Saturday, August 30, 2008

September IAG Spotlight Page

It's up, here, spotlighting historical fiction set in various locations around the world.

The spotlight is on IAG Members Lloyd Lofthouse, Juliet Waldron, Janet Elaine Smith, Peggy Ullman Bell, Melika Dannese Lux, Lee Cross, Jeffery Williams, Dianne Ascroft, Glenice Whitting and Pauline Montagna

Why Trampolines Are Dangerous

(Photo sent by AIG Member Al Past)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Just for Fun

(Sent to me by another IAG member - hey, we could all use a good laugh)

A Texas rancher got in his pickup and drove to a neighboring ranch and knocked at the door. A young boy, about 9, opened the door.
"Yer Dad home?' the rancher asked.
'No sir, he ain't,' the boy replied. 'He went into town."
"Well," said the rancher, 'is yer Mom here?'
"No, sir, she ain't here neither. She went into town with Dad."
"How about your brother, Howard? Is he here?"
"He went with Mom and Dad."

The rancher stood there for a few minutes, shifting from one foot to the other and mumbling to himself.
"Is there anything I can do fer ya?" the boy asked politely. "I knows where all the tools are, if you want to borry one. Or maybe I could take a message fer Dad."
"Well," said the rancher uncomfortably, "I really wanted to talk to yer Dad. It's about your brother, Howard, getting my daughter, Pearly Mae, pregnant."

The boy considered for a moment "You would have to talk to Pa about that," he finally conceded. "If it helps you any, I know that Pa charges $50 for the bull and $25 for the boar, but I really don't know how much he gets fer Howard."

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Meditation on Robert E. Lee and the Spirit of Conciliation

(a guest post by IAG Member Barry Yelton)

As the country agonizes about war in the Middle East, the rise of hostile powers around the world, and the contentious political season, there is a powerful lesson from our history about the need for conciliation and coming together. The current political situation threatens to divide our country even more deeply than it was during the Vietnam era. We as a people need guidance. Our nation’s civil war provides many lessons about conciliation and the results of failing to reconcile. Possibly the greatest single positive example from that war was the life of Robert E. Lee.

For most Americans today, if they think of Lee at all, he was someone we read about in high school history. Perhaps we saw a portrait of him astride his horse, Traveler. To most, he is a figure from an ancient and hopelessly retrograde culture, who could not possibly have any relevance in the new millennium.

He was indeed a product of his time and his culture, a man who tolerated human slavery even as he deplored it. He led an army, which was the martial instrument of a racist and repressive society, though one which held itself to be civilized and indeed enlightened. While he did hold such a post, and certainly held it with incredible energy, creativity, and resolve; at the same time he was by all accounts kind-hearted, humble, and sincerely religious.

History itself seems mostly irrelevant to the vast majority today. “Why should we dwell on the past, when it is dead and gone? This is the Twenty First Century!” I would submit that history has exquisite relevance for this and any other generation. The people who passed before us with their combination of heroism and butchery, triumphs and foibles were, after all, made of the same stuff as you and I. The culture has changed, as have attitudes, but the human animal in most ways has not. We have the same desires, hopes, aspirations, and we all still have our prejudices, as much as we may protest to the contrary.

Lee, if he were alive today, I believe, would have a very different message from many of our contemporaries who like to wave the Confederate battle flag. Many of these “neo-Confederates” talk a lot about heritage and pride. However, the message on both sides of Confederate flag debates is divisive, and often sown with arrogance and resentment.

Lee was indeed a respecter of heritage, with a noble lineage and family ties to George Washington. His actions after the Civil War demonstrated, however, character of a type, which is very rare indeed. After a humiliating and devastating defeat, he refused to call out bands of diehards to fight a vengeful guerilla war in the mountains and backwoods of the South, as many of his subordinates and various firebrands remonstrated. He most certainly could have done that, and it would have divided the country to this day in a way, which would make what happened in Northern Ireland look like a Sunday School picnic.

Neither did Lee attempt to cash in on his name, which was venerated almost as deity in the South. One insurance company offered him $50,000 per year (a king’s ransom in 1865) to be its President. When he protested that he knew nothing about the insurance business, he was informed that he did not need to – they just wanted to use his name. To this, he quietly replied that his name was not for sale.

He also did not become bitter and lash out verbally at his former foes. Instead, he took the helm of the nearly defunct Washington College in Virginia and spent his last years in training the young to deal with the realities of the new United States of America, building what today is Washington and Lee University.

He urged his former soldiers to put aside hatreds and return to their farms and shops, and to rebuild the society, which had been destroyed, to put behind them the bloody and bitter struggle. He was a voice of conciliation and forgiveness. He neither said nor did anything to encourage the voices of discord. He put his Christian faith into practice under the most difficult of circumstances.

It is safe to assume that were Lee alive today, he would counsel the same in our society. He would encourage the races to be done with hatred, and to move on in harmony; to cease and desist from the continual one-upsmanship that pervades our social and political life today - to give more and demand less.

He was a man who subsumed his own selfish desires and ambitions to do his duty as he saw it. As war became imminent, he rejected the honor of leading the Union Army, which had all the advantages necessary for success, to cast his lot with his countrymen and kin in a dangerous and desperate struggle, because he could not lift his arm against his own. It is highly probably, given his considerable abilities, that had Lee accepted the command of the Union Army, the war would have been shortened by two years or more, and that Lee would occupy a place in history alongside Washington and Lincoln. Lee was no fool; he knew this very well. Still he chose what he believed to be his duty over self-promotion.

This is a key for Americans today. Our commercial and capitalist society, with all its advantages still encourages self-interest and greed at the expense of compassion and generosity. Our competitiveness tends to stifle the higher impulses to conciliation, which many consider a sign of weakness. In fact, it takes far greater strength to conciliate than to confront, to forgive than to hate. It is easy to show hatred and lack of compassion. It takes strength to reach out.

I believe we should learn from our past, take the best from history and from its protagonists, and use it to move humanity beyond the petty hatreds of race, class, or region. Having studied the life of General Lee, I believe there is very much about him which is truly exemplary, a pattern for modern man.

It is patently criminal that in our effort toward political correctness, we have virtually expunged his name from public school history books. Having said that, I can hear the naysayer’s chorus now. “He should have fought a defensive war...he had slaves...he alone was responsible for losing the war...he should have done this and he should have done that, etc.”

Intentional, malicious criticism of Lee is becoming sport among some so called scholars, as they sit on their duffs in their comfortable Monday morning quarterbacking chairs, whilst ensconced securely within their tenures. The vast majority of them could not lead a group in silent prayer; much less lead a rag tag army to immortality on the battlefield, as did Lee.

Spare me the jealous character assassination. The truth is that Lee was one of the best military commanders our country ever produced. More importantly, after the tragic and untimely death of Lincoln, and after the war was over, he did in fact do more to promote harmony in this country than anyone of that era.

We owe a supreme debt to him for that, not insipid criticism 135 years after the fact. Heroes are in short supply, we need to revere the greatest and learn from them, not excoriate them for their failures. Lee was far nobler than I, and he would have said to ignore the carping critics and move on with the work at hand. He would have said to build bridges, not entrenchments. He would have said to put duty above self. Now there is truly a lesson for today.

Just for Fun

For everyone who has ever fiddled around with fonts - this visualization is for you.
(link courtesy of IAG member Al Past, author of the Distant Cousin Trilogy.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Writing the Range

In a fit of boredom, as we flipped through the cable channels looking for something new and/or interesting, we stumbled across the Hallmark Channel. Hey, Hallmark – how bad could one of their movies be? – and wound up watching “The Trail to Hope Rose”. The premise interested us for about twenty minutes, and then we realized that although whatever book it might have been based upon may have been a very good read, the movie was a bit of a painful watch. We stuck it out, just to see if any of our predictions made in that first fifteen minutes came true. (They did – all but the kindly old ranch-owner who befriended the hero being killed by the villainous mine-owner. He didn’t… but he was deceased by the end of the final reel.) It was just a generic western: generic location, generic baddies, card-board cut-out characters and a box-car load of generic 19th century props from some vast Hollywood movie warehouse of props and costumes used for every western movie since Stagecoach, hauled out of storage and dusted off, yet again.

It wasn’t a bad movie, just a profoundly mediocre one. Careless gaffes abounded, from the heroine’s loose and flowing hair, her costumes with zippers down the back and labels in the neckline, and the presence of barbed wire in 1850, when it wouldn’t be available in the Western US for another twenty-five years, neat stacks of canned goods (?), some jarringly 20th century turns of phrase… and where the heck in the West in 1850 was there a hard-rock mine and a cattle ranch in close proximity? Not to mention a mine-owner oppressing his workers in the best Gilded Age fashion by charging them for lodgings, fire wood and groceries, as if he had been taking lessons from the owners of Appalachian coal mines. It was as if there was no other place of work within hundreds and hundreds of miles – again, I wondered just where the hell this story was set. It passed muster with some viewers as a perfectly good western, but to me, none of it rang true. Whoever produced it just pulled random details out of their hat – presumably a ten-gallon one – and flung them up there. Hey, 19th century, American West; it’s all good and all pretty much the same, right?

Me, I’ve been getting increasingly picky. Generic, once-upon-a-time in the west doesn’t satisfy me any more, not since I began writing about the frontier myself. It seems to me that to write something true, something authentic about the western experience – you have to do what the creators of “The Trail to Hope Rose” didn’t bother to do; and that was to be specific about time and place. The trans-Mississippi West changed drastically over the sixty or seventy years, from the time that Americans began settling in various small outposts, or traveling across it in large numbers. And the West was not some generic all-purpose little place, where cattle ranches could be found next to gold mines, next to an Army fort, next to a vista of red sandstone, with a Mexican cantina just around the corner. No, there were very specific and distinct places, as different as they could be and still be on the same continent. 1880’s Tombstone is as different from Gold Rush era Sacramento, which is different again from Abilene in the cattle-boom years, nothing like Salt Lake City when the Mormons first settled there… and which is different again from Laura Ingalls’ Wilder’s small-town De Smet… or any other place that I could name, between the Pacific Ocean and the Mississippi-Missouri. Having writers and movie-makers blend them all together into one big muddy mid-19th century blur does no one any favors as far as telling new stories.

Being specific as to time and place opens up all kinds of possible stories and details. Such specificity has the virtue of being authentic or at least plausible and sometimes are even cracking good stories because of their very unlikelihood. For example, Oscar Wilde did a lecture tour of western towns. If I remember correctly, the topic of his lecture was something to do with aesthetics and interior decoration, and he performed wearing the full black-velvet knickerbockers suit with white lace collars. He was a wild success in such wild and roaring places as Leadville, Colorado, possibly because he could drink any of his audience under the table. Anyway, my point is, once you have a time and a place, then you can deal with all the local characters and the visitors who came to that town at that time, have a better handle on the technology in play at the time. Was the town on the railway, who were the people running the respectable businesses – and the unrespectable ones? Who were the local characters, the bad hats and the good guys, the eccentrics and the freaks? What was the local industry, and for how long – and if not long, what replaced it and under what circumstances? What did the scenery out-side town look like? Even such details as what were the main buildings in town made of and what did they look like, over the years can be telling. Where did the locals get their food from? Their mail? Who did the laundry – even! What kind of story can a writer make of a progression from canvas tents over wooden frames, from log huts and sod huts, to fine frame buildings filled with furniture and fittings brought at great expense from the east. I had all those questions while watching this movie – and I’ll probably have pretty much the same, if I ever watch another one like it. It would have been so much a better movie if someone had given a bit more thought and taken a little more care.

Above all, if a writer can be specific with those underpinnings, of time and place and keep the story congruent within that framework – than it seems to me that you can tell any sort of story, and likely a much more interesting and entertaining one. As near as I can judge from some of the western discussion groups and blogs, like this one, writers are moving in that direction. Eventually movie producers may move in that direction as well – supposedly “Deadwood” makes long strides in re-visualizing a more specific west.

But they will absolutely, positively have to get rid of those costumes for women with the very visible zippers down the back.