Storming the Heights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Build on Small Victories? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Blog or Not to Blog: That is the Question

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

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

Bennett Cerf. Public Domain

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clarity

I had little idea what blogging could do for me. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dedication and Constancy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the “Reflections” Blog

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

The posts are not all of one kind. 

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

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

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

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Mom-and-Pop Stores

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

It was a work of art. 

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

“That’s a nickel,” said Pop. 

“Charge it,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

On the second trip I chose a more prudent route.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Thematic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another angle. Matt Fiedler photo.

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

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

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

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

I can hardly wait to find out.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer