Possible Summary for Merits and Means

So a while back I was fighting insomnia and created this possible summary for a historical fiction I wrote based on a house I’ve given tours of and research the local museum helped me do. (The house tour is here.)

This is for Merits and Means. It’s a historical fiction set in 1902.

Young newlywed Mena Attwater had believed that she had only minor problems, the greatest of these being her neighbor’s inexplicable hatred of her. Cut off from society due to the other woman’s influence, her mind was preoccupied with how she might overcome Mrs. Shaw’s influence and regain her place in society.

Mena and her husband had taken residence in the house that had belonged to Shaw’s sister, but she knew that was not enough reason for the other woman to hate her.

However, their new residence hides more than a few indiscretions behind its fancy facade. Between its surprises and her husband’s secrets, Mena has uncovered more trouble than she ever expected and both their lives might be in danger.

A Bit Lonely

Author’s Note: I was looking over Merits and Means, a story I wrote after spending a few days doing history fest last spring, inspired by this house, and I debated about sharing so many different parts of it, but most of my favorite pieces are either spoilery (it’s a mystery) or wouldn’t stand alone. I almost picked the dime novel bit or the bonus story, but the dime novel is just a snippet, and the bonus story gives away far too much.

I settled on the first scene, since I liked the end of it so much.

A Bit Lonely

My new neighbors hated me, and I did not know why. Perhaps this would not matter so much if I did not already feel so isolated. My new home had every possible convenience—in some respects it was almost too modern. I had all the finest things, the arrangement of them was done according to my exacting specifications. I carried the key to the parlor with me, in charge of every aspect of this house. It was my kingdom. I could rule as queen—without any subjects, with a king that was a stranger to me despite the fact that he was my husband. I supposed that I had felt the neighbors would help alleviate the sense that I had some how been… exiled.

No one had said that moving west was intended to be a punishment, and had I perhaps committed a sin that required a hasty marriage to cover over my indiscretion, I would understand the sort of behavior I found myself experiencing, but I had not. I was far from my family, but I was living in the middle of a town, in luxury, and society should have been open to me. Instead, my next door neighbor had taken a dislike to me for reasons I did not know, and she seemed to control the circle around here enough to bar me from it.

Perplexed, I sat in my overly ornate parlor, staring at the empty chairs. I was supposed to entertain here. That was my duty, my role, even my purpose. At it, though, I was a spectacular failure. Though I had been raised with the expectation that I would know this and how to run my own household, I feared I had spent too long in my mother’s shadow. I had her example of everything I was to do, but I had never been allowed to do it for myself. It may have been as simple as inexperience, and yet I could not see what I had done to offend this Mrs. Shaw so strongly as to earn this kind of censure. I had been cut without warning, and it stung.

My hand touched the paper in my lap, and I remembered Mother’s advice, so simple and yet it seemed impossible. Cultivate other social connections and—this was perhaps the worst of her advice—never forget, daughter, if the house seems empty now, you will soon fill it. I moved my hand to my stomach, so thin and trim as Mother and the lady’s maid had forced it to become, and shook my head.

Though by law he was my husband, in truth he seemed more like a housemate, and barely that. The idea of our union had been suggested and almost wholly arranged by our parents. Before what I thought a true courtship had even a chance to start, I suddenly found myself affianced without that question being asked—at least not of me. I had barely spoken to the man before it all happened. Everything was rushed as he was due to head west for a very important position—some sort of vice presidency in his family’s business—and that meant, of course, that he must be sent with his wife and possessions as well. I was, I sometimes thought, considered one of those possessions. I had little say in any of what took place. They arranged a morning ceremony, a reception in the afternoon, and then gave us over to the berth on the last train of the day, shipping me off west without another thought.

I had thought this was all what I was supposed to do—obey my parents and their wishes, to acquire a husband to provide for me for the rest of my life, and to settle in my own home and raise my own family. I knew of no other life, and yet I found myself wondering what I had done that I deserved this fate.

My husband was not by any means unpleasant, I would not say that at all—it was difficult to find fault with a man who was never there, after all. It was simply… awkward between us whenever we were together, and such a thing was rare enough. His position and the work he did kept him out late enough to where I frequently ate without him and retired to my room before he even arrived home.

Perhaps I should hire some sort of servant. Though there was not much around the house to keep me all that busy, I would at least have someone to talk to for a change.

I heard a knock and jerked my head up, looking over at the French doors, startled. “Mr. Attwater.”

His lips curved into a smile, and some of the fatigue disappeared from his face. For a man of five and twenty, he looked at least ten years older when he returned home after a long day of work. On the other hand, he was rather handsome when he smiled. It gave a different light to his dark eyes and softened the sharpness of his features. “Are you going to call me that for the rest of our lives, Philomena?”

I flushed. Some women did that, called their husbands “Mister” or even “Father,” but I suspected that he knew my use of the title came from the fact that I still felt he was a stranger to me. “I suppose that depends. You are home quite early today, aren’t you? Unless I was woolgathering for longer than I realized, in which case, dinner shall be very late—or shall have to be cold or—”

“You do not have to fret. I am early and not terribly hungry,” he said, coming into the parlor. His eyes went to the letter and then back to my face. “Are you… homesick?”

“What makes you ask that?”

“The way you looked when I came in, the fact that you did not hear me when I did, and when I spoke to you first, you again failed to hear me. I had to knock,” he answered, sitting down next to me.

Embarrassed, I sighed. “I am not—This is my home now. This is where I belong. It is… I seem to have done something wrong and everyone here hates me.”

“They cannot possibly hate you. They do not know you,” he corrected, leaning back in his chair and flexing his hand as he did. I was not sure what that habit of his was, but I had noticed him doing more and more since we’d been here. Of course, given how little I knew of him, that meant nothing. “I cannot believe it is anything you did. You and I are new to the area. Perhaps they need time.”

I looked away. He had a point, but then he was not the one being snubbed. My failures reflected on him unfavorably, but that was not the same. “Why are you home early?”

“My project was finished, and I refused to start another today,” he answered, yawning. “I think I shall retire early.”

He rose, and I watched him walk toward the door. I shook my head. Surely we could not continue like this for the rest of our lives. “Mr. Attwater?”

“Merritt.” He did not stop, rather forcing me to follow him. I set the letter aside and rose, making my way to the pocket door before I stopped.

“Are you suggesting that what I ask has to have merit? Why are we discussing merits all of a sudden?”

He laughed as he reached the stairs, looking back at me. “My name is Merritt. You could try using it, Mrs. Attwater.”

So, in writing the historical fiction that I have done lately, I came back to what seems to be nearly a brick wall.


No, I’m not talking about research or the difficulty involved in doing it. No, I am speaking of the traditional roles of men and women and even children in those historical times.


It seems, and I know this is a generalization, but if you don’t have a strong female character, if she’s not liberated and challenging all the boundaries and roles of the times and even modern times, you’ve written a poor character.


Actually, no. I disagree. You’ve written a realistic character of the time. If you have a liberated woman of today there, you’ve just created a huge anachronism and have failed at the very idea of historical fiction.


Sounds a bit harsh, doesn’t it? I’m not going to say that women back then weren’t strong, didn’t have minds of their own. They did. But there’s a reason for the saying “well behaved women rarely make history.”


While today we have debunked and rejected “the cult of true womanhood” as I have heard it described, that does not mean that it didn’t prevail in the days that many historical fictions are set in. Moral standards were more “strict.” Reputations meant everything. No one wanted scandals. Repression, of people and of opinions, was the norm.


Today we’re liberated, or at least, we think we are. (I’m now thinking of Working Class Hero by John Lennon, though I put a different song in the Sing Along section.) Back then, though, such liberation would have made you an outcast and not fit for normal society.


One of my more recent characters, Mena, she had no idea that there was anything outside the life she’d been raised to, one of near complete obedience. Her husband, Merritt, ended up opening her eyes a bit, and she took that much further, but she’s still aware of her limits.


Another character, Tillie, knew that she was “unnatural” and considered wrong for her times as well. She bit back her opinions and observations and was cross about it the entire time, even if she thought she was fooling people. Her life changed with a rural teaching assignment that gave her freedom and introduced her to people willing to acknowledge and even accept the way she was, but she and everyone around her know that they are not the norm as well. Their understanding is rare and forces them to build a community of their own after the town they were a part of more or less casts them out.


Lady Nichols, in some sense, had more freedom, living twenty years after Mena who was twenty years after Tillie. She also doesn’t. Even with the roaring twenties gaining steam, Lady Nichols walks a fine line between the changing times, the realizations she’s made of her position and role in society, but also propriety. She’s a chaperone in her first story, a role model and someone held to a higher standard. She tries, she fails, and she acknowledges that her actions are not what a woman of her class and age should be doing.


I doubt my balance between liberation and the time period is perfect, but my biggest pet peeve about historical fictions is when they fail to at least acknowledge the fact that the character is acting against the social standards of the times. You want a strong female character? That’s great. I support it.


Just remember: the people around her wouldn’t.


In Merritt’s case, he grew up watching his mother suffer after his father’s death, and he didn’t want his wife to do the same. Makade has, for the most part, rejected society after the way he and his family were treated. And Forsythe is just… abnormal himself. He prides himself on being a “black sheep.” There are others besides the men in the women’s life who see the value of some liberation, but it’s not something everyone appreciates.


That’s the part to remember: those old roles were not the ones we have now. People’s opinions were different. They were biased, they were sexist, and they were racist. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking today’s political correctness makes for believable historical fiction.


Our past is not always something we should be proud of.

Volunteering is Research

I have mentioned before that I like wearing vintage clothes.

I probably did not mention that this love of vintage clothes was part of what led me to volunteer for the museum the first time around. I can’t remember now why I was with my mother at the museum, but I know after our tour we ended up talking to the lady who, at the time, ran the gift shop. She told me about history fest and about volunteering for it, and because I could wear my cool clothes, I contacted the volunteer coordinator (again, at the time, she has since retired.) That led me to my very first experience with history fest.

History fest is the museum’s busiest time of the year. Students from all over the state and the neighboring states come up to see the village and get a bit of living history. I learned many different things in the course of my time doing history fests. They were three days when I first started volunteering and have expanded to four due to popular demand.

Hands on history is fun. Don’t believe me? Go ask one of the kids. They love the demonstrations and making things and history comes alive for them.

One of the things I also gained from the experience was, well, an obsession. Someone asked me this year why I liked this house so much, and I think it’s because it’s the house I would like to live in. Not necessarily with everything they have inside it now, but I love the architecture and the way it is “modern” for its time and it just seems like a place where I would be at home. Other than my hopeless addiction to the internet and my computer, I sometimes think I was born in the wrong time period. I love the Victorian/Edwardian ages.

So, yes, I am a bit in love with this house. Maybe a lot.

While I was at the fest this year, I was chatting with a lady who was doing the quilting demonstration at the next house over while I waited to do tours, and she suggested that I do a story about living in the house. I had, actually, been thinking of doing just that, and with the help of a story that used to be told about the house when I first did history fest, I had an opening line and a bit of a plot.

So I owe Mena and Merritt’s story to the museum, to the Stevens house in particular.

While I was there, I used the downtime between tours the first afternoon to record a short video on my phone. It’s poor quality, and it’s rather shaky. I was also sick and the kids were loud outside, so the soundtrack is gone and replaced by some nice music from the Gosford Park soundtrack.

Ignore the glimpse of me in the mirror and door. I’m not important. Though… I do match the wallpaper, or my skirt did that day.

And, honestly, I don’t know where the purple came from. When I edited it, I know I made it black, but watching it on youtube, it’s purple. Your guess is as good as mine.