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Picturing a World

Artists in the Archive

Website alert: Artists in the Archive celebrates the work of artists who have been given fellowships to incorporate materials at the American Antiquarian Society into their creative work. The Society, located in Worcester, Massachusetts, holds the world's largest collection of materials printed in America between 1640 and 1876. Since 1995, it has offered fellowships to creative and performing artists to explore these resources and incorporate what they find into new works. The results have included, not only historical fiction like The Age of Phillis, but book art by Stephanie Wolff, comics by R. Sikoryak, music by Lisa Bielawa, and much, much more. The sample at this retrospective website alone will set your mind dancing off in new directions.

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A man goes into a boarding house … The lead-in to a joke? a short story idea? Research led me to a Tennessee landlady in 1850 and her boarders: a lawyer, a doctor, a music teacher, a minister with his wife and child, and a daguerreotypist. A daguerreotypist! Marvelous! There were nineteen daguerreotypists in the whole state at the time. I can't learn any more about mine, but a search turned up this image at the Getty, which certainly could supply a character and a flavor to—no, not a joke (not with that intense stare). Maybe a ghost story? How about an historical murder mystery?

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Trees, ramparts, maps

A terrific post, Mapping the 16th century garden, at The Gardens Trust's blog, pointed out the trees on the 1588 map of Luca in Braun and Hogenberg's Civitates Orbis Terrarum. Trees planted along the ramparts of a walled city—like a boulevard! Characters could stroll in peacetime. Could soldiers take cover during hand-to-hand fighting if the wall were overtopped by an invading army? For historical fiction, further investigation is called for; for fantasy, imagination. Meanwhile, a little moment of research rapture.

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Emma Bell Miles

In an unpublished diary from 1901, written by a graduating senior of Chattanooga (Tenn.) High School, a girl named Dorothy records a week spent on Walden's Ridge visiting well-to-do friends whose families had summer homes above the heat of the city. A search for illustrative images led me to this atmospheric watercolor of Lookout Mountain (on the other side of the valley, but, hey!). Also to the artist, Emma Bell Miles. An educated woman who had studied art a writer, a poet, and a naturalist, she married a laborer on Walden's Ridge. Their life was hard. For anyone seeking to write historical fiction that encompasses the whole society of Walden's Ridge, her diary and her work are invaluable. And she's a reminder to researchers: Follow those tangents! They may lead to great discoveries.

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As promised, now that I have finished reading Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet, here are some reactions. First three quickies: Is it a convincing exercise in historical imagination? No. Is it convincing as fiction? Yes. Could it stand on its own as a story for a reader who knew nothing about William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway? Hmm.

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