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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

May 2011

Being on a Library Shelf is Not a Guarantee of Accuracy

OK.  I've struggled with this problem long enough.  It's time to make an informed guess and then act upon it.  You'll remember that I've been looking for the original diary written in South Carolina by Laura M. Towne during the Civil War. I haven't located the original.  What I HAVE found are four versions of that diary — each one different in content and in tone.  They might as well have been written by four different Lauras.  Which one should be my guide as I try to portray Laura in this new novel? 

Let's start by putting an end to the search.  I am convinced that the original diary no longer exists or has fallen between the cracks somewhere in a distant family member's attic.  Everyone I talked to seemed to "know" where it is — except that they were all wrong.  Even the highest level archivists admit that they cannot produce it.  My  own explanation?  I think it disappeared for the same reason there are four versions of it.  Laura's friends and family members had varying memories of her — memories they did not want to challenge by allowing the public to read Laura's most private thoughts. How do you keep her thoughts private?  By hiding them away where no one will ever find them. And somebody did a really good job!  

If I were still thinking like a historian, I might be tempted just to drop the whole thing right now.  A historian must be sure of her sources.  If the original is not available, the quest is over.  But as Dr. Paul Hyams reminded me here a couple of weeks ago,  saying 'There is no evidence' is a historian's excuse, not a defense for a novelist. A novelist must bring imagination to the mix, hoping to come up with the hidden solution.  So here goes. 

Source number 1 is a microfilmed copy of a typescript of the diary, very obviously produced on an electric typewriter and then carefully proofread and corrected with proofreader's marks.  I have no idea who typed this version, but I can date it to the 1960s or early 1970s, when electric typewriters were available to writers.  That makes this version a hundred years younger than the original. And for that reason alone it is unlikely to be the closest match to the original.  In a hundred years, too many other individuals have had a chance to make changes.  Out it goes.  

Source number 2 is also a typescript contained on the same roll of microfilm from the University of North Carolina's Southern History Collection.  This one differs in several ways.  It was typed on an old manual typewriter, evidenced by the slightly misaligned letters, the standard evenly-spaced font, and the tendency of some circular letters to be shaded because the typewriter keys have collected ink in their depressions. It is also identified as having been prepared from the original by Dr. Horace Jenks for the information of the Board of Trustees of the Penn School. The approximate date of preparation was 1908, just after the death of Laura's long-time partner, Ellen Murray.  

This one called for more investigation.  First, who was Horace H. Jenks? He was the son of Helen Carnan Towne, who was the daughter of John Henry Towne, Laura Towne's older brother — which makes him Laura's great-nephew. His mother had inherited Laura's estate in 1901.  By  the time of Ellen Murray's death, Horace and his older brother Robert were taking over trusteeship duties at the Penn School from their mother.  It is safe to assume that both Horace and Robert Jenks had seen Laura's diary; when Horace authorized a typescript, he was working from the original. 

But that's not the end of the story, because this typescript has its own problems.  It is incomplete.  There are gaps in the dating, sometimes for several weeks and sometimes as much as three months. Furthermore, Horace was a Harvard-educated academic, who dutifully used the required ellipses whenever he omitted sections of the diary.  The typescript is riddled with those little series of dots.  . . . .  I'm grateful he at least marked them, but omissions simply raise more questions.  

Did he just leave out the boring parts?  No, the omitted sections often occur at times when diaries and letters from other Gideonites reveal internal disagreements, disputes with the army, massive epidemics of killer diseases, or unusual danger from the threats of war.  The result is a fairly  happy picture of a woman who is doing the job she was sent to do, teaching slaves, treating minor ailments, and learning how to live in a surprisingly hospitable new land.  It's a lovely picture, but obviously inaccurate.  That's the trouble with ellipses.  

One other characteristic of Source Number 2 bothers me. In it, Laura frequently expresses her displeasure with — and sometimes outright disgust for — the freedmen of South Carolina. She comments on how dirty they are, how uncivilized, how slow to learn, how uncooperative, how rude, how lacking in ordinary common sense, how superstitious,  how cruel in their treatment of animals. Her attitude in the early sections of the diary does not in any way reflect her abolitionist belief that the Negro was as capable as any white person.  In later sections, the complaints diminish, but favorable judgments are still hard to find. So why would Horace leave such derogatory comments in the typescript?  

Maybe he was just being honest.  Maybe Laura Towne was a bigot.  No, there's a more plausible explanation.  As early as 1900, Horace Jenks was leading a movement to change the very nature of the Penn School. When Laura founded the school, she wanted it to offer a standard "English" education, so that the children of freedmen would grow up with the same educational advantages as their white neighbors.  For almost forty years, she taught academic subjects — sometimes offering Latin, advanced algebra, philosophy, and ancient history.  Horace Jenks and several other trustees favored turning the Penn School into a vocational center.  They had begun dropping the academics and substituting classes in shoemaking, blacksmithing, basket-weaving (really!), sewing, and agriculture. The change reflects the racial biases of the early 20th century, of course, but the edited transcript of Laura Towne's diary gives the erroneous impression that Laura shared those views.  Why did it not appear until 1908?  I suspect it was because Ellen Murry was no longer around to oppose it. 

This typescript has its value, but only for the sake of what it reveals about the editor, not about the original writer.  I may use it for comparative fact-checking, but it's not a reliable guide to Laura.  There are still two other sources — a printed edition of the diary and letters and an elusive handwritten copy.  We'll look at those tomorrow.  

Katzenhaus Books Needs a Litterbox!

In my car, I have a bag for litter.  It keeps the car neat while organizing kleenex and candy wrappers in a single spot. I have a spring-top can under my desk to catch all the random notes I leave for myself as I work. And of course, every cat owner knows how necessary it is to provide clean and well-concealed litterboxes. We all have more "stuff" than we can use.  The secret to being well-organized is having a separate little place to put the stuff we no longer need. Now Katzenhous Books has its own litterbox to catch the bits of conversation, the extra scenes, the interesting characters that pop up with no real role to play in the story at hand.

As many of you know, I am in the middle of writing a novel based on the experiences of the teachers and missionaries who traveled to South Carolina during the Civil War.  Many of them were fervent evangelicals and took pride their nickname, "The Gideonites".  Most were abolitionists. All of them believed that with proper instruction, newly-freed slaves could become loyal and productive citizens. They had much to teach.  More important, they had much to learn about their own ability to adapt to limited circumstances, to meet challenges with innovative solutions, and to face their own limitations and shortcomings. My new blog, however, is not really about the new book,The Road to Frogmore.  It is, instead, about the people and events that will NOT appear in the book.

Funny things happen to authors in the middle of doing something else. In my case, certain characters and events from past books keep trying to sneak into the current manuscript.  This new book, like my first Civil War book,  A Scratch with the Rebels, discusses the role played by Union Army soldiers who "freed" the slaves of the Low Country and then didn't know what to do with them. Col. Leasure and his Roundhead Regiment from Pennsylvania pop up regularly in my research, and I keep learning new details of their tour in Beaufort. While they don't play a real role in the story I'm trying to tell, they are a part of the scenery, the backstory, if you will.

The same thing happens with Nellie Chase, the heroine of my  novel, Beyond All Price.  She is in Beaufort when the Gideonites arrive.  She struggles with the same attitude adjustments. Nellie and Laura Towne, the leading character in The Road to Frogmore, reach many of the same conclusions about what newly-freed slaves need from their liberators. The Leverett family slaves who continue to work for Nellie are very likely to have been related to the slaves who populate Laura's St. Helena plantations.

These are the people who keep demanding a place in the new book.  Their voices resonate in the background of my imagination, and I've frequently allowed their stories to become part of the first draft of the novel.  And once they are there, I have a hard time saying to them, "Sorry.  You don't belong here.  You're interrupting our story. You're stepping over the bounds of what I know to be historically accurate. You're littering the road. Off to the trash file  you go!"

And that's where my new blog comes in.  It's a place to send the out-takes, the scraps on the cutting room floor, the ideas that litter the sides of the road to Frogmore.  I'll be posting a short story or scene there about once a week. The first one appears today.  As each new tidbit arrives, I'll send the link to my blog followers and to those who have read the previous books.  If you want to be included in that mailing list, all you have to do is leave a comment below or sign in to the Katzenhaus Books website. I'll be here as regularly as usual, covering a wide range of topics as they catch my attention. But I hope you'll visit the new site, too,  so that you can enjoy the sidelights on the Road to Frogmore with me.

Three New Rules for Historical Fiction

Here are some of my rules for writing historical fiction.  They may not apply to all writers, but they guide me in the choices I make and the kinds of research I do.  Read them first.  Then later this weekend, I'll show you how they helped me choose which of my diary copies would become my writing guide.

 1. Be true to the time period.

Don't ever guess at the order in which events took place.  Double-check dates and times so that you don't run a chance of turning a cause into an effect.  There's a difference between saying that a man shot a dog because the dog attacked him, or that the dog attacked the man who tried to shoot him. In the first instance, we're dealing with a vicious dog; in the second, the man may be the one who is vicious.

If your story  is  about people who live in a particular time period, be sure you know the appropriate details of dress, food availability, household furnishings, modes of transportation, and social customs of the period.  Also check details of local vegetation, climate, and wildlife habitats. Don't let your native of Oklahoma pull a salmon out of the local river.

If your story also involves actual political or military events, your responsibilities multiply.  Your descriptions and discussions must reflect the facts as they were known at the time. Don't let hindsight lead you astray here.  We now know that a pregnant woman who  takes the drug thalidomide  runs a grave risk of birth defects in her unborn child, but the doctors who prescribed the drug to cure morning sickness back in the 50s did not. Don't blame someone for lack of knowledge if that knowledge was unavailable at the time.

2. Be true to your story.

Most historians hate playing "what if" with history. No matter how many alternative universes you may describe, it won't change the one in which  your events actually took place.  What if Germany had won World War II?  Maybe Hitler would have managed to turn the entire world population into blond, blue-eyed Aryans.  Or maybe he would have turned out to be a really nice guy whose genetic experiments resulted in the cure of cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Or maybe he would have been hit by a bus and we would have discovered that we didn't need to fight that war after all. Now we're talking fantasy, not history. And while fantasy may be amusing, it doesn't increase anyone's understanding of anything.

Don't change the facts to suit your story.  Change your story to make it fit the facts. The people who  read historical fiction may be people who know the period well.  Or, if they don't know much about the history, they are probably hoping to learn something from your story.  It's foolish to try to hoodwink the first type of reader because they will just dismiss you as clueless.  It's unkind to mislead the second type of reader, because you will be betraying their trust.  Either way, you will lose readers, not gain them.

3. Most important, be true to your character.

If you are writing about a real person, you  owe it to yourself and to her to find out as much as possible about her.  Don't exaggerate her education or experiences.  Work with her own life to make her struggles more understandable.  Don't rely solely on gossip or what others thought about the character.  Ask what she thought about herself. That's why diaries and personal letters are so helpful when you are trying to flesh out a character.

Judge the characters in your story only as you could have judged them in person.  You must not criticize someone who made a well-considered decision simply because it turned out badly.  You need to look beneath the result to discover the intention. Don't just blame Lincoln for not acting earlier to emancipate the slaves. You must try to understand what he hoped  the Civil War would accomplish before you can judge his efforts. Before you judge a slave-owner, you must at least try to understand why he needed to have slaves in the first place.  Only then can you start to examine his treatment of those slaves.

Finally, let your characters be real.  Nobody's good and kind all the time.  We all have thoughts and temptations we're not proud of.  We all have weaknesses.  At the other end of the scale, nobody's pure evil.  The meanest boss may have a penchant for big-eyed puppies.  A kid who terrorizes the neighborhood has a mother who loves him. The heartless mother will willingly sacrifice her life for her child. Don't try to gloss over the unattractive elements of your character's personality.  If she's perfect, everyone will hate her by the end of the first paragraph.Your readers want real people -- people with whom they can identify, people they understand because they recognize them.

What Does the Weather Have To Do with Writing?

Please welcome my guest blogger for today, Velika Kapitanof of SuSu Publishing

What does a writer need to do in order to write? Talk about a loaded question and the answer is as unique as each writer. Looking back at my development as a writer, I notice that my strategy depends on either my surroundings or the topic, sometimes both. What I call strategy is how I tackle the project at hand, i.e., do I create an outline, write bios for each of the characters, or do I just start writing and let the content flow naturally? I’d like to briefly expand on each – surroundings, strategy and topic.


I’m sitting in my living room, with the large bay window overlooking the park, and I notice that the sun has now been replaced by dark, grey clouds. I automatically become more pensive as dark clouds naturally make me blue. My natural instinct at this point is to grab a pen and paper and start writing. What am I going to write about? I don’t really know as I usually let my thoughts guide me.

On this particularly gloomy day I realize that I usually do the most writing during this kind of weather.  When it’s bright and sunny, I’m usually not moved to write. Sunny days usually inspire other things like long walks along the beach, cleaning the house or creating a new recipe. In other words, sunny days give me energy while cloudy days or, as my friend Isabel calls them “fuzzy” days, inspire the writer in me.

My observation has made me wonder what other writers are like. What inspires other writers? Does their inspiration come from nature? Do they do their best work while sitting at the computer or in front of a fire? We’ve heard of great authors who seclude themselves in a cottage for months on end because they want to write uninterrupted. Could it be that the scenes of nature which usually surround the secluded location serve as their inspiration?


A friend recently asked me what she should do to get back into writing. I gave her what seems to be a very practical response. I told her to pick a topic, commit to a deadline and that the rest will follow. I realize now that this was a very left-brain response. The advice I should have given her, which I guess I’m giving now, is to listen to your thoughts and let them guide you. Always keep pen and paper handy (you never know when genius will strike), jot down your thoughts or questions and then when you are sitting in your favorite chair, read them! You’ll be amazed at what you’ll see.

I have to admit that there are times when you just have to write and can’t afford to wait for inspiration to strike. If you have a book deal and the publisher is waiting, you may not have the luxury of putting off your writing for a long time. Times like that, writers just start writing. No matter how many times they erase, throw out and edit, they start writing and keep on writing. Ironically, writing is the best antidote for writer’s block. It may feel awkward but after awhile, creative juices start flowing.


Finally, I want to look at the question of whether the topic affects the quality of a writer’s work. For instance, can a writer who has no interest in science fiction write a great sci-fi novel? If they familiarize themselves with the topic and write a compelling novel, would it be as successful as a novel written by a sci-fi enthusiast? In order to answer this fairly, we have to realize that there are many factors to consider. For instance, is the storyline believable, have the characters been developed well, does the story flow, and lastly, does the reader get a sense of the author’s feeling, or bias, about the topic? We might be tempted to say that we do our best work on topics we are passionate about; however, it might be that the experience of writing on a favorite topic just feels more enjoyable, and we pass that joy along to our readers.

The next time you sit down to write, take a look around you and make a mental note of your surroundings.  Is this a familiar scenario - do you always write in the same place, time of day,  in your favorite comfy clothes, or is this setting out of the ordinary for you. Are you writing out of necessity to meet a deadline or did you just get a flash of brilliance? What is it about the topic that makes you want to write? Being aware of what brings out your creative side is the best gift you can give yourself as a writer. Knowing what works for you will be different than what works for anyone else, and if you are able to tap into it for yourself there will be no stopping your creative process.

As for the question I pose in the title, What does weather have to do with writing?, the answer for me is that cloudy weather makes me pensive which makes me write. The answer could be completely different for you. Regardless of the answer, I invite you to create whenever you feel inspired. Susu Publishing is a new blog geared towards writers who want to showcase their work as well as those who need a gentle nudge to get started.

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In Praise of Water

I promised I'd be back by today with new insights into my problems with multiple and contradictory sources. Well, here I am, sort of, but without the promised revelations. This past weekend did not go exactly as planned! Oh, nothing terrible happened to me.  And in the face of total destruction such as occurred in Joplin, it's hard to complain about anything, even when one's own circumstances take an unexpected turn.  But knowing others are suffering worse does not always ease the frustration of one's own problems.

Here's what's been happening to us.  Around dinnertime on Sunday, a knock on the front door brought the news that our water had been shut off.  We live in a condo community, where each building houses four privately owned residences. The woman next door had suddenly found water erupting under her living room floor. A bit of investigation had found that our building now has a problem that has occurred elsewhere in our community.

Some construction genius ran our plastic water lines UNDER the concrete slab on which each set of houses sits. No, make that singular. A single pipe goes under the concrete slab and then divides into branches that feed the four units atop the slab. Nor did they manage to put any kind of base other than dirt underneath those pipes. So a small rock in the soil can over time put a pinhole in the pipe, which grows until the water erupts upward, washing its way through the concrete and into someone's flooring.  Permanently fixing the problem obviously is not easy because you can't get to the pipes without tearing apart the four houses.  I guess I should be grateful no one suggested that! 

The solution is almost as bad, however. First, the water had to be turned off at the street, leaving all four houses dry.  Now the pipes will have to be reinstalled around the outside of the units, going into the individual residences to lead the pipes through the interior walls and up chimneys to the attics, where the water supply must go to reach the hot water tanks. And how long will that take? Oh, a week or more, give or take. Depending on when the plumbers can come, the days off for the upcoming holiday weekend, and the inability to dig up the lawns and lay new water lines unless we have a dry spell of several days, (HAH!)  a month is more realistic.

A crew worked desperately outside until dark on Sunday, trying to find some way to patch a system.  But when they failed, we simply had to give up.  Everything happened so quickly that no one had time to even draw a pitcher or two of drinking water.   So-- no water to drink, no flushing toilets, no available showers, no way to wash dirty dishes -- NO MORNING COFFEE, without which life does not start around here. One neighbor had a minor fall and opted to spend the night at the hospital.  We moved to a motel, where we learned how wonderful water can be!

But the grief was not over.  The next morning, just after charging our breakfast coffee to our room, we received an irate phone call from the desk, wanting to know how we got into that room.  According to the records, we were not checked in and had no credit card on file. We had, we were quite sure, properly checked in, albeit it was around 10:00 PM, but the computer said no.  They finally discovered that the new desk clerk had checked us in and then immediately checked us out, listing us as "no-shows." By the time the desk got through apologizing for their mistakes, we saved a bit of money, but it was still disconcerting.

Then we went home, to discover that a "fix" was at hand. Clever people had figured out that they could run a garden hose  from a neighboring unit to our building, split the feed from that hose to smaller hoses that would snake under our garage doors, through our back doors, and connect to the cold water intake in the laundry rooms. 

Believe it or not, it actually works, except for a few inconveniences. Our laundry room is also the place where the cats have their sandboxes and food bowls  But now the laundry room has to be locked off, because the garage door now has to stay open. That meant we  had to move the cat facilities into our guest bathroom, which pleases neither them nor me.  We do have water -- even hot water for showers and dish washing, but no laundry facilities until further notice.  And then too, the hose water is nasty and undrinkable from being in those hoses, so we have to use bottled and jugged water for cooking and drinking. 

I'm enormously blessed by the circumstances of my life. I know that. However, coping with all of this, plus the planned devastation when they start digging up our floors to put in the new pipes, makes it hard to concentrate on writing a book. So please be patient, while I cope. 

It's time for guest bloggers, please.  If you have a post that is ready to reach a larger audience, just send it my way.  I have lots of openings this week.  Tomorrow, I'll have a guest blog from a fellow writer, talking about how weather affects her writing.  Please stop by and welcome Velika Kapitanof.