"Roundheads and Ramblings"
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My Love-Hate Relationship with NaNoWriMo
Let's Take the Survey One Step Further
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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

Inspiration

The Names Have Been Changed To Protect the Not-So-Innocent

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.

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.  I wrote "Beyond All Price" because I was curious about the nurse who kept cropping up in my research on the Roundhead Regiment. I wrote "The Road to Frogmore" because I wanted to know more about the missionaries who came to South Carolina during the war to work with former slaves.

But then, once I started writing pure historical fiction, the question got tougher. How do you create a whole family and their stories? Well, certainly, they have to be based on what the writer knows about real people who were living in that place at that time. I don't write fantasy or science fiction. My emphasis is always on the historical rather than the fiction. When I created the Grenville family, I had great fun giving them time-appropriate names and birthdates. I worked up a genealogical chart to remind myself of who was related to whom and a time chart to match the characters' lives with the real historical happenings around them. Then I could give my imagination full play as I thought about these people and their reactions to the world around them.

So far, so good. "Damned Yankee" was easy. What happened to the Grenvilles also happened to many other families living in Charleston or on the plantations of the Low Country. Then came the idea for a sequel. "Yankee Reconstructed" was set in the ten to fifteen years after the Civil War. But it didn't take long for problems to set in. Taking into consideration the five years of the war and the following fifteen years, meant I had a whole new generation to deal with. The children of "Damned Yankee" had grown up. Their parents were aging. For that matter, so were the older "children" who had been in their late teens when "Damned Yankee" opened. So, too, my focus had to change to new historical realities and new characters.

And now, the problems multiplied. Once i had written two "Yankee" books, readers expected a third. There's actually no separate word for a series of two. Books come in trilogies. But where will a third story come from?  I had neatly wrapped up the lives of Jonathan and Susan Grenville. Their older children, too, were settled into marriages and careers. All I had left to work with were the three younger children, who had played only walk-on roles in the previous books. Could i get a story out of them? I barely knew them. And what about the historical details? I would be moving out of my comfort zone into a period I knew little about. So, where will this new book come from?  I'll try to answer that tomorrow.


Dusty Old Historians Sometimes Offer Wise Advice for the Present

I promised myself I would not get involved in the political arguments currently waging on the internet, so I will try to keep this post as non-partisan as possible. It will either insult both sides or (I hope) give both something to think about. I’ve noticed that one of the characteristics of the current argument has been the “all-or-nothing” approach being taken by both sides. “All Republicans are stupid” gets equal time with “All Democrats are liberal idiots.” The assumption seems to be that there can be no middle ground—that you must either agree with everything a candidate stands for or reject the whole platform because you disagree with some part of it.  Unfortunately, such an approach makes civilized discussion a thing of the past.  (End of introductory rant)

This morning, I stumbled upon a quote that caught my attention and seemed to sum up what is wrong with the all-or-nothing approach. I was looking for a particular illustration of a Civil War ship, and one of my possible sources was Robert N. Rosen’s Confederate Charleston: An Illustrated History of the City and the People during the Civil War (1994). In his preface, he discusses the conflict he felt as a child between his love of his home town, Charleston, and the distress he felt about a war that its citizens fought over slavery. And then he says this:

“As a student at the University of Virginia in the 1960s, I learned from Paul Gaston, Willie Lee Rose,and the writings of C. Vann Woodward [eminent historians all] that one could be a Southerner, take pride in the South, and not feel compelled to defend the indefensible."

What good advice for all of us!

Welcome to Lions, Young Student Optometrists

Last night we had the privilege of once again attending the organizational meeting of the Southern College of Optometry Lions Club here in Memphis. This is a once-a-year occasion, where new first-year students learn about Lions Clubs International and our role in putting an end to preventable blindness throughout the world. My husband and I founded this club in 2004, and have been invited back year after year to serve as mentors.  

The fit between optometry and Lions is obvious. When these young doctors head out to establish their own practices across the  country, they will have an ongoing connection to their local Lions Club. Of course, the club faces some unusual problems because the turn-over  of membership is so great.  Students spend three years or less on campus before heading out to do "externships"  all over the country. So they don't have much time to build up a tradition of leadership.  Still, year after year, we find third-year students stepping into leadership roles and without needing much guidance they take over and run the largest Lions club in the state of Tennessee.

This past week, the college held a service day during which the new students learned about various opportunities for service. Our Lions officers followed up with an invitation to any interested students to come to last night's meeting. They weren't above luring them with the promise of dinner, but they had a tremendous response.  Here's what just part of the largest classroom looked like last night, as new students nibbled on Lenny's subs and filled out their application forms.

How many were there?  Well, we didn't count, but the lecture hall holds two hundred, and there weren't many empty seats.  Not all of them had come prepared with checkbooks, but 77 of them turned in their applications and paid on the spot.  Others went off carrying their applications to leave in the treasurer's mailbox later. 

Once in a while, we get asked if the club actually does anything, or whether it is just a formality.  Well, last night's meeting involved their schedule through October. Among their plans were these items: providing  eye-screening at a community health fair; pitching in to help in the Germantown Lions tent at this weekend's festival, where they will do more screenings and perhaps learn about diabetes-testing; signing up for a Sight Walk through Overton Park; taking part in World Sight Day; designing and selling club tee-shirts; running a major fund-raiser involving Coupon Books for Memphis attractions and restaurants; and entering a contest to see which club can create the winning Halloween decorations for a treatment room at the Eye Center. They also attend district meetings, volunteer at the Church Health Center, go with weekend RAM trips to take medical care to rural areas of Tennessee: and, when they are  second and third-year students, help with eye exams funded by the Lions Lens Project to provide glasses for needy patients. And remember, they do all this while being medical students, raising families, and supporting themselves.

Sometimes, these young people leave me exhausted, just from listening to them. But they also leave me inspired.  They are a terrific antidote to celebrity shenanigans and "stories that bleed" on the nightly news.

Warming the Cockles

I have to pass this story along, with no names or specific locations identified.  I was doing a book-signing this afternoon, in a place where attendance depended entirely on the weather.  The weather forecast was for thunderstorms (read: everyone will be cooped up inside, looking for something to do).  But as usual, the forecasts were wrong, the storms have stalled out, and here we are with warm weather, sunshine, and gentle waves along a pristine beach. (Read: Guess how many people are inside on a day like today!)

So there I was, with hostess, faithful husband, and only a few passers-by who looked curious, asked a question or two, and then hurried on to more touristy pleasures.  Then SHE arrived -- a pleasant middle-aged lady, who asked lots of questions, settled on the couch for longer discussions, purchased two books, and exchanged addresses and other contact information with me.  Would I talk to her women's group, to her local library, etc.?

As I said good-bye and wished her happy reading, she revealed that she is a breast cancer survivor, now completely finished with chemo and pronounced cured, but among her scars is this one -- that while she was once an avid reader, she has not been able to sit down and read a book for several months.  "But your stories fascinate me," she said.  "They make me want to read again.  Perhaps they will finish off my cure."

Only two books sold -- but what a gift she gave me!