Cool Tool to Organize your Writing

I’m the girl who would rather go into an Office Max or The Container Store than the shoe department at Nordstroms. I love any little doo-dads that might make my life a little easier. I like to be organized; I’m not a neat freak, just organized.

This past week, I discovered the mother of all organizational tools on the net. It works with ANY project I can possibly come up with. It’s called Trello and happily, it’s totally free. I don’t get anything for writing this rave review. I just thought I’d share its coolness. It’s designed for working on projects with teams in a business setting. I, however, have decided it is also suited to writing a novel!

Basically, you can set up giant organizational bulletin boards. Each board has any number of lists. Then, each list is made up of cards. I created a board on my novel in progress. One of my lists was be “Characters.” Then, I have a card for each character in the story. The cool thing is that I can drag the cards and lists all over the place and easily re-arrange and visually see it. If you are a visual, big-picture person like me, this is helpful.

Check this out! It is not complete, but enough for me to see that this will work well!

 The cool part is that when you click on a card if “flips” over and you can add ALL KINDS of information to the back of it which means you can store all the information all in one place.  For my current WIP, I have character files in word documents, plot charts in some novel writing software I got, research tid-bits in an excel spreadsheet, research links online, and actual paper notes and sticky notes stuck all over the place. There is information everywhere, online and off.

I’m not sure if I’ll do it all for this novel since I’m about four scenes from being totally done with draft one, but my next ones will definitely be organized with Trello boards. Check it out. I’d like to hear if any writers out there figure out any other cool ways to use it.

The Hero Cycle #3 – The Return

I’ve reached the last stage of the hero cycle in this series.  It is known as “The Return.” This is where all the people who watched the potential hero answer his call and embark on his journey welcome him home with open arms and shower him with gifts.  Really. That’s what this stage is all about.

I wrote about the initial stages here and here. The whole idea of the hero cycle is a helpful pattern to know if you are writing any kind of story with a journey or transformation of the main character in that it can help you figure out what comes next.

The final stage, the Return, is made up of three steps: the atonement, the return, and gifts.  The atonement is the most difficult to understand, but it helps if you break the word up into its parts, as in at-one-ment.  Often, the hero goes through the tranformation and becomes a hero, but they are a reluctant hero. They don’t really like this new role and are not comfortable in it. The atonement is where they literally become “at one” with the idea of being a hero. They accept their new role and are finally ready to return to their known world. It completes their transformation into a hero.

Throughout the entire quest, the hero has accepted the call, overcome all obstacles, and now, they are finally ready to live the life that awaits them as a hero.  This doesn’t have to be a life of fame or as a world leader. It could be that the hero has just overcome a significant challenge which changes their status in some way within their family or community, and they’re finally accepting of that change.

Harry Potter provides a great example of this.  He goes through the initial stages of the hero cycle repeatedly, but he doesn’t really reach the atonement stage until the later books of the series when he accepts who and what he is.  This actually allows him to accept the ultimate call to overcome Voldemort for the last time. His final return is after the giant battle and Voldemort’s defeat.  It is at this point that he receives his gift which is, of course, the girl!

While many writers employ all the stages of the cycle in their longer works, it is possible to focus on just one stage of the cycle.  Examples of this would be stories like Kate Chopin’s classic “The Story of an Hour” which focuses on “The Call” or Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” which focuses on the obstacles and challenges.  Both of these are well known examples, but you can probably think of many works which employ either the entire cycle or focus on specific stages of it.

This series has been a very simplified version of the hero cycle, but it hopefully serves as an introduction.  Joseph Campbell wrote extensively about it, and any internet search will turn up numerous resources.   I’d love to hear how this applies to your own works in progress or if it helps you at all in your writing journey.

The Hero Cycle #2 – The Initiation

When we think of “initiations,” we often think of drinking rituals or hazing type situations which somehow solidify a group. In terms of the Hero Cycle, or Hero’s Journey, the “Initiation” is the second major stage. I wrote about the first stage, “The Departure,” here, if you’re interested. This archetypal pattern appears in contemporary fiction, mythology, and film, and as a writer, its useful to understand in terms of plot and character development.

“The Initiation” is also made up of three stages: Challenges and Temptations, The Abyss, and The Transformation. The first two of these stages are pretty self-explanatory. This is the part of the hero’s journey where he is tested to see if he’s really truly a hero.  The first, challenges and temptations, include all of the smaller disasters and problems the hero must overcome. They test him.

In contemporary fiction, we think of these as all the disasters that just make the hero’s situation worse. If you look at a story like The Hunger Games, Katniss follows the hero cycle. She hears the call when her sister’s name is drawn and steps through the threshold when she accepts the challenge in her sister’s place.  Her “helper” would be Haymitch, whom she doubts.  Her journey to the Capital, her struggle to deal with this new world, proving herself in front of the judges, and trying to figure out how to deal with Peeta make up her challenges and temptations.  Because she successfully navigates these, she enters the second stage of “The Initiation,” the abyss.

The abyss is the ultimate challenge. It is where the hero goes through a metaphorical death and re-birth. For Katniss, this is the arena where she must both survive and keep Peeta alive. Her worst moment is when Rue dies, and it is here where she decides that Peeta will not die either. She becomes a hero and begins to engage in the action instead of just trying to hide from it.

The final step of “The Initiation” is the transformation. This is when the hero and the world see the hero as just that, a hero. For Katniss, this begins to happen when she recieves the salve from her sponsors. People start to view her as a hero which helps her to view herself as such. Like Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker, she’s a bit of a reluctant hero, and she doesn’t like the whole idea of being a hero despite the fact that she has transformed into one.

Through this stage, she has undergone her Initiation and become a full-fledged hero. The hero’s final stage is the Return which I will write about next week.

The Hero Cycle #1 – The Departure

I still haven’t finished my novel’s first draft, but last week I dug myself out of a bit of a plot hole by relying on . . . my education. Shocking, I know, but it’s nice when those English degrees actually come in handy.

I was having a hard time transitioning from the all the rising action to the climax when I started to look at my main character’s entire journey. I realized that she had, in many ways, followed the traditional “hero cycle” or “hero’s journey” as discussed by Joseph Campbell in his seminal work A Hero with a Thousand Faces. I’m not sure how this escaped me to this point, but it had.

The literary theory behind the hero’s journey involves the basic premise that all literature contains “archetypes” or recurring patterns in myths and stories worldwide. The hero’s journey is one of these patterns, and by understanding the journey, we can then understand the story, the hero, and possibly ourselves or our world a little bit better.

So how does all this apply to writing? It applies because it works. As readers we instinctively understand the steps that a hero must take in order to, well, become a hero. If one of those steps is missing, somehow we know it, and as writers including all of the steps of the journey can not only deepen our work, but just make a well-developed story. It can fill in those missing holes.

Though it might sound complicated, the archetype of the hero cycle is not. Simba in The Lion’s King and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars are two heroes who follow it almost to the letter.  If you like the movie The Sandlot, Bennie follows a hero cycle when he dreams of Babe Ruth and faces “the Beast.”

The first stage of the Hero Cycle is called The Departure. It is made up of three stages: The Call, The Threshold, and The Helper.  If you research this, you will find a large variety of stages in the cycle and fancy names.  I’m writing about the eight major stages that make the most sense to me and that I teach to my high school students.

In the Call, the hero is somehow “called” to action. This might be through a dream, somebody literally crying out for help, or as in Luke Skywalker’s situation, his family is killed and he finds a robot with a weird princess message on it. Harry Potter gets called by a letter and then a giant on a flying motor cycle. It can be anything as long as it starts the hero on his journey and in some way changes the status quo that is his life.

The next step is the Threshold. This is where the hero decides he’s either going to accept the call and “go for it,” or if he likes life as it is, he stays put and is not a hero after all. A hero chooses to step through the door, or “threshold,” into his new role. He may not be comfortable with this; he may refuse it outright several times, but ultimately, a true hero will accept the call.  Again, think of Luke, Simba, or Harry Potter. They all embark on journeys to help save themselves or their world, but they aren’t necessarily sold on the whole idea at first.

The third piece of “The Departure” is “The Helper.” This stage provides the hero with some sort of aid which might be supernatural in nature or it might just be an object that the hero believes will help him to survive. For example, Simba has his friends and the monkey also gives him advice. Bennie in The Sandlot has his shoes that help him run faster and jump higher. Athena repeatedly helps Odysseus in The Odyssey. Luke has Obi Wan Kenobi and the force. Harry gets a wand and two true friends.  In essence, every traditional hero has some sort of object or people that help them along the way.

I’ll write more about the next two stages of the hero cycle over the next two weeks. Even if you don’t think you’re writing or even reading about a traditional hero, you might be surprised to find how prevalent this archetypal pattern appears in both contemporary and historical fiction. It really does speak to us, it just makes for a good story, and now I know it can rescue us when we’re stuck.

The hero’s journey image is from the Wikimedia Commons, a freely licensed media file repository.

If I can write, I can write . . . right?

This past weekend, I had a two by four hit me in the head again, as life hammered another lesson home.  It’s a lesson that I’ve learned before, but one that I clearly needed to learn again, hence the two by four.

On Friday morning, my alarm went off at 4 am, so I could catch the bus with my Forensics/Speech and Debate team to head six hours across the state of Nevada for our state tournament.  Twenty plus schools headed north from Vegas and the rest came in from the northern half of the state.  There’s not a whole lot in the middle of the state of Nevada, so it really was a “Civil War” type tournament, a true North vs. South contest.

There are seven speech events and three debate events to compete in.  We could enter two kids/teams per event.  Because many of my top competitors had a conflict this weekend and couldn’t go, I took some novice competitors and put them in events in which they hadn’t competed previously in order to fill as many slots as possible.  We practiced, and I felt that since they were solid speakers, they would be fine. They were.  In fact, one novice speaker made it into final rounds in Domestic Extemporaneous Speaking which means out of approximately 50 competitors, he was in the top six . . . statewide.  He ended up placing sixth in finals, but a sixth place ranking at a state tournament is pretty impressive.  In fact, I’d even say its college application worthy.

So how is this a lesson for me?  The lesson is that (drumroll here) . . . skills transfer.  If my student is an excellent debater, then it makes sense that he’s also a good, I mean excellent, extemporaneous speaker.

I have always wanted to write and when I was in high school, my mom encouraged me to write my stories down.  Like many teenage girls, I ignored her and told myself that I couldn’t because what could she possibly know?  I wasn’t good at it, and I knew everything -  sorry Mom.  When I was in college, I finally acquiesed and took a creative writing class.  It was a disaster.  I hated the class, the teacher, and the stories I wrote.  It solidified to me that I wasn’t a good fiction writer.  I could write essays and non-fiction with ease, but fiction threw me.

Last year, when I decided to start writing a novel as well as a blog I had to overcome this hurdle.  I had thought for twenty years that fiction was out of my reach, so it was a BIG hurdle.  To overcome it,  I wrote a short story and a few scenes, and I learned that my writing skills transfer.  If I can write, I can write . . . right? Though fiction requires a different skill set, the basics are the same.  Writing is writing.  This blog has taught me that lesson because I’ve asked myself numerous times over the last year, what is a blog exactly? What is the genre?  It requires skills in essay writing, personal narrative, analysis, how-to writing, fiction and reflective writing.  It requires solid writing skills in terms of structure, organization, grammar, and punctuation.  In writing one to three blog posts a week over the past year, I have worked on these skills.

Though I’ve worked on these skills, I still question myself, wonder if what I’m doing is any good at all or if I’m writing an entire “practice” novel. Many people do, and then I begin doubting myself again which I have been doing over the past few weeks.  My student’s success this weekend reminded me that I CAN do this.   I’ve learned, yet again, that skills transfer.  If he can successfully speak in a debate round and transfer those skills to an extemp round, then maybe I am not doomed to write essays my entire life because at the ripe old age of nineteen I decided that’s what I was good at.

Nobody else (besides my Dad who loved it – of course) has read my fiction, but I have learned over the past year to believe in myself and my writing.  If I can write a blog for a year, then maybe I can write a novel too. I’ve only got about 8000 words to go . . . I can do this.

Every Story HAS NOT Been Told

The idea that every story has already been told is a potentially depressing one for a writer embarking on a writing journey.  The problem with this saying is that it’s patently false.  Every story has not been told.  When people say this, they mean that every story archetype or pattern has been discovered.  Examples of such archetypes are the hero’s journey, the rags to riches tale, or rebirth and transformation.  There are also a slew of archetypal characters such as the gambler, the hero, the villain etc.  Thousands of pages of academic study have been devoted to defining these archetypes in both literature and the human psyche.

As a writer, these are a gift.  They provide us with a pattern, a starting place.  However, archetypal plot patterns and characters allow for an infinite number of combinations which can be imagined and reimagined.  That is where writing gets fun and why I can safely say that every story has not been told.

I like having a starting place, knowing that if I have a character who is going on a journey, she will learn some sort of lesson through the journey or else what is the point?  Knowing this allows me to imagine and create her journey with an infinite number of variables.  I get to inhabit the world of “what if?”

This is one of my favorite places to live in my quilting world too.  I always start with a pattern, but rarely, if ever does my finished product look like the given quilt.  I always tweak it in some way, or I use a completely original pattern that I design myself.  The fun part about quilting is that even when two quilters use the same pattern, the quilt never turns out the same.  This is no different than two writers using the same archetype.  Their stories will always differ.

A few friends of mine completed the same kaleidoscope pattern, and their finished products illustrate my point.  These quilts were all based on the same pattern, but through variation in color, value, borders, and fabric choices, the quilts appear to be entirely different patterns.  They’re not, but they’re all beautiful and successful creations.  They each tell a different story though the pattern remains the same.

This is how creativity and archetypes (or patterns) work.  We can start with a foundation and then vary it to our hearts content, and that’s what makes writing or creating of any type so much fun.

Where do scenes come from?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I’ve spent the last two weeks taking notes and writing down ideas anticipating the day I’d have time to sit down and write something.  After working probably 75+ hours over each of the last two weeks (sometimes being a high school teacher and coach can suck every second of every day and every ounce of energy from me, and I write nothing, including my blog), I finally spent much of the day on Sunday actually writing and putting those notes into action, fitting all the little pieces of the puzzle into scenes that hopefully tell a good story.

Where did the scene ideas come from? Let me share:

  •  Historical research – a good half of my novel takes place in 1847 on the Oregon Trail. I love research and history, so writing this part has been fun.  Some of the interesting facts I have discovered that I couldn’t leave out of the story include the existence of a library at Fort Hall, Idaho.  A “mountain man” refers to it in his journal and his visits to get books.  Another is that Indians used porcupine quills tied together with rawhide to brush their hair.  There are numerous little details like this that I find fascinating.  I don’t know if they’ll all find their way into the final draft, but I’ve enjoyed finding them and figuring out how to include them without slamming the reader with history.  I don’t want a reader to read a passage and think, “wow, that scene was written merely for that random piece of trivia.” I want it to flow but also to reflect some of those details that make history so interesting to me.
  • Planning – some scenes I’ve just had to plan from beginning to end following classic scene structure.  What are the characters’ goals? What is the action? What is the major conflict? Who’s going to talk to whom? And finally, what is the disaster that will finish the scene and raise the stakes for everyone?
  • The muses come to play – this is my favorite.  When I sit down, I almost always have a general idea of what I want to write or where I want to go, but then as I start to write, great things start to happen.  Events that I haven’t planned occur.  Characters have great conversations or arguments.  Wise and witty words pop from their mouths. These are days when I feel like a writer.
  • Stories or conversations I hear – yep, if I know you and you tell me something funny or crazy or I’m with you during a noteworthy event, I figure its fair game.  I wonder, “how could I tie that in”? These are not stories that completely change the plot, just little things.  For example, last week I was shopping with one of my students for supplies to run a concession stand, and the store didn’t have any more of that disgusting nacho cheese sauce.  (If you don’t think it’s disgusting, put it in your crockpot for six hours with HS kids ladling it all over the sides, and then try to wash the crockpot.  You won’t ever eat it again.)  Anyway, as I was panicking over the lack of nacho supplies, he looked at me, grabbed his phone and said, “Don’t worry Mrs. Isaman, I’ll just call my Sysco lady.  She’ll take care of us.” You’re Sysco lady? For those of you who don’t know, Sysco is a restaurant supply company.  The entire conversation sounded like some sort of nacho drug deal.  The Sysco lady pulled the products for him (nacho cheese and hot dogs) and dropped it in the shed for him to pick up later. I’m not kidding. To explain, his mom is a caterer and he has worked for her for years, hence, the Sysco lady, but it was really funny, something that will probably appear, somewhere, someday in some piece of writing.
  • My own crazy life – Have you ever said or written something and as soon as it came out of your mouth or appeared on the screen, you felt sort of surprised that you knew that, shocked by your own wisdom, but then you thought about it, and realized why you knew it?  You knew it because you lived it, not the exact situation but the feel of it.  That might sound strange, but I think reaching middle age has given me something to say.  I’ve lived half of a life, and I’m comfortable sharing and reflecting on it.  I wasn’t even five years ago.  This is the part of the scene that isn’t just the conflict or the action, but the explanation of it, the why.  The part when the character reflects on what has happened or what will happen.  It’s the character part of the scene.

Where do your scenes or ideas come from? I’d love to hear.

Crazy Quilts = Crazy Women?

Crazy quilts don’t equate with crazy women now, but the fiction of the late 1800’s tells a different story.   Crazy quilts were all the rage during the mid-1870′s but began to drop from favor during the mid-1890′s.   An article in Dorcas magazine explained the then current fad, ‘Of all the ‘crazes’ which have swept over and fairly engulfed us, there is none which has taken a deeper hold upon the fair women of our land that this one of the crazy patchwork . . . Many a woman with strong artistic taste finds no other outlet for it than in work such as this’” (Jenkins, The American Quilt Story, 73).

Crazy quilts are made of bits of silk and velvet pieced together in a seemingly haphazard, or crazy, manner.  They are then heavily embroidered with fancy stitches and figures.  The designs do not follow a strict block format, as do traditional quilt tops, which allows for artistic license in terms of the patterns, colors, fabrics, textures, stitches, and even threads.  This creative freedom is a far cry from the oft hated “stints” of needlework the young women throughout the 19th Century were required to complete.  Nineteenth century crazy quilts were some of the first art quilts to appear in the quilting world, but perhaps they were viewed as a little bit too crazy.

The main characters in the short stories that focused on crazy quilts during the latter years of the 19th Century are all young women who are desperately conniving and manipulative in their attempts to catch a husband, and the authors tie the young women’s “crazy” behavior to the influence of the “crazy” quilts upon which they work.  Thus, the symbolic use of the quilt is negative in these texts in that the crazy quilts do not allow their makers entry into the traditional community of married women, or the women’s sphere.  Only one story I found offers a positive view of the crazy quilt, but even the main character in this piece serves as a one-dimensional figure in her complete goodness and self-sacrifice.

“The Career of a Crazy Quilt,” published in 1884 in Godey’s Lady’s Book, highlights the difficulties in both making a crazy quilt and achieving life’s most important goal for a young woman, marriage.  The young women in the story lie and cheat to complete their crazy quilts, but they only achieve marriage, and a subsequent welcome into the woman’s sphere, when they set those quilts aside.  The two young friends, Heloise and Marie, decide to make crazy quilts, and they resort to almost anything to get free samples of silk for their quilts.  Marie’s fiancé, Dory, warns her of the dangers of crazy quilting and begs her not to beg for scraps.  Marie, of course, becomes indignant at the suggestion that she might stoop so low, only to do so later in the story and lose her fiancé.  Heloise goes so far as to break the law and petition a fabric company for a packet of samples under a fictitious corporate name as the fabric companies will no longer send free silk samples to women.  She, of course, gets caught but ends up marrying the representative from the fabric company who catches her.  While these young women will stoop to any means to create their quilts, their behavior is redeemed as their future husbands forgive their behavior and save their reputations.  The young women renounce their foolish ways, negate their creative ambitions, and enter the domestic sphere through their marriages.   The quilts, of course, are completed in time for the double wedding ceremony.

A second story, “The Story of a Crazy Quilt” (1885) by L.E. Chittendon, also focuses on a young woman’s ambitions for marriage, and she too ultimately catches her man but only after putting aside her crazy quilting for a full year.  In the fiction of the time, crazy quilting was perhaps a bit too crazy, bringing about impulsive behavior in otherwise well-mannered young women, behavior which did not suitably reflect the ideology of the home.  Interestingly, crazy quilting died out as a fad fairly quickly.

Another 1885 story titled “A Crazy Quilt” was published about two young women who also strove to get married.  Unfortunately for them, they were vacationing at a “regular death-in-life sort of place” without enough social interaction to suit them.  Because they have nothing else to do, the girls gossip and work on their crazy quilt, but these girls do not end up marrying.  Instead, one of the girls shows the quilt to a group of young men and realizes that “we’re ‘lowed to chuse some bits of our livin’, and to make what we please out of ‘em” (607) which her Granny translates into scripture, declaring, “Our heavenly Father in His word tells us that belong to Him to ‘work out our own salvation with fear and tremblin’.’ So we go at it.  We take our caty-cornered pieces, our zig-zag and criss-cross pieces, an’ put our lives together, black, blue, an’ white, all a-slant an’a-skew.  Then ‘long He comes an’ in drops the gold an’ silver stitches, and on this or that dark or crooked place falls lilies of the valley and roses of Sharon.  Don’t you see?” Though they don’t all understand or accept the lesson, it is clear to the reader, and this lesson, too, inhibits female creativity.

In 1885, women could try to create with their fabric, but in the end, only God could make it beautiful.  The message is clearly that whatever these women do to their quilt, they won’t ever be able to achieve true beauty, despite the artistic license they are taking with the crazy quilt.

The only story I found in which a crazy quilt serves as a positive force is one in which the young quilter is injured and essentially destined for spinsterhood.  In this story by Sidney Dayre, “Ruth’s Crazy Quilt,” (1886) young Ruth dreams of becoming a teacher and helping her mother with their household expenses, but alas, Ruth falls and becomes unable to walk.  As she languishes in bed, depressed that she can no longer help her mother, she begins to embroider her brother’s socks and to stitch a quilt. Ruth ultimately sells her crazy quilt for $300 and regains the use of her leg.  As Ruth’s aims were of the most angelic sort, her crazy quilt saves her mother from a life of drudgery.  She did not make the quilt to participate in the current “rage” of crazy quilting but did it out of the kindness of her heart.

The sentimentality and moralizing in these stories is somewhat galling to our contemporary sentiments as they completely espouse a domestic world as a higher aim for young girls, but we must not apply our modern sentiments to the meaning behind these stories.  Women must make the most of a bad situation, work hard to create a loving home despite any setbacks, and always take the moral high road as did Ruth.

Thankfully, women can now be as crazy as they want with their fabric creations, and their creative endeavors will not reflect at all upon their aspirations (or lack thereof) of becoming a wife.

Getting Characters to Come and Play . . . or Not

I’ve been waiting for someone.  This is not someone I know, but someone I want to get to know.  Actually, she’s a character.  I didn’t realize she was a somewhat major character until last week when her role in my story grew.  Now, I need to get to know her in order to move on, but apparently she’s not nearly as interested in getting to know me as I am in getting to know her.

All week, I’ve been asking myself: what kind of person is she?  What is her name?  Her job?  Her ambitions?  All those things I ask myself as I develop a character, and so far, I’ve gotten nothing.

I almost feel like she’s not quite ready to introduce herself, which is an odd feeling.  Is it me?  Have I done something?  Is it possible to inadvertently offend or intimidate a character who lives in my head?

I realize I sound crazy right now.  I feel a little crazy.

I had big plans for writing this weekend.  It didn’t happen, and I’m starting to blame this character.  To be honest, it’s starting to piss me off.  I want to yell at her, explain that I have a novel to write and a busy life.  My weekends are important for making progress, and it’s all her fault that I’m unable to work on it right now.  This is not a good start to our relationship, unless, of course, for some reason, I’m supposed to not like her much, or she enjoys creating drama.  Maybe that’s it.

I’ve tried all my strategies to jump start my creativity:  running, reading fiction, reading “writing” books, quilting, quieting myself and listening, asking for help right before I go to sleep so my subconscious can work on it while I sleep, wine.  Nothing.

Apparently, I just have to be patient which is not my strong suit, but I feel better already after this little temper tantrum on the page.

For some reason, she’s not ready to introduce herself to me.  I guess I’ll have to trust there’s a reason for that and just hope that this week, she’ll be ready to make a grand entrance.

The Quilt as a Symbol in Fiction

Me and My Quilting Buddies

When I got my MA, I had to write a thesis.  The challenge was coming up with some area of literature to analyze that had not been done a million times already.  I love quilts and American lit., so I combined those to interests and somehow convinced my professors that enough short stories about quilts had been published in the 19th century to sustain my research.  I found and read as many 19th century short stories as I could that had a quilt in them or in someway focused on the world of quilting.  I then analyzed the quilt as a symbol in those stories.

It was actually pretty fascinating.

In most of the earlier quilt stories which were published in the 1840’s, quilts symbolized the domestic sphere and all acceptable womanly endeavors.  The quilts were cherished objects and the quilters were kind and loving, representing all that was wonderful about being a woman.

As the century wore on, this changed.  During the entire time period I studied, women had to sew, making all their family’s clothing and bedding.  I can’t even imagine what a chore that would be for someone who hated sewing.  Thus, by the end of the century, well known authors such as Louisa May Alcott and Mary Wilkins Freeman used the quilt to symbolize the stifling aspects of the Victorian era and the demands the “domestic sphere” placed on women.  In their fiction, they describe quilters as gossipy, small-minded women and quilting bees as a never-ending miserable chore.

I have never seen quilts or quilting in this light.  For me, a homemade quilt is an outlet for my own creativity.  It also symbolizes my love for my family and friends through the time and effort they take to create, despite the benefit of a sewing machine..  I love quilts.  I love that they symbolize my creativity, my hard work.  I love that I work on them with a group of my dearest quilting friends, and we celebrate our roles as mothers and wives as we quilt, our own little modern “domestic sphere.”  This view of quilts and quilting is much more similar to the earliest quilt fiction than to most of the stories published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A celebration of quilting - I made the center, and the women in the center pieced the borders in a round robin challenge.

In my current writing project, a quilt ties together the historical and contemporary threads of the story, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the historical significance of the quilt as a symbol of women’s lives and where my novel, which combines both worlds, fits.

I’m not sure if I can answer these questions, or if I even need to, but I’ve been wondering:  What does a quilt symbolize now for women in general?  Is it a symbol of creativity and choices in that women create them if they want to? Or for some women are they still symbols of stifled female ambitions as they were 100+ years ago?   How do I honor my predecessors in quilt fiction?  Does the quilt in my story even need to?  Or does it just need to honor this story?

I guess I’ll find out the answers when I finish, but if anyone has any thoughts, I’d be interested to hear them.