Thursday, November 26, 2015

New Rule: She Who Makes the Rules Gets To Change the Rules

I can't decide whether this counts as a reasonable decision or a cop-out, so I'll let you decide.  Counting today (Thanksgiving) there are five days left in NaNoWriMo and I have just passed the 40,000 word limit.  2,000 words each day (approx. five more chapters) would make me a winner. However, when I look at the book in progress, I see a real problem in continuing to hammer out chapters at this point.

When I stopped writing this morning I had put the finishing touches on Chapter 15, which I had envisioned as the mid-point of the novel. And it was a gut-wrenching chapter, painfully difficult for me to write and undoubtedly difficult for some readers to read, because it involves a painfully slow and agonizing death. (Can I say that without giving the plot away? I guess so.) Everything comes crashing to a halt with that chapter.

When the next one opens, it will involve the main characters picking up the pieces and discovering how much each of their lives is now going to change. Not one of them will be able to move blithely on without dealing with that death.

The next chapter also starts a new year and, in fact, a new decade of rapid and somewhat mind-boggling developments -- technological growth, social change, three more amendments to the constitution, a world war, an influenza pandemic, political struggles over prohibition and women's suffrage, the Russian Revolution, and even a total eclipse of the sun. And that is not a period of history with which I am totally familiar. It will involve much intese research.

So I have said to myself, "Self, you are not ready to move on from here. This grand tale needs to marinate for a while. When you are ready to tell the rest of the story, you will know it. But this is not the moment.

Where did the idea come from that everyone had to write 50,000 words in the month of November? I have long argued that 50,000 words is not long enough to call the product "a book." A novella, perhaps, or a "good start," but for this story, stopping at 50,000 words would leave me paddling frantically against a current with no destination yet in sight.

When I registered for this year's marathon, I answered the question of "how many words do you plan to write?" with the expected "50,000. "But why? Why not 40,000? So I'm changing the rules.  My goal  was to write 50,000 words or tell the first half of this story, whichever came first. I'm through. I've told the story, and now there are other responsibilities calling to me, the most important of which is a new book launch coming up in five weeks.

Sue me. Tell me I'm a failure. Put down your cheerleading pompoms. And let's move on, shall we?

Friday, November 20, 2015

Sure Enough. We're Related within Six Degrees of Everybody!

A quick amendment to my post earlier in the week on "Six Degrees of Separation."  The relationship should read "My mother's niece's husband's second cousin (twice removed), Ida McKinley, wife of President William McKinley."

Since the McKinleys had only two daughters, neither of whom survived past childhood, Ida's cousins were her only living relatives -- thus the tickets to the auction where my mother snatched up that mirror.

Thanks to my cousin Sharyn (first cousin once removed) for the handwritten family records that finally revealed the relationship.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Countdown to January 3, 2016 (only 45 days to go)

The second volume of the Grenville Trilogy --Yankee Reconstructed -- will launch on January 3, 2016.  It picks up the story of the Grenville family after the Civil War and follows them through the turmoil of Reconstruction.I am spending most of my free hours planning the launch and line-by-line proof reading of the first proof copy of the book to come off the press.

Here's the progress I've made so far:

First, we have a final cover. The image is a shot of the ruins of the Old Sheldon Church outside of Beaufort, SC. These ruins play an important recurring role in the story. Who is that shadowy figure? I will leave that to your imagination.

Second, preorders are now available for the electronic editions at Kindle, Smashwords, B&N, and Kobo. Right now, you can order your copy at the introductory price of $3.99. On January 3rd, the price increases to $5.99.

And now, -- the best part --you can get your first look at the book trailer, right here

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Those Six Degrees of Separation

I have reached the beginning of the twentieth century in my first rough draft of the third volume of the Grenville Sagas. The next notable event was the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. Naturally I had to stop and do some historical research.

McKinley was in his second term of office. On September 6th,  he attended a public reception at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY. A young anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, shot him at close range. Czolgosz was an American citizen, a steel worker, and the son of Polish immigrants. The shot was not immediately fatal, but the president died of gangrene eight days later, and was succeeded by his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt.
I was thinking about various current events, and also wondering what my characters, who had also lived through the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, would have thought about another act of violence. But first, I needed to deal with creature comforts. Its a cold, cloudy, damp morning, and although I know it's November, I'm not ready to turn on the furnace and admit that winter is here. So I decided to switch on the gas fireplace for an hour or two to take the chill off. I walked into the living room, as I've done thousands of times in the past eleven years. I glanced at the mirror above the fireplace out of long habit. (Who doesn't sneak a look when they pass a mirror once in a while?)

Then it hit me. The mirror I was looking at once also reflected the image of William McKinley. How did that happen? The story, once again, goes back to those eight McCaskey sisters. The McKinley family was from Canton, Ohio, which you may only know as the location of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But for the McCaskey girls, Canton was a tempting destination. It sits across the state border from North Sewickley. It was a booming metropolis founded by a bunch of wealthy steel magnates, while North Sewickley had remained a backwoods settlement. It was where one went in search of fame and fortune, apparently.  One by one, the McCaskey girls found a way to move there.

Now we fast-forward to the nineteen forties. My mother had managed to marry the boss, and for the first time in her entire life, she had money to spend. She had left many of her friends behind, but there were always family members near by. She was particularly close to her sister Florence's second daughter, Helen, and the two of them enjoyed shopping sprees together. There's a whole story here about Helen that I can't relate because I don't know the details (maybe Helen's daughter will fill them in.). What I do know is that Helen had married someone who was related by another marriage to the McKinley family. And when the McKinley family mansion and its contents were finally put up for auction, Helen and my mother had wrangled tickets to the show.

Now my mother was one of the original "material girls." Because she had grown up in great poverty, she valued THINGS. And at that auction, she fell in love with an antique mirror. And she bought it. I have no idea how much she paid for it, or even how she managed to get the thing home. It's about four feet square and surrounded by a frame of gilded (Naturally! this was the Gilded Age) plaster of Paris roses.

The mirror hung in the living room of my childhood. When my mother died, I inherited it,  and I entrusted it to a whole succession of Air Force movers who shuffled us and our belongings back and forth across the country. The plaster of Paris framework is cracked at all its weakest points, but the cracks are clean and almost invisible unless you happen to grasp the mirror at the wrong point -- in which case a rose will come off in your fingers until you tuck it back in. The silvering on the back has held up remarkably well. And here it still hangs, over a century old, providing a link between me and a historical event I knew almost nothing about until this week.

My mother's niece's husband's cousin's family's  . . .  Six degrees of separation, indeed.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Things They Don't Tell You about NaNoWriMo

I've uncovered two underlying fault lines in that rock-hard theory that a writer can sit down every day for a month and churn out a set number of words -- with the result that a book miraculously appears at the end of thirty days. Oh, there are any number of people who will tell you they've done it (Hell, I've done it!), and there are book publishers out there who are ready to turn those wonderful thoughts into printed pages. Sure there are.

BUT -- there's always a but.

One comes from the assumption that the Muse is always on call. Often, she is. I have those days when the characters grab my story line and start talking to themselves in my head, as fast as I can hit the keys.  And if I'm interrupted--a neighbor drops by, an urgent request arrives in e-mail, or the cat food runs out, I can stop typing and take care of the problem without interrupting my line of thought. I can empty the dishwasher or fix a light bulb or take out the garbage while the characters keep right on talking in my head.

Yes, yes, don't bother telling me. I know that's another one of those bad signs -- like drinking my coffee black or craving radishes -- that proves I'm a psychopath at heart. That's all right. It's those voices that help a writer write.

On other days, the same characters stick their noses in the air, fold their arms across their chests, turn their backs, and refuse to utter a word. And when they do that, there's no real cure. Any attempt to write while the Muse is on strike produces nothing but drivel.

The other fault line is life itself. The creators of NaNoWriMo sometimes seem to have forgotten that Life with a capital L is no respecter of the plans of ordinary mortals. Things happen. Power goes out. The computer crashes. Some clumsy four-footed monster knocks a glass off the kitchen counter and leaves hundreds of sharp splinters underfoot. And sometimes it's something delightful. A friend receives a prestigious award and invites you to attend the award celebration. A long-distance call re-awakens another friendship. Whether they be good or bad, some interruptions put an end to a whole day's production schedule.

All of which is to say, I haven't had a good week so far. Sunday and Monday were OK, but Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday the 13th were a total loss. Fortunately I have a couple of days' worth of extra words to cushion the lapses. And there's one more day this week to do some repair. Nevertheless, NaNoWriMo has taken a hit, and so has blogging. I'm posting this on both sites as a feeble excuse as I disappear and try to regain my momentum.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Sea island Hurricane of 1893

 The following article was reposted with permission from

The date was August 27th, 1893.  A major hurricane which eventually came to be known as the Sea Islands Hurricane struck head-on near Savannah, Georgia. The surprise storm killed an estimated 2,000+ people, mostly from the heavy storm surge that it carried with it. Many of the dead were inhabitants of the Sea Islands of Beaufort, with 20,000 or more left homeless as nearly every building along the barrier islands was damaged beyond repair.  Some estimated it’s storm surge to be a whopping 16 ft.  This caused a great deal of destruction along the coastline and Sea Islands in both South Carolina and Georgia.  Along with much smaller local islands, St. Helena, Hilton Head, Daufuskie, Parris, and Lady’s Islands were all devastated.

With the loss of life involved, mostly by drowning, this hurricane is actually on a level with 2005′s

Hurricane Katrina as the fourth deadliest hurricane in United States history. This estimated death toll may actually be conservative, when you consider the large populations of rural African-Americans on the Sea Islands who at the time had little means of reporting casualties.

Few warnings were ever given about incoming hurricanes in those days.  Even few accurate meteorological records were taken back at that time, but modern science has recreated the patterns that led to the deadliest storm in Beaufort.

By the evening of the 25th of August, the Category 3 storm was approaching the Bahamas. During the approach it began to deviate from its westerly course and arc west-northwest. It is believed that the first effects of the storm were beginning to be felt in the Sea Islands area, with the winds steadily increasing during the night of the 25th.  Some of the inhabitants anticipated the storm and left the islands as quickly as possible.  By now the hurricane was turning more and more towards the north. It moved parallel to the coast for about one hundred miles before making landfall near Savannah, Georgia on August 27th.

Reports from the time say that wind during landfall was around 120 mph making it a Category 3 storm.  The hurricane passed north over South Carolina on August 28th and moved up the U.S. East Coast before becoming extratropical over Atlantic Canada.

Although the hurricane was devastating, the American Red Cross did not arrive until October 1st.  This was the first major hurricane relief operation ever undertaken by the Red Cross.

The city of Beaufort was covered in debris, making movement through the main streets nearly impossible. To add to the chaos, hundreds and maybe thousands of refugees were said to have migrated to Beaufort searching for food, shelter, and clothing.  All storehouses were ordered to close, and distribution was made under a ration system through distribution centers. After the Red Cross arrived, a warehouse of clothing and food was started in Beaufort to provide services to the affected.
Relief efforts were impeded by a second Category 3 hurricane that struck just north of the area, near Charleston, on October 13th. Eventually, the areas submerged by the Sea Islands Hurricane were drained. Clara Barton wrote in her autobiography of the Sea Islands effort: “The submerged lands were drained, 300 miles of ditches made, a million feet of lumber purchased and homes built, fields and gardens planted with the best seed in the United States, and the work all done by the people themselves.”

She said about 20,000 refugees were living in the streets of Beaufort immediately after the storm. In October, she moved the food distribution sites from Beaufort to the islands to lure people back home.  During a massive 10-month relief campaign, success was declared, with the Sea Islands population living in decent houses producing their own food again. Damages from the storm totaled to at least $1 million (1893 dollars).

-Clara Barton And Beaufort’s Hurricane of 1893
-Our 10 Greatest Natural Disasters
-Encyclopedia of Hurricanes, Typhoons, and Cyclones

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Light the Bonfire. It's Time to Remember the Fifth of November.

Over 400 years ago, a young Englishman converted to Catholicism, changed his name to Guido, and offered his military services to the Catholic Spanish army against the Dutch Reformers who were spreading Protestantism in northern Europe. When that war ended, he returned to England and became involved with a group of conspirators planning to blow up the government, assassinate James I, and and place the Catholic James II on the throne of England.

They somehow gained access to cellars beneath Westminster Palace and began stockpiling gunpowder directly under the chambers of the House of Lords. As these things have a way of happening, word leaked out and on the night of November 5, 1605, Guy was caught with the gunpowder. He was tortured for several days and then hanged. That was the origin of the holiday English-speaking peoples know as "Guy Fawkes Day."

What a great holiday it is! There is no big meal to be cooked. Stores don't start their sales at 6:00 AM. No gifts to buy. No cards to be mailed to people whose faces you can't recall. No chipmunks singing silly songs. No catalogs filling your mailbox. No gaudy decorations put up three months in advance. No lies to tell your children. And nobody arguing about whether to call it Guy Fawkes Day or Guy Fawkes night.  Just a gentle little bonfire at the end of the day, or a few fireworks to light up the sky.

Best of all, everybody celebrates. If you side with the conspirators and wish they had managed to blow all those bewigged lords and pompous noblemen to kingdom come, then you celebrate the sheer gumption and ingenuity of these simple men who planned to take on their own Goliath. And if you're horrified by the idea of assassination and think this treacherous little bastard got exactly what he deserved, then you celebrate the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot as a sign of the power of the English monarchy. It really doesn't matter which side you take. Everyone likes a cozy fire on a chilly November evening.

The only remaining question is why this article is appearing on a blog dedicated to the stories of the McCaskey family. There is a connection, The first book I published after retirement was  "A Scratch with the Rebels," the story of the 100th Pennsylvania Regiment in the Civil War.* My great-uncle James McCaskey was a sergeant in Company C. The regiment was known as the Roundheads because, almost to a man, they were Scotch-Irish immigrants and staunch Calvinists. They believed they were the natural descendants of Oliver Cromwell's Roundheads during the English Civil War and that God had predestined them to be victorious.

Uncle James and the rest of the Roundheads knew all about Guy Fawkes, and they were definitely on the side that said Fawkes got what was coming to him. Did they celebrate the day? Well, on November 5, 1861, the regiment was on board a large ship, so there were no bonfires. But they made up for that two days later by filling the sky with real fireworks as they attacked the Confederate fortifications on Port Royal Sound, South Carolina.  The next year? By then Uncle James was dead, a victim of his own staunch beliefs that sent him walking confidently into a hail of cannon fire.  But that's another story.

Remind me to switch on the fireplace tonight.

*Shameless Plug: The last few copies of this book are available at 75% off on my website:

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A Picture of Happiness

Most of you know that I have started writing a new book, the third volume of the Grenville Sagas, as my NaNoWriMo exercise of the year. So far the writing is going well; I'm at 6,382 words since Sunday, with all afternoon ahead of me yet today.

Part of the reason is that this year I'm well-prepared. The stories on my Blogger website have me geared up. But I also attribute it to getting my office set up for maximum efficiency. Several days ago I posted a question about an article I had just read. A Facebook post had recommended five things everyone needs to have in a happy home. I had four of the five: a hobby, a mess, a hand-me-down, and some almost used-up luxuries. I was missing the plant, but since no one came up with a workable solution for a plant that I could not kill and that the cats would not eat, I compromised and found a tiny spot with no easy cat paw access.

So now I have reassessed:
  1. A Hobby: I figure NaNoWriMo counts.
  2. A Mess: Take a look at that stack of books with all sorts of little slips of paper sticking out.  (And don't look in any of the drawers!)
  3. A Hand-Me-Down:  You can't see it very well at the edge of the picture, but I moved a better office chair in here in hopes that it would be more comfortable for the long haul. There's also a tiny decorative thermometer that used to sit on my mother's desk some 50 years ago.
  4. Some Nearly Used-Up Luxuries: Note a jar of Werther's caramels and a partially burned candle that is supposed to smell like Charleston.
  5. A Plant: Upper right reveals a miniature pink anthurium (warm, humid, and out of direct sunlight)
  6. And my own additional requirement: A Cat. That's 14-year-old Nutmeg, resting in luxury on her very own bean-bag pillow in front of the printer, which she thinks purrs at her. 
Those of you with sharp eyesight will also spot some other motivators -- a bottle of nail-glue to fix a broken finger nail, my MWSA medals hanging on the wall, and a lost-coin jar for an end-of-the month splurge.

We've got this!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Night the City Collapsed

Did you know that Charleston, SC, was nearly destroyed by a massive earthquake in the late 19th century? No, neither did I until recently. I was looking through old headlines, trying to find a reason to move the Grenville family out of Charleston permanently. But I didn't expect to find a report of complete devastation.

It was a Tuesday night, August 31, 1886. The air was still, muggy, swelteringly hot -- a typical August night in coastal South Carolina. High tide had just turned, with the sea beginning its twice-a-day retreat from the shore. The sun had set behind a bank of low dark clouds, trailing a blood-red sky as, perhaps, an omen of what was about to happen. Darkness fell quickly, with almost no light from a new moon. At 9:51 PM, people noticed a tremor and heard a low rumble, which quickly turned into an overpowering cacophony of sounds -- a roar that seemed to go on and on. The ground pitched and rocked, and objects began to fall. First it was only small things, a vase sliding off a table, dishes tumbling from a shelf. Then it was whole buildings that tipped, swayed, and seemed to come apart where they stood.

The Remains of the House at 157 Tradd Street.
Estimates of what happened vary widely. Most reports put the magnitude of the quake at somewhere between 7.0 and 7.8.  At least sixty people were killed -- perhaps as many as 100 -- a few swallowed up by cracks in the earth, but more crushed by collapsing buildings and falling chunks of masonry. Nearly every building in the city suffered major damage, many so serious that the structure would have to be demolished. Again, estimates run from $5 million to 23 million dollars in damage (in the currency of the time.)
Damage on a Side Street

When the rocking and roaring stopped, people stood paralyzed by the enormity of what had just happened. And eight minutes later came another strong aftershock, bringing down teetering survivors. Six more aftershocks  came in the next 24 hours, and over the next three years, some three hundred more continued to shake the beleagered city.

Damage at a Black-Owned Builder's Supply Company
14,000 chimneys fell, many of them pulverized at their base, so that the whole column simply sank into the ground, dragging fireplaces with them and leaving gaping holes in houses that stretched from cellar to roof. Water lines and gas lines broke.  Rail lines were twisted and displaced, some of them tossing locamotives into the air as they moved. Others had their rails twisted into s-shapes. Huge cracks in the earth opened up running parallel to the Ashley River.

And most bizarre, the entire city was pockmarked with "sandblows. " These were miniature volcanoes, spewing a mixture of sand and water is geysers that sometimes reached twenty feet in the air. The sand from one of these "blows"  might leave just a small pile or it could cover an area 300 feet in diameter (the length of a modern football field.) The picture below is from New Zealand, but it gives a clear picture of what these small sandblows left behind.
By Cataclasite (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or

This was the largest earthquake ever recorded on the eastern coast of North America. Related damage was reported in central Alabama, central Ohio, eastern Kentucky, southern Virginia, and western West Virginia. People felt some of the shaking in Chicago, Boston, Bermuda, and New Orleans.

Within days the local paper reported some 40,000 people living in tent cities, struggling just to survive. And that struggle would permanently change the face of Charleston.  The whole story is told in a wonderful book:

Upheaval in Charleston: Earthquake and Murder on the Eve of Jim Crow, written by Susan Millar Williams and Stephen G. Hoffius. (University of Georgia Press, 2011).

And here's another link that provides interesting sidelights -- suggested to me by fellow Lion Ken Moffatt:

Ken Moffett This was indeed a catastrophe. Many years ago while in Charleston, Judy and I took a carriage tour and learned about the earthquake bolts that were installed on many of the buildings following the 'quake to straighten and strengthen walls. Here's a link to an article about them, but I also recently read that scientists have no idea whether they will help in a future event.