Revision, Blogging, and Imaginary Fame

I confess I wasn’t going to post anything today. I love writing in this space and interacting with those readers who are kind enough to leave a comment, thereby publicly admitting that they have read my foolishness. Thursdays are blog days. Still, posting weekly sometimes gets a little overwhelming. Currently I am knee-deep in a novel revision of the type that never goes as smoothly as I think it will.

Part of the problem is that I get bogged down with little research questions. What, for example, besides the Bible, might a family have been reading aloud by the fire in 1836 in rural Pennsylvania? I am genuinely asking by the way, as this is a problem I’ve not yet managed to solve adequately. If you point me in the right direction, I promise to name you in the acknowledgments.

booktoursteve
Steve the Traveling Sock Monkey is ready to go!

I’m also in the middle of preparing to go on book tour.

That little sentence gets its own paragraph because it makes me giddy. The “tour” as I call it really is just a couple of bookstore signings tacked onto a trip to participate in the Augusta Literary Festival in (you guessed it) Augusta, Georgia, at the beginning of March.

I’m pretty excited about this because I do not live in Georgia. In fact, I have never lived in Georgia. I have never even lived in a state that borders Georgia. As thrilled as I am, I might as well be going on an international speaking tour.augustaliteraryfestival

Mark Twain did that. In the summer of 1895, the then fifty-nine-year-old great American humorist hit the road, delivering recitations of portions of his own impressive and hilarious works. He did this in front of large crowds all over the world from Australia to South Africa to Great Britain, where the report of his death was greatly exaggerated.Mark_Twain_circa_1890 It should probably be noted that he was not invited to participate in the Augusta Literary Festival, though admittedly, had it existed at the time, I’m sure he would have been welcome.

Twain embarked on his successful tour as a scheme to get himself out of debt. I’m hitting the road because I have a pretty great librarian sister-in-law who does live in Georgia and is the best cheerleader ever.

I’m pretty sure I won’t draw quite the crowds Mark Twain managed, but I do hope that if you, dear reader, happen to reside in the neighborhood of Augusta or Savannah, Georgia, maybe you’ll swing by to say hello. I’m probably not as funny and charming as Mark Twain, but I promise I’ll do my best.

I won’t be traveling as long as Mark Twain did, either. His great comedy tour lasted more than a year. Mine will be a long weekend. But because I imagine I’m famous (and sometimes coincidence works in my favor) I have a speaking engagement when I get back to the great state of Missouri, too. That one is sure to draw a crowd because I will be talking to an auditorium full of high school students who can choose to either attend my presentation or go to class. If I lose out to a physics lecture, I will be particularly disheartened.

Then finally, it will be back to work, answering tedious questions about life in the 1830s and writing, rewriting, revising, and yes most weeks, posting to this blog. Because Thursdays are blog days.

In the Path of an Eclipse: Really Dark, Kind of Weird, and Definitely Goofy-Looking

In my corner of the world, we have a very exciting event coming up. If you’re in the US, and particularly if you are anywhere along the line from about Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina, you’ve probably heard about the total eclipse we’ll be witnessing on Monday, August 21.

It’s a pretty big deal, worthy of donning goofy-looking glasses and taking a few minutes out of your day to say, “Huh. It’s really dark out, which is definitely kind of weird.”

The reason we’re all so excited is that a total solar eclipse hasn’t been visible in the Continental US in 38 years. It’s also pretty cool that the path of totality will hit nine different states with more than 10 million people living within the moon’s full shadow. Another 28 million people live within 60 miles of that path, and everyone in the US should be able to see at least a partial eclipse.

eclipse glasses Steve
I was going to model the glasses myself, but they were pretty goofy-looking. Instead I enlisted the help of my buddy Sock Monkey Steve, who never seems to mind looking goofy for a good cause.

Though not all of St. Louis is directly in the path, a good chunk of it is, including about 1.3 million residents, and the hundreds of thousands of people that will be clogging the roads to get to the perfect viewing spot, causing all the rest of us to be late for work.

And why not? It’s not like this happens all the time. In fact, St. Louis has not seen a total solar eclipse since 1442, when St. Louis didn’t exist yet, so technically, I suppose it’s never happened in the city before. It’s an event that’s worth experiencing, and one that’s certainly worth remembering.

Because you never know when it might come in handy to call on a memory like that. Like, for example, if you happen to have the unfortunate experience of getting conked on the head only to wake up in the court of King Arthur in June of 528, it would be useful to know that on the day the king has decided to execute you, you will be in the path of totality of a historical eclipse.

This is what happened to Mark Twain’s 19th century Connecticut Yankee Hank Morgan. A man suddenly out of time and facing public execution, Hank drew on his knowledge of the disappearing sun to convince the court he was a great magician, even greater than Merlin, and that were he not given back his life, he’d never allow the sun to return. It’s an amusing scene in which Hank has to use some misdirection and not all that clever stall tactics to get the timing to turn out right, since he doesn’t know precisely how long the eclipse will last. But it eventually all works out, and Hank gets to live on to destroy history another day.

Bing_Crosby_-_Connecticut_Yankee
If you ever find yourself in this situation, don’t panic. Just remember your eclipse dates. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court trailer, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I know Hank’s story is not exactly historical, but it was written in the 1880s so maybe you can cut me a little slack on this one. The scene also may have been inspired by an actual historical event from February of 1504, when Christopher Columbus used some old-timey Google magic to convince the natives of Jamaica to continue supplying his shipwrecked crew long after the actions of said crew had pretty much convinced the natives they didn’t much want to.

Because Columbus knew something the natives didn’t know, that the full moon was planning to hide behind the earth for a little bit on the night of February 29. All he had to do was to claim this temporary disappearance as a sign from his angry God. Suddenly he had a native population that was more interested in helping the crew survive until help arrived.

Lunar Eclipse
Columbus’s old-timey Google magic came from a widely used almanac by astronomer Johannes Müller von Königsberg (or Regiomantanus). By Camille Flammarion – Astronomie Populaire 1879, p231 fig. 86, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And if it worked for Columbus, it might work for you someday, because even though to the best of my knowledge no one in the real world has yet been conked on the head and been transported to sixth century England, plenty of elements of science fiction have come more or less true. Really, I think it’s safest to be prepared.

But just in case you ever do find yourself in that situation, you should know that Mark Twain, who did not have the advantage of Google (or evidently an almanac), got the date wrong. There was no total solar eclipse on June 21 of 528. Hank’s plan wouldn’t have worked and he would have gotten himself burned at the stake.

But there really is going to be an eclipse on Monday. If you’re in the path of this much anticipated solar event, get yourself some goofy-looking glasses (from a reliably safe source) and enjoy because it’s going to get really dark out, and it will definitely be kind of weird. Then maybe brush up on your eclipse history, because you never know when you might get conked on the head.

Something to be Thankful For

In May of 1897, American author and humorist Samuel Clemens (or Mark Twain) arrived in London as part of a lengthy world tour. There he was greeted by the news that his cousin, a Mr. James Ross Clemens, also in London, had been gravely ill.

The cousin recovered, but news spread across the ocean that Clemens had grown ill and was, in fact, on the verge of death. The news sparked tremendous worry and speculation that the beloved author would soon die.

twain
Samuel Clemens, who did not die in London in 1897, or in the great Facebook death glitch of 2016. By Photographer: A.F. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It was Frank Marshall White with the New York Journal that finally set the record straight when he sent a cable to Twain inquiring after his health. The author replied, explaining the confusion between his identity and that of his cousin’s, reassuring White that he was perfectly healthy, and remarking that, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

Twain would go on to live almost thirteen more years after the incident, which he found kind of funny. I mean it could happen to anyone, right?

And apparently it can. Because in the wee hours of the morning, on November 11, 2016, a Facebook glitch resulted in the reported deaths of a large number of its users, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The notice, appearing with a flower icon above the cover photo of an individual’s wall, read: “Remembering [your name]. We hope people who love [your name] will find comfort in the things others share to remember [your] life.”

The glitch was fixed quickly and the company issued a statement and apology about the sad notices. Mark Zuckerberg, to the best of my knowledge, is still alive and well, and, if you were unfortunate enough to come across your own death notice, then you can rest assured that the report of your death was an exaggeration.

I don’t know whether I was counted among the dead. I wasn’t awake at the time of the glitch, but no one offered any condolences to my family so I suspect I had a lucky escape this time.  And that’s something to be thankful for heading into American Thanksgiving tomorrow.

The Rio Grande wild turkey
I’m also thankful for Thanksgiving turkey. photo credit: US Department of State The Rio Grande wild turkey via photopin (license)

 

Have a happy and safe holiday!

 

No Room for Swirls

At the end of a narrow hallway, tucked into the corner of my basement is a little hidey hole of a room that I have claimed as a writing office. One wall has been covered with chalkboard paint thoroughly graffitied with story ideas. On the other walls hang a bulletin board plastered with notices of submission deadlines, a white board scribbled with possible blog post topics, and above my desk a beautiful photograph of an Oregon Iris given to me by a dear writer/photographer friend.

In the little wall space that remains, just above a bookcase that holds more thesauruses than any one person needs, must have, requires, has an occasion for, or isn’t able to dispense with, hangs a collection of framed quotes about writing by writers whose work has been meaningful to me from Snoopy to Mark Twain.

A master at work. Now that's a great first line!
A master at work. Now that’s a great first line!
photo credit: collectpeanuts via photopin cc

One of the quotes is from James Michener who once said, “I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.” As a writer who loves to read and write historical fiction, I most appreciate Michener for the depth of his works which reach beyond character, through generations, and across large expansions of time, to tell the story of the setting itself. There aren’t a lot of authors who have done that, and none more successfully than Michener.

Of course, it takes a lot of words to do it. Michener’s books are long and swirly and tangly and not for everyone. But I appreciate them because he so boldly leaves nothing out. And it works.

But there’s another approach to writing, one that is more streamlined and maybe more widely appreciated. It’s represented perhaps best by the also highly quotable Ernest Hemingway who once said, “My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.”

Anyone who has read Hemingway’s work knows that he pretty successfully did just that. He didn’t invent brevity in storytelling (it predates him by an awful lot of human history and oral tradition), but he did play an important role in the emergence of the short short story through the 20th century and into the 21st..

Today’s writers who are hip to the lingo generally call such stories flash fiction, a term that refers (not so precisely) to stories up to 1000 or sometimes up to 2000 words and down to as few as six.

That’s right. Six WORDS.

And this is really why Hemingway gets so much of the credit because he wrote (or didn’t write) the first six word story, complete with a beginning, middle, and end. If you don’t believe that, you’re not alone. The rumor, which can be traced all the way back to 1991 (and you know that anything that comes from 1991 is too legit to quit), is that in 1961 Hemingway was in a restaurant with a group of writer friends when he bet them $10 each that he could write a complete story in just six words. They had to cough up the cash after he wrote on his napkin: “For Sale, Baby shoes. Never worn.”

Dang! That is six words. Who do you think you are? Hemingway?!
Dang! That is six words. Who do you think you are? Hemingway?!
photo credit: JD Hancock via photopin cc

The biggest problem I see with this tale is that I don’t think anyone would be stupid enough to engage in such a wager because if a writer brags that he can come up with a six word story you can be pretty sure he’s got one in mind. The slightly smaller problem is that the event is basically unsubstantiated. Oh, and there’s evidence that the story existed in various forms well before Hemingway. Still, it’s nice to think he wrote it because it does illustrate his approach to writing.

As a reader I can appreciate both wordy authors and succinct ones. As a writer, I fall somewhere in the middle on the Michener/Hemingway scale. I love the swing and swirl of words and I will at times be unapologetically verbose. But some stories just want to be simple and it can be a fun challenge to put together a piece of flash fiction.

One such work of mine, a story entitled “Blue” has just this week been published in the online magazine 100 Word Story. As the name suggests, the works featured are exactly 100 words long. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for swirls. I hope you’ll follow the link and read not just my story, but also take the time to peruse and appreciate a few of the brief works of some talented writers who slaved away in their hidey holes to trim away all those swinging, swirly tangles of words.

Get a Bicycle. You will certainly not regret it, if you live.

In 1963, a leader for the Ozark Area Council of American Youth Hostels, Dick Leary, decided it would be a fun idea to take a nighttime bike ride through the city of St. Louis. He organized the event for a night in October and set it up to begin at midnight at Union Station. Unfortunately (because most people probably thought he was joking) Leary was the only rider to turn up.

Determined that it was still a good idea (and because I’m guessing he battled insomnia), Leary completed it himself and the next year managed to recruit a few more riders. Word started to get out and by the early 1970s thousands of participants were showing up to complete the ride every year.

Eventually, the event became known as the Moonlight Ramble, the longest-running nighttime cycling event in the world. Organized now through the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the route has changed a few times over the years, but the full course is always around 18 to 20 miles through the heart of downtown St. Louis on the early Sunday morning in August that occurs closest to the full moon.

And despite the addition of a premier riding group (personally I’m not sure how anyone can take themselves all that seriously while sporting glow necklaces snaked through their bicycle spokes), the Ramble is NOT a race (shoe clips are not allowed, nor are they advisable). It’s a ride. All ages, all ability levels, and even all manner of wheeled, human-powered vehicles are welcome. I (typically sound asleep by no later than 10:30) rode in the Ramble for the first time this year, along with my sister and a handful of her cycling buddies, most of whom had participated in the event before.

Okay, so maybe "human-powered" isn't a strict requirement.
Okay, so maybe “human-powered” isn’t a strict requirement.

It was a gorgeous night, under the nearly full moon. The first riders took off from Busch Stadium at 12:10 (after a slight delay for traffic from the preseason Rams game). As there were probably four thousand riders, it took a while to get us all going and even with the best efforts of the St. Louis police department and an army of volunteer ride marshals, it took a bit for the remaining downtown traffic to adjust to the onslaught of bicycles (most drivers smiled to see us; a few were cranky). Once we were really going, though, I have to say it was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had in the city.

Now, I realize that this is generally a (sort of) history blog and that this particular post has thus far come up a little short in that area (unless you’re really easily satisfied and a brief reference to 1963 is enough for you), but I think I can make a case for why it still fits. And to do so, I am going to direct your attention to the expertise of Professor Kenneth Jackson who teaches the History of the City of New York at Columbia University (and who is a much more reliable source of all things history than is yours truly).

Since he began teaching the class in the late 1970s, Professor Jackson has led his students on a nighttime, five-hour bicycle tour from Columbia University to the Brooklyn Promenade. Along the way, Jackson stops at various points of interest to deliver lectures through a bullhorn to the now hundreds of students that come along for the ride.

The professor admits, however, that it is not so much the knowledge shared in his lectures that sticks with the students, but simply the experience of seeing the city in this strangely intimate way, when the moon is bright and the streets are quieter (a little bit anyway, but of course this is New York we’re talking about). One student had this to say about standing in front of Federal Hall at 4:30 AM: “In this sleepy blur I catch myself imagining that I’m there, imagining that [Professor] Jackson is Washington and we’re getting ready to start this new republic.” Another student commented: “This is the first time I feel like I’m really living in the city.”

That's a lot of people "really living" in the city of St. Louis.
That’s a lot of people “really living” in the city of St. Louis.

I get that. I grew up not so far from St. Louis and I have been delighted to be back again, nearer still to what I consider “my city.” Since moving here this past February I have taken my children up in the Arch, explored the Zoo, wandered through the Botanical Garden, enjoyed the theater at both the Fabulous Fox and the outdoor Muni, and been to Busch Stadium to watch the Cardinals play more often than I should admit (I lived two entire baseball seasons in Oregon and apparently distance really does make the heart grow fonder).

After riding the Ramble, all of these different places found a home in that mental map that I always wish I was better at carrying around with me (you may recall that in a previous post I mentioned that my sense of direction is, well, okay so I don’t actually have one). I may not have learned a great deal about the history of my city on this ride, but I did get to know St Louis itself better and be a part of it in a way I never had before.

Bill Emerson said it well in 1967 when he wrote in the Saturday Evening Post: “A bicycle does get you there and more…. And there is always the thin edge of danger to keep you alert and comfortably apprehensive. Dogs become dogs again and snap at your raincoat; potholes become personal. And getting there is all the fun.”

Nighttime cycling is not perfect. The Ramble attracts all kinds of folks, the serious cyclists and the families out to make lasting memories together, but also the rowdies whose frequent beer stops make it best to avoid them.  I also certainly wouldn’t recommend a nighttime ride outside of an organized event. But late night ride events and tours are popping up all over the world (Paris, London, and Moscow are just a few of the cities that I discovered offer similar experiences).

I don't know what this thing is, but it was probably the coolest vehicle in the ride.
I don’t know what this thing is, but it was probably the coolest vehicle in the ride.

But even if you don’t own a bike (often they can be rented), haven’t ridden since you were a kid (you never forget how), or for some reason would prefer sleeping to rambling in the moonlight, consider taking some advice from Mark Twain who once learned to ride one of the old-timey high-wheeled bicycles of his day and had this to say of the experience: “Get a bicycle. You will certainly not regret it, if you live.”