A Conservationist At Heart

Homes on Beacon Hill

Homes on Beacon Hill

By Ramona Flightner/ @ramonaflightner

At heart, I know I am a conservationist. I am happiest when I am in a forest with no one else nearby. At the same time, I love old neighborhoods where I can envision what life was like a hundred years ago. I close my eyes and I hear the clip-clop of horse’s hooves, the clicking of women’s shoes and the rustle of their long skirts as they stroll by me. I think my love of wild spaces and old places are two sides of the same coin.

Louisberg Square, Beacon Hill

Louisburg Square, Beacon Hill

Building on Charles Street, Boston

Building on Charles Street, Boston

On Sunday, I decided to go on a short ramble through parts of Boston. I walked around Beacon Hill, strolled through Louisburg Square and then down to Charles Street. As I walked along Charles Street, I envisioned Clarissa, the main character in my novels, taking the same walk. I studied the architecture, noting buildings and architectural details that would have been present in 1900. I tried to imagine what it looked like then with carriages and delivery carts vying for the right of way.

I turned onto Cambridge Street (across from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and the Liberty Hotel), again wishing that what I was seeing was not truly across the street from me. To my right were the old brick buildings on the edge of Beacon Hill. To my left were the recently constructed, concrete monoliths standing on what had been the vibrant West End. Instead of an interesting, ethnic neighborhood, I saw a sterile area devoid of any charm.

When I look at old pictures of Boston, Beacon Hill seems to flow seamlessly into the West End. There is no easy demarcation of one neighborhood from the other. Today, it is easy to see where one ends and the other begins. The charming streets with gaslights, brick buildings, and old wrought iron gates of Beacon Hill end abruptly on the southern side of Cambridge Street.

In my attempt to understand what the West End was like, I have to find “old-timers” who remember the neighborhood before it was destroyed in the late 1950’s. I speak with my neighbors and enjoy listening to their stories about the West End and what a wonderful place it was. I have visited the West End Museum. And yet, nothing will ever be able to recapture what was lost.

One of the remaining buildings on Blossom Street that Clarissa would have walked past

One of the remaining buildings on Blossom Street that Clarissa would have walked past

As I continued my amble, I turned left onto Blossom Street because Clarissa taught at a school that no longer stands on that street. There are two brick buildings, now part of MGH, that appear to be from the time Clarissa would have taught. One was hidden behind scaffolding so I took a picture of the other one.

I continued to wander through the neighborhood at noon on a Sunday. The streets were eerily quiet, although I realized that there were no stoops for neighbors to sit on. No easy way to form a cohesive sense of community. Only high-rise apartment buildings interspersed amongst the hospital buildings.

Beautiful preserved building near the Bulfinch Triangle

Beautiful preserved building near the Bulfinch Triangle from 1887

Soon I was near North Station and the Boston Garden. I glanced toward the buildings around the Garden, and I did not have to close my eyes to envision what it had been. The new building formed a bland palette that allowed itself to be easily ignored and superimposed by my memory of a photograph of the glorious North Union Station.

The Custom's House

The Custom’s House, Boston

The Ames Building

The Ames Building

I know that many will argue that cities must change with the times, that older buildings are impractical and would cost too much to bring up to modern standards. However, when I look around the Boston skyline, it’s not the new, soulless glass monoliths rising into the sky that draw my attention. It’s buildings like the Customs House or the Ames Building. It’s neighborhoods like Beacon Hill, the North End, the Back Bay and the South End that draw the tourists and give Boston its charm. Each neighborhood has its own distinct, rich history. I hope we have learned that once a building, or neighborhood, has been torn down, there is no way to replace what we have lost. And what we have lost might be more precious than we could ever have imagined.

Which would you prefer to walk past today?

Boston’s North Union Station, 1897, via Boston Architectural Club Catalog courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Boston Gardens/ North Station area today

Looking at the same place as above. The Boston Garden/ North Station area today.

The Joy of Reading

By Ramona Flightner/ @ramonaflightner

My muse has been silent. While I try not to fret at her absence, I have focused my energies on learning about book marketing and web design. As I learn more about each, I am coming to like them more and more.

My muse’s vacation has allowed me to read. When she is busy nattering in my ear, waking me in the middle of the night, I do not read as much as I would like because instead of hearing her voice, I hear the voices of other writers. Thus, when I am in full writing mode, my “to be read” pile grows.

Now that she is sunning herself by a quiet mountain stream, I have devoured books. So far, I’ve read three books in three days. I know that will slow down a bit, but I am really enjoying seeing how others build worlds with words. I have read a non-fiction, a memoir, and a historical. And I have enjoyed them all. Of course, I have also read the requisite book on marketing, but that doesn’t count toward my learning more about the craft of writing.

As I read, I try to ignore the voice in my head that says, “I really like how the author did that.” Or, “that didn’t work so well there.” Or “maybe I should try something like this.” I want to read for the pleasure of reading. However, at times I find it hard to turn off my writer’s brain. I delight in a perfectly worded sentence or metaphor, setting aside the book to say the line over and over, allowing the words to flow off my tongue as I smile. I envision the nearly unimaginable hours the authors toiled over their tomes, the edits, the checking of historical facts, the nervous anticipation as they told the first person, “I wrote a book.”

Now, as a writer having written two books and working on number three, I understand what it takes to not only write, but to become an author. I know the sacrifices, especially the isolation: the parties missed, the inability to join in office talk about the latest TV shows because my head was filled with my characters rather than someone else’s, the hours alone as I typed word after word. The absolute love of my story that has allowed me to read it more times than I can count and edit it nearly as many. And yet, every sacrifice was worth it.

Soon, I will send my novel out into the world, to be read, judged, and, hopefully, shared. I hope a line in my book will cause a reader to pause as she repeats it over and over with a smile as the words roll off her tongue. For now, I will delight in the novels I am reading, appreciative of all the work entailed in creating new worlds with words.

The Challenges of Self-Publishing

By Ramona Flightner/ @ramonaflightner

When I decided to dare to write a book, I began to write for the joy of it. I loved almost every aspect of it except writer’s block. Even that I began to see as my body’s way of giving me a much needed respite. I naively believed that I would write the book, find an agent, sell to a publisher and then sit at my computer again as I worked on my next book. What rose-tinted glasses I wore!

Now that I have decided to self-publish, I am learning just how complicated the entire process is. I decided to make a quick list of all the things I needed to do before my book comes out and I hit “to do #20” without even having to think hard. That’s when I started to have heart palpitations. Then, I took a deep breath and realized that everything would get done, but I just needed to prioritize and slowly check things off of my list.

One of the things I am learning a lot about is marketing. I read a wonderful book, How to Market Your Book by Joanna Penn. It is filled with vital information and I have read some parts more than once as it is very dense and it is hard to grasp all of the relevant information during the first read. I made the mistake of reading it at night before trying to fall asleep and spent a few restless nights thinking about all of the things I had yet to do. I learned to read it only during the day.

I am working with a professional editor, cover designer, and just found a web designer. It is all rather overwhelming, and yet rewarding at the same time. A few times I have muttered to myself that if I had known all this was entailed when I started writing, I never would have begun, but I know that is a lie. I love writing and cannot imagine stopping and I am trying to cultivate the same enthusiasm for marketing.

I spend hours on the web, reading blogs, learning different expert’s opinions and then trying to mold them into something relevant for my experience. I weigh their differing advice, knowing that there is no perfect way to do anything and that my needs are different from everyone else’s. It is all a work in progress, and I am amazed at how much there is to learn.

What do you like most about marketing? The least? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Unexpected Visitors

The beautiful lake with Trapper Peak in the background

The beautiful lake with Trapper Peak in the background

By Ramona Flightner/ @ramonaflightner

As anyone who reads my blog knows, I love to be outside in nature, especially in Montana. I love escaping crowds, disappearing into the woods, removed from civilization and my everyday worries. I always thought that people who were afraid of the woods would not venture into them. I was proven wrong this summer on my hike to a beautiful, mountain lake in the Bitterroots.

I sat at the lake, relishing peace and tranquility as I stared at the lake and Trapper Peak. I watched the crystal clear lake waters, seeing the fish zoom around as they searched for food. They would play with my fly, but wouldn’t strike, so I sat, giving thanks for such a moment.

A beautiful fish swimming in the lake

A beautiful fish swimming in the lake

The words “peace” and “tranquility” became distant memories as a family of four and their dog trampled up to the lake. One son screamed, “There’s people here!” and I glanced around to see who else he was referring to. I realized he meant me. Soon, the two young sons began screaming at each other, threatening to push each other into the frigid waters with their dad egging them on. Their voices echoed off the granite walls, drowning out all sounds of nature. I gave my small, impersonal Montana smile- the one that says hello, but doesn’t encourage interaction- inwardly grimacing, and wondered how long they’d stay.

At my smile, they wandered over and began to chat. I learned they were from the East, vacationing in Montana for a week and hoped to hike to the top of Trapper Peak that day. As I tried to gently dissuade them of that notion, (it was already past 2 pm and they didn’t seem the most intrepid of hikers), I noticed the father carrying an automatic rifle. He informed me that he had not been able to buy a handgun due to state regulations, so he had bought the rifle instead to protect his dog against any wild animals that might attack. But not to worry- it wasn’t loaded. I wondered how he thought he would protect his family or dog while he loaded the gun. Then, I gave thanks that it was unloaded as I would hate for them to hear my brother and sister-in-law, who were further up the trail, in the woods and mistake them for wild animals.

Soon, they were peppering me with questions about my safety in the woods. What had I brought to stay safe? Wasn’t I afraid of bears? What would happen if the “bad” wolves attacked? Or a mountain lion?

I barely stifled a laugh as I answered their questions, although nothing I said alleviated their fears. They seemed dumbfounded that I had nothing. When I tried to explain to them that this was not grizzly territory, so I was not inclined to bring bear spray, the wife continued to talk about the “bad wolves.”

Someone had done a good job of terrifying them and they would not feel safe without their rifle and two cans of bear spray. Unfortunately, the mom had mislaid one of the cans and would not relax until she had found it. She and a son went to look for it a ways down the trail, but the son wouldn’t go unless they carried the gun. I again wondered what good it would do since it wasn’t loaded.

In the meantime, the dad stood leaning against a rock slapping his leg every few seconds as the horseflies nibbled on him. I offered him my bug spray, but he declined. “You know, that’s how the Viet Cong smelled the Americans in ‘Nam,” he said. What that had to do with the Bitterroots in 2013, I don’t know, but I just nodded, thankful the horseflies had decided on him for lunch rather than me.

Finally, they packed up to continue their hike. As they were leaving, the mom exclaimed about there being a clothesline hanging from one of the trees. I shook my head at her ignorance, but had given up trying to explain things. It was a rope to hang your food from at night out of reach of the bears, away from a campsite. I wished them a good hike, hopeful they were not foolish enough to attempt the hike to Trapper Peak.

After they circled the lake and disappeared, their voices slowly faded and I could again hear the birds calling, appreciate the gentle wind on my face, and hear the sound as a fish rose. I sighed, marveling at their fortitude to venture into a wilderness that terrified them. Then I frowned as I mentally reprimanded the Montanan who had enjoyed scaring them and making money off of their foolishness. Finally, I laughed, because they were memorable and unexpected visitors as I sat contemplating the beauty of the lake.

after the family left, a bit more cloudy

On Fly Fishing and Writing

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By Ramona Flightner/ @ramonaflightner

While home in Montana for a visit, I went fly fishing a few times. I love to fly fish. Being on the river brings me tremendous peace and even if I do not catch a fish, watching nature around me is reward enough. This year, as I was standing knee deep in rippling water, I realized how much fishing has taught me about writing.

1. I have learned that with both writing and fly fishing, a great amount of patience is required. As I fish, I know that I am fortunate to induce a fish to strike while I am out on the river. With writing, I have learned that I must set aside my work in progress, give it a few months to rest, before I return to it with fresh eyes so that I can edit it more clearly. Flaws in the story line or prose that were not evident before I set it aside become clear and the editing is easier. When I first started writing, I remember reading the advice to set aside my work for a period of time. That seemed impossible. I was eager to share my work, naively confident I did not need more editing. But with time comes patience and a better understanding of craft. My writing and work in progress have only improved due to my patience.

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2. As with fly fishing, writing takes a lot of practice. Learning how to cast well and learning how to choose the correct fly takes time and a tremendous amount of repetition and practice. The more I write, the more I have learned the craft and the less editing I need to do. I look back on the heavy editing I did with my first book and I realize how far I have come. As with anything, the more I continue to write (or fish), the better I become.

3. Unless it is very early or late in the season, I believe that real men (and women) don’t wear waders. I don a thin pair of pants I do not care if I get wet, a pair of Keens or Teva’s and wade into the river, often up to mid thigh. For me, waders impede my ability to feel like I am a part of the environment. There is a sensual delight in wading in rushing river waters and getting wet. For me it is an integral part of fishing. I feel more in tune with nature and I feel like I have had an authentic experience. With writing, this means immersing myself in the experience. Taking a blacksmithing class and learning what it feels like to strike hard pieces of iron and forging them into something beautiful. Or taking a mining tour, going down a mining shaft, smelling the dank air, and envisioning the hours in near absolute darkness. I am the type of writer who needs hands-on-experience, who cannot surmise all that is needed to describe and envision my character’s lives by reading descriptions in a book. I need to immerse myself as much as possible in the experiences they had in 1900.

4. When I fly fish, I make some dreadful casts. Sometimes I laugh at myself because they are truly awful, other times I look around, hoping my brother or friend was not paying attention to see my cast. Not every cast can be pretty or go exactly where I want it to go. However, I know that I can recast and, even if it takes a few tries, I will eventually reach the riffle I want. In writing, not every word is perfect, especially in the first draft. I have learned that the first draft is to capture my ideas as my muse speaks to me. If I can not think of a word at that moment, I leave an X, an indication to myself that a perfect word exists, but I don’t know what it is at that time and I do not want to spend that moment searching for it. I did not like editing at first, but now I have grown to like it. I enjoy watching my story change and grow and become more polished.

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5. As I stand in the river, watching my fly float down the current, I love observing nature. I love studying the new hatches of flies that come out, hoping that the fly I have tied on is similar to the ones I see flying around me. I love watching the osprey fly overhead or hearing the kingfisher give it’s rattling call before it swoops by. I become more observant. Writing has also made me more observant. I now notice the different types of architecture. When I enter rooms I look all around to see if there is period detailing such as a beautiful ceiling or an oak bar. I study people: how they walk, talk, and interact with each other. I am fascinated by the world around me.

Fishing brings me peace, centers me, allows me to breathe deeply and makes the world outside of the river and canyon fade away. I forget my worries as the warm breeze soughs through the trees, the pine scented wind caressing me as it journeys down the canyon. Writing makes my soul sing, and as I sit immersed in a world I have created, I realize it is like fishing for me. My concerns and doubts disappear and I am at peace as though I were thigh deep in river water.

I hope that you, too, have such joy in whatever makes your soul sing.

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The Beauty and Pathos of Bannack, Montana’s First Capitol

Hotel Meade at Bannack

Hotel Meade at Bannack

By Ramona Flightner/ @ramonaflightner

It was with a sinking heart that I read that the ghost town of Bannack had been damaged recently in a flash flood with up to 80% of all buildings suffering some form of damage. I dreaded looking at the photos and seeing the river of water rushing down the main street, destroying everything in its path. As I looked at the pictures, I feared that a part of Montana history had been lost.

Bannack was Montana’s first territorial capital and the site of Montana’s first gold rush in 1862. Gold diggers and shopkeepers arrived and soon a small town had sprouted up with nearly 10,000 living in the narrow canyon in its heydey. Saloons, bakeries, blacksmiths and hotels vied for prosperity, although it proved fleeting. Infamy came in the form of its sheriff, Henry Plummer who ran a gang of thieves. He and a few of his men were hanged as an example, while others were advised to leave the territory and never return. The Plummer gang gave rise to the existence of the Vigilance Committee, a fancy word for the Montana Vigilantes. As a girl, I sat riveted as I listened to the stories of the early days of Montana history, imagining the wild towns and adventurous people who dared to travel and attempt to survive in such a place.

A view up Bannack's main street from the entrance

A view up Bannack’s main street from the entrance

I love Bannack. I remember going to Bannack as a girl, wandering the ghost town, letting my imagination run wild as I explored the preserved buildings. I imagined all sorts of fanciful tales, envisioning the doctor’s life, life at the saloon, the hotel, and the bakery. I know I never envisioned it accurately, always with a romantic tint, but my imagination was alive with what could have been. Now that I am older, and have visited again, I realize that Bannack was a wild enough place that real tales sufficed to entertain and fascinate.

I remember stopping in for Bannack Days when my dad and I did a crazy Saturday drive around Southwest Montana, driving hundreds of miles for the fun of it. I was cramming for my anatomy and physiology final, frantically trying to memorize all the muscles in the body, and my dad sat next to me quizzing me as I drove. Bannack provided a wonderful respite and allowed my imagination to run wild again. I had not yet allowed myself to dream of writing, although my thirst for learning more about history and about Montana was ever present.

The schoolhouse at Bannack

The schoolhouse at Bannack

I will remember Bannack as I last saw it. We visited a few years ago when we drove from Ennis, Montana to Sula. I remember walking slowly up and down each side of the street, visiting the houses, the hotel, saloon, schoolhouse, doctor’s house. The jail intrigued me in a morbid way because its lone window looked toward the gallows. I stood outside the school, glancing up and down the street at the one and two story buildings. A gentle breeze blew, rustling the leaves of a few cottonwoods, the arid earth parched to a burnished gold, and I wondered how the townspeople had eked out a living here. I will hope that they can repair some of the damage. I will hope that my memories of Bannack will not have to suffice and that I will one day be able to explore it again.

Libations at Carrie Nation’s

The Hatchet Heralding My Arrival to Carrie Nation Cocktail Club on Beacon Hill in Boston

The Hatchet Heralding My Arrival to Carrie Nation Cocktail Club on Beacon Hill in Boston

By Ramona Flightner/ @ramonaflightner

Last week, a friend invited me to a new bar on Beacon Hill, Carrie Nation’s Cocktail Club. When I heard the name, I laughed out loud at the sheer irony of honoring one of the most radical members of the temperance movement with such a place. I could not wait to go to see a place that Carrie Nation would have relished destroying in one of her “hachetations.”

Upon arrival, I was drawn to one of the outside display windows with her name and a large hatchet. They also used a hatchet for the “t” in her name, which I thought was quite clever. For those of you who do not know much about Carrie Nation, she used to go into saloons and bars with a hatchet and destroy as much of the bar as possible before either being thrown out or being arrested. Her actions were soon called “hachetations” and she was arrested at least 30 times. I think it is a perfect word for conjuring an image of a tall, righteously indignant woman bent on bending others to her will. She described herself as, “a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what He doesn’t like.” By the early part of the 1900’s, all bars had a sign reading “All Nations Welcome But Carrie.”

A photo of Carrie Nation in the Cocktail Club

A photo of Carrie Nation in the Cocktail Club

When I read quotes by Carrie Nation, I wonder at her life and the life of women at the turn of the 20th Century. I have done quite a bit of research about women and their roles during that time, and yet it is hard to fully understand what being a woman, with few job prospects and unable to vote, would be like. Although I have chosen to focus on Suffragism in my books, I know that many suffragettes were also members of the Temperance Movement. I realized Carrie Nation must have had a rough life to have felt the urge to pick up her hatchet and to proclaim, “Men are nicotine-soaked, beer-besmirched, whiskey-greased, red-eyed devils.”

A Temperance Movement Poster.  What do you think of some of these women's expressions?

A Temperance Movement Poster. What do you think of some of these women’s expressions?

Carrie Nation’s Cocktail Club was light and airy, with beautiful light fixtures styled from the time period. The tables all had claw feet, and there were antiques scattered around the rooms. They had drinks named for lawyers and judges, writers and fighters, cops and robbers. The Volstead. The Scofflaw. People on the take or in positions of power in Boston during Prohibition. Simply reading the menu was an educational experience. I had a punch that was perfect for a hot summer night.

A beautiful light in the Carrie Nation Cocktail Club

A beautiful light in the Carrie Nation Cocktail Club

On the walls in the hallway toward the bathroom were pictures of Carrie Nation and other women of the Temperance Movement. One picture showed children holding a sign saying, “Milk Not Beer.” Although it was easy to look back on the Temperance Movement and Prohibition from today’s perspective and wonder, “what were they thinking?,” pictures like that forced me to examine again what a complex issue it was.

While at Carrie Nation Cocktail Club, I sat facing the bar, and my eyes continually searched for something that seemed to be missing. There were the requisite televisions, shelves for glasses, and beautiful mirrors. It was not until I left that I realized I had not seen the sign, “All Nations Welcome But Carrie.”