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.

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.





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!