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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

June 2011

An Ode to Software

I've spent the first part of this week "getting ready to write." Please note: I have not actually been writing the draft of my new book.  I've just been writing about writing. Can I spell procrastinating?

I've mentioned before that I use Scrivener as my software for novel writing.  Those of you who have participated in NaNoWriMo may already be familiar with it, because they help sponsor that annual orgy of writing bliss.  Now that it is available for both MAC and Windows, I can't imagine anyone needing anything else. It's an endlessly versatile program that manages to keep almost every item of the book-writing process in one spot.
1.There's a section for research, which can hold notes, pictures, maps, and "messages-to-self".  I keep lots of pictures there, so that when I am writing about a particular location or character, I can open a picture and keep it on my screen while I write.  That adds detail to my descriptions and saves me from making silly mistakes about things like what you can see from a front porch or whether a character sports a mustache.

2. In fact, it has a whole section for character sketches.  You can fill out their questions about each of your characters, defining their back story, their foibles, their nervous quirks, their speech impediments, their hair and eye color, their family relationships -- whatever is important to define the character.  Then while you are writing it is easy to click on a character name in the left-hand column and jump to a description.

3. It provides a separate template for locations, too, where you can record thing like vegetation, wildlife, smells, sounds.  Is your location overgrown with vegetation? You'll need to list what kinds of things grow there.  Are bugs important to your story, as they may be for mine?  Then you can add their descriptions here. My location files have picture, of course, but also descriptions of the smell of pluff mud and the clicking sound palmetto bugs make as they stomp across a wood floor.

4. Do you write in chapters or in scenes? Scrivener offers you both options, and once you have all the parts in place, it can put the entire manuscript together for you -- in the right order, with chapter numbers!

5. Are you used to working with index cards? Scrivener can show  you your material in that format, with little cards tacked to a virtual corkboard.  You can color-code them and  you can move them about, just as you would if you were tacking them to a wall. I just used this feature to outline all my chapters.  Here's how it looks:

6. Worried about formatting?  Don't be.  Is it a novel, a poem, a screenplay, a scientific treatise?  Name it and Scrivener formats it.  Write  with whatever fonts and colors suit your fancy. Then when you're finished, just tell Scrivener what you want the manuscript to look like. Does your agent or publisher want to see it in double-spaced Courier?  No problem. Are you going to self-publish?  It can handle that, too.

6. Want access to an earlier manuscript?  You can import the whole thing, and then easily move sections from the old to the new version.  Want specialized sections to store your materials?  I've set up a section for ideological clashes that plague my characters, and another for specific quotes from my characters journals and letters. 

7. Want all your materials in front of you, spread across the screen? Scrivener has  a three column lay-out, with your writing space in the middle, a listing of all your files on the left, and an editing column on the right, which you can fill with whatever you need.

Need more or less writing space? Stretch it out or shrink it.  Want a blank screen with nothing but your words filling the screen in front of you? You can do that, too.

So this is the program I've set up -- my planning stage is more than complete.  I know who's NOT going to be in the book. I've killed off all the unimportant folks and dumped their first draft chapters and character sketches into a holding tank labeled "Out-takes".  They're easily retrievable if I change my mind.  Once I'm really sure they are dead, I'll move then to the Trash. They're still not gone, however,  because the trash doesn't empty until I tell it to.

I've identified my main character and some secondary ones who will play important roles. I've outlined all the ideological clashes and the main themes. I have a complete plot outline, with the important points highlighted.

Now all I have left to do is write.  That means a bit less time spent here on the blog, and more time with Scrivener.  Forgive me if I neglect you now and then. I'll keep you informed of my progress, however.  Blog readers make good taskmasters.

Gullah Wednesday: The Fox and the Crow

A fable is an enduring lesson in human behavior -- one that resonates with people in all cultures.  And as such, a fable is a useful device in explaining the differences in cognate languages.  The story of "The Fox and the Crow" is a good example.

You'll probably remember the story.  A female crow has found a tasty piece of meat.  She is sitting out of reach of a hungry fox, who decides to trick her into dropping the meat.  He tries several methods, but she ignores his efforts.  Then he praises her singing voice and she opens her beak to give him her best example of a raucous caw. Mission accomplished, along with a valuable lesson about succumbing to flattery.

The following excerpts, taken from Joseph A. Opala's website, "The Gullah: Rice, Slavery, and the Sierra Leone-American Connection," illustrate the evolution of the Gullah language. At first glance, Gullah seems to be nothing more than broken English -- the result of slaves trying to speak the language of their masters.  But a closer examination shows that Gullah has changed, not only the pronunciation, but also the grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure, of the original.  And the changes reflect the slaves' original African language.

First, look at the English version.  It's not quite Aesop's Fables, but rather the English language as it was spoken by the slave owners of the Low Country.

Then, Fox started to talk. He said to himself, he said, "This here Crow is a woman, not so? If I can persuade her to talk, she has to open her mouth, not so? And if she opens her mouth, isn't it true the meat will drop out?"

Fox called to the Crow: "Morning girl," he said. "I am so glad you stole that meat from the white man, because he would have thrown it away to the dog... It makes me vexed to see a man do such a thing as that."

Crow never cracked open her teeth! All the time Fox was talking, Crow's mouth was shut tight on the meat, and her ears were cocked to listen.

Now here's the Gullah version. An English speaker can understand it, especially if it is read out loud.

Den, Fox staat fuh talk. E say to eself, a say, "Dish yuh Crow duh ooman, enty? Ef a kin suade um fuh talk, him haffuh op'n e mout, enty? En ef e op'n e mout, enty de meat fuh drop out?"

Fox call to de Crow: "Mawnin tittuh, " e say. "Uh so glad you tief da meat fum de buckruh, cause him bin fuh trow-um-way pan de dog... E mek me bex fuh see man do shishuh ting lukkuh dat."

Crow nebbuh crack a teet! All-time Fox duh talk, Crow mout shet tight pan de meat, en a yez cock fuh lissin.

Where did all those changes come from? There are words here that don't look like English at all -- enty, tittuh, yez. And the prepositions are all wrong. Let's look at the same passage in the Sierra-Leone Krio language:

Den, Fohx stat foh tohk. I sey to insef, i sey, "Dis Kro ya na uman, enti? If a kin pasweyd am foh tohk; i get foh opin in moht, enti? En if i opin in moht, enti di mit go fohdohm?"

Fohx kohl di Kro: "Mohnin titi, " i sey. A so gladi you tif da mit frohm di weytman, bikohs i bin foh trowey am to di dohg... I meyk a vex foh si man du tin leke dat."

Kro nohba opin in tit! Ohl di tem Fohx dey tohlx, Kro moht set tait pan di mit, en in yeys kak foh lisin.

There are the same words -- borrowed from Krio, inserted into English, and transformed into the full, and grammatically complete, new language of Gullah.  It is a stunning transformation.

One More Touchy Subject

Yes, I know it's supposed to be "Gullah Wednesday." I'll get that post up later today.  But first I need to finish off this question about the themes that run through The Road to Frogmore. I had hoped to do this yesterday, but Lions Club business kept getting in the way -- a meeting about the venue for the 2014 State Convention and a trip to Arkansas so my PDG husband could do an installation. 

Readers did not provide much feedback from yesterday's post.  I'm assuming that means that people more or less expect that a Civil War novel will have to deal with racial issues. Of course it does, and the revelation that even the staunchest abolitionist was not 100% color blind is not particularly shocking.

But there is another issue that lies beneath my entire story, one that deals with gender roles.  Laura Towne had a friend, Ellen Murray.  They were (take your pick): best friends, life-long companions, partners, intimate friends, soul mates. All those terms have been applied to these two women, who left their families and fled to South Carolina to establish their own household and work together toward a common cause. They lived together for 40 years, remaining faithful to one another to the exclusion of all others, until death parted them.

I have been unable to find any overt mention of a sexual relationship between the two women, but given the repressive nature of 19th-century mores, that is not surprising.  Married couples don't often talk about sex in the 1860s either. But there are intense emotional moments. Laura fears that Ellen will not be able to join her and literally faints with relief when Ellen actually arrives.  The two greet each other with restraint and then "cavort with glee" when they are finally alone. Laura is at one spot struck dumb by Ellen's fragile beauty. Ellen believes her purpose in life is to take care of Laura. The crisis points in Laura's story frequently have to do with with Ellen. Changes in their relationship send their story off in new directions. It is simply impossible to talk about one without talking about both.

The relationship has gone undefined by historians. I suspect that is at least in part because of our own societal disagreements about same-sex marriages and partnerships. In the 19th century, there was an accepted family structure known as a "Boston marriage." Even gender studies expects disagree about the exact nature of the relationship, but it always seems to involve two unrelated women living together as husband and wife, thus forming a family unit. Is this what was going on between Laura and Ellen? 

Can I ignore it in this book?  I don't think I can.  I don't want to get into a whole discussion about "otherness" here.  However, if Laura and Ellen are a part of a gender-based minority -- if they experience discrimination because of their affection for one another -- then that may help explain why they choose to build their life together in the isolation of the  Sea Islands rather than the urban settings of their upbringings.  Their experience may also give them an empathy for the problems faced by the freed slaves.

Will my readers be disturbed?  What do you think?

The Challenge of the Touchy Subject

Once I winnowed my character list, the next step in re-designing the new book was to identify the theme or message.  So what's a theme?  Hard to identify! I see two major  ideas affecting almost every step of my story.  both of them are controversial.  I'd really like some feedback here.

The first has to do with the abolitionists as a group.  They talk easily about the evils of slavery, the need for emancipation, and the potential for turning slaves into loyal and productive citizens.  I know Laura herself agreed with every one of those points.  But what the Gideonites don't seem to recognize is the degree to which they harbor some level  of prejudice against the blacks.  They want the slaves freed but still see them as a working class. They will pay them a small salary for their labor, but need them to keep working at the same jobs they have always done.  They observe the religious practices that go on in the slave cabins  -- the Shout, for example -- and label them heathenish.  They complain that the blacks are no longer obedient. They want to change their child-raising practices, their marriage customs, their level of cleanliness, their dress.  They want to free the blacks and then turn them into whites. But they do not expect them to rise to their own level of personhood.

Laura is as guilty of these attitudes as any of them, but she does struggle against them.  In several places in her diary, she marvels at incidents in which she forgot the issue of race.  Two black school teachers visit her one day, and at dinner the conversation is exciting and stimulating as they discuss the methods that work well oin the classroom.  Later she writes that she enjoyed the evening so much that she failed to notice that the two visitors were black. 

What is your reaction to such incidents?  Does it make you uncomfortable to be reminded that even the best of us has inborn prejudices against those who are different?  Does the above incident make you think any less of Laura?  Are my readers going to see this theme as polemic?

I'd really like to her what you have to say.  Comment below, please.

Killing My Darlings: A List of My Victims

In yesterday's blog, I started to describe the epiphany that made me discard 35,000 words and start over with writing The Road to Frogmore. First came the answers to some vital questions:

Q: Who is the main character?
A: Laura Matilda Towne is a thirty-something, single, Unitarian, Abolitionist medical student in Philadelphia.

Q: What is her goal?
A: To prove the validity of the abolitionist belief --  that if slavery is abolished, the former slaves can become loyal and productive citizens of the United States --  by joining a band of teachers and missionaries known as the Gideonites.

Q: What obstacles (adversaries) stand in her way?
A. Her loyalty to family, unfinished medical studies, lack of governmental support for the idea of emancipation, and the multiple dangers of South Carolina in the middle of the Civil War, among others.

Q:What's my "elevator pitch"?

A: Laura Towne abandons family, friends and career plans to travel to South Carolina in the middle of the Civil War to help prove that freed slaves can become loyal and productive citizens.

Next came a close scrutiny of my cast of characters.  And here's where I  had to launch into mayhem and murderous rampage. When I listed all the names of real people with whom Laura came in contact during her first years in South Carolina, there turned out to be hundreds of them -- and most of those had to go.
I examined both individuals and groups, always asking the same question: Did this person help or hinder Laura in a significant way? If the answer was yes, the character stayed.  But if I could not make a case for individuals as "significant", I killed their characters, no matter how fascinating their personal stories seemed.

Here are some of my victims:

1.The members of the Roundhead Regiment, including Nellie Chase and her small family of ex-slaves.  True, they were in Beaufort when Laura arrived.  They met on several occasions. Laura and Nellie had a few similar slave encounters. But there is no evidence that Laura was influenced by Nellie and company. That they reached somewhat similar conclusions speaks only to the validity of those conclusions.  Although I have had readers of A Scratch with the Rebels and Beyond All Price ask for more, these characters have already had their moments in the sun.  This new book is not their story.

2. Robert Smalls. The out-take of his chapter just appeared on my other blog. His is a wonderful life story.  He has a connection with Laura's  group of Gideonites because his wife and children live at Coffin Point, the plantation run by Edward Philbrick.  Laura visited often, bringing medical care to the freedmen there, and when Smalls pulled off his great act of derring-do, I'm sure Laura was among those who cheered him.  But while others of the Gideonites hustled Smalls off to Washington to show that a slave could do great things for the country, his accomplishments had no permanent effect on Laura or the children in Laura's classroom.  This is not his story, either.  

3. Harriet Tubman. Who hasn't heard of this plucky little slave woman from Maryland, who led escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad, penetrated Confederate lines to spy for the United States, and led a raid into the interior of South Carolina to rescue slaves and bring them to safety in the Low Country?  Laura knew her and admired her. Harriet certainly made an impact on St. Helena Island when she turned up leading over 700 newly freed slaves, hoping that someone would house them, feed them, and teach them what they needed to know. But did her actions influence Laura  and her ability to achieve her goal? Not really.  Harriet Tubman deserves her own books.  This is not one of them.

4. The Gideonites themselves. What a fascinating group of people these are!   A total of 73 people traveled to South Carolina in the spring of 1862, all determined in one way or another to prove the rightness of the abolitionist cause. They are socialites and sheltered spinsters, old and young, teachers, ministers, lawyers, philanthropists, and failed businessmen.  And every one of them has a back story that explains why they gave up everything to risk this venture. How can I ignore the spiritual leader of the group who finds himself on trial as a kleptomaniac?  The opera singer with seven children who writes such lurid prose that she can almost be classified as a pornographer? The cotton agent who beats one of the other Gideonites to a battered and bloody wreck? The wealthy socialite who cannot lower herself to do actual work of any kind? The free black woman who confounds everyone who sees a clear color separation between teachers and students by being both teacher and black?

The Gideonites as a group are worthy of study, and and as individuals their stories make great reading. Once again, my reasons for choosing to feature some of them and ignore others depends on the impact they have on Laura and her goal.  If they play a crucial role in the plot, they stay.  If they go home early or have little or no  thing to contribute to the main story, they get reduced to the status of bit player or go away entirely. 

5. The former slaves themselves. There are hundreds of them, and without them, Laura's reason for being disappears.  Each of them has a tale to tell, as Austa the Pornographer discovered. But to focus on each one of them would be impossible.  Instead, I have chosen to let one strong woman, Rina the Laundress, speak for all of them.  Rina is present for the  whole story.  She will comment on events and tell the stories that the others cannot pass on.  Think of her as a one-woman black chorus, speaking for all of those who were once enslaved.