Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Thank You Librarians

Book Riot published a piece on Finding Libraries in Unexpected Places. There are some great pictures and an interesting narrative for each. Also, some nifty ideas that might help libraries remain as a place to check out books—real books, printed on paper. I would hate to see libraries turned into book museums, or internet portals for the digitally deprived. I prefer librarians information savvy rather than technology chauffeurs.

Concord Free Public Library

Boston Public Library

As you can tell, I’m a bit old fashion. I love bookstore and libraries. My favorite libraries are the Boston Public Library and the Concord Free Public Library. I like both of these because there are surprises buried in their stacks—surprises that knowledgeable librarians help you uncover. 
In the Boston Public Library I found a Roger Sherman doctoral thesis by Christopher Collier, the author of Decision in Philadelphia. In Concord, I found a one hundred and sixty year old biography of Roger Sherman. Both finds were invaluable for my research for Tempest at Dawn. Since I was not a resident of Massachusetts, I was further surprised when the Concord Free Public Library issued me a library card on the spot and let me walk out of the building with this valuable book. Free library cards for everyone is a longstanding tradition of this charming bastion of American literary history.

Bookstores are great, used bookstores are fun and great, but libraries are indispensable because they come equipped with tour guides called librarians. I sure hope the digitization of books doesn't cost us this valuable resource.

Related Posts
Will libraries end up as museums
Musings about Concord, Massachusetts
Libraries that are architectural wonders
I just gave away over 300 books

Monday, April 24, 2017

Time, the Magic Elixir—Set Your Novel Aside for a Spell

Partial Outline for Tempest at Dawn

I believe novels are like wine, they need to age in a metaphorical cask for just the right amount of time. The chart on this page was a timeline I developed for Tempest at Dawn, my novelization of the Constitutional Convention. This chart reflected what happened during May, 1787, the first month of the Constitutional Convention. (Each number has extensive hidden notes.) I also develop separate charts for each of the following three months, plus similar charts for before and after the convention. My table for the cast of the story retained an unbelievable amount of data on all fifty-five delegates plus a dozen or so outsiders. I had spent three years studying the convention and the framers. It was a daunting task and I wanted to squeeze everything into my novel. To quote Pretty Woman, “Big mistake. Big. Huge.”

My original draft was over 240,000 words. My agent harangued me to cut, cut, cut. By the time he agreed to shop the book, it was about 175,000 words. Despite his enthusiasm, it didn’t sell, and I threw the manuscript into a drawer (actually a computer file folder) for several years. After I had successfully self-published a western series and The Shut Mouth Society, I decided to take another look at Tempest. I felt I had captured the story, but diffused the drama with too much detail. Now I went after the manuscript with hedge clippers instead of scissors. After that, professional editing and proofreading got the final published manuscript down to 140,000 words. Still a big book, but now it moved with an energized pace.

Time was the medicine that cured the ills of Tempestat Dawn. I got far enough away to lighten my emotional attachment to the project. Writing a book is consuming, but intensity can also cloud judgment. 

After your final draft is done, set it aside for a bit and let your book mellow. Does it need to be years? Absolutely not. When I finish a novel, I go on a trip. Get some real distance between me and the book. I prefer going surfing or taking a road trip with friends. Something that feels like a reward. It can be as short as a week, and is seldom more than a month. For me, travel shortens the time I need to be truly objective about the final draft.  Every writer is different, so this may not be the best way for you to clear your head. I only know that I do solid revisions after getting mentally and physically away from the book for a spell.

One last thing: it’s not easy to abandon your book. There’s excitement on completion and an anxiousness to get it out there because it’s your best work to date. Probably true, but it can always be better. Give it a little time and look at it again with fresh eyes. (I also have a couple of trusted people read and comment on the book while I’m gallivanting around.) Try it once and see if it works for you. Like I said, every writer is different.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Home Building & Loan v. Blaisdell (1934) – Guest Essayist: James D. Best

Home Building & Loan v. Blaisdell (1934) started the modern trend of interpreting the Constitution to support popular passions. You can read the essay here or listen to it below.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Historical Novel Done Right

Go Book Yourself published a list of 9 books inspired by art. I would add a tenth: Lust for Life by Irving Stone. I am not a visual person, but my wife was an Art History major and docent, so I spend a lot of time in museums. When I look at a painting on my own, I usually stifle a yawn, but with her by my side, the art and artist become intriguing. It reminds me of NASCAR racing. If you know nothing about the sport, it's boring. Just a bunch of left turns at high speed in heavy traffic. But once you learn about the teams, drivers, cars, and rules, the sport becomes fascinating, as well as thrilling. Like my wife, Irving Stone had a knack for making something interesting that might otherwise be dull. Ever since reading Lust for Life, Vincent van Gogh has been my favorite artist.

Tempest at Dawn
Irving Stone
James D. Best

Irving Stone is also one of my favorite authors. He popularized the biographical novel by turning the lives of great people into great stories. You can read his New York Times obituary here. The obituary quotes Stone as saying, ''My books are based 98 percent on documentary evidence. I spend several years trying to get inside the brain and heart of my subjects, listening to the interior monologues in their letters, and when I have to bridge the chasms between the factual evidence, I try to make an intuitive leap through the eyes and motivation of the person I'm writing about.''

The reason I feel an emotional connection to Irving Stone and Lust for Life is that this novel was the inspiration for Tempest at Dawn. I believed the Constitutional Convention was a spellbinding story. Dozens of history books had already been written, and I had read many of them, but there was a nail-biting story filled with enigmatic characters that somehow eluded these academic examinations. Like Stone, I felt the novel form would bring the story and people to life. I may not have reached the literary heights of Stone, but I enjoyed the writing immensely and most readers have been highly positive in their reviews and ratings. (469 Goodreads ratings for 3.9 stars and 156 Amazon reviews for 4.4 stars..) 

Try either book. If you enjoy history, you may find the novel a great form for gaining additional insight.

Monday, February 27, 2017

The United States Supreme Court: Landmark Decisions & The Justices Who Made Them

This year, Constituting America's 7th annual 90-Day Study is The United States Supreme Court: Landmark Decisions & The Justices Who Made Them. As in previous years, I'll write a few essays for this year's study. You can read all of the essays here.

Constituting America is committed "to reach, educate and inform America's citizens and youth about the importance of the U.S. Constitution." They do a great job.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Primer on Electoral College

The Electoral College is an integral element of our governing system. The purpose is to give people who live in all the states some influence on the executive leadership of the country. After the recent election, many are questioning the wisdom of Article II, Section 1. The Electoral College is immensely important not only to who wins, but how presidential campaigns are run. Eliminate the Electoral College and the interior will never see another candidate in their state and heartland primaries will be meaningless.
Inhabitants of the hinterlands often feel dismissed by urbanites living along one of the two coasts. Unfortunately for our country, the hue and cry to do away with the Electoral College confirms their worst suspicions.  Abolishing the Electoral College will disenfranchise every American who lives in fly-over country.
Here is a good primer on the Elector College.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Monday, August 29, 2016

Comentary: Some Conservatives Are Now Tossing Out The Constitution

The United States Constitution is basically a restraining order. It uses the ultimate authority of We the People to limit government power.  But if you want government to meddle in every nook and cranny of people’s lives, then the Constitution is a huge nuisance. Something to be tossed aside or at least enfeebled.

The left has used a number of techniques to enfeeble the Constitution. First and foremost is the idea of a living constitution. A living constitution is an insidious concept because it promotes the idea that the Constitution is always open to new interpretation. It denigrates the supreme law of the land while transferring power from the legislative branch to the judiciary. If you believe in a living constitution, then like Gulliver, you want to progressively snap each and every tie that retrains your movement.

The Constitution has been further disparaged by claims that it is far too old to deal with the modern world. If that doesn’t work, then we’re reminded that it was written by rich, white men. Critics also portray original intent as a mystery and, by the way, if the original document were adhered to religiously, it would prohibit women from voting and reinstitute slavery.

Some of this has an element of truth. All of the Framers were white men and most of them were rich, but the Constitution was debated nationally and ratified by conventions of the people from every walk of life. An architecture to harness the worst impulses of man and woman cannot be too old to work in our world unless human nature has changed. The Founders left an immense record of original intent, including Madison’s notes, the Federalist Papers, the Antifederalist Papers, minutes of the ratification convention, sermons, congressional debates on the Bill of Rights, and state ratification of the first ten amendments. Originalist believe in the authority of the Constitution, including the amendments which make suffrage universal and outlaw slavery.

These arguments are disingenuous, but all of them are meant to promote a single goal—to remove the shackles from the exercise of power.

Disparaging the Constitution used to be the province of progressives. Progressives wanted government to do more. Progressives wanted a free-wheeling president to guide each and every one of us to an enlightened future. Progressives wanted federalism relegated to a closet with triple locks on the door. Progressives wanted that troublesome Constitution viewed as a cultural talisman rather than the supreme law of the land.

Evidently, that’s changed.

Edmund Kozak at PoliZette has accused conservatives like Ben Shapiro and Senator Ted Cruz of the dreadful sin of “Constitution worship.” This is significant because the editor-in-chief of PoliZette is Laura Ingraham, a supposed conservative pundit and supporter of Donald Trump. Some who claim membership in the conservative movement have found their own alpha-male, and now they too want to banish that pesky Constitution.

When asked about executive orders, Donald Trump said “I won’t refuse it. I’m going to do a lot of things … I mean, he’s led the way, to be honest with you," referring to President Obama. "But I’m going to use them much better and they’re going to serve a much better purpose than he’s done.”
I guess Trump promising to “use them much better … to serve a much better purpose,” is enough for Kozak to abandon a key conservative principle and award unchecked power to a President Trump.

His article defines his own perspective on conservative principles, and they omit constitutionalism and the belief that we are endowed by our “creator with certain unalienable rights.” I guess Kozak gets to decide who wears the conservative label ... except from tactics to beliefs, Kozak’s incarnation of conservatives looks an awful lot like the progressives.

Kozak suggests that the Constitution is nothing more than “a mere piece of paper.” He’s wrong. It is an integral element of his touted “custom, convention, and continuity.” The fifty-five men who came to Philadelphia in 1787 were a historic gathering of the greatest minds in the nation. Many of them had spent a lifetime studying government systems and they capped the Enlightenment with an unprecedented work that secured the popular ratification of a grateful nation.

Edmund Kozak is not in their league.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Do readers judge a book by its title?

Everyone knows the old axiom that people judge a book by its cover, but do they also judge books by their title? I don’t know. I suspect a great title can get readers to look further, a horrible title stops further inspection, and a mediocre title doesn't influence sales one way or the other.

The Barnes and Noble Book Blog posted an article “12 Books With The Most Irresistible Titles.” Good Titles, but I always liked Lonesome Dove because it sounded intriguing.

The Great Rehearsal might be the worst title I've encountered for a great book. Carl Van Doren wrote one of the top three history books on the Constitutional Convention. (In this amateur historian's humble opinion.)The book was published in 1948, when the United Nations was just starting up and Van Doren thought the 1787 Constitutional Convention was a rehearsal for writing the UN charter. This was a poor title that must have dampened sales of a fine history book.  Ironic, since the book never mentions current events except in a slapped together preface.

I've never agonized over my own titles, except for Tempest at Dawn, my own book on the Constitutional Convention. Since this was a novelization of the convention, I needed a title that didn't sound like a history book. I also liked the idea that the title reflected the turmoil in the infant country at the time of the convention.

I still like the title. Perhaps I should have agonized more over my other titles. The Steve Dancy titles: The Shopkeeper, Leadville, Murder at Thumb Butte, The Return, Jenny's Revenge, and Crossing the Animas are pedestrian. I like The Shout Mouth Society because it connotes secret society intrigue, which properly reflects the plot of this contemporary novel. Principled Action is a lousy title and may have affected sales of this nonfiction book about the founding period.

Authors may not be the best at selecting titles, but I’m not sure focus-group driven editors are better. My title for my computer technology book was Dinosaurs and Whippersnappers, but Wiley insisted on The Digital Organization. I still prefer my title.

book covers book titles
Honest stories filled with dishonest characters.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Alexander Hamilton Fixed a Broken Nation

Due to the groundbreaking play, Alexander Hamilton has vaulted skyward to become an icon of popular cultural. It couldn’t happen to a better man. Hamilton was my favorite character when writing Tempest at Dawn. At the time of the Constitutional Convention he was only thirty years of age, yet he had already proved his physical courage and mental agility.
When writing my novel, I used the following excerpt to illustrate the economic conditions faced by the infant nation. Most of the states had not paid off the war bonds that financed the Revolution, foreclosures were rampant, inflation raged, there was no common money, and production, especially for ships and foodstuffs, had declined to the point of alarm. These were the dire circumstances inherited by Alexander Hamilton when he became our first Secretary of the Treasury. In a tour de force, he righted the country’s finances and economy by the end of Washington’s first term.

When Baldwin emerged from behind the building, he failed to notice his friends on the other side of the road, so he walked into the tavern. He spent only a few minutes inside and emerged with a wooden bowl and an oversized spoon. Looking around, he finally spotted Sherman and Hamilton on the log across the way.

As he took a seat next to Sherman, Baldwin asked, “What’s this?”

Hamilton leaned forward to look around Sherman. “Squirrel, I think.”

“God, I hate traveling.”

“Throw it away, and I’ll give you a pear.”

Baldwin dipped his spoon deep into the concoction and let the goo plop back into the bowl. “This looks like pig swill.” He ceremoniously turned the bowl over, and they all watched the pottage spill onto the ground in bumpy chunks.

“My money says that blob will still be there on my return trip,” Hamilton said.

Baldwin turned the pear a couple times and then took a huge bite. After a noisy chomp, he spoke with a mouth half full. “I’ll not take that bet; forest animals have more dignity.”

Monday, May 23, 2016

Trump: The Constitution Was a Very Bad Deal

The Founders were lightweights who didn’t know how to make a really good deal. They coulda got so much more. Bad. Really bad. Now we say they are great men, maybe they were, but they’re not. Weak, totally weak. Listen, they coulda got so much more. If these were such bright guys, why’d it take four months to come up with such a lousy deal?
Poor leaders make bad deals. We The People means everyone. All those little people. Can they run things? No. You don’t want losers running the country. If you want to make America great again, you need great leaders, not a bunch of little people running around like chickens with their heads off. These guys were really proud of their lousy deal. They called it the Great Compromise or something. They don’t know great. No idea. We can do much better, believe me. Great leaders don’t compromise, they get people to do what’s right. When I’m president, people will do right and they’ll love it. They’ll be so happy, believe me.
Do you know how hot it was that summer? Hot. Really stinkin' hot. I mean those guys must have stunk awful. Wool suits. No deodorant. Talk about a smoke filled room. It was terrible. Terrible. All they wanted was out. They wanted to go home so bad, everybody shrugged and signed their name to a really bad deal.