Monthly Archives: May 2014

Civil War Days – Medicine & Music


Part  1 of 2

I recently went to my first Civil War reenactment. Up until May 18, 2014, everything I ever knew about Civil War re-enactors, I learned from Sharyn McCrumb’s Highland Laddie Gone. The people in that book were wacky, so I approached the experience with some trepidation. However, I am now a fan. My attitude changed when Sis and I visited Naper Settlement’s Civil War Days.

I was more comfortable at Civil War Days than I expected to be. You can ask Sis. She was a great companion, but I was a terrible one. I neglected her for long stretches while I picked the brains of faux quartermasters, period musicians, and medicine show charlatans.

To be fair, Sis had some warning that I was attending for research purposes. My current novel (working title: Dr. Miracle’s Medicine Show) is set a few years after the Civil War. Visiting a living history museum seemed a great way to see how people dressed, ate, and otherwise managed their lives back then.

Sis always says that you should try to learn 3 new things every day. Since it was a special research trip, I tried to learn more than that, but here are a few of the new things I either learned, and/or got to see up close and personal:

Professor Farquar at his 40-miler, meeting a client

I met “Professor Farquar” (aka Sanford Lee) who told me a lot about medicine shows, and got to check out his 40-miler wagon. While a big medicine show—like the ones for Hamlin’s Wizard Oil or Kickapoo Indian Sagwa—might use Percheron horses to pull their wagons, the little shows were much more compact. These smaller shows didn’t range more than about 40 miles from their home base. They might use donkeys if that’s all they could get, but they often liked to use zebras or llamas. What a great way to generate buzz!

Professor Farquar and I compared research notes and found that we’d done some of the same research on medicine shows, but he had one source that blew me away. Al Lewis (the guy who played Grandpa Munster on the old Munsters TV show) used to work the medicine show circuit! He gave Professor Farquar useful tips back in the days when they used to perform in dinner theatre together.

Playing jawbone & banjo—gourd banjo (inset)

And then, I learned bunches from the John and Elaine Masciale of Tin Cremona.

First, about banjos: Banjos were like the electric guitars of the 19th century—far and away the most popular instrument of the time. They didn’t always sound like they do now. Their precursors were made by African-Americans from gourds and gut. Even once white Euro-Americans co-opted the instrument, it was still made with wood, using gut strings. The period instruments sounded softer and mellower than the metal string banjos I’m used to hearing. You can hear a sample here, courtesy of Old Fiddle Road Banjo Works.

Next, the old minstrel shows had four major performers, which accounts for honorifics you may have heard in other contexts, like Mr. Tambo (or Tambourine), Mr. Banjo, Mr. Fiddle, and Mr. Bones. Mr. Bones, literally, played the jawbone of an ass. In the days of gourd banjos, ass jawbones were easier to come by than they are nowadays, and if you were a slave on a plantation, no one cared much how musically gifted you were, so you had to make do. The minstrel shows—even the ones where people merely pretended to be black—started out with the traditional instruments. So one of the percussion instruments was usually a jawbone.

Finally, I was pleased to learn that not all of the old minstrel shows consisted of white men in burnt cork makeup. There was one group, the Georgia Minstrels, who were actually African American. How did I not know this? I’m already plotting a way to work it into a story somehow.

Million Dollar Quartet

Apollo Theater in Chicago

This is my last Bro-related post for a while. Bro and Bride went back to Houston a few weeks ago, but we did take one more fun excursion—not previously shared in this space—while they were in town.

Bride said that at some point during their visit, she’d love to see some theatre. A lot of times when people say that, they mean they want to see one of the big touring shows. This can be an occasion for eye-rolling from a host who lives in the area and knows that Chicago’s local theatre is awesome. However, Bride knows there are plenty of worthy shows all over Chicago, and she was happy to see something homegrown.

Left to my own devices, I might opt for an original play, something on the experimental side, like In the Garden: A Darwinian Love Story at Lookingglass Theatre, but we needed to pick something everyone would like. We hoped to get into the Second City revue, but you can’t exactly do that at the last minute.

Luckily, we ended up finding tickets to Million Dollar Quartet at the Apollo Theatre. The Apollo is a fun little theatre. They’ve previously produced other shows along the same lines as Million Dollar Quartet, by which I mean musicals based on actual performers/events, which feature their big hits as kind of a backbone to the proceedings. Sis and I saw Always Patsy Cline there some years back. On that occasion, and before we even got into the performance space, we discovered that they served Schlitz beer, a brand we hadn’t seen in years. The reason they were serving it became clear very shortly into the performance, when we saw the actress playing Patsy knocking them back.

Yep. At the Apollo, they encourage you to bring your drinks into the theatre. Once Bro discovered this, he was totally on board with the entire concept. Other than a pretty relaxed theatrical experience, though, we weren’t sure exactly what we were letting ourselves in for. The good news is, it was a lot of fun: a tight show that clocked in around 90 minutes, with no intermission. So you’d be all right attending in the middle of the week, even if you live in the suburbs, because you still won’t be up too late.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the show, Million Dollar Quartet is based on an actual event—the night of December 4, 1956. Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley were all at Sun Records together, and magic happened. It’s a great excuse to hear some fun music, like Who Do You Love, Sixteen Tons, Hound Dog, Whole Lotta Shaking…I could go on and on. The actor/musicians blew me away, especially Lance Lipinsky as Jerry Lee Lewis and Shaun Whitley as Carl Perkins. But really, the show was about a pivotal night in the life of Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records. He was an artist in his own right, or at least a muse, and people just don’t remember him in the same way that they remember the names of the guys in the quartet. Anyone who’s ever tried to express something new artistically could relate to Sam Phillips’ struggles. That’s what spoke to me most about Million Dollar Quartet. It had something for everyone, or at least something for everyone in our group: fun, drinks, music and a thought-provoking, character-driven story line.


Story Wall

Presenting a story wall

There’s a thing we do in my writers’ group, The Writing Journey, called a story wall.

Here’s the idea: you come to the meeting prepared to talk about your story with a few other people. You provide a general idea of plot, characters, setting, genre—all the usual elements. If you’re having problems—say, you’re stuck and can’t seem to write after a certain point—you see if anyone has any helpful ideas. You also give people a chance to say whether they have problems with the story. Maybe they don’t believe the premise of a certain scene, or have difficulty seeing why a character would behave in a certain way. It’s not all negative, however. People are also allowed to tell you things they like about your story.

At the last Journey meeting, Elaine and I each did a story wall. I think it was the first time for her; I know it was the first time I ever presented a story.

Elaine’s beautifully prepared story wall

Elaine provided excellent visual aids, creating a kind of mind map of her story, with various locations and characters each having their own color-coded card or sheet of paper. I did not provide great visuals, though I did read out a synopsis I’d written (hours before!) and provided a spreadsheet of the scenes, which included the location, characters (including whose POV I used in the scene) events, and any issues I was worried about. In my case, I asked for help with the magic system and with one of the characters.

My novel scene spreadsheet

So. What did I get out of the story wall?

  1. I got an idea I think will work well for a character I was finding difficult to write.
  2. I got reminders about the cost of magic, which I definitely needed. There’s still work to do along those lines, but other people’s ideas definitely helped.
  3. Since I’m using more than one POV character, I need to make sure I spread around the viewpoint a bit more than I had. Otherwise, when someone other than the protagonist has the viewpoint, it might seem like a mistake, or just plain sloppy.
  4. I need to work on my synopsis-writing skills!
  5. I learned I need to make sure my protagonist can carry the book. There was some concern over whether he “protags” enough.  It takes him a long time to do the right thing, to break through and realize what he’s capable of. I don’t feel the situation is hopeless, but I do want to make sure the reader cares enough about him to keep reading.

I definitely need to keep an eye on the 3 “prongs” of character development, an interesting concept I recently heard about on Writing Excuses. Briefly, when you have a character you want people to care about—say, your protagonist—you have three dimensions which are especially helpful in creating reader interest: sympathy (how nice/relatable is he?), competence, and agency (how proactive is he?). The character doesn’t need to be all of these things, but he should be at least one of them if you want to keep a reader interested. So, what needs to happen with my protagonist? The way I think of him right now, Slim needs to learn a lot, and he’s quite gifted, but stunted. He’s not particularly admirable, but he’s not a total jerk either.

So the question is, how do ratchet any of those settings higher? He doesn’t start out competent, he’s lacking in agency, and he’s not that high in sympathy, either. Hey, he grows as a person, okay? I guess sympathy is where I have the most wiggle room, but does putting him in jeopardy automatically make him sympathetic? Does having him do the right thing, or try to do the right thing in a few places, does that help? I’ll do what I can with those ideas for now, and then see what beta readers think, once I round some up. (If you’re interested beta reading my Western historical fantasy novel, please leave a comment below, tweet at me—@cmbrennan09—or contact me however you usually do.)

Finally, what did I learn from the whole exercise?

I learned that being the victim—er, focus—of a story wall wasn’t as scary as I feared, and that I should absolutely do it the next time I come up with an idea for a novel. Heck, maybe I should do it whenever I come up with a story idea of any length. It’s excellent to get help spotting potential problems before you bury yourself too deeply.

Pizza – a War for Hearts and Minds


When Bro and Bride came to town, we had to get pizza. In fact, Bro had a strong opinion about where to go for it.

There are at least as many different opinions about pizza as there are pizza purveyors. There’s the pizza rivalry between Chicago and New York, recently highlighted by Jon Stewart.

The easy thing to say is that New York pizza is thin and floppy—something you can fold up like a crepe and eat while you’re walking down the street, while Chicago pizza is thick and gloppy, and you have to eat it with a knife and fork, like—as Jon Stewart would say—a casserole.

I don’t know from New York pizza. I only ever had it—or something that was called “New York pizza”—when I went to Wash U in St. Louis. On Sunday nights, when the food service was closed, we often frequented Talayna’s, which I recently discovered is Yiddish for Italian. Talayna’s served what they called New York pizza and Chicago pizza. Since their Chicago pizza wasn’t what I remembered from home, I wasn’t willing to accept that their version of New York pizza was especially authentic either. For Talayna’s purposes, New York and Chicago were code for thin or thick crust, which is how many people think.

The reality is more complicated. There are varying thicknesses of pizza in Chicago, and I’ve been known to indulge in, um, all of the above. Usually I save deep dish (or stuffed, and there is a difference) pizza for special occasions, because it’s very rich. For thin crust, I  like Rosati’s if we bring it home and Home Run Inn if we eat it there.

But, ah—deep dish pizza. At the right place it’s great, at the wrong place it’s either inconsistent or just plain gloppy. The epic tale of Chicago thick crust pizza moguls  is almost the stuff of Greek theatre. Though with the Italian influence, we probably ought to go with opera instead. Somebody write the Chicago Pizza Opera, please! Stolen secret recipes! Betrayal! Revenge! I’d go to the Lyric opening night to hear that one.

An interesting article from the BBC travel site explores the story in some depth, and also divulges their favorite.

As for me, I’ve had Uno’s/Due’s, Gino’s East, My Pie (or My π, if you prefer) and Giordanos. Lately? I have to agree with BK, Bro and the BBC reviewer. Pizano’s.

But if you want to judge for yourself, maybe you should book a Chicago pizza tour

The next time Bro comes to town, we may do that. Purely in the name of research, you understand.

The Cat Came Back – Another Workshop with Cat Rambo

Cat Rambo

I took another online workshop with Cat Rambo. Isn’t Cat Rambo the best name ever? I wish I had one that was as cool.

Anyway, this workshop was on flash fiction, conducted via Google Hangout. You may be asking what I got out of it. Because that’s the point of taking writing workshops, right? Well, it’s one of the two points. The first point is that you get to interact with other writers. There were some terrific writers taking it. I was able to find out the twitter handles and/or web sites for a couple of them – Heather Clitheroe and Sunil Patel – so now I can keep track of them. Cat also shared some markets with us, which is always helpful.

The second point has to do with what I might or might not have learned. All told, I’m glad I took the workshop. I enjoyed the other writers’ work, and I got a reminder about “timed writing”. This is not new stuff, as Cat would say. She took it from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. The idea is—and anyone who’s done word sprints as part of nanowrimo or with a writer’s group generally is familiar with this, even if they don’t know Natalie Goldberg—you write as fast as you can write without stopping. Whatever you write, it’s all good. Okay, maybe it’s not all good. You have permission to write the worst crap imaginable. The point is, you write, whether from a prompt or just on something you already know you want to write about. It may be fabulous, or it may be dreck. Most likely, though, you will at least get some sort of nugget from it that’s worth working up into a story you actually want to write.

In the workshop, we used 3 prompts. First each participant came up with if/then statements. Then we each wrote the “if” portion of our statements in the Google chat window so everyone could see it. The person who posted after you was the “if” portion you used to create your prompt. You then appended your own “then” portion, and wrote from there. Five minutes, flat out, as fast as you could write. Here’s what I ended up with:

If the house is quiet, then you would be very popular. People like a quiet spot for reading, writing, and just generally to keep from going crazy from all the expectations. They work, they socialize, they help others, but then what?

You’d be turning them away in droves. You might, unhappily, end up with a house that is no longer quiet. Then you would lose your cachet entirely. People would look around and see the turmoil and hear the cacophony and say to themselves, “why am I here? How is this better than just going home?”

And they would go home.

Then, finally, blessedly, the house would be quiet again. What would you do with yourself? Would you take a flash fiction class? That’s what I’d do, but really, you have to please yourself. Let’s imagine that you’d like to paint something, instead. Paint your quiet house, with gray clouds looming, but one ray going into one window. That’s your inspiration, the reason for your quiet house.

Mine was clearly not fiction. Also not good. I was nervous, okay? I was going with the ‘it doesn’t matter what you write, just write, there’s no wrong way to do this.”

That might be true, but there are better ways to write, as became abundantly clear after other people read their results aloud. My next two outings were more successful. The second writing came from a written prompt.

-EDIT-I started by including my result from the second timed writing when I realized Cat might want to use the prompt in future workshops, so I’ve removed it -/EDIT-

The third prompt was a picture Cat had saved on her Pinterest page. I also enjoyed the results from that prompt, but it needs work, so I’m going to improve it before I share. Here’s the picture, though:

Image for writing prompt – Georges Méliès via Cat Rambo

So, was the workshop valuable? Yes, to some extent. But I still have an issue that I really need to concentrate on: how do you mine the really good stuff from a timed writing and go from there? This is not the kind of issue that’s easily covered in a two-hour online workshop. It’s more the kind of thing you could spend a lifetime doing. So as much as I enjoyed the workshop, I still have to figure out the next part, which is making my writing not crappy. We’ll see how that goes.

I’m revising a novel right now, which I hope to have a readable draft of by early June, before I go attend the Writing the Other Workshop and Retreat in Chattanooga. Did I mention I’ll need beta readers? Please comment below, message me, or email me if you’re willing and able to help with that. Thanks so much!

Chicago Botanic Garden – Indoors and Out


Chicago Botanic Garden is breathtaking on a nice day, but still quite lovely even if you’re dodging raindrops and trying to keep warm.

Yet again (4 days in – on Thursday), chilly and rainy weather kept us indoors during Bro’s week of fun. We all went to Walker Brothers and then Bro, Sis and I went to the Chicago Botanic Garden. We timed our walking about so that we didn’t have to dodge too many raindrops. Here are a few of the things we saw outdoors:

Planter Highlights – and Phun with Photoshop


The ranunculus were ridonculous

On our way to the indoor greenhouses, we spotted the bonsai exhibit. I’ve never really seen much bonsai up close and personal. It is thoroughly amazing. I swear there was a tree in that exhibit that was 40 years old, but don’t quote me. If it takes 40 years to create great bonsai, I won’t live long enough to take bonsai up as a hobby. I’ll just have to content myself with marveling at other people’s results. I could have spent the whole visit just looking at bonsai, but it started to rain again and I didn’t want to melt.

Fabulous, right?


The conservatories were our next stop. We visited three areas:

1 – Tropical


2 – Desert


3 – Semitropical


I also loved the blue poppies in one of their indoor planters


While we were at the Garden, I downloaded their GardenGuide app and was amazed at all the events they had scheduled. I wanted to do it all, but we should have planned ahead if we wanted to make that happen.

We definitely need to get back there on a nice day. The Japanese and English gardens (among many others) beckon!

Oh – thanks to my brilliant and beautiful sister for the lovely photos.

Chicago History Museum – Even Better Than You Think

Robert Chevalier de La Salle

Bro and I had such a swell time being tourists last November that he dragged Bride to town for a similar excursion this spring. The idea was that the weather shouldn’t be too bad, and in fact might be glorious. Bro and Bride have lived in Houston for over twenty years, and have forgotten their Midwestern roots. Or maybe whatever regulates their body temperatures has forgotten how to deal with the cold. It doesn’t help that all their clothing consists of golf shorts, tropical shirts, and bikinis. My theory is that everyone in Houston dresses that way all the time, because the temperature in Houston never drops much below 80º.

Be that as it may, Bro and Bride got into the area Sunday night. The weather was not glorious. They drove through freezing torrential rains to get to us. The forecast continued cold, with a chance of rain all week. We hadn’t planned anything ahead of time, and it turned out that on Monday, both Bride and Sis had to work. It fell to me to suggest fun indoor activities to occupy Bro on Monday. We both wanted to go see Edward Gorey at the Loyola University Museum of Art, which I thoroughly enjoyed with Cookie about a month ago, but which Bro hadn’t seen. That would have been an excellent plan for a chilly, rainy day, except for one thing. LUMA isn’t open on Mondays. Auggh! Wailing and gnashing of teeth commenced. On to plan B.  I offered Bro a list to peruse, which contained such items as:

  • Target shooting at Glisson Archery
  • The Art Institute
  • The Museum of Science and Industry
  • Chicago History Museum
  • Seeing a movie like Captain America: The Winter Soldier or The Grand Budapest Hotel

That last option was so attractive—or at least the Captain America part of it was—that Bride was willing to knock off work early to accompany us, so that’s what we did. It was a fun movie. I have to take BK to see it.

Why did I share this long, boring list?

Here’s why. On Tuesday, when we hoped to take an architectural tour on the Chicago River, the day started with fog, segued into more damned rain, and then subsided back into fog. Not ideal, especially if you’d like to see the tops of the buildings you’re looking at. We needed a substitute activity, so Bro pulled out my list from Monday.

Cookie and I were planning to meet the others where the tour boat launches,  but when it became clear that it was another day for indoor activities, I called Bro on my trusty smart phone and and said, “So maybe today’s the day to do LUMA.”

It turned out Bride and Sis still weren’t interested.

“How about the Art Institute?” I asked. Cookie is a fellow there and could have gotten us all in. I could almost hear the yawns on the other end. Seriously? I love the Art Institute. Tough crowd. In their defense, they’ve all been to the Art Institute multiple times. Anyway, what Bro, Bride and Sis chose really surprised me. They said they wanted to go to the Chicago History Museum.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. I wanted to go, after all. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be on the list. But I figured I was the only one. When I mentioned it to Cookie, she was all, “Sure, sounds interesting.”

One reason I wasn’t sure people would want to go is that I remember going to that museum a long time ago. It wasn’t called the Chicago History Museum then; it was the Chicago Historical Society. I remember it being squashed-together and poorly lit. There were dioramas. I have a fair tolerance for that kind of thing if I’m interested in the content of a museum, which is why I wanted to go. I’d read about some cool exhibits there—the Jack Delano Railroaders and the Ebony Fashion Fair exhibits, to name only two.

Anyway, that’s where Cookie and I met up with Sis, Bro and Bride. It is no longer squashed together and poorly lit. Once inside the now-spacious interior, we opted for the free tour of one of their main exhibits, Chicago: Crossroads of America. It was quite cool. I wish I could tell you the name of our guide, but I’m hopeless at remembering that kind of detail, especially when I’m not taking notes.

What I do remember is learning that during the 19th century, Chicago was the fastest-growing city in the world. (The town was incorporated in 1833, when the population was about 350. By the time of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, there were 299,000 inhabitants. After the fire, the city’s reconstruction and growth were incredibly rapid, and the population reached 1.7 million in 1900.)

Another great takeaway was  that Chicago owed its phenomenal growth to the railroads. Chicago was on America’s frontier when it started; by the 1850s, it became the nation’s transportation hub, because of its water connections to the eastern waterways and the Mississippi River, and the 30 rail lines that entered the city.

My new appreciation for the railroads made Jack Delano’s Homefront Photography even more interesting. To quote from the museum’s web site:

In 1942, the Office of War Information issued photographer Jack Delano a new assignment: document “railroads and their place in American life.” During the next several months, Delano captured three thousand images, two-thirds of them in the nation’s rail hub—Chicago.



Another excellent part of our visit was the Ebony Fashion Fair exhibit. Here’s another quote:

The Ebony Fashion Fair began in 1958, and over the next 50 years the traveling fashion show blossomed into an American institution that raised millions for charity and helped Johnson Publishing Company reach audiences.

Show organizers overcame racial prejudice to bring the pinnacle of Europe’s premier fashion to communities that were eager to see, in real time and space, a new vision of black America that was the hallmark of Ebony and Jet magazines. Eunice Johnson took over as producer and director in 1963, and under her direction, the traveling show took on new heights as she expanded her cachet and power within fashion circles.

Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair recreates the experience of the Ebony Fashion Fair through the story of Mrs. Johnson and more than 60 garments from icons of the fashion industry such as Yves St. Laurent, Oscar de la Renta, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, Christian Lacroix, and Patrick Kelly among others.

If you want to see the Ebony exhibit, do it now! It’s only there until Sunday, May 11, 2014.

We spent all day at the Chicago History Museum (the café is just fine, by the way) and barely scratched the surface. We didn’t get by the Abraham Lincoln or historical clothing sections at all. I can’t wait to go back.