Peppers – vegetable or fruit?

Vegetables or fruits?

Vegetables or fruits?

There are NO vegetables. Everything we call a vegetable is actually a fruit. So said the host of the TV show On The Spot this past weekend.

What? I’m a farm kid. I grew up around agriculture and spent most of my professional career in public relations working with clients who served the ag industry. I had never heard this before.

This was such a provocative statement, stated so definitively, that I had to do the research. First stop: Wikipedia. The answer was fascinating, taking into account botany, the culinary arts, and the law.

Botanically – (upon which On The Spot must have made its pronouncement) – the ovary of a flowering plant is the fruit. Since both fruits (peaches, plums, oranges) and vegetables (eggplants, bell peppers, tomatoes) come from the flowering part of the plant, they are botanically speaking all really fruits. 

Culinary – In the grocery story and kitchen, fruits and vegetables are mutually exclusive. Fruits are the edible part of the plant with a sweet flavor. Vegetables are the edible part of a plant with a savory flavor.

Legally – When in doubt, the law may intervene as it did with the tomato in Nix v Hedden, a case argued before the Supreme Court in 1893. The outcome? The tomato is a vegetable. The case had such import because commodities are taxed as vegetables in particular jurisdictions and pocketbooks would hurt depending on where the tomato came down.

To be fair to the Supreme Court justices, while they declared the tomato a vegetable for tax purposes, they acknowledged it was botanically a fruit. How’s that for standing firmly on both sides of the debate?

My research didn’t stop with Wikipedia (a cautionary tale for all). The Mayo Clinic points out there really are vegetables – those foods that come from parts of the plant other than the flower, e.g. celery (stem), lettuce (leaves), and beets, carrots and potatoes (roots.)

All this may be a bit of a diversion, but we writers like to be precise in our use of language. And as one speaker arguing for a classical education opined, It’s important to know the rules before you break them.

Offering another, particularly timely, perspective on the topic, a Facebook post weighed in on the topic today: Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.

I know all this new-found knowledge/wisdom will come into play in my writing at some point. I can hardly wait.

What did rural life look like in 1910?

Early 20th century photos inspire writing.

Whether writing memoir or novel, I’ve found photos a great source of inspiration. Today, almost everyone has the ability to take photos. Digital cameras allow us to take pictures with abandon, of subjects important and mundane. It’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t so.

Yet 50 years ago – at the time covered by my memoir – Mom used a box camera with rolls of film that only had twelve exposures. She brought the camera out on special occasions. One hundred years ago, during the time in which my WWI-era novel Go Away Home is set, though Kodak was working hard to bring it to the masses, photography was most often the purview of professionals.

Because photography was relatively rare, I consider myself lucky to have an album of photos my grandmother took between 1905 and 1915.  I grew up looking at these photos and they’ve been a constant reference point as I’ve written. Many of the photos have inspired scenes in my novel.

A good day hunting.

A good day hunting.

My grandmother was not constrained by the thought that everyone had to be dressed up to have their picture taken. This picture of two men just back from hunting made me think about clothes and dogs and rabbit stew.

GAH - Model T

One of the first cars in the neighborhood.

This picture of my grandfather and his car made me wonder how you drive a Model T and how anyone learned. I studied YouTube videos. My mother told me she and her sister taught themselves. Once they wound up in a ditch and a group of men simply picked up the car and set it back on the road.

GAH - Picking Corn

Taking a break.


Taking her camera to the field, Grandma captured this happy moment between father and daughter on a corn wagon. My father told me he could pick 100 bushel of corn a day. In case you wonder, that’s a lot when you’re picking by hand.

This picture of a log house in South Dakota was in my mind as I wrote about one of my characters who went to Wyoming to homestead. They lived a year in such a log home.

Do you wonder how they kept whites white?

Do you wonder how they kept whites white?

Accurately portraying life in the early 1900s has taken me lots of places to do research. I count myself lucky to find details and whole scenes springing from our family album of old photos.


Trying to “Slumber in the Slammer”

A night in jail offers a change of venue to explore issues of control.

I’ve slept on floors that were softer than the mattress in my cell. The pillow was hard enough to knock someone out in a pillow fight. Standing on tiptoe, I could look out the window to see the sky – and the razor wire fence. As long as I held my hands just so, the cuffs were only moderately uncomfortable. These were some of my observations during a night in jail.

Razor Wire, Iowa Women's Correctional InstitutionA strong sense of place is important to my writing, and I need to be able to visualize the places I write about. I don’t have plans to include a prison in any of my stories, but you never know. So when the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women built new facilities and opened the doors for the community  to get a taste of prison life before they move women offenders in, I signed up for “Slumber in the Slammer.”

Lately I’ve been considering the issue of control: how much do I need, what would it mean to lose it, how do people cope. What better place to explore those questions than in prison.

The warden and her staff crammed as much of the prison experience into an overnight stay as they could. When I checked in on Saturday night along with close to 100 others, I could only bring clothes for sleeping and a change for the next day. No cell phones. No cameras. We were issued a hygiene kit, including toothbrush, toothpaste and soap. We ate prison food, stood inside our cells for head counts, took personality assessments, wore restraints, tried to pass GED tests.

As much as our brand new cell block reminded me of a dormitory, the reality of life there is quite different. Offenders have little control of their lives in prison. They eat when someone says its time. They sleep when someone says lights out. They go outside when it’s their turn. If they’ve earned the privilege. They can buy a limited number of items in the commissary, but the officers determine whether they can keep the stash or not.

A panel of women who’d been incarcerated for 2 to 15 years told us about their lives inside. Until they move into the new facility, four women are housed in each 8’x10′ cell because a facility built to house 450 women now holds more than 600. They use toilets in the cell, in full view of each other, and they shower with no privacy. It is no wonder that constipation is a problem for many.

Lack of privacy was the hardest aspect of prison life for one woman to adapt to. For another it was the separation from her two-year-old child, now being raised by the child’s grandmother. The new prison allows for individual showers and toilet stalls. The new visiting area includes play areas and toys for visiting children.

In this highly restricted environment, offenders look for areas they can control. Prison staff demonstrated ingenious recipes developed by offenders and made from items they buy in the commissary. “Convict Cheesecake” includes graham crackers, cream cookies, dried lemonade mix, a salted nut roll and water. Packets of instant oatmeal, peanut butter, and half a Snickers bar become “No Bake Cookies.”

Throughout the stay, I gauged my own reactions. I chaffed at the regimentation, at others who were too loud, at the lights that brightened my cell throughout the night. I did not get comfortable on the plank they called a mattress. I was annoyed there was no fresh fruit and no sweetener for coffee. A hundred times I wanted my phone and my camera. These are picky, I know, but I am used to being able to control these small elements of my environment. And in the morning, I could walk out.

If you read historical fiction, let your voice be heard

The 2013 Historical Fiction Reader Survey is underway. More than 1,400 people have participated so far. More is better. Here’s the info. Click on the title to get to the A Writer of History site and learn more about the survey. Click on the URL link to go right to the survey and let your voice be heard.

Re-blog from A Writer of History

2013 Reader Survey – with the URL

My apologies if I sound like a broken record :-) however, I wanted to mention the survey again in case you did not have a chance to take it or I can prevail upon your kindness to pass the URL along. As of today, more than 1400 participants have taken the survey – you can see the distribution below.

2013 Reader Survey Map

Read more …


Getting the historical details right

Iowa farm women, c. 1913

Iowa farm women, c. 1913

Did farm women wear corsets in 1913? Is there a particular name for the everyday dresses they wore? How many acres could a farmer plant in a day and what was the equipment like? How many men did it take to run a farm?

When I write, I need to see the people and places in my mind. That can be tricky when the events took place 100 years ago. As I fine tune my novel set in the early 1900s, I was stuck on some details so I headed to the Living History Farms near Des Moines. I spent an afternoon walking the 1900’s farmstead and the 1875 village, talking with the interpreters. I discovered the answers to my questions and much more.

A Living History Farm interpreter shows just how big "wrappers" can be.

A Living History Farm interpreter shows just how big “wrappers” can be.

Called “wrappers,” these voluminous dresses gave the women ample room to move, protected them from wood stove sparks and could be used for any number of other tasks. Sometimes women added a belt; sometimes (as you see in the 1913 photo above) they did not. Aprons kept the dresses clean so they didn’t have to be washed so often. Women donned the restrictive corsets only for dress up occasions.

Butter kept cool in the root cellar. No refrigeration.

Butter kept cool in the root cellar. No refrigeration.

I’d known that farm women took care of the chickens and eggs but learned they were responsible for all food-related tasks. They milked the cows, which were often shorthorns, a breed that served for milk and meat. The women used the milk for cooking and drinking; they also made butter and cheese. They sold anything beyond what the family consumed. Eggs, butter, and cheese were a woman’s entree to the social world of town and to some financial independence.

Farms today are labor intensive; in the early 1900s they were more so. Corn was planted two rows at a time. With a planter, a man could plant five acres a day. Some equipment required two men to operate – one to drive the horses; the other to work the equipment the horses pulled.

Horsepower came from real horses in 1900.

Horsepower came from real horses in 1900.

I grew up on an Iowa farm in the 1950s-60s, and talking with the interpreters, I realized farming at mid-Century hadn’t changed much from the 1900s. Farms were 160 acres. It took more than one man to do all the work. Dad grew corn, alfalfa, and oats, just as farmers did in 1900. Pigs were Dad’s cash crop, too, though he also sold milk. We had more conveniences (thank goodness!), such as refrigeration, electricity, and tractors, though Dad farmed with horses in the early years.

Many of these details will find their way into my novel ensuring that readers will be able to step back in time and experience the farm as if they’d walked up the lane in 1913.

“Food will win the war” – Women & WWI

WW1 - Be Patriotic - PosterMy novel set during WWI has had me digging into how the war affected Americans in their everyday lives. A popular women’s magazine of the era, Ladies Home Journal showed that even before the United States entered the war in 1917, Americans were feeling the impact.

Articles in the February 1915 Ladies Home Journal described “fundamental lessons coming out of the war.” Among them:

  • Every American was being taught economy
  • Women were urged to look for products “Made in the United States of America” and to “Buy American”
  • People were urged to “think of the other person”
  • Readers were advised of the need for humility and interdependence
  • The magazine suggested that, “we’ve wrongly fostered a war spirit in children” (by giving children war toys for Christmas)

All of those actions were voluntary. In 1917, after the U.S. entered the war, what had been left to volunteer compliance became the purview of the government. Congress passed the Food and Fuel Control Act, also known as the Lever Act, and President Woodrow Wilson issued an executive order creating the U.S. Food Administration.

Herbert Hoover, former head of the Belgian Relief Organization won the job of Food Administration administrator. He accepted no salary, arguing that taking no pay would give him the moral authority to ask the American people to sacrifice in support of the war effort.

With the authority of President Wilson, Hoover became a “food dictator,” regulating the distribution, export, import, purchase, and storage of food. “Food will win the war,” Hoover proclaimed.

WWI - Food Will Win The War - Poster Hoover reached out to American women in August 1917 with a full-page article in Ladies Home Journal titled, “What I would like Women to do.” Here are some of the ways Hoover urged women to conserve:

  • Don’t throw food away
  • Order small meals
  • Have nutritional balance
  • Stop catering to different appetites
  • No second helpings. No 4 o’clock teas. No party refreshments. No eating after the theatre.
  • One meatless day a week, one wheatless meal a day, no young meat, no butter in cookies
  • Sign a statement of support

Food conservation continued to be a focus of the war on the home front. Another article provided women with these helpful tips:

  • Put two Fridays in every week
  • Use butter substitutes – beef & mutton fat, lard, sausage drippings
  • Eat meals from the garden. Preserve produce by pickling and canning
  • Use things you might have thrown away, e.g. make peapod soup, use outside lettuce leaves and scallion tops for salad, use crushed eggshells to clarify clear soup.

WWI - Eat More Corn - PosterWheat was an important export to Europe, so American housewives were urged to try new dishes using “war flours.” A few recipe ideas:

  • Corn meal and raisin gems
  • Bran drops
  • Golden corn tea rolls
  • Graham nut bread for sandwiches
  • Potato biscuits
  • Corn muffin dessert with spiced apples
  • Corn crullers
  • Graham and rye cookies
  • Steamed corn meal apple pudding
  • Corn and rice muffins
  • Pumpkin biscuits
  • Rice waffles
  • Use one cup of oatmeal in place of one cup of wheat flour in a griddlecake recipe.

In reading these lists, I was struck by how many of them my mother did as a matter of routine on the farm in the 1950s & 60s – cooking with bacon grease and lard, using cornmeal, pumpkin, and oatmeal in recipes. Gardening, preserving, using everything. Occasionally we observed meatless Fridays in deference to our Catholic hired men, but we had broader meat options than city dwellers. The squirrels and rabbits Dad shot were tasty.

I don’t know if those practices held over from the wars or if farm living simply lends itself to them. In any case, women answered Hoover’s call and went to their kitchens to help win the war.

What is the value of a letter?

When I was a kid growing up on the farm in the 1950s, I waited everyday for the mailman to stop at our mailbox. It wasn’t as though anyone was going to write to me, but any letter we received was exciting. Before email, Skype, texts, when telephones were used mainly for emergencies, letters were the common form of communication. Letters recorded the everyday; letters recorded the extraordinary. 

For writers, letters are a treasure trove. Where would David McCullough be without the letters John and Abigail Adams wrote to each other? All of the letters telling of their love for each other, their concerns about their children and the farm, their interest in affairs of state. 

Canada Ltr1

Letter from Wm. J. Johnston to Carl Jensen, Esq. Jan. 13, 1910

My maternal grandmother and grandfather were the inspiration for my upcoming novel set in pre-WWI Iowa. Because my grandfather died in 1918 and my grandmother never talked about him, the story I’ve created is fiction. In creating their world 100 years ago, I drew from many sources, among them a handful of letters my grandfather saved.

Canada Ltr2

$300 for three horses – 1910

Before he married my grandmother, Carl Jensen homesteaded in Canada. That didn’t work out for reasons we don’t know and he returned to Iowa. The letter I’ve included here is from one of his neighbors. As short as this letter is, it provided a wealth of information to inspire my writing.

Canada Ltr3

He would “Make a dicker” on farm equipment.

Among other things, I learned how people addressed each other, how they abbreviated names, the price of horses, what kinds of equipment they used.

Canada Ltr4

“… I will come in and get you and you can come out and batch for a while again.”

I learned that terms could be agreed to in a letter and both parties could be comfortable with that. I learned that the mailman didn’t come to every Canadian farm – Mr. Johnson was sending his letter into town to be posted by a neighbor who was going to make the trip to town.

On a personal level, the fact that my grandfather saved these letters said something powerful to me about the loneliness of farming on the Canadian prairie. Only a handful of letters from that era survive, but I treasure each of them.

I regret that we don’t write letters so often anymore. I wonder what writers of the future will use for their research? From time to time, I print out significant emails, but the fact that I print those and discard the others that deal with the mundane also says something.

What about you? Are you still writing letters? Do you save any that you receive? Writers – Have you used letters as research for your writing?

How do you see the differences in writing fiction & memoir?

WritingSince I’ve written memoirs and am close to completing my first novel, when the question of differences in writing fiction and memoir came to me in response to a blog post, you’d have thought I’d be able to respond right off the bat. But, I was stumped. By definition, memoirs (based on the factual happenings in the author’s life) and novels (story made up by the author) are different, but how else?

Without making a conscious decision about style at the time, I blurred the lines between memoir and fiction when I wrote my memoir Growing Up Country as creative nonfiction. As author Lee Gutkind described it, “the primary goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, just like a reporter, but to shape it in a way that reads like fiction.”

I use some of the same techniques in writing both memoir and fiction.

Visualization. Before I can write, I have to be able to see the places and people I’m writing about. Recalling the details for my memoir was as easy as closing my eyes and mentally walking into the barn on our farm, smelling new-cut hay, or seeing my grandma’s rolled down nylons.

To write historical fiction set in the WWI era, I had to be able to see the places and people just as clearly. I chose a Victorian house I’d been in often as my character’s home. That way I knew how the rooms flowed; I could imagine the furniture. I visited the Living History Farm in Des Moines where I talked with the interpreters at the 1900’s farm and attended a funeral at the 1880 Victorian house. I found pictures and videos. Anything that would let me immerse myself in the time so that it was as real to me as if I’d lived then myself.

Research played a role in both my memoir and in the novel. My family was the research source for the memoir. Memory plays tricks on everyone and to the extent I could, I verified the details I included about farm life. Research for my novel went to a much deeper level and took on a life of its own. I am thankful every day for the Internet where I can learn to drive a Model T or set up a professional photo studio. 

Though the techniques are similar, the challenges in writing memoir and fiction have been different for me.

Imagination vs. Reality – One of greatest challenges in writing fiction has been that I’m used to writing based on facts. The writing I’d done during 30+ years in public relations and marketing was journalist/business writing – all based on the facts of client products. My memoir was based on the reality of my life. With my novel, even though I started with a few actual places and dates and events in mind, the rest is the product of my imagination.

I’ve come to enjoy the ability to add people and events when the story required them.  When my manuscript was all but complete, I realized the need for another character and a minor subplot.  I was amazed at how simple it was to develop this man, create a life and motivations for him, and retrofit him into an existing story. It took some time, but I’ve come to revel in the freedom of “making it up.”

The Story Arc. Both memoir and fiction have to tell a good story. Structured as a series of relatively independent short stories, my memoir did not adhere to the standard novel story arc. Yes, there is a gentle progression in my memoir from stories when I’m younger to those when I’m a little older, from memories that are more naïve to those that are more mature and challenging. But these progressions are not as structured or dramatic as those of successful fiction.

Learning the craft of novel writing has been an ongoing delight, from inciting incident to crisis, climax, and resolution. In three acts. With escalating pulses. Some writers may know this inherently; I have to learn it. All fun, but a definite difference.

These are the similarities and differences I see in writing fiction and memoir. Writers – What differences do you see?  Readers – This could all be behind the scenes shop talk, but are there differences you see in the way fiction and memoirs are written?


History wrapped in a gripping story – Author David Lawlor

THE GOLDEN GRAVE - David LawlorI’m pleased to welcome Irish author David Lawlor to my blog today. For anyone with an interest in historical fiction, WWI, and action/adventure stories, this will be a treat.  Lawlor’s just-released novel THE GOLDEN GRAVE continues the story of Liam Mannion, an Irishman who fought valiantly in WWI but now is trying to outrun his past. Mannion finds himself back in France with his war buddies reviving the horrors of trench warfare as they pursue a treasure buried during the war.

Though THE GOLDEN GRAVE can be read as a stand-alone story, you’ll be missing a bet if you don’t go back and pick up TAN, too.

Welcome, David!
Thanks, Carol

What’s the most interesting thing to you about writing historical fiction?
I’m intrigued by those times when people were really tested and wonder how I would have fared. Questions like that inspire my writing and my delving into the past. With my first book, TAN, I delved into the world of the frontline soldier and also into the textile industry of Manchester. These things intrigued me.

What kinds of research did you do to ground yourself in the WWI era?
Some of the technical research was tedious. I nearly went mad trying to understand and describe the workings of a textile mill, but I felt it was worth it to give a sense of what my main character, Liam, was going through.

With TAN’s sequel, THE GOLDEN GRAVE, I found the research easier. I had already got a feel for the times – the clothes, the songs, etc., in the first book. I studied photographs and more accounts of trench life. I also researched tunneling techniques and bunker making.

One thing that drove me nuts was trying to figure out how long it would take to pump a water-filled bunker clear using 1920s equipment. Eventually, I contacted the Imperial War Museum and they gave me an approximate answer. It was little questions like those that held me up, not the bigger ones like how the battlefield looked. The other useful tool I had was a documentary about a WWI bunker. It was this documentary that inspired the story.

The research you did really made the time, place and experiences in your books incredibly real. In TAN, you wrote about the burning of Balbriggan, an historical fact. Where does fact end and fiction begin with your writing?
This historic event is the skeleton upon which I interweave my story. For TAN, I studied photos of Balbriggan and walked its streets, talking to locals. One of their anecdotes about the Tans actually made it into the book. The rest of TAN was fairly loose. Sometimes you can get too caught up in the historic detail to the detriment of the story.

You’ve struck the right balance between historical accuracy and characters with a good story, David. How do you go about creating your characters? Are they based on people you know? Is Liam autobiographical?
I suppose I would like to think there is some of me in Liam. The femme fatale, Sabine, was based on a woman I know, (the less said about that the better 😉 ) Ben Sweetman came easily – he’s a gentle giant, like the Death Row character in The Green Mile.

I’m impressed with your portrayal of female characters. What informed how you write about women – in general – and with regard to the war?
I approach female characters the same way as male ones. I wonder how I’d react in their situations. Sabine had to be clever and manipulative to survive and successfully run a bar catering to aggressive, battle-scarred soldiers, so I tried to show that side of her. Equally, I felt Kate, from TAN, was bound to be smart and feisty, given that her father was a successful businessman and she was living through the whole suffragette movement. Women had played an important part during the 1916 Easter Rising. I felt it was natural that their role would have impacted on Kate.

The women are right in the action, that’s for sure. Pacing is a strength in your writing. The story grabs readers and doesn’t let go. What advice do you have for writers (like me) who’d like to improve pacing?
I don’t think I can give much advice to anyone, but I try to see the story as you would a film. I leave little cliff-hangers at the end of sections and I like to flip between scenes quite quickly. I think that can be used to inject pace or to slow things down when events get too frenetic.

When you have a story idea, how do you go about building the story?
I build a clear plot before writing but leave enough room for the characters to take me on tangents. In a new book I’m working on I have one character whose basic role is clear but who I know will be intriguing; how exactly that will be revealed, I’m unsure.

David LawlorI’ll be waiting, David. I’m a fan! I could go on asking questions, but we both need to get back to writing. Thanks for joining us today.

If you’d like more info about David’s take on history, he celebrates the bit players of history on his blog: History With A Twist

And here are more ways to find him and his books.
Tan (US site)
Tan (UK site)
The Golden Grave (US site)
The Golden Grave (UK site)

Twitter: @LawlorDavid

On Goodreads:
The Golden Grave

The value of a fresh look at writing? Priceless

Bryce Canyon, Utah - Arch

Bryce Canyon, Utah

A fresh read of a manuscript points out all kinds of problems: flat characters, scenes that though beautifully written go nowhere, leaps in logic that were clear to me in the writing but not to a reader. A fresh location can also inspire a fresh look.

A few weeks ago, I met my writing partner Mary Gottschalk in Moab, Utah, for what has become an annual tradition – a week devoted to our writing. 

I’ve written about retreats before, but I was particularly excited about this one. Having given the full manuscript for my work in progress, All She Ever Wanted, to Mary for a complete, start-to-finish read, my goal for the week was to fill in the holes and trim the fat she saw on this read through. She didn’t disappoint. Her critique offered both big picture and fine-tuning feedback.

Reading with clear eyes, she found sections that could be eliminated entirely or reduced to a line or two of backstory. With her comments in hand, I set about hacking entire scenes. Once I embraced the idea of eliminating anything that didn’t move the plot forward in a meaningful way, I found other scenes that were surprisingly easy to send to the cutting room floor.

But it wasn’t all about cutting. In the course of the week, a character who started off as a minor player at a holiday party took on a major role. By the end of the week, Harley was challenging my heroine Liddie to grow up, speak up, and face the reality of how quickly gossip can travel. To accommodate this troublemaker, I wrote new scenes and changed the tone of others.

In addition, I fleshed out the historical setting, adding richness of detail to the story skeleton, based on research I’d been doing. The war in Europe (WWI) had a broader impact on the U.S. than I’d realized it did, years before the U.S. sent troops into battle in 1917. Every American was being taught economy. Women were called to eschew foreign labels in their clothes and buy American. Clothing designs took on military influences.

At the beginning of the week, I hoped to be able to respond to Mary’s comments on the first half of my manuscript. What an adrenaline rush to find that I could tackle the entire manuscript. By the time we were driving back home, I could visualize having my manuscript ready to put in the hands of beta readers by the end of April.

A fresh look and a week with focus let me take some very big steps in that direction.