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

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!)

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!)