Friday, December 16, 2011

Timberline's True Name

--This is a reposting; I know there is renewed interest in Woman of Ill Fame and so I'm going to put this blog post up again.

This blog is currently about witchcraft persecutions, ancient and modern, but now and then I will dip into material regarding my first novel Woman of Ill Fame. The novel is about a Gold Rush prostitute in a dangerous, brand-new San Francisco.

A few days ago, someone was in my archives and saw my post about the real-life prostitute whose image is featured on the cover. All I knew was that her name was Timberline, she was a Dodge City prostitute, and her image is in the collections of the Kansas State Historical Society.

Well, the anonymous commenter wrote that her name was Rose Vastine.

That for one thing totally threw me. Although I fashioned my character based on this photograph and named her Nora, for some reason I had “felt” that this real woman’s name was Kate.

Secondly, the commenter wrote that she earned the name Timberline for being 6’2” in height. Another big surprise. In my mind, the nickname had dirty connotations!

Armed with her real name, I consulted Professor Google.

The first link I accessed made me gasp out loud in the cafĂ© I was working in, and literally grab my forehead. According to Linda Wommack’s Ladies of the Tenderloin, “Timberline climbed up into the hills above Creede and shot herself not once, but six times.”

When you have spent so much time staring at someone’s photograph and constructing an entire novel around them, you develop a strange and intense connection to them. It was almost as upsetting as hearing this news about someone I knew…but not only was Timberline a stranger to me, but she died 150 years ago. Whatever sorrows she endured, they are dust now.

I dedicated the novel to two wonderful women the world lost at an early age, and on the second line dedicated it to “Timberline and the other girls of the line: I hope the world was kind to you.”

And here was evidence that the world had not been kind to her.

The link went on to say that Timberline did not die from that suicide attempt, but strangely enough, another link had her recovering from an “intended overdose.” Is it apocryphal that she tried to kill herself with such vastly different methods and survived both times? Whatever the truth is, she must have been an unhappy young woman.

Several sources have her living in Creede, Colorado, a silver mining camp 420 miles from the Dodge City that her photograph is labeled with. Sure enough, the website for Creede, Colorado mentions Timberline on its “About Creede” page. Bat Masterson too (whose biography the commenter mentions) lived in both cities, so maybe she hitched a ride with him.

If anyone has any more information on her, I’d most definitely love to know it.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Germanic wood sculpture

Sculptor Stefanie Rocknak makes the incredible life-sized pieces you see here, inspired by the medieval art of Germany.

I was so taken with these images (seen in my alumni magazine, Colby: we both attended the same college) that I contacted Rocknak to rave. There's so much emotion captured in these faces and in their body language. I feel like I could stare at them for hours to try to figure out what their individual stories are.

There's something about these figures that is timeless and we see they are the same as us today...but deep in the wood is the darkness of their shortened, brutal lives. They lived in a world where superstition reigned, where food was scarce, and where they couldn't even use logs to warm their huts (only nobles could burn logs; peasants were reduced to whatever branches they could scrounge on the ground).

These sculptures visually show what I tried to convey with words in The Witch's Trinity. In fact, had I known of Rocknak's work in 2006, I would have begged and pleaded with my editor to have one of her pieces on the cover --or maybe even this triptych, which to me looks like the priest, Gude and Irmeltrud.

Check out Rocknak's artist statement on her website. I love her eclectic, whimsical look back at what fueled her work (like her brother's wooden robot, or a face she carved with her dad as a child), rather than some high-flung attempt to interpret her philosophy for others.

This image of her is from the Colby magazine article by Pat Sims. I love how the statue in the background is arching around to look at the camera too.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Nice review of Witch's Trinity

Many thanks to blogger and writer Susan Spann, who just posted a very nice review of The Witch's Trinity on her site,

I met her at the Historical Novels Society conference this year in San Diego. I had a great time sitting with her at dinner and talking shop. One cool thing about her (among many) is that she is required to drink about five cups of coffee a day. I thought it was great to have a medical dictate to freely imbibe! She was a lot of fun, and now she has written a really nice review of my book, on top of buying multiple copies of my book. Many thanks, Susan!

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Friday, October 14, 2011

Suffrage Re-enactment Parade


What a fine day we had, and how high were all the spirits! I loved wearing the purple "Votes For Women" sash and feeling like I was marching in the footsteps of my forebears (unfortunately, we were not able to recreate the exact path of the 1908 parade in Oakland, but close enough!)

Today, the 14th of October, is the 100th anniversary of the official tally for women getting the vote in California. HOORAY! (The polling date was the 10th, but back in 1911 it took four days for all the votes to be counted up and down the state--and in fact one of the reasons against woman's suffrage was the idea that it already took so long just to count MALE votes.)

Here's a photograph of me in my parade sash. I'm at far left, gesticulating, pushing a younger voter. I have many, many photos to post, but this will suffice for now. If you're a woman and you're not registered to vote, the ghosts of the past are shaking their fingers at you.

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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Suffrage article about Governor Markham

I wrote this piece for the Oakland Heritage Alliance newsletter. If you'd like to subscribe (it appears three times a year, and always has great articles about Oakland history), visit Membership is affordable, and the subscription comes with it.

Gov. Markham sets back women's movement several decades
By Erika Mailman

Suffrage passed in California in 1911, nine years before it passed nationally. We can pat ourselves on the backs for being the sixth state to permit woman at the polls. Yet if not for the bullheadedness of an early governor, women could have been voting as early as 1893.

The villain? Governor Henry Harrison Markham, a Republican who served 1891-95.

Born in New York in 1840, he was educated at Wheeler Academy in Vermont. After graduation, he and his brothers moved to Wisconsin. There, he worked as a teacher before volunteering for a Wisconsin infantry regiment of the Union Army. He participated in Sherman’s famous march to the sea, including slogging through waist-deep swamp water, and sustained severe injuries at the Battle of Whippy.

After the war he returned to Wisconsin and studied law. In 1876, he married Mary Dana. They responded to a newspaper ad to buy 23 acres in Pasadena, in part to improve Henry’s ill health, and moved there with their young daughter in 1879.

Markham certainly sounds like a good guy: he volunteered for the school board and helped establish the local library. He was the first U.S. representative for California’s sixth congressional district, 1885-87, and won the campaign for governor thanks to his solid grip. “The victory was attributed partly to Henry’s manner of personally greeting thousands of voters who became well acquainted with the ‘Markham Glad-hand.’ It was his signature move—a firm, hearty handshake evoking sincerity,” wrote Lawrence P. Gooley. He took office in 1891.

In response to the state’s economic woes, he pushed for the 1894 Mid-Winter Exposition which indeed brought needed money and attention. Held in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park for six months, the fair’s legacy is the original De Young Museum and the Japanese Tea Gardens.

A lovely anecdote about Markham shows his good heart. Out walking one day, he found a woman and child who had been evicted from their apartment. He secretly slipped a $100 bill into the keyhole and told the boy to go look again for the “key.” He left before his good deed was discovered.

All this makes it hard to conceive that this gentleman looked at the suffrage bill that had passed both the Senate and Assembly and summarily vetoed it.

Harder still to understand how he justified his decision to his wife and four daughters, Marie, Alice, Gertrude, and Hildreth. The family had no sons.

The discussion may actually have been easier than we might think, since it was doubtless conducted by mail, if at all. His fifth daughter Genevieve had died of typhoid fever six months after the family moved to Sacramento. Mary and the remaining daughters returned to Pasadena where they stayed until the end of his gubernatorial term three and a half years later.

It’s hard to enter the 1800s male mindset to determine why Governor Markham didn’t think that his closest circle deserved to vote. His wife had been formally educated at Rockford Seminary in Wisconsin (whose most famous graduate was Jane Addams, winner of the Nobel Prize), and was a tireless volunteer for her Pasadena church and its causes. He had been raised with five brothers and four sisters, so surely the female gender was not a cipher to him.

He loved his daughters. I found an article that talked about an elaborate playhouse he built for them, which is still extant and now sits in a corner of the yard of Pacific Oaks Children’s School in Pasadena.

Yet it’s said he felt suffrage was unconstitutional. Trying to locate more information than that is difficult, and in fact one of my sources indicates that the bill may not have been for blanket suffrage, but rather for “school-suffrage,” so that women might vote at any school election and hold office.

This appears to have been a tactic to chip away at public sentiment; men might be more likely to grant power in an arena viewed as female anyway, and then armed with that success, women could then lobby for more. By 1904, 19 states permitted school-suffrage (in addition to the four states then granting full suffrage: Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming), while in a few other states women might vote on municipal bonds or questions of public expenditure.

According to the 1904 World Almanac prepared for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, other persons excluded from voting in California included “Chinese, idiots, insane, embezzlers of public moneys, convicted of infamous crime.” A footnote added, “Or a person unable to read the Constitution in English and to write his name.”

Markham did not run for a second term, and his grand three-story Pasadena mansion was torn down several decades after his 1923 death from stroke. His mansion had stood near today’s tourist mecca for Craftsman enthusiasts, the Greene & Green Gamble house, and homes owned by other titans of industry: Busch (beer), Wrigley (gum), Maxwell (coffee), Spalding (sporting goods) and others.

The issues around suffrage were complex, and not solely attributable to misogyny. As is endlessly the case with politics, financial interests played a huge role. Many feared women would promptly institute social reforms such as limiting hours that children might work, making factories and mills less profitable. They also predicted women would institute prohibition, not a farfetched fear since the Christian Women’s Temperance Movement was a stalwart suffrage crusader.

Indeed, when the issue of suffrage went (unsuccessfully) to a statewide referendum in 1896, the Liquor Dealers League urged its members, “See your neighbor in the same line of business as yourself, and have him be with you in this matter.” Still others felt suffrage would create an administrative nightmare: it already took nearly a week to count the male votes in the state.

Whatever Markham’s reasoning was, he set back the women’s movement in California by 18 years.

One final tidbit: my research yielded the fact that Gov. Markham has his own Facebook page, and six people like him. Hilarious!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Suffrage article by Elaine Elinson

I just stumbled across a suffrage piece by an old writers group friend, Elaine Elinson. She too is a Heyday author, and her nonfiction book Wherever There's a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California won a California book award.

She outlines here how Selina Solomons got San Franciscans to work for suffrage. She's a fantastic writer.

Sad discovery of woman possibly thought a witch

Friend Linda McCabe alerted me to this link, about the discovery of an 800-year-old corpse in Tuscany. Because seven nails were driven through her jaw, it's thought she was a witch, and this was a measure to keep her from rising from her grave. (But that seems spurious, as she was buried in consecrated ground.)

Thirteen nails were also found around her body, as if fastening her clothing to the ground. She was not in a coffin or shroud. Hm, seven and 13: both kind of "evil" numbers.

Another nearby corpse was buried with 17 dice. Seventeen is an unlucky number in Italian, and women were prevented from playing dice in medieval times, so it's thought she too may be a victim of a witchcraft accusation.

Stories like this are always such sad mysteries. Were the nails driven before or after death? What were these women's stories? And how would they feel knowing their images are posted on some worldwide device that everyone can access, and see the horrible truth of their skulls displaying the violence of their treatment?

Here's the link.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Suffrage parade reenactment

Something is brewing in Oakland that I'm so excited about!

Individuals and groups are coming together to re-enact a suffrage parade that took place in Oakland in 1908-the FIRST suffrage parade in California! Suffrage didn't pass for another three years, in 1911...but women fought hard for decades to get it through.

We want to honor those women who struggled so valiantly to get us the right we take for granted today. Can you imagine if women couldn't vote now?!! Yet only 100 years ago it was the case all across the country with the exception of four states: Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah.

The parade takes place Sunday, Oct. 2. Gather at the Lakeside Park bandstand, march up Grand Avenue to the pergola, and return through the park. It's free.

If you want to spend money, buy a $10 commemorative sash, or donate to help defray expenses for things like street closure permit and the requisite police officers to monitor the event. Visit this website to learn more and to get your sash/donate.

Here is a photo of the 1908 parade. In the background is the (now gone) Masonic Temple at 12th and Washington. The woman on the right is mother to the woman in the center, which makes my heart swell. I somewhere also came across a photo of a woman pushing her child in the stroller. Women working together across the generations: beautiful.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Free novel writing workshop this Saturday

Join local published novelist Erika Mailman for a free 2.5-hour
workshop on Writing Your Novel. Come with a notebook and a few
ideas. Erika will guide you through the process of brainstorming,
outlining and how to keep motivated over the long haul. You’ll
do two guided writing activities and leave with a solid idea
for a novel, the beginnings of an outline, and tips for
staying the course.

The workshop takes place 2-4:30 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 13,
at Booksmart bookstore, 80 E. Second St. in Morgan Hill.
Limited to seven people aged 15-99; please call Booksmart
to pre-register at 778-6467.

Erika Mailman is the author of two historical novels, Woman
of Ill Fame and The Witch’s Trinity. The Witch’s Trinity
was a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book, which Khaled
Hosseini called “a gripping, well-told story of faith and
truth.” She has taught writing at the University of Arizona,
College of Alameda and currently teaches through


Monday, June 27, 2011

Historical Novels Society conference

Recently I attended the Historical Novels Society conference in San Diego, and can't say enough good things about it.

There was an amazing slate of authors, so many great panels that I had a hard time selecting which to attend (typically, four panels per hour), and a great collection of agents and editors who generously shared their insider look at the business.

The high point for me was meeting Heather Lazare, Crown editor, and Michelle Moran, Crown author. Heather's actually my editor (I was very happily assigned to her after Allison McCabe, my editor for The Witch's Trinity, left publishing) and I had never met her. It was fantastic to have that opportunity, and to meet Michelle as well, whose career I heartily admire, over delicious fish tacos.

I was also thrilled to meet Vanitha Sankaran. We share an agent and I was delighted to have been able to blurb her lovely debut WATERMARK. Vanitha did a great job presenting on the Marquee Names panel, and I sat next to her at the booksigning where she signed them hand over fist. Nice work, Vanitha!

I also enjoyed meeting fellow witchcraft authors Mary Sharatt and Suzy Witten, and Sarah Johnson, the guru behind the conference, and Richard Scott, the genie behind the conference, and Gillian Bagwell, who did a great job in a nighttime reading session with Diana Gabaldon and CC Humphreys, and Christopher Cevasco, who I sat next to at dinner, and seeing again fun and wry Christopher Gortner.

I had great conversations with many folks and apologies if I'm not remembering names. I loved talking to the publishing attorney who is very close to finding representation (and thanks for buying multiple copies of my book! hugely appreciative) and the woman who wrote the Goddess tarot. Many other great interactions; sorry if I'm forgetting anyone.

I learned so much that it would be impossible to blog it all, but here are a few highlights that stick in my mind:

  • Sourcebooks editor Shana Drehs talked about cover art decisions, and said that most options for a single book she's ever seen was 124!
  • Heather Lazare and Michelle Moran also talked about cover art for MADAME TUSSAUD and the many iterations it took to come up with something everyone could live with (I love that cover and would adore seeing the also-rans)
  • Someone said it was integral to join Goodreads, and so I have!
  • Persia Woolley told of a online seminar in how to use Facebook better as an author
  • Someone spoke of the importance of being able to boil your novel down into a one-sentence pitch, and then a one-paragraph pitch. I do that with my mediabistro students, so it was confirming to hear that.
  • Shana Drehs talked of the exponential growth of ebooks, with a huge jump just between November 2010 and January 2011
  • She also said the point of writing is for the reader to feel "I'm awesome" while reading it. That generated a lot of reflection for me. How do we get a reader to feel like they're cool for reading our book?

The conference alternates between England and the U.S., so the next one will be held in London. Although I'd love to visit, it's far more likely my next foray will be the 2013 conference. Hope to see you there!

P.S. Amended later to add some more thoughts:
  • It was great seeing Cecelia Holland get a standing ovation for her keynote address. She said something in that speech that really got me thinking: "We'll never know more about this particular moment than we do right now."
  • Enjoyed speaking very briefly with Susanne Dunlap, Bethany Latham, Christy English, Susan Higginbotham, the two fabulous bloggers Heather of Maiden's Court and Allie of Hist Fic Chick and the nice aspiring author from the Crusades era who brought his dad (awww)
  • And finally, wanted to say that while I was happily reassigned to Heather Lazare, it was with great angst that I "lost" Allison McCabe, an incredible editor who shares my love of all things morbid and dental, and made my book so much better than it was before.

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Friday, April 01, 2011

Visiting Chabot

A few weeks ago I visited Chabot College to talk about my novel Woman of Ill Fame with an English classroom where--gasp!--the wonderful instructor, Danielle Maze, had assigned it. Who ever woulda thought prostitute Nora Simms’s story would be thought of as a textbook?

The students asked really thoughtful questions and I enjoyed that challenge of being slightly put on the spot for things I didn’t instantly know the answer to.

I think the best question of the night was about craft: “Why did you choose to start the story the way you did? At the beginning you can’t tell right away what’s going on, and who’s involved, and you keep reading to have it unfold.”

That’s a great question. I don’t know what spurs the first moment of a novel. I do know a lot of advice says, “Start writing, and then you’ll probably discard the first 20 pages and begin where the story really starts.”

All I knew was, my novel had to start with Nora arriving in San Francisco, and it made sense that she’d use every last second to make money the best way she knew how. I hadn’t really thought of that beginning sex scene as cryptic, or that one is initially unsure what’s happening. I’d have to look at it again (that book was two babies ago!)…but the underlying question is more global than that: “how do we choose to relay information?”

Some writers might well have chosen to say, “Nora Simms lay on a rice bag, having sex with the galley mate as the ship docked” (which is the scene), but instead I chose a more subtle approach to keying the reader in to what was happening. It’s instinctual, and it’s just how people innately decide to write scenes. I never really think about different options for starting a scene; I just start. My mind knows what it wants to do, right or wrong. I’d be curious to know if other writers consider and abandon different approaches before starting.

Two other interesting things arose out of that classroom visit. One was that someone asked me to sign her book, but it was a library book. We laughed a bit for the idea that I could inscribe it, “Dear library patron…” In the end, I wasn’t enough of a scofflaw to sign the book on the title page, but I did write a little secret message at the back on my author photo page. So if you take Woman of Ill Fame out of the Oakland Public Library, you may happen to get that copy.

Another signing issue arose when someone handed me a book that I had previously signed! He must have bought it off Amazon. I had written, “Dear X, Good luck with your writing career!” so it was probably someone I briefly talked to about their writing aspirations. Unsure what to do, I chose the goofy route, crossed out the woman’s name and instead wrote the current man’s name, and wrote something silly in the margins around my original message.

I’m sure this has to have happened to other authors before since I’ve noticed something: most people open your book to the first page, not the title page, to be signed, making it likely they wouldn’t notice the book was already signed. Which actually makes better sense: it’s typically a page with more room for a message (sometimes completely blank), whereas the title page has many elements to contend with.

Anyway, it was fun to talk about (and think about) Nora Simms again. Thanks Chabot students and especially thanks to instructor Danielle Maze.

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Monday, January 31, 2011

Winter reading recommendations

Recommended Reading List

This time, I’m limiting the list to young adult books. Over the course of the last year or so, I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on… is it just me, or do YA and middle grade books have more inventive, memorable and inviting cover art than adult fiction typically does? It is so entertaining to visit this section of the bookstore, and hard to leave without dropping some serious dough.

Here’s a few I’ve really fallen in love with:

Book of Dead Days
by Marcus Sedgwick

This book follows a young boy in a late 1700s, unnamed European city, who is servant to a magician who seems to have more than sleight-of-hand abilities. The also-unnamed Boy and a orphan girl who comes into his life try to help his master subvert a long-ago deal with the devil. Time is running out to save the magician’s soul…and the journey is magnificent.

The Agency
series by Y.S. Lee

I jumped into this series with #2, because the cover art was just so inviting to me. A strong, young Victorian-era heroine? I’m IN! Mary Quinn works undercover for a women-run spy agency (could this be any better?) and has a half-Chinese heritage (yup, it just got better!). In this installment, she works (literally—she joins a construction crew, and the details of how big-scale construction worked in those days is fascinating) to figure out who pushed a body off the top of the in-progress British Parliament building. Loved it. Number 1 in the series is top of my TBR pile.

A Great and Terrible Beauty
by Libba Bray

Not a new book, and several have followed in the series to complete a trilogy, but what can I say—I sometimes come to things late! As I did with the book above, I grabbed this one based on the incredible cover art. It’s set at a girls boarding school (I always love these stories, and wanted so badly when I was young to be sent away, or given a governess, or something literary), and the main character Gemma suffers visions and learns she is somehow linked to a former student at the school. That student was a member of a supernatural society and stakes get quickly dangerous, and Gemma learns disturbing information about her own mother. It’s a page-turner.

Enjoy the winter reading!

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