It was just one of those things,
Just one of those crazy flings,
One of those bells that now and then rings—
Just one of those things.
(words and music by Cole Porter)
Let me explain.
Soon after launching my writing career in 2016, I learned one must start building a platform right away. An “author platform” is an identifiable following. Many things go into a platform, but most authors feel a need to be present in one or more forms of social media.
I was already on LinkedIn and Facebook. I added a “LarryFSommersWriter” page on Facebook, linked to my regular “Larry F. Sommers” page.
In April 2019 I started a weekly blog, “Reflections,” at https://LarryFSommers.com. “Reflections” was both a form of social media and something else altogether. I hoped the blog would publicize my novel-in-progress, but I also hoped it would form a body of writing that readers might value for its own sake. To that end, I posted original articles on past and present, story and narrative, writers and the writing life, and other topics.
Now, since I want my blog to offer lasting value, I spend at least one day creating each week’s blog post. To attract readers, I routinely announce each post with brief publicity snippets on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. These own-horn-blowings also take a bit of time to generate.
That’s the full extent of my social media. In each venue, I have a modest following.
But social media are only part of the platform. I know a lot of folks in person, not filtered by the Web. Now that my novel, Price of Passage, is published, I go to bookstores, public markets, and book fairs to tout my book face-to-face. I love these real-life interactions. I also give book talks or speeches about Price of Passage and the process of becoming a Great American Novelist. All these activities are planks in my platform.
Then my friend Dan Blank spoke favorably of Substack. It’s a website that allows authors to post their writings and attract readers. It also allows those readers to pay subscription fees or voluntary donations to support the authors they like.
Dan Blank is a wise guru. When Dan recommends something, I pay attention.
I decided to go for it. But I didn’t want to write something completely different for Substack. Nor did I want to abandon my WordPress site—at least not until I decided that Substack could rerplace it. So I just added “Reflections” to Substack, making it available in two places now instead of only one. I chose not to require a subscription fee, but to allow readers to donate if they so chose.
So you see, I did not plunge into Substack but dipped my toe in the water.
Substack has been sending me emailssuggesting authors whose writings I might want to follow. Naturally. One of the best ways for a writer to gain a following on Substack is to follow other writers’ posts and comment favorably on them. Of course! That makes sense.
The problem is, I didn’t want to spend my time reading a lot of posts from Hamish McKenzie, George Saunders, or myriad other fine authors who appear on Substack. I had been thinking of Substack as a place where I could publish mywork. But it is at bottom a social medium. Social media thrive on reciprocity: You read my blog, I’ll read yours.
Meanwhile, I struggle to set aside productive times for writing my World War II novel and a Vietnam-era personal memoir. Alot of reading and research goes with these challenges. And I’ve got a tall stack of books to read for my own general education. Do you know Your New Favorite Author has never read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey? Well, I’m working on that.
I love to be generous with my time, but I do have a lot of irons in the fire.
Substack feels “fun and refreshing” to Dan Blank. To me it feels inauthentic and oppressive.
Thought experiments can be worthwhile. I abandoned Substack in my head. Boy, did that feel good. What a relief!
That got me thinking about all the artificial things I do to chase an expanding platform. Things like Twitter and LinkedIn.
Years ago, I worked in a semi-corporate setting, and LinkedIn’s professional networking opportunities were a boon. Now on LinkedIn, I’m just a troll hawking a product.
And I never had any desire to Tweet. I only did it to draw people to my WordPress blog.
After my book was published I started sending out a newsletter, using MailerLite. But lately I get the sense that few people eagerly await the next edition of The Haphazard Tiimes.
There’s nothing wrong with MailerLite. Nothing wrong with LinkedIn. Nothing wrong with Twitter.
For that matter, there’s nothing wrong with Substack.
But I’m a writer. I need to work on writing—both my weekly romance with the Great World-wide Blog Public, and also my novel, memoir, and short story projects.
The only social medium I have bonded with is Facebook. For all its faults—and they are legion—it is the place where I often interact with friends, 796 of them at the moment. Most of those are people I actually know. If I met them on the street, face-to-face, I’d recognize them, and they me. That’s not a huge number of possible readers, but it gives Facebook the one thing none of the other media has for me: Authenticity.
I don’t do Facebook primarily to promote my writing. I do it to keep in touch with my friends. Maybe for you that’s Instagram, and God bless you. But I’m sticking to Facebook.
Substack simply became the stack that broke the camel’s back.
Good-bye, Substack.One-too-many stack,Unlike Lot’s wife, I won’t look back.Good-bye, Substack.
Good-bye Twitter, LinkedIn, and MailerLite, too.
I will keep writing.
I will promote my writing on Facebook, a world populated by friends of mine. Only now my Facebook posts won’t have to meet the format needs of three social media outlets simultaneously. Maybe I can make the Facebook outreach more personal and unique.
I will continue to sell my books in markets, bookstores, festivals, and elsewhere.
What is all this for, if not to leave some lasting literature behind me?
So the first thing, and the hardest thing, is to create some great stuff.
Even if that great stuff is not “discovered” in my lifetime, I’ll still be one up on van Gogh. At least I have both ears.
I never aspired to be Longfellow. Or Ralph Waldo Emerson. Or Marilynne Robinson.
I just wanted to write something.
And to have it read by somebody.
Who would be moved by it.
To achieve these aims, I found it necessary to become a Literary Lion first.
After years of storm and struggle, I retired in 2009 and found the perfect part-time job to entertain me in retirement.
I was the husband of a good and loving wife, the father of an outstanding daughter, and the grandfather of two sparkling cherubim.
Our house was paid for and had a large backyard with plenty of shade in which one could lollygag to one’s heart’s content.
And my heart, Dear Reader, was content.
At age 70, I was a success.
Only: I had not yet written the Great American Novel.
Back in 1953, I wrote a story—a private-eye saga on two sheets of lined paper in my Big Chief pencil tablet.
I wrote it at my third-grade desk, when I was supposed to be doing something else. But I had already finished doing that other thing, whatever it was, and some of my classmates were still toiling away.
In those days, most teachers did not go out of their way to encourage creativity. But dear old Mrs. Winders, as she walked the aisle looking over her pupils’ shoulders, chose to look elsewhere as she walked by me. So I finished my detective story.
It had a beginning, a middle, and an end, just as Aristotle recommends. There may even have been a reversal of fortune or two. It was pretty good but, alas, has been lost to posterity.
I always meant to follow it up with more stories—and books, lots of books. But stray fortunes led me down a different path. You know how it is. (If you don’t, check with Robert Frost.)
So here I was, at threescore and ten, not yet the author of a major work of fiction.
You know how, when you get an itch, you need to scratch it?
At the end of 2015 I retired from my retirement job with a respectable church magazine to become a full-time fabulist. Editing The Congregationalist was the best job I ever had. I enjoyed it well and could have kept doing it for a long time. But sometimes you have to choose one thing or another.
Satchel Paige advised, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” I reckon he was right. Look what happened to Lot’s wife.
I wanted to write fiction. I did not know what fiction to write, but I figured it would come to me.
And so it did.
I wrote a few stories about a 1950s boy named Izzy Mahler. I submitted them to the Saturday Evening Post and they published two of them on their website. They honorably mentioned another in their Great American Fiction Contest and published it in the 2018 contest anthology.
Chalk it up to beginner’s luck.
As I groped for a topic or theme for a novel, my wife brought forth genealogy on Anders Gunstensen, my great-great-grandfather, who emigrated from Norway in 1853. Based on her research about Anders and his wife, Johanne-Marie Elizabeth Nybro, a fictitious story flashed into my mind—one that could be wedged into the wide spaces between the few known facts.
So in 2017 I started to write a historical novel in which the main characters, Anders and Maria, move from Norway to America and become involved in a black slave’s escape from slavery.
I had attended the University of Wisconsin-Extension’s 2016 “Write By the Lake” conference. There, the great Laurie Scheer had led me to believe that I could actually write such a book and that somebody might read that book.
So on I wrote.
Meanwhile, I joined a local writers’ group, Tuesdays With Story, a twice-monthly gathering for mutual critique, moderated by the great Jerry Peterson. I submitted raw chapters of my novel for comments by fellow writers. My mind stubbornly resisted many well-meant suggestions from these colleagues. Eventually—when my original approach left me stuck with nowhere to go—I came to understand what my Tuesday night friends were telling me about narrative structure. Aided by these generous critics, I trudged up the Fiction Writers’ Learning Curve, which turns out to be a lot steeper once you are climbing it than it looked from the bottom.
I attended the 2018 UW-Extension Writers’ Institute and suddenly realized the writers gathered there had become my tribe. Though they wrote different kinds of stories and took much different approaches, they shared my affliction. Many of them were presenting more advanced symptoms.
I was the new kid on the block, yet welcomed freely into their midst.
They warned me it is hard to get a book published and hard to sell copies of it once published. You need a “platform.” Now, if you happen to write nonfiction and are already a known expert in your field—perhaps you make lots of speeches and presentations around the country—then you already have a platform.
If you’re a mere fabulist—a writer of fiction—then you need to build a platform from scratch. It takes connections, relationships, and social media. Don’t wait till your book is published to get started.
One of the best things to pre-sell my writing was to write a blog, they claimed. That sounded like a great deal of work. I would have to rent space on the Internet and post new writings regularly. What could I think of to write a blog about? And, thus occupied, when would I find time to do my real writing?
It preyed on my conscious thoughts. My Tuesday night mentor Jerry Peterson said, “Well, you might try writing a blog just for its own sake. Don’t think of blog posts as just a way to promote your writing. They might actually be your writing—or at least, part of it.”
I launched a blog in April 2019. I called it “Reflections” and defined its focus as “seeking fresh meanings in our common past.”
You see, I had figured out by then that all my writing is about plumbing the depths of the past. My genre preference of historical fiction might have been a clue.
I soon found that, keeping that focus in mind, I do find topics to blog about, week after week. It can take a whole day or more out of my writing week to do the blog. But I enjoy it, and people read it.
Thus far I’ve blogged for more than four years, for a total of perhaps a quarter of a million words.
Jerry was right. Blogging is writing. It stands on its own.
This post—a particularly long one—is titled, “Confessions of a Literary Lion.”
Pause a moment to reflect, Fair Reader.
I set out, in January 2016, to become a writer of fiction. In pursuit of that dream, I found I had to do several things:
I had to write fiction. Not sporadically, but with regularity and dedication.
I had to attend conferences and classes to learn how to write fiction.
I had to join a writing group and learn how to use astute critiques to improve my work.
I had to spend quite a bit of time reading other people’s work and crafting astute comments to help them improve their work.
I had to plunge into social media to build a platform.
I had to write a blog—yes, to boost my visibility (platform), but also simply to spread my writings abroad. To reach people who might never read my historical fiction.
Oh, and besides all that: To learn the art of fiction, to learn the trade of marketing, and to better grasp that past which I am so eager to share with those who inhabit the present—I had to read a great many books. Books of well-written fiction. Books of poorly written fiction (learning what not to do!). Books on how to write. Books on how to get published. Books on how to sell books. Books of history and biography, surveying the terrain of the past. Books that zero in on specific past events and settings that relate to the story I’m writing. And by the way, books read for the sheer joy of reading, which I have always done.
I have become one of the leading customers of the glorious South Central Wisconsin Library System. I’ve become a patron in good standing of Amazon and local independent bookstores.
All the pursuits mentioned above, in the aggregate, are so sedentary that I find I need a determined effort to get regular exercise. Yet I wouldn’t trade this life for anything.
However, one must face the fact: I’ve become a Literary Lion.
I considered it a public service to writers. If you know you must become a Literary Lion even before you have any tangible sign of literary success, it puts things in perspective.
The main thing it puts in perspective is that, if you’re serious about writing, you give it your all.
You will soon be neck-deep in drafts, revisions, critiques, reviews, conferences, events, relationships, and books. You may as well buy an ascot, a smoking jacket, and a briar pipe, because you’ve become Mister Writer (soon to be Mister Author)—or Miz, as the case may be.
At any rate, you may stop asking people, “How do I know if I’m really a writer?”
Just suck it up and get on with it.
When this Buddha-like moment of Enlightenment came to me, it was on the whole a good thing, because it prepared me to dig in and take the next major challenges in stride.
You see, while undergoing a Gregor Samsa-like metamorphosis into something both fascinating and repellent (note the high-class literary allusion there, Gentle Reader?), I had been diligently pecking away at the Great American Novel.
I finished the first draft—“finished” in the sense of typing “The End” at the bottom—in late summer of 2019. After a period of extensive and exhaustive revision, I felt it was ready, under the title Freedom’s Purchase. So early in 2020 I began querying agents and publishers to see if they would read it and publish it.
Here’s how the publishing business works: You don’t just send somebody the whole manuscript of a book. That’s asking them to commit hours or days of their time to reading something they never heard of before. All agents and publishers receive hundreds or thousands of queries a year.
So the procedure is to send a brief query letter giving just a brief description of the book’s contents and your own qualifications as a writer. Some agents and publishers want a one-page plot synopsis in additon. Some want an author’s biography or resumé. Some want to see the first ten pages, or the first three chapters, of the text. You send them exactly what they ask for, and then you hope they will ask to see the whole manuscript.
Mostly, they don’t. On those rare occasions when they do, it’s cause for rejoicing.
But be prepared to receive a rejection.
Among the rejections I received for Freedom’s Purchase were two that included a sentence or two of explanation why they passed on the opportunity to publish my book. One said the story “just didn’t feel big enough” to succeed in today’s very competitive book market.
The other said, “I’m afraid I’m going to take a pass on this one. The plot as described in the query had not begun to develop in the first 50 pages, and I frankly lost interest in the story at that point. You might want to consider rearranging some of your chapters, assuming the escaped slave story did eventually materialize, and have it interspersed with the character/scene development that was all at the beginning.”
When you have been in labor for years to give birth to an 80,000-word manuscript based on a furtive gleam in your mind’s eye, it can be hard—I mean, disappointing—to read such words.
However, they can be very much worth reading, because it can be just what you need to know.
A light bulb went on in my head.
All I had to do to make the story publishable was take it apart completely, throw out most of the best passages, reinvent the entire structure of the plot, make a minor character into a major character, ignore previously-received advice about the need for a unitary protagonist, invent oodles of new plot developments, and rewrite the whole thing from the ground up.
That’s all that was needed. And, Gracious Reader, you must understand—on account of the two informative rejections, I could see how to do it, except for all the details I would have to make up as I went along.
It would be the work of a year or more. It was disheartening. I felt defeated.
But I was now a Literary Lion. The Lionhood membership card came to my rescue. Becausethis latest twist in the saga of my novel begged to be blogged. I wrote,
My two helpful rejectors had made me realize something: I had gotten so good at query letters and plot summaries that when professionals read my book, the manuscript did not fulfill the promise of the synopsis. . . .
I would love to believe that I wrote a terrific novel that these dolts simply aren’t discerning enough to appreciate. But I would be a fool to stand on my greatness and fail to hear what these astute individuals are telling me.
What was I to do? Upon reading my blog post, the great Christine DeSmet, book coach par excellence, sent me an email. I did not save her exact words, but they were to this effect: “You can do this, Larry. Don’t give up.”
Being a Literary Lion, I confess, has its burdens; but there are great benefits as well. One of them is the opportunity to receive precious encouragement just when you need it.
I did not give up. I spent the year that it took to completely remake Freedom’s Purchase. Christine not only encouraged me, she helped me with many valuable insights about story, plot, and narrative methods. When I was done, I had a book that was at least 500 percent better than before, and a new title: The Maelstrom.
The first people I queried were the two publishers who had given me the informative rejections. I explained that although I sent them something before, the Maelstrom was a whole new book, and wouldn’t they like to read it?
One of them declined. The other, Daniel Willis of DX Varos Publishing, a traditional small press publisher in Denver, Colorado, said: “Send it.”
Dano read it, he bought it, he published it August 23, 2022. A year ago tomorrow. With a new title: Price of Passage.
We had a wonderful launch party for the book at Mystery to Me bookstore in Madison. Lots of hoopla among my friends and confidants.
The next day, I was once again just a struggling writer. Yes, a published author, with a book to sell. But the state of publishing today is that the author must do almost all the selling. While working on other literary output. And balance it all.
I already had another book—a middle-grade historical novel about my old short-story hero Izzy Mahler. Children’s books are not in Dano’s wheelhouse, so he declined the opportunity to look at it. I’m still trying to find an agent or editor who is interested.
Meanwhile, I’m working on another book. A World War II novel. That’s all I’ll say, because it’s not very far along.
So here are some things that have been added to my Literary Lion duties:
Book fairs. On certain weekends, I pack up a box or two of Price of Passage copies and go someplace to pitch my sales canopy and hawk my book, one copy at a time, to interested readers. I sold seventeen copies last weekend to people in Middleton. New Glarus, Waunakee, and Verona are coming up.
Bookstore visits. Sometimes I just pop into a local independent bookstore and pitch Price of Passage to the owner or manager. They don’t always agree to stock it, but sometimes they do, and I’ve sold some copies that way.
Speeches. I’ve appeared at the Sun Prairie Public Library and a Norwegian-themed women’s book club called Gudrid Circle. I’m scheduled to speak September 30 in Stevens Point at the Central Wisconsin Book Festival. These speeches are also opportunities to sell books.
I’m still a member of a writers’ mutual-critique group—two of them, actually, one meeting monthly and the other biweekly. By default, I have become the convener/moderator for both of them. I guess because I’m a Literary Lion.
Recently, I added Substack.com as a venue where my blog appears, in addition to my own site at LarryFSommers.com. It’s an experiment. I don’t know if I’ll gain readers or not, but at least people who read my posts on Substack will have an easy way to sponsor my writing with a cash donation. We’ll see what happens.
I’m considering finally reading The Iliad and The Odyssey. In translation, of course. I need to understand heroes better.
There’s always something new and different in the life of a Literary Lion.
I’m pretty sure this is not how Shakespeare did it. Or Walt Whitman. Or Agatha Christie.
Here’s a small story of the publishing world. It includes hope and anguish, heroism and tragedy. If you read to the end you may be touched, as I have been, by the goodness that surfaces from time to time in human affairs.
In December 2020, mystery writer G.P. Gottlieb sent word to book coach Christine DeSmet that Dan Willis of DX Varos Publishing, Inc., would be open to new submissions in January. Noting that historicals were among the genres Dan published, Christine passed the information on to me.
I sent a query, and Dan asked to read my shiny new manuscript, Freedom’s Purchase. Trembling with hope, I sent him the file. After only a few weeks, he replied:
Hi Larry, Thank you for the opportunity to consider to consider your manuscript for Freedom’s Purchase.
I’m afraid I’m going to take a pass on this one. The plot as described in the query had not begun to develop in the first 50 pages, and I frankly lost interest in the story at that point. You might want to consider rearranging some of your chapters, assumed the escaped slave story did eventually materialize, and have it interspersed with the character/scene development that was all at the beginning.
Best luck to you!
Daniel Willis, Publisher D. X. Varos, Ltd.
Sigh. Another rejection, par for the course.
But this was the best kind of rejection—a personal note telling me what was wrong. Combining it with one received from another publishing house and triangulating: BAM! I achieved a sudden blinding insight.
I spent a year rebuilding my book from the ground up, gave it a new title—The Maelstrom—and asked Dan to read the new version. He agreed to read it and then agreed to publish it.
So on August 23, 2022, I became the author of a published novel, now titled Price of Passage. This is the proudest accomplishment of my life, after my daughter and grandchildren.
Think of my world as a great room in which nervous writers shuffle about, bumping into one another, smoking endless cigarettes (real or metaphorical), while riffling the smudged and bruised pages of manuscripts that are getting old. The vast floor of that room, Dear Reader, is knee-deep in jagged shards, the remains of shattered dreams.
My book, Price of Passage, would be among those dead fragments of once-bright literature, had not Galit Gottlieb shared key information; had not Christine DeSmet passed that information along; and, especially, had not Dan Willis agreed to read my manuscript—twice!—finding, on the second read, some of the value I had struggled so long and hard to put there.
That’s exactly how gritty and how personal the book publishing business is.
Nearly a year has elapsed since my book was launched. Dan Willis has been my partner in the tough job of selling books. Neither of us is flush with money for advertising. Both of us have struggled, persistently. Dan has been in this struggle not only with me but with about thirty other authors DX Varos publishes.
Dan Willis died July 9.
Dano died of natural causes. He was a comparatively young man, I don’t know how old exactly, but he had not been healthy for some time.
His demise has thrown the future of DX Varos Publishing, Inc., and the future prospects of more than fifty books, by about thirty authors, into uncertainty. That’s because DX Varos has been virtually a one-man operation.
Dan’s friend Karen Morrisey, secretary and co-owner of the publishing house, is trying to sort things out. It will be a while before we know what the future holds.
What we all do know—we authors have been commiserating via Facebook and Zoom—what we all know is that we have lost a great friend and champion.
Dano was a man of many parts. He was an accomplished genealogist with a deep and abiding interest in the royal families of Europe. He was an author, who published several works of fantasy or speculative fiction plus authoritative nonfiction works on the Romanovs, the Hapsburgs, the Windsors, and other royal lineages.
And, oh yes, he was a publisher for aspiring authors like me. In the halls of Random Penguin Publications, he would pass unnoticed. Hidden behind a water cooler. Swamped under piles of digital press releases. Perhaps relegated to the AI department. Who knows?
But at little DX Varos, in Denver, Colorado, Dano was a giant.
Dan didn’t make money as a publisher. He always had to supplement his income with a day job. But he discovered authors, gave them a chance to shine, and brought out a lot of worthwhile books that otherwise would have been just the fragments of shattered dreams.
His contract was simple, clean, and unambiguous. He responded promptly to emails and was, according to all his authors, a delight to work with. Amid financial and business pressures that must have been gigantic, Dano always found time to pay attention to our questions and concerns. And he was an important part of the volunteer machinery of the Colorado Independent Publishers Association.
We are finding out that Dan, fearing his life might be cut short, had taken special care to set up his files and busines operations in an orderly way so that Karen, his executor and successor at the helm of the publishing company, will have a fighting chance to keep it going, sell it advantageously, or wind up its affairs in a sound way.
We mourn the loss of a wise and patient man who helped us all navigate the problematic world of book publishing.
The Big Five publishers—the ones we all wish would look at our books—have their own way of doing things. A profit-oriented way.
At age seventy, I abandoned myself to the literary craving and became a full-time writer.
That was in January 2016.
During an apprenticeship marked by small successes, the possibility of “doing a blog” was often brought to my attention.
The notion was preposterous. It would suck up all my time, leaving me none for serious writing. Besides, how could I ever think up enough new content?
Every fiber of me railed against it, but in April 2019 I started this blog. In the process, I conferred on myself the title: “Your New Favorite Writer.” Well, if I didn’t do it, who would?
That was over four years ago. I have posted about a thousand words almost every week since then. It does take a lot of time, about a day a week. But on the other days I have still gotten some serious writing done.
Besides, I have made an interesting discovery: The blog itself is serious writing.
“Be that as it may, O New Favorite Writer—how do you balance such unequal tasks as posting a blog and writing the Great American Novel?”
The answer, Dear Reader, is that it’s all of a piece. (And thank you for asking.)
It’s All One Thing
When I say “all of a piece,” I mean the writing life cannot be forced into small, separate pigeonholes—or narrow silos, if you prefer a farm metaphor. It is not that you must move your book forward at the expense of your blog. It is not that you must spend all your time writing, to the exclusion of reading what others have written. It is not that you must devote yourself only to the art of narrative and pay no attention to sales, trade, and the soil of commerce.
No, Gentle Reader. You must do it all at once.
General Sherman said, “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.” Your New Favorite Writer says: “Writing is a mess, and you cannot parse it.”
About the time I started this blog, it dawned on me that to be a serious writer you must become a Literary Lion, and you dare not put that off until your first Nobel Prize. If you are to have any chance at all, you have to jump into the Literary Lion business right away.
1. Cut the line. Skip straight to literary lionhood.
3. Get feedback.
6. (Develop Your) Platform.
When I wrote six pieces, one a week for six weeks, about these six steps, I continually warned readers that “simple” does not mean “easy.” Each step is simple. But you have to do them all together, continuously. If they were easy, everybody would be Stephen King.
Some time later, I was compelled to revisit my six simple steps several times to enlarge or clarify, based on my new experiences. But in the main, the six steps have held up well.
Proof of the Pudding
It seems to be a law of language that common sayings and nostrums get simplified over time. One example has to do with proof and pudding. People today commonly say, “The proof is in the pudding.” That’s an interesting saying, but in isolation, rather mystifying. Why should proof be in pudding? Why conceal evidence in pudding?
Listen, Fair Reader: Your New Favorite Writer is old enough to remember when the saying was used in its original form: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” Ah! Clarity. If you want to know how good the pudding is, eat it. The eating will tell you what you want to know.
I offer my journey as proof of the pudding of achieving Literary Lionhood in Six Simple Steps.
I have been on the loose in the literary world for slightly longer than seven years. During that time, besides establishing and tending this blog (“One of the best writer’s blogs on the planet,” according to Laurie Scheer), I have:
Had a dog story published by Fetch! magazine.
Had three short stories published by The Saturday Evening Post.
Had my debut historical novel, Price of Passage, published by DX Varos Publishing, under a traditional, royalty-and-advance author’s contract.
Completed a middle grade novel, Izzy Strikes Gold!, currently seeking representation and publication.
Begun a World War II historical.
But that’s not all. Besides these obvious milestones, I have been busy associating. I have attended six or seven writing conferences. I am a member of the Wisconsin Writers Association, the Chicago Writers Association, and the Authors Guild. I am de facto leader of two small but important writers’ mutual critique groups in my home town.
The moment you sign a book contract you become a salesman. So I am learning about that. I visit bookstores and ask them to stock my book. I do author events from time to time—signing and selling fests, where the books are purchased one by one after actual conversations with readers. I am scheduled as the featured speaker at a couple of events in the near future. And, with the help of publicist Valerie Biel I am learning how to sell books through Facebook advertising.
I have become a fixture at my local public library, regularly reserving and carrying home more books than I have time to read. Stacks of books—all kinds of books—litter every horizontal surface of my home. I read as much of this conveyor-belt feast as I can manage.
And a lot of great books are being published by folks who have become personal friends of mine—Nick Chiarkas, author of the excellent, heart-filled New York gang novels Weepers and Nunzio’s Way; Gregory Lee Renz, whose debut firehouse novel Beneath the Flames delighted critics and book buyers alike; Christine DeSmet, author of the Fudge Shop Mysteries series; Kristin A. Oakley, author of Carpe Diem Illinois, God on Mayhem Street, and the forthcoming The Devil Particle—and many others.
Me, Me, Me
This is all about me. Does it sound like boasting?
So be it. But my purpose, Gracious Reader, is to show how all these activities lean in on one another. A writer’s life comprises all of them, and more. If it’s just one thing—or two, or three—it will not sustain itself. It will not endure.
And what is success? Like beauty, it’s in the eye of the beholder. If literary success is measured in dollars, I am, to date, a miserable failure. But if personal satisfaction may be considered, the past seven years have made me a wealthy man.
The proof of my pudding is in living the dream. You can quote me on that.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Today—August 23, 2022—is the official publication date of my historical novel, Price of Passage: A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, from DX Varos Publishing.
I say “official” because many friends who pre-ordered the book have already received their copies, several days before the official date. I know this is so. They send me emails or Facebook comments, rejoicing that their book has arrived. Some even attach a photo of the book cover—as if to offer proof!
This, in turn, makes me rejoice. They are doing this because they are my friends.
Friends, Not Subjects
They don’t see me as a Big Deal Author, seated on some Olympian cloud bank, cultivating grandeur while a personal assistant screens all messages.
My friends don’t see me as a remote, magisterial figure, because I’m not. They understand how fallible I am, and they love me anyway.
My friends are real friends. I know them and they know me.
It thrills me that they invest themselves in my literary success just because it’s something I have set out to do. It’s important to me, so naturally it’s important to them. They become willing co-conspirators in this challenge of entertaining readers with an enlarged historical perspective.
God bless them all. Everybody should have such friends.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
The startling tenth step, Gentle Reader, involves what our old friend Kafka might call “Metamorphosis.” Or even, as our old friend Ovid would have it, “Metamorphoses.”
The difference between the two—one letter—decided the question on a recent Jeopardy! answer.
But I digress.
What I mean is: Signing a book contract—the very definition of success in the literary game—changes you instantly into A New Thing Altogether.
As a HUGE FAN of this blog, you must surely have noticed that Your New Favorite Writer did set forth for the benefit of all, in public, beginning 4 August 2020, Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood. Those steps were, in order:
Step One—Cut the line. Go ahead and become a literary lion from the start, before you have a speck of achievement to point to.
Step Two—Write. Actually put something down on paper. To be a writer, one must write.
Step Three—Get feedback. Show your work to somebody and consider using their response to help you improve that work.
Step Four—Associate. To soften the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer, you must find your tribe.
Step Five—Submit. You must offer your work to the only judges who really count: Publishers.
Step Six—Build your platform. Gather about you, on social media and elsewhere, an army of friends who will help you sell your book.
In outlining these six steps, I cautioned repeatedly that although they are simple, they are not easy. Each step requires courage, cunning, and purity of purpose. If they were easy, everyone would be J. K. Rowling, or maybe Barbara Cartland.
Having set forth the Six Simple Steps, I smiled with satisfaction, knowing I had done a good work—even though I, myself, had as yet no published book to my name.
As to that . . .
. . . the beast remained elusive. Having applied the Six Simple Steps to my own case, I began to come close to publication. I could smell it. I could amost taste it.
I was offered a contract on my debut historical novel, but had to turn it down! Can you believe that? It was gut-wrenching. But this turned out to be a necessary first step to getting a good, fair contract with a publisher I could work with.
It was my good fortune that a couple of publishers who did not want to publish my novel took the time to write very helpful notes of rejection. Ever note, Dear Reader: A helpful rejection is better than a harmful acceptance.
I added a Seventh Step to the Six Simple Steps. Step Seven was the same as Step Two: Write. Or to put it more precisely, Rewrite. The two explanatory rejections told me that the book wasn’t good enough yet. This was a hard pill to swallow, but as Donald Maass observed, “At some point attention must be paid to the writing.”
Steps Eight and Nine were just like Step Seven, only more so. Write, write, write. I plunged in and spent a year rewriting the book, from tooth to tail with the help of stellar book coach Christine De Smet.
This rewrite was radical. It gave me, at last, a book worth publishing. One of my two rejectors agreed to look at it again, and bought it.
The Next Step
This brings us back to where we started, and my discovery of Step Ten in the Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood. You may as well prepare for it now, as it involves metamorphosis.
The instant you sign a book publication contract, you change from a writer into a salesman. All your waking thoughts are questions you never asked yourself before. How can I maximize pre-publication sales? Where are book clubs that would like to read my book? How can I get a celebrity to interview me? Do I need to buy a weather-proof canopy for outdoor book fairs? How does that Square thing work? Should I wear an ascot to signings, or just my regular bib overalls?
I kid you not.
It’s no good saying, “It won’t happen to me. I’ll remain an artist, above the fray.” No. You will not find that possible.
It’s no good cursing the book industry for forcing you into this commercial role. The publisher did not do it to you. The bookstores did not do it to you. You volunteered by hard, persistent literary work. You did it to yourself.
To begin with, you wrote the damn thing. You poured yourself into it, day by day, for years. You wrote, you rewrote, you cut the line, you got feedback, you found your tribe, you hammered away at your platform. And you kept writing.
By the time you had a book good enough to attract somebody’s notice, you were so deeply involved that you could not bear to think that nobody, or only a few loyal friends, would read it.
You can’t help wanting more. If you don’t get at least a respectable level of sales, you’ll be disappointed. So you plunge into the prospecting, the interviewing, the personal appearances, the social media, and hope for a light at the end of the tunnel.
A good friend of mine—a wonderful author with a powerful book—got so absorbed in the commercial end of things that he didn’t write a word of new material for two years. He’s writing again now, but he says it’s like pulling teeth to get started again.
I count myself lucky. I’m still writing a bit of new material, in the odd moments.
But don’t think I’m not absorbed in my new occupation of selling books. I just can’t help myself.
By the way, there’s still time for you to pre-order Price of Passage at a 30 percent discount. Just go to https://www.dxvaros.com/price-of-passage-preorders. But don’t delay. After 22 August, the price is full retail ($19.95 paperback; $4.99 e-book).
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
Consider Daniel, a young slave in my soon-to-be-published novel Price of Passage.
Daniel felt like a motherless child. His heart thumping, he crouched in the weeds between two of Mister Davis’s warehouses, not far from Mister Davis’s wharf. . . .
The steamboat idled a few yards away.
Torchlight from the wharf made his task more difficult, yet not impossible. . . .
Daniel darted across the open ground. He slipped into the water. His toes sank in warm mud. He waded chest-deep in brown water to the boat. With strong shoulders, he pulled his slim body over the low rail. . . . The deck gang shouted as they drew in the gangplank. The side wheels churned, and the boat backed away from Hurricane Landing. . . .
Light from the landing faded away when the boat turned upriver.
Daniel had been born on Hurricane Plantation, had never left its boundaries. Now he would see the rest of the world. As the wooded shore slid by, lit by stars and a sliver of April’s waning moon, he reckoned he had never traveled so fast. Oh, Mammy, look at me now.
Daniel is a fictional character, but Hurricane Plantation was a real historical place. It was owned by Joseph Emory Davis, whose younger brother Jefferson would lead the Confederacy.
Joseph Davis worked for years as a lawyer and invested his earnings in Mississippi Delta cotton land, and slaves to work it. He became one of the wealtiest planters in the state and owned more than three hundred African Americans.
Under the sway of utopian reformer Robert Owen, Davis sought to establish a harmonious, and therefore profitable, community based on the master-slave relationship. He provided better-than-usual quarters, clothes, and bedding, more varied and plentiful food. Going beyond physical measures, he established limited self-government, setting up a slave court “where no slave was punished except on conviction by a jury of his peers.” Davis also encouraged his slaves to gain skills in areas that interested them. He allowed them to keep money they earned beyond the value of their labor as field hands. And they could sell their own poultry, eggs, and firewood for in the local economy.
Davis believed Owens’s dictum: “There is but one mode by which man can possess all the happiness his nature is capable of enjoying—that is by the union and co-operation of all for the benefit of each.”
It never occurred to him that the very foundation of slavery—one person owning another—might be incompatible with an ideal society.
A Remarkable Slave
One slave stood out among all others at Hurricane. Benjamin Thornton Montgomery tried to escape but came to terms with Davis when he was made manager of the plantation store. His ability and enterprise led Davis to place him in charge of all purchasing and shipping operations.
Montgomery learned to read and write. He mastered land surveying, flood control, architectural design, machine repair, and steamboat navigation. He made himself a skilled mechanic and inventor and applied for a patent on a new steam-operated propeller for shallow-draft boats.
When the Civil War came and the master of Hurricane Plantation fled the advancing Union troops, it was Montgomery who kept the place going. Resourcefully, he found ways to keep his fellow slaves employed and fed. After the war, he bought the plantation from Davis on a land contract and continued to provide an economic base for the Black community. But in 1876, catastrophic floods made him default on payments, and the land reverted to the Davis family.
Montgomery died the following year. His son, Isaiah, struggled to keep his dream alive, leading a group of former slaves to establish the town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, in 1887 as a majority African-American community.
Most Black slaves in the South worked and lived under far less favorable conditions. But they did not simply wait for the U.S. government to emancipate them. There was another option.
Colonies of self-liberated Blacks laid low in swamps and upland forests, sometimes under the noses of their former masters. Dubbed “slavery’s exiles” by historian Sylviane A. Diouf, these reclusive plantation refugees are known to history as maroons.
Unlike the better-documented maroons of the Caribbean basin, the ones who lived in ethe United States are poorly represented in historical accounts. Their colonies, hidden away in every slave state, were small compared to those ofd Brazil, Surinam, Hispaniola, or Cuba. Official records usually called them truants, runaways, or banditti.
But they were more than that. They were organized communities of sub rosa freedom.
Marronage was a hard life that involved hunger, cold, danger, and much privation. Many maroons were caught by professional slave hunters and driven back to the plantations. Many others perished in the woods. But there were those like Thompson West of Plaquemine, Louisiana, who held out until the Yankees arrived and then walked out of the woods, saying, “I’m a free man!”
What about those African Americans who were already free? At the start of the Civil War, almost half a million free Blacks lived in the United States, South and North. Their numbers were continuously augmented as enslaved people fled their masters and established lives of freedom in northern cities and rural areas.
These people had a powerful interest in seeing their enslaved brothers and sisters liberated. They almost unanimously sided with the Union in the war. Many of them wanted to serve militarily.
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a self-liberated slave, declared, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on the earth or under the earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”
Douglass made this famous remark in April 1863, in the midst of a struggle to get Black Americans admitted to service in the U.S. Army. Everyone who has seen the film Glory knows that, despite African Americans’ willingness to serve, enlistment was denied them until about the mid-point of the war. The rationale was that “colored men won’t fight” or “they won’t make good soldiers.” It took the actual experience of several ground-breaking regiments such as the 54th Massachusetts to begin to dispel these myths.
A fact less well-known is that sailors of color were admitted to the U.S. Navy from the start. More than ten percent of the Continental Navy in the American Revolution was Black. Even more sewrved in state navies and on privateers. In the War of 1812, Blacks represented one-sixth of U.S. naval personnel. In the Civil War, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles authorized recruitment of escaped or liberated slaves in the Atlantic Blockading Squadron from September 1861. These new sailors supplemented many other African Americans already in the Navy. Blacks served on seven hundred Navy ships. Eight won the Medal of Honor for their service. These sailors of color were limited to low-level positions and served under conditions of inequality with white sailors. But serve they did, in large numbers.
A utopian plantation. An enterprising inventor/engineer slave. Self-governing communities of runaway slaves in the wilderness. Naval vessels with free Blacks and newly-liberated slaves in their crews.
None of these things are really surprising, if we remember that history is composed of millions of individuals with their own unique situations. They only seem surprising in the face of oversimplified assumptions gathered from popular sources.
I call these instances to your attention, Dear Reader, for selfish purposes. I want you to buy my book, Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, when it comes out August 23. It is filled with little things like this. Things that may be unexpected but are nonetheless true.
I began writing this novel in the conviction that fiction can be a good way to tell the truth.
HISTORY IS NOT WHAT YOU THOUGHT.
Next Week—Some Uppity Women.
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
In 1856, on the Illinois prairie, Norwegian farmers ANDERS and MARIA encounter DANIEL, a young fugitive slave. Will they do their legal duty by turning him in? Or will they break the laws of their new country and put their lives at risk to aid Daniel in his bid for freedom?
That’s not really a story. It’s more like a situation, a setup. But it’s a start.
In historical fiction, an author wants to pay attention to the underlying morality of the situation. But you have to build on that. The story of Anders, Maria, and Daniel, as mentioned above, is incomplete without some sense of where Anders and Maria have come from, to be newly-arrived Scandinavian immigrants in central Illinois.
One also ought to sketch Daniel more fully. What kind of slave life is he trying to escape from? What are his chances? What will he do with his new freedom, if he makes his escape good?
There are more questions than answers.
It’s notable that Anders, Maria, and Daniel all arrived at the same place in 1856—just when the nation’s quarrel over slavery was starting to come to a head. John Brown was murdering pro-slavery men in Kansas about this time. The Dred Scott decision, which gave iron force to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, would come along in early 1857. Lincoln and Douglas would contest for the Illinois Senate seat in a series of debates in 1858. Brown would show up again, this time raiding the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, in 1859. The pot was coming to a boil.
How would these events affect Anders? Maria? Daniel?
It’s all there in Price of Passage—A Tale of Immmigration and Liberation, coming August 23 from DX Varos Publishing.
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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