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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

August 2011

Lessons from History, Part 3: No Right Answers

Here's another lesson that becoming a historian taught me. There really are no right answers. You can never know the whole truth. And just by making those statements, I'm opening myself up to colleagues who will jump in to say, "No, there may be a right answer" or "There are absolute, knowable truths." 

I used to drive my students into utter frustration by doing this sort of thing to them. I'd ask them an obvious question, like, "What did you eat for lunch?" Then, armed with the answer, I started the historian's routine. "Is that all you ate? Just peanut butter? Was it on bread? Did you have sugar? How about honey? No? What kind of peanut butter was it? Jif? Really? Did you read the label on the jar? Did you know that Jif has honey in it? And did you have any preservatives? Not even in the bread? Did you read the label?"

"Where were you born? How do you know? That's what's written on your birth certificate? How do you know your mother didn't lie when she filled out the form? She never lies? Really? Did she ever tell you about Santa Claus?" The Easter bunny? The tooth fairy?"

You get the idea. Historians always look for evidence, of course, but they never stop looking for evidence to the contrary. That's why, even after 150 years, historians are still arguing about whether slavery was the real cause of the Civil War.

Yesterday, I wrote about Braudel's theory that the grain people raised influenced the society in which they live and I ended by suggesting that the necessities involved in wheat farming helped explain Europe's advanced development. Almost immediately I received a comment on Facebook from a former colleague. Our discussion went something like this:

  • ‎HE: 'Mann ist was Mann isst', as it was said [the German phrase there means " A person is what he eats."]. But what is special about the Medieval West and the modern societies it spawned, including the US, is the fact that it was organized round dairy foods. This was possible because the Germanic settlers were unusually insensitive to lactose. You can see the results of cultural transfer on the Lactose Intolerance shelves of American Drug Stores and Pharmacies. Interesting, I think. ·
  • ME:  Interesting, yes,  but you need to take this one step further. Is there an advantage to dairy foods that legume eaters or bread eaters do not get? ·
  • HE: No, and it is mostly bad for us. (I have a colleague . . . , who has made his reputation by telling people so.) But I am only trained as a historian; the moral hectoring I picked up on my own.

Another friend tried to pick a fight over my use of Braudel.  In the comments, she wrote, "And then there was the horse harness..." That was a reference to a famous historical debate that proved Braudel was wrong about a number of his facts. However, as I remember the fuss, it was not a horse HARNESS that caused the trouble, but the horse STIRRUP. I didn't pursue the discussion.

The upshot of all of this is that, while I use my historical training to inform my writing, the most important lesson I have learned is that one should never be too sure of anything. Historians find that realization upsetting at times, but for a novelist, it is strangely reassuring. The lack of certainty offers free rein to fiction.

Rice, Corn, or Wheat?

A historian's world is full of theories, as various authorities try to find the ultimate explanations for how the world functions. (Of course, if any of these theories could be proven as fact, we'd all be out  of jobs -- problems solved.) The most we can do is listen to different explanations and try to find some that seem at least plausible.

One of my own favorites came out of the Annales school of French historians in the 1950s (and yes, I know how that dates me!). According to Fernand Braudel, who attempted to write the entire history of the Mediterranean, it might be possible to discover the cause of differing world views by examining the grains people consume. The theory goes something like this:

RICE is a labor-intensive crop. The work of seeding and transplanting the tiny rice plants requires almost as many people out in the bogs on their hands and knees as the number of people the crop will feed. It's also year-round work, not something seasonal. Only the very rich can afford to eat without constant labor. As a result, the society fed by rice will have a very small upper class supported by masses of day laborers. Individuals lack importance in such a society, and there is little time for innovation, or movement, or specialization. Such societies prevailed in the oriental world.

CORN (or more properly MAIZE) requires very little labor. You scrape up a little mound of dirt, poke a hole in the center, drop in several kernels of corn, cover them up, and go away. Six months later you come back and pick the ears of corn, dry some for the next crop, and consume the rest. Since people are not busy with agriculture, they have time for other activities -- hunting, artwork, tribal councils, exploration, and elaborate religious ceremonies to give thanks to the spirit world that seems to furnish food with little human intervention. Early native cultures in the Americas provide examples.

WHEAT (and similar grains) combines some of the qualities of the other two crops. Like rice, a grain crop requires very heavy labor twice a year -- first for plowing, preparing the soil, and planting, and second for harvesting and replowing the  fields. But like corn, those two periods of hard work are separated by fairly long periods during which people can follow their own interests or turn their efforts toward other projects.

Two factors make wheat unique. Plowing the land that grows good wheat is heavy work. First, it required the domestication of animals to assist with the work. And then it required co-operative efforts.  In most of Europe, it used to take a team of eight oxen just to pull the plow.  And since no family could afford to keep more than one ox of their own, they had to get together with their neighbors to share the plow, the oxen, and the fields. In the very long term, according to Braudel, that spirit of cooperation  for mutual benefit made the other advances of the western, or European, world possible.

Does any of this matter today, in our world of supermarkets and multi-grain cereals? Perhaps not, but I was vividly reminded of Braudel the first time I learned that the main grain crop in pre-Civil War South Carolina was rice. Is it any wonder that the worldviews of the rice-growing South clashed with the wheat-based North?

Lessons from History, Part I

Several blog posts from teachers and professors about starting a new school year reminded me of my own classroom days.  Several years ago, I would have been starting a new class with Western Civ. students, hoping desperately that I could manage to cover 4000 years of history in 14 weeks. That amounts, approximately, to the period from Noah's flood to 1750. I wasn't kidding when I told them that if they missed a day  of class they might miss the Roman Empire.

One way I found to make sense of that vast spread of years was to offer the students some general theories of why people act the way they do. Were the theories too broad, too simplistic? Of course. Students used to joke that the answer to any of my test questions was "The climate did it." Still, students learned to ask the right sorts of questions when approaching a new culture or civilization.

Interestingly, I find that I am applying the same sort of approach to the characters in my books. Authors, particularly those writing historical fiction, struggle with making their characters act authentically for their own time period. In Beyond all Price, I had to imagine the lives of many different characters -- a battered wife in the 19th century; a five-year-old slave child, whose family could no remember any other way of life; an alcoholic Union army general; a nun in a teaching order;  a homesick soldier. I managed to capture their differences by applying the same historical theories I used in class. So for the next week or so, I thought I'd pass along some of these ideas to you. They may not all apply to your work, but perhaps one or two will click.

Let's start with the difference between a civilization and a culture. Today, I suspect we are all too inclined to equate "civilized" with people like ourselves and "uncivilized" with those we don't understand. Not so at all. The word civilization comes from a Latin word for city, and to a historian, a civilization applies only to a people whose lives center on a city, to those who live in an urban environment, to those who have managed to sit still and make the world come to them. (So New Yorkers are civilized, even though some of them may behave in disturbingly "uncivilized" ways).

If you examine the earliest historical examples of civilizations, you'll find that they all develop in the same general location -- between the 30th and 40th degrees of latitude and on a major navigable river or other body of water. (For a western civ class, think Egyptions, Romans, Greeks, Mesopotamians.) Because they have moderate temperatures, adequate water supplies, and means of transportation, they are able to remain in one location, while importing the things they need to sustain a large population.

People who live in other regions of the earth, whether north or south of that temperate belt, or those who must keep moving to find water or grazing lands will remain uncivilized -- that is, not tied to any one location but migrating to whatever region will allow them to sustain life.

Does that mean that migratory people are barbarians, uncivilized, uneducated, uncultured, unsophisticated?  Not at all. Culture is something quite different. It takes in all the other characteristics that make people human -- an appreciation of beauty, artistic talent, music, dance, manners, cuisine, clothing styles, religious beliefs, social skills, ethical standards, family ties. In other words, a culture embodies values. A civilization is no more than a socio-political organization located in a particular spot at a particular time. Thus civilizations can rise and fall; cultures endure because they are transportable. 

Failure to understand how that difference affects our perceptions lies behind many of the problems faced by the characters in Beyond All Price. Military officers, charged with capturing and "civilizing" the coast of South Carolina in 1861, see the abandoned slaves on the sea islands as "uncivilized," dirty, dangerous, stupid, undesirables. Nellie Chase sees them in an entirely different light because she looks at their enduring culture. She listens to their folktales, eats their foods, enjoys their music, and appreciates their family lives and their ties to the only home they have ever known.

Concentrating on cultures increases our understanding of people unlike ourselves; looking for civilization can blind us to the values to be found in our differences.

Tomorrow's question: Can the type of grain one grows alter the whole wold view of the grower?


6 Killer Marketing Myths That Can Kill Your Book and Career (And Their Remedies!)

 Here are excuses many authors use not to promote, killers all. Each includes advice that will help a writer salvage his book and career from wrong thinking.

  "My book is doing well enough. My career is on an upturn. I can easily take a year off from promoting to write." Advice: Cut back if you must but slot in some time to keep the efforts you've already made at least at a simmer.

  "I hear everyone is cutting back on promotion so why shouldn't I?"

Advice: Didn't your mother ever ask you, "If Johnny jumped off a cliff, would you do it, too?" Look at those authors. If they're selling lots of books, it's because somebody (their publisher, bookstores, their publicists) is promoting them. I'll bet, though, that most of the authors saying this aren't selling very many. Look at your situation. If you don't do it, who will do it for you?

  "I like Carolyn's Frugal Book Promoter idea so I'm going to only do things that cost no money at all."

Advice: Hey! Frugal is one thing. Cheap is another. Some of the best things you can do cost some money. An example is American Booksellers Association Advance Access program. Find it at www.bookweb.org. Careful though. Always weigh the "rightness" of any program for your particular book.

  "I'm going to examine everything I'm doing and only continue what I can prove is working."

Advice: You may not be able to prove much, if anything. That's not the way marketing works. Judge how well your entire campaign is going only after you have given it plenty of time to work. If one thing is working well, maybe it is because your title or name is being seen elsewhere. Balance your campaign, yes. Try new things, yes. Cut back on a few only if you must. Keep in mind that book sales are not necessarily the most valid way to evaluate your promotion.

  "Nothing I've tried works. I'm giving up."

Advice. You may be on the brink. Or maybe you've been giving up on each aspect of your campaign too early. Any marketing plan must be many-pronged, frequent and long-term.

  "If I cut back on promotion and find my sales slipping, I can always gear up again."

Advice: Yikes! Good publicity and promotion build. It's like skipping rocks on a pond. With each stone, ripples wave out, out, out. Eventually, after you've skipped lots and lots of stones, the results start coming back to you in waves. If you stop whipping those stones into the water, the results dissipate. It will take a long time to get enough stones dancing across the water again to match what you've done and, once you lose momentum, you may never get it back.

 Carolyn Howard-Johnson is the author of The Frugal Book Promoter: How to Do What Your Publisher Won't, The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success and an Amazon Short, "The Great First Impression Book Proposal: Everything You Need To Know To Sell Your Book in 20 Minutes or Less." Learn more at www.howtodoitfrugally.com.

A Re-posted Interview

This column recently appeared as a guest interview on someone else's blog, but it occurred to me that my regular readers might be interested as well. So here's a glimpse into my background.

Deirdra: When did you first know you wanted to be an author?

Carolyn: All my life, I think. I was making up stories in my head when I was just a kid. The real question is when I knew I COULD be an author. That didn’t happen until I actually had a book published. And even then, I wasn’t too sure.

Deirdra: What is your writing and educational background?

Carolyn: I’m an academic at heart. I spent ten years or so as a high school Latin and English teacher. Then I went back to grad school and earned a PhD in Medieval History. I spent the rest of my working career as a history professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, TN. Academics write books, so that’s what I did – big books densely stuffed with footnotes and bibliographies. They are in university libraries all over the place, but I’m not sure anyone ever read one of them. That career also meant that I learned not to expect to make money from writing.

Then I retired and decided to see what I could do as an independent writer.

Deirdra: What makes you passionate about writing?

Carolyn: I love it when someone falls in love with one of my characters. Nellie Chase now has her own group of fans, and she makes me proud.

Deirdra: What was the pathway like for you to get your first book published?

 Well, my first book was a historical monograph on a 12th-century Norman bishop and his impact on the royal family of England. It was ridiculously easy to get it published. I pitched it to an editor in about five minutes at a conference, and she bought it for the University of Indiana Press. They did all the work from there on in. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn much about publishing from the experience.

Deirdra: Were you ever discouraged along the way? If so, how did you deal with it?

 Discouragement came much later. Academic publishing is not a problem. You’re expected to do it, and you do. But then I retired, and learned that without academic credentials, I was a nobody again. My book on the history of the 100th Pennsylvania Regiment was turned down over and over again before a small house took a chance on it. Why? Because it was Civil War history, and my only credentials said I was a medieval historian. I still shrink inside when I remember some of the reviewers’ comments on amateurs trying to write history in a specialized field.

Deirdra: What is your writing schedule like?

 I’m very much a morning person. If I can get up, eat a bite of breakfast, and head right for the keyboard, I can write all morning. If I have other errands to run in the morning, I get little accomplished later in the day

I keep trying to use National Novel writing Month (NaNoWriMo) to spur me to a more regular production schedule, but the pressure from a deadline just doesn’t work for me. I’ve just failed spectacularly at NaNoWriMo Summer Camp. I managed 38,000 words out of the required 50,000, and then broke down and quit.

Deirdra: Where do your ideas come from? How do you know the idea is good enough to write a book about it?

Carolyn: In my case, I’ve learned to take my historian’s training and apply it to fiction. My books are all set in coastal South Carolina during the Civil War. The area overflowed with colorful characters in that period, so all I have to do is look for someone who catches my fancy. But how do I KNOW? I’m not sure anyone ever knows for sure that an idea can become a book. You have to take a chance.

With my first post-academic book, A Scratch with the Rebels, I chose to write about my great-uncle, who was a Union soldier stationed in South Carolina (and killed there) in 1862. I cared about him, but it turned out that there was not enough information or excitement in his life to sustain a whole book. So I found a Confederate soldier at the same time and place, and played them off against one another.

Deirdra: Can you tell us a little about your book "Beyond All Price?"

Carolyn: Beyond All Price is based on the life of a real Civil War nurse, Nellie M. Chase. She appeared—briefly—in A Scratch with the Rebels, because she was the nurse who served with Uncle James’s regiment. I found her fascinating, but she didn’t play much of a role in that first story. She deserved a book all her own.

Nellie was a teen-age runaway, a battered wife, a lone woman trying to survive in world dominated by men. She joined the Union Army with no credentials and little hope, but she became one of the unsung heroines of the Civil War. Determined to atone for the mistakes of her early life by dedicating her life to the service of others, she rose to a responsible position as head matron of a 600-bed hospital in occupied Nashville. Then she retired into obscurity, where she lingered until the world offered her one last chance to demonstrate her remarkable courage.

Deirdra: What do you hope readers will get from your book?

Carolyn: As a historian, I hope I have offered some glimpses into the problems of the Civil War that don’t appear in history books. Nellie has to deal with such matters as the state of medical knowledge at the beginning of the war, the limitations placed on women by 19th century society, and the problems raised by freeing slaves who were not ready to handle life outside of slavery.

On another level, I think Nellie will resonate with many readers. There are hints that she had an abusive father, and we know that her first husband beat her and tried to turn her into the madame of a brothel. She had to struggle to support herself and to build up her self-confidence. She’s a modern woman, seen through the lens of an earlier age.

Deirdra: How many beta readers review your manuscript before you send it to your editor?
Carolyn: Well, against all advice, I do my own editing. I must have read the manuscript nearly 20 times, trying to view it through the eyes of the creative writing teacher I once was. Then I sent it to five beta-readers – each one of whom could bring a different perspective to the book. I had a young woman going through a divorce, a Civil War re-enactor who is descended from a member of the regiment Nellie served, a military tour-guide in Charleston, an engineer with an eye for detail, and the head of an association of writers and publishers.
When they finished with their comments, I edited the whole manuscript one more time.
Deirdra: What kinds of inspiration do you use during your story creation periods?

 The best inspiration for me comes from visiting the locales of my story. It’s a real hardship, you understand, to have to plan a trip to Charleston or Hilton Head, but I struggle through. Once there, just walking through the same streets that my character knew sets all sorts of new ideas flowing.

Deirdra: Who has made the greatest difference for you as a writer?

Carolyn: Oh, I owe so many people. But in the end, the support of my husband matters most. He’s a gem. He cleans the house and runs errands so that I can have free writing time. He travels with me on all those hardship research trips and takes the photographs that will later refresh my memory. He’s my greatest cheerleader and my shoulder to cry on. He makes it all possible.

Deirdra: What authors do you admire, and why?

Carolyn: I have lots of favorites and for many different reasons. But if I had to choose one, the prize would go to Carl Sandburg. His poetry is wonderful, of course, but he also wrote a historical novel called Remembrance Rock. In it he manages to show his readers the entire story of American history through the eyes of recurring characters and a recurring cat. I loved it each time I read it, and I still go back to examine how he did what he did. The book taught me the art of story-telling as well as history.

Deirdra: Besides writing what other talents or hobbies do you have?

Carolyn: Most of my free time goes to Lions Clubs International, the world’s largest service organization. I’m president of my local club and first vice-president of Mid-South Lions Sight and Hearing Service, a charitable organization that provides free sight and hearing care to indigent individuals in a four-state area.

Oh, and my four fuzzy wonders are pacing my office, reminding me that I’m also a cat-lover. That’s where the name of my publishing imprint comes from: Katzenhaus Books means cat house (no, not that kind!)

Deirdra: What words of advice do you have for other writers who desire to have their manuscripts become books in print?

Carolyn: Slow down. If you are going to do it, take the time to do it correctly. And be prepared for a long struggle. Real success does not come quickly or easily – not if you want it to be permanent.

Deirdra: What are you working on now?

 My upcoming novel is The Road to Frogmore. It is based on the life of Laura M. Towne, the founder of the Penn Center on St. Helena Island, SC. She was a Philadelphia abolitionist who came to South Carolina to provide medical care to abandoned slave communities during the Civil War. The book will address her own transformation from doctor to teacher, her efforts to help the freedmen become productive citizens despite military and governmental interference, and her struggle to gain acceptance for the fact that she lived with her best friend and partner, Ellen Murray.

Deirdra: Where can our readers go to find your book and order it?

Carolyn: A Scratch with the Rebels and Beyond All Price are both available on my website at http://www.katzenhausbooks.com. They are also available from Amazon.com and the Kindle Store.

Deirdra: Any final words you would like to share?

Carolyn: I would like to invite your readers to follow me on the internet. Links to my blogs and social networks appear on my flashcard at http://about.me/CarolynSchriber

Thank you so much, Carolyn. It’s a real honor to get your insights.