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Historical Fiction

Paula Martinac

Paula Martinac is the author of the forthcoming historical novel Dear Miss Cushman.

The Past Comes Alive on the Page

The task facing the historical fiction writer is to bring research to life. In a journal article or history book, you might read that 19th-century American theaters were rowdy places in which audiences frequently booed actors off the stage. In contrast, a historical novel would take you into the boxes and “parquet,” or orchestra seating, and show the repercussions of a poor performance. This excerpt from my forthcoming novel, Dear Miss Cushman, set in the New York City theater world in 1852, demonstrates this idea.

 

When the audience began hissing, I knew Othello wasn’t going to end well. The response jolted me. We weren’t at the Bowery Theatre, where the audience in the pit tossed apples and vegetables onto the stage if a performance didn’t please them. The Prince Theatre was one of New York City’s finest establishments, catering to the upper ten.

Worse, the actor they hissed at was my father.

I was attending my first theatrical performance. Incredible, given that my father was a renowned leading actor, but Mama maintained that theater wasn’t a place for young ladies. For my eighteenth birthday, she gave in to my pleading and permitted Uncle James to accompany me to my father’s performance of the Moor, one of his most acclaimed roles. Mama insisted I have a new dress, and my sister Maude oohed and aahed over the sky blue taffeta until I wanted to take it off and give it to her. I myself put little stock in puffy lady things, especially in pastel hues. Plus, the heavy horsehair crinoline the skirt required for shape made beads of sweat trickle down my stomach.

Still, I could abide these discomforts if it meant I got to sit beside my dapper uncle in his lushly adorned box, draped with red and gold silk, and marvel at the glistening gas-jet chandelier that lit the space. Best of all, I got to watch my father tread the boards as I’d imagined him doing, in full costume and makeup for the Moor and sporting his prize sword.

We were barely one act in when Pa dropped a few lines. Then more—even the ones I ran with him that morning “for good measure,” as he’d urged. He’d appeared in Othello dozens of times, but now the role appeared to baffle him. Although the movement made my stays pinch, I leaned forward, mouthing the words, willing them into his memory.

Taunts rose slowly through the cavernous parquet. Pa squinted toward the footlights in bewilderment….

The audience response crescendoed into boos. Uncle James colored crimson. “We’re leaving,” he announced, spittle collecting at the corners of his lips. He tugged me to my feet. “Now, Georgiana.”


Paula Martinac is the author of the forthcoming historical novel Dear Miss Cushman (Bywater Books, December 2021), and six others, including Testimony; Clio Rising, Gold Medalist, Northeast Region, 2020 Independent Publisher Book Awards; and The Ada Decades, a finalist for the 2018 Ferro-Grumley Award in LGBTQ Fiction. Out of Time, her debut novel, won a Lambda Literary Award. She has received fellowships from North Carolina Arts Council and the Arts and Science Council and teaches in the creative writing program at UNC Charlotte.


EXPLORE HISTORICAL FICTION WITH PAULA: Join Paula for Writing Historical Fiction online. Historical fiction has the power to bring people and places from the past to life. If you’re drawn to this genre (or one of its sub-genres, like historical mystery or romance), this class will provide you with motivation and skills to start writing. By the end of the class, you will have a scene or chapter for a work-in-progress or an outline and character biographies that give you a solid path forward. This class meets on three Tuesdays, November 30, December 7 and 14, 6:00-8:00 p.m. More information here.

Rewriting Southern Traditions

Beth Gilstrap

Beth Gilstrap

LAKE HARTWELL, SOUTH CAROLINA

By Beth Gilstrap

 

It’s past lunch hour and Grandmother is still wearing her

housecoat. Tings and sprays bounce from the stovetop. A

glimmer of steam gathers on her upper lip, not sweat, mind

you—not sweat. The peonies on the fabric are wide and

heavy pink, like they’d fall over if they were out in the

side garden as they always are during late April. But we are

in July and July is sweet and frayed, the grass only green

down on the banks of the lake. Me and Juna played chicken

on rafts all morning. Our suits still damp when we put

them on, hers only halfway up as we ran out the door, letting

it slam too hard, hearing Grandmother say, “Watch my

nerves. For Lord’s sake. My nerves.” By the time we come in,

we were striped, our torsos a wormy kind of white, our fingertips

wrinkled, begging for fried squash and okra Grandmother

had in heaps by this point, for smushed-up peaches

meant for the ice cream churn, for teeth-cracking chunks of

rock salt, the wayward bit of a watermelon seed, you know,

that stringy bit you can’t get down no matter how hard you

try so you wind up spitting the seeds on Grandmother’s

floor even though you wasn’t supposed to be eating them in

the house cause y’all know better, cause she done told you

twice to get your butts outside. And once you’re outside,

the menfolk stand in a circle around their cache, taking

stock of M-80s and bottle rockets and whirling spiders and

whistling dixies, which was basically the same, but hateful,

so hateful you could feel it blow your cousin’s pinky off

even though some grown-up yelled “fire in the hole” and

dumbass stood there in a sulphur fog like it was all happening

to someone else and next year when you and Juna went

in at lunch you were practically teenagers and ate rolled-up

honey ham cigars and Chicken in a Biskit Crackers—those

buttery rectangles with a chemical chicken flavor—instead

of spitting seeds on the floor cause now y’all were good girls,

making sure to let Grandmother lie down awhile and have

herself a little peace in the back room with the big box fan

and a single bed and her thin, yellow sheets.


ABOUT BETH: Beth Gilstrap is the author of the Deadheading & Other Stories, Winner of the 2019 Red Hen Press Women’s Prose Prize due out October 5, 2021 and available for preorder now. She is also the author of I Am Barbarella: Stories (2015) from Twelve Winters Press and No Man’s Wild Laura (2016) from Hyacinth Girl Press. Her stories, essays, and hybrids have appeared in Denver Quarterly, Wigleaf, The Minnesota Review, New Flash Fiction Review, and the Best Microfiction Anthology, among others. Born and raised in the Charlotte area, she recently relocated to Louisville where she lives and writes in an ornery old shotgun house.


LEAN INTO LYRICAL TRADITIONS WITH BETH: Join Beth for a reading and book discussion of Deadheading and Other Stories on October 20, at 6 PM for our next Wednesdays@Lit. And join Beth for Uneasy Women: Writing Feminist Southern Gothic Fiction on October 21st. In this workshop, you’ll examine writing traditions, how they’ve changed, and how we might craft them for 21st Century readers by examining excerpts from contemporary female authors including: Toni Morrison, Jesmyn Ward, and Dorothy Allison. We will examine how they subvert traditional gender roles, how they give agency to characters (often deemed outsiders) who have traditionally been victims of the American capitalist patriarchy. More information is here.