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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

October 2011

A Halloween Rant

Happy Halloween, everyone.  I had intended to use this space to tell you more about my upcoming book, but in honor of the holiday, I'm postponing that blog in favor of a small rant.  If you're dying to know what will appear in chapters 9 through 11, tune in tomorrow.  In the meantime.. . . .

I woke up this morning already disappointed with the day -- not a good way to start a Monday, I admit.  I used to love Halloween, and not just when I was a kid.  Even as a serious-minded college professor, I loved the students who dared to come to class in costume.  I enjoyed watching the neighborhood urchins prance around all day in their outfits.  I hung ghosts from the trees in the front yard, and carved pumpkins long after my son was old enough to do it himself (or not!).  I planned special menus for Halloween dinner -- things like witch's brooms carved from celery and curled in ice water, or devil's food cake topped with gummy worms.

Even my classroom lectures sometimes took on a Halloween theme.  How convenient is it that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the cathedral door on October 31?  I got to portray that as perhaps the most profound Halloween prank ever played. If all else failed, I could entertain a medieval history class with tales of corn festivals, or the periodic practice of letting the powerless (read: children) take over the ruling (read: adult) world for a day.

But gradually someone took the fun out of Halloween. Harmless pranks have been called vandalism. Now, I definitely was never in favor of tipping over outhouses, but I saw no real harm in creeping up to a neighbor's window and using a noisemaker to spook the people inside.  My father even taught me how to make the noisemaker with an empty thread spool, a pencil, and a piece of string. (For the record, you take a wooden spool, notch the edges of top and bottom, suspend it on a pencil, and wrap a piece of string around the spool.  Then you hold it against the window glass, and make it spin by pulling the string.) We got away with soaping windows, too, which had the effect of making sure that everyone in the neighborhood had sparkling clean windows going into winter.

We planned costumes for weeks, rather than plucking one off the rack at Costco, and pretty costumes were as much in demand as witches and ghosts.  Now costumes are mainly for adults, and they  feature such delights as ghouls or zombies, or sexy French maids and political figures. Isn't the real world scary enough?

And that brings up to whole subject of Trick or Treat.  We have not had a single child come to our door for candy in the past seven years.  Of course, we live in a neighborhood heavily populated by senior citizens, and in the next-door housing complex, our neighbors are Baptist seminary students. ( If they have small children, they take them to a harvest celebration in the church basement.)

 But I hear the same stories from all over town.  Most little kids don't "trick or treat" anymore. The ones that do come around are costume-less teenagers with pillowcases, surly and threatening. Where are the cute little tykes in bumblebee outfits?  If they go out at all, they probably go somewhere "safe" like the local indoor mall, not out in the old, dark streets.  I miss them.  I even miss the student who knocked on our door one Halloween with her cat all decked out in a pumpkin costume.

And speaking of cats, I have just been reminded that October 31 is the birthday of our big orange cat.  He really should have been named Pumpkin, I suppose, but his name -- Dundee -- suits him better. Actually, I named him after a brand of Scottish marmelade, but he has always thought he was named after Crocodile Dundee and behaved accordingly. He makes a good Halloween spook to have around.

Ah, well.  We have lost the art of celebrating Halloween, I suppose, lost it under a load of rumors about devil worshippers and fear of drug pushers.  Now we have dentists who urge kids to turn in their candy --drugstores that  offer to test all handouts for drugs -- hospitals that will x-ray homemade treats for needles or razor blades.

 I mourn the loss of a fun holiday--one marked by letting kids be kids, if only for a few hours. I intend to stage my own tiny protest against the loss by serving mummy dogs for dinner and eating more chocolate than I should.  Hope you find a way to celebrate.

Writing About What I Know

When I decided to put together my upcoming book on self-publishing, I had many choices to make. I wanted a book that would be useful to as many people as possible, but I also realized that I could not be all things to all people. I know  a lot about history, and I've learned even more about historical fiction.  I know how to do historical and genealogical research.  But I'm not much good in other areas.  I can't, for example, give anyone advice on writing fantasy or science fiction. Vampires and space travel are just not my thing.  I can't help with poetry or theoretical physics, either.  In the end, I decided I could only write about what I know -- which is pretty good advice in itself.

If your projected writing project has nothing to do with history or research of any kind, feel free to skip those chapters. But off you're interested in writing historical fiction, or if you suspect that writing your novel will require you to do some research before you write, chapters 5 through 8 of The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese will be particularly important for you.  Here's what they cover:

5. Explore Genealogy
What's in a Name?
Don't Root Around in Grandma's Attic
Do You Have Any Family Skeletons?
What About Famous Ancestors?

6. Know the Difference between Fact and Fiction
The Role of Research
The Facts Behind the Fiction
Three New Rules for Historical Fiction
You’re Never Too Old To Learn
Not Everyone Wants Facts

7. Do Your Homework
Carved on a Rock
Where Did They Put Grandpa?
Don’t Believe Everything You Read
Researching the Unknowable
Layers of Deception
Betrayed by Translation

8. Keep Asking Questions
The Challenges of Historical Fiction
No Guarantee of Accuracy
Pretty Is as Pretty Does
What a Difference a Date Makes

Next week, we'll talk about the rest of the book. I don't have a launch date yet, but The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese will be out in time for the holidays. Remember, if you are interested in this book, either for  yourself or as a gift for the budding writer in your life, you can pre-order it now at a special introductory price.  Visit the Mouse's website at www.thesecondmousegetsthecheese.org



Mouse? Cheese? What's All This?


Several  readers have asked for more details about my new book, The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese.  Let's start with the title.  You've heard the expression, "The early bird gets the worm?"  Well, the title is the second part of that saying. "The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese." Which would you rather have? Personally, I'm not terribly fond of worms, and I don't even like to think about what the first mouse gets!

What does that have to do with self-publishing? Quite a lot, actually. The publishing business has undergone something of a seismic shift in the past year.  If you follow the internet discussions about traditional publishing, you'll find authors being urged to make the shift to e-books and self-publishing, because that's where the "cheese"  is.  That may be so. My own experience tells me that it is. But the shift is not an easy one. 

The self-publishing option is full of traps for unwary little mice who jump into the fray without the necessary understanding of what all is involved. I certainly didn't know what I was doing when I started, and for the last year and a half, I've been stumbling and leaping around, trying to avoid the snapping mousetraps that line the path to successful self-publication.

I made it.  My first self-published historical novel, Beyond All Price, was on life-support for nearly a year, but it made a spectacular recovery this past summer, winning two book awards and  remaining on Amazon Kindle's "Top 100 Bestseller " lists for nearly two months. That was my little piece of the cheese.

Now I'd like to share my story.  I blogged about my experiences, starting with the very first decision to go with self-publication.   I've offered snippets of advice to other would-be writers, but not in any organized fashion.  Now all those crumbs of information come together in an anecdotal account of what I've learned and what you, too, need to know in order to get your piece of the cheese.

If you are thinking about self-publishing, the contents of the first four chapters of The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese will get you started on the right path.  Here's a list of the chapters and their sub-topics. 

1. Try Something New
Learning from Past Mistakes
Testing the Marketing Waters
Making the First Decisions

2. View Publishing as a Business
Formulating a Business Plan
The Home Office
Tax Deductions for Writers
Assembling a Staff
Obtaining Your ISBN
Copyright Law

3. Build an Online Platform
Creating Your Website
Designing Your Webpage
How Bloggers Get Started
Blogging for Money
Making Social Media Work for You

4. Sample New Software Choices
An Ode to Scrivener
Using Dropbox as a Safety-Deposit
Using Evernote for Everything
Other Publishing Software Options
Other Writing Resources

In upcoming posts, we'll talk about the rest of the book. I don't have a launch date yet, but it will be out in time for the holidays. Remember, if you are interested in this book, either for yourself or as a gift for the budding writer in your life, you can pre-order it now at a special introductory price.  Visit the Mouse's website at: www.thesecondmousegetsthecheese.org




A Brief Progress Report

Why do I have to keep learning the same lessons over and over again?  "Be careful what you wish for," my mother used to warn me."Once you get it, you may not want it." Yep! She was right again.  Two days ago, I complained about missing fall, since in my little corner of the world it was still summertime.  And today, I woke up to a cloudy, rainy day.  We have already hit the high for the day at 56 degrees, and the temperature is headed downhill from here on in. At least I'm not still in Boulder, where they have temperatures in the teens and over a foot of snow this morning. I'm trying to be grateful for the Mid-South and its climate. I know  I asked for cool weather, but geesh!Let's not overdo it!

I have to admit, however, that the change in the weather has made me more productive. I'm pleased to report that my book files for The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese are all in the hands of the design team now. That doesn't mean that I'm finished, of course.  I have one more round of intensive copy-editing to go before I can say the text is finished.  The illustrations  seem to suit the design team, too, although there's still a chance they will call sometime today with a complaint and a request to re-do an image. I haven't started work on the back cover text, either. But for now, I've done my part.  I may even have time today to bake some sticky-bun-topped pumpkin muffins as a reward. 

Making Time for the Important Things

Yesterday, after doing an early morning "whine" about how busy I was, i was reminded that there is more to life than being chained to a computer all day long. Here's a peek at where I was:

Our local Lions Club purchased an eye-screening device so that we could work with the Children's Eye Center at Vanderbilt.  For many years, they have run a project called KidSight Outreach, which tries to check the vision of every pre-schooler in Tennessee. The goal is simple.  If we can detect vision problems early enough, they can be corrected before a child's education suffers from poor eyesight.  This "camera" never touches the child.  It simply reads a picture of the child's eyes and returns a report showing visual acuity, the degree of astigmatism, and any sign that one eye is much stronger or weaker than the other.  We visit pre-schools and daycare facilities, and, with the parents' permission, check every child we can.  Then a printout of the reading goes to Vanderbilt to be interpreted by a professional.  Parents are notified by Vanderbilt if a problem exists.  Then Vanderbilt and the local Lions Club work together to make sure the child gets proper treatment.

That's me, recording the readings, while my husband operates the camera.  The child is sitting on the lap of his pre-school teacher, who is simply steadying his head too make sure we get a clear reading.  Just look at the next three  children waiting for their turns. They are so little, and so wonderfully well-behaved. One of them might have a condition known as "lazy eye." If left untreated until the child is seven, he could suffer permanent blindness in that eye.  If we catch it now, it can be completely cured.  

That's where I was yesterday morning.  What could be more important?  The book manuscript was still waiting for me in the afternoon when I got home.  Not much editing time lost, but a great uplift to my spirits.