Tag Archives: Baltimore

Storytelling: Haves vs Have-Nots

Years ago, I read an article about the now-defunct soap opera Another World. I was a fan at the time. I’m unashamed to admit I enjoy serial storytelling, and soap operas rule in that genre, keeping plot lines and characters alive (sometimes even after they’re supposedly dead!) for years, even decades. I’ve even written a book, a romantic comedy, about a soap head writer (My Own Personal Soap Opera).

Marriage_of_Mac_and_Rachel_Another_World_1975

Rachel and Mac get married on “Another World”

In the article, an Another World head writer or producer talked about the core of the soap’s storytelling. Haves vs. have-nots provided the foundation for most if not all their tales. One of the soap’s biggest stories involved the character of Rachel Davis (played by Victoria Wyndham), daughter of single-mother Ada, who villainously connives to seduce and try to marry one rich fellow after another, ultimately landing on wealthy Mac Cory (played by Douglass Watson), with whom she finds happiness (and, of course, sadness as they break up, make up and…on and on).

That story thread, haves vs. have-nots, provides a foundation for some of my own tales in one way or another. My stories aren’t always about rich vs. poor, but they almost always carry an element of upper-class vs. middle or working class, maybe because I felt those distinctions myself over the years as the daughter of two wonderful parents who worked hard all their lives (in white collar jobs) but made sure their two children went to college. I even went to a music conservatory.

Talk about class tensions. In that highly competitive atmosphere, the “haves” were those with musical pedigrees, maybe parents who played in orchestras or maybe just a lifetime immersion in classical music. Everything I knew about classical music came from those conservatory teachers at the time. In that sense, I was a “have not,” acutely aware of my lack of standing, afraid I’d trip up and mispronounce a composer’s name or, as I did one day, bring into a class a ridiculously sentimentalized arrangement of an art song, not realizing how this selection might reveal what a cultural neanderthal I really was. Screen Shot 2019-04-03 at 11.10.27 AM

The conservatory was in Baltimore, my home town, which for many years was very socially stratified, with various groups living in specific regions of the town–old money in Roland Park and Guilford, ethnic whites in Highlandtown, Jewish people on the west side, steel workers in the suburbs of Dundalk, and African-Americans in the inner city.

This experience of class lines, of feeling like a “have not,” even if my family wasn’t poor, undergirds the first adult mystery I ever wrote, Death Is the Cool Night. In this novel, a troubled young conductor, Gregory, can’t remember his actions on the night his nemesis is murdered. As police investigate the crime, he wonders if he did it…or if the real killer is a charming young woman, Laura, from an upper class family, he’s falling in love with.

Throughout the story, Gregory feels his sense of being a “have not” as acutely as I did as a student at Peabody Conservatory, where the book is set.

For a few years, I tried, through literary agents, to sell this book to traditional publishers. It received rejection letters that could have read as back-cover blurbs, but no one wanted to buy. World War II-era books were not popular back then, and its time period worked against me.

So I self-published it, and even managed to snag a wonderful review from a a major trade journal that said, in part:

“Blending operatic drama, sumptuous description, and noir, Sternberg gracefully puzzles out her tormented characters’ actions and motivations…” Publishers Weekly

If you’re reading this on or around the post’s publication date, check it out here for a free read. If you miss the free days, you can still give it a try!

Libby Sternberg

 

 

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Review: SECOND CHANCE LOVE by Shannon Farrington

NOTE (August 3, 2015): I wrote this review months ago before the book mentioned was released. It’s now available! So, I’ve inserted a link to its Amazon page and updated the cover photo.

As I’ve noted on this blog, I have the privilege of being a copy editor for a major romance publisher, Harlequin. It allows me to read a wide sampling of books, everything from steamy suspense to sweet inspirationals through complex coming-of-age, mystery, and family tales. Anyone who thinks romance is one-size-fits-all storytelling should sit at my computer for a few weeks to have the lie put to that generalization. Romance, or more widely, women’s fiction, is enormously varied. I’ve edited some absolutely wonderful novels by talented authors over the past few years that deserve attention. (And don’t get me started on how many of these books get ignored by mainstream, especially literary, publications whose editors might curl their lips or roll their eyes when they see the imprint of the world’s most well-known romance publisher on a book.)

Recently, I edited an inspirational historical due out later this year. I don’t usually blog about a book that’s not yet released, but I asked the editor if I could do so with this one. So, here goes:

When Shannon Farrington’s Second Chance Love hits the shelves this summer, buy a copy. Buy one if you’ve never read an inspirational in your life. Buy one if you don’t usually read historicals. The reason I make this recommendation: Ms. Farrington’s book is about more than faith, about more than a love story, even about more than the historical period in which it’s set–the Civil War. It contains, amidst the lovsecondchancelovee story and the historical detail, a lesson that we all should absorb today: Loving your neighbor means…loving your neighbor, not hating those who don’t feel the same way as you do.

First, don’t be put off by the fact that this is an inspirational novel (for those outside the publishing world, inspirational novels are stories with no sex or cursing, but do contain some faith elements; back in the day, these novels would have been mainstream–think Jane Eyre, which is drenched in faith messages). The story is a universal one about love both in the discrete sense (the love between a man and a woman) and in the general sense (those pesky neighbors).

The tale in a nutshell: In 1864 Baltimore, Elizabeth, the heroine, mourns the death of her fiance, a Union soldier felled not by battle but disease, specifically pneumonia. Adding to her grief is the knowledge that she could have married him before his death if not for his brother David’s advice to delay until the war was over. David, it turns out, had an ulterior motive for that counsel–he’s in love with Elizabeth. But now he’s overwhelmed with guilt, knowing his feelings might have denied his brother and Elizabeth at least some short happiness together. To make up for this mistake, he takes on the responsibility of aiding her family, taking a job at a local newspaper to be near them. He learns that Elizabeth is an excellent sketch artist and gets his editor to use her talents for the paper. As she accompanies him on assignments, the two form a close friendship that eventually blossoms into true love.

About those newspaper assignments: David covers the movement to ban slavery in Maryland. Many people might not realize that the Emancipation Proclamation did not outlaw slavery in Union states, of which Maryland was one. So, it was up to the local citizenry to handle that task. Maryland did so by rewriting its constitution, which required calling a constitutional convention, drafting a new document, and then sending it back to the people for a vote.

Ms. Farrington handles all this detail seamlessly. You never feel you’re being treated to an “info dump,” where the author bestows all the hard work of her research on you, necessary or not. She includes enough history to keep the plot moving, and enough to educate you about a difficult period, but never so much that you feel pulled out of the story for a history lesson.

She also respects the time and place. I’ve written before about historical novelists who make faulty assumptions. Ms. Farrington does not fall into those traps. As a Baltimore native, I knew, for example, that the main railroad station is on Charles Street. But in Civil War days, that station had not yet been built.
A lesser author might have assumed it was the main train station back in the day because it is now. Not Ms. Farrington. She knew what stations to place her characters in, even what buildings now-well-known institutions occupied in the 1860s (different from those they occupy today). She respected the time period.

But here’s where her historical accuracy contained lessons for today–it’s easy, looking in our rearview mirror, to see how abhorrent slavery was and to wonder how any civilized people, especially those in a “northern” state (yes, Maryland was a border state, but Baltimore is more northern than southern), could find anything at all to debate about outlawing this “peculiar institution,” especially after their president had emancipated slaves elsewhere. Ms. Farrington shows as well as tells the story of the challenges of the debate in Maryland. Some abolitionists, the “Unconditionals,” wanted to go beyond outlawing slavery, imposing other requirements on their adversaries, such as taking a loyalty oath before voting. These measures rankled those whose minds were troubled by slavery but weren’t yet in the abolitionist camp.

Not for one second is Ms. Farrington sympathetic to a pro-slavery view. But she does show how outlawing slavery in Maryland was a closer vote than it needed to be, some of which was due to unsavory efforts of  “Unconditionals.”

And therein, for me at least, lies the great moral of this story, one that I’ve shared with friends and policy advocates over the years: if you want to move an issue forward, you have to love it and those it benefits more than you hate its opponents.

Three cheers to Shannon Farrington for wisely presenting this view in a beautiful story. Second Chance Love.

 

 

 

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