Category: research/background

Behind the Book: The Cover and Title Inspiration for Out of Night

Not long ago, an author friend posted about her current working title for the second book in her series, and how she was undecided about the final title. Many authors will have a working title that we let the reader know about, only to change that title when it comes time to cover creation. Others just find it later.

I had titled my fourth book “Ball of Confusion” for most of its journey as a work in progress. I had even gone through the rewrites and structural edits and had toyed with changing the title, but nothing seemed to convey the central theme of the book.

It was research that led me to it, though. Back in December I was reading Elizabeth Kim’s memoir Ten Thousand Sorrows as she is a Korean War orphan and nearly my character Suzy’s age. I wanted to hear about her experiences and challenges of growing up in America. If you haven’t read her book, I highly recommend you get it, and also invest in some hankies. I read it nearly in one sitting.

A central theme of Kim’s book was fear of abandonment, and as the daughter of divorced parents from an early age, I could relate to her so much. So when she quoted Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Song of the Nations” as a poem that gave her peace, a lightbulb went off immediately.

As a writer and a creator, you have to trust your gut. It’s one of your most prized tools, and you must cherish. The moment I read that first phrase, I knew I had a title. Once I read the entire poem, I was bobbing my head up and down, because everything I wanted to express in this book was encapsulated into one poem.

Here is the poem in it’s entirety:

Out of
Night and alarm
Out of
Darkness and dread,
Out of old hate,
Grudge and distrust,
Sin and remorse,
Passion and blindness;
Shall come
Dawn and the birds,
Shall come
Slacking of greed,
Snapping of fear–
Love shall fold warm like a cloak
Round the shuddering earth
Till the sound of its woe cease.

After
Terrible dreams,
After
crying in sleep,
Grief beyond thought,
Twisting of hands,
Tears from shut lids
Wetting the pillow;
Shall come
Sun on the wall,
Shall come sounds from the street,
Children at play–
Bubbles too big blown, and dreams
Filled too heavy with horror
Will burst and in mist fall.

Sing then,
You who were dumb,
Shout then
Into the dark;
Are we not one?
Are not our hearts
Hot from one fire,
And in one mold cast?
Out of
Night and alarm,
Out of
Terrible dreams,
Reach me your hand,
This is the meaning of all that we
Suffered in sleep, — the white peace
Of the waking.

I discussed my thoughts with my editor and she, along with one of my beta readers, loved the new title. My old art instructor used to say, “Now you’re cooking with gas.”

From there I was able to form a clear picture of the cover. Two women clothed in contrasting black and white, representing the imagery of coming out of depression and despair into healing and affirmation. Doubt and self-loathing into confidence.

The rest was orchestration, playing on images found in 1960s fashion ads and dress pattern illustrations. My designer, the fabulous Victoria Cooper of Victoria Cooper Art, and I went back and forth on dresses and hairstyles until I had that “That’s it!” moment straight out of a Charlie Brown Christmas.

I’m so pleased to reveal that inspiration with you, and to introduce Kate and Lydie’s story. I often return to themes in my series, and this one touches back on elements of books one and two in the saga. The first is that although darkness may seem impenetrable, light is always out there. The other is that no matter what your past may be, no matter what place you have come from, your future is in your hands. You have the choice and the chance to change that and become the person you want to become. It isn’t an easy path by any means. In my own life, it has sometimes been a series of one step forward and two steps back. But as long as you keep moving, even if you must crawl, you are still on that path.

Out of Night is available for preorder on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple Books, and Kobo.

Amazon: mybook.to/outofnight

Barnes and Noble, Apple and Kobo Books: https://books2read.com/u/bP9J7z

Writing community, how do you find inspration for your titles? Leave a comment and share!

Behind the Book: Mary Carroll Nelson, A Portrait of a Barnard College ’50 Fine Arts Alumna

I’m pleased to mark the beginning of a new blog post series on the historical background of Before the Flood, and we’re starting off with Lydia’s artistic background at Barnard College, one of the Seven Sisters colleges of the Northeast.

Someone asked me if Lydia is based upon a real historical figure, and the answer is no. Lydia is a completely a fictional character that is my brainchild, yet I draw influences from historical figures and real people of the time.  I researched the lives of Barnard College women through archives of the Barnard College Bulletin, then a weekly student newspaper, and the Barnard Mortarboard, the college yearbook. I then poured over the work and biographies of mid-century female artists to help sculpt the portrait of a young artist at the beginning of her career.

Lydia entered university in a time when a college education a privilege and not as accessible as we know of it today. The women of her class knew they were daughters of fortune. From Convocation in 1946 with Dean Helen Gildersleeve (a powerhouse and great advocate for the international exchange of ideas) to their Commencement in 1950 with Dean Millicent Carey McIntosh, these women were “expected to be adults, and expected to change the world.” They knew from their first days at Barnard that they  had a great responsibility to use their knowledge and background to impact not just themselves, but their communities and the world around them. It emboldened them to lead lives that distinguished between artifice and reality. (6). It’s these qualities that will mold Lydie for the rest of her life.

Getting to know these ladies through research and their biographies led me to want to discover what achievements they made, especially Lydia’s fine arts sisters at Barnard. This led me to Mary Carroll Nelson, one of the surviving class members of the Class of 1950. Call it intuition or fate or what have you, but it drew me to her.  Recently after viewing some of her artwork at Weyrich Gallery in her adopted home of Albuquerque, New Mexico of many years, I contacted Mary and that led to a lovely correspondence that I’m privileged to share.  More about my visit to Weyrich later in this post.

Just who is Mary Carroll Nelson, how do you put such a life into words? Her accomplishments are many. She’s a celebrated Marquis Who’s Who Lifetime Achiever. She’s been listed in Who’s Who of America, Who’s Who of the West, and Who’s Who of American Women. She’s also the founder of the Society of Layerists in Multi-Media  (http://www.slmm.org)  and a respected artist, panelist, teacher, and author.

But who was Mary in college, and how did Barnard impact her world as an artist and a person?  Well, she was someone I definitely wanted to know. She stayed up late to study and took the bottom bunk in her dorm room so her roommate could to go to bed early. She noted that campus was rather ugly at the time and her recollections of her dorm Brooks Hall,  “when I arrived to move into Brooks Hall the rooms were truly ugly.  A double-decker bed bought as war surplus from the Navy was the first thing I saw.  A little basin, a pair of low dressers, and a middle room with desks for four, and a third room where two juniors were living.  I and my roommate were their wards for the first year.  In a while, we had made the room our own, more personal and with some color here and there. (1)”

She also wrote in her correspondence that she looks back on Barnard with gratitude. Her “fine arts education there has nourished my lifelong commitment to art, as student, collector, admirer, and artist.  It is how I view history.  The rest of the required curriculum was widely dispersed and provided a background for understanding the origins of things, ideas, places, and events.”

Her career piqued my interest because like Lydie,  their paths post graduation are similar: both became elementary school teachers and art teachers and both married within the same year they graduated from Barnard.

Born in Bryan, Texas, to James Vincent and Mary Elizabeth Carroll, Mary Carroll Nelson married Edwin Blakely Nelson, a West Point graduate and physicist in 1950, the same year she earned a BA in Fine Arts from Barnard College. Her mother was also an alumna of Barnard, class of 1923. She raised two children before returning to earn her M.A. in art education  at the University of New Mexico in 1963, and further education in 1969- 1970. Her accomplishments as a panelist, juror, co-ordinator, author and artists are lengthy. For a more detailed catalogue of her achievements, please visit  Marquis Top Artists Who’s Who and Mary’s website.

What drew me to her was her views on originality and style. On originality, Mary Carroll Nelson states that:  “The actual breakthrough in the privacy of the studio, when one dares to apply paint in a new manner, is a solitary thrill, dependent upon no one else.”  One of Lydie’s opening statements in Before The Flood as she stands in her studio, her most sacred space, Lydie transforms from a place of doubt and fear into wholeness.  It’s a place where she comes back from beyond the brink back to herself.

Lydie’s background of abuse from her uncle, and the trauma she witnessed and experienced, art releases the anguish she feels to form her own style.  Although Lydie’s art evolves throughout the series, she uses the power of visuals to transform those negative images in her mind into empowering, beautiful things that touch and impact lives long after we’ve finished the last stroke.  To quote Mary, “every artist who evolves a style does so from illusive elements that inhabit his or her visual storehouse.”

I wish I could have discovered Mary’s life and work a lot earlier, but I was ecstatic to get to opportunity recently to see her work in person, and while she’s still with us. As Mary noted in her one of her emails her class was a fine group and is shrinking by the year. With her permission, I’m sharing a few of my photographs of her work I took from my visit a short time ago.

If you get the chance to visit with Gary Tibbetts, you’re in for a real treat. He’s a wonderful fountain of knowledge, and a great guy. You will stay there a while, and you will love it.  I wanted several of Mary’s pieces, and I left with her book on Crop Circles, something she has researched for over fifteen years. Many of her books on art are available for purchase online on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Mary-Carroll-Nelson/e/B001K8F84Y

 

Some of Mary’s work. I apologize that I’m not the best photographer:

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Crop Circle. This was one of my favorites.

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One of Mary’s miniature paintings.

 

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One of her layered works. This iridescent piece changes colors with different angles.

 

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The author with a grouping of Mary’s layered pieces and her miniature.

 

For more on Mary’s pieces at Weyrich Gallery,  visit http://weyrichgallery.com or if you’re in the Albuquerque area, stop by at 2935-D Louisiana NE.

Next up on Behind the Book, it’s Henry’s turn I go Behind the Book to share the physicians that mentored Henry at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Retro Recipe Review: The Brooklyn Blackout Cake

I always believe that you can get to know a city by eating your way through it. While researching Before the Flood, I got to know quite a few lost treasures of the Big Apple. One of these featured in the novel is Lydie’s birthday cake: the legendary Brooklyn Blackout Cake. Lydie never passes up a good piece of cake and neither can I.

The Brooklyn Blackout Cake was made famous by Edinger’s Bakery in Brooklyn, New York. It was a favorite hostess gift, a beloved birthday cake, and a  holiday staple of yore. Ebinger’s signature green box tied with string evoked memories of anticipation and joy to those who knew it.  Legend has it that the Blackout Cake  was coined from blackout drills in Brooklyn during World War II.

The recipe posted on Politico’s article (http://politi.co/2gdDULd)  is not the exact recipe from Ebinger’s (the bakery closed years ago and they took their trade secret with them) but according to the article, it does pass muster with those who knew the cake from its heyday. It’s a full on chocolate experience. These are my notes from testing.

Make no mistake,  chocolate is the star of this cake in all its glory. The recipe calls  for the best chocolate you  can get because it is front and center. With a devil’s food cake, cooked chocolate pudding filling, and an intense bittersweet frosting traditionally topped with a crumb coating, this is chocolate upon chocolate with more chocolate.  The recipe is  labor intensive with many steps, but they are worth it.

Let’s start with the chocolate pudding filling.  This is now perhaps now one of my favorites. My grandmother used to make stove-top chocolate pudding when I was a child, and this takes me right back to hers. I could have eaten the entire bowl of it had I not needed it for the cake. The only suggestion I would make after trying it is to perhaps make more. First because you are going to want “sample” it while you are waiting for the cake to bake, and second  because I found that perhaps a bit more could be used in between the layers. I tend to like more filling in my cake. That’s up to you.  The cornstarch paste/slurry gives it the thickening it needs. Be sure to place your cling-wrap directly on top of the pudding to ensure a film doesn’t form. It sets up and thickens more in the fridge.

The batter for this cake is time-consuming with many steps, but not essentially difficult if you bake regularly. Prepare to spend some time on this batter as this isn’t your boxed cake mix variety. If you aren’t familiar with whipping egg whites and folding them into a batter, then you might want to think twice.

When the batter is finished, it will have a mousse like consistency. Indeed, you might be tempted to eat it straight as is. I divvied it out between the two pans using a measuring cup to make sure the layers were even. As an aside, I dust my pans with cocoa powder instead of flour. I just like it on a chocolate cake, but you can use flour that the recipe calls for.. Do not over-bake. I baked mine for 40 minutes, but your oven might be different. The pudding filling definitely helps to keep this cake luscious and moist.

On the layering: the cake calls for three layers with the fourth reserved for the signature crumb coating. I filled the layers, covered the cake, and set it in the fridge overnight to let the cake set up a bit. My top layer wanted to slide a bit, so I decided to cooling it the fridge would help it to set. As recommended in the article, you can use toothpicks or help from sliding.

The frosting reminded me more of a ganache with the corn syrup added in to give it a firmer consistency. It won’t harden as much as say Magic Shell will. It’s more like Boston Creme Pie frosting consistency. I used a seventy percent cacao bittersweet chocolate that reminds me more of European cakes that tend to be a bit less sweet.

This classic NYC cake  is a show stopper. I would definitely make this for the holidays or a really special occasion. There are a few bakeries in New York that make a version of the Blackout, but if you aren’t near NYC and want an intense chocolate cake, try this one. It reminded me of being in some of my favorite European bakeries. I would even consider shaving some chocolate curls on the top if you don’t want the crumb coating, but that might deviate from the original nostalgia. It’s possible to make more of the filling and use it as a frosting.

Pros: intense chocolate experience, solid cake, intense flavor, pudding is a must have on its own

Cons: labor intensive, can be expensive depending on how dear the chocolate is

If you have any memories of the Blackout Cake or have made it, please feel free to drop me a line!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The binding force of food

Chris Cleave recently released his new novel Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, set in Second World War London and North Africa. Chris describe how he researched his novel, and one of the things that I noted is that he ate the rations diet of that time period to help get into the mindset of his characters. This is something I follow quite well.

Writing a novel requires you to wear many hats. You’re part character, part director, part audience. The best writing evokes all five senses. As a historical fiction author, I like to recreate dishes from period to truly give a sense of what characters are tasting, feeling, thinking. You can discover many things about a place from its food.  Every facet of its history and culture are represented through food. Indeed, food has played such a  pivotal role in history as items such as salt and chocolate have been used as currency.

Food is sustenance. It is fuel. It is comfort. It’s medicinal. Holistic . Spiritual.  It is the thing that unites us, binds us. Our races, creeds, and politics may disagree, but our love of food unites us. It is a reason why we break bread with each other. Certain foods transcend cultures: pizza, dumplings, pasta,  barbeque, sandwiches, and bacon. If the latest social media trends are correct, we all love tacos.

Our memories often tie back to three senses: taste, smell, and sound. You  may not be able to remember what you saw yesterday, but you can remember what scent your mother wore. A waft of something reminds you grandmother’s kitchen.  A bowl of chicken soup in various forms (matzo ball soup, chicken noodle, ramen noodle, etc) all provide us comfort. The tastes of childhood can calm you or make you smile on your roughest of days. We’re all still trying to figure out this thing called Adulthood.

I will be releasing my foray into recreating the dishes from the second world war and beyond for my series The Laurelhurst Chronicles. From the rustic dishes such as the Lancashire Hot Pot and various dishes popular in wartime Britain to the foods of the Automats and Luncheonettes and beyond of New York City, each recipe will be tested and noted here on this blog.

The food of that younger time was local and fresh. It is the kind of food that comprises the current farm to table movement.  People ate what they grew. They ate what they could afford with their ration books. Fast food did not exist, and neither did large grocery stores. Wasting food was a possible  criminal offense in wartime Britain.  People got creative, but they still enjoyed food. Food united them.

If you have a dish that you would like to resurrect from the second world war through the mid 60’s,  please feel free to email me at kellierbutler@gmail.com. I would really love to hear from you.