Good Thursday morning to you all! This post isn’t really a post. It’s really just an explanation of why I am not posting this week…Because I’m editing!
Or rather, I’m carefully following 98.9% of the advice offered by a much more talented editor than me, one who doesn’t fling commas around willy-nilly, use inappropriate ellipses, and who knows her way around an em dash. I cringe to think what she would do with that last sentence.
So, what am I editing? Thank you for asking. I’m editing a book. To be precise, I’m editing my book, a (an? you can see why I need help) historical novel that will be published in early September, when it will immediately climb to the bestseller lists because of its prodigious use of em dashes. Also mummies. Did I mention it has mummies? And murder. Maybe a little bit of mayhem, too. And even a hint of romance.
It’s been about six years since researchers Michael Streck and Nathan Wasserman published in the reputable journal Iraq that they had made a stunning and important breakthrough. The two men had been working to translate an Ancient Babylonian tablet discovered by J. J. van Dijk in 1976. Much to the delight of the world, the tablet turned out to contain a series of riddles and punch lines, poorly written, most likely by a wisecracking youth.
Among the 3,500-year-old jokes is what Streck and Wasserman refer to as the oldest known Yo’ Mama joke. That may require a little stretch of the imagination. Part of the riddle is indecipherable, and what is there goes something like this: “…of your mother is by the one who has intercourse with her. What/who is it?”
Sadly, the answer to the incomplete question has also faded forever from history. But from context, it seems safe to assume that the riddle was not intended to flatter poor mama.
This really may have been the first time someone bothered to chisel an insulting joke about someone’s mother, though I doubt it was the first time such a joke was ever uttered. Writers and comedians and people looking to pick fights have been slinging mud at mothers for millennia, I suppose because they elicit a pretty universal response.
No matter what our relationship with our mother, whether she is close to us, not so close, no longer with us, or was never a part of our life at all, mothers matter profoundly in the human experience. That truth transcends eras and cultural identities and it makes Yo’ Mama jokes, from the partial ancient ones to the cleverer ones of today, a little uncomfortable. Because most of us love our mamas, or at least know what it feels like to really want to be close to and adore our mamas.
As Mother’s Day comes up here in the US (on May 13, in case you’ve forgotten) I hope you’re thinking about ways to let yo’ mama know how much you love and appreciate how much she loves and appreciates you.
If you’re in need of a last minute gift idea, I’ve got one for you. Until May 13 (again, that’s Mother’s Day), you can follow the “Mother’s Day Book Sale” tab at the top of this post and get a personalized and signed copy of Launching Sheep & Other Stories. It’s even discounted 33% just because Yo’ Mama likes books so much that you should get her one for Mother’s Day.
In 1820, James Fenimore Cooper read aloud to his wife Susan from a boring English novel. At least legend suggests that he thought it was boring and he expressed as much to his wife. She allegedly responded that if he thought he was so clever, he should just write a better book himself.
Cooper accepted the challenge. The result was his first novel, Precaution, a book written in a style similar to the works of Jane Austen, which though widely beloved, probably are found boring by most husbands reading aloud to their wives.
But the book sold okay in England. It was accredited to an anonymous Englishwoman, rather than to the New York man who would go on from that mild success to create the first big fictional American action hero, one that would one day become Daniel Day-Lewis running across the big screen in a distinctly American and probably slightly less boring fashion. To an epic soundtrack I might add.
The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757—published in 1826—became one of the most widely read novels of its day and firmly established James Fenimore Cooper as one of the greats. It’s the second book in the Leatherstockings five-book series that features Natty Bumppo, an American frontiersman raised by Delaware Indians to become a fearless warrior who runs a lot and has super impressive hair.
The series is also often referred to as the first real example of the western genre of literature, the same genre that before too long introduced the world to the heroic card-playing, gun-fighting, whiskey-drinking cowboy who finds himself in the middle of the conflict between Native Americans and settlers, outlaws and hard-working ranchers, or war and a life of farming in peace. Often while wearing an impressively large hat.
It’s a genre that has waxed and waned in popularity through the years and I admit it’s not one I usually gravitate toward. But I did recently read a western novel I liked quite a lot. The book is Guerilla Brideby author J.J. Zerr, who is not an anonymous Englishwoman. And this is a not-boring book.
It follows the story of Emerson Sharp, an unlucky young man trying to find his moral compass and a good horse in the border states at the height of the American Civil War. In the process he becomes a talented gambler, fumbles into the war, accidentally becomes an accessory to murder, and falls in love a time or two. And yes he runs a lot, though usually on a horse and with much less impressive hair than Daniel Day-Lewis’s Natty Bumppo.
I don’t know if you like western fiction, or know someone who does, but I enjoyed this one. And you know, Christmas is coming up and books make great gifts. I often hesitate to recommend reads because I’m afraid that if the person I gave a title to ends up not loving the book, I will be judged harshly. Still, I am definitely willing to venture that this is probably not the most boring book you or the western fiction reader on your Christmas list has ever read. And if it is, well then you should write a better one.
In November of 1922, a young foreign correspondent writing for the Toronto Star, kissed his wife goodbye at their home in Paris and boarded a train for Switzerland to cover the Lausanne Peace Conference. Like many young writers just starting out, Ernest Hemingway had not yet found his way into publishing the kinds of works he really wanted to produce, but he managed to get some networking done while working his day job and soon editor Lincoln Steffens expressed an interest in his fiction.
At that point, Hemingway did what any writer looking for his big break would surely do. He contacted his wife Hadley in Paris and asked her to bring his writing to Switzerland. Hadley readily agreed and packed up her husband’s work, carbon copies and all, into a small suitcase. Then she boarded a train just as soon as she could.
Before the train pulled out of the station, Mrs. Hemingway stowed her bags and left them just long enough to locate and buy a bottle of water. When she returned, the suitcase containing all the written works of her future Pulitzer Prize winning ex-husband was gone. The works lost included several short stories as well as a novel about World War I.
I don’t know about you, but to me this is a soul-crushing kind of a story. I’ve borne witness to the agony authors feel when their laptops self-destruct and swallow partial manuscripts. I myself have misplaced thumb drives or failed to back up scenes and lived to regret it. Thousands of words have tripped from my fingertips and fallen, for one reason or another, off the face of the earth, never to be recovered. No matter how careful we are it happens.
And it’s not always the worst thing ever. Often it leads to better scenes, more careful word choices, more thoughtful expressions, and all around improved creative works. Sometimes, it even pushes us to find new ways to share our work with the world.
Recently I lost a novel. I didn’t leave it unattended in a suitcase at the train station, though some days it feels like that’s what happened. Instead I entrusted it to a publisher that fell on hard times and proved unable to care for the work as promised.
The somewhat complicated situation has caused me many sleepless nights and no shortage of agony, but I also count myself lucky. As the author of a project that had not yet reached publication (something that after a previous one-year delay was finally supposed to happen this past month), my position is not as difficult as many of the authors this publisher used to work with before ceasing all communications and leaving everyone scrambling for a way to reclaim their rights.
I know that some of you lovely readers will want to venture legal advice and while I appreciate the desire to help, I assure you I’ve explored a lot of options and carefully considered my best course of action. I’ve had a long time to watch this play out. I just wanted to include you in the loop, and also assure you that the book is going to make it into the world eventually, just not in the way I had originally hoped.
So you see it could be a lot worse.
Hemingway never attempted to re-write the novel he lost. Instead he went on to write bigger and presumably better things, but it seems he may have never totally recovered from the loss either. In some of his drunker moments, he was known to occasionally admit that the loss of all of his work at once was a big factor in his decision to divorce his first wife.
All I need to do is divorce a publisher.
By the way, if you would like to receive updates as I pursue publication for this and additional books, you can sign up to do just that right here: http://eepurl.com/b3olY1
In 1834, not long after submitting to the Southern Literary Messenger the disturbing story “Berenice,” in which a man yanks the teeth from his wife’s corpse only to discover that she wasn’t quite dead after all, Edgar Allan Poe sent something equally disturbing to the magazine. What he offered was a harsh critical review of the book Confessions of a Poet by Laughton Osborn, who may have been somewhat less cheerful than his name suggests.
In the beginning of his book, Osborn (publishing anonymously) claimed he would commit suicide upon completion of the work and that as he began the book, he placed a loaded pistol on the table beside him for that purpose. Poe astutely pointed out that even were he to work quickly, the poet would not likely complete a book in less than thirty days. By then the powder in the load would no longer be usable and the world might be unfortunately subjected to a sequel of Confessions.
Even for a man known for writing dark words, that’s pretty heartless. A few months later, Poe was charged with writing a review for a novel by well connected New York journalist Theodore S. Fay titled Norman Leslie. Poe called the book a “most inestimable piece of balderdash with which the common sense of the good people of America was ever so openly or villainously insulted.”
It wasn’t long before Poe earned something of a reputation as a literary critic, that reputation being mostly that he was an insufferable jerk. Of course, today Poe is far more well-known than either Osborn or Fay, and there were a few authors whose work he actually appreciated.
One of those was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who Poe wrote about in a review of Twice-Told Tales and Mosses from an old Manse for Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1847. There Poe claimed Hawthorne was unoriginal, peculiar, and “infinitely too fond of allegory,” but possessed “the purest style, the finest taste…the most delicate humor…the most consummate ingenuity.” That’s about as high praise as anyone might be able to expect, I think, from the author of a story about getting a man drunk and burying him alive behind a brick wall.
But in the same review, Poe also states that it’s not for him to say whether Hawthorne, or any other author, has impressed his readers. And he’s right. Because ultimately the people who read a work, the majority of whom probably don’t write harsh critical reviews for a living, get to decide whether or not they enjoyed it.
I have to assume that Poe would find the state of book reviews today pretty irritating, full of flattery and lacking (hopefully) in the suggestion that the author’s suicide would be preferable to a sequel. But I think it’s kind of great that in this era of Amazon and social media, the book reviews that matter most are the simple ones in which readers tell other readers the gist of what they thought.
And reviews really do matter, not only because word of mouth and recommendations are the way most people figure out what to add to their pile of books to read, but also because the fairies that live inside our computers give the numbers of reviews a great deal of weight when determining what to present to the next reader to come along in search of a book.
I am so grateful for all those who have added Launching Sheep to their pile of books to be read (both real and virtual), for those who have already flipped through it, and to the folks who have actually even read it and are already using it to prop up the wobbly ends of their sofas. And I am overwhelmingly grateful to the people who have taken the time to offer their thoughts, especially on Amazon where the computer fairies are particularly nosy.
If you have read the book, and think it might be worth someone else’s time, would you please consider leaving a review? It really doesn’t have to be long and pretentious, or cleverly harsh. Just a simple sentence or two about what you liked or didn’t like is all it takes. If you genuinely don’t have the time or inclination, though it might briefly occur to me that you’re unoriginal, peculiar, and infinitely too fond of allegory, I promise I will still think you’re a lovely person, and I really am delighted you were interested enough to read it at all.
I don’t usually post on Tuesdays. But today is a special day, because five years ago, on May 9, 2012, I posted for the first time in this space as the Practical Historian. I didn’t really know what the blog would be about back then. I mean, I had a vague notion that since I write historical fiction, I should probably blog about history, but that was all I knew.
I was also a little scared, because I never liked history all that much. That is, until I started to research it as a storyteller. When I did that, I began to discover all of these weird and wonderful moments that make up the story of this world full of weird and wonderful people.
But right away I had a problem. You see, I’m not a historian. And I certainly never wanted to claim to be one, so I decided to take a very lighthearted approach to the subject, and to do my best along the way not to claim any authority I had no right to claim. I started to slowly build up the blog one brick at a time until it took on a distinctive, if somewhat unusual, shape.
What I ended up with was a blog that was a little bit history and a little bit me, one that was kind of funny, and sort of smart, and occasionally silly. And then all you readers started to show up, and you turned out to be funny and smart and occasionally silly, too.
Week after week, I found myself laying down bricks, and more and more of you followed along to see what I was up to, winding through history with me, with really no rhyme or reason at all to the path, and usually ending up somewhere surprising.
It’s like what the fine citizens of New York found themselves doing one sunny afternoon when a few of them noticed a poorly dressed gentleman laying bricks. When I say he was laying bricks, I don’t mean he was a mason busy with a construction project. Instead, this man was laying a brick here and then moving down the walkway to lay another one there, lined up just so. Whatever he was doing, he did it with precision, and in complete silence. The crowd that soon gathered found him fascinating, and as the man walked on, placing his bricks, they followed.
They followed him around the block and straight into Barnum’s American Museum where many of them purchased a ticket and continued their pursuit through the unusual displays they found there. As the crowd became distracted by the wonders and oddities in P.T. Barnum’s museum, the curious man and his bricks slipped out the back to continue on the path, where he picked up and replaced each precisely set brick as he came to it.
Earlier in the day, the man had asked Barnum for a handout and what the great showman and even greater salesman offered instead was a job. Directed by Barnum, the man’s nonsensical bricklaying drew a crowd so large that after a few days, the police forced him to stop because traffic couldn’t get through. And many of the people who flocked to observe the brick man, paid to follow him into the museum. That’s some clever marketing by a man who called his own circus, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and got us all to go along with it.
Now, if you’ve been reading this blog for the last month or so, you may have seen that as I approached this big blogiversary, the way I decided to celebrate was to publish a collection of some of my favorite posts from the past five years. If you’ve enjoyed the blog, I think you’ll enjoy the book (which features much better editing and a lovely cover). And if not, then maybe you know someone who would.
So, I want to ask you for a favor. If you have appreciated the blog at any point over the last five years, would you be willing to share this post, or tell someone about the book, or mention it on Facebook, or give it a shout out on your blog, or send out a Tweet, or pin it, or Snapchat it to your grandma, or whatever the cool kids are doing these days?
Because as much as I love to write and as proud as I am of the blog and the book, I’m no P.T. Barnum and promotion scares me silly. I’ll do my best, but I’m pretty sure I will never be bold enough to call this the Greatest Book on Earth (if you feel so compelled, please feel free). And I sure would be grateful if you could lay down a few bricks along your path.
Thank you so much for five years. You are, without doubt, the Greatest Blog Readers on Earth.
If you’re into Twitter, here are a couple of ready-to-place bricks you can use:
A quirky collection about history and family life and all the funny bits. #LaunchingSheep https://ctt.ec/7WXaq+
History meets modern day family life in this funny and heartwarming collection. #LaunchingSheep https://ctt.ec/UjzVD+
The intersection of State Route 206 and Morton Hill Road in Sullivan County, New York, could legitimately be considered the middle of nowhere. It’s a few miles north of Roscoe, New York, which sports a population of around 550 people, excellent fly fishing opportunities, and an allegedly haunted castle. But it’s Roscoe’s northerly neighbor, at that intersection in the middle of nowhere that might be the most interesting thing about the area.
Because that’s where, sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s, the town of Agloe, New York was imagined into existence by Otto G. Lindberg and Ernest Alpers of the General Drafting Company. On their map of New York State, Lindberg and Alpers chose to set a trap for potential copyright infringers; and so right there in the middle of nowhere, where no one would ever have a reason to go, the mapmakers placed a dot they decided to label Agloe.
Copyright infringement was a big problem in the mapmaking industry at the time (before GPS and the worldwide fleet of mapmaking Google cameras mounted on cars, boats, snowmobiles, and camels), and “paper towns” (because they exist only on paper) weren’t uncommon. And you can bet Lindberg and Alpers were glad they’d included Agloe when Rand McNally produced a New York State map a few years later that included the name of their made up town.
The problem was that Rand McNally’s lawyers had a pretty tight defense, because at some point along the way, a New York State couple saw the name Agloe on a map and decided to honor the little vanished town by naming their business in that approximate location the Agloe General Store. Rand McNally claimed that their cartographers had visited the site, discovered the business, and concluded that this was one tiny New York hamlet that most certainly existed.
Still, the “town” and the business were in the middle of nowhere at the intersection of lightly traveled roads and, not surprisingly, the Agloe General Store didn’t last too long. Today, you can still visit Agloe, though you’ll have to plan your route to the intersection rather than the town since Google Maps removed the name in 2014. Once there you’ll find a nice sign welcoming visitors to the former site of the Agloe General Store and the made-up town it legitimized. You won’t find much else.
I find the concept of paper towns fascinating, and as a writer, I particularly love the story of Agloe, which is an example of something invented on paper and imagined into actual existence.
That’s what writers do, or at least that’s what we try to do. We think and imagine and plan (and copyright), and eventually we produce a book, our imagination on paper, and we hope that someone will read it and will find that it has meaning in the real world.
In some ways, I’ve found blogging to be that way, too. Every week (and much more often than that for some), we write our posts and float our dots out there into the blogosphere, a place that can sometimes feel like the middle of nowhere. But then, if we keep at it, along come readers, many of whom are floating their own dots out into the virtual world and we begin to find meaning in one another’s work.
But writing in the middle of nowhere in the blogosphere doesn’t always feel tangible. I’ve been at this for a while now, and have been fortunate to have interacted with many gifted writers and amazing people in this space. On May 9 I will have been blogging as the Practical Historian for five years, and I continue to love doing it. To celebrate this milestone, I am releasing a tangible collection, (on paper, but also in e-formats) of some of my favorite posts and essays on history, life, and nonsense.
If you’re interested, the book is available to preorder pretty much wherever you like to order books (and yes, on Amazon, too) and I promise that even though you can’t actually hold this paper (or electronic) book in your hands quite yet, I just received a shipment of honest to goodness copies. I’m not convinced you’ll find any great meaning in it, but it’s a fun book that really does exist. And it’s waiting for you just up ahead at that intersection in the middle of nowhere, not far from the haunted castle.