There are many things that make the United States of America a special place. One of those is the Thanksgiving holiday we celebrated last Thursday.
Thanksgiving Day is a wonderful concept. It’s a holiday most workers get to enjoy as businesses close for the day. It’s a day set aside to reflect on the things you’re thankful for. It’s a day to gather with friends and relatives. It’s a day on which many of us eat more than we should.
It’s a day most of us think back on the Thanksgiving Days in the past. We remember loved ones who are no longer here. We remember the aromas in the kitchens of our childhoods.
Even in the chaos that sometimes accompanies large family gatherings on Thanksgiving Day, most of us are prompted to take a moment to think about our blessings.
Life is hard. Things – good and bad – happen. Illness and loss set us back, change our plans, and sometimes change the trajectory of our lives. The life we envisioned isn’t how things turned out.
One of the things I was thankful for on Thanksgiving Day last Thursday was the opportunity life has given me to pursue whatever interests I’ve had. Illness derailed my professional life when I was a young adult, but God has continued to open doors for me. I’ve learned from every experience.
There’s an old adage that says “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” but I’m living proof that you can.
I’ve heard it’s good for one’s brain to learn new skills. My brain must be about to explode. I’ve really been stretching its limits lately.
Since my blog post last week, I created a cover for a paperback nonfiction book. And it’s not just any old cover. The back cover sports a QR Code I created for my website! Not bad for this 69-year-old non-techy person.
Those of us fortunate to reach that age need to keep reinventing ourselves for as long as physical and mental health and our life circumstances permit. It’s easy to take those things for granted until they aren’t there.
Since my last blog post
I continued to work toward the publication of Harrisburg, Did You Know? Cabarrus History, Book 1. I continued to format and proofread Harrisburg, Did You Know? Cabarrus History, Book 2.
I revisited a short story I wrote several months ago. It’s beneficial to let a piece of writing rest for a while and then read it with fresh eyes and tweak it where it can be improved. I hope to publish a collection of short stories in 2023.
Until my next blog post
I hope you have a good book to read. If I finish reading a book in November, I’ll blog about it next Monday. Writing and learning technology left little time for reading this month.
I plan. I make lists. I find great satisfaction in checking off the items I complete on my to-do list. There are some problems with this.
First, I always think I can accomplish more in a day than I can. This leads to frustration and feelings of guilt.
Second, I don’t allow for “down days.” Even if I didn’t have chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, having a rigid daily to-do list would be foolish.
Third, and most importantly, I tend to leave God out of the process.
If you followed my blog this summer, you know I’ve gone through some upheaval with the novel I’m writing. I started writing it more than a decade ago. I honestly don’t know when I started it. It languished on my computer for the last several years.
In July, I decided it was “no or never.” I hired a professional editor to critique the first 50 pages of my 303-page manuscript. The feedback I got from her was constructive and attention-grabbing. At the same time, it was disheartening yet exactly what I needed to hear.
A failed plan
That detailed critique prompted me to stop procrastinating and start focusing my attention and energy on learning the skills I needed to learn so I could finally finish that novel. I made a plan. I made a daily (Monday through Saturday) to-do list for what to study and what to practice or write each day. I thought by not working on my book on Sundays I was doing the Christian thing. I would give myself Sundays off and, thereby, do what was pleasing to God. That worked fairly well for a couple of weeks.
But guess what happened. I became a slave to my plan. It was my plan. I thought I had been clever to create this plan with its one-day-a-week set aside not to work on my writing. By doing so, I thought I was “keeping the Sabbath.”
It was my plan, but it was wearing me out.
I fell behind on August 16. I’d assigned myself too much reading, too much writing, and way too much nuts-and-bolts work on my novel regarding details about my characters.
I’d set myself up for failure.
By pushing myself to do everything on my list, I threw myself into a chronic fatigue syndrome relapse for the next three weeks; however, I read something on August 17 that got my attention. It was the third chapter in Seven Things That Steal Your Joy: Overcoming the Obstacles to Your Happiness, by Joyce Meyer.
Led by the Spirit
Ms. Meyer wrote the book in 2004. I’d bought it as a used book many years later and kept meaning to read it. I read the first chapter on August 15 and the second chapter on August 16. It was “on my list” to read the third chapter on August 17.
Little did I know that God had a reason for leading me to Chapter Three on August 17. I don’t believe in happenstance when it comes to such things. The title of that chapter is “Joy Keeper: Be Led of the Spirit.” By “Spirit,” Ms. Meyer is referring to the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is our Helper, if we are just open to It. From the first sentence in Chapter Three (“One of the most dynamic ways to keep our joy is to allow the Holy Spirit to lead us in the way we should go.”) to the last sentence in the chapter (“God will write His laws on your heart, then you won’t need reminders to keep your joy.”), that chapter was exactly what I needed to read in the emotional and physical place I was in on August 17.
It didn’t take me long to realize that my six days-a-week reading and writing plan – as detailed and as carefully- and methodically-planned as it was – lacked one thing. It lacked the most important thing. It lacked God. I spent hours working out a plan that I thought would lead me to a point next February when I’d have all this knowledge in my head and be ready to rewrite my novel’s outline and then start rewriting the manuscript.
But aside from setting aside the Sabbath to not work on my novel or my writing skills, I’d left God and the Holy Spirit out of my grandiose plan. I shredded my plan.
Don’t get me wrong – I still believe in having a plan, but what’s new is that I want to start each day by seeking God’s will for me that day. He may want me to tackle the next item on my novel “to-do” list, or He might have a better “to-do” list for me for that day.
I still believe God wants me to write. He might want me to write the novel I’ve had in my head and on paper for 10+ years. He might have an entirely different novel in His plan for me. He might have something else altogether in store for me.
Ms. Meyer wrote in the third chapter of her book, “If you keep your plan before the Lord, you must be ready to let Him change anything at any time. If you do this, your path will always be right and prosperous.”
She also wrote, “… and we will never find joy if we think we have to know everything before we take our first step in the direction He is leading us.”
Today is the last class in the “Eight Weeks to Writing a Commercially Successful Novel” online course I started on September 6, so it’s time for me to create a new plan.
This time, though, I’ll try to be reasonable, and I’ll try to remember to seek God’s will every morning and be ready to ditch my plan for His plan.
Since my last blog post
I’ve always been a pack rat. I keep things “because I might need it someday.” I’ve transitioned into, “I’m never going to need this.” Last week I concentrated on my file cabinets. That alone dates me. I’ve purged file folders of all descriptions.
I don’t need the paperwork for the car insurance I had in 1995. I don’t need most of the recipes I kept in the 1980s. I don’t have the energy to do much cooking. Plus, I’m trying to eat healthier in 2021 than I did in 1981. The list goes on.
This is a work in progress, but it feels good to let go of some things.
Until my next blog post
I hope you have a good book to read or productive time if you’re writing one.
Whatever season you’re transitioning into where you live, try to enjoy the gift each day is. This is a challenge for me. You know I don’t like cold weather.
Thank you for taking time out of your day to read my blog post.
I’ll leave you with this short sentence from the third chapter of Joyce Meyer’s book: “To walk in the presence of God, we must give the Holy Spirit the right of way.” I love that!
Until my next blog post – which I have planned for next Monday – I hope you and I both give the Holy Spirit the right of way.
Banned Books Week began yesterday in the United States. The American Library Association shines a spotlight on challenged books for one week every September. It’s important for us to pause and consider which books have been challenged and the reasons for those challenges.
My sister holds a Master’s degree in Library Science and was a school media specialist for 30 years. Therefore, I’ve had a front row seat to the book challenges she faced during her tenure in middle and high schools. I know her stance against banning books and, now that I’m a writer, I have a clearer view of how I feel about the topic.
Censorship is a dangerous weapon against a free society. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want someone else deciding what I should or shouldn’t read – or more importantly – what I can and cannot read.
What Banned Books Week isn’t
Age appropriateness is one thing, but that’s not what Banned Books Week is about. It’s about various segments of the population thinking they have the right to dictate what the rest of us can and cannot read.
The theme for this year’s Banned Book Week in the United States is “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.” What a great theme!
In the above article, Betsy Gomez wrote: “With a central image showing two hands sharing a book, the 2021 theme is intended to be inclusive and emphasizes the ways in which books and information bring people together, help individuals see themselves in the stories of others, and aid the development of empathy and understanding for people from other backgrounds.”
The following books were the most often challenged books this year as of April, including the reasons they were challenged, according to BannedBooksWeek.org:
“George by Alex Gino. Challenged, banned, and restricted for LGBTQIA+ content, conflicting with a religious viewpoint, and not reflecting “the values of our community.”
Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds. Banned and challenged because of the author’s public statements and because of claims that the book contains “selective storytelling incidents” and does not encompass racism against all people.
All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. Banned and challenged for profanity, drug use, and alcoholism and because it was thought to promote antipolice views, contain divisive topics, and be “too much of a sensitive matter right now.”
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Banned, challenged, and restricted because it was thought to contain a political viewpoint, it was claimed to be biased against male students, and it included rape and profanity.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Banned and challenged for profanity, sexual references, and allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of the author.
Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story about Racial Injustice by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin. Challenged for “divisive language” and because it was thought to promote antipolice views.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Banned and challenged for racial slurs and their negative effect on students, featuring a “white savior” character, and its perception of the Black experience.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Banned and challenged for racial slurs and racist stereotypes and their negative effect on students.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Banned and challenged because it was considered sexually explicit and depicts child sexual abuse.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Challenged for profanity, and because it was thought to promote an antipolice message.”
Bringing this right up to two weeks ago
Just a couple of weeks ago there were protests in York, Pennsylvania over a school board’s banned books policy. I believe the policy sets a bad precedent. It’s encouraging that many students and parents protested the policy. Please read the article from the York Daily Record from September 13, 2021: Central York board maintains ban on Black and Hispanic books (ydr.com)
The incident in York, PA begs the question: Do you know what your local school board’s policy is on book challenges/banning?
I went online to see what my local school board’s policy was and didn’t find anything specific about book challenges. Therefore, I believe it falls under the general procedure for any complaints. That protocol is teacher/school personnel, principal, school/parent relations specialist, superintendent, and finally, the board of education.
An interesting dichotomy
There’s an interesting dichotomy about challenging books: Making the list is probably the best free publicity a book can receive. Just tell me I shouldn’t do something, and human nature tells me to do it. The same holds true for challenged books. Just tell people they shouldn’t read a particular book, and then watch it fly off the bookstore and library shelves!
Since my last blog post
Last week’s online class was about writing in deep point-of-view. This is something I’m working on in my novel-in-progress. This week’s class was very informative. I’ve edited the first chapter in my manuscript and employed deep point-of-view.
I learned last week that white-tail deer like to eat hydrangeas, geraniums, lily-of-the-valley, periwinkle, and green poplar leaves. At least they waited until the end of summer to strip the hydrangeas of their blossoms and leaves!
Until my next blog post
Ready or not, October is coming on Friday. October is National Book Month and National Reading Group Month.
There’s a touch of autumn in the air. I’m already all bundled up even indoors. My fingers are like icicles as I type these words. If you have followed my blog for a while, you know it’s not my favorite season. I have Seasonal Affective Disorder, so it will take extra effort for me to be upbeat in the next five or six months. For my blogger friends in Australia, may I come and visit you for a few months?
Today’s blog post is the last in a three-part series about some of the things I learned by reading How the Word is Passed, by Clint Smith. At the end of today’s post, I’ll include links to the other two.
Today I share with you some of the things I learned about Galveston Island, Gorée Island, and the Epilogue in the book.
There was just too much information in this book to give it appropriate time in one or two blog posts. Needless to say, I highly recommend the book. I’m just hitting the high points in my blog posts.
I did a double take when I read the following words at the beginning of the chapter about Galveston Island: “The long-held myth goes that on June 19, 1865, Union general Gordon Granger stood on the balcony of Ashton Villa in Galveston, Texas and read the order that announced the end of slavery.”
So soon after Juneteenth 2021, I couldn’t get past the word “myth.” What in the world could Mr. Smith mean by calling this a myth?
After rereading the opening sentence to make sure I hadn’t misread it, I had to keep reading. My curiosity had been piqued.
Mr. Smith continued with the following: “Though no contemporaneous evidence exists to specifically support the claim, the story of General Granger reading from the balcony embedded itself into local folklore…. It is an annual moment that has taken a myth and turned it into a tradition.”
I read on for several pages before I had a clue why Mr. Smith was calling any part of the Juneteenth celebration a myth. What I learned was something I’d never heard, and we’d do well to learn about the aftermath of June 19, 1865 in Texas.
Now that I have your attention, you’ll need to read Mr. Smith’s book to learn the rest of the story. I don’t want to steal all Mr. Smith’s thunder in my blog post.
Gorée Island is off the coast of Senegal on the west coast of Africa. The native translator who accompanied Clint Smith to the island admitted he felt guilty for never having visited the Slave House. He explained his confliction over realizing that if his ancestors had been captured and taken to the United States as slaves, he would be an American. His ancestors weren’t captured. It gave him a confused feeling.
Over the centuries, Gorée Island was colonized and renamed by a variety of European countries. It was important in the slave trade from the 1500s until 1848 when France abolished slavery in its colonies.
The author just wanted to see where the Slave House was. He didn’t want the full tour, but that’s what he got. He was shown two tiny rooms where African captives were held while waiting to be shipped to America. There was a room that was more like a dungeon where captives who were rebellious were supposedly kept. Mr. Smith was reminded of the Red Hat cell block he’d seen at Angola Prison.
The Slave House has become a symbol of slavery. Bonbarer Joseph Ndiaye, the curator of the facility from 1962 until 2009, came up with the concept of the Door of No Return. I remember seeing pictures of the Door of No Return, but I didn’t remember the name of the island where it was.
The Door of No Return is the focal point at the Slave House. It is presented as the door through which the captives being held inside the Slave House passed just before being loaded on slave ships bound for the United States.
Since Gorée Island is the only chapter in Mr. Smith’s book set in Africa, he addressed the African end of the slave trade. I learned more than I had known about that. Based on what Mr. Smith was told by Eloi Coly, the curator and site manager of the Slave House at the time of the author’s visit, I learned why some African tribal chiefs decided to capture other Africans and use them as currency for what they wanted from the Europeans and Americans. I invite you to read Mr. Smith’s book if you want to learn more about that.
I found it interesting that Mr. Smith found parallels between Senegal and the United States. Just as towns in the U.S. are struggling to change street names from Confederate generals’ names to more appropriate names, in Dakar, Senegal, there is a move afoot to replace the names of streets bearing French colonial names to the names of African heroes.
And just as there is conflict over the removal of Confederate statues in the U.S., in Senegal there is a statue in the ancient capital of Governor Louis Faidherbe, but being an independent country since 1960, perhaps it’s time to take down statues of people associated with colonialism.
Mr. Smith talked to the history teacher at a boarding school for girls on Gorée Island to get his perspective about teaching about slavery in a school in Africa. They also discussed reparations. The teacher has some interesting things to say on that topic.
In the Epilogue, Mr. Smith wrote about how talking to his grandparents born in 1930 (if memory serves me right) and 1939 and hearing their stories as an adult made racial injustice and segregation real to him in a way that textbooks and old black-and-white photographs could not. His grandfather’s grandfather was a slave.
Mr. Smith expressed how jolting it is to realize how recently, in the big scheme of things, slavery was and school segregation was. He is 33 years old. I’m 68 years old. I was in the seventh grade when the schools in my county in North Carolina were optionally desegregated. At the end of that school year, the Black school was closed.
When Mr. Smith wrote his grandmother’s memories of the white children riding by them as they waited for their bus to the Black school, I was right there in my memories. When she told him the white children would throw things at them and hurl racial insults at them through the school bus windows, I was right back on my school bus on Peach Orchard Road at present-day John Bostar Road in the early- to mid-1960s.
I didn’t throw anything and I didn’t yell out the bus window because I was raised better than that. But there were white students on my bus who did those things, and I remember being embarrassed at the time because I knew it was wrong. I can remember it clearly nearly 60 years later, and I wasn’t even one of the victims.
Like Mr. Smith said in his Epilogue of the people who shouted insults in Little Rock and the people who threw things at his grandmother who was born in 1939, some of them are still alive. Likewise, the people on my school bus back in the 1960s and the children they called “the N word” out the bus window are also still alive. It wasn’t that long ago.
Since my last blog post
I keep studying books about the art and craft of writing. I’m working my way through Breathing Life into Your Characters: How to Give Your Characters Emotional & Psychological Depth, by Rachel Ballon, Ph.D.
This blog series about How the Word is Passed has created some good discussion. Every comment is appreciated. I hope you’ve gained some new insight into how we present our history in the United States. The book has reminded me that things aren’t always as they seem. Anything we read – even in history books – should prompt us to look deeper into the sources of information. Always search for the truth.
A case in point: The story from history that I originally based the ending of my historical novel on turned out to be a myth. Not wanting to perpetuate a lie, I had to drastically rewrite my book – and that process continues.
I hope you have a good book to read and a hobby to enjoy.
Note: September starts on Wednesday. It is Library Card Sign Up Month, Be Kind to Editors and Writers Month, National Literacy Month, and Read a New Book Month. Wow! Lots of literature-related things to celebrate in September!
You do know that library cards from your local public library in the United States are free, don’t you? That free library card can open up a whole new world to you. All you have to do is ask for it. Maybe the best things in life are free!
My skill doesn’t lie in reviewing books. Most of the books I read, however, do make me think. Many of them prompt me to question the way I’ve seen the world all my life. To my mind, that’s a sign of a great book.
I promised myself to lighten up on my reading in July. In a way, I did. I didn’t read as many books as I usually do in a month’s time. I didn’t lighten up on the content of what I read. The books I read in July were all “heavy” in topic and were not the kind of books you want to read while on vacation at the beach or in the mountains. At least, I don’t. Since I wasn’t going anywhere in July, these books suited me just fine.
Three of the books I read in July had to do with race. I read a book about the caste system in America, and I read a book about the Confederate monuments and how they’ve brought out the worst in some of us. (See my August 2, 2021 blog post, _2 Books about Racial Injustice.)
I read a book about how various venues present either an honest or a skewed image of the history of Black Americans and how many white Americans treated or interacted with them. All three books were thought-provoking to say the least.
How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, by Clint Smith
What a book! I found myself taking copious notes, which slowed down my reading considerably. There were so many little gems of insight in the book, I couldn’t stop taking notes.
The author allotted individual chapters to how the story of slavery is told at Monticello Plantation, the Whitney Plantation, Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery, Galveston Island, New York City, and Gorée Island.
Before starting to read the book, I didn’t know how it was organized. The way each chapter was written about how the story of slavery is told at these various locations was powerful.
Today’s blog post will cover some of the things I learned about Monticello Plantation and the Whitney Plantation. I’ll save Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery, and New York City for my next blog post. Galveston Island, Goree Island, and the Epilogue will highlighted in my August 29, 2021 blog post.
Tours available and displays at Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, have changed dramatically since the house and grounds were opened for tours in 1923. In the beginning, the tour guides were Black men dressed as house slaves. They had to play a role. Today, tour guides do their own research, plan their remarks, and shadow other guides. There are several tours. One is about slavery on the plantation.
The author was struck by the fact that his tour guide referred to Jefferson’s slaves as “human beings.” To say Jefferson gifted his children and grandchildren with human beings doesn’t sound as palatable to our ears as saying he gifted them with slaves. The tour guide went out of his way to impress upon visitors that the slaves were human beings.
Although Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”), he owned 400 or so slaves over his lifetime and even until death. He wrote eloquently about equality but, as a politician, could not speak out against slavery. When it got down to it, Jefferson didn’t consider his slaves as being human beings.
That leads us to the matter of his relationship with Sally Hemings. There is now a Sally Hemings Exhibit at Monticello. It has received a range of reactions from visitors. I suppose I knew this at one time but I’d forgotten that Sally Hemings and Jefferson’s wife, Martha, were half-sisters.
The Whitney Plantation
I hadn’t heard of the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, an hour west of New Orleans. It’s off the beaten path and not the kind of place one just happens upon and decides to visit. How is the story of slavery told (or, the word passed) at Whitney Plantation? In a rather shocking way.
There are 55 ceramic dark heads of black men on metal stakes.
In 1804, slaves in Haiti rebelled and defeated the French. They founded the first “Black-led republic in the world.” After this defeat, Napoleon Bonaparte sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States (while Thomas Jefferson was president) for $15 million (= four cents per acre.) If not for the success of the revolt in Haiti, Napoleon probably wouldn’t have sold Louisiana to the United States!
In 1811, there was a slave uprising in Louisiana. Within 48 hours the armed (knives, machetes, muskets) rebellion was put down. It had been led by a mixed-race slave driver, Charles Deslondes. He was captured and to say they made an example of him would be a gross understatement. To quote from the book, “His hands were chopped off, the bones of his legs were shattered with bullets, and he was burned over a bale of hay. Many of the rebels were slaughtered on-site, their heads cut off and posted on stakes that lined the levee, a warning to other enslaved people that this was the price to pay for rebellion.”
How is it that I’ve never heard or read about this?
John Cummings purchased Whitney Plantation in 1999 and invested almost $10 million in it over the next 20 years. He donated it in 2019. It is now a non-profit.
There is high poverty in the area, which is 90% Black. The area is known as “Cancer Alley” due to the high incidence of cancer caused by the petroleum plants nearby. As quoted in the book, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II said of the area, “ʻThe same land that held people captive through slavery is now holding people captive through this environmental injustice and devastation.”
At Whitney, they utilize the late-1930s Federal Writers’ Project to help them tell the stories of slaves using their own words. According to the book, “The voices and stories of enslaved people are the foundation of how visitors experience the Whitney.” The author’s point about this was that through the Federal Writers’ Project, former slaves got to tell their stories in their own words. The author theorizes that by allowing such former slaves as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to tell their stories, they consciously not only denied most average or common slaves (the ones who did not escape) the chance to tell their stories but also thereby made sure those slaves who did not escape would be looked down upon as not trying “hard enough.”
This is part of the insidiousness of white supremacy – to shine a light on the exceptions and place “blame on those who cannot, in the most brutal circumstances, attain superhuman heights. It does this instead of blaming the system, the people who built it, the people who maintained it.”
There is a Wall of Honor at Whitney with the names, country of origin, and date or year of slaves at the plantation.
Sexual violence is also addressed at Whitney. The rape of female slaves by white owners was about power. The owners knew the female slaves were powerless to refuse their advances. To really understand slavery, the sexual violence against women must be included in the equation.
The trade in slaves’ bodies is also addressed in this chapter. Medical schools like Harvard, and the Universities of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia often bought Black corpses on the black market for research.
Did you know all this about Whitney Plantation? I didn’t. And to think, I considered skipping that chapter because I’d never heard of that plantation!
Since my last blog post
I had a rollercoaster week with my novel. In studying point-of-view, I wrestled with which one to use. In my draft of the novel, I was apparently head jumping as I changed the story’s point-of-view character occasionally at scene or chapter breaks. I thought that was acceptable, but not when you’re writing in third person intimate.
I considered rewriting the book in first-person, but that would be a real challenge for several reasons. I spent hours studying various points-of-view and the rules governing each. I find these rules maddening. I took a walk to clear my brain overload because I thought some fresh air and exercise would result in mental clarity. Then, I took a second walk. Sometimes this works, but sometimes it doesn’t. I went back through my manuscript scene-by-scene and determined how every scene could be changed into Sarah’s point-of-view or which parts could be modified to be part of the trial. I concluded third person intimate is still going to work best for this novel.
In the process of digging deeper into point-of-view, I stumbled upon several articles and YouTube videos about the Rashomon Effect. I realized I’m already using it in my trial scenes, and now I know what it’s called.
On Tuesday evening I watched and listened to an interview with author James Tate Hill. Mr. Hill lost his vision as a teen. In addition to his just-released memoir, Blind Man’s Bluff, Mr.Hill has written a novel, Academy Gothic, which was awarded the Nilsen Literary Prize for a First Novel. It always gives my writing a boost to hear an author speak or be interviewed. This interview was online and was hosted by Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, NC.
I’m slowly working my way through Breathing Life into Your Characters: How to Give Your Characters Emotional and Psychological Depth, by Rachel Ballon. I purchased it years ago and should have read it and taken it to heart then. I’m glad I rediscovered it. It’s really putting me through the paces and will help my writing on many levels. It has a 4.5 out of 5 stars rating on Amazon. I don’t know why it doesn’t have a 5 out of 5.
Until my next blog post
If you can get your hands on a copy of How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, by Clint Smith this week, please do so. I can’t imagine you will regret reading it.
I hope you have How the Word is Passed or another good book to read.
I changed my topic for today’s blog post several times. In fact, I had it pretty much written and ready to go last Monday. Everything changed on Tuesday morning, when I checked for comments on my blog.
Last Tuesday, one of my blog readers who is Jewish left a heartfelt comment about what I had written about Pam Jenoff’s historical novel, The Woman with the Blue Star, in my July 12, 2021 blog post, 4 Other Books I Read in June 2021.
That reader has more intimate knowledge of the Holocaust than I have and, through an acquaintance who lived in the Krakow sewers, says that the premise of Ms. Jenoff’s book is impossible. I read Ms. Jenoff’s novel as a work of fiction, knowing the story was not true. I didn’t think about the possibility that some readers would be offended by the premise of the book. Prior to reading the novel, I wasn’t aware that some of the Jews in Poland had to hide for their lives in the nasty city sewers. For Ms. Jenoff’s bringing that fact to my attention, I am grateful.
This comment and my response to it served is a reminder about historical fiction – and it’s important to me as a fan of the genre and also a writer of it.
In fairness to Pam Jenoff, I heard her interviewed about her process in writing this novel. She did extensive research. It is a fact that some Jews took refuge in the sewers in Poland. There were many anti-Semitic people in Poland, but there were also sympathetic Poles who risked their lives to try to save Jews.
I heard Ms. Jenoff interviewed about this novel some weeks ago. I wish I’d taken some notes, so I could share them with you and with the reader who contacted me last week.
Admitting my own bias
I have lived my entire life in North Carolina. Two older ladies were friends of my family. By older, I mean older. Sisters, they were born in 1883 and 1888. Their father fought for the South in the American Civil War. Those sisters drilled it into me that it was “the War Between the States” and not “the Civil War.” That statement was always followed quickly with, “There was nothin’ civil about it.”
That really made an impression on me and even recently I’ve referred to the American Civil War as “the War Between the States.” I’ve written it that way in various things I’ve written and self-published.
I now see my bias. In the future, I will refer to it as “the American Civil War” or “the US Civil War.” It was a war between the Confederate States of America and the United States of America. For me to call it anything else is to twist history and reveal my bias.
I think it was Oprah Winfrey who said, “When you know better, you do better.” Those are words I try to live by. I hope I never get too old to learn new things and new ways to look at things.
The unwritten pact between fiction author and reader
A reader of historical fiction should always keep in mind that they’re reading fiction. Fiction is made up. It’s a story created in the author’s mind; however, there is an unwritten pact between the author and the reader. There should be enough factual information – whether in event or time and place – that the reader can trust that the story is plausible.
It is incumbent upon the writer of historical fiction to do due diligence in research. I heard author Sharyn McCrumb speak a few years ago about her research and writing methodology. As an aspiring historical fiction writer, I was impressed with all she said.
One thing Ms. McCrumb said, though, stood out and remains in the back of my head. I think about it as I’m doing my research, and I think about it every time I hear someone say they don’t read historical fiction. They often go on to say they only read history books.
Ms. McCrumb’s statement that stood out to me that evening was that (and I paraphrase) some historical fiction is better researched than some history books.
History books and their bias
We only need to stop and think about some of the history textbooks we had 50 or 60 years ago. (I can’t speak for the content of current school curriculum history textbooks.) Aside from the recitation of dates of birth and death of persons of alleged import and the dates of battles and the like, much of the way history was presented to students depended upon the author’s point-of-view. Textbooks are usually written from the winner’s perception.
For example, the textbooks I had as a student presented the white settlers’ “conquering” of the frontier as a positive thing. No time was spent trying to view the 1600s to the present through the eyes of a Native American. If the Cherokee Trail of Tears was even mentioned, it was only in passing.
Some Southerners still maintain that the American Civil War was fought over “states’ rights.” (Many of those same people still refer to that war as “the War of Northern Aggression.”) I have relatives who still maintain that as the truth and will argue me down that it had nothing to do with slavery. Some people learned certain things about the Civil War and no facts today will change their minds.
If we are to be true students of history, I believe we should read both sides of the story. Both sides are tainted by the personal experience of the writer but, by the same token, both sides of the story probably contain some truth.
The antebellum American South has been romanticized to the hilt by such novels as Gone With the Wind. Confederate generals have been portrayed as dashing and religious Southern gentleman who fought for the honor of hearth and home. In some cases, that’s who they were. But they were basically fighting to maintain the status quo. Even if they didn’t own slaves, they didn’t have any quarrel with the institution of slavery. The economy was built upon it. What would happen if there were no slaves? They couldn’t imagine such a world.
Renowned historical novelist James Alexander Thom wrote a book called The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction. In it, he wrote the following: “History contains many errors because each person sees the same incident differently or remembers it differently. History textbooks are biased depending on the agenda of the writer, the publisher, the state, the school board.”
What James Alexander Thom wrote about historical fiction
Here are four quotes from The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction, by James Alexander Thom:
“But fiction is not the opposite of truth. Fiction means ‘created by imagination.’ And there is plenty of evidence everywhere in literature and art that imagination can get as close to truth as studious fact-finding can.”
“Most early American white men thought women should be seen but not heard. As a historical novelist, you might wish to make your hero ‘politically correct’ by today’s standards, but if you do that, you’ll be lying to your readers.”
“To be really good historical novelists, though (and that’s what I want us to be), we have to take our obligation to historical truth just as seriously as the historians do theirs. But we don’t have to bear the burden of being the authority on every factual detail. Our disclaimer is right there on the cover: a novel.”
“But here’s the key: Whether your historical story is ancient or recent history, what you want to do is re-create it in full – live, colorful, smelly, noisy, savory, painful, repugnant, scary, all the ways it actually was – and then set the reader down smack in the midst of it.”
Time will tell what my blog will be about next Monday. I hope you’ll come back next week to find out.
I’ll continue to read and write historical fiction. Mr. Thom says good historical novelists are respected by historians. That’s what I aspire to be.
Let me know what you like or don’t like about my blog. I’m especially trying to reach people who like reading historical fiction and have an interest in Early American history. I also enjoy exploring current events and discussing them with people from around the world. It amazes me every week to see that people from around the world have read my blog. In that respect alone, I think blogging and the internet are wondrous avenues for the sharing of ideas.
You never know. A comment you make about one of my blog posts might stop me in my tracks and force me to dig a little deeper into a subject or even admit I’ve been wrong.
Thank you for reading my blog. All comments, opinions, criticisms, and corrections are welcome.
I had planned to blog about this being the 234th anniversary of the ratification of the United States Constitution today, but some of my #OnThisDay blog posts have not gone over very well.
U.S. President Joe Biden signed Juneteenth into law as a federal holiday last week. It was celebrated on Saturday, June 19 as an official holiday for the first time. This seemed like a more timely topic than the ratification of the United States Constitution.
When I heard of Juneteenth
I’m not sure, but I think last year was the first I’d heard of Juneteenth. Or maybe it was mentioned on a news broadcast a year or two before that. The first time I heard of it is immaterial. My point is that I was approximately 65 years old when I first heard of the celebration, and that is inexcusable.
In order to understand the significance of Juneteenth, one must know about the Emancipation Proclamation.
What the Emancipation Proclamation Did and Didn’t Do
U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. In part, it declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”
Word of the freeing of the slaves spread slowly. Communication was much different in 1863 than in 2021. Plus, the Confederate States of America did not recognize Abraham Lincoln as their president.
The Emancipation Proclamation was limited in ways that are often glossed over. It only applied to the states that had seceded from the United States. That meant that slavery was still legal in the border states. Southern secessionist states that had come under Northern control by January 1, 1863, were also exempt. Additionally, the freedom of the slaves depended upon the eventual military victory of the United States over the Confederacy.
The Emancipation Proclamation gave the Northern troops and citizens an added incentive for victory over the South. As Northern troops advanced, the freedom of slaves expanded. The Proclamation also made it possible for black men to join the United States Army and Navy.
What is Juneteenth?
I’m ill-equipped to explain Juneteenth, but this is what I’ve learned so far…
Federal troops reached Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, and made it known to slaves there that President Lincoln had declared them free on January 1, 1863 – some two-and-a-half years earlier.
Since June 19, 1866, June 19 has been celebrated as Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, Juneteenth Independence Day, and Juneteenth by black Americans. Most of their white counterparts, though, remained ignorant of the date’s significance until very recent history.
I don’t recall the mention of June 19, 1865 or Juneteenth in any history text book I ever had in elementary school, high school, or college.
Why is that?
The answer is simple. History books have always been written by white men. (I started to say “white people,” but “white men” seemed more accurate. I don’t remember ever having a history textbook written by a woman.)
That’s why the American populous has not been taught about the accomplishments of black Americans. It’s why it is now necessary for us to have Black History Month in February.
Where do we go from here?
As long as black and brown Americans are by in large excluded from the decision-making process (such as voter suppression) and are elected to public office in miniscule numbers compared to their proportion of the population, the entire population will suffer. We’ll continue to just learn the history of white America. We’ll all suffer because the talents and ideas of black and brown Americans will be excluded from the workings of government and business.
It’s not enough not to be a racist. We must strive to be anti-racists. And beyond that, those of us who are white need to take anti-racism a step further. We need to be allies. That means when we’re in a situation where someone says something derogatory about people of another race, it is incumbent upon us to speak up against such talk. We need to have the courage to speak up for our fellow human beings who are being maligned.
Our silence is not only complacency, it signals our agreement, compliance, and acquiescence.
Our silence will convict us.
Instead of making snide remarks or having malevolent thoughts about the new Juneteenth holiday, let’s embrace it and learn from it.
Since my last blog post
Our almost-13-year-old rescue dog is hanging in there. The week before last, he spent four days in the hospital due to erratic glucose levels. He’s a diabetic. We’re starting to understand how sick he can become in just a matter of minutes.
Until my next blog post
I hope you have a good book to read. Among other things, I’m reading The Girls in the Stilt House, a debut novel by Kelly Mustian. She really has a talent for painting pictures with words.
Those of you living in the northern hemisphere, I hope you have a pleasant summer. Those of you living in the southern hemisphere, I don’t envy you. You know I’m not fond of cold weather.
Wherever you live, make the most of this week. I intend to get back to work on my historical novel.
I try to plan my blog topics well in advance so I’ll have time to devote to writing each one. The fancy name for it is “editorial calendar.” Today was a day I had trouble settling on a topic. I’d made a list of possibilities, but none of them really grabbed me.
Reading Mr. Howell’s blog posts got me thinking about book censorship and the closely-related topic of cultural appropriation and reader sensitivities.
The very idea of a book being censored or people demanding that certain books be banned from public libraries, school libraries, and bookstores really gets my ire up. Book censorship is a slippery slope. Images of book burnings in Nazi Germany come to mind.
The American Library Association’s (ALA) annual list of the top books requested for banning or restricted reading is fresh on my mind. Here’s the link to the ALA’s website where you can see the list: http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee is consistently on that list. It’s on the list the ALA published earlier this month. One reason given for its being requested for banning is that the lawyer who represents the black man in court is white. The story is set in Alabama in the 1930s, so it is true to the time and place that the lawyer and all the jurors would be white. Racial injustice is the core theme of the novel. The book was published in 1960, and little had changed by then.
I believe we can learn the lessons of history by reading good historical fiction. It’s one thing to read a list of laws governing people of color in the United States in the 1930s, but how better to illustrate and shine a bright light on the laws – written and unwritten – prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1965 than to bring them to life on the pages of a novel and the subsequent movie based on that book?
Being a black man, Mr. Asim offers a different perspective than the one I can offer. His words made me stop and think. Perhaps I had read To Kill a Mockingbird with naive blue eyes. Mr. Asim is one of the most influential African American literary critics of this generation. If you’re not familiar with his work, please visit his website: https://jabariasim.org/about_jabari_asim/.
Among Mr. Asim’s sentences that made me reconsider my stance are the following: “Mockingbird, like Uncle Tom before it, often strikes me as a form of literary ointment for white guilt, meant to soothe outbreaks of conscience while dispelling perceptions of how pervasive white supremacy is. Its homespun patter and deep-fried homilies enable many readers to overlook its sketchily drawn black characters—little more than archetypes—and bask in the glow of Atticus Finch’s exemplary moral courage.”
Also, this: “Some days I can ignore Mockingbird’s mostly pedestrian prose and regard it as a cleverly subversive send-up of white racism, minus Mark Twain’s stylistic flair but dutifully echoing his irreverent tone.”
And this: “Other days I marvel at Mockingbird’s apparent prescience when, years before Fox News and talk radio, Atticus Finch says to his brother, ‘Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up, is something I don’t pretend to understand.'”
What is To Kill a Mockingbird‘s place, then? It’s likely to be debated for decades to come.
Self-censorship, Cultural Appropriation, and Reader Sensitivities
Being a writer can involve self-censorship, and there are degrees of that when it comes to reader sensitivities. I’m not a published novelist, but as I work on my historical novel I’m ever-cognizant of reader sensitivities.
Most of us practice self-censorship in our communications with others. Some people who should self-censor are sadly unaware. As a writer, I feel the need to self-sensor. I don’t use racial slurs in my speaking or thinking, but that doesn’t mean I won’t need to include one in my writing in order to be true to time and place. It doesn’t mean I condone the use of such words. My challenge in writing a novel presented from multiple points-of-view is having the audacity to put myself in the skin of a person of color – especially a person of color who is male and enslaved in the United States in the 18th century.
Doing so is somewhat akin to cultural appropriation, which is a dominant culture adopting a practice that is inherent in or associated with a minority culture. I’m not doing that in my novel, but I am attempting to write thoughts, emotions, and conversations of three people of color. I want to be aware of possible reader sensitivities, but I don’t want that awareness to fundamentally change my writer’s voice.
I’m writing a novel set in the North and South Carolina backcountry in 1769. It includes two black male slaves, one free black woman, a Frenchman, and a number of white Scottish and Irish settlers. I’ve been working on this novel for many years. If I were to look at my first draft, there would be many cringe-worthy words and scenes. I started out really over-doing writing accents phonetically. It was tedious to write, and I’ve since learned that it’s not appropriate. It can be degrading, and it can be exhausting for the reader.
I’ve grown as a person and as a writer since I started the book probably a decade ago. I’m striving to make the final product true to the time and place. I’ve done extensive research – even into the laws on the books in South Carolina in 1769 that governed the fabric of the clothing slaves were permitted to wear.
If and when my novel is published, I hope no one’s sensitivities will be offended, but that’s probably wishful thinking. I’m attempting to write a book that will be entertaining and educational. I hope it will be a book that will cause readers to put themselves in the skin of the various characters and come away with an appreciation of history.
An Earlier Blog Post about Cultural Appropriation in Writing
Author and administrator of the “Writers on the Path to a Page-Turner” Facebook group, Barbara Kyle, wrote the following: “The move to self-censorship for fear of ‘cultural appropriation’ is a sad state of affairs. Author Morgan Jones eloquently champions the opposite position: ‘Fiction remains the best means we have of finding connection where there seems to be none; and the novel, of all forms, encourages a search that’s deep and sustained. By reading (or writing) one, you’ve travelled somewhere else. You’ve moved, if only slightly, towards others. In a world that finds and increasingly exploits division and difference, this in an invaluable, precious exercise.”
I think writers would do well to keep in mind the following question asked by John. W. Howell in his March 24, 2021 blog post referenced in my opening paragraph today: “Am I knowingly or unknowingly writing characters or a story which casts aspersions on anyone relative to their race, nationality, gender, sexual preference, religion, disabilities, or age?”
Mr. Howell goes on to say, “The key to the question is we may write something that we didn’t think would discriminate but did that exactly.” He also said, “The caution here is that if you are not part of a group you are writing about, be very diligent in your research. Some would say unless you are a part of a group, don’t write about them. I disagree since I do not want to believe that writers can only write what they know.”
In his follow-up blog post on April 12, 2021 (also referenced above in my opening paragraph), Mr. Howell gave Gone with the Wind as an example of a book that could be criticized on several fronts due to its glorification of the Southern plantation. A little later in his blog post he said the following: “Maybe because I’m an author, I hate to see a book be declared undesirable, but it does seem that we should embrace a discussion of any book that is outside our social norms. Include in the discussion why a text no longer reflects current attitudes. If we were to discuss why certain depictions in a book are wrong, we all would better understand each other. Maybe, more importantly, we could learn more about what actions and depictions are especially hurtful.”
I agree with Mr. Howell on that. Let’s not ban books from our library and bookstore shelves. Let’s read and discuss them and, thereby, learn to do better.
Since my last blog post
I enjoyed all the beautiful azaleas in our yard. I don’t think they’ve ever been prettier. All good things must come to an end – or so “they” say. Wednesday afternoon brought snow 100 miles away in the North Carolina mountains, and Thursday and Friday mornings brought record-breaking below freezing low temperatures to my house. I hope this was winter’s last gasp.
Until my next blog post
I hope you have at least one good book to read this week. I have more books checked out from the library than I can possibly read. It’s a nice dilemma to have.
Enjoy a relaxing hobby.
Note: Tomorrow is National Tell a Story Day in the USA. Don’t tell a lie. Tell a story. Tell a young person about one of your good memories. It will give them something to remember you by.
Note: Ironically, Wednesday is the anniversary of author Harper Lee’s birth in 1926. Some literary critics say a person who writes just one novel (such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird) is not a great author. (I know, I know. Her unpublished manuscript for Go Set a Watchman was published in 2015, so she actually wrote two books.) My example is still valid. Ms. Lee died in 2016, and until 2015 she was known as an acclaimed author who wrote “only” one book. I’m not saying the historical novel I’m writing is a great novel, but it gives me hope to know that Harper Lee “only” got one novel published during her lifetime. If I only get one novel published, I’ll be more than happy.
Note: Watch out for May! It arrives on Saturday. May is “Get Caught Reading Month”. Start making your plans for getting caught.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I did not know anything about the USS Indianapolis until about a week ago. In an effort to try something new on my blog, I did a little research to find out what happened on this day in history. I learned that something noteworthy and gut-wrenching happened on this day in 1945. What a story I’ve pieced together for you today!
The incident I’m writing about today actually took place
about five minutes after midnight, so the date is July 30, 1945; however, being
so close to the midnight hour, the incident is often referred to as happening
on July 29. By the time I discovered that detail, I was not about to let go of
the story for my usual Monday blog post.
The greatest loss the
US Navy has experienced at sea
The USS Indianapolis was
a Portland-class heavy cruiser. It carried a crew of 1,196 men. After
delivering crucial parts for the atomic bomb to Tinian Island, it was crossing
the Philippine Sea en route to Okinawa. Plans were being made for the invasion
of Japan by the United States and its Allies.
12:05 a.m., July 30,
At 12:05 a.m. on July 30, 1945, the ship was hit by two
Japanese torpedoes. Some 350 crewmen died in the blast. It would be 84 grueling
hours before the survivors were located from the air on August 2. By then there
were only 318 remaining survivors. The other survivors of the initial attack
had either drowned, died from drinking sea water, or been victim to the
numerous sharks in the waters. I read that an estimated 50 sailors were killed
by sharks every day until rescuers arrived.
What happened to the
In my research I found several follow-up stories about what
happened to the commanding officer of the USS
Indianapolis, Charles B. McVay. He was accused of putting the ship and crew
in danger by not zig-zagging across the sea. He was threatened with a
court-maritial, but in the end was given a reprimand. His conviction as being
at fault in the attack continues to be fought against, as there are strong
opinions that he was wrongly charged.
Every year since 1960, the survivors of the attack have held
a reunion in Indianapolis, Indiana. This year was no exception. There are only
12 survivors alive today. Seven of them got together in Indianapolis last
weekend to remember their World War II experiences and, no doubt, to count
Additional sources of information about the USS Indianapolis include the following
In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors, by Doug Stanton;
Abandon Ship! by Richard F. Newcomb;
Out of the Depths: An Unforgettable WWII Story of Survival, Courage, and the Sinking of the USS Indianapolis, by Edgar Harrell USMC, with David Harrell;
Fatal Voyage: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis, by Dan Kurzman; and
Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man, by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic.
I haven’t read any of them, but they sound like good reading
for anyone who wants to know more about this horrific incident during World War
Since my last blog
I’ve completed Karen Cioffi-Ventrice’s online course, “Building an Author/Writer’s Platform.” Part of it really taxed my brain, but I learned a lot. Some of it I won’t be able to put into practice until I’m a little closer to getting my novel published, but a great deal of it I’ve already started working on or doing.
In case you’re interested in taking the course or other courses offered by Karen Cioffi or others through Women on Writing, here’s a link: https://www.wow-womenonwriting.com/.
I learned a lot of SEO (search engine optimization) and I even learned what black hat SEO and white hat SEO are. If you recall, I mentioned black hat SEO in my blog post on April 29, 2019 (https://janetswritingblog.com/2019/04/29/what-triggered-last-mondays-rant/) when I didn’t have a clue what it was. White Hat SEO is doing search engine optimization the ethical way. Black hat SEO is doing it unethically.
Until my next blog
I hope you have a good book to read. I just finished listening to The Spies of Shilling Lane, by Jennifer Ryan. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Tune in next Monday for my blog post about the books I read in July.
If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time
Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. You could
have spent the last few minutes doing something else, but you chose to read my
Let’s continue the
Do you enjoy occasional looks back at what happened on a
particular day? If I get good response, I’ll plan other blog posts like this
one. A post like this once a month might work for you and me.
P.S. A new USS Indianapolis will be commissioned
In case you’re having a problem with “Like” button: After two days (or more) of not being able to leave a “Like” on other people’s blogs, I finally asked the kind support staff at WordPress what I was doing wrong.
Someone answered me right away on Chat and said they’re making some changes to the code that governs the “Like” button, so that service has been and will be erratic for a while.