Civil War Days – Medicine & Music

Soldiers_Drummer

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:

40Miler
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.

BanjoJawbone_inset
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.


My Story Wall Presentation – Elaine Fisher (Fishmama)

For our May meeting, we had a very small turnout (5 including myself), and I couldn’t have asked for a better group to participate in my Story Wall. My special thanks goes out to them.

Not being the most organized person in the world, I used visual aids to help with this presentation. (see Tim’s photos below) I displayed and moved around cards of the characters, location settings, and themes to help me explain my story. Even with the aids, my presentation tended to wander in different directions. The group guided me back to the important areas, I needed to concentrate on. My novel was written in the literary genre which allows more freedom, which worked in my favor, since my story was character driven.  So now I’m concentrating on developing more conflict to move my plot along centering on my main character, Madison. Everything should revolve around him, so some minor characters may be eliminated. I am revising my first part to give a better sense of the direction in which the story is going and build on from there.

This was my first NaNo and first year as a Journey member, so If I can do this story wall presentation, anyone can.

IMG_3271IMG_3270

 

 

 

Story Wall

Image
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.

Image
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.

Image
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.