Reconstruction, so much better and so much worse than I knew.

To honor Black History Month:  I have now read two books about reconstruction (A Short History of Reconstruction by Eric Foner, and The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case: Race, Law, and Justice in the Reconstruction Era, by Michael A. Ross), not enough to make me a scholar, but they have made me aware of how much I did not know.

First surprise for me was how really wonderful Reconstruction almost was. It’s heartbreaking to see how much progress was being made against great obstacles, and then for that progress to be squashed.

In the first years after the Civil War, black communities were filled with energy and determination. Foner writes that in 1860 over 90% of the South’s adult black population was illiterate, but they knew the importance of literacy. Some new black communities taxed themselves, poor as they were, to build schoolhouses and pay teachers. Some charged tuition but awarded scholarships to the poorest children. If they couldn’t build a schoolhouse, they held classes in abandoned warehouses, billiards rooms, even in former slave markets. (Foner, p.43)

Black communities “established orphanages, soup kitchens, employment agencies, and poor relief funds.” (Foner p. 42) Clearly ambition and enterprise and organizational and business skills were unleashed with the new opportunities.

In New Orleans newly freed slaves and already free blacks joined the police force to great effect. All over the South, blacks ran for local and state offices, and won. It must have been a giddy time for Southern blacks.

But Lincoln was killed and Andrew Johnson was sworn in as President. What a disaster. His earlier years as a politician had indicated Johnson was something of a populist. He was, after all, allied with Lincoln and had what we might now call liberal ideas. But some evil worm burrowed into his heart and another one into his brain, and he began to systematically dismantle Reconstruction.

Naturally Johnson did not do this by himself. Racism had been declared illegal under the Constitution  with the passage of the Civil Rights amendments. That didn’t, however, erase it from people’s minds. Economics was a big factor, too, since freeing the slaves tore up the economy and substituting some form of labor that favored the planters, for instance, seemed to many the only course to stabilizing the economy. Then the vote was restored to former rebels who proceeded to infect every state house as well as Congress with more and more obstacles to black’s establishing themselves financially or politically. It’s complicated, and I don’t have it all at my fingertips, but within a few years, the glory days of hope were smashed.

At this point, significant elements in our country are so enmeshed in racism that we have the need for Black Lives Matter movements. Ferguson. New York. St. Petersburg. Everywhere? The difficulties of being black in our country today are not subtle. And not uncomplicated, either.

One can’t help wondering, What if Lincoln had lived another 10 years?

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A White Woman Writing Black History

A reader has asked me by what lights should I, a white woman, be writing about Afro-Americans, slavery in particular.  Once I get all of the flip answers out of my system, what it comes down to is that people do not need to actually experience an injustice to feel its sting. Were there not white Freedom Riders during the 1960s Civil Rights movement? But I want to take the question seriously, so let me back up for a more personal accounting.

I’m a Southerner, born and bred, and I was a teenager and young adult in the 1960s. I remember segregation. Separate rest rooms, water fountains, buses, schools.

My parents were Southerners as were their parents back for many generations, but somehow my mother and father were not infected with racism. They had siblings who were certainly racist and proud to proclaim that fact, but not Mom and Dad. They also did not much mention the Civil Rights Movement nor Martin Luther King, Jr. We didn’t have meaningful discussions at our house; it was mostly, did you get your homework done kind of conversations.

Maybe it’s true that any young person not indoctrinated with hate will have a keen sense of justice. I hope so. At any rate, I remember walking down the sidewalk and realizing that my attempt to demonstrate fair-mindedness by nodding at or making eye-contact with black people was not welcome. And at it last occurred to me that for a black man to make eye-contact with a white girl on the sidewalk was foolish. Why should he risk trouble just to assuage my liberal conscience? And for black women — why would any black person bother with me? That was a humbling moment of attitude adjustment.

I write about slavery as a way to explore injustice, not because I have experienced racial prejudice. As a woman, I have certainly been stung by sexism, but that’s not the point here. I could write about poverty or ageism or sexism or homophobia or any of the many injustices that surround us. Certainly the sex trade of today is a howling injustice, but I know very little about it. I have not been touched by it. Racism, however, has touched me. I’ve seen it first-hand even if I have not been subjected to it myself, and I have been appalled. Most any Southerner my age could give you accounts of specific moments witnessing injustice, but I don’t want to talk about that right now. They are painful moments, and I’m trying to be in think mode, not feeling mode at the moment.

As a writer, I’m keen to explore what makes us human, and being hurt and oppressed, as well as being ugly and cruel, is also human. I want to know how it feels to be cruelly treated and yet endure, and I want to know what it feels like to be a person who could treat someone else cruelly. Writing is perhaps a way for me to exorcise feelings of guilt for being white in a racist society, but I believe it is more about examining humanity. We have done this to our fellows, and I want it understood. The way I find most satisfying and the way I am most able to share my thoughts is through imagination, fiction, and I believe that is how many readers enter the realm of not-me and come away with a deeper understanding of who they – and we — are.

I’ve written five books about African Americans and a few about other things. I may do one more, carrying my saga’s families into Reconstruction, or maybe I’ve said all I want to on the subject. But I do know that empathy is a powerful tool in countering any kind of injustice.

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Writing Description Readers Won’t Skip

You know how lots of times when you’re reading your eyes glaze over and you have no idea what the last paragraph was about? Odds are, the paragraph was descriptive. Either long-winded, or boring, or both.

My last post was about exceptionally good description. I gave examples from Flannery O’Connor, Dean Koontz, Louise Penny, Joanna Bourne, and others. All kinds of books represented. What distinguishes really good description from the humdrum?

First of all, you won’t be surprised, is to make up your own similes and metaphors. Clichés are deadly. I like them when I’m lazy, but they don’t win you any accolades, and they don’t help your readers see things clearly. Go back and revise the next go through.

Second, don’t tell your reader exactly what street your character is on unless it is truly, absolutely essential. I go bug-eyed trying to keep up with street names and cross street names and on and on. Stieg Larrson comes to mind with his set-in-Sweden books. Hated all those street names that meant nothing to me or to the story.

Same with landscape or weather – if the readers really need to know, then show them with action. For instance, the famous “It was a dark and stormy night,” is telling. Instead, show us:  Rebecca pulled her cloak tighter, trying to keep out the wind and the rain… or … Rebecca stumbled in the dark, her thin cloak useless against the rain and the wind.   Look at the verbs: pulled, to keep, stumbled. And you have a character for whom the dark and stormy night is important. So the reader will find it important and palatable, too.

Use your similes and metaphors sparingly. Make them sing, and you won’t need so many.

And how do you make them sing? The best description is not at first glance a simile or a metaphor. Again, look for ways to describe character or scene by using action, by showing, not telling.

Example: “She shook hands with her son at the airport when he left for Hong Kong.” From “The Duck Egg” by Molly Bruce Jacobs.    Look how much we know about that woman and her relationship to her son from that one sentence. The author could have told us all about how the mom was rather cold at heart, or so emotionally stunted she felt nothing, or her own mother had never… but she didn’t. She showed us an action – the hand shake with the added detail of the trip being all the way to Hong Kong – instead of telling.

Another rather long example, but it is too good not to share. This is from John D. MacDonald’s The Empty Copper Sea and exemplifies showing a state of mind, not the easiest thing to show, not tell:  a piece of newspaper has blown around his ankle as Travis walks along, thinking of Gretel, with whom he’s newly smitten. “I wadded it to walnut size and threw it some fifteen feet at a trash container. The swing lid of the trash container was open about an inch and a half. If it went in, I would live forever. It didn’t even touch the edges as it disappeared inside. I wished it was all a sound stage, that the orchestra was out of sight. I wished I was Gene Kelly. I wished I could dance.”  Look at the verbs. (I love that passage.) (Contrast: Travis was in love. … or … Travis’s heart sang with new love (ugh).)

So look for ways to show by having the character do something significant, like shake her son’s hand instead of hugging him. Look for brand new ways to compare familiar things. (Dashiell Hammett: “He went like that – like a fist when you open your hand.”)

You may think these wonderful descriptions just pop into a writer’s head. Sometimes they do, but lots of time, the writer sits there and ponders. Give yourself time to think, and time to revise, and time to think some more. You can do it.

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Favorite Bits From Other Writers

Now and then I jot down passages I especially like. Sometimes it’s a life-lesson sort of thing and sometimes it’s a description that catches me. Today I’m going to share some bits of description I admire.

From Joanna Bourne’s The Forbidden Rose:  “The child folded her giggle up inside herself and enjoyed it there.”

From J. D. Robb’s Survivor in Death: “…rage spitting into his throat, the burn scorching the rim of his heart.”

From Jonathan Kellerman’s Silent Partner: “…fade like breath on a razor mirror.”

From Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace: “wearing a sweater made of either cashmere or kittens.”

From Dean Koontz’s Forever Odd:  “… faint thrum of wings as bats fished the air for moths.”

From Sue Monk Kidd’s The Mermaid Chair: “… the egrets lifting out of the marsh carrying the light on their backs.”

From Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People”:  “She looked at nice young men as if she could smell their stupidity.”

From Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, quoting Fred Hoyle:  “…a stunning improbability – like a whirlwind spinning through a junkyard and leaving behind a fully assembled jumbo jet.”

Aren’t these wonderful?

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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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