Thanksgiving Advent Calendar Wrapup

Well, that worked, I think. Twenty four entries and about 20,000 words written, on things I was thankful for, both serious and not-so-serious. The point of writing it, as I noted in the beginning, was to focus on the holiday of Thanksgiving itself, rather than see it as the opening bell to a five week holiday season. Thanksgiving deserves to be more than the opening band for Christmas, which is essentially what it’s been relegated to at this point.

It also reinforced a point that I already knew but which was worth considering daily on a conscious basis, which is that there is a lot in my life I have to be thankful for. The list of twenty four things in the Thanksgiving Advent Calendar is not exhaustive — there are many other people and things I could have put in there, including other family members, specific friends and associates, pets and so on. It wasn’t meant to be a definitive accounting. The act of taking a moment each day to be thankful, and to communicate that thankfulness.

Writing it was a challenge in a couple of ways. The first was that generally speaking I didn’t plan in advance what I was going to write each day: I sat down with a blank screen and thought of something at the time. This is why many of the calendar entries were related to what I was doing each day — travel and fans being prime examples. I thought about writing things down but then I figured that if I couldn’t on a daily basis decide on something I was thankful for, then that said something in itself. Fortunately coming up with something on a daily basis was not difficult.

In another thread on the site, I was reminded that originally the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States had a religious basis, so for an agnostic like me, what or who was it to whom I was giving my thanks? The answer is that in most cases I’m giving thanks to those most direct to my thanks — so when I was thankful for friends, those to whom I was thankful were my friends themselves; when I was thankful for hand sanitizer, the thanks went to those who invent it and make it, and so on. In the more existential cases I suppose you could say my thanks went to the universe at large, which arranged itself very nicely for me, even if there was no intent on its part to do that. In cases like that, being thankful is as much about being mindful of one’s good fortune as anything else.

Several of you reading took the time, in comments and e-mails, to thank me for writing the Thanksgiving Advent Calendar; my answer is, of course, that you are most welcome. I’m glad you got something out of it. I don’t think it’s something I’ll do every year — it was a fair amount of writing, and one of the reasons I could do it is that I’m waiting on a contract before I start writing my next major project — but doing it this year was fun and useful to me in its own right. I hope it inspired each of you to think of the things you are thankful for as well. If it did, then it did what it was supposed to.

The Big Idea: Delia Sherman

When it comes to their projects, authors, like anyone, can bite off a little more than they can chew. The question is: What do they do then? This was the quandary that Delia Sherman found herself confronted with while writing The Freedom Maze, set as it was in antebellum Louisiana. As the book received both a starred review from Kirkus Reviews and a place on its list of the Best Children’s Books of 2011, Sherman may have found a way to a solution. Here she is to discuss the issue and how she resolved it.


Eighteen years ago, I was stuck.  I was living in a house in rural Maine, where my then-partner was teaching college, trying to write a historical novel that just kept getting longer and more complicated.  My nearest neighbors were a mile away, and there was a goose whose chief ambition in life seemed to be to keep me from picking up my mail.

So when I heard that there was a children’s book writing group starting at the college, I dropped the long, complicated historical like a hot brick and started a children’s book.

The maze came first.  One night, I dreamed I was sitting in the window seat of my house back home in Boston, reading a wonderful story.  Out the window was a formal garden with rosebushes and a boxwood maze beyond it, much more romantic than my own suburban lawn, and the story I was reading was all about that maze.  It was fascinating and exciting and I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to find out what happened next.

Needless to say, I couldn’t remember a word of the story when I woke up.

That garden and maze haunted me, though. I wanted to know where they were and who might inhabit them.

The who was easy.  I’d been wanting to write something about a girl who wasn’t perky, who wasn’t resourceful, who wasn’t particularly outgoing, who was shy and reserved and not very worldly.  I’d been a girl like that, and I couldn’t be the only one in the world.  Surely the others would like to read a book where they got to have adventures, too.

The where was easy, too. My dream maze and garden had a Louisiana feel.  My parents both came from the South. I’d spent time in Louisiana, as a child and as an adult, visiting Mama’s relatives.

As for the plot, I’d always liked books where the child got sent away to the country and had magical adventures.  So that’s what I set out to do.

The first few chapters flew out of me like butterflies.  I loved writing about Sophie and her mother, with my fellow writing groupers egging me on with questions about their relationship and how Sophie felt about her father and how her mother got along with Grandmama.  I still didn’t have, you know, an actual plot, but I was enjoying myself.

And then the Creature showed up.

The Creature was pure inspiration.  I was writing along, and there it was, piebald, toothless, plump, and sassy, a Southern descendent of E. Nesbit’s Psammead and Edward Eager’s Natterjack.  I described it, I wrote some dialogue, I had it convey Sophie into the past.  And then I embarked happily on the research, trusting in history (as I often do) to give me a plot.

History did not disappoint.  In antebellum Louisiana, I learned, the child of an enslaved mother was a slave, no matter who its father was and no matter what color its skin or hair or eyes. I came across this tidbit of historical information at about the same time the whole “descendents of Thomas Jefferson and his enslaved mistress, Sally Hemminge” controversy was coming to light, and I couldn’t help but wonder just how pale some of those slave children had been.

Armed with a potentially dramatic situation, I plunged in (as I often do), trusting to my characters to give me the rest of the story.  About six chapters in, I got stuck again.  The plot went nowhere, Sophie’s character would not arc, the information available on antebellum Louisiana was too much Big House and not enough slave quarters. I went back to the long, complicated historical, (The Porcelain Dove) finished it, and saw it through publication.  I returned to The Freedom Maze, eked out a first draft, re-wrote it twice–to little avail—and concluded that I hadn’t done enough research on setting and society.

I went down to Louisiana and dug around in the collections of Loyola University and the Rural Life Museum at LSU, where I found advertisements for escaped slaves in The Planter that included the words “Could pass as white.”  With my new partner, the intrepid Ellen Kushner, I examined the kitchens and parlors and boudoirs of Creole and American plantations.  I read books on the history of men and women and children, free and enslaved, as well as on architecture, horticulture, fashion, and the history of sugar manufacture.

I read about how plantations were run and how slaves lived and the lengths men and women who believed themselves to be good Christians and honorable people went to, trying to justify owning other men and women. I talked to practitioners of Voudon from New Orleans, New Jersey, Washington State, Boston, and New York.

I worked what I’d learned into my book, filled some plot holes, but still the book wasn’t working.  It seemed like everywhere I fixed it, something else would break.  The book was getting worse, not better.

Eventually, I realized that I was in over my head.  Like Sophie, I had followed the Creature into difficult territory, uncomfortable territory, maybe even dangerous territory.  I was writing about race and class and history.

I don’t like controversy or confrontation.  In my writing, as in my life, I try to be as honest and as moral as I know how, and I don’t want to hurt or offend anybody.  I am a WASP, raised primarily in New York City.  By any measure of identity, background, or temperament, I am absolutely the last person on earth to tell the story of a white girl on a Louisiana plantation passing—however unwillingly—for black.

Yet that’s the story I was telling.

Telling it was clearly important to me.  I spent eighteen years doing it, on and off. So I asked a bunch of smart black writers with better things to do to vet my manuscript for Well-Meaning Cluelessness, Unconscious Privilege, and Magical Negroes.  With the help of their generous responses, I confronted the toxic residue of being the child of basically well-meaning Southerners, who believed that Others (by which they meant Jews and Catholics as well as people of color) should have full and equal rights under the law, but preferred those rights to be exercised somewhere out of sight.  And I thought hard about class and privilege and that aspect of human nature that sometimes causes those with very little power to abuse what they do have.

And then I had to put everything I’d learned in the back of my mind and go back and tell the story of a particular, unique individual and her interactions with the other particular, unique individuals in a world in which the details of daily life are almost unimaginable in this age of electronic appliances and instant communication.  That was a story I could tell.

How well I succeeded is for others to judge.

I’m really glad I did it, though.


The Freedom Maze: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Read the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

Two Black Friday Notes (and One Cyber Monday Preview)

They are:

1. Remember that you may order my books from Jay and Mary’s Book Center, my local independent bookstore, and I will sign them and send them to you for the holidays. All the details are here.

2. Canadians, remember that Bakka Phoenix books has signed books of mine for sale. But hurry because apparently they are blowing through their stock very quickly.

3. The folks at Chicon 7, next year’s Worldcon, wish me to inform you that next Monday (which is Cyber Monday, the day all the e-stores do their big deals), they will be offering a $15 discount to attending memberships and $30 discount to family memberships bought through the website. So that’s something to look forward to. I’ll remind you again on Monday.

Also, if you’re out there in the Black Friday shopping scrum today, please be careful, there are a lot of idiots out there. Try to avoid them, and please please please don’t be one. Thank you.