As I’ve finished my first draft of Saved by the Bullet, my wife asked me what is to happen in the next novel. Being pressed by her, I divulged that a murder would take place. She shined the light in my eyes and demanded the who, what, when, and where. Since I don’t know what my serial number is, I told her it would be based upon the shooting of Mr. Myers. Even that wasn’t good enough, I had to also reveal that Mr. Myers was killed by a fugitive slave.
The surprising thing is that no matter how many additional techniques may have been employed to extract more specific information from me, none worked. The simple reason is that I don’t know yet who really killed Mr. Myers. Maybe, in a fictional novel, it wasn’t the fugitive slave at all who pulled the trigger.
Writing a novel reminds me of putting in terraces on the farm. Decades ago, my mother put in some bench terraces to stop the water from creating rivulets across the farm ground. Normally, terraces had always been farmable and consisted of an elongated hump circling about the hill, somewhat like a lazy serpent. The bench terrace could only be farmed if the tractor had suction cups on its tires, because the down side of the bench terrace is as straight up and down as a flag pole bent ever so slightly by a mild breeze.
Bench terraces we discovered cause innumerable problems for the farmer, AKA me: You can’t cross them. If you’re above the bench, you’ll have to drive all the way around it to get to the ground below it. You also have to seed it to grass, but the commercial sprayers find joy in spraying your grass with roundup and killing it. But you can get back at them easily enough, because trees start growing where the grass was and in three years’ time the sprayers can no longer get near the terrace without losing an arm to the trees.
You think you may have protected your terraces by your respect for Arbor Day, but then the badgers find out about your bench terraces and object to the fact that you’ve slowed down the flow of water. So, they dig holes through the bench terraces. This causes an aquatic ‘blow-out,’ and being a small farmer without a bulldozer in the hip pocket, you have to call in a contractor to plug the hole. Unfortunately, and perhaps surprisingly to you, this massive breech in your terrace system seems rather petty to a contractor who needs ten hours work to justify moving his machine onto your property. Year after year passes by and you learn to dodge the deepening ditch as well as steer clear of the lengthy locust tree branches that reach out into your field trying to slap your tractor’s windshield, or, alternatively, puncture one of its tires.
Fortunately, it doesn’t really matter that you can’t farm up close to the bench terrace, because in order to build the structure, the dozer man was obliged to push all the topsoil up into a steep pile to create the terrace. The anemic white soil left behind, though, helps you save on herbicide because nothing grows in it. As a corollary, you also save on fertilizer, because, of course, crops don’t do any better than weeds in white soil.
Personally, having had this experience with bench terraces--thirty years of frustration and misery--I decided to get rid of them all by enrolling in a government program to reshape my farm. The government was kind enough to fund a portion of the work, if I agreed to their design for my terraces. An eyeball survey of my farm suggested I would be able to move ahead with my plan without a problem. I couldn’t be happier. But as I step outside my front door today and scan my field across the small valley, what do I see? Four new bench terraces looking at me.
Now you see the relationship connecting bench terraces to the writing of a novel about the murder of Mr. Myers. I may start out with a story intending to exonerate the fugitive slave, but I may end up with a story that proves he did it. The muse of historical fiction has a mind of her own. My wife will just have to wait until the writing is complete.
This week I'm going a bit off on a tangent. Rather than write about history or my current story, I thought I'd discuss my experience in getting publishing, and in particular in getting self-publishing. I do this for two reasons: One, because I'm lazy and don't want to write another essay tonight; and two, because I think some of you who love to write might be interested in self-publishing. So, here's my essay, which I'll also put under Resources if you want to read it there.
Things to Consider when Self-Publishing
Getting your novel published is much easier today than in the past. Self-publishing through a variety of companies is available, and Amazon, of course, leads the way with CreateSpace. Not only is it relatively easier and cheaper to self-publish today than in the pre-internet era, it's also more respectable. However, I should warn you that there is a downside (or two) to self-publishing.
The major downside is getting people you don't know to read your book. Unfortunately, if you're like me, you probably don't know 99.99...% of the seven and a half billion people populating the earth.
Some think that the solution to this problem is to go with a self-publishing or independent publisher, like Xulon, that offers all sorts of advertising services to get your book into the hands of avid readers. Of course, these services are not free, and soon you realize, like me, that your bill is in the thousands and not one book has been sold.
Yes, let me tell you my story as an illustration. My first published work was an academic one: Hippies of the Religious Right. Being a scholarly work, it's informative but not fast-paced. Nevertheless, it sold well enough by my standards. Hmm, I thought, why not write an intriguing action book set in the Middle Ages. So, I reworked a story I had written for my children, one that they liked, a bit in the spirit of the Princess Bride, which was very popular back then. The title of this work is the Crystal Keep. I even wrote up a compelling back cover synopsis and my wife found an engagingly mysterious picture for the front cover. I thought, "With the millions of people who shop Amazon books each year, there will be a small amount, maybe just 500, who will stumble across the Crystal Keep and purchase it. However, as a precaution, I participated in virtually all the advertising programs offered by Xulon Press, through whom I published the book. Yes, when combined with their fees for publishing the book, we're talking a few thousand dollars. After a year, I had zero sales completed through Xulon's services.
Over the years, all but a handful of the Crystal Keep copies I sold were to people I knew or met. Nevertheless, since then, I have self-published two other books: Neither Angel, Nor Beast and Life in a Casket. Neither Angel, Nor Beast is a translation of André Maurois's Ni Ange, Ni Bête. I published it for my students and I make no money off of it. (I use any income from it for the local National History Day competition). It's a delightful little story, but it doesn't really sell outside the classroom.
Life in a Casket I wrote to entertain myself and others, so I hoped it might sell. I've sold a hundred or so copies, which is much better than the Crystal Keep, but I have made no net profit off of it. To promote Life in a Casket, I attended nine author signings, twice driving more than three hours to get to the venue. At five of these 'meet the author' events, where I just sat down at a desk alongside a host of other author-hopefuls, patiently waiting to sell and sign books, I averaged a sale of one to three copies. I met wonderful people, but I hadn't made enough money to cover my fuel cost, so I probably won't get to see them again.
At three of the other four outings, I sold ten copies or more. What was the difference? I was the sole author present, therefore I had an attentive audience, so I was able to give a little talk explaining my books and, most importantly, able to read from my work. This let my audience know my books were written well enough and could be entertaining.
The remaining outing was unusual. I was the sole author present and I gave a little lecture, much applauded, and I read from my book. I only sold one book as I recall. Why? Because I was not allowed to formally sell books at the venue, the host had a contract with a publisher that only allowed books of the publisher to be sold on site. I was self-published. Lesson learned: If the books aren't immediately available to the audience after your presentation, don't expect the audience to remember to order a book after they get home, fix dinner, take out the trash, walk the dog, do the dishes, and then collapse onto the bed and fall fast asleep.
I do have another work that is not self-published. This is Knight Time for Paris, which was published by Athanatos Publishing. Athanatos is a small Christian press and does not have the means to force my book onto the shelves of Barnes and Noble or advertise it big time on Amazon. With Athanatos, I will need to drive the advertising alongside my publisher. I knew this from the beginning and am happy to do so. As I've been pushing Life in a Casket so far, I haven't had time to do much Knight Time campaigning, though I've sold a few copies at the successful venues mentioned above.
I will add that Knight Time for Paris was runner up in the Athanatos writing contest. Life in a Casket was short listed for the Laramie writing contest. Participating in contests and getting recognized gives you more confidence in your book, but it won't guarantee that your book will sell well.
So what's the take-away lesson from all of this? It's this: Unless you get a national press behind your work, to advertise it and put it on shelves in airports and elsewhere, you probably won't be selling any books, no matter how much better your novel is than the top five found on the New York Times Best Seller List.
Therefore, you'll need to become the advertising agent for your book. If you're comfortable and successful on social media, that will be a big plus. You'll have to exploit advertising campaign programs on Facebook, Amazon, Goodreads, and the like.
Before you strike out to publicly present your latest novel, however, you should gather as many good reviews as you can. This may sound simple, but it actually can be very difficult. For one thing, readers like to read, they don't necessarily like to write. And even those who wouldn't mind writing a review, just don't think about it. It's only when I became a writer that I discovered I had never written a review. Naughty me.
Getting reviews on Amazon can be especially tricky. For example, Amazon does not allow authors to trade reviews, and yet authors are the ones most willing to write up a review. Of course, Amazon also tries to weed out reviews by family members. Finally, if Amazon doesn't see in its own records a purchase of the book executed by the reviewer, then Amazon won't list the review as a 'Verified Purchase', which makes the nice review sound like a review that someone did because he got the book for free if he would do a nice review.
So, what to do? I put a bookmark in my novels requesting readers to post a review, if they like the book. At a reading, if I remember to mention it, I ask purchasers to write a review. I keep pounding away at this, but still it's difficult to inspire a reader, no matter how much he or she loved the book, to write up a review. But keep at it nonetheless. Sometimes it works.
Now that you have some decent reviews, you can use them at speaking engagements to underscore how interesting your book is. I just print them up and pass them out for people to peruse.
This brings us back to the subject of outings, which you'll need to make to promote your book.
Let me be frank, you'll have to set up your own 'meet the author' events, and at them, as suggested above, you should be the only one presenting. If you're a capable reader, exploit your talent. If someone says you read like a robot, you may want someone else to do your reading for you.
A good place to start for setting up a 'meet the author' event would be in local libraries: nearby Auburn (population 3,500) and Nebraska City (7,500) were great venues for me. Otherwise, consider speaking at club meetings, particularly if it's a book club, like my wife's Tuesday Club. History and literary or art associations can be helpful. The Brownville Fine Arts Association hosted me in Brownville (population 148), and packed the house. The Homestead National Monument in Beatrice invited me to speak on preemption and homesteading, and we had a good turnout, largely due, I suppose, to the Omaha World Herald publishing an article announcing my lecture.
Finally, though you may continue sending off query letters to big publishers, you should appreciate the readers you have. It may be a small local group, but these are friends and family, and there's a fellowship with them that is probably more rewarding and fun than any connection you might have with a hundred thousand readers that are only so many pairs of eyes.
I'm traveling at the moment, but due to the time difference between Nebraska and California, I found time at four in the morning to write up a review of Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie (1827). I'm including it here in the blog, but it will also appear on my review page for later reference.
I read the book because my heroine, Addy, is currently reading it in Saved by the Bullet. It also includes lots of phrases and vocabulary that I can include in Addy's (second) story (which is set in the year 1857).
I'm just about done going through the first rough draft of Saved by the Bullet, though I still need to write the conclusion, and hope to have it published by the end of July. Then I can have it ready for the fall season, which is when most people purchase books.
The reason I haven't written the conclusion yet is because I'm not sure Addy won't find out a few more things about the crime she's investigating as I go through the rough draft. She has a mind of her own and always surprises me. So hopefully she'll have a few surprises for her fans.
All for now, as I'd better get a move on down to Porterville where my sisters, brothers, and I are to clean out the old homeplace.
For those interested in early 19th century literature, here is the Hope Leslie review...
Hope Leslie, by Catharine Sedgwick
Review by Preston Shires
As with her final novel, some thirty years later, author Cathatrine Sedgwick, in her thirties and yet single, ends her story with a message aimed at those who hold the unmarried woman in contempt: A lady does not need a spouse to live a fulfilling life. This reproach is clearly leveled at her contemporaries, but veiled within this historical fiction that critiques colonial life, and in particular Puritan life of the 1640s, are many other criticisms of her own society. Miss Sedgwick's sympathy for the plight of the Indian in colonial days, her dismay with the treatment he received at the hands of her Christian forebearers, her dispproval of Puritan religious intolerance, her impatience with conforming and submissive Puritan women, all these concerns have their manifestations in her own day.
And yet, though Catharine Sedgwick calls into question the attitudes and behaviors of her Puritan ancestors, she does admire them, she does find their redeeming qualities. If they were bigoted and fearful of imaginary demons and witches, they were also sincere, and they possessed a selfless desire to please God that could not leave the Deity wholly indifferent. Perhaps most importantly, hidden away behind their mask of epic piety, and surfacing when the exigencies of the day obliged them to drop that mask, resided within their soul, a natural practical kindness, thoughtfulness, and even forebearance that owed something, no matter how obscured, to their scriptural knowledge of God's mercy. Without the Puritans, no matter how grievous their faults, the loving light of true religion would not have illuminated the darkened minds of those Indians who, though knowledgeable of God and his sufficiency and generosity, knew not of his forgiveness.
Catharine Sedgwick's Unitarian outlook, which assumes that every culture possesses a true and sufficient understanding of God, provides a moral framework for her social commentary.
The strongest theme of the work is wrapped up in the thoughts and behavior of the main character, Hope Leslie. Hope is considerate of others but also a non-conformist who follows her heart rather than any artificial precepts born of unnatural theological abstractions. She is the prototype for the American woman, someone who is submissive only when it makes sense, and who is independent in mind and action when submission does not follow what the heart knows to be true. It is this woman who wins the admiration and love of Everell Fletcher, who, in his turn, proves to be the ideal American man. He too dispenses with unnecessary custom; and though he has fallen in love with Hope, he exhibits a respect for her that typically exists between brother and sister. In sum, the author imagines true marital love being based upon a mutual respect commonly found in the brother-sister relationship--a certain intellectual equality of mind and capability--that is enriched by romance precisely because the two individuals are not brother and sister.
Probably the most intriguing aspect of Miss Sedgwik's story for 21st century Americans is the role of Hope's sister, Faith. Faith's character was based upon one of Catharine Sedgwick's ancestors who was kidnapped by Indians and found her home among them. In the novel, Faith, after living within a tribe for several years, is captured and brought back to Boston. She exists in the town as a wild bird in a cage and pines for her Indian husband and Indian way of life.
The story moves slowly by 21st century standards, but it does have some gentle twists and turns. There is a question as to whether Everell will marry as told or whether he will marry for love: Will it be the very perfect Esther or the very natural Hope? And there is the Indian princess who has tender thoughts for Everell, and to whom Everell is indebted. And there is, of course, a villain who appears, the rake who plots Hope's downfall.
Of course, all ends well, except for the villain.
As hinted at above, it does take patience to read this book today, but it conveys messages that resonate today, social commentaries that are, as we say, politically correct. It surprises in that measure. Broadens our understanding of 19th century white society. Perhaps the early Victorians were not as limited in their social understandings as we, rather self-righteously, would have them to be.
Importantly for the writer of historical fiction, the book is a treasure trove of idioms and vocabulary for the early 19th century. For that alone, it is worthy of a careful perusal.
I've created a resource page for my website and I hope it proves helpful, perhaps inspirational, for those who wish to delve into writing. In my little essay on writing, I give a formula for writing a 220 page book in six months, which is my goal. I know it can be done faster. Griff Hosker, whom I met at the Historical Novel Society conference in Scotland last year, seems to put out about a book a month. I may be exaggerating, but only by a few days.
If I had the sitting power of Sylvie, who can stay on task all day long at her desk, if necessary, I could be much more productive, and perhaps a bit crazy. I can write for twenty minutes then I have to find a tool of procrastination, usually making tea. I even put sugar and lemon juice in my tea at home, just to make the prep time longer. Just now I went out to collect golf balls on my homemade driving range. I did this in spite of this being the Year of the Gnat in Nebraska. A swarm of 473 gnats constantly buzzes about your ears while a cohort of 700 assault face and eyes. They don't bite, their goal is merely irritation: into the ear, up the nostril, down the windpipe, and finally, their objective into the eye and under the eyelid.
Needless to say, I collected far fewer golf balls than I had hit out past the pond, and into the pond. Which means I have to spend more time in my chair than planned.
Don't get me wrong, I enjoy writing and creating stories, and I hope Saved by the Bullet will entertain. I did explain in my Tips for Writing Historical Fiction how I go about it, inventing a story, researching a time period, writing a timeline, and then composing the narrative. If you're interested in that sort of thing, do take a look.
I had hoped to be done with Hope Leslie this weekend so I could report on the book, but Hope, the heroine, is rather slow in leaving the pages. I did learn that her nemesis blew up with a ship when a despondent girl tossed her lamp in an open barrel of gunpowder. It would have shortened the story had little Rosa thought of this earlier.
In any case, sometime this week I'll have done with Hope Leslie and will provide a more extensive summary than given in the preceding paragraph and hopefully will be able to provide a list of vocabulary and idioms for my Resources page. The idea I have here is to note words and sayings that were in use in the early 19th century so authors can rehearse them before penning a novel set in the time period. In my mind, I would give the word peculiar to the time period, show how it was used in a sentence, then indicate the source, eg Hope Leslie by Catharine Sedgwick.
Sylvie claimed I was copying the Oxford Dictionary method, but I assured her I was not. I had this notion two months before I saw Gibson's movie on the subject, The Professor and the Madman. So I rather think, seeing that I had the idea first, that the OED owes me something.
PS If you wish to collect words and idioms from the early 19th century with their sources...feel free to send them my way and I'll add them to the collection.
Currently I'm reading through Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie, mainly because my heroine is reading it. I'm not sure what she sees in the book, it's pretty slow-paced until the last quarter of the novel. Well, considering home entertainment in her day, quilting and the like, I suppose the story seemed rather fast-paced. Otherwise I'm listening to The House of Seven Gables while I haul corn to the elevator. The price of corn is up momentarily, so I thought I'd sneak a few bushels out of the bin. Of course corn didn't go up until after I'd contracted a bit. I hope all the other farmers appreciate my sacrifice.
The first draft of Saved by the Bullet is finished, but there is a lot of touching up to do. Addy does spend time in Nebraska City, staying at the Nelson House (built 1857) which I've visited twice to get the layout. I have to return, though, because I didn't pay attention downstairs in the cellar/kitchen to see if there was a door at the base of the stairs.
Sylvie and I also toured the Wildwood Historic Center, which is a later Victorian house (1869). Fantastic tour guide, especially if you love to know the history of every little object in the house...and there are many.
We also made it to the gift shop where local artists display and sell their work. I told Sylvie that one painting there resembled my grandmother's red barn, which my cousin John, current owner, has wonderfully restored. She agreed with me, which wasn't hard for her to do...because it actually was a painting of my grandmother's barn. She bought the painting for me as it was my birthday.
My heroine also makes it into Omaha and Saint Joseph, as well as stopping off at Bellevue. I've left room in the first draft to expound on those locals, but I'll need more information on them. It may be challenging.
At first I thought finding newspaper articles for the big cities would be easy since Brownville's (population 148) newspaper is fully accounted for and digitally accessible. Apparently not every town kept copies of their newspapers or hasn't had its newspaper digitized.
Anyway, I hope to get the book finished before heading back to campus on August 1st. We'll see.
Married or Single?
In Married or Single? author Catherine Sedgwick hopes to convince society that the single life is noble, eventful, and fulfilling. Out with the stereotyped ‘Old Maid,’ and in with the unmarried, but well-educated and socially active woman. The story reads like a 1960s soap opera, but without the action. However, I don’t say this as a criticism, I think she intended her novel to be an analysis of relationships and of introspection. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of well-turned phrases packed with meaning. It’s a treasure trove of Victorian idioms, sayings, and vocabulary. It also describes in detail, though sometimes in passing, Victorian attitudes, behavior, and ways. For those interested in writing historical fiction, with America of the 1850s as a setting, Married or Single?, published in 1857, is as helpful as any reference book.
The story follows the life of Grace Herbert, a pretty and sensible young woman of integrity who is sought after by two principle suitors: Archibald (Archy) Lisle, a conscientious lawyer, and another attorney, the dapper and scheming Horace Copley.
Grace’s sister Eleanor lives a blissful married life, though stricken with tragedy when her little boy dies. Later in the story, an acquaintance of Grace’s, the attractive Mrs. Tallis, also loses her young daughter. Both women will learn from the hard but providential lessons that come with the loss of a loved one, and the reader understands that though with marriage comes the fulfilling vocation of motherhood, so comes heartbreak as well.
Death also visits the young and beautiful Letty, who, as a child, was taken care of by Archibald Lisle, whose good deeds seem to follow him wherever. Letty’s death also turns out to be a blessing, because she had been dishonored by Horace Copely. Now, she won’t have to live with her shame. Also, she’ll be spared another heartache: she had deep feelings for her benefactor, Archy, but his heart was destined for another.
One of Archy’s many good deeds is to save a childhood friend, Max, from prison, which very much pleases Max’s sister, Alice, who had asked for Archy’s help in the matter.
Meanwhile, the devious Horace Copely, who constantly seeks out Grace’s attention, finally amuses Grace well enough one evening to pop the marital question to her. Taken in by the ambiance of the night, Grace accepts. Afterwards, she’s ill at ease with her decision, and her good-natured Uncle Walter, a man of common sense and possessed with an ability to understand the true nature of men and women, discreetly bemoans her choice.
Uncle Walter’s sister-in-law and widow, Grace’s stepmother, had hoped Horace Copely would have chosen her worldly and spoiled daughter Anne Carlton as a bride. (One cannot but think of Cinderella, with Grace, of course, as Cinderella, Mrs. Herbert as the evil stepmother, and Ann as both stepsisters rolled into one.) Mrs. Herbert and her daughter are disappointed, but the scheming widow proves to be the consummate actress. Even though she doesn’t show her hand, the insightful and patient Grace knows what cards she’s playing.
When Mrs. Tallis’s daughter died, Grace comforted the grieving mother, and while confiding in Grace, Mrs. Tallis realizes God has taught her an important lesson, that she ought to be more attentive and loving toward her husband whom she has disregarded. If she doesn’t change her ways, her daughter, who loved both father and mother equally, will have died in vain.
This leads Mrs. Tallis to reject the amorous advances of Horace Copely, who has pursued her with gifts. When Grace discovers this, she breaks off with Horace Copely, and goes to spend three weeks with Max, Alice, and their mother in the idyllic (pre-industrial) small town of Mapleton. While there, Archy Lisle shows up, as Mapleton is his childhood home. The mother envisions Archy marrying Alice, and Archy does propose to the daughter, but Alice has another man in mind. Once Archy realizes Alice has a suitor and that Grace has broken off with Horace Copely, he can freely court Grace, the real love of his life.
Though Grace, who at one point decided upon the single life, will no doubt marry Archy, she could have had a fulfilling life, with friends for family and a host of purposeful good works to accomplish, while remaining single. And that’s the lesson of the novel.
Here are a few quotable quotes in Married or Single?, though not all may be of Catharine Sedgewick’s invention:
The richer men are, the more they covet.
Instinct is a divine inspiration—reason only a human ingenuity.
Our country is progressive. One should not look to antecedents.
The cravings for intimacy and affection are not dulled, but made more intense by a reserved nature.
If you want to spread news, tell it to one woman, and you give it wings.
To love and be loved is pretty much all there is to live for.
You should not indulge anxiety; you are a professing Christian.
[The intensity of her nature] is like fire: if the best servant, the cruelest master.
They were both too well-bred, but they had no sympathy, and therefore no reciprocal happiness.
She never conferred a benefit without the particulars of its cost.
There are certain observances that a young lady...can not omit without remark.
[In marriage] though two make one for themselves, they make two for the rest of us.
The desire of conquest is stimulated by its uncertainty.
[Some] mistake impulses for inspirations.
One’s own convenience is lead in one scale, and one’s neighbor’s a feather in the other.
It is the sudden fortunes that come upon people unprepared for them, by education or association, that vulgarize our society.
Those are said to be the happiest days of our lives of which there is least to record.
[Who counts] the three times gathering round the table, where mind and heart, as well as body, find their food?
As slaves must be trained for freedom, so women must be educated for usefulness, independence, and contentment in single life.
Sorrow has made me early wise.
 For whites, life expectancy was 39.5 years in the 1850s, while infant mortality was 216/1000 (vs 5.7/1000 today). https://eh.net/encyclopedia/fertility-and-mortality-in-the-united-states/ Accessed 4/13/2019. One-third of children born alive in the United States in the 1850s died before their fifth birthday. https://ourworldindata.org/child-mortality Accessed 4.13.2019.
Well, I've been absent for a month or two, but not without cause. Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but several people, including a woman, have been blocking my attempt to write. That woman is Mother Nature, or more precisely her daughter, Miss Winter. I've spent my days arguing with her from the seat of my John Deere tractor, "blading" snow for a mile or two once a week, which is also part of the joys of living out in the country. The view is great, but rather monochrome.
My wife certainly doesn't complain, as she was praying for a white Christmas. I would have discouraged her if I had known that the word "days" was a euphemism for "weeks," at least it is in the so-called Twelve Days of Christmas. The other joy of living in the country in the midst of timbered lands, is that one must possess a wood stove. It creates great warmth, and with a glass front you can watch flames undulate when the power goes out and watching TV suddenly becomes boring.
The downside is that a wood stove takes fuel. Trekking out in the snow, mumbling like we did last year and the year before that and so on, "Next time we're going to build up a woodpile before Miss Winter shows up," we shift around snow covered tree carcasses, then cut off their limbs without mercy, and finally lumber back to the pick-up to dispose of them.
That's phase one, and the wood has, as they say, already served its purpose of warming us up once. Phase two is chopping, three is stacking, and four is burning. It's so efficient and renewable, warming us up as it does, time and again.
And then there are classes to attend to. That has taken up time, as well it should, but if I didn't live 70 icy miles from work, it would take up less time. And History Day, as I pointed out on page one, does take preparation, but the product is satisfactory. To see high and middle schoolers put together websites better than this one is amazing, and aggravating.
I must admit as well that I did get distracted by books. I'm not a fast reader, but I make up for my slowness by reading several books at once, usually four. Well, actually five but I can't remember what the fifth one is. There's a mystery on Napoleon III, which is in French. There's Married or Single?, an 1857 soap opera novel. There's a Wodehouse one. Can't remember the title, but it's the one where Berty is in trouble with Spode. It's a reread, which doesn't quite explain why I can't remember the title. Anyway, there's that other one I can't remember, and then there's a western I'm reading by Johnson or Johnstone. But I only read it when I'm delivering grain, and my grain truck has been broken down since early January.
If my truck hadn't been made in Brazil my mechanic would have found a part for it. Apparently he did find someone to build the part, but Miss Winter forbids him to approach the truck, and I'm feeling my Brazilian is fairly vulnerable, sitting out in the open, as she is, in a Nebraskan cornfield and surrounded by snow.
But back to books: There is also Eusebius, another reread. But since I read him some twenty years ago, I count it as a first read. Fascinating church history, if it's permitted to put "fascinating" and "church history" in the same sentence together. I did also read Theophanes, Evagrius, and Priscus during the last two months.
I found the most interesting passage when reading these Byzantine histories. It was mentioned that there was a land across the sea with vast forests, where the women and men labored side-by-side, and the women would hang their babies on a tree branch while they worked. I said, "Oh, that's interesting," because I suddenly remembered something. Unfortunately it wasn't the title of that book I'm reading, but something just as important: Native American mothers, unlike European mothers of the day, put their infants on a cradle board, which they would hang in a tree in order to work. As Native American women would do the heavy gardening whilst their men folk smoked tobacco and pondered their next hunting expedition, it would seem to a European that Indian wives did men's work, since European men typically tilled the soil. "Vast forests," I thought. "A mysterious land across the sea," I thought. It couldn't be Britain, because Britain was known, and it couldn't be Iceland because a tree knew better than to send down roots in such a cold and windswept place. Could this be America of which the author spoke? I needed to review the passage again. That's when I discovered something very interesting, and it wasn't that book title. No, I discovered that I couldn't remember if the passage was in Theophanes, Evagrius, or Priscus. At 4AM in the morning, I still didn't know, though I had looked over each page of each book. Maybe it was in Eusebius. If ever you find that passage, and the title of that elusive book, please let me know, so I can get on with preparing my next novel, "Saved by the Bullet."
I’ve begun looking for events for the summer of 1857 to include in my follow-up novel to Life in a Casket. This has brought me to the pages of the Nebraska News, published in Nebraska City, which settlement was, apparently, in competition with nearby Kearney City, along the Missouri, and South Nebraska City.
In the paper, the elders of Kearney City, where 30 large oxen and 15 milch cows were for sale at low rates, warned future homeowners not to purchase lots in South Nebraska City. Apparently, their counterparts in the latter settlement had included in their townsite lots belonging to Kearney City.
One wonders why Kearney City did not supersede Nebraska City. Its citizenry seemed very intent on promoting the settlement. A certain Henry Sands bought and refurbished the Kearney Hotel, modestly naming it after himself. “The House,” he advertised, “is beautifully located on the bank of the Missouri River and within a short distance of the steamboat landing.”
To get to and from Hotel Sands, if one hoped to venture up to Nebraska City and beyond, one could rent out a horse and buggy from the livery stable.
According to the livery advertisement, scoundrels existed in early Nebraska just as now. The owner (his last name appears to be Fooks, but I’m betting that’s wrong) not only required pre-payment, he also warned renters that they would be liable for damages as well. No exception, he added, “as I know no man.”
Other scoundrel problems dealt with men, presumably men, who cut and hauled timber from another person’s lot, and men who attempted to encroach upon another’s claim. Mr. F. Sanbar went to the pains to warn Richard Noe that he planned to prove up his claim. And Mr. L. Clark stated plainly that his trees were to be left standing. Maybe he was an early advocate for Arbor Day.
And what of women? Could they be scoundrels? Apparently.
“What makes a woman now a days?” asked a contributor. “Intelligence? good looks? A mind where all the virtues dwell? No—dry goods hung on hoops!”
If I’m reading this right, in years of yore, a woman made herself known by her education, her good looks, and virtuous living, but now, sadly, she sought attention through fashionable dress.
Nevertheless, not all were scoundrels. There yet existed the young maiden, who, by her piety and integrity attracted admiration. She could be the redemption of the lesser sort, if only the latter would emulate her.
To see this angelic figure rise from bed in the morn to kneel and pray forgiveness of her Lord, ought not this inspire us all? The poet N. P. Willis indeed thought so: “Oh, God! If souls unsoiled as these, need daily mercy from Thy throne…what far, far deeper need have we!”
Here's a quick review of 'Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History', by Richard Edwards, Jacob Friefeld, and Rebecca Wingo.
Sets the record straighter. The revisionist thread, running back maybe to the 1930s (according to me), was that the 1862 Homestead Act just made the rich, richer. At the end of the day, teach the naysayers, homesteading was a "minor factor" in farm formation, because homesteaders failed to follow through on their claims, and speculators moved in to sweep up the lands.
The public view, however, was, and is, that homesteading was a great success. Who was and is right, the scholar or the layman? It turns out it was the latter, once UNL Professor Richard Edwards and his co-writers got down to actually looking at the data.
Historian Fred Shannon turns out to be the major villain, the one who cooked the books to make it look like homesteading had been a ruse just to empower the already powerful.
Another myth ('stylized fact' Edwards et al would have it) promoted by the revisionists: Homesteading ousted Native Americans from their lands. Partially true, but mostly false, according to the authors. Well, I look at this analysis a little differently. Sure, the Homestead Act did not oust Native Americans because Indian titles were often long extinguished before 1862, or before the public lands were opened up for homesteading; but this might be semantics here, or something like that. The US government extinguished the titles so US citizens, and would-be US citizens, could move onto the land. It didn't matter that years later it was officially called homesteading, rather than preemption. Homesteading was the method for occupying land that had been intentionally 'got' by the US government to allow USers to move onto it. It's kind of like saying, we put this bandit in jail to hang him, but then we invented the electric chair and electrocuted him. Sure, the electric chair wasn't invented to execute the guy because hanging was the procedure of the day when he was arrested. But the real point is, he was going to be executed all along. Really doesn't matter what means was used in the end. Other than this minor difference in how to look at things, I must admit I suspected Edwards et al were right on the other teaching points all along. Probably because I didn't share the bad rich guy ideology (not that I think rich people are necessarily virtuous).
Even years ago, when I read the Homestead Act, I just couldn't imagine, with the way it was written, how land speculators would have been able to pull it off. In the end, Shannon and his disciples were driven, in my opinion, by ideology. Progressives began the faulty reasoning, the New Dealer generation repeated it with gusto and conviction: the little guy never gets a break, and when he seems to, the rich guy just twists the law to push him aside.
Now I've put this in stark terms, Edwards, Friefeld, and Wingo, not so much. They certainly don't use the word revisionist, and they certainly don't try to get into the mind of the historians who misrepresented the facts, but they do state that the implicated historians did their data collecting and analysis poorly, and that in certain cases they must have known they were creating misinformation.
Also included in the book is an extended portion on women's role in homesteading, which is of interest. If you are fascinated by the development of the West, and particularly how preemption and homestead law functioned, this is a must read.
Charlotte McDaniel, Volunteer Coordinator at the Homestead Monument National Park (located near Beatrice, Nebraska) graciously asked me to speak to visitors during the park’s Living History Weekend, 1-3 September. The topic was Prelude to Homesteading, which meant I had to brush up on Preemption. Now Preemption was a big thing before the Civil War and many Americans out west, especially in Nebraska were Preemptors. In fact, if it hadn’t been for preemption, I doubt I’d be in Nebraska today, because my great-great-great grandfather was a preemptor. He didn’t preempt for long because he died in 1857, and Nebraska had been open to preemptors for only three years. However, he, unlike his descendant, carried around extra cash and so was able to prove up his claim, or rather his heiress, widow, would have been able to. About now some of you have guessed what preemption was, if you didn’t already know, and others are no doubt still scratching their heads.
Preemption came about because the government could not keep squatters off of public land that was not open for sale. When the Founding Fathers signed off on the Treaty of Paris in 1783, they acquired from a very generous British Empire all lands west to the Mississippi. Now the British had been generous, but rather like Napoleon with the Louisiana Purchase, and Santa Anna with Texas. Both knew they would not be able to hang on to the lands given the pressure of incoming American settlers. In any case, trying to sort out the squabbles between Indians and settlers was a headache the British preferred to pass on to young America.
The problem with lands out west, however, was how to dispense of them. Many of our founders were land speculators. George Washington to name one. And though they hoped all American citizens could live a good life with liberty and happiness, they believed that they, the leaders, should be able to cash in on the public domain as well. Therefore, because the nation needed income, they were willing to sell the land, but at a price the average yokels couldn’t afford. Sure, $1 an acre seems feasible, but when the minimum number of acres you can buy is 640, and you’re only able to put away $10 a month, it’ll take a while, unless you want to borrow money and plan on living long enough in the nineteenth century to pay it off.
There was a founder, however, who thought that land ought to be within the reach of the commoner. He believed that farming made a man virtuous, just as it had the citizens of the former Roman republic. Think about farming: You plan, you plant, you cultivate, you harvest, you store your grain…in sum, you’re a person who is duty bound, who perseveres, who has a family and who raises children with discipline (you need kids to be responsible and who have a tough work ethic). The founder who believed in this aristocracy of virtue born of yeomen farmers was Thomas Jefferson.
In 1801, Tom became president, and in 1804 we see a land act that is gentler on the frontiersman. According to this bill, though the cost was $2 per acre, a prospective farmer needed only buy 160 acres, and he could pay in installments.
By 1807 Congress passed a law forbidding squatting, ie going onto public lands that were not open for sale. The territorial governors responsible for enforcing this law found it difficult to carry out their duty since militias were gathered locally, consisting of squatters. So though the law was there the will was missing, and squatting continued on a grand scale.
How could Americans do such a thing. Well, for openers, in a day and age when the Bible influenced beliefs, thinking, and behavior, landless Americans believed that it was godly to clear land and cultivate it. The first book of the Bible backed them up, for it was written that God commanded Adam to farm and earn his bread from the sweat of his brow. In sum, there was a document that trumped the Constitution and put the Congressmen who kept men out of the frontier in a very bad light.
The manufacturers who didn’t want people to go west because he would have to pay his workers more to keep them at the bench, or the established eastern farmer who didn’t want competition, or the land speculator who wanted first dibs on the frontier, all these people tried to quiet the voice of the growing number of voting men who demanded cheap land.
What did the trick for the landless were two panic attacks that hit the US. That of 1819 and that of 1837. These were sharp downturns in the economy that forced the hand of employers into letting go their employees. Now the manufacturers and others wanted the unemployed to go west. By the 1830s, we had a series of temporary preemption laws, stating that squatters were, in essence, forgiven and could claim the land they had improved for $1.25 an acre.
The second panic, that of 1837, inspired Congress to come up with a permanent (until 1891) preemption law. This law legalized squatters coming into Nebraska. To make sure they protected their claims until the government surveyed the land and put it up for sale, the squatters formed claim clubs, and the members of such a club swore an oath to protect the others’ claim until a patent could be obtained.
There were two problems with the Preemption Law of 1841: A preemptor was still liable to pay $1.25 per acre if the government asked for it, and secondly, women who had never been married and married women could not make a claim. Only widows were eligible among the women folk, but that took some doing to qualify.
Finally, in 1862, the government fixed these problems by establishing the Homestead Act of 1862, which did not require payment per acre and allowed young, unmarried, ladies to stake individual claims.
This blog principally relates to my writing, or writing in general. Feel free to ask questions or comment.