Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Library of One's Own

When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library. ~ Jane Austen

The more I read and research, the more I notice an alarming tendency in myself to accumulate more books. To be sure, I do it carefully, deliberately, choosing only the ones I'm sure I will re-read and refer back to, but my piles continue to grow, however slowly. And when I say piles I mean just that. We have always suffered from a shortage of bookcases.The few bookcases we do have are stacked two rows deep on every shelf, so searching for the volume you're after is quite a little job of excavation. The rest of our family books reside in cardboard boxes under a bed. Many of my own books are scattered among the shelves and boxes, but my personal library that I've put together over the past couple years sits between a pair of bookends at one end of my hope chest...and another pile is growing at the other end. It's a convenient spot, except on those occasions when I have to open the chest.

I'm very fond of my little library, not the least because each book has been so carefully chosen or was given to me as a gift. Case in point: I got three books for my birthday last week, one fiction and two nonfiction, all of which I'd wanted to have my own copy of and which I'm sure I'll re-read many times. Having learned that interlibrary loan is not the best way to do research, I foresee piling up (literally) a good deal more historical nonfiction in the future. As a reader the prospect is delicious, but as an average human being who shares a room with two sisters, it presents its difficulties. I'd love to build up a research library, but I'm not quite sure how to do it without moving myself and the rest of my portable possessions out.

So where do you keep your favorite books? Do you suffer from bookshelf shortages? And if you're a writer, have you acquired a lot of books for research purposes?

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Spring of Short Stories

"'In the spring,'" quoted Mr. Coulson, curling his mustache, "'a y—that is, a man's—fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.'"
"Lawsy, now!" exclaimed Mrs. Widdup; "ain't that right? Seems like it's in the air."
"'In the spring,'" continued old Mr. Coulson, "'a livelier iris shines upon the burnished dove.'"
"They do be lively, the Irish," sighed Mrs. Widdup pensively.
~ O. Henry, 'The Marry Month of May'

In the spring, it seems, a young author's thoughts turn to the construction of short stories. At least that's how it is this spring.

I struggled a long time before I was able to turn out a decent short story. The first few I wrote, about two years ago, remain unfinished; the first one I completed is not likely to see daylight unless I do a major reconstruction of it someday. I don't think I have even yet clarified my feelings toward the genre as a whole - that is to say,how I feel about writing short stories. Sometimes I thoroughly enjoy it and sometimes it drives me nuts. But if I were working on a novel right now I'd probably be saying the same thing.

But when it comes to reading short stories, I can sum up the best of my experience in one name: O. Henry. I've read and enjoyed other authors' short works, but my heavy volume of O. Henry's collected works is definitely one of the books I'd want to have along on the proverbial desert island. For one thing, the immense variety makes it possible to open the book and pick out whatever you happen to be in the mood for. But more importantly, I'd name O. Henry among the handful of writers who have most influenced my own work. His command of the English language is incredible - I've never read another author who could do so much with words, whether in fun or in earnest. For Henry could write both comic and dramatic stories, applying his famous twist ending to either hilarious or devastating effect. The twist, however, is by no means his only merit, even though it's the most frequently mentioned. As a reader, a writer and a history buff I particularly love the vivid capturing of setting, whether it's a New York City street, a Texas ranch or a little Midwestern town, that taken together form a colorful panorama of life in turn-of-the-century America.

All of which brings me around to the point of this post. I've been turning over the idea of doing a once-a-week series of blog posts, and O. Henry is going to be the subject. Starting next week, I'm going to count down my top ten favorite short stories of his and share a little bit about what makes each one special for me.

You may notice a couple of prominent omissions from the list - the two stories generally acknowledged to be his best, "The Gift of the Magi" and "The Ransom of Red Chief." That's not because I don't like them. I think they're both terrific stories, correctly recognized as the best, and I highly recommend them both. But I've decided to leave them off my list so as to give notice to some lesser-known but equally excellent stories.

So I hope you'll enjoy the series. If you're a fan of O. Henry too I'm eager to hear which are your favorites. And who knows, maybe in putting these posts together I'll learn something about writing short stories myself.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Proof Against Surprise

This month my main projects have been short stories - specifically, editing and polishing a couple that I wrote a while ago. I finished up on one yesterday, and just in time - I'd reached the point where I simply couldn't look at it anymore. Not because I didn't like it; I was pleased with the result. I'd just been spending too much time in its company, and that's a sure way to make yourself start doubting and second-guessing every word.

Last month Rosslyn Elliott had a great post on being word blind - what happens when you've read over your own work so much it doesn't make sense to you anymore. But even before you get to that stage, there's a point in the editing process where it becomes hard to look at the development of your plot objectively - because you can't be surprised by it. A reader never knows for certain what's coming next - the author does. That is to say, they know what's coming next once they've reached the editing stage. During the initial construction of a story not even the author is safe from being surprised by unexpected twists. But after a couple of edits you know your story's plot forwards and backwards - and if you're like me and jump around from paragraph to paragraph with editing, you know it out of order. You don't have the ability to experience the story as a first-time reader, to judge the nuances of foreshadowing or the effectiveness of plot twists. That's why when I give a story to my family to read I always pepper them with questions about these things afterwards. "Were you surprised by...? Did you notice the hint on page five about...? Did it make sense that he...? When did you figure out...?"

I guess it goes to show that authors need readers as much as readers need authors. You just can't have one without the other.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Book Review: Land of the Burnt Thigh

This book is probably the most amazing and engrossing memoir I've ever read. First published in 1938, it is Edith Eudora Kohl's account of homesteading in South Dakota with her sister in the first decade of the 20th century. One point that she stresses in this book is that the American frontier lasted much longer that is usually acknowledged - a fact I'd noted before in the late setting of many Western novels by authors who lived at that time. The last wave of pioneers, one of the largest, continued right up until the U.S. entry in World War 1. This book is a story of those later homesteading days, which were every bit as challenging as the early ones.

Although it might seem surprising, young single women homesteading alone or in groups was not uncommon. Many different types of people - in fact you might say every type imaginable - filed on homestead claims, for a variety of reasons. The Ammons sisters' reasons for leaving St. Louis for South Dakota, a combination of health and financial reasons, were common to many. For a number of young people, both men and women, homesteading was a temporary affair, a few months of holding down a claim to gain ownership of land that they could sell or mortgage to get a start in whatever life they had chosen. Others saw the value in the land itself, and with the industrialization of the East, land prices had become so high there that homesteading on the Western plains was their only opportunity. The more permanent settlers sometimes looked down on those who got their deed and left the land without improving it, calling them 'landgrabbers.'

But Edith and Ida Mary Ammons stayed - although the first time they saw their isolated claim and tar-paper shack they wanted nothing more than to head back home first thing the next morning. How they slowly became accustomed to their surroundings, made the shack into a home and eventually grew to love the prairie land that seemed so desolate at first, is only a small part of the story. A casual offer of a job, and Edith was running the local "proof-sheet" newspaper - an institution that came into being to publish the settlers' notices of proving up required by law. Then came the opening of the Lower Brule Indian reservation to homesteaders. The book vividly describes the crowds of thousands that crammed into the tiny settlements to register for the huge lottery that awarded claims to the Lucky Numbers drawn. As the new settlers flowed in, the Ammons girls moved onto a homestead in the Brule, and before long were running their own newspaper, the post office, a general store and Indian trading post, becoming influential figures in the new and growing community.

Their story is filled with too many adventures to be briefly described. They barely survived a fierce blizzard, helped to outwit claim-jumpers, lived through a plague of rattlesnakes, a severe drought, and prairie fires - and no matter what happened, the mail had to go through and the newspaper had to be printed. The Land of the Burnt Thigh (the title, by the way, comes from the Indians' name for the Brule, the story behind which is explained in the book) was filled with colorful characters, from cowboys to Indians to the many different settlers who became the Ammons girls' neighbors and friends. The book is well and engagingly written, so filled with interesting detail and incidents that it kept me eagerly turning the pages - well, clicking away at the Kindle page-turner, to be precise.

Land of the Burnt Thigh is available in paperback and for free on Kindle. The Kindle copy is excellent, with no formatting problems or typos that I noticed. Highly recommended!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Quote: The Real Work

The real work is done in thinking out the development of your story and worrying about it until it comes right. That may take quite a while.
~ Agatha Christie

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Madness of March

There really is some excuse for feeling a bit giddy at this time of the year. All the elements conspire against us. The proverbial incoming lion and outgoing lamb have apparently never reached a satisfactory agreement on who gets the middle of the month, so we're caught in the middle of their yearly argument. Consequently, one day we're throwing open windows and making plans for the garden, and then that night half a foot of snow is dumped down on us. We wake up to a coat of white and festoons of icicles, and by afternoon the sun is out, the sky is blue and the grass is showing. At about the same time, cabin fever, a close relative of spring fever, begins to make the rounds. It's not always easy to settle down and apply oneself to projects while in this mood, especially if you're prone to project-hopping even in the saner months. After being cooped up indoors for several months, one gets the restless urge to get outside and run somewhere, even if it's just in circles around the yard. But between the Lion's ice and the Lamb's mud-puddles, this isn't always a practical endeavor. And then to top things off, about the middle of the month everyone with a drop of Irish blood (and some without, I imagine) fall prey to an inexplicable urge to hum folksongs and speak in a brogue. Not to mention there's that distinctly American festival involving basketballs, brackets and 'seeds' (when I was little I always thought it was 'seats'), which to me always seems to have been invented by somebody a little touched in the head to begin with. I'll stick to the pros and the simple process of elimination, thank you!

So today the sun is shining, the Lamb having evidently nailed the fleece to the mast for a few hours at least, and I'm supposed to be taking inventory of another kind of seed, so we can get the vegetable garden in on time for once. We're in the middle of our family's own March festival, which consists of three birthdays (and twenty-eight unbirthdays, if you want to be technical about it). My writing will get done; it just comes in spurts here and there when I'm not busy with something else, and between the attacks of feeling, as one of P.G. Wodehouse's characters puts it, "mad as some March hatters."

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Weekend Odds and Ends #9

~ I found out this week that Almost Angels (1962), a very underrated live-action Disney film featuring the Vienna Boys' Choir, has finally been released on DVD. Because it was an exclusive release through the Disney Movie Club, the Amazon and Ebay prices are currently rather inflated, so I guess it's one to wait on for a bit.

~ Here's one of the best articles I've seen on the constant sloppy speech patterns in modern English. I realized after reading it that I'm occasionally prone to the 'reply as question' in one circumstance only—on the telephone. I wonder why?

~ From the same source, a piece on the Los Angeles Philharmonic's new practice of broadcasting their concerts via movie theaters, as the Metropolitan Opera has been doing with their performances for four years. I appreciated the part on the difficulty of filming a symphony orchestra in performance. (And the last paragraph? Ouch.)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Review: The Private History of a Campaign That Failed

Lyman was not for retreating at all...but he found that if he tried to maintain that attitude he would fare badly, for the command were in no humour to put up with insubordination. So he yielded the point and called a council of war, to consist of himself and three other officers, but the privates made such a fuss about being left out we had to allow them to remain, for they were already present and doing most of the talking too. The question was, which way to retreat; but all were so flurried that nobody even seemed to have even a guess to offer. Except Lyman. He explained in a few calm words, that inasmuch as the enemy were approaching from over Hyde's prairie our course was simple. All we had to do was not retreat toward him, another direction would suit our purposes perfectly. Everybody saw in a moment how true this was and how wise, so Lyman got a great many compliments.
 
Mark Twain's The Private History of a Campaign That Failed, a fictionalized version of his own wartime experiences, is different from most Civil War fiction I've read. There's been a lot written about the disillusionment of war, mostly in a tragic vein, as participants discover the hardship and horror firsthand. Private History, a wryly comic short piece, takes a different approach, using humor to effectively strip away every vestige of romance or glory from the idea of war. It may not be tragic, but it's pathetic. It made me laugh, but it also left me with an oddly melancholy feeling, even as it ended with a humorous line.
 
It recounts the misadventures of some young men and boys who "[get] together in a secret place at night" (reminiscent of Tom Sawyer's organizing the band of 'robbers' in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) and form an irregular militia company in the early part of the war. They do, as the narrator admits...nothing. Squabbling over rank, trying to ride unruly horses, and retreating every time they hear a rumor of the enemy being in the neighborhood comprise their troubles. The irony lies in that they seem to believe they are really in the war and accomplishing something worthwhile. Their one brush with action turns out to be as much a farce as the rest of the campaign, but sobering, when they shoot an unknown man in a panic while believing they are under attack. The narrator's guilt over this incident, which gives him a very slight glimpse of the difference between "our kind of war" and the reality, strikes the one serious note in the story. But as I said before, the underlying irony through the whole story makes it more than an amusing little tale. I found it a very interesting look at how humor can be employed to a purpose.
 
The Private History of a Campaign That Failed was adapted into a TV movie in 1981. I understand that the film also drew on another Twain source for the ending, his dramatic short story The War Prayer, written at the time of the U.S. invasion of the Philippines but not published until six years after Twain's death. According to an IMDB reviewer, the film portrays the unidentified stranger of The War Prayer as the ghost of the man killed by the hapless campaigners. It's an interesting concept, but I can't help wondering how well elements from two stories quite different in tone were blended in the film.
 
I downloaded the Kindle version of this story for a dollar, and while it was pretty well riddled with typos, I find that the versions available to read online share some of them, so it's take your pick. The story is also available in various collections of Mark Twain's work and some Civil War anthologies.

This is an entry for the 2011 Civil War Reading Challenge.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Constant Headache

I've had a headache for several weeks. Not a terribly painful one, just a lingering, gnawing, annoying headache that asserts itself  more forcibly on occasions when I've been doing a lot of staring at a page or screen. I know at least a part of it comes from eye strain, something I've been susceptible to for years. Taking a break to relieve the strain is the obvious solution, but as a person for whom both business and pleasure involve words, whether read or written, that's not so easy to do. ("I wonder, has there ever been an author who didn't have eye trouble?" I wrote in my journal last fall.) I always expected I'd end up with glasses, but to my surprise two different eye doctors told me I didn't need them, as long as I didn't mind poor distance vision.

Eye strain isn't the only factor in the headache, though. Living in the very warm and dry air of a nearly airtight house during the winter doesn't help. I was outside for a few minutes yesterday and was amazed what a help the dash of fresh air turned out to be. And I'm certain lack of sleep is a big factor. When I read this article, I instantly identified with the 43% of Americans who said they "rarely or never got a decent night's sleep during the work week." According to the study, various electronic gadgets with "light-emitting screens," ranging from the TV to computers to smartphones, used before bedtime, make it harder to sleep. I'm more than ready to believe that. I'm not big on electronic gadgets, but I must plead guilty to nighttime computer use. It's certainly tempting to use evening free time to browse the Internet, work on tomorrow's blog post or edit a story. But avoiding the computer for a few hours at night is a lot easier than having to cut back on more important reading and writing during the day in order to avoid eye strain and the eternal headache.

So do you other writers battle the headache too? How have you managed to avoid it or at least minimize its ocurrence without going into writing withdrawal?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Stylish Blogger Award


This award was passed on to me the other day by Debra Ann Elliott. Thanks, Debra! Now, here are the rules:

1. Link back to the award giver(s).
2. State seven things about myself.
3. Pass on the award to 15 recently discovered bloggers.

Check on number one. Now, for the seven things...

1. I play piano - not too well - and dabble in guitar, harmonica and occasionally recorder.
2. I watch pro football, which might surprise some people. I've been a Miami Dolphins fan since I was a toddler - before Dan Marino retired.
3. I'm the oldest of four, but I think I'm going to end up the shortest. Only one left who hasn't caught up to me yet, but she will.
4. I can sew - pretty well - and have made myself some clothes. I'm not good at fitting, though, and usually have to hope that the pattern measurements happen to be the right ones.
5. I can only remember three books that I stopped reading not because of content I didn't like, but because I just couldn't get into them - Moby Dick, Don Quixote and Waverly. The last one surprised me because Scott's Ivanhoe is one of my favorite novels.
6. I've spent most of my life seeing my name spelled wrong on cards, lists, emails, cakes (after we'd spelled it out very carefully while ordering the cake over the phone), et cetera. Just so long as it's spelled with an S on the cover of my first book...
7. I grew up horse crazy. I think that's probably one reason why I was drawn to Westerns. But when I was a little girl - English, Western, anything that had to do with horses was for me.

Now, as for passing it on...here's where I'm going to bend the rules a little bit. To be honest, I don't have a huge list of blogs that I read regularly and I'm not sure I could find fifteen total, let alone fifteen recently discovered. So here's what I'll do: if you're among the bloggers I follow, or a follower of mine, consider yourself invited to take this award if you want it.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Research, a Family Affair

Family register by Currier and Ives - click to enlarge
Given my interest in history, I've always wanted to work on tracing my own family genealogy. Up until last year I didn't know anything beyond my great-grandparents' generation, other than what nationalities are supposed to be in our pedigree and the rumor that somewhere on my mother's side we're supposed to be related to General Burgoyne. I haven't been able to substantiate that yet. Anyway, just before Christmas I did my first bit of real research. All I had to guide me was a very frail family register, similar to the one pictured on the right, with a long list of names in several different colors of faded ink. I didn't know anything about the people listed there except that they were somehow related to my maternal grandmother. I spent an afternoon on the computer, searching sites like Rootsweb, Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org, and by the end of the day I had traced the family line back to the first names on the register - my great-great-great-great-grandparents, both born in 1826. It was an exciting puzzle, turning up each new name and piecing together exactly how they all were related to each other by birth, marriage and census records.

I'm sure that that genealogy research sites are a huge help in writing research too. Ancestry.com, for example, has resources ranging from military, immigration, court, church and school records to image collections, such as Library of Congress photos and scans of the Sears Roebuck catalog from 1896 to 1993. (The site requires membership to access these resources.) But the other day I stumbled on a very simple but helpful idea to solve a problem that came up in naming a character. I had a name, appropriate for either a man's or woman's name in the present day, but I wasn't sure if it was used as a man's name at the time period of the story. So I went to FamilySearch.org, entered the name and a range of dates, and voila!  Census records showing me that yes, indeed, the name was in use at the time I'd wondered about.

Census records, by the way, and other records from the past, could be a vast resource for finding surnames - once you figure out a system for searching them I'll bet it beats the phonebook by miles.

So has anybody else used genealogy sites for historical research? How have they helped you?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Blog So Far

Six months ago today, I put up the first post on this blog. Eighty-one posts later...well, here I am. I should perhaps say here we are. The Second Sentence reached 30 followers this past week! Thank you all for coming along for the ride. So far I've enjoyed it very much, and I hope you have as well. I'm looking forward to more months, more posts, and - what else? - more writing.

So how far have I come in my writing life since I took stock of my situation six months ago? Well, I've finished the first drafts of two novel-length projects I was working on. (They are still first drafts.) Most importantly, I had my first story published in December. I've written more short stories, finished some short stories and started more short stories; I've submitted a few and had my first rejection, which didn't bother me half as much as you (or I) might have expected! I've also had my first experience with receiving critique on a draft, which was very encouraging and also showed me areas where I need to improve. I've used up some of the pen refills I got for Christmas taking more notes in notebooks that I got for Christmas. I think I've learned some more about publishing (and formed some opinions on the subject), but I still bite my lip. As a matter of fact I'm doing it right now.

As I mentioned in a previous post, my mom deserves a behind-the-scenes credit for this blog. She reads some of my posts before they go live and points out the typos that Blogger and I miss, tells me to stop biting my lip, and provides inspiration, whether it's through an interesting link passed along or something that transpires in one of our many long conversations on any and every subject. Thanks, Mom!