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An Illuminating History of Electric Christmas Lights

courtesy of Wikicommons

courtesy of Wikicommons

Here’s another quick, fascinating bit of Christmas history for you on a Monday morning. I’ll admit, I’m not actually the biggest fan of Christmas (it’s a long story), but I do love tastefully done lights. We all know that the tradition of lights on the Christmas tree began with candles, but did you know that that tradition comes from Germany in the 18th century? But what about electric Christmas lights?

I think a lot of people would assume that the tradition of electric Christmas lights on trees is a relatively new one. In fact, it’s over 100 years old. Well over 100 years old. You might have heard Christmas tree lights referred to as “fairy lights” before. Well, it’s because the concept of a string of tiny electric lightbulbs was first used not at Christmas, but in the first production of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta Iolanthe on November 25th, 1882. (Yay G&S!) The women’s chorus in this operetta are fairies, and their costumes involved strings of electric lights. Well, the name stuck.

That same year (1882!) in America, the vice president of Edison Electric Light Company, Edward H. Johnson, was the first person to wire a Christmas tree with electric lights. A lot of papers reported the electrified tree as a publicity stunt, but—you guessed it—the idea caught on and electric Christmas lights began to steadily grow in popularity. By 1900, stores in big cities were decorating their shop windows with electric lights to draw customers.

Edward H. Johnson's electric Christmas tree lights

Edward H. Johnson’s electric Christmas tree lights

Mind you, the average household couldn’t even begin to afford Christmas lights for their trees. Not until the 1930s. The technology was there, though, and the wealthy and prominent businesses got in on the act from the beginning. That included the White House. The first president to have electric Christmas lights on his tree was Grover Cleveland in 1895. I bet that’s much earlier than you thought lights were around, huh?

As the price of electric lights came down from the 1930s on, they became more prominent in average households. Some of the more famous lights shows that we know today started fairly early too. Those Rockefeller Center lights in NYC? They were first lit in 1956.

Okay, but what about those ridiculous and outlandish displays of Christmas light overkill? You know. Everybody’s neighborhood seems to have someone who’s electric bill for December is double what it is for the rest of the year. You know when that tradition started? In the 1920s. That’s right, it started before indoor Christmas lights became the norm. That’s because in the 1920s General Electric would host contests for the best decorations, and everyone who could wanted to get in on that. (Sometimes I wish they hadn’t. ha!)

So there you go. A quick history of electric Christmas lights. They’re much, much older than most people would expect. So are you a big light decorator or do you like to keep it simple?
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How Old Are Jigsaw Puzzles?

It’s Monday! And usually on Mondays I talk about history. Lately it’s been history that informs on whatever novel I’m working on (like the Oregon Trail, for example). But over this past long weekend, I fell headfirst into a small obsession, and it’s taken over my brain. I’m talking about jigsaw puzzles.

If you look closely, you can see this clever advertisement is actually a wooden puzzle. Courtesy of JJPuzzles via Flickr

If you look closely, you can see this clever advertisement is actually a wooden puzzle.
Courtesy of JJPuzzles via Flickr

So being the nerd I am, as I was puzzling away this past weekend, I caught myself asking myself, “Hmm, I wonder how old jigsaw puzzles are?” So of course I had to find out.

Turns out, they’re pretty old. The first jigsaw puzzle is credited as being a creation of London-based engraver and mapmaker John Spilsbury in 1760. Yep, puzzles are an 18th century invention! What I found particularly interesting is that the first puzzles were Spilsbury’s maps, mounted on wood and cut into pieces. His aim was to have people learn geography by putting the maps together. So those wooden map puzzles where each state was a piece that I loved so much when I was a kid were actually staying true to the original purpose of the puzzle.

Puzzles continued to grow in popularity through the 19th century. During that era, they were usually pictures pasted onto plywood with the design of the pieces traced on the back in pencil. The puzzle-maker would use those pencil lines to cut out the pieces with a fretsaw (not actually a jigsaw). I think it would be reasonable to assume that some of my characters, both in the Montana Romance series and in my Hot on the Trail series, would have passed the time putting together puzzles.

But the height of puzzle popularity came with the Great Depression. It makes perfect sense too. By that time, most puzzles were made of cardboard. They were no longer cut out by hand, but rather die-cut. That basically means they were cut by a giant puzzle-shaped cookie cutter. They were the perfect form of cheap entertainment in an era where money was tight. They were time-consuming, recyclable, and they could bring people together.

My current obsession

My current obsession

I always remember having puzzles around in our house growing up. They were the kind of thing that we did on summer vacation or on a rainy day. This was before video games were invented. Yes, for all you young people out there, now you know what we did to entertain ourselves before we were glued to an electronic device. We enjoyed puzzles at our house, but I’ll never forget going to visit my cousins when they were in the middle of doing a puzzle.

My cousins’ dad, Tom, had a rule for doing puzzles in his house. First you would lay out all of the pieces, face up. Then, no matter how big the puzzle was, you weren’t allowed to touch a piece unless you knew exactly where it fit. If you were wrong, you were done. If he was being generous, he would let you put together the border pieces first and then the rule would only apply to the middle. Oh, and you weren’t allowed to look at the picture on the front of the box either. This was some serious puzzling!

So did your family have any rules about doing puzzles? Do you still do them? Leave a comment and let me know!

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Words Like Raindrops – Revisited

So I was sitting around yesterday having a really bad day, trying to recapture the feeling of something that would make me happy again. I was at work, and all around me I heard the sound of typing. Not only did it settle me, it reminded me of this blog post that I originally wrote more than three years ago. I thought I’d resurrect it today for you….

My mom, very little brother, and me

My mom, very little brother, and me

Last week in my blog about Goals, Guilt, and Writer’s Remorse I mentioned that I have a daily word count goal of 2000 words. To me that seems like a modest goal, but I had a few comments from people about how amazing it was that I could write that much in one day. I’ve been thinking a lot about that, trying to get a handle on what it is about words that allows some people to be more speedy or prolific than others. I’m sure there are a thousand different answers to that question, as many answers as there are writers, in fact. But one of the conclusions I came to involves an old fashioned skill that I was forced to learn in eight grade: typing.

To me the fascination of typing began in a deep, emotional part of my childhood. My Mom was a secretary. Old school secretary. She was also a single mother raising two kids without a lot of money. There were times when I had to hang out in her office until she could take me home or find someone to watch me. This was, of course, made a thousand times easier by the fact that she was the secretary of the elementary school that my brother and I attended. Hanging out in her office was what a bunch of kids did while waiting for their parents. I, of course, loved it. Most of all I loved and was fascinated by the sound of her typing.

My Mom typed like the wind. She typed like the rain. This was the mid-80s we’re talking about. She had one of those old electric typewriters with a ball of letters thing in it. The sharp drumming of words being struck onto paper at a thousand miles per hour filled me with a sense of peace and amazement in a world that was shifting under my feet. Sometimes I would stand where I could watch the letters spilling out through the raindrops of keystrokes just to see the miracle of words being created. As technology advanced she moved to a word processor and one of the old clicky keyboards, but somehow the magic continued. My Mom could produce words as fast as I could read them.

© Photocritical | Dreamstime.com

© Photocritical | Dreamstime.com

That was the key. I used to insist on writing all of my stories with pen in a notebook. My handwriting deteriorated the longer and faster I wrote, but I was convinced that it was the only way to keep the flow. Because I couldn’t type for beans. Well, eventually I reached the point where I knew that wasn’t going to cut it. I had to learn to type like my Mom. I had seriously old fashioned typing classes using manual typewriters that looked and smelled like they came from the 1960s when I was in eighth grade, but it wasn’t until I was in college really that I got serious about typing.

Mario taught me to type. I was working as a teacher’s aide in the special ed department of my old high school. We had a Mario typing program that we had the kids use when they had some free time. I took the discs home after school for a while and buckled down. The idea of the program was that you, as Mario, had to hit the right letters or numbers to defeat the bad mushrooms, or whatever they were, that came at you with increasing speed. At least I think that’s how it worked. I played that game for hours! And I got really good at hitting the right key without looking at the keyboard. I did not, however, learn to hit the right keys with the right fingers. To this day if a typing purist were to watch my hands while I type they would probably have a coronary. But it gets the job done.

I can now type at the speed of my thoughts. Well, maybe not that fast, but pretty close. Certainly far faster than I can write things out by hand. It comes in incredibly handy when I’m in the throes of a particularly deep scene. There are times when I start typing so fast, when the ideas and images and dialog are coming so fast, that I forget I’m even typing. I’m just creating. I also have Word set to auto-correct all of my typical stupid misspellings. So off I go, thoughts spilling out onto paper at miracle speed!

My Mom passed away ten years ago this last April after an eight year battle with breast cancer. I will never be able to type as fast as she could. But when I sit down at my computer with my relatively soft and quiet keyboard and really get going I can feel a hint of her and her rainstorm typing. The sound of my keys reminds me of her, just like the image in the mirror as I get older bears more and more of a resemblance to her. She didn’t live long enough to see my silly scribblings turn into pages and books that people actually want to buy. But I know that she’s proud of me nonetheless, sitting up in Heaven typing miracle words like raindrops.

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My Hero is a 12-Year Old Boy

Image courtesy of Christopher Stadler via Flickr

Image courtesy of Christopher Stadler via Flickr

People talk a lot about role models. “Who is your role model?” is one of the most common questions I’m asked in interviews. I love the question because I believe it’s important for everyone to have someone to look up to, to model your behavior after, and to aspire to be like. So who is my role model? He’s a 12 year-old kid from my church. For the purposes of this post, I’m calling him “Max”, which isn’t anywhere close to his real name, but it happens to be one of my favorite boys names and he’s one of my favorite boys, sooo….

Max is my role model. He doesn’t have any special handicap that makes his life a struggle. He hasn’t exactly overcome long odds, no more than the next person trying to get by in the modern world. Outside observers wouldn’t necessarily consider him special at all, although they would notice right away that there’s something different about him. Max is ridiculously intelligent. No, I mean he’s gifted like great minds of science have been gifted. He was recently telling me all about a book he read recently on paradoxes, and then went on to explain Schrodinger’s Cat…and it made sense. This boy is going to cure cancer and stop global warming and bring world peace, yo.

But that’s not why he’s my role model. Sure, I admire intelligence, but Max has something that goes beyond intelligence. I am always tempted to be worried for him because his social skills are completely different from kids his own age. He talks to adults with perfect ease…blended with childlike enthusiasm. A lot of adults have made the mistake of talking to him like a kid at first, but he always surprises them in a hurry with the scope of his comprehension. He clearly doesn’t fit in perfectly with his peers. Sometimes they look at him a little funny. But when I see him interact with the other kids there isn’t the same sort of dynamic of bullying and ostracism that you would expect to see.

I’m friends with Max’s mom, and I recently expressed my worry that such a unique, old soul would be picked on or made miserable by his peers, especially as teenagerdom looms. You know what she said? Kids don’t bother bullying him. You know why? Because they can’t get a rise out of him. She told me a story about how he accidentally went to school with two entirely different socks last year. One kid tried to tease him by pointing out that he was wearing two different socks. Max’s response? A calm shrug and “And your point is?”

Max is my hero because, at age 12, he is comfortable with who he is and doesn’t let the opinions of others get under his skin. He is fascinated with the world and eager to reach beyond what he’s taught in school to discover things for himself. He engages with everyone as if he is their equal and isn’t afraid to meet you on your own turf or to explain his turf to you.

Wow.

Girl-writing-brightThere are a lot of things I think we can all learn from Max, especially writers. I was a total basket case at that age and I cared from the tips of my toes to the highest hair on my head what people thought about me. I imagined a thousand horrors that would (and frankly did) happen if my peers didn’t like me. I ate my heart out trying to fit in by pushing aside who I knew I was. I think we all do. But Max, for me, is living, breathing, punning, weird sock-wearing proof that even in middle school, if you are who you are and if you wear that person with pride and focus your energies on the things you love, you’re un-bully-able.

Every time we write a book, I can guarantee that somewhere in the backs of our minds is the worry about what people will think of us. We tie ourselves up in knots obsessing over whether we’re writing the right genre, if our characters are engaging, if our prose will appeal to readers. When the reviews come in, we tear our hair if someone didn’t like our writing and get super overexcited when they did. We care what people think. And not in the useful, constructive way.

These days, I’m all about approaching my writing career the way Max approaches life. I know what I write. I’m confident in my abilities, but I’m also always searching for new and better ways to do things. I try to talk as confidently with people who write my genre as I do with those who write other genres. And when those reviews come in, if someone didn’t like the choices my hero or heroine made, well, your point is? Everyone is entitled to their opinions, but I don’t have to let them get under my skin. All I have to do is write.

So kudos to you, Max! I look forward to watching you grow into a teenager. I have a feeling you’re going to be just fine. And I’ll continue to look to you for the way I should be behaving in my career and my life.

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Women at the Fall of Civilizations

TaraThe other day, my friend Felicity and I were sitting around at lunch talking about historical precedent for the decline of civilizations and the people who succeed in creating a new world out of the ashes of failure. Yeah, lunch at our table is like that. I had started out talking about thematic elements of the sci-fi series, Grace’s Moon, that I’m going to start publishing in July and the backstory for the first book, Saving Grace. But the more we talked about hypotheticals of the future, the more we realized that there are strong correlations to things that have happened in the past. Not only that, we have some pretty spiffy representations of building a new world out of the old in popular entertainment!

I am, of course, talking about the shocking similarities between Scarlett O’Hara and the world she lived in and the changes it saw and Lady Mary Crawley, her world and its changes. Like a proverbial light bulb going off over my head, it dawned on me that these two women have a whole lot in common. They are survivors of two cataclysmic changes that ripped the carpet out from under the feet of their class contemporaries.

There are a lot of parallels that can be made between the antebellum South and British nobility in the early 20th century. Both societies were built on strong class foundations that went back for generations. Old families had old money and the estates to prove it. Southern plantations were their own little empires, just as the great estates of the British nobility were reminders of Europe’s feudal past. The social order was strictly maintained. Granted, you can’t exactly compare Southern slaves with British estate downstairs staff, but the gap between rich and poor was there in both cases.

Downton AbbeyThen came the change. In both cases, change was brought on by war. Also in both cases, the societies in question had begun to teeter a little before the war. The Southern economy was a real problem as technology advanced. The very agrarian dependence that had made them great was slowly becoming a handicap as the means of manufacturing were located increasingly in the North. For early 20th century Britain, the economic problems were coming in the form of grand estates going bankrupt, also as wider economic demands shifted to cities and factories and away from the old agrarian center. War merely forced the issue in both cases.

As both Scarlett and Lady Mary were quick to grasp, the only way to hold onto what they had and what they loved was to change to fit the changing times. The very title Gone With the Wind is a sad commentary about what happened to most of the great Southern plantations and families. They folded under the weight of their unpreparedness. But not Scarlett. Scarlett was shrewd and a little bit merciless. She saw what was going on and did whatever it took to salvage what was hers. Whether that meant going out and working in the fields so that she could eat or marrying a man she didn’t like so that she could take over his mill, she was willing to do it. She had her faults, but blindness was not one of them.

The same goes for Lady Mary. Although the salvation of Downton Abbey in a time when all of her peers were losing their estates to bankruptcy was not quite a single-handed (or close to it) effort, like Scarlett’s, she certainly saw which way the wind was blowing. If you boil it down, the entire plot of Downton Abbey is that the estate belongs, in spirit if not in name, to Mary, and come hell or high water, she is going to save it. Whether that means marrying the heir (which worked out nicely, considering she loved him) or getting down and dirty with the pigs, she is willing to do it. What she doesn’t know, she learns (which is why she and Tom Branson make such a great team, imho). She will save that estate while all the others fall.

Scarlett_MaryI think it’s more than just a literary coincidence that both Tara and Downton Abbey were saved by strong women. Women’s history is all too often swept under the carpet of academic study, but we can still find it in literature and personal accounts. Whether it’s the Civil War or WWI, when the men went off to fight, the women stayed home and ran their estates. Men may have controlled politics, but you can easily make the case that women ran the economy. More than a few great estates survived wars because clever women were behind the wheel. It’s just a shame that they had to hand over the reins once their men came home. Although if you dig a little, it’s pretty apparent that in many cases they didn’t.

So here’s to you, Scarlett and Mary! I hope that we have strong women like you around when our modern house of cards falls down.

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