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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

February 2012

Writers, Here's a Solution for Many of Your Problems

Yesterday on a Facebook page for writers, we had a discussion about a piece of software that has not been available to Windows users until now. As a long-time MAC fan, I have always recommended Scrivener as the answer to a writer's prayer, and I did so again in The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese. Here's a section of that article that lured one reader to give it a try:

"Now that Scrivener is available for both MAC and Windows, I can’t imagine anyone needing anything else. It’s an endlessly versatile program that manages to keep almost every item of the book-writing process in one spot.

"There’s a section for research, which can hold notes, pictures, maps, and “messages-to-self.” I keep lots of pictures there, so that when I am writing about a particular location or character, I can open a picture and keep it on my screen while I write. That adds detail to my descriptions and saves me from making silly mistakes about things like what you can see from a front porch or whether a character sports a mustache.

"In fact, it has a whole section for character sketches. You can fill out their questions about each of your characters, defining their back story, their foibles, their nervous quirks, their speech impediments, their hair and eye color, their family relationships—whatever is important to define the character. Then while you are writing, it is easy to click on a character name in the left-hand column and jump to a description.

"Scrivener provides a separate template for locations, too, where you can record thing like vegetation, wildlife, smells, sounds. Is your location overgrown with vegetation? You’ll need to list what kinds of things grow there. Are bugs important to your story, as they may be for mine? Then you can add their descriptions here. My location files have picture, of course, but also descriptions of the smell of pluff mud and the clicking sound palmetto bugs make as they stomp across a wood floor.

Do you write in chapters or in scenes? Scrivener offers you both options, and once you have all the parts in place, it can put the entire manuscript together for you—in the right order, with chapter numbers. Are you used to working with index cards? Scrivener can display your material in that format, with little cards tacked to a virtual corkboard. You can color code the cards, and you can move them about as you would if you were tacking them to a wall. I used this feature to outline all the chapters of The Road to Frogmore. Need more or less writing space? Stretch it out or shrink it. Want a blank screen with nothing but your words filling the screen in front of you? You can do that, too."


Disclaimer: I have no connection to this company and have not received anything in exchange for my positive review.  I just really like their product.

"Get 'Em While They're Free"





Book news is leaving me overwhelmed this morning. Yesterday, a member of The Military Writers Society of America posted a review of my newest book on Amazon. By pure coincidence, hers was the tenth review of "The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese," and that magic number made the book eligible for a free promotional period. So without my knowledge, The Mouse 's price dropped to $0.00 last night on Kindle, and the downloads began.  By this morning, here's what the book listing looked like:



















It's an exciting development, because those rankings will promote sales even after the promotional period is over.  Even better, I'm seeing some fallout  for my other books as well.  Several other sales have happened this morning.  Somebody even bought the paper version of The Second Mouse.

Anyway, between watching the sales figures rise and trying to do another editing read-through of a 3/4-finished historical novel, I'm buried in virtual books!  I can't promise how long the free offer will last; it will be purely at the whim of Amazon. So if you have ever considered exploring the possibilities of self-publishing, here's a place to pick up some free tips and advice.  Happy reading.

Smiles Outnumber the Grimaces Today -- RBOC Edition

I've been out of  pocket the past three days.  Part of my excuse was the need to attend a yearly convention at which I was a speaker.  Complicating my lack of internet activity was accidentally leaving the briefcase that contained iPads and all charging cords for phones on a kitchen chair.  The silence actually created a pleasant interlude, so while my phone didn't get recharged, my spirit did.  Here are some of the things I didn't get to write about. But I've been thinking about them while we were away. (Roughly known as Randon Bits of Crap -- RBOC)

Most irritating moment: I was one of two main speakers at business meeting of this convention. Both of us were asked to describe the non-profit organizations we represented, with an eye toward making sure the audience understood what we do and how seriously underfunded we are.  The first speaker was introduced as Dr. D, retired professor from X University and now President and CEO of Organization A. I was introduced as Carolyn Schriber, representing Organization B.  Both introductions were true, but were they accurate?

Somehow, It think it might have made a difference if I had been introduced -- entirely accurately -- as Dr. S, Professor Emerita from Y College and now Incoming President of Organization P. That introduction would also have been true. And within a formal situation, I couldn't help feeling that "Dr. D's"  message carried more weight with the audience than "Carolyn's" did. I don't usually get upset by gender issues directed at me.  I've lived too long in a world where I've constantly had to compete with men. But in this case, it did bother me, although I said nothing about it. What would you have done? What if, as was the case here, the person making the introductions was a friend, not someone intentionally casting a slur on my qualifications?

There were several bright spots to make up for the one uncomfortable moment, however. At the end of the conference, we slipped away for a few minutes to visit a nearby Civil War battlefield. Unfortunately we arrived too late to get in, but across the road we found a Civil War Relics shop.  It turned out to be a finely curated mini-museum, and in its book section I discovered a real treasure: a reprint of several volumes of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Best of all, they had Vol. 14 of Series I, which covers the exact period and location of my Civil War books -- the coast of South Carolina in 1862 and 1863.  For $17.95 my research just became measurably easier.  Score one for my side!

This photograph falls into the cute category. It certainly brightened my day. We had a group of teenaged Leo Club members attending the conference.  They were all staying in a group cabin with their parents' as chaperones.  They had their own kitchen facilities and enough food to feed them and most of us as well.  Look who showed up at their balcony door to beg for a handout. I've attended meetings and other affair at the Inn in this state park for years without seeing an animal. Can raccoons spot a fuzzy-animal-loving teenager from a distance?  Thanks, Jordan, for posting the picture and making me smile.


And finally, a couple of signs we spotted along the road on the way home.  The more puzzling one was repeated all over one small town: "Leaf Season ends February 29th." Presumably, that's the last day to get your leaves raked and put out for trash collection, but for a few moments I wondered whether there was a town ordinance that controlled the sprouting of all the new leaves we were seeing.

The one that really made me smile, however, was in front of a small town church: "Kneeling often keeps you in good standing."

Keep smiling, friends.

A Prescription from The Second Mouse

Right now American TV audiences are being treated to  another season of "Who Do You Think You Are?" The program, heavily promoted by Ancestry.com, takes us through the family histories of celebrities, showing how families can be traced for generations.  Wonderful discoveries! Shocking revelations! Who  would have thought . . .?  Now, don't get me wrong.  I really like Ancestry.com and use it frequently. But if you're planning to indulge in some genealogical research of your own, take along a hefty dose of skepticism.

Census records look valuable, and they can be, but their worth depends entirely upon the competence of the person doing the recording. I examined a record for my mother’s family from the 1900 Pennsylvania Census. It listed the birth dates of two of her sisters as November 1877 and February 1878. Three months apart? Probably not!

For any kind of record before the days of typewriters and computers, handwriting causes major problems. Some examples are marvelously clear; others are scrawls or overwritten with so many corrections that it is impossible to decipher them. Then there are problems caused by mispronunciations or bad hearing or faulty transcriptions. The online version of the 1910 Census shows my mother (Margaret McCaskey) as Marguett Mccacbey.

Nicknames cause their own set of difficulties. Nellie Chase always used the name Nellie, but her given name could have been Nell, Helen, Eleanor, or even Ellen, as she turned out to be. My own brother had problems all his life explaining his name. My mother named him Jack. Just Jack. It was not a nickname, but people naturally assumed that his real name must have been John or Jacques or even James.

Family names change over time. A major culprit may be an immigration record, on which an ethnic name was written down as the closest English approximation. One branch of my father’s family bore the surname of Arendt in Germany. They arrived in America as Aurand. Their friends the Muellers became the Millers.

And then there’s my husband’s family. We are frequently told that our last name should be spelled “Schreiber.” Well, it originally was. The family story says that John Schreiber, who fought in the Civil War, found that his discharge papers had his name spelled wrong. He was given two choices. He could refuse the discharge and stay in the army. Or he could change his name to Schriber, take the discharge as written, and go home that day. He went home! And we’ve been Schribers ever since.

Or so they say! "Don't forget your dose of skepticism," warns the Second Mouse. For more tips, check out Chapter Five of The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese.

February Mud Makes Curmudgeons of Us All

After being awakened this morning at 4:30 by a violent thunderstorm, I was more than ready to wish away the rest of February. Then I was reminded that February rains and mud also discombobulated the 100th Pennsylvania Regiment 150 years ago. Here's the story, taken from Chapter 5 of A Scratch with the Rebels.

"Without warning the weather could turn cold and wet. Camellia blossoms, touched by frost, turned an ugly shade of brown, collapsed under the beating rain, and fell off the bushes in mushy wads. The rain itself mixed with the fine sand that covered the ground to form a viscous layer of mud that oozed into every crevice and squelched underfoot, threatening to suck the shoes off one's feet. Sweet flowery breezes lost out to the subtle reek of decaying vegetation and the fishy stench of the coastal waters. Many of the Roundhead soldiers were still housed in makeshift tents, described as "little pouchons—soldier's gum blankets weaved together by the eyelets, two of them elevated on poles with a slope each way, making a tent." Water leaked through the holes, soaked everything inside, and allowed every loose grain of sand to attach itself to the soldiers sheltering there.

"A serious charge of mutiny was brought against some Roundheads in February. The proximate cause was the weather. Several companies of the regiment, including Company H, were still living in leaky tents, and the constant rain had turned the floors of the tents into virtual quagmires. Apparently the company officers gave the men permission to go to town to get lumber with which to floor the their quarters. Now, ever since their first day of active duty, the Roundheads had efficiently employed their appropriating system to provide for their own needs, and this occasion was no exception. Finding no fresh lumber for sale in Beaufort, they turned to a couple of abandoned buildings and ripped up the planks to take back to camp. They had installed their new floors and were enjoying a touch of comfortable dryness when Gen. Stevens learned of their activities.

"Descending upon their camp, he raged that they had violated the rules against destroying buildings, and he demanded that they immediately rip up the floors and return the boards to the town. Facing their first real reversal of expectations, the men reacted exactly as a one might have expected—they refused loudly and profanely. The crisis escalated rapidly, as Gen. Stevens, also realizing that his expectation of instant obedience was not to be realized, called out "three regiments of infantry, a battery of four guns, and two companies of Cavalry" to take away their officers' swords and surround the camp. Eventually Col. Leasure was able to calm his men, the boards were loaded back onto the wagons, and no one was punished. "Still," reported Lt. Applegate, "the curses that were heaped on General Stevens were not loud but deep." Rev. Browne referred to the incident as "General Stevens' folly" and described it as "calculated to provoke a mutiny in our regiment under pretext of quelling one that had no existence . . ."

I shall try to learn from their example and hope for sunshine rather than cursing the gloom.