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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

May 2014

Daddy, Where Do Baby Books Come From?

"Daddy, Where Do Baby Books Come From?"  In a slightly different form, that's a question I hear at almost every book signing.  Readers always seem curious as to where their authors find the stories they write about.  "Is this book fact or fiction?" "Did this really happen?" "Is John (or Mary) a real person?" "Why did you choose this place?" "Is that character someone you know?"

Of course, the answers are different for every book, and sometimes, I confess, I don't know the answers myself. But in the case of Damned Yankee, I can tell you exactly where the idea came from. This is book five in a series of works about the Civil War in South Carolina's Low Country.  I've written about Union soldiers and Confederate soldiers, about Pennsylvania regiments and South Carolina militias, about Union nurses and abolitionist schoolmarms from Boston, about slaves and freedmen. And because I'm a historian by training and profession, I have always tried to stick to the facts, using real people -- their letters, journals, newspapers and family pictures. Even though I grew up in the North, I've lived in the South for 25 years, so I hoped I was able to take a balanced view of events.  Still, a family friend kept nagging at me: "Why don't you ever write about a Confederate family?" he wanted to know.  And he was right -- that was a topic I had ignored.

I knew exactly who I wanted to write about next.  My research had introduced me to a Low Country family who had suffered unimaginable losses as a result of a civil war that they had wanted no part of.  I knew who they were and where they had lived. I had even walked through their house and visited the church they attended. Some of  their intimate family letters were publicly available, and I had read them in great detail. There was just one problem.  I also knew that they had living family members who had had a hand in publishing those letters. It was quite likely that they knew a great deal more about their Civil War family than they had revealed in the letter collection. They also controlled much of the source materials I was going to need, and they might not take kindly to a stranger snooping about in the family attic.

There was only one honorable path to follow: I asked permission of the one great-niece I could identify.  And the answer came back quickly.  She was polite but clear. "No, thank you," she said.  "Someday I want to write my great -aunt's story myself, and I won't let anyone else have access to her materials.  I thank you for your interest in our family, and I wish you great success in your writing career, but please write about someone else."

Ouch! All the preliminary research I had done -- probably a year's worth of reading and planning -- was wasted. Still, I wanted to explore the broader picture of Southern families who suffered greatly from the war through little fault of their own.  What to do? I fell back upon that old TV adage: "The names have been changed to protect the innocent."

As I changed the names of the main characters and their locations, I realized I was creating something new -- not a historical account-- but my first novel. Once I got used to creating fictional names, the fictional characters came easily.  I moved them from another southern city to Charleston, and that presented the family with a new set of challenges.  I gave the father of the family a new occupation, which in turn gave him a new back story about where he was educated.  I changed the number of children in the family and added a couple more girls to the mix. The original family had slaves but almost never referred to them by name.  I could give my new family some interesting slaves whose strong characters influenced a couple of  the family's decisions. As their circumstances changed, so did their troubles. And because this fictional family was facing a series of disasters that were different from those I originally knew about, so they took a much different path in finding their solutions.  I had a novel on my hands.

In the end, there was almost nothing that could have been connected back to the original family. What didn't change? The message! By not using a real family, I had told the story of "Every Family" who lived in the South during those tumultuous years. And I had been able to bring to life several of the ways in which the Civil War affected the lives of all who lived through it.

Are the Grenvilles real people? No.  Do they resemble the family that became "off limits" to me? Not in the slightest. Oh, there are a few real people in the book.  Once I put the Grenvilles in Charleston, they had to know people like the Calhouns and the Middletons -- because everybody in Charleston knew those family names. The military commanders are all real, as are several of the peach growers in Aiken.  This story is not fantasy.  Its events and dates are accurate. The situations are authentic and, above all, the suffering is real and well-documented.  Only the characters themselves have been changed, not just to protect the innocent, but to give them a more univeral reality.

It Only Takes a Few Words to Make an Author Smile.

5.0 out of 5 stars
By slrj

"I thoroughly enjoyed the stories compiled here concerning the lives of the Grenvilles and surrounding families in and around Charleston, SC, during the War Between the States. Such a turbulent time, with neighbor against neighbor, family members torn. I could see all sides and commiserate with the characters, wishing them all the best outcome from an awful situation. Life would have been much better had there been more like Jonathan Grenville among the Southerners, treating slaves and former slaves the way we would hope we would had we been there at the time.
The author's descriptions of the consuming fires in Charleston, the approaching US soldiers, the conditions and language of the slave families put you in the time and place with the characters. Very well done, in my opinion, and very enjoyable.
Thank you, Ms. Schriber and Ms. Deponte!"

PS -- Does a review like that really make a difference? You bet it does.  Within 2 hours of my posting that review where more people could see it, there were five new book sales of Damned Yankee, and the book's sales ranking jumped from around 163,000 to 60,000.

Please, readers.  Do this, not just for me (although that would be nice), but for all of your favorite authors.  It just takes you a moment, but it's lifeblood for the author!

Rose Hill, Continued



My pictures of Rose Hill Mansion in Bluffton, SC, are now up on Pinterest at:

Rose Hill Mansion









Just a little over a week ago, I was invited to attend a luncheon and tour of the historic antebellum mansion called Rose Hill, located just outside of Bluffton, South Carolina. I was there as the guest of the Palmetto Hall Women's Club of Hilton Head.  Many of these women also belong to a book club that read my biographical novel, The Road to Frogmore, last fall.  I was scheduled to be their guest at an Author Tea in November, but as some of you will remember, I ended up in the hospital with a broken pelvis and was unable to attend. This visit was something of a repayment of that cancelled event -- a chance for me to talk to many of the ladies, as well as introduce them to my newest book.

What a setting for a discussion of a historical novel! I've been trying ever since I got home to find a way to describe the house, but it's an overwhelming task.  I am in the middle of creating a Pinterest board that will feature some of the photos I took that day,  In the meantime, I have found an article that will give you a real feel for the house, its history, and its ties to the history of South Carolina. You can access the article here: http://www.rosehillmansion.com/f/Coastal_Isle_2-25-2013.pdf


An Author Biography for Book Clubs



For many people. the word "retirement" conjures up daydreams about beaches, hammocks, lemonade, afternoon naps, or world travel. For me, retirement meant that I finally had time to work on things I wanted to do rather than the things somebody else expected me to do.When I looked back over my working career, I realized that no matter what job I was doing , I grew bored and tired of it after a few years.

I went to college to become a Latin teacher, and jobs were easy to find. After all, how many people do you know that want to teach Latin? But after ten years in high school classrooms, I was burned out. Lesson plans, faculty meetings, lunchroom and bus duty, extra-curricular activity supervision, and endless grading took almost all my waking hours.  There were many days when I worked at the school for 14 hours straight. I really wanted my life back.  At the end of that period, our school system was embroiled in a nasty teacher strike.  I remember thinking that there was a great novel lurking in the details, but I was too tired to write it.

I escaped by becoming a stay-at-home Mom, particularly after my Air Force husband was stationed in Canada, and the NATO agreement under which our family entered that country said that I could not take a job that a Canadian could do. I became a domestic goddess instead.  I picked wild berries and made jam and pie fillings for winter, bought a sewing machine and learned to make my own clothes and children's stuffed animals.  Our yard sported an extensive vegetable garden, and I learned the fine art of making things like sauerkraut from my very own cabbage.  I took lessons in pattern drafting, gourmet cooking, and cake decorating. The end to that phase came when the seven-year-old dropped my newly decorated Halloween cake face down into the shag rug. (yes, shudder, we had shag carpets back then!). I discovered I really missed books, and I toyed with the idea of writing one, but the idea sounded silly.

What was next? After five years of unemployment, my teaching licenses had all expired, which meant I had to go back to school to update my credentials. Going back to graduate school was exhilarating. Yes, I was older than my classmates, but I was also more experienced, and my own years in front of a class served me well in this new role. I loved the books, the ideas, the research -- so I stayed as long as I could. Instead of picking up a few credits, I did a Master's Degree in History, and then went on to pursue a Doctorate. Another ten years went by, and I was tired of sitting in the back of a classroom.  I was ready to teach again.
This time I was a tenured professor in a fine and fancy liberal arts college.  And teaching was fun again.  The years of bus and lunchroom duty were far behind me, and people were actually encouraging me to write books -- but they wanted their kind of books -- academic tomes for my fellow professors. I did it because the stories about "publish or perish" are true. But it wasn't as much fun as I had imagined. And after fifteen years on that faculty -- as I stared down the throat of the monster who reminded me I was now 65 years old -- I knew I had to get out of our limestone tower and write the book I wanted to write.

That was ten years ago.  In that period, I have written not one book, but six of them. And for the first time, I'm not burned out. I love what I do now, and within days of finishing one book, I discover another percolating beneath the surface. My mother had a treasure trove of old Pennsylvania Dutch "wise sayings," and one of them said: "We get too soon old, and too late smart." True enough, in my case, I suppose, except for the "too late" part. It's never too late!