LIVING A DOUBLE LIFE AS SLAVE AND REBEL

LIVING A DOUBLE LIFE.  January 8, 2015,  is the 204th anniversary of the great slave revolt of 1811. Daniel Rasmussen’s excellent book, American Uprising, The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt, chronicles the times, the events, and the people involved in this great rebellion.

What fascinates me about this story is the double life the slave ringleaders led. First among them was Charles Deslondes, a mixed blood slave who had the confidence of his white owner. Charles had risen in responsibility as a slave driver on a cane plantation 40 miles above New Orleans. (A slave driver was a sort of second in command to the white overseer, or sometimes a slave driver helped the master run the plantation in lieu of an overseer.)

Charles convinced his owner as well as all the other whites he dealt with that he was a loyal and trustworthy slave. He also convinced the slaves he worked with that he was the white man’s creature. The only ones who knew different were his co-conspirators.

What I love about writing fiction is imagining what is going on in someone else’s head, especially someone very different from myself. I don’t know if I’m capable of the duplicity Charles Deslondes employed in the months and years leading up to the revolt. Maybe we all could do it if the stakes were high enough, and certainly the stakes were high for Charles and the other rebels. If they didn’t succeed, and the leaders knew the odds were that they would not, then they would be killed and their heads set on pikes along the river road.

Another fascinating part of this story is that Charles, unlike 99.99 % of slaves, could possibly read and write. After the great Haitian Revolt a few years before this, refugees, both black and white, flooded the southern parts of the U.S. and brought with them the resounding ideas that excited the rebels in Haiti:   liberté, égalité, fraternité. Of course people do not necessarily need to have heard this renowned chorus of rebels everywhere to yearn for their own freedom, but it was surely a help in organizing the other slaves to join him.

One other passing point about the way Deslondes and his lieutenants ran this revolt. They used the cell system, quite familiar to us today, so that only very small groups knew who their immediate leader was and that leader only knew one other leader, and so on. As few people as possible knew who any other rebel-in-waiting was, a necessary precaution when a fellow slave might be willing to alert the master in exchange for an extra ration of bacon for his family.

In a few weeks, my novel about this uprising, titled The Lion’s Teeth, will be out. Meanwhile, next week when the anniversary arrives, I’ll be closing my eyes for a quiet moment of remembrance.

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Don’t write what you know Part II

Don’t write what you know Part II

I subscribe to an online thing, Advice for Writers, that comes to my email daily. It’s great. I recommend it to anyone who is writing or wants to write. Or may will write someday, maybe even tomorrow.

A recent post, dated 17 Dec 2014, is from Nikki Giovanni. She says: Writers don’t write from experience, though many are resistant to admit that they don’t. I want to be clear about this. If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.

You’ve probably heard the advice about writing what you know. How very limiting. Think of all the books that could never be written if that were the way to go: Stephen Crane was never in a battle yet wrote The Red Badge of Courage, Charlotte Bronte was never a governess before she wrote Jane Eyre, Jules Verne never left terra firma before he wrote From The Earth To The Moon. And what about all those vampire books – bet those authors never even saw one, much less, ahem, kissed one.

People ask writers all the time about where they get their ideas. Well, you can get ideas from the newspaper, from riding the bus, or from sitting behind a one-eyed, one-legged man at church. But the real answer is that our ideas come from imagining what it feels like to be a one-eyed, one-legged man, or someone who ran over a pedestrian because he was drunk, or someone who owns slaves but thinks he’s a good guy. It’s a willingness to engage the imagination in empathizing with people whose lives are not like our own.

To be specific and personal, I have never been a slave, being a white woman born in the United States in the 20th century. Pretty privileged person, on the whole. But I have written four books (critically acclaimed, as they say) about slavery. The author’s aim is to take the reader along with her in feeling what it is like to be other than they are. So thank you, Ms. Giovanni, for putting this thought so succinctly and convincingly. And thanks to Advice to Writers, too.

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How do you get started as a writer?

As a senior in most every sense, drat it, I’m asked pretty often how one gets started if one wants to write. There really is no great mystery. The answer is just to sit yourself down, open a file (or sharpen a pencil), and write. Now for the elaboration.

#1. Accept that your first efforts are going to be, um, crap. Maybe you’re the one in a thousand for whom that isn’t true, but then you wouldn’t need any advice from me. The hard part of #1 is recognizing that what you have written that day, or even that first year, is not as good as it should be. It’s like realizing that your newborn is not the most beautiful baby the world has seen. Very hard to see that.

Learning to write is a process. It may take years before you find your voice, hit your stride, become your best writing self. That doesn’t mean that there is no merit in your earliest efforts. You may have a pretty good product, but it is not as good as you can make it.

#2. The only way you will get better is A. to write and write and write and B. thorough revision. Beginning writers don’t believe this. They feel they’ve already done their best, and there it is, right there on the page. But discipline is a biggie in a writer’s life: go back and rewrite. Do that again. And again. This is a skill, learning to revise, and you learn it by doing it. You’ll get better at it, I promise. (Holding off for a few days, weeks, months pays off when you are revising – it’s much easier to find your weak spots when you see them with fresh eyes.)

#3. Now and then I meet a writer who doesn’t read much. That mystifies me. You gotta read. Everything. I even learned a lot from the books I thought were poor and weak. You can see where the cracks and ravels are in a bad book, and you can see where you might have made that same mistake, but never will again. Also, it’s very encouraging to read bad books. I can do better than that, you tell yourself, and so feel energized to carry on.

#4. Read a few books about how to write. These are some I found helpful: How To Write A Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey, Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card, The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman, Scene & Structure by Jack M. Bickham, and Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias. There are many books about writing on the market. Read some of them. It’ll help a whole lot.

#5. Don’t give up. Writing is lonely, frustrating, and just plain hard. It takes grit to keep going. Lots of writers tell you to write every day, at the same time, in the same place, whether you feel like it or not and whether you come up with anything worth keeping. I’m not that strict, frankly, but the point is that writing is a way of life. And it’s a choice. Accept that it is sometimes painful and keep going because it is also a source of great joy and satisfaction.

There’s more of course, since I’m gushing with wisdom, but five seems like a good number to start with.

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Why write a book without a wizard, or a romance?

My son, who especially likes Jim Butcher’s series The Dresden Files, says he doesn’t see why anyone would write a book without a wizard in it. I don’t see why anyone would write a book without a little romance in it.

(For everyone who was not an English major, let me elaborate: Frankenstein’s Monster was a romantic book in the literary sense, meaning it is a book of much imagination, of fantasy even, and of sentiment, emotion, insight – as opposed to an emphasis on reason and logic. Contrast that with a Tom Clancy novel. Not that Clancy has no emotion, but it’s really all about the plot. What I’m talking about is the publishing industry sense of Romance: a story primarily about two people struggling with obstacles so that they can be together and have their HEA, happy-ever-after.)

Now the caveats: I very much admire The Road by Cormac McCarthy. That certainly is not a romance, though there is plenty of love there between father and son. Lee Child’s novels about Jack Reacher are also not love stories. Plenty of lust, not least among the female readers, but with a couple of exceptions, Jack’s deepest heart is not involved in the liaisons he strikes up – and I love those books too. So enough with the except fors.

Even “men’s writers” generally throw some romance in there. My husband and I have read several of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series about the British soldier during the Napoleonic War. Very much about the camaraderie among the men, about the scheming and tactics of war in Spain, about honor and pride. But even Sharpe has a few scenes showing he has a heart and a woman trying to claim it. Same with Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy. I love the historical aspects of these books, but I also want the love stories to keep me going. (That is not to label those books as Romances. The man and the woman trying to find their way to a happy-ever-after is not what those books are “about.”)

I do enjoy a good Romance, with a capital R, as well – if you’re a novice Romance reader, try Jennifer Crusie’s little gem Bet Me for contemporary, riotous humor, Mary Balogh’s books for sentiment and high-emotion, Lisa Kleypas for steamy scenes, Judith Ivory for all around excellence, Julia Quinn for great fun, and on and on.

But I most like the category Historical Novel with Romance Elements. These books have more romance probably than Follett or Cornwell insert, but the story is bigger than the evolving relationship of those two people. Consider Evermore which is set in New Orleans during the Civil War. For example, both men and women have to choose between expediency and conscience – if you’re a Southerner and you fight to free the slaves, you are seen as a traitor and you may lose your home, your livelihood, your standing in the community, maybe even your life. This is the kind of meaty book I love to read, and to write.

Would love to know what you habitually choose when you’re book-shopping. (And I don’t know why I can’t get this machine to italicize titles today.)

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Ordinary People Doing Bad Things

I was trying to make sense of people who live innocuous lives on one plane and yet do really horrible things on another. I’m not talking about the Ted Bundy types who know they’re doing evil. I mean the ones who think they’re pretty fine folks and who have no trouble justifying the evil they do.

So I read a book about Nazi doctors (I think it was The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killers and the Psychology of Genocide), but I didn’t feel any closer to grasping that peculiar mindset. (Besides doctors, I also included camp officers who lived just outside the barbed wire with their wives and children and read to the kids, made love to their wives, and felt quite smug about being pretty special fellows.) (I should probably include my second cousin, a deacon in the church, who joked about running over little nigger girls on the side of the road. Chilling.)

Closer to home, we had generations of people who owned other people and thought that was just fine. For example: the white owner’s child, let’s call him Henry, played with the slave children, but when Henry grew up and lost too much money gambling, he’d have few qualms about selling off a former playmate to pay his debts. Henry’s mama might nurse the slaves and help cure them of their ailments, but she might also turn around and have an offending slave whipped. I can’t quite grasp the conviction these owners had that they were good people.

Instead of the old saw, write what you know, I like the new saw, write what you want to know. And I want to understand this type of mind. I want to explore not only what being enslaved does to a person but also what being a slave owner must do to a person’s mind and soul.

This is what I was thinking about when I wrote my first novels. Not that I claim to have figured anything out, really, but I hope I made the slave owners real people in all their contradictions and complexities. And I surely hope I portrayed the complexity of thought and feeling among the enslaved.

I just got my rights back from the publisher of my first two books, and have written the third book in my Plantation Series. They are now up as e-books. Evermore, never before published, takes the saga of slave and Creole families into the Yankee occupation of New Orleans during the Civil War.  If you’re interested, you can buy Evermore as an ebook right now – the paper will be out shortly. Buy Evermore.

 

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When Creoles met Cajuns (a short palatable history)

I have written a bunch of novels about the Creoles and Cajuns, slaves, and Americans who populated early Louisiana. (See Author Page on Amazon or my website.) This is the outline of my earliest research so I wouldn’t tell folks the Creoles were from Hungary and the slaves were all from China.

The Louisiana Creoles are a particularly romantic bunch. They are also a bit on the motley side. The French “discovered” Louisiana around 1700 and sent intrepid settlers to tame the wilderness. Some of them were men of vision, like de Bienville, some were entrepreneurs, some were adventurers, or maybe all three, but all of them were risk takers. It was hot, the miasma was dangerous and often fatal (think yellow fever and malaria), there were insects Europeans never dreamed of, and monsters like twelve foot gators. And lord at the snakes in the swampy land.

Enter the Germans, 1721, only a few years after the first French. Upriver from New Orleans is even known as the German Coast. These folks came for the same reasons as the French – land and opportunity. Cane wasn’t big yet, not until the late 1700s, but  indigo, and the blue dye they made from it, was profitable.  Indigo was  particularly hard on the slaves – I’ll write about that another time.

And enter the Spanish. The British and the French and the Spanish were forever picking at each other, and in 1763, the Spanish gained control of Louisiana. Some of the features we think of as French Creole in the French Quarter are also very much Spanish, like the filigreed wrought-iron balconies.

So by the time the Acadians/Cajuns arrived starting around 1760, the Creoles were a mixture of German, Spanish, and French Europeans. The word “creole” has more than one use, but in this case, it refers to people born in Louisiana of European parents. The culture, the language, and the bloodlines of these Creoles was decidedly French.

The Acadians had been French farmers and fishermen in Acadia, in Nova Scotia. Maybe you have visited the fort at Louisville in Nova Scotia where they have reconstructed the thriving village and populated it with knowledgeable actors and actresses in costume. It’s a great trip if you haven’t been. Anyway, the ever-warring British and French were at it, and at this stage of their hostilities, the British were ascendant, and in 1755 they booted the French Acadians out. Just rounded them up and loaded them on ships and took them away.

Some of those ships took the Acadians back to France. Some went to Maryland. Some to the Caribbean. Eventually, many of the displaced ‘Cadians migrated to New Orleans where people spoke French. Ironically, at this time the Spanish were in control of the Louisiana territory, but they welcomed the new settlers and gave them a little help getting started.

By the time the ‘Cadians arrived, the Creoles were well established. These newcomers, they exclaimed, didn’t speak proper French, and they dressed funny. They called them ignorant and poor and dirty, and that attitude lasted a long time. But the decades moved on, and the Cajuns stuck it out and demonstrated courage, resourcefulness, and grit. What would Louisiana be today without them? They contribute flavor to the language, wonderful cuisine, happy music, and a unique cultural heritage.

So the Creoles and Cajuns learned to cohabit the territory, along with the slaves which of course outnumbered the whites and who are not, ever, forgotten in thinking about who settled Louisiana.

If this period interests you, you might take a look at Always and Forever, A Saga of Slavery and Deliverance, Book One of the Plantation Series.  This is the story of Creoles running a cane plantation, the slaves who labor in those fields, and the Cajuns living in the bayous. You can read all the great reviews, the blurb, and the first chapter on my website or on Amazon.

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REGAINING THE RIGHTS TO YOUR BOOKS

I have just regained the rights to my first two novels. Here’s how it worked to get the rights returned to me:

My contract with Kensington Publishing specified that the company would hold the rights to my novels for seven years each. Your contract may be different, but it should say somewhere when you can get your rights back. So, the seven years were up for my two titles – but reversion to the author is not automatic.

I called the Kensington switchboard and talked to a very helpful person who directed me to the rights department and told me whom to ask for. That person, the rights expert, was also very helpful and told me just what to do.

I wrote one letter for the two titles, mentioning the contract detail of seven years, the dates of publication, the ISBN, and of course the book titles. Requested that all pertinent rights revert to me, the author.

As expected, it took weeks for them to respond. Quite a few weeks, like maybe ten. Then the letter arrived stating that all rights revert to the author, except:  they own the cover art and the type settings; and any foreign contracts still in effect remain in their domain.

They can’t copyright the title (don’t ask me why), so you’re free to keep your title or to change it. The advantage of keeping your title is that you can keep all your old reviews on Amazon. I am no Amazon expert, but I understand that a new title means it’s a new book and so the reviews don’t go with the new title.

Next, make sure your publisher takes down their entries for your books on all the e-stores like Amazon. This should happen automatically, but it didn’t for me. I called Kensington again, spoke to the helpful switchboard operator who directed me to the right desk, and told them I needed their entries erased before I could put mine up. She was also informative and helpful and explained it might take a while. It did. Weeks and weeks. If you don’t get satisfaction through that route, you can contact the e-store directly — send them a copy of the letter showing you now have the rights and proceed from there.

One last step: ask your publisher for a final audit of your accounts. They will have had a few sales since your last royalty statement that have not yet been accounted for. Again, it takes months. I got a check big enough to, let me see, take the two of us to Steak and Shake about twenty times, or to the very nice Columbia, the renowned Cuban restaurant in Tampa, maybe twice. So it’s worth it — and you might get a much bigger check!

Now you’re back in total control of your product. I can’t help you with the technical aspects of producing your own e-book and uploading it to e-stores. I have a wonderful husband who does all that for me. (He also does carpentry, gardening, financials – you name it, he can do it. And he’s all mine!) If you want to know what books he consulted in learning how to produce an e-book, I can do that much for you. Write me at gretchencraigauthor@gmail.com.

I took my two Kensington books, kept the same titles, and added a third novel that has not yet been published that makes them into a trilogy about the slaves, the Cajuns, and the Creoles of Louisiana.

This week we put up (on Amazon) Always and Forever, Book One of The Plantation Series, A Saga of Slavery and Deliverance. ( Buy at Amazon. )

Next week we’ll upload Ever My Love, Book Two of The Plantation Series, A Saga of Slavery and Deliverance  which extends the story to the eve of the Civil War. Buy at Amazon.

Book Three, Evermore, will be out the following week, taking the characters into the Union occupation of New Orleans during the Civil War (on Amazon).

Blurbs and the first chapter are (or will be in a few days) on my website (www.gretchencraig.com). It’s up and working but still being remodeled, so if it doesn’t look amazing today, check back tomorrow.

Hope this was helpful for those of you who want your rights back from the publisher.

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When the Creative Well Goes Dry

I feel like I’ve been in the desert, at the bottom of an empty well, in … well, you can supply your own metaphor if you’ve ever felt like your creativity has fled. Do not let mixing metaphors hold you back. I find them very entertaining.

It’s been painful. And it’s lasted about three years. Now and then I’d find a drop or two that I’d quickly use up, but mostly I’ve been unproductive and feeling empty. Of course this is not a unique occurrence. Maybe it happens to nearly everyone who builds a life around being creative.

Here’s what they say to do about writers’ block: Sit yourself down and write anyway even if all you come up with is as compelling as the phone book. Write at regular hours, so many hours or so many words per day. Take long walks, alone. (That will relax you so the creative energy fairies will come back.) Or just forget about it for a while. Join a scuba club. Volunteer at the library. Clean out the attic and then paint it. Wait it out.

My process has involved a fair amount of whining, sad to say. Stints of sitting down and writing crap. Lots of walks. Joined a few groups having nothing to do with writing. And waited it out. The one thing that helped me the most was when my wonderful friend Kat, a writer who has also been in the wilderness, gave me “permission” to give it all up. Don’t have to write ever again. Okay to be finished with it.

I really like that psychological idea of “permission.” One would think that as a responsible, mature, reasoning adult, you could do without that sort of validation and door-opening from a friend. But it really helped. I was happier than I’d been in a long time after I told Kat I was maybe just finished with writing, and she said, “That’s okay.”

And several months later, I’m feeling the creativity seeping back into my dry well. I don’t feel full speed (yeah, mixed metaphors are lazy, so shoot me), but I don’t dread sitting down at the computer now.

What a relief. More on writing and creativity and feeling blocked next time.

 

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Fools or Knaves?

Latest example: Fla. State Representative Chares Van Zant, a Republican from Clay County in the panhandle, is ranting that standardized testing, part of the reviled Common Core, is a plot to turn our sweet boys and girls into homosexuals. The company the state hired to construct the new testing, he says, is “promoting as hard as they can to any youth that is interested in the LGBT agenda. These people that will now receive $220 million from the state of Florida unless this is stopped, will now promote double-mindedness in state education and attract every one of your children to become as homosexual as they possibly can be.” (My source of info is Frank Cerabino’s article in The Tampa Bay Times, May 23, 2014, p.13A, and I think the Times got it from the Palm Beach Post.)

I’m befuddled as to how to react to this nonsense. Laugh? But maybe it’s not so funny. The guy, stupid or not, is a state legislator. Cry? Well that does a lot of good. Rage? Again, not so productive. I don’t live in Van Zant’s district, so I can’t vote against him when the election comes. So I’m writing my blog, seen my perhaps dozens of people (!) to shed a little light on this idiocy. Cause ignoring him is scary, too.

I can see myself sputtering arguments against the assumptions behind Van Zant’s pronouncement. No need to go into them here, though, because anyone reading this already has his mind made up as to whether Van Zant is stupid or not. My baby son, with babies of his own, would say, Calm down, Mom. My older son would sputter with me. My daughter would likely be practical as well as calm and offer something wise about lunacy in public office.

You have to wonder, is the man really that ignorant about homosexuality? If so, how come he thinks he’s smart enough to mouth off about something he doesn’t understand? And maybe it’s even worse if he knows he’s talking poisonous nonsense and does it anyway. Fool or knave? I have a hard time telling the difference sometimes.

Well, as rants go, I guess this was fairly tame. Consider yourself ranted at anyway.

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Best Pumpkin Bread on Planet Earth

Okay, I promised to share my pumpkin bread recipe. It really is better than everybody else’s. Once I made it from an actual pumpkin that I carved and stewed and then put in the bread and in a pie, and it was amazing. However, that’s a lot of work. So here’s how to make the, I guess, second-best pumpkin bread this side of the pumpkin patch.

3 /12 cups sifted flour (I haven’t sifted flour in years; just fluff it up a little before you measure it.)
3 cups sugar (That’s a lot of sugar. I’ve tried it with two cups, but then it lost its sparkle. 2 1/2 is okay.)
1 1/2 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. nutmeg
2 t. baking soda
1 1/2 t. salt
3/4 cup water
4 eggs
1 cup oil (secret tip: I always a add just a dash or two more oil than it calls for to ensure it’s moist.)
1 15 oz. can pumpkin (Not the pie filling that already has spices in it. I like Libby’s.)
1 cup nuts (or raisins) (I like maybe 1 1/4 cup of nuts, or heck, why not 2 cups.)

Mix the dry ingredients in a big bowl. Make a well and add everything else. Mix well by hand, but don’t beat it to death.
Divide batter between three greased loaf pans. Bake at 350 degrees one hour or until done. Do the toothpick test — if it comes out clean, it’s done, or if the sides of the bread are beginning to pull away from the sides of the pan, it’s probably done.

Enjoy!

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