Morning Coffee: The Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918

winterMy next novel, “The Healing Heart”, is set in Wisconsin, 1918, against a backdrop of WWI and the Spanish Flu pandemic. My research of that time has been both fascinating and horrifying.

It came to be called the Spanish Flu because Spain was where all the initial cases were being reported. This led many to believe Spain was ground zero. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, we don’t know. It was interesting to read that at the time the Spaniards called it the French Flu. The United States and allied countries had put a moratorium on negative press. All efforts, all funds, were put toward the war first. Any news that might frighten people and lower their morale was banned. So why was Spain free to report the rapidly spreading pandemic? Spain was neutral in WWI so there was no censorship of the press. But there were cases already occurring here and abroad.

The first wave struck the United States in February 1918, with initial cases being reported from Haskell County, Kansas. It’s believed that soldiers returning home on leave, or moving freely between camps, were bringing it with them. Soon twenty-four of the thirty-six largest army camps had the flu. Thirty of the fifty largest US cities, most adjacent to military facilities, reported an epidemic of flu cases by spring. The second wave, an “explosion”, hit nation-wide in September and continued through that winter. October was the worst. A third wave hit in December and lingered into spring, affecting many schoolchildren.

Symptoms were nosebleeds, coughing up blood, bleeding from the ears and eyes, coughing so hard it tore apart the abdominal muscles and rib cartilage, headaches that felt like someone was hammering a wedge into the skull behind the eyes, body aches like bones breaking, vomiting, skin color changing to anything from a light blue tinge around the lips and fingertips to a spreading blue so dark it looked black. Sufferers writhed in agony and delirium. It was a viral disease with no known cure other than time, rest, and prayer. It could kill in two ways: a quick and direct death with a violent viral pneumonia so damaging it was compared to burning the lungs; or more slowly and indirectly by stripping the body’s defenses, allowing bacterial pneumonia to invade the lungs.

Public gatherings were forbidden. Schools, churches, dance halls, movie theaters, bars and saloons, all closed. Posters warned against spitting, coughing, and sneezing. If even one member of a household was ill they were all put into quarantine; no one was allowed to enter except the physician, until at least four days passed without fever. Some communities allowed funerals with family only. Others, like Philadelphia, experienced such an overwhelming death toll that burials were in mass graves with no coffins. Steam shovels dug the pits. There were no funerals, no graveside mourners.

Not everyone contracted the flu. Not everyone who did ultimately died. In fact, despite the high death toll a majority of people survived. There’d been another flu pandemic back in 1889-90, with recurrences through 1894. A million people worldwide died in that one. Those who contracted and survived that strain were less likely to contract this one. And, like anything you might come in contact with today, some people had a natural immunity or were lucky enough to contract a weaker version and had the strength to pull themselves through with rest.

It’s estimated that as much as forty percent of the global population was infected over eighteen months. Anywhere from twenty to fifty million died worldwide. That’s more than the seventeen million killed in the war. President Wilson was struck down in April of 1919 while in France negotiating peace. He survived but his mind was affected; he became paranoid, erratic, and confused. Just four months later he suffered a stroke that may have been linked to the illness. His wasn’t the only report of lasting brain injury.

Not the kind of backdrop where you’d expect to find love, you say. I’d argue that love and happiness can be found anywhere; that it’s love that gets us through those hard times. It’s love that will keep Alice strong when tragedy and heartbreak threaten to crush her spirit.

Here’s a little ditty from 1918, a children’s skipping rhyme: “I had a little bird, and its name was Enza. I opened the window, and in-flu-Enza.” (author unknown)

Morning Coffee: Shaking Things Up!

winterI’m ready to start my second novel. I want to start my second novel. Unfortunately, my brain doesn’t seem to want to go there. My heroine’s voice is not coming to me as easily as it did with the first novel and I realize that’s because Mary Bishop was older. She was a mature woman who knew her back story and could tell it to me with ease, even the most painful parts. I only had to lead her through her current story. But Alice is only eighteen and doesn’t have that more complicated back story. She’s led a quiet childhood with only her girlhood dreams to tell her what life is all about. She has her plans, but doesn’t know that those plans are about to be changed in a dramatic and, in some cases, tragic way. It’s up to me to tell her this and I’m not having much luck. So it’s time to shake things up.

With “Mary Bishop” I just sat down and started typing. I knew bits and pieces of where she was going, but not how she was going to get there. Because she knew where she had been, and was able to tell me this so clearly, I was able to see her future…even if she couldn’t yet. I was able to be a pantser, writing by the seat of my pants. With “The Healing Heart”, Alice’s story, I’m going to need to be more of a plotter if I don’t want the story to get lost as it runs wildly down all the wrong paths.

001I’ve been spending time this week reviewing my notes from @CandaceHavens regarding Book Mapping. Last October she outlined for us each step you needed to cover in order to map out the direction of your novel. This doesn’t mean every little detail, but knowing your benchmarks and when you need to hit them in your story. I will be following her directions as I map out “The Healing Heart” before I even start writing. (Yes, I already wrote the prologue, but it’s the body of the story that’s eluding me.)

Then, after I finish mapping my book, I’m going to draft this one by hand, not computer. For a long time I did all of my first drafts this way. It’s what I was used to since I’m not a part of the generation that grew up with computers. Over time, though, I taught myself to draft electronically. But I think I need to shake up my process in order to jump start my creative process.

According to a May 2016 article by Nancy Olson on, handwriting with a pen positively affects the brain in three ways: it “increases neural activity in certain sections of the brain, similar to meditation”, it “sharpens the brain and helps us learn”, and it “forces us to slow down.” The act of writing by hand is creative; whereas, typing on a keyboard is analytical in nature. The hand movements used to create letters plugs into the regions of the brain tied to thinking, language, healing, and memory. This could actually lead to more creative thought as we are forced to slow down and our brain rests. I’ve learned that quite a few authors still draft this way.

And an extra benefit for me, it may stop me from constantly going back and editing rather than moving forward. This constant editing can, and has, brought entire projects to a dead halt. Editing as you go is so easy on a computer. It’s not as easy on paper; on the contrary, it’s rather messy. I want to train my brain to free-write. I want to be able to ignore the editor in me and just enjoy the creative process. With this in mind, I am packing my book map, my research and character notes, and a composition notebook in my suitcase for Florida in a week. I can’t think of a better place to sit with pen and paper than a warm sunny Gulf Coast beach.

This will be training for when I someday want to try Candace Havens’ “Fast Draft” method, I was originally thinking I’d do that with this book, but it’s a rigorous write-your-book-in-two-weeks program that my brain is just not ready for and I want to do it right. Perhaps by book three my brain will be in shape to make that kind of commitment.

Morning Coffee: Addiction To The Written Word

winterI’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I am addicted to the written word. The written word is a powerful thing. String them into sentences, the sentences into paragraphs, the paragraphs into stories, and you will be transported.

Other worlds. Other times. Heroes, heroines, and mystical beasts. What are you in the mood for: a mystery, political suspense, a good scare, or maybe a romance to make your heart race and your temperature raise a little, or maybe a lot? They’re all just waiting out there for you to pick up and read. And what better time is there than a cold winter night (or day).

Books are my addiction of choice, both fiction and nonfiction. I can’t own too many. I can’t pass a book store, or even a book display, without having to stop and browse. . .and, inevitably, buy. With my Kindle I can have a new book, or two, or three, at a touch of a button. No going out in bad weather. No waiting in line. No waiting for the post office to deliver. Click…and I’m ready to read. Yet, I still can’t help but buy traditional paper books, as well. In fact, I have two being delivered today and a third will ship next week.

Of course, it depends what kind of reading, and the planned location of said reading, that determines e-book or paper. For historical research I like traditional paper. I want to be able to highlight, write notes in the margin, study photos and maps without straining my eyes because they’re too small, and flip back and forth to refresh myself on something read earlier. The end of this month I’ll be going on a last minute trip to the sunny shores of Ft Myers, Florida. The first three nights will be spent staying at a resort on the Gulf. I’m certainly not taking my Kindle out to read on the beach…all that sand, water, and sun glare make it impossible to enjoy. Thus, the three traditional books I’ve purchased. I also don’t take my Kindle with in my bubble bath. That’s a catastrophe just waiting to happen.

And, have you ever had the thrill of a rare books room at a library or museum? Heaven! Old written words! The dusty, musty, smell of old books, letters, diaries, official records. The words written by all those people who came before us! When I was pursuing my history degree at SUNY Geneseo back in the ‘90s, I had the privilege of writing an undergraduate thesis that required me to spend many hours in the Rare Books Room of Rush Rhees Library, Univ. of Rochester, NY, mining knowledge from the official records of the old Rochester Orphan Asylum, now Hillside Children’s Center. (The 116th anniversary of their tragic fire was just this week, January 8th, 1901. Twenty-eight residents died that night, twenty-six of them children. Those small souls are buried under a monument in Mt. Hope Cemetery.)

My Kindle also holds a dear place in my heart. E-books are great when you’re traveling and don’t want to, or can’t, carry enough paper books with you. E-books are great when you don’t want anyone else to know what you’re reading. If you’re like me, e-books are great when you’re reading in bed. I have a habit of falling asleep when reading in bed. With my Kindle I don’t have to worry about losing my page. It falls asleep shortly after I do and when I wake it next it will be right where I left off. (Well, except for that time on a plane when I apparently kept touching the screen, turning pages, in my sleep. It was a little tough finding my way back.)

What books did I order for my trip to Florida? “The Girl On The Train” by Paula Hawkins, “The Light Between Oceans” by M. L. Stedman, and “Enza” by Kristy K. James. Oh! I just received notice that the first two await in my mailbox! Which one to read first? I’ll take your suggestions.

My name is Jane, and I’m hopelessly addicted to the written word.

Morning Coffee: When Disappointment Strikes

winterLife doesn’t always go the way we want it to, despite all our best laid plans and wishes. Sometimes life disappoints. This week I received my third rejection for my novel, “Mary Bishop”. They’ve all been encouraging; they’ve all spoken highly of my writing skills and research. The general consensus seems to be that it reads more like women’s or historical fiction with romantic overtones than a true “romance”. That’s all right. They’re not saying it’s a bad manuscript, just that I haven’t yet picked the perfect publishing fit. So, I have sent it out again. And after this, if necessary, I will send it out yet again. I will continue to resubmit it until I do find that perfect publishing house for me. It’s out there.

I suppose I could throw up my hands and cry, “Three strikes, you’re out!” I could carry on about what a horrible writer I am and wonder aloud to the heavens whatever gave me the idea I could write a book. I could toss the manuscript in a drawer or box somewhere; I could get really upset and destroy it. I could even decree the problem is with editors who don’t know a good read when they have one. Why don’t I do one or all of these things? Because writing is my passion. I’ve wanted to write a book for as long as I can remember. Not just write a book, but publish one. I believe!

We’ve been seeing a lot in the news over the last few months about young people (mostly, but not entirely) who have never been taught how to accept disappointment, who have never learned what it feels like to fail and then have to pick themselves up again. That’s too bad because at some point things won’t go their way. They may not get into their first choice college and they might have to take a class over because they just didn’t quite catch on the first time. They will have to start at the bottom of the ladder at their first job. It may be years before they can buy their first home, let alone the home they’ve been dreaming of. Few young lawyers win their first court case and none make partner without long hours over many years of practice. Doctors, even experienced ones, occasionally lose a patient.

You know where I’m headed with this. When life takes you back a step, don’t flop down and cry. Don’t give up. Pick yourself up and find a new path to your goal. That’s what I’m doing. I know the day will come when I can announce a release date for “Mary Bishop”.

Here’s to 2017! A new year with unlimited new paths.