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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

Getting organized

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.

On the Verge of a Solution?

To continue the saga of the competing and confusing editions of Laura Towne's diary . . . . . . Some good suggestions have come through, although they have not all appeared here.  I have enough mini-assignments to keep me busy all weekend, just tracking down the last bits of genealogy and cross-checking references.

Here are  some of the better suggestions:

1. Track down the people who responsible for making the copies and try to figure out their motivation.  Were private agendas involved? How much did family members influence the details that were added or subtracted from the original?

2. If the original diary is truly missing, who had it last?  When did it disappear? Does the disappearance seem accidental or deliberate?

3. Who managed the archives where all these copies seem to have been kept?  What kind of professional training did the archivists have? In other words, did they know what they were doing, or were they just doing "housekeeping" with a bunch of dusty records?

4. Check the notes and bibliographies of those who have written about the Penn Center and the Port Royal Experiment. What sources did they use? Is there any evidence that they ignored certain sources or failed to find confirming evidence for their facts?

5. What does your gut tell you?  When you read the various versions, which one rings "true" and which ones leave you puzzled or unsettled? 

Sot that's what I'll be doing for a few days.  I'm also scheduling a conference call with the one other person who has been working on the same material.  We're approaching the events from two entirely different directions, so I will value her different perspective.

Lions-related business needs to be taken care of this weekend, too:

1.  A club in our district will be celebrating their 90th year of service with a recognition banquet.  I'll be there to cheer the Lions of Paris, TN on to 90 more years. (Those of you who have read Beyond All Price will understand why Paris is one of my favorite small towns.)

2. My Lion-aholic husband has agreed to run the 2014 State Convention, which means that his humble side-kick will once again be handling lots of little nitty-gritty details while he basks in the over-all impact of the event.  First up, Monday visits to three potential sites to talk about hotel rooms, meeting rooms, and meal-planning. All of that calls for magical guessing about how many people will show up three years from now and what food and gas prices will do to members' pocketbooks by then.

3. I must find time, too, to do some planing of my own.  Just realized that I've taken on two heavy tasks for the year that starts in July.  I'll be president of the local Germantown Lions Club in the year of our 40th anniversary, which means throwing a party.  (I'll be taking notes in Paris!) At the same time, I'll be 1st vice President of Mid-south Lions Sight and Hearing Service during our CEO's 20th anniversary in that position, which means throwing a party. Sigh!

So that's what I'll be doing amid the on-going diary crisis. Have a good weekend, everyone. I should be back by Tuesday.

Mapping Your Way through History

I've been a bit quiet this week, mostly because I've been working steadily on outlining my new book.  I've learned that any time I spend figuring out the details of chronology at the beginning of a writing project saves me many more hours of time down the line.  There are people, I hear, who can just start writing.  They don't know where the story is going to take them until they've worked with the characters for a while.  That approach may work for straight, imaginative fiction, but it won't do if you are trying to work within a factual historical setting. In historical fiction, a "seat-of-the-pants" author runs the risk of including modern opinions in the attitudes of old-fashioned people,, misdating known events, or (horrors of horrors!) having a long-dead character suddenly reappear later in the book.  I use timelines to avoid such problems.

 In my current work, a timeline became increasingly important when I realized how many sources of information I had, and how great was the potential for them to contradict each other.  First, I had some 50,000 words of "seat-of-the -pants" chapter drafts produced during the 2010 NaNoWriMo Challenge.  I desperately needed a chronology of the Civil War itself.  I was referring to government documents, which frequently post-dated the events they were reporting. I had a massive historical work that recounted the activities of the Port Royal Experiment, well-documented but not always well-dated.  Footnotes referring to actions tended to record when the report was made, not when the event occurred.  And finally came several volumes of personal letters and diaries, each of which had a slightly different slant.  Add to all of that the problem of relatives who had censored the letters and diaries. The potential for disaster was enormous.

Here's how I approached the challenge.  I use timeline creator software for MAC called, appropriately, Timeline 3D.  It allows all sorts of variations and creative designs.  For each event, you can add a title, a date, a photo, and an expiatory sentence or two.  Here's how my Civil War Events timeline came out:





To clarify the major problems presented by the heavily-edited Laura Towne materials, I set up a different timeline.  This time, I used a different title for each version for the material, so that the censored material would stand out from that of the published versions. It looked like this:


Finally, I created an "Export" version of each file and then pasted the resulting texts into a standard Excel worksheet, one after the other.  By then I was looking at some 9 pages of single-spaced entries. (You DON'T want to see that mess!) Running a "Sort A-Z" operation on the file combined the lists and rearranged all the entries into one chronological file.  After that, I could  sort out the important events from the unimportant details and begin to see a basic outline of the book-to-be. That file looks like this:


There are, of course, many other ways to approach this problem, and lots of other software companies to provide the tools.  What really matters is that  you take the time to discover what happened, and in what order.  Then it becomes easy to identify the arcs of your story -- the  dominant goal, the crisis points,  and the resolutions.  Time(lines) well spent!

Point of View, Part 1: Anybody Have a Map?

You can't figure out how to get to where you're going until you know where you're starting from.  That may sound like a formula for a travel column, but it applies equally well to the design of a book.  It also applies equally to the writer and to the reader. It's called establishing a point of view. If the writer has not decided on a point of view, the resulting book will wander around from character to character without focus.  And if the reader cannot recognize the point of view, the story will make little sense.  

There are actually five points of view from which to choose:
·      First-person — classic "I" narrative
·      Second-person — "You" approach, which tries to draw the reader into participating in the story
·      Third-person-limited — in which each character knows only his or her own reactions or experiences.  "He" has a conversation, but the reader only knows what "He" is thinking.
·      Third-person-omniscient — "He said; She thought." The author knows what is going on in everyone's mind, which can be very confusing if there are many characters in a story.
·      Mixed-POV — in which the lead character narrates her own experiences, while separate chapters in third-person reveal what else is happening. 

I've been hung  up over this kind of decision for weeks.  When I wrote my 50,000 words of "Gideon's Ladies" for National Novel Writing Month" (NaNoWriMo), I just typed away, without ever considering point of view. The result was a mishmash.  Each day's output had a slightly different focus, and a second reading revealed that I had no idea where I was going.  

The story of the Port Royal missionaries is, of course, a mishmash in itself. People come and go. Leadership changes. The events of the Civil War impinge on what is happening in the Low Country with unexpected results. The missionaries become involved in one dispute after another, and their alliances change with every change in the political winds that blow through their affairs.  

I began to understand the magnitude of the problem when I tried to use  Randy Ingermanson's "Snowflake Pro" software to outline my novel. It's a 10-step program, and I only made it to step two before I knew I was lost. Step Two asked for a one-paragraph synopsis of the story: the set-up, the disasters that occur, and the ending. Sounds simple, right? Hah! 

Story takes place in South Carolina during the Civil War. OK. That's the set-up. So far, so good.  

Now for disasters. Those we have in abundance. Storms, raids, murders, boll weevils, smallpox, yellow fever, vandalism, fistfights, searing heat, killing frosts, hangings, invasions, battles, conflicting laws, drownings — the list just goes on and on.

But whose disasters are they? An emancipation proclamation is a disaster for a cotton agent who sees his workers walk off the job to celebrate their freedom. A threat of invasion is a disaster for the missionaries whose sponsors call them home, but it's a victory for the plantation owner who sees the slave schools close and his field hands come back to work. The failure of a cotton crop because of worm infestation is a disaster for the cotton farmer but a blessing for the field hand who can now devote full time to the crops that will feed his family through the winter. The missionary-teachers celebrate the firing of a corrupt cotton agent, who must return home in disgrace.  The cotton agents smile when they see a prominent minister recalled for lining his own pockets with money that should have gone to the plantations. It all depends on point of view. 

I began to find my way when I started asking the right questions. Whose story is this?   Who is most affected by the events? Who has the most to lose?  Tomorrow, I'll try to explain the factors that went into my final decision on Point of View.  

Perils of Publishing, Part II

Once I started working seriously on my Civil War novel, Beyond All Price,  I also began looking for ways to publish it.  Waiting until you have a finished product just does not work; you have to do your homework along the way.  I started with the standard approaches.  I found books written in my genre (in this case historical fiction set in 1860s) and checked on their publishers and the authors' agents.  These were names I could at least be sure would be open to the type of book I was writing.  To that basic list, I added other publishing houses and literary agents I found listed in such resources as Writer's Market. I looked up each one on the internet to find out how they wanted submissions handled.  Each one on the list received a hand-tailored written or e-mailed query letter.

Responses were spotty.  Almost half never replied! Others sent canned messages: "Sorry.  We are not accepting new clients." --or -- "Sorry. We no longer consider unsolicited manuscripts." Only a handful expressed any interest whatsoever, and they consistently asked for a full description of my platform before they would consider the book. At that stage, I had no idea what a "platform" looked like in the publishing world, so I had more research ahead of me.

Here's what I found. If you are a household word -- a politician, a celebrity, a sports figure, or a best-selling author already -- you have a built in platform: a fan base of people who will buy your book because of who you are. If you're just a hard-working writer, you have to build your own platform.  Publishers and agents suggested that I needed the following:

(1) a personal website visited by hundreds of readers every day;
(2) a blog that had a similar reader base and gathered dozens of comments on every posting;
(3) a personal Facebook page, with hundreds of followers and daily postings;
(4) another Facebook Fan Page, one dedicated to my writing;
(5) a Twitter account, with daily postings and thousands of followers;
(6) a LinkedIn account, with multiple recommendations and connections within my professional community;
(7) a personal e-mail list of media outlets, bookstores, libraries, and civic organizations, all of whom would be eager to do personal interviews with me, invite me as a guest speaker, or host a book signing event.

Fortunately, I'm pretty adept at finding my way around a computer.  I just had never bothered to become involved in social networking of this sort.  So I went to work, particularly at building my internet resources.  These outlets were not hard to create, but they take an enormous amount of time to develop their full potential.  I've been working on this platform for about 18 months now, and my numbers surprise me.  I have almost 400 Facebook Friends, some 700 Twitter followers, more than 80 connections on LinkedIn, and a website/blog that receives around 100 hits a day. To me, that's amazing, but the figures are still not up to the five thousand guaranteed readers that most publishers want to see.  At most, I have a little soapbox that serves as my platform.

And if you are reading this, you are a very important nail in that soapbox.  Thanks!

One other factor weighed into my publishing quandary.  This year -- 2011 -- marks the beginning of a five-year commemoration of the Civil War.  Right now, interest in Civil War history is at an all-time high, and I expect enthusiasm will last for most of the next five years.  But by 2016, we're all going to be tired of the topic.  My window of opportunity is right here and now.  If I wanted Beyond All Price to benefit from the increased coverage of the Civil War, it had to be ready to go.  I simply did not have time to spend several more years pursuing followers, then agents, and then publishers. There seemed to be only one other path to putting the book into the hands of willing readers -- self-publishing.  

In the next post, I'll work through the differences and the advantages of doing it yourself.  If you have questions you'd like to see me answer, please leave them in the comments below.