Daniel—A Minor Plot Device Goes Rogue

Dear Reader,

I want to tell you how an abstract invention with an attribute of blackness came to life and made an old white fabulist spin a new bicolored tale.

The Captive Slave, painting by John Philip Simpson (1782–1847). Public domain.

Daniel, a runaway African-American slave, entered my historical novel Freedom’s Purchase as a catalyst for events motivating the main character—Norwegian immigrant Anders Gunstensen—to join the fight against slavery in the 1850s. Daniel was not really a character himself but, rather, a literary device. 

In the revised version titled The Maelstrom, Daniel is one of three main characters weaving a braided story of the struggle for freedom. I committed to telling the story from three points of view. And as soon as I began writing chapters from Daniel’s point of view, he came to life.

To pants, or not to pants?

When characters take over a story, speaking and acting for themselves, demoting the author to stenographer, that’s considered a good thing. It can be a problem, though, if the author already has a plan for the shape of the story. 

Writers fall into one of two camps: outliners or pantsers. Outliners construct the plot before writing any action or dialogue. Pantsers write by the seat of their pants; they start typing and follow the story where it leads. 

Characters taking over a story should be no problem for a pantser. It is what the writer hopes will happen. But to an outliner, a character who takes over may seem to be hijacking the plot. 

Few of us, however, are pure outliners or pure pantsers. The latter still need to ride herd so the story moves in a satisfying direction, while the former are often forced to revise their outline when the characters start acting on their own.

If it’s a historical novel, the plot must accommodate well-known facts. For example, you can’t allow your characters to change the Civil War so the South wins. 

(Okay, Gentle Reader, you’ve caught me out. Actually, one can write a contra-factual novel. Many people have done it. But then you’re using the Negative Heuristic: following a possibility that did not materialize to see what might have happened if it had. For example, what if Pickett’s charge had succeeded, Lee had won at Gettysburg and rolled on to threaten Philadelphia, and the North had sued for peace? Such stories can be fun, but they’re not historical novels. They’re counterhistorical novels.) 

How it all came down

I started my book intending to use the factual structure of my ancestors’ real lives to show fictionally how America’s struggle over slavery might have presented itself to new immigrants. Writing about Anders Gunstensen’s journey to America, I knew his passage through the city of New Orleans must give him some kind of moral reckoning over slavery. He must witness a slave auction and be repulsed, and thus become a freedom fighter.

But after New Orleans—both in my story and in real life—Anders went upriver to settle in Illinois. Since slavery is central to the story, I invented a slave named Daniel, who escapes his plantation and flees to Illinois, forcing Anders to deal with the reality of his plight.

Notice how all this revolves around Anders? Daniel is merely a reason for Anders, his wife Maria, and Maria’s old Aunt Osa to respond to the challenges of harboring and helping fugitive slaves in the highly-charged environment of pre-Civil War Illinois.

A narrow escape

That first version of the book was almost published! I was offered a contract by a traditional publisher. After agonizing for a few days, I turned down the offer, not because the book was flawed, but because the publication contract was flawed.

Now I thank God that Freedom’s Purchase was never published. 

Two other publishers, who rejected the manuscript, gave me valuable hints on what was wrong with the story. Those hints prompted a full, tooth-to-tail rewrite, which became The Maelstrom. More important than the new title was the new dramatic structure. It is now Daniel’s story as much as it is Anders’s and Maria’s. 

Some experts will tell you, Kind Reader, that a novel can only have one main character. But I was writing about European immigrants coping with the traumatic struggle which was engulfing their new country just when they arrived. Telling a story that revolves around American slavery, I came to see that you can’t tell it honestly without representing the viewpoint of the slaves. Daniel represents a whole people, whose freedom struggle is as important as the well-meaning efforts of white abolitionists.

One rejecting editor said “the escaped slave story” did not begin early enough in the book to maintain reader interest. In The Maelstrom, Daniel’s story starts early and, more important, is seen through his own eyes. 

Daniel comes to life

As soon as I began writing from Daniel’s viewpoint, a new person arrived on the scene:

Daniel felt like a motherless child. His heart thumping, he crouched in the weeds between two of Mister Davis’s warehouses, not far from Mister Davis’s wharf. Barefoot, he wore the white shirt and trousers that Mister Joseph Davis of Hurricane Plantation issued to all his male slaves in January of their sixteenth year, with a new set to come every January after that. This was Daniel’s first set of white clothes, which he reckoned made him an adult. All he lacked now—besides his dead mammy, for whom he wept by night—was freedom.

The steamboat idled a few yards away. 

Torchlight from the wharf made his task more difficult, yet not impossible. Having Mister Davis himself on the wharf, however, might make the trick easier, if Daniel timed it right. The frail old man stood under the big signboard and chatted with his departing guest—a Yankee, by the odd sound of his speech.

The boat’s gangplank touched the wooden wharf. Mister Davis in his top hat, tailcoat, and gloves, the long-jawed Yankee dressed in a plain suit and carrying a carpetbag—the two white men spoke courtesies of departure. Mister Davis valued courtesy at all times. 

Now. While they jawin’. Go.

Daniel darted across the open ground. He slipped into the water. His toes sank in warm mud. He waded chest-deep in brown water to the boat. With strong shoulders, he pulled his slim body over the low rail. The Yankee’s footsteps sounded on the gangplank behind him.

As the boat clerk stepped forward to collect the Yankee’s fare, Daniel crept between two crates in the mid-deck cargo pen. The deck gang shouted as they drew in the gangplank. The side wheels churned, and the boat backed away from Hurricane Landing.

Nobody had noticed Daniel, as if he had become invisible. His fear mask melted into a smile of satisfaction. 

Light from the landing faded away when the boat turned upriver. 

Thus begins the full story of a main character. Over the course of the novel, Daniel will become a fugitive slave, a member a colony of maroons living in the swamp, a rescuing figure like Harriet Tubman, and eventually, a Civil War combatant. Of all characters in the book, Daniel undergoes the most profound transformation. He even learns to read and write.

Parting thoughts

I like the book a lot better this way.

Norwegian immigrants like Anders and Maria helped make America what it is today. And immigrants were active both in the Abolition movement and in the Civil War. But when Daniel came to life and took his fate in his own hands, The Maelstrom became a compelling story.

Next Time: Maria—The Unstoppable Woman

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Birth of a Historical Novel

Gunsten Gundersen was the schoolmaster for the seacoast village of Øiestad, Norway. Christian Conradsen Nybro was a boat builder in that same small town.

The schoolmaster’s second son, Anders Gunstensen, and the boat builder’s eldest daughter, Johanne-Marie Elisabeth Nybro, married in Menard County, Illinois, in 1855. 

Your New Favorite Writer is a great-great-grandson of those two Norwegian pioneers.

Two little Norwegians: Grandma Sommers, left, and her sister Mabel, ages 5 and 3.

Nordmann Unawares

People in our family do not seem to believe that much is worth mentioning. I was a full-grown adult before my father thought to inform me that his mother—my Grandma Sommers— came from “Norwegian people down around Springfield.” This abrupt onset of Norwegian-ness took me by surprise. 

But it was welcome news. Norwegians, of any sort, had to be more interesting than the rest of my relations.

With no clue what it meant to be a Nordmann, or how to be one, I joined the Sons of Norway to check it out. SoN lodge meetings and lutefisk dinners soon confirmed my ignorance. There was no doubt my blood flowed from the north. But my Norwegiosity was several quarts low. 

I had grown up as a plain American. None of my kin spoke Norsk. My mom did not bake sand bakkels at Christmas. I envied my Nordic friends their silver-clasped, richly patterned Marius sweaters but did not invest the four hundred dollars to buy one for myself. 

#

Years went by.

A Brief Essay

My wife, Joelle, qualified for a Sons of Norway genealogy badge by tracing my family tree. The final requirement was a brief biography of a Norwegian ancestor. Since Anders Gunstensen was my ancestor and not Joelle’s, she made me write the essay.

“Yes, Dear,” I mumbled. The project would be a distraction. I was focused on writing fiction. She was asking me to pivot and write two pages of nonfiction about my great-great-grandfather. 

Cornered, with no way out, I glanced at the information Joelle had dug up. The more I read, the more I marveled. Anders emigrated to America in 1853 on the sailing brig Victoria, departing Arendal, Norway, in early February and landing at the end of March in . . . New Orleans.

Curiouser and Curiouser

New Orleans? Are you kidding me? Norwegians sail to New York, don’t they?

Not all of them. Anders didn’t. And after passing through New Orleans, he settled in Menard County, Illinois, near Springfield. 

Øyestad Church, photo by  Karl Ragnar Gjertsen, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Wait a minute. Norwegians live up north—Wisconsin, Minnesota—don’t they?

Not all of them. Anders didn’t.

Two years after reaching America, he married Johanne-Marie Nybro, a Norwegian girl. Compatriots in a strange land they seemed, drawn together by a common language and culture.

But hold on, now. Anders and Johanne-Marie were not chance acquaintances. They came from the same hometown. She was the boat builder’s daughter, he the schoolmaster’s son. The village was only a few hundred people. Everybody went to the same church. Anders and Maria must have known each other all their lives. 

Was There a Plan?

So, why didn’t they get married in Norway and then emigrate as a couple? They shipped separately, for some unknown reason. Maybe they had a pre-set plan to marry after arriving in the United States? Hmm. Unlikely. More likely, the decision to wed was made only later, after they reached America. 

But unless they were planning as a couple, why would both be drawn to the same small county in Illinois? Old microfilms in the Wisconsin State Historical Society Library disclosed that Johanne-Marie’s cousin Gunder Jørgen Nybro had already settled in Menard County in 1850. Gunder Jørgen must have written home in praise of his place of settlement. Such a letter would be passed around, even read aloud at public gatherings. Everybody in Øiestad must have known, from Gunder Jørgen’s letter, that Menard County was THE place to go. 

Anders, by the way, sailed from Norway February 9, the very day after his passport was granted. He did not wait for spring or summer, when the North Atlantic would be in a more friendly mood. It seemed to me that Anders left Norway in a big fat hurry. 

Fact Into Fiction?

Our Sons of Norway genealogy badge.

Still mumbling, I wrote the two-page biographical essay, which posed more questions than it answered, and we earned the lovely three-level badge for Norwegian genealogy. But the project left me frustrated, with open spaces in my ancestors’ biographies that likely would never be filled. 

The obvious next move was to make up the answers and thereby convert my ancestors’ story to a fictionalized account. A historical novel.

The image of a footloose, 23-year-old Norwegian stepping ashore in 1853 New Orleans was irresistible. Anders the Nordic farm hand meets the lush warmth of a Louisiana spring. He sniffs fecund and beguiling odors, hears a polyglot of strange tongues, and sees a mix of people—rich, poor, merchants, townspeople. White, black, and brown. Some are free while others are slaves. Some, rich planters, have come to town to buy slaves, whom they regard as livestock. 

The New Orleans wharf in 1853, painting by Hippolyte Sebron. Public Domain.

The Question of Slavery

What would Anders have thought of slavery? America’s Peculiar Institution was an enigma to Norwegians. Scandinavian immigrants in general disapproved of slavery. 

And purely from the standpoint of fiction: If this is going to be a historical novel with Anders as hero, of course he opposes slavery! Having gotten an eyeful of the slave trade during his sojourn in New Orleans, he would have been revolted.

Would he have left slavery behind when he traveled to make his home in Illinois? Not by a long shot, Gentle Reader.

The Prairie State swarmed with runaway slaves from Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and points south. Chasing the slaves were slave catchers—bounty hunters empowered by the Fugitive Slave Law to capture slaves, even on “free” soil, and return them to their owners. As a settler in 1850s Illinois, would Anders not have met freedom-seeking slaves and their hunters?  

Ole Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth and Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants were trail-blazing novels of Scandinavian immigration, and Laura Ingalls Wilder sketched the lives of prairie sodbusters. A new book along these lines could hardly add anything.

But what if Anders and Johanne-Marie became abolitionists and Underground Railroad agents? “Norwegian immigrants aid enslaved African Americans.” That would be something new.

You gotta lotta nerve

How plausible is the premise? Did any Norwegian-Americans help fugitive slaves through the Underground Railroad? Alas, Dear Reader, I have not found any examples.

But consider:

  • Norwegian immigrants were anti-slavery activists. A Norsk immigrant named Even Heg and his son Hans Christian collaborated with other Norwegians to publish Nordlyset (The Northern Light), a Norsk newspaper that was an organ of the Free Soil Party, pushing freedom for slaves. 
  • Central Illinois, where Anders and Johanne-Marie settled, hosted plenty of Underground Railroad operations. At least nine sites in Menard County were stations or otherwise associated with Underground Railroad activity.
  • Norwegians in central Illinois, with no native-language press or other Scandinavian institutions, had to learn the English language and American ways quickly. Would not Anders have cultivated American mentors? Could those mentors be station agents for the Underground Railroad? Of course they could.
  • The factual, historical Anders, like thousands of Norwegians and other immigrants, joined the Union Army when war came. Not all Union soldiers were abolitionists, but some were. Anti-slavery principles must have been part of Anders’s decision to fight.

It is not at all far-fetched to imagine Norwegian farmers in the antislavery struggle. The Underground Railroad was an illegal clandestine movement, most of its operations conducted in secrecy. For that reason alone, its true facts will never be fully known by historians. 

The point of a historical novel is not to narrate events that definitely happened. It is to tell a story that could have happened, by which the reader is entertained or informed.

A New Literary Work

So I embarked on writing my first novel, Freedom’s Purchase. Five years later, it is greatly improved and bears a new title: The Maelstrom. Johanne-Marie’s name has been shortened to the less tongue-twisting Maria. A few facts of family history have also been altered for the plot.

Most importantly, the antislavery theme, first conceived as merely one aspect of Anders’s and Maria’s struggle to adapt to life in America, took on a life of its own and became the main conflict of the book. The invented character Daniel, a runaway slave, came to embody in some way the whole institution of slavery. Thus The Maelstrom gives equal weight to the separate stories of Anders, Maria, and Daniel. It is a braided narrative of three interwoven strands.

Yet this book also is a dialogue between two different experiences of life—the immigrant experience of Anders and Maria, and the enslaved experience of Daniel and his friends. These two perspectives speak in ways that I hope are powerful, informative, and humane.

“But how dare you, a white American male, write a character like Daniel, representing the hopes and frustrations of black Americans whose lives you did not live?”

You may with equal logic inquire how I can write of Anders and Maria, whose life as nineteenth-century Scandinavian immigrant farmers was almost as remote to me as that of Daniel the slave. 

The answer is the same in both cases: One can only do one’s best. 

We have the right to invent stories. They need not be factual. We hope they may entertain, inform, and address something in our common humanity that readers will recognize as true.

Next Time: Daniel—A Plot Device Goes Rogue

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Mau-mauing the Garage Police

No one was more nonplussed than Your New Favorite Writer when Milo Bung, after his narrow brush with mortality in the Marines, came home and married Muriel Blankenship (Class of ’62). 

“Muriel Blankenship!” I expostulated at the time. “Why HER, of all people?” I prophesied that Milo would rue the day he married Muriel Blankenship. Maybe that’s why I was not named Best Man. As consolation they did, in the end, permit me to ush at the wedding.

Now, nigh onto sixty years later, Milo seems about to admit that I WAS RIGHT! 

It’s all about hardware. 

The Hardware Challenge

“You know I’m not much of a do-it-yourselfer or home repairman,” Milo said as we stood in his garage. “But over the years a man accumulates fasteners, lubricants, hand tools, power tools, blades, bits, and all sorts of oddities.” Milo swept his arm inclusively over a small workbench in a back corner of the garage, behind Muriel’s gardening tools.

When a man, through no fault of his own, amasses such a treasure hoard of metal and plastic doodads, he naturally takes a proprietary interest in his collection. He becomes a curator.

“Take metal fasteners, for example,” Milo said. “I’ve got here nails, screws, nuts and bolts, for starters. Each of these has subdivisions. For instance, there are common nails, roofing nails, finishing nails, galvanized nails, and so on. Two-penny, four-penny, six-penny, eight-penny, ten-penny, et cetera, et cetera. Round-head, flat-head, pan-head, oval-head screws; slotted, Philips, square drive and star drive; wood screws and sheet metal screws; steel, brass, chrome—you get the idea. I’ve got stove bolts and carriage bolts, square nuts and hex nuts. Don’t forget wing nuts. Plain washers and lock washers. And specialized fasteners like toggle bolts, hooks and eyes, turnbuckles. Not to mention turn buttons for storm windows.” He paused to take a breath.

“Turn buttons for storm windows?” I asked.

“I told you not to mention them,” he said. “Anyway, you can see these things all come in various sizes and finishes. And what about little old things like cold chisels, offset screwdrivers, and old-fashioned seat reamers for washer-type faucets?”

“Nobody uses those anymore, do they?”

He fixed my eye with a gimlet stare. “Do they not?  I really wouldn’t know. But, you need a  plumbing snake? I’ve got one.”

“Your point being?” I inquired.

“My point being, Muriel wants me to re-organize all this stuff. Which is secret code for, throw it out.”

Re-organizing

“Throw it out?” I gasped. “When you’ve spent a lifetime collecting it? Those hundreds of trips to the hardware store, where you come home with things you wind up using only a part of, or not needing at all? And then you need to keep them, in case you ever don’t need them again?”

Milo nodded. “Exactly,” he said.

“Throw out those little useful parts out of gizmos you dismantled and threw away—but you kept those unique little parts, because you never know when you will need them?” I was in high dudgeon.

“That’s right.”

“Little electric motors from disused exhaust fans—” 

“Curtain rod brackets for curtain rods of a style that’s no longer made—” 

“Yes! And what about—”

“I know,” Milo said. He picked up an I-kid-you-not metal Hills Brothers coffee can and rattled it, with a satisfying jingle from inside. “Every kind of miscellaneous and odd-sized screw, bolt, pin, and toggle known to man. A mix you can just swirl your hand around in and maybe come up with the exact thing you need to re-attach the downspout where you snipped it loose to put in the rain barrel.”

My head swam. “And, let me get this straight. Your wife, the esteemed Muriel Blankenship Bung—”

“May her name ever be whispered with reverence—” 

“Muriel wants you to throw these things out?”

Milo sighed. “Or reduce them by at least half, and then put the rest in some logical order that makes sense to her. . . .”

I could see where he was going with this. “Or to some other random observer who—” 

“Did not have a hand in acquiring, collecting, and arranging all these items in the first place.” 

The Many Faces of Evil

O the horror. The revered Muriel, bent on a heedless path of destruction. Never mind that she has given Milo the best six decades of her life and three fine children who are outstanding citizens. Forget that she has saved Milo’s bacon any number of times and flawlessly guided him through complex social situations with never the slightest faux pas. She is about to become a prime villainess—a veritable Cat Woman of the near West Side—by suggesting that the amorphous pile of metal parts occupying the rear corner of the garage, which Milo has spent six decades amassing, be reorganized “before it gets out of hand.”

Gentle Reader, we ask you: When does Muriel think it was ever IN hand? 

The hardware situation was already spinning out of control when young newlywed Milo came home from the hardware store proudly bearing those brackets to hang the curtain rods on, and a blister pack of little brads to poke them in with. 

There were bound to be parts left over—extras that anyone would be a fool to throw away. This crisis was fore-ordained.

Now, when he can no longer figure out how to tune his TV set, and when starting up a rental car has become a dark mystery, that pile of seemingly random junk in the garage is one of the last arenas where Milo still knows what’s what. 

And Muriel Blankenship Bung, Class of ’62, wants to take it apart, throw the best half away, and put the rest back together upside-down and backwards.

“Stand up for yourself!” I told him. “Don’t trade your birthright for a mess of helpful organizational hints.”

“Well,” said Milo. “I don’t know. If I don’t clear out this junk, the kids’ll just have to do it, a few years from now.”

Lo, how the mighty are fallen.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Fangle Me Upside the Head, Part Two

Mastery in progress.

Yes, you have surmised correctly, Dear Reader. Your New Favorite Writer is almost a day late on his regular post to this blog site. The lame excuse is: My new smart phone came.

I have spent the past twenty-four hours alternately scratching my head and poking the darned thing’s face with my finger.

You will recall that I really didn’t want to get involved with this. But we’re in it now, up to our boot tops.

I took my friend Rob’s advice and switched carriers. So now my monthly rate has only increased to fourteen dollars. That’s all right. 

I bought a low-end smart phone outright for $119.95.

Just getting it set up and working was a bit of a trial. I honestly don’t think I could have done it by myself, without my smart-enabled wife’s extra smart help.

Excuse me, please, Gentle Reader. I’ve got to go figure out how to send a text.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Fangle Me Upside the Head

Sometimes I feel like an army of one in the Global War on How Things Are Now.

Consumer Cellular—that Heaven-sent company for old, grouchy, reluctant adopters—has sent me a brusque email. They say that something called 3G is going away; hence, they can no longer support the phone I keep in my car. 

Therefore, I must upgrade. It’s, like, mandatory.

A Smart Phone Denier

If you have been paying attention, Fair Reader, you’ll already know about my failure to be enthralled by smart phones. But in case you are a newcomer here, I’ll just mention that my only cell phone is a $13-a-month clamshell device. I keep it charged in my car in case of the just-barely-possible event of having car trouble in a remote location.

That device, and the service package that keeps it going, have now been dumped on history’s rubbish heap. The slightest available upgrade—to 4G, whatever that is—will cost me $25 per month, almost double what I now pay. Our free market being what it is, that convenient new figure of $25 derives from nothing more complex or baffling than the company’s need to extract twice as much cash from its senior citizen customers. 

In addition to the service plan, one must also have a new phone. The 4G version of my old flip phone costs less than sixty dollars, and they will let me pay that off at two bucks a month for two years. So my penalty for living in 2021 will be only $27 minus the $13 I was already paying. So, an extra $14 per month. Chicken feed. Then I could roll on as before, unvexed by progress. 

I probably should do just that.

But, Why Not?

You know full well, Dear Reader, how easily the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. You see, that same two bucks a month would cover an entry-level “smart” phone—a sleek little beauty with a shiny glass face and the ability to do all those things people are always doing with their smart phones. 

So, what’s to think about? Why would I not make the obvious move—the “smart” move? 

Once upon a time, Your New Favorite Writer—in a desperate, ill-starred bid to enter the twenty-first century—acquired an Apple iPhone 4. I shared my life with it for a couple of years, but we never became romantically involved. No matter how I tried, I could not develop an abject dependence on, or even a liking for, the darned thing.

I do enjoy chatting with my friends and relatives; that doesn’t mean I feel a need to talk or text with them every few minutes. Likewise, I feel no need to document my doings with photos. I can check email on my laptop; when I get home will be soon enough. 

Diners enjoy a meal with smart phones. Photo by Infrogmation, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

As for driving directions: If I’m going someplace I’ve never gone, I look it up ahead of time. My old granny always told me: If you don’t know where you’re going, don’t go.

Tallying up all all these phantom benefits, I then considered the pocket factor. In my pockets I carry a wallet, keys, comb, sun-glasses case, and, often, a roll-up hat to keep the sun off my head. I spent two years trying to cram an Apple iPhone 4 in with all that stuff. Never did find a place where it could fit.

So I chucked the smart phone and opted instead for a simple flip phone to reside in my car.

Living in the Past

Having failed to embrace the modern world, I tried instead to make a virtue of nonconformity. I have aspired to be the last person in North America to get a smart phone. One can—without becoming a Luddite, I trust—take a certain kind of calm satisfaction from hewing to the good old ways.

Yet now, this idyll is threatened. Not by the convenience or utility of smart phones, that’s for sure. Not even by irresistible coercion from Consumer Cellular; after all, they have been careful to keep a clamshell model available, newly enabled for 4G. 

What if?

No, Gentle Reader, it is only the sinking feeling that some new, unforeseen wrinkle in the social fabric may suddenly render smart phones truly indispensable. Then I’d be out of luck, wouldn’t I? I would be the only person in North America yet to begin the smart phone learning curve. Maybe I should start now, before it’s too late. At least, you know, get my learner’s permit. 

Does that make sense?

In a dark corner of my mind there is a ragged rebellion raging against this craven capitulation. There has been no need for the convenience and wonderfulness of a smart phone until now. What could change? 

All this may seem like a small matter, but in my brain the choice looms like an existential crisis. To smart phone, or not to smart phone? That is the question. 

Am I the only one with this dilemma? 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers,

Your New Favorite Writer

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends”—- Step 8 of Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood

Lion. Photo by Kevin Pluck, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Sincerest apologies, Dear Reader, for my absence. It has been more than a month since I last posted. But Your New Favorite Writer has been busy. 

Major Revision

Only about three days ago, I finalized the Major, Tooth-to-tail Revision (Version 7.1, if you’re counting) of my historical epic, now titled The Maelstrom. It is still 83,000 words—but at least half of them are different words than the 83,000 in the commercially unsuccessful previous version (6.4) known as Freedom’s Purchase.

This is more than a random switching of words, Gentle Reader. It betokens, dare I say it?, a Whole New Approach. 

Perils of the Market

You will recall, if you caught this post from almost one year ago, that I took Freedom’s Purchase to the literary marketplace, querying literary agents and independent publishers. I got a contract offer, which I deemed inadequate, from a marginal publisher. But I also got two Golden Rejections—one from James Abbate of Kensington Books and the other from Dan Willis of D.X. Varos, Ltd. 

A Golden Rejection, Dear Reader, is a rejection that includes honest feedback on why the manuscript was deemed unsuitable. If an author is astute enough to swallow such rejections whole, they can be wonderful medicine. 

At about that time, I also read Donald Maass’s noteworthy assertion: “At some point, attention must be paid to the writing.”

So I plunged back in, using my two Golden Rejections as my lodestar, and heeding as best I could the advice of Maass to put conflict on every page and the advice of the late Elmore Leonard to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip. I hired premier writing coach Christine DeSmet to help me work out what things I needed to change.

Voilà!

So here is the result, in the best way I can describe it:

Had Freedom’s Purchase, Version 6.4, been published as it was, you would have bought it, because you are my friend. You would have read all the way to the end, because loyalty is one of your great virtues. And you would have said, “Well—heh, heh—that was pretty good, considering it was only my friend Larry who wrote it.”

Now, when you buy The Maelstrom, Version 7.1, you will read it all the way to the end because you love the characters and want to know what happens to them.

(I hope you’ll be able to put it down and get some sleep, because it’s too long to read at one sitting. But I also hope you won’t be able to put it down very often or for very long, because you’ll find the story compelling.)

When you get to the end, you will feel satisfaction. You’ll say, “Wow! That was a real novel, gripping and engaging. And to think my friend Larry wrote it!”

But I need you to remain patient, Fair Reader. I still need to sell it to somebody, and then most traditional publishers take a year or two to actually produce and release the book. And I know you have been on this journey with me for some time already. 

So Meanwhile, Please Read My Blurb

Here, to tide you over until publication, is a teaser—a bit more indication of the plot than I’ve given before: 

The Maelstrom

It’s 1853. ANDERS, the law on his heels, sails from Norway to seek a life of honor and respect in America. MARIA, a boat builder’s daughter, knows she is just what Anders needs in his life. She also needs a new start just as much as he does. 

DANIEL, a young runaway chased by slave catchers, makes his way north to Illinois—free soil, crisscrossed by fugitive slaves and their would-be captors. Newlyweds Anders and Maria find Daniel in their barnyard, posing a truly American problem—one they did not seek, yet cannot ignore.

The Maelstrom is a tale of three pioneers whose lives depend on one another. The Civil War puts one in the Navy, one in the Army, and one at home working the land by herself, under pressure from a merchant who covets her farm, forcing her to a unique solution.

Anders’s, Maria’s, and Daniel’s harrowing journeys—filled with death and despair, love and hope—take them from New Orleans up the Mississippi River into America’s wild heartland.

There you go—straight from Your New Favorite Author to you. 

Wish me luck—and I could use your prayers as well.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Update on The Maelstrom

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

On July 20 in this space I mentioned the new direction taken in revision of my historical novel, formerly titled Freedom’s Purchase, now titled The Maelstrom.

I am happy to report that extensive revisions have been made, based on very helpful feedback by championship-level book coach Christine DeSmet. As a result, it’s a much more compelling and exciting book. Many thanks to Christine, a noted author and a great personal friend of mine for many years.

I am now polishing the polish, and before long the book will be again making the rounds to agents and publishers. I’m quite confident we’ll get a good publishing contract this time around. 

So have patience! Before long, you’ll get to read the stories of Norwegian immigrants Anders and Maria, and Daniel the slave, in 19th-century America.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

A Meditation

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash.

Sunday, August 22

Our church, like a lot of churches, has shrunk. So we sold our big meetinghouse and started holding services in a rented storefront. Our worship is now simpler, more informal. 

Our music director plays an electronic piano, not a multi-manual pipe organ. Today’s prelude was Fond D’Orgue by Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers, 1632-1714. It must have been composed for organ, but now it was played on a single keyboard, boiled down to a simple melody.

As usual, my mind was on other things—mainly the progress of my historical novel, which I am now revising. I was thinking about changes I would make in Chapter 22, when Nivers’s tune broke through.

The simple fall of pure tones stopped me cold. In a startling moment, the tune became an attribute of the Divine.

It is more my style to cast God as a supporting player—essential, yet secondary—in my own grand maneuvers. 

What is God for, if not to support me?

Along came Nivers’s tune, a pure thing, existing in its own plane, its link to a long-dead Frenchman moot. 

My work—no matter how worthy, no matter how inspired—is a hardscrabble of striving and becoming, a smudged object of trade. 

But a tune, a color, a shape, a tree, a stream—is all being. Is God manifested.

God dwells at the heart of things, always in flux yet never changing. The facets of God’s transformation flash like signboards on country stations at night as we go barreling through on the fast express with rarely a glimmer of recognition. 

But the God of tunes and colors and leaves and fishes is always accessible. Is present to us in that sabbath state when we hear music and forget our customary concerns.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Salmonic Versus

Our trip has put me in mind of salmon. 

We did not travel to Alaska for the salmon, exactly. But once there, you cannot avoid salmon. They’re everywhere. 

Coho salmon. Bureau of Land Management photo. Public Domain.

Happy Salmon?

My Norwegian kin, I am told, have an expression: “A happy salmon.” En glad laks, in Norsk. It’s a label for someone cheerful by nature, a happy-go-lucky person. No worries, no cares. Smiling all the time.  

But, Kind Reader, consider the salmon. I mean the real salmon.

Salmon alevin with egg yolks. OpenCage photo, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

Spawned in springtime, in the shallows of a cold mountain stream, it (he or she, take your pick) hatches from a round pink egg into an alevin—a tiny swimming fish with the yolk sac still attached to its belly. Consuming its yolk over the course of a few months, it becomes a small fish or fry. Only then does it emerge from the gravelly shallows into the main part of its natal stream. 

Depending on its species—chinook (king), coho (silver), chum, sockeye, or pink—the salmon fry either heads seaward immediately or hangs out in a freshwater lake for a year or more. In either case, it then develops into a smolt—a small, silvery fish with scales—and drifts downstream to an estuary, the tidal mouth of a river.

Salmon smolts. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo. Public Domain.

Hanging out in the estuary for a time, the smolt gains weight and—crucially—changes its metabolism, adjusting to life as a salt-water fish. When ready, the salmon moves into the ocean, where it will spend—again, depending on species—from eighteen months to eight years.

Life at Sea

Once a salmon becomes a denizen of the salt sea, how does it spend this time? It swims around, eats, and grows larger. It may swim more than two thousand miles, gobbling plankton, insects, small crustaceans, and fish, and gaining body length and weight. Unless, of course, it is eaten first.

Salmon in the ocean may be prey to seals, sharks or other large fish, orca whales, or the all-purpose predator, humans. 

Purse seiner off the coast of Kodiak Island. Photo by Wikimedia Commons User:NancyHeise. Public Domain.

Ocean salmon may be taken on hook-and-line by commercial trollers, in larger quantities in gill nets, or in even larger purse seines—depending on the species targeted and the size of the boat and its equipment. They end up as high-quality salmon steaks or filets, brined gravlax or smoked lox, ground salmon in a can, even salmon-based pet foods. 

Salmon Patties, Anyone?

When I was a boy (more than sixty-five years ago), Mom often served us patties of ground salmon, fried in her cast-iron skillet. They were cheap and nutritious, and I grew to despise them. Greasy and gamey-tasting. Not for me, thanks.

Salmon patty sandwich, photo by jeffreyw. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Since then, I have grown fond of lox with bagels and cream cheese, and I also like a nicely-done salmon filet. Context is everything.

But I digress. Back to the sea:

Those salmon who slip through the nets of man and beast eventually gravitate to the coast and, by a divinely-ordained process no scientist has fully explained, make their way back up the very stream then came out of and swim right up to the very shallows where they were born. 

Born to Spawn

Brown bear dines on salmon at Katmai National Park, Brooks Falls, Alaska. Photo by Brian W. Schaller, licensed under Free Art License.

Naturally, they must evade human predation. The rivers and creeks are full of anglers, fishing for recreation or to feed their families. Also, in parts of Alaska and Canada, the streams hold cunningly designed Native American salmon wheels, which skim off a regular portion of the fish swimming upstream to spawn. 

In this upstream, fresh-water journey is concentrated the whole point and purpose of their lives: Spawning. The procreation of their species. It is the Olympics they have trained for all their lives in creek, lake, river, and sea. And the competition is fierce. The journey is fraught with peril.

Besides humans, those streams are full of bears—brown and black. You’ve seen them on the wild Alaska shows, gleefully scooping salmon out of churning rapids and devouring them on the spot. Eagles and ospreys also take salmon, lifting them whole out of rivers, lakes, and ocean.

If the salmon successfully evade all predators, they still must swim miles upstream to find their spawning beds. This usually means braving powerful rapids and fish ladders. 

A Salmonic Odyssey

In Ketchikan, our dauntless daughter, Katie, led us through a steady downpour on a journey tracking the salmon upstream. We followed Ketchikan Creek from the trendy shops that sit on pilings over its lower end up to the Creek Street footbridge. Under the bridge, salmon leap up into the rushing falls under the bridge. Their leaps are strenuous, athletic, and mostly doomed to failure. The fish falls short and is swept back downstream, only to try again. They spend a tremendous amount of energy trying to pass these falls, and many never make it. 

To help them, people have built a fish ladder as an alternate route over the falls. The ladder, like the falls, is steeply inclined and filled with water rushing rapidly downstream. But little walls, baffles I guess you’d call them, line the sides of the metal chute, giving fish a chance to work their way up from one resting point to the next. Even so, it’s almost as great a challenge as the falls themselves. 

Those salmon who cross the falls, whether by means of the salmon ladder or by simply leaping up the falls, enter a quiet stretch of the creek, which winds for several hundred yards and flows through Ketchikan’s City Park. In that stretch of water, the creek is very shallow, with a gravelly bed. This is the spawning-ground.

Prurient Interest

The dark shapes at center are salmon spawning. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

Standing in our waterproof ponchos under a soaking rain, we watched as female salmon—whose backs and dorsal fins protruded a bit from the water—wiggled their tails to scoop shallow depressions in the streambed. These depressions are called redds. There the females would release their clutches of round, pink eggs, while their male paramours released milt (fish semen) over them. After more wiggling to cover the fertilized eggs with fresh gravel, the female would move upstream to repeat the process. 

Scattered salmon roe in Ketchikan Creek. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

We could not see every aspect of this process, viewing it side-on under a stippling rain, but we saw the wiggles. Often we saw the back of what must have been a rampant male surging downstream—whether to frighten off rival males, or out of sheer exuberance of the rut, I could not say. 

But it was impressive, especially in that it was performed by the rare survivors of such a harrowing lifelong journey.

Ecce Salmo, piscis invictus!

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

North to Alaska

“Mormor, Bapa! Come on, there’s a lot of cool stuff at the top of the hill.”

Tristan, age nine, leaps and bounces in the trampoline-like mat of vegetation.

“You run back up there and learn all about it,” I say. “Mormor”—his grandmother—“and I will stay and rest a bit in the tundra.” 

“Okay, Bapa—if you’re sure.” And he leaps back up the hill.

Me enjoying comfy tundra. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

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Alaska has a way of wearing a man down. 

The first time we visited, in 2010, at age 65, there was enough bounce in my bones and enough tingle in my tendons to hike with a group up the mountain that overlooks the Mendenhall Glacier, near Juneau. We scrambled over exposed roots, clambered through corridors of rain-slicked rocks. It was a tiring, yet exhilarating, trek.

This trip, at age 76, Your New Favorite Writer—still an enthusiast—strategically avails himself of frequent rest opportunities. 

Elsie, Katie, and Tristan at top of impossibly high tundra hill, enjoying Sidney’s lecture. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

Our time on the tundra in the middle of Denali National Park is precious. The softness, the springiness, the sink-in-ability of that blanket of tangled vegetation covering the deep permafrost challenges the hiker to walk without falling down and taxes one’s pulmonary system—especially going uphill. 

On the other hand, should you happen to fall down, you couldn’t pick a better place to do it. You almost can’t get hurt falling into the soft tundra. 

It’s an even better place to sit and rest, watching the mountains and listening to the enthusiasm of younger hikers as Sidney, our mountain guide—the young lady who carries the bear spray—points out wild blueberries and other flora just up the hill, telling which ones humans can eat, which ones the bears like, and so forth.

It’s a fine, warm day. Denali, the mountain, was out a few minutes ago and we got to see its peak before it was re-cloaked by its very own weather system. 

Denali seen behind Wonder Lake. Denali National Park and Preserve photo by Albert Herring. Public Domain.

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We have come here because we like Alaska; but even more, we want share it with our daughter, Katie, and our grandchildren, Elsie and Tristan. This resembles nothing they have experienced and nothing else they will ever experience—possibly not even in long future lives. 

Panning for gold. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

For a time, we have lured them from their telephone screens into the powerful beauty of the real world.

Later today we will pan for gold in Moose Creek. Lucky Tristan will find a flake in his pan and have it laminated on a piece of black paper. A speck of gold to carry with him forever after. Or until he loses it, which is likely. But the important thing is, he will find it in his pan and will always remember that. 

Elsie, age twelve, will find one too but lose it on the way to have it laminated. That will be all right, though, because she will find prizes of her own in the wilderness, including sightings of bears and moose and the chance to befriend a young adventurer, Rhys, traveling with his own family.

Katie and Mormor will not try panning for gold. They will opt for a horticulture hike instead, another rewarding adventure.

Old Bapa—Your New Favorite Writer—will stand in the creek swishing gravel around his pan, to no avail . . . but will bring home gold anyway.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer