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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

Inspiration

Where Do Baby Books Come From?

I get a variation of this question at almost every talk I give. Readers want to know where or how their favorite authors come up with their stories.  At first, I found it easy to answer. I wrote "A Scratch with the Rebels" to tell the story of my great-uncle's Civil War regiment and their experiences.  I wrote "Beyond All Price" because I was curious about the nurse who kept cropping up in my research on the Roundhead Regiment. I wrote "The Road to Frogmore" because I wanted to know more about the missionaries who came to South Carolina during the war to work with former slaves.

But then, once I started writing pure historical fiction, the question got tougher. How do you create a whole family and their stories? Well, certainly, they have to be based on what the writer knows about real people who were living in that place at that time. I don't write fantasy or science fiction. My emphasis is always on the historical rather than the fiction. When I created the Grenville family, I had great fun giving them time-appropriate names and birthdates. I worked up a genealogical chart to remind myself of who was related to whom and a time chart to match the characters' lives with the real historical happenings around them. Then I could give my imagination full play as I thought about these people and their reactions to the world around them.

So far, so good. "Damned Yankee" was easy. What happened to the Grenvilles also happened to many other families living in Charleston or on the plantations of the Low Country. Then came the idea for a sequel. "Yankee Reconstructed" was set in the ten to fifteen years after the Civil War. But it didn't take long for problems to set in. Taking into consideration the five years of the war and the following fifteen years, meant I had a whole new generation to deal with. The children of "Damned Yankee" had grown up. Their parents were aging. For that matter, so were the older "children" who had been in their late teens when "Damned Yankee" opened. So, too, my focus had to change to new historical realities and new characters.

And now, the problems multiplied. Once i had written two "Yankee" books, readers expected a third. There's actually no separate word for a series of two. Books come in trilogies. But where will a third story come from?  I had neatly wrapped up the lives of Jonathan and Susan Grenville. Their older children, too, were settled into marriages and careers. All I had left to work with were the three younger children, who had played only walk-on roles in the previous books. Could i get a story out of them? I barely knew them. And what about the historical details? I would be moving out of my comfort zone into a period I knew little about. So, where will this new book come from?  I'll try to answer that tomorrow.


Dusty Old Historians Sometimes Offer Wise Advice for the Present

I promised myself I would not get involved in the political arguments currently waging on the internet, so I will try to keep this post as non-partisan as possible. It will either insult both sides or (I hope) give both something to think about. I’ve noticed that one of the characteristics of the current argument has been the “all-or-nothing” approach being taken by both sides. “All Republicans are stupid” gets equal time with “All Democrats are liberal idiots.” The assumption seems to be that there can be no middle ground—that you must either agree with everything a candidate stands for or reject the whole platform because you disagree with some part of it.  Unfortunately, such an approach makes civilized discussion a thing of the past.  (End of introductory rant)

This morning, I stumbled upon a quote that caught my attention and seemed to sum up what is wrong with the all-or-nothing approach. I was looking for a particular illustration of a Civil War ship, and one of my possible sources was Robert N. Rosen’s Confederate Charleston: An Illustrated History of the City and the People during the Civil War (1994). In his preface, he discusses the conflict he felt as a child between his love of his home town, Charleston, and the distress he felt about a war that its citizens fought over slavery. And then he says this:

“As a student at the University of Virginia in the 1960s, I learned from Paul Gaston, Willie Lee Rose,and the writings of C. Vann Woodward [eminent historians all] that one could be a Southerner, take pride in the South, and not feel compelled to defend the indefensible."

What good advice for all of us!

Welcome to Lions, Young Student Optometrists

Last night we had the privilege of once again attending the organizational meeting of the Southern College of Optometry Lions Club here in Memphis. This is a once-a-year occasion, where new first-year students learn about Lions Clubs International and our role in putting an end to preventable blindness throughout the world. My husband and I founded this club in 2004, and have been invited back year after year to serve as mentors.  

The fit between optometry and Lions is obvious. When these young doctors head out to establish their own practices across the  country, they will have an ongoing connection to their local Lions Club. Of course, the club faces some unusual problems because the turn-over  of membership is so great.  Students spend three years or less on campus before heading out to do "externships"  all over the country. So they don't have much time to build up a tradition of leadership.  Still, year after year, we find third-year students stepping into leadership roles and without needing much guidance they take over and run the largest Lions club in the state of Tennessee.

This past week, the college held a service day during which the new students learned about various opportunities for service. Our Lions officers followed up with an invitation to any interested students to come to last night's meeting. They weren't above luring them with the promise of dinner, but they had a tremendous response.  Here's what just part of the largest classroom looked like last night, as new students nibbled on Lenny's subs and filled out their application forms.

How many were there?  Well, we didn't count, but the lecture hall holds two hundred, and there weren't many empty seats.  Not all of them had come prepared with checkbooks, but 77 of them turned in their applications and paid on the spot.  Others went off carrying their applications to leave in the treasurer's mailbox later. 

Once in a while, we get asked if the club actually does anything, or whether it is just a formality.  Well, last night's meeting involved their schedule through October. Among their plans were these items: providing  eye-screening at a community health fair; pitching in to help in the Germantown Lions tent at this weekend's festival, where they will do more screenings and perhaps learn about diabetes-testing; signing up for a Sight Walk through Overton Park; taking part in World Sight Day; designing and selling club tee-shirts; running a major fund-raiser involving Coupon Books for Memphis attractions and restaurants; and entering a contest to see which club can create the winning Halloween decorations for a treatment room at the Eye Center. They also attend district meetings, volunteer at the Church Health Center, go with weekend RAM trips to take medical care to rural areas of Tennessee: and, when they are  second and third-year students, help with eye exams funded by the Lions Lens Project to provide glasses for needy patients. And remember, they do all this while being medical students, raising families, and supporting themselves.

Sometimes, these young people leave me exhausted, just from listening to them. But they also leave me inspired.  They are a terrific antidote to celebrity shenanigans and "stories that bleed" on the nightly news.

Warming the Cockles

I have to pass this story along, with no names or specific locations identified.  I was doing a book-signing this afternoon, in a place where attendance depended entirely on the weather.  The weather forecast was for thunderstorms (read: everyone will be cooped up inside, looking for something to do).  But as usual, the forecasts were wrong, the storms have stalled out, and here we are with warm weather, sunshine, and gentle waves along a pristine beach. (Read: Guess how many people are inside on a day like today!)

So there I was, with hostess, faithful husband, and only a few passers-by who looked curious, asked a question or two, and then hurried on to more touristy pleasures.  Then SHE arrived -- a pleasant middle-aged lady, who asked lots of questions, settled on the couch for longer discussions, purchased two books, and exchanged addresses and other contact information with me.  Would I talk to her women's group, to her local library, etc.?

As I said good-bye and wished her happy reading, she revealed that she is a breast cancer survivor, now completely finished with chemo and pronounced cured, but among her scars is this one -- that while she was once an avid reader, she has not been able to sit down and read a book for several months.  "But your stories fascinate me," she said.  "They make me want to read again.  Perhaps they will finish off my cure."

Only two books sold -- but what a gift she gave me!

Discovering Another Knight of the Blind

The Southern College of Optometry in Memphis has its own Lions Club, with members drawn from faculty, staff, and students.  Chartered in 2004, they have grown to become the largest (and arguably the most active) club in West Tennessee.  My husband and I have been fortunate enough to serve as mentors for them during this entire period, and we are proud of their accomplishments. But once in a while, one of them shines particularly brightly, and we just have to brag.  The following blog appeared yesterday on the college website. I hope it gives you renewed hope for the future, safe in the hands of our young people.


Friday, November 30, 2012

A Knight to the Blind

Thanksgiving Break was great! My family and I spent much of it in the Smoky Mountains near Blue Ridge, GA. Besides over-eating and generally relaxing, we also spent a day hiking and it was beautiful! On the way back, we stopped at the Tennessee Aquarium and my kids loved it. Two huge buildings dedicated just to an aquarium meant that our 2.5 hours there was hardly enough. I’d highly recommend it to anyone with kids.

Perhaps the most memorable event during my vacation happened on the drive from Memphis. As I passed through the town of Tuscumbia, I noticed a sign announcing that this little city was the birthplace of Helen Keller. Had to stop. After hearing Helen Keller’s story all growing up, it was amazing to see it all materialize. There it was. Her playroom. The room she locked Anne Sullivan in. Most importantly, the pump where Helen first learned that each object has a name. Then, off to one side of the property sat a booth that caught my eye.

The booth was filled with Lions Club International banners from all over the world. As I paused there, I learned that in 1925, Helen Keller gave a speech at the Lions Club International Convention and this is the challenge she gave:

“Will you not help me hasten the day when there shall be no preventable blindness; no little deaf, blind child untaught; no blind man or woman unaided? I appeal to you Lions, you who have sight, your hearing, you who are strong and brave and kind. Will you not constitute yourselves Knights of the Blind in this crusade against darkness?”
- Helen Keller, June 30, 1925

As a result of that speech, Lions Club chose to make vision a priority in their quest to serve humanity. As I read and listened, her speech both humbled and emboldened me. It made me proud to be a Lions Club member. To be part of an organization so dedicated to helped bring sight to those in need. Moreover, it made me proud to be a future optometrist. One of some 35,000 optometrists trained and willing to end blindness in any way we can. I chose the right profession. I will be a Knight to the Blind.

Devin Duval
Class of 2014