"Roundheads and Ramblings"
Twelve years ago, I made a conscious choice to stop writing standard academic history books. Instead, I switched to creative non-fiction, choosing characters who lived through important historical events but who had left little or no documented evidence of their lives. I was fully aware that I was risking my professional and academic reputation by doing so, but I had retired from teaching and could do what I loved. I could try to please myself and my readers rather than a tenure and promotions committee. I believed—then, as now—that readers wanted both facts and drama, that they wanted to be caught up in a story while learning something new in the process.
I also knew that great stories influenced more people than heavily-footnoted academic tomes. Ask medievalists for example, what sparked their interest in medieval history. Chances are, the answers will include “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” or any number of historical novels. My own personal spark came from “Kristin Lavransdatter” by Sigrid Undset.
Now some ten books later, I have just received an invitation from a well-respected historical society to review a new book for their journal. The book tells the stories of two relatively unknown Southerners who took opposite sides during the Civil War. The editor explained that he was asking me because of my demonstrated knowledge of South Carolina history. He also commended my reputation as a successful author of fact-based biographical novels . . . and he mentioned the book I had written twelve years ago. I am surprised, but delighted to accept the invitation.
The take-away? Take chances. Do what you love instead of what others think you ought to do. Count your successes, not by money or awards or promotions, but by the level of satisfaction you receive by following your dreams. In the long run, that’s all that matters.
I’m not sure how I managed to get this old without setting
foot in a Trader Joe’s but somehow I had never even seen one. Maybe it had
something to do with being an Air Force wife and living in so many off-the-map
places that had nothing but an Air Force base and a commissary. Whatever the
reason, I had no idea why people were so enthusiastic. When the rumors of a TJ
coming to Germantown first circulated, I may have been the only person in
Memphis who was not excited.
Still, the hype eventually piqued my interest, and when the
store finally opened last week, I started to make a list. I asked everyone I talked to about their TJ
favorites, and I soon had a long list, but one invariably topped by two items: Mandarin
Orange Chicken and Cookie Butter. Other treats jostling for top sport were
Triple Gingersnaps and something called Ginger Chews. Then came bagel seasoning
and various exotic produce items.
Armed with my list, a friend and I ventured out to explore.
No one warned me about the traffic—not outside, but in the aisles. Related
images kept flashing through my mind as I struggled to push my cart into a
slow-moving line of discriminating shoppers.
Imagine the Santa Ana Freeway at rush hour; an inbound evacuation route
as a hurricane bears down on the coast; the Salmon River during spawning season.
I hear it’s a beautiful store, but all I saw were people and
whatever happened to be at eye-level on the shelves as I passed by. And if I missed an item and wanted to go back
. . . well, imagine being a car going the wrong way on that rush hour freeway.
Just turning around caused a ripple effect of clashing carts.
Eventually I gathered most of my items without spending too
much money and came home to indulge in some sampling. The results were . . .
instructive. First came a Ginger Chew, which sent puffs of peppery steam right
through the top of my skull. Too late, I read the bag, which recommended these
as a cure for travel sickness. Maybe so! Hoping for something a little milder I
tried a Gingersnap, which turned out to have three kinds of ginger and not much
else. A peanut butter pretzel cooled my taste buds, and I decided to try the
orange chicken for dinner. You guessed it. The most prominent flavor was ginger.
Still searching for the ultimate TJ high, I tried their
plain yogurt for breakfast. Not even raspberries and granola could add any
sweetness to it. So I turned to a
crumpet (yes, a TJ crumpet) topped with cookie butter. That wasn’t too bad, but
you probably don’t need to be told that cookie butter tastes like gingerbread.
What is it with these people? Have they never heard of garlic? Oh, yes, there’s always the bagel seasoning.
Will I go back? Of course. It’s the next best thing to
visiting a street market in Morocco. Besidesnow I understand the origins of the
word “gingerly,” which means to do something with extreme caution.
While I’m mulling over my writing options, I’m taking a
refresher course from some experts. About six years ago, when I was just setting
out as a writer, I came across Elmore Leonard’s “Ten Rules for Writing.” The essay had
appeared in The New York Times, in a
series of articles called “Writers on Writing.”
The points he made have stuck with me ever since, although I re-read
them periodically. I thought you might
enjoy them, too.
Being A Good Author Is A Disappearing Act, Cont'.
By ELMORE LEONARD
6. Never use the
words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
This rule doesn’t
require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to
exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
7. Use regional
dialect, patois, sparingly.
Once you start
spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes,
you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of
Wyoming voices in her book of short stories “Close Range.”
8. Avoid detailed
descriptions of characters.
covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” what do the
“American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put
it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the
story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with
not one adverb in sight.
9. Don’t go into
great detail describing places and things.
Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the
style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want
descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
10. Try to leave
out the part that readers tend to skip.
A rule that came to
mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose
you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s
writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather,
or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the
guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.
My most important
rule is one that sums up the 10.
If it sounds like
writing, I rewrite it.
Or, if proper usage
gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English
composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt
to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious
writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what
you want to say.)
If I write in
scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character—the one
whose view best brings the scene to life—I’m able to concentrate on the voices
of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they
see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.
What Steinbeck did
in “Sweet Thursday” was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of
what they cover. “Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, “Lousy Wednesday”
another. The third chapter is titled “Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter
“Hooptedoodle 2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: “Here’s
where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get
in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”
came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never
forgotten that prologue.
Did I read the
hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.
Here's an example of the kinds of insights I'm getting from the Reconstruction course I'm taking. This is an illustration taken from a contemporary (1868) book about the fall of Charleston:
The accompanying description is even grimmer:
Taken from “Leaving Charleston on the City Being Bombarded,” image from J.T. Trowbridge, A Picture of the Desolated States, 1865-1868
(Hartford, Conn.: L. Stebbins, 1868).
Look at the tone of the accompanying text: "crushed fragments," "monotonous gloom," "a roost for buzzards," "deserted and solitary."
These are the words of a white male, visiting a city that he sees as having been attacked by War, Famine, Pestilence, and Fire. How terribly sad it is.
But is it the truth? Maybe. But is it the whole truth? Maybe not.
Consider this interpretation of the surrender of Charleston from the black point of view.
The original document (Resolutions adopted by a meeting of the colored citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, March 29, 1865. Alexander Gumby Collection of Negroiana, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University)
is faded and difficult to read, but here is a transcription:
"At a meeting of the colored citizens of Charleston, So.Ca. held at
Zion’s Presbyterian church March 29th 1865 the following preamble and
resolutions was unanimously adopted.
Whereas it is fitting that an expression should be given to the
sentiments of deep seated grattitude that pervade our breasts, be it.
Resolved 1st That by the timely arrival of the army of the U.S. of A.
in the city of Charleston on the 18th Feb. 1865, Our city was saved
from a vast conflagration, Our homes from Devastation, and our persons
from those indignities, that they would have been subjected to.
Resolved 2d that our thanks are due and are hereby freely tendered to
the District Commander Brig. Gen. Hatch, and through him, to the
Officers and Soldiers under his command, for the protection that they
have so readily and so impartialy, bestowed since their occupation of
Resolved 3d That to Admiral Dahlgreen U.S.N. we do hereby return our
most sincere thanks, for the noble manner in which he cared for and
administered to the wants our people at Georgetown, So.Ca. and be he
assured that the same shall ever be held in grateful remembrance by us.
Resolved 4th That to His Excellency (the President of the U.S. of A.
Abraham Lincoln) we return our most sincere thanks and never dying
gratitude, for the noble and patriotic manner in which he promulgated
the doctrines of Republicanism, and for his consistency in not only
promising but invariably conforming his actions thereto and we shall
ever be pleased to acknowledge and hail him as the champion of the
rights of freemen.
Resolved 5th That a copy of these resolutions be transmitted to Brig.
Gen. Hatch, Admiral Dahlgreen, His excellency the President of the U.S.
of A. an that they be published in the Charleston courier.
Moses B. Camplin - Chairman
Lesson Learned: Truth is in the eye of the beholder.
For many people. the word "retirement" conjures up daydreams about beaches, hammocks, lemonade, afternoon naps, or world travel. For me, retirement meant that I finally had time to work on things I wanted to do rather than the things somebody else expected me to do.When I looked back over my working career, I realized that no matter what job I was doing , I grew bored and tired of it after a few years.
I went to college to become a Latin teacher, and jobs were easy to find. After all, how many people do you know that want to teach Latin? But after ten years in high school classrooms, I was burned out. Lesson plans, faculty meetings, lunchroom and bus duty, extra-curricular activity supervision, and endless grading took almost all my waking hours. There were many days when I worked at the school for 14 hours straight. I really wanted my life back. At the end of that period, our school system was embroiled in a nasty teacher strike. I remember thinking that there was a great novel lurking in the details, but I was too tired to write it.
I escaped by becoming a stay-at-home Mom, particularly after my Air Force husband was stationed in Canada, and the NATO agreement under which our family entered that country said that I could not take a job that a Canadian could do. I became a domestic goddess instead. I picked wild berries and made jam and pie fillings for winter, bought a sewing machine and learned to make my own clothes and children's stuffed animals. Our yard sported an extensive vegetable garden, and I learned the fine art of making things like sauerkraut from my very own cabbage. I took lessons in pattern drafting, gourmet cooking, and cake decorating. The end to that phase came when the seven-year-old dropped my newly decorated Halloween cake face down into the shag rug. (yes, shudder, we had shag carpets back then!). I discovered I really missed books, and I toyed with the idea of writing one, but the idea sounded silly.
What was next? After five years of unemployment, my teaching licenses had all expired, which meant I had to go back to school to update my credentials. Going back to graduate school was exhilarating. Yes, I was older than my classmates, but I was also more experienced, and my own years in front of a class served me well in this new role. I loved the books, the ideas, the research -- so I stayed as long as I could. Instead of picking up a few credits, I did a Master's Degree in History, and then went on to pursue a Doctorate. Another ten years went by, and I was tired of sitting in the back of a classroom. I was ready to teach again.
This time I was a tenured professor in a fine and fancy liberal arts college. And teaching was fun again. The years of bus and lunchroom duty were far behind me, and people were actually encouraging me to write books -- but they wanted their kind of books -- academic tomes for my fellow professors. I did it because the stories about "publish or perish" are true. But it wasn't as much fun as I had imagined. And after fifteen years on that faculty -- as I stared down the throat of the monster who reminded me I was now 65 years old -- I knew I had to get out of our limestone tower and write the book I wanted to write.
That was ten years ago. In that period, I have written not one book, but six of them. And for the first time, I'm not burned out. I love what I do now, and within days of finishing one book, I discover another percolating beneath the surface. My mother had a treasure trove of old Pennsylvania Dutch "wise sayings," and one of them said: "We get too soon old, and too late smart." True enough, in my case, I suppose, except for the "too late" part. It's never too late!