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Recent Posts

Things I Learned on My Birthday
News of the Day--True Confessions about My Past and My Future
My Butterfly Moment
RBOC from My Sunday Musings
ProWritingAid--Here's Looking at You, Sticky Wickets

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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

Things I Learned on My Birthday

Things I Learned on My Birthday (Which is as Good a Reason as Any to Keep Celebrating Birthdays.)
 
My first thought upon waking yesterday morning was something like, ”Well, I may be 79 now, but at least I have another year in my seventies before I’m an officially-old “80.” And then the horrible truth hit me. We don’t count from the beginning of a year. A baby is not a year old when she is born. She won’t be a one-year-old until she has lived that entire first year.  So I have lived my entire seventh decade. The seventies are all behind me, and today marks the first day of my eighth decade—my 80’s! GAH! How did that happen?
 
OK. I’m officially old. So what do I have to show for it? I’m still learning stuff, which is a good sign, I think. Yesterday we had several torrential downpours, along with the unwelcome thunder and lightning that sends the cats under the bed. But each time, the rain was followed by an immediate burst of blazing sunlight. Sun splotches on the floors brought the cats out to bask in them again—and to remind me that scary events are usually followed by joyful ones. You just have to come out from under the bed and enjoy them.
 
Yesterday was also Kentucky Derby day, and as several of my friends reminded me that I always rooted for the gray horse. But, alas, this year there was no gray horse. I had no way to choose one over the other.  And then I was reminded once again that color doesn’t matter.  Like cats, which are all gray in the dark, so, on a muddy track, all horses are mud-colored by the end of the race.
 
I must note one exception here. Have you seen the picture of the end of the race, when the horses were cooling down? Horses and jockeys all wear the same mud color—except for Justify, who was out front for almost the entire race. His coat is still dark, and his jockey’s jersey is still white. Lesson? When you’re the leader of the pack, no one kicks mud in your face.  But, I must remember, he won the race by kicking mud on everyone else. Maybe that’s a lesson about what not to do.
 
So I take one last look back at the list of those who sent birthday wishes. The postings come from next door and down the street, but also from around the world. I see addresses in Turkey, Australia, Ireland, England, India, Lebanon, Canada, France, and Thailand. Some come from folks nearly as old as I am—grade school classmates, long-lost cousins, colleagues from my teaching days, and former students who sat in my classes 25 years ago. Others are new friends—young writers I met in this year’s Camp NaNoWriMo Challenge and fresh college graduates making the leap from campus service organizations to full-fledged Lions Club members. Each one arrived trailing a cloud of memories and offering another chance to smile.
 
I think I'll keep counting!

 

News of the Day--True Confessions about My Past and My Future

What is in the Past?
 
Yep! I finished the April Camp NaNoWriMo writing challenge with room to spare. My goal was 30,000 words in 30 days. When their validator engine looked at my accumulated scribblings, they came up with 40,322 words total. Their counter is off? I can’t add? I’m not sure which is which, but I’ll take my “WINNER” badge and run away before they change their minds.
 
As for the future of the novel I’ve been working on, I now have a total of 65,777 words out of a finished guesstimate of 100,000. So I’m two-thirds finished and on the home stretch. However, it’s time for a cooling off period. I haven’t been planning to release “Henrietta’s Legacy” until sometime in late fall or the early new year, so I can afford to let it marinate in its own juices for a while. Then I’ll go back and try to figure out a logical conclusion.
 
And what lies in the future?

I’ll be putting a new twist on an old book. Many of you have read “Beyond All Price.” It has been my all-time best-seller and is still going strong. I just sold two paper copies last week. Ever since the book came out in 2010, several descendants of the Roundheads Regiment have been helping me look for a good picture of Nellie. All I’ve ever seen is a tiny wrinkled group photo. 
 
We’ve known she had a formal portrait picture taken. We know the name of the photographer, along with where it was taken and when it was taken. There is even newspaper evidence; the photographer announced that he had taken her picture for a carte de visite (a calling card). There are probably thousands of those Civil War souvenirs around, but no one had seen one that belonged to Nellie Chase - - - UNTIL LAST WEEK!
 
Yes, the lost Nellie photo really exists, and she is lovely. She even signed this particular card on the back, so we have evidence of her handwriting as well. I’ve now spent several days talking to people—the wonderful Civil War re-enactor who has done much of my research, the gentleman who found the card and purchased it for his private collection, the talented graphic designer who does all my book covers, and the good folks at CreateSpace. We all agree—it’s time for a second edition of “Beyond All Price.”
 
The original book is getting a careful line edit, something I did not do eight years ago. The chapters will undoubtedly undergo some revisions—not of content but of organization. I hope to add several more illustrations—not just Nellie’s carte de visite, but some maps and photos of important people and locations. And, of course, Nellie’s formal portrait will now grace the cover of the book, so you can all meet her.
 
My new goal? To have “Beyond All Price, 2 ed, revised," available for purchase by the second week in September. There’s a reunion for descendants of the Roundhead Regiment scheduled for that weekend. I’d like the attendees to be the first to see the woman who took care of their ancestors during the first year of the Civil War.

If you’re looking for me, that’s what I will be doing for the next four months. I can always use cheerleaders.
 
 
 

 

My Butterfly Moment



Several  years ago people were talking about the "butterfly effect"--the idea that a single butterfly in South America might flutter its wings and put into motion a series of events that would ultimately change the world. It has become a truism, so obvious that we now often forget to look back at the small events from long ago that changed our own lives.

I was reminded of such a butterfly moment today. April 12, 2018, was the 179th birthday of a little boy named James McCaskey. James was born on a hardscrabble farm in southwest Pennsylvania, the first child of John and Jane McCaskey, Scotch-Irish immigrants to America. The family grew to include six more children, the youngest of whom was Joseph McCaskey, my maternal grandfather. James and his siblings attended a one-room schoolhouse, where they learned a few fundamental skills such as reading and writing, but James, at least, never mastered the art of spelling.

In August 1861, he left the farm to enlist in the Union Army, and, with his neighbors in the 100th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment, set out to invade coastal South Carolina. During his first real battle, just ten months later, at a little earthwork in the middle of a swamp on James Island, he died. A mortar shell blew off both his legs and he quickly bled to death. His remains were shoveled into a mass grave with the bodies of almost 500 others right there in front of the earthworks, where they remain to this day. The only things he left behind were six badly spelled letters to his family and the still tear-stained letter from his commander, telling of his death.

Those letters passed from his parents to my grandparents, and from them into the hands of their youngest daughter, my mother, who tossed them into an old trunk in the attic, where they remained until I found them about 1977.

The letters formed the basis of my first Civil War book, A Scratch with the Rebels, which tells the story of James's regiment and the Battle of Secessionville that took his life. Beyond All Price is the story of the amateur nurse who accompanied the 100th Pennsylvania Regiment to South Carolina. The Road to Frogmore expands the story to tell of the meeting of the Union Army and the slaves abandoned by their Confederate owners. Damned Yankee is a historical novel based on the real family who owned the house where the 100th Pennsylvania made their headquarters. And Yankee Reconstructed carries the story further into the era of Reconstruction.The books are at the top of this page. 

Who could have known on that April morning in 1839 that the life of that squalling newborn baby would spawn an outpouring of  over half a million words that readers would still be enjoying in 2018? Or that another baby born almost exactly 100 years later into a future generation of the same family would grow up to become a writer fascinated by the stories of South Carolina in the Civil War?

People often ask how long it takes to write a novel. Perhaps my answer should be, "Sometimes it takes 179 years."

RBOC from My Sunday Musings

Things that made me grumpy yesterday morning:
 
1.     A newspaper advice column told the story of a woman complaining that her children will not ALLOW her to put Grandma in a nursing home, even though the old woman suffers from advanced dementia and needs 24-hour-a-day nursing care. And how old are these children? She doesn’t say, but she does say that Grandma came to live with the family when the children were just babies, so they have never known life without her in the home. And how long ago was that? Seven years ago, she says. So the children are . . . what? Eight or nine, at the most.  What’s worse, the columnist seems to side with the children and suggests that the parents promise to take the children to visit Grandma every few days. Whatever happened to a family structure in which parents made the rules and children obeyed them?
 
2.     A request for old people who can still read cursive to volunteer to transcribe historical documents for the sake of people who can only read printing. I asked why it wouldn’t be better to teach everyone to read cursive and got no agreement. Yes, I’m old. And I can still remember my graduate school days when I was reading 12-century hand lettering that pre-dated cursive. It was difficult to do, but If I wanted to know what the document said, I had to learn to read it. Is this shrinkage of intellectual curiosity the measure of what computers have done to the human brain?
 
3.     Maybe so, because my next discovery this morning was a posting from a PhD-holding woman whom I have always respected. She had just played one of those Facebook games that promises to analyze your personality if you will just give the application the right to use all your personal information as well as all of your friends’ information. You know the games—the ones  like Cambridge Analytica all over the news right now because they have leaked that information to anyone willing to pay for it. Has this woman missed every news source for the last month?
 
4.     Several other Facebook posts this morning announced that the posters were no longer going to use Facebook for anything important. However, they claimed to still need comments about the weather, cat cartoons, personal comments on their current maladies, birthday wishes, and tasty recipes. Not believing everything Facebook says is a first step in reclaiming one’s privacy (or sanity), I suppose. But what makes people assume that weather reports, cat pictures, and recipes are among the necessities of their lives?
 
5.     Yesterday, I went out to my mailbox and encountered a gentleman walking his dog. That happens most every day around here, but this little yappy creature was particularly annoying and on a very long leash. He soon had my feet tangled. I held onto the mailbox post for balance and asked the gentleman to rein in his dog so that I could walk away. I think I smiled—maybe even chuckled a bit as Yappy danced around me on two paws. But his owner reacted with eye-narrowed anger, telling me that if I couldn’t walk without tripping, I shouldn’t be allowed out of my house. Whatever happened to civility?
 
6.     A friend sent me some “Old Age” jokes this morning, and I chose my favorite: it said something like: There was a time when my brain would step in and warn me that it might not be a good idea to say what I was thinking. But now, it says “What the hell?  Let’s see what happens!” That’s definitely my mood today.”

 (Note for a Monday morning: Sun is out. Flowers did not freeze. Had raspberries for breakfast. All is well again.)

ProWritingAid--Here's Looking at You, Sticky Wickets

 
In last week’s blog, I introduced you to a new editing program—ProWritingAid. Now, as promised, here’s how the correction process worked for me.
 
When I tested ProWriting Aid, I started with Style. The style problems included readability issues, glue words, passive verbs, hidden verbs (I had to look that one up!), long subordinate clauses, adverbs used outside of dialogue, sentences with repeated beginnings (like words all ending in -ing), and examples of telling rather than showing. The program underlined each instance, explained why it was wrong, and usually offered suggestions for improvement. The program identifies 73 style problems in my 2300-word chapter, each one of which I corrected before moving on. 
 
But that was only the beginning. There were nineteen other categories. Each type of problem must be treated separately. Now, not all of them had as many errors as my style section did. I even received a perfect score of 100 on the section devoted to clichés. But the whole process—doing the summary, running each of the twenty sections, and then running the summary again to see if the scores improved (THEY DID!) took close to five hours. And that was for just one chapter. By the time the book is finished, there will be close to 50 chapters. That’s 250 hours—or 31 workdays of 8 hours a day.
 
Is ProWritingAid worth that much time? I don’t have enough information yet to answer that question.  If my editing speed does not increase, and if every chapter has as many errors as the first one did, my answer may be negative. However, if, as the ads promise, using the program also trains me to be a better writer, then the answer is yes.  I noticed this morning that, as I wrote, I stopped myself several times to reword a sentence and eliminate a passive, to remove extra spaces, and to vary the length and beginnings of sentences. So it has already alerted me to pay more attention to my bad writing habits.
 
In general, if I compare this program to Grammarly, this one covers more problems and offers more training. In Grammarly, the writer sees all the errors at once, and the explanations bounce around from one topic to another. With this one, the same topic repeats until only a complete blockhead could miss the point. ProWritingAid also covers some issues that Grammarly never touches.
 
The best example has to do with the “sticky sentences” and “glue words” I mentioned in the last post.  Once in a while Grammarly will point to an unnecessary word, but ProWritingAid performs major surgery on long sentences.
 
Here’s a sticky sentence:
“Once in a great while, something or someone you’ve never noticed before comes along and has the effect of catching every bit of your attention.” [26 words]
 
And the fix:
“Sometimes a new idea catches your attention. [7 words]
 
Glue words add no information and slow readers down. They make a sentence sticky because the reader takes a long time to find the end.
 
Particularly, glue words may come in expressions like “once in a great while,” “has the effect of,” “every bit of.”  My own worst glue words, I have discovered, are “all of,” as in “I ate all of my dinner” instead of “I ate my dinner.”  “I did all of my writing in bed” instead of saying “I wrote it in bed.”
 
(I must pause here to point out that NaNoWriMo participants may not want to eliminate sticky sentences. If a writer is only interested in word counts, sticky sentences are great. If the same writer is more interested in ideas, those extra words get in the way. My solution: Write sticky and then cut with vicious abandon.)
 
For now, if you need to choose between Grammarly and ProWritingAid,  I suggest you try both free versions and see which one you like best.

And about that terminally boring title: ProWritingAid. It's clear, descriptive, and serious, as all grammar police tend to be. But in my own mind from now on, I intend to call it "STICKY WICKETS."