"Roundheads and Ramblings"
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Lessons We Learn Too Late
Christmas Without . . .
Another Thankful Morning--This Time for Alert Cats.
Connections
Meeting Some More Roundheads

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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

Lessons We Learn Too Late

Twelve years ago, I made a conscious choice to stop writing standard academic history books. Instead, I switched to creative non-fiction, choosing characters who lived through important historical events but who had left little or no documented evidence of their lives. I was fully aware that I was risking my  professional and academic reputation by doing so, but I had retired from teaching and could do what I loved.  I could try to please myself and my readers rather than a tenure and promotions committee. I believed—then, as now—that readers wanted both facts and drama, that they wanted to be caught up in a story while learning something new in the process.

I also knew that great stories influenced more people than heavily-footnoted academic tomes. Ask medievalists for example, what sparked their interest in medieval history. Chances are, the answers will include “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” or any number of historical novels. My own personal spark came from “Kristin Lavransdatter” by Sigrid Undset. 

Now some ten books later, I have just received an invitation from a well-respected historical society to review a new book for their journal. The book tells the stories of two relatively unknown Southerners who took opposite sides during the Civil War. The editor explained that he was asking me because of my demonstrated knowledge of South Carolina history. He also commended my reputation as a successful author of fact-based biographical novels . . . and he mentioned the book I had written twelve years ago. I am surprised, but delighted to accept the invitation.

The take-away? Take chances. Do what you love instead of what others think you ought to do. Count your successes, not by money or awards or promotions, but by the level of satisfaction you receive by following your dreams. In the long run, that’s all that matters.

Christmas Without . . .

 Ifirst wrote the post below four years ago, but it still resonates within me more strongly than anything I have written since. Evidently it resonates with readers, too, since I've been getting messages asking for a re-run. So, for those readers, and for those whose friendships I have made in the past year, here's what's in my heart this Christmas  season.

This has been a difficult month for me. I expected that. It's been almost four years sunce Floyd died, and between Thanksgiving and January come too many special occasions to count -- memories of trips taken and planned, his birthday, our wedding anniversary, holidays, the "heart attack" day, the hospital stays, the hopes built up, and the hopes dashed and trampled into dust. I'm trying to survive each day, one at a time.
Christmas is just over, although there's not much here to remind me except for the wreath on the door and a few fake candles on the mantle. Still, I awoke this morning with a dozen memories struggling for recognition -- each one from a "Christmas Without . . ."

1958 -- the first Christmas after my father died. I'm home from college, my mother is barely speaking to me because I dared to pay my own way to go back to college instead of staying home to mourn with her, and the empty, undecorated house is a stark reminder that she feels she has been left with nothing.

1962 -- Christmas far from home. I'm married, and my new Air Force Second Lieutenant husband has just been assigned to his first posting, a radar installation in Moses Lake, Washington. We are living in a single room in the BOQ on base, waiting for housing to open up. No tree, no gifts, no family, not even a cat.

 1963-- Housing  taken care of,  I have a teaching job, but Floyd has been whisked off to a remote  in Alaska for a year, leaving me alone here in the middle of the desert.  My mother is unsympathetic. "You chose to get married," she says.

1969 -- I'm in Panama City, Florida; Floyd is in Pleiku, Vietnam. My mother tries to be more sympathetic since its wartime, so she has arrived to celebrate the holidays with me. I've put up an artificial tree and tied Christmas bows around the cats' necks, but we spend most of the time watching TV reruns while I wait for the phone to ring.

1977 -- The first Christmas since my mother died -- still trying to explain to my six-year-old why Grandma Peggy is not around anymore (and why it matters that we keep remembering her.)

1980 -- I'm in Colorado Springs; Floyd is in King Salmon, Alaska. He's the base commander now, and I'm finishing up a master's degree, but the sense of "Christmas without . . ." is no less sharp. I'm trying to assemble a cat climbing post that uses a tension pole to 
hold it upright. Next door is a shiny new bike waiting for me to assemble without help, once Doug is asleep.

1982 -- The first Christmas without Grandpa Schriber, who died on my birthday last spring. We go back to Cleveland for Christmas, but my mother-in-law is in no mood to celebrate anything. (Now I know why.)

1985 -- The first Christmas without Grandma Schriber. Doug asks, "We don't have to go back there again, do we?" and is relieved to be told that there is no longer any "there" to be returned to. I feel oddly bereft -- Floyd and I both orphans now, both only children, so adrift without family.

2000 -- The first Christmas since Doug's shocking death from cancer. We can't bear to be home, so we fly to London for the holidays. We're in a cold hotel room, huddled around a little space heater,  a spindly poinsettia on the end table and a packet of mince pies for our Christmas. But outside there are the makings of beautiful memories: carolers in Trafalgar Square, "The Messiah" at St. Martin's in the Fields, midnight services on Christmas Eve in Westminster Abbey, and Christmas snow falling on Old Ben and the Houses of Parliament.

2015  -- And now Christmas without Floyd. The first of however many I have left, and I pause to wonder what the last half century has taught me. What I see this morning, as I look backward, is that I have few memories of the carefree years, the holidays full of decorations and cookies and fruitcakes, Christmas cards and Secret Santa packages, parties and turkey dinners. They were happy times, I know, but I let them pass without fully savoring the moments. And those memories fade from lack of notice. It's the "Christmases Without . . ." that fill my mind and my heart.

2018 -- Another un-Christmasy Christmas. No tree this year because youngest cat tried sampling plastic pine needles and spend three days being very ill.  Since I've already lost two other cats this year--RIP, Nutmeg and Miz-Miz--I won't risk another such loss right now. I didn't get any cookies baked this year, thanks to an oven fire that put it out of commission for almost three weeks. No antlers on the car, either. I've been waylaid with a bad back and have hardly left the garage. I do have a hunk of fruitcake, however, and some chicken and dressing to remind me of happier times.

We've all been reminded to "count our blessings," and I'm totally in favor of that, but I don't think it goes far enough. We also need to stay aware of our losses. The losses, the Christmases Without . . . the things we grieve for . . . these are the most important moments of our lives. There's no hiding from them. They are part of our core. So I'll count my losses, too, and be grateful that I've known them.

Another Thankful Morning--This Time for Alert Cats.

 I got up this morning full of great plans for having a cooking day. Since I did not have to cook my own turkey dinner on Thursday, that primal urge was still strong. On my list were pans of baked ziti and chicken and dressing, along with chocolate/maraschino cherry shortbread--everything destined to be portioned and stored in the freezer to get me through a month of non-stop book editing.To honor the season, I decided to start with baking some pumpkin-spice rolls for breakfast. While the oven was heating, I was searching cookbooks for the right recipes. The cats were munching away at their breakfasts. The sun came out. All was right in the world. Yeah!

Then Swizzle (young female cat) leaped straight into the air, knocking over her food bowl, and went streaking into the living room with a bottle-brush tail. Dundee (older male) looked up to watch the fuss, and then he, too, yowled, jumped into the air and took off for a safe hiding place. I (slow on the uptake) looked around to see what had terrified them and discovered--my oven glowing, with white flames dancing behind the glass window in the oven door, and an ominous crackling sound.

Had I left something inside the oven? No, I never do that. I cracked the oven door to look inside and saw the heating element turning into white ash and scattering itself across the oven floor. I shut the door quickly, turned off the heat, and held my breath until the white tubing turned back to red and then faded down to black.

I don't suppose it was as dangerous as it looked. Oven fires tend to put themselves out as soon as they burn up all the oxygen. But it was certainly enough to get my pulse racing--and to remind me to be grateful for alert animals who let me know when something is wrong.

Bottom line: The oven is covered by my home repair policy, although it's a weekend and service guy won't show up until Monday. In the meantime, the stove is out of commission and I'll be eating whatever I can heat up in the microwave or electric skillet--no ziti, no chicken, no shortbread, not even the pumpkin-spice rolls.

Connections

Welcome to November! If you're a writer--or if you know a writer--you may be aware that this is also National Novel Writing Month. Yes, I'm at it again. Every so often i find I need a little extra push to keep the words flowing, and that's what NaNoWriMo provides.  It prods, it pokes, and it keeps graphs to let you see just where you've fallen flat.

So this year, I'm using the challenge to push myself through the end of a novel I've been working on for over a year.  I gave up on it once because I could not figure out a way to make it do what I wanted it to do. But now, I think I've found a solution, and the possibility is enough to start the keyboard rattling again.

Here's what's going on. A couple of years ago, I wrote a book called "Henrietta's Journal." It was entirely written in diary format and followed seven years of a young woman's life as she made the transition from 19-year-old English schoolgirl to becoming the wife of a cotton dealer in 1830s South Carolina. I don't want to give anything of the story away here, but life did get very complicated for her. Not only did she have to learn about the institution of slavery; she also managed to get involved in a rape, a murder, and a kidnapping.
The book has done fairly well, and is a stand-alone good story.

But now I'm working on the second volume, entitled "Henrietta's Legacy," which takes place some 25 year later and involves Henrietta and her 20-something daughters in a new set of problems that result from the American Civil War. This time, the characters manage to get themselves involved in espionage, smuggling, stolen identities, and, yes, another murder. And it turns out that some of the clues needed to solve the mysteries of the second volume are buried in the pages of the diary in the first volume.

The problem, you may already be seeing, was how to connect the two books.  The term "hyperlink" kept cropping up, but my computer skills aren't good enough to handle a book-length set of interconnections. Then came a gift out of the blue. The layout program I use to design the interior of my books added a feature called "Endnote." (Yes, I've used lots of endnotes in my academic life, but not like this.) It is now possible to have an event in Book 2 trigger a pop-up that reveals a section of text from Book 1.

As just one example, consider a murder that takes place in England in 1862.  No witnesses, no weapon, no suspects. Just a dead body full of stab wounds. The clue that leads to the identity of the murderer lies in a liaison between two people in South Carolina in 1837. Who has a motive strong enough to lead to the victim's death? The pop-up will provide the answer.

I can hardly wait to start tying all these loose ends together!

Meeting Some More Roundheads

Since some folks have had trouble opening the Roundhead file i posted yesterday because if its size, here are a few head shots of soldiers who have appeared in my Civil War books, "A Scratch with the Rebels" and "Beyond All Price."

First, the fellow whose individual photo graced yesterday's blog was Adj. Samuel G. "Geordy" Leasure, son of Commander Daniel Leasure. You may remember him as being the young apple of his mother's eye, whom she allowed to join the Roundheads only if his father promised to keep him out of harm's way. Sadly, the promise did not hold. Geordy was killed at the Battle of the Crater in 1864.

James C. Stevenson, from whose collection these photos were taken, is quoted several times in "Scratch," where he left us descriptions of the Roundheads' early train rides and their first view of the Ocean Queen, on which they sailed to South Carolina.





Horace Ludington, the second doctor appointed to care for the Roundheads, was of great help to Nellie M. Chase as she learned how wto treat minor wounds and tropical fevers. In "Beyond All Price," she and Dr. Ludington form a special bond because, unlike the Roundheads, they were NOT from Pennsylvania.




Samuel Bentley was the commander of Company E and the father of Nellie's friend Mary Pollock. The Bentley family reveals something quite important to the  understanding of personnel during the Civil War. Not only did Capt. Bentley allow his widowed daughter to accompany the Roundheads, her brother was also among the soldiers. To an extend we may never understand, this war was a family affair.



Private John C. Stevenson also served as an aide to Col. Leasure. In "Beyond All Price,'  he shows Nellie round the camp and explains some of the equipment the army issued her--things like a haversack and a housewife. Another picture of him appears in the group photo Mrs. Leasure had taken in Beaufort.





Other names you may recognize are Joseph Gilliland and who first served with Col. Leasure during his first three-month enlistment in the Twelfth Pennsylvania Regiment . . . . .



and D. Campbell, a "printer's devil" who left his newspaper job to travel with the Roundheads as a musician--and later, as one of the producers of the "Camp Kettle."