Artifacts: Opium Vial

Opium plays an important part in the plot of my unpublished novel A Useful Life. Before I started writing, I researched the history of opium, its effects on the human body, and the behavior of addicts.

I was on a self-imposed writing retreat at a cabin in West Virginia when I wrote one of the scenes in which a character is experiencing hallucinations. It was summertime and extremely hot, so I was sitting outside on the bank of the river. At some point, I just couldn’t concentrate, so I went into town to browse the art galleries and antique stores.

Some of the booths in the antique stores were selling empty glass bottles and vials of various sorts, so I thought it might be interesting to search for something related to opium. When I saw the vial pictured above, I was elated. Embossed along the side are the words, “Dr. McMunn’s Elixir of Opium.” I had no idea if it was authentic, but it wasn’t too expensive, so I purchased it.

When I got home, I found on the internet that it was a popular brand of patent medicine available in the United States from about the 1840s until the 1900s. It was a product that could have been used by my character.

I’ve had the vial now for several years and keep it on the shelf in my writing studio. The thought of an upstanding citizen of a community being an opium addict was one of the ideas that sparked my imagination in the first place and made me want to write my novel. Why do some people succumb to addiction and how does it divert their life paths? What does it do to those around them? Is it possible to intervene? These are questions I wanted to explore. Of course, the novel asks many other questions as well, but the opium vial is a reminder to me of the genesis of this story.

Here are a couple of other photos of a different vial with the wrapper intact. Thanks to Lynda Dalpe for sending these to me.


My novel A Useful Life was a quarter finalist for the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. It’s about a woman researching her dead husband’s family in search of answers to questions he left behind.

I’ve been a genealogist for more than twenty years. I began researching my husband’s family because he thought his father had no relatives. I took that as a challenge. I now have more than three thousand people in his family tree going back to the 1600s. So much for no relatives.

Along the way we’ve met many third and fourth cousins around the world and become quite close to many of them. Those are the living ones, but in a way I feel quite close to some of the deceased ones too. As I dug up information about them, I found myself thinking about the lives and stories beyond the dates and facts. I read their letters and obituaries and felt I knew them somehow. When my research turned up something puzzling, I imagined logical explanations for their actions. I felt sad when I saw their death certificates and happy when I read their wedding announcements. I began to make up life stories for them in my head. Then I wanted to tell those stories, but I didn’t want the burden of footnotes and academic rigor, so I took those imagined lives and mixed them around and created fictional characters. They have some of the life facts of real people and they share a historical context with real people in the Jewish community of Memphis between 1859 and 1893, but their personalities, their actions, their behavior, are made up.

This is all to say that the 19th century characters in my novel are not my husband’s ancestors, nor are they really based on his ancestors. They’re people I imagined lives for, based on what I learned about what it was like to live in Memphis in 1870 or 1880. The main character researching her dead husband’s family is not me, my husband is not dead, and her sons are not my sons. I created her and her genealogical journey to explore history, the meaning of family, and the surprising things we discover about ourselves when we embark on that journey.


Quarter-Finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Competition

Back in January, I entered my first unpublished novel, A Useful Life, in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) competition, along with about 5,000 other fiction writers (there is a separate competition for Young Adult manuscripts). I didn’t have high hopes for advancing to the next step because the judging was only on the 300-word pitch, but I did make the cut to 1,000. A few days ago I learned that I made the quarter-finals cut to 250. This was unexpected.

I have queried some agents with this novel. I had revised it and was about to start sending it out again when I entered the contest. I do have some ambivalence about the contest route versus the traditional agent-seeking route, which I’ll blog about at some later date. In the meantime, reviewers from Publishers Weekly are reading the entire manuscript and will decide whether it goes on to the semi-finalist round.

Update: 4/26/11

My novel did not make it to the semi-final round. I did get very positive reviews from the Amazon reviewers and the Publisher’s Weekly Reviewer. In the meantime, I’ve been rearranging and editing again, and I think it’s stronger now. I’ll begin querying agents once again soon. Thanks to everyone who reviewed my excerpt while it was posted on the Amazon website.

Beginning 2011 with a Win

Well, I actually found out about this at the end of 2010, but now it’s official. My story “No Harm Done,” which is a long-ish scene from my second novel, won third place in the Shaking Like a Mountain 2010 Fiction Open.

From the beginning of November until the end of December was a period of frenzied contest-entering for me. I submitted various pieces to probably twenty competitions, large and small. This one caught my eye because the subject of the magazine, and the contest, is music. I realized I had a pivotal scene in my novel that took place in the back of a guitar store at a jam session, so I decided to see if I could revise it to be a stand-alone story. The judge apparently felt I was at least successful enough for third place.

This was the very first contest I entered during the frenzy, on October 31, so I’m hoping it’s just the beginning of a long string of wins ;-)

Seriously, though, if you have any stories or poems with musical themes or settings or some connection to contemporary music (of any kind), submit something to Shaking Like a Mountain.

Metaphors and Distractions

A blackberry vine is growing up between the floorboards in the middle of the screened-in porch. It has traveled under the latticework, under the ground, from the main stalk twenty feet away, which climbs up the side of the house. It must be a metaphor for something—things popping up in unexpected places, pioneers venturing into the unknown, iconoclasts refusing to stay where they belong.

I asked my son to crawl under the porch and see if he can reroute it somewhere back outside, but he’s been too busy. It’s next year’s vine; at the end of each season the vines that have already produced berries are pruned so that all the plant’s resources will go into the new growth, which will produce next year’s berries. I thought we could establish a new colony on the other side of the porch.

It’s a domesticated version of the blackberry, with no thorns, and it produces a prodigious amount of fruit. On a summer’s day when I’m sitting on the porch listening to the pond and trying to write, I glance to the side and a dark berry will catch my eye. Immediately captivated, I can’t be bothered to go into the house to retrieve a bowl or a colander for berry picking. Instead I make a cradle of the bottom of my t-shirt, like a woman in some past era might have done with her apron, and gather the berries into the white cotton. The grocery store or the CSA co-op we belong to charges $4.99 for a half shirtfull, and I’ll gather at least that much every other day for weeks. I can’t contain my excitement over all that free food, every summer, right next to my screened porch.

After I take the berries into the kitchen and rinse them in a colander, sampling a few and yelling to whomever else might be at home that there are fresh berries, I go back to my seat on the porch. Where was I? Oh, yes. The stray blackberry vine. A metaphor.

I am now older than my main character

When I first started writing my novel, I made my main character several years older than I was. There were several reasons:

  1. People I know might be less likely to confuse my main character with me, the real person
  2. The main character would have grown up with a different set of ideas about how women should live their lives, which was useful in giving her the husband I gave her
  3. Her kids would be considerably older than my real kids and less likely to be confused in people’s minds with my own kids (see #1)

All that is now out the window. Technically she is still older than I am, because her birth date is before mine, but she is frozen in the present-day of the novel. I am, apparently, not. To my horror, I am now older than she is in the present-day of the novel and my children are rapidly approaching the ages of her children. It’s going to be more difficult to convince people this is not my life and my family if (when) my novel is published. Unless it takes another twenty years, in which case, no worries.

To MFA or not to MFA

I have two friends now who are enrolled in low-residency MFA programs. They are both female and have both been out of college for a while now. A few years ago I considered going the MFA route. At the time, I was only beginning to take my writing seriously and had a vague idea that I needed the imprimatur in order to go forward. After some consultation with my workshop instructor, who has an MFA from UVA, I decided I probably wouldn’t get more out of it than the workshops I’d been taking. Soon after, some classmates and I formed a critique group that I’ve been with for several years now, and that carried me forward in the development of my craft to finishing my novel and sending out queries.

Over the past few years of learning about the publishing industry, and after reading the enlightening New Yorker article “Show or Tell: Should Creative Writing Be Taught?” I’ve come to realize that one of the main reasons for getting an MFA degree as a writer is for the connections. Study under a famous author and chances are that author will blurb your book or introduce you to his/her agent/editor. Meet other authors at conferences and maybe they will write recommendations for you to writers’ colonies, etc. Yes, you need talent to have your book accepted for publication, but it doesn’t hurt to have someone in your corner to introduce you to people who otherwise might not have the time to seriously consider your query.

I swore that I would never go back to school once I got out, and I’ve mostly kept that promise, except for writing workshops and a community college German class. I don’t particularly want to, but from time to time I consider whether it might make sense. When I asked one of my friends why she was enrolling in her MFA program, her response was that she wanted a mentor. She’s already written a novel and sent queries to a few agents and not been accepted. She wants someone to help her hone the novel and find an agent. Seems to me getting an MFA might be an expensive way to get a book published. I’ll be interested to see if it’s effective for her. In the meantime I’m sticking to sending out queries and seeing what happens, working on my second novel and sending short stories out to journals and contests. I’m probably just at the beginning of this part of the journey.

NaNoWriMo 2009


Well, I survived another November writing marathon. I was Municipal Liaison this year, charged with organizing write-ins and other events for all the local WriMos. This was our first year as an independent region, so we were very excited to have 100 people sign up. There were probably 10-15 of those who participated in our in-person events, but others tweeted their word counts to our Twitter account and were fans on Facebook. I wasn’t excited about my 50,000 words this year, mainly because I had a family emergency that took up most of October which meant no time to plan what I was going to write about.

That’s part of the deal, though. On November 1 you just start writing, so I did. I’m sure there will be some usable verbiage in that file, but I’m too busy to look back at it now. I’ve still got to edit last year’s NaNo Novel, which I think has a lot of potential.