Thursday, August 23, 2012

Why 1851 is a pivotal year for photography

So...it's been a little while since my last post.  I haven't quite gotten myself settled into a posting schedule yet, but I'd intended to post once a week.  We'll see how that goes. In the meantime, thanks for visiting! Your interest and your patience are greatly appreciated.

So anyway...

As I've mentioned before, one of the many things I love about the 19th century is how much of our modern culture really originated in 19th century discoveries and practices, whether social, economic, personal, scientific or technical. Photography is one of the many technological advances that seems so commonplace today yet was born in the 19th century.

Imagine realizing, for the first time, the ability to capture an exact image on a static medium! For some people, it must have seemed like magic. Sure, realist painters could render near perfect replicas of an image, but such images were still approximations--and still, I'm sure, subject to at least some subjective artistic interpretation. And it just plain takes a long time to paint. Camera obscura dates back to well before the 19th century and was used as an aid to rendering images, but it's generally accepted that photography as we know it began in 1839.
  • In case you would like to know more about the advancements that led to the birth of commercial photography during the 19th century, the always wonderful Victorian Web provides a timeline of the history of photography
So...as I write, I tend to encounter great moments of synchronicity (or maybe serendipity...I haven't found *the* word to capture what I mean).  Let me take you down a side road to give you an example:  Years ago, I had a *great* (insert sarcasm here) idea for a story of women's fiction with a supernatural element--something about four damaged women who found themselves brought together by an ancient pagan force to heal not only themselves but the fabric of the universe (or something like that).  Well, I remember looking into numerology sometime after I'd set up the bones of the story and finding out that the locations I had selected (each character lived in a different town between Philadelphia and a New Jersey shore town) were distanced from each other precisely according to some of the sacred numbers. At the time, I felt as though the cosmos must be validating my story and practically commanding me to write it.  (Never did get very far with it.  Made lots of rookie mistakes.  Tucked it away unfinished. Sigh.)

The point is that I'm frequently amazed to find tidbits of reality that fit perfectly into the story I'm writing.  It's probably like that phenomenon when you buy a car and suddenly see those cars everywhere.  There probably hasn't been a sharp rise in those car sales--they've probably just been around but haven't entered your consciousness because there was no reason for them to.  Still, I relish finding historical facts/developments that coincide perfectly with my story.  Don't you?

In this particular case (or current manuscript), I selected 1851 as the year of this story (and a few loosely related ones on my To Do list) long before photography became pivotal to the plot.  So it was a delightful synchronicity that 1851 turned out to be the year that the wet collodion process was introduced in the photographic process.  Prior to 1851, developing photographs took a long time, and an image captured could only be made once.  For instance, a daguerrotype photograph could not be reproduced. This new process enabled photographers to produce images more quickly AND, perhaps more importantly, to make multiple copies of the same image.
  • Here is a detailed and informative video from The J. Paul Getty Museum about the wet collodion process.
One of the key plot points I built into my early drafts assumed that multiple copies of a photograph were possible. Really, it was an essential element in the story. So I did some internal pirouettes when I eventually read that this revolutionary process was introduced in...1851.  Again, it seemed like the cosmos must be validating my work. (Well, that has yet to be determined. And I'm sure the cosmos must have more important things to do.)

So I have become increasingly fascinated with the evolution of photography and photographic products throughout the 19th century!  Such technological leaps in such a relatively short time.  Here's one last link from the Concord Library that traces that evolution of 19th century photography. (I find the carte de visite very cool as well.  Must remember to use that in an upcoming story.) 

Ooh, speaking of evolution...another development born in the 19th century...but, wait.  I'll leave that discussion for another day...

Thursday, August 9, 2012

"When I'm awfully low..."

As you can surely tell from this web site, I am a yet unpublished novelist. No surprise there, but it feels freeing to declare it. 

When I created this blog-turned-web site a few months ago, I was thinking of The Future, of establishing my authorial web presence prior to acquiring an agent and a publishing deal.  Ha, ha, ha.  Authorial presence.  There's that catch-22...I'm not a published author yet so I don't really have authorial "street cred," and I can post (hopefully) thoughtful tidbits about the Victorian period and such, but there are so many varying directions I could go AND, frankly, sometimes it seems like all of those directions are already well covered. 

History? I'll pass along some wonderful links that cover Victorian history and occasionally post new things I uncover myself.

Victorian minutea? Yup, there are some great web sites devoted to that too, and I'll gladly pass them along....and, again, maybe post things I stumble upon myself. 

The craft of writing? Again, there seems little point to me giving fledgling writers advice when I'm not published yet either (well, there was that one flash fiction piece in an online publication)...and, again, there are lots of other web sites that already talk craft quite effectively.

So what do I, neophyte and fellow wanderer in the darkness, have to offer blog readers?

Me, I suppose...which raises its own conundrum. 

I'm not prone to self-disclosure, even in "real life." You don't need--or want--to know what pedestrian ups and downs are going on in my offline existence.  And I'm reluctant to chronicle my querying experience in detail (not because it's bad--it isn't--but it's personal...and, if it doesn't result in a happy ending, I won't want to relive the experience in detail).

But what I can give you at the moment is this: 

Some days, I have doubts. Some days, my writerly insecurity looms large and paralyzes me. Some days, I think I should quit. "You're a hack." "Why bother?" "Everything you wrote today sucked." "Everything you've ever written sucks."

Then I go back and read some success stories that remind me of how long and arduous the process of publishing can be.  As I tell students (and new-er writers), good writing is a multi-stage process, two keys to which are the desire to keep learning and growing AND the work of revising.  Few people are naturally good writers. The rest of us need time and practice to learn how to write well...we need to ferret out our personal weak spots (whether that's sentence structure, plotting, pacing, etc.) and learn how to improve upon them.  This isn't a sprint; it's a cross-country run, and every moment holds an opportunity for growth and insight.

As a strong example, here is Sherry Thomas's story about her path to the debut of Private Arrangements so many moons ago.  Starting with that fabulous debut, her rise as a historical romance novelist has been astronomical, including TWO back-to-back wins of the RWA's prestigious RITA Award.  I've followed her career since she first became represented by Kristin Nelson of the Nelson Literary Agency (because I was, and still am, an avid follower of Kristin's Pub Rants blog). But her story shows that her path to initial publication wasn't smooth and easy. And it gives me hope. 

I hope it does the same for you.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Eureka! Or why mis-quoting irks me...

Years ago, a dear friend sent me a writer care package composed of Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet & the Possibility of Being and a lovely keepsake bookmark, velvet and metal, engraved with the quotation "It is never too late to be what you might have been," attributed to Victorian novelist George Eliot. I'm sad to say that I've spent the past 30 min scouring my books for the bookmark because I wanted to post a picture of it, but I can't find it.  (I'm just crossing my fingers that maybe it's tucked into one of the books I keep on my favorites shelf at work.) 

Now I've seen this quotation countless times and seen it attributed to George Eliot regularly.  Do an online search for it, and you'll see it's EVERYWHERE.  It's not only used in publishing but also in the self-help industry, as you might expect.

BUT...one of the chapters in my doctoral dissertation (eons ago) focused on George Eliot's Middlemarch so I've felt a nagging disquiet about this quotation.  While I could easily imagine it said by one of her characters, I hadn't actually run across it in my research.

It's such a hopeful, inspiring statement.  Some might say that the spirit of the statement is what matters, not who actually said it or whether the wording is exact.

But I'm a pedant at heart.  And, fundamentally, I believe not only that words matter (I'm using the term as both significance AND concreteness) but that, when we use the words of others, it's even more important to use them responsibly.  If one quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. or Abraham Lincoln or someone you admire, the understanding is that they're doing so to convey a common truth.  To mis-quote destabilizes that truth...and can call into question the expertise and authority of the person doing the mis-quoting.  Worse yet, when a quote such as the one above spreads like wildfire (see just about every online quote or writer quote web site), the truth becomes more and more difficult to establish.  Ultimately, attribution can get completely twisted.  Then we end up with statements like this that are completely inaccurate (NO, it was not in Middlemarch.  Really. You can go to Project Gutenberg yourself and search the full text.)--and yet that article goes on to use that quotation as one of its foundational ideas.  And we end up with actual concrete materials (like my pretty, and completely well-intended, bookmark) that perpetuate the lie (and perhaps make money from it).

So I've done a little digging...and I'm not done yet...but I think I may have found the origin of this mis-quote in Eliot's  Silas Marner.  If this is the source, its context matters to me.  In fact, it turns out that Eliot used the phrase "too late" in almost all of her novels.  (Note: I haven't yet gone through available letters, nor have I gone though her publications in periodicals.)  But usually, she used it in situations that really were "too late"--too late to go back and make wiser choices, too late to change one's ways. 

Here is what I've found thus far (emphasis mine) and it's from Silas Marner:
"Well, Master Marner, it's niver too late to turn over a new leaf, and if you've niver had no church, there's no telling the good it'll do you. For I feel so set up and comfortable as niver was, when I've been and heard the prayers, and the singing to the praise and glory o' God, as Mr. Macey gives out—and Mr. Crackenthorp saying good words, and more partic'lar on Sacramen' Day; and if a bit o' trouble comes, I feel as I can put up wi' it, for I've looked for help i' the right quarter, and gev myself up to Them as we must all give ourselves up to at the last; and if we'n done our part, it isn't to be believed as Them as are above us 'ull be worse nor we are, and come short o' Their'n." (I'm quoting from an ebook without page numbers so the best I can tell you is that this excerpt is from Chapter 10.)
As you can see, this occurrence is pretty close. It's one of the few instances in which Eliot uses the phrase "too late" in a positive sense--and, at least from what I've found so far, those positive influences are all tied to spirituality, which is rather in keeping with Eliot's work. Earthly rescue from our mistakes may not be possible, but spiritual reformation always is, she seems to suggest.
~~~~~~~~~~~~
Full disclosure:  I so want the quotation to be real...It's possible that it's from her letters or some other writings.  But this seems like a reasonable origin.  But I've loved this questionable George Eliot quotation (which is not from Middlemarch) for so long that it inspired the title of one of my (as yet unpublished) novels, Never Too Late.  More on the inspirations behind NTL in the near future.

NECRWA 2017 Follow-up!

*ahem* *looks around* *sweeps away the dust bunnies and cobwebs* So...hi! It's apparently been quite a while since I last sa...