Why I Write

ink jar and quills (image by Charles Stanford)
(image by Charles Stanford)

I have been dealing with what I’ll call anxiety induced malaise of late.

As such, my creative work has stalled.

There is a school of thought out there that says anxiety, depression, and the like drive the creative person to make better art. I’m not going to say this is 100% wrong. When a person is sensitive and able to feel things deeply, that can be a gift. I have experienced that. However, it can also be paralyzing. Lately, I have been paralyzed.

I have especially struggled with my writing. I had a number of projects in the works, but suddenly that shifted. One novel I was working on (a sort of companion to Sideshow) seemed frivolous and unnecessary. Another novel seemed precious and overwrought. You get the picture. Each time I sat down to work, it all seemed to be without purpose. I wanted to do something important, but nothing seemed important enough, so I did nothing.

I’ve been here before. It’s far from the first time. I have always been a person deeply affected by the world around me and my effect on it (or lack thereof). I often struggle with being productive when I think that what I’m doing isn’t useful or helping anyone, and at times, it paralyzes me. Who am I? What do I have to give? When I run through my talents, I usually find myself coming up sort (blame the anxiety and some lingering threads of that teenage angst), but there is one thing that still remains: stories.

I write historical fiction not simply because I love history.  I do love history, but more importantly, I love the stories of history. So often in a history class we are taught to memorize names and dates, but we see these people as far away and nothing like us when in reality, we have so much in common with them and knowing their stories helps us to see that. Knowing their stories helps us to understand our own world as well.

When I wrote Sideshow, I initially struggled with trying to explain why I set the book in the in the time period that I did. The 1950s are a polarizing time to write about. They are so easy to romanticize, what with the poodle skirts and roller skating car hops and the birth of the American teenager, but under the surface of all that, there is a lot going on, most of which would bubble over quite fiercely in a short amount of time. I wanted to address these issues in a story of what is often portrayed as an “idyllic” time. I wanted to write a story that talked about some of the parts of that time that still ring true in our world today.

Additionally, I included the flashbacks because just as I do not exist solely in 2017, but also in 1992, 2001, 1988, 2010, etc as the years I lived through helped shape who I am today, the same is true for the people of the past.

Take for example the flashback to the incident with Abby’s mother. This is a history that Italian-Americans did not often talk about or acknowledge to their descendants. I myself had to learn about something similar happening to one of my own ancestors from archival documents and not from anyone in my family. This story as well as the others included in Sideshow were important to me because just as these events shaped Abby’s perception of her own identity, there were events happening in the world around me that I knew where shaping the identities of myself and everyone else for years to come.

So…the telling of stories…

It may not be much, but this is what I have give the world. So…I suppose I must find a way to continue.

Are some of my projects frivolous or precious? Yeah, probably.

Do I feel weird mentioning them on social media when so many more important things are happening? Definitely.

Do I think my words are even close to enough to change anything? No. Not really.

But deep down I know it is one of the few things I have that can help anyone (as self-centered as that may seem), so I have to keep trying.

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Della Adamson, the Early Years

Sometimes, when suffering writer’s block, I like to put my mind on a different project to clear out my brain and let ideas percolate. One of the best ways for me to do that and still feel like I’m accomplishing something when I’m on a deadline is to write little bits of flash fiction about other characters in my current WIP. I wrote a ton of these for Sideshow. Some of them may find their way into larger works in the future, but for the time being, I’ve decided to share a few of my favorites with you.

Shay Number 5

Della Adamson. Act One. A New Beginning

Della kept her eyes closed as the train left the station. She had no desire to have a last look at Montgomery, West Virginia as it faded away behind the train. Years ago, when she had been a little girl, Montgomery had been everything to her. It had been the “big city” and the people who came from there had been interesting and sophisticated. Now, she understood just how small it was. Sure, it was larger than where she grew up, a town that had been named for a kind of coal that hadn’t been profitable for over 100 years, but still, Montgomery wasn’t an escape. Not even Morgantown, the city printed on her ticket, was a true escape. She felt strained and confined by the entirety of West Virginia, the United States, the planet earth. She needed to get away, though she couldn’t say why, and where to was nothing more than a dream.

She had been in school when it happened the first time. Miss Hawthorne, the fresh out of Glenville State, and not all that much older than Della herself, algebra teacher, had been explaining the quadratic equation, and Della suddenly felt unable to breath. Her heart pounded so hard that she could hear it in her ears and her mouth grew dry.

“Is something wrong, Miss Adamson?” Miss Hawthorne had asked sternly, and Della became instantly aware that she had slumped from her desk.

Getting to her feet and brushing off her skirt, Della shook her head. “No, Miss Hawthorne. Just a dizzy spell.” A red flush of embarrassment gathered in her cheeks.

“Do you need to see the nurse?”

For a moment, Della scanned the room trying to decide what to do. All of her classmates eyes were on her. Usually, she appreciated the attention, but this time the whole thing made her feel profoundly uncomfortable. She tried to take a deep breath, but her lungs felt too small. “I suppose,” she whispered, trying to sound poised, despite how she felt inside.

Elegance in all situations, her mother often repeated. Della tried her best to replicate this. Usually it was her temper that got the best of her, but this time, she felt sick. She needed desperately to lie down, and could have done so right there in the classroom, but she refused to allow something as small as illness make her appear anything less than the refined lady her mother had always taught her to be. She excused herself from the room and did not allow the dizziness to overtake her again until she had finally made her way into the hall. Instead of going to the nurse, she walked out of the school and went directly home.

The attacks came with regularity after that. There appeared to be no pattern to them. Della would find herself overcome at town social events, at the meat counter of the deli, in aisle of the general store, at night before she went to bed, and in the morning as she readied coffee for her father and older brothers before they left for work. She began to feel constantly suffocated and never seemed able to take a full breath. She decided then and there that the only way to solve the problem was to leave.

After she felt that a sufficient amount of time had passed, she pulled a small battered brown leather suitcase from under the chair in front of her and snapped it open on her lap. Inside she had packed everything in the house that had belonged to her: a few changes of clothes, a string of pearls, a pair of red kitten heels, two battered Agatha Christie novels with creased and folded covers, and, hidden underneath it all, an old photographBarnum & Bailey postcard of her mother in a tarnished silver frame. She took the photograph out now and examined it. It had been taken many years before Della had been born, before her mother had even met her father. She wore a tight fitting leotard and a long flowing skirt with a slit up to her mid thigh. Mrs. Belinda Adamson didn’t dress like that anymore. She would have been scandalized for Della to even consider wearing such an outfit. Still, there she was, looking proud as could be, and standing on a small, obviously swaying wire. The faces were too similar. She may have aged, but there was no denying that the woman in the picture and Della’s mother were one and the same. As a young girl the picture had perplexed Della, until she had eventually, piecemeal, worked its backstory out of the now austere woman.

The picture had been taken during her days as a circus aerialist. She had been born into a family of them and had been trained, along with her brothers and sisters, to perform acrobatic feats of daring high above the crowd, much to their awe and delight. At the time, Della had found the tale almost as impossible to believe as the thought that her mother would have ever worn such an outfit. It boggled the mind to think of her mother, whose long limp grey skirts practically always touched the floor, who always told Della to never draw attention to herself, performing in a circus. Everyone who knew Belinda Adamson knew her to be a taciturn woman with a melancholy streak a mile wide. She was the sort of woman who faded swiftly and easy out of a stranger’s memory. She didn’t seem like the sort at all. However, as time went on and Della watched, she became clued into small hints that the story was true after all. For one thing, her mother had amazing reflexes. If one of her brothers dropped a glass, she could catch it from halfway across the room.

“Do you know how expensive these are?” She would admonish in a stern voice.

For another, she had a strength that her small frame did not even begin to imply. She could lift the beds to vacuum under them and maneuver heavy buckets of milk all the way up from the store because the milkman did not come far enough up the mountain to deliver them. It did begin to give Della pause.

Her sister, she had told Della one day, when feeling charitable to her questions, had managed to stay in the business even after the Depression had shuttered a good three-quarters of the shows in the country. She had said it with such disdain that Della could easily see she did not approve of this choice, but it struck Della as an odd thing to look down one’s nose about. It wasn’t like her mother had chosen a particularly lucrative profession either, marrying a miner and having his five-boy-one-girl brood. In fact, she thought this mystery aunt probably had a far better measure of things than her mother did.

She tucked the picture away, thinking now of that aunt, trying to remember her name. Christina? Or was it Elina? Sophie? She wasn’t sure. All she knew was that she taken up working with an Irishman named McClure, who ran a traveling carnival. Her mother had talked about her siblings so rarely and under so much duress that it was possible, Della thought, that she had even this wrong. She shook her head and tucked the photograph away, snapped the suitcase shut, and tucked it back under the seat in front of her. She would have time to worry about the next step when she reached Morgantown, where a carnival called McClure’s Amusements was camped out for a weekend.

She would miss her mother, but more than anything she needed to breath.

Side shows at the Vermont state fair, Rutland (LOC)

Step Right Up and Meet McClure’s Amusements

Hunt Bros. Circus side show about 1955
Photo Credit: CharmaineZoe’s Marvelous Melange

As Della says, “an carnival doesn’t run with extra parts.”

McClure’s Amusements is no exception. In order for the show to travel from place to place and give the locals a unique and fun experience, it requires a large cast of characters. I knew this from day one of writing, so I began an Evernote file entitled “Carnival Cast” to make sure I had the right idea for the rest of the ensemble. We will probably hear more from these characters in the coming weeks, but for now, here’s a sneak peek at just a few of the interesting people who keep the operation running direct from my early draft notes:

Sofia & Michael McClure: In the mid-1930s, the McClures sank their last dime into buying out the bankrupt traveling carnival they worked for, now they are in charge of day-to-day operations. A former performer, Sofia is more of a public face. Michael is more concerned with the business side and is rarely seen outside of his trailer.

Boleslaw Wolski: Suprema’s uncle. Though his brother went into farming, Boleslaw and his wife, Ida, joined the carnival circuit eventually settling with the McClures. Boleslaw is both one of the lot managers and a human blockhead.

Alejo Lambrinos: The Fire-eater. Alejo grew up as part of a traveling show in Europe, honing his craft. Then his family immigrated when he was a teenager. Though his wife passed away many years ago, he is not lonely. He is accompanied in his travels by his daughter Constance, her beloved Ruth and their ward, Phebe.

Constance Lambrinos:  A year since our first meeting in “Fire-Eater’s Daughter,” Constance is very happy with her life with Ruth. She performs more regularly now.

Ruth Pasternak: A year has passed and Ruth is more confident than ever that she made the right decision. She still misses her mother, of course, but her life with Constance and the carnival is a very happy one. She will be helpful getting Abby acclimated.

Phebe Lambrinos: About 8, she was abandoned by her parents when the carnival was stopped in Morgantown and taken in by the Lambrinos family. Ruth and Constance consider her their daughter.

 

At the Vermont state fair, Rutland, "backstage" at the "girlie" show (LOC)
Photo Credit: Library of Congress (Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Collection)

 

Della Adamson: The mercurial daughter of a former trapeze artist, Della grew up in small town West Virginia and is now the star of the “Girl Show.” Desperate to achieve her mother’s lost glory at any price.

The Other Girl Show Girls: Celia Mendez (dancer, knife thrower), Trixie Rose (comedian), Vivian Hawthorne (poet, writes erotica)

Vincenzo “Vinnie” Corelli: A clown. Though Vinnie has suffered a great deal of loss in his storied life (immigrated from Italy as a young man, lost the love of his life to WWI, spent time as a tramp, etc), he is genuinely friendly and wants to see others (especially Suprema) happy.

Jimmy Manderly: Ride Jockey. Operates a dark ride, the Haunted Train. A charmer.

Gregor Dali: Strongman and snake charmer; is actually a family man deep down, but you wouldn’t know it to meet him.

A few other “Carnival Cast” characters were added over the course of writing the novel, but with this large of an ensemble, you can see why I needed to keep notes.

Barker at the grounds of the Vermont state fair, Rutland (LOC)
Photo Credit: Library of Congress (Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Collection)

Sideshow is available now for pre-order from Interlude Press. Be sure to reserve your copy today.

Meet Suprema Wolski: The Strongwoman

We’ve talked a bit about the setting of Sideshow. Let’s take a look at the characters.

Suprema - Headshot Sketch

When Abby and her brother attend the Athletic Show at McClure’s Amusements, the “astonishingly pretty” referee happens to catch her eye. She has no idea the role that this reserved and troubled young woman would play in her future, but she does know that her presence is hard to ignore.

Vulcana(1875-1946) - An early performer Suprema would have admired and one of my inspirations for Suprema's character.
Vulcana (1875-1946) – An early performer Suprema would have admired and one of my inspirations for Suprema’s character.

Beverly Agnes Wolski did not have a great relationship with her parents growing up. Luckily, she had her Uncle Boleslaw and Aunt Ida, who took her from the struggling farm she called home and taught her to get along as part of the carnival world. She started off fortune telling with her aunt, but quickly moved on to a sideshow act as a strongwoman, taking the name Suprema. She took to the act easily, using the performance (and training for it – there is no gaff to Suprema’s routine) as a means of reclaiming the strength and assertiveness she wasn’t allowed in her childhood.

Despite her weaknesses for soda and comics (especially romance comics, but don’t tell) and her commanding stage presence, Suprema is often cold and reserved in person. She has suffered loss in her life and is afraid to get close to others, so she is far more likely to lash out than be vulnerable. When Abby is able to be vulnerable around her, she unexpectedly finds herself softening and allowing this new and intriguing person into her world.

Sideshow is available now for pre-order from Interlude Press. Be sure to reserve your copy today.

Traveling with the Caravan: Getting Around With McClure’s Amusements

Sheboygan Press June 12 1914
Sheboygan Press June 12 1914

Stories of the traveling carnival are imbued with a certain mythological essence, and much as it does with road trip tales, travel memoirs, wagon train westerns, and memoirs of adventurous feats like climbing Everest, the secret of this essence lies in the word “traveling.” The concept speaks to people on a deep level. I doubt there are many people who could honestly say that they haven’t thought, at least once in their life, “maybe I should just pack up and hit the road.”

Once in a fit of whining about how “there is nothing new under the sun,” I read something that comforted me. “There are only two plots: someone leaves or someone arrives.” (a paraphrase of a quote often attributed to John Gardner) Travel stories like Sideshow fit an interesting space between these two “plots.” Abby is leaving her home and “going on a journey,” but she also has “arrived” at the carnival and is a stranger in their world.

Image Credit: ReflectedSerendipity
Image Credit: ReflectedSerendipity

Because travel is so central to the narrative and it’s themes, it was important to me that I portray it in the right way.  While earlier circuses and bigger carnivals mostly traveled by rail in the United States, by the 1950s smaller carnivals such as McClure’s Amusements mainly traversed the country in trailers. This meant I got to choose some fun locations without regard to rail lines (Hence the decision to take the caravan through places like Kokomo, Indiana).

The tricky part, however, of mapping out the route McClure Amusements would take across the Midwest was the fact that in 1957, the interstate highway system had only just begun construction.

When today, you could use highways to make the trip

Sideshow travels today

When Abby was adventuring, they would be using, at best, state routes. My mother used to tell me tales of her childhood Cleveland trips, which were huge undertakings akin to cross country road-trips. You packed a lunch. Today, her family could have made that trip in an hour.

Sideshow travels sans highway

The maps themselves don’t look terribly different and maybe 13 vs. 17 hours doesn’t seem like much of a trial, but keep in mind that while today you might be driving 80 miles per hour on the highways, these routes would have speed limits that topped out at 55 (most would be quite lower). Not to mention that hauling or driving a trailer, ride, or truck full of carnival supplies would slow you down and destroy your gas mileage. (And to be honest, some of those state routes were in different locations at the time. I double checked old road atlases because I am a research nerd. They just don’t scan well on the blog)

Image Credit: Tin Can Tourists
Image Credit: Tin Can Tourists

Also important were the campers themselves. The concept of the “Recreational Vehicle” or RV is so ubiquitous nowadays, that it might surprise you to learn that term wasn’t used until the 1970s. Still, people were roaming the country in campers, trailers, and “housecars” practically since the invention of the automobile. These vehicles were especially important to more nomadic people such as those who were employed by McClure’s Amusements. Being able to keep your home with you as you traveled could be a real source of comfort during their grueling travel schedule.

There were many examples of trailers available to to the performers and crew from the brand new Volkswagon Westphalia to small Empire trailers like Suprema’s. Choosing what sort of trailer I would base each character’s home-base on was a lot of fun for me. I wanted it to reflect the character’s personality, means, and needs just as well as any other aspect of the character did.

1955 Empire Trailer. I based Suprema's on this model. [Image Credit: Tin Can Tourists]
1955 Empire Trailer. I based Suprema’s on this model. [Image Credit: Tin Can Tourists]
Travel is essential to Sideshow and the lives of the characters in the novel.  Even though that work isn’t one of the most obvious aspects of the narrative (less so than, say, researching slang or fashion), I knew it was something that I had to consider and focus on carefully. Travel is part of us and it’s history, in many ways, is ours too.

Sideshow is available now for pre-order from Interlude Press. Be sure to reserve your copy today.

Meet Abby Amaro: The Bally Girl

We’ve talked a bit about the setting of Sideshow. Let’s take a look at the characters.

Abby AmaroSideshow‘s protagonist, Abby Giovanna Amaro starts off the novel as a reserved diner waitress with operatic ambitions. Her grandmother introduced her to famous Cleveland harpist and opera singer, Caramela Cafarelli when she was 5 years old and hooked her for life. Anxiety and stage fright, however, don’t exactly help a girl achieve the title of primadonna.

Still, Abby is determined. She gets admitted to the Cleveland Institute of Music and works hard to put herself through school. She spends so much time working that all of her best friends in Cleveland work at the Cedar Lee Diner with her: Sal, Roman, and Marjorie.

The Toasted Pecan: 950's style American Diner in Valencia, Spain
Image credit: The American Palate

Abby loves all three of them dearly and they look upon her as a sister, someone to take care of. Abby doesn’t mind this because…

Being the oldest girl in a family of six children, Abby has often chafed against the caretaker role expected of her, especially because she knows her brother, Natale, is more suited to it. Since her mother’s death five years ago, she has especially longed to be out on her own, though she isn’t truly aware of this yet.

Abby doesn’t mean to run away with McClure’s Amusements, but she did know she had to get away (from the roles that were chafing her, and especially from her frustratingly annoying ex-boyfriend, Frank Butler), and fate intervened.

Photo Credit: Mark J. Sebastian
Photo Credit: Mark J. Sebastian

Working on the bally and making new friends is tough for reserved and anxious Abby, who doesn’t have the highest of self esteem, but at least she has her music (and an unexpected crush ❤ ).

 

Sideshow is available now for pre-order from Interlude Press. Be sure to reserve your copy today.

The Birthplace of Rock & Roll & Abby Amaro: Cleveland in the 1950s

Starting this week, we will begin our look deeper into the world of Sideshow with explorations of the setting, plot, characters, and the research that it took to get them right. Enjoy!

Looking east down Superior Avenue from monument sector of Public Square, July 1950.
Public Square -1950 [Image courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery]
Sideshow begins in Cleveland, Ohio. This seemed a natural choice to me. I honestly never even considered setting Abby’s beginning anywhere else. Continuing the world of “The Fire-Eater’s Daughter” meant continuing a story set in the 1950s. That was not a problem. As far as the writing of historical fiction goes, the 1950s have a ton of interesting themes to mine and I’ve only begun to crack that surface. Using Cleveland as a backdrop for the opening scenes just seemed to slip right into those themes seamlessly.

In the 1950s, Cleveland, like the rest of the world (and the Amaro family – I’m sure the reason for the gap between Abby and Leon is painfully obvious) was trying its best to move on from WWII. The world was still in turmoil, but Cleveland was trying to forget.

The post-WWII manufacturing boom definitely helped. Cleveland was, after all, a manufacturing city, for better or worse.

Abby’s father, like many other Cleveland fathers of this decade and decades prior, worked in a steelyard. It was hard work but would have provided well for the growing Amaro family  and allowed them to live in a house between the neighborhoods of Little Italy and Coventry Village (a one time “planned” community for Cleveland’s wealthy Protestant elites which began growing in ethnic diversity around this time). Natale and Abby both work and are concerned with money, but they would, unlike their parents, have been able to finish out their high school years in relative peaceful enjoyment. They would have likely attended a local Catholic School such as St. Marion’s (which would close in the 1960s, so the younger Amaro children would have to be sent elsewhere).

Cedar Lee Theatre
Cedar-Lee Theatre [Courtesy of the Cleveland Heights Historical Society & Cleveland Historical]

A critical intersection, both to Abby and Sideshow is that of Cedar and Lee roads. Abby spends her evenings after her music classes working at the fictional (though loosely based on a one time burger joint known as Mawby’s) Cedar Lee Diner, the existence of which was inspired by local Cleveland landmark, the Cedar-Lee Theatre.

The Cedar-Lee opened in 1925 and anchored the ever changing commercial center around it. It’s still there today, albeit a little different than Abby would have known it.  Though Abby and Marjorie likely preferred the East Side Drive In (especially during the summer), Cedar-Lee would definitely have held a special place in her social life.

Announcement of the Moondog Coronation Ball at the Cleveland Arena, March 1952. WRHS.
Announcement of the Moondog Coronation Ball at the Cleveland Arena, March 1952. WRHS. [Courtesy of Encyclopedia of Cleveland History by CWRU and the Western Reserve Historical Society]
Speaking of social life, Abby would likely have also frequented dances held by Italian-American social clubs and teen organizations. As a music lover, Abby’s adoration of everything from opera to folk to, of course, rock and roll would mean seeking out places where she could hear the music she loved. In Sideshow she mentions to Suprema that she listened to Moondog every night. This is a reference to Cleveland disc jockey Alan “Moondog” Freed often credited with coining the term “rock and roll” leading to Cleveland’s beloved moniker. [I will discuss this particular aspect of Abby’s life in further detail in a later post.]

The carnival the Amaro family attends on that fateful day in late July would likely have been held in Gordon Park on the lakeshore or somewhere similar to it. These areas were casualties of that manufacturing boom mentioned earlier as the lake struggled through environmental degradation. That would have allowed McClure’s Amusements the ability to rent their time on the land cheaply, however. As seen in Sideshow, they do not always get the choicest locations, but they make the best of it. (Gordon Park’s Beach is also where I envisioned Abby’s breakup with Frank.)

The 1950s in Cleveland truly do provide an incredibly rich backdrop in which to paint the story of Abby Amaro’s early life and launch her into her later adventures with McClure’s amusements. This real and vibrant city that is more than it appears on the surface was, in my mind, the only place to begin.