"Roundheads and Ramblings"
I'm not a big fan of happy endings—at least ot the kind 0f book that ends up with “And then we all lived happily ever after.” Bull feathers! “Happily ever after” only lasts until the roof leaks or the toilet backs up. In the case of my own books, i had readers actually complain to me about “Beyond All Price” because Nellie died in the end. Well, I’m sorry to tell you, but everyone dies eventually.
Readers were happier with “Damned Yankee” because it ended on a more optimistic note. The family moved back to Charleston, found the family mansion intact, and gathered around Susan’s new melodeon for a family sing-along. Ah, but I didn’t like it! I knew better.
It’s a truism, perhaps, that most Civil War buffs don’t look beyond 1865. The war was over. The soldiers came home to their family’s welcoming arms, business could get back to normal, the slaves were free, all was right with the world. Except that it wasn’t! The historian in me knew that the next dozen years would strain the newly reunited family of states to further crises and arguments. The Ku Klux Klan was waiting in the wings to make trouble. Political parties were torn by corruption and greed, forcing both Republicans and Democrats to reverse their beliefs and policies. Local lawlessness replaced battlefield violence, and life was no more secure than it had been in wartime.
To make that point, I decided to write a second novel about the Grenvilles and about the curious phenomenon that we call “Reconstruction.” What a can of worms that term turned out to be. Even now, most people cannot adequately define the term—maybe because most definitions describe a process without identifying the object being reconstructed.
In my own mind, I think of Reconstruction as the process of putting a fractured nation back together—finding a way to bring the states of the Confederacy back into the fold of the United States of America. Most Northerners would, I think, agree with that interpretation, but they think of it as “making the South act like the North!” The North won the war. The victor makes the rules. Here’s what the South needs to do.
In the South, however, the dream has always been, “The South shall rise again.” And from the very beginning of Reconstruction, they thought they were rebuilding the old ways, restoring the privileges of the white masters and reducing the blacks to servile status once more. When one party (the reconstructers) decided what the end result should be, and the other party (those being reconstructed) expected a different outcome, trouble was sure to follow.
That’s the real story of Reconstruction, and it makes a great topic for a novel!
Yankee Reconstructed will feature a 76% price reduction starting July 4 and running until 8:00 AM (PDT) on Saturday, July 8. Get your Kindle copy for only $0.99 at:
Here is one (updated) explanation of why I wrote this book. Yes, it dates me, but, hey, I admit I'm old. What's important here is the whole idea of change--how rapidly it can occur, and how differently we must respond to new ideas.
In 1981, I had finished
typing my master’s thesis. I had used an electric typewriter, but had still
struggled with the need to produce three letter-perfect carbon copies. Do you
remember what a pain that was? No strikeovers allowed, and erasures needed to
be invisible. All footnotes went at the bottom of the page, not the end, and,
believe me, a thesis in medieval history has a lot of footnotes. We had an
elaborate system of typing a list of all footnotes first, so that we could tell
how many lines each one would take. Then, armed with the knowledge of how many
lines were available within the margins of a page, we stopped every time a
footnote number appeared in the text. We counted the separating line, the space
before the note, and the number of lines in the note itself—then subtracted
that number from the number of lines available for text. Type another footnote
number on the same page? Stop and recalculate. When a fellow student told me
about a new-fangled invention called a word processor that would allow text
changes and copy making without erasers and carbon paper, it sounded like
another impossible dream.
In 1985, I was ready to
start working on my doctoral dissertation. My supportive and understanding
husband bought me a brand new IBM desk computer. It had a memory of only 256K,
used 5-inch floppy disks, and sported a black screen with glowing green
letters, but it was beautiful. Out went the electric typewriter, in came the
computer, and I never looked back. But within the university, and particularly
in the English department, I heard discussions about the damage computers were
going to do to research. “How will we know what an author really wrote,”
scholars were asking, “if we can’t see the handwritten manuscripts and the
changes the author made?”
In 1991, I was a full-fledged
assistant professor of medieval history at a small liberal arts college. I was
excited that year to be helping to sponsor a traveling exhibit of 10th and 11th
century manuscripts from the Monastery of St. Gall. A friend and I were co-lecturing
in a class on monasticism to go along with the exhibit. A student brought me a
cartoon showing several monks standing around a copy machine, with a caption
reading, “It’s a miracle.” The cartoon was an obvious takeoff on the current ad
campaign being run by the Xerox company, but I kept it taped to the door of my
office until the tape cracked and the edges of the paper curled up and started
to flake away. Life seemed to be getting simpler all the time, and fewer and
fewer of us were questioning what was being lost in the process. I certainly
Then it was the year 2000—the turn of a
century—and people were worried about the consequences of changing from the 19s
to the 20s. What would happen to all those printed checkbooks, invoices, order
forms, and account statements with a blank space for the date that looked like
this: _____________, 19___? There was near panic over the possibility that on
January 1, 2000, computers would crash and lose all their records because they
had not been programmed to handle the dates of the 21st century. We adapted, of
course, but a bit of nostalgia began to creep in. One contest asked, “What was
the most important invention of the past 1000 years?” The run away winner?
Gutenberg’s printing press, which made books available to ordinary people.
But by 2012, we were witnessing
the decline of bookstores, publishers, and paper-based publications of all
sorts. Bookstore chains like Borders were closing, newspapers were folding (not
meant as a pun!), magazines were shrinking, and electronic editions of books were
outselling printed versions by a wide margin. Earlier that year, I attended a writers' conference, where authors were asking if it was worth it any longer to publish bound versions of
our books. I confess, I didn’t know. I had a carton of unsold trade paper books
sitting in my closet, while checks from Kindle kept rolling in every
I couldn’t claim to have a crystal
ball to tell me what the future held for writers. I didn’t even know what it
held for me as a writer. But for whatever the voice of experience is worth,
this small book offered some suggestions on finding one's way through the
thickets of the publishing world. I was only a small mouse among the hordes of
new authors, but I had found a little piece of cheese, called an Amazon bestseller
ranking, and II wanted to share some of the methods I used to get
there. The chapters were, for the most part, culled from the blog
posts I had left along the way. I was happy to scatter the crumbs of my experience
and leave a trail that might help other writers find their path through the traps that
By the way, you won't find a food recipe among this week's blog posts. Mice don't cook. But you will find several "recipes" for producing your own best-selling book.
And be susre to pick up your free copy of the Kindle version of this book at:
life was saved by one of those angels of mercy, a volunteer army nurse. He fell
blessed hands of a kind-hearted woman! Even here, amid the roar and carnage,
a woman with the soul to dare danger; the heart to sympathize with the
skill, and experience to make her a treasure beyond all price.”
quotation, taken from Frank Moore’s Women of the War: Their Heroism and
Self-Sacrifice, was a tribute to
Nellie Chase written by the soldier whose life she saved on the battlefield at
Fredericksburg. I used it as the epigraph of Beyond All Pricc, not only
because it had inspired my choice of a title, but also because Nellie was
always an inspiration to those who encountered her.
I don’t want to sound too mystical here, but Nellie
haunted me for years before I wrote about her. As I researched the history of
the Roundheads, I frequently encountered her name—simple mentions of her
nursing a soldier or feeding a patient or soothing a homesick kid. And each time,
I felt as if she were tapping me on the shoulder, saying “Ahem! I’m still here.
When are you going to tell my story?”
The problem was that very little is known about
Nellie Chase. She left not a single word in her own writing. Her birth was
unremarked and unrecorded. Her name was a common one; I found 173 Nellie Chases
living in Maine in the 1860s. No one knew exactly where she came from, or what
happened to her after the war. So where was the story she wanted me to write? As
a historian, I wanted facts, but facts about Nellie were almost nonexistent.
In order to tell her story, I had to outline the
few things I knew about her. And then—oh, this was the hard part!—I had to take
off my historian’s gown and let Nellie tell her own story. She led me across
the great divide between a dedication to historical accuracy and the ability to feel empathy
for those who lived through the historical events. So in a real sense, which
perhaps only another writer can understand, Nellie and I wrote this book
together. I would read about an event, wonder about how she would feel in such circumstances, and then . . . then the words would start to flow. All I had to do was write them down.
Did all of the events in this novel really happen?
Maybe not. Or maybe they did, at that.
This book is available in paperback, Kindle, and Audible formats.
Where do baby books come from? I get a
variation of this question at almost every talk I give. Readers want to know
where or how their favorite authors come up with their stories. At first,
I found it easy to answer. I wrote "A Scratch with the Rebels" to
tell the story of my great-uncle's Civil War regiment and their experiences.
Buet the full story is much more complicated.
interest in James McCaskey started when I was only a child. I could remember
seeing a mysterious headstone that bore the name of my great-uncle James
McCaskey, who was killed in the Civil War. It was only much later that i
returned to Pennsylvania to learn more about him. After much searching, I found
this marker in the same Pennsylvania cemetery where many of my other McCaskey
ancestors are buried. It reads:
April 12, 1839
June 16, 1862
James Island, S.C.
details are all correct; the military action on James island was the Battle of
Secessionville. The problem is that the notification of his death says
that his body was never found. The official records say that the Confederate
troops buried the Union soldiers killed in the battle (some 509 of them) in
unmarked graves on the battlefield. North Sewickley Cemetery records indicated
that the headstone was placed in 1875, after Mrs. Jane McCaskey purchased three
adjoining plots and ordered three matching stones — one for her recently
deceased husband John, one for herself, and one for her missing eldest son
James. A tombstone does not always equal a real burial, of course.
Obviously, James's headstone marks an empty grave, a not uncommon phenomenon
during a war that swallowed up so many young men on distant battlefields. The
Grand Army of the Republic honors James McCaskey's service every Memorial Day
by placing a flag on the grave site, but even their records stop short of
stating that he is actually buried there.
learned more when I discovered in my mother’s attic a small packete of letters from
Uncle James written during the war. James McCaskey was killed in the
little-known Battle of Secessionville in June 1862. I was moved by the
letter of notification written by his commanding lieutenant -- and particularly
touched when I realized that on that letter the blotches were caused by
someone's teardrops that had made the ink run.
that really got my attention, however, was written by a fellow soldier who
described the experience of the battle in a letter to his sister. It was
full of bravado -- almost exhilaration -- as he talked about those who had been
wounded or killed. He said things like, ""Not me! I didn't
duck, neither. I stood up cause I wanted to see where the bullets was
comin' from." For a long time I couldn't understand why the sister had
passed this letter on to James's parents. It didn't feel comforting to me.
It seemed almost heartless, as if the neighbor had thoroughly enjoyed his
one way or another, I've been working through those conflicting emotions of
cockiness and grief ever since. They led me to explore the Civil War
holdings of several local libraries and genealogical societies in western
Pennsylvania and in South Carolina. I discovered one treasure trove of
artifacts at Penn State, and another at the at the US Army Military History
institute. Each one took me deeper into the story. It took me twenty-five years to get it all
down on paper.
When I first began thinking about the book that would follow “Yankee Reconstructed,” two different ideas tempted me. One was that unspoken demand of the marketplace that two volumes about a South Carolina family needed a third to make them a trilogy. The other was a different project, based on the stories my mother had told me about growing up in a family of eight girls on a farm in Pennsylvania. Which one would win my attention?
I really did not want to do another South Carolina book. The story was pushing into the last decades the nineteenth century, a dark period in the history of the state. There had been an earthquake, i knew, that had destroyed almost the entire city of Charleston in 1886. But just as devastating was what was happening politically and socially. The education system that my characters had worked so hard to put in place had completely collapsed. State government was riddled by corruption. The economy had crumbled. it was also the era of Jim Crow laws, which were nothing more than a white supremacist plot to destroy the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution. The state gave off an aura of hopelessness that no mere novel could hope to counter.
But the Pennsylvania topic also had its problems. True, the North had much more to commend it at the turn of the century. Rapid industrialization had benefited the economy but had also revealed a need for social and political reforms. The period from 1890 to 1920 has been called The Progressive Era, as it sought to transform society. It was an exciting time, with campaigns to give women the right to vote, to put a stop to the excesses of alcohol, and drive political bosses and their corrupt machines out of local and state government. But the stories I had inherited from my mother were much more personal than that. They were the stories of individual struggles to find new roles for ordinary people in the dawning twentieth century.
it is not my favorite period of history, but I knew i could pick up the information I would need. No, what troubled me was the reliability of the stories in question. I first saw a book about my mother’s McCaskey family as a return to my favorite genre of creative biography rather than fiction. But that plan rested on the assumption that what my mother had told me was completely accurate. And there I hit a wall. My mother, the youngest of the eight McCaskey sisters, was a creative soul, with a well-known habit of . . . uh . . .embellishing the facts. She told a great story, but it was not one on which I was willing to rest my own reputation as a historian. I also had to think about all my second, third, and fourth cousins out there, who might be disturbed or hurt by a less than factual “tell-all” book about their grandmothers or great-grandmothers.
I dithered and put off making a decision. Then came two small revelations that suggested a third path. First, that real Charleston earthquake drove thousands into the streets, and anyone who could escape the city did so. The three youngest Grenvilles had only loose ties to the city. Rebecca Grenville had agreed to stay there only to keep the family mansion open. If the earthquake destroyed it, she would be free to go anywhere, even Pennsylvania.
And then I noticed that the fictional Jamey Grenville was exactly the same age as my maternal grandfather, Joseph McCaskey. Both had been little more than toddlers at the beginning of the Civil War. Each was the youngest child in his family, and both had older brothers who fought in the war. How easy it was to conflate the two—to use the details of Joseph’s adult life in Pennsylvania to create a new fictional life for Jamey Grenville.
And that’s how “Yankee Daughters” came into existence. Jamey Grenville met a young Pennsylvania Dutch girl who, due to a tragic accident involving her parents, had inherited a farm that she could not manage on her own. In a novel he could ride to the rescue, marry her, and save the farm. A few years later, as the earthquake destroyed the last Grenville ties to Charleston, he could once again be the hero, rescuing his sister Rebecca Grenville and bringing her to live near his own growing family in Pennsylvania.
Suddenly, all I had to do was change the names of the McCaskey women, and I had a novel on my hands. There was a hero who was adored by both the women in his life— his wife and his sister. He had a family of eight daughters—interesting creatures with eight distinct personalities. And there was a feud between the wife, who wanted only to see to it that her eight daughters found suitable husbands who would support them and protect them, and the sister, who hoped to encourage her nieces to become strong, independent women in their own right. At one point in the story, Rebecca complained that her sister-in-law was raising 19th-century women who would have to live in a 20th-century world. She thus neatly summed up the central theme of the coming book.
Coming soon: A series of posts to introduce the new characters, illustrated by old photographs of the real women who inspired the characters. Stay tuned.