American Civil War, Researching Historical Fiction

Abe Lincoln Dead — Film at 11

President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated 150 years ago today, and nearly 60 years ago, the last surviving eyewitness appeared on a TV game show called “I’ve Got a Secret.”

Samuel J. Seymour was 96 when the show aired. The Atlantic posted a video clip of his appearance, and Robbie Gonzalez picked it up on the i09 website. Despite the crunchy quality, the clip is fascinating to watch.

The show’s host references Seymour’s first-person account in the Milwaukee Sentinel on February 7, 1954 (available here). According to Seymour, he was five years old on April 14, 1865, when he traveled to Washington from rural Maryland with the Goldsboros, on whose estate his father worked. He said he was scared by the sight of so many men on the streets carrying guns and was unaware that the city was in a celebratory mood because Robert E. Lee had surrendered a few days earlier.

As a treat, Mrs. Goldsboro took him to a play at Ford’s Theatre. She lifted him up so he could see President Lincoln when he arrived, smiling and waving to the crowd from his box seat.

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American Civil War, Researching Historical Fiction

Celebrating the End of the Civil War Today

Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant 150 years ago today, and bells will toll across the country this afternoon to commemorate the occasion.

The bells will peal at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park in Virginia at 3:00 p.m. (EDT) to mark the time when Lee and Grant concluded their meeting to negotiate the terms of surrender. The National Park Service has invited other organizations to toll their bells at 3:15 for four minutes (for the four years of the war).

I imagine my friends back in the D.C. metro area will hear bells this afternoon, but now that I’m in New England (where the Revolutionary War holds sway over the Civil War and where church bells are not as densely situated), I don’t expect to hear anything. But whatever I’m doing, I’ll pause to consider that historical moment.

Wilmer McLean’s house in Appomattox Court House, Virginia, was the site of Lee’s meeting with Grant to negotiate the Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender to the Union Army. The great Civil War photographer Timothy O’Sullivan took this photo in April 1865; it’s now in the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Division.
Wilmer McLean’s house in Appomattox Court House, Virginia, was the site of Lee’s meeting with Grant to negotiate the Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender to the Union Army. The great Civil War photographer Timothy O’Sullivan took this photo in April 1865; it’s now in the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Division.

Incidentally, the generals met on Palm Sunday in the home of Wilmer McLean, who “famously said that the Civil War began in his backyard and ended in his parlor,” as noted in the Spring 2015 issue of the Civil War Trust’s magazine. McLean’s house was damaged in the first battle at Manassas in 1861 so he retreated farther south, only to have the Union Army choose his home for Grant’s meeting with Lee.

Afterward, the McLeans (ardent Confederates) reluctantly sold “a tremendous number of the home’s furnishings” to Union officers as souvenirs. The house was dismantled in 1893 for display at the Chicago World’s Fair and later use as a Civil War museum in Washington, D.C. — neither of which happened. The house was reconstructed at its original location in 1954, as part of a collection of buildings that attempt to re-create how the village looked in 1865.

Along with the house’s original furnishings, though, the apple tree where Grant waited for Lee to arrive is long gone.

Writing/Rewriting

Harper Lee and Her Editor

To_Kill_a_Mockingbird

Most of the hullabaloo over the announcement that Harper Lee would finally be publishing a sequel to her much-loved classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” focused on whether the 88-year-old author had willingly surrendered the manuscript or whether she was being taken advantage of after the death of her very protective sister Alice.

Readers have been waiting and hoping for a sequel since “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published in 1960, so this is a major publishing event. But what caught my eye in an early BBC story was the comment by Man Booker Prize judge Erica Wagner that we should expect “a much more raw text” because the new book is unedited, which is surprising enough. Wagner went on to point out how “important the editing was in the creation of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’”

The sequel “Go Set a Watchman,” due to be released in July, is the story Lee was writing in the late 1950s when the editors at Lippincott — and Tay Hohoff in particular — urged her to go in another direction. The book takes place when a grown-up Scout returns to Alabama from New York to visit her father, Atticus. The editors said her characters were strong, but the book was a series of anecdotes that lacked a unifying story and a major conflict.

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Resources and Events for Writers, Writing/Rewriting

What We Talk About When We Talk About Plot

E.M. Forster defined the difference between story and plot this way: “The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot.”

Some writers visualize their plots as suspension bridges, with the towers representing key turning points. Photo by abarndweller.
Some writers visualize their plots as suspension bridges, with the towers representing key turning points. Photo by abarndweller.

Plot is about cause and effect, how an event or another character’s action affects our hero and everyone else in the story and leads to new actions, which create their own effects — all of them building toward some climax in which the hero confronts his or her antagonist and triumphs in some way, large or small.

Many best sellers and virtually all mysteries and thrillers are plot-driven books. Some of them value plot at the expense of character development or any semblance of literary art, but I would argue that the best books find a happy balance among those elements.

The truth is, the most marketable books — and by that I mean the ones readers most want to read — have a recognizable plot.

Unfortunately, how to craft a good plot is rarely taught in creative writing programs — unless you study screenwriting. Those writers know the value of plot.

In fact, novelists can learn a lot by reading books on screenwriting. My favorite is Syd Field’s “Screenplay.”

The Classic Three-Act Structure

Writers visualize their plots in a variety of ways, including suspension bridges, circus tents and Aristotelian diagrams. But they all share certain key elements:

  • Act 1 introduces us to the main character and his or her world as it exists now. We get a sense of what the hero values and wants and what type of story we are about to read.
  • Act 1 leads to an event that threatens to upend our hero’s world — variously called a disturbance, a hook or an inciting incident.
  • In Act 2, our hero begins to respond, but so do the forces that oppose the character. The plot thickens, as they say. Some writers think of the transitions between the acts as doorways or refer to those changes in direction as plot points.
  • By the end of Act 2, the hero has the final piece of the puzzle or the final bit of information needed to take on his or her adversary.
  • In Act 3, our hero finally confronts his or her antagonist head-on, and their conflict is resolved in some satisfactory way. Loose ends are (mostly) tied up.

Larry Brooks advocates a slight variation by splitting the second act into two parts. The man is a bear about structure, for the simple reason that a good story well told is the key to selling books. He published a series of blog posts that went into great detail about how many scenes and pages each act should be and how to move effectively from one “milestone” scene to the next. I can’t find the series now, but he covers a lot of the same material in his book “Story Engineering.”

There is a whole lot of room to be creative within a three-act or four-part structure, but by following certain storytelling principles, you’ll increase the chances that agents, publishers, editors and (most important) readers will devour your book and tell their friends about it.

This post is a variation of one I wrote for Possibilities Publishing Company’s blog.

Researching Historical Fiction, Women in the West

Blizzards in the Old West

My driveway in the early stages of clearing after a winter storm. We've been using a combination of snow blowing, shoveling and salting.
My driveway in the early stages of clearing after a winter storm. We’ve been using a combination of snow blowing, shoveling and salting.

It has been a battle keeping our long, curving, sloping driveway free of snow and ice this winter, and the experience made me wonder how people used to clear snow. After doing a bit of research, I discovered that snow removal technology hasn’t changed all that much in the past 150 years.

Matt Soniak, in “Scenes From the History of Snow Removal,” says that before the mid-1800s, towns employed snow wardens to “pack and flatten the snow with a crude vehicle called a snow roller — essentially a giant, wide wheel weighed down with rocks and pulled by oxen or horses.”

In winter, horse-drawn vehicles switched out their wheels for runners, which made them glide on snow-packed roads. Meanwhile, inventors were working on horse-drawn snow plows to clear the streets and alleys that pedestrians used more heavily than carriages. Milwaukee was the first major town to try one — in 1862. Other cities soon followed suit.

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center:

Salt was used in a few cities [in the 1800s], but residents strongly protested salting because it ruined the streets for sleighing and damaged pedestrian’s shoes and clothing.

The site (which is a treasure trove of information for winter lovers and weather nerds) also says German settlers in Iowa coined the word “blizzard” from blitzartig, which means “lightning-like.” European pioneers were familiar with snow but not the driving winds and freezing winters of the U.S. Snowbelt region.

In the West, where people relied heavily on railroads, NSIDC said:

steam trains battled drifts with giant rotary plows, which plowed snow and blew it off the tracks at the same time [the precursor to our modern snow blowers]. Ranchers erected snow fences, which protected roads and prevented snow from drifting too high on their property.

Nevertheless, blizzards often had a dramatic impact in the 1800s. A storm in January 1886 killed 50 to 100 people and large numbers of cattle in southwest Kansas. A series of blizzards the following winter killed up to 90 percent of some ranchers’ stock, signaling the end of the cattle drives and cowboy lifestyle.

Montana was especially hard-hit in what was called the Great Die-Up. Many cattlemen turned to sheep herding or radically changed their approach to the cattle business. When spring came and all that snow melted, thousands of rotting cattle carcasses appeared across the plains and floated down the flooded rivers.

On Jan. 12, 1888, 235 people died in a snowstorm on the Great Plains that started with a sudden, dramatic drop in temperature. Most of the victims were children on their way home from isolated prairie schools in South Dakota and Minnesota. (David Laskin’s book “The Children’s Blizzard” is a riveting account of that storm.)

Buildings at Nebraska's Fort Niobrara behind piles of snow that fell in the Schoolhouse Blizzard of 1888. Photo credit: John A. Anderson/Nebraska State Historical Society.
Buildings at Nebraska’s Fort Niobrara behind piles of snow that fell in the Schoolhouse Blizzard of 1888. Photo credit: John A. Anderson/Nebraska State Historical Society.

The Encyclopedia Britannica of 1893 described the storm this way:

In fine clear weather, with little or no warning, the sky darkened and the air was filled with snow, or ice-dust, as fine as flour, driven before a wind so furious and roaring that men’s voices were inaudible at a distance of six feet. Men in the fields and children on their way [home] from school died ere they could reach shelter, some of them having been not frozen but suffocated from the impossibility of breathing the blizzard.

In the Northeast, a storm in March 1888 killed 400 people, and the snow drifted high enough in New York City to shut down the elevated trains that had been the only reliable source of transportation in heavy snowstorms. After that storm, Boston then New York built subway systems.

In “The Long Winter” (my favorite in the Little House series), Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote of the blizzards that swept across South Dakota for months in the winter of 1880-81 — and the howling, shrieking wind that shook buildings. The storms usually came on suddenly and lasted for days. The light was dim at best, a kind of long twilight. Pa used Ma’s clothesline to get back and forth from the house to the stable and dug a tunnel through the snow at one point.

A train stuck in the snow in Minnesota, March 1881.
A train stuck in the snow in Minnesota, March 1881.

The endless snow kept the trains from reaching town, and people were running out of just about everything, including food and fuel. Ingalls’ future husband, Almanzo, and his brother Royal survived by eating nothing but pancakes with molasses until Almanzo and a friend risked their lives to travel to a farm a dozen or so miles away and bring back enough bushels of wheat to last the townsfolk until spring.

And of course, it was a sudden, intense snowstorm that got the Donner party in all that trouble.

Blizzards were just one of many hardships early settlers had to endure in the Old West. They still wreak havoc today, but thanks to better weather forecasting and communications, they aren’t as deadly as they used to be. And now we have ergonomic shovels made of heavy-duty plastic and gas-powered snow blowers to keep our driveways clear.

Creativity and Productivity, Writing/Rewriting

Prize-Winning Dandelions and the Best Time to Write: What I Learned in 2014

Last year was one of the busiest I’ve had in a long time. Here is some of what I learned:

1. Teaching is much harder than it looks. After teaching intro composition at a college last year, I have a profound appreciation and admiration for teachers. The work is hard, it is intense, it is close to never-ending. If you want to know what teachers go through for those tiny glimmers of satisfaction when they’ve reached just one student or you want to understand why our education system is struggling, try teaching.

Failing that, read Sarah Blaine’s excellent piece on the Washington Post blog: “You think you know what teachers do. Right? Wrong.” 

A slice of my overgrown vegetable garden in late September. It took days to clear it and taught me a valuable lesson about being proactive.
A slice of my overgrown vegetable garden in late September. It took days to clear it and taught me a valuable lesson about being proactive.

2. Relocating is even more disruptive than you think. Years ago, a friend told me about a study that measured test subjects’ ability to estimate how long it would take to do a specific task. The researchers were looking for what defined under- vs. over-estimators. Since then, I have concluded that I am a chronic under-estimator, especially when it comes to complex projects (I have learned to pad the schedules I develop for my job.)

I figured moving several hundred miles up the East Coast and embracing a rural lifestyle would be time-consuming, but I didn’t anticipate the energy I’d have to expend on things as mundane as finding a dentist or hairdresser. And when did adopting a dog become so complicated?

Six months later, most of my books are still packed away in boxes (awaiting new bookshelves), and to my deep regret, my pottery wheel sits unused. Other tasks and work have taken precedence, like switching car titles and driver’s licenses to a new state and updating my address and phone number for umpteen credit cards, bank accounts and subscriptions — not to mention stacking firewood, putting up electric fences, and pulling some of the largest dandelions and other weeds I’ve ever seen from the neglected vegetable plot (see #3 below). If the state fair had a category for biggest dandelion, I’d win hands-down, as long as I could keep our geese from eating them all.

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Resources and Events for Writers, Writing/Rewriting

Rewriting: How to Begin

Once you’ve written a complete draft of your story or book, you’re ready for the next stage of the process: rewriting.

The complexity of the revision process mainly hinges on whether you’re the sort of writer who creates a detailed outline before you begin or someone who makes it up as you go along, by the seat of your pants. (Sorry, you so-called pantsers, but your job will likely be much tougher.)

In an 1878 letter to his brother Orion Clemens, Mark Twain wrote, "You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it."
In an 1878 letter to his brother Orion Clemens, Mark Twain wrote, “You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it.”

Either way, you’ll want to keep some general principles in mind:

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Researching Historical Fiction, Women in the West

Minnie the Moocher and Opium Use in the Old West

It’s tough to research people and life in the Old West without stumbling over references to opium use. Opiates in various forms were widely prescribed and used, and legal at the time.

I’ve read numerous books and articles on the topic of opium, and one day when I’d been delving deep, I happened to listen to the soundtrack from “The Blues Brothers” movie and caught Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher,” which he first recorded in 1931. I was struck by references that I’d never understood before.

Photo of Cab Calloway taken by William P. Gottlieb in 1947, now in the Library of Congress.
Photo of Cab Calloway taken by William P. Gottlieb in 1947, now in the Library of Congress.

In the first verse, Calloway describes Minnie as “the roughest, toughest frail” — frail being one of many euphemisms for prostitutes in the Old West. Such women had a high rate of drug use, but they were far from alone. In an age when medical care was often rudimentary, especially in the West, many people used opiates to ease pain, the coughing associated with countless illnesses (opium is one of the best cough suppressants around) and depression.

Minnie’s boyfriend, “a bloke named Smokey,” was cokey, meaning a cocaine user. “He took her down to Chinatown / And he showed her how to kick the gong around.” “Kicking the gong around” was slang for opium smoking, and Chinatown was where the opium dens were. Chinese immigrants who arrived for the California Gold Rush brought opium smoking with them, and the practice spread to whites in the West.

But unlike their Old West counterparts, Minnie and Smokey would have been buying their drug on the black market — the first federal ban on opium was passed in 1925.

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Creativity and Productivity, Writing/Rewriting

Writing When You Only Have Moments to Spare

To follow up on my earlier post about “The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.,” the DVD version features a fascinating conversation among the show’s writers, who came together to talk about the experience of creating 27 episodes in one season.

They described a “war-like environment” and some pretty insane deadlines — perhaps best summed up by what David Simkins, who had previously only written films, said he learned from the veteran writers:

Features shoot whenever; television shoots on Tuesdays.

Brisco_cover

Many of the writers were just starting out, but they all went on to be “showrunners” in their own right and worked on the likes of “Lost,” “Charmed” and “Hell on Wheels.”

They told funny stories of learning that an off-hand, poetic comment on a script, such as “He shoots up from the water like a Polaris missile,” can prompt a frenzied response from the producers and crew as they try to figure out how to create that effect on screen.

But what really grabbed my attention was John Wirth saying Tom Chehak taught him to never turn his computer off:

Whatever we were doing, whenever Tom would do a fly-by past his desk, he would sit down and he would write another line of the script, or two lines, or a scene or whatever. Whenever he had a moment, he was getting back to that script, and that’s how his scripts got written.

That discipline and that ability to keep at something when he only had moments to spare meant Chehak was heading home for dinner when the rest of the writers were just getting started on their scripts.

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American Civil War, American Indians, Researching Historical Fiction, Women in the West

Thanksgiving without the Pilgrims

Sarah Josepha Hale. Portrait by James Reid Lambdin.
Sarah Josepha Hale. Portrait by James Reid Lambdin.

Americans owe the modern-day celebration of Thanksgiving to Abraham Lincoln and Sarah Josepha Hale. However, I fear we owe our warm, fuzzy image of Pilgrims and Indians living in harmony to a lazy attitude toward history.

Hale promoted women’s issues through the American Ladies Magazine, which she helped found, and then spent 40 years as editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a highly influential magazine in the 1800s.

She also lobbied tirelessly to have the last Thursday in November designated as a national day of thanks. In the years leading up to the Civil War, she thought such a celebration would help unify the country.

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Creativity and Productivity, Writing/Rewriting

The Art of Revision — And Why You Should Love It

Writing, like just about any creative pursuit, is a process. That process begins with exploring ideas, writing a first draft (which is where many people romantically think writing ends) and then revising, revising, revising.

Writers who are now in the throes of National Novel Writing Month are in that starry-eyed first-draft stage. That is a necessary step, but it isn’t where the writing process ends.

“Red Pen” by Jenny Kaczorowski is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
“Red Pen” by Jenny Kaczorowski is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

When I taught intro composition at a community college last spring, the students didn’t bat an eye when in the very first class, I asked them to write about their experiences with writing and what they wanted to learn. They were used to doing that sort of free writing in high school, and most of them liked it. After all, it was the easy part.

I quickly learned that though many of them knew how to write, they knew almost nothing about rewriting. They were dubious and some looked panic-stricken when I explained that revision was a necessary step that typically takes much longer than it does to write a first draft.

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Researching Historical Fiction

Brisco County and His Horse Comet

While we’re on the subject of horses, I have to confess to a deep affection for “The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.,” a short-lived (one season) TV series from the early 1990s. It is a strange and charming combination of western, comedy, action and sci-fi starring Bruce Campbell.

Bruce Campbell as Brisco County Jr. with one of the horses that played his faithful sidekick Comet in "The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr."
Bruce Campbell with one of the horses that played his faithful sidekick Comet in “The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.”

His horse Comet was a character in his own right: independent yet always there to help Brisco out of a jam and smarter than most of the humans, judging by Brisco’s on-screen conversations with him.

The DVD collection comes with a disc of extras, and one chapter is about horses. In it, Campbell explains that there were actually four or five horses for the one “hero” horse. I figured there had to be more than one Comet, but I didn’t realize how much TV horses specialize.

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