God Bless Great Booksellers

When your debut novel is published, you need to find readers who will buy it, read it, and—if they like it—will recommend it to others. 

Selling is not done by some lofty publisher who will buy a frontpage ad in the New York Times for your book. It’s done by you, the author. 

Problem One

Authors tend to be introverted, even reclusive, people. But the moment your book hits the street, you must put on your hip boots, shuffle the introvert card to the back of the deck, and become the world’s best spokeman for the worth of your own writing. 

If you, the author, don’t think it’s a great book—why will anybody else think so?

But when you confront Problem One by committing to toot your own horn, then a second consideration presents itself. 

Problem Two

TIME.

There are a million ways to sell books, but they all take time.

You only have so much time, and now that you have one book in print, the clock is ticking. You’ve got to hurry up and write the next book, then hit the query circuit to seek publication for it. The time you can devote to selling the already-published book is severely limited. Among all the selling activities you could do, you’d better choose wisely. Strategically.

What’s a poor, beleaguered debut author to do?

Wouldn’t it be nice if people who sell books for a living—professional booksellers—would sell your book for you? Believe it or not, Dear Reader, this can actually happen. But you must approach the owners and managers of bookstores and let them know your book exists. 

Every bookstore is different. They all have their own preferred working methods. You need to approach each store individually—another time-consuming pursuit. And not every bookstore you approach will show an interest in what you’re offering. 

So when professional booksellers enlist in your campaign, that’s cause for rejoicing. 

Great Allies

So far, I have gotten Price of Passage placed in several bookstores, but two stand out.

At Open House Imports, Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, owner Janice Sievers immediately bought six copies and placed more on order. I asked Janice if there was a way she could highlight the book by special placement so it would not get lost among the many other fine books she sells in her Sandinavian gift shop. She got a gleam in her eye and said, “Let’s have The Troll sell it.” She marched around the end of the counter and placed a copy of my book right at the feet of the imposing troll who greets customers as they walk in the door.

Look at him. He’s making an offer you can’t refuse.

Janice reports she’s already had some sales.

In Watertown, Isabelle and Wesley operate Literatus & Co. It’s a well-stocked bookstore that also sells great coffee and snacks. The place has become a center of community life in Watertown. You might see almost anybody there on a Saturday morning, so when Isabelle offered me the opportunity to personally present Price of Passage to their customers, I jumped at the chance.

Me at my stand in Literatus.

They set me up at a small table in the main traffic flow, and Wesley encouraged me to be proactive, approaching customers and engaging them in conversation.

The net result was sixteen books sold in three hours, including two purchased by the store for their stock. In less than a week, Isabelle informed me those two copies had been sold, and she ordered more from my distributor. 

Friendly, approachable, and knowledgeable booksellers like Janice, Isabelle, and Wesley are great allies for an author to have. 

Support Independent Booksellers

If you, Kind Reader, find yourself in or near Mount Horeb or Watertown, Wisconsin, make it a point to stop at Open House Imports or Literatus & Co. Look around, check the place out, and buy something.

Even if you’re not physically there, you can support them through online purchases, directly at their own websites or through Bookshop.org.

It’ll give you a warm glow.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer 

Teddy Bear’s Picnic

DEAR READER: With today’s installment, do yourself a favor: Click on each hypertext link as you encounter it, crank up the volume, relax and enjoy. Each item is worth hearing in its own right, and together they form a sort of aural mélange that will make up for any deficiencies in the text.—The Author

Why does my brain swing back so often to my earliest years? Maybe it’s because I’m in my second childhood.

Cream of Wheat box, even older than I am. Public domain.

This morning it was Cream of Wheat. By now, I’ve learned to make it myself, that stuff which my mother used to set before me when I was five or six. This morning my Cream of Wheat steam rose through its surface rubble of berries, and it wafted me back. 

It put me in mind of Big John and Sparky. I barely remember them, but I do remember them.

Out of the Magical Ether

Big John and Sparky? 

“What are you running off at the mouth about now, O New Favorite Writer?” I hear you cry.

Well, to understand, you have to go back to Radio Days.

Every Saturday morning, I came out in my flannel pajamas, clutching my overnight pal, Teddy. I sat down at the kitchen table. Teddy sat beside me.

Mom brought out the steaming porridge and turned on the radio. Big John and Sparky arrived to the tune of “Teddy Bear’s Picnic,” sung by Ann Stephens. I could relate, because sometimes when I was tired, my own mommy and daddy would take me home to bed, just like the teddy bears in the song. And my best friend was a teddy bear.

Big John and Sparky, pictured in 1957. Public Domain.

Big John was a big man with a big voice, and Sparky was a little elf with a tiny voice—the kind of voice we would later think of as coming from chipmunks, courtesy of “David Seville” (Ross Bagdasarian) and friends Alvin, Simon, and Theodore. But I get ahead of myself. 

Big John and Sparky must have had wonderful adventures together. Now, I only recall their contrasting voices, their theme song—still one of my favorites—and the smell and taste of Cream of Wheat.

“But say, O New Favorite Writer—why did you not watch Big John and Sparky on TV?”

Thanks for your timely interruption, Dear Reader. The answer is, there was no TV. 

But there was no shortage of things to watch on the radio.

The Audio Dimension

After Big John and Sparky, which was only a fifteen-minute program, there came Let’s Pretend, a half-hour show in which multiple actors gave voice to classic tales like Rumpelstiltskin, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and Cinderella. However old and hoary these stories might be, they were brand-new and exciting to us children who heard them for the first time on CBS’s Peabody Award-winning program. 

Child actor Arthur Trimble as Buster Brown, with his dog Tige. Public domain.

To make things even more perfect, it was sponsored by Cream of Wheat.

Other programs on Saturday morning included Buster Brown, hosted by “Smilin’ Ed” McConnell, and Space Patrol with Commander-in-Chief Buzz Corry and his young sidekick Cadet Happy. 

Raygun” by Andy Field (Field Office) is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The latter show put ray guns and disintegrator blasters into serious competition with cowboy pistols for toy of the year. We, of course, had to imagine what such weapons looked like. But toy designers had good imaginations, too, and soon we could purchase the genuine article at our local five-and-dime. Or we would buy it by sending away a quarter and several cereal boxtops to the sponsor of the program.

It was a great time to be a kid. Soon enough, our butts would be plunked on the living room carpet all Saturday morning as we watched TV. But for a few short years, many of the great things we saw came through our ears, while we munched our Cream of Wheat.

Teddy still remembers it, and so do I.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Isinglass

Dear Reader: This is a Friday Reprise of a post that originally appeared May 19, 2019. Enjoy!

“Fried egg sandwich and a turnip,” Millie said, with a clack of her new boughten teeth, something she did unconsciously these days, to settle them in her mouth.

“That’s good, it’ll fix me up for the walk home.” Bill heard the turnip clunk inside the lunch pail as she handed it to him. He would not eat this lunch until he got off work at two. 

She turned away to stoke the woodstove and start mixing cornmeal mush for the kids, who were due to get up an hour from now. 

Bill buttoned his wool greatcoat, pulled his fedora down around his ears, and stepped out into the five a.m. March drizzle. 

He walked east in darkness on the damp shoulder of the Peoria Road—U.S. Route 150, as it was now designated—almost sprinting, almost at a lope. A man of spare physique had to hustle to walk the nine miles to Dahinda in three hours. Bill usually made it in two and a half. Good to be early to work; some of those god-damned young jay-larks at the pumping station could take punctuality lessons from him. Not that he was old. He wouldn’t reach fifty for two more years.

Still, it was hard to be walking three hours each way, six days a week, for a six-hour job. Get six hours’ pay, but it takes you twelve hours to do it. The pipeline company had cut his hours a year ago, to make room on the payroll for a few more men. Well, everybody had families to feed, and most of the big employers were reducing the standard workday. The imbecile in the White House, Herbert Hoover, encouraged them all to do it. Not that this Roosevelt would be an improvement.

Damn it, he missed the Pierce-Arrow—a 1929 touring car, made shortly after Studebaker bought the company. Bill had bought it new for just under three thousand. A bit of a luxury, but it was a fine machine and well within the range of what he could afford. Then the stock market crashed, the company cut back hours, and something had to go. He couldn’t sell back Millie’s teeth—and anyhow, they wouldn’t fetch one-tenth the price of a Pierce-Arrow. He had sold the car at a sacrifice, but better fifteen hundred than nothing. Every one of those dollars would be needed to keep feeding five young mouths—plus his own and Millie’s, of course. Even with the large vegetable garden he kept.

Pierce-Arrow touring car. F. D. Richards, Creative Commons.

So far the company had only cut hours, not the hourly wage rate. But that was coming, no doubt. Things would get a lot worse before they got better. They couldn’t move back to Dahinda after moving all the way to Knoxville for Edward’s high school. And the other four were coming along right behind him. Best to stay put. So trudge three hours each way, whatever the weather. Sometimes he could hitch a ride from a passing freight truck.

Still, he missed that touring car. It had the optional side curtains with little isinglass windows in them. Just the thing to roll down and keep warm and dry in weather like this. He clutched the handle of the little steel lunch bucket. Nine hours from now, he’d need the nourishment before the hike home.

A fictionalized account of true events.

Grandpa’s Pierce-Arrow with Isinglass Curtains

My grandfather, William P. Sommers, terrified me. By the time I knew him, he was a bombastic, profane, old man—a bantam rooster, probably not over five-foot-two in his size six shoes. But I was naturally timid; he really meant no harm. He simply believed he knew best and everybody else was a damned fool. And what were children, if not to be yelled at?

Dad told me that Grandpa had once owned a Pierce-Arrow, one of the finest cars of its time, but had to give it up during the Great Depression and then was forced to walk to and from work. Nine miles was only a short drive, even on the roads of that day. But to walk it twice each day, rain, shine, or blizzard, must have been brutal. Maybe that’s part of what made him a tough old buzzard.

Dad said the Pierce-Arrow had “isinglass curtains you could roll right down in case of a change in the weather.” He was, consciously or unconsciously, quoting Curly, from Rogers and Hammerstein’s Broadway musical  Oklahoma!, who sings exactly those words in a song about “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” 

But what are isinglass curtains, whether used on a horse-drawn surrey or on a fine motor car? The quest for the answer is perplexing.

In the first place, “isinglass” means at least two different things. 

DIGRESSION ALERT: When I was a boy, there was a popular quiz show on the radio called Twenty Questions. Panelists guessed a secret object by asking no more than twenty yes-or-no questions. The quizmaster started each round by saying whether the object to be guessed was “animal, vegetable, or mineral.” (Come to think of it, old radio programs might be an excellent subject for a future blog entry!) END OF DIGRESSION ALERT. WE RETURN YOU TO YOUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED BLOG POST: 

Isinglass would need to be classified as both animal and mineral. From Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition: “isinglass . . . 1 a form of gelatin prepared from the internal membranes of fish bladders: it is used as a clarifying agent and adhesive 2 mica, esp. in the form of thin, transparent sheets of muscovite”. So now you know.

Fish bladders?

What is this fish-bladder stuff? Other sources say it is a substance obtained from the dried swim-bladders of sturgeon and is used mainly for the clarification or “fining” of beer and wine. (Exception, however: The isinglass used for making kosher beer or wine must be from a different fish, because sturgeon is treif, or non-kosher.) This kind of isinglass is also used for darkly-hinted-at “specialized gluing purposes.” 

Sturgeon. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Russian mica

The mica form of isinglass is a “phyllosilicate mineral of aluminium and potassium” that occurs as thin, transparent sheets. That form of mica is known as “muscovite” because large quantities of it are mined in Russia. 

I can’t imagine either material being made into carriage-sized curtains that can be “rolled down.” The mineral mica would not be flexible enough; the animal mica would not be durable enough. And neither could be made in large enough sheets. Curly, in Oklahoma!, probably spoke imprecisely to achieve a lyric that would fit metrically into the song. That’s probably the answer, for we know that horse-drawn carriages and early automobiles did have fabric curtains inset with small windows or peepholes of isinglass. But, which kind of isinglass: animal, or mineral? 

Coachbuilt.com (which appears to be published by “Adirondack Motorbooks & Collectibles LLC dba Auto Antiques” of Palmyra, New York) reconciles both sides of the question quite nicely: “ISINGLASS—typically a window made from thin sheets made of a material other than glass. Early isinglass was made from a transparent sheet of gelatin, processed from the inner lining of a Sturgeon’s bladder. As it was flexible, it was perfect for the storm curtains and window on early touring cars. The term is now commonly used as any non-glass sheet material which passes light, such as mica, oiled paper, celluloid or plastic. Early isinglass of all varieties yellowed and scratched easily.” 

This explanation is logical and harmonious; but is it true? Were fish-gelatin sheets really used for windows? It’s hard to swallow—except perhaps as a fining agent in beer or wine, which could be easy to swallow. At least it would be flexible, so it would roll up nicely in a curtain. Mica, on the other hand, has only a slight flex—less than that of the wobble board Australian singers use on songs like “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport.” Such windows would have to be tiny to roll inside a fabric curtain without undue lumpiness. The most sensible thing about Coachbuilt.com’s explanation comes at the end, for no doubt all different kinds of things have been casually called “isinglass”—just as in the days of my youth any kind of transparent candy or food wrapper was called “cellophane.” 

Wikipedia states: “Thin transparent sheets of mica were used for peepholes in boilers, lanterns, stoves, and kerosene heaters because they were less likely to shatter than glass when exposed to extreme temperature gradients. Such peepholes were also used in ‘isinglass curtains’ in horse-drawn  carriages and early 20th-century cars.” This seems to contradict Coachbuilt.com’s theory, but we might be wise to take this Wikipedia factoid with a grain of salt—or perhaps quartz or feldspar. 

My other grandfather—Alvin E. LaFollette, also of Knoxville, Illinois—had a kerosene space heater that stood in his living room in winter and kept it warm. It had a round window in front, about six inches in diameter, through which you could see, somewhat indistinctly, the leaping orange and blue flames. I think this actually was mica. But note: In stove/boiler/heater applications, the isinglass did not have to roll or bend. Mica, for its heat-resistant properties, was perfect in the application.

In short, when old Bill Sommers longed for the comfort of his isinglass curtains, and when his son Lloyd passed the story on to me, the exact composition of the particular transparent windows was hardly relevant. It was just “isinglass.” Whatever that may have meant to them.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Making a Start

Dear Reader, 

“Order Coal Now.” Illustration by J.C. Leyendecker. Boston Public Library. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

It’s time for a sneak preview of my new World War II novel, (Bestselling Title To Be Announced Later). Here is the opening sentence: 

Harold Henry Mahler was known as Hal by all freshmen and by almost all townspeople.

Pretty overwhelming, right? 

No? A little plain?

JUST A MINUTE!! Try this instead:

Hal smashed his shovel into the mound of bituminous coal that overflowed the back end of the loading dock.

Lights! Camera! Action! Doesn’t it sing? 

But, which one should I use? 

The Primacy of What Comes First

I’m only starting to write this novel. Unlike some authors, I tend to write the first chapter first and then go on from there. 

Trouble is, you don’t always know what’s going to wind up being the first chapter. Maybe when you complete the first draft you suddenly realize your first chapter was a waste of time. The SECOND CHAPTER is where you should start. So you cut Chapter One, re-number Chapter Two, and work in essential bits from the original first chapter along the way.

Madness. Photo by Nate. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

But you do have to begin somewhere. Any other course is madness. 

If we assume that Chapter One shall remain Chapter One up to the time it reaches the publisher, we need to start with a brilliant first line

People often pick up a nice-looking book, read the first sentence of the first chapter, and decide whether to buy. If your opening line doesn’t grab them, YOU’RE DOOMED. 

That’s hardly an exaggeration, Faithful Reader. Literary agents and acquisition editors usually want to see the first ten pages only. If those pages don’t grab them, YOU’RE DOOMED. And if the very first line starts you off in a shaky way . . . well, don’t quit your day job.

So: How do you know what first line to write? How do you even know what kind of a first line to write?

“Call me Ishmael.”

“A more humane Mikado never did . . . exist.” Frederick Federici as the Mikado. Photo by Benjamin Joseph Falk. Public domain.

There is a lot of precedent for writing a first line that simply introduces the main character, but that’s currently out of vogue.

This might be called the Gilbert-and-Sullivan mode of character development. Some guy steps out on stage and sings, “I am the very model of a modern major general”; or “I am the monarch of the sea, the ruler of the Queen’s Navee”; or “A more humane Mikado never did in Japan exist; to nobody second, I’m certainly reckoned a true philanthropist.”

Herman Melville starts his Great American Novel Contest entry with “Call me Ishmael.” He follows this up with paragraphs of philosophical disquisition upon just why Ishmael chooses to go to sea. Slow going, but that was a typical pace of novels not so long ago.

A hobbit-hole. Illustration by CikkMiX. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

J.R.R. Tolkien announces, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He then describes the hobbit-hole at length before even beginning to describe the hobbit himself. And he tells an awful lot about this hobbit before even giving him a name, and goes on to detail the history of his family and the history of hobbits in general before setting anything in motion at all. The pace is almost glacial. 

J.D. Salinger. Photo by Lotte Jacobi. Public Domain.

Or how about the way J.D. Salinger begins The Catcher in the Rye? “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” 

What these openings have in common, besides a leisurely approach to the introduction of the main character, is a sublime confidence by the authors that they can accomplish that introduction in such an enticing way that the reader will not simply become bored and put down the book.

Few authors writing today have that kind of confidence. Perhaps that’s why we rely so heavily on opening in medias res—in the midst of things. 

“Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”

Laurel and Hardy in another fine mess. Public domain.

When a book starts right in the middle of something, the effect on the reader is momentary disorientation. You don’t know what is going on, so you have to pay close attention to whatever clues may come your way.

“When he finished packing, he walked out on to the third-floor porch of the barracks brushing the dust from his hands, a very neat and deceptively slim young man in the summer khakis that were still early morning fresh.” Thus James Jones introduces his protagonist, Private Prewitt, in From Here to Eternity. But we don’t know it’s Private Prewitt. We just know it’s some deceptively slim young guy in khakis. Why was he packing? We don’t know. Barracks? He must be in the army. But which barracks? Where?

The author’s advantage in a cold opening like this is that the reader must scramble to catch up. This allows the writer to hold the reader’s interest by doling out clues one at a time. 

My debut historical novel, Price of Passage, opens like this: “Anders Gunstensen jumped up from his straw pallet, struck a match, and re-lit the oil lamp.” You’re immediately in the midst of something, but you don’t quite know what. You can guess, however, that it’s in old times, because Anders is sleeping on a straw pallet and using an oil lamp. In the next two sentences you will learn that he is focused on emigrating to America. The story goes on from there.

The reason in medias res is such a common technique for starting a book—besides the effect of giving the reader a lot of questions to answer—is that it puts the reader inside the story. The narration, even if written in the third person, presents the viewpoint and experiences of the protagonist, who becomes “the viewpoint character.” 

It’s hard to say for sure, though, that in all cases this kind of deep-viewpoint narration, and the starting of the story in midstream, are definitely superior to other ways of telling a story. If that were so, then we would have to say Dickens wasted his ink when he penned:

Charles Dickens. Public domain.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

“There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever.”

–Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

So, amid these considerations, what can we say about the two proposed opening lines of my World War II novel, (Bestselling Title To Be Announced Later)

Did I leave something out?

My first opener (Harold Henry Mahler was known as Hal . . .) tells us something definite about the main character right away. But to continue down the path of explaining who Hal is, and why the reader should care, is fraught with danger. Unless it’s written very fetchingly—or maybe even if it is written very fetchingly—it will soon become tedious.

The second one (Hal smashed his shovel into the pile . . .) is all action. It plunges into the story without wasting space on static depictions of the character. But mere narration of Hal’s vigorous deeds in the coal yard will not engage the audience in his life enough to make them care what happens to him. 

The thing I neglected to mention above, Kind Reader, is that Sentence One must not only arouse interest on its own. It must also serve as keynote to a First Chapter that starts the whole story moving. Very soon, readers must know something about who Hal is, where he comes from, what kind of people he is related to, what kinds of things he does, and why he does them. That’s not too much to ask of an initial chapter. But it’s not easy to cram all that stuff in. At least, not in a smooth, easy read that draws readers into the story.

So, here’s another possible opener: 

Hal Mahler, 14, delighted in his casual mastery of balance as he jogged down the state highway in the dark, feet slipping on the rimy macadam, to keep up with Pop. 

We’re no longer in the coal yard. We had to change the setting in order to come up with a scene that would carry all that freight we just mentioned. 

I’m not saying this new sentence is perfect. But look at all the things it does:

1. It tells us something of the essence of Hal’s personality—his athleticism and grace, his energy, and his capacity for delight.

2. It relates him to another character, Pop—whom we may rightly infer is his father—and tells us something about Pop: His own energy, urgency, and even his demanding nature—for the context implies that Hal is eager to please Pop by keeping up.

3. It still gives the reader some worry to chew on—what are they doing out on a state highway in the dark?

4. As an added bonus, it includes the phrase “rimy macadam.” The second word, macadam, places the scene in a bygone time, for nobody talks about macadamized roads anymore. And the first word, “rimy,” stakes a claim to this being a literary novel. To solidify such a claim, we must of course come up with a title that is not only bestselling but also literary. 

Anyway, you get the idea. This opening sentence pulls a lot more weight than either of the other two, in my not-so-humble opinion.

Not bad for three or four days’ work.

Tune in next time for another exciting adventure.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

No No Nostalgia

Dear Reader: This is a Friday Reprise of a post that originally appeared April 12, 2019. Enjoy!

Never imagine, Dear Reader, that these treks into our common past are the sloppy rants of a senile mind deranged by worship of the roseate past. I seek a narrative in which the past informs the present and even the future. 

Still, nostalgia can’t help creeping in. It’s only natural. That’s what nostalgia does. 

Some folks think we are damned lucky to have stumbled into the light of the present from out of the stinking cesspit of the past; others see that same past as a golden age casting its fading twilight beams on the regrettable present. These are, seriously, two competing theories of history. Both are fueled by powerful emotions as much as by objective facts.

Two Views of History

A confused undergraduate at Knox College in the 1960s, I mumbled through a seminar taught by Prof. Douglas Wilson, which compared the writings and worldviews of Samuel Clemens (“Mark Twain,” 1835-1910) and Henry Adams (1838-1918). The two men were contemporaries; they lived through pretty much the same history. Yet they brought with them different backgrounds, and they reached different conclusions. 

In those days I was not paying much attention to scholarship, but I seem to recall hearing that Clemens, who when young had piloted the era’s most advanced riverboats, undeniably belonged to the forward-looking 19th century. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was written by one who saw antiquity as not merely quaint but benighted and probably dangerous. Even in his literary life he embraced modernity, from the typewriter to the Paige compositor, an early typesetting machine. A modern man. 

Photo by Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash

Henry Adams was the scion of New England’s most distingished family. The great Adamses—Samuel, John and Abigail, and John Quincy (Henry’s grandfather)—were denizens of the recent past, imbibers of the heady wine of revolution and republicanism. But Henry’s own eyes had seen the disastrous Civil War and the rapacious, ugly “Gilded Age” that followed. These alarming developments neither Henry nor his scholar-diplomat father, Charles Francis Adams, could prevent. In later years, Henry adored the High Gothic period—the last time, as he saw it, that mankind was united around high Christian principles. The Gothic arch symbolized, to him, the rapid plunge from an unsustainable zenith. All the glories of the West were doomed to perdition.

Jack Finney

In times of stress and disintegration, people yearn for simpler, more graceful and natural times. This came to mind on a recent reading—in some cases, a re-reading—of short stories by Jack Finney (Walter Braden Finney, 1911-1995), collected in a 1986 book called About Time.

Finney, another Knox College alum, was a successful fiction writer from the 1930s through the 1980s. He specialized in evoking the pleasant reverberations of days gone by. Many of his stories featured time travel, in one way or another. Most of them were a little spooky—paranormal, if you will. He is fondly remembered for his novel Time and Again, in which a 1960s ad agency man is selected for a secret government project to travel back in time—back to the New York City of 1911, to be precise. His other major work was The Body Snatchers, which was adapted for film under the title Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It is, as far as I can tell, the locus classicus for the concept of “pod people” intent on replacing Earth’s citizens, one by one, with exact but soulless duplicates. Told through Finney’s trademark regular-guy persona, the prospect is remarkably chilling.

Even in Body Snatchers, Finney displays a concern with the gradual deterioration of a gracious social and physical environment over time; but it’s even more prominent in Time and Again and in his many short stories, such as “I Love Galesburg in the Springtime.” On nearly every page we sense, through his fictional characters, the author’s yearning to be back “in the good old days.” 

Willoughby, Anyone?

Finney was not the only twentieth-century writer sounding that theme. Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling had a streak of it, as shown in “A Stop at Willoughby.” Serling’s own favorite story from the first season of the series, “A Stop at Willoughby” shows a modern New Yorker under pressure at home and at work, who discovers an special stop on his commuter train that leads to an idyllic town of the 1880s, a place where he longs to escape. I won’t spoil the ending, in case you wish to access it here.

Old codgers like me are easily beguiled by the charms of old times. We remember those times, and it is easier to remember the good bits than the other bits. But an honest understanding of history must include the dark spots. There were too many of them, and they contributed too much to our present straits, to think of omitting them.

At the same time, it seems to require the perspective of age to affirm, praise, and if possible rescue essential goods of the past that have been too easily swept aside, left bobbing in the wake of society’s mad rush to perfect the human beast in the present for the sake of a utopian future. 

Somewhere in the weighing and balancing of these conflicting claims, some valid, actionable truth of history may reside. I wouldn’t know. I only write the stories.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Storming the Heights

Success in any endeavor is defined by the doing. The act of doing. The skill in doing. The manner of doing. The time and place of doing. 

A literary lion. Photo by Kevin Pluck, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Most of all: the dedication and constancy with which the thing is done.

Seven years ago, I set out to become a serious writer. 

I had retired once and then retired again. By January 2016, I was free to do what I had always wanted to do: Write. 

Hardly knowing what I was about, I had set my course to become a Literary Lion. 

(Gentle Reader, you may have heard me sing this song before, but it’s worth a reprise in a different key, if only to get newcomers up to speed.)

How to Build on Small Victories? 

In 2016, Fetch! magazine published (and paid for) a whimsical essay I wrote about our old Siberian husky. In the same year, and again in 2017 and 2018, the Saturday Evening Post web-published three of my short stories about Izzy Mahler, a boy growing up in the 1950s. Light reading, yes—but chosen for publication over hundreds of competing submissions.

I began to think of a big historical novel based on my great-great-grandparents who emigrated from Norway in the 1850s. By early 2017 I was ready to start writing chapters. 

It takes perseverance to write a novel. How could I sustain my purpose through this lonely quest?

Some writers may thrive as solitary artists, scratching out stories by midnight oil in a Gothic mansion, or under a gray mansard in some bohemian arrondissement of Paris. But I am not one of them. I can’t work in a vacuum. I need the stimulation of other minds and the encouragement of those farther along the path. 

Parisian mansards by Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894). Public Domain.

The University of Wisconsin Continuing Studies Writing Program, now defunct, was then in fullest flower. I attended its writers’ conferences in 2016, 2018, and 2019. At such events you can learn craft. 

You learn about marketing. You befriend others who, whatever their topic or genre, share a great obsession with you. They are writers. You have found your tribe. 

I also joined two smaller groups, mutual critique groups. With regular meetings in a more intimate setting, members of such a group read and critique one another’s material. You learn how your work strikes readers. You learn what works and what doesn’t. And again, you form friendships.

To Blog or Not to Blog: That is the Question

In our critique sessions, we sometimes discussed marketing. Most writers love writing—or, at least, feel compelled to write. We tend to approach marketing, however, with loathing and trepidation.

Yet, marketing is unavoidable. You want people to read your work. That means it must find publication. And, once published, it must find its audience. 

Bennett Cerf. Public Domain

No fairy godmother—no genie with the gentle smile of Bennett Cerf plus angel wings and a magic wand—is going to swoop down, pluck your manuscript from obscurity, and add it to the Modern Library. You, the writer, having gone to the trouble of filling the pond with water, must also round up the horses, bring them to the pond’s margin, and cause them to drink. 

We have little clue how to do this. But the notion that gnaws at our hearts is that social media equals marketing. To a geezer like me, that concept represented a dreadful imposition. Once I set foot on the slippery path of social media, how many hours of writing time would be devoured by constant, compulsive tweets, posts, and links?

Of all web-based avenues, blogging seemed the wisest, if only because it was a longer form. What could I say, worth saying, in 140 characters? Or even 280? It seemed I would need to invest a day or two each week to write a blog post that anybody would want to read. 

But how would I come up with topics? And even if I found things to blog about, why do it at all? How would this help me sell my REAL writing—my great American novel

In our Tuesdays With Story writing group, Jerry Peterson, a great mentor, said something I did not expect. “If you think you’d like to blog, you could give it a try,” he said. “And consider that blog posts are one part of your writing—not just a gimmick to sell your other writing.” 

So I plunged into the blogging world on April 12, 2019.

Clarity

I had little idea what blogging could do for me. 

One thing it did immediately was to impose a clarity that had been lacking before. 

My friend Dan Blank is an apostle of clarity. He uses a simple exercise with index cards, which he calls “Clarity Cards.” He urges creators to assess their goals and purposes at frequent intervals to gain clarity on their main channels of endeavor. It is, as billed, a clarifying thing to do.

Just to design the front end of a WordPress blog site, I needed to clarify my thoughts about what I am trying to do as a writer. I knew it was all tangled up with the past, since I always want to write historical fiction. 

I had a sense that history is not just dead events, inexorably receding on the conveyor belt of time.  History, though consigned to the past, also lives in the present. We live in the midst of history. We never get clear of our history. 

T.S. Eliot wrote a brilliant definition of what I want to do:

T.S. Eliot. Photo by Lady Ottoline Morrell. Public Domain.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time.                                                                                                                        —from “Little Gidding”

I want to take readers into the past with me so that we may return having learned something that helps us be ourselves in the present.

So I came up with the title “Reflections” for my blog—because it’s a reflective endeavor—and the slug line “seeking fresh meanings in our common past.”

We all have individual histories, but there is also a collective past—a background we all own together. The more fully we know this, the more human we will be. 

Dedication and Constancy

Since beginning this blog in 2019, I have published my debut historical novel, Price of Passage. Diane Donovan, senior reviewer for Midwest Book Review, called it “just the ticket for an absorbing tale of evolution and enlightenment.”

I have completed a middle grade historical novel, Izzy Strikes Gold!, and have begun querying agents on its behalf. When I read it aloud recently to the members of my grandson’s fifth-grade class, they were engaged and asked lots of questions. 

I am now writing early chapters of a Word War II historical novel (for adults), as yet untitled, about two brothers with an intense rivalry. My writing coach, Christine DeSmet, Distinguished Faculty Associate, UW-Madison Continuing Studies, thinks my plot outline has enough substance to support a good book. 

And oh, by the way, I have added 193 posts to the blog, for a total of about 200,000 words. You are reading post number 194. My fear of not having enough material proved groundless. It turns out the more you write, the more you can write.  

Laurie Scheer, former director, UW-Madison Writers’ Institute 2010-2021 and co-founder, New Nature Writers, has called it “one of the best writer’s blogs on the planet.” And Christine DeSmet agrees, saying, “Sign up, people! It’s an amazing blog.”

So Jerry Peterson was right. This little endeavor, far from being a sales gimmick, has turned out to be a worthy endeavor of its own. For this reason I have begun to publicize Laurie’s and Christine’s kind comments about this blog. That publicity has gained the blog some readers.

But know, Kind Reader, that you are still among a select few. In a good week, my blog is read by a hundred readers, many of them repeat customers. EVERYBODY ELSE IN THE WORLD does not know what they’re missing.

About the “Reflections” Blog

If you’re new to this blog, you may wish to sample a few previous posts. You can navigate there using the “Search . . .” box at upper right, or via the ARCHIVES, organized by month, farther down the right-hand menu.  

The posts are not all of one kind. 

  • Some, like this one, speak of my writing journey.
  • Some address writers’ concerns more generally, such as “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.”
  • Many are family stories, or personal recollections of the past, like “Life on the Vermilion.”
  • Some focus on traditional historical content, for example “General Grant.”
  • Some are literary, for example my very popular review of Where the Crawdads Sing.
  • There are some writing samples, like the short story “Encounters With Monsters” and the poem “Blood Quarrel.”
  • Some can only be called general commentary on our times. These are not exactly political, but they may raise political topics or questions, as in “No. We’re Not.” 
  • A few are overtly religious, such as “A Meditation.”
  • Some few posts expose the haps and occasional mishaps of my old friend Milo Bung, a third cousin of Slats Grobnik and direct descendant of Æthelred the Unready.
  • Numerous others, no doubt, elude easy classification.

If, starting today, you went through the archive month by month and read one post a day, you would be up to date in less than a year. Now, that would be dedication!

I hope you enjoy these posts. If you do, spread the word. And buy Price of Passage. Thank you kindly.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Mom-and-Pop Stores

When I was a boy, every neighborhood had a mom-and-pop store. It was a grocery store, a newsstand, a cigar store, a non-prescription pharmacy, a yo-yo demonstration headquarters, and (best of all) a penny-candy emporium. 

I later learned that in some mom-and-pop stores, Pop also dealt girlie magazines from under the counter and kept an illegal book for bets on the big city horse races. But that’s another story.

Nowadays we go to a nearby warehouse that sells groceries and all things else—Walmart, Costco, or the like. Regular supermarkets like Kroger’s and Hyvee still exist. There are narrowly-focused custom stores, like butcher shops—likely as not, branded “ethical and humane charcuterie.” And there is the ubiquitous convenience store, which also sells everything you can imagine and usually has gas pumps as well.

The convenience stores may be today’s mom-and-pop establishments, with Mom and Pop usually hailing from India, Pakistan, or Korea. New Americans, striving to get ahead, just like previous immigrants. 

But the old-style mom-and-pop store is extinct, or nearly so. The key feature was that it was an easy walk from home. You didn’t have to get in the car and drive through two multi-lane interchanges and a series of mystifying roundabouts to get there. 

#

The prime years of my boyhood were lived in Streator, Illinois. We lived in four different houses, in three neighborhoods.

At our first little house, on First Street, where we dwelt in 1951 in the shadow of the Owens-Illinois glass factory, the mom-and-pop store was three blocks away. I don’t remember the name of the store. It was on Wasson Street, on my way home from school. 

I was six years old. One day I stopped and gazed through display glass at the heart-warming array of different candies. One in particular caught my eye: A small police-style revolver modeled in black licorice, with handgrips in white licorice. 

It was a work of art. 

I wanted it. “How much is the little gun ?” I asked.

“That’s a nickel,” said Pop. 

“Charge it,” I said.

My parents had bought things here by saying “Charge it,” so I did, too. Pop whatever-his-name-was must have known which set of grown-ups I belonged to, for he gave me the little gun in a white paper bag and added the nickel to our family’s charge account. It’s not every six-year-old who has established credit.

When Mom detected my crime, she blew a gasket. Then she calmed down and explained that “Charge it” was not a magical phrase to render things free. It was just a phrase that meant Mom and Dad would have to pay for the item later. OHHHH.

The whole tawdry affair formed the premise of my 2016 story, “Nickel and Dime,” published online by the Saturday Evening Post and illustrated by a bit of outdated art from that magazine’s inexhaustible archive. Even with the cornball art, you might get a chuckle out of the story.

The lower floor was a mom-and-pop store in 1951.

I happened to be passing near Streator a few years ago. The building on Wasson Street where I charged the candy revolver still stood, though no longer used as a store. It’s a near-derelict old hillside house, shown in this photo. The room below the overhanging eave was the store’s site.  

More than seventy years on, the little gun remains vivid in my mind. It was so appealing, simply as a visual matter. I never even liked licorice.

#

When we moved to Stanton Street a year or two later, the neighborhood store was Marx’s Market, a block west of our house. In another year or two we moved three blocks further west, placing Marx’s store two blocks east of us. 

We kids, now a bit older, with nickels and dimes to call our own, stopped at Marx’s after school, mainly to buy Topp’s bubble gum. The gum was a joke—a thin sheet of pink nothingness. But in the same package were baseball cards that showed our favorite players, their batting averages, and important career information like “bats left, throws right.” We had a lot of fun trading off our duplicate cards. This whole rigmarole is a leitmotif in my middle grade manuscript, Izzy Strikes Gold!  You’ll love the read, once it’s published. 

Marx’s was a distribution point for Duncan Yo-yos. Every spring a Duncan representative brought Mr. Marx a whole new line of bright, fancy-painted, plastic-jewel-encrusted yo-yos.

Word magically permeated our school that the Duncan man would be at Marx’s that very afternoon. Dozens of third- through sixth-grade boys gathered in the scant lot next to the store to watch this exotic pitchman, generally a young Filipino swimming in a sharkskin suit and sporting a mass of slick black hair, as he performed a series of dazzling tricks with the loveliest, most expensive yo-yos in Duncan’s line. After that, we all bought yo-yos. Most of us bought the cheap kind, but nevertheless, we bought.

Fancy yo-yos on display at the National Yo-Yo Museum, Chicao, California. Public Domain photo.

Even with frequent five-minute periods of arduous practice over the next week or two, I never did become a yo-yo master. I should have bought the professional model, the one the salesman used. But my mom and dad were too cheap, so I missed out on a life of fame and fortune on the professional yo-yo circuit.

#

When we moved in 1954 to our house on River Avenue, wouldn’t you know it? There was a mom-and-pop store just a block and a half away. I remember only that about it. Trauma has blocked my memory of further details.

Even in those days, we did our main weekly shopping at a larger store—Piggly Wiggly, I guess. But we used the little neighborhood store for small items in the middle of the week. One chilly autumn evening, Mom gave me a quarter and sent me to buy a quart of milk. Riding my Schwinn Wasp cheerily home from the mom-and-pop store, the quart bottle of milk snug in my front carrier basket, I brashly approached the two steps at the end of the sidewalk, which brought pedestrians down to the level of River Avenue. I had just learned to bounce my bike down those steps and was puffed up with pride in the accomplishment.

With the joie de vivre that typified my approach to life at age nine, I jolted the front wheel down the steps. The milk bottle leapt, with what I can only call a perverse will of its own, out of the basket over my front fender and exploded on the pavement. It was a miracle that flying shards of glass did not slash my tires.

When I told Mom what had happened, she gave me a dirty look, a new quarter, and a broom and dustpan for the broken glass. 

On the second trip I chose a more prudent route.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

The Green Diamond

“And Joseph . . . went up from Galilee . . . unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem—because he was of the house and lineage of David—to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.”

They journeyed back to where his people had lived. Were they glad for the trip, or were they troubled? Did they feel like outcasts on a weary road or homeward-bound children expecting a warm welcome?

#

We drove by night, from Streator, Illinois, on December 24, 1952. Or maybe it was 1953. In either case, my little sister, Cynda Jo, was only a tyke, rolling around in the back seat with me. 

It was dark by six p.m. Mom may have packed sandwiches to be eaten in the comfort of our 1939 Chevy. It was a black sedan, the kind you see in old movies, where gangsters lean out the windows with tommy guns and spray lead back at the cops chasing them in the same kind of car. 

We were bound for Knoxville, a small town where both Mom’s and Dad’s parents lived. A two-hour drive, it seemed forever to a boy of seven or eight. 

“Are we there yet?” 

“Not yet, honey. You just asked five minutes ago.”

We cruised past ground streaked with snow. Or maybe it was bare dirt, stripped fields where corn had grown last summer. Flat lands, with farmhouses set back a quarter-mile from the road. The night was cold, but was it white? I really don’t remember. 

It was dark for sure. We rumbled down state roads—Illinois 18 to 29 to 17 to 90 to 78 to U.S. Highway 150. I didn’t know the highway numbers then, only the names of the little towns we passed through: Wenona, Lacon, Edelstein, Princeville. 

There was a mountain in Wenona, a hundred-foot-tall cone of tailings from an old coal mine. You couldn’t see it in the dark, but townsfolk had put a lighted star on top, so you knew that was where the mountain was. Pretty much the only mountain in Illinois.

The roads were paved highways, one lane each direction. No multi-lanes, no grassy medians. Superhighways did not exist. If they did, I had never seen one.

Somewhere near Edelstein the state highway department had knocked off work for Christmas. To keep folks from driving into the unfilled hole, they had left a barricade lit by guttering flames from two black kerosene pot flares—small candles challenging the blackness of night. 

The light great we looked for was a green neon quadrangle on the roof of the Green Diamond, a small tavern on Highway 150. When you saw that green neon diamond, you were just outside Knoxville. The town itself was dry, so the Green Diamond was a roadhouse, out on the highway. 

We drove through Knoxville to the public square and parked in front of my grandparents’ house. 

All the aunts, uncles, and cousins had gathered inside. Uncle Earl and Uncle Dick sat on the floor amid strings of tree lights, which were wired in series in those days. If the string did not light, all you could do was replace each light in sequence with a fresh bulb until you found the culprit. Then, voilà!, there was light.

Out on the highway, huddled in the car, only an occasional light flickering from a farmyard across the fields, we had been lonely pilgrims, outside the pale of human care. 

Now we were home.

#

“And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

The Adoration of the Magi by Leonaert Bramer (Dutch, 1596-1674). Public Domain.

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

“And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” 

#

I don’t know how Mary and Joseph felt when at last they stumbled into Bethlehem, after a long, tiring journey. 

But every year at this time, pondering their momentous journey, I feel I have suddenly come out of darkness into a great light.

May you experience peace, and may your holidays be warmly illuminated.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

A Fine View of the Lake

Note: This is a republication of an item originally posted April 15, 2019.

Daisy smiled at the uniformed operator, an old black man, as she and about twenty well-dressed men and women squeezed into the car, closer together than decent folks ought, even in this new century. Or maybe decency was different here. Still, she would not let the yoke of her new sailor-style blouse get crushed on her first full day in Chicago.

The door clanged shut. The operator moved his handle and the car rose, pushing up on the soles of Daisy’s feet. She had ridden an elevator before. The Palmer House, where she and her parents were staying, had one. But this one, in the Montgomery Ward office building, scaled a full twenty-five stories—and Daisy was determined to ride it clear to the top.

She floated almost off her feet as the driver slowed to let a man off at the fourth floor. He cranked the handle to bring the car up even with the approaching floor, his bright smile never dimming. The serious man in the gray suit got off, brandishing papers. The operator pulled the door shut and started the car hurtling upward again. Daisy tried to act nonchalant. 

Most of her fellow passengers stayed on. They were going where she was going: the observation deck, under the ornate pyramid, lantern, and statue at the peak of the tower.

They reached the twenty-fifth floor and the operator opened the door. The crowd around her dispersed and headed for the large observation windows. Daisy stood stunned with wonder. Light flooded in from huge windows all around. Near the elevator stood a sales counter, where ladies sold sandwiches, soft drinks, and souvenirs. How could Daisy have guessed, when ordering goods from  Montgomery Ward’s catalog, that her custom supported all this grandeur? 

After hours of gawking at the spectacle spreading out beyond Chicago to all points of the compass—most especially the endless blue, coruscating expanse of Lake Michigan to the east—she left the windows and visited the sales counter. She was not hungry. The sandwiches did not even look good; better food would be on offer back at the hotel. Still, she wanted to buy something. She wanted to spend a little money here, at the pinnacle of American commerce. 

Cheap trinkets were on display—mostly little molded replicas of the building itself. Wholly inadequate, and pointless besides. Then she spotted a rack of photographs. Some were side-by-side stereopticon views, others simple postal cards. But sepia and white could not capture the magic of the view. One of the cards, however, was a line drawing of the building itself. Now she recalled that Cousin Millie had begun collecting postal cards. 

Daisy put down ten cents—outrageous!—to buy one of the cards that showed the building. “For only twenty-five cents more,” said the saleswoman, “our calligrapher will inscribe an elegant, rhymed message on it for you.” She pointed to a woman at a writing desk, who smiled and chatted as she wrote on a customer’s card.

“No, thank you.” Daisy smiled. When she got back to the Palmer House, she would pen her own thoughts to Cousin Millie. 

A fictionalized account of true events.

Daisy’s postcard to Cousin Millie. From my grandmother’s collection.

Deltiology

 Professor Randall Rhoades of Ashland, Ohio, coined the word “deltiology” in 1945 to mean the study and collection of postcards. But my grandmother, Millie Marie Gunsten Sommers (1889-1971), was done with the hobby eight years before it was named. Grandma was always ahead of her time.

Mail Order Headquarters

The earliest card in Grandma’s collection made it through the mail without a postmark, but the sender dated it by hand: July 27, 1906. The card shows a corner view of the Montgomery Ward & Co. Building in Chicago, “one of the largest commercial buildings in the world.” Several electric streetcars navigate the intersection of North Michigan Avenue and East Madison Street; a couple of early automobiles are also depicted. But most of the traffic in the picture is pedestrians, cyclists, or horse-drawn commercial wagons. 

Ward’s was the first big mail-order catalog and department store retailer and operated  for 129 years, from 1872 to 2001. The headquarters building on Grandma’s postcard was designed by architects Schmidt, Garden, and Martin and was built in 1898. It was superseded as corporate headquarters in the 1920s but survives to this day—minus its ornate pyramidal cap. In fact, you can rent the penthouse apartment at the top of its now-truncated tower for $20,000 a month. (Good location.)

Write on the Picture, Please

Grandma was unmarried, a few days shy of seventeen, when she received the Montgomery Ward postcard, with its message: “How are you by this time? I am up in this tower twenty five stories high. The view over the lake is so fine I can hardly leave it. I am going home next Tuesday. Give my love to Lizzie and John and all the children. Daisy.” 

“Lizzie and John” referred to Grandma’s parents. I have no idea who Daisy, the writer, was, but in the fictional vignette above I have made her out to be a young cousin from downstate, about Millie’s age but traveling, probably for the first time, to Chicago. 

Daisy had to write her message in the blank areas on the front of the card, along with the picture, because postal regulations reserved the entire back of the card for the address. The Postmaster General hadn’t figured out picture postcards yet. The following year he changed the rules, dividing the back side of the card into two spaces, one for address and the other for message. Thus began the modern age of postcards.

Social Media

In Grandma’s heyday, picture postcards were a novelty but also filled a real need. They were social media, the perfect way to send a bit of chatter to a friend, just to let her know you’re thinking of her.

“Hello! This is what they call Lovers Lane. How would you like this for a change. How is Billie—Ta Ta.”

“Hello Millie—How did you enjoy the 4th. Myrtle.” 

Many messages, different in content but similar in spirit, adorn the rest of Grandma’s saved cards, from 1906 to 1937, when the collection ends. In her early years Grandma was a shrinking violet, so she would have doubly appreciated all these sociable greetings from friends. Maybe that’s why she kept them.

Speedy Delivery

Mail was efficient. On every fast passenger train, U.S. postal employees stood through the night in a swaying mail car or “Railway Post Office,” sorting letters and cards by hand even as the train carried them toward their destinations. Mail almost always arrived the next day—unless it was sent across the whole country, in which case it might take two or three days. Airmail service would not begin until 1918, and then at a significant extra cost.

Sorting mail on the rails. USPS photo.

In 1906 a postcard cost one cent to mail and a first-class letter two cents. When I was a child in the 1950s, the “penny postcard” was still in use, but letters had gone up to three cents. They went to four cents in 1958; since then rates have increased every two to five years, except for one small decrease in 2016.

Home Town Boosters

The art on postcards became more and more captivating. Monochrome gave way to color; color gave way to better color; and many of the cards became downright artistic. 

When people traveled to exotic places—Chicago, Omaha, Denver, or Seattle—they sent postcards to show the home folks their experience. “Having a wonderful time, wish you were here.” But picture postcards showcased the wonders of every city, county, town, and hamlet. So you could say “Hi” with a postcard of your local bank, park, or grain elevator. By making contact with your friend in another city or state, you also boosted your own hometown’s image. 

Even when folks stayed at home and sent postcards of purely local wonders, I imagine Grandma was glad to get them.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Thematic

After writing the historical novel which became Price of Passage and was published in August by DX Varos Publishing, my next project was a tale of life in the Fabulous Fifties. This is a subject I happen to know something about. 

The author reads to the fifth grade class at Winnequah School. Matt Fiedler photo.

But all I really know about life in the Fifties is from the viewpoint of a child—which I was at the time. So the protagonist of my Fifties novel is a twelve-year-old boy, Izzy Mahler. The story is told exclusively in Izzy’s voice. It is a coming-of-age story or—as we literati say in order to mystify everybody else—a bildungsroman

In this kind of story, a young central character goes through trials that may leave him or her somewhat disillusioned, perhaps a bit sad or even embittered, but better prepared for adult life. The hero emerges with a more realistic idea of the world and his or her place in it. Robert McGee, in his excellent book Story, calls this kind of thing, in movie terms, an “education plot.” It usually has an “up” ending: No matter what has gone before, the hero is now in a position to meet the future with hope and enhanced confidence.

Because my character, Izzy, is so young, the book inevitably will be sold as a book for children even younger. It is a middle grades book, and it has that kind of title: Izzy Strikes Gold! This doesn’t mean adults would not enjoy it. Adults my age will love it, because it reprises their own childhood. But as a middle grades book, it matters what young people think of it. 

I was delighted when Matt Fielder, my grandson’s fifth grade teacher at Winnequah Middle School, gave me an opportunity to read the book—all 41,000 words, in installments—to his class. That gives me more than twenty well-qualified beta readers.

It’s been a lovely experience so far. The kids are attentive and ask perceptive questions. Soon, as the book winds to its conclusion, we’ll discuss themes. Mr. Fiedler has been teaching the kids about themes in stories. 

Another angle. Matt Fiedler photo.

Now, here’s the thing: Some writers quite deliberately embed certain themes in their stories. I do not. I find it hard enough just to work out a story that moves along, keeps people interested, and comes to a satisfactory conclusion. I can’t be bothered with deeper meanings. But amazingly, once I have written a story, themes are there. They have snuck in by magic. 

We write from some place deep within ourselves. The things that matter in life have a way of showing up on the page, even when the author is solely focused on devising plot twists and employing the language in a way that makes things clear rather than confusing. Themes do emerge anyhow. 

I have a few thoughts about prominent themes in Izzy Strikes Out! But the writer only contributes half of the book. The reader, or the hearer, brings the other half, the reception of the story. So I’ll be interested to hear what themes my twenty beta readers talk about.

It could be that they take out of the book many things I never dreamed I was putting into it.

I can hardly wait to find out.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer