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

Happy 200th, Saturday Evening Post!

Current issue cover. Art by Norman Rockwell.

An American institution marked two centuries on August 4.

I am letting you all know here, in case you missed the announcement.

Readers old enough to remember the Saturday Evening Post may think it died years ago. Not so. 

The once ubiquitous flagship journal of the Curtis Publishing Company was rescued from demise by the Saturday Evening Post Society, a nonprofit group which purchased the magazine in 1982. The Post now appears as six large-format print issues per year, with an impressive circulation of 237,907 (2018). It also manages a thriving Web presence.

“And this is significant, Dear New Favorite Writer, because of . . . exactly, what?”

Mainly, Astute and Forbearing Reader, because of the magazine’s unassailable tradition and the long list of distinguished writers whose works have graced its pages.

Rockwell in 1921. Photo by Underwood and Underwood. Public Domain.

Great Illustrators

Younger readers may recognize the Saturday Evening Post as the locus of a series of cover illustrations which cemented the fame of 20th-century artist Norman Rockwell.

But those full-color covers—52 of them each year—by Rockwell and other great illustrators merely scratch the surface of the Post’s glory. When Your New Favorite Writer was a kid, in the 1950s, the Saturday Evening Post was a major pillar of Main Street America. People from all walks of life read the Post, learned from it, and were endlessly entertained by it. 

Saturday Evening Post Cover of 27 Sep 1924 by Rockwell. Public Domain.

Great Writers and Editors

Each issue held a lively mix of fiction, nonfiction, and features. The Post’s quick response times and generous pay attracted the best writers—Joseph Conrad, O. Henry, Rudyard Kipling, and others. Jack London’s Call of the Wild premiered in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post.

Under a succession of editors—George Horace Lorimer, Wesley Stout, and Ben Hibbs—the magazine reached a peak circulation of over seven million and attracted writers such as Owen Wister, Ring Lardner, William Faulkner, Stephen Viincent Benet, Agatha Christie, and Ray Bradbury. 

A Focus on Fiction

The magazine was particularly known as a great venue for fiction. Not avant-garde fiction, but mainstream fiction. And not just the writings of the greats, but great writing from not-so-well-known authors. 

Movie poster for Warner Brothers film based on Hazlitt’s Alexander Botts stories, starring Joe E. Brown.

As a boy I followed the exploits of Alexander Botts, freewheeling salesman of Earthworm Tractors for the Farmer’s Friend Tractor Company. In a series of stories by William Hazlett Upson, Botts’s odd-ball sales campaigns were chronicled as a stream of frantic memos, letters, and telegrams between the loose cannon Botts and his perplexed home office in Earthworm City, Illinois.

It was, as they say, to larf.

Many young writers got a hand up by selling stories to the Post. Young writers are still doing this today—not to mention a few superannuated novices, such as Your New Favorite Writer. When I began to write fiction as a septuagenarian, I had a few quirky tales about a young boy named Izzy Mahler, growing up in a small town in the 1950s. The Post was kind enough to publish three of them (see herehere, and here), including one which won honorable mention in the magazine’s 2018 Great American Fiction Contest. For this I cannot help being grateful.

Rescued from Oblivion

And I was thankful for the far-sighted energy of Indianapolis industrialist Beurt SerVaas, who saved the Post during its distressed days in the 1960s and ’70s. When he acquired the Post, he was primarily interested in its sister publication, Jack and Jill, the well-known children’s magazine. In 1982, he spun the Post off into a nonprofit company, and the magazine began to focus on nonfiction articles about health, medicine, and volunteering—the passions of his wife and business partner, Cory. 

A more recent strategic shift, in 2013, brought the Saturday Evening Post back to its original mission. According to the magazine’s website, it “returned to . . . celebrating America, past, present, and future. Since then, the Post has focused on the elements that have always made it popular: good story telling, fiction, art, and history.”

Storytellers, take note. The Saturday Evening Post is still in business, doing what it has always done best, bringing high-quality mainstream narratives to the American public.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

On the Acheson, Topeka, and Santa Fe

The Adventures of Izzy Mahler

Izzy Mahler was seven years old when he met George Washington. 

The old man was not tall and majestic but short and stoop-shouldered; he wore not a white wig but the white jacket of a railway porter on the Super Chief.

“I cannot tell a lie,” he said, friendly brown eyes sparkling amid the folds of his wrinkled brown face. “I been George Washington every day of my life. That other fella, the one with the cherry tree and the little hatchet, he just borrowed my name… only, he borrowed it before I got to it.” With a merry cackle, he showed Izzy his union card—evidence he was indeed “Geo. Washington.” 

Izzy’s mother had given the man a dollar at the vestibule entrance of the day coach, asked him to watch over Izzy and make sure he got off at Loseyville. 

Train 18, The Super Chief – El Capitan, east of Streator, Illinois
on January 28, 1967. A Roger Puta Photograph. Public Domain.

George Washington loomed over Izzy, swaying with the gentle rocking of the coach as the train pulled out of the Plumb station. 

“Goin’ to see Grandma and Grandpa, huh?” he asked. 

 “All week until Friday,” said Izzy, with a sigh.

“Ain’t you pleased to be seeing them?”

“Grandma, yes. Grandpa, no,” the boy replied.

George Washington raised an eyebrow.

“He’s mean,” said Izzy. “He yells at kids.”

“My daddy was like that,” replied the porter. “God rest his soul.”

“Well,” said Izzy, upping the ante, “he says naughty words, too. Words you’re not supposed to say.”

The old man nodded his gray head. “Sure do sound like my daddy.” 

Izzy was certain his Grandpa Mahler was nothing like the porter’s daddy, but he did not say so.

“Why do you go see this yellin’, cussin’ grandpa, if you don’t like him?” 

“They don’t get to see me as much as my other grandparents do,” said Izzy, “so Mom and Dad said I have to go.”

“Ah,” said the old man. 

#

Two hours later, George Washington watched from the coach steps as Izzy stepped down from the train into the waiting arms of his grandmother, a large white woman in a floral-print dress, and followed her to a gray 1948 Hudson sedan.

Like Daniel goin’ to the lion’s den,the porter thought. He did not envy Izzy the prospect of spending a week with his grandfather—leastways, not if he’s anything like old Ennis P. Washington, God rest his soul.

A fictionalized account of true events.

Memory as Fiction

The vignette above is exerpted, with slight changes, from one of my Izzy Mahler stories, “The Lion’s Den,” which won honorable mention in the Saturday Evening Post’s Great American Fiction Contest for 2018.

In all essentials, it is taken straight from my life. I made up the part about the porter being named George Washington. 

No Risk Too Trivial

Younger readers may doubt there was ever a time when a loving mother would send her young child on a train trip all alone, would casually give him over to the care of a lowly  railroad employee, with just the added fillip of a small gratuity. But in 1952, that’s how things worked. Back then, automobiles did not have seat belts, either—and most people didn’t lock their doors most of the time. 

Now airlines have official policies and hefty fees for transporting “unaccompanied minors.” Amtrak, today’s version of passenger rail service, is even worse. It refuses to let children under age 13 travel unaccompanied, period. Our cars not only have seat belts but also shoulder harnesses and airbags—all mandated by the federal government. I can’t prove it, but I think more of us lock our doors all the time, or at least most of the time.

We may be safer, but life seems more fraught with peril. Here endeth the digression.

Black Porters

A. Philip Randolph, 1963. John Bottega, New York World-Telegram and Sun.Public Domain.

Jobs as porters or railcar attendants on passenger trains in the pre-Amtrak era were almost monopolized by African Americans. One can say they were relegated, as second-class citizens, to menial roles in the rail industry. On the other hand, those were steady jobs with some of the country’s largest employers. Moreover, they were union jobs, starting in 1925, when A. Philip Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Many black families built their economic lives on railroad jobs.

Hazards of War

Helping rail passengers was far from the only contribution African Americans made to American life. Toward the end of my Izzy Mahler story, “The Lion’s Den,” George Washington the porter reveals the shrapnel scars on his legs—souvenirs of service in the First World War as a member of the 92nd Division, in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The 92nd was a segregated infantry division in the U.S. Army, organized late in 1917. In the Meuse-Argonne, the largest United States operation of the war, the 92nd suffered 120 killed and 1,527 wounded in action. That’s 1,647 casualties in a unit of approximately 15,000 officers and men.

When Izzy Mahler gets to his destination, the little town of Henderson Station, he spends time with his grandparents—the kindly grandmother and the abrasive grandfather. They, too, have had to cope with casualties of war. Two of their sons died as bomber pilots in the Second World War. That part of the story, too, is straight from life. My grandmother was a Gold Star Mother twice, for my uncles Stanley and Franklin.

Weaving Tales

Something as simple as a train ride can reveal who we are as individuals, as families, as a nation of people with disparate experiences but often with common purposes. I can’t speak for other authors, but when I write fiction, I can never make up something that strays far from the facts. 

While you wait with great patience for my novel Freedom’s Purchase to achieve publication, I hope you may enjoy some glimpses into the life of Izzy Mahler, a little boy of the 1950s, never far removed from the facts. You can find them herehere, and here.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Larry F. Sommers

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)