dianne salerni author
dianne salerni author

I’ve been practicing all week for this weekend’s reading at Dorian’s Parlor. Actually, you could say I started practicing last weekend, when my husband and I learned how to dress me up in my costume. Yes, it took two of us. All those movies you’ve seen where a servant or a sister has to lace up the heroine’s corset while she hangs on to the bed post? Completely accurate! The part you don’t usually see in the movies is the husband using Google to figure out how to lace up the corset in the first place.

After I got into the corset and skirt, I had to get into the car – not that easy a task when your body doesn’t bend normally, and thank heavens I wasn’t driving! Bob drove me to my mother’s, because she claimed she’d put together the perfect hat to go with my outfit. And wow, she was right!

Do you want to see a picture?

Well, sorry. You’re going to have to wait for the unveiling at the steampunk ball. I’ll probably post on Twitter and Facebook during the event – and then blog about it on Monday. (Oh, wait a minute. I’ll have no place to keep my Droid, I just realized. Maybe Bob will hold it for me?)

I’ve also been practicing my reading. I decided to focus on Maggie Fox’s beaux, Philadelphia native, Dr. Elisha Kent Kane. After all, he’s buried just a couple miles away from where we’ll be. I only have ten minutes, which is perfect for reading the story of how he fell through the ice with his sled dogs. Hopefully, the audience will appreciate that most of the story is told in his own words (although my editors made me trim him down – they found him too wordy, LOL!).

Speaking of Dr. Kane, my husband will be in costume, too, and he asked the costumers to get him something as close to Kane’s naval uniform as possible. I didn’t get to see the fitting, so the whole ensemble will be a surprise to me tomorrow.

I can hardly wait, although I am a little nervous. I keep envisioning the Pirates of the Caribbean movie where Elizabeth can’t breathe in her corset and falls off the parapet …

I’ve written about Maggie Fox on this blog, and I’ve written about Kate. But I haven’t said much about the third Fox sister – the one variously described by reviewers as controlling, domineering, mercenary, manipulative, and overbearing: Leah Fox Fish Brown Underhill.

Leah was the oldest of the Fox siblings. She grew up in poverty, and her father was absent through most of her childhood. She married Bowman Fish at the age of fourteen, had one daughter (Lizzie), and was subsequently abandoned by her husband. She married Calvin Brown under tearful circumstances, although it didn’t turn out the way you might think. Her third husband, Daniel Underhill, was a wealthy man who gave Leah the life of comfort she’d always dreamed of.

Leah was the mastermind behind the rise of spiritualism. She managed her sisters’ careers and their money. In Maggie Fox’s own words (from her 1888 confession): Katie and I were led around like lambs. Mrs. Underhill gave exhibitions. We had crowds coming to see us and she made as much as a hundred to a hundred and fifty dollars a night. She pocketed this. Of course, by the time Maggie made this statement, she’d had a falling out with Leah and was taking her revenge.

On the surface, history paints Leah as all of those adjectives I listed above, and yet common sense suggests that she would not have been very successful at promoting her sisters, her cause, and herself if she was not also personable. People liked Leah and trusted her, and no matter how bitterly Maggie complained about her later, it cannot be denied that Maggie depended on her sister’s guidance for many years. It was Maggie’s romance with Elisha Kane that originally drove a wedge between them. Leah did not believe that Kane’s family would ever accept Maggie – and Leah had a realistic and almost prophetic grasp of the matter.

In We Hear the Dead, I tried to portray Leah as more than a greedy manipulator, and it seems as if some readers did see the good in her. A recent review commented that, as eldest sibling, Leah employed a tough love philosophy while trying to take care of everyone in her family. I also received the following comment about Leah in an email from a reader: I admired her for her strength, ability to persevere in all situations, ability to care for her family as a woman of that time, and the way she was a mother figure where her mother was lacking.

Fellow writers may understand when I say that, while I was writing about Leah, I sometimes could hear her voice in the back of my head – explaining her behavior, defending actions that looked, on the surface, to be harsh. History has not necessarily remembered her kindly, but I think that the real Leah was probably doing the best she could … for herself, yes, but also for her sisters.

Last week, I received an unexpected message on Facebook from a descendant of the Fox sisters! This lady, who lives in a neighboring county of PA (and whom I hope to meet up with this summer) is a great-great-(great?)-grandniece of Maggie and Kate Fox.

This is really exciting – and also kind of nerve-wracking. Since my characters are real, historical people, I knew (theoretically) that there might be real, living descendants who could encounter my book.

And read it.

One of the first things I did when I exchanged messages with this very nice lady was apologize, because her direct ancestor, Elizabeth Fox doesn’t appear in the book at all. Maggie and Kate had four older siblings, but since two of them had no direct role in the spiritualism business, I ended up cutting all mention of them in order to streamline the story and reduce the word count. In We Hear the Dead, there are only 4 Fox children: Maggie, Kate, David, and Leah. The other sisters, Elizabeth and Maria, were left out altogether.

We Hear the Dead is fictional, after all. I collapsed the timeline of events and sometimes changed their order. I took the bare facts of these people’s lives and created full-blown fictional characters out of them. A biographer can simply state what happens to their subject. A novelist must provide personality and motivation. That’s all fine and dandy until I remember I’m writing about somebody’s great-great-grandmother.

There are descendants of the Kane family living too, and I wonder what will happen when/if they stumble on my book. Maggie did NOT have a good relationship with Elisha Kane’s family. His brother Robert plays an important and unpleasant role in We Hear the Dead, putting obstacles in the path of their relationship. Maggie calls Robert “detestable” and “vile.” When she hears he has fathered a child, her reaction is: Robert Kane had produced offspring? What a repugnant idea!

Yeah, wait until somebody emails me and says, “Excuse me, but that was my great-great-granddaddy.” Gulp!

I guess that’s all part of being a historical novelist.

And yet, it feels strange. Writers feel possessive toward their characters. It’s a little unnerving to realize that “my characters” actually belong in someone else’s family tree.

On my class field trip today (in between rainstorms, hikes through the swamp, and begging kids to quiet down on the bus), I chatted with some of my parent chaperones about teenage TV stars – past and present. It seemed to us that a lot of popular shows these days, especially the ones produced by Disney, are entirely focused on becoming a teenage somebody: Hannah Montana, iCarly, Victorious, True Jackson, Sonny With a Chance, The Jonas Brothers … I could go on and on. And, thanks to our media driven society, our kids know everything about these celebrities – good and bad. They know when their Hollywood idols drink, break up with their boy/girlfriend, get arrested, or take a few embarrassing pictures.

Back in the day, we had our own teenage stars – and they had just as many problems, although they were better hidden by the Hollywood set. (Until the stars grew up and wrote their memoirs.) Danny Partridge was abused at home; and the Brady kids were apparently using drugs and having sex with each other. (Ick!) Hollywood life has always been hard on young actors – Judy Garland was handed amphetamines by her studio to keep her energy high and her weight down. Go back even further – into the nineteenth century – and you will find that the teenage Fox sisters were exposed to the same troubling influences. Both Maggie and Kate were plied with alcohol at a young age, and Kate’s mother regularly dosed her with morphine-laced medicine to combat stress-induced migraines.

A wise adult might wish anything but stardom for their own children, based on the numerous cases of child and teenage actors and singers who develop serious, life-long problems thanks to their fame. And yet – let’s face it – we’ve always been attracted to them. Take good old Shaun Cassidy up there. Yes, I pasted his face all over my bedroom door when I was a youngster. Remember DiDoRonRon? Remember the Hardy Boys?

In honor of teenage celebrities throughout history – and especially my gals Maggie and Kate Fox – I’m giving away a We Hear the Dead T-shirt. (Maybe two, if I get over 10 responses …) All you have to do to enter is be a member of the blog and leave a comment on this post before Friday, June 18. (Coincidentally, that will also celebrate my last day of school!)

Tell us which teenage star you crushed on!

Today’s blogpost stems from two Twitter Chats I attended recently. In last week’s YAlitchat, writers and educators were discussing how teachers influence what teens read. The subject of movies from YA books came up, causing the usual waterfall of tweets exclaiming, “Oh, my students were so disappointed in the movie!” and “I tell my students the book is always better than the movie!”

Usually, I agree with that. But lately, I get a sinking feeling in my stomach whenever I hear someone say it.

Because I wrote a screenplay. Adapted from my book.

And I have a different perspective now, because I know just how hard it is! Movies are a different media than books – you can’t slap a book into Final Draft and call it a screenplay. Even if you want to use voice-over narration for most of the film – and unless we’re talking about A Christmas Story, that’s probably a bad move – there are some things that just don’t translate from book to screen. And unless you’re talking about a very short book, you probably aren’t going to fit all the events into a two hour movie anyway. Thus – the adaptation.

Later that same week, Scriptchat was discussing Plot vs. Story. Basically, plot is what happens in the movie. Story is why we care – why we connect with characters, root for them, cry for them, and applaud at the end. When it comes to a book adaptation, I think viewers have to accept that the plot of the book may be changed to fit the screen, but the story should remain the same.

When I first read about the real, true Fox sisters, it was their story that drew me in. Two adolescent girls pull off a hoax that catapults them into fame. One of them is conflicted by guilt, but is persuaded into participating for the good of her family. Fame is the reason she meets the love of her life, but it also might be the reason she loses him. In We Hear the Dead, I adapted the real events of Maggie Fox’s life to fit the plotline of a novel. In the screenplay, I adapted them again – to play well in a movie. There are some differences, yes, but I believe both versions are faithful to Maggie’s story. There are even some true events that made it into the screenplay that didn’t fit in the novel. Go figure.

So, the next time you go to the movies to see your favorite book – expect the changes. Think kindly of the screenwriter, and judge the movie not on how closely it adheres to the plot of the book, but on how well it retells the story.

The next entry in my series of intriguing Pennsylvania graves (caged graves, the ticking tomb, multiple graves for Anthony Wayne) is a salute to Dr. Elisha Kane, the romantic hero of my novel, We Hear the Dead.

Located in Laurel Hill Cemetery, in the middle of Philadelphia, this mausoleum is the resting place of the most beloved adventurer of the mid-19th century, as well as a few of his relatives. I made a pilgrimage to see it when I reached the conclusion of my first draft.

When I say the middle of Philadelphia, I mean right smack in the middle of a tough neighborhood. When my husband and I wandered into the cemetery office, we were greeted by a girl behind a bullet proof window. She nodded knowledgably when we explained that we were there to see Kane’s grave, and circled the location on a map, which she slid through a crack in the glass. “You can’t get to the tomb,” she said. “You’ll have to look through the fence.” We stared at her in disbelief, disappointed and rather confused. “It’s for your own safety,” she explained. “You’ll see.”

We followed the map through the cemetery and eventually reached a tall, chain-link fence. Walking along the length of it, still confused, we eventually spotted the Kane tomb — and yes, we could see the girl’s point. The dark stone monument is built into the side of a steep hill and partly obscured by grass covering the entire roof. A narrow stone path leads down to the entrance, but one false step and a visitor could tumble headlong down the rocky incline and onto East River Drive. A couple of bounces and – assuming he wasn’t hit by a speeding car – the unlucky visitor might roll off the highway, plummet down another few hundred feet, and plunge into the Schuykill River. It’s a precarious location for a mausoleum to say the least, although it commands a stunning view.

I had come out of curiosity and to pay my respects, but once I’d seen the tomb’s location, I knew I would have to re-write one of the scenes in my book to better match reality. According to historical record, Elisha Kane took Maggie Fox to visit his family mausoleum as part of a romantic carriage ride during their courtship. Supposedly, he pointed out the tomb as his future resting place and informed her that the future Mrs. Kane would rest there as well. He was, of course, broadly hinting she was under consideration for that choice slab of granite!

A romantic date in a graveyard. What a guy! All right, blog readers, here’s a question for you – have you ever had a romantic interlude in a cemetery? Or, alternatively, have you ever been on a date to a place stranger than this?

Astute blog readers might notice that the picture above does not look as if it were taken through a fence. I’m not going to reveal how that was done, but I will mention that if you are serious about keeping people on one side of a fence, you should spring for a padlock instead of just looping a loose chain around the bars of the gate.