Sunday, January 31, 2016

getting around in 19th century St. Louis

A reader asked,

"I'm a St Louisan myself, so I know that Hyde Park is a good long distance from Carondelet. These days, it would take two hours to walk it, and I bet it would have been at least double that in those days. Did your characters ride, take the horse drawn omnibus or streetcar, or what?"

This is one of those things I like to think about, and one of the unexpectedly frustrating bits of research I had to do for the book—calculating travel times. How far was it between these places I was writing about, and how did people get there? Figuring this out actually affected the story-timeline in parts of CURSE.

I was able to find a good map of St. Louis published in 1879, but sadly for me it had no scale on it to indicate distance. Then I hit upon the bright idea of using Google Maps.

According to the Almighty Google, it's about 10 miles from Hyde Park to Carondelet Park in modern-day St. Louis. Those two points, by the way, were roughly the far northern and far southern points of the incorporated city in 1880. That's right, the whole of St. Louis was only about 10 miles top to bottom, and about 350,000 people, according to census records.

According to Google, in 2016 it would take a person about three hours to walk that distance. I'm not sure why my reader assumed it would take LONGER "in the old days" (on the assumption that everything moved more slowly back then?), but I figure a little over two hours for a tall, fit man like Trace to walk that distance, assuming he was carrying nothing, and figuring there were fewer obstacles—traffic, stoplights, construction detours, etc.— in 1880. (It takes me about 30 minutes to walk 2 miles to my favorite coffee shop, over flat ground, carrying a backpack, and I walk fast for a girl, but not near as fast as, say, a 6'2" army ranger or firefighter who runs every day.)

St. Louis about 1880 (source needed)

If Trace was in a hurry, he'd take his horse. In fact at the beginning of the second story, "Printer's Devil," he and Boz are riding their horses south to Carondelet to work for the day. Later, I mention several times about Trace riding Blackjack to Miss Fairweather's house, because it would be a good deal further north than the working-class neighborhoods and businesses where he'd spend most of his time, and he's usually in a hurry to visit her. I figure a horse and a modern bicycle could be calculated at the same average speed—between 10 and 25 miles per hour at a non-racing speed, depending on traffic and terrain. Google maps says it would take about an hour for a bicyclist to get from Hyde Park to Carondelet, so figure an hour, max, for Trace to ride to Miss Fairweather's house from anywhere in the city.

There were horse-drawn street cars, but much like modern bus lines, they probably were slower than horseback, because of meandering routes and frequent stops. Also, they cost money to ride, and a man whose livelihood depended on a working horse would want to get him out for daily exercise, to keep them both fit.

So there you go—a taste of what historical writers think about.

Here's the Google Maps link, if you want to play with the numbers yourself.

Friday, January 22, 2016

top 5 ways to die in a mine shaft

I'm finally doing some much-needed research into mining towns and mining techniques of the 19th century for to finish the end of my Boz and Lily story. I knew mining was dangerous but Holy Hera. Here are some of the leading contenders, in no particular order:
  1. Heat exhaustion. At depths greater than 1000 feet the air temperature could be 120ยบ or more. 
  2. Falls. Sometimes when men were brought up into the cooler air they would faint and fall out of elevators/down shafts. Their bodies were often shredded by banging into timbers and cables on the way down, such that grappling hooks were kept near the sump-pit at the bottom, to fish flesh and bone out of the hot water.
  3. And by the way you didn't want to fall in that sump pit, even from a short drop, because it was a good deal hotter than a hot tub. One guy at the Comstock fell in to his waist and all the skin sloughed off his legs. He died.
  4. Cave-ins were a constant danger. Although the walls and shafts were shored up with timbers, mineral-rich earth is notoriously unstable and tends to shift. And if your foreman is an asshole he may have cut corners on the shoring-up. 
  5. Then there's the ever-present threat of fire, when all you have for lighting is open flame. Amid the flammable coal and gasses underground. And if your fire abruptly goes out you're looking at asphyxiation from a buildup of non-flammable, non-breathable gasses.
Fun, huh?

Friday, January 15, 2016


So Neil Gaiman said something about Clarion and a whole lot of people got uptight about it and I'm like, I dunno, man. I maybe wanted to go to Clarion for like, a nanosecond, circa 2001 when I first heard about it? But I was still young enough to remember how badly I'd wanted to take creative writing in the 10th grade (and later, sophomore year of college) and how disillusioned I was, both times. I've never trusted what teachers wanted me to do (deep seated resentment of authority) and I've never much trusted the opinions of my so-called peers (I've always been ahead of the curve). I kinda have always had this standard in my head of what I wanted to do, and I basically use beta-reader feedback to gauge how close I am to achieving that standard. I never expected any of them to teach me how to write. I am a lousy tai chi student but even I understand writing and martial arts are two things you have to figure out for yourself. Still no one gets anywhere without a teacher and I've had plenty, though what I learnt from them was not necessarily what they were trying to teach me. There are many many paths to Rome, as they say; I knew from the time I was 12 that I was a writer and I devoted an absurd amount of time, energy, and money toward that purpose. You might even say I've made sacrifices: no kids, menial career path, borderline useless undergrad degree. I'd already written my first million words by the time I was 26 or so; when I counted it up I realized, Yes, that year was the first manuscript in which I sort of knew what I was doing and worked from a plan. Even so it took me two more novels to get one I thought was sellable, and it was. If you're starting on this writing journey in your 30's or 40's or after you've gotten a degree in accounting or whatever, then yeah--you're going to need a fast track to learn all the stuff I hacked out through classes and reading and independent study since I was 12. And if you've got that accounting degree then you probably have the money to afford Clarion. More power to you. But don't delude yourself you're getting anything special; you're just getting the Cliff's Notes version of what other writers learn over 28 years and 2 million words. I talked to a class of high-schoolers last month and almost the first thing their teacher asked me was whether I had an MFA. Of course *she* was about to start on her MFA. I've noticed that adults tend not to give themselves permission to pursue learning for the sake of learning; they only put in the time/money/effort if it will pad their resumes somehow. That's the downside of this reward-based society we operate in. Just realize that the workshop or the MFA or whatever won't make you a writer and it won't get you published. You still have to put in the hours and you still have to hit on the lucky magic combination of story/character/style/zeitgeist. That doesn't mean it's time wasted. Clarion is juried--as are most MFA programs--so you probably have some chops even going in. One might argue you'd be better served locking yourself in a hotel room for six weeks and just writing your little brains out instead of wasting time reviewing other peoples' stuff, but I can't say that with a straight face because I've been going to the same writer's group for 15 years and just when I think I'm not getting anything from it, a new member comes along or an old member brings a new story and the sheer challenge of dissection (does it work or not?) gets the creative machinery grinding again. Writers work in a vacuum most of the time and we need that answering ping; if you go to one of these things and meet your ideal critting partner or a couple of friends who become lifelong pen pals (I have one of those left over from Critters whom I met 13 years ago) then you got something out of the experience and I certainly got something from Critters; some early words of encouragement on Trace (Sikeston) and my friend Joy's absolute willingness to tear a story apart and put it back together in a different structure. Like my tai chi teacher says, Just learn one thing. No experience is ever wasted. But no one experience makes up the whole, either.

Monday, January 04, 2016

now this is high praise

I stumbled across a random review of Curse over the weekend. I was amused first by the reviewer comparing me to Tarantino:

This is Tarantino on steroids. The action and gratuitous killings and deaths we have grown to love and hate in a Tarantino film is what our Ms. Messinger provides in print. She provides different scenarios in the novel as Quentin provides chapters in his movies. I hope he picks up this novel cause he is the only one to do it as a movie. 

Can't find fault with that, considering my own love/hate relationship with QT's movies.

But then I looked back at the blogger's previous reviews. His last three reviews were Toni Morrison's God Save the Child, Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, and Umberto Eco's Numero Zero. (I didn't even know Eco was still alive!). And then my book. That's some pretty exalted reading habits. Not a bad endorsement. So thanks, Mr. English teacher.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Trace gets a starred review from Publisher's Weekly!

So, this happened; thus providing a kind of validation I hadn't known I wanted.

Yes, I was hoping to get more reviews from more sources before the book came out, but I was thinking peer reviews, advance readers, bloggers & such.

This is really cool.

An "amazing" debut.


 The Curse of Jacob Tracy
Holly Messinger, Author 
Stellar writing and a strong story define Messinger’s amazing debut. After Jacob “Trace” Tracy nearly died at Antietam during the Civil War, he became connected to the spirit world. He tries to hide his ability to see the dead, working as a hired hand guiding wagon trains out West in the late 1880s. When a girl is accused of murder, Trace is lured into using his gifts to protect the innocent, but the cost is high. Messinger’s writing is a clinic on how to immerse the reader in a historic setting (such as his details on how 19th-century newspapers operated) without drowning readers in facts. Psychological and visceral horror mix in set pieces that build to a climax as Trace is forced to confront his fears about his abilities. Trace and his partner, Boz, quickly endear themselves to the reader, bantering and battling in a manner clearly inspired by the old Weird Tales; their interracial friendship (Trace is white and Boz is black) is well written. Though there’s a satisfying closure to Trace’s arc, this should be the start of many more Weird Western adventures. (Dec.)

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

would you rather...

So last weekend a guy I know was organizing a "great race" kind of relay to raise money for the homeless. One of the challenge stations was sponsored by Schendler pest control, and contestants had to either eat bugs (mealworms, mostly) or answer questions about an essay describing Schendler's company history.

Out of 400 contestants, not one took the test.

Which just goes to show people would rather eat bugs than take a reading comprehension test.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

short stories: P90X for your writer's brain

I'm a novelist by nature; I tell epic sagas. But at this distance, I can say I learnt the most about plot structure by writing short pieces, both stories and nonfiction essays. A story is, after all, a thematic argument, and if you don't know how to structure a convincing essay, neither will you be able to write a compelling story.

I remember distinctly the first two stories I wrote that I knew worked. It's significant to say that I wrote them after I'd taken a couple of pivotal classes in business writing and persuasive writing. Those classes impressed upon me that I was writing for an audience, and the audience couldn't see all the dream-logic explanations in my head—they needed concrete evidence.

I wrote those two short stories ("Galatea" and "The Bridgeport Job") about Quinn Taylor, a character I had already written three novels about. I did this deliberately; I knew the character and the world very well and so guessed I could be succinct with her. The plots themselves were conceived in my head whole, in thematic terms—I imagined the character's inner conflict and set out to resolve it. 

This isn't to say I knew exactly what would happen, but I had a set of possible options from the conflict I had established, and I picked and chose at every juncture. It was an eerie and awesome feeling of power, to steer the story from scene to scene instead of just wandering unsure of what would happen next. Those two stories were the first to get a thumbs-up from my writer's group—even though they had been "meh" about the Quinn Taylor novels. 

I never tried to sell those stories. They are decent, not great. But I treasure what I learned from them.

And so I say, even if you dislike short stories there is value in writing them. They are a golden opportunity to practice structure and theme and how they work together: 

1. Establish your theme (a/k/a motivating conflict, a/k/a thesis topic) at the beginning to intrigue the reader. This can be man-against-man, man-against the world, or man-against-himself.

2. Develop the theme/argument via examples (situational conflict) through the middle.

3. Resolve the theme by bringing it to a logical conclusion, and make it satisfying by addressing all possible counter-arguments (loose threads, plot holes).

Another big advantage to learning through short stories is economy. Short stories can seem much less intimidating to a beginning writer in terms of time commitment. Short stories can be read and evaluated at a gulp, which means you get more meaningful critiques from your writer's group. And fitting a story into 5000 words forces you to be efficient with characterization and description. Nothing will teach you to excise excess modifiers like a word count restriction. Every word has to count in a short story, so you learn to be precise.

So if your novel isn't getting the raves you hoped for, and you find yourself protesting, "It gets really good after the first few chapters!" take your writer's brain to the gym and push it through a few short stories. Low reps, heavy weight. You'll be amazed at the difference.