Tuesday, December 4, 2012

From the Archives: Over the Rhine, My Muse

A couple of years ago, I started to write my first novel, Lilac Wine.  I am still in the process; it is going a little slower than anticipated.  Unfortunately, life sometimes gets in the way.  However, this weekend I am off again to see my favorite band--the band that triggered my initial inspiration for Lilac Wine.  The band is Over the Rhine and I am eternally grateful for their music.  It has filled voids and it has provided creative inspiration and fueled a passion for the characters and the story that I hope to share to very soon. In honor of Over the Rhine and the concert this upcoming weekend, I am republishing an article I posted back in 2010, explaining how this band from Ohio has become the muse behind Lilac Wine.


In Lilac Wine, Robert is tormented by nightmares and has been his entire life.   While on a trip to Chicago with Abelia in the Autumn of 1917, he has a particularly haunting vision---a vision that brings him to Abelia in the middle of the night: 
The knock came early in the morning, jarring Abelia from a sleep that had not come easy. Throwing on a housecoat, she stumbled in the dark toward the door.
     The knock came again, softer this time. Grasping the knob, she cracked open the door and peered into the hallway.
     Robert was there, disheveled and fraught. His cheeks glistened slightly in the low glow of the incandescent lights that lined the hallway.  “Robert?” she said, pulling the door open further, ignoring the immodesty of standing out in the open in a mere housecoat and nightgown. “What’s wrong?”
     Robert looked up from the floor, his eyes red. “Can I come in?”
I often write with music playing softly in the background or I listen to certain songs just prior to a writing session, in order to get my mind into a particular mood.  The crucial scene excerpted above was inspired in part by one of my all-time favorite songs: “Etcetera Whatever” by Over the Rhine.

Don't speak.
Words come out your eyes.
You're wet with this nightmare.
Like thorns you hold these secrets to your breast,
your slender fingers closing into fists.
(Words and Music: Linford Detweiler. Album:  Good Dog, Bad Dog 1996)

So much of Lilac Wine is connected in one way or another to the music of Over the Rhine.  It’s amazing that inspiration is so often wrapped up in the creative impulses of others. Music has that effect on me and Over the Rhine has been my muse.

I first became acquainted with Over the Rhine in 1993 when I heard “I Painted My Name” on a local radio station. I listened for the DJ to give out the name of the song and soon found myself in a local cd store purchasing the album Patience, their second studio album.  Little did I know then that a song from that album would provide the seed of inspiration for my first novel, Lilac Wine.

That song was “Flanders Fields,” a mournful reflection of a love lost.  With obvious connections to the First World War, I had used the song in class when discussing the war and as an introduction to the poetry from the war itself. It is a beautiful, yet mournful song.

In Flanders Fields far away
I lost my love one day.
(Lyrics:  Linford Detweiler.  Music: Ric Hordinski. Album: Patience,  1992)
One day about 15 years ago, I was driving home from work, the album playing on the cassette player in my car. “Flanders Fields” began.  And there it was, suddenly, as if it had been there in my mind the entire time: images of the Great War.  A young man swept up into the conflict. The eccentric, small town of Lily Springs on the upper Mississippi River coping awkwardly with the challenges of modernity. And a woman who had given up on love long ago, retreating into the comfort of her garden.  Lilac Wine had been born.

That was 15 years ago.  I wrote a few chapters and then shelved the story, unable to work out certain plot elements.  But the characters never left me, however.  The town of Lily Springs was always in the back of my mind, waiting patiently for me to pay a visit once again.

In the years since I first started Lilac Wine, Over the Rhine has become an indispensable facet of my musical library. There probably isn't a day that goes by without at least one song of theirs playing sometime during my day.  The core of the band is the husband and wife team of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist. Their music speaks like an old friend, sitting at the kitchen table talking over a cup of coffee.  They have a magical ability to express everyday emotion in heartfelt, bittersweet tones.   Through their melodies and Karin's sultry, sometimes gut-wrenching vocals, the everyday is transcended in an almost cathartic expression of the real.  And that is what Over the Rhine does best: express the various emotions that we all, at one time or another, have felt and they do it in such a way that it feels like it was written just for us.  

Last year, I rediscovered Lily Springs once again.  I was driving home from work, a mix cd playing in the car.  And I began thinking again about Robert Bishop and Abelia Brody.  And all of the problems I had with the plot were suddenly resolved.  I often get my inspiration while driving in the car with music playing.  And one of the songs that helped break the writer's block was Over the Rhine's "I Want You to Be My Love."  It has somewhat become the theme for Abelia and Robert.

I want you to be my love
I want you to be my love
'Neath the moon and the stars above
I want you to be my love

I want you to know me now
I want you to know me now
Break a promise make a vow
I know you want me now

Like I want you
  (Music and Lyrics: Bergquist/Detweiler Album: The Drunkard's Prayer,  2005)

I Want You To Be My Love by Over the Rhine on Grooveshark

For me, music helps set the tone for what I want to write.  I have a particular playlist that I use when trying to get into a "Lilac Wine mood."  The playlist includes artists such as Jeff Buckley, Billie Holiday and Etta James.  Over the Rhine, however, dominates the list.  Although some songs might not have a tangible relationship to the narrative of Lilac Wine, the sentiment and the mood of particular songs provide a means to channel certain feelings into the text.  Songs like "Long Lost Brother,"  "Changes Come,"  "Suitcase," "Desperate for Love" and "Latter Days" have, in one way or another, been the soundtrack to my writing sessions, providing a necessary state of mind. There are other songs that may have helped shape some of the narrative as well.

For example, Robert and Abelia share a bottle of lilac wine early in their relationship.  Abelia has a penchant for concocting some amazing varietals using the fruits from her garden. They get drunk and do something neither of them had ever done at length before: talk.  They discuss dreams, fears and, of all things, Chinese food.

Pour me a glass of wine
Talk deep into the night
Who knows what we'll find? 
("Born" Music and Lyrics: Bergquist/Detweiler Album: The Drunkard's Prayer,  2005)

Over the Rhine is currently on tour.  And next month they will be playing two shows at the Old Town School of Folk Music on December 8.   My wife and I have tickets to the first show.  Plus, my sister and brother-in-law will be coming as well.  In the 19-plus years of listening to Over the Rhine, this will be my third concert.  This has become sort of a tradition.  Needless to say, I am excited.

In the meantime, I will continue writing and listening.  Robert and Abelia's journey will undoubtedly take some twists and turns unforeseen at the moment. And through it all, Over the Rhine will be along for the ride.  Thankfully.

*Note:  The above clips are hosted on Grooveshark.  This service claims to have an agreement with artists and note that artists are paid:  "Grooveshark has an artists/label program to ensure that any owner of content will be compensated fairly for each time their content is played via Grooveshark."  I hope this is true and if not, I will remove the links to the clips.


Update 12/4/2012: For more information about Over the Rhine, please visit their website at OvertheRhine.com.   Check out their online record player.  Currently, you can download their Christmas album, Snow Angels for free or a donation at NoiseTrade.  Be sure to check out the latest album, The Long Surrender.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Death in Lily Springs: Turn of the 20th Century Funeral Practices

In today's America, funeral practices and mourning rituals have become a highly sanitized and commercialized process.  Funeral parlors and morticians provide a service that for most people in America is not only indispensable, but an economic powerhouse that generates over $20 billion annually.

That is not how it used to be, however.

In the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, funeral rituals were much more personal and immediate.  Most funerals were held at home, for example.  The front rooms of middle class homes were called "death rooms," and were not used much for day-to day living but reserved for those times in life when one must mourn the dead.  The deceased would be laid out in these rooms, sometimes for days.  Flowers were used to help hide the odor as embalming was not something that most families could afford and was not something that was readily available in rural America until the 20th century when funeral parlors began to replace the in-home tradition of wakes and funerals.

The death of Abraham Lincoln and his subsequent embalming popularized the practice.  Funeral parlor acceptance grew slowly and began appearing mainly in urban areas.  By the turn of the century, most funerals in urban areas were held in funeral parlors.  As a result, Ladies Home Journal in 1910 made the suggestion that the front parlor should no longer be a "death room," but a "living room" instead.  As more and more people moved the process of mourning from the home to a local business, that is exactly what happened in American homes.  The front parlors were now opened up, made bright and airy and became "living" rooms instead.

In my novel, Lilac Wine, a death occurs in the small Iowan town of Lily Springs.  This, of course, necessitated some research into funeral practices of the early 20th century.  One thing that has made the writing of this novel truly enjoyable has been delving into the past and learning just how different things were 100 years ago.  A resident of the 21st century would no doubt be shocked as to what our forebearers did when it came to funerals.

The entire mourning process was guided by strict norms and etiquette.  Not only were wakes and funerals held in the home, photographs of the deceased were commonplace.  In fact, as photography was an expensive endeavor, most people reserved money for a formal photograph of their loved ones when they died.  Post mortem photographers would be called in and a photograph would be taken of the deceased, often with loved ones standing or sitting near the body.

Sometimes, the body was arranged in such a way to be made to "look alive" and, using stands and wires the deceased would be propped up on couches, chairs or even standing in an official looking portrait.

Photographers often went to elaborate lengths to give the appearance of life to the deceased.  Not only would they have the deceased standing in a pose, but eyes were sometimes painted on the closed eyelids to simulate life.

This practice was called Memento Mori (remember the dead) and was common from the invention of photography in the mid-1800s until the early 20th century.  In fact, photographs of the dead were more common than any other photograph from this period of time.

As infant mortality was much higher in the 19th century than today, a majority of photographs from the time period are of deceased children.

In Lilac Wine, there is a death in Lily Springs.  Although the novel takes place in 1917, much of rural America was still very much rooted in the practices of the previous century.  And Lily Springs was no different from most small towns, teetering on the edge of modernity but still clinging to tradition.  Robert was asked to stand next to the casket for a memento mori, which was being provided by the town photographer, John Hickman:
Robert respectfully declined John’s request to stand next to the casket and cast a mournful eye down upon its contents. He didn’t quite understand memento mori. Images of death haunted his dreams at night and he didn’t need such reminders during the day. When Robert was child, Abigail DeWitt, the young girl and occasional playmate who lived next door, died at the tender age of seven, the victim of typhoid fever. Robert watched from an outside window as the family made preparations for her funeral. A post mortem photographer was hired and Abigail’s little body was made to sit on her favorite wooden horse through the use of hidden stands and wires. Watching the man work on young Abigail’s remains reminded Robert of a puppeteer. After she was posed properly on her horse, pupils were painted on her closed eyelids giving her the appearance of life. Her parents then sat next to her in solemnity as the photographer took their picture. 
                                                 ---from Lilac Wine, Chapter 24 

The inspiration for that passage came from a single photograph that broke my heart when I first saw it:

Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic took mourning very seriously and the elaborate rituals surrounding death may seem somewhat macabre today.  However, we must remember that images of loved ones were not often made in life, as the process was so expensive for most families.  So a memory of that person, even taken in death, became a way to cherish the memory of a loved one.  And if that photograph could provide a reminder of how that person was in life, then the grieving process was made easier.  It is all too  easy for us to judge in the present as we are surrounded by imagery and take pictures of nearly everything.  The Victorians weren't so lucky.

By the turn of the century, photography was becoming more affordable and funeral practices soon moved from the home to the funeral parlor.  Memento mori became less of a necessity.  As more and more people bought their own cameras and could afford the development of photographs, the same thing that happened to change front parlors to living rooms happened with photography.  People began collecting photographs of the living and arranging them on walls and in photo albums.*

The memento mori photographs of the 19th century may seem bizarre, but they stand as stark reminders of the fragility of life and the desperate need to cope with loss.  But they also highlight the need that we have as human beings--in any age--to cope with mortality and grief.



Dan Meinwald,  "Memento Mori: Death and Photography in Nineteenth Century America." Terminals:  UCLA, 1999

The Thanatos Archive

"Memento Mori ~Victorian Era Postmortem Photography"

"19th Century Photography"   Paul Frecker London: Post Mortem Collection

Victorian Death and Mourning Photo Set on Flickr

*This is not to say that such practices have completely been left in the Victorian Age.  Grief is a powerful thing in any epoch.  And photography can help people come to terms with losing a life in the digital age as well.

A local photographer and Facebook friend recently became involved in an organization that I, up until this point, had not been familiar.  Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (NILMDTS) is an organization of photographers that volunteer time and resources for parents who are struggling with the inevitable loss of a terminally ill child.   NILMDTS was founded in 2005 by Sandy Puc and Cheryl Haggard.  Cheryl's newborn son, Maddux was born with myotubular myopathy.  He couldn't breathe, move or swallow and Cheryl and her husband were faced with the excruciating decision to remove him from life support.   Before doing so, they hired a photographer to document this young life.  And NILMDTS was born.

The services provided by NILMDTS help parents cope with the grief of losing a child that will never leave the hospital and make it home to the nursery that sits quiet and empty.

Recently, NILMDTS received a $50,000 grant to continue its work in this area.

Although we cannot compare the work that NILMDTS does with grieving families to the work of post-mortem photographers of the Victorian Age, the use of imagery to process grief is a common thread.  Some 12,000 professional photographers donate their time and resources to helping parents cope with this loss.


Karen van Vuuren, "A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: Memories of Sons and Daughters," Natural Transitions (Vol. 2, Issue 2, page 8-10).


Thursday, July 5, 2012

Jugging For Catfish

The glass jugs bobbed gently in the waters of the Mississippi as Billy threw another one out and tethered it to the shore. Beneath each jug dangled a line in the murky waters with a bit of dry, salted pork wrapped around a large hook. Billy called it “jugging” and told Robert that it was an old tradition on the Mississippi for catching catfish. Although that was true and he had been doing it for years, it was his attempt to hook Robert with more river Americana, actually. After all, Huck Finn and Jim caught a catfish in the Mississippi that was the size of a man---six feet two inches long, complete with a brass button in its stomach. 
                                                 ---from Lilac Wine, Chapter 23 

Jugging for catfish is a time-honored tradition on the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Easy to do, jugging just involves an airtight container, line, hook and bait. Plus, a lot of patience I imagine. 

I have never been jugging before, but a quick search of YouTube reveals that jugging is still a popular pastime on the Mississippi. However, instead of jugs many people today use foam noodles. 

Jugging is a technique that dates back hundreds of years and descriptions of the process can be found dating to the early 19th century. Some very large catfish have been landed with this method of fishing. According to an article in American Angler from 1885, a 13 foot catfish was caught on the Ohio river using the jugging method. 

A nice description of “jugging” appears In All the Western States and Territories by John W. Barber published in 1888: 

This picture of jugging can be found in What To Do and How To Do It: the American Boy's Handy Book By Daniel Carter Beard (1888): 

Writing a novel that takes place in 1917 involves a great deal of research. Whether its finding information about the War, jugging or funeral customs, I often have to stop writing and conduct research in order to get the facts straight and use the correct historical nomenclature. Google Books Archive has been invaluable in my research for Lilac Wine. Google has thousands of digitized books and newspapers. A couple of years ago, I took a trip to Dubuque to examine the microfilm for the DubuqueTelegraph-Herald for 1917. Now, I can view the needed issues online and never leave the house. 

It is in the vaults of Google where I discovered the joy of jugging.

Writing is an interesting process. When I outlined Lilac Wine many years ago, I never imagined including a chapter on jugging. Recently, however, my two boys have become interested in fishing, which reignited my own joy of the sport. In grad school, I went fishing with a buddy nearly everyday. Now, I am able to do it once again with my two sons. This is what probably drew me to this chapter. I needed a vehicle for getting the characters from point A to Point B. Fishing provided the means to move the story along. And honoring the time-tested Mississippi tradition of jugging proved to be the best way to do this. 

In Lilac Wine, Billy takes Robert “jugging,” consequently removing him from town so that a necessary plot point can occur without his knowledge: 

Billy .... didn’t realize that the jug nearest the fallen tree had disappeared under the water. It popped up again with a splash and began moving toward the rotten trunk. Billy leapt to his feet and grabbed the appropriate line. “I knew it,” he exclaimed, excited not just for the potential catch, but for the distraction from the conversation. He was beginning to think his life was not too unlike those jugs sitting in the water waiting for a fish. 
      The line was taut and Billy wrapped it around his palm a few times to get a better grip. “Give me a hand.” 
      Robert reached down and helped pull. Bubbles broke the surface. A forked tailfin slammed into the jug. “I told you we’d get one there. It’s a big one, too.” The fish struggled against the line, but Billy and Robert gave some slack and then pulled it again. They repeated this several times, tiring the fish out. Robert was amazed at just how strong it was. A slick body twisted at the surface near the shore, swirls of mud bubbled in the water as the catfish’s head broke the water, it’s metallic skin shimmering in the afternoon sun. 
      “Nice one,” exclaimed Billy. “It’s a blue. These fish get really big. That’s probably what they caught in that book of yours. They’re bigger the further downriver you go. Over 100 pounds is not uncommon.” 
      After a few more pulls, they got the fish up on the grass. The fish was a good two feet long. “Probably about 20 or 25 pounds,” said Billy. “You’ll be eatin’ good tonight, my friend."               
                         ---From Lilac Wine, Chapter 23 

I now have the “jugging” bug. I discussed this fishing technique with my boys and they were enthusiastic. Perhaps we’ll take a trip over the to Fox River and give it a try.