My name is Susan Bailey and I find the life of Louisa May Alcott endlessly fascinating. I come from New England (specifically Massachusetts) and my family has been here in one form or another since the 1630′s. I live fairly close to Concord, MA where Orchard House, the homestead of the Alcotts, is located, and visit often. Every few years or so I go on a reading ‘binge’ about Louisa and this time around was so good, I just had to start a blog about my passion. The binge, by the way, still goes on!
I’ve been happily married for over 30 years and my husband is a deacon in the Melkite Church (Eastern Catholic – I am Roman Catholic). We are proud parents of a grown son and daughter.
I’ve worked happily for the last 17 years at Rutledge Properties in Wellesley, MA, supporting the agents in the office.
And in my ‘other life,’ I’ve performed, written and recorded music exploring my Catholic faith. I have a website (www.susanbailey.net) where you can hear samples and find out more about this. I sing at various masses at my home parish of St. Luke the Evangelist in Westboro, MA.
Other interests include history (especially photographic), nature (especially bird watching), and I have the same ‘inordinate love of cats’ that Louisa had. :-)
I am pleased to announce that I have completed the first draft of chapter 2 which focuses on the Alcott family’s first home in Concord. This was a fun chapter to write as there was much to say about the sisters. There are a couple of revealing letters from Bronson to Lizzie plus reminiscences from Lizzie’s best friend and next-door neighbor at the time, Lydia Hosmer.
Now that I have finally figured out the methodology for writing this book (and that has taken years as I am teaching myself), the writing goes along much faster. And as I edit, I learn new things — how will I make this book read like a novel rather than just a regurgitating of facts? What words and methods will I use to make the reader feel Lizzie’s story? And how will I make this story interesting to readers who are not familiar with the Alcotts and Little Women?
They say the writing is the best part of being an author (even over being published). I agree — I love this process! I’m still pinching myself that I am retired and get to do this every day. Life is good!
This is a series of scenes that I wrote for fun a few years ago. Sometimes I wish I didn’t work so slowly! I hope I stay healthy long enough to write a novel as well as a biography. I really love taking Lizzie’s point of view and seeing life as I imagine it through her eyes. But I can always write scenes. 🙂
This is the first draft.
Memories of Father
My first memory was of his face. It was a kind face with blue eyes like still pools, and I could see myself in them. Such a sweet countenance, one I could look at from morning till night. It broke into a smile, and a quiet voice spoke my name: “Elizabeth.” My arms shot up in an instant, hoping he would lift me. He granted my wish, and as I snuggled close to his chest, he looked into my face and kissed my cheek with tenderness. I giggled, the lovesick babe that I was, and ran my fingers through his silky blond hair. He’d always let me explore his face with my hands. I’d touch the pronounced yet noble nose which I later realized resembled mine, the decided chin, and those lips that spoke in sweet and soothing tones.
Father loved to tell of how he would take me from my crib in the late evening and tiptoe down the stairs so as not to awaken Mother, who was exhausted from her duties around the house. He’d lay me in the cradle next to the fireplace in the parlor, quiet and empty after a busy day. It was Father’s favorite time to ponder great spiritual mysteries and write about them in his journal. He described how he would carry me around the room, amused and transfixed by the expressions on my face as I marveled at the dancing orange and yellow flames in the fireplace and the flickering shadows that made the statues and pictures in the room come alive.
“My dear Elizabeth,” he would say, “you are the key. Inside of you is the secret to everything I have been searching for. Beautiful flame, yet more beautiful gazer …” and I heard a sigh of contentment that matched my own.
I never understood much of what my father said, but I didn’t have to. All we had to do was just to be together. We saw each other so clearly through the blue eyes that we shared. We shared many things: soft voices, a love of flowers, plants, and trees, the craving for stillness and order, and the ability to be content, wherever we might be.
My sisters, Louie and Annie, were not quiet. And I couldn’t wait to be able to run after them and join in their fun.
“Lizzie, come here,” Louie said one day. “Look at what I have for you.”
She pointed to a stack of building blocks in the middle of the floor of Father’s study. “Ohh!” I said, looking at all those colorful blocks. Louie and Annie smiled in an impish sort of way as they saw my eyes grow round, and a smile spread quickly on my face. They knew how much I loved pretty things. After running over to take possession of my newfound treasure, I plopped down on the floor and started to play, examining each block and then stacking them as high as they could go. I could hear my sisters whispering and giggling in the background, but I didn’t pay any attention to them.
“Annie, here, take these books,” said Louie.
“What are we going to do?”
“You’ll see …”
A wall of books grew around me on all sides, but I didn’t care. The blocks were so pretty. I set them all in a perfect row and ran my pudgy finger over each one, up and down the little bumps and crevices created by some magical toymaker. I picked one up and pressed it close to my nose — Mmmmm! I wanted to make a castle out of them where princesses lived, just like in the stories I’d hear from Mother. A staircase appeared, leading to a window, and I walked my fingers up to the window, thinking of a beautiful princess with the wind blowing through her hair as she leaned out the window.
“Look at her! She doesn’t even care that we’ve built a fortress around her,” I heard Louie say.
Annie giggled. “She can’t take her eyes off those blocks. Don’t you think, though, we should leave a way for her to get out?”
“Oh no, where’s the fun in that?” Let’s see how long it takes for her to beg us to let her out.”
I don’t have any idea how long I played with those blocks. The room was warm, and as the light of day faded, I soon found my head drooping. Curling up around the rows and stacks of blocks, I settled in for a nap, curling up just like my kittens. I tried to purr, puckering my mouth just so, but all that came out were puffs of air, so I mewed softly to myself instead.
I awoke with a start at the sound of my name. “Elizabeth? Elizabeth, where are you? Girls, where is your sister?”
Sitting up, I rubbed my eyes to see a stack of books come tumbling down with a big crash. My sisters peered in, smiling but looking guilty too.
“Lizzy, there you are, my darling, come to Mar Mar,” and my mother’s strong arms lifted me off the ground. “What happened here?” And she turned to look at Annie and Louie.
Annie looked down at the ground. “We’re sorry, Marmee.” She cast a quick glance at Louie, who then piped up, “We thought it would be fun to build a fortress around our little princess! Lizzy, you didn’t mind at all, did you?”
Holding up a block I had clutched when Marmee picked me up, I smiled.
Marmee always marveled at how I could never stop smiling. “Why Lizzy, you smile on everything as if love was as cheap as dirt,” she’d say. It’s true. I was blessed with an even temperament, much like Father’s. It just seemed like the inside of my soul was one beautiful garden full of buttercups, daisies, and violets gently bending with the breeze. As a child, the stirrings inside were gentle, never violent; hills and valleys were not steep, and storms would quickly pass. I took great pleasure in watching the world go by and then turning over in my mind all that I had seen.
Big sis, little sis
Annie was like me; we both loved to dream. Sitting close to her, she would brush my long hair before bedtime, and we’d pretend to be angels, flapping our “wings” and giggling. She would tell me things that Father had told her, especially about the Good Man who loved children and the poor. I looked at my favorite picture on the wall of Jesus blessing and kissing the little children, and I wanted to spread my wings and fly right up to that picture and kiss His cheek.
Sometimes I’d find Annie sitting quietly and looking at me as I organized my blocks, placed all the seashells I collected in a perfect row, or put my dollies to bed, giving each one of them a gentle pat and a kiss. She was like a second mother to me, teaching me my lessons when Father was away and showing me how to take good care of the house just like Marmee did. We both considered it a great privilege to straighten up Marmee’s room, making sure the bed was carefully made, plumping the pillows so that she could sink her head into them at the end of a long day. The bureau with all its trinkets was carefully dusted, each item put in its place. I admit there were times when we’d both stand in front of the mirror, taking her combs and trying to pile our long hair on top of our heads. Mine was so straight and slippery! Annie’s hair had some curl, so she could manage to make a nice bun out of it. “How’s this?” she’d say, and I always told her, “You look so grown up, just like Marmee!”=
Louie was a different sort, so full of fire and energy. There was never a day she didn’t come home from playing at the Hosmer’s with a bump on the head, cuts on her knees, or mud all over her dress. Mother refused to buy her girls’ shoes and made her wear boy’s boots; she clumped around happily in them! She could make anything exciting and loved to tell of her adventures. I envied how bold Louie was; she would try anything! My body wasn’t as strong as hers, so I was afraid to climb the tall trees as she did (the crab apple tree was fine with me). She’d climb to the very top and entice me with tales of seeing all of Concord and Walden Pond. “Come on, Lizzie, you can do it!” she’d say, and at that moment, I’d wish I really was a fairy so I could fly right up there with her. And how she could roll hoops! I could roll the little ones, but she could roll hoops taller than herself. In fact, she could roll hoops better than any boy on the block and would never call any boy her friend until she beat him at hoop rolling. That Cyrus Hosmer, he’d always daring her to try things, and she’d do them, just to prove how tough she was. Why he even dared her to climb to the top of the barn and jump down. She was unceremoniously carried home in a wheelbarrow with two sprained ankles, beaming with satisfaction.
Louie told wonderful stories, especially at night with the lights out, spinning tales of ghosts, witches, and goblins. She’d get Annie going, and Annie would add princesses whisked away by evil princes on horseback. With mouth open, leaning forward, I would drink in every word. I knew I could never tell stories as they did, but that didn’t matter. It was a privilege to be their audience.
I’ll never forget when Baby came to us. At first, she had no hair, but it was a mass of blond curls when it grew in. Father called her his little Queen. They named her Abby May, and she looked just like the cherub Father would describe to us, round and golden with rosy cheeks. Annie was so lucky; she got to take care of her when she began to walk. I wanted that job but knew I wasn’t old enough.
Abby loved to draw, and from the moment she could pick up a pencil or a crayon, she’d scribble on something, whatever was around. She’d even draw with her fingers on the floor. Making mud pies with her was the most fun. She’d squeal, digging into the dirt and using the water from the brook to mold it like clay into all sorts of interesting shapes. I couldn’t make those shapes, but I loved the feel of the moist dirt against my hands, lifting up a handful and taking in the sweet scent. I knew Marmee would scold us for getting our dresses so dirty, but I’d help with the scrubbing; it was the least I could do.
I am pleased to announce that I have finished the rough draft of Chapter One of my Lizzie book. After extensive research and nine years of stops and starts, I am finally getting this down on paper. It feels terrific!
I needed a strategy in putting together this book, and it took a long time to figure it out. Once solved, the writing went so much faster. I stumbled upon the answer while reading about writing a fiction novel. The book, Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland taught me how to build and use chronological order as the framework while still focusing on themes. My natural tendency is to be a thematic writer, and I am also very much into process. These two things can confuse the reader because exploring themes and processes can make the story hard to follow. I discovered this after writing three previous drafts of this chapter (I am slow, but I get it eventually. :-)) I followed a strict chronological order governed by an actual calendar of each year. Linking the day of the week to the date made each event more real to me.
My first step was to consult the primary source journals and letters to get actual dates. Then I filled in the gaps with the secondary sources. It helped keep me organized and focused.
I have a little confession to make. For the longest time, I’ve had this sense that I was working against the clock. It’s not that I’m all that old at 64, but I keep remembering how Madelon Bedell could not finish her second volume of her Alcott biography (which was on the sisters) because she died of cancer. I can’t even imagine how she must have felt knowing that she would not be able to finish. I did not want the same thing to happen to me, but I was having difficulty getting anywhere with this book until now.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone in very different ways. For me, it resulted in anxiety and depression, a severe body tremor, and the loss of my job of 27 years. Losing that job (and being able to collect unemployment) opened up the opportunity to focus on my health. I had several symptoms that affected the quality of life. After nine months of trying out various medications and going to physical therapy, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Fortunately, the medicine that I am taking has alleviated most of the symptoms, making me productive again. As a result of the diagnosis, I decided to retire, which now leaves me lots of time to focus on this book.
Knowing I have Parkinson’s does indeed put a deadline on my work. It is hard to say how long I can mitigate the symptoms. But this just fuels my desire all the more to get this done. I am thankful that I have at least some warning regarding my health as it is sharpening my focus on my work. It’s all a good thing.
Especially since I finished the draft of Chapter One!
In a small way, all this helps me to relate to my dear Lizzie all the more.
I was surprised to find this and wish it were longer. It’s a wonderful comparison between Beth/Lizzie’s courage in caring (in a hands-on fashion) for someone with a highly contagious disease and the brave Ebola workers.
At one time I considered writing Lizzie’s story as historical fiction. In that way I could go into her head and heart in a deeper way and speculate to my heart’s desire.
The problem is I have no idea how to write fiction. I never even read fiction. I have a feeling I would be a slave to the facts when the story in fact, is paramount.
But, I did try to write a couple of scenes. Here’s one I wrote several years ago. In reading this scene, it makes me want to try some more, just to get the words to flow.
The setting for this scene is Boston in 1852.
A thick fog veiled the city in mist. It chilled Louisa as she walked down the street in long strides, swerving to avoid the endless stream of bodies at every turn. As she fingered the few pennies in her purse, a sigh escaped from her lips. A flicker of warmth permeated her body as she imagined the dear faces, but it soon dissipated. There was no victory today. Continue reading “A day in the life of Lizzie Alcott … a fiction approach”→
I spent some time over Christmas break beefing up my writing room. The room had previously worked when I wrote my spiritual memoir a few years back. The organization of that book was simple and I’d write on my tablet in a comfy chair and not have to worry about having a lot of space.
It is so different this time around! There are piles of books and papers everywhere. My mind is in overdrive and my emotions raw. The words I have set down so far present a confusing and unfocused account. The story that is so clear in my mind lacks continuity on the screen. I vacillate between being a storyteller, a journalist (“just the facts”) and a lawyer arguing a case. It’s all so chaotic at times. Continue reading “A new book on Lizzie Alcott needs a new work place – planning my writing room”→
I have begun work at last on a biography of Elisabeth* Sewall Alcott; she is best known as the real life prototype of Beth March of Little Women, written by her older sister, Louisa May Alcott. After spending nearly 8 years researching her life, I am ready to write about it.
Diary of a biography
Writing such a book can take years to complete and the enormity of the task is overwhelming at times. This plus the fact that I am learning so many interesting aspects of writing biography inspired me to create this diary so that you can share in the experience. As I work through the steep learning curve of writing this book, I am hoping these posts will offer information that aspiring biographers will find helpful. It is also a way to hold myself accountable to you – to work in a disciplined manner and to keep you updated on the progress of the book.