Today my book proposal went to the publisher’s desk for the second time. Well, not just HIS desk. The heads of every department, from distribution to graphics, gather for semi regular meetings to discuss which book they’re going to invest 1000’s of dollars in before throwing it onto the quivering, leprosy-stricken remains of the publishing industry (Amazon you magnificent bastard…I hate you but I can’t quit you.)
An wonderful editor from that firm (a respected imprint of the largest publishing house on the planet, SKWWEEEEE!!!) wrote me in April, and suggested she and I try to make a book of mine one of those precious offerings.
The process is excruciating. My first proposal was sent back for being too weird. I thought it was hilarious. My second, better, but “here are some changes that might make us condsider thinking about perhaps greenlighting it maybe.” Today’s brainstorming session ended with ideas along the line that I should wash my own menstrual belt in the soap I brewed from lye and lard while wearing a corset and treating my husband like the God all 19th century advice manuels say he is, and write about it.
I can’t deny that would be a funny, sellable book. But my god…the effort. The planning. I was floored. I couldn’t form a coherent thought by the time I hung up with my editor. No wait, I could. And it was, “Who the hell is going to lend me a chamber pot to poop in and how will I keep the dog out of it?”
And I do not enjoy having thoughts like that.
So I went, overwhelmed, to the County Historical Museum, my thinky-place. Plus I thought all those sweet retired volunteers that run the joint might be able to help. I mean, they were history nerds too, right? I was sitting in front of the doors when they came to unlock it.
Well, no one knew where to find a pit toilet, a woodburning oven, or a pattern for a 2x shirtwaist. (BTW I am also simply too fat to accurately recreate many of the experiences of the 19th century. My weight could not be maintained against all the physical demands of that time. Walking to the store to buy flour instead of Little Debbies, and walking to church and…oh god just walking. Bending, lifting…leading cows places…just no. “Oh but hey!” my 18 year old babysitter sang out, “If you’re fat, that would mean you were really RICH back then!” That’s a lovely point, dear, thank you.)
They did try to help, tho. One woman graciously took me upstairs to all the domestic exhibits, peeling back the ropes to let me TOUCH everything. Which….I don’t know. Imagine Homer Simpson dancing and giggling in that fountain of beer spouting from an overturned Duff truck. That was me.
The problem was, somewhere along the way I’ve become..obnoxiously knowledgable about the 19th and early 20th centuries. Sometimes I’d ask the lady escorting me details about things I didn’t recognize.
“No I don’t think it’s 19th century…the design that sorta looks like rising towers? That’s definately art deco. Plus I’m pretty sure this is Bakelite. Bakelite? It’s…like the first plastic? From the 20s? Here, feel. Distinct weight and texture, very valuable.”
“N…no that probably wasn’t a butter churn. The cream had to be be whipped quick with the dasher to get air into it…and that’s…well…made of iron with a heavy screw lid on top…it’s a cider press, actually.”
“Menstrual belt. M…Menstrual belt? I mean it’s…they didn’t stop using them till the 70’s…didn’t you…uh..didn’t your mother have one? For menstruating, actually. You wore it round your…No… it…YES! Sanitary Belt. Yes I’m sorry that was the nice name for it. Oh good, you know that one!”
That was me talking.
All of it. She was a community-minded sweet woman who had apparently found better uses for her time than reading every single line of print in a 1908 Sears & Roebuck catalog. Also, the folks there…you know Oregon’s not been around long. The stuff in that museum, it’s not from another universe for them like it is for me. For some of them it’s their own damn childhood. It’s like me curating a display 1980’s kitchen appliances and toothpaste tubes.
And if I sound like a condescending know-it-all historical douche bag, that’s because I AM. But I thought a historical museum crowd would be like…where I could let my freak flag fly. No more conforming to the rigid social standards imposed by a culture that refuses to accept how fascinating 100 year old underpants are, or how superb a skin treatment sugar of lead could provide.
Of course it did get a bit worse. The same lady, who I cannot emphasize enough was WONDERFUL, introduced me to their resident author. A very elderly gentleman who’d written and self published thorough histories of our area, which I’ve actually read and enjoyed. He sat down and listened to my research woes, with the face of a serious historian. Then he advised:
“The first thing you are to do. The first thing. Is go on the Internet. And Google the word’s “1800s” and key words relating to your topic.”
Me: “…..slow exhalation……”
Thank god he was so earnest, fingers steepled, kindly giving me his full attention. Because in my head awkward-silence crickets begin to chirp, and I usually fill that void with even more awkward laughter.
I don’t think he’d understood me when I told him what I actually do for a living. Because it’s pretty much that, that thing he told me to do, all day. I’ve gone beyond what the internet can tell me. I’m beyond collecting old books. I’m at the stage where I dig through dead people’s farmhouses looking for hidden sex books and any stain that might tell a story. I invite myself to sit down with strangers in restaurants just because they look really super old and I want to breathe their same air.
But I did it, y’know. Just to see. I typed my “19th Century” and some random key words into Google. The most helpful article was the fourth hit.
Unfortuntely I’m the one who wrote it.
(yes…that was a backdoor brag. Just let me have this tiny pit of glory.)