Sometime in the mid-1500s as the Spanish Inquisition held a firm grip on Naples, Renaissance man and notable genius of cryptography Giovanni Battista della Porta discovered a useful little trick. Several of his clever friends had been imprisoned for presumably not being quite Catholic enough and della Porta needed to get messages to them.
Everything that entered through the prison walls was carefully checked, with the exception of food deliveries. So, della Porta allegedly used a combination of vinegar and alum to write messages onto eggs. The special ink disappeared when the eggs were boiled, but the letters transferred through the semi-permeable shell and imprinted themselves on the membrane of the egg.
All della Porta’s nerdy heretic friends had to do was to carefully peel the egg, read the message, and eat the evidence. Not bad, and definitely more subtle than writing “Hoppy Easter” in white crayon before dyeing, which is how I usually convey secret egg messages.
Now I’ve found plenty of references to this little eggs-periment (see what I did there?), but what I haven’t been able to discover is what the messages might have been, or how della Porta’s friends knew to look for them, though I suppose if you peel and egg and discover words on the white, you probably go ahead and read them.
Were these escape plans? Tricks for correctly answering inquisitors’ questions to secure release? Clever microfiction featuring a dashing 16th century polymath who breaks his friends out of prison? Egg salad recipes? Alas, the world will likely never know, because egg messages rarely last very long.
But there are lots of words that go unread in the world, and not just the brilliant ones languishing between the covers of small potatoes authors you’ve never heard of. Just this past month thousands of writers joined in on National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and produced millions upon millions of words, many of which are brilliant, and a lot of them will never be read.
Because this was a sprint, and for many it was probably a slog. Some writers made it to the finish line of their goal (or will in the next thirty-eight hours) and many did not. I’m happy to be among those who completed the challenge, but what I can tell you is that you will never see most of the words I wrote.
They might as well be written in invisible ink on an egg white. Of course, they are here in my computer, all 50,000+ of them, waiting for me to trim and polish and hard boil. Only after I’ve done that will I allow anyone else to start peeling back the shell and reading them.
It’ll be a while. I’m excited about the book I just spent a huge number of hours drafting, but it’ll be many times that number of hours before I manage to turn it into something I’m proud to share. For now I’ll set is aside and let the hastily scribbled words soak into the eggshell while I change direction for a bit and write something completely different. Maybe I’ll see if I can put together some microfiction. I have a great idea for a story featuring a dashing 16th century polymath who breaks his friends out of prison using only a bowl of egg salad.
It’s Thursday, which means this is the day each week when I would normally write a bunch of nonsense to send out into the blogosphere. I’m not doing that today for two reasons:
1. It’s the third Thursday of November, and I am not yet finished writing my 50,000 truly terrible words for National Novel Writing Month.
2. My kids are home for a snow day today, on this crisp fall day in Missouri in November. If you’re not from my corner of the world that may not seem like a big deal to you, but it’s kind of a big deal. We get snow. We even get snow in November sometimes, but not the kind that blankets the entire yard and makes me have to find everyone insulated pants that fit so they can sled and build snowmen. And beg for hot chocolate.
So you see, I’d blog, but instead I need to dig through the snow clothes in the basement, throw snowballs at my kids, make cocoa, and write at least 3,000 words of an awful draft. You understand, right?
In the meantime, please enjoy this piece I wrote recently for the online literary magazine, Women Writers, Women’s Books. It’s about writing, rather than history, but it does contain an amusing story about my grandmother’s terrible cooking.
In 1508 Pope Julius II decided the Sistine Chapel with its blue, star-spangled ceiling was in need of a little interior punching up, and he knew just the artist for the job. Already the thirty-three-year-old sculptor Michelangelo was hard at work on the Pope’s marble tomb and it was only grudgingly that he accepted the new commission.
Not known for painting, the artist had made a name for himself producing marble masterpieces like Pietà and David, carefully detailing human anatomy and capturing subtle expressions of emotion like no one else. He hadn’t really had a great deal of experience with painting, and none with frescoes.
There are some theories about why the pope may have approached this unlikely choice to spruce up the chapel ceiling. Perhaps Pope Julius, not especially happy with his tomb-in-progress anyway, decided it might be tempting fate for his tomb to be built while he was still alive and so wished to redirect the artist’s efforts. It’s possible, too, that some of Michelangelo’s biggest rivals on the art scene encouraged the choice, suspecting the sculptor would fail spectacularly when forced to work in such a different medium.
Obviously that notion backfired. Though he claimed to have despised every moment of it, Michelangelo bent and stretched and painted his heart out above his head. Over the years he worked on the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo sealed his reputation as one of the greatest painters in history, and got quite a bit of paint on his face.
I share this story today, on November 1, because this is the day when a lot of artists throughout the world are stepping out to create something new. Today is the kickoff for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), that time of year when otherwise sane people from all walks of life, sit down at their computers (or typewriters, or notebooks) and attempt to scribble out a minimum of 50,000 words that will hopefully become the rough draft of a novel.
Some of these folks, like me, have written novels before, and though 50,000 words in a month can be a pretty tall order, they may not find the experience too overwhelming. However many other NaNo writers aren’t quite sure what they’ve gotten themselves into. They have regular day jobs and responsibilities that have nothing to do with writing, and the experience can seem pretty uncomfortable and messy.
But they have these great ideas that’ve been tickling the backs of their minds for years just looking for an opportunity to jump onto a page and into the world.
These are the writers I think are the most exciting part of NaNoWriMo, and the reason that year after year, more and more people join in the agony fun. Not everyone will finish. Even some of the more seasoned writers won’t make it to the end of 50,000 poorly written words. Those that do will find the hard work has only just begun.
But that’s okay. Even Michelangelo took a break in 1510 from painting the chapel ceiling. When he returned to the work, it was with a new eye and a somewhat altered style, and that is when he produced many of the most iconic scenes, including The Creation of Adam.
He was still in agony and struggled with the work, writing in a poem to a friend (because Michelangelo was also not a poet, who wrote quite a bit of poetry), “My painting is dead. . .I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.”
In this next thirty days, I suspect a lot of NaNo writers, experienced or not, will utter similar words. They may hit walls when they feel overwhelmed and exhausted by a creative effort that pushes them outside their usual spheres.
When they do, and when I do, I hope we remember that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was painted by a man who claimed he was not a painter and who suffered a lot of cricks in his neck and had a lot of paint on his face. But this amazing work is imbued with the exquisite textural depth perhaps only a sculptor could have produced and that millions of people have literally looked up to.
I hope we remember that no one would ever tell our stories the way we will tell them. Whether you’ve written twenty-seven novels or work as a full-time accountant but have one really great idea for a book, know that even when you think your writing is dead, you’re not in the right place, and you have paint dribbling onto your face, your words might offer a perspective and textural depth the world has never yet seen.
In October of 1951, the beloved sit com I love Lucy aired for the first time and, according to the most extensive research I could accomplish in five minutes, became the first television show to air as reruns. Now nearly seventy years later, you can still probably catch them from time to time. And that’s good, because even a little dated, they’re still pretty funny.
So to show my appreciation for the innovative thinking of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and maybe also a little because it’s still November and I am not yet finished with my 50,000 word NaNoWriMo goal, I am going to participate in the noble tradition of the rerun.
Originally posted on November 20, 2013, this is my favorite practical history post about Thanksgiving. A fair number of readers have discovered this little corner of the blogosphere over the last four years, so for many of you this will be brand new old material. And those who have read and possibly vaguely remember it, will hopefully still enjoy a chuckle or two. Just no spoilers!
A Shocking Turkey Recipe
The holiday season is nearly upon us, beginning here in the US with Thanksgiving next week. And if, like us, you’re hosting family for the big day that means it’s time to make plans for your turkey. We tend to prefer the Alton Brown brine method at our house, but I bet a fair few hosts are thinking of getting up at the crack of dawn to continually check and baste their birds until they are roasted to golden brown perfection. Other more adventurous sorts may be considering rigging up a deep fryer and spending the holiday at the hospital being treated for third degree burns.
But history suggests there may be an even better (and possibly more dangerous) way.
In 1750, before he famously tied a key to a kite string and invented the lightning rod, Benjamin Franklin hosted a Christmas dinner party. Interested as he was with exploring the properties of electricity, Franklin decided to educate and entertain as well as feed his guests. His theory was that by electrocuting his roasting turkey, he could produce a more tender meat.
And he wasn’t wrong. In fact, his discovery is still important to the meat industry today, but it did come at a the expense of some personal pain and humiliation. As he was setting up an electrical jack he had designed specifically to meet all of his poultry electrocution needs, the plucky inventor received a pretty good shock himself. The gathering of witnesses to the experiment-gone-wrong reported a flash of light and a loud crack.
Whereas I would have tried to pretend the incident never happened and certainly would never mention it again (Okay that’s not true. I’d totally blog about it), Franklin wrote about the failure to his brother just two days later. In the letter he describes in detail how the event made him feel, which was more or less bad. Numb in his arms and on the back of his neck until the next morning and still achy a couple days later, Franklin seems to have decided that electricity, though hilarious, is not necessarily something to trifle with (chalk up one more important discovery for Franklin). He makes no mention as to whether or not he felt tenderized by the experience.
Now I can hear the objections already: “But, Sarah, that can’t be right. Benjamin Franklin was a friend to the turkey. He had great respect for it and even fought for its adoption as the symbol of the United States of America.” I hear you, Dear Reader. And I understand your concern. I, like many of you, was an American school child so I am familiar with that story. If you don’t wish to have your image of Benjamin Franklin as the great turkey advocate shattered, then feel free to stop reading at this point and assume that I’m just full of it.
But for those of you who want to know what’s what, I’m going to share the real story with you. Even though Benjamin Franklin was a part of the original committee charged with choosing a design for the Great Seal of the United States, he recommended a rattlesnake to represent the young nation. Not once did he suggest a turkey.
The idea that he did comes from an unrelated letter to his daughter written some years later when he was serving as an American envoy in Paris. To give some perspective, this was two years after the official adoption of the Great Seal, and six years after Franklin had served on the committee, again, making no mention of the turkey. He wrote the letter in response to his daughter’s question as to his opinion of the newly forming Society of the Cincinnati, a fraternity of officers of the Continental Army.
The society, founded in May of 1783, adopted for its symbol a bald eagle, claimed by some to look somewhat more like a turkey. Though Franklin didn’t oppose the society and eventually accepted an honorary membership in it, what he did not approve was the desire of some to make membership hereditary. This, he claimed, established an “order of hereditary knights,” which contradicted the ideals set forward by the newly formed republic.
But to openly mock or question the intentions of the brave men whose leadership had won the United States its freedom was simply not Benjamin Franklin’s style. Instead he focused on the turkey-eagle:
I am…not displeased that the figure is not known as a bald eagle, but looks more like a turkey. For in truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird…He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red coat on.
I have to assume that despite his reference to the farmyard, Franklin would not wish the symbol of our nation or its high ranking officers to be the comically large-breasted domesticated flightless bird that graces our Thanksgiving tables. Perhaps he meant to suggest wild turkey, which is a full flavored, barrel-aged, American original that tends to give one courage. Or perhaps he meant the wild turkey, which hunters suggest is a slippery foe, difficult to sneak up on and evidently tricky to electrocute.
Whatever his true intentions, I think it is clear that though Benjamin Franklin was certainly a great American who helped to shape the United States and provide all of its half-blind citizens with bifocals, he could also, at times, be a bit of a turkey.
I hope you enjoyed this encore performance! Since next Thursday is Thanksgiving here in the US, I will be engaging in another grand tradition borrowed from the television industry and preempting my blog post for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. See you just in time for the December sweeps! That’s a thing, right?
In November of 1922, a young foreign correspondent writing for the Toronto Star, kissed his wife goodbye at their home in Paris and boarded a train for Switzerland to cover the Lausanne Peace Conference. Like many young writers just starting out, Ernest Hemingway had not yet found his way into publishing the kinds of works he really wanted to produce, but he managed to get some networking done while working his day job and soon editor Lincoln Steffens expressed an interest in his fiction.
At that point, Hemingway did what any writer looking for his big break would surely do. He contacted his wife Hadley in Paris and asked her to bring his writing to Switzerland. Hadley readily agreed and packed up her husband’s work, carbon copies and all, into a small suitcase. Then she boarded a train just as soon as she could.
Before the train pulled out of the station, Mrs. Hemingway stowed her bags and left them just long enough to locate and buy a bottle of water. When she returned, the suitcase containing all the written works of her future Pulitzer Prize winning ex-husband was gone. The works lost included several short stories as well as a novel about World War I.
I don’t know about you, but to me this is a soul-crushing kind of a story. I’ve borne witness to the agony authors feel when their laptops self-destruct and swallow partial manuscripts. I myself have misplaced thumb drives or failed to back up scenes and lived to regret it. Thousands of words have tripped from my fingertips and fallen, for one reason or another, off the face of the earth, never to be recovered. No matter how careful we are it happens.
And it’s not always the worst thing ever. Often it leads to better scenes, more careful word choices, more thoughtful expressions, and all around improved creative works. Sometimes, it even pushes us to find new ways to share our work with the world.
Recently I lost a novel. I didn’t leave it unattended in a suitcase at the train station, though some days it feels like that’s what happened. Instead I entrusted it to a publisher that fell on hard times and proved unable to care for the work as promised.
The somewhat complicated situation has caused me many sleepless nights and no shortage of agony, but I also count myself lucky. As the author of a project that had not yet reached publication (something that after a previous one-year delay was finally supposed to happen this past month), my position is not as difficult as many of the authors this publisher used to work with before ceasing all communications and leaving everyone scrambling for a way to reclaim their rights.
I know that some of you lovely readers will want to venture legal advice and while I appreciate the desire to help, I assure you I’ve explored a lot of options and carefully considered my best course of action. I’ve had a long time to watch this play out. I just wanted to include you in the loop, and also assure you that the book is going to make it into the world eventually, just not in the way I had originally hoped.
So you see it could be a lot worse.
Hemingway never attempted to re-write the novel he lost. Instead he went on to write bigger and presumably better things, but it seems he may have never totally recovered from the loss either. In some of his drunker moments, he was known to occasionally admit that the loss of all of his work at once was a big factor in his decision to divorce his first wife.
All I need to do is divorce a publisher.
By the way, if you would like to receive updates as I pursue publication for this and additional books, you can sign up to do just that right here: http://eepurl.com/b3olY1
July 26, 1875 wasn’t a great day for John Shine. The man who would later become a US Marshal and a California state senator, at the time, worked as a stagecoach driver for Wells Fargo. That day, only a few miles outside of Calaveras County, he encountered a man standing in his path. He wore a flour sack over his head and he held a shotgun leveled at Shine’s chest.
In a commanding voice, the flour sack asked politely for Shine to throw down the locked strong box, and happily reminded his accomplices hiding behind the boulders with nothing but their deadly shotgun barrels showing, to shoot the driver should he refuse to comply. Shine didn’t need to be asked twice. He threw down the box.
The gentlemanly outlaw allowed the stagecoach to move on down the trail. Only later, when Shine returned to the scene, did he realize that the flour sack’s accomplices were nothing more than well positioned sticks.
This was most likely the first stagecoach robbery committed by the outlaw who would come to be known as Black Bart. Named (by himself) after a dime novel villain, Black Bart would go on to pull close to twenty-five robberies of Wells Fargo stagecoaches, netting himself a total of around $18,000. The sum was a small drop in the big bucket of about $415,000 Wells Fargo lost to stagecoach robberies over a fifteen year period.
But Black Bart set himself apart. He always worked by himself, never rode a horse, and refused to behave in an ungentlemanly manner. Not once did he fire a shot or steal so much as a dime from a passenger.
And on at least two occasions, he even wrote poetry:
To wait the coming morrow,
Perhaps success, perhaps defeat
And everlasting sorrow
Yet come what will, I’ll try it once,
My conditions can’t be worse
But if there’s money in that box,
It’s munny in my purse.
And there was this one:
I’ve labored long and hard for bread,
For honor and for riches
But on my corns too long you’ve tread,
You fine-haired sons-of…
Well, you get the idea.
The robber signed both poems as “Black Bart, the P o 8.” Get it? Because he’s a po-eight! I assume that’s the idea anyway. He was also pretty great with a license plate. And that, it turns out is a good thing because in November of 1883, Black Bart’s reign of crime came to an end.
During what became his final robbery, Black Bart took fire and a bullet grazed his hand. He managed to escape, stemming the bleeding with a handkerchief that bore a laundry mark. Then, somewhere along the way, he dropped the handkerchief.
Because Wells Fargo detectives are evidently well versed in every crime drama ever, they conducted an extensive search and traced the handkerchief to a laundry in San Francisco where they learned that it belonged to Charles Bowles, a mild-mannered, gray-haired gentleman who lived a quiet, but elegant life in a boarding house nearby. Mr. Bowles was sentenced to six years in prison for his string of robberies.
The moral of the story, obviously, is that the only way to make money writing poetry is to also rob a stagecoach, and even then, only if you don’t get caught. And that, my friends, is why you should stick to writing novels. It just so happens it’s National Novel Writing Month. So you better get started. These days, a good stagecoach robbery is a hard thing to pull off.
One fall night in 1885, Mrs. Fanny Stevenson was awakened by the terrified screams of her dreaming husband. Concerned, she quickly roused him, to which he responded, “Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.”
What Scottish-born writer Robert Louis Stevenson had been conjuring in his dream was the transformation of the upstanding Dr. Jekyll into the monstrous Mr. Hyde. When he put pen to paper to tell the story, his wife claimed it took him just six days to complete it.
Probably suffering from undiagnosed tuberculosis for most of his life, Stevenson was quite ill when The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde came tumbling out of him. Some have suggested the feverish pace with which he wrote the novella came from a cocaine binge, but his family insisted that it was simply the frustrated workings of bedridden genius.
Whatever spurred him, Stevenson seems to have mirrored his characters, stepping outside of himself for those six days to indulge the part of him that had a story to tell, maybe a brilliant allegory of addiction, and certainly a classic story of the capacity for both good and evil inside each of us.
I’m sure you’re at least somewhat familiar with the story, but even so, it’s a quick read and well worth it if you’ve never opened it up. Maybe knowing that the initial draft was written in only six Hyde-like days makes it all the more chilling. And maybe inspiring.
Because it’s November, which means that it’s that time of year when writers of all walks of life, some experienced and some not, step outside of themselves and write a novel.
National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) began in 1999 with the decision of 21 friends in the San Francisco Bay Area to set themselves a ridiculous goal to each write a novel within a month. It sounds crazy at first, because, well, we’re talking about a novel here. It’s a long project full of research and imagination. Some of the greatest novels ever written took years or even decades to complete. And some of the worst novels did, too. Snoopy wrote for fifty years and never made it past his opening line.
But it turned out there was purpose in the madness of the plan, even if the original participants didn’t realize it at first. The group had such a good time with the challenge, they opened it up to a wider community the next year and 140 people participated. The year after that it was around 5,000. In November of last year, 310,000 adult writers and 89,000 young writers, from all over the world, participated in NaNoWriMo.
Not all of them completed the 50,000-word goal, but 400,000 people stepped outside of themselves to indulge that part of them that had a story to tell. What started as a silly little writing challenge has blossomed now into a huge network of encouragement, with resources for writers at every stage of the game before, during, and long after that initial, probably terrible, first 50,000-word draft.
I heard about NaNoWriMo for the first time a few years ago through my local library that was sponsoring a series of “write-in” events in conjunction with it. I’ve since had lots of friends participate in the event. So, this year, I’m finally doing it. I’ve researched, planned, and outlined what I hope will be become 50,000 revision-worthy words. In December, I’ll have to drink my potion and let Dr. Jekyll take back over to do the real work of revision, revision, and still more revision. But for now, I am stepping outside of myself and indulging my Mr. Hyde (minus the cocaine) because he’s got a story to tell.
Good luck to all my fellow NaNoWriMos out there! Obviously I’m glad you stopped by, but seriously, stop reading blog posts and get to work. You have a novel to write!