Sunday, September 21, 2014

What We're Writing: Susan Elia MacNeal and Mrs. Roosevelt's Confidante


That's the date I'm working toward.

That's when I need to hand in Maggie Hope #5, Mrs. Roosevelt's Confidante, to my editor.

Less than a month away.

And oh, lovely readers, it's not pretty around here.

There is much head-scratching, hair-pulling, and gnashing of teeth as I try to finish and tie up all the loose ends.

Right now there are a lot of loose ends. But it's all right. have faith. And also two week-long solo writing retreats before the end.

At any rate, here's a snippet from the beginning of the novel. In it we see President Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt together on December 22, 1941 — the day Winston Churchill and his staff (including Maggie Hope) will arrive in Washington, D.C.



It was morning, and Eleanor Roosevelt opened the door of the President’s bedroom without knocking. There she stood, glaring, hands on her hips. “Franklin,” she demanded in high-pitched tones just short of dulcet, “why didn’t you tell me Winston Churchill’s coming to the White House?”
Mrs. Roosevelt was a slim, tall, middle-aged woman who seemed constantly in motion—except for rare moments such as this. Her thick grey hair was pulled into a low chignon. She was already dressed for they day, wearing a simple suit and low-heeled shoes.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, armed with newspapers, mail, and messages, was taking breakfast in bed. The morning headlines were far from reassuring: 80 JAPANESE TRANSPORTS APPEAR OFF LUZON, U.S. SANK OR DAMAGED 14 U-BOATS IN ATLANTIC, and HITLER OUSTS ARMY HEAD—TAKES FULL CONTROL. As he read, he fed tiny pieces of bacon to his small black Scottish terrier, Fala, curled up on the bed beside him.
The President shrugged. He’d known the British P.M. was coming ever since the attack on Pearl Harbor, nearly two weeks before—but for security reasons, had kept the news to himself. At fifty-one, Franklin Roosevelt was a large, robust man—that is, except for his legs, which were paralyzed by polio. He had a large oblong face with a jutting jaw and silver pince-nez spectacles balanced on the bridge of his nose. He kept his Camel cigarette in an ivory holder between his teeth, held at a jaunty angle.
Mrs. Roosevelt continued, “Well, one of the first things we must do is remove all the art depicting the War of 1812. That would be a horrible gaffe.”
The President reached down to stroke Fala’s silky ears. “Yes, dear.” The dog wagged her tail, then hoping for more bacon.
“I think we can keep the Revolutionary war paintings. But perhaps take down President Washington.”
“Washington? Keep him up—Churchill has high respect for the Founding Fathers, so I’ve read. And even if he doesn’t, Washington’s still our first President.” Franklin looked at Eleanor over the wire rims of his spectacles. “He’s a guest, yes—and now our ally—but we’re going to be negotiating quite a few things while he’s here. Might not be a bad idea to remind him who won the Revolutionary War.” He slipped a morsel of bacon to Fala, who wagged her tail in appreciation.
“But why didn’t you tell me, Franklin? And I can’t find Mrs. Nesbitt anywhere. What are we going to serve on such short notice? She’s a mediocre enough cook as it is. If only I’d known….”
There was the sound of heavy footsteps, then a knock at the open door. It was the President’s chief butler, Alonzo Fields, a tall, gracious, and dignified black man, well over six feet tall and two-hundred and fifty pounds. Roosevelt noticed him waiting at the door and lowered the emotional temperature.
“Now, Eleanor, all that little woman would do even if she were here, is to tell Fields what we can tell him ourselves right now.” He looked to his butler. “Fields, have your staff prepare the bedrooms for the Prime Minister and some of his party. And if you see Mrs. Nesbitt, tell her to find Mrs. Roosevelt. We’ll need dinner for twenty at eight, maybe nine.”
“Yes, sir.”
Eleanor blinked. “My word, Franklin, I don’t think you realize how much work a visit from a foreign dignitary takes! And with Tommy on Christmas vacation, Blanche didn’t show up for work today. She didn’t even call—it’s not like her.”
            “I’m sure she’s fine. And let the staff take care of everything. It’s their job.”
            Mr. Fields had waited. “Anything else, Sir? Ma’am?”
            “Thank you. That’s all,” said the President. Fields left, his tread heavy on the hall floors.
            “As First Lady, it all reflects on me. And in addition to my column, I have a press conference today—”
            “I know you’ll do a bang-up job, Babs.”
            His use of her nickname softened her edge a bit. But not her focus. “But Tommy’s visiting her family for Christmas.” Malvina “Tommy” Thompson was the secretary who usually took dictation for the First Lady’s “My Day” newspaper columns.
The President kept his eyes on the newspaper, but the First Lady would not be put off. “And Franklin, have you had a chance to look at my letter to the Governor of Virginia, regarding the impending execution of Wendell Cotton?”
            The President sighed. “If you haven’t noticed, dear, we’re at war. I have more on my plate with the Japs and the Huns than I know what to do with. And now, with Winston coming….”
            “A man’s life is at stake!” Franklin Delano Roosevelt was President, but Eleanor Roosevelt was the matriarch of the family and a political force in her own right. Not only was she the President’s eyes and ears for places his wheelchair couldn’t take him, but she was a moral influence of her own.
            “I know.” Roosevelt looked up at his wife, grey-blue eyes serious behind his pince-nez. “But I can’t afford to rile up those boys from Dixie right now, just as we’re entering this war. We all need to all pull together to win—North and South. I can’t afford to antagonize a nation that only recently wanted to throw me out of office and elect an isolationist.”
            “Shouldn’t your ‘together’ include men like Wendell Cotton? What about the Negros?” Eleanor walked over and sat at the foot of her husband’s bed. “This is their war, too, you know.”
            “You know what they say about us in the South—‘you kiss the Negroes, I’ll kiss the Jews, and we’ll stay in the White House As long as we choose.’ And I simply can’t afford to alienate Dixie any more, especially now that we’re at war.”
gosia herba
            The first lady gave a sad, disapproving look. Fala sniffed for more bacon.
            Roosevelt sighed. “I’m doing the best I can, Babs.”
Mrs. Roosevelt knew when the President had had enough. “I’m going to put Mr. Churchill in the Rose bedroom, what do you think?”
            “Perfecto, my dear.” He didn’t look up, but his voice was a few degrees warmer.
            Mrs. Roosevelt’s gaze went to the cluster of photographs on the fireplace’s mantel. Their boys were grown and in the military. They wouldn’t be home for Christmas this year. “It’s been two weeks since Pearl Harbor. It’s so strange to have Christmas with the country at war. And without the boys,” she said. “And without your mother, too, of course.”
            They both looked to the President’s black armband, worn in honor of his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, who had died that September.
            “And your brother.” The President cleared his throat. “Well, I have the feeling the atmosphere will be considerably energized when The Prime gets here.” He signed a few documents with a flourish, then looked up at his wife again, the twinkle back in his eyes. “You have no idea how much energy he has.”
            “Is that what you call him? ‘The Prime’?”
            “Well, then I’ll do everything to get ready for him and his staff. We’ll put him and his detective and valet up here, and the rest can stay at the Mayflower Hotel—I’ll have Mr. Fields call over. And what do you think he’d like for dinner tonight when he gets in?”
            “I’m sure anything you choose will be splendid, my darling. Just make sure to have plenty of wine and scotch on hand. The Prime likes his whiskey. And of course I’ll make Martinis during Children’s Hour.”
            Eleanor grimaced. Her father had been an alcoholic and alcoholism had just claimed the life of her brother. She rarely touched spirits herself, only indulging in one of her husband’s Old-Fashioneds once in a blue moon. “I’ll see what I can do.”
            The President pulled a red cord that would summon his valet. “I’m going to the airport to greet Winston and his crew.”
            “You’re going yourself?” Eleanor sounded worried. “Can’t you send someone else and then greet him here?”

            “The Prime and his staff have been on a ship dodging Nazi submarines for two weeks—and they’ve only just docked in Boston. I think the least I can do to show up at the airport.”
Tina Berning
            Eleanor turned to go, but stopped in the doorframe. “Well, if you see Blanche, tell her I’m looking for her—will you please, dear?” Then, “I’m worried about her. She hasn’t been herself lately. She seems a bit…off.”
            Roosevelt smiled, one of those megawatt smiles that routinely made the newspapers’ front pages. “Babs, if I see Blanche, I’ll be sure to send her your way.”

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Thank you for your time and attention, Reds and lovely readers. And now I'm back to work!


  1. What a perfectly wonderful piece! Now I can't wait to read the rest of the book . . . .
    Your depiction of Franklin and Eleanor is a perfect fit with what I've been seeing all week in the Ken Burns-PBS documentary.

  2. I came to the series late so read all the books one right after the other and am now more than ready for this one. And I, too, am watching "The Roosevelts" on PBS and this is a wonderful continuation of what I've learned about them.

  3. Word to the wise: Fala was male.

  4. Grandma Cootie beat me to it, but I was going to say your timing is impeccable with the Roosevelts on PBS. Everyone will be dying for more about them!

    the two week-long retreats sound like exactly what you need to wrap things up--good luck Susan!

  5. I've been watching The Roosevelts TOO on PBS... and was wishing there was ore... then woke up to this! Terrific, Susan, and messy though it is how great to be nearing THE END instead of figuring it all out from the start again.

  6. Thanks, everyone. Fala's a boy? Ok, got it.

    Yes, the timing of the Ken Burns series was terrific and so inspiring. If you're hungry for more on the Roosevelts, his National Park series should basically be titled "The Roosevelts and the National Parks."

  7. Yes, Fala was male!

  8. I LOVE your books! Now go write. I am with ya, sister. Loose ends. But it's like a Rubik's cube. CLick, click, clic, and each bit snaps into place, until it's perfect.


  9. Wonderful. You captured them perfectly. I could hear their voices!

  10. LOVE the excerpt, Susan!! Can't wait to read the finished book--and I know you will get it finished and all the pieces will snap into place. Then you'll wonder how you could ever NOT have seen how it would all work out! xox debs

  11. Is anyone NOT watching "The Roosevelts" on PBS? Susan, I'm in the middle of The Prime Minister's Secret Agent right now, counting down to December 7.
    Love it! So, back to work for you!

  12. Count me in as another person who's been watching "The Roosevelts" on PBS! What fantastic timing for MRS. ROOSEVELT'S CONFIDANTE, Susan.

    Also, can I say I am INSANELY jealous of your two retreats? Are they really solo, as in, just you? Because that's my fantasy. Not even staying with friends - because then I want to socialize! - but just holing up in a remote hotel somewhere. Preferably one without internet access...

  13. Yes, two absolutely solo retreats.

    But since I now live with Hubby, Kiddo, Miss Edna, cats Lola and Xander and now adopted (at least for a while) 20-something kiddo in a "cozy" NYC apartment -- it's either do some retreats or not finish.....

  14. This is a marvelous series. I'm sure all those loose ends will fall into place nicely.

  15. Go Susan go! Wishing you the wind at your back as you hit the home stretch. Love this excerpt - can't wait to read more!!

  16. Oh yes, thank you for continuing the focus on the Roosevelts for another day.

    Good luck with the solo writing retreats. Sounds heavenly.

  17. Susan… great excerpt! Love it! Roosevelts. TV. PBS. Now I have this and more to look forward to!

    Hank! I'm getting a visual going of your Rubik's Cube— "… click, click, clic, and each bit snaps into place, until it's perfect." Up it goes on my Scrivener bulletin board.


  18. KBGT as well as the older Technivorm KBT each have coffeemakered a steady, widemouthed glass pitcher with an easy-to-seal cover.