"Roundheads and Ramblings"
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!
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
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
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.
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."
Things that made me grumpy yesterday morning:
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?
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?
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?
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
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?
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
(Note for a Monday morning: Sun is out. Flowers did not freeze. Had raspberries for breakfast. All is well again.)
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
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
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."