Brilliant New Content Under Construction

Thanks for your faithfulness, Dear Reader. Due to the crush of circumstances, Your New Favorite Author needs a week off from blog posts.

Tune in here next Tuesday, September 20. I think there will be something special in this space.

Meanwhile, here is a Bluebird of Happiness for you to enjoy.

Eastern bluebird. Photo by Ken Thomas. Public Domain.

A Happy Medium

Last week Dan Blank posted an article I’m still trying to wrap my head around. It was about physical media.

His piece begins with an observation: Not long ago, people read physical books, magazines, and newspapers in all kinds of situations, such as when riding the subway; but today, it’s easier to open your phone, access the Web, and grab whatever you want to pay attention to. Just go to Spotify. Or YouTube. Whatever.

Woman reading on couch. Photo by Julia Spranger, licensed under CC BY 3.0

“How people read and listen and watch has evolved a lot in the past decade,” Dan observes. 

That much is obvious. But then, being Dan Blank, he goes off on a different tack. He is not so much concerned with trends of media consumption as dictated by convenience or economics. Dan wants to know how our relationship with media in physical forms—old-fashioned formats, really—affects us in our inner, private existence as human beings. 

“I’ve been thinking about how I can be more intentional in how I experience books, movies, and music,” Dan says. Is it just me, Dear Reader, or does this sound like a thought from outer space?

Only Dan Blank—who does indeed think deeply about such matters—could even formulate that sentence. He goes on to explain that, having eschewed traditional television in his household for many years, he is now setting up a TV room. “It feels old fashioned,” he says, but he’s buying “an immersive experience to lose myself in a movie. To close the shades, turn off the lights, close the door, turn the volume way up, and dive into a film.”

Old TV. Public Domain.

Well: That’s him, and I’m me. 

But it got me wondering how I relate to media in my life. It wouldn’t take a Marshall McLuhan to figure out that Your New Favorite Writer is perhaps a bit . . . eccentric. 

I like a physical book, hardbound or paperback. The ancients entrusted their writings to long, continuous scrolls of papyrus or other materials that had to be unwound with one hand while being rewound with the other. When some genius invented the codex, a stack of rectangular sheets bound along one edge, he or she introduced a device that has lasted ever since. With a codex, very like a modern book, you could easily flip back and forth. You could go back fifty pages to see whether the dagger was mentioned among the items the police found after the murder. 

The modern world was born.

Since that time I have read quite a few books—learning from Peter Drucker, investigating with Dorothy Sayers, and taking the hard falls with Ross Macdonald. There is something about holding a book in my hands, flipping pages, that transports me to a new and exciting place.

With the advent of the mass market paperback, a book became something you could jam into the back pocket of your jeans, get on the bus, and pull out to re-enter the dream world.

When today’s reality (no, thanks) came along, I learned to download e-books and read them on my laptop. But I strongly prefer black ink on white paper, sandwiched between a pair of sturdy covers. 

Now here is my shameful secret, Gentle Reader. Try not to condemn that which you may not understand. Black ink on white paper, or at least the facsimile of same on a laptop screen, is the ONLY way I like to receive information. 

There’s something about my auditory and central nervous systems that makes it hard for me to absorb content by hearing or seeing. I have to READ it. 

This is altogether unlike the stated preference of my high-toned friends who spurn the television news because the New York Times, you know, is so much more accurate and in-depth.

No. This is how it is: If my laptop shows me a TV news story that I can watch as a stream or read as text, I will choose the latter—even if the text is a verbatim transcript of the television clip. If there’s only a TV stream, unaccompanied by written text, I’ll find a different source that does have written text. As Heinlein’s famous Martian would say, I can grok it in its fullness only if it’s in print.

I remember, as a child and even as a young adult, going to see movies in the cinema and enjoying them greatly. It’s a long time since I’ve had that experience. If I want to have it now, I’ll turn on the TV and navigate my way to Turner Classic Movies. That’s because the films they make now are not only too loud, they go too fast for me to understand. 

Partly that’s because of my hearing impairment, but that’s not the whole story.

No matter how fast people talk, I hear slow. I also see slow. I can’t follow the thread of a TV commercial because of the quick cuts. They can present an entire opera in thirty seconds, but I’ll be caught off guard when the fat lady sings.

These effects have increased as I age. It’s gotten to where there’s virtually no point in hearing or seeing anything. 

Just give me a book and a quiet corner. I’ll be happy.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

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!)

Spoon River

Violin. Auckland War Memorial Museum, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
Fiddler Jones
The earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.
What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river?
The wind’s in the corn; you rub your hands
For beeves hereafter ready for market;
Or else you hear the rustle of skirts
Like the girls when dancing at Little Grove. . . . 
Spoon River Anthology, first edition, in its original dust jacket, quoting a laudatory review. Fair use.

Galesburg’s literary fame does not rest only on the shoulders of Carl Sandburg and Jack Finney. There is also Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950), who published a poetry collection titled Spoon River Anthology in 1915.

Usually we think of an anthology as a collection of poems or other content by various authors. Spoon River Anthology still qualifies in a sense, because its central conceit is that each poem is voiced by a deceased town resident speaking from the grave. The lives and viewpoints thus chronicled are diverse and lively. Consider the reminiscence of a long-lived lady, with its flinty valedictory:

Lucinda Matlock

I went to the dances at Chandlerville,
And played snap-out at Winchester.
One time we changed partners,
Driving home in the moonlight of middle June,
And then I found Davis.
We were married and lived together for seventy years,
Enjoying, working, raising the twelve children,
Eight of whom we lost
Ere I had reached the age of sixty.
I spun,
I wove,
I kept the house,
I nursed the sick,
I made the garden, and for holiday
Rambled over the fields where sang the larks,
And by Spoon River gathering many a shell,
And many a flower and medicinal weed—
Shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys.
At ninety-six I had lived enough, that is all,
And passed to a sweet repose.
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you—
It takes life to love Life.

The young Edgar Lee Masters. Photo by unknown photographer. Public domain.

Born in Kansas, Edgar Lee Masters grew up in Illinois—first at Petersburg in Menard County, then in Lewistown, Fulton County, where he attended high school and had his first publication in the Chicago Daily News. In 1889-1890 he attended the Knox Academy in Galesburg, a college-prep school run by Knox College in those days, but was forced to drop out for financial reasons.

Masters became an attorney, poet, biographer, and dramatist. He published twelve plays, twenty-one books of poetry, six novels and six biographies, including those of Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Vachel Lindsay, and Walt Whitman. None of these many works ever matched the success of his graveyard poems collected under the banner of Spoon River—a quiet stream that drains the prairies east and south of Galesburg, snaking its way down to the Illinois River at Havana.

Spoon River at Seville in Fulton County. NOAA photo. Public Domain.

Here are more examples of Masters’s craft:

Griffy the Cooper
The cooper should know about tubs.
But I learned about life as well,
And you who loiter around these graves
Think you know life.
You think your eye sweeps about a wide horizon, perhaps,
In truth you are only looking around the interior of your tub.
You cannot lift yourself to its rim
And see the outer world of things,
And at the same time see yourself.
You are submerged in the tub of yourself—
Taboos and rules and appearances,
Are the staves of your tub.
Break them and dispel the witchcraft
Of thinking your tub is life
And that you know life.
Mrs. George Reece
To this generation I would say:
Memorize some bit of verse of truth or beauty.
It may serve a turn in your life.
My husband had nothing to do
With the fall of the bank—he was only cashier.
The wreck was due to the president, Thomas Rhodes,
And his vain, unscrupulous son.
Yet my husband was sent to prison,
And I was left with the children,
To feed and clothe and school them.
And I did it, and sent them forth
Into the world all clean and strong,
And all through the wisdom of Pope, the poet:
“Act well your part, there all the honor lies.”
The Village Atheist
Ye young debaters over the doctrine
Of the soul’s immortality
I who lie here was the village atheist,
Talkative, contentious, versed in the arguments
Of the infidels. But through a long sickness
Coughing myself to death I read the
Upanishads and the poetry of Jesus.
And they lighted a torch of hope and intuition
And desire which the Shadow
Leading me swiftly through the caverns of darkness,
Could not extinguish.
Listen to me, ye who live in the senses
And think through the senses only:
Immortality is not a gift,
Immortality is an achievement;
And only those who strive mightily
Shall possess it.

Generations of students have read these poems—in other anthologies, fittingly, high school anthologies—and, perhaps in olden days, memorized some of them, free verse and all. They were, among other things, indicators of the stern and happy potentialities of life. I do not know whether Spoon River Anthology still holds a place in public school curricula. If not, we are the poorer for it.

Wikipedia notes, “Masters died in poverty at a nursing home on March 5, 1950, in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, age 81. He is buried in Oakland cemetery in Petersburg, Illinois.” I wonder if he felt at all like his creation, Fiddler Jones—

. . . How could I till my forty acres
Not to speak of getting more,
With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos
Stirred in my brain by crows and robins
And the creak of a wind-mill—only these?
And I never started to plow in my life
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or picnic.
I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle—
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.

To have left on earth behind you some bit of music, art, or poetry, quivering in the air for those with ears to hear—perhaps it’s not such a bad epitaph.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

A Poem

July 4, 2021

Fireworks at Summerfest Milwaukee, 2008. Photo by Dori, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 us.
Gunpowder vexes the night
in booms and bangs
to celebrate our Independence
and a little something troubles my bare arm
as I recline in the warm evening.
I look down, perchance to swat away
the affrontive mosquito—but no,
it is a larger bug, with long, dark wings,
almost a rectangle:


And I ask it “Can you light up?” 
And, as it flies away, it does.
A lightning bug!
Lightning bug. Photo by terry priest, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0.
As a boy in the flatlands of Illinois
I chased them by the hundreds, 
catching them in my hands
and sequestering them in glass jars
with holes poked in the lid
so they could breathe.
We were not so callous
as to kill them by suffocation. 
We would only imprison them overnight
and release them the next day
if we remembered—our innocence
exceeded only by our youth.


Here in this boreal clime
where I am resolved to age in place,
we do not see so many lightning bugs.
Still, they are with us
and more than welcome
as we pass our summer evenings
in contemplation of
how far we have traveled.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

What’s in a Title?

A lot can happen in from one week to the next. 

Two weeks ago, I announced that my novel, The Maelstrom, would be published July 26. One week ago, March 1, I announced that no, it would actually be August 23. And with a new title.

As of today, the August 23 release date is still good. 

Now here is the new title: Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

And look! Here’s the cover. 

A book’s cover is key. Sometimes, the cover even drives the choice of title. 

When I first started writing this book, I just called it “the Anders and Maria book.” Eventually, I settled on Freedom’s Purchase. I did not like Freedom’s Purchase much. It seemed hyper-inflated. But it fit, because throughout this story, characters pay high prices to secure their freedom. They must give up precious things to be free and prosperous. 

When I re-wrote the book I changed it to The Maelstrom. I was thinking of a great whirlpool, like the Moskstraumen off the Norwegian coast. It seemed to capture the vortex of looming disaster that was the pre-Civil War United States.

DX Varos Publishing bought the manuscript. Publisher Daniel Willis wanted to add a subtitle: A Tale of Immigration and Liberation. This would give readers more information about the nature of the story. So we were set to publish The Maelstrom—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Several people had previously said things like, “Maelstrom? Huh?” “What’s a maelstrom?” “Is this a book about some ocean current?” In my wisdom, I had ignored such minor quibbles.

We’re Covered

A good story often has a last-minute twist, and here it is: The publisher sent me the cover art. 

It showed a railroad track in foreground, a breaking chain overhead, and a distant sky full of clouds and sunshine. The track could suggest immigration; the broken chain, liberation; the half-sunny sky, a brighter future. 

I was underwhelmed by this cover. I surfed the web frantically and found an image that embodied the dynamic tension of “maelstrom.” It was a blue-green ship in a stormy ocean, a large whirlpool churning in the foreground. I sent it to the publisher. 

He said, “Well, yes, but everybody’s going to think they’re buying a sea story.”

Curses! 

A cover is not just about symbols and metaphors. It should give the reader a clue about the actual contents.

It’s true this book includes an ocean voyage, but it’s a minor part of the story. Everything important occurs on land, in the middle of North America, far from any ocean. 

Bowing at last to common sense,  I accepted the publisher’s cover. But the title, The Maelstrom, did not match the cover image. Rereading Chapter One, I stumbled on the phrase, “price of passage.” It relates to the purchase of a transatlantic ticket to America, but it’s also a good metaphor for the costs incurred in “freedom’s purchase.” 

We ran it up the flagpole, and everybody saluted.

So now, with pride, DX Varos Publishing and Larry F. Sommers give you Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation–available for pre-order in late spring.

I’m glad to be partnered with somebody who knows what they’re doing in this business.

And that’s not all

I hereby announce the inaugural issue of The Haphazard Times, a very occasional newsletter, by email, intended to apprise you of only the most significant developments in this writer’s life.

Why should I  trouble your Inbox on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, just to meet an arbitrary deadline? The Haphazard Times will appear in your email only when important events or milestones occur. Events like the opening of pre-orders for the book and other key milestones for the book or for me as a writer. Other than that, I won’t bother you. 

All you need to do to get on the mailing list for The Haphazard Times is fill in this form:

I hope you will.

Note Well: This “Keep Up!” signup is for the newsletter. The other signup, at right under “Share My Journey Week to Week,” is for email notification whenever this blog is posted. If you already receive such notices, they will continue. If you do not, but would like to, just enter your email there. But that will not get you the newsletter. I recommend taking both.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

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!)

Your Favorite Fabulist Hits Paydirt

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

HERE, AT LAST, IS YOUR REWARD, Faithful Reader, for six years staggering through the bookish wilderness guided by your own Literary Lion. 

[Fanfare of trumpets and French horns here.]

The Maelstrom—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, by Larry F. Sommers, is scheduled for publication July 26, 2022, by DX Varos Publishing—a boutique publisher of exquisite fiction.

DX Varos is a traditional publisher, meaning I do not pay them to publish my book. They pay me.

Now that The Maelstrom is officially exquisite—or will be when Dan Willis completes the edit—you’d best rush out and buy it. You’ll soon have an opportunity to pre-order at a low price. 

This is a REALLY BIG DEAL for Your New Favorite Writer. It is a debut novel—meaning it is my first novel to achieve publication since I became a full-time fiction writer in 2016, after a lifetime spent doing other things.

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

The Maelstrom is a historical novel about two Norwegian immigrants and a freedom-seeking slave, swept together by America’s great controvery of the nineteenth century. 

The original title was Freedom’s Purchase. I queried many agents and publishers and got one offer of publication. After a brief euphoria, I turned that offer down because I had little confidence in the publisher.

Two other publishers, significant ones, who rejected the book were kind enough to send brief notes on how it fell short. There was the option of assuming these seasoned professionals did not know what they were talking about. But the truth is a tricky thing. One cannot evade it forever. 

I laid the manuscript aside and whined on this blog about the pain of gracefully melding its disparate story lines. My dear friend Christine DeSmet heard my anguish and pointed out that it was possible to get everything working together and I was just the guy to do it. It helps that Christine is a five-star professional book coach. And she gave me this advice for free.

So I plunged in again and promoted a minor character—Daniel, the escaping African American slave—into a major character, equal in weight and importance to Anders and Maria, my Norsk immigrants. Suddenly the book came to life. It now had a braided but distinct narrative spine. However, it still remained an incoherent mess.

Savvy literatus that I am, I hired Christine on a professional basis to help me rework the whole book. It was the wisest decision I have made since 1969, when I asked Joelle Nelson to marry me. 

The new book generated a new title, The Maelstrom. I sent out new queries pinning my hopes most on the two publishers whose rejection slips had been helpful in re-directing the book. Would they be interested in reading the new version? 

One of the two said yes. That was Daniel Willis of DX Varos. 

#

This book owes its existence to four key players: 

First, Joelle. Her dogged research of our families led me to the real Anders Gunstensen and Maria Nybro, whose story I have embellished to make it fiction. She also bears with patience my long routine absences from the rest of life on the shaky claim that I am busy writing. 

Second, Laurie Scheer. In her course on genre at the University of Wisconsin’s Write By the Lake program, she encouraged me to novelize the immigrant experience of my ancestors. That helped give me the nerve to attempt such a thing.

Third, Christine DeSmet. Her constant friendship, gentle nudging, and unvarnished critique have drastically improved the final product.

Fourth, Daniel Willis of DX Varos. His willingness to read my book allowed me to think that someone in the publishing world had a genuine interest in the story I had to tell. His pointed critique of my earlier manuscript led me in the right direction for revision. His willingness to give the story a second chance made me hopeful. And finally, his acceptance of the manuscript for publication puts me on the path to being a published author. 

Your New Favorite Writer’s life will change as a result of all the things necessary in the launch, promotion, and selling of a new book. But somehow, I must keep writing through it all. Other books are in process, one almost ready for the market. My friend Gregory Renz has warned me how easily an endless round of appearances and marketing can distract one from practicing our basic craft. I’m determined to navigate those waters succeessfully. 

So stay tuned, Gentle Reader.

And buy my book. I’m sure you’ll agree it’s an excellent Christmas gift for all your family members and friends as well.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

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!)

Neighbors to the Rescue

I like to chop wood. Maybe it was my early training as a Boy Scout. Or those tales of Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack in the big woods, got to me. 

Could it be I was moved beyond prudence by the poetry of Robert Frost?

Good blocks of beech it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.

—“Two Tramps in Mud Time”

At any rate, I’ve always enjoyed swinging an axe.

Robert Frost, 1913. Unknown photographer. Public Domain.

This year, however, the task threatened to overwhelm. From wood-gathering efforts chronicled here and here, I had more than enough fresh honey locust in my backyard, needing to be split.

We don’t use those big, round logs mentioned in Christmas carols (“See the blazing Yule before us, falala-lala, lala-lala!”). Logs must be halved, quartered, or even eighthed, to fit our small cast iron stove. Apart from mere size, wood ignites quicker when it has a cleft inner surface to feed the flame. 

An Intervention

I started to split the honey locust, and some river birch from the same source, with my trusty axe. 

My neighbor Dick rented a hydraulic splitter. I helped him use the splitter on his part of the take. I had never used one before, and it’s impressive, the ease with which it shivers great logs into small ones. It’s a good job for two people—one to horse the logs onto the splitting bed and one to push the lever that makes the machine go. 

A small part of my bonanza.

Need I spell it out? Dick did the heavy lifting and I provided the wrist action. A fair distribution of labor, agreed. But I was beginning to think I’m an old man, needing to be spared exertion.

When we had reduced his logs to splinters, he offered the use of the machine for mine.

“I actually enjoy splitting them with my axe,” I said. “Good exercise.”

“Well—”

I grinned. “However, some of my logs are too big and heavy to split easily by axe. So I gratefully accept your offer.”

Fooboo the dog inspects split logs.

We wheeled the machine to the back end of my garage. In a half-hour’s time we split the biggest and baddest of my logs down to halves or quarters. Plenty of logs remained to be split the old way, gratifying the woodsman inside me.

We hitched the splitter to the back of Dick’s car, and he towed it back to Home Depot.

Since then I have used my axe to make three face cords of split wood. That’s probably enough for now, as we head into winter. Tons of prime honey locust still await the axe. It will keep me busy all winter, whenever the snow is low enough.

Why Is This Important?

Ordinarily, the way people keep warm is their own concern. It’s hard to excite others about it. 

There may be curiosity value in historical heating methods. Someday perhaps I’ll tell you what it was like to live in a house heated with a coal furnace, what one had to do—and it was the child’s lot to do it—to keep the flames alight. 

Tom Thompson, Man With Axe, 1915. Public domain.

But this year’s saga of my firewood husbandry is of possible interest only because it shows our dependence on one another. Some of our wood was a gift from my friend Jack. Some was a gift from our neighbors Nick and Shelly, who no longer needed their honey locust tree. 

In processing the huge logs down to burnable firewood, I had help from my neighbor Ben on one side, and my neighbor Dick on the other side. 

They say firewood warms you twice—once when you split it and once when you burn it. But the warmth of working with friends and neighbors is not to be discounted.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

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!)

What About Honey Locust?

Having received a generous donation of firewood from our friend Jack, we were well on our way to having enough to heat our isolated sunroom for the winter. But we still needed more.

People on the corner one street over had a huge tree taken down. I approached the tree-felling contractor about the wood. 

He looked askance, rubbed his chin. “Thing is, we sell it. Be happy to sell you some nice, quartered firewood.”

“Mmph. Thanks anyway. Mumble-mumble.” I didn’t go away angry; I just went away. 

*

“Honey, how about that big dead oak down the block and around the corner? They’ve got machinery in the yard. Looks like they’re planning to cut that tree down before it falls on somebody and kills them.”

I ambled down the street and around the corner, drawn by the whine of a chainsaw. A lone arborist attacked the homicidal oak and stacked its branches along the curb. I examined the cut ends. All rotten and insect-riddled inside. I didn’t even mumble, just walked away.

*

One day in late November, I moped at my laptop, Googling “Firewood for Sale,” when heavy machine sounds pierced my reverie. I looked out the front window. There, across the street, in front of Nick and Shelly’s house, swarmed a crew of lumberjacks. 

A Promising Development

Stop the presses!

I moseyed across the street and talked to the boss logger. Yes, Nick and Shelly had decided to cull a big honey locust from their backyard. The arborists were already hauling the results to the front curb, shredding the smaller branches in a big machine and stacking the big limbs to be hauled away. No, Nick and Shelly didn’t want the wood.

The foreman, rather than haul the big limbs away, was happy to dump them on my yard instead. “That’s great firewood, in case you didn’t know,” he said. “High heat density.”

Logs in our front yard

I Googled it up and sure enough: Honey locust—or any kind of locust—is about the best firewood you can get. Mucho calor, low smoke output, easy scutting, easy splitting. Jackpot.

Using a log-grappling loader, they brought me lots of logs, six to eight feet long and hundreds of pounds each. I started cutting them to fireplace length with my little chainsaw, but by the end of the day, the loggers’ enthusiasm had left my efforts far behind. 

I waved a grateful farewell to the lumberjacks and considered the fruits of their labor: A pile of logs so numerous and heavy my yard should have caved in.

Oops

I had my wish: Enough good firewood to last the winter. Way more than enough. 

I invited my next-door neighbors, Ben and Dick, to share the wealth. Ben had to leave for a few days of Naval Reserve service, but Dick responded with alacrity. He came over the next day and helped me by moving and positioning the huge logs for optimum cutting. 

Logs in our backyard

That’s no small contribution. When you work with a chainsaw, half your time, attention, and energy is spent making sure the logs you cut fall the right way. If the log is balanced at the wrong point, it can either sink and pinch the cutting chain or fall out of control and roll in an unfortunate direction. Dick’s brawn, applied to positioning the logs before each cut, helped me cut them in a rapid and safe manner.

I don’t work for more than an hour or two with either an axe or a chainsaw. Why? Because when you’re tired is when you make stupid mistakes.

A stupid mistake when working at my laptop might dim my literary star. A stupid mistake with a chainsaw is something else again.

I called a halt and begged Dick to take some of his share home as soon as he could. We were in a race against time. If the logs stayed on my front lawn through the onset of winter, they could be frozen there until April. Dick brought his wheelbarrow over and took a lot of logs to his backyard. 

More logs in our backyard

The next day I finished cutting the big logs. Ben got back from Naval duty and hauled some of the logs away to his house. I trundled the rest through our long tandem garage and out the back end to where we keep the firewood.

Now, all that remained was to split them.

Next Time: To Hydraulic, or not to Hydraulic?

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

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!)

To Make a Fire (Jack London, Eat Your Heart Out)

It’s lumberjack time again. 

We burn wood in our living room fireplace, in our backyard fire pit, and in a small woodstove that warms our sunroom. We fire up the first two venues only occasionally, mostly when the kids are over. But we burn a lot of wood in that little stove in the sunroom.

The sunroom

The sunroom, with its large windows showing our backyard and part of our wooded neighborhood, is a pleasant place to sit and write, chat, dine, or just sit and ponder. It is not served, however, by the gas furnace and ductwork that heats the rest of the house. Even to call it a “three-season room” is a stretch, because here in south central Wisconsin, spring does not get going until May, and winter has been known to start in late October. Burning wood makes the sunroom a year-round site.

Last year we went through about three face cords of wood. A face cord is one third of a cord. A cord of firewood is a stack four feet wide by four feet high and eight feet long. But nobody burns four-foot logs. You cut them into “fireplace length,” about sixteen inches.

You can’t be exact with logs. Some may be cut eighteen or twenty inches long, others less than a foot. But on average, they’re sixteen inches. We split the logs and dry them on eight-foot racks. Each rack holds a face cord.

We may burn more than three face cords this year. How much time we spend in the sunroom depends on how much wood we have.

This spring we had almost a face cord of miscellaneous logs left over. But spring is not too soon to start scrounging for more. You want your wood to dry a few months before burning; a year or two would be better. Dry wood burns hotter than fresh wood. And did I mention, I hate to pay money for firewood? I like to get it for free, but the opportunity has to be right. 

The Hunt Begins

“The guy down the street has that big tree in his backyard that blew over a while back,” said my wife, Jo. “You could take your chainsaw and offer to give him a hand with it.”

“Mmph. Rotten old thing. Mumble-mumble.” I preferred, so early in the spring, to dilly-dally. Even, if need be, to shilly-shally.

“But where are we going to get firewood for next winter?”

Jack to the Rescue

Jack’s wood burning in my stove

Did I mention my friend Jack? A splendid gentleman of the old school, he happens to be a Renaissance man: classically educated, a Vietnam vet, a horseman, an expert witness on matters involving masonry construction. Jack is also a writer with a great book, not yet published—just as I am a writer with a great book, not yet published.

By the way, Jack owns and operates a large farm near Madison. He’s perpetually cutting down old trees, and he invites me to share the wealth. This year my daughter, Katie, and I went out to his farm and scored a couple of van loads of white oak and walnut. Already cut, split, and seasoned. Some of that wood warms me as I write these words—in my sunroom, surrounded by  a snowy landscape.

Jack gives me wood, and I usually bring him a bottle of something nice. Katie brings him honey. This is not payment for the wood. We’re just doing something nice for a friend, who happens to have done something nice for us.

So, thanks to Jack’s generosity and a bit of left-over mulberry from our own yard, we now have more than a face cord of dry, burnable wood. But we neded quite a bit more. Even if Jack invites us out again, it will not completely fill our need. It seems to me churlish, not to mention unwise, to rely solely on one generous friend.

What shall we do?

Next Time: What About Honey Locust?

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

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!)

“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

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!)