by Nancy Means Wright

Decades ago, my husband and I, newly married, lived and worked at Boys’ Home, deep in the state of Virginia. Freight trains rumbled and snorted behind our shaky cottage, and we had to shut our windows against the smelly, air polluting chemicals from the local pulp and paper mill. But we loved working with the homeless boys–one of my tasks was to teach them to dance (I kept band-aids handy)–and several were students in the English classes I taught at the local high school.

My classes were huge, and a fair percentage of the kids dropped out of school to work in the mill. But there were dedicated students, too, and it was a joy to see young minds open to vibrant language and ideas in poems, plays and essays. Until, that is, I decided to introduce the Gettysburg Address.

“Yankees,” one of them snarled.

“But we’re not fighting a civil war now, are we?” I asked. “Especially one that ended in 1865?”

“Well, my great-great…granddaddy got hisself kilt at Bull Run. My daddy says we can’t forgit that!”

Other voices chimed in. Sally Lou’s ancestor fought the Yanks at Shiloh. Johnny’s was a bugle boy who lost a leg. Johnny was still angry about that. “I aint readin’ no goddam Yankee speech!”

I finally compromised and offered anyone extra credit for writing about the speech “as literature.” Only one girl did. (Her parents were born in Connecticut.)

I’m still amazed at how long people nurture old wounds. I think of Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, and IRA Irish still bitter over the outcome of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne–Catholics vs Protestants. Or the blood shed by Spartans and Athenians in ancient Greece. Or the 13th-century Italian Capulets who hated the Montagues. Even my own 20th-century mother was at war with “that tribe of Italians down the street. Why, they fought against us in WW2!” (Never mind that couple was young, with a new baby.) Mother complained, as well, about Poles, Russians, and Irish immigrants, although my father’s family had come from Ireland during the Great Famine, and Mother’s own parents took ship in the late 19th-century from Scotland.

I wouldn’t be that way, I told myself. I would respect everyone, regardless of race, gender and attitude. In Vermont I fought for Civil Unions and Marriage Equality. I espoused Death with Dignity and Gunsense. I kept an open mind, didn’t I?

Then this fall, longing to see the ocean, my spouse and I took a Road Scholar trip to Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod. Out of 24 participants, we were the only New Englanders; most were from the West or the South. The South? A red light flashed on. I loved southern writers and had a beloved editor who was a Georgia native, but the Virginia school experience still rankled in my mind. I had encountered like-minded authors at a mystery writer’s conference in Alabama, but during a side trip to a small town was told to keep my mouth shut about being a northern liberal–and worse still, a Unitarian. “You could get shot for that,” a fellow writer warned.

So I was wary at meals when we sat beside couples from the Deep South. I thought of the novel, The Help, and the Tea Partyers who were obstructing Congress and deadheading important (to me) issues about immigration and climate change. I came to the dinner table with narrowed eyes, fueled by Move On, Bill McKibben, and other activists.

Yet as the week wore on, I found myself in conversation with southerners, including a Mississippi woman who charmed me, in spite of myself, with her warmth and good humor. She loved to read, and we talked about Faulkner and our mutually beloved Eudora Welty who was a native of her town.  We discovered that we had a Scots-Irish ancestor in common whose surname we still carried on, and that we had a basic respect for people–although we carefully avoided talk of religion or politics. After the trip was over, I discovered to my great surprise, that her son is a respected politician of my own persuasion. And “certain” she was secretly against all I believed in, I’d never dared ask her outright.

How wrong I was! I’m ashamed now of my narrow prejudgments. I wish that I had met some of those small town Alabama folks who kept their rifles at the ready! I might eschew their politics, but I’d surely find them stimulating as people, wouldn’t I, once I got to know them? Why, we might even have broken bread together. The liberal and the arch-conservative: finding connection–at the very least, in food and family. Not to mention grist for the writing mill….

Ladies Who Lunch

Wendy Hornsby

Over the weekend I went to a wonderful ladies’ luncheon; yes men were welcome and several attended. The theme was women in the 1930s, and the setting, a house designed by Julia Morgan, the architect who also designed Hearst Castle, was perfect. The sweeping drive was lined with vintage vehicles, attended by drivers dressed in plus fours or pin stripes and fedoras. There was a fashion show, of course, of authentic clothing from the era, and music and some dancing, and food made from recipes taken from Ladies Home Journal, circa 1930. As I talked with friends and sipped wine—we are in wine country, so of course there was wine—I thought about my mother and her friends and the luncheons they hosted for each other. What fun they had, and what work it took.

Mom and her friends would be classified as housewives, but the house is not where you find them on most days. They were the board of the PTA, scouts and Camp Fire, Little League, Equestrian Trails, and various Sunday schools. They sat on, and frequently chaired, town commissions, councils, advisories, and the school board. Their careers were family, town and church, and they probably spent as many hours meeting, planning, and acting as any nine-to-five worker would. Their compensation? Well-schooled, healthy children, I suppose. More than that, their big reward was the fellowship of other bright, active women marooned in outer suburbia.

They made occasions to celebrate and entertain. School teacher luncheons, baby showers, officer initiations, summer, fall, winter, spring, were among the occasions they feted. When it was Mom’s turn to host a luncheon, the entire family was set to work days ahead of time. The floors were waxed and polished, windows washed, lawn mowed, silver polished, guest towels, table cloths and luncheon napkins ironed, and nut cups filled. The nut cups were my favorite part. We mixed pastel pillow mints with salted Virginia peanuts and distributed them into little fluted paper cups that were set at each place, and usually taken home by guests to children who would expect them.
hostess plate 2

Mom would know who in her community had card table and chair sets, from whom to borrow a coffee urn or punch bowl, who had flowers in bloom, and who to call for hostess sets. Hostess sets were pressed glass plates that had a well for the little matching cup and sometimes a thumb hole like a painter’s palette so that the plate could be held onto at a buffet. They came in several patterns, and everyone knew whose set was whose so that they could be returned after the event. Husbands were deployed a day or two ahead of time to gather in the necessary equipment, and the evening after to return it all.

The meal would be elegant, and most of it would have been made the day before so that the kitchen was spotless when guests arrived and the hostess would look fresh and relaxed as if everything had been effortless, which of course it had not. The whole affair involved quite a bit of sleight of hand.

As for the food, the hostess played to her culinary strengths and her serving pieces. Mom had a lovely silver holder that fit 9”x13” Pyrex baking dishes, so whatever she served would be something that could be made in 9”x13” Pyrex baking dishes. The day before, she would make several pans of her entrée and stow them in the refrigerator until just before guests were due. She was famous for her pie, so deep dish chicken pie showed up regularly, as did pretty pecan tarts.

I loved Mom’s chicken pie, which we would eat for several days afterward. But I especially liked her custard sandwiches, that are a sort of non-fried version of a Monte Cristo. The preparation is easy, it’s make-ahead fare, and perfect for holiday brunch or lunch, so, with the holidays fast approaching, I’m sharing this one with you.

           Fern’s Baked Custard Sandwiches
Serves 8
Assemble the night before serving

Note: The bread needs to be roughly square. Pullman loaves are best, but any sandwich loaf will do.
8 slices of good white sandwich bread
8 slices of wheat or rye sandwich bread
8 slices of Swiss cheese
8 thin slices of ham or turkey
6 eggs
2 cups milk
1 tsp. mustard powder
healthy pinch of cayenne or chipotle powder
1 stick butter, melted
Assemble sandwiches: slice of white bread, cheese, ham, slice of wheat or rye bread. Cut off crusts. Cut each in half. Place sandwich halves in 9”x13” Pyrex baking dish in rows, long edge down, so that white and dark bread alternate (e.g. don’t put 2 pieces of white bread next to each other). The finished dish will looked striped.

Beat together eggs, milk and seasonings, and pour evenly over the sandwiches. Don’t worry if all the liquid pools in the bottom. It will even out overnight as bread absorbs it.

Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. 45 minutes before serving, heat oven to 4000.   Melt butter. Uncover refrigerated dish and pour butter evenly over the top. Bake for 30 minutes or until custard is set and the top and bottom are golden. If it browns too fast, tent with aluminum foil.

Slice and serve with preserves on the side.


Going Home


I spent the past weekend in New Jersey with former classmates, celebrating the 50th (yes — unbelievably – 50th) anniversary of our graduating from Glen Ridge High School. One of the highlights of my weekend — and there were many — was speaking at the library which had been my refuge and inspiration during the years I was growing up.

I first discovered the library when I was about ten, and saw their collection of Walter Farley books (yes, I was one of those girls who loved horses) and marveled at their shelf and a half of Doctor Doolittle books — I’d thought there was only one. After that I cajoled my mother or grandmother to take me to the library often, since although it was only about seven blocks from our home, those blocks included a major intersection. My grandfather, who loved mysteries and always had a stack on the table behind his pipe and next to the Morris chair where he spent hours each day, was often included in the expedition.

When I was in sixth grade I was thrilled when my mother and the mothers of two of my friends decided together that the three of us were — yes! finally! — old enough to make the library trip on our own. We walked there every Saturday morning, taking out as many books as we could carry. By then I was reading Betty Cavanna and Lois Duncan and other “books for teenage girls.” (I’m thrilled that Lois Duncan is now one of my Facebook friends ….)

In seventh grade we began attending the school across the street from the library, and I began finding excuses to go to the library after school. There was always a subject to be researched in the encyclopedia collection there, or checked in magazines in the stacks. I discovered the Dewey Decimal system, and read every book on writing … since some day that’s what I would do. Secretly, I dreamed of someday seeing a book I’d written on one of the shelves. I discovered The Writer Magazine. I knew when it arrived at the library each month (it couldn’t be checked out,) and would curl up in a special window seat and read it, cover to cover. I learned about manuscript submission guidelines and agents and rejection slips and how to write dialogue. I studied the market place information, pretending I was going to submit something I’d written. I even got brave enough to send a few poems to magazines, and was proud of the rejection slips that resulted. They made me feel like a real writer. I planned to save enough slips to cover a wastebasket with them, but never did.

When I was a sophomore in high school I started working at the library as a page. I shelved books after school and weekend for fifty cents an hour. After I’d shelved the day’s books I started working my way around the shelves, checking that all the books were shelved correctly. (A lot weren’t, but the librarians never had time to do what I was doing.) It took me most of the school year to check the children’s room, where I also discovered other wonderful authors that were, theoretically, too young for me — but whom I loved.

In my junior year I was moved to the adult department, where I repeated my verification of book locations.

In the summers, in Maine, I became a frequent patron of the Wiscasset Library (where I now do a lot of research for the books I write.)

But the Glen Ridge Public Library wasn’t finished helping me, When I was working on my masters thesis at New York University I lived in New York City, where my libraries of choice were the Jefferson Market Library in Greenwich Village near my home, and the Donnell Library on 53rd Street, which was their version of a children’s room. Librarians in New York were able to find many of the books written for teenagers in the 1950s and 60s that I based my thesis on, but New Yorkers are tough on books. I bothered my mother to represent me back in Glen Ridge, and the library there put in inter-library loans, searching New Jersey libraries for many of the books I was looking for. And finding them,

I hadn’t been back to the Glen Ridge Public Library in decades. But I was thrilled when several of my classmates asked if I’d do a book signing during our reunion, and the library I’d loved invited me to speak there. I felt the way I had when my undergraduate college asked me to come back to speak and gave me a lifetime achievement award. I felt as though I was truly going home.

The Glen Ridge Library today is, I am pleased to report, still wonderful, and, despite the major budget cuts that have affected so many of our nation’s libraries, it has expanded. Its addition has added a special room just for YA books, handicapped accessibility, and more space for books, computers, and research of all kinds .. including a meeting room, where I spoke Saturday. I was also thrilled to see that the parents of one of those two girls who walked to the library with me every Saturday were among the major donors who’d helped the library expand.

Today visitors to my home often joke that it’s like a library. Floor to ceiling bookcases are in every room and most hallways. To me, home and walls of books are synonymous. They are comfort and company and escape; they have stayed the course during the ups and downs of my life.

Books represent home. And last week’s visit to the Glen Ridge Library was, in many ways, even more a homecoming for me than seeing my former classmates. That library was where I grew up.

Hank Phillippi Ryan & Lev Raphael Rap about Writing

We all know that writing is a solitary affair–even when you talk to yourself and your spouse or your dog comes in and stares at you.

That’s why it’s so much fun for us authors to go to conferences.  It’s not just about meeting fans, though that’s always a treat.  It’s about communing with our peers.  It’s about piercing the bubble of loneliness.  But there’s something even better than being on a panel  or hanging out at a bar afterwards or going out to dinner: appearing with a fellow author at a bookstore event.  Because that allows for a special kind of intimacy.

Last week I did an event in Ann Arbor with the supremely charming Hank Phillippi Ryan, celebrated TV reporter and thriller writer, at the mystery book store Aunt Agatha’s.  Hank had suggested we interview each other, and as a former radio talk show host, I grabbed the first question.  I couldn’t resist asking something lighthearted: who should play her in the movie version of her life story?  She opted for Katherine Hepburn, a natural choice for someone so classy.  I wanted Michael Fassbender for his long lean looks (among other attributes).

We moved on to more serious topics, talking about childhood library-going, our love of books, how our families encouraged our appreciation of art and literature, even though she grew up in rural Indiana and I grew up in the heart of New York City.  Our conversation ranged widely, covering her new book Truth Be Told and my new book Assault With a Deadly Lie, our favorite authors, our inspiration, her work as a reporter, my current work as guest professor at Michigan State University.

We flowed in and out of each other’s sentences and stories, riffing freely and companionably.  If you didn’t know us, you might have thought we were already friends, though we’d never met.  Or that we’d had a glass or two of wine beforehand–that’s how animated and relaxed we were.

We were kindred spirits.  We loved what we did.  We loved being there together in a wonderful independent bookstore.  And we were having so much fun with each other and regaling our audience with stories about doing what we love that we could have gone on much longer.

The audience did not know that I had come there after a car accident.  A few days before, I’d skidded off a rainy highway into a median and suffered a concussion.  I was still feeling the effects and hadn’t been able to drive myself down to Ann Arbor (in fact, I felt mildly panicky just being on a highway so soon after the accident: PTSD).  But for the hour and half that I was in Hank Phillippi Ryan’s marvelous company, it was as if my fog and my fear had completely lifted.

That’s what the fellowship of a wonderful writer can do for you. I felt calm, happy and as glad to be a writer as I typically am.  Because whatever career slings and arrows may come my way (and sometimes I feel like St. Sebastian), I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was in second grade.  And I am living my dream.


Here we are in a rare quiet moment, Hank looking as if she’s summoning a spirit, and me looking as if I’m about to share what my spirit’s already communicated with me.  Who says two people are too few for a séance? :-)

Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Life and 24 other books in genres from memoir to horror to mystery.  His books have been translated into 15 languages, most recently Romanian.

The Strange Tale of Fortune Snow

As a novelist and journalist, I’ve run across some bizarre stories, stories that did more than just test the limits of my credibility, stories of the man in the moon variety. Usually, with a little research, the story is easily disproven. But recently, I ran across a story that, at the very least, passes the first “sniff” test.
In doing some research into 19th century Tennessee, I ran across a newspaper story from 1875 about a former slave named Fortune Snow. The story, which ran in a handful of newspapers across the country, described how the author had encountered a 127 year old African-American in Gibson County, Tennessee. Living with his grandson-in-law, Fortune Snow told the reporter of his remarkable life. He was born into slavery in South Carolina prior to the American Revolution. His master, William Snow, became an officer under General Francis Marion, the famous Swamp Fox, and Fortune went along, acting as personal servant and cook.
After the Revolution, Fortune followed his master to the Mobile, Alabama area, where his daughter “jumped the broom” and married. Fortune stayed in south Alabama throughout the Civil War, but in the years after, he followed his grandchildren north, stopping finally near Trenton, Tennessee.
An interesting story, but hardly one to take seriously. Like I said, I’ve seen such stories before. And tall tales were just part of the journalistic landscape in the 1800s. But here’s where the story of Fortune takes an odd turn.
Part of that same research project had me looking through the 1870 census for Gibson County, Tennessee. Just out of curiosity, I glanced to see if there truly was a Fortune Snow.
Not only was there a Fortune Snow in Gibson County, Tennessee in 1870, five years before the newspaper stories ran, but he was listed as 122 years old. It was absolutely one of those head-scratching moments. I rushed to run down other elements of his story. Yes, there was a William Snow in South Carolina who served with Francis Marion, and yes, there was a William Snow in the Mobile area in later years. Outside of that, it was difficult to find other, corroborating evidence, at least on short notice.
I don’t know if Fortune Snow lived to be 127. What I do know is that his story cannot be easily dismissed. Probably, he was well into his 90s, perhaps even 100 when that reporter encountered him in 1875. But even so, he would have been born around the beginning of the Revolution, and very well could have been with his master in the army of Francis Marion as a young boy. And that, by itself, is a story worth telling.

Driven to Distraction

I have a sign above my computer monitor that says “Write First.”

Despite that straightforward reminder, writing first doesn’t always happen.

I have written other blogs on the way things get in the way of the creative process. When I addressed the subject in a blog last year, one of the big things that got in the way was my day job.

Well, I retired last fall, so the day job isn’t a problem anymore. However, I’ve discovered many other distractions. And I don’t just mean my cats Daisy and Clio who, at various times during the day, are sure to leap onto the computer table and plant themselves directly in front of the computer monitor, prompting my exasperated comment, “I can’t see through you!”

Clio at the Computer

Clio at the Computer

The distractions – oh, let me count them! Since I retired, I really notice the amount of noise that surrounds me. The garbage collectors outside my office window on Mondays. The landscapers who visit the condo complex on Fridays, leaf blowers making that obnoxious noise. In the evenings it’s kids and people coming home from work. On the weekends when the weather’s good, kids again, this time in the swimming pool not far from my front door. Neighbors who crank up the volume on their TVs or entertain on their patios.

And if the writing isn’t going well, it’s so tempting to stop and clean out that closet. Or go raid the refrigerator. Just as an aside, though, I’ve noticed that if the writing is going very well, I get the munchies. Go figure.

But the biggest distractions are right here on the computer.

Recently I read an article that said the most successful business people don’t read their email at the start of the day. I understand why. It’s easy to get seduced into answering that email. Next thing I know, half an hour has gone by and I haven’t started working on my book.

If the chapter I’m writing hits a snag, it’s also easy to tell myself I really need to check what’s on the New York Times website, or see what breaking news the San Francisco Chronicle has to offer.

Yet I do need to search the Internet from time to time. The book I’m working on now takes place in early April of 1953, aboard the California Zephyr as it travels westward through Colorado. It’s useful for me to look for historical weather information so I can determine whether there’s snow on the ground when the train arrives in Glenwood Springs.

Then there’s Facebook. Yes, indeed, there’s Facebook. We all know what a timewaster that can be.

So I have resolved to limit the distractions. I can’t do much about the noise that surrounds me, but I can tackle the distractions on the screen in front of me. Last week I didn’t check my email until I broke for lunch. Next week I’m moving that back even further, to the end of the writing day.

So if I don’t respond to your message right away, that’s why. I’m practicing a new mantra – “Write First!”

In the Beginning


Where should a story begin? In media res, of course, but at which point in the middle of things? For me, deciding where to begin a new book is the most difficult part of the entire writing process.   

When I was still teaching I would warn my students that if asked on an exam to explain why World War I occurred and they answered that it was because a tubercular teenager, after eating a sandwich, shot the unsatisfactory heir-apparent to a no-longer powerful nation at high noon in a city most Europeans and Americans could not point out on a map, then they hadn’t answered the question.  So, where does that story begin? 

A book might open with a kid walking out of a sandwich shop and shooting the fat guy sitting in the backseat of the car that by happenstance is stalled in the street in front of him.  Good action scene, but it isn’t the story.  Who was Gavrilo Princeps and why did he want to kill Franz-Ferdinand? And why did Europe explode because he was successful? It is a huge story; where to begin explaining it?

 Because my current book in progress has a large back story and a large cast of characters, I struggled over where to begin. I wrote six complete first chapters before I had the right opening. That’s about four more than usual for me and there is no guarantee that when the book is finished that chapter will still be the opening.  For example, my original first chapter for The Hanging ended up about a third of the way through the book. However, the opening of The Color of Light remained very little changed from proposal to finished book.

 As I struggled over the opening, there were times when I had to turn my chair around and look at the row of books with my name on the spine as reminder that I have managed to do this before, and can do it again. And, by jinggies, it got done, again. I am happy to say that the book now progresses apace. Occasional hiccups, of course, but progressing.


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