Reading Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

I’m re-reading Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and love it just as much this time as the last. It is true that I mostly read mysteries and romances (and yes, my brain still seems to function) and the occasional history book, but I do delve into deeper waters now and then.

What I love about this book is how soothed I feel when I’m reading it. It is a balm. The premise is that an aging/dying Congregationalist minister is writing a long letter to his seven year old son to be read when the son is grown and the father long dead. He muses about this and that, a lot of it about spirituality and holiness, but it is not preachy nor God-heavy. It is, in fact, a lovely book.

I love that old man and wish I could sit with him of an afternoon. He is so very human — he has no notion of being a saintly man, but he is rather.

Here are some excerpts I have found especially meaningful:

. . . no one ever has that sort of courage who hasn’t needed it.

. . . people worth knowing have scars.

Calvin says, each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience.

When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone, it is as if a question is being put to you – what is the Lord asking of me in this moment.

She supposed it [the soul] was what the Lord saw when His regard fell upon any of us. (This is from another of Robinson’s novels, Home.)

Robinson also has marvelous imagery:

The waters were full of plump little perch disturbingly avid for capture. (from Housekeeping)

To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. (Housekeeping)

I saw a bubble float past my window, fat and wobbly and ripening toward that dragonfly blue they turn just before they burst. So I looked down at the yard and there you were, you and your mother, blowing bubbles at the cat, such a barrage of them that the poor beast was beside herself at the glut of opportunity. (Gilead)

One of my friends does not like Gilead at all. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but if you have an appetite for philosophizing now and then, I recommend all of Robinson’s books.

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A while back I wrote about writer’s block and the nifty nuggets of wisdom I receive every day by email from Advice to Writers.

I liked this statement from Joyce Carol Oates:

Writer’s block is a temporary paralysis caused by the conviction, on an unconscious level, that what the writer is attempting is in some way fraudulent, or mistaken, or self-destructive.

Here’s how I see my own writer’s block (all gone now! Hooray!) from Oates’ perspective.

When I first started writing about 12 years ago, I knew nothing about genres, not even enough to think about them one way or the other. I wrote what I wanted to – and my first and second novels were quickly bought by Kensington Publishers. They publish romance.

Well, my books certainly have romance in them, but for me, the focus was on the historical part. What was it like to be alive in this time and place and facing this or that historical crisis? And then I was labeled a romance writer and felt like Un Uh. But that was what got me published. So I dithered and wrote and fretted and wrote – I didn’t want to be a romance writer. But that’s what sold. In Oates’ words, I felt I was trying to write the wrong thing for me and it wasn’t working.

Well, I’m over that. I’ve now read hundreds of romances, some awful and some great, as in any genre. Those romances I admire taught me that a good story is a good story, good writing is good writing. Forget about labels. And I’m writing smoothly again – if you’ve ever been stuck, you know how painful it is and how wonderful it is to get past it.  Now, I write what I want to write, historical novels with romance elements – that’s what my readers want from me and that’s what I am happy writing.


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The process for writing historical novels generally goes like this. You happen up on something that intrigues you. You do the research – lots of it, more than you can use. You ponder characters and plots. You dream about them. And then you start writing.

The temptation is to get in every fascinating detail you uncovered in your research. General Benjamin Butler had crossed eyes. Keep that? Didn’t really have anything to do with the plot of  Evermore (my novel about the Civil War, Part III of Plantation Series), but it was such a fun fact that I kept it. It only took a few words to describe and it added to this minor character’s portrait.

Another very interesting part of the Yankee occupation of New Orleans was General Butler’s “Woman Order.” The dear ladies of this conquered city felt immune from repercussions for their behavior – they were ladies, after all —  and they gave the Union soldiers a very hard time. Genteel ladies in their huge hooped skirts, gloves, bonnets, starch, lace, etc., women who felt faint if someone spoke of bodily parts in mixed company – these women felt free to spit on men in the blue uniform. They tossed chamber pots from the balcony onto their heads. They hissed invectives at them. They were a nuisance, and when they finally abused a colonel, Butler had had enough.

He issued General Order No. 28 which decreed that any women insulting or showing contempt for Union soldiers, officer or enlisted, would be treated as “women of the town” who were “plying their avocation.” This meant they would be treated as if they were soliciting prostitution. For instance, as in Wikipedia’s example, if a woman punched a soldier, he could punch her back. If she was obstreperous enough, he could take her to the stockade to cool off until her husband came for her.

This order naturally provoked outrage in the South, but the ripples reached all the way to Washington and across the Atlantic. Huge outcry denouncing Butler for his unchivalrous stance. Some accused him of tolerating rape of these women, though I don’t believe that is what he meant at all. He merely meant to stifle the abusive behavior.

I thought this was great stuff. I wrote it into Evermore, several scenes with secondary characters. I loved it. But. Cutting room floor. I decided the book was too long (this was immediately before the digital revolution in publishing caught on and we worried more about word count then). The agent and editor also said, too long.  And I had to admit the woman order was only peripherally connected to my main plot. So I took out my lovely pages about outraged Southern ladies and indignant Union soldiers.

It’s always a problem. I (we) feel like including every bit of what I learned in my research – it’s all so interesting —  and of course I can’t. I write fiction, not history books.

In this latest book that just came out, Elysium (Book IV), I read up on Reconstruction in the South. Egads, what a sad tangle. How many of the dirty tricks and other injustices could I include? Should I include the actions of the Freedmen’s Bureau in trying to balance the white planters’ demands and the ex-slaves’ needs and demands? The economics of establishing a market economy where there had been a slave economy was very complicated, and would my readers want to get into that? If I were reading a novel, not a history book, I’d rather not detour into that history lesson. I’d rather stay focused on my characters and if a Freedmen’s Bureau action directly affected my character, then okay I would mention it.

So – if you write historical fiction, you’re always going to know more than you put into the book. That doesn’t mean your research time was wasted – everything you know goes into deciding what your characters will do and feel.

The other side of that issue is that you don’t have to master the economics of changing a slave economy into a market economy. You need to know about it and to have a sense of specific difficulties, but being a fiction writer does not necessitate your being an expert in that era. You have to know a lot, you have to be accurate with the details you use, but you don’t have to become the professor specializing in Reconstruction to put your characters in that environment.

So writerly hint for the day: do the research, use a light hand in including all those bits and pieces you learned, be accurate, be sure the details you include advance the main story, and relax. Your readers want a story, not a history lesson.

And if it just kills you to leave out your bits as fascinating as Butler’s Woman Order, write it all in. Everything. Get it out of your system. This is why we write revisions. And rewrite the revisions.

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Caffeine makes depression worse – for me. It took years and years for me to establish this link. True, my study was only of me, a very small sample, but if caffeine affects me this way, likely it does others as well.

If you have chronic depression, try cutting out the caffeine. It affects me even though I am on an anti-depressant that works very well, unless I sabotage it with caffeine. It’s a subtle effect, and delayed, too, which makes it even harder to figure out what’s going on. Because I’m over-sensitive to caffeine, I drink milk, water, and decaf tea and that’s pretty much it. And I generally have only one cup of the decaf green tea in a day.

But caffeine is sooo good, right? Real tea tastes better. Real Coke tastes better. And if you’re eating out and want a cup of decaf tea, all they have on hand is the stuff made out of flowers.

But let’s say I have several cups of decaf tea in a day, or as I do once every blue moon, one cup of real tea. That day is fine, and I do love tea, so it’s maybe better than fine. The next morning, or maybe not till the second morning, I wake up and think, Why am I so morose? Then I remember I overindulged. I stay “down” most of that day, and then the effects wear off and I’m fine again. (Taking a walk seems to help.)

I hardly ever do this anymore. It isn’t really worth it.  But since I flubbed up again this week, I thought about other people being over-sensitive to caffeine and my motherly instincts kicked in:  If you’re troubled by depression like this, try cutting out the caffeine. (Keeping in mind that if you’re an imbiber, you’ll have to taper off gradually.)

Worth a try?


If you’re severely depressed, dropping the caffeine will probably not help. Please get some medical help if you’re persistently down – there are lots of anti-depressants out there, and if one doesn’t work another one probably will. I am very aware how reluctant you may be to take a drug affecting the mind – that’s who you are, in some senses – but think of it this way. If your pancreas was acting up and you had symptoms of diabetes, you would gladly take medication for that. The brain is an organ, too. ALSO it’s not so much true that taking an anti-depressant makes you into someone who is not-you. I find that it frees me from the not-myself so that I feel more like my real self when I am on medication.

Be well.


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No More Books About Slavery

I’ve just finished my last books about slaves and slavery. Elysium, Book IV of the Plantation Series is now out, and in a few days, Orchid Island will be available too. And that’s it for me. I’ve written all I can about the injustice of racism and slavery.

In fact, Orchid Island was a step away in itself. I had been thinking and reading about happiness, and remembered Abraham Lincoln’s remark about most people being about as happy as they make up their minds to be.  And as I had one more book in me about slaves, I asked myself whether – and how – slaves could have been happy. I don’t mean odd moments of happiness or joy – I’m sure those moments came to them, too. But every-day, pretty pleased with the world happiness? What would that look like for a slave?

And that’s when Zeb and Livy wiggled into my head. They’re both slaves working the fields on a cane plantation. Zeb is more than cheerful – he is genuinely glad to be alive and sees no point on dwelling on the unpleasant fact of being enslaved since there is nothing to be done about it. Livy, on the other hand, is brittle with rage and frustration and lives for the day she can break free. Of course two such opposite personalities are drawn to each other – this is fiction, after all.

So I ended up with Orchid Island, a novel about slaves, not about slavery. The whites in the book are hardly more than tertiary characters, though Livy’s desire for freedom certainly circles back to the whites who control her and Zeb’s lives.

I don’t think the distinction between writing about slaves and about slavery is too fine. What I wanted to think about was how slaves had full, rich lives of integrity, dignity, hope and purpose regardless of being enslaved persons. Life is too big, too rich, to define a character like Zeb so that he is “only” a slave.



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Revolvers in 1867

It seems pistols in 1867 had no safety catches. Apparently, lots of guns still don’t. My source is the great and infallible internet, so it must be true.

I’m writing about Reconstruction days when the Knights of the White Camellias and the Ku Klux Klan were gearing up to commit mayhem. And crime. My heroine, Lily, a woman with no experience with firearms, is learning how to shoot a pistol because raiders have already besieged the house once and burned a cross in front of her house.

But. There are two little girls in the house. It’s not safe to walk around with a loaded gun. Lily is busy working around the farm and the house all day so that the gun could easily be bumped or fall out of her apron pocket and go off. I haven’t figured out a way for her to have a holster, but, really, now I think of it, I as master of that universe, can give her one. Well, that’s what revisions are for. (Maybe it magically appears in the mail like presents from Amazon.)

So I’m thinking, to be safe, she’ll leave chambers one and two of the revolver empty. That would mean she has to pull the trigger twice, nothing happening, before the revolver would put a bullet behind the hammer. So not until the third squeeze of the trigger would she have a bullet actually fire and kill the bad guy.

This morning, this is the writing process at work. Not thinking about plot, character development, motivation, historical accuracy (got that covered — no safety catches in 1867). Stuck on how the stupid revolver works instead. If I have it wrong, I hope to hear about it. Hopefully before I write the final draft.

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I heard about Daniel Rasmussen’s book American Uprising, The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt listening to NPR a couple of years ago. What a story! I did some more research and was still spellbound by the events of 1811.

In particular, I’m fascinated with Charles Deslondes, credited with being the prime conspirator. He was a mixed-blood slave driver, which meant he functioned much the same as an overseer on the cane plantation about forty miles north of New Orleans. His master, Manuel Andry, trusted him and gave him extra responsibility and extra privileges – because Deslondes had convinced his master and all the other slaves that he was the white man’s creature.

To have convincingly worn the mask of loyal slave while plotting to overthrow the white man’s rule took extraordinary grit and determination. The only people who knew what was coming were the few other slaves in on the plot. Necessarily the leaders organized the rebels into small cells so that no one knew more than a very few others who were involved.

Two other leaders in particular interest me. Quamana and Kook were Asante warriors from Ghana. They were captured in battle, enslaved, and shipped to Louisiana. But these were not ordinary slaves. They were young, but they were experienced, hardened soldiers who knew tactics and weapons and how to lead men.

I’ve stuck to the facts as I’ve discovered and understood them – mostly – in writing a fictionalized account of this slave rebellion. I do recommend Rasmussen’s book to readers who like their history straight, but I love fiction and readers who prefer to invest in characters and motivations as well as in events may find my new book, The Lion’s Teeth, as exciting as it was for me to write.

The Lion’s Teeth is available on Amazon in both print and digital formats.

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Blessed be and Mazel tov!

Saturday I’m taking gefilte fish to a pot-luck Seder. This year the moons, planets, and stars aligned so that Passover and Easter occur together. My church is holding a Seder with our Jewish friends and family to share those tenets we have in common and to celebrate each other’s faith.

Gefilte fish is meant to be served chilled, I gather. I have never had it, and I do not look forward to it. I was told to get the kind with jelly, not just a marinade. I’m sure it’s wonderful. Surely. Not everybody has had cracklins corn bread or chilled souse either…

When you consider all the yucky foods of the world, gefilte fish doesn’t seem so bad. Souse, for instance. Tongue. (A very fine Chinese restaurant I know serves duck tongues. My son ate them, right in front of me.) Raw oysters. Brussel sprouts. Gefilte fish starting to sound pretty good.

Most of all I’m interested in the music. Our choir has been going over the songs everyone will sing at the Seder. Wonderful stuff. And I’m keen to hear and see and experience the solemnity and joy of Passover with our friends.

Blessed be and Mazel tov!



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MAROONS: The runaway slaves who stayed put.

I’ve been reading about the maroons, the escaped slaves who didn’t try to go all the way north to a free state. Instead, they either fled into the countryside and formed their own little colony, or they hovered around the edges of plantations, hiding in the woods but coming in close to accept food from the slaves remaining on the place.

I didn’t realize how common these latter were, the so-called borderland maroons. By remaining on the edges of the plantations, they could see their loved ones now and then and receive clothes or food. In some instances, the white master knew his slaves were aiding and abetting the runaways, but they were hard to catch at it, and the runaways themselves were hard to catch. Well, some of them weren’t, and they were soon back in the quarters “where they belonged.” Others, though, managed to stay out for weeks, months, even years. Of course they had to be constantly vigilant – the country was full of slave catchers. And some of them were not very good at living on the land and would eventually stagger back onto the plantation emaciated and sick.

The ones who established a life for themselves hidden from the white world were the most successful maroons. Camps built in the swamps were the hardest to find, but in parts of the South, there were plenty of undeveloped, even unexplored forest areas to hide in.  Some of these camps grew quite large. Apparently some had scores of people and some even had a third generation growing up on the site. More often, sadly, small encampments of maroons were found after a few years and the captives enslaved again.

It was not practical to try to live completely independent of the greater world, so oftentimes maroons produced goods from cypress to trade in the cities as well as bringing in game and pelts. They mostly needed guns and shot and powder, not just for defense, but also for hunting. They needed metal-goods like knives, hoes, axes, saws, and shovels. And seed to sow. And textiles – clothes did not last long in the woods.

That they achieved the level of self-sufficiency they did is a measure of their resourcefulness, inventiveness, hardiness, determination, courage and grit.

And why did these capable people choose the maroon life rather than make a run for it to New Hampshire or Canada?

Because running was a little bit crazy. The odds were incredibly low that a runaway would get very far or survive the journey. There were slave patrols and scenting dogs on the trail. There were snakes and mosquitoes, gators, bears, panthers. Hunger, heat, cold. There were hue and cry notices in the papers alerting all the whites with an escapee’s description. Some made it, of course, and that is testament to great courage and maybe some luck thrown in.

The better bet was to join a group who had set up a camp deep in the woods or swamp. Their greatest fear may have been betrayal by one of their own for the rewards offered, but their vigilance against the white hunters had to be constant. Still a better life than slavery.

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LYNCHINGS: Another humbling history lesson

I recently read an article about ISIS and the beheadings and their burning of the Jordanian pilot. Then I read something about the Rape of Nanking by the Japanese in World War II. I thought how savage and brutal – how primitive. And how foreign. And a few pages over, I found an article titled History of Lynchings in the South Documents Nearly 4,000 Names (NY Times, 2/10/15, A11).

Four thousand? Four thousand! Of course I knew there had been lynchings. Lots of them. I thought maybe a couple of hundred. Good grief. Four thousand. How savage, brutal – and primitive. But not foreign. Here, right here at home.

The graph showed red dots, big and little, representing the number of lynchings all over the South from 1877 to 1950. I will show my near speechlessness with yet another repetitive exclamation. 1950?! I was born by 1950, so there were lynchings in my lifetime! And, like ISIS, white Americans did worse than lynch. Black men were subjected to castration, stabbing, beating, and being set afire.

As you might expect, most of the red dots were in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. I can’t grasp it. I have always been fascinated with evil, and in particular with how ordinary people can do evil and still believe themselves to be pretty good folks. I have read up on psychopathy, have read about the Nazi doctors and death camp commanders, about slavery, and still – I can’t see into it.

I want to see into it. I want to understand. I get it how an individual can do a dreadful thing once in a lifetime, or how an individual can be psychopathic and do lots of dreadful things. But how does a whole society agree to participate in atrocity? Sure I know the reasons given to some of the well-documented events (punitive damage payments after WWI contributed to the rise of Nazism, for example, racism and economic pressure in the South halted Reconstruction) but those facts only help explain on the intellectual level. On the visceral level, I cannot comprehend it.

And it has happened always and everywhere. No, not always. But it has happened over and over again all around the globe.  I really cannot comprehend how we can do this to each other.

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