Writing Shortcuts (Part 2): Getting Setting Right the First Time

Attention! This post was graciously sponsored by Grammarly. (Thanks Grammarly!!) I use Grammarly for proofreading because, as I’m sure all the zombies in the crowd will agree, two sets of eyeballs are better than one! (Is anyone else as excited for Halloween as I am?!)

Now, onto our regularly scheduled program: writing shortcuts, first drafts, and setting.

This map of Philadelphia State Hospital campus (the first photo that appears in my book) served as a basis for my fictional setting.

By now, I’m pretty confident you’re all aware of the existence of my first book. I’ve talked about it once or twice. It’s a book defined by place, about a place. Set broadly in America, on the outskirts of a major northern city, more specifically on a 1,165-acre property with 124 buildings, the place served as the focus, the setting, and the main character rolled all into one. Place and setting defined every word that appeared in the narrative. If a photograph wasn’t taken of the place or on the place, then the photograph didn’t need to appear in the story.

So what does this have to do with writing the first draft of a fiction manuscript? With fiction-writing shortcuts and nailing the setting the first time around?

A lot actually.

After spending eight months researching and reading and sorting through hundreds of photographs from hundreds of angles and time periods, I knew that place inside and out. I was intimate with its secret hallways, underground passages, the mundane chores that occurred behind every single closed door. The world was pre-built, so to speak, and my imagination was free to run wild through it.

As a result, little fragments started popping into my head, all set in the same place, on those same hospital grounds: It was a collection of what ifs? and characters and love stories and dark secrets and complicated family trees. Once I turned in the non-fiction manuscript on deadline, I dove head-first into this new story that was a product of my own imagination.

Except for the setting. The setting already existed. It was real and solid and the perfect base for all the action that was happening on its surface, in its forest, on its rooftops.

The setting gave birth to the stories, the characters, the plotlines that started to creep across the page. It defined the characters’ personalities, their fears, their actions, their memories.

In manuscripts I’ve attempted before this, setting was an afterthought, overshadowed by the characters and the plotline. It was something I defined in only the broadest of strokes: City or the country? Year? Season? Done.

This thoughtless method developed landscapes with random trees and floating rooms that didn’t connect to a house and roads wandering around in my fictional world, unconnected, unclear, confusing. Sometimes, reading through these drafts I would end up pulling my hair, wanting to scream “WHERE ARE WE?!” and “THIS DOESN’T MAKE SENSE!” and “Now the fireplace is in the MIDDLE of the room?! In the last scene it was by the DOOR!”

Remember those books you read growing up that had maps? Fantasy books with brand new worlds and countries and mysterious dark places? I love those and I think every single story needs them. They might not need them printed on the endpapers, but every author needs that cheat-sheet map during the drafting process. When writing the first draft of my manuscript, I ended up getting a chapter in and then stopping to draw down a map, to make sure the things always stayed in the same place, consistently from scene to scene, to have a master reference instead of making it up as I went along. (I was thinking about sharing my own hand-drawn map, but it’s so egregious, I’m not sure you’d even recognize what a tree was…so I’m refraining. Also, I’m not quite ready to share my fictional world or story yet. For now, it’s all mine.)

The map got more detailed, more crowded, more filled in, as the story progressed because new things needed to exist for new scenes. I got to know the setting as I drafted, just like I got to know the characters better. But already having the basics of the setting down before writing the story made it so much easier. And when I rewrote the entire manuscript for Draft #2, it was a relief that setting wasn’t one of the things I needed to completely overhaul.

So, thankfully, setting was one thing I got right before the first draft–this time around, at least. But pacing certainly wasn’t so smooth in that first draft! Tune in next week for the next post in this writing shortcuts mini-series.

The Reviews Are In!

Byberry and my book served as the cover story for Philadelphia CityPaper a few weeks ago. How neat is this artist’s interpretation of the underground tunnel system that served the hospital in its heyday?

Byberry State Hospital has been out for two months this week (it doesn’t feel like it’s been that long already!) and it’s been getting some great reviews in the local Philadelphia newspapers. Thought I’d share!

Byberry State Hospital . . . tells the real-life horror story of Northeast Philadelphia’s notorious mental institution, shuttered since 1990, in a meticulously detailed narrative and 200 historical photographs. Jones’ balanced portrait of life at Byberry State Hospital ranges from photos of therapeutic art and music classes to graphic evidence of wards where patients spent all day naked in grotesquely unsanitary, overcrowded conditions.”

Dan Geringer, Philadelphia Daily News, “New Book Delves into Terror at Byberry Hospital.”

“[The book] focuses on the rarely discussed positive aspects of a facility, infamous for all its shortcomings. And this is a good thing. While tales of violence, neglect, abuse, and mismanagement have become the hospital’s legacy, little is said or remembered of the hundreds of staff members, volunteers, and directors who did their best to help the helpless and forgotten people in their care. Here, instead, the reader is treated to images of picnics, performances, art and music therapy—and even Byberry’s own Boy Scout troop. Open houses and tours were an attempt to educate the community while gaining support for the hospital. Jones concludes the book with a look at the abandoned crumbling structures in their final days, shot by Hidden City contributor Chandra Lampreich. Byberry State Hospital allows the reader a glimpse behind the walls and fences into a rarely seen and less understood world.”

Ethan Wallace, Hidden City Philadelphia, “Two New Books Provide a Fitting Eulogy to Byberry State Hospital.”

I was also interviewed by Patrick Rapa at the Philadelphia CityPaper for an article exploring “What Did We Learn From Byberry?”

If you haven’t picked up a copy of the book yet and are still interested it’s available for purchase, as Mr. Geringer so helpfully pointed out, at “Smith’s Hardware on Torresdale Avenue near Disston in Tacony, at Walgreens on Bustleton Avenue near Byberry Road in Somerton, at SEPTA headquarters’ gift shop on Market Street near 12th, and at all area Barnes & Noble stores.” And if you’d like a signed copy, you can order it from me through the site (see the order button in the right hand margin).

(Image Credit: Philadelphia CityPaper.)

On Killing My Darlings and the Most Author-Friendly Way to Buy a Book

The book is done. All the photograph permission forms have been signed, the copyediting changes made, the final page proofs approved. As we speak, the book is at the printer, making 1,200 neatly bound, neatly stacked copies of my little paperback.

It’s done.

This book, as you will see it, as I will hold it in my hands, ended up being something quite different from what I expected it to be. As some of you know, I originally developed a soft spot for Arcadia Publishing when I stumbled across a copy of Yardley, an installment in their Images of America series. It was my dad’s hometown, where he was born and raised in the early 1930s, and as I flipped through, many of the images illustrated stories I had grown up hearing, over and over again, like a broken record. There was the steep hill, with the elementary school at the top, where my dad had rode down on his scooter, the bolts and screws popping out as he descended, until it and he was a broken mess at the bottom. There was the girl he had taken to his senior prom. There, smiling, was the public school principal who had beat my dad, day after day, trying to break him of his left-handedness until he finally became ambidextrous. There was the duck farm where my grandmother would get their Christmas dinner. And then there, sitting cross-legged in the front row, wearing his Boy Scout uniform, was the unmistakable face of my father. He was probably no more than eight, but from the handful of surviving family photographs, I recognized him, without even needing to look at the caption for confirmation.

That moment was really special for me, because my dad had died of cancer two years before, and he would never be able to tell me those stories again. Not only that, but the fact that he was preserved in this published book and without doubt on other people’s bookshelves–it was a form of preservation beyond the limitations of my own family. No matter what happens, my father will never be erased from history.

When I started work on this book, I wanted to provide that same magical feeling to other readers. I wanted someone, somewhere, to suddenly get smacked in the face with an image of someone they loved. Whether they were a nurse, a doctor, a volunteer, a student, or a patient at Philadelphia State Hospital, I wanted to give their families something that illustrated their moment in history.

But it wasn’t meant to be. Due to copyright restrictions, I ended up having to blur many of the faces in the book. Not just patients–which I would have understood, to protect their privacy–but also the faces of nurses, doctors, people beaming at the camera. I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried when I blurred out some of their faces, because I felt like after unearthing some of these long-lost photographs from the depths of archive obscurity I was turning around and burying them all over again, burying their story, hiding them, disguising them, taking away their chance to be remembered in history. Many of these people, with their expressions–some hilarious, some sorrowful–became full-blown characters to me, and it was, at times, like killing my darlings.

Copyright law is a messy, complicated, and at times completely impractical thing. In one case, I couldn’t track down the copyright holder of this really amazingly haunting 1940s lithograph by Robert Riggs of a mental ward at Philadelphia State Hospital (his most famous work, titled “Psychopathic Ward.” Really, it’s amazing, I’m begging you to click through and look at it). This is simply because, in the extensive network of surviving family members and art dealers and museum archives, the information got lost somewhere along the line. I talked with one family member on the phone who was terribly sad about it. She explained that, were Robert Riggs alive, he would have been thrilled for me to include it in my book. As an artist, he and many others like him, are being pushed into obscurity, because the tangle of copyright laws surrounding their work and the associated fear of possible legal retribution have, essentially made it too hard to reproduce or display their art.

I could go on forever about my opinion on copyright laws, but really, my point is that this book wasn’t turning into what I had thought and hoped it would be. I was crushed with disappointment. As it sat with the publisher, getting polished up for publication, I mentally pushed the book from my mind and tried to focus on my next project.

But I read over the page proofs a few weeks ago, with fresh eyes, I realized that though it wasn’t what I had originally wanted it to be, the book had in fact become something much better. It is so much more than a local story, of interest to a handful of Philadelphia residents and the families of those portrayed in the photographs. The terrible conditions at Byberry in the 1940s, which were exposed in a 1946 Life magazine article, fueled a national mental health reform movement that improved hospital conditions across the country. Byberry ended up being the birthplace of the National Mental Health Foundation.

The research, if I may say so myself, is impressive: it is the product of dozens of interviews with former staff members and the ancestors of former patients (so many people welcomed me into their homes, dug up old scrapbooks, spent entire afternoons reminiscing with me) and weekends upon weekends upon hours upon hours of archival research at the Swarthmore College Peace Collection, where I read the actual, original, handwritten diaries of conscientious objectors stationed at Byberry during World War II. I can’t even explain to you how excited I was when I was trusted to touch these and read these, flipping through the pages of their impressions of the wards. It felt a little bit like when I touched hieroglyphics when I visited the Great Pyramids in Egypt. If you’re a history fangirl like me, there’s really nothing as awesome as seeing and touching history. My research was also heavily dependent upon archival research (again, weekends upon weekends, hours upon hours) done at the Temple University Libraries Special Collections Research Center, the Philadelphia City Archives, the Pennsylvania State Archives, and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, among others. All of this research has resulted in a book unlike any other.

And though when I was doing it, it felt like I was blurring every face, it’s really just a small percentage of the 200 total photographs in the book. And beyond the blurring, this book provides an unprecedented inside look at the hospital’s ice cream parlors, beauty parlors, woodworking shops, libraries, baseball fields, dairy cows, and bowling alleys.

But I think my absolute favorite thing about this book is the fact that never before has there been a published history of the Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry. And now, with my book, a history exists: spanning from its early farm colony days in 1906 until the doors closed permanently in 1990. (I was only one year old!) When I was researching, I came across hundreds of people–on Ancestry.com news threads, online forums, and blogs–desperate for information about their relatives who had been patients at Byberry. They only had scraps of information–a family story about their illness, told in hushed tones, a name, a possible death date. They wanted to know what had happened to those relatives, many of whom entered Byberry and never left. In a way, my book is a history of the faceless, the nameless, the undocumented, the forgotten. I hope it gives as much comfort to those relatives looking for information, clues regarding what their relative’s experiences might have been like at the hospital, as I found in my father’s photograph.

I learned so much while writing this book and had so much fun researching it. The book developed into exactly what it was supposed to be and I believe I wrote it exactly the way it needed to be written. I’m so flipping proud of this book and I can’t wait for you all to read it.

On that note, I wanted to mention the most author-friendly way to purchase a copy, if you’re so inclined. All that research I had so much fun doing, and all those photograph permissions I had to get were expensive. Actually, it was mindbogglingly expensive, and almost restrictively impossible on my salary, especially considering the fact that I didn’t get an advance for this book. (Common in non-fiction publishing.) Until a relative stepped in and offered a personal loan, I really didn’t think I was going to be able to finish writing the book. The quality of the images I was able to afford to include, therefore, is largely thanks to her. It was an investment I don’t regret making, because I’m proud of the history this book effectively preserves. But, that said, I do have to pay back that loan (no interest, of course, I’m so lucky to have such great and supportive family members!)

Here’s the nitty-gritty:

Total expenses (photograph permission fees, archive travel costs, etc.): $2,266.70

My contract dictates that I get a normal royalty rate of 8% per book, which, by my calculation should be about $1.75 per book. And on the first print run–who knows if we’ll even ever go to a second print run–there are only 1,200 copies to sell. If the print run sells out, I’ll make about $2,100. I won’t even break even on the loan.

However, I’ve bought 200 copies at a 50% discount from the publisher and can sell them as I please, though I am bound by my contract to sell them at full price, $21.99 (I know, Amazon and Barnes and Noble have a discount war going on, and are offering the book at somewhere around $14.00 right now.) But this means I get a 50% royalty rate on these 200 copies. That’s about $10.99 per book. If I manage to sell all 200 copies, I’ll make $2,199 and I’ll kick in the remaining sub-$100 to pay back my relative in full.

[Updated July 3rd, 2013: I have been notified by my publisher that my calculations were incorrect. Though the royalty rate is, indeed, 8%, it’s 8% off the net, which means I can actually expect something closer to 80 cents per sold book.]

The book will be published on May 20, 2013. If you’d like to preorder a signed copy from me, you can order through PayPal.

Buy Now Button with Credit Cards

For those of you I know and love and am dear and geographically near to, I can hand deliver! Or, if you prefer, checks, money orders, and cash are options. Email me at HannahKJones10@yahoo.com to discuss this method of payment further.

I’ll be absolutely thrilled if you buy a copy of my book wherever–online or at a bookstore. But if you can afford the full book price and would like to help me out, I’d really appreciate it. I never wrote this book with a goal of making money–it was always about the history–but breaking even would be nice!

[hugs everyone who read to the end of this extremely long blog post]