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Posts tagged “historical fiction

Book Trailer for The Door That Faced West

Cover_TDTFW

A friend suggested I make a book trailer for my new novel—The Door That Faced West, released by Lazy Fascist Press—using my illustrations that appear in the book. I used imovie and it came out pretty well.

Click on this link to view the trailer. If the film doesn’t appear right away, wait just a moment–it will be there.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon


Women and Children in the Time of The Door That Faced West

(In this post, I speak in general terms about women’s issues in the years 1799-1800. Exceptions to what I’ll note existed, but they were few and far between.)

The point-of-view character in my new novel, The Door That Faced West, (released in February by Lazy Fascist Press) is a sixteen-year-old woman named Sadie from North Carolina. She is escaping the abuse of her father. Since he has absolute authority over everything in her life and depends on her labor to get by, if she is to get away from him, she must go somewhere that he will not search for her. She must flee into the wilderness to the west, but she knows that to survive, she’ll need to be with people who know the territory and are tough enough to fight and defend against the dangers to be found there.

In the time in which the story takes place, children and unmarried women were frequently laborers. A child’s efforts could be employed by their parents or sold as a commodity to another master. Women had no legal identity as separate from that of their husbands or, if unmarried, the eldest male member of their families. A woman could not take part in a contract, own property, find her own job, own the wages she earned, or initiate any legal proceeding, such as a divorce or law suit. Many women lived their lives, working and bearing children under near-slavish conditions. If a woman was lucky, she received a primary education, but had no opportunities for schooling beyond that. She had no say in political or economic issues. If a woman was abused, she had little chance of redress unless some male person who had the leverage to do so took it upon himself to address the problem on her behalf. If she bore children, whether legitimate or illegitimate, the offspring belonged to the man considered to be the child’s father whether he was a fit parent or not.

These legally institutionalized attitudes toward children and women may be appalling to us now, but were a given in the eighteenth century and much of the nineteenth century, and had a destructive effect on countless lives. In The Door That Faced West, these issues play a major role in driving the plot and are demonstrated in the thinking and motivations of the characters of the novel.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Paperback at amazon.com- $12.95

Kindle Edition – $7.95


The Criminal Climate in The Door That Faced West

“The Brothers Harpe” copyright©2014 Alan M. Clark

Throughout life, hope for a better future can encourage us to strive for our own betterment and to contribute to that of our family, friends, and community, but the circumstances of our birth can dictate what options we have available. If the options are grim, we have few choices, and little hope, we can become opportunists with little regard for those around us and turn to criminal activity to better our lot in life.

The rather obvious statements I’ve made about human experience are as true today as they were 200 years ago, yet imagine a time when the circumstances of our birth had much more influence over what was possible for us in life. My new novel, The Door That Faced West, released by Lazy Fascist Press, takes place in America in such a time, the years 1799 and 1800. In that period, a class system reigned within American society, much as it did in Europe. The quality of one’s clothing and other possessions, appearance of health and physical development, accent, and vocabulary of speech were signals of one’s station in life. If an individual was seen to be a poor, then in that low station that one would most likely remain throughout life. The class system was an age-old contrivance that allowed those in higher stations, those with wealth, to support each other while jealously guarding their advantage. The disparity between the haves and have-nots was large. The majority of Americans were poor, underfed, over-worked, and willing to consider underhanded measures to better themselves. They were often so desperate for a better life, they were easy for those well-to-do to manipulate.

Nearly fifty percent of immigrants to America from Europe came as indentured servants. An indentured servant was one who was contracted to work for his or her master to pay off a debt. Many of those who came to America were paying off the debt of passage to the continent by serving a term of four or more years of work for the master, generally the captain of the ship that bore them across the sea. Once in America, the ship captains sold the indentures to employers and the servants then had new masters.

A master had nearly complete control over how the indentured was treated; the quality of food, shelter, and clothing provided, and control over the servant’s hours of rest and labor. Largely, that treatment was not subject to review or questioning by others. Indentured servants mistreated by their masters frequently ran away and became wanted. Newspapers advertised rewards for their capture and return. If a person with an appearance of being poor arrived in a community, any concerned male citizen could stop and question the individual. If the person was found to be an indentured servant, they were returned to their master. Indentured servitude could be virtual slavery except for the fact that the contracts defined a time limit for service.

Indentured servitude was only one of several methods of binding the poor to highly controlled positions of labor. Conditions for those in apprenticeships were frequently not much better. If greedy, those with power over other’s lives could push their charges to the breaking point in an attempt to gain as much service as possible.

Some born into poor families sought to raise their social status by gaining glory in the military. A bold man who acquitted himself heroically on the field of battle could earn respect and thereby rise to a somewhat better station. The fear existed that life could be cut short in battle, however, and the life of a soldier was often extremely harsh. Frequently men were pushed too hard and desertion was common.

The labor of many wives and children was considered of primary importance in helping a family to survive. A hard man, husband, father or both, much like a greedy master, might work his family to the bone to make ends meet. One generation of cruelty often begat a similar one.

For the poor, the potential for suffering inhumanity in most walks of life was high, much of the callousness institutionalized as appropriate and important aspect of maintaining order and discipline. Under harsh conditions, desperation drove many individuals to criminal acts in order to survive. To hide from those pursuing them for their crimes or their masters, many fled into territories where the law was less likely to find them.

The vastness of the wilderness of the new states of Tennessee and Kentucky in the years in which The Door That Faced West takes place, 1799 and 1800, was intimidating to most Americans, yet could be a haven for criminals. To some outlaws, it was a playground. The dense, seemingly endless forest that stretched from the east coast to the Mississippi and beyond was a dangerous area in which human lives were frequently lost due to exposure to the elements, accidents, or deadly encounters with forest animals or Indians. The best land for hunting, much of middle Tennessee and Kentucky, was sacred to the Indians, and they were willing to kill to defend it. Many of the non-indigenous persons who entered that forest to hunt, to carve out a home, to help develop a new settlement, or merely to explore, were never heard from again, lost without a trace. A few more lives lost to the activities of brigands in the forest was hardly noticed.

Inevitably, settlements sprang up along rivers and well-worn animal and Indian traces, but the going was rough. The forest was largely uninterrupted in the eastern half of the continent, and had never been logged. The trees were massive, blocking out much of the light and making farming difficult if not impossible. Under the forest canopy, sometimes hidden beneath the undergrowth as well, were swamps that might be the size of a small pond or cover hundreds of square miles in area. These bogs were rimmed with canebrakes that were nearly impossible to penetrate. Consequently, what traffic there was through the wilderness—those traveling for personal reasons or involved in commerce—was often funneled along the well-worn paths. Criminals had only to wait, hidden in the forest along the traces, until victims happened along. Leaving no witnesses became a standard for seasoned footpads since the immensity of the forest allowed bodies to be easily hidden. Frequently the victims were never found and countless murders during the period went unpunished.

Within settlements, law and order was loosely held by those who appeared tough enough to do the job. Often those were men with criminal backgrounds, willing to do whatever they thought they could get away with to better their positions. Facing possible death in order to fight crime was not at the top of their agenda.

Communication between settlements was poor. Going through the rumor mill as it travelled, information communicated between settlements was often unreliable. With a few outrageous acts, an outlaw’s persona could become larger than life and twice as intimidating within a short time.

The environment described in this post, both geographical and societal, is the landscape in which The Door That Faced West takes place; one in which a couple of ruthless, opportunistic brothers with bloodlust might rampage with impunity for an extended length of time, and, indeed, they did.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Paperback at amazon.com- $12.95

Kindle Edition – $7.95


The Flotsam and Jetsam of History: Some of Why I Like Writing Historical Fiction

If you love words as I do, you’ve got to love history.  Although many expressions that came into existence long ago are still in use and their meanings as idioms are clear to us, the original meanings of the phrases may be lost without a search in history.  Sometimes the original meaning is lost because we use the words differently now.

Because the gun played such a large role in events over the last few centuries, many idioms are related to firearms of the past.  Here are a few that are still widely used, but the context of their origination not widely known.

Lock stock and barrel is an expression we use to mean “all of it.” I used to think it meant the whole store, like a mercantile of some kind. It means the whole rifle or musket. The lock is the firing mechanism, the barrel is, well… self-explanatory, and the stock is the part that helps you hold onto the firearm.

Bite the bullet means expose yourself to possible pain and danger to get a job done. Many people believe it originally meant to bite down on a lead bullet to endure pain, perhaps while having a surgical experience without an anesthetic, but it comes from a time when to prepare a rifle for firing you had to bite the end off a paper-wrapped cartridge before placing its contents in the barrel of your firearm. Doing this while under fire took brave resolve.

Stick to your guns means remain true to principles or goals. The expression has less to do with guns per se and more to do with maintaining a particular post during battle, especially if you’re told to hold a position without retreating. Well, of course you will need that gun, won’t you?

Flash in the pan in an idiom we use to mean a great start but little or no follow up. It’s a great metaphor for a one hit wonder in the music industry who puts out a single very popular tune, yet never does any better afterward and soon falls out of favor.  To do justice to this one takes some explaining, so bear with me.

The original meaning comes from a time when pistols, muskets, and rifles had flint lock firing mechanisms.  To load a flintlock firearm, gunpowder was poured into the barrel followed by a lead ball, called “shot,” wrapped in a bit of rag to make it fit snugly and hold everything in place. A small pan beside a hole in the side of the barrel was primed with a little gunpowder and then protected from spillage by a hinged iron part called a frizzin (see the diagramed illustration above).  When the trigger of the flintlock was pulled, the hammer, which held a piece of flint did two things: it struck sparks off the iron frizzin and knocked that hinged part off the pan.  With the frizzin out of the way, the sparks could reach the powder in the pan and ignite it.  The hot expanding gas of the lit powder was meant to travel down the small hole in the side of the barrel and ignite the powder behind the lead shot.  If this last step didn’t occur, there was merely a flash in the pan and the gun didn’t actually fire.

Understanding the metaphor of this idiom creates a mental picture that enhances the meaning of the expression. A flash in the pan is an exciting event, with a hiss, a flash, and billowing smoke, but the results are disappointing if that isn’t followed by the loud crack of the shot flying from the barrel and striking a target. Without the mental picture some of the power of the expression’s metaphor is lost.

The original meanings of many single words are unknown to most of us today. I’m thinking of several having to do with the production of linen.  A lining, like what you might have in the inside surface of your coat, means something made from line flax. Line flax is the fibers of the flax plant that don’t break off when run through a device that looks like a small bed of nails called a hackle (aka heckle). The fibers that survive going through a hackle and remain long are spun together to make fine linen thread (note the word “line” in “linen”). So a lining is something made of linen. The lining of my stomach or my water heater is not made of linen, though. When my dog gets upset, wants to look bigger and more threatening, he gets his hackles up, but that doesn’t mean he has metal spikes sticking up out of his back. In the past, the flax fibers that broke off short in a hackle were called tow flax. They weren’t good enough to make fine thread and were spun into a rough cord to make tow sacks, which are much like the burlap sacks of today.  Tow fibers are very blonde, but a tow-headed child doesn’t have tow flax for hair even if the tyke is referred to as flaxen-haired. The act of drawing flax fibers through a hackle is known as heckling. The purpose was to worry, to tease (in the old sense, meaning to comb), and straighten the fibers to determine which would stand up to stress and were worth using for linen production. When a stand-up comedian is heckled, that doesn’t mean he’s drawn through a small bed of nails to straighten his fibers and break off his weak parts. Okay, so maybe it does mean he’s being teased, but still, you get my point.

Here’s an expression I like a lot: flotsam and Jetsam. It’s not the most commonly known phrase, but it’s still a fun one using curious words, and I want to use it in the last paragraph of this post. We use it now to mean odds and ends. For example, somebody might say, “The project is finished except for the flotsam and jetsam of small problems I discovered along the way.” Flotsam and jetsam are separate nautical terms, but frequently appear together, both as words and in the context in which the words have meaning.  Flotsam is the remnants of a shipwreck that floats on the sea after a vessel has gone down.  Jetsam is what is jettisoned from a ship going down to lighten its load and help it stay afloat longer.

In the time in which the idiom, flash in the pan, came into existence, the context from which it emerged was well-known to most individuals. An expression like that becomes popular perhaps because it’s frequently used in conversation as a metaphor in lieu of lengthier descriptions. If an idiom becomes useful enough that it’s overused and becomes cliché, it will be so universally understood that the significance of its original context can be discarded. It can far outlive the simple context of its birth. The idiom still performs a meaningful function although many who hear it and repeat it may not understand where it came from. Although the expression, flash in the pan is very much alive, having outlived the technology of the flintlock by more than a century, the metaphor it presents can be considered broken since most people today don’t understand how the firing mechanism works. I’ve heard and used many idioms for years in partial ignorance. As I became more interested in history, the original meaning of some idioms came clear. Finding the discovery satisfying, I became much more curious about the origins of words and phrases.

I like to think of idioms with broken metaphors as flotsam of history. The ship has long since gone under, taking its passengers with it. Phrases remain, floating above the wreckage on the surface like lost luggage, filled with words that once had specific meaning, and, in combination, still have an idiomatic meaning. The specific sense of the words might have been lost, but the phrases still have value. We all claim salvage rights from time to time, but often don’t ask the simple questions: Who owned these expressions and why did they find them valuable?  If we seek answers to the questions, we can learn something about those who left them behind and perhaps find out why the phrases float so well even today.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon


New Novel – THE DOOR THAT FACED WEST


My latest novel, The Door That Faced West, is out now from Lazy Fascist Press.

Here’s what Brian Keene said about it:

“It is not hyperbole to say that Alan M. Clark’s The Door That Faced West left me absolutely stunned. A thoughtfully haunting blend of historical fiction and thriller, this is one of Clark’s best works to date, across any medium. Simply amazing, and undoubtedly one of the best books you’ll read this year.”

Brian Keene, bestselling author of The Rising and Ghoul


Dilation Exercise 77

In an effort to promote my new novel, A PARLIAMENT OF CROWS, released by Lazy Fascist Press, I created the Dilation Exercise below using an excerpt from the novel. The novel is inspired by the three infamous Wardlaw sisters. This Dilation Exercise breaks my rule of only two lines of caption.

Need a further explanation? Go to Imagination Workout—The Dilation Exercises.

“Detective Robert Walker testified that burnt fragments of the bones of a human infant were found in the furnace of the tenement where you and your family lived in Brooklyn. Do you know anything about the tiny bones, Miss Mortlow?”

Although she had her suspicions about Orphia’s role, and that of her sister, Carolee, in the disappearance of the infant, thankfully Vertiline didn’t know the truth. “No,” she said. She clenched her jaw, glanced at the jury, and was disturbed that she couldn’t read their expressions.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

If you like Alan M. Clark’s artwork, please try his writing in both short fiction and novels.

Artwork: “In the Furnace” copyright © 2012 Alan M. Clark.


Dilation Exercise 74

In an effort to promote my new novel, A PARLIAMENT OF CROWS, released by Lazy Fascist Press, I created the Dilation Exercise below using an excerpt from the novel. The novel is inspired by the three infamous Wardlaw sisters. This Dilation Exercise breaks my rule of only two lines of caption.

In the late fall of 1898, persuaded by his mother that suicide was his best course of action, James boarded a train headed for Louisville, Kentucky with the intention of leaping from the locomotive at a great speed and dashing his brains out on the rough ballast around the tracks. He leapt shortly after the train left the station in Christiansboro, before much speed had accumulated. He broke a leg in the fall and was a burden to the family until he healed many months later.

Spring of 1900, James leapt into the well, but he thrashed about and cried so long and hard for help that trying to ignore him became an embarrassment, and a rescue commenced. With each attempt on his life, the activity and drama served only to draw unwanted attention from the parents of the college students and from folks in town.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

If you like Alan M. Clark’s artwork, please try his writing in both short fiction and novels.

Artwork: “Down the Hole (revised)” copyright © 2001 Alan M. Clark.


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