Man’s Best Friend?

Groucho Marx reputedly quipped, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

I can recall many a night when, as a youngster who had been told to turn out the light and go to bed, I dutifully obeyed but then pulled the covers over my head and finished a riveting chapter (or even an entire book) by flashlight. And I’ve been an avid reader ever since, usually having multiple books in progress at once.

I just started another book, this one for instructional as well as inspirational purposes. It’s Writing with Quiet Hands by Paula Munier. Some of its contents promise to be welcome and much-needed reminders and maybe even a few gentle (or not so gentle) rebukes for not minding what I already know. But much of the contents are offering additional instruction on how to improve my craft, and there’s always room for improvement.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that there are no know-it-alls in any field. Oh, there are a lot of people who think they know it all (and they’re the ones who are eager to let everyone else know that they do), but in reality, no one knows everything there is to know about anything. One of my favorite quotations is from Will Rogers: “We’re all ignorant–just on different subjects.” So I’m reading this book to learn something new.

But I’m also reading it with the hope of being inspired, and we all occasionally need that, too. We sometimes tire of doing what we know we should be doing to be successful in our professions and callings. We often hit the proverbial brick wall when we don’t know what to do next, or we can’t seem to make things work just as we want them to. So we risk stagnating, and we need a little spark of inspiration to motivate us to persevere. Eventually, that brick wall will crack, and we’ll break through the impasse. But that won’t happen unless we’re motivated.

It’s sort of like when you’re just about to your last gasp on the treadmill and then you look over at the 93-year-old man beside you, and he’s running faster and for a longer time than you, and he’s not even breathing hard. Suddenly, you tell yourself, If he can do it, then I certainly can, too! And you get a second wind and press on, achieving more than you thought you could.

I haven’t even started the first chapter of Writing with Quiet Hands yet, and I’ve already encountered some interesting statements. Here’s one of them: “Books are our friends–and that friendship becomes a happy marriage when we sit down to write our own stories.”

In my office are two plaques. One reads, “Write your own life story.” The other says, “Home is where your story begins.” Whenever I read those two statements together, a small voice inside me says, “Now get busy!”

My lesson for the day: Read for information. Read for inspiration. But don’t just read; write. And that’s what I have to get busy doing right now! Time’s a-wastin’!

By the way, if you haven’t yet decided on your next book to read, may I suggest Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries? It might just surprise you!

 

How Many Words Are Left?

The other morning, while I was toiling through my regular routine on the treadmill and struggling with arthritis-pained knees, toes, and wrists, I found myself looking at the bookcase on the opposite wall. There, on the top shelf, were several anthologies and other books that include some of my own writings.

That set me to thinking of how many articles I’ve written. Those thoughts made me realize that I’ve written thousands upon thousands of words over the years since the first article I ever submitted was published back in 1981. One thought led to another.

Behind me, I remembered the huge notebook filled with tear sheets of my published articles. (I say remembered because I didn’t turn to look at it. I once learned a painful lesson about trying to turn around and run backwards on a moving treadmill, and I’m not fool enough to repeat that session!)

As I continued my morning run, warm (very warm!) and dry on a cool, rainy day, I wondered how many words I still have in me. Because we are each given a set amount of time in this life, and, knowing that we, like David, should pray that God would “teach us to number our days” (Psa. 90:12), it seems only natural that we should also ask Him to teach us to calculate our production in whatever our field of service might be. In my own case, it was first in teaching and now in writing and editing. So I wonder how many more words I have left in me to write.

Do I have another book left in me? Perhaps a couple? None? How many more articles are in me?

The question is not how many more writing ideas I have left in me. Those are a dime a dozen; they’re in every direction I look and in everything I read, see, and do. (And even if my idea well did happen to run dry, myriad people are more than happy to volunteer their ideas that they think I should write about!) The issue is how many of my  ideas I will actually be able to express in words fit for public consumption. Correction: it’s actually how many of those words will editors find acceptable to share with their readers. Without editors willing to buy and publish my words, no number of written words will amount to anything. To make a difference, there must be willing editors and willing readers. And that is the rub.

My mind was racing faster than my feet. The pace of the treadmill decreased, but the incline increased dramatically. As I huffed, puffed, and perspired, I asked myself the next logical questions: What will my last written words be? And will anything I’ve written have made any difference?

I know how I read. Whenever I pick up a magazine or newspaper, I skim and scan. Seeing an interesting title or headline, I might read the lead paragraph. If my attention is not immediately arrested, however, I move on to something else. I don’t have time to waste. As the librarian’s t-shirt read, “So many books, so little time.”

I probably read more than the average person, but I rarely read a complete article unless it really grabs me. If it does, I might even print or photocopy it for possible later use.

But most readers skim and scan even more loosely than I do. And we all forget so quickly. Someone once said that yesterday’s newspaper is good only for wrapping fish or lining a birdcage. Today, we don’t even wrap fish in newspaper, so its value is even less.

Can you name even one article that has made a lasting difference in your life? On the spur of the moment, I can think of only one, an article titled “The Tyranny of the Urgent” (about how we allow urgent demands to crowd out the truly important things of life), but I can’t remember its author’s name or which publication it was in.

Today, we suffer information overload, and we forget so much more quickly and easily. Can any words really take root in our lives to the point of making a lasting difference? Will any of the words that I write make any difference to anyone else?

Only one author’s words have the infallible promise that they will live eternally and make a lasting impression and difference in their readers’ lives, and those are God’s. He said, “My word . . . shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it” (Isa. 55:11).

If written, my words might not get published. If published, they might not be read. If read, they might not be remembered or make any difference in anyone’s life. But it’s nonetheless my responsibility to write them, whether many or few. What happens to them after that is beyond my control. As Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson said, “Duty is mine; consequences are God’s.”

Jesse Stuart, another writer-teacher, encouraged fellow writers to persevere:

And if men thwart you, take no heed.

If men hate you, have no care.

Sing your song.

Dream your Dream.

Hope your hope.

Pray your prayer.

So I write. I don’t know how many words I have left in me, just as I don’t know how much longer my life will last. But I simply do what God has called me to do and leave the results with Him.

A Flood of Memories from a Photo Archive

I got sidetracked last Friday and, consequently, didn’t get a single thing marked off my to-do list. I’m normally more self-disciplined than that, and one part of me felt deep guilt for my getting off track and being so unproductive. Another part of me sought to justify my distractedness.

Time and opportunity to do what was on the to-do list are irretrievably gone. Yet, what I did instead proved enjoyable and might even find future productive applications. I’ll let you, my readers, be the judges.

One FaceBook group I follow is called “If You Grew Up in Halls. . . .” It’s dedicated to reminding those of us who grew up in the little community of Halls Crossroads just north of the Knoxville, Tennessee, city limits, of what life was like there “way back when.” Because of the city’s proximity and economic importance to Halls, a lot of Knoxville history is also included in the posts. One member regularly posts photos from “the good old days,” and each invariably prompts numerous comments and shared memories from people.

I recently asked the photo poster where on earth he found all of those old photos. He directed me to the web site of the Calvin M. McClung Digital Collection (http://cmdc.knoxlib.org), which hosts at least ten different collections of historic photos. Just out of curiosity and not intending to spend much time there, I clicked on the first collection in the list, the Thompson Photo Collection, the works of James E. Thompson, one of Knoxville’s early professional photographers. I found more than 8,000 photos from pre-World War II Knoxville, and that’s where I spent most of the rest of my day.

Do you know how long it takes to go through that many photos, even on the fly? And I looked at every single one of them. Some of them I merely glanced at; others I studied closely. A few I looked at a second or third time. And I learned so much about Knoxville that I never knew. I reminisced a lot. I even found myself longing to return to those days of yore.

I found a few photos from the late 1800s. The oldest, I think, dated from 1876, the end of Reconstruction. No photo went beyond 1939. Most were from the 1920s and 1930s.

I counted photos of at least fourteen hotels in the heart of the city during the Twenties and Thirties, including the Andrew Johnson and the Farragut, which were there when I was a kid and still are, but also the Atkin, the Ramsey, the Watauga, the St. James, and many others. They were elegant hotels with guest rooms the size of three or four of our typical modern motel rooms or larger, complete with their own spacious sitting areas. These hotels had grand ballrooms that looked like replicas of something from the Palace of Versailles. Huge marble-columned and -floored lobbies with spacious, well-furnished sitting areas and long, ornate registration desks. Interestingly, many of those hotel lobbies featured strategically placed spittoons for the convenience of guests who indulged in the filthy habit that made such vessels necessary.

Among the photos were several of what was at the time called the “Million-Dollar Fire,” which destroyed several blocks of the downtown. Other photos of that part of town revealed crowded streets and sidewalks, such as I recall from my own youth before the downtown declined. (Like many other dying downtowns, Knoxville has been trying to revive its heart and restore those “glory days.”)

I discovered many photos of streetcars. My grandfather had for a while been a conductor on such a streetcar, so I found myself zooming in on those photos to see if I could identify him in any of them. Alas, I couldn’t.

But the photos that most captured my attention and brought back the most precious memories were those of the S&W Cafeteria. Although it was started in Knoxville in the late Twenties, it  was still thriving when I was a kid. And it was far different from the cafeterias of today. The S&W had class! From the revolving door at the entrance to the fixtures to the wait staff, it was a classy place. It had the ambiance of elegance all about it.

Once through the revolving glass door, one stood in a marble-columned, high-ceilinged, shiny brass-furnished lobby. A large scale stood directly ahead of the entering customer. (I suppose the idea was to weigh oneself before and after dining?) To the right of the scale was where the waiting line began, but it ran the length of the right-hand wall, the dining tables being on the left, all the way to the rear. The serving line was along the back wall, just in front of the kitchen.

A wall running down the center of the restaurant, from behind the scale nearly to the serving line, divided the ground floor into two dining areas. The walls were floor-to-ceiling mirrors, probably 12 feet tall or higher. The mirrored walls gave the place a bright, spacious appearance. Every table, some for two and others for four, were covered with clean, pressed, white table cloths and white cloth napkins. The tile floor was waxed to a high gloss.

Where the waiting line began, a set of stairs led to a lower level, where the dining atmosphere was slightly less glamorous. It was for office workers who wanted merely a good, quick lunch so they could rush back to work; they would not be lingering over conversations or soaking up atmosphere. The ceiling downstairs was a bit lower, but the food was the same as that served upstairs. One just had to carry his own tray.

Upstairs at the end of the serving line, where customers paid for their meals, uniformed waiters grabbed customers’ trays heavy-laden with china, glasses, silverware, and food and drinks and balanced them precariously on their forearms and palms. The waiters raced to the diners’ desired locations on the main floor at tables or upstairs on the mezzanine at either tables or booths. They quickly removed the dishes of food from the trays to the appropriate place settings, never dropping anything or making a mistake as to which customer had which meal because they were watching closely as the customers arrived at the cashier’s station. They took the ladies’ cloaks and held the chairs out for them to be seated. Finally, they stood quietly at attention, to the side and out of the way, arms at their sides and with one hand held inconspicuously palm up, awaiting their tips. Looking back now, I think that the courtesy of S&W waiters makes even the friendliness of Chik-fil-A employees seem almost like downright rudeness by comparison.

Our family often made the trip “uptown” on Saturdays, arriving by 10:00 a.m. and making a day of it, stopping at the eye doctor’s office and shopping at Rich’s (later becoming Miller’s) Department Store before hitting the stores along Gay Street in the main business district. (It had that name, by the way, long before the word and its meaning were hijacked.) By noon, the sidewalks were teeming with people. I still can smell the fumes of the diesel exhausts from the KTL buses as they passed the milling shoppers while plying the city streets, and I can hear their low growl as they accelerated through the heavy traffic.

And at lunchtime we ate at S&W. We always ate in a booth upstairs on the mezzanine . Mother preferred the cozy privacy of a booth over the “out-in-the-public” tables. (We kids also were less likely to embarrass her there.)

The cafeteria featured a live pianist (later organist) who played during service hours. He or she even took requests. I recall on one of my birthdays the organist’s playing “How Much Is that Doggie in the Window” just for me, even creating a bark-like sound on the organ at the appropriate spots in the song.

Those 8,000 or so photos brought back memories that could potentially produce writing material for numerous pieces for years to come. And I haven’t even mentioned the photos of trains and historic railway stations or vehicles or gas stations. Or the photos of local law enforcement smashing illegal stills. And each photo has its own unique story–or more.

So was the time that I spent (or misspent) last Friday really wasted?

And to think that I still have only nine more collections of such photos to peruse! When will I ever find time to work?

And the Nominations Are In

My publisher, McFarland & Company, has informed me that they have submitted my book in nomination for the following two awards.

The 2017 Bobby and John Nau Book Prize in American Civil War Era History is given by the John L. Nau Center for Civil War History at the University of Virginia for what they deem the best book on that topic published in 2016. The winner will be announced July 1, 2017.

The Wiley-Silver Prize for Best First Book in Civil War History published in 2016 is given by the Center for Civil War Research at the University of Mississippi. The winner will be announced by August 1, 2017.

From the beginning, when I first started my search for a publisher of my manuscript, I gave the book over for the Lord to do with as He pleased. I prayed that, if it was His will for it to be published, He would open the door with the right publisher. He did, and it was published by McFarland in May 2016. Then I prayed that He would work His will concerning sales of the book. To date, scores of major universities, libraries, and museums across the nation and even several overseas have purchased it. I would like to see many people benefit from what my book offers, but its sales will be what God wants them to be, and I give all the glory for any success it might have to Him alone.

Book Cover Peterson_978-1-4766-6521-4Similarly, with these two award nominations. I’m grateful to have my book included among the many books published during 2016 in the field of Civil War history, and I consider the mere nomination to be a great honor. Humanly speaking, however, the chance of its winning either award is a long shot. If it goes beyond the nomination to win any acclaim, whether an award or even a mere mention, it will be up to God to bring it to pass, and I’ll thank Him for it.

If you are inclined to pray, I’d appreciate your prayers that God’s will be done and that whatever He does with the book will bring honor to Him alone.

Freelance Writers Appreciation Week

Someone recently brought to my attention the fact that this week was Freelance Writers Appreciation Week. I use the word was because the week is now almost over; another weekend is upon us.

My first thought was that some poor, struggling freelance writer, feeling sorely underappreciated by editors who persist in rejecting his or her work, had come up with the idea for the special week, no doubt in collaboration with other wannabes in his or her writers critique group.

dsc_0508I actually don’t know who came up with the idea for the week-long commemoration or what the underlying motivation was. It did, however, set me to thinking.

Every freelance writer, at some point, feels unappreciated or underappreciated. No one but another writer knows what goes into their business. Other people–nonwriters–seem to think that precise, mind-enlightening, soul-stirring, and emotion-laden writing just flows effortlessly from the writer’s pen (or, to be technologically correct in this twenty-first century world, computer).

They don’t see the inner struggles to discover the precise words, research the subject matter, gain inspiration for one’s own soul, or get one’s emotions stirred to the point of being willing to share those most intimate feelings with readers, risking opposing arguments and even outright rejection for the slight chance that their work might actually be published. I think it was Hemingway who quipped that writing was easy (as many people seem to think); you just sit down and open a vein.

neighbors-helped-neighborsNonwriters see only the author’s published article or short story or book. They don’t see the struggle to find an appropriate venue for the work. They don’t see the efforts exerted, once that venue is discovered, to impress the editor or publisher enough to risk his firm’s money to publish the work. They don’t see the countless rejections that come between completion of the work and an eventual acceptance. Nor do they see the inner struggles of the author as he rereads the rejections time and time again to see if they contain hidden somewhere a faint ray of hope for his or her writing.

“The editor addressed it to me by name; it wasn’t just a form rejection. But, then again, mail merge can do a lot with form letters to make them look personal!”

“She said that it was a promising theme, a good concept. Does that mean that with a little tweaking it will be acceptable, maybe even publishable? Or was she just trying to let me down kindly?”

“The letter said, ‘Try us again.’ Does that mean what it says? Do they really like my writing and want to see more of it? Or are they just being nice, really hoping that they never see another thing from me?”

Neither do nonwriters see the frustrations that result when editors don’t respond to queries, proposals, or completed manuscripts. They don’t reply by the response time stated in Writer’s Market. They don’t respond to follow-up queries after that time frame. They don’t even acknowledge having received the submission or query. They leave the poor writer hanging.

And the writer’s imagination is left to produce innumerable reasons for the lack of response. Some of them are reasonable (e.g., “The editor is on vacation–had a baby–was fired”). Some of them are downright conspiratorial (e.g., “The editor is bigoted against Christians or conservatives or polka-dotted people”).

Nonwriters don’t see the long wait that often follows all the work that is involved in producing the finished piece, submitting it, and receiving an acceptance before finally getting paid for it. Hoping for “on acceptance,” the freelancer generally must accept “on publication.” And that, in practical terms, usually means some unstated time after–often well after–publication. And when it does come, it’s about the same amount that Mark Twain was making back in the nineteenth century.

Yes, I’ve been there. Many times. Often.

So what keeps a frustrated, struggling freelancer going, returning to his or her writing in spite of the frustrations and disappointments? Are we gluttons for punishment or masochists with some strange affinity for getting hurt, disappointed, rejected, and being unappreciated?

underwood-typewriterNo, it’s “The Call.” One who is called does it because of that call–regardless of the outcome. Check what some of the greatest writers have said about writing. Many of them said that they would keep on writing even if no one bought or read their work. Because it’s a calling. Those who quit apparently either weren’t called or didn’t obey the call.

Inevitably, every time I begin to feel discouraged with the results of my writing, frustrated with editors who don’t recognize masterful writing when they see it or who refuse to send a simple e-mail acknowledging receipt of a submission (“Got it. Will get back to you.”), or unappreciated by the reading population, God has a way of reminding me of His calling for me.

Just this morning, in fact, while reading Psalm 37, He spoke these words:

“Trust in the Lord . . . and verily thou shalt be fed” (v. 3)

“Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in Him; and He shall bring it to pass” (v. 5).

“Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him” (v. 7).

“The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord. . . . Though he fall [have his work rejected by publishers?], he shall not be utterly cast down” (v. 24).

“Wait on the Lord, and keep His way, and He shall exalt thee . . .” (v. 34).

Such patient waiting and resting and trusting is definitely not easy. Neither does it condone sloth or laziness. I must do my part–all the work involved in the writing and marketing process that others never see–and then trust Him to do what I cannot. The work is my job; the results are His.

Freelance writer appreciation begins with the writer’s appreciation of his or her calling and faithfulness to it. God will take care of any other appreciation, so we don’t need to worry about it!

Fulfilling Resolutions One Step at a Time

img_0823Someone once said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

Well, I’ve taken that first step (actually several steps) on that long journey of fulfilling one of my perennial resolutions: to read several books that will improve (1) my spiritual condition, (2) my historical knowledge, and (3) my writing abilities.

For the first of the three categories, I’ve been studying the section of Alexander Maclaren’s book Expositions of Holy Scripture dealing with the epistles of Peter. In the second category, I finally got around to reading–and finishing–David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers, a book that had long been on my to-read-when-I-get-around-to-it list. (What struck me most about their quest to fly is that whereas other aeronauts expected the government to foot their bills for experimentation, the Wrights paid for everything from their own pockets and were therefore frugal in their expenditures.)

As for the third category, I’ve completed both Writers on Writing (Mynhardt, ed.) and Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. And I’ve begun a book that has surprised me because I actually am enjoying it despite the fact that I began it thinking that I wouldn’t. It is Writing for the Soul by Jerry Jenkins (he of Left Behind fame). It’s as much the story of his own development as a writer as it is a self-help for writers. Jenkins has written more than 150 books (many people have never even read that many), the first 90 of them without the benefit of an agent, so I think he knows how it’s done. Therefore, what he says about writing is worth serious consideration.

Here are ten gems that I’ve uncovered so far. I know they’ll help me; perhaps you’ll find them helpful too.

  • “The only way to write a book is with seat in chair.”
  • “Maintain your priorities and your writing will benefit.”
  • “[N]o writer ever arrives.”
  • “[P]ublishing has to be a byproduct of your writing, not the end goal.”
  • “Neither author nor publisher has much say or control over how many books sell. What you can control is how you write your next book. Work to your potential and let the results go.”
  • “[I]f you plan to make a life of writing, you must stand for something, have a carefully considered and lived-out worldview.”
  • “Write because you believe in something.”
  • “Allow yourself to be moved, and write what moves you.”
  • “We can’t write for other people’s souls unless ours are healthy.”
  • “[B]e your own toughest critic.”

It’s important to begin well. But it’s also important to persevere throughout the race and to finish well. That journey of a thousand miles that I’ve begun with those first few steps won’t end well unless I keep putting one foot in front of the other. I’m hoping and praying that I’ll do so throughout this year. But right now that next step is to put my seat into the chair and resume my writing!

Minds Influenced by the Same Things Think Alike

landmark-booksLast week, I posted some thoughts on two book series that had sparked my early interest in reading and influenced my careers in teaching and writing American history. I’ve since learned that I’m not the only one so influenced by the Hardy Boys series of mysteries or the exciting history recounted in the Landmark books.

Shortly after I posted that essay, Charles Moore, who has been following my blog for a while, contacted me to suggest that I might enjoy a blog post of his that he wrote a couple of years ago. I checked it out and was so impressed that I read it twice! In a gesture of friendship and for the sake of the possibility that his essay might encourage someone else to read and write stories about their own life and genealogy for future readers, Mr. Moore gave me permission to reprint his story here on my blog. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. If so, please let us know. (You may contact him or view other blog posts of his at mooregenealogy.wordpress.com.) Thanks!

MOM, MRS. MOYER, AND THE HARDY BOYS

by Charles Moore

I could spend a whole afternoon reading the Hardy Boys. I would get lost in their world, it was magical. The ability to escape in a good book is not to be taken for granted.

I could spend a whole afternoon reading the Hardy Boys. I would get lost in their world, it was magical. The ability to escape in a good book is not to be taken for granted.

I have read several blogs recently that discussed books and reading. The subject of reading is one that I think about frequently as I am always in search of something to read. For me, reading is a pleasure and a way to make time pass very quickly. However, this was not always the case. So I would like to share an event in my life that shows how memory can be woven into a family history. Here is my small example of how you can write a memoir. It is the stories about us and our ancestors that will interest future generations.

Mrs. Alice Moyer was my third-grade teacher at Broad St. School in Plattsburgh, N.Y. At that time, I did not know her first name as all of the teachers were addressed by either Miss, Mrs. or Mr. Even the teachers addressed each other in this manner. I only learned her first name years after when I read her obituary. With her death, another person has gone without me ever expressing my gratitude. Mrs. Moyer was one of the best teachers I was ever to have at any level of my education. Her influence and talent for teaching forever changed my life for the better. Such people are rare and as such leave a deep impression on a developing person.

When I entered third grade, my reading ability was not even on a first-grade level. I had major speech impediments. I had spent my second-grade year trying not to be noticed by the teacher. It is safe to say that my second-grade teacher was the exact opposite of Mrs. Moyer. Second grade for me was a nightmare. It did not take long for Mrs. Moyer to spot my problems and notified my mother.

Mrs. Veronica Moore is my mother. A child of the depression and hard times she never got a chance to finish school. I do not think she made it much past junior high. In fact, the same could be said about my father. They were hard working people that had to earn their wages with a strong back. Education was the goal for their children, and nothing was more important. “Get an education” was the mantra I was to hear over and over.

Mom and Mrs. Moyer had a meeting, and the plan was laid out. Soon I was in speech therapy and would be for the next three years. We had large classes in those days, which 30 or more students were common, with only a teacher in the room. The classes where I went to school were grouped into three sections. The division was along the student’s ability. The “A” group were, of course, the better students, the “B” group were more the average students and the “C” group were the students that were struggling. Now the teachers never called these groups by any names but it was easy for us students to figure out. Even with a large class and having to attend to the different needs of each group, Mrs. Moyer found almost every day 30 minutes for one on one reading session with me. My third-grade work load was hefty. However Mrs. Moyer, was such an accomplished teacher it was one of the best years I ever had in school.

The home front was under the command of my mother. A library card was secured for me. The wonders of the library were now mine to explore and enjoy. I got to pick out the books that held some interest for me. Mom made sure that I had time to read them. I had to do a book report on the books I read and turn them in for school. On a chart in our classroom everyone has listed the books they had read and done a book report for. While I was far from the leader, I was right in the middle and held my own. Also, mom would buy me a book that I could keep and read anytime I wanted to. This was when I ran into the Hardy Boys. Their adventures kept me buying their books for a few years. Also, I liked Tom Swift and many others. Money was tight in our house, yet they would buy me my books. I can remember mom bringing me to the local bookstore and looking and looking for that special book I was to take home.

When I was in sixth grade about to go into junior high, I tested out for reading on a high school level. I have never looked back. Reading is a habit I have kept over the years. I use libraries now mostly for research. I prefer to own my books and not borrow them. Some are like old friends that I have visited more than a few times.

This is my effort at a memoir. They need not be long or in great detail. Just write down your stories as they come to you. In a few years, you will have written a full memoir to pass on. If you wonder why bother, would you not want one from your parents, grandparents? Start writing.

The Power of a Good Book Series

Never underestimate the power of a good book series, even if it’s not great literature, to spark an interest in reading. It might just develop into a reading habit that leads to great literature or even evolves into a career.

When I was in fifth grade at Halls Elementary School, Mrs. George conducted a contest in our class to see who could read the most books. She gave each student a small envelope inside of which were several ruled 3 x 5 cards. We each wrote our name on the flap of the envelope and thumb-tacked it, cards inside, onto a bulletin board. Mrs. George then took us to the library, where we selected whatever book(s) we wanted to read for the contest. When we finished each book, we recorded its title on the index card and chose another book.

I don’t know who won the contest (it wasn’t me), but in a sense I did win because that contest began for me a life-long habit of reading. The books I chose back then not only set me on the road to reading but also helped guide my career choice. I found through that contest that I enjoyed reading books in two particular series, one of which developed in me an interest in and love of history.

hardy-boys-mysteriesThe first series, the one that hooked me on reading, was the Hardy Boys mystery series. Of the 50 or so titles that made up the original segment of the series, I ended up reading about 44 or 45 of them. The titles are still vivid in my mind, as are the cover illustrations.

These books were not great literature by any measure; they were formula books. The basic plot line was always the same: the Hardy brothers are confronted with a mystery that baffles not only the local police but also their detective father, they set about solving the case with the occasional help of their “chums,” and they solve it after having some exciting and nail-biting adventures. When the publisher began revising the books and adding new, “modern” titles, and when the TV series came out, I was disappointed because neither the new books nor the TV version lived up to the standard that the original books had set. But the books in the original series kept me turning the pages under the bed covers using a flashlight long after I should have been asleep. And they made me realize that an entire world awaited me between the covers of books.

landmark-booksThe second book series that influenced me, the one that helped steer me into a career in teaching and writing about historical topics, was the Random House Landmark series of histories and biographies. I still remember the individual titles and cover illustrations on the books from that series. It was from those books, not my history textbook, that I really learned about the Pony Express, West Point, the military heroes of our nation, the battles they fought to win and maintain our freedoms, and many other topics.

landmark-alamoI remember that the title on the spine of a book was what first caught my attention. I lifted the book from the shelf and looked at the cover illustration–for a long time. Then I paged through the book, gaining an overview of what it was about and looking at any illustrations or photos that it included. If you study the accompanying photos of some of those books, is it any wonder that I became interested in American history? In those books was excitement, adventure–and I lived vicariously the events recounted in them.

During my early years of teaching junior high students, I bought several of the old Landmark books that I found in used book stores or at yard sales to stock my classroom library. Whenever students finished a test or some other seatwork, they knew that I expected them to be busy with some other constructive work until the rest of the class finished, andlandmark-pony-express one option was reading those books. Many of the students did read them and, most gratifying to me, they voluntarily discussed them with me. When I shifted careers and left the classroom, I donated the books to a school. I sort of wish I had kept them. Looking at the covers, reading the titles, and remembering the joy they gave me when I first read them, I sort of want to read them again.

landmark-flying-tigerslandmark-d-dayUnlike the Hardy Boys series, which used many mediocre ghostwriters under the pseudonym “Franklin W. Dixon,” Random House had some world-class authors and experts in history writing the Landmark books. They included such people as William L. Shirer, Quentin Reynolds, John Gunther, Pearl S. Buck, F. Van Wyck Mason, Richard Tregaskis, Bob Considine, Robert Penn Warren,C. S. Forester, John Toland, and Ted W. Lawson. Lawson’s writing (Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo) really snagged my interest because he wrote from first-hand experience as one of the pilots on the famous Doolittle raid on Tokyo in the early months of World War II.

Yes, these two series of books hold a special place in my curriculum vitae. They helped lay a foundation for reading that has served me well over the years. Do you have a similarly influential series that you would like to share? If so, I’d be interested in hearing from you about it.

 

Catch Me If You Can!

img_0823Those of us who read a lot (and maybe even some of you who don’t) tend to be critical of writers and editors whose products contain typos or other errors. We sometimes get a chuckle (or maybe even a full belly laugh) at their expense from the unintentional humorous things that sometimes result from such errors.

For example, perhaps you’ve heard about the hapless headline writer and his (or her) editor who allowed the following blooper to slip through and get onto the front page of the newspaper: MAN HELPS DOG BITE VICTIM. (The missing hyphen between dog and bite gave the headline an unintended and, though humorous, misleading twist.)

I’ve been on all three sides of such editorial oopsies, having read such mistakes, having written some of them, and having missed them as an editor. So I can both laugh at and enjoy them and yet commiserate and empathize with those who make them.

When I was an author for a major Christian textbook publisher, I was amazed by how often “obvious” errors slipped through the various editorial sentries that we had in place and got printed. We had a virtual army of watchful pickets and guards against such intruders’ attacking the quality of our products–authors, editors, proofreaders, etc.–and yet the buggers still got through.

It happens because we’re all human. Try as we might to be detail oriented and to catch errors both big and small, we’re still sometimes their victims. As an author, I had read and reread the same material so much during the research, writing, editing, and proofing stages of the publication process that my mind automatically and subconsciously supplied missing letters, words, punctuation, etc. It refused to acknowledge repeated words. When my work went to the editors, all of whom were meticulous, detail-conscious, and well-qualified professionals, even they missed some things. Similarly with the proofreaders. Sometimes compositors or even illustrators caught some errors, although that wasn’t even their responsibility, because they had a distance from the text that allowed them to spot such things.

What amazes me about the publishing world is not so much the fact that errors often slip through unnoticed until the readers point them out, but rather that we are able to catch so many of them. But readers don’t call or write to tell us how many errors we didn’t allow to get past our watchful eyes.

find-editors-mistake-1I said all of that to preface an error that I recently found in the November 2016 issue of Editor & Publisher. It was in the accompanying quarter-page advertisement. See if you can find it.

In case you didn’t catch it (the print is a little small), I’ve circled it in the second photo.

find-editors-mistake-2

This editorial oversight is no big deal in the vast scheme of universal history, but it does matter because quality matters. And if we writers and editors expect quality anywhere, it’s in publications that focus on publishing, writing, and editing.

No, I won’t call or write to E&P to point out their oversight or cancel my subscription in self-righteous protest of editorial laxness, but this example is a reminder to me that even the “big guys,” the movers and shakers in our industry, sometimes make mistakes. Some of the mistakes, like this one, are no big deal, but others can cost big bucks and perhaps even jobs.

It is also a reminder that I, as a professing Christian, should be even more vigilant about the quality of my own work. The Bible teaches me that I should do my best in everything I do, that I should do it heartily, as unto my Lord and not only for fellow humans who might read what I write. I am to “give of my best to the Master.” He gave His best, His own Son, for me; giving Him my best in return should be a given.

Yet, even the best that I do will still fall short of perfection because I am only human. That awareness should make me less hasty in condemning the mistakes of others. Whenever I point my index finger at an editorial oopsie made by someone else, whether writer or editor, I should remember that my other three fingers are pointing back at the errors of omission and commission in my own work.

So let’s get a good laugh together at the honest but inadvertent mistakes that we and others make. But let’s also learn from them and be sure to examine ourselves and the quality of our own work to ensure that it’s the very best we can make it for our Master.

[Now I will sit back and wait for all of you eagle-eyed editor types to email me with a list of all the mistakes you’ve found in this blog post!]

 

Watch for It!

emperornortonBe on the lookout for the December 2016 issue of True West when it hits the newsstands. It includes an article about a little-known fact about the government of the United States. Titled “Emperor of the United States,” it’s by yours truly.