and photographing travel articles.
Most of the magazines and newsletters, and several of the newspapers, that I wrote for died years ago.
The Nonfiction Books
I wrote my nonfiction books between 1984 and 1994. My first two (and most profitable), Guide to Student Fundraising and Financial Fitness for Teens, were works for hire. I had a lot of fun but earned few dollars writing (with Betty C. Ford) Adventure Vacations in Five Mid-Atlantic States. Living in the D.C. area, I earned more respect than income from writing a young adult political biography, Elizabeth Dole, Public Servant.
My hair grayed at the same time the opportunities for lucrative, interesting assignments diminished. Both employees and freelancers felt the effects of the changes technology brought to communications programs and of employers’ increased tendency to equate the ability to type and use a spell-checker with the ability to write and edit.
The Transition to Fiction
Now what? I decided to go back to my original goal of writing novels. I hadn’t been a mystery fan until such excellent writers as Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, and Margaret Maron showed women could carry a mystery as the main character rather than sidle on the page as a male protagonist’s damsel in distress or lust interest. I enrolled in a class for beginning mystery writers taught by author Noreen Wald and began a long transition from nonfiction to fiction.
One of the great things that came from that class was a critique group of novice mystery writers, all of them now published. We met weekly, with two or three always presenting chapters for review. My first draft took a long time, and so did sales for most of us.
Finally a Novelist
At one low point, I debated whether to continue trying to sell a mystery. I pulled out the manuscript of a children’s book I had written years before and asked the group to critique it as I revised. In 2007, that manuscript, The Feedsack Dress, became my first published novel.
At another low point, I again questioned whether to give up on writing mysteries. While mulling that over, I greatly enjoyed researching the devastating but little remembered New Madrid earthquakes featured in Thunder Beneath My Feet. My initial marketing experience was frustrating, so I put that manuscript aside when I sold my first mystery, Show Me the Murder, in 2011 (published February 2013).
Midway through writing the fifth of the award-winning Show Me series, I returned to Thunder, doing a light revision and then searching for a publisher. I found one on my fiftieth anniversary as a professional writer.
Now I have to finish book five and decide what to write next.
To learn more about the earthquakes and read an excerpt from Thunder Beneath My Feet, go to the navigation bar and click on Other Writings/Works in Progress/Thunder Beneath My Feet.
For many years I made my living as a nonfiction writer, striving to gather the essential facts and present material objectively.
Then, after traveling around the world, I came home and marveled at how life in rural Missouri had changed. My generation was the last to grow up in a nation made up of small, diversified, family farms, the ones growing most of their own food (vegetables, fruit, and meat) and a variety of crops to feed their animals and to sell for what they couldn’t produce.
I wanted to preserve the record of what life had been like in the mid 20th century, but what could I write that people would read? The topic exceeded the bounds of a feature article. I lacked both the expertise and the desire to write a socio-economic tome about the country’s transition. My childhood was too uneventful for a memoir in the mode of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books.
That left fiction. I had vivid memories of edging from childhood toward adulthood in the 1950s, and I wanted to reach readers going through that mix of elation and misery. I read social histories of the period that brought home how much the whole nation changed after World War II.
On our farm, the big change came with the arrival of electricity in the late 1940s. I decided to focus on that period, a time of transition for our farm and for the nation. Then my story should feature a transition for the main character. The big one came when a g country kid finished the eighth grade at a one-room rural school and entered a much larger junior high in town.
The idea for The Feedsack Dress began to form. I began to make a slow transition from nonfiction to fiction.
Our lives are part of the long continuum of human history, but how do you use your tiny fragment in a novel?
At 10:30 a.m., Saturday, December 7, I’ll answer that question during a workshop in the Columbia (MO) Public Library. I’ll talk about how I drew on memory, others’ memories, library research, and imagination in writing The Feedsack Dress, an MG/YA novel set in northeast Missouri in 1949. Using short readings, I’ll illustrate such points as incorporating real life into your plot and c haracterizations.
We draw on our experience no matter what we write. I’ll touch on how I’ve done that in writing my Show Me mystery series.
To register, call 573-443-3161.
In the 1950s, television threatened to divert children from reading. In the 1990s, the Web tempted tender minds to abandon linear reading and writing. In the last decade, portable multimedia, omnipresent (and often mindless) communication, and misspelled texting further endangered literacy.
Thinking of this descent into darkness, I dreaded opening my assigned selection of second graders’ stories, essays, and poems. I had agreed to comment on their award-winning work during Young Authors’ Day at the University of Central Missouri, Warrensburg. What if their writing was, well, dreadful?
I needn’t have worried. These kids show a surprising grasp of the art of storytelling and the craft of writing. They already perceive these five key factors.
1. Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
2. You have to grab readers’ attention fast. Otherwise you lose them.
3. The sound and rhythm of the words matter.
4. Readers like to see themselves in the writer’s story, even if the story is about a fox, a wizard, or a mermaid.
5. The right words support the story or theme.
You can bet these second graders like to read. Writers begin, and end, as readers.
Hurricane Sandy brought death and destruction to the East Coast last week. Millions who came through the storm unscathed still face an ongoing problem, the loss of electrical power. After a day or two, the lack of power went from an inconvenience to a hardship.
Thinking back to the loss of power on our farm, I remembered that we got along pretty well. We had fresh vegetables in the garden and canned ones in the storm cave, chickens to provide eggs and fresh meat, a kerosene stove for summer cooking, and a good supply of lanterns. After all, we didn’t even get electricity until the late 1940s.
When storms knocked out the power, our biggest problem was milking the cows by hand. Like the father in The Feedsack Dress, my father cared little that electricity enabled us to have bright electric lights rather than dim kerosene lamps, an electric radio rather than a battery-powered one, and an electric range rather than the hot wood-burning stove. To him, electricity meant the opportunity to milk with a machine and triple the size of our dairy herd, then about 10 cows.
He and my mother could milk those cows by hand in about an hour and a half, the same time it took to milk the expanded herd with the milking machine. And milking with the machine took far less energy and produced much less stress on the hands and wrists. Replacing the lanterns with electric lights also raised human (not bovine) productivity, especially on dark winter mornings and evenings.
I’m not sure what the cows felt about the changes, but they adjusted.
Less work and more money. It was great—until the power went off. Milking all those extra cows by hand took hours and cramped the muscles.
Nothing like losing your electricity to make you value it.
Recently a TV commercial included a line from an old country song about an egg-suckin’ dog. It reminded me of what trouble egg-sucking dogs caused when most farmers, and some town dwellers, had a flock of hens.
Our farmhouse stood an eighth of a mile from a crossroads hidden by a small hill, a choice location for dumping off an unwanted dog. It would show up at our back steps, where we put out scraps for our dog and cats, or down at the barn, where my father poured milk into the cats’ pan after milking each evening.
Over the years a few dogs made it through the probation period and stayed with us. Several turned out to be egg-suckers. They would sneak into the hen house, chase a hen from a nest, and break the eggshell enough to suck out the contents. That may not sound like a problem to people used to buying eggs by the dozen in stories, but farm women counted on eggs for feeding the family and for selling in town.
An egg-suckin’ dog wore out its welcome overnight. Once a dog had the habit, you couldn’t break it. The dog had to go. The tough part was figuring out where. You couldn’t take a dog to the pound in those days, and no one wanted an egg-sucker.
We had several strategies, the preferred one being returning it to whoever had dumped it on us. My father worked as a substitute rural mail carrier and knew the county well. Sometimes he’d seen the dog on a farm. We’d drop the animal off close to home. No one ever had the nerve to bring it back.
Another favorite strategy was to leave the animal at the home of someone we knew dumped animals or trash on our or other farms.
The least favorite alternative was to choose a farm with no chickens so the dog wouldn’t be a costly pest. If no dog ran out to bark at my father when he stopped at the mailbox, that improved the chances people would take in a stray.
Even an egg-suckin’ dog has the right to a decent home.