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Where We Tell the Stories behind the History
Five More Commandments from Elmore Leonard
|Posted on April 6, 2017 at 4:39 PM||comments ()|
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.
Which Steinbeck 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.
Unless you’re 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.”
“Sweet Thursday” 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.
What's Been Happening in the Old Neighborhood?
|Posted on June 16, 2014 at 8:32 PM||comments ()|
While we were in Charleston last month, I took a morning to revisit some of the locations I used in Damned Yankee. In some ways, tha was a case of "shutting the barn door after the horse ran away," but I wanted to see what my readers might notice if they hunted down some of these locations. I was hoping my descriptions had been accurate, but some of them had been written from memory. So off we went.
First stop was Legare Street south of Broad-- the neighborhood I had chosen for Susan's wealthy planter family. I had even picked out my favorite house on that block to stand in for the Dubois house. Here it is, with all its tropical elegance, multiple stories, wide piazzas, bay windows, sleeping porch, and elaborate gardens. I was momentarily tempted when I saw that it was unoccupied and for sale. Known now as The Rebecca Screven House, its $1.825 million dollar asking price was more than enough to scare me away. Even if I could sell the 500,000 copies of the book that it would take to raise that kind of money, two other items gave me pause -- the work being done on its foundation, a sign that said it was being sold "as is," and the termite control truck out front, pumping some lethal mixture into the parlors. Still, it's a beautiful house -- first mentioned in the records in 1828 but likely built in the late 1700s. And it was a perfect setting for the Dubois family.
While we were there, a small horse-drawn carriage came by, reminding me that in many ways Charleston has not changed a great deal in the past 150 years. Oh, there are sidewalks now, and painted street markings. And the people in the carriage were surely tourists. But on Legare Street it is easy to feel as if it is still 1860.
The next stop was Logan Street, where I had placed the house that Jonathan and Susan Grenville occupied with their seven children -- the house that burned to the ground during the Great Fire of 1861. It was surely never as grand as the Dubois mansion. After all, it was slightly north of Broad. But it would have been large enough to accommodate their large family and a staff of slaves, with a slave yard in the rear. I wondered what I would find -- not the visible scar of a fire. That had long since passed. -- But a scar, nevertheless. These "new" houses, sturdy though they might be, sit right at the street edge. They are utilitarian -- functional -- not a symbol of wealth and social class. Instead of a horse-drawn carriage, a pick-up truck sputtered past.
Even more obvious, the trees were different -- thinner, shorter, healthy enough but young. There are no centuries-old oaks here on Logan street. They disappeared in the fire. I knew from reading old newspapers that one house on Logan Street survived the flames, and it didn't take long to spot it. It sat well back from the road, surrounded by a brick wall, its walls made of that "tabby" cement that contained beach sand and oyster shells. It looked lonely in this new neighborhood -- a relic of the past.
If Legare Street draws us back into the world of the past, Logan Street stands as a reminder that time moves on, leaving some behind. It was a lesson that Jonathan and Susan had to learn for themselves.
Nete: I will be adding these pictures and others to my Pinterest board for Damned Yankee.
Don't Believe Everything You Read. (author edition)
|Posted on June 12, 2014 at 3:46 PM||comments ()|
Turning from my academic work about medieval Europe and focusing on America's Civil War was a challenge. The research involved took me to new places and required new skills in interpretation. One such research trip taught me something important about the nature of evidence. It also set my writing goals off on a new direction.
I was in the public library in New Castle, PA, this time looking for newspaper articles that would reveal how much the people back home knew of the war and how they felt about it. At one point the librarian came back into the archives to chat. She casually
mentioned an elderly gentleman who had been there several years before. He had been looking for evidence that the regimental commander had been having an affair with the regimental nurse. He had insisted that the chaplain had been upset about the affair. Had I seen anything about that, she asked. I dismissed it out of hand. After all, I had just finished reading a typescript of Rev. Browne’s letters, and I had not seen a single mention of such a thing. I dismissed it as utter nonsense. The librarian was relieved; Col. Leasure was a New Castle native and a local hero. She wanted nothing to sully his name.
I, too, put it out of my head for the time being, but I became a bit intrigued by the possibility. Col. Leasure was a dapper little fellow. Nurse Nellie was young and attractive. Rev. Browne was a straight-laced Calvinist. When I went to the Military History Institute in Carlyle to investigate their holdings, I was pleased to learn that they had the original letters from Rev. Browne—some three hundred of them, many more than I knew about. I asked for the collection and put my husband to work on one stack while I plowed through the other. “Look for any mention of Nellie,” I told him.
It didn’t take long! These original letters were full of innuendo, snarling attacks on Nellie’s character, and semi-veiled accusations of improper relationships. It was clear that the good chaplain had hated the nurse with a finely-honed passion and that he resented the fact that the colonel seemed to favor her. But why the difference? When I talked to the archivist there, he shrugged and said, “Well, Browne’s granddaughter was the one who prepared the typescript before we received the letters.”
And there was the answer to at least part of the puzzle. The granddaughter had sanitized the collection, systematically removing anything that might have reflected badly on her beloved ancestor. It didn’t prove, of course, whether or not there had been an affair. It simply explained why I had not reached the same conclusion as the elderly gentleman who believed what Browne had believed.
I remain grateful for the discovery. It gave rise to my next book, Beyond All Price, and in that novel I had to deal with the question of the affair. I won’t give away my final conclusion, but I can tell you that I would have written a much different book if I had not read the original letters for myself.
A Childhood Memory Becomes an Adult Inspiration
|Posted on June 11, 2014 at 2:32 PM||comments ()|
I have always loved the month of May because I get to celebrate my birthday on May 5. But I also loved the end of the month of May because it meant the celebration of a long-standing family tradition. Decoration Day, as we called Memorial Day back then, had a connection to my birthday, for it was on May 5, 1868, that General Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued an order declaring that Union and Confederate war dead would be honored on May 30 with flowers laid on their graves in Arlington National Cemetery. My mother's family had its own Civil War soldier to honor, and Decoration Day was the traditional day for the family to gather in North Sewickley Cemetery, right outside Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, for a day of clean-up, flower-planting, and family reminiscing. Five sisters, carting picnic baskets, flower pots, rakes, hoes, grumbling husbands, and assorted children spent the day moving from gravestone to gravestone, not mourning but celebrating the good times they remembered.
There was the marker of the family matriarch, who brought her seven children from Ireland to the hills of Pennsylvania in 1795, traveling first in steerage, and then on foot. The stone bore only the single word, "Nancy," but it still stood firmly rooted on that hillside. There was Electra, who died in the flu epidemic of 1918, and little James, a victim of diphtheria at the age of two. By noon, the decorating crew had usually made its way to a circle of pine trees, where lunch was spread on tablecloths while someone told the story of Sgt. James McCaskey, who died in defense of his country in 1862. When I was old enough to read the headstone, I discovered that it said he had died in South Carolina. When pressed, the sisters admitted that he was not really buried there, but that the fake grave served his memory just as well. That made perfect sense to me at the time. It was part of the magic that made up "My May."
Many years later, when I discovered a small packet of Civil War letters stashed in my mother's attic, those childhood memories came flooding back. James McCaskey's brief life fascinated me, and as I read his own words over and over, I knew I had to learn more about this young man, his curious Pennsylvania regiment, and the battles they faced. Thus was born my series of books, "The Civil War in South Carolina's Low Country.
Wine and Cheese, Because Writers Deserve Them
|Posted on June 9, 2014 at 4:57 PM||comments ()|
Today I am posting a new board on Pinterest to complement my book, The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese. No, I don't think a book club would be interested in reading this handbook on "How To Avoid the Traps of Self-Publishing," but individuals might do well to check out some of the advice given here. And writers' groups may want to fortify themselves as they wrestle with the advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing. I'm available to discuss self-publishing with those who are considering it, and that's as good an excuse to throw a party as not. This new board lists some of The Second Mouse's favorite wines and pairs them with appropriate cheeses and other snacks.
How do you go about setting up a wine and cheese party? Ideally, you want your guests to enjoy light refreshments, not eat (or drink) themselves silly. You also want to offer them some new experiences -- some unexpected pairings -- a taste of an unfamiliar food or drink. And you want to control what food they eat while drinking a particular wine, so as not to have one overwhelm the other.
With those precautions in mind, you can plan to set up three or maybe four sampling areas. Let your guests start off with one of the white wines, with their mild cheeses and fresh fruits. If you have a large crowd, you may want them to move next to a rose or zinfandel
accompanied by a rich pate or some mild cured meat products like a summer sausage.Then they can move on to a more substantial red, with their accompanying hard, sharply flavored cheeses, dried fruits, olives and nuts. The last and finishing wine can be either a powerful red or something like a port or sherry, and your guests may be happily surprised to find chocolates accompanying them.
The board offers some of my favorite wines, although it is not intended to push one winery over another. For example, there are many versions of pinot gris, including the Italian pinot grigio, which comes from exactly the same grape. Start by choosing the kinds of wine that you enjoy, find ones you can afford, and then look here for suggestions on their pairings. Be adventurous. Don't like apples? Substitute pears. Not a fan of walnuts? Use pecans for crunch.. Don't want cracker crumbs in the carpet? Offer thin slices of a French baguette, instead.
Now, go throw a party to celebrate something -- a new book, a new pen, or a new idea. It doesn't really matter WHAT you celebrate, so long as you take the time to relax, enjoy the company of lovely people, and explore a new taste or sensation. Your writing will profit!
It Only Takes One Damned Yankee . . .
|Posted on June 7, 2014 at 3:53 PM||comments ()|
Katzenhaus Books has some breaking news about Damned Yankee, but let's introduce it correctly:
Now then, the first news is that sales on Amazon's Kindle page are going swimmingly. The book has been available for five weeks, and each week has seen an increase in sales. Last week over the week before? A 300% increase. This week over two weeks ago? 400% increase. Somehow the word is getting out!
Today I received one of those e-mail promotions from Amazon; at least they've noticed it's available.
The trade paper version is available in other locations for those who would rather not do business with Amazon. Residents of South Carolina's Low Country can find the book in the Museum Shop at Middleton Place, where they are pushing it because several of the Middleton family members appear in the book. We also hope to have it on the shelves in the bookstore at the Penn Center on St. Helena Island shortly.
For everyone else, you can now find the trade paper edition on Barnes and Noble's website at:
They are also offering it at the reduced price of $16.37.
A couple of other reminders: I have a Pinterest board up for Damned Yankee. It contains photos of the settings of the book as well as maps and portraits. Find it at: http://www.pinterest.com/roundheadlady/damned-yankee-a-civil-war-novel/ And right next to that board, you'll find another with useful information for book clubs who are reading Damned Yankee, including topics for discussion and menu ideas to give you a taste of the lives Jonathan and Susan lived.
If you want an autographed copy with matching bookmark, send an email message to me and I'll let you know how to order one directly from me.
I'll soon be opening negotiations to make this book available as an audiobook to complement the paper and electronic versions. If you'd rather listen than read, let me know and I'll keep you posted on our progress.
I'm so pleased with the way things are going. What can I do to thank you for your interest in this new story and for continuing to read and enjoy our books? Do you have questions you'd like to ask? Comments? Send them to me at the email link above, or put them in the blurb you write when Amazon asks you how you liked the book. I'll do my best to respond. Remember, an author sinks or swims depending upon the reactions of readers, so let's keep the conversation going.
Lunch and a Book Discussion at Frogmore
|Posted on June 5, 2014 at 3:39 PM||comments ()|
The Road to Frogmore provides much fodder for a book club discussion, and my new Pinterest board offers some ideas to be considered along the way. It starts with a bit of author biography, in which I talk about some of the ways I have always felt myself to be something of a misfit. (That’s an observation that most writers could make, I suspect.)
Then we move to a longer passage about Laura M. Towne and the reasons I became interested in her rather than some of the other missionaries whom she accompanied to the Low Country. Laura was also a misfit, and the ways in which she differed from her companions explain much about her later life.
Next, I have offered some questions to stimulate discussion. They center on the usual breakdowns of setting, plot, theme, and character, but they are only starting points for those who seek to understand the book. I’ve also included two reading lists — one listing the other books in this series, and (more importantly) several other books that cover the same events as this book. Dr. Rose’s massive study,
Rehearsal for Reconstruction, provides an overview of the Gideonite experiment; the others are first-hand accounts written by Laura and others among her friends.
And then we come to the good part — suggestions for what to eat and drink at such a meeting. As I have done with my other Book Club Guides, I have tried to keep the choices true to the book itself. Laura and her housemates were on limited rations. The Army provided them with small allowances of commodities such as flour and sugar, but for the most part, they relied on the same sources of food as did the slaves. They had their own gardens for vegetables, and a few chickens to provide eggs (or meat, if the chicken quit laying eggs.). Most of their protein came from seafood or the white fish that could be pulled from the freshwater streams in the area. They had no access to alcohol, so this luncheon will be one fit for teetotalers.
Laura’s diary describes some of their meals in detail. At almost every meal they ate turtle soup, so that might be a natural choice, if it were not for the fact that now, most turtles in the Carolinas are endangered species, and trying to find recipes for turtle soup is likely to yield an internet lecture on why the turtles may not be eaten. I’ve included a recipe, but I really don’t expect anyone to serve it.
The slaves the missionaries had come to help continued to work for them as cooks and fishermen, so Laura’s table served Gullah recipes, which fall into two categories. One set starts with seasonings of tomatoes, onions, and peppers, along with a bit of fatback or bacon, adds some sort of seafood, and then serves the resulting dish over grits. The recipe here is for the iconic shrimp and grits of South Carolina.
The other variation starts with the same seasonings to create a type of gumbo, although this is not the gumbo we’ve come to know from New Orleans. The Gullah variety uses okra as the thickener instead of a rich dark roux and is served over rice, which continued to be grown on the plantations of the Low Country. Either dish, accompanied by some fried green tomatoes, would provide a satisfactory and authentic Gullah lunch.
Another possibility is to rely on that perennial favorite, Frogmore Stew, a tradition that also began with the slaves of St. Helena. What does one do when no one has enough to provide supper? You get together with the neighbors, and each cook throws into the pot whatever she has -- a chicken, some sausage, a few potatoes, an onion, some cobs of corn, some shrimp, or crabs, or oysters, or fish. It all boils together, and then is poured out onto a table, where the diners gather around and help themselves.
If the group does not want to eat a sit-down meal, they might snack on boiled peanuts and soft ginger cookies. Peanuts were a staple of slave diets. The cookies remind the reader of the ginger cakes that Lottie Forten baked for her friend, Dr. Seth Rogers, surgeon of the famous 54th Massachusetts.
If this menu were completely legitimate, the only beverage would be molasses water, which the slaves loved and the missionaries drank grudgingly. If you want to get an idea of what it tasted like, think of a glass of coke poured over ice and allowed to sit for several hours, until the ice all melted and the soda went completely flat. A pitcher of lemonade might better bring this meal to a close.
A Woman Who Refused to "Fit In"
|Posted on June 4, 2014 at 3:38 PM||comments ()|
How I Came To Love Being a Misfit
|Posted on June 3, 2014 at 4:44 PM||comments ()|
Growing up, I always had trouble fitting in with those around me. I was too near-sighted to play ball, and too uncoordinated to ride a bike. I even got kicked out of a tap-dancing class at the age of five. The teacher pulled my mother aside and suggested, “Take her to the library on Saturday afternoons instead of bringing her here. We’ll all be happier.” Without effort, I got the highest grades in my grade school class and the highest scores on all those standardized tests. What an irritating kid I must have been!
I started teaching high school English when Iwas barely twenty-one, but the job aged me rapidly. Not that it was hard—the kids were great. But other people? Not so great. I was shocked the ﬁrst few times I received a strange reaction when my husband introduced me to his friends and colleagues. The conversations would go something like this:
You get the idea. People shied away from me if they were self-conscious about a lack of education, or they shunned me if they had had a bad school experience. I even considered lying about it and saying I was a home economics teacher, until I realized that then no one would ever invite me to dinner. In the 60s, many people feared teachers or actively disliked them. I’d have been much more popular if I had been a shoe clerk.
Still, I have been a misfit for most of my life, and it took me a long time to realize that those who don't fit into their society are often the most interesting people around. It amuses me now to find that strangers react with interest and curiosity when they hear that I’m a writer. Actually, they should be even more afraid. As an English teacher, I don’t think I ever corrected someone’s grammar outside of the classroom. But as a writer? I’m constantly on the lookout for people with funny quirks, odd mannerisms, or interesting stories. And the danger of ending up in one of my books is much greater than that of getting your fingers slapped for misusing a verb tense.
When a Book Club Reads "Damned Yankee. . . "
|Posted on June 1, 2014 at 4:47 PM||comments ()|
I've just finished posting a board on Pinterest to provide materials for any book club that wants to read "Damned Yankee" as their monthly selection. You can find it on my Pinterest site, right next to the board for the book itself, which offers maps and photos of the setting. Here are some of the items available to make your meeting a success:
And now for the good stuff: a group of recipes based on the book -- all of which would make a lovely spread to offer to a Book Club hungry for lunch as well as ideas.
HAVE A WONDERFUL AFTERNOON!