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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Trying To Get Rid Of Books



                                                       Image result for books


I’ve been sorting books for the last few weeks. I’ve finally decided to do something about them so someone else doesn’t have to handle a thousand pounds of books when I die. First, I’d get rid of all those books I knew I’d never read again and replace them with those I might re-read. (I hardly ever do read books twice but...).

The 10 bookcases in this house range from old to new and so do the books within them. Looking at them is like taking a journey through the looking glass of my life. I still have all the Little Colonel books, beloved of the pre-teen me. I remember moving to California and telling people I was from Kentucky rather than Indiana and trying to talk with a southern accent, like the Little Colonel announcing – “lettah foah you, fathah deah.” And the Saga of Billy the Kid in which Billy was romanticized into a dashing hero on horseback. I read several more realistic books about Billy’s sad, short life later but it was this incarnation that captured my heart. Animals were always a big part of my reading world, including  the Collies of Sunnybrook Farm and The Black Stallion series.

I went through a stage of idealizing farm life and there are many volumes that reflect that. I still have my autographed copies of Rachel Peden’s books about her farm in southern Indiana and the wonderful narrations about life at Stillmeadow Farm by Gladys Taber.  I think I must have been way more optimistic then about obtaining such a life for myself and those authors were more optimistic too as nothing ever seemed to go wrong in their books. The roses were always blooming and the air always smelled of new-mown hay.

There are an abundance of books about religion, all kinds of religion, from my period of searching for something to believe in. They range from denominations of Christianity to Buddhism to spiritualism and beyond. I could get rid of all of them. None of them convinced me.

I have oodles of books about writing and marketing what you write. I’ll probably pass them on. I learned some helpful things from all of them but in my older age, I’m convinced that the path that took one person directly to success won’t necessarily work for another and we all have to blaze our own trail. I will keep the books of columns by authors I most admired – among them, Molly Ivins and Ellen Goodman and Lewis Grizzard. If my writing has a “style”, there are dribs and drabs of all of theirs in it.

I have practically every book ever written about Vietnam, both fiction and non-fiction, many of them signed by the men who wrote them. I’ll hold on to them even though I don’t think I could bear the heart-hurt of ever reading them again.

You could track the trail of American politics in the last 50 years by my bookshelves. There are books about Kennedy and Johnson, Carter and Reagan, Clinton and Bush and Obama. I’m not into politics so much anymore. Maybe we see the past through rose-colored glasses as we age but politics seems a lot meaner than it used to be. I disagreed with practically everything Ronald Reagan ever did but I never doubted his sincerity, his patriotism or his love for America. I even thought Iran-Contra merited the title “high crimes and misdemeanors but I still wasn’t up for impeaching him.

I mostly read fiction now but I’ve lost my taste for Pollyanna stories. That poor girl would never make it in today’s world of gritty realism. I like my stories harsh and graphic and my heroes flawed and perverse. Maybe I like my fiction black because in comparison, it makes reality seem a little lighter although living humans seem to be able to top the worst that writers can even imagine.

Actually, bookcases are beginning to seem anachronistic now that e-readers have been invented. Most of the most recent “books” I’ve bought are sent instantly to my Kindle, which can hold, I think, something like 3,500 volumes. I used to stress about what I would do to keep myself in reading material if ever I had to go to a nursing home but thank heavens, that’s one worry off my mind. Now I’m more concerned about whether I’ll live long enough to read all my Kindle purchases.

Getting rid of my books isn’t really that difficult. It’s saying good-bye to the memories that go along with them that is the hard part.



Sunday, September 18, 2016

When Your Writing Makes A Difference




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I have had magical things happen because of my writing – columns printed in college textbooks; awards; appearing on numerous t.v. programs; testifying before the Senate as a guest of Senator Edward Kennedy.....

All those were wonderful experiences but I think getting to know John and Andrew Scott would top my list of treasured writing memories.

I received a call from the Russell’s, who’d found a bundle of letters in their garage attic – letters that had been forgotten by the family since the early days of the Civil War. There were 50 or so of them, in excellent condition, spanning the years 1861 through 1864.

The first letters were between John Calvin Scott, 18 years old, and his mother, Mary Ann Adams. John had gone to live with relatives and attend school in Ohio. In a letter to his younger brother, Andrew, he makes the first mention of the civil war, “there are 2700 men in Mansfield now. They have marching orders next Tuesday.”

On August 25, 1862, John writes the letter his mother must have dreaded. He has joined the Army, although he’d promised her he wouldn’t. He makes an impassioned plea for understanding.

“We are all conscious that our glorious government is in danger of being overthrown by the most wicked set of men that ever existed on the face of the Globe...” John said that if Americans did not rally to the cause, it would be said that “Liberty rose and here Liberty fell in the short space of 86 years.”

It is difficult to believe that John is the product of a rural schoolhouse in Somerset, Indiana. His spelling is perfect, as is his grammar, and his penmanship is elegant, even when writing beside a campfire.

On October 22, 1862, he wrote that they just gotten paid – a $50 township bounty and $27 from the federal government. 

John spent his 20th birthday in the Vanburens Hospital in Louisiana. By now, war had lost its allure. “It is possible, Mother, that I have spent twenty years in this vile, this sinful world?...Perhaps I shall never live to see another birthday.”

That was the last letter from John but in September Mary Ann hears from her sister-in-law in Ohio – “sorry to hear that Andrew had volunteered to go help put down this wicked rebellion and was sick. Well, poor fellow, he had better die at home as away thare among strangers as did his dear brother.”

Now the communications from Andrew begin. He has always seemed to be the more carefree brother and Mary Ann seems to worry more that he will be led into wickedness by the temptations of camp life.

He writes from “a camp near Granville, Tenn” and tells his stepfather about going to a field of corn husks and taking it to the mill and grinding it to make mush which they eat without salt or milk.

Later, Andrew is in the Cumberland Gap and is sick with the ague. By January of 1864, he’s in the “hospittle” in Knoxville, Tenn. “I have had the diarrhea so long that I am weak and poor as a snake.”

Andrew  died there on February 8, 1864. John had died on June 28, 1863 in the Jeffersonville (MO) Barracks.

I fell in love with these two boys through their letters. They were smart and sweet and funny. When I discovered where the Niconza Baptist Church was, the minister there was kind enough to let me research their old records. I was able to locate both the Scott boys’ worn headstones.


The Historical Society later erected a monument to recognize them as a result of my columns. John and Andrew’s lives had been obliterated by time. Helping to resurrect their memories is one of my most satisfying achievements as a writer.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Mysteriousness of Characters

I just finished reading, The Girl On The Train" which is a best seller by Paula Hawkins. It didn't sound like my cup of tea but a friend bought it and loaned it to me so I read it. I struggled to finish it because it lacks the absolute basic ingredient I have to have to love a book and that is engaging characters. I have to be enthralled by them. It doesn't even have to be in a good way. They can be worthless or evil but they must intrigue me. None of the characters in The Girl On the Train did that.

The plot was convoluted and interesting. I never did guess who dun it until almost the very end but then I really didn't care very much either because the people involved in the plot weren't able to make me care. The girl who finally turned out to be the heroine was lackluster. The other two female characters had hardly any depth. The three male characters were all losers but not really in a dramatic fashion, they were simply bland losers. Everyone in the book was extremely foolish.

So, for me, characters make or break a book. If the people in a novel don't grab readers, it is a failure. It doesn't matter how intricate the plotting. It doesn't matter how sparkling the descriptions. It doesn't matter how accurate the history. By contrast, I can overlook weaknesses in all these other areas if I am compelled by the characters.

Of course, not all readers are the same, for which we writers should thank God. Evidently, lots of people did not find the same lack in The Girl On The Train as I did. It's sold a heck of a lot more copies than any book I've ever written.

My own books all start with a character. In the beginning, I have a name. From that name, the rest of the book flows. Once I know the name, I know the person and once I know the person, I know what is going to happen in his or her life.

I wonder sometimes where they come from. I am a plump, gray-haired, 70-year-old Grandma type. My characters are mostly male. They are usually more anti-hero than hero. My series character, Rafe Vincennes, has been called a sociopath, conscienceless, an autistic savant. That's nothing like me. I'm a bleeding heart liberal. He is a killer. I hate killing bugs. He is cold-blooded. I'm an empath. So, where does Rafe come from? All I know is that he lives somewhere inside my head.

Developing a plot is an intellectual exercise. Describing a place is usually based on finding words for something real. If a place in a book isn't an actual place, it is probably based on actual places.

But characters are mysterious, seeming to spring up out of nowhere. The writer had no idea they were there until they appear.  And that is what I find so fascinating about characters.