Thursday, February 25, 2010


By Roberta C.M. DeCaprio

As a writer, I am a firm believer in reading other author’s books to help fine tune my own writing skills. When I read a novel I not only enjoy the author’s work and respect the time and talent it took to weave the story, but I also examine sentence structure, plot and sub-plot, the character’s point of view and the dialogue. I read all genres (authored by both men and women) and take what I learn in these areas to make my own writing skills improve. It’s an ongoing task, as none of us can know everything there is to know about any skill. When we think we do, we cease to learn and then to grow in our field.

Some of my own favorite authors are Diana Gabaldon, Karen Marie Moning, Nicholas Sparks, Dean Koontz, P.C. Cast, Stephanie Meyer, Julie Garwood, and Samantha James to name a few. Being surrounded by my own library, I wondered who and what the pioneer folks read by candlelight once the chores were done and the children bedded down for the night. Here are a few of the American authors and the novels I discovered:

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 – 1864), The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882), The Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish and Paul Revere’s Ride.

Edgar Allen Poe (1809 – 1849), The Tell-Tale Heart and The Pit and the Pendulum.

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811 – 1896), Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Herman Melville (1819 – 1891), Moby Dick.

Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892), Calvary Crossing a Ford.

Louisa May Alcott (1832 – 1888), Little Women

Samuel Clemmons/Mark Twain (1835 – 1910), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Prince and the Pauper.

Washington Irving (1783 – 1859) Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

James Fenimore Cooper (1789 – 1851) The Last of the Mohigans and The Deerslayer.

L. Frank Baum (1856 – 1919) The Wizard of Oz.

They are amazing authors, but what is truly amazing is their stories are still read and enjoyed today. Their talent and creativity have spanned decades and many of them have had their story turned into a movie. I wonder what they'd have to say about that? Hmmm . . . not bad! Perhaps I should re-read and study these authors better myself, hopefully some of their success might rub off on me.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Table Tales

My mother is the Queen of garage sales, thrift shops and flea markets. If there's something obscure that I'm looking for, all I have to do is have Mom add it to her "list" and I know sooner or later, it will show up in the famous "goodie boxes" she sends us from the east coast.

Sometimes the goodies might be of questionable value, but we have received antique crocks, old tools and jewelry in those boxes. Just like in the movie Forrest Gump, "you know what you're gonna get".

My mother enjoys the hunt more than anything and being of the generation that experienced the great depression, she likes to get a bargain too.

One of the things she found for me has turned out to be a invaluable resource for historical research. It's a reprint of the 1897 Sears Roebuck Catalogue.

The introduction proudly boasts that should all the records of the late eighteenth century be lost, this book could serve as a historical description for everyday life in that time period. I find myself referring to it often when I'm writing.

Last week when I was looking for some examples of a sideboard for my work-in-progress, I realized something amazing. In the furniture listings, there were several tables that made me laugh. Not because they're goofy or overly elegant in that Victorian style that was so over the top. These were plain, ordinary and very serviceable tables for the kitchen or dining room.

What made me laugh was the realization that I have these tables in my house.

I actually have two baking tables, one in the entry way of my house and one in the upstairs of our barn. We're waiting for our "someday" house to find a place for that one.

My dining room set has been refinished once and we're considering having it done again. The finish is getting a bit sticky, and the chairs have been re glued several times. The table costs $3.40 when it was purchased new.

The really great thing is that my mother bought it at an auction in the sixties for $1.00 and that included six chairs. I know some people who visit us and see all our old stuff wonder why we don't buy some shiny new things. But for me , it's the stories that were told around these tables that make using them everyday so special. I imagine a family in the 1800's on the first day this dining room table was brought home, how proudly the mother put her dinner on it and how rich that family must have felt to have such a treasure.

The baking table might have had a top with a flour sifter, spice jars and other special features. I wonder how many holiday pies and loaves of warm homemade bread sat on the surface? How many family members walked through the door at the end of the day to smell a treat just from the oven?

When I write, I often thumb through that catalog, enjoying all the everyday things people dreamt of owning. It truly was a "wish book" and now it serves to make my imaginary worlds more real to the folks who read my books.
In my book, Promise Me, I have my couple often sitting at a table to eat or talk. The first time Sam and Amanda meet, it's in the Parmeter House kitchen late at night.

She felt as if she had somehow intruded, that the light banter had dissolved into something else. She didn't know what to say, and remained silent while the shadows in the corners of the kitchen grew deeper. What was it about confidences exchanged at midnight? Perhaps it was sometimes easier to confess to a stranger than to talk with a friend.

"I recently lost my husband. He was the only family I had left. . ." Her voice trailed off, and she closed her eyes to keep the tears from forming as she took another sip of the drink.

When she opened her eyes he was staring at her. "How do you feel about that, Amanda -- about being so alone?"

His easy use of her first name was too personal, but she wasn't offended. It seemed natural, as if this conversation had taken place many times before. Perhaps it was the anonymity of talking to someone she didn't know, but for some reason she felt comfortable enough to tell him the truth.

"It's frightening. I'm terrified the sadness will simply overwhelm me someday, and that I'll be consumed by it. And if I disappear, who's going to miss me? I don't think anyone will mourn my passing or even remember me." She swallowed a sob, as a tear trickled down her cheek. What was she doing? This man didn't care how empty and bereft she felt. First, she had flirted outrageously with him, and now she was going to humiliate herself by dissolving into tears in his presence.

She dropped her head, waiting for him to stand up and leave. She didn't share her deepest feelings with people she knew, much less complete strangers. What had he done to make her feel so vulnerable? Listened? Was she that desperate for someone to talk to?

He moved his pie around on the china plate before dropping his fork. When he made no move to rise and walk out of the room, she swallowed and tried to make her voice sound teasing again.

"What are your intentions regarding that pie?" She wiped away a tear and lifted her face to give him a coy look.

He pushed the plate toward her. "Can I interest you in some?"

She nodded, leaning forward to pick up his fork. It was an intimate thing to do, to use his utensil. It simply wasn't proper. It would be like pressing her lips to his in a kiss. That thought made her even bolder. She scooped up a forkful of cherries and grinned.

Do you have an heirloom or antique in your home that comes with a special story?
Deborah Schneider is the 2009 RWA Librarian of the Year
Promise Me is available from The Wild Rose Press
Visit her website at to view her book trailer with photos she and her husband took in Montana and Wyoming.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Nez Perce Womanhood

As promised a little more insight into being a Nez Perce woman in the 17 and 1800's. The children of Nez Perce families were taught by their grandparents. The grandfathers taught the boys how to make weapons, hunt, fish, track, and fight. Grandmothers taught the girls how to take care of their families, do the chores, and help their men. The elders passed down the stories of the trickster coyote and how "The People" came to be. By reading books of their legends you see how the legends taught the children basic truths about life and how to conduct themselves to be good Nez Perce.

Grandmothers also taught the girls about the coming of age and were by their sides during marriages and the births. When a girl began her menstrual cycle she would stay in the menstrual lodge for the duration of her bleeding. They believed the women carried strong powers during this time and were susceptible to getting pregnant.

This isolation served a purpose. They held private discussions about personal problems and conditions of health, exchanged views on herbal medicine, and composed songs. The cooked their own meals in the lodge and did not touch anything outside nor could they attend any ceremonies during this time.

They used buffalo hides with the fur still on for menstruation pads or buckskin and milkweed. The pads were put in a hole in the middle of the dwelling and buried.

After puberty girls were no longer allowed to play with boys and stayed in a lodge with their grandmothers and aunts and taught the ways of women.

Paty Jager
Photo source: First People
Source: Nez Perce Women in Transition, 1877-1990 by Caroline James; NeeMePoo by Allen P. Slickpoo, SR. and Deward E. Walker, Jr.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Mary Ann Todd, aka Mrs. Abraham Lincoln

While the Civil War raged, Southerners scorned her as a traitor to her birth. Citizens loyal to the Union suspected her of treason. She was holding her husband’s hand when he was shot by an assassin, and declared insane later in her life.

Who was she? Mary Todd Lincoln. Last February 12, I coincidentally had this date for a Cactus Rose blog and of course honored her husband. This year, I decided to learn a little more about her.

Mary Ann Todd was born on December 13, 1818, one of seven children born into a prominent family in Lexington, Kentucky. Her mother passed away when she was seven, and she later described her childhood as “desolate.” An excellent student, she spoke French fluently.

In 1839, Mary moved to Springfield, Illinois, to live at the home of her older sister, and here, the tiny young woman became a popular socialite. She dated both Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, but it was Lincoln who won her heart. At their wedding in 1843, he gave her a ring engraved with the words "Love is Eternal."

Over the next eleven years, four sons were born to the couple who had settled in Springfield. Mary was known as a very loving, devoted mother, but sadly, only Robert (1843-1926) lived to adulthood.

When her husband was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1846, Mary and the children lived with him in Washington for part of his single term. Back home in 1849, Abraham practiced law for five years before his interests returned to politics. After his well-known series of debates with Stephen A. Douglas, he was elected over three other Presidential candidates in November 1860 and inaugurated the next March as the 16th president.

Mary’s position as First Lady fulfilled her high social ambitions, but her White House years were a mixture of triumph and misery. Among her joys were refurbishing the White House and spending much time on visits with injured soldiers in hospitals. In addition to bringing them food and flowers, she read to them, wrote them letters, and raised $1,000 for the Christmas dinner at a military hospital.

Mary provided support for the Contraband Relief Association which helped blacks who came to the North during the Civil War. She was ardently opposed to slavery, and she strongly supported her husband's pro-Union policies.

However, Mary incurred ire for extravagant shopping orgies that were deemed unpatriotic extravagances. Her reputation was soundly thrashed because she had relatives who sided with the South in the war. In fact, several kinfolk died fighting for the Confederacy. Resulting, her own loyalty to the Union was often suspect.

After her husband’s tragic death five days after General Lee surrendered to Ulysses Grant in April, 1865, Mary never recovered. A month later, she left Washington to live in Chicago, trying a couple of years later to raise money by selling her old clothes through dealers in New York.

This unsuccessful business deal embarrassed her son Robert, who was fast on his way to becoming a highly-regarded attorney. She moved to Europe for three years, visiting health spas to ease increasingly bothersome arthritis. Upon the death of son Tad, her irrational fears and behaviors alarmed her surviving son, and Robert instigated an insanity hearing.

A jury of twelve men declared Mary insane after witnesses testified to erratic behavior and habits. The judge admitted "the disease was of unknown duration; the cause is unknown." Mary spent about four months in a private sanitarium in Batavia, Illinois.

In September 1875, she went to Springfield once again to live with her sister's family. The next year a second jury found her sane. Later she traveled to France, visiting spas as her health began to decline. It is suspected she suffered from undiagnosed diabetes, spinal arthritis and migraine headaches.

By the time she returned to her sister’s home in 1880, she was going blind. She passed away on July 16, 1882, at age 63. Since physicians wrote "paralysis" on the death certificate, the cause was probably a stroke.

Mary was buried next to her husband in the Lincoln Tomb Cemetery in Springfield. On her wedding ring, quite thin from wear, the words "Love is Eternal" were still visible.

~Tanya Hanson

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Modern Trip or Lifelong Journey

Twice in December, I came home from work to have my husband explain we would leave for Kansas the next morning (family emergencies). It’s about 2000 miles round trip. Our ‘luggage’ consisted of clothes. Period. Sure, we had the extra pair of shoes, boots or coat, our bathroom necessities, and one or two other things, such as cell phones, my laptop and my husband’s pillow. (He goes no where without it.) But we didn't need to worry about food. Anytime we were hungry we could pull into a restaurant and eat. Nor did we worry about ‘fuel’ for our car, because that too was simply and exit away. When we arrived at our destination, we checked into the hotel room we had reserved in advance…

Let’s turn back the clock to a woman whose husband came home one day and informed his family--come spring they would head west. If the husband was an ‘established business man’, the wife may have had a life of leisure up to this point. Meaning, she may have had help with the household chores, which might have provided her with time to tend to a rose garden or have tea with her lady friends. If the husband was a laborer or farmer, the wife most likely not only worked the fields with him, she managed her household single-handedly as well.

It would have been her job to pack the necessities for the long trip, while her husband secured their passage. Conestoga wagons were actually far and few when it came to wagon trains. The original Conestoga’s were freight hauling wagons. It took six to eight horses or up to a dozen oxen to pull one wagon. The floors of a Conestoga wagon were curved upward to keep the cargo from tipping or slipping, and these wagons could haul up to 12,000 pounds.

Some Conestoga wagons were used to for the California Gold Rush, but by the time the migration wagon trains were happening, most wagons were Prairie Schooners. The name came about because some thought the white canvas tops crossing the prairies looked like sail boats crossing the ocean. Schooners were average farm wagon with arched, wooden bows holding the canvas stretched from side to side. Conestoga wagons had suspension, Schooners did not. The ride was usually so rough, people chose to walk. Schooners were pulled by mules or oxen. (Horses weren’t sturdy enough to make the trip.) If oxen pulled the wagon, a drover or teamster walked on the left side of the oxen, shouting commands or cracking a whip. If mules were used, they were harnessed and driven by someone sitting on the wagon seat.

The woman would have had to decide what to take west. She may have created a list of things to sell or giveaway before the trip, and to begin with she may have insisted on frivolous things, such as furniture. As space began to dwindle, she’d realize the importance of the basics—food. Dried meat, beans, coffee, flour, salt, a cow to be milked, and the necessities needed to prepare the foods, feed the animals, and aid their travels. (Tools.)

The trails west were littered with furniture…the family rocking chair, or generations old desk, things that at one time had been treasured, became dead weight that needed to be discarded. Crosses decorated the trails as well. Friends, family members, children, wives , husbands and animals. At one time it was said there were so many dead and decaying oxen carcasses one simply had to follow the smell all the way west. For years, the bleached white bones did serve as trail markers.

The trail was long and full of hardships, (way to many to briefly mention), but men, women and families prevailed, and arrived at their destination intact.

Yet, their work was far from over. Many of the trains arrived west in late summer or fall, which meant winter arrived before many of the homes did. Dugouts and/or hand dug basement were often utilized that first winter. Come spring, there was also land to clear and gardens to plant. Farmers and miners were the most common occupations of wagon train travelers. If the husband was a farmer, it was most likely the wife was out clearing the fields along with him. If he was a miner, she probably would have cleared the ground for her garden herself.

My trips took a few days each time, the pioneer’s, several months, but that’s really the only comparison I can make. After all, mine were simple, modern day ‘trips’, theirs were lifelong journeys.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Mendenhall Plantation

~ Not the usual plantation

I recently visited a local historical site. It’s one of those places you always intend to go to, but never seem to get the opportunity to stop. But I made time. Mendenhall Plantation isn’t a plantation in the traditional sense of the word. It’s the home of a Quaker family, and Quakers didn’t own slaves. This is no Tara, this is quite the opposite. It’s a view of pre-Civil War Southerners who didn’t own slaves. The Mendenhalls were from Pennsylvania and came to North Carolina prior to the Revolutionary war.
There were several amazing features of the house—

  • The house itself is a two-story structure build on a dugout basement. Interestingly enough there is a trap door from the first floor to the basement.
  • There were no elaborate decorations no grand curved stairways. These stairways were steep and utilitarian, taking up the smallest footprint possible.
  • A quilt rack was suspended from hooks on the first floor ceiling and could be raised for storage and lowered for use.
  • The barn was a bank barn, two stories yet built on a hill so no stairs were needed. Again there were trap doors here as well to move the hay from the loft on the second floor to the animals on the first.
  • A wagon was one of the most amazing items. It had a false bottom for hiding slaves. Two boys would ride through town with a seeming load of hay but in a hidden compartment were men and women. Giving aid to runaway slaves was a criminal offence, yet these peace-loving, principled people risked their lives and to help others.
  • The trap door on the first floor leads to the basement and not just a hole in the ground an area where people could hide, it was a little apartment where people could reside. Most likely the first occupant had lived in the basement while he built his home and later served a other purpose—a place for slaves to reside until they could find passage to a safer area.

I really gained a greater appreciation for The Society of Friends and their contributions to America’s founding and history.
Here is a link to the website: