The Writing Life

As a writer, I spend lots of time researching, writing, and telling people that I’m researching and writing.

c20da-grace2ba692(author Grace Metalious, not me)

After a very long time, usually years, I have something to show for it in the form of a book. This time, though, I did not take a long time. I was skeptical that I could research and write quickly, but I did. I’m retired. I’m not in the classroom or grading papers nine months out of the year. So what else am I going to do?

Coming in June 2020 is Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War. (Just click on the link if you want to preorder.) Beginning this November with the anniversary of Walker’s birth, I’ll be posting snippets of her life and times.

 

 

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Into the Research Rabbit Hole with Samuel J. May, Abolitionist and Women’s Rights Advocate

Today launches the first in a series of occasional posts about something most writers of history are familiar with: falling down the research rabbit hole.

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While I’ve gotten better at making sure it doesn’t become a bottomless pit, I always look forward to these jaunts that reveal something intriguing about my main subject. Today I’ve been working on a chapter of my book about Dr. Mary Walker, a 19th-century reformer and the only woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.

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One of the many people she interacted with was a Unitarian minister named Samuel J. May. An 1820 graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, May fully embraced the new Unitarian theology, which emphasized the moral teachings of Jesus Christ. He was committed to putting this ideology into action and actively participated in a variety of antebellum reforms, including temperance, education, labor, and abolition. In 1830, May met William Lloyd Garrison and went on to serve as a lecturer for the New England Anti-Slavery Society. May eventually accepted a position at the Unitarian Church of the Messiah in Syracuse, New York, about forty miles south of Mary Walker’s hometown of Oswego. There, May’s abolition work expanded to assisting the underground railroad.

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The Reverend Samuel May began promoting women’s rights with his November 1845 sermon, The Rights and Condition of Women, which was subsequently printed and widely circulated. Beginning with quotes from Genesis (“In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him, male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam.”) and Galatians (“There is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”), he called for gender equality and women’s suffrage.

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Exactly how and why Mary Walker and Samuel May knew each other will be explained in my book. And for those of you who think the surname May sounds familiar, the reforming reverend’s other claim to fame is that he was the uncle of Louisa May Alcott.

 

 

Happy Holidays/Looking Forward to 2019

 

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I hope everyone has been enjoying the holiday season.

2018 was a big year: retirement, selling a house and moving, signing two book contracts.

TWO book contracts?! It’s not something I ever thought would happen, but it did.

The first contract was the result of long-term planning. I’d started on a biography of mega-star Dale Evans about ten years ago, then set it aside to work on Angels of the Underground. About a year or so ago, I began working with my agent to draft a proposal for the Evans book, which was picked up by Lyons Press. Right now it has the working title of Queen of the West.

Dale Evans 5

The second contract was a matter of serendipity. A book editor had an idea and approached my agent about having me take on the project. This book is about Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. She was a physician with the Union army during the Civil War and spent some time as a prisoner of the Confederacy. Plus she was a major figure in the women’s rights movement, but other prominent women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton tried to erase her from the movement’s history because of her radical views.

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I love both of these book projects. Through the first half of 2019, there will be more here about Mary Walker and her exploits, as well as about my own writing and publishing journey. Then Walker will gradually be replaced by updates about Dale Evans.

First, though, I will be posting about my favorite books from 2018, both fiction and nonfiction. Look for those entries over the next week or so.

And a reminder for those of you who can’t get enough of narrative nonfiction, I co-administer a great group on Facebook called Nonfiction Fans. Come join us. You can also follow the group on Twitter @nonfictionfans.

 

 

Learning to Write in Scene

This past week I attended the Write-by-the-Lake writers’ workshop and retreat, run by UW-Madison’s Continuing Studies. It’s the second time I’ve attended the workshop, and I’m convinced that it’s worth the investment. A nice view of an actual lake is part of the experience, though there was so much learning going on, I didn’t pay much attention to the scenery.

WBTL 2018

I signed up for Ann Garvin’s session on plotting with urgency. If you don’t already know Ann, she’s the author of three novels, the genius behind Tall Poppy Writers, and the founder of The Fifth Semester writing program. She has a day job, too, as a professor of health at UW-Whitewater.

The workshop was populated mostly by fiction writers–and two of us nonfiction writers. I’m still working on my writing style, trying to get my stories to appeal to a broader readership, so I thought learning about urgent plots would be just the thing.

And it was. Every day when I left the workshop, my head was stuffed with new information and ideas. One of the most valuable lessons I learned was the necessity of writing in scene, which is the current way of saying show, don’t tell. That sounds so easy, but it’s a challenging thing to pull off. Each scene not only has to immerse the reader in that particular moment, but it also has to crackle with tension, which usually has to do with a character not getting what they want. And it has to have an integral connection with the plot. We learned about all those things.

I find writing in scene especially difficult with the kind of nonfiction I write. Because of my training as a historian, I feel an obligation to stay true to the historical record. The scenes I write have to be factual. If I interject anything that can’t be verified by historical documents, I need to be clear between speculation and fact. Historian Simon Schama wrote a fascinating book about this boundary:

My task going forward is to make sure I write about dead certainties in a compelling way. That will be my summer.

 

 

 

Write-by-the-Lake Writer’s Workshop and Retreat, June 26-30, 2017

Winter weather already getting you down? Looking forward to spring?

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Registration has just opened for a great writer’s retreat on June 26-30, 2017, in Madison, WI.

I’ll be leading one of the new workshops, Writing Women’s Lives. Plan now to join me!

The 19th annual Write-by-the-Lake Writer’s Workshop & Retreat has expanded to 14 sections. There are several new instructors and topics, including children’s picture books, poetry writing, and a new step-by-step system to plotting fiction with urgency.

This national retreat offers something for all writers. Most of all, it offers the opportunity to work, work, work on your writing.

Plus, by popular request from past attendees who didn’t want the week to stop and who wanted ideas for their next steps, the program added a new special bonus Saturday workshop on July 1 with Tim Storm.

And the famous writing doctor, Kevin Mullen, is back!

Wait, there’s more! Someone who got her start here and is now a big success–hitting the USA Today list with her fiction–will deliver the keynote address and teach one of the new sessions. That’s right. Wisconsin’s own Ann Garvin is on board this year.

UW-Madison’s Memorial Union and its lakeside terrace have been renovated just in time for us to test out the new amenities. We can watch the sailboats go by as we share writing ideas over a glass of something good or a cone packed with the famous Babcock Dairy ice cream.

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Please join me and your fellow writers from across the country.

Enrollment is limited in each section to maximize the attention on your writing.

Click here for full details.