Birth of a Book

Who is a writer? 

What is a writer? 

How does a writer come to be?

Does a writer spring full-bodied from the brow of Zeus, like Athena? Or does a writer rise from the sawdust of the arena floor, like Eric Hoffer? Are writers born, or made?

Athena emerges from Zeus’ forehead, armed and ready for battle. Attic exaleiptron (black-figured tripod), ca. 570–560 BC. Found in Thebes. Public Domain.

All I know is, writers write. Perhaps you are one of us. We who cannot not write. 

Some of our tribe, like the fictional Jo March of Little Women and John-Boy of The Waltons, scribble in notebooks from childhood on and sell their first work as teenagers. Others may hold their fire like dormant volcanoes, then erupt in middle age. My friend Greg Renz waited till retirement to novelize the stories he had been processing over 28 years as a Milwaukee firefighter. 

I’d be willing to bet that more than once during those 28 years, Greg told some of his stories to someone, informally. I doubt anybody suddenly becomes a writer without some kind of prelude. What warming-up exercises did Homer go through before composing 27,000 lines of dactyllic hexameter known as the Iliad and the Odyssey

My Odyssey

Dear Reader, I was an old man when I set out to burst upon the literary scene. I wanted to share my dearest concerns with others.

I did not know how to do it but was called to try. Impressions, thoughts, and feelings that had been marinating in cobwebbed bottles on the dusty shelves of my soul began to ooze forth as written words that the world might see.

Like Greg, Jo, John-Boy, and Homer, I did not come to this calling completely cold. 

I wrote a detective story when I was eight. Around that time, I also drew a few comic strips starring myself and a fantasy sidekick as cowboys, fighting bad guys. In junior high I got a $25 savings bond for writing an essay about traffic safety. I wrote for the high school paper. I was a radio guy in college. After a series of abortive career launches in young manhood, I at last burrowed safely into the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs, the agency that oversees the National Guard and Emergency Management. My role there included both writing and photographic skills. After 23 years with the agency, I retired. Immediately I was called to edit a well-regarded and historic religious quarterly, The Congregationalist—a part-time job I did for six and a half years.

I had done no “creative” writing since grade school. But I had the itch to “be a writer.” Having reached the age of 70, I knew that if I wanted to be a writer, I’d better get started. 

For by that time I was feeling definitely Homeric. Odyssean, in fact. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in his poem “Ulysses,” has his old Ulysses (Odysseus) say—

How dull it is to pause, to make an end, 
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use! 
As tho’ to breathe were life! . . .
. . . but every hour is saved 
From that eternal silence, something more, 
A bringer of new things . . . . 

New things. Yes. I was ready for new things. So in 2016, I quit the best job I ever had and declared myself a writer. Not in some doomed quest for fame, fortune, or any other phantasm. But merely to share myself with you and others in a new way. Have you ever had that kind of an urge?

A New Chapter

There were things to get off my chest; this I knew. I just didn’t know exactly what they were. That was what Mr. Donald Rumsfeld would call “a known unknown”: I knew that I did not know it. But faith told me that if I only started to write it down, it would come out through my fingers and splat itself upon the virtual page of my laptop screen. It would become visible, and then I could fix it up.

The real itch inside me, the thing I wanted to share with the world, was precisely what T.S. Eliot mentioned in his poem, “Little Gidding”:  

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. 

Yes, I thought, that’s really what I’m all about. I want to unearth the long-ago and show it in new writing, so that I, and my readers, can see that past with new eyes.

I wrote short stories about life in the 1950s, starring a little boy named Izzy Mahler, based on my own small-town boyhood. Three of them—“Nickle and Dime,” “The Liberation of Irma Ruger,” and “The Lion’s Den”—achieved online publication, with minor paychecks, by The Saturday Evening Post. Yes, Virginia, there still is a Saturday Evening Post.

Those Old Siberian Blues,” a whimsical essay about our then 12-year-old Siberian husky, Montana, was published in Fetch!, “Wisconsin’s #1 Free Dog Publication,” in December 2016. 

But soon, bigger game was afoot: A sweeping historical novel, an immigrant saga.

A Novel Obsession

My wife, Joelle, had researched and archived our family’s roots, both on her side and on mine. She did such sound research that she won an award. 

The Main Office of Larry F. Sommers, Writer–a spare corner of my bedroom. The mess is essential to the creative process.

Since I was now a self-admitted full-time writer, she badgered me to write a brief prose essay on one of my ancestors. This was necessary to claim a cultural skills badge in genealogy from the Sons of Norway. Both of us have Norwegian lines, but I was the “official” member of the organization. Besides, she said, “You are the writer, I’m just the researcher. Write something about one of your ancestors.”

So I looked into the research that she had painstakingly compiled and learned that my great-great-grandfather, Anders Gunstensen, came from Norway in 1853 and settled in Menard County, Illinois. 

Gentle Reader, please take note of this: I knew nothing about Anders Gunstensen. We had no diaries, letters, artifacts, heirlooms, or even word-of-mouth stories about Anders, his wife Johanne-Marie Nybro, or Norway. None of this had come down through my family.

I am thus a Norwegian without any discernible Norwegiosity. I snakker ikke norsk (speak no Norwegian); Grandma didn’t bake fattigmands bakkelser (“Poor man’s cookies”) at Christmas; I don’t even own a Norwegian sweater. Uff-da!

We had only dry statistics: Anders’ dates of birth, emigration, marriage, and death; names of his parents and more remote progenitors; what ship he traveled on; the woman he married; the places where he lived; the children he fathered; and the simple fact that he wore Union blue as a soldier in the Civil War. 

To make even a brief article from these bare bones took some interpretation—dare I say, interpolation—from hard facts to reasonable inferences. 

Anders embarked for America February 8, 1853, the very day after his passport was issued. Hmm. Seems he was in a big hurry to get out of Norway. 

He sailed from Arendal, Norway, to New Orleans, Louisiana. Not New York, not Quebec. New Orleans. Picture a 23-year-old farm boy leaving Norway in early February and arriving in New Orleans eight weeks later. The heat alone must have prostrated him—not to mention the spectacle: Hordes of people, all races, all colors, all modes of dress, all speaking a polyglot of American, European, and African tongues. And some of them buying and selling others in open-air slave markets.

What a novel this would make.

The trickle of Norwegian immigrants in the 1830s and ’40s had become a stream by the 1850s. That stream flowed from New York or Quebec to Northern Illinois, then to Wisconsin, then to Minnesota and on west. Anders traveled north from New Orleans, undoubtedly by steamboat, and stopped when he got to Central, not Northern, Illinois—in a place with only a handful of other Norwegians. He had to learn English and local customs fast. 

Then, two years after settling in this non-Scandinavian part of North America, he married a Norwegian girl, Johanne-Marie Elisabeth Nybro, who had come to Menard County from guess where? Oiestad, Anders’ own home village. Is that a spooky coincidence? How did that happen?

Can you see, Fair Reader, how a person might start to become a novelist? If you were in my place, wanting answers to questions that had no answers, you might do the same thing I did: Make the answers up!

Which is how my novel, Freedom’s Purchase, came to be.

Next Week:  Update on the novel project.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

All the Thrills You Can Affjord

NORWAY!

(Cue opening strains of Grieg’s Piano Concerto.)

Norway. Larry F. Sommers photos, ©2016. 

You should go. I mean now. Drop what you’re doing and buy a ticket. 

Grandpa donated my surname, which is German. But Grandma Sommers was a Gunsten, with two Norwegian grandparents, Anders Gunstensen and Maria Nybro, who came over in the 1850s. 

Norway in blue. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Since Grandma was half Norwegian, that means Dad was one-quarter Norwegian, so my sister and I are one-eighth Norwegian. Being even one-eighth Norwegian is pretty cool, because Norway is a gorgeous country, full of delicious food and improbable—dare I say quixotic?—heroes.

Norsk Epics

But it’s off the beaten track, on a boreal peninsula. And its population of five million is a fraction of Germany’s or France’s. Norway, to get any press at all, has had to specialize. Her great achievements are mostly explorations, and mostly nautical.

  • Around AD 1,000, Leif Erikson and friends sailed Viking longships across the North Atlantic and discovered America.
  • In the 1890s, Fridtjof Nansen built Fram, an uncommonly sturdy three-masted schooner, which he deliberately stuck in the arctic ice pack to study circumpolar drift. By 8 January 1895 the ice had carried the ship farther north than any ship had ever gone. On 14 March, Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen set out in dogsleds for the North Pole. They had to turn back short of their goal, but they did reach 86°13’6″ N, almost three degrees beyond the previous record.
Nansen and Johansen prepare to depart by sled for the North Pole, 14 March 1895. The ice-bound Fram looms in the background. Public Domain.
  • On 14 December 1911, Roald Amundsen led the first expedition that reached the South Pole. Fifteen years later, Amundsen crossed the North Pole in a dirigible airship, leading what may have been the first expedition ever to reach 90°N by any means. (Three prior claims—by Frederick Cook in 1908, Robert Peary in 1909, and Richard E. Byrd in 1926—have been disputed.)

Thus it was with great expectations that my daughter, Katie, and I drove to Stoughton, Wisconsin, to see Kon-Tiki, a two-hour film dramatization of Thor Heyerdahl’s epic 1947 voyage across the Pacific on a balsa wood raft. It was shown at Livsreise, the amazing new Norwegian heritage center in Stoughton, Wisconsin. (A visit to Livsreise, by the way, is the next best thing to visiting Norway. Think of it as preliminary research for your upcoming trip.) 

Across the Pacific by Raft

In 1950, Heyerdahl, who by the way was a great storyteller, published the book Kon-Tiki, recounting his epic voyage, and it became a best-seller. Heyerdahl was a zoologist, botanist, and anthropologist. His long stay on the little island of Fatu Hiva in the 1930s, and especially a conversation with a tribal elder, persuaded him that the Polynesian islands had been first settled not by Asians traveling eastward—then the prevalent theory—but by South Americans traveling westward. He peddled his theory, in the form of a long research paper, to academics from Norway to New York; but nobody was buying. The killer objection was that South Americans of 1,000 to 1,500 years ago did not have boats that could cross four thousand miles of ocean.

“Expedition Kon-Tiki 1947. Across the Pacific” postcard.  National Library of Norway. CC BY 2.0

“But they did!” Heyerdahl protested. “They had balsa rafts in which they cruised the coast.” He was laughed out of the lecture halls. So Heyerdahl set out to prove that balsa rafts, built with strictly ancient methods, could cross the Pacific. He recruited five fellow lunatics—five Norwegians and a Swede—and they set sail from the port of Callao near Lima, Peru. I will not bore you with details, except for this BIG SPOILER: They made it. And by doing so, they proved that it could have been done, but not that it was done. His theory on the peopling of Polynesia never has become widely accepted.

Nevertheless, the Kon-Tiki story is a typical—did I say quixotic?—Norwegian exploration saga. Well worth your time. Read the book or see the movie. You’ll enjoy it.

Curious Afterthoughts

On the way home after seeing the movie, I resolved to re-read the book. It was fifty years since I had read it, and I wanted to see how much the book had been “Hollywooded” for the film. The answer is—a little bit, but not too badly. For the most part, it sticks to the facts, and certainly to the swashbuckling spirit of the Heyerdahl quest. 

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan sail the Pacific on a raft made of deluxe steamer trunks in Joe Versus the Volcano.Warner Brothers theatrical release poster by John Alvin.

Another thing that struck me is that Kon-Tiki has a curious fictional doppelgänger in the silly and profound 1990 romantic comedy film Joe Versus the Volcano, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. If you haven’t seen it, the film is, in my opinion, brilliant—though plenty of people disagree with me. 

In Joe Versus the Volcano, an average guy named Joe Banks crosses the Pacific on a quest of his own. His motives differ from Heyerdahl’s. Beyond that, however, the two men and their quests are surprisingly similar:

  • Quixotic
  • transpacific voyagers
  • who reach their destinations by raft,
  • celebrate with island natives,
  • and accomplish unexpected results.

Thor Heyerdahl and Joe Banks: Each, in his own way, a romantic. Each reaches for a goal he does not fully understand. Each comes up short, but finds a new path anyway.

The only disappointment about Joe Banks is, he’s not Norwegian. 

Uff da!

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Writing a Historical Novel

Three and a half years ago, in January 2016, I retired from other pursuits so I could try to write fictional stories that other people would like to read. 

Coastal village in Norway. “Enligt AB Flygtrafik Bengtsfors: ‘Havstenssund’.” by G. AB Flygtrafik Bengtsfors / Bohusläns museum is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

After a few small success with short stories, I got the idea to write a historical novel based on my ancestors Anders Gunstensen and Maria Nybro, who came to Illinois from Norway in the 1850s. We had scant information about their lives—a few dates,  places, and milestones—not much more. Not enough real knowledge to support a detailed, book-length factual account of their lives—even if I had wanted to write one. But what I actually wanted was to use the bare facts as a framework on which to hang a made-up story, through which we might discover the world in which they lived.

I spent more than six months on the trail of Anders and Maria. I struggled to imagine a plot around the known and unearthed events of their lives that would make a good fictional story, yet would not much distort the known facts. At last, early in 2017, I began to write text. 

Me writing.

The first draft of this novel, Freedom’s Purchase, took more than a year to write, at a steady rate of 1,500 to 2,000 words per week.This time also included research “on the fly” to support the detailed demands of particular scenes in the story.

My writing process is iterative. Contrary to what many great writers recommend, I invest a lot of time and effort, while laying down the first draft, in simultaneously revising passages already written. So by June 2018, when I finished the “first draft” of the novel, it was really anywhere between a fifth and a fifteenth draft, depending which part of the book you’re looking at. 

I loved my book so much that I started to query agents, seeking a traditional publication contract. After nine months, I felt a bit stymied. At the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute in April 2019, I asked Laurie Scheer about this. She said, “How many agents have you queried so far?” I said, “Thirty or forty.” She guffawed. “Try three hundred!” she said. 

Discouraged? On the contrary, I found myself reassured. The problem was not necessarily with my book; only that the literary market is tough to crack. However, that very reassurance gave me the freedom to consider the niggling little thought that if the manuscript itself were a bit better, that would make it easier for agents to see its merit. Perhaps a hundred fifty queries would be enough to do the trick!

My other friend in the UW Writers’ program, Christine DeSmet, read my first ten pages—the most important part of any book for making a first impression—and gave me very useful feedback. Her comments showed me how I could make the first chapter not a little better—rather, a whole lot better. So I did. But Christine also recommended dissecting the whole book scene by scene, then improving each scene as needed. I blanched at the thought. I decided to do it anyway.

Toward a Smashing Second Draft

I spent the whole next month just reading my book. I analyzed 159 separate scenes; I wrote down the overall purpose of each scene, its setting, its characters, their goals, their conflicts, the resolution of those conflicts, and the particular moments of dramatic change. This yielded an analytical document 54 pages long.

So now, I revisit each scene to fix the problems that have shown themselves through this process of analysis. A huge task. Yet, not enough.

After I work my way through a chapter of scenes, I do the next step, suggested by another friend, Tracey Gemmell, author of More or Less Annie, and other members of my Tuesday evening writers’ group. In Microsoft Word, I search for every “ly” in the chapter (many of these turn out to be adverbs); for every “ing” (present progressives, present participles, gerunds); for every “and,” “or,” and “but” (conjunctions); for every “is,” “are,”  “was,” and “were” (verbs of being); for every “saw,” “heard,” “knew,” “felt,” “smelled,” and “tasted” (“filter” words). Then, I re-read the chapter in search of introductory time phrases or other introductory adverbial constructions. 

That step is a lot of work, too.

Not that there is anything wrong with adverbs, a progressive verbs, passive constructions, conjunctions, or introductory adverbial expressions. All those things have their places in effective prose. But they can become crutches that allow us to write gimpy narrative, when overused. By considering each occurrence in isolation, one often finds a more vivid and robust way—a less distanced, less stand-offish way—to say what one meant to say. If you change even a quarter of those expressions to more powerful constructions, it’s worth the effort. 

By the end of this process, I’ll have a book more worthy of readers’ time and attention. And, perhaps, a traditional publishing contract.

Stay tuned, dear readers.  

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author