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"Left by the Side of the Road"--An Excerpt

Nellie Chase was one of the first women to have to decide how to handle the problems presented by newly freed slaves. She was already "on the ground," so to speak, when the Gideonites and missionaries arrived in South Carolina. She met the missionaries; she talked with them; she admired some of what they proposed; but their solutions were not hers.

On her very first morning in Beaufort, SC, Nellie had awakened to discover that the house to which she had been assigned came complete with an extensive staff of house slaves. Even more startling was the discovery that the slaves immediately looked to her to take over the position of mistress—running the house and giving them their instructions. That was more than she had expected to take on as a Union Army nurse. The black butler wasted no time in teaching her two lessons: (1) a woman is always in charge of what goes on in a house; men take over as masters only in matters outside of the house, and (2) the slaves were "playing a role" and they expected her to play her own role, too.

So there she was—22 years old, meeting her first Negroes and finding that they were her own slaves—people who expected to wait upon her, to carry out her instructions, and to rely upon her to solve all their problems and provide all their needs. To her credit, Nellie coped beautifully. She learned quickly how to play the role of plantation mistress, but she never gave in to the worst aspects of the situation. She genuinely liked and cared for her slaves. She improved their living conditions and their diets, provided them with gifts to make their lives easier, respected their dignity, cared for their ills with as much concern as she would give to the soldiers of the regiment, and tried to learn more about their African heritage.

In the eyes of the Gideonites, however, she was no better than a Southern woman, taking advantage of the slaves and continuing to consign them to bondage. Nellie could not believe that her choices were wrong. She sensed immediately that this particular group of slaves had a strong attachment to the house and grounds where they worked. Many of them had been there all their lives. Freeing them would have meant uprooting them, and that was something she was unwilling to do. Nellie's solutions, of course, were only temporary expedients. She had no abolitionist background, and she was not thinking in terms of long-range problems. Her choices provide a much-needed foil for the theoretical proposals of the staunch abolitionist ladies.

Shortly after they arrived in Beaufort, the Gideonite ladies turned to General Stevens' wife for advice on where to find a church service.

"Well," she told them, "those lovely Pennsylvania boys next door always go to church. Perhaps theirs would suit you."
"Soldiers?" Austa French was skeptical.

"They're part of the 100th Pennsylvania Regiment. People call them Roundheads because they are such devoted Presbyterians—some of whom even claim to be descended from Oliver Cromwell's men. They've cleaned up the church in town, and their chaplain preaches every Sunday. I often attend there. Why don't I accompany you?"
As the small band of ladies approached the church, they encountered Colonel Leasure himself, with several of his staff officers. He tipped his hat gallantly and let them precede him through the sanctuary door.
"Who's the pretty young girl with them?" Susan Walker asked. "One of their wives, I suppose."

"Oh, no, that's Nellie Chase. You'll have to meet her. She's one of the bright spots in Beaufort. She's the Roundheads' head nurse and headquarters manager. You won't believe how someone that young can keep a dozen jobs flowing at once, but she's a wonder."

"Really. Where'd they find her?"

"I don't know the whole story, but rumor has it that she is related to Salmon P. Chase."

Susan raised an eyebrow. "Then I surely want to meet her. I told Salmon we were coming here, and he never mentioned having a family member in Beaufort."

"Maybe he didn't know." The last was spoken in a whisper as the congregation settled into the first hymn.
When the service was done, the curious missionaries made straight for Nellie. Mrs. Stevens did her best to introduce them all, but Austa French took over the discussion.

"Margaret tells us that you do a wonderful job of managing your regiment's living arrangements. How does someone so young handle such a task?"

"I have a lot of help. Uncle Joe, our butler, really runs the household and manages our slaves. They are used to obeying him, so that's not a problem. I'm learning to obey him, too." She was smiling at her own simplicity.

But Austa French was not smiling. "Your… slaves, did you say?"

"Yes. An Episcopal minister who was dearly loved by his entire staff owned the house we occupy. He fled with all the other planters when we arrived, but the slaves still think he'll be coming back, and they are doing their best to keep the house and grounds ready for his return. They're well-trained and work hard, so we are really blessed to have them."

"Slaves?" Austa's voice was cold, her eyes even colder. "Did no one tell you why we are fighting this war? Don't you understand that we are here to free the slaves, not to exploit them?"

"But we're not exploiting them. They want to work." Nellie realized that the conversation was becoming dangerous. She looked around trying to catch Colonel Leasure's attention. She needed someone with a bit more authority to counter the force that was Austa French.

As if he had read her mind, Leasure suddenly appeared at her side. "Ladies. We are honored that you have joined us this morning. Reverend Browne was absolutely in his glory with so many lovely faces in his congregation."
"Don't bother with the flattery," Austa snapped. "We're just learning some interesting things about your regiment. Is it true that you're a slave-owner yourself?"

"Certainly not! What on earth gave you that idea?"

"Well, Miss Chase, here, tells us that your slaves really run the house for her."

"Yes, they do. But not because I own them. They've always worked in the Leverett House. Now we pay them to work for us. They're not being treated as slaves. They are Army employees."

"Do they live in the same quarters as they always have? Do they do the same jobs they had before you arrived?"

"Yes, they do, but…"

"Then they are still slaves. Miss Chase knows that. She still refers to them as slaves."

"You think they must be freed. It's a lovely phrase, but what does it mean?"

"They must be set free to go wherever they want and become whatever they want to become."

"And just how would you go about having them do that? With what resources? Where would they go? What skills do they have that are marketable in the real world?"

"That's why we are here. We've come to rescue them from people like you. We'll provide the resources and training, just as soon as you give them up."

Daniel Leasure shook his head in frustration. "No, it's not that easy, Mrs. French. You've only just arrived. You haven't had time to assess matters here. You have to understand that their house and the slave yard are all many of these people have ever known. There's a cemetery in the back of our yard. Some of their grandparents and great-grandparents are buried there. This is home. Driving them away would be more cruel than treating them as slaves."

"Which you admit you do."

"No. We don't think of them as slaves. They are servants. We pay them a small salary, feed them, clothe them, and provide lodging for them and their children. I would not stop any one of them from leaving, if they so chose, but they have no desire or reason to leave."

"They must be freed. You have no choice."

"The law of the land says they are still slaves, Mrs. French. President Lincoln is in no hurry to declare emancipation because he recognizes the problems I'm trying to show you. You can't just send some soldiers in and tell these people to go away and be free. They have to be taught what freedom means, and that will take a long time. We're going to put an end to slavery, but first we have a war to win."

  The Kindle edition of Left by the Side of the Road 
is FREE all this week (Monday through Friday).

Get it here: 


Sorry! August Is Full!

Heavens! It's the last week in July, and as I look at my desk calendar, I'm seeing that I'm already overbooked for August. What lies ahead? Here's a partial list:

1.  Coming up first -- our annual Auction and Dinner for Mid-South Lions Sight and Hearing Service on August 8. I'm procrastinating this morning on this one. I have a buffet filled with items for our silent auction, which (somehow) have to be transported downtown to our main office. The biggest problem is (that) a couple of them are too big and/or too heavy for me to carry. Getting them from the dining room to my car involves going through a couple of doors, which I can't open or close while carrying said objects, and which can't be left open because the indoor Katzenhaus Kats will make a break for outside and cause even more problems.  And then cramming them into my (little )2-door coupe with its tiny trunk - - - ummm.  Waiting for a guardian angel to show himself!

2. I'm already editing the preliminary draft of "Yankee Reconstructed," which involves round after round of reading and searching for careless errors.  i have a bad habit of using meaningless words as transitions and fillers. So I have to search through the pages, looking for these gremlins: that, all of, absolutely, really, very, always, never, just, maybe, perhaps, stuff, things, quite, and got. I do them one at a time and usually find I can (just) do without them. It's a good way to tighten the prose, but also tedious and time-consuming. Deadline? I've promised the complete manuscript to my editor by the end of August.

3. I'm a judge for a (rather) large book contest -- a responsibility I take seriously because i know how important the results can be for new writers. I have six books sitting here, all waiting to be read and evaluated by August 24. I'm reading the first one in those periods when I can't bear looking at my own writing any more. I'm grateful (that) several on the list are short and quick reads. But there's also the 530-page one that weighs four pounds in paperback! (Just) holding it up will be a problem for my arthritic thumbs!

4. I'm working on a proposal for publishing a local history book for a nearby county museum. It would be lovely for Katzenhaus Books to add it to our catalog, but many unidentified minefields lie ahead.

5. Finally, rolling around (in the back of) my mind (and late at night) are ideas for the second edition of "The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese."  Self-publishing has changed drastically in (the past) five years, and a rewrite is (absolutely) necessary. The project in #4 above has suggested (that) the first step in that process needs to be a rigorous self-examination. So in the coming days, I plan to offer a series of questions directed at those who are still trying to answer the big question: How Do I Publish This Book?

Murderous Rampage, Revisited

This week, I'm going to be preparing a Pinterest Board of suggestions for a Book Club discussion of my Left by the Side of the Road.

As usual, I want to start with an explanation of where my ideas came from. Back in the summer of 2011, I realized that I wasn't doing any novel writing. I didn't have writer's block, as such, because I could whip out a blog post without trouble.  It was the new book that was giving me trouble.  I knew there was something wrong with it, but I couldn't figure out what it was.  

The story of the Gideonites and the Port Royal Experiment had no lack of colorful characters. It's full of fascinating people.  It had all kinds of exotic scenery—swamps, pluff mud, tropical vegetation, glorious sunrises, sandy ocean beaches.  It had drama—a background of America's Civil War, heroic acts of bravery, enormous pain and suffering, and a life-changing struggle for freedom. Why, then, couldn't I make any progress with the book?    The story was simply too big to handle.    

But, oh, how hard it was to cut out all those great tidbits. I had what amounted to half a book already written — some 50,000 words I had created during the past year's National Novel Writing Month.  The chapters were just sitting there, waiting, but I couldn't tell where they were going next.  A couple of weeks later, I started cutting hunks out of those chapters.  The remaining 35,000 words were more coherent, but the direction was still unclear. 

Eventually, of course, I recognized my own errors.  I was writing like a historian.  Now, there's nothing wrong with being a historian.  It's what I am by training and experience.  I want to know exactly what happened, why it happened, who all was involved, when and where it happened (all the usual journalist's questions), as well as what were the underlying causes and results.  All legitimate questions. All important. All calling for more research.  And nothing, NOTHING, that has to do with the nature of a novel.   

The light clicked on first while I was discussing creating a press release.  "Summarize your plot in a single sentence. Then expand it to two sentences.  Make the reader want to know what's going to happen."  I couldn't do it—because I didn't really have a plot.  I was just describing events, hoping that they would magically arrange themselves into an acceptable story. So far, they weren't showing any signs of being able to do that on their own.  So I had 35,000 words, but they weren't the beginning of a novel.  

For a novel, I had to build a plot, one with a clear beginning, a middle, and an end.  It needed a theme, a message, a reason for its existence.  It needed one main character—someone with back story, a character with a likeable personality but a few inner quirks, a character with whom the reader could identify.  That character needed a goal that was important not only to her but to the reader, and she needed an adversary that stood in the way of reaching that goal. The story needed tension, a crisis (or two or three), and a resolution that would be not necessarily happy but reasonable in the light of all that went before.  

The solution was obvious but too drastic to contemplate.  Instead of just trashing the project, I stepped away from it for a while and sought my own guru—someone who could tell me what to do to salvage the idea. I've just finished reading a wonderful book: Story Engineering by Larry Brooks.*  He offers a step by step guide for building the underlying structure of a novel.  As I read, I kept a notepad at hand, where I scratched out ideas of how I could take my historical knowledge and mold it into a workable plot outline.  And suddenly my story did arrange itself. Once I had the main structural elements in place, the people, the places, and the events made sense.  

  The concept of the book? Rejuvenated!  The 35,000 words? I removed over half of them  from the manuscript, but they were not forgotten.  I couldn't bear to throw them out. And eventually they became the basis for my book of short stories, "Left by the Side of the Road."

More tomorrow!

Late Winter Doldrums

Anybody else ready for Spring?  Yeah, yeah, I hear all you folks snowed in again in the northeast, and I'm sure you don't want to hear a lament from Memphis, where it just keeps raining. But I'm feeling particularly gloomy, so you'll just have to bear with me for a bit.

I always have difficulty with this time of year. In 2000, our only son died of cancer at the end of February, just 10 days short of his 29th birthday.  Most of the time we have learned to cope, but late February and early March are days we just "get through," no matter how busy we keep ourselves.  And this year, what with stubborn politicians, tornadoes, blizzards, floods and drought, a pope who quit and a cardinal admitting his indiscretions, Apple stocks plummeting for no good reason, and all the other worldwide crises, I've had more than my usual trouble finding bright spots. 

Our 18-year-old cat wanders the house wailing in a particularly shrill way, probably because he's going deaf and can't hear himself if he just meows. Our homeowners' association just issued a "new plan" to deal with potential criminal activity in the neighborhood; it involves leaving a note in a sealed envelop in a box outside the clubhouse door --which seems to me to be a particularly ineffective (and potentially dangerous) method of reporting a prowler! I'm trying to help with the printed program for a dinner on Thursday night, but everyone involved keeps making last-minute changes.  I've had two more this morning. I'm also trying to get ready to run a two-day meeting on Friday and Saturday, while people are still fussing about the price of a hotel hamburger lunch. The CEO of our non-profit wants his performance eval done this week but so far has failed to get the correct form to me.  The household pest treatment guy just did his quarterly thing and left me a bill without the amount filled in.  Do you think I get to choose the price?  A commenter on this blog took me to task for failing to do research, all the while revealing that s/he had no experience with the issue s/he was arguing about.

And so my week goes.  Can it really only be Tuesday morning? Why are the juncos still hanging around? I'm ready for robins and bluebirds. Our temperature just dropped within the hour from 61 degrees to 39 degrees and the wind is now whipping around the house.  Aren't our southern trees supposed to be budding out by now, and shouldn't there be daffodils and tulips?

Daylight Savings Time starts this coming Sunday, so the longer days may help. Maybe the world will come to its senses next week?  Or the week after, when we head for Hilton Head for a week of relaxation (except for two book talks and signings)? I definitely need a Spring Break!

Patience and Fortitude

For just over one hundred years, two wonderful pink-marble lions have guarded the main entrance of the New York Public Library.  They've been unusually popular.  From the moment they were erected in 1911, people gave them names and decorated them with flowers, baseball caps, and other symbols of whatever was going on in New York at the time.  In the 1930s,  Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia officially named them Patience and Fortitude, for the qualities he felt New Yorkers would need to survive the economic depression.  New York did survive the Great Depression, so evidently the lions did their job. Patience still guards the south side of the Library's steps and Fortitude sits unwaveringly to the north.

I've always loved them, as you might expect.  I'm a cat person and a member of Lions International, so of course I love them.  .  .
But not just because they're cats, and not because I'm worried about the economy. As a writer, I see them as symbols of the author's craft.  And what better place could there be for them than in front of the country's greatest library?

If you are a writer, you need PATIENCE:
  • when you are waiting for your own personal muse to find the answer to a vexing writing problem.
  • when it feels like the end is completely out of sight.
  • when your friends don't understand what you do as a writer.
  • when your editor has been working on your manuscript for weeks.
  • when your graphic designer can't find the image you need for your cover.
  • when you have sent off a query letter to an agent or publisher.
  • when an agent says, "We'll have better luck finding a publisher in the fall."
  • when that agent or publisher says, "Our evaluation may take several months."
  • when you are told that your book is in a queue because the press is overloaded.
  • when you're waiting to see the finished product.
  • when it takes weeks for the book to appear on bookshelves or online catalogs.
  • when sales are sluggish or non-existent.
  • when you are waiting for that first big review.
  • when you've entered a book contest.
  • when the royalty check is overdue.

And if you are a writer, you need FORTITUDE (defined as courage in the face of adversity)
  • when you discover that there are already five other books with the exact title you have chosen for your work.
  • when you learn that an internationally known author has just published a book on your exact subject.
  • when someone points out a major error that will require a  re-write of several chapters.
  • when you have almost enough rejection letters from agents or publishers to redecorate your office.
  • when your editor quits and her replacement hates everything she liked.
  • when your publisher goes out of business.
  • when the book finally arrives and you find a huge typo on the cover.
  • when your local bookstore displays your new book in a dark corner, on a bottom shelf, and behind a potted plant.
  • when you arrive for your first book-signing and no one comes.
  • when people do come to your book talk but want to argue with what you've said.
  • when a reviewer returns your book unopened, saying that it sounds boring and uninteresting.
  • when your first review appears and it is viciously bad.
  • when you meet your first heckler or internet troll.
  • when people who have read your book tell you how much they liked it but refuse to write a review.
  • when Amazon threatens to ban you for a violation of their terms that was not your fault.

So, thank you, New York Library Lions, for standing guard over some of our most precious creations and for reminding us of the  qualities that will help us survive the publishing games.