Lessons from RWA’s National Conference

This past month has been a whirlwind of activity – professional development, a family wedding, Babycakes’s third birthday…

Oh yeah, and a trip to Disney World for RWA2017 (AKA National).

About five years ago, I informed my husband that I was going to the National Conference in 2017 – yes, because it was being held in Disney World. Plans to attend the 2014 conference in San Antonio were scuttled because I would be eminently due to give birth. NYC in 2015 didn’t happen because we’d just moved to Charlotte, and 2016 in San Diego wasn’t doable for a variety of reasons.

So not only was attending this year sort of a goal-met moment for me, it was being held in the Happiest Place on Earth and we could roll a fun family vacay into the whole deal.

I cannot express what it felt like to walk into the conference center. The energy was through the roof – inescapable when so many creative minds gather under that roof. Because of said family vacation (I mean, I didn’t want to miss ALL the magic of Babycakes experiencing Disney for the first time), I gave myself Thursday and Friday, the two “full” days of the conference. And I jammed them full.

Prior to leaving for Florida, I read the very wise advice of fellow Soul Mate author Rebecca Heflin, regarding the challenge introverts face at writers’ conferences. I can’t say I followed her advice well, but I definitely learned some lessons for myself – and maybe for others – that I can take to heart the next time I have the opportunity to attend RWA National.

  • Do not try to do everything. I planned to attend three sessions each day, plus the Golden Heart and Keynote Luncheons. By the end of the second day, my head was pounding. Not sure if it was from being inside all day or from the sheer amount of fantastic information I’d been digesting. But if I had to do it again, I’d pace myself better. Many of the handouts/resources are available at RWA.org, as are the recordings (for a price).
  • Stay hydrated. I brought a water bottle with me, knowing the importance of fluids during a marathon day. I consistently forgot to drink from it, and by the end of the day I was definitely feeling it.
  • Bring snacks. The luncheons were a fabulous way to meet other authors and editors, and snag a “free” meal (technically I paid for it with my registration). But I should have brought some things to munch between sessions.
  • Decide on one method to take notes, if any at all. I tend to be one of those note takers who can jot down a few key phrases and then just magically remember what the presenter said about those phrases. The first day I lugged around a spiral notebook, the second day I used a small pocket notebook, and all the while I thought about how much easier it would have been to just bring my Surface and type. I can’t read my chicken scratch anyway.
  • Get people’s names and contact info. I was fortunate enough to run into several colleagues and friends, but I also met some new people. At my first session, I sat beside a woman who also worked in education. I remember she lives in Houston, but that’s it. I wish I’d gotten her name, or at least given her my card. We could have connected on multiple levels.
  • Coordinate with people you know, so you aren’t alone (applies mostly to introverts). I am a painful introvert in new situations, especially when surrounded by a LOT of people. It was really hard for me to introduce myself, even if I got into small-talk convos. And after running into several colleagues from my local RWA chapters, I felt like an idiot for not coordinating better with them to meet up. I think when you’re with people you know, as an introvert, it’s less scary to be introduced to someone new.
  • Just make it be about the conference. While I wouldn’t give up Babycakes’ first trip to Disney for anything, it was hard not being immersed in the conference full time. I mean, there was a write-in! People were meeting up for dinner! I totally skipped the RITAs in favor of a little couple time with my Romantic Hero of a Husband out at the parks. I did tell the hubs that the next conference, I should really just go on my own and do the conference properly. Stay at the conference site, with other conference goers, and be immersed in the amazing experience that is RWA.

If you’re not an introvert like me, maybe these lessons don’t apply to you. We all have different professional needs, and finding your stride, figuring out what your conference mojo looks like, is valuable.

Historical Context – Guest Post from Author Kenneth Hart

Kenneth Hart is the author of the Ron Tuck series. The first book in the series, Reinforcements, will be re-released on September 18th. Today he will be sharing his thoughts on researching and writing in an historical context.

When I write in an historical context, I always try to be accurate with detail. It helps to create a picture for the reader and even though you may not use many of the researched details in your stories, I think that it also helps to put you, the writer, into the proper frame of mind.

If you were alive during the time that you are writing about, you may use memory to help you, but I have found that is not the most reliable source of information. As the cliché says, your memory plays tricks on you. Sometimes they are delightful tricks, but if you are writing about the election of John Kennedy and have a Beatles song playing in the background, you’ve blown it.

I have found the internet an incredibly valuable source for research. I recall writing a story that was based on my father’s life. It was called The Good Life. My dad was involved in the juke box business. He spent a lot of time in luncheonettes and candy stores. When I wrote about him, I looked at the dates of the releases of various songs that were popular and matched them to the years about which I was writing. I think that listening to some of those songs really helped me with the mood of that story.

More recently, I wrote a story called Dates and Cigarettes. It was set in the early part of the 20th century. For it, I researched fashion and automobiles. I looked at pictures of what Newark, New Jersey looked like at the time. It was very illuminating to learn that there were many dirt roads in the city back then. I never used a dirt road in the story but the image in my mind was a valuable one. It gave things a certain context.

For example, I learned that cars did not have heaters for the longest time. And so, it was natural for the back seats to have blankets. That was something that I did use.

For big historical events, like the assassination of John Kennedy, I found a website that showed almost all of the original footage that CBS aired in the three long days that followed that tragedy. My character is injured and unable to walk and so he cannot help but spend all of his time in front of the TV. Having that original footage provided me with images to which he would respond. I did a similar thing later in that book with the Watergate Tapes. Having the original footage was incredibly valuable and provided a verisimilitude for the feelings that my characters expressed about what they were thinking at the time.

More difficult and yet even more rewarding is researching the ways that people spoke in different eras. In some ways there seemed to be a lack of intimacy in the language of certain time periods. An example would be that people would say that they were feeling “blue” to describe what we call depression. Or they would say that they had “the blues” the way that we might say that we were feeling “down.” I guess that David Bowe also used it in his song Space Oddity when he sang, “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.”

I had never really liked the expression of saying one had the blues until I connected it to the musical genre. I’m not sure that connection is accurate but it allowed my mind to appreciate the use of the phrase.

Another aspect of creating historical context that I love to use is sports, particularly baseball, football and boxing. It is hard to remember the power that boxing used to have on the American people until you realize how many boxing gyms existed in a city like Newark.

One of my characters is a fighter named Walter Pierce. In one scene, I have him meet with Jack Dempsey and Dempsey tells him, “When you are fighting every couple of weeks, like what you have to, you need to toughen up your skin.” Walter asks how he does that. Dempsey responds, “I soak my hands and face in brine, every day.” Dorothy saw a fierce look in his dark eyes. It was a look of savage cruelty. It was dark and yet frighteningly casual. That kind of detail, I think, creates interest in the character and helps to create the portrait of the era. It rounds things out with the small, very human, details.

In my mind James Michener was the very best at it. It saddens me that he is not more widely read today. In his day, it was necessary to spend countless hours in libraries, or later on, have his staff do that.

There is something overwhelming and yet magical about doing library research. I used to go with my mom, who was searching for her father using microfiche of old newspapers. We scrolled through countless articles in the newspaper and I learned the strange ways that people wrote back in the 1930’s. I got a chance to document some of that in a story called Misguided Directions.

James Joyce wrote that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.” And yet contradictory to that, we have the proverb that those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. In my mind, I attributed that quote to George Orwell and yet perhaps it was really George Santayana. Memory does play tricks and the truth of history is, I think, somewhere between those two points of view.

The Ron Tuck Series
Reinforcements (Book 1)Reinforcements11-219x300

A coming of age novel spiced with the rock of the late 60′s and early 70′s, Reinforcments is a story of friendship, education, protest, a country divided over the Vietnam War, sexual exploration, mind expansion, cultural mores, and the foundation upon which those conflicts occurred.

Available on ebook and paperback

Amazon US
Amazon UK
Invite to Re-release party for Reinforcements

Visit Kenneth Hart online

Website: http://www.kennethedwardhart.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kennethedwardhart
Twitter: https://twitter.com/ken_edhart

The Anatomy of a Grammar Nerd

Today I have a little something fun for the Grammar Nerds and/or English teachers out there. (Yeah, I do happen to be both, so…)

Grammarly recently completed a survey of their Facebook fans to find out what makes one a “typical grammar enthusiast”, and then made a pretty cool infographic with the results.

Anatomy of a Grammar Nerd Infographic

Grammarly offers a great grammar-check service for the grammar nerds out there who maybe aren’t quite so good at editing their own work. It’s like a second set of eyes when you can’t find a real second set of eyes.

Appomattox – Not Really the End

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a mini-history lesson, and today, the 150th anniversary of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, seems a worthwhile reason to provide one.

The Beginning of The End

For a good year before Robert E. Lee decided it was time to surrender, the Union and Confederate armies were essentially locked in nonstop combat. Consider the opposition: Ulysses S. Grant’s campaign in Virginia through the spring of 1864; Phil Sheridan’s cavalry actions that would later be known as “The Burning of the Shenandoah”; Sherman’s drive to capture Atlanta and the subsequent “March to the Sea” that marked the summer and fall of that same year.

The odds were seemingly stacked against an army that suffered from a lack of food and ammunition. There were no more reinforcements. Many civilians had had enough. The only thing the Confederate army really had left was guts and determination.

But by April 1865, Lee knew he didn’t have many options left. Johnston was still fighting in North Carolina, and in the far reaches of the Confederacy, armies were still holding out. But in Northern Virginia, Grant was closing in. Petersburg had fallen. The Confederate government had fled Richmond, destroying records and supplies as they went.

The Confederate army continued to make valiant stands through those early days of April, including a battle at Appomattox Courthouse itself. If they could get to the Appalachians, many believed they could continue fighting for years through what we would today term guerrilla warfare.

Lee made a tough decision.

He decided was time to ask Grant for terms.

Meeting at Appomattox to Discuss the End

There’s a lot of legend surrounding the meeting of Lee and Grant at the MacLean house in Appomattox Courthouse. Yes, Lee did wear his best uniform. Grant did ride up and sit down with the famed Southern general with mud splattered boots. Whether or not Lee planned on surrendering that day is up for debate, but once he saw the terms Grant offered, he agreed to them.

Lee Surrenders to Grant at Appomattox

Grant did offer very generous terms, given the bitterness of the past four bloody years. While military equipment had to be given up, officers and enlisted men alike were paroled. Officers could keep their sidearms, and any man who owned the horse he rode could keep it as well.

Both armies were tired. It was time to go home and resume the business of being Americans.

Contemporary accounts state that the meeting between these two generals was respectful, and the surrender is sometimes referred to as “The Gentlemen’s Agreement.” Certainly Grant, and definitely President Lincoln, wanted to avoid the terrible Reconstruction years that would follow Lincoln’s assassination.

But Not Quite The End

Lee’s surrender at Appomattox is usually considered the end of the War Between the States, though it really only dealt with one army in one corner of the South. Perhaps the proximity to Washington is what made the Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender so important, why history marks April 9, 1865, as the official end.

But Lee wasn’t the only one still fighting.

Remember that in 1865, there was no television or internet. There was the telegraph, which was extensively used by the Union, especially in those final months between Lincoln and Grant. But generally word traveled slowly on a good day, and in the war-torn south it traveled at a snail’s pace, or slower.

Other standing armies in the Confederacy eventually got word that Lee had surrendered. Johnston surrendered to Sherman on April 26th, near Durham, North Carolina. May 4th marked the surrender of General Richard Taylor’s army in Alabama, and Confederate Cherokee forces in what is now Oklahoma surrendered on June 23rd. The last Confederate victory of the war actually occurred on May 13th, at Palmito Ranch, Texas, before word of the end of the war reached the army there. And the last Confederate naval vessel to surrender was the CSS Shenandoah, which continued to harass Yankee whaling ships in the Pacific well into the summer. It wasn’t until August 2nd that the CSS Shenandoah’s captain accepted a report about the Confederate surrender (up to that point, the news had been dismissed as rumors), and it wasn’t until November 6th that the ship surrendered to British authorities in Liverpool.

The exact casualty rate can only be estimated, especially since the standard number of those killed between April 1861 and April 1865 (long set at about 620,000) doesn’t usually count civilians, enslaved blacks or those who freed themselves by escaping to contraband camps, or those who died after the war from disease or wounds. Even the official numbers of Confederate dead can only be estimated because many official Confederate records were destroyed when Davis and his government fled Richmond ahead of Grant’s army. Current estimates now place the death toll around 750,000, though there’s argument that it could be even higher.

And the toll of the war would continue to be seen in the millions of men left invalided by disease and crippled by horrific wounds, the result of Napoleonic tactics fought with modern weaponry.

Still Not The End

Lincoln wanted the Southern states to return to the Union as soon as possible, and for the entire country to get moving forward as one piece again. But after Lincoln’s assassination, all hope for a peaceful restoration of the Union went out the window. Radical Republicans had control of the United States government, and many wanted to punish the South for the past four years.

Enter the Reconstruction Era: nearly a decade of what many termed (and still term) a military occupation of the South by the Union army. Former Confederates were bitter. Their homes were ravaged by war and privation.

Black men were enfranchised by Federal law, but those in the South would effectively be disenfranchised by Jim Crow laws. Slavery was made illegal in the United States, but well into the 20th century, blacks in the south still existed in a state of slavery as they became sharecroppers, often to the families who once owned them and their ancestors.

Reconstruction was a violent era as well, spawning the birth of the Ku Klux Klan and many other paramilitary groups who sought to reestablish what they believed was the South as it once was. Supreme Court decisions like Plessy v. Ferguson paved the way for segregation laws, which wouldn’t be overturned until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – 99 years after Lee surrendered to Grant.

Bitterness and hatred continue to plague us, even into the 21st century. Our country has come a long way in the past 150 years, but we’re nowhere near the ideal of equality and freedom we often believe the Founding Fathers envisioned for the United States. We’re still divided along lines of race, as well as gender, religion, and sexual orientation. But many of us are trying to figure out how to erase those lines, and understanding the outcome of the Civil War is an imperative piece of understanding who we are as a nation.

On that April day in 1865, Lee probably wasn’t thinking about the decades of turmoil yet to come. He was probably just thinking about his soldiers – starving, worn out, determined to go on if he just said so, even though they were running on empty.

It’s left for us to understand the aftermath, to learn from it, to make our country a better place for the sacrifices that were made – on both sides.

For more information about Appomattox, check out the Civil War Trust’s interactive learning site.

Hey, America…. GO VOTE!

So it’s Election Day here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.  I’m sure many of you, like me, are sick and tired of all the political ads on TV and the radio, the inundation of political posts from our friends on Facebook, and all the “Vote for Me!” signs that have been waving in people’s yards for the past three to six months.

In general, I don’t discuss politics – in person, online, anywhere.  I’ve had friends try to draw me into political debate on Facebook, and I just don’t play along.  I seem to manage to steer the comment-conversation toward, oh, I don’t know, cupcakes or something.

Politics is susceptible to cupcakes, did you know that?

I had this big long-winded message I thought about writing this morning to kind of clarify my position on the issues, but you all don’t need my input.  It’s not my job to tell you who to vote for.  It’s a personal decision, it should be based on your beliefs and values.  And regardless of party lines, you should vote for the person you think will do the best job.  Read up on the issues and look into where the candidates really stand.  Think about what they’ve said (and what’s been quoted in or out of context).  Look at the track record. And really, sometimes you have to take your gut instinct into account too.

Up until this morning, I honestly had no idea who to vote for.  To be honest, I’m still not 100% sure.  I have all day to think about it, since I won’t be able to go vote until after work.  I’m neither a Republican or a Democrat.  I’m an independent (with a lowercase I) voter.  If I have to define myself, I’d say I’m a liberal conservative.  Which basically means I’m on the fence, right in the middle, with an ever-so-slight lean toward the liberal side of things.

Who am I voting for?  Really, it’s not your business.  I just read a book to my second graders yesterday about elections, and it said right there, in that children’s book, that voting is “private” and “secret” in the United States.  Could I tell you?  Sure.  But I don’t want to.  But you can be certain it’ll be the person I think will do the best job.

But here’s what I feel very adamant about:  Voting is a precious right in our country.  Not a privilege, not something to earn. Every citizen of this country has the right to vote – and let’s face it, it’s taken literally centuries and loads of hardship to make it so EVERY CITIZEN of the United States can vote.  And while you certainly have the right to choose abstention from voting, I really think that if you don’t cast a ballot, you shouldn’t complain about the outcome of the election.

Let me clarify quickly.  I know that we’re all taxpayers, so everyone certainly has the right to complain about how our tax money gets spent.  But all our elected officials, from the President to Congress to our local and state governments, are just people.  And they have agendas and ideals and they often cling to party politics even if it isn’t in the best interests of the country.  So yeah, you can certainly complain about how those officials choose to spend America’s money, the policies put in place.  The funny thing is, people often say we live in a democracy, but that’s not entirely accurate.  We live in a democratic republic.  A true democracy would have all of us voting all the time on every bill and law and referendum.  We vote for our representatives, who in turn vote on those issues in our stead.  Because we won’t all fit in the Capitol Building at the same time.

But if you don’t cast a vote, don’t complain about the person in office.

And for God’s sake, show a little respect, regardless.  Whether you voted for him or not, the President is the President.  Whoever is elected today, whoever takes office in January, will be the person who wins the election.  And it’s really no use complaining about that in the end, because it means the democratic process works.

So my final piece of advice this morning?

Civil War Sesquicentennial – Battle of Antietam

We need to start off today with a quick vocabulary lesson, because while I’m a geek and a vocabular-iholic (is that a word?), not everybody is.  Sesquicentennial is just a fancy way to say the 150th anniversary of something.

In case there are those of you out there who aren’t aware, we are in the midst of the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War.  The War Between the States.  Whatever you call it – and there are literally dozens of names for what is arguably the greatest tragedy in our nation’s history and the turning point from which all of modern history and present American society developed.  The Civil War’s 150th anniversary is being observed across our country in a variety of ways, and while the anniversary years of the war are technically from 2011 to 2015, the anniversary really began in November of 2010, which was the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s election.  Right now, we are only about  a year and a half into observing the sesquicentennial of a war that lasted four bloody, terrible years, resulted in the deaths of over 600,000 men and caused millions more to spend the rest of their lives as invalids from wounds and diseases suffered during their service.

Regardless of which “side” you take (and I hope you readers are the sort willing to engage in an unbiased study of ALL sides), the next two and a half years are the perfect chance to learn more about the Civil War.  Honestly, everyone who is a citizen of this country should learn about the Civil War, and it sadly doesn’t seem to get much attention in school.  Understandably so – even after 150 years, it’s a touchy subject in many parts of our country.  But it’s important.  You can’t understand the Civil Rights Movement without studying the ideologies and political rhetoric leading up to the Civil War or what came from its aftermath.  Heck, the “indivisible” part of the Pledge of Allegiance, which millions of school children say every day across America, is in the Pledge because of the Civil War.

Think about that for a minute.

All set? Okay, let’s move on.

Now, as I’ve already said at the beginning of this post, I am a geek. Not just about words.  I’m a huge history geek.  Especially when it comes to the Civil War.  And as a writer of historical fiction, I feel it’s extremely important to be as accurate as possible in the historical details pertaining to your story.  A few months ago, I wrote about this and offered some of my favorite resources.  Even if you don’t use the actual details in your story, your knowledge of them strengthens the setting you’re building in your narrative.  Your background knowledge provides a framework for the choices your characters make and the things they do based on what’s happening in the world around them.

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, which remains the single bloodiest day in American military history.  23,000 men were dead, missing, or wounded by the end of the day, over 3500 of them killed outright during the battle.  And that, my friends, is the whole reason for this post.

Two Septembers ago, I had the opportunity to visit Antietam National Military Park.  (Side note – check out their site.  So comprehensive.  Go check out their YouTube channel as well.)  This was awesome for two reasons.  First – hello!  Civil War geek here!  But the second reason the visit was total awesomesauce was because, in my magnum opus, one of my main characters fights at Antietam.  And it’s one thing to study history books and maps and so on. It’s another to actually go to the place where this major event happened, see the layout of the land, and visualize what happened that day while you’re standing on the same ground.

It’s a really amazing experience.  Especially since most Civil War movies do a terrible job of depicting battles.  The only two Hollywood productions I can think of, off the top of my head, that actually presented worthwhile battle scenes were “Gettysburg” and the First Battle of Bull Run sequence in the “North & South: Book II” miniseries.  Why?  Because they filmed the battles with volunteer reenactment groups who knew what they were doing, and they filmed on location. And I know they filmed on location because I have been to both Gettysburg and Bull Run.

Antietam National Battlefield is kind of a special thing.  It’s nestled in the Maryland countryside, and the battlefield and surrounding area really hasn’t changed much in the 150 years since the Union and Confederate armies clashed in battle over what amounts to about 3 square miles, maybe a little more.  Sharpsburg is still a small town.  The farm fields are still in use.  It doesn’t get the huge levels of traffic larger, more well known sites like Gettysburg see every year, but in a way that helps maintain its charm.  When you walk out onto the battlefield, there’s very little to get in the way of your imagination.

I’m not going to give you a blow-by-blow history lesson about the battle.  You can read up on it anywhere – Wikipedia, the National Park Services Website, the Civil War Trust’s website, countless books.  I do want to share a handful of my favorite photos from my trip, along with a video of an artillery demonstration.  If you want to see more of my pictures, you can check out the full album here.

Continue reading

Civil War Resources (because accuracy counts!)

I believe I’ve mentioned once or twice (or thrice) that my current work in progress has taken about 18 years of my life to get to the complete first draft point.  I can assure you, it hasn’t all been about writing and editing and revising.  A huge chunk of that time has been spent on research.

Because I believe in historical accuracy.

I love reading good historical fiction – I’d either start screaming hysterically from joy or faint from shock if I were ever to actually meet John Jakes.   Any historical fiction author worth her salt knows the value of honest, accurate research.  Part of creating your world is understanding… well, the world you’re writing.  And nothing makes me more twitchy than reading historical fiction in which the author has obviously not done the required homework.

I don’t care what your historical passion is, but if you want to be taken seriously, I really believe you should know what you’re talking about when you place your characters in the middle of the American Revolution or Tudor-era London.  If you want me to read your book, do your homework.  Yes, you can sometimes get away with vague references, and a little creative license is allowed as long as you’re not changing history. But that said, nothing makes me put down a book faster and think the author is an ignorant git more than stumbling across a fact that is blatantly wrong.

I am a slave to historical accuracy. When I sat down six years ago (!) to start my complete rewrite, I vowed I would fill in the historical blanks in my original manuscript.  I felt it was important for my characters to exist in a world that was as true as possible (at least, true from their perspectives).  And besides that, in the years between my first attempts at publication and the start of the rewrite (years that included a personalized rejection letter stating areas I needed to improve upon), I had done a slew of my own research and exploration into the Civil War. Not specifically for my book – rather, I am a geek. And while I am an avid student of all history, the Civil War is, by far, the most fascinating to me.

Anyway, I digress.

Because historical accuracy is so important to me, and because I’m sure there are writers out there who also would like to churn out a bit of historical fiction of the Civil War persuasion, I decided to list out some of the resources I’ve used over the years to hone and expand my knowledge.  This will be something of a “living document” post, as I will add and edit as necessary (especially in the case of websites).  If anyone comes upon any broken links, please let me know!

Books

Online Resources/Websites
Documentary Videos and Other Media