A Blog Tour in the Bag

A few years ago I unpublished my birthday on Facebook. I didn’t do it because I hate celebrating or because I’m self-conscious about my age. I really don’t care if people know how many twenty-ninth birthdays I’ve had.

But I am a bit of an introvert, which means as much as I love being around people (and I really do), I tend to get a little overwhelmed when I’m the center of too much attention.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that people want to celebrate with me and wish me well. I just sometimes think that while they do, I’d kind of rather be hiding in a quiet corner with a paper bag over my head.

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photo credit: Flооd How You Doin’? via photopin (license)

Thanks to inventor Luther Crowell who, 148 years ago today, invented the machine that makes folded, flat-bottomed paper bags, I could actually do that.

If you happen to live in Cape Cod (and odds are you don’t), you may have heard of one of the area’s most famous sons, whose more than 280 patents included a flying machine that, at least in concept, resembled the modern helicopter.

Or perhaps you’ve discovered him on LinkIn where you’ll find that this Paper Bag Inventor at Paper Bag Inventor has a skill set that includes paper craft, paper industry, and paper prototyping. I think you’ll also find that there are people in this world who spend way too much time on the Internet.

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Obviously some people have also spent way more time thinking about uses for paper bags than I have. But this is cool! photo credit: georigami Andrew Hudson’s Nova Bind via photopin (license)

Certainly Cowell is most remembered for the machine that could make a sturdy folded paper bag, an invention that contributed to the newspaper printing (and folding) industry as well as to the grocery checkout line where customers are still regularly given the option of using Crowell’s bags to carry home potato chips and bottles of salad dressing.

These paper bags are also useful for craft projects, making text book protectors, quickly ripening fruit, and occasionally hiding in corners.

That last one might be wishful thinking on my part, because this week I’m on a blog tour, talking about my new historical novel, some of the research, my convoluted journey to publication, my third grade teacher, my first ever fan letter, and my thesaurus collection. Don’t judge. It’s a lot of posts. And trust me when I say you’re not going to want to miss the thesauri.

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Me without a paper bag on my head, and feeling just the tiniest bit uncomfortable.

I love talking about books with readers and with other writers (there’s a lot of overlap between those groups). I’m incredibly grateful to my fellow bloggers who have invited me to share their space and for all those who have interacted with me on the posts and shared them on social media. It really has been a lot of fun.

It’s also been a little scary and a tiny bit exhausting putting myself out there and basically demanding attention. So I am going to invite you to take a look at the tour, to check out the blogs of some wonderful new friends, and to read my ridiculous posts about myself and my writing. You could even win a copy of my new book Smoke Rose to Heaven for Kindle if you leave a comment on any of them.

Smoke Rose to Heaven Virtual Tour

While you do that, I’m just going to sit quietly in this corner over here with a paper bag over my head.

Bigfoot, Mormons, and Smoking Guns

Earlier this year, on January 22, the Washington State Department of Transportation made an unexpected discovery. While reviewing footage from a camera near Sherman Pass on State Route 20, they spotted…something.

That’s right folks, Bigfoot is alive and well and living in the mountain passes of Washington State. Maybe. It’s a fair bet that people are paying closer attention to the WSDOT twitter feed these days and that’s a good thing. These cameras are supposed to show potentially dangerous environmental conditions along the state’s most treacherous roads. They are not necessarily intended to reveal the presence of cryptozoological creatures, which lends maybe the smallest hint of sort of credibility to the video.

The WSDOT certainly isn’t staking its professional reputation on the discovery. After all, they are only “a little stitious,” but I suppose it’s possible they have found the smoking gun in one of the world’s greatest mysteries.

Not a literal smoking gun, of course, though that does seem to be how the phrase may have originally been used. One of the earliest examples is found in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1893 short story “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott” in which a “smoking pistol” in the hands of a criminal demonstrates his guilt beyond any reasonable doubt.

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photo credit: AppleDave Smoking Gun via photopin (license)

The phrase didn’t gain much traction as a metaphor for another eighty years when the US press pretty universally adopted it in reference to the hunt for evidence in President Nixon’s impeachment case.

Since the more metaphorical resurgence of the phrase in the 1970s, its use has blossomed to incorporate that one missing piece of crucial evidence that supports not only a criminal case, but also a scientific assumption, or even a conspiracy theory.

I do love a good conspiracy theory. And the best ones seem to all be missing just that one smoking gun. If only the public could finally see the alien technology kept at Area 51 or the original unedited film from Stanley Kubricks’s moon landing hoax.

My new novel Smoke Rose to Heaven, which came out this week, was inspired by a smoking gun from history. In 1830, a man named Joseph Smith published a new sacred text called The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi.

He claimed to have found these golden plates buried in the Hill Cumorah in New York State and to have translated them from “Reformed Egyptian” by divine interpretation made possible with the use of seer stones thrown into a hat. Once he was finished, the plates were taken up to heaven.BoMSmoke

As you might imagine, not everyone was quick to swallow this unusual story. Though Smith’s book won him followers and started a religious movement that continues today, it also garnered a number of detractors. One of those was newspaper editor Eber D. Howe who in 1834 published Mormonism Unvailed. Howe’s book includes a large collection of affidavits swearing that Smith’s sacred text was really the plagiarized work of an unpublished and by then deceased novelist named Solomon Spalding.

Like most conspiracy theories, the claim is supported by a lot of circumstantial evidence, a few assumptions, and possibly some questionable motives, but also like most, it is plausible. At least it’s plausible enough for fiction.

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Available now!

Because if true, this theory, which has come to be known as the Spalding Enigma, would be well served by the existence of the original manuscript of the Spalding novel, allegedly titled Manuscript Found. This particular smoking gun has thus far been lost to history.

But it’s not lost to historical fiction. My novel is the coming of age story of a woman who comes to possess that manuscript. It begins with the Spalding Enigma, but in the course of the story also seeks to explore the unique cultural environment that allowed several new religious movements to begin. The book is fiction. It’s intended neither to convince nor convert, but rather to look at an interesting moment in history.

I mean it’s certainly no Bigfoot caught on a Department of Transportation camera, but I’m pretty proud of the book and I hope you’ll consider checking it out.

 

Want to help me spread the word? If you’re willing to share about the book on social media, I’d be so grateful. You can share this post, the Amazon link, or the book trailer. Really, any mention at all would be great! I even have some ready-made tweets if you’d like to use them. Thanks!

Tweet this“A fascinating look at a historical mystery that spell-bindingly blends fact with fiction.” Smoke Rose to Heaven. #bookrelease #tbrlist #amreading

A girl abandoned becomes a woman pursued by a dark past, a dangerous secret and those who would kill to keep it hidden. Smoke Rose to Heaven. #bookrelease #tbrlist #amreading

A woman with a unique gift and a tragic past holds the key to unravelling one of history’s greatest deceptions. Smoke Rose to Heaven. #bookrelease #tbrlist #amreading

 

Four Score and Seven Words to Go

On November 2, 1863, a man named David Wills, writing on behalf of the governor of Pennsylvania, asked then president of the United States Abraham Lincoln if he might consider making “a few appropriate remarks” at the November 19th consecration ceremony of a new cemetery for the many soldiers who had died at the Battle of Gettysburg.

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Lincoln’s in there somewhere making a few appropriate remarks. Just upper left of center, I think. Photographer attributions vary from unidentified (William Frassanito) to Mathew Brady (NARA) and David Bachrach (1845-1921) (Center for Civil War Photography). [Public domain]
The main speaker was to be Edward Everett, who allegedly spoke eloquently for nearly two hours, as everyone pretty much expected. History books rarely recount what he said. Then it was Lincoln’s turn. The president spoke relatively few words. Not even three hundred, in fact. And, diagnosed not long after with smallpox, he probably wasn’t feeling very well at the time. Still, most American school children could recite at least some of them.

Rumors have long circulated that the president dashed off the speech while on the train to the event, but that probably isn’t quite true. I don’t doubt that he fine-tuned and finalized a little of his phrasing on that train, but he’d known for a couple of weeks that he’d have to say something. Various observations place him scribbling notes between photo shoots and presidential responsibilities in the days leading up to the event. Most likely he thought a great deal about the words he would say.

I can’t speak for all writers and orators, but I know that for me much composition occurs in my head, swirling in the background of whatever essential tasks I’m completing. Sometimes I dash off a note or two to help me remember later, and then when I finally get a few dedicated moments, I have someplace to start and a great deal to pull together.

I think this is probably how it worked for Lincoln when he delivered what has become his most remembered address.

I was hoping something similar would happen with my blog post this week. You see, it’s been busy around here. I’m getting ready to launch a new book in a little less than a week, which means I have been spending a lot of time preparing. I’ve been upping my game on social media, sending off press releases, scheduling events, cranking out posts for an upcoming blog tour, and designing graphics. I even made a book trailer.

And then there’s my family, still busy doing all the many things they do while also expecting to occasionally eat and/or spend time together.

So, I was definitely hoping for some inspiration for this week’s practical history blog post. Unfortunately, if ideas were swirling somewhere in the background while I was busy elsewhere, I didn’t get them scribbled down.

But Abraham Lincoln is pretty inspiring as historical figures go. And though I think I can be fairly certain that “the world will little note, nor long remember” what I’ve written here, I can at least say I got it done.

5 more days until publication! Follow this link to check out more information about the book, or follow this one to sign up to receive occasional email updates.

Bravely Throwing Out a Piece of the Soul

In 1936, celebrated American author F. Scott Fitzgerald made a list. He’d hit a big rough patch in a life full of rough patches, drinking too much and living in a hotel in Asheville, North Carolina to be close to his institutionalized, schizophrenic wife. After an alleged suicide attempt and a nasty shoulder injury, Fitzgerald hired a nurse named Dorothy Richardson to care for him.

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A romance I quite enjoyed in 2019.

As they got to know one another, Fitzgerald made her a list of books he thought she ought to read. The list includes some William Faulkner, Theodore Drieser, Leo Tolstoy, John Keats, and such—twenty-two works in all. Some I’ve read. Most, I admit, I haven’t.

But that’s okay, because F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t make the list for me, and suggesting a book for people can seem like kind of an intimate thing. You’re asking them to pour hours of their time into an experience, one they will engage with during their personal downtime, maybe while they’re drowsy and wearing their pajamas, or lounging on the beach in a swimsuit they feel just a little bit too chubby to wear, or nervously waiting for their loved one’s surgical procedure to end and hoping no waiting room strangers will strike up a conversation.

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A memoir I read this year and liked a lot.

You hope they’ll like it. You hope they won’t think you have no taste, or that you think they have no taste, or that they think you chose this book because it says something to you about them or that you think it says something about yourself and you’re hoping they’ll notice. It’s a little like offering up a piece of your soul.

But just once in a while it works out. You read a book and it makes you think of one of your friends, who then absolutely loves the book you recommended and is touched that you just seem to get her, at which point she asks you for another recommendation and the stakes become higher.

And that’s why I am especially grateful to have so many wonderful friends who are willing to put themselves out there. Earlier this week, I was thinking about what books I wanted to pick up to finish out my year in reading. Looking over my To-Be-Read list on Goodreads, I realized I had fallen behind a little on my pace if I was going to meet my year-end goal. Most of the list in front of me included books that were either going to be hard to get hold of quickly or were probably not going to be quick reads.

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The best steampunk I read in 2019.

I asked Facebook for suggestions of light, fast reads. And boy did my friends come through! As of right now, about four days later, my plea has received eighty responses. And that doesn’t count my librarian friend who texted me directly with several titles.

I do find it pretty gratifying that a lot of the suggestions are books I’ve read or that were already titles I’d come across and wanted to read, an indication that my friends and I probably know each other fairly well. But I’m even more impressed that so many people took the risk and put their opinions out there.

I read broadly, and with few exceptions, I’ll give anything a try. Maybe then, I’m not a terribly intimidating person to offer book suggestions. I also definitely recognize that the reading experience is largely an individual one and that I myself might view a book differently were I to read it today or a month from now, so I’m never going to judge a person based on the recommendations he makes.

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Best mathematical mystery I read this year. That’s a thing, right?

And I’m not assuming that the list of books offered to me are the essential books that should be read by everyone, which Fitzgerald may have implied to his nurse, mainly by virtue, I think, of who he happened to be and also because he was probably a little drunk. It should be noted that there are some fairly universally accepted greats missing from his list, including Shakespeare. Any high school English teacher would probably be pretty quick to point out that particular oversight.

So, dear blogosphere, it’s your turn. What should I read? I can’t guarantee I’ll follow every suggestion, and I’m sure I won’t get to them all by the end of the year, but I promise I won’t think less of you for throwing it out there.

By the way, if you are on Goodreads, let’s connect!

Why Does My Wrist Hurt?

Not too long ago I celebrated a big birthday. Okay, it wasn’t really that big. It didn’t end in a zero or anything, but it did feel kind of significant only because once upon a time I read Douglas Adams’s funny little five book trilogy that begins with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

hitchhiker'sI even reread the first book in honor of the occasion. I’d forgotten what a trip it is. The book, which started as a BBC radio play, is unapologetically weird and wildly imaginative. If you haven’t read it, you probably should, if for no other reason than just so you can catch all of the pop culture references you’ve been missing for years. It’s a pretty quick read, and you’ll learn how useful it can be to travel with a towel, why you should have more respect for mice, and of course, the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.

It’s this last bit that convinced me to pick up the book again, because I recently turned 42, which according to Adams, is the answer to that ultimate question. There’s been a lot of speculation from fans over the years as to why Adams, who died in 2001, chose the number.

Some suggest he was paying homage to Lewis Carroll who included the number in a variety of ways in his works, including Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which in this writer’s humble opinion, should probably not be read at all.

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Good advice for 42-year-olds as well as intergalactic hitchhikers. photo credit: artnoose Don’t panic with blue envelope via photopin (license)

Others suggest that it is mathematically interesting because it’s a pronic number, an abundant number, and sphenic number, which I’m sure is super exciting to those who speak mathematics a bit more fluently than I do. Quite recently it also became the last possible number under 100 to be expressed as a sum of three cubes, a solution which much like the answer 42 in the book, was many years in the making and came about as the result of an awful lot of worldwide computing power. It also led to a fair bit of excitement for the people who get excited about such things.

If Adams had some grand and elaborate reasoning behind his choice for the number in the book, he wasn’t telling. He said he chose it because it seemed like a funny number. And that really probably is all there is to it.

Personally, I was hoping for a little wisdom from it. I mean from reaching the ripe old age of 42, not from the Douglas Adams’s book, which is most useful for the clever jokes.

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Douglas Adams, the man behind the universe’s nerdy obsession with the number 42. Michael Hughes [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D
In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the second most powerful computer that will ever be spits out the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. The problem is that no one knows the question, so the most powerful computer that will ever exist is created. Complete with a biological component, this computer is called Earth, and it gets demolished in preparation for the construction of an intergalactic highway seconds before it spits out the long-awaited question.

Now, I’ve given this a lot of thought. The series does go on to reveal that the question is “What do you get if you multiply six by nine?” which I do speak enough mathematics to realize is a pretty funny punchline. But in all my gathered wisdom from my 42 years on this supercomputer we call Earth is that the question is more likely one of the following:

Why is it now such a struggle to lose a few pounds?
Why am I tired by 8:30 every night?
Why do I cry when other people’s kids leave for college?
Why does my wrist hurt?
Why, even though I feel a little bit more rundown than I did at 15, or 25, or 37, or even 41, do I also feel a little bit wiser?

Granted I don’t know what it’s like to turn 42 on any other planet out there in the wider universe so I can’t say for sure that it’s the answer to absolutely everything, but right now, 42 feels like a pretty good age to be, and I suppose contentment is as good an answer as any to the question of life.

Research, Cannons, and Great Big Nerds

On March 10, 1842 president of the short-lived Republic of Texas Sam Houston overstepped the limits of his office when he ordered the national archives to be removed from the capital city of Austin and taken to Houston.

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Sam Houston, a man who is no match for a determined archivist with a cannon. By National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans. Philadelphia: D. Rice & A. N. Hart, 1854., Public Domain

A few days earlier Austin had been the site of a camp of nearly a thousand invading Mexican troops under the command of General Rafael Vásquez, but the army had been run out of the city by the time Houston issued his order. And when the wagons arrived to finally carry it out in December of that year, the danger had certainly passed. Since Houston’s goal was most likely to move the capital to his namesake city, that didn’t much matter to him.

It did, however, matter very much to the people of Austin who took their responsibility to house and protect the archive material seriously—so seriously that vigilante Angelina Eberly (not an archivist by trade but certainly one in her heart) led the charge by firing on the government thieves with a cannon.

Few shots were fired overall in what came to be known as the Archive War and no significant blood was shed, but the documents remained in Austin as did the distinction of being the capital city, even after the Republic of Texas became the State of Texas.

Archives are serious business, as those who care for them will not hesitate to tell you. Personally, I am grateful for their vigilance. Because I’m going to confess something to you, dear reader, that you probably won’t find too hard to believe.

I’m a great big nerd.

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Darth Vader. Also probably no match for a determined archivist with a cannon.

I don’t mean that I spend all my time playing video games on YouTube or that I collect replica medieval weaponry or that I know every detail there is to know about the Star Wars Galaxy. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with those pursuits. Except maybe the YouTube thing.

My brand of nerdiness mostly shines through in my obsessive research. I know, if you’ve read this blog much then you are probably giggling about now. It’s true that most of the posts in this space are only sort of researched, and frankly, kind of shoddily. But I make a distinction between what I do in this space and what I do when pursuing the details that inform my historical fiction projects.

I can’t promise I never make a mistake, because I’m sure I do. I probably even overlook the occasional silly anachronism. Some reader somewhere will call me out on it one day and say I should write in a different genre if I can’t even manage to take thirty seconds to Google the etymology of the phrase plays it close to the vest to discover that my character wouldn’t have said that in 1834. As a reader of the historical fiction genre myself I can go ahead and admit we’re a little nerdy and occasionally a little mean.

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I probably won’t face cannon fire to gain access to the archive material I need, but if I make a historical mistake in my novel all bets are off.

So, I do my best to pursue the research as far as I can. For my current work-in-progress, I especially wanted to put my eyeballs on a diary written by one of my historical persons of interest. He’s not a widely known figure and I only discovered the existence of the unpublished diary because of a reference in the bibliography of another book. When I contacted the university library where the source was said to be housed, they couldn’t find it.

I assumed I’d have to give up. Then, not long back, while searching around on the Internet for something else, I found a blog post (some blogs can be a valuable sources of information, just usually not this one) that briefly mentioned the existence of the diary. That’s when I kind of nerded out.

I contacted the library again to find out that the archivist who had written the blog post is now at a different university. I reached out to him there, sent him the link to his post, and a few days later, I had the complete record in my inbox. All I had to do next was send it back to the original library and hope.

And wait, which is what I’m doing now. Because the archivist currently in charge of the diary in question is consulting with an expert to determine whether the physical integrity of the document will allow for safe scanning. If it doesn’t, I may have to travel to the library, which will require a possibly unreasonable amount of effort on my part.

But I get it. I do believe that archives are important enough to protect and maybe even defend with cannon fire if necessary. Because I’m a great big nerd.

 

Ford, Edison, and the Quest for the World’s Largest

I love that my children are back in school and that our sense of routine has returned. Still, a couple weeks in, I also have to admit that I miss the open road. This was a summer of lots of travel for us.

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Unfortunately, due to time constraints and general lack of family interest, I once again missed the Spam Museum in Austin, MN. photo credit: Dick Thomas Johnson Monty Python’s Spamalot at Akasaka ACT Theater via photopin (license)

We didn’t go the huge distances we have in some years, but we made it to New Orleans so my kids could cross Louisiana off the list of states they’ve visited. We spent family time in Minnesota fishing and exploring. We took off to Madison, Wisconsin to participate in an Insane Inflatable 5K, and later the boys and I spent a week in Chicago. Rarely did a week pass us by when we didn’t set out in the old family truckster for an adventure at least a couple hours away.

I really couldn’t imagine passing the summer any other way, and I’m not alone. According to a 2019 AAA poll, 100 million Americans planned to vacation this year. Sixty-eight percent of those had plans to travel during the summer months and more than half of all travelers intended to pack up their cars and hit the road.

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Henry Ford and the original family truckster. New York, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It makes sense. A road trip is almost certainly cheaper for a family than air travel, there’s plenty to see across this great big country, and a good car trip means hours of forced family togetherness searching for state license plates. Plus there’re plenty of convenient amenities along the way like gas stations and restaurants and hotels. And how else are you going to see all those quirky tourist attractions like the world’s largest turkey?

A hundred years ago or so when the American road trip was just getting its start, life on the road wasn’t quite as convenient, nor were there as many roads to choose from. Prior to the invention of the automobile, the average American never traveled more than 12 miles from his or her home. I’d probably travel that far to buy a bag of my favorite potato chips.

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Minnesota is the home to many of the world’s largest road trip attractions, including the biggest ball of twine in Darwin, the world’s largest turkey in Frazee, and this enormous boot in Redwing.

It’s likely not surprising that the American road trip developed in large part because of Henry Ford. When in 1908, Ford began producing the Model T (I think the “T” stood for truckster), suddenly families with modest incomes could afford a motor vehicle and they started to get an itch to see the world’s largest ball of twine.

But it was more than just Ford’s cars that inspired a new freedom to the American public. Along with his famous buddies Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and John Burrows, Henry Ford embarked on a series of more or less annual road trips across various parts of the country between the years 1914 to 1924.

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Guinn’s book peeks behind the scenes of these early road trips to explore the motives and strong personalities behind them. It’s a great read!

Because I never take a road trip without a few good books to read, I picked up The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Ten-Year Road Trip by Jeff Guinn this summer. The book is fascinating and it made me grateful for the amenities I enjoyed along the way. When the “Vagabonds” first started road tripping, it was pretty rough going, even with an entourage of personal servants to set up camp and cook gourmet meals.

In the pre-Kardashian era of the early twentieth century Ford and his gang were what passed for celebrities. As such their highly publicized trips gained a lot of attention. Soon the American public caught on to the idea and as the traffic increased, so did the infrastructure to support it, including the world’s largest light bulb in Edison, New Jersey. Maybe I’ll hit the road and go see that one next summer.