Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Book Club Refreshments for Readers of "The Road to Frogmore"

For each of my books, I eventually create a Pinterest board for use by book clubs. Each board offers a bit of background to the story, a quick author sketch, discussion questions, and a bibliography of related readings. My favorite part, however, is always a suggested menu, based on meals eaten in the book itself.

Laura and her housemates were on limited rations.  The Army provided them with small allowances of commodities such as flour and sugar, but for the most part, they relied on the same sources of food as did the slaves.  They had their own gardens for vegetables, and a few chickens to provide eggs (or meat, if the chicken quit laying eggs.).  Most of their protein came from seafood or the white fish that could be pulled from the freshwater streams in the area. They had no access to alcohol, so this luncheon will be one fit for teetotalers.

Laura’s diary describes some of their meals in detail. At almost every meal they ate turtle soup, so that might be a natural choice, if it were not for the fact that now, most turtles in the Carolinas are endangered species, and trying to find recipes for turtle soup is likely to yield an internet lecture on why the turtles may not be eaten. I’ve included a recipe, but I really don’t expect anyone to serve it.

The slaves the missionaries had come to help continued to work for them as cooks and fishermen, so Laura’s table served Gullah recipes, which fall into two categories.  One set starts with seasonings of tomatoes, onions, and peppers, along with a bit of fatback or bacon, adds some sort of seafood, and then serves the resulting dish over grits.  The recipe here is for the iconic shrimp and grits of South Carolina.

The other variation starts with the same seasonings to create a type of gumbo, although this is not the gumbo we’ve come to know from New Orleans.  The Gullah variety uses okra as the thickener instead of a rich dark roux and is served over rice, which continued to be grown on the plantations of the Low Country.  Either dish, accompanied by some fried green tomatoes, would provide a satisfactory and authentic Gullah lunch.

Another possibility is to rely on that perennial favorite, Frogmore Stew, a tradition that also began with the slaves of St. Helena Island. What does one do when no one has enough to provide supper?  You get together with the neighbors, and each cook throws into the pot whatever she has -- a chicken, some sausage, a few potatoes, an onion, some cobs of corn, some shrimp, or crabs, or oysters, or fish.  It all boils together, and then is poured out onto a table, where the diners gather around and help themselves.

If the group does not want to eat a sit-down meal, they might snack on boiled peanuts and soft ginger cookies. Peanuts were a staple of slave diets. The cookies remind the reader of the ginger cakes that Lottie Forten baked for her friend, Dr. Seth Rogers, surgeon of the famous 54th Massachusetts.

If this menu were completely legitimate, the only beverage would be molasses water, which the slaves loved and the missionaries drank grudgingly.  If you want to get an idea of what it tasted like, think of a glass of coke poured over ice and allowed to sit for several days, until the ice all melts and the soda goes completely flat. A pitcher of lemonade might be better to bring this meal to a close.

The Road to Frogmore,  a biographical novel by Carolyn P. Schriber, was published in 2012. In 2013, it won a Silver Medal from The Military Writers Society of America. A digital version will be available for free in the Kindle Store from Monday, April 25, 2016, through Wednesday, April 27, 2016. Don’t miss this chance to read the story of a remarkable woman.  

Monday, April 25, 2016

Busier than a Long-Tailed Cat in a Roomful of Rocking Chairs

That's a phrase my mother used to describe someone who suddenly had too much to do. It's also a term used in the world of traditional publishing.  It refers to a book that starts off with slow sales but then begins to get some notice in odd places and eventually becomes a perennial best seller.  In the traditional publishing world, a new book generally gets a grace period of about six months to hit it big.  Publishers all try to get bookstores to give their newest volumes front and center space -- a shelf or display all to themselves -- cover facing outward -- signs in the window -- ads in the newspapers.  But if it doesn't work, the book disappears into the back of the store, stored spine-out on a shelf with several hundred other  wonderful books that just didn't quite make it.  A Long-Tailed Cat is a book that customers keep asking for, even after the publicity hype is over.  Most books hit the remainder table outside within a year, and after that are either returned to the company or sold off in bulk to fates better not even thought of.  Long-Tailed Cats survive.

In the world of electronic publishing, however, there are no storefronts to dominate, no bookshelves to fill with the covers facing outward, and no need to move out to make room for the newcomers.  Remainders are a thing of the past.  Electronic books  (at least theoretically) can live forever.  And that means that we can have lots more long-tailed cats!  

The Road to Frogmore was published inNovember, 2012. Sales were steady but slow.  There wasn't a "buzz" about the book -- for almost a year  When things happen in threes, however, I am superstitious enough to take notice, and Frogmore had its three in the fall of  2013.  In September, Frogmore won  a Silver medal for Creative Biography from the Military Writers Society of America. Not long thereafter, the quarterly magazine of that organization announced that The Road to Frogmore had been chosen as Book of the Month for last November.  And then a second commendation included it on the Author of the Year's recommended reading list for Winter 2014.  

Then, in January, 2014, I was surprised by an announcement that the Association of Independent Authors had decided to feature the trailer for Frogmore on its front page for the month of January. (You can view it here). Immediately there was a flurry of new sales, as word of the book begins to spread out.  This true story of  a strong and determined woman, who almost single-handedly established successful schools for newly freed slaves in South Carolina during the Civil War, is not fluffy reading, but it tells an inspiring story.  Those looking for both entertainment and enlightenment will find them here.

The Road to Frogmore, will be available for free in the Kindle Store from Monday, April 25, 2016, through Wednesday, April 27, 2016. Don’t miss this chance to read the story of a remarkable woman.  It may turn out to be a long-tailed cat

Sunday, April 24, 2016

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

What could possibly go wrong? Laura Town and her life-long friend Ellen Murray joined the Port Royal Experiment in 1862 to test their abolitionist ideals against the realities of slaves abandoned by their owners in the Low Country of South Carolina. They hoped to find a place they could call home, as well as an outlet for their talents as schoolteacher and doctor.. It seemed like a good idea at the time, until . . .

Until they experienced the climate—violent storms spawned over the Atlantic, searing heat, tainted by swamp gasses, cockroaches, bedbugs, swarming mosquitoes,and “no-see-ums” that left nasty bites in their wake.

Until they met the slaves themselves—full of fear and resentment of white people caused by centuries of cruelty, slaves who had never seen the outside world, slaves whose superstitions included breath-sucking night hags, evil graybeards living in local trees, and unfree spirits rolling down the roads at night in balls of fire.

Until the dedication of the missionaries found itself tested by lack of food, furniture, medicine, and the bare necessities of life. Until the unity of the abolitionist effort fell apart under the strains of religious differences and unrecognized prejudices.

And until the combination of battle wounds and a raging smallpox epidemic made death their constant companion. Could these two independent women survive the Civil War and achieve their goal of turning slaves into citizens?

The Road to Frogmore,  a biographical novel by Carolyn P. Schriber, was published in 2012. In 2013, it won a Silver Medal from The Military Writers Society of America. A digital version will be available for free in the Kindle Store from Monday, April 25, 2016, through Wednesday, April 27, 2016. Don’t miss this chance to read the story of a remarkable woman.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

A Spring in (or on) My Step

For most of my life, I have not been particularly excited about Spring. Perhaps it has to do with being an academic. Whether you are a student, facing final exams that could determine your future, or the teacher with piles of exams and stacks of term papers to plow through before an unreasonably short deadline, Spring can be a stressful and hectic season--not one to encourage baby plants. 

Growing up in Ohio also introduced me to how dirty piles of slush can be by April. When we lived in Panama City Beach, Spring only meant hordes of drunken spring-breakers. Moving to Ontario for four years brought no relief--no college students tearing up the countryside but that was because it was still buried in snow. Then came the real heart-breaker--Colorado. The weather warmed, we gave into the impulse to plant something, and then would come the inevitable snowstorm, measured not in inches but in feet. We learned to move part of the woodpile into the garage so that we could access enough to keep a fire going when the power went out for days. Even my birthday in May was usually cancelled because of blizzards.

But now -- finally -- in my dotage -- I'm finding real pleasure in springtime. The azaleas growing outside my living room window have been in full blaze for the past three weeks and show no signs of fading yet. I adore opening the shutters every morning to a blanket of pink and coral. The real test, however, comes right outside my front door. Because I live in a condo community with full lawn and garden service, we are not allowed to plant anything. Now, don't get me wrong. I love those fellows who show up regularly to mow, weed, rake, and trim the bushes. But the inborn impulse to plant something is still strong. So I make do with a grouping of pots, which is allowed (within reason). 

Yesterday was gardening day and I loved every muscle-straining moment of it. I was at the garden shop early in the morning (as was a good portion of the total population of Memphis!), because it was the first guaranteed frost-free weekday of the year.  A quick survey of the front porch before I set out had revealed that much of last year's crop had survived the winter. My summer mums and pansies already had new buds and blossoms. Chives, parsley, oregano, and thyme were not only alive, they were already filling their pots -- the thyme so vigorous that I could not lift the pot because its roots had grown through the drainage holes into the surrounding grass. I had a lot of picking and choosing to get through.

I came home with a big bush tomato plant, eight basil plants, and a geranium to fill the last few sunny spots at the edge of the porch. For the porch itself, almost always in the shade, I picked up some lobelias and impatiens to plant around my little potted juniper bush and a huge Boston fern for the table. (I wanted a small one, but they evidently don't come in size small!)

And if you look closely at the last two pictures, you'll see that I had good supervision for all my planting. That's Nutmeg at the door, checking to see if I remembered to pick up some catnip. Sorry, cat!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

My Butterfly Moment.

Several years ago people were talking about the "butterfly effect"--the idea that a single butterfly in South America might flutter its wings and put into motion a series of events that would ultimately change the world. It has become a truism, so obvious that we now often forget to look back at the small events from long ago that changed our own lives.

I was reminded of such a butterfly moment today. April 12, 2016, is the 177th birthday of a little boy named James McCaskey. James was born on a hardscrabble farm in southwest Pennsylvania, the first child of John and Jane McCaskey, Scotch-Irish immigrants to America. The family grew to include six more children, the youngest of whom was Joseph McCaskey, my maternal grandfather. James and his siblings attended a one-room schoolhouse, where they learned a few fundamental skills such as reading and writing, but James, at least, never mastered the art of spelling.

In August 1861, he left the farm to enlist in the Union Army, and, with his neighbors in the 100th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment, set out  to invade coastal South Carolina. During his first real battle, just ten months later, at a little earthwork on the middle of a swamp on James Island, he died. A cannon ball blew off both of his legs and he quickly bled to death. His remains were shoveled into a mass grave with the bodies of almost 500 others right there in front of the earthworks, where they remain to this day. The only things he left behind were six badly spelled letters to his family and the still tear-stained letter from his commander, telling of his death.

Those letters passed from his parents to my grandparents, and from them into the hands of their youngest daughter, my mother, who tossed them into an old trunk in the attic, where they remained until I found them about 1977.

Eventually those letters formed the basis of my first Civil War book, A Scratch with the Rebels, which tells the story of James's regiment and the Battle of Secessionville that took his life. Beyond All Price is the story of the  nurse who accompanied the 100th Pennsylvania Regiment to South Carolina. The Road to Frogmore expands the story to tell of the meeting of the Union Army and the slaves abandoned by their Confederate owners. Damned Yankee is a historical novel based on the real family who owned one of the houses where the 100th Pennsylvania made their headquarters. And Yankee Reconstructed carries the story further into the era of Reconstruction.

There the books are at the top of this page. Who could have known on that April morning in 1839 that the life of that squalling newborn baby would spawn an outpouring of  slightly over a half a million words that readers would still be enjoying in 2016? Or that another baby born almost exactly 100 years later into a future generation of the same family would grow up to become a writer fascinated by the stories of South Carolina in the Civil War?

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

It's Better To Be Safe Than Sorry

I'm back to working on the manuscript of my next book, "Yankee Sisters," which will be volume three of the Grenville Sagas. It is very loosely based on the lives of my mother's family, so I find myself doing a lot of reminiscing about the stories she told about her own girlhood. Among those stories, I keep hearing familiar sayings, aphorisms, and lucky charms that guided the lives of girls growing up at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Today, I've been reminded of some of her necessary rituals of everyday life, and I'm trying to work them into my novel, For example, my mother always assured me that if I wanted to grow up to be beautiful, I had to get up very early on the first of May and go outside to wash my face in the dew I found on the grass. My Pennsylvania cousins and I took that warning very seriously, although it didn't seem to make any noticeable difference in our pudgy cheeks or the blossoming of adolescent pimples.

Do girls still do that? Probably not. It would be downright dangerous today, I suppose. I know that in my neighborhood, our lawn service folks come around at the end of April and spray all the grass with a horrible mixture of fertilizer, pre-emergent weed-killer, and a virulent blue-green dye so they can tell which areas have been treated. Just imagine what that would do for the complexion! Every little girl would look like a Smurf!

I still like some of the old rituals, however. I was taught that when a family moves into a new residence, four items need to cross the threshold before any other belongings can enter. (This practice really confused some of our moving companies!) First comes a broom, to sweep out troubles. Then there must be a whole loaf of bread, to be sure that the family will always have enough to eat. Next comes a cup of sugar, for love and sweetness. And finally, we add a shaker of salt, to add a bit of flavor and fun to our lives. Even if there's nothing magical about my thinking any longer, the four items still serve as good reminders about what's important in our lives.

What about your family? Did your folks have any traditional rituals that still remind  you of them?

Monday, April 4, 2016

A Single Sentence Pays Big Dividends

Over one hundred people accepted free copies of my books during my two March give-aways on Kindle. I am grateful for your interest, and I sincerely hope you enjoy reading the book. But please don't stop when you finish reading. Please go back to the Kindle page and leave a short, honest comment. It will make an enormous difference in the way Amazon handles all of my books.  Thank  you.

Friday, April 1, 2016

What HaveYou Fallen for Today?

The one thing we can count on is that some of us will start April by making fools of ourselves. Yesterday I almost got upset by a news release announcing the closing of Trader Joe's.  Then I looked at the source!  

Did  you ever wonder where April Fool's Day originated?  Fools are always with us, of course, but why is there a special day to call attention to them?  One explanation is tied to that confusing date of Easter.  In the calendar devised by Julius Caesar's astronomers, there were a few too many days.  They had posited a year of 365 days and even added a leap year every four years. But the solar  year is a actually 365.242199 days long, which means that the calendar got ahead of itself by one day every 128 years.  By 1582, there were serious concerns that Easter was not being celebrated on the right day because the calendar was out of whack. 
            Pope Gregory XIII declared that something had to be done to restore God's timetable.  His official astronomers went to work and created the Gregorian calendar, which most Christian countries still follow. To make up for the ten days that had been added over the centuries, they cancelled the days between October 5 and October 14.  They also declared that any full century year would not be a leap year unless it was divisible by 40 (so 2000, but not 1900). And while they were at it, they moved the beginning of the year from April 1 to January 1.  Then all they had to do was convince the rest of Europe to adopt the new calendar.
            That was not as easy as it sounded, especially since a large part of Europe was occupied by Frenchmen, who did not like being told what to do by an Italian pope. On April 1, there were New Year's celebrations all over France, while the rest of the continent made fun of those "poor French fish" who didn't know what day it was.  The first April Fools Day prank seems to have been pinning a picture of a fish on a Frenchman's back to show his foolishness.
            Since then, the jokes have gotten more elaborate, if not more sophisticated.  Historians of such things are pretty much agreed upon the best joke of all time.  In 1957, BBC news ran a picture of a tree festooned with long strands of spaghetti.  The accompanying report announced that ideal pasta-growing conditions in Switzerland were producing a bumper crop.  Thousands of views wrote or called to ask where they could by their own spaghetti trees.  Inquirers were instructed to plant a strand of pasta in a can of tomato sauce and hope for the best.
            My personal favorites include the pranks played by fast food companies. Taco Bell announced in 1996 that it had purchased the Liberty Bell, which would from then on be known as the Taco Liberty Bell.  Patriotic citizens were outraged and besieged Washington D.C. with their demands to cancel the sale. Two years later, Burger King proudly heralded the creation of a left-handed Whopper.  It would contain exactly the same ingredients, but everything would be rotated 180 degrees for the convenience of their left-hand customers.  Customers dutifully ordered one or the other.

What have you fallen for today?