Tag Archives: americana

546. Where Do You Get Your Ideas (1)

Everybody who doesn’t write, wants to know where writers get their ideas. Everybody who writes knows the answer is, “Everywhere,” and also knows that answer won’t satisfy anyone.

I think that those who ask really want to know is where we get the initial idea, the one that sets everything in motion. For instance, I have one like that which I haven’t used yet. It’s a winner for sure. It has hippies and drugs and the . . . nope! I might still write that one, so I’m keeping it to myself.

I’ve actually already told the origin stories of one novel, one series and one fragment. You can check them out if you want. I have one more answer that covers four stories, and that answer is Scrooge.

My fascination with Dickens’s classic began during the Christmas season of 1970. I was a new college graduate, married, waiting for my date to enter the Navy. My immediate future looked grim, and possibly short.

The musical Scrooge was released that year and it went straight to the heart when my wife and I saw it in the theatre. I immediately bought the videotape, even though I had no way to play it at the time. I knew I didn’t want to lose that powerful story of redemption.

In the  years that followed, I read the original story several times, along with the other four Christmas stories that Dickens followed up with in later years. I also made a collection of other Christmas Carol movies, some good, some dull, some awful. Every actor seemed to want to play Scrooge.

Five years after the release of Scrooge, I started writing novels. I concentrated on science fiction and fantasy, but deep down I wanted to write my own Christmas classic. And yes, I know, there are ten million other writers who have had the same idea.

I won’t go into detail, but over the years the idea grew from one story to three.

Nathaniel Gunn returns from a long voyage on a trading ship to Philadelphia in 1791 to find his wife dead from disease and his two children apparently dead as well. Throughout the following Christmas season he gives away his money to the needy around him, but it does his heart and soul no good until he has to give away the one thing that means the most to him.

The children, who are not really dead, make their painful way back from their uncle’s farm toward Philadelphia. Along the way they find themselves taking shelter with a family of Moravian’s, the Christian sect that was that era’s the strongest advocate of Christmas, long before it’s celebration became generally accepted.

These two stories are bracketed by a later story. Nathan, the son, finds himself in New York in 1823 where he befriends the despondent Clement Clarke Moore.

Those stories grew out of a desire to bring early Christmas to the new world, and tie the birth of Christ to the birth of the nation. (The first congress met in New York in 1789 and Philadelphia in 1791, before moving on to the newly built Washington City.)

It needs writing. Maybe someday if I can find the time . . .

Those were literary and historical ideas. Meanwhile, there was a purely visual idea that also came out of Scrooge. I’ll tell you about it in two days.

Continued Wednesday.

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540. Where Are the Vets?

Here are some statistics, tailored for those who read this blog. I know most of you are young. I see your pictures on your likes, and I check out your websites.  I’m not young, so I see changes you may not be aware of.

Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and both presidents Bush all served in the military in wartime. Regan and Bush Two served stateside in wartime; the others all saw combat.

Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump did not serve.

In the current House of Representatives only 70 of 435 have served in the military. In the current Senate, only 13 of 100 have served. Those numbers will go up slightly with the incoming congress.

Veterans were not so under represented in previous congresses.

These figures relate the the reduced number of persons in the military. That is not quite the same as a smaller military, since the persons now serving tend to spend more years in service. Draftees from previous eras tended to go home as soon as they were allowed to do so.

I come from a long line of draftees. My father served in Europe in WW II, was wounded, and remained during the occupation of Germany. His younger brother was drafted, trained, and was on a ship “heading for Japan to die” (his words) when the US dropped the A bomb. He ended up in the occupation of Japan. I joined the Navy, Vietnam era, but not by choice. My draft number was 41, which meant my number was up (in both senses of the word) before I finished college. And no, I did not see combat.

I hated the draft and I still do, but it had one positive aspect. It leveled the playing field. More Americans had to step up, whether they wanted to or not, and that led to more protests. Without the draft, we would have been in Vietnam much longer.

Today is the hundredth anniversary of the end of WW I. All those veterans are gone. WW II ended in 1945. Very few of the vets from my father’s generation are still around.

America left Vietnam in 1973. Any vet who saw that day at age 18 would be 63 today. That was also the last  year American’s were drafted.

I’m not suggesting a return to the draft, God forbid. I have no particular agenda at all; I just want to give you this to think about.

A country which everyone has to defend, or at least has to stand in jeopardy of military service, is a very different thing from a country that depends on a volunteer military.

Better? Worse? That will be your decision going forward.

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The numbers in this post come from PBS.

Trump World

I’ve been working on Like Clockwork, my latest steampunk novel. Today I was rereading a chapter from about the middle of the manuscript when this caught my attention. Let me share a few paragraphs.

“But lately it has all been falling apart.”

“You must expect that. Not everyone believed in the Founder’s ideas completely. One little girl didn’t believe at all. After He left, there was no one to answer prayers, and belief doesn’t last forever.”

“Are you saying that You — He — one or both of You  — answered prayers?”

“Of course not. But We did have the capacity to convince people that their prayers were being answered, even when they got the opposite of what they asked for. Any good religion can do that. You people are very easy to convince.”

Okay, is see the uncomfortable resemblance too, but I wasn’t thinking of Trump when I wrote this. Honest!

Then I read on and found another thought two pages later:

“So how do we get our world back to reality?”

“Reality? Never heard of it. You don’t get back to reality, you create reality. Didn’t you understand a word I said? If you want a different reality, tear this one down, and build a new one.”

Now that I can stand behind.

522. First Black Astronauts

Dr. Ronald McNair, Guion Bulford, Frederick Gregory

I recently saw Leland Melvin’s new book Chasing Space and got a chance to look it over. It’s a good book, although in full disclosure I won’t finish it. I read and write for a living. so my time is limited. Additionally, I have already read more than dozen astronaut bios, so this one lacks newness for me, even though it might be just what you are looking for.

It got me thinking about the first black astronaut, if there were such a thing. We all know who the first woman astronaut was — Sally Ride. That is, if we continue our cold war prejudice against the Russians and ignore Valentina Tereshkova.

It would be neat and tidy if there were a first black astronaut, but it isn’t that simple. If you type the question into Google, it will return Guion Bluford. We’ll talk about him in a second, but there were others that came before him.

Ed Dwight was chosen by John F. Kennedy to join the astronaut corps. He was an Air Force test pilot with a degree in aeronautical engineering. While in training, he was the target of racism. When Kennedy was assassinated, Dwight withdrew from the astronaut program. A few years later, continued harassment led him to retire from the Air Force altogether. He became a noted sculptor in a second career.

Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. was the next African-American astronaut. At Edwards Air Force Base, Lawrence investigated unpowered glide return characteristics using an F-104 Starfighter, contributing greatly to knowledge necessary to the Space Shuttle program. He was assigned to the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, but before he flew in space, he was killed in a crash landing while acting as a pilot instructor to a trainee. When the MOL project was abandoned, many of it’s astronauts transferred to NASA, where they became the backbone of the early Space Shuttle missions. Lawrence would almost certainly have been among them.

The “first black astronaut” falls out this way.

Ed Dwight was the first black astronaut trainee.

Robert Lawrence Jr. was the first black working astronaut. Remember that most of any astronaut’s time is spent in training and on-the-ground research. Actual flight in space makes up a tiny fraction of an astronaut’s career. Lawrence was as much a real astronaut as Roger Chaffee who died in the Apollo One fire just before his first flight.

Guion Bluford was the first black astronaut to actually fly in space in 1983 aboard the Challenger. He participated in four shuttle flights.

We also have to add Ronald McNair to the list of firsts. He was the first black astronaut to die on a space mission, when Challenger exploded. It was his second space shuttle mission.

Before 1978, there had been fifty-some American Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts and an additional few dozen assigned to other missions. Of, these only Lawrence had been black and there had been no women.

An up-to-date list of black astronauts can be found here. There are fourteen: Guion Bluford, Ronald McNair, Frederick Gregory, Charles Bolden, Mae Jemison, Bernard Harris Jr., Winston Scott, Robert Curbeam, Michael Anderson, Stephanie Wilson, Joan Higginbotham, Alvin Drew, Leland Melvin (whose book started this post), and Robert Satcher.

There are an additional eight who, for various reasons, never flew is space. Lawrence and Dwight are on that list.

I, Too

Here is a poem for the day after the Fourth of July. Langston Hughes wrote this in 1926.

I, Too

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

Apparently, it isn’t tomorrow yet. But tomorrow is coming, and it’s up to us to help it along.

poem for the fourth

Poem for the Fourth of July

I look out of the mesh
Out of the cage
and I do not see my mother
and I do not see my father.

We are so many here
So crowded
I smell the stench of fear
I hear the low hum of hopelessness

We came for refuge
.          Where is it?

I wrote this poem on June 18th and put it in line to appear on July 4th. When you read this, Zero Tolerance may have been reversed. If not, we all have work to do.

[It has, but only somewhat, and we still have work to do.]

478. Poetic Writing

           People, I think, read too much to themselves; they should read aloud from time to time to hear the language, to feel the sounds.
          Homer told his stories accompanied by the lyre, and it was the best way, I think, to tell such stories. Men needed stories to lead them to create, to build, to conquer, even to survive, and without them the human race would have vanished long ago.
                               Louis L’amour  The Lonesome Gods  pp. 115-116

I am writing this on February 12th, to publish on April 9th. All the slots until then are filled with posts about teaching and space exploration, all tied, more or less, to my teaching novel that is winding down over in Serial.

I have also been reading The Lonesome Gods, for the umpteenth time, where I ran across the quote above. It was timely, since I just stayed up late last night finishing a poem that has been rattling around my computer for about five years, and placed it into a post. It will come out next week, keyed to the anniversary of the event that inspired it.

Old fashioned rhyming poetry can be wonderful, but it often suffers when the poet has to fight to fit content to rhyme. Modern poetry doesn’t seem like poetry at all to me. I often like it for what it has to say, but if you can retype it into your computer minus the return-key strikes, and turn it into a good opening paragraph for a story that never got written, how is that poetry?

Everyone in the world disagrees with me on this, but that’s okay. I’m used to that.

My favorite type of poetry is rhythmic, without slavishly following a pattern. Think Robert Frost, Edgar Lee Masters, or Rabindranath Tagore. I follow their lead, without aspiring to their quality. I am a novelist by moral necessity. Poems just come to me, and not too often.

My favorite type of prose is poetic in its rhythms. L’amour often reaches that peak, but not consistently. The quotation above, about poetic language, doesn’t rise to poetry. The opening paragraphs of Bendigo Shafter do:

          Where the wagons stopped we built our homes, making the cabins tight against the winter’s coming. Here in this place we would build our town, here we would create something new.
          We would space our buildings, lay out our streets and dig wells to provide water for our people. The idea of it filled me with a heartwarming excitement such as I had not known before.

Of course it doesn’t hurt that the content is the American Dream. Also from The Lonesome Gods, this passage strikes me as poetic:

And now I was back to the desert, back to the soaring mountains behind my house, back to the loneliness that was never lonely, back to the stillness that held silent voices that spoke only to me.     p. 202

When I was a new writer, I rested my fevered brain between writing sessions with Louis L’amour, because his westerns were completely different from the fantasy and science fiction I was writing. I learned a lot about poetry from him, along with a lot of cautionary tales about clunkers. I’ll spare you examples of those.

What he says in the top quotation is good advice for writers. Always read your own work aloud.

My writing goes roughly this way. First comes a draft that probably needs a lot of help. The second time through, I translate it into English — that is, I turn beagn into began, and Thmoas into Thomas. Feel free to skip that step if you don’t have dyslexic fingers. Then I run the spell checker. Finally I read it slowly, softly, and always out loud. By this time, my eyes have seen the page several times, but my ears are hearing it for the first time.

The ears will catch what the eyes miss.