Query Tracker

Notes from the trenches of managing queries. #1 in an intermittent series

I’m not an organized person. That would be my wonderful husband, with his spreadsheets, lists, and reminders. Me? I’ve got piles of papers, postits, notepads from writing workshops, stacks of seed packets (yes, I garden), lit mags (a rotating bunch but always The NewYorker), and 2 cups of favorite pens. Bravely, I’m posting a picture of my desk drawer which is neater than the desk.

Given my proclivities, I was dismayed when I started querying to find good information about writing the letter and synopsis, but almost nothing about managing the search and tracking. I needed nuts-and-bolts. But now, having queried a couple of novels (with no success so far – boo, hiss), I have honed a process that works great for me…

For my first novel, someone pointed me to AgentQuery.com and I thought I’d hit gold. I could search for agents by genre, which was pretty cool. And I could see books they’d represented. There were three problems: I had to keep track of my queries on a spreadsheet, EVERYONE represented literary fiction which is what I thought I was writing, and the books listed tended to be really old.

Plus, tracking was a nightmare. Perhaps it’s because I am mostly a pantser…a messy process, ideas flying, characters refusing to go where I intended…and then when I stop writing, I don’t morph into an organized business person. My tracking spreadsheet quickly got out of hand. I’d forget to move an agent from the “active” tab to the “CNR” (closed no response, a preponderance of “replies”). Once I managed to query three agents from the same agency in the course of a single week, despite having read on their website “Don’t do that.”

Then I found QueryTracker.

What a difference! I can search for agents, leave notes for myself about what they want, link to agency websites, and track where my queries are in the process. For me, it’s been a lifesaver. I feel organized, which is obviously not my normal mode. Some one of these times I’ll publish a list of hints, but meanwhile, I’m grateful someone has created an app for people like me: http://querytracket.net

A Road Trip to Kansas

Post 5 in the Candy Box saga: the inception of my latest novel.

Sometimes life hands you little treasures – an unexpected invitation to the ballet, a recipe that hubby loves, a new dog who offsets chewing by cuddling. Lucky me, I’ve had more than my share, including the one that helped my research for the candy box novel.

Soon after I picked Enterprise, Kansas as Milton’s home, my boss told me I was going to Kansas City for a two week workshop. Total serendipity: a weekend on my own, with a rental car! It’s possible to learn about places online but in person is so much better. And both Enterprise and the Kansas Historical Society were within driving distance – I’d only have to pay for gas. Saturday I’d go to the Historical Society. Sunday I’d explore Enterprise. I also decided to attend a church service – I was curious about the church’s interior.

A few years ago I’d done research at the Library of Congress for another book. To gain access to the reading room, as opposed to visiting as a tourist, I had to jump through a lot of hoops. Kansas was more casual: fill out a form, present an ID, and voila, I was in. I spent the day with their files and books, feeling my way to a sense of Enterprise after WWI. Although I took a bunch of pictures as reminders, I won’t post them for obvious reasons.

On Sunday I got up very early and enjoyed the two hour drive. Kansas is mostly flat but on the eastern side there are the Flint Hills, soft and rolling in appearance, but underneath? Flintstone – LOL. I got to the church on time and was amazed by the interior. Enterprise is a tiny town, 702 in 2020, so I expected a simple country church but the interior was filled with glorious stained glass windows. Definitely a setting to use.

Afterwards I drove around, noting a beautiful old mansion now used as a B&B, a park with a swimming pool and a colorful playground. There were dirt alleys and lots of trees. Most of the houses were fairly simple. I picked out this one to be Milton’s; I loved the oval window and the big front porch. It needed a swing and mentally I painted the wooden struts white. Perfect.

Choosing Milton’s Home

Post 4 in the Candy Box saga: the inception of my latest novel.

Location, location, location!

When choosing a setting for a novel, I usually opt for a place I’ve lived. It helps that I have an itchy foot and have settled in more places than I care to mention. (Well, okay – Amarillo, NYC, Boston, Nuremberg, Little Rock, Pasadena, outside of Philly, DC, and Florida. )

File:Llano Estacado Caprock Escarpment south of Ralls TX 2009.jpg

Wherever I live, events and stories, once distant, come to life. For instance, in DC, I was thrilled NPR broadcast from downtown and that I passed Daniel Schorr’s mail box when walking the dogs. In Nuremberg, the WWII trials became “real.” So I was pleased that Milton seemed to be from Kansas. Raised in Denver, I spent many an hour in the car driving through the plains to visit my parents’ cousins.

Kansas has a boring reputation, but a small town right after the war would be interesting, a bit old-fashioned, modernity still on the coasts. I’d heard stories of party lines (on telephones, not political), hand wringers on washers, and attack roosters.

Typical Kansas Church

I started my search online looking for old postcards and was immediately struck by the churches. Every little town had one and put it on a postcard. Some carried normal steeples, but many sported square towers. So many, in fact, I’d say it was a Kansas thing! In any case, Milton probably went to church. Or at least his wife did.

Then I came across a postcard of a “Normal Academy,” a school run by the German Methodist Episcopal Church. Plus, Enterprise was also the home of the first public school kindergarten in Kansas. They valued education; Milton would be smart. And the temperance leader Carrie Nation came to town, smashed a local saloon with a hatchet, and was arrested!

Intrigued, I “drive” around on Google maps. The current main street is forlorn, but a typical old church still stands. Vintage photos show a mill, a river, and a grocery store. I decided Enterprise will be Milton’s home.

Carrie on the way to the hoosegow!

Sadly, I already sense Carrie Nation won’t make it into the novel unless Milton became an alcoholic because of his war experiences. That’s the way of historical fiction: strict pruning of even fascinating details is required to keep the focus on the characters and their story.

Next week, a road trip in Kansas.

What Happened to Milton?

Post 3 in the Candy Box saga: the inception of my latest novel.

Milton Fieth

So I’ve made the acquaintance of Milton and I like him. Now I need a cursory sense of his story and a time period. I sort the papers in the candy box, organizing them by date. It’s a complete jumble of government bureaucracy, official letters, and insurance forms dating from 1917 to 1933. A couple of handwritten pages that will take time to decipher. What stands out? He was sent $80.00, “on account of injury incurred in the line of duty,” plus the ongoing bad news: Sorry, we aren’t going to give you any money. For example…

  • The straightforward: Medical reexamination expense must be paid by you.
  • The confusing: No payments of compensation shall be paid to claimants while they are pursuing an approved course of training.
  • The oddly hilarious: Take advantage of this offer within 90 days.
  • And the dire: The September payment at $90.00 will be final as your disability has been rated as ‘less than 10%.

How far would that $90 final payment have gone after the war? Food was cheap by today’s standards… Lettuce, 10 cents a head. Beef roast, 18 cents a pound. Rents seem to have run from $18 to $24 a month, depending on where you lived. Kansas was probably less expensive than Chicago or New York. So maybe a couple of months, which meant that he lived in poverty.

Lots of story possibilities here but I still had no idea about Milton’s injury. The owner of the candy box told me she thought he’d been shot, then mentioned an odd family story about a fork that stopped the bullet. In any case, she believed Milton’s troubles began after the war with delayed shell shock.

By 1920, PTSD had been around for a while, going under the names of hysteria, soldier’s heart, irritable heart, and railroad spine. I had to look that one up. It seems that around 1860, railroad accidents began to cause what we now recognize as typical PTSD symptoms.** Perhaps because railroads were rather new then, the victims and witnesses involved were not prepared for the carnage, especially out in the countryside.

In any case, by the end of WWI, there was still no coherent treatment for soldiers who froze in battle, shook uncontrollably, or went blind or deaf without apparent injury. They were accused of cowardice or malingering; military discipline was most often the recommended cure. Doctors were at a loss. There was no physical damage and of course, they couldn’t look at the brain.

Next I’d have to explore where Milton lived.

**From an article in the New Yorker by Parul Seghal about trauma in novels: In the eighteen-sixties, the physician John Eric Erichsen identified a group of symptoms in some victims of railway accidents—though apparently uninjured, they later reported confusion, hearing voices, and paralysis. He termed it “railway spine.”

The Man inside the Candy Box

Milton E. Fieth

Today I begin exploring the man inside the candy box. (If you’re confused, here’s the original post). To set my imagination free on a historical novel, I need a lot of information. Setting, time period, values are important, but most of all, I need a character. In this case, I have one, at least on paper, but who is Milton Fieth and what happened to him? I can’t recreate the ‘real’ Milton, but I’d like to get a feeling for him before I go off on my own.

I start with his Enlistment Record. He served in the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) which arrived in France late in the war (the president, Woodrow Wilson, believed in diplomacy). The AEF goal was to help the exhausted allies. It was commanded by General Pershing, whose face and bearing (see below) speak to me of old-fashioned honor, discipline, and sacrifice. And mustaches! Milton was of the same era and probably believed in the same things, even if he was clean shaven. His Enlistment Record states his character was “Excellent” and he gave honest and faithful service. He evidently fought in three terrible battles within a few months. The last, in the Argonne forest, started in September, 1918, and stretched along the entire western front. The carnage was horrendous, but it was part of the final push that ended the war.

General Pershing

I’d guess Milton and his family farmed, since he appears to have trained at Fort Riley, Kansas where Camp Funston was located. Pictures I found from the camp contrast with those from the actual war: no mud, no smoking cannons, no bodies lying in the field. The trenches they built were clean. Their practice of “going over the top” into battle lacked chaos and gun fire. WWI was the first war we fought on foreign land and I suspect those kids had no idea what they were getting into.

Rifle Practice – No one shoots back
Over the Top

Milton had a travel pass from Fort Riley to Garden City, location of several train lines. It seems likely he was sent from there to the East Coast, then onto a ship bound for France.

Who knows how much of this information will actually appear in the story. I’m insatiably curious and can easily fall down rabbit holes of research, but in the end I’ll have to leave out many interesting facts. For example: Three months after the U.S. entered WWI, Kansas had one enlisted man for every 143 persons. All those farm boys fighting in Europe, missing their girl friends, dry socks, their mother’s cherry pie…dying.

In any case, I like Milton already; I have him pegged as farmer, patriot, young, and being from Kansas, unworldly. As I discover (and make up) details, he’ll become more rounded and interesting. I need to find out about his injury. And already I can’t help but wonder how being in that bloody war changed him.

Next post I’m going to start going through the pile of documents in the box.

Candy Box Treasure

I never know what will inspire a story or a novel. A newspaper article. A personal experience. Once it was a battered book with a red cover bought on eBay, Madame, Mother of the Regent. Another time, 2 sentences about a medieval English queen unknown to me. (You won’t be surprised to hear I have BA in history.) The novel I am in the process of finishing, Reverberations, had an unusual beginning.

A close friend handed me a dilapidated candy box, cardboard cover broken, the floral printing faded, very heavy. The woman said, “You’re a writer. I thought you might be interested.”
I love chocolate, but a peek inside revealed a jumble of old papers in faded print. I was leaving town shortly, but trusting the contents were special, I tucked it into my suitcase. Several months later, during a rare calm moment, I finally opened the box.

The papers were crammed together in disarray, but on top lay a Rail Pass dated May 15, 1919. Valid for a trip to Garden City, Kans. Intriguing. I organized the papers by date. They ran from 1917 to 1933, World War I and its aftermath. I found a discharge from Jefferson Barracks Hospital in St. Louis, insurance and government correspondence. This got to the heart of the story:

      Enlistment Record for Milton E. Fieth 
      Served AEF, Vosges Mts, St Mihiel, Argonne
      Character: Excellent
      Remarks: No AWOL, No Abs, 
               Services honest and faithful.  
               Enabled to travel pay.  Served in France.  

Oh Milton! I knew the Argonne forest had been the site of a terrible battle with tremendous casualties. I looked it up: over a million Americans fought there. There were 192,000 casualties and over 25,000 died.

The last paper I had time to read stated that in December, 1921, Milton received $80.00, “on account of injury incurred in the line of duty while employed in the active service.” No indication of the type of injury. Perhaps he was shot? Maimed? Amputations were common in that war. So-called mustard gas caused facial burns and blindness. Milton was home safe, but obviously there was a problem.

This was a treasure, a time capsule to be excavated. Of course I was interested!

I plan to blog once a week about my research and discoveries. There will be love letters, government mix-ups, road trips, and photos. If that sounds interesting, subscribe to follow along…

Workshop with Rebecca Makkai

I have long loved Rebecca Makkai’s short stories. I got to know her work when she was included in the Best American Short Stories anthology four times in a row, 2008 to 2011. Those stories are in Music for Wartime along with one of my all time favs: “The Miracle Years at Little Fork.” A tale of the loss of faith, it begins “In the fourth week of the drought, at the third and final performance of the Roundabout Traveling Circus, the elephant keeled over dead.”

I’d also heard that she was a great teacher and then the LightHouse Writers Workshop offered a week-long summer workshop with her. The topic was The Arc of Story, The Architecture of Plot, one one of my weaknesses. I applied, submitting the usual writing sample. The eventual reply was thrilling:

We’re writing with good news: our reviewers have submitted their scores and you have earned a spot in Rebecca Makkai’s advanced workshop. Congratulations!
We had hundreds of applicants from all over the world, so we hope this news lifts the spirits. 

After the months of pandemic, yes! My spirits flew.

Turns out she uses a distinct format. We were to write the usual page about the pieces we read and what was working, but we were choose a single word that encompassed a discussion point. Surprisingly, many of the single words pointed to the same thing. For instance I got 3 notes on structure and 2 on pacing. It helped focus our conversation and especially useful to the writer, or at least to me.

I’m still absorbing the week’s information. I may from time to time insert nuggets into this blog. For now, there’s this: Novelists make implications for characters, not for readers.

I’ll close with a recommendation of her last novel, Great Believers. It tells of art and love in the midst of the AIDs epidemic in Chicago. It was personal to me because of the many ballet dancers lost to that disease. I know some of the dead named on that famous quilt. That said, the novel is moving no matter your circumstances. Give it a try.

Liminal Inspiration

One of my favorite writing books is From Where You Dream, by Robert Olen Butler. He lays out a process for creating a novel that makes sense to me. It involves getting into a blank, what I would call a liminal state, and imagining your book scene by scene, each scene noted on an index card. He wants you to get at the yearning core of a character and their actions.

Liminal: being an intermediate state, phase, or condition. Sometimes entire days seem to be liminal, rushing between one task and the next! But I want to write about the moment when I begin to wake up. At that point, I still have a slight grasp on my dream, but if I move or turn over, that memory disappears. So I stay still. Most mornings I ignore the simmering dream and think about writing problems. Why is that scene incomplete? Does she need to feel more? What impulse led her to say that?

When I first began this work, I would discover a clue to a scene or an enlargement to a character only to have it disappear like my dream memories the moment I got out of bed. So I have learned to make a mental index card: one or two words that will recall the fix. Yesterday my three “clues” were…here I had to go look at where I’d jotted them down…

  • Late Rage
  • Medieval Peasant (for a piece of creative non-fiction
  • Hints

I find it interesting when a “fix” arrives in the morning, I get a little jolt of breathlessness, my body’s stamp of approval.

In any case, I recommend Mr. Butler’s book.

A Return

I let this blog lapse, last posting late in 2019. My excuse? We were moving to Denver. For me, a wrenching decision: I would be leaving two wonderful critique groups and a vibrant writing community.

Home

Happily, Denver had places I was eager to explore — a well-known bookstore, which oddly enough was housed in the old Bonfils theater where I began performing, and Lighthouse Writers Workshop. I would make contacts, take workshops, introduce myself. Time for a new adventure.

We did get a puppy, happy distraction…

We moved in March, 2020...

The pandemic put an end to my plans. No meeting new neighbors. No browsing physical books. I took a couple of workshops on-line, and they left me smarter, but lacked the interesting exchanges during break and parking lot conversations that I craved. The the election loomed, followed by its aftermath, and I was consumed by news. My own writing went dead, my imagination silent. I focused outwards.

January 2021, time to get myself back on track. Fortuitously (love that word), the offer of a generative class came by email, taught by a friend from Sewanee. I signed up and by 8AM on Sunday mornings, was Zoom-ready (hair combed at least). Those hour and a half sessions were exactly what I needed. I started writing seriously again, began submitting regularly, worked on my novel. I’m grateful to Cleaver Magazine and Andrea Caswell for getting my engine running; you can check them out here.

I couldn’t leave without a picture of one of the main draws of Denver for me – mountains.
This was our view on a recent (very rare) trip to a store:

Sewanee Bon Mots

Sewanee Writers’ Conference held richness in every reading, panel, or workshop. There I was, pen over notebook, trying to follow and absorb entire concepts while writing down bits that particularly spoke to me. You should see my handwriting!

Sometimes when I reread these notes, I have no idea what I meant. Take the Pekinese Story. I wrote to Margot PekineseLiversey, who’s story it was and she kindly replied: “The Pekinese story came up in the context of reading and of how we all read individually and out of our own histories. I had a beloved Pekinese as a child and now, more than 40 years later, any mention of a Pekinese still evokes Rollo. To my husband, however, a Pekinese is simply an annoying yappy dog. As writers, I’d suggest, we’re always trying to include both readers who love Pekineses and those who don’t.”

Below are some of the notes I could read and which I find instructive, if difficult to execute…

  • You can make a truth out of anything, you just have to make the reader feel.
  • Conflict without stakes equals spectacle.
  • Metaphor has to work on a literal level. Use it first in an uncharged context. Then when it recurs, it will register to the reader and become charged.
  • A short story must not do only one thing at a time. It has to work like two hands on the piano.
  • A character can have vile opinions, but not a book.
  • For readers, anticipation is the current drug of choice.

I will be pondering these for a while. Leaving you with a smile, until next week.

blind squirrel2