What IS this thing about history?

[podcast version]

Recently when I opened my Facebook account, an unexpected memory awaited. It was this picture, taken in 2001 to promote a new book that was a long time in coming, and a source of pride for these three co-authors, Terry Nosho, David G. Gordon, and yeah, that’s me in the middle.

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Time has altered our faces, but not the joy and passion for that book…that book…

One day, about a year and a half before this picture was taken, a young man in jeans, mud boots and a rumpled shirt came into my office. He plopped down on our worktable a most magnificent thing: a scrapbook of enormous proportions, with a kelly-green cover nearly the size of my refrigerator door, and spiral-bound pages stacking three inches high.

“My grandfather’s an oyster grower. He’s been keeping this thing for years, sticking this and that in it,” the man said. “Newspaper articles, pictures, restaurant menus, napkins, all sorts of things. He wants to know if you can do something with it. Anyway, it’s yours now.”

Well, not mine, exactly, but the grant program for which I worked, housed with the School of Fisheries and Oceanography at the University of Washington. Our offices were repurposed student housing, a stone’s throw from Montlake cut between Lake Washington and Lake Union where the University’s famed rowing team practiced.

Our program’s educational and research support for the oyster industry, led by Terry Nosho, was well regarded as perhaps the only positive attention paid by anyone to the health and survival of oyster farming.

The whump of the scrapbook on the table was enough to draw my team from their desks: David first, being most curious; then Robyn, the graphic designer; then Susan, the webmaster. We turned the first page. I can’t speak for the rest of them but I was immediately spellbound. Those pages contained a world: not just the history of Washington state’s oyster resource, but of the farming and consumption of oysters, of their culture, and the culture of the families that made a living from them, can labels, matchbook covers, cartoons, and so much more. What could we do with such treasure?

And to me it truly was treasure, as I considered the thoughts and hands and eyes of the person who had compiled this book faithfully and consistently over the decades, the stories this book told and the stories that were never told.

On David’s thoughtful lead —he was already a published author several times over— we perused that scrapbook for different threads that we could weave into a historical look at the world of Washington oysters, complete with recipes and gorgeous photography of Washington’s iconic coast. The result was Heaven on the Half Shell, the Story of the Pacific Northwest’s Love Affair with the Oyster.

It was a powerful experience. It became an opportunity to capture its essence in an idea, grow the idea into a viable project, and then produce a book that not only encapsulates time, but also stands the test of it.

A new door had opened. The love of history and adventure ran in my veins—my favorite book as a child was Robinson Crusoe—and now I learned how to research things, what to look for, how to turn history and discovery into story, and turn story into a touchable, colorful, ink-scented book for anyone to enjoy.

It wouldn’t be long before my own history came knocking; before passion, experience and heritage merged, and I had to find out. I had to know. What happened in the lives of my ancestors? Did they actually live in…castles?  Did they suffer? Did they fight? Did they rise? The truth eludes me. The facts are veiled or nonexistent. There is conjecture. Mystery. Hearsay and propaganda.

I search through the documents, books and biographies available, and fill in the blanks as I best I can. It’s a little like prying open an oyster shell, but not as sharp. And four books later I begin again, wondering still why I love it so, this thing with history?

Last month at the Amelia Island Book Festival in Florida, I received another gift: the opportunity to chat with New York Times best-selling author Margo Lee Shetterly. If you do not recognize the name, you’ll recognize her book: Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.

Not historical fiction, but classified as narrative non-fiction, her book required a great deal of research, and when I told her that the former journalist in me greatly admired the work she had done to create that book, we connected on the love of research.

She lamented that several of the people she’d hoped to interview for her next book had already passed away. The same was true when we were researching the oyster book. People had either passed away or were too distrusting of “government” to speak with us. I replied that, writing about the 17th century meant all my people had passed away, but fortunately in those days they wrote letters. What will happen, we wondered, when such detailed written documentation of emotion and experience is lost?

I believe we will find it still, in blog posts and videos, in personal journals, in the work of historians, archaeologists and anthropologists who will always dig for the truth.

If history infiltrates your other thoughts, usurps other interests, occupies every bookshelf, makes you the geek at parties, and so on—then it is both gift and responsibility. The study of history becomes a joyful treasure hunt that not everyone seeks or understands, but the responsibility is to give attention and meaning to a particular time and people who lived it.

With the help of inspiration, you get to share these discoveries in a way that engages other people so they get those same messages. One of my favorite responses when someone reads one of my novels is, “My God, I had no idea!”

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Happy after my first novel won gold at Florida Writers Association

Nancy Blanton is author of three 17th century historical novels, a fourth in process, and one historical non-fiction book. Visit her at www.nancyblanton.com or purchase her books on Amazon or your favorite online bookseller.

How a storm churned up a writer’s solution

Last August I was struggling with an inner dilemma that not-too-surprisingly corresponded with the arrival of an outer storm, Hurricane Dorian, that we had to deal with here in Florida.

While Dorian dallied, confused the forecasters, and battered the Bahamas, my husband and I struggled with indecision. Should we hunker down at home, or should we evacuate? We live on a barrier island that is susceptible to flooding, loss of electricity and significant wind damage in high storm conditions. Evacuation might seem like an obvious choice.

But the forecasters tend to over-state, and it takes a great deal of effort to evacuate a home even for a few days. The to-do list is three pages long: pack valuables, clothing, food and pets, money; store outside furniture and secure the house; find a decent dog-friendly hotel, inform relatives, etc. My reluctance to leave was high, but for safety’s sake we headed west. Thankfully, Dorian passed causing very little damage to our island.

Likewise, my inner storm—after much twisting and turning—resolved without too much injury.

Years ago, I set a goal for myself to complete a series of novels that illuminate the history of 17th century Ireland. I’m three books into that goal, covering the years 1634 to 1658. But there’s a gap in there that haunts me, starting with a great Irish rebellion of 1641—a brave stand against the English that started as a bloodless coup and ended in brutality, execution and massacre.

This was a complex and bloody era, without a doubt. It falls in the middle of the early modern period in history, 1534 – 1691—a time known for five major wars between the Irish and English, allegedly resulting in atrocities—rapes, murders, infant killings, massacres, starvation, genocide, and more—terrible acts of cruelty I have no wish to envision or describe. I’ve studied much about the rebellion, including the depositions taken afterward describing crimes so cold and horrendous one must question the existence of God.

 

 

Remembering first and foremost that the victors write the history, I know what was recorded as fact during that time was quite often inflated to make more useful propaganda. The English wanted to invade Ireland, and the rebellion simply gave the English Parliament—gorged with power after executing the king’s top advisor—a means by which they might justify and ignite hatred of the Irish and recruit men and support for the military invasion.

Somewhere within or perhaps between those same histories and depositions lies the truth. Modern historians are digging deeper for an honest evaluation of these incidents. Through their work I’ll find a vein of accuracy and follow it with some trepidation, knowing it could verify much of the atrocity. While some authors revel in the opportunity to shock and alarm readers with this dark realm of human history, it’s not my thing. The story, passion and purpose must always come first. I may be in the minority on this, but I still believe the author’s job is to get the reader to feel and care, not to give them deranged nightmares.

The truth must be told, I agree, often and honestly and in terms vivid enough that it will be remembered. As with the holocaust, such inhumanity must be imprinted at a global level. Memory, such that it is, provides the only insurance we have against such things happening again.

But explicit blood and gore of an incident isn’t necessary to understand unacceptable violence. Morbid detail elevates the violence to a spectacle that usurps the reader’s attention and separates him or her from the emotion driving the act. What are the causes? What’s the effect? How does it propel the story?

And there’s my inner dilemma: how do I write the truth honorably and effectively but not too graphically? The answer comes in the form of scale, the camera-lens ability to zoom in and out at will. Cruelties of man against man can be woven as truthfully as possible into a tapestry backdrop for a profound experience on an individual level.

Now then, what’s the individual experience that will serve, and whose eyes will reveal it?

As the storm raged, my research became both documentation and treasure hunt. I stumbled upon a singular event that has now become the foundation for the novel’s structure: a castle siege involving all the right bits of conflict to tell the full story in microcosm.

Within the castle are the English Protestants, holding out against those wild and savage Irish. Outside the castle walls are the Catholic native Irish, whose castle and lands were stolen by the greedy, invading English. Within that setup lies a love story: forbidden love in war time, the struggle to maintain tradition and lifestyle amid a sea of hatred, the spirit to restore and renew what was lost, and the eternal fight to survive.

There is quite a bit of violence involved, too, but observing it through the limited perspective of the characters makes it more manageable.

In this period, siege was a fairly common warfare strategy, and economical for those who lacked cannons and other artillery and could live off the enemy’s captured livestock. Some famous sieges in Ireland include the Siege of Smerwick, 1580; Siege of Kinsale, 1601; Siege of Drogheda, 1649; Siege of Derry, 1689; Siege of Athlone, 1690; and the Siege of Limerick, 1691.

 

SEIGE & BATTLE OF KINSALE, 1601 (PACATA HIBERNIA 1633)

A siege has similarities to a hurricane. Sometimes you must board up the windows against the enemy, and hope you have enough food, water and candles to see you through until the storm does its damage or passes by.

In a 17th century siege, there might not have been time to secure supplies. The external forces might make a surprise attack. If repelled by the castle forces, they wouldn’t necessarily try to break down the walls—especially not if their goal was to preserve and hold the castle. Instead they would take the sheep and cattle, corn, hay, and other stores they could find outside the castle, so that those within the castle could not feed themselves or their livestock within the castle. From the outside they might easily contaminate the castle’s water supply as well.

The siege could last much longer than a few days. The inhabitants could hold out for weeks or months, hoping for help to arrive. The longest siege in world history lasted 21 years! But in most cases, without military relief, the only choice was to surrender the castle to the siege force, or die by starvation and disease. Things tended to end badly. One inescapable atrocity of the time was that even those who peacefully surrendered were sometimes, as they say, put to the sword.

Andrea Patten on The Inner Critic Advantage

Today I am featuring an interview with fellow author Andrea Patten, who wants to help writers everywhere to overcome that crippling struggle against our inner critics.

Screen Shot 2017-05-09 at 10.43.25 AMLike many of us, Andrea has been writing books — at least imaginary ones — since she could first hold a crayon. A favorite place to play was her grandmother’s desk with its endless supply of scrap paper from Gram’s classroom projects. “I’d spend hours on my stories, adding colorful covers and carefully stapling each masterpiece together. I loved writing “by Andrea Patten” in my best version of fancy handwriting on those covers.”

So, of course, one of the places her writer’s journey frequently took her was to ghostwriting. So much for the byline, huh?

“I worked for several people whose vision was far more inspiring than their ability to share it. I’m not sure how it happened the first time, but it was never uncommon for my immediate supervisor or her boss to stop by my desk and ask me to ‘have a look’ at a speech, an article, a letter, or a memo before sharing with a wider audience.”

But those experiences helped her learn to write in different styles and voices: a CEO’s speech to motivate the staff required different writing chops than persuading legislators to provide funds for homeless teens.

“I wrote curricula and reports, financial disclosures and direct mail pieces… Brochures, classified ads, grant applications, staff bios, and company histories. It was excellent training and helped me appreciate the impact good writing can have,” says Patten.

Eventually, Andrea started to discover her voice as a writer. It’s honest, straightforward, and often funny.

“I worked in human services for a long time and wanted to continue to help people. I realized that part of that might come from sharing some of the fascinating ideas I’d picked up along the way. What Kids Need to Succeed is a book I wrote for parents, but it includes wisdom from the business world: when setting goals and making plans, start with the desired outcome in mind. Part of that book’s purpose was to help parents stop getting discouraged with day-to-day challenges and think about the bigger picture: raising future adults.”

Her latest release has similar roots. “Everybody talks about the Inner Critic, but most of the available advice doesn’t work. You can try to ignore “that voice” until you’re blue in the face but that’s not enough: the name of the game is to get it on your side…to make it an ally. You can learn to use its’ energy to your advantage.”

And, to anyone who has struggled with an Inner Critic (or Inner Editor or Inner Bully) this is very good news, indeed.

Here’s an excerpt from The Inner Critic Advantage: Making Peace With the Noise in Your Head by Andrea Patten

AndreaOutlineA few million years ago, when the inner alarm bell sounded, all stress was short-lived: prehistoric primates either responded and escaped or became part of the predator’s buffet. Period. Either way, intense stress did not last long.

Modern stress is different. It’s cumulative — and from the lizard brain’s point of view — relentless. From the jarring sound of the alarm to the gloom and doom news report that accompanies morning coffee, there’s no break. Commuting. Car horns. Caffeine. Kardashians. And that’s even before you get to work.

Most of us don’t pay attention to regular, vanilla stress. It gets stuffed because we think we should be able to handle it. We tamp it down or ignore it and assume we should be able to just power through.

Can you imagine the impact this has on the primitive part of the brain? From that perspective, we’re ignoring death threats which tends to make it cranky. Louder. More insistent. No wonder it wants to take over — you’re not paying attention and giving it relief.

Remember, the survival center’s job is to alert us to potential threats: it is NOT for deep thinking, nuance, delicate wording or high-level negotiation.

Continuing to ignore the needs of our primitive brains can lead to chronic stress, making us unreasonable and sometimes causing arguments. I don’t think that’s what it intends to do — it’s really just the old brain’s way of trying to get your attention.

To help you. When trying to get along with people at work or seeking compromise with a loved one, we need to get that thing tucked in.

Despite the problems it has caused for you, there’s much to respect and appreciate about that old brain. It:

  • loves you and wants to keep you safe,
  • is part of your hardwired survival mechanism,
  • constantly scans your environment for threats, and
  • will not back down until it has been heard.

It takes hard work and a special sort of mindfulness to turn an Inner Critic into an ally, but do you have what it takes to turn it into an advantage?

Check with your local indie bookstore for the softcover version of The Inner Critic Advantage: Making Peace With the Noise in Your Head by Andrea Patten. It is also available in e-book or softcover on amazon.com  

 

All that Jazz in Waynesville

And what it has to do with writing

Jazz Cats promo poster

Jazz Cats promo poster

Just over a week ago I was in Waynesville NC to hear the Jazz Cats play at a local night spot, the Classic Wineseller. This trio features my cousin Bonnie Rossa on flute and vocals, Brad Keller on piano, vocals and keyboard bass, and Jean Bolduc on drums. Because of their tremendous talents, experience and the synchronicity between them that only a long-term friendship could create, as I heard them play I deeply felt the music in a whole new way.

Of all things music is emotional, and I have had it bring me to tears — as when a pianist Michael Yanette plays Someone to Watch Over Me, that became a song of love between my cousin and her father, or the Jazz Cats play Autumn Leaves that my own father loved to sing around the house or in the car. But never before have I known music to lift me up, stir my blood and send it soaring as it did when the trio played Icarus.

Why had I never heard this before? Or had I heard but never listened? Composed by Ralph Towner and recorded by Paul Winter in 1973, it was mostly intended for strings and Winter’s soprano sax. About two minutes into the song the emotion really begins to build. I have listened to a couple of Winter’s recordings which are great, but I find I prefer the Jazz Cats version using flute, piano and drums. Somehow it feels less restrained. When I saw them play, I think the three of them were caught up in the joy of the music and the feeling of flight, and took the audience with them.

From left, Jean Bolduc, Brad Keller, Sharon Elsasser, Bonnie Rossa

From left, Jean Bolduc, Brad Keller, Sharon Elsasser, Bonnie Rossa

What has this to do with writing? Well, music tells a story. And what author does not want to write like the wind, get caught up in the emotion of the story they are telling and lift their readers up in exactly the same way? Most of the time writing is like slogging through the mud, but then that joyful inspiration comes and you cannot stop your fingers from skipping across they keyboard (nor would you try). You are flying. You are flying.

And, because the main character of the book I am writing is someone who dreams of soaring in a way, to elevate his life and claim his heritage, this song of Icarus helps me think about and experience what he feels when he dreams of his future.

Music can be such an inspiration, and I forget that sometimes. Thank you Jazz Cats for lifting me up.

 

SharavogueCoverNancy Blanton is the author of Sharavogue, an award-winning novel of 17th century Ireland and the West Indies. She is at work on two more novels, and also has published a children’s book, The Curious Adventure of Roodle Jones. Find her books on amazon.com, barnesandnoble, and ibooks.