Only a small crack...but cracks make caves collapse.
Love someone of a different faith - crack!
Love someone from a different social class - crack!
The story is as familiar as Romeo and Juliet. The young couple grew up well-taught. They understood the existing social order. Flaunting and testing it was all about being young and reckless and adventurous. Until their flirtation turned to love. And love became dangerous. Then their love was forced to take a gamble.
The protagonist for my book, Johanna, took some gambles. I have started my research on the last half of the 19th century in order to be truthful to those times in my book. The lens we look through to find our “normal” for any time is shaped by so many things. I’ve started to read about the recent history, inventions and social order that defined people's lives in this period. I know that in real life Johanna made decisions against what was expected of her.
I know she was compelled by love.
To write a good historical novel I need to understand the 19th century wall of social convention and expectations that attempted to block her way.
Meanwhile, this investigation into “cracking” convention brought a little story to mind. It’s part family history, part family lore and it’s about taking a chance.
“You have the wrong house!”
The woman’s words stung. She stood in the doorway in a wide stance, wiped her hands on her flower-patterned apron and then put them on her hips. The man leaned a little to try to look behind her and she shifted her body blocking his view. He stood below her on the sidewalk. She used the porch’s vantage point to look down at him pointedly.
Yet, he couldn’t be wrong. He’d memorized the address. Repeated it over and over to himself.
“Is this 1334 Outlook Drive East?” Mac asked. He’d taken his hat off and unconsciously spun it in his hands.
“Yes, but you could not have met my daughter at a dance. Southern Baptists are not allowed to go to dances.”
The woman held his gaze intently with one eyebrow cocked as a question. Relief washed through him. “No, m’am.” He turned to go and saw her relax in the doorway. "Thank you m’am,” he said and glancing upward thought he saw the motion of a curtain. He did have the right house!
“I apologize for my mistake,” he called back, put his hat cheerfully back onto his head and began retracing his steps. He smiled, shaking his head slightly. The dark-haired beauty he’d danced with on Saturday evening had captivated him. No wonder she’d said not to come by her house, even as he wheedled the address from her.
The volume of the music and the flash of colorful dresses played in his memory as though he still stood in the dimmed lights of the well-worn dance hall and not outside on a hot Indianapolis sidewalk. On summer Saturday nights the old building transformed from a tired brick facade into a magical magnet of gaiety and sweat and the stickiness of sugary pop. Against the monotony of working on the line assembling Lincolns Mac's imagination would play back the laughter and flirting and drinking and dancing from the weekend before.
Usually, the girls were fun but fleeting - he rarely asked for a name, just a dance — and would work his way around the dance floor until midnight shut down the fun. Some weekends he was drawn to the hall simply to be in the same room as the laughter. It was enough to feel young and alive after serving in the battlefields of the War to End All Wars in France.
But, for the first time last weekend, he’d spent the entire evening with just one girl, Dee.
No wonder her eyes had bewitched him. Her adrenalin from doing something forbidden added twirls to her steps, and a lightness to her laughter. He had been swept up in the giddiness of her daring. He had to see her again.
So he hatched a plan.
Faithfully, for the next several weeks every Saturday he waited at the dance hall. Each time the door opened he’d look — the turn of her head vivid in his mind — only to be disappointed. For eight weeks he waited but no Dee came. For eight weeks, girls cajoled him and his buddies nudged him but he didn’t dance. He waited and watched the door in vain.
No matter. He was working on a plan.
Now, two months later, August’s muggy weight has been replaced by an October crispness. That morning, the right weekend had arrived. Mac had held his own gaze in the bathroom mirror before carefully combing his hair. “Time to go,” he’d said softly
Now he stood on the same sidewalk outside the same porch in the cool sun of an October Saturday. The same mother looked down on him inquiringly.
“M’am, is Dee home?” he said, smoothing his mustache. She peered at him and paused. He heard his heart beating wildly in his ears and hoped she couldn’t see the flush building at his neck. He twisted a different hat in his hands. He straightened, trying to look respectable, solemn even with this new mustache as a disguise.
“Hmmmm,” Dee’s mother said. Another heartless pause.
“Yes, yes she is,” and stepped aside to let him in.
Love took a gamble! That was my grandfather, Mac, and grandmother, Dee. Thanks Mom for retelling the story to me!
How I’m Writing the Book (I’ve changed this heading from, “Steps I’m exploring to write a book” to "How I’m Writing the Book.” My goal was to increase the intensity of my commitment but mostly I’ve freaked myself out).
Research: I’m starting with some main categories, like what wars were being fought in the 19th century and the relationships between European countries. I’m painting a pretty broad brush just to try to get a sense for the times. For example, Johanna grew up in Amsterdam when the Netherlands were doing their best to carve out a foothold on the world scene. London was gradually casting a shadow over Paris’ center-of-the-world dominance. Perhaps Johanna was caught up in London’s ascent? I know she studied English (so much it would be equivalent to a college degree today) and worked in London at the British Library for several months.
Books I’m Reading: I’m reading the amazing The Lake House by Kate Morton right now. The plot is beautifully intricate with parallel themes across two interwoven times. I am blown away. Morton is masterful at leading you to one conclusion only to have a character reveal a new truth that takes reason down another path. I am imagining the author in front of a giant story board tracing each character’s life and then splitting each into pieces so that she can mix and twist their stories.
Juan and I are on a trip with some wonderful blocks of reading time. Last week we were supposed to travel to Bali for work when a volcano 50 miles from our resort abruptly starting smoking. Imagine! Over the weekend the mountain was evacuated and then after 48 hours of weighing the pros and cons, we were told the trip was cancelled. Then on Friday afternoon I received a call asking if we could leave Sunday to fill-in on a trip to Maui. I called Juan, “Can you go to Maui on Sunday?” “Why not,” he replied.
He’s a gambler too.
Let me leave with another quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a true-life hero of breaking down barriers:
Blow the dust off the clock. Your watches are behind the times.
Throw open the heavy curtains which are so dear to you -
you do not even suspect that the day has already dawned outside.
Take a risk!