"Roundheads and Ramblings"
There once were two cats of Kilkenny.
Each thought there was one cat too many,
So they fought and they fit
And they scratched and they bit,
Till, (excepting their nails
And the tips of their tails,)
Instead of two cats, there weren’t any.
I grew up hearing that limerick. My mother hauled it out any time I told her about a quarrel or a fight with a playmate. She said my grandmother had used it to remind her house full of daughters that fighting always hurts everyone involved. The origins of the legend go back as far as the fourteenth century, and the anonymous limerick itself has been popular since the 1800s. It was a good lesson in diplomacy, and it was one of my first thoughts when I decided to write this book.
The inspiration for the story of Yankee Daughters came from my mother’s old family photo album. Margaret McCaskey was the youngest of eight girls, all of them born in western Pennsylvania in the nineteenth century. Most of the photographs I found were taken between 1900 and 1920; many of them were of people I never knew, relatives who died long before I was born. What I learned of them came from my mother’s occasional family stories and the shaky reminiscences of elderly aunts. They were not the factual material of biography or history, but they stirred my imagination. I wanted to recreate the world these lost relatives had inhabited.
This book is a novel, and its characters and events, except for historical details, such as the sinking of the Titanic and the San Francisco earthquake, are entirely fictional. They should not be construed as having any factual basis in the lives of members of the McCaskey family, except for the following instances.
The map at the top of the front cover is a fragment of a map of Beaver County, Pennsylvania, hand-drawn in 1860 to show the location of every residence and landmark in the county. The farm I have described as belonging to the Grenvilles in the 1890s lies in the bend of Conoquenessing Creek and is labeled as belonging to a J. McCaskey. Near it, you may be able to identify some of their neighbors mentioned in the story and various landmarks such as the post office, the coal mine, the church, and the cemetery.
This photograph, as well as the pictures on the front and back covers of the book show the real McCaskey girls—my grandmother, my mother, and her seven sisters. [Left to right: Mary Davis, Caroline McCaskey, Ella Smith, Lola Connor, Margaret Poling, Florence Decker, Minnie Swick, Grace Marony, and Pearl O'Neill.] The pictures were taken by a local Ellwood City photographer in 1912. They have served me as visual models for the fictional Grenville women in the story.
The details of the women’s suffrage talk given by Miss Liliane Howard in Chapter 29 were taken from a pamphlet prepared by the Pennsylvania Women’s Suffrage Association and distributed in Pittsburgh in 1915.
The letters attributed to Sergeant Wilhelm McDevlin in Chapter 34 were actually written by my first cousin once removed, Wilbur Schweinsberg, who served in the Medical Corps during World War I. They were published in the Ellwood City newspaper, and the clippings were preserved in the family scrapbook.
Be sure to get your Kindle version of Yankee Daughters while we're offering it for only $0.99 at:
If you’ve been following our summer promotion,
you may have noticed that the books have changed in focus. I started out with a
straight historical account of a Civil War battle, complete with footnotes and
acadamic bibliography. The next two, Beyond
All Price and The Road to Frogmore,
were creative biographies—the lives of real people participating in real
historical events. That’s the biography half. The creative half of each book
came because I used imaginary scenes and conversations to explain events and
time periods for which no historical evidence existed.
After that came
a group of short stories, also classifiable as creative non-fiction. And last,
the “how-to” book about self-publishing, based on what I had learned about this
relatively new method of publication. What would come next? I thought I had
pretty well established a niche for myself in creative non-fiction, but what
happened next surprised me.
research for the other books, I had come across a real family of Southerners
who, while they supported the idea of the Confederacy, did not participate in
the war because the head of the family was a Protestant minister. Their lives
were heavily impacted, however. They were driven from several locations by
military actions around them, and they suffered greatly because they had lost
all ways of supporting themselves. Much of what I learned about them came from
a massive letter collection—letters written by family members during the wars
and published by their descendants almost 150 years later.
I saw the family as
perfect candidates for another creative biography and set about researching them and their experiences. One of my investigations led me to a university
archival collection. They had no additional records, but the librarian gave me
the address of a distant member of the family who happened to be employed at
that university. I thought I had struck
gold, and I immediately contacted the woman, asking if there were other family
papers available anywhere.
The answer came
back immediately—short, hostile, and threatening. What happened to that family,
she said, was their private business, and their descendants would continue to control what
was published and what was not. Any attempt on my part to write about the
family would be met with legal action.
Wow! I wasn’t
looking for trouble, so I backed off. I resisted asking why they had published
the letters if they did not want anyone to read them. I was at a dead end—at
least for a while. And then I realized that I could still address the theme of
a civilian family almost destroyed by a war they were not fighting. I just had
to make it historical fiction. I changed the cities, the family structure, the
father’s occupation, the names, and the crucial events.
By the time I
finished writing Damned Yankee, there
was nothing recognizable left from the original family. But in the process, I
had learned to write historical fiction, and I’ve stayed with that genre ever
since. For the record, here’s my guiding definition of a work of historical
The time period and events are as accurate as a historian can make them.
The leading characters are fictional creations, but they think, speak, and act
as real people of their time period would have done.
Where necessary, real people appear, but when they do, they are only doing what
they did in real life. In a battle scene, for example, the commanding generals
will be actual people; the foot soldiers are usually fictional characters.
The novel serves to help the reader understand the historical events through
the eyes of fictional characters who can recreate the emotions, pains, and grief
of terrible events, as well as the joys and delights of successful endeavors.
5. A history book about an event tells us what we know to have happened. A historical novel
tells us the stories behind the history.
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How did all these interesting people get "left by the side of the road?" Blame it on the author who was still learning how to write creative (or fictional) biography.
I really thought I was prepared to write Nellie Chase's story. After all, I had been reading about the Roundheads for 25 years. But when I tried to check some of the facts of Nellie's life, I hit a major snag. There were some 174 women named Nellie Chase, or some derivative thereof, who had been born in the 1830s in Maine and who were still alive during the Civil War. Which one was the one I wanted to write about?
Eventually I was able to narrow my choices down to two individuals. One was born near Bangor, grew up in a family of boys, disappeared from the records in 1860, re-emerged in Nashville in 1864, married a man in Tennessee, settled in Kentucky, and then disappeared again, this time for good. The other was born in Saco, Maine, in a family with one sister, disappeared from the records in 1860, re-emerged in Baltimore at the end of the war, married a well-known lawyer from Saco, and returned to her hometown to live out her life with a large and happy family whose lives I could trace well into the twentieth century. With little else to guide me, I had to make a choice, and I gambled on the Nellie from Saco.
Originally I had intended to have Nellie narrate her story herself, interspersing her own reflections with third-person chapters that she was writing for her granddaughter's benefit. Those interludes were some of my favorite pieces of writing because they seemed to capture the character's innermost thoughts. They worked well until I learned that Nellie had never had a granddaughter, or even any children. There went my entire structure for the novel. I had to start over.
The firsst section of "Left by the Side of the Road" contains several of the first-person interludes that represent Nellie's thoughts at various early stages of the novel. Five chapters that represent the alternative ending that I discarded in deference to the facts follow them.
You'd think I would learn that lesson, wouldn't you? But, no, it happened again. In 2011, I realized that my new book, The Road to Frogmore, was giving me trouble. I knew there was something wrong with it, but I couldn't figure out what it was.
The story of the Gideonite missionaries and the Port Royal Experiment had no lack of colorful characters. It's full of fascinating people. It had all kinds of exotic scenery—swamps, pluff mud, tropical vegetation, glorious sunrises, sandy ocean beaches. It had drama—a background of America's Civil War, heroic acts of bravery, enormous pain and suffering, and a life-changing struggle for freedom. Why, then, couldn't I make any progress with the book? The story was simply too big to handle.
But, oh, how hard it was to cut out all those great tidbits. I had what amounted to half a book already written — some 50,000 words I had created during the past year's National Novel Writing Month. The chapters were just sitting there, waiting, but I couldn't tell where they were going next. A couple of weeks later, I started cutting hunks out of those chapters. I got rid of the unnecessary characters, but they continued to haunt me. And what was I to do with the corpses? Their chapters ended up as section two of "Left by the Side of the Road."
And still i had lost characters. In section three, you'll find important Civil War figures whose wonderful stories kept cropping up in my first three books, only to be left behind again. Gideonite Solomon Peck was invited to preach to the Roundheads. General Hunter's attempt to free the abandoned slaves had repercussions at the Leverett House as well as on St. Helena Island. The theft of a Confederate boat by local slave Robert Small delighted both groups. And eventually the first Beaufort experiments at inducting former slaves into the Union Army resulted in the formation of several black regiments at Port Royal. And in turn those black regiments brought such pivotal people such as Lottie Forten and Harriet Tubman into the wider picture. Their stories are here, too.
The Kindle edition of Left by the Side of the Road
is FREE all this week (Monday through Friday).
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Things have been dark and gloomy around here for a while. Last week we suffered a bitter cold wave (temps in the single digits) that spelled the end of my little container garden of herbs on my front porch. I checked them at the lowest point in that plunge and found them blackened and shriveled beyond redemption.
The weather is a little better now (in the low 50s today), but I hadn't opened the front door to look out until this morning. You have to understand that my "front door," for reasons too complicated to explain, is located at the very back of the house, reached only by a long narrow sidewalk and facing only a double row of 40-foot junipers and cypress pines. In the winter I always go out on the opposite side, through the garage. So I was shocked this morning to discover a planter full of bright green sprouts in that container--not just a hint of a leaf pushing through the ground but chives four to six inches tall, and bunches of parsley with inch-wide leaves ready for harvesting. And there were enough of them to allow me ample cutting and chopping to flavor the pot of potato soup bubbling on the stove. What a surprise! What joy!
And then, somehow, climbing out of the blue funk I had wallowed in for days, I started to see other "sprouts" as well. Facebook brought me several pictures of tiny kittens just finding their new forever homes. One of them went to a family of medievalists, who are about to discover the meaning behind Julian of Norwich's maxim, "All manner of things shall be well." Especially if you are lucky enough to share your little living space with a cat.
There were also two birth announcements of beautiful baby girls, plus a message from the mother of a child who, a couple of years ago, faced a doubtful future from a neonatal crib in the NICU. Her picture showed a beautiful 2-year-old, laughing, and blowing a kiss at the camera. Talk about a sprout! Then there was the picture of two grade-school age children, whom I have watched grow up from babyhood. They were on their knees, watching a robotics demonstration, their mouths open in rapt fascination as their interest and ideas burst forth. More sprouts.
And finally, from the grown-ups, came an invitation to join a group dedicated to start making 2017 a more positive year for all of us. The group was described this way:
Beginning Jan. 20, 2017, and for one year, members of S.T.O.P. For Kindness (a Service To Others Project) pledge to create a daily act of kindness, however small and simple, that shows appreciation for, or benevolence toward, a friend, a family member, a stranger, an organization, an animal, even a tree...because our members are passionate about spreading all sorts of benevolence. So that's 365 acts of mindful kindness per member, this year! And this Secret Group allows us to share and discuss our experiences here without attachment to ego. We are on a mission to stop the madness of 2017 with a S.T.O.P. for Kindness!
Talk about sprouts? Membership has already sprouted to over 700, and you may take this blog post as your invitation to join us. To do so, simply go to S.T.O.P. for Kindness:
It's time to quit complaining about what's wrong and start working to make things better.
One hundred fifty years ago today —on April 9, 1865 — Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. The long Civil War was finally over, although its effects would last much longer — in fact, right down to today. The anniversary has started me on a path of reminiscing about my own last ten years.
I started writing about the Civil War in 2004 — not because of any anniversary, but simply because I had retired from teaching, and for the first time in 20 years, I had the freedom to write about what interested me, rather than about the no-less-interesting but more pressurized medieval history that would determine my success or failure as an academic.
I had a family story to tell. My great uncle had actually served in the Civil War, and I had inherited a small bundle of his letters. I wanted to write the story of Sgt. James McCaskey before those letters crumbled into dust. And so I started on a little manuscript that would become a full-size book. My first publisher urged me to “get on with it,” pointing out that the sesquicentennial of the Civil War would start in 2011, and I could be “in on the ground floor” if I had a book or two finished by the start of the celebration.
That was the start of my new writing career. A Scratch with the Rebels
was published in 2007. It was straight military history, a documentary account of the first year of the war and the experiences of the 100th Pennsylvania Regiment. It wasn’t a particularly good book, but it appealed to the descendants of the men of that regiment, and they helped to publicize it. Today it’s still in print and into a second edition, thanks to a far-sighted publisher. (In fact, the first edition is on sale for 30% off today to celebrate the end of the war! Click Here
Then I took the same set of events and told the story from the point of view of the regimental nurse, who had barely been mentioned in the first book. Beyond All Price
came out in 2010 and fulfilled the promise suggested by that first publisher. As interest in the Civil War ramped up, so did interest in the second book and by August of 2011, it became a run-away Kindle best seller, staying at the top of its category for several weeks and earning enough money to force me to hire an accountant.
That’s all I intended to do, really, but I soon realized that the Civil War was too deeply embedded in my soul to let the observation of its sesquicentennial pass without me. So there followed a series of books, tied closely to the actual dates of the war. In 1862, a band of missionaries arrived in South Carolina to help educate the slaves who had been left behind when their owners fled from the invasion of the Union Army. By November of 1862, one woman had established the first black school. In November 2012, I published the story of Laura Towne in The Road to Frogmore.
Stories about other fascinating people began to appear more frequently in the next couple of years as celebrations of the Emancipation Proclamation and the “Day of Jubilee” spread through the academic world. In 2013 I added Left by the Side of the Road
— a book of short stories that featured several of the more prominent African Americans who made their mark in 1863 and beyond. Gen. Sherman began to organize his “March to the Sea” in late 1864, and in 2014, I published my first historical novel, Damned Yankee
, set directly in Sherman’s path.
And now? Now that the Sesquicentennial has come to an end? Am I finished as well? No, there are still stories to be told. I’m working on a sequel to Damned Yankee — one that is set in the period of Reconstruction immediately after the war. Yesterday, as I reached the end of a chapter, a Freedman had a chance to speak his mind. I didn’t mean the words to be prophetic, but Hector sums up where I — and my new book —are at the moment:
“In time? In time we’ll all be dead. Look, Jonathan, I respect your position, but the simple truth is that most black men are no better off now than they were under slavery. We may be free, and we may even have the right to vote, but nobody’s offering much help when it comes to having a right to eat. The great promise of land didn’t last long, did it? And while the Black Codes may be gone, the land is still in the hands of white men. If we want to work the land, we have to become sharecroppers, which means doing whatever the white man says. We have to borrow money from white men to buy food, and our seeds and farm tools, and then when our crop comes in, we have to give it to the white man to pay what we owe him. So we’re stuck in poverty and beholden to the same men who were once our masters. That’s why I’m still in South Carolina. Someone has to fight back. The war may be over for you, but for me, it’s just beginning.”
So stay tuned. The Civil War may be over, but the fight goes on.