Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 30, 2015

Historical Novel Society Conference

I’m back from my first Historical Novel Society Conference where I enjoyed chatting in hallways or at tables about Viking footwear, Napoleon, Josephine, the hero’s journey as seen from a woman’s point of view, the Irish in mid nineteenth century Boston, conniving mistresses to kings, and the pros and cons of big and small presses. Every introduction was like opening an enticing book. I met more Latin teachers and Mesopotamian scholars this weekend than I have in the rest of my life. And all this between a full program with talks, an intro to sword fighting, a look behind the making of book covers, and dancing as Jane Austen might have done.

At lunch on Saturday, Karen Cushman spoke about inspiration and procrastination. She told us about how she wrote her first novel after twenty-five years of telling her husband ideas for books she never went on to write. Finally, he cut her off and said he’d be happy to read her novel when it was done. She was frustrated, but wrote Catherine, Called Birdy, a Newbery Honor book, which she called a lovechild of Rosemary Sutcliffe and Adrian Mole.


Later she met with a small group of us where a professor who taught medieval literature said that many of her students come from having fallen in love with that novel. Other readers, Karen told us, write to her about how they identify with that girl from hundreds of years ago because they also feel trapped. She spoke more about topics including her research methods. She told us that she begins with a story, usually with a gutsy girl at the center, then moves into research. She gathers details then returns to the story until questions push her back to the library. Some of what she finds there may lead to a new scene, which may shift the structure and raise new questions demanding research. The process zigzags between imagining and seeking answers in books.


There were many great panels including one on trends in women’s historical fiction (awards tend to go to book about men written by men; 20th century history and leaner books, but write what you love). One of my favorite panels was on Art and Artists in Historical Fiction. No surprise for you who know me. The panelists discussed topics including use of artist’s spaces, thinking through the eyes and heart of an artist, and how much artistic process to put on the page. We heard from Donna Russo Morin, author of The King’s Agent, (starting from the right in the picture), Mary Burns (Portraits of an Artist: A Novel about John Singer Sargent), Stephanie Renée dos Santos, (Cut from the Earth, featuring a Portuguese tile maker), Alana White (Sign of the Weeping Virgin, a mystery set in 15th century Florence), and Stephanie Cowell (Claude and Camille: a Novel of Monet). Stephanie spoke of a painting that inspired a crucial scene about the couple, then read an excerpt in which Claude Monet “told the canvas what he could not tell her.”

I left inspired, with lots of notes and my suitcase a bit heavier with new books to read.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 24, 2015


“My favored flowers, the tulips,

can contain only so much feeling

before they tip over.”

–Deborah Gorlin, “The Grief of Trees” in Life of the Garment


Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 15, 2015


“It would affect our thoughts, deepen and perchance darken our reflections, if such huge birds flew in numbers in our sky.”

Henry David Thoreau was referring to blue herons in this April 19, 1852 journal entry, but witnessing big, fierce, or even ordinary birds can change us. Yesterday my friend Jess dressed like a tree with dark pants, a green top, and some of her hair twisted into a nest on top as we had a chance to meet birds at New England Falconry.

Six of us sat on a shady bench in front of four tethered hawks as Chris Davis, master falconer with an advanced degree in Resource Management, told us some about the history of falconry. Records go back more than two thousand years, showing that falconry began as a way for people to share what hawks hunted. Falconry moved through Africa and the Middle East to a history more familiar to many of us: the Medieval and Renaissance men and women wearing cloaks and long leather gloves. There’s only about a hundred years of falconry history in the United States, where the first settlers were more likely to shoot than become allies with birds of prey. Falconry gained ground after two women, aghast at the slaughter done to provide feathers for fashionable hats, helped found Mass Audubon in 1896.


Some of us came with some mythology that’s explored, with much else, particularly all the guises of grief, in Helen Macdonald’s gritty and gorgeous memoir, H is for Hawk, which I’m reading now. Chris is all scientist. He gave us facts about varieties of birds of prey, habits, weights, the sharp eyesight and swiveling necks, and flight speeds (with the Harris hawks here can fly 30 to 40 mph, compared to the 200 plus mph of peregrine falcons.) When Jess asked him if his hawks had names, he told us they had numbers. When she asked if they had fun, he explained that he can only consider fun in terms of what animals do to survive.


Jess and I were scared and excited as we walked past multiflora roses, bent cattails, through fields of grass, buttercups, and clover. Those clawed feet look kind of crazy, and those beaks are sharp. But the hawks were as disciplined as promised. Chris’s calm presence helps keep the great birds on task and was a perfect backdrop for our marveling at the birds’ swooping arcs, the shapes of their wings, the wonder of their approximately two pound selves lighting on our gloved hands, then sweeping off as we swung back our arms. We left more attentive to what’s in the sky or trees, what’s on the ground, and the briefly visible magnificence in between. The world a little larger than we’d known.


Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 12, 2015

June Afternoon in Maine

One friend wants to paint a snail or the waves.

Another sits on a rock to write a poem.

I mulch the perennials.


Working by a wheelbarrow in front of the house, I look up to say hello to a woman leaning on the arm of her daughter, walking slowly down the road. She nods at the garden, says, “It looks good.”

I’m aware of all that’s still left to weed, clip, and mulch, the spaces where I mean to plant more. But I let in the casual praise that I didn’t beg for, but came freely, like the small new leaves on a stalky star plant I dug from my Massachusetts garden and transplanted here.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 8, 2015

Behind a Woman’s Face

Inspired by the cover of Vanity Fair and Elinor Burkett‘s thoughtful New York Times article, yesterday my grown daughter and I talked about what it may mean to be a woman. Who wouldn’t agree it’s more than corsets and nail polish, but as Elinor Burkett points out, many of us who support trans rights seemed to slide over that in a rush to applaud Caitlyn Jenner’s courage. I’d only seen the well-publicized cover, but my daughter had read the Vanity Fair article and reported that Bruce didn’t seem like a particularly good person. I think Emily said he’d had three wives he dumped and was a father and stepfather to many kids he never saw much, playing golf rather than attend even markers like high school graduations. These kids now seem expected to cheer on Caitlyn’s transition, but what is she doing for them? Does some favoriting of men lurk within the cheers for Bruce/Caitlyn on the cover of a magazine from those who’d walk past a cover picture of his former wife? Whatever we may think of those who make a living from reality shows, if we’re going to applaud the courage of one family member, shouldn’t we acknowledge that a former wife and mother of his/her children must be struggling, too?

Both women and men must be changed from living so long in front of cameras. As I return to writing this morning, again about a woman who was pretty much erased from history, I see that shifting sense of being known and unknown as an experience women often recognize. Writing about inspirational women who’ve fallen out of public sight often takes me to biographies of their fathers, brothers, and husbands. There I’ve found the woman now a subject of my poems named sometimes in a single sentence of praise, though she’s in the shadow of many chapters. Yesterday I read of her stellar accomplishments hidden behind sentences written in passive voice. The author wrote of things happening, as if no one had made them happen. I read with quiet outrage, unsurprised. I see it as my work to supply the pronouns, put the woman back at the beginning of sentences, supply the credits.


My field is history, full of ghosts, but all of us must make peace with some kind of disappearing, which happens sometimes against our will, but is at other times essential. We all should learn the difference between being ignored or run over and finding ways to flourish in privacy. Many writers grow used to putting others forward, and stepping back behind our own words. Good parents often put the unglamorous needs of others ahead of their own desires. Flowers burst into bloom then fade into foliage until another season. Everyone has a right to be seen for who they believe they are, but who are we when no one is looking? Who are we in the night?

Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 3, 2015


In the midst of getting ready for a novel to be published in fall, I’ve been finishing another that is full of firsts-for-me. I’m aiming it at those devoted readers aged 8 to 12 or so, which I’ve done before, but this one has some magical elements that I came to believe in as I wrote. The magic here is based on history, and I’ve worked from the way the past seems to speak. Yes, I pushed things around, plucked out false conceits, but a certain belief stayed through its core.

I’m not a writer who types “the end,” when I finish a draft, since I can hardly believe I’m done through those six letters, but I did send the manuscript off to the three people of my writing group. This is the first time I’ve made my way through a novel without showing them chapters, and I’m a little terrified. I’ve made my own way from one scene to another, and rigged each scene without the benefit of another’s good eyes. There’s always something, sometimes plenty, that I miss, but this offers them a full 35,000 words to kindly but astutely ferret out false steps.

But there’s a chance the opinions of other people may not be as harsh as my own are when I return to the work. Frankly the parts my writing group likes, which I’ll feel I should commit to, are as scary as the parts they might suggest I cut. I’ve become pretty handy with sharp blades. I feel some emptiness while the manuscript goes to their homes, but there’s joy, too. Not so much for what’s loosely called finishing. I made sure the sentences were sentences and logic held one chapter to the next, but the word “finishing” doesn’t seem quite right when I know their comments will send me right back to work.


It’s good to reach some sort of end for many reasons, and one is that it offers a chance to begin again. It’s been a period of hard looking at the structure of the parts and the whole, making at least semi-fast choices, and pinning down. I sometimes call on creativity to help fill small spaces between words, but finishing up one stage of book tends to be more about cleanup, and my mind and hands keep a steady grip. It gets a little tense. Starting something new lets me open my fist. I welcome back creativity in her more expansive guise, working in more open spaces. Once again, anything can happen. Everything can fly every-which-way. For a while, I can set words adrift like the puff on dandelions gone by. Beginning means I get to let words loose and scatter, during this time when the lilacs have faded, but iris bloom.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | May 31, 2015

Celebration at Forbes Library

I’m lucky to live near several wonderful libraries, including Forbes Library in Northampton, MA, with its elegant stairway and the Coolidge Room, which is used not just to house presidential paraphernalia, but as a place for readings and talks. This afternoon dozens of people gathered there to see Susan Stinson presented with the Gertrude P. Smith Trustees Award for service above and beyond as Forbes valued writer-in-residence. Susan was honored for many things, all with an origin in her passion for writing and libraries. Lisa Downing, assistant director, welcomed us with poetry about an old dictionary of angels with cracked spine and crumbling pages, evoking a spirit of old and new writing that Forbes shelters and fosters. She praised Susan Stinson for her writing skills, her gift of friendship, and the way she organized many readings – often matching four authors around a theme — and asked thoughtful and provocative questions, a talent she also brings to her writing, Lisa noted.

Making time in a busy life of writing fiction, poetry, and nonfiction and speaking and teaching at many colleges and conferences, Susan opened a writing room in the library to ease the solitary nature of our profession. Appreciation for the ways she builds community was evident in the happy crowd. It was a treat to hear Susan read from her novel SPIDER IN A TREE, rich with detail from back when Jonathan Edwards was a Massachusetts preacher. It includes the voices of two slaves who were part of his household.


Susan had invited the Diana Gordon, the writer in residence before her, and Naila Moreira, who will serve next, to read, too. Like Susan, both are also wonderful writers and generous teachers. Diana Gordon has published FOURTH WORLD and NIGHTLY, AT THE INSTITUTE OF THE POSSIBLE. She edits poetry, is a writing consultant, and just finished a novel which she read an evocative bit from. Naila also writes in diverse forms, including fiction for children and science journalism. She just published a poetry collection that she read from called GORGEOUS INFIDELITIES, and is working on a novel for adults. I can’t wait to see how she makes her own mark at Forbes Library in the next two years!

Posted by: jeannineatkins | May 26, 2015

Final Chapters

The advanced review copies of Little Woman in Blue have been sent to the stacks reviewers make, and soon may be praised, criticized, or ignored. I’m excited and scared and also just busy, though my first novel for adults won’t be in stores until September. Just because a book is in temporary covers doesn’t mean my work is done. That nest of robin’s egg blue post-its in the photo is from Melodye, who made an eagle-eyed search for errors she marked with my favorite color. I’m grateful for how she pointed out words I might rearrange for greater force, caught the “shorted” that should have been “shortened,” and suggested places to shuffle back proper names where I’d put “she” for more invisibility – until that switches to confusion. While others have netted out commas, she wanted a few more. Commas have come and gone, like bees swarming from a hive and back. Commas seem to be as much art as science. There are rules, but enough exceptions to fill a guidebook, though who would dare to edit that one?


Focusing in again is a reminder of how each small choice matters to the whole. My friend Deb also went over the ARC for typos, missing or errant words, the sort that get left when you change a sentence too many times and miss the tracks you left. Deb is a painter as well as a writer, so I liked having her thoughts on May’s watercolors (i.e. avoid the words “opaque” and use “washes” rather than “lines.”) We can all miss the misspelling or slack sentence when looking at the wider picture, the absent word that the rest of us apparently read in our minds. Any mistake is embarrassing. My name is on the cover of a book, but my skin feels as thin as it did when I also tried to look together if not professional while joining other writers around a long table back in college. Vulnerability never ends.

Only tiny changes are permitted within an advanced reading copy: nothing that will change page numeration. But just because a change is as small as one letter or word doesn’t mean anxiety can’t run rampant. After years of writing, revising, and editing the editing, this is my last chance to make certain things are as I wish. When the book is out, I’ll enjoy the party of its existence, but right now my focus is on dust lurking on a ledge. Am I certain about this or that word? I stare it down the way a beauty might look in a mirror and focus on a flaw no one else in the world would see. A word looks lopsided, or gauzy, or it glares. Or can I let it be?

This has been my time by the lilacs. Now I’ve inserted the changes, made choices, and am calling the book done. Not that there aren’t other tasks for a book coming out this fall. I just updated my website to include notes about my inspiration for Little Woman in Blue, historical background information, an Alcott reading list, and a readers guide to the novel. (Comments welcome!) I’m also spending some time ushering my book toward stores and small museums, where the story of a nineteenth century woman trying to balance art and love might be welcome. I couldn’t have been luckier than to have walked into the Odyssey Bookshop, been greeted by lovely Hannah, who took my review copy from my hands as eagerly as if she’d never noticed the stacks of gorgeous books all around us. She asked if I’d like to do the launch there and we settled on October 7. The wonderful Porter Square Bookstore in Cambridge contacted me to read on October 23. Please come!

Does all this seem far off? Not really. I’ve drafted a talk about May and other nineteenth women artists that I’m offering to libraries with book clubs. And every day I work on a new novel that’s almost ready for my writing group. I write parts of poems, some of which may gather, like metal shavings pulled to a magnet, into one or two real poems. After being brutally nit picky, it’s good to let myself make mistakes, enjoying the forgiving nature of new work. Eventually I get it right, and when I have a book I do the work I file under marketing, though my criteria is that what I propose should be fun even if I sell just one copy. I could skip the stomach-clenching moments watching someone turn over my book to examine the cover, but all in all I like meeting readers and talking about the women whose lives I’ve tried to put on paper.

I’m excited to be attending the Historical Novel Society conference next month, where I’ll enjoy the speakers, which include Karen Cushman and Diana Gabaldon, and in the hallways I’ll try to exercise my limited networking skills. A friend suggested I stand on a table at lunch and shout for all librarians to join me. I expect to be more subtle, but not entirely. There will be workshops on using swords, rapiers, and daggers, dancing with the Darcys. These are my people, and it’s not all about dignity. When I ordered postcards, I also bought a canvas bag printed with the cover of my novel. It will either start conversations or keep people away, and isn’t the winning and losing how most things go? Every day at my desk, I choose words and reject others. In the world, some people will pick up my book and others will step back as if it might sting their fingers.

Publishing a book about a woman who’s haunted me for decades is a dream come true. I’m celebrating, but as with anything wanted and achieved, life doesn’t spin in entirely new directions. I’m taking plenty of sidesteps and steps back, managing embarrassment as well as elation, making lists, mailing, and checking off mundane tasks. I’m walking through doors where my book might be wanted with the spirit of Red Riding Hood swinging her basket, unaware she might find anyone except the friendliest of grandmothers, and if there’s instead someone wolf-ish, I’ll try another door. I’m crafting new stories and remembering why the older ones mattered enough so that I spent years researching, writing, and revising. It’s time to do my best impression of a Buddhist and let the book I created go. I’ve got to smell the last of the lilacs, pet the good dog by my feet, and be thankful for all the people who’ve helped me get to where I am. Every single reader, like you.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | May 14, 2015

Leaving Out Lines

Writing poetry means not only coming up with words, but then eyeing them with ferocity, challenging them to show their worth. I cross out words and stanzas from those I’ve already honed as I try to figure out how much I can get across in one small space.

Which means that when I read poems, I’m sometimes struck by words I think should have been left behind. The woman who writes with scissors doesn’t entirely leave them when she reads. I’m reacting to having just read some poems that were inspired by a line or the structure of well-regarded poems, which was acknowledged with footnotes. It’s fine to begin a poem this way. It’s fine to begin anywhere. But I found these footnotes got in my way, and the echoed architecture distracted more than deepened. I’m a fan of Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog, in which the title and arc pay homage to Walter Dean Myer’s poem, “Love That Boy.” In the book, the teacher has students read poems by William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, and others and use their forms as inspiration. That works well within a classroom, but at some point, particularly before publication, I’d prefer to have those spurs to inspiration erased.


I’ve started poems and novels from scenes that get deleted. Sometimes that same scene has started other projects. Just because it inspires, doesn’t mean it should stay. The original line or image might be left out perhaps as often as I cut the last summing up words of a poem or chapter. We need any kind of inspiration to begin, and we need a point to the story, but what happens in between should show what we meant to show without a small marquee drawing attention to the message. The trick we keep learning is how to give just enough detail to ignite a reader’s imagination, and then step back and let them enter and claim the story.

I recently heard poet Mary Rueffle, author of the wonderful Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures, answer a question asked how she went about editing her poems. She replied, “When it’s a really bad line I draw a line through it, then put the parts that love each other closer together.” And she explained that the love is about language, the sound, meaning, and connotation of words. Sometimes I ask poetry students to try cutting their poems in half. If that feels too painful, I give the option of expanding them to twice their length, but dividing the poem can produce something dense and precious as knitting.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | May 8, 2015

Erika Robuck and Sarah McCoy: A Conversation about Fiction

After a lovely day in Concord, Massachusetts, which I spent being escorted around Orchard House by the gracious director to take pictures of May Alcott’s artwork, then crossing the road with my daughter to walk from behind the Emerson House through woods, fields, and roads to Walden Pond, I was hot, tired, and tempted to buy Erika Robuck’s and Sarah McCoy’s new novels and skip their talk at The Concord Bookshop. I’m so glad I changed from sneakers to loafers, found some iced tea, and got myself over to a delightful conversation about creativity and ways the past and present meet. That love you see in the photo warmed the audience, too, as the bookshop’s ever-smiling Dawn asked thoughtful questions that Erika and Sarah answered with honesty, precision, and charm.


Dawn first asked about inspiration. Erika Robuck spoke about the importance of place and the day when she toured some historic sites in Concord and stopped at the window in the Old Manse where Sophia Hawthorne, recovering from falling on ice, which led to a miscarriage, used her wedding ring to scratch words in the pane: “Man’s accidents are God’s purposes.” Erika spoke about imagining the fury Sophia Hawthorne must have felt to scratch into glass. As Erika spoke with passion, I felt as if she were still there, almost standing beside Sophia with an arm around her. So when Dawn said that the first person voice in THE HOUSE OF HAWTHORNE felt authentically Sophia’s, I believed her and can’t wait to read the novel about an artist and devoted wife and mother.

Sarah McCoy spoke of the origins of THE MAPMAKER’S CHILDREN as being haunted by a line that came to her and an angry, pained voice that wouldn’t go away, until the middle of one night when she couldn’t sleep so her husband told her to get out of bed, get her notebook, and begin. She found a way to link the inner turmoil of a contemporary woman struggling with a definition of family with Sarah Brown. Who was Sarah Brown, beyond being the daughter of man sometimes credited with beginning the Civil War by leading an attack on the Confederate arsenal at Harper’s Ferry? Trying to answer the question of who Sarah Brown was, exploring her role as an artist and mapmaker for the Underground Railroad, led Sarah McCoy from Concord, where Sarah Brown stayed with the Alcott family, to Harper’s Ferry, a West Virginia town both lovely and haunted by its past, and a small museum in Saratoga, California where a few of Sarah Brown’s paintings and information is proudly preserved.


The authors also discussed lines between fact and fiction, the pain and strategies of cutting after gathering lots of information, the use of contrast to power a narrative, punctuation as a tool or a device to bring out the music of language, and ways they live with the subject, such as Erika setting up sort of altars on her desk, and drinking what they drank, and Sarah cutting herself off from social media, and sometimes making dinner, in order to immerse herself.

These novels about strong women would make wonderful Mother’s Day gifts. I hope to be reading them on Sunday.

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