Monday, December 26, 2011

The Circle of Life

This is Bill's fourth great grandson with his first horsie.

There's something about this cavalryman's great-grandson, a horseman himself, giving his own great-grandson a horse, even if it's only a toy, that moves me deeply.

 * * * * *

For what it's worth, Bill's second and third great granddaughters (the baby's grandmother and mother, respectively) also ride like the wind.
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Wednesday, November 2, 2011


So I'm doing NaNoWriMo this year. I'd gotten to where I believed all I had was little scraps and piles and lists of research notes and facts and dates, and no story. I thought if I could force myself to pound out a first draft, however thin, however awful, it would ground me in my story again. The first day (yesterday) I wrote a bit on a couple of scenes and hit my target and it was ok.

I'd had some advice from Diana Gabaldon on the Books and Writers Community boards about what was important and what wasn't, and she told me about how to write with brackets. The short version is that it's the characters and the story that are important, not the ticky historical details (at this stage, anyway) and whenever you come to something you haven't covered in your research yet (like what street Bill walks down--or up, I don't know the answer to that yet, either--to get to Fannie's house) you use brackets. Doing that, I wrote some very rough first-draft stuff. It comes with lots of brackets, but I wrote it.

Today, I got up thinking I would write on thus and such a scene tonight, but somehow over the course of the day managed to convince myself again that I don't have anything to say. Which is exactly where I was this past weekend before Diana wrote me that post, God bless her. She is so generous with her time over there, and talks to ridiculously inexperienced newbies like myself as kindly and respectfully as she does anyone else on the boards.

But I digress.

By the time I got home, I had come to the conclusion that there was one thing that I knew positively, absolutely had to get into the book sooner or later. I can dither over what battles to put in and which ones to tell as flashbacks or to have Bill rehash in conversation versus which ones to tell in 'real time' and never write a word. But Fannie has to get pregnant: It's the core event of the whole book. In order for that to happen, obviously, she and Bill have to have sex. Once that's happened, she'll have to realize it, and then she will have to tell Bill about it. So there's three scenes I could work on tonight, no need to dither about whether or where they go in, and I told myself that I could use the bracket trick ("He began undoing her [ ]") to fill in all my vast areas of ignorance, like exactly what women wore back then and how they fastened.

And I did! Before I knew it, I'd overshot my day's target by 319 words.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Interview

TargetImage by wili_hybrid via FlickrSo I was reading this afternoon in NaNo for the New and the Insane, by Lazette Gifford (I'm planning on using NaNoWriMo this year to force a first draft), and she's talking about interviewing your characters. She includes a link to a cute mock interview that Valery Comer posted on Vision. That seemed cool.

Then this afternoon, Rebecca O'Connor posted a link to an essay she'd written for The Daily Rumpus, in which she describes sitting in her closet with the door shut and putting a (not loaded) gun in her mouth to see what it would be like.

I'm not willing to go that far.

But I have been chatting with Bill on and off this afternoon, in between sessions, and it's been fascinating. For one thing, he sits on the couch in my office leaning forward, with his elbows on his knees, hands lightly clasped between them. He looks at his hands when he talks, looking up from under heavier eyebrows than I'd thought he'd have. He has a complicated relationship with his father, Anderson, which I got some glimpses into. Anderson tends to be a bit critical, but respects Bill now because of his war service. And he reminded me that I do know what it is like to be shot at, and so I won't have to work as hard as I'd thought to imagine what it would be like going into battle.

Although technically I wasn't the one being shot at, I was close enough once for research purposes, thank you very much, and I remember afterward being surprised at the smallness of the space I had been able to hide in. So yeah. I think I can write pretty authoritatively about the urge to make oneself as small--not to say invisible--a target as possible.
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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Library Book Sale

lithograph of Sheridan's charge at Five Forks,...Image via WikipediaI really need to be getting my notes in order and my outlines into Scrivener (OneNote having proved to be a less-than-satisfactory platform for novel-writing) in preparation for NaNoWriMo, which I plan to use to get a jump-start on the writing. Instead, I'm still doing research. Today, my research activities took the form of scrounging for cheap resource books at the Cobb County Public Library's twice-a-year book sell-off cum fundraiser.

It took 3-1/2 hours to go through half (the non-fiction half) of the tables, and I was exhausted when I got home. But happy! I made out like a bandit. I got a little magazine-sized "book" called The Concise Illustrated History of the Civil War, mostly for the reproduction of Sheridan's charge at the Battle of Five Forks (not the one pictured here). I can well imagine what Brother Bill and his comrades must have felt like seeing that coming at them.

And Long's The Civil War Day by Day: An Almanac 1861-1865. Once I got it home I was kind of disappointed that it's not footnoted (although there is an extensive bibliography), but that was balanced out by my pleasure at the "Special Studies" section at the back, with short bits on desertion, disease, POWs, and the like.

But the pièce de résistance was Sam Abell's Distant Thunder: A Photographic Essay on the American Civil War. And to think, I almost missed it! I had already been around the barn once and was in line to check out, gazing about me, when I spotted a box labeled "History" under the "Arts" table (go figure). So I backed Tillie out of line and went to investigate, and there it was! The front cover photo is of the Wisconsin State Memorial at Vicksburg, in early morning (or early evening) fog, and it is stunning. Many of the photos are of reenactors, but never mind: It's a beautiful book.

I got these, and one just for fun--A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. I wish I could use her, but she's not only the wrong period, she's a Yank. The few pages I read made me think of Claire Frazier (protagonist of Gabaldon's Outlander series). I can't wait to read it!

All this for $5.50.
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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Southern Museum of of Civil War and Locomotive History

Western and Atlantic Railroad No. 3: The Gener...Image via WikipediaThis book, as you may recall, is about Bill, a cavalryman from North Carolina, and Fannie, a carpenter's daughter from Virginia. The story focuses on their experiences at the siege of Petersburg in 1864-5. The General has nothing to do with it.

Nevertheless, Day 5 of the un-vacation found me shortly after noon at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in downtown Kennesaw, GA. I really didn't expect much because, as I said in my last post, this is still the wrong army in the wrong theater of war. Plus, this particular museum is sort of centered around Andrew's Raid, a heroic Yankee exploit.

Boy was I wrong: I learned all kinds of useful things today! Most importantly, though, I finally understand what it was that Fannie's father James did for a living. They have here a display of a carpenter's tool box, with the explanation that passenger cars of the Civil War period were 90% wood in construction, and that shop carpenters, which is what great-great-great-grandfather James was, built furnishings and trim. Mystery solved.

I also found a good reference book (which I later bought for approximately 1/3 the gift shop's asking price on; a hideously expensive pamphlet which was not cheaper online that I now wish I had snagged while I was looking at it; and a potential interview subject for information on Bill's home church.

(Did I mention that my family historically has had a lot of sex without benefit of marriage? I've been wondering what the church would have had to say about all these "premature" and out-of-wedlock babies--four in this novel's cast of characters.)
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Monday, September 19, 2011

Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park

"Federal entrenchments at the foot of Ken...Image via WikipediaAs our vacation plans have completely collapsed, I found myself this afternoon at the battlefield instead of on the beach.

Kennesaw Mountain is the wrong theatre and therefore the wrong army, not to mention there wasn't a heckuva lot of cavalry action going on there. On the other hand, it's close to the house, so I loaded up my scooter (all by myself!) and off I went.

They've completely renovated the little museum since the last time I was in it, and it's a disaster. First off, it's dark as a closet in there. The text accompanying the sparse exhibits (many of the weapons and flags they used to have on display being in storage now) was either black on gray backgrounds or worse, white on black backgrounds, both of which I can tell you are combinations difficult to read in the dark. Many of the exhibits themselves were also placed on dark backgrounds and were in shadow to boot, disappearing into black holes, as it were. A glove was mounted behind a post. I left with a combination frustration/eye-strain headache.

The bookstore, on the other hand, was a researcher's joy. I found a copy of Bell Irvin Wiley's The Life of Johnny Reb (which I admittedly could and should have bought elsewhere for much less, but hey), and a book on confederate uniforms which is the best I've seen so far. Another, which I regretfully returned to the shelf, contained a photo of the drummer boy from one of the units in my book, Elliott's Greys (6th Virginia). But the pièce de résistance in today's haul is the little pamphlet on camp cooking which I snagged for a mere $3.99, well worth the price for the Roasted Rat recipe alone:
". . . baste with bacon fat and roast before a good fire quickly like canvas back ducks."
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Saturday, September 3, 2011


Cover of "An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil ...Cover via AmazonNo goals set for August, because I hadn't figured out how to set any yet. But I did accomplish some things:

(1) I finished reading An Uncommon Soldier

(2) I read Persia Woolley's book on how to write historical fiction.

(3) I went to the relic show.

(4) I started this blog, opened a Twitter account, and set up a Facebook page--none of which is actual work on the book, of course, but it's part of building a sense of myself as a writer, which in turn obligates me to start acting like one. Or so I hope.

(5) I found an on-line re-enactors' group which is an awesome gold mine of research material, and I joined it. I've already learned so much!

(6) I solved the mystery of where/when my main character surrendered--which, unfortunately, means ditching (or at the least, re-locating) one of the few complete scenes I'd written. Oh, well. Such is the life of a historical novelist.

As for September, I hope to
  1. bring my notebook current (get hard copies of stuff I revised last month printed)
  2. track the pages I read for research so I can set a goal for October that's measurable and achievable (there's the psychologist in me talking!)
  3. finish reading Plot & Structure and Writing Historical Fiction
  4. organize the unholy mess that is OneNote on my laptop
  5. finish processing my photos of the Resaca re-enactment (yeah, yeah, I know--that was last May!)
  6. write up the physical description of my female horse soldier and her mount (from photos I got in May of a female re-enactor)

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Monday, August 15, 2011

An Uncommon Little Book

An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864. Edited by Lauren Cook Burgess, with a Foreword by James M. McPherson.  The Minerva Center, Pasadena, MD, (1994) 210 pages.

Burgess’ book is nominally, as the title suggests, about Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, a farm girl from New York who disguised herself as a man and left home to get a job as a boatman. On her first trip she met up with recruiters for the 153rd NY and joined on the spot. She served for two years, surviving a smallpox outbreak and two battles only to die of dysentery campaigning in Louisiana.

Burgess herself was unmasked during a reenactment at Antietam and barred by the Park Service from further participation. She sued, and won. This book therefore also is about barriers to women’s full participation in public life, including military service; about the lengths some women will go to in order to get around those barriers; and about their lived experience of doing so. It is, therefore, not just about an uncommon soldier but also more generally about an uncommon woman living an uncommon life. And yet Wakeman was not much different than any other soldier: adventurous, proud of her soldiering abilities, fatalistic about the outcome. She could march and shoot and even fistfight just as well as the other soldiers in her company. Her reasons for enlisting were not dissimilar, either—to have clothes, food, and camaraderie, to make money to send home to her family.

She was never detected. We only know about her service because her family preserved her letters. Burgess has lovingly transcribed these, and her light-handed editing lets Wakeman speak for herself. Because Wakeman is the only woman soldier for whom we have such a contemporary record, Wakeman must needs also speak for the hundreds of others we will never know much, if anything, about. Like Wakeman’s life and service, this is a short book. You can read it in a day, but Wakeman’s spirit will stay with you much longer.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Priceless Little Volume

McCarthy wrote his little book so that details of the daily life of a common soldier should not be lost to history. Given that this was first published in 1882, one expects some (a) racism, (b) damnyankee vitriol, and (c) romanticizing of the Lost Cause. One is not disappointed.

Except for that, however, this is a priceless little volume with precious few wasted words. For the writer, nearly every sentence in it provides at least one valuable fact: Taking research notes on it involves nearly reproducing the book in one's own files.

McCarthy covers everything in minute detail from what the common soldier ate on the march to the kinds of conversations he might have going into winter camp. The book is full of detailed scenes like his description of what happens when an entire regiment descends upon a farmer's well, and what the hapless family's farmyard looks like afterward. These are the kinds of things you will never find elsewhere if you are looking to immerse yourself in the life of a soldier. It's not dry recitation of fact that one might expect from the title, however; it is told with not only an eye for detail, but an ear for dialogue and a great sense of humor as well, so it makes for a very enjoyable read. Sketches by McCarthy's Lieutenant add impact, particularly the poignant swords-to-plowshares thumbnail at the very end.

Belongs on every Civil War reference shelf.

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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Southeastern Civil War Relic Show and Sale

Battle of ChickamaugaImage via WikipediaJust back from cultural immersion in the world of relic hunters. I went in search of research material. It was a little overwhelming: Two floors in the Civic Center exhibit hall, and surprisingly crowded. Who knew that there were so many people from just around here with an interest in the Civil War?

There were a few rednecks and a little racism but not nearly as many or as much as I'd expected. The only in-your-face political messages I saw in two hours were the ubiquitous nObama bumper stickers for sale at one booth and a t-shirt with the CSA battle flag on it and the tag line, "If this flag offends you then you need a history lesson."

I don't think I need a history lesson. But I don't think that the way many Southerners fly that flag is a great idea, either.

But I digress. There were swords--including a genuine 18th-century Scottish basket-weave-handled broadsword that made me briefly swoon for Jamie Fraser--and guns, bits and spurs, bullets and buttons galore, original documents, art, and books. Oh, the books! The books were to die for. There were first editions, including one of Rebel Private Front and Rear selling for $1700!

There were a couple of re-enactors in their uniforms, too. One didn't look too bad but the other was so farby that even a raw recruit like myself could see it. I was embarrassed just to look at him.

I got to meet John Rigdon of fame. Research Online is a must on every genealogist's and military historian's resource list. I had hoped to meet his wife Sylvia Miller, of, as well but she was not able to be there today. I did meet her partner in crime, Tami Gallagher, however. Their area of expertise is in Victorian-era clothing.

Another couple had a glass-topped display with dirt, leaves, pine cones and such just like you'd find on the ground in the woods, with some items they'd dug from a cavalry campsite placed here and there in the duff. That was oddly moving, to think of that cavalryman's pistol lying there for 150 years. . .

As I say, all-in-all it was a little overwhelming, probably because it was my first time, and so I had no idea what to expect and went with no real plan of attack other than that I was hoping to find some talisman to aid me in my writing. In the end, all I bought was a $15 CD of rebel yells. This will make sense in a minute. Bear with me here.

I had read that nobody really knew any more what the rebel yell sounded like, because all we had left was contemporary written descriptions, and that made me terribly sad. But when I Googled it, I found two recordings. One was of one lone veteran who stood at the mike for some researchers after a reunion and gave a few short yips. Another was of two veterans at a reunion at Gettysburg who had participated in a little informal handshaking ceremony with some Yankees over a fence. They, too, gave a few yips for posterity. And that was it. It required no little exercise of the imagination to try to extrapolate that to, say, company level, in order to understand what it would have sounded like on the field of battle.

I remember thinking at the time that somebody oughta record and re-record and re-re-record these guys over each other dozens of times (and for a much longer duration) and maybe, just maybe, we might get from that a faint notion of what it must have sounded like when an entire battle line gave that cry, punctuated with the crack of rifle fire and the boom of the artillery, as they surged out of the trenches.

Well, lo and behold, some guys with the technical know-how had the same idea--and did it! And when you hear it like that, you understand just how inspiring it must have been to the Confederates, and just how terrifying it must have been to the Yankees facing them. Worth every penny. The Museum of the Confederacy puts it out, and it's called "The Rebel Yell Lives". I bought mine from Marc & Jill Ramsey of Owens & Ramsey Historical Booksellers.

Next time I'll have a plan. And I'll allow more time. 

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