Seniors. Superheroes. Not mutually exclusive.

What if the person acquiring an amazing new ability was not a teenager born on Krypton? Was not a young man bitten by a radioactive spider? What if the person was a sixty-something retiree? A sixty-something female retiree?

Before I began my writing career, I was a teacher. Many of my students loved books about teenagers becoming superheroes, vampires, and mythical characters. Then one day I asked, “What if the person gaining an amazing new ability was old?” And wow, what interesting ideas emerged! Those ideas helped inspire my novel The Better Angels.

Old New York City subway poster encouraging people to offer seats to seniors. The poster reads "Suppose you were old?"
Saw this at an exhibit of old New York City subway posters in Grand Central Terminal.

Every now and then you can find an older protagonist in a comic book or graphic novel, but usually the character acquired superpowers as a young person, then must confront the limits imposed by aging. I was interested in different types of characters: ones who only developed their superpower (in my book it is the ability to time travel) as they grew old.

So instead of a superhero/coming-of-age story, it would be … dramatic pause here … and an abrupt stop. I wasn’t sure what it would be. There really isn’t a name for a narrative form that deals with fictional characters changing as they grow old. Coming-of-age stories follow the move from childhood toward adulthood. What do we call stories about the move from middle-age to old age? Yes, such a story could be a tall tale, or an epic, or a parable, or a fantasy. But those terms do not specifically address the unique issues faced by older characters.

Comic-Con at the Javits Center in New York City.
Comic-Con at the Javits Center in New York City. I wonder how many attendees were over 50? 60? 70?

Were such stories out there? I hoped so. But I couldn’t find much. I admit that my research was not exhaustive. (Basically, I googled.) I did locate articles about superheroes that had been “allowed” to age and the dilemma faced by comic book writers and illustrators when decades-old characters never developed wrinkles or gray hair. I found almost nothing on characters that didn’t even get their powers until they were over 50, or 60, or 70 …

Poster which reads The Most Important Thing in Life is to Be Yourself - Unless You Can Be Batman. Always Be Batman.
Great poster I saw in a shop. Yes, always be Batman, even if you’re a senior.

Certainly many retirees feel they are beginning a new life when they leave the regular workaday world. And some sixty-somethings face the same issues as twenty-somethings: where to live and who to live with, what to do, who to love, what kind of family or community to create. This seemed like fertile ground for a story—a story about older adults that are diverse individuals, not solely caretakers of grandchildren and compilers of bucket lists.

And so it began. I decided to create and explore a world in which seniors—so often marginalized or subjected to unflattering portrayals—experience the wonder of new ability, the possibility of new love, and the need to face danger and break rules.

Mathew Brady and Civil War Photography

One reason I chose to write a time travel novel was because of my fascination with history. One area I explored was the history of photography.

A lithograph of Civil War photographer Mathew Brady
Mathew Brady as a young man.

This is Mathew Brady, considered the father of photojournalism because he sent photographers out of the studio to the battlefields of the Civil War. In October, 1862, his New York City gallery displayed photographs of the dead at Antietam. The New York Times review of the exhibit stated: “Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”

Photo of dead at the Battle of Antietam. In The Better Angels, the characters attend the exhibit at Mathew Brady's studio.
One of the photos shown at Brady’s exhibit “The Dead of Antietam.”

Brady did not travel to the battlefield himself. The photographs were taken by Alexander Gardner and James Gibson between September 19 and 22, 1862. The photographs were “stereos” and were displayed in boxy stereograph viewers, giving the images a 3-D effect.

Robert Wilson, the author of a terrific biography of Brady, states that the photographs of Antietam “marked a turning point in the portrayal of war.” Sketch artists, whose drawings were featured in the illustrated newspapers of the era, tended to soften and romanticize warfare. Photography, on the other hand, was remorseless.

This vintage photo shows Mathew Brady's photography studio at the corner of Broadway and 10th street in New York City. Grace Church is across the street.
Mathew Brady’s New York Studio at 785 Broadway at 10th Street, New York City. Courtesy The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

The photograph above shows Brady’s studio at the corner of 10th and Broadway in New York City, diagonally across the street from Grace Church. The building that held the studio is long gone (there’s a bank there now) but Grace Church is still there.

One level of the studio served as a gallery, displaying portraits of political and military leaders as well as distinguished writers, artists, and celebrities. Photographs were displayed from floor to ceiling, with the pictures at the top hung at an angle so visitors could see them better.

Drawing showing the interior of Civil War photographer Mathew Brady's studio.
This drawing shows the interior of Brady’s studio. Photographs were displayed on the second floor. The upper floors had skylights to provide lighting for the photographers.

I love it when I find a book that transports me to a different time and place. Can you tell I spent a lot of time with Wilson’s wonderful book?

Are you interested in learning more about Mathew Brady and the history of photography? Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation by Robert Wilson offers a fascinating look at the early years of photography and how this invention shaped and was shaped by the momentous events of the nineteenth century. You can find out more about the book and its author at http://www.mathewbrady.net/author.html

Lincoln, The Better Angels, and Word Choice

The title of my book The Better Angels comes from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address given on March 4, 1861.

At the time of the inauguration, seven southern states had already seceded. Within weeks shots were fired at Fort Sumter beginning the Civil War. The last paragraph of Lincoln’s address, a plea to preserve the union, is as follows:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

William Seward, who would become secretary of state, had suggested that the last line refer to the “guardian angel of the Union,” but Lincoln decided on “better angels of our nature.” The historian Ronald C. White Jr., in an opinion piece for NPR, says Seward’s term was impersonal. Lincoln’s brilliant revision made the plea “deeply personal.”

White is correct. Lincoln’s appeal is to each individual listener. He pleads for each person to act–to join the chorus of the union. The speech would have had a different, and lesser, impact if it simply referenced hope for aid from a guardian angel. It is a reminder that history is not just a listing of famous people and events. History confronts and envelops all of us. We are all participants.

White’s opinion piece was written in 2011, on the 150th anniversary of the first inaugural address. It can be found at https://www.npr.org/2011/03/04/134162178/150-years-later-lincolns-words-still-resonate

Whispers in Grand Central

There I was …

The whispering gallery in Grand Central Terminal. How surprising to find it completely empty.

One mysterious morning I arrived at Grand Central early. One scene in my book is set in the whispering gallery (right in front of the Oyster Bar), so I had to stop by. It’s part of my Grand Central routine now–visit the whispering gallery. I was shocked to find I was the only one there. For just a moment or two, I was the only person in the whispering gallery, in Grand Central Station, in the middle of New York City, the busiest city in the country. It was magical. I had just enough time alone to take this one picture.

The whispering gallery is one of many wonders in Grand Central Station. (I know, the real name is Grand Central Terminal, but everyone seems to call it Grand Central Station anyway.) The current station opened in 1913 and is the third of three that have been located at that site. The first was constructed in 1871, just six years after the end of the Civil War.

So how—and why—does a whispering gallery work? If you stand facing the wall in any of the four corners, and whisper, your words will be carried to the corner diagonally across from you and can be heard by someone in that corner. It doesn’t matter if there are crowds of very noisy people in the gallery. Your whispered words will come through. Also, two conversations can go on at once when people are standing in all four corners. The signals won’t get crossed. The science of a whispering gallery has to do with the way sound waves (called whispering gallery waves) are carried along the surface of a circular wall or overhead in a gallery shaped like an ellipse (a regular oval).

Crowds of people in Grand Central Terminal's Whispering Gallery located just outside the Oyster Bar.

The curved ceiling in the Grand Central whispering gallery is constructed of Guastavino tile, named after the Spanish building engineer Rafael Guastavino who invented this type of interlocking terracotta tile for use in arches and architectural vaults.

Most sources I’ve looked at say the space was not designed to be a whispering gallery. It was simply a “happy accident.” I love the fact that there is no big plaque or poster explaining what happens there. You just have to learn about it by watching, or reading, or being told by someone else. Maybe in a whisper.

Welcome!

Thanks for visiting my site. I’m Bette Bono, author of the historical fiction, time travel novels The Better Angels and Fear Itself, and the short story collection Neighbors and Other Stories.

What’s this blog about? My writing mixes many things I love, and so does this blog. Here you can find posts on history, books, writing, mystery, time travel, adventure, romance, senior citizens, and superheroes. (Those last two or three topics are not mutually exclusive.) So check out the categories listed to the side. (If you’re on your phone, the categories may appear at the bottom.) I hope you find something to interest and intrigue you. Enjoy!

What are my books about? In The Better Angels, retired teacher Aggie May fears dementia when she begins to see visions from the past. Then she gets a recruitment visit from Abe Irving of the American Association of Remarkable Persons (“the other AARP”) who explains she has developed the ability to travel through time. Soon Aggie joins other “Remarkables” on a mission to 19th century New York City in an effort to locate a missing photographic portrait of Abraham Lincoln created by the Civil War photographer Mathew Brady. While learning the rules and limits of time travel, Aggie faces the possibility that she may have both extraordinary power and extraordinary vulnerability.

Aggie, Abe, and the other senior time travelers reconnect in Fear Itself. This time, in a bid to understand what was happening in America as Hiter rose to power, they investigate America First and the pro-fascist German American Bund, two groups active in the United States in the 1930s. As Aggie and Abe explore this dark history, they grow closer. But when unexpected danger appears, they are forced to confront their obligation to act against evil.

Bette Bono's historical fiction, time travel novels the Better Angels and Fear Itself.
The Aggie and Abe historical fiction, time travel novels.

The Better Angels and Fear Itself are available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. https://www.amazon.com/Better-Angels-Bette-Bono/dp/1733444858/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=the+better+angels+bette+bono&qid=1576253430&sr=8-1 My publisher is the wonderful All Things That Matter Press. Their website is https://www.allthingsthatmatterpress.com/