Thursday, September 21, 2017

Musings About Concord, Massachusetts

I don’t believe in muses. Writing is not a matter of inspiration. It's more of a compulsion. Think about all of the famous authors that wrote until the last shovel of dirt was thrown onto their grave. Most people retire when the get enough money. Not bestselling writers. They just keep going. They write because they loved writing. 

That said, I actually have a muse of sorts. It’s Concord, Massachusetts. Some of my fondest memories are of that historic village about twenty-five miles north/west of Boston.

American Revolution
Colonial Inn
I lived in Boston for three years and consulted there for many many more. When I was consulting, I frequently spent two weeks in the city. I discovered that I could catch a commuter train Friday night and spend the weekend in Concord. I must have done this dozens of times, sometimes with my wife, but often alone.

Concord was peaceful, pleasant, and friendly. I stayed at the Colonial Inn, where in 1775, rebels had hidden guns and ammunition. The shot heard ‘round the world was only a mile or so down the road. Tourists visit Concord because of its iconic place in the American Revolution. Many are surprised by the town’s grand literary heritage. Nathanial Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Robert B. Parker have all called Concord home. No wonder Henry James dubbed the village, "the biggest little place in America."

Monday, September 18, 2017

Happy Birthday ... You don't Look a Day Over 230

Congress designated September 17th as Constitution Day (celebrated this year on Monday, September 18th). Two hundred and thirty years ago, thirty-nine delegates to the Federal Convention signed this venerable founding document.

Congress made an error. I believe our elected representatives should have chosen June 21. On that date, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution, making it the "supreme law of the land." I believe James Madison would concur. Delegate signatures were important, but only as a milestone. Legitimacy depended not on esteemed delegates, but on ratification by conventions of the people. After all, it's our name that appears first, and in bold, outsized characters. So, as we go about our busy day, let's take a moment to celebrate 

 We the People

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Monday, July 10, 2017

Bush v. Gore and Bush v. Palm Beach County Canvassing Board – Guest Essayist: James D. Best

Today's essay at Constituting America is Bush v. Gore and Bush v. Palm Beach County Canvassing Board, which which settled the 2000 presidential election.
The 2000 presidential election came down to who won Florida. Twenty-seven days after the election, the presidency remained undecided. Surrogates for George W. Bush and Al Gore clashed in a close-quarters fight that seemed to have no end.  Both parties persisted and refused to yield. The media filled nearly every broadcast moment and column inch of newsprint with the maneuvers and shenanigans of both parties. The pursuit of minutia, gossip, and a major scoop drove wall-to-wall reporting of the countless twists, turns, and skirmishes.
 You can read or listen to the entire essay here.

7th Annual 90-Day Study

Friday, July 7, 2017

Unexpected Recommendation for Tempest at Dawn

One of the great things about the internet is that if someone mentions you, an email alert can let you know about it. Gear Technology posted an Independence Day salutation. They also made a recommendation for Tempest at Dawn. Thank you, even though I have not a clue what "power your Skiving" means.

So if you have a quiet moment between parades, ball games, picnics, and fireworks, I encourage you to go online and get a copy of James D. Best’s book, Tempest at Dawn. This very well researched novelization of the Constitutional Convention will show just how close the entire experiment came to failing. The reasons were much the same as the conflicts that divide us today. Best presents the signers as real people, with real life problems — not as supermen sent down from some divine mountain with wisdom of another world.

Power Your Skiving

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

District of Columbia v. Heller ... Essay at Constituting America

Guest Essayist: James D. Best

Today's essay at Constituting America is District of Columbia v. Heller, which ruled on a long-simmering conflict about the meaning of the 2nd Amendment.
District of Columbia v. Heller provided clarity to a long and quarrelsome debate about the application of the Second Amendment. The crux of the case was whether the right to “keep and bear arms” was an individual right or a collective right associated with regulated militias. The Supreme Court (5-4) ruled the Second Amendment an individual right.
You can read or listen to the entire essay here.

7th Annual 90-Day Study

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 to be information savvy, rather than technology chauffeurs.

Concord Free Public Library

Boston Public Library

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 Tempest at 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. (565 Goodreads ratings for 3.9 stars and 208 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.