Today’s post is a simple thank you to readers and followers of this blog and of my novel, Lead Me Home.
For an update on Lead Me Home, please click here.
The reason most settlers went to Oregon was because they could claim free land. In my first Oregon Trail novel, Lead Me Home, all I needed to know about the Oregon land laws was that settlers could file land claims once they got there. But in the sequel I am working on now, which takes place between 1848 and 1850, the nuances of the homesteading laws in Oregon are critical. So I have gone back to my research notes and done additional searching.
When my emigrant characters arrive in Oregon in October 1847, the Organic Act of 1845 was in effect. That law was adopted while the United States and Great Britain still disputed which nation ruled Oregon. The only clear authority in the region was Hudson’s Bay Company, chartered by Great Britain. But the Americans didn’t want to be governed by a British entity, so in 1843 some Oregonians had taken it upon themselves to pass laws, which resulted in the Organic Law of Oregon.
By 1845, the Organic Law of Oregon provided that each person could claim up to 640 acres in a square or oblong form. They had to mark the boundaries of the land they claimed, register the claim within twenty days in Oregon City, make permanent improvements within six months, and occupy the land within a year. If they did not occupy the land, they had to pay a tax of $5.00 per year, or the claim would be deemed abandoned.
My novel required more detailed information, however. I had male characters older than twenty-one, who I assumed were eligible to file claims. But what about men younger than twenty-one? What about African Americans? Could a woman file a claim? What if the man left the land after filing? One of my character might be widowed and want to keep the claim (I won’t say more, because I don’t want to give anything away!)—can she get the land or not?
I discovered that the Oregon Provisional Legislature specified that
—Only free males over 18 years old could hold land, unless they were married, and then men could hold land if they were under 18 years old
—Blacks could not own land, even free Blacks
—Widows could hold land, but single and married women could not
I also learned that there were no inheritance laws in Oregon in the 1840s, so if someone died, what happened to his property was unclear. My poor widow might be out in the cold, or at least might have a legal fight on her hands.
By treaty between the United States and Great Britain, Oregon Territory became part of the United States in 1846. That led to a new Territorial Legislature, which adopted new land laws in 1849. That is important to my story, because the timeline of my novel runs until late 1850.
The new law, called the Donation Land Act, effectively nullified all existing land claims, though most could be refiled without problem. This act gave 320 acres to every white male citizen of the United States over eighteen-years of age who filed a claim.
If a man was married, his wife could also receive 320 acres, upon proof of marriage, which would result in the same 640 acres that had previously been available. The husband and wife each owned half of the total grant in their own name, and this was one of the first laws in the United States to allow married women to own property under their own name.
Men arriving after December 1, 1850, could only claim 160 acres, with an additional 160 acres for their wives. Over the next few years, the land laws in Oregon became less generous. Fewer acres were granted, and some money was required. But those are not relevant to this book. Maybe I’ll need to do more research in the future, but not now. I’m hoping I have enough knowledge now to flesh out the plot in my sequel over the next several months.
When have you struggled to pin down details on a project of yours?
Almost exactly ten years ago, in late September 2005, I attended a three-day diversity training program in Toronto. The program, called “Women Supporting Women”, was sponsored by Procter & Gamble. Most of the attendees were P&G employees, though they had a few guests there like me.
The women attending the program learned about each other as individuals and as members of various races, ethnicities, nationalities, sexual orientations, and professions. Each of these dimensions was a part of who we were, but only a part. We learned about our similarities and our differences, about how far we had come in overcoming our prejudices, and about how far we still had to go.
As we talked to each other, of course, we discovered things about ourselves as well. One of the things I learned about myself was how important my creativity was to me, and how much I had stifled it for decades as I went through law school, the practice of law, and corporate management positions.
I knew I wanted to write, and it became obvious to me that if I was going to do so, I needed to get going on it. One of the attendees told me about The Artist Way, a book by Julia Cameron, which I have since read and which has been a tremendous help to me in rekindling my creativity.
At the end of the Women Supporting Women program, we each wrote a personal manifesto (though I thinks it was called something else). My manifesto ended
“And I will write a book before I die!”
About a year after I attended the program, I retired from my corporate job. I immediately launched into writing.
I wrote the first draft of a novel—my practice novel, I called it—during the first half of 2007. I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew I wanted to write, and so I did. The first novel I wrote was about a business in trouble and the people who led it. I wrote many drafts as I learned about story arc and point of view and developing characters, but I ultimately published that novel. (It’s published under a pseudonym, so I’m not naming it here, though I know some readers of this blog have read it).
But the novel of my heart, the book I have wanted to write for twenty years or more, is the one I have just published—Lead Me Home: Hardship and hope on the Oregon Trail. I have always been fascinated with the courage and determination of the pioneers of the American West. Perhaps I see their physical journey as a metaphor for the life journey we all are on.
It has taken me ten years to fulfill my manifesto, but I have done it. And, boy, does it feel good!
I declared in late January of this year that Lead me Home would be publishable by Labor Day . . . And it was. It was not only publishable, but actually published on Amazon and on Barnes & Noble in early October.
It also pleases me that my parents got to read an early draft of Lead Me Home. My mother could still read in the summer of 2010 when I gave it to them, though she had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She caught some typos in that draft. My father was a big help in critiquing it, and he pushed me to get it published during the five years between then and his death this past January.
I am sorry my parents did not live to see the book published, but I know they would be at least as proud of it as I am.
Along the way, I have discovered that Lead Me Home is just half of the story I want to tell. There will be a sequel. The sequel is drafted, but I have a long slog ahead in revising it.
So I’m not finished yet—I have more dreams to fulfill. But I’m taking a few days to celebrate publication of Lead Me Home.
What dreams are you proud of fulfilling?
Ever since this blog’s inception, I have posted that I was writing a historical novel about travel along the Oregon Trail. My novel is finally published!
I hope you will take a look at Lead Me Home by clicking on one of the above links.
Here’s what the novel is about:
In 1847, Caleb “Mac” McDougall, a young Bostonian, seeks adventure on the Oregon Trail. As he passes through Missouri, he rescues Jenny Calhoun, a lonely girl in trouble.
To join a wagon train bound for Oregon, Mac and Jenny pose as a married couple. On the arduous six-month trek, they confront raging rivers, rugged mountains, and untrustworthy companions. Together, Mac and Jenny face the best and worst in themselves and in each other, while discovering the beauty and danger of the western frontier.
Fans of Lonesome Dove and True Grit will enjoy Lead Me Home—a gripping saga of courage, sacrifice, and enduring friendship.
The writers among you know how we help each other. But for the non-writers, I have learned that the best ways to support writers are to
1. Read their book.
2. Post a review if you liked it, on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and/or Goodreads, or another site of your choosing.
3. Share information about the book with your friends and family.
I hope you will read Lead Me Home and enjoy it. If you do, please review it. And please share this post with anyone you think might be also be interested in reading my book.
Many thanks to my readers for your encouragement over the past several years. It has meant the world to me.
I had the pleasure of spending a weekend in Arrow Rock, Missouri, earlier this month at a writing workshop sponsored by Friends of Arrow Rock. Arrow Rock is where my forthcoming novel, Lead Me Home, begins. Arrow Rock has preserved many of its original buildings from the mid-19th century, and I enjoyed the opportunity to soak up the atmosphere of what my emigrant characters must have experienced as they prepared for their journey in 1847.
I researched Arrow Rock while I wrote my novel and learned quite a bit about its history. One of the tidbits I learned during my research was that John Sites, Jr., owned a gun shop in Arrow Rock during the 1840s. I even toyed with the idea of having my protagonist buy a rifle from Sites before he set out for Oregon. But I decided that including this scene would slow the novel’s pace, so I didn’t write it.
My time in Arrow Rock this month allowed a tour of the Sites Gun Shop. I was fascinated to learn about the manufacture of rifles. If I had gone on the tour before writing my book, I might have made a different decision about including the scene with Sites. Part of the fun of writing historical fiction is dropping these pearls of fact into the story.
But since Mr. Sites and his gun shop never made it into my novel, I’ll tell my blog readers about him today.
John Sites, Sr., was a German immigrant who moved to Missouri in 1834. He owned a gunsmith shop in Boonville, Missouri. His son, John Sites, Jr., opened a gunsmith shop in Arrow Rock in 1844—this is the John Sites that my characters would have met.
At the time, Arrow Rock was an important waypoint on the Santa Fe trail, and was poised to serve the same purpose on the Oregon and California trails. If I had included a scene in my novel with characters buying guns from Mr. Sites, it would have been accurate—his guns have have been found in several western locations, including California, Oregon, Montana, and New Mexico.
What fascinated me the most on my tour of Sites’s gun shop was the exhibit showing how he shaped his gun barrels. I love seeing products get made, and touring plants was one of my favorite activities when I worked at Hallmark Cards. Watching greeting cards come through the presses and plastic goods go through the extrusion machines was much more interesting than my usual work of drafting legal briefs or HR policies.
Mr. Sites started with steel bars and ended with bored rifle barrels. The photograph above shows the various stages in the process—from steel bar, to partially shaped bar, to crude tube, to unbored barrel. Then the barrel was placed on the boring machine and the final barrel was produced.
Unfortunately for Mr. Sites, with the advent of modern manufacturing plants, the gunsmith craft became less important. In his lifetime alone, guns went from finely crafted goods requiring years of expertise to create to mass produced products. When he died in 1904, his inventory of gun stock blocks was worth just 25 cents.
While it is sad to see pieces of history disappear, the changes are often the result of progress. We must move on, but places like Arrow Rock are valuable because they preserve times past. Someday our marvels, too, will be relics. Already, the early PCs and cell phones of our lifetimes seem like antiquities. Did you ever think we would carry the world’s knowledge in a smartphone smaller than a deck of cards?
What historical items or places have you seen that pique your interest?
Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel to Lee Harper’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I say that as a writer. As both a writer and a reader, I believe that we do a disservice to both books if we think of the later published book as a sequel to Mockingbird.
I’ve been surprised by the reviews that try to conflate the two books. As I understand it, Harper Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman first, then gave it to an editor, who told her to change the book. Specifically, she was told to develop the portions of the book that related to Scout’s childhood, which her editor believed were the stronger parts of the book. She did so, and the book that resulted was To Kill a Mockingbird.
I’ve read that Go Set a Watchman was published with very few changes from the manuscript that Ms. Lee submitted so long ago. Therefore, I think we have to assume that the differences in the characters between the two books were deliberately made by Ms. Lee, not because she intended the characters to continue and evolve from Mockingbird into Watchman, but because she wanted to address the editor’s concerns with the original manuscript.
After reading Watchman, I can see why the editor wanted the changes. Watchman is at its best when it recounts tales of Scout (Jean Louise), Jem, and others as children and teenagers. The book comes alive in those scenes, as the later-written Mockingbird does also.
The scenes in Watchman of Scout’s lackluster romance with Henry are world-weary and bland, and Scout comes across as jaded and callous. The scenes between Scout and her father Atticus are either emotionally over-wrought or didactic, with Scout chastising her father for his racist allegiances and attitudes. In these scenes, Watchman becomes less a story and more a soapbox—an excuse for Ms. Lee to expound on the two sides of the Southern debate over desegregation in the 1950s. She leaves no doubt about where her sympathies lie, yet shows compassion for how segregationists became the way they did.
Most of the press that Watchman has received deals with the transformation of Atticus from a principled and justice-seeking defense attorney in Mockingbird to a prejudiced Southern bigot in Watchman. In fact, Ms. Lee wrote the books the other way around—the bigot of Watchman became the paragon of Mockingbird.
If the Atticus character in the two books is different—and he is—I believe the transformation came about as the writer developed the Mockingbird manuscript from her Watchman draft. He is simply not the same character in the two books. Ms. Lee used him for different purposes.
This is not a nuance. It is at the heart of how writers work.
As a writer, I know how characters evolve with every draft of a novel. Maybe the writer decides they should play a different role or take on a different relationship with the protagonist. The Atticus that Harper Lee first described in Watchman was designed to be a foil for Scout to expound on her lack of racial prejudice. Scout’s disillusionment with her father was because he had hidden his own prejudice from her. In Watchman, Scout and Atticus took opposing points in the segregation argument. The scenes between them are not subtle as they take the pro and con sides of the debate.
In Mockingbird, Atticus was Scout’s model and parent, helping a little girl to make sense of her world as she was just coming to understand its complexity. There is not any clue that Atticus was biased. In Mockingbird, Atticus was not just seeking justice. He was just to the very fiber of his being. I have to believe Ms. Lee deliberately made these changes for purposes of her story.
Ms. Lee therefore had different goals in writing about Atticus in the two books and changed him from the Watchman Atticus to the Mockingbird Atticus. Scout in Watchman is distraught because her beloved father is not who she thought he was, but the Atticus of Watchman is not and never was the Atticus of Mockingbird. The change was more significant than merely a change in Scout’s perspective from child to adult. The change was in Ms. Lee’s depiction of the character.
So read Mockingbird and read Watchman, but don’t think of them as the same book, any more than you would any two books written by the same author using different characters. Judge each of Ms. Lee’s books on its merits.
Mockingbird is—and deserves to be—an American classic. Watchman does not. Watchman is an adequate book that fulfills a didactic role. It occasionally sings—when it takes the childhood perspective of Mockingbird—but it is clumsy in its teachings about adult society.
Frankly, I think Ms. Lee and her advisors harmed her reputation as a writer and made her work less accessible to readers when they decided to publish Watchman, at least without significant editing. Had I been editing Watchman, I might have suggested changing the characters’ names so that the two books could clearly stand alone.
Watchman has merit (though not as much as Mockingbird), but readers will naturally try to equate the characters, which weakens the power of Mockingbird. Some reviews say Watchman gives depth to Mockingbird, but I disagree. In my opinion, Watchman is a three star book. A perfectly adequate first novel, but it comes nowhere near the excellence of Mockingbird.
The most fascinating aspect of Watchman for me was uncovering the evolution of Harper Lee as a writer. Her development from Watchman to Mockingbird inspires me to think that someday I will be better than I am today. I just hope I have one great book in me, and that I can improve to the point that I can get it on paper.
Other readers of Go Set a Watchman, what do you think?
My novel, Lead Me Home, will be out later this fall. For now, smile with me at a close-to-final version of the cover.
To follow my final progress on Lead Me Home and learn more about the book, you can
Choose whichever method works best for you.
Many thanks to readers of this blog, who have inspired me to keep writing for almost four years now. You’re the best!
A month or two ago I was working on the cover for my novel about the Oregon Trail. I found a wonderful painting by Albert Bierstadt, called “The Oregon Trail.” It is in the public domain and the beautiful image evokes the era of my novel. It works well cropped for the front cover for the ebook, and it works as a wrap-around for front and back covers for the paperback. So I mocked up a book cover using this painting.
Then I did more research and learned that Bierstadt’s painting has been used on seven or eight book covers already. Maybe more; I quit looking. Most of the books using this image were non-fiction, and wouldn’t compete with mine, but a couple of novels used it also. As a result, I ruled it out as my book cover.
But along the way, I checked out a couple of the books using Bierstadt’s painting on the cover to see what they were about. And I found a treasure trove of interesting information.
“I’m trying to polish my novel, not still research!” I whined to myself. “I don’t need more information.”
Still, because I discovered the information, I will use it here, if not in my novel (and a few odd facts will sneak their way into the book, I promise).
Wagons West, by Frank McLynn (2002), is a wonderful account of the annual wagon companies to Oregon and California in the 1840s. His chapter on 1847 focused on the Mormon emigration to Salt Lake, which was not too relevant to my novel. But most chapters quoted from diaries and letters that provided details I can add to add verisimilitude to my novel.
Almost every detail I concocted in my novel—secret stashes of alcohol, for example—actually happened somewhere in history. As a result, I’m not too worried about my novel being unrealistic. McLynn’s book showed me that even in the 1840s, truth was stranger than fiction.
McLynn also quotes Emerson Hough as follows:
“The chief figure of the American West . . . Is not the long-haired, fringed-legged man riding a raw-boned pony, but the gaunt and sad-faced woman sitting on the front seat of the wagon, following her lord where he might lead . . . That was the great romance of all America—the woman in the sunbonnet.”
There are many women in sunbonnets, often sad-faced, in my novel. Each one, like the woman James Clyman wrote of,
“. . . showed herself worthy of the bravest undaunted pioneer of the West, for after having kneaded her dough, she watched and nursed the fire and held an umbrella over the fire and her skillet with the greatest composure for near two hours and baked bread enough to give us a very plentiful supper.”
The California Trail, by George R. Stewart (1962), focuses on the wagons that traveled to California before the Gold Rush. The paths of the Oregon and California trails were the same until they reached Fort Hall, but Stewart’s book provided less information for me than McLynn’s. Still, Stewart’s book provided a detailed description of how oxen and mules actually pulled the wagons up mountains and across streams, which I had only imagined prior to reading his account. (I wasn’t too far off.)
These books were fascinating discoveries, brought on by my search for a book cover. I’m still searching for the perfect image for my cover, though I have a very good option in mind. Once I land on the final cover, I’ll share it on this blog.
When have you thought you were done with a project, only to find you had much more to do?
For the past week or two, the magnolia tree in our front yard has been blooming again. Not as many blossoms as in the spring, and not as noticeable because the leaves are fully formed. But still a treat.
I don’t know what has caused the profusion of blooms. Is it all the rain we have had? The changing temperatures?
Usually the tree blooms in March or April—one of the earlier harbingers of spring. Sometimes it is tricked by warm days in January, only to be cut short by the next freeze. Rarely does it have many flowers in the full of summer, even though it is supposedly a southern tree.
But the blossoms are welcome whenever they come. For me they are a symbol of abundance and promise.
So I sit this morning at my desk writing, and my view is full of hope. The fully-leaved magnolia obscures all neighborhood activity, though I hear a power saw across the street and a lawnmower down the block.
All I see are the huge pink flowers surrounded by gaudy green foliage. Occasionally, a bird lights on a branch, or two squirrels play hide and seek (or other games) and shake the tree. A profusion of nature in my suburbia.
And a welcome distraction from writing a blog post.
What distractions keep you from writing?
As I’ve written, I am hard at work this year editing my historical novel about travel along the Oregon Trail. I’m far enough along that I can envision its potential publication. So recently I started thinking about what I’d like the book cover to look like.
I have some experience working with a group of local authors (we call ourselves Write Brain Trust) on publishing issues. Write Brain Trust members have talked a lot about book covers, and we’ve helped each other on covers and other design issues with the books we’ve self-published.
But more knowledge is generally a good thing, so I recently attended a program on cover design at The Story Center (part of the Mid-Continent Public Library in the Kansas City area). The presenter was Aaron Barnhart, a partner at Quindaro Press.
His advice was that a book cover needs
I’m working on all these aspects of my book cover now. (Actually, I have a working title that I’m almost certain to use, but I’m not telling yet.)
I’m not an artist nor a designer, but I know my book, and I want input into the cover design.
I’ve been frustrated in working with most of the cover images I’ve considered. Line drawings (like the wagon above) seem dated and simplistic. Paintings don’t quite portray the scenes or characters in my book, and I have to worry about copyright issues. Photographs are even more likely to have copyright issues, unless I take the picture myself, and I only have a couple of my own photos I think might work.
At this point, I’m working with a variety of images, as well as trying to decide whether to use a tag line (like a subtitle) on the cover. And, of course, writing two paragraphs of back cover text is as hard as writing two full chapters of the novel . . . maybe harder.
More information to follow . . . no cover reveal yet!