Creative Titles under Siege

Monday, November 20, 2017


I’ve been doing research for the book after the one I’m currently working on, and I’m fascinated by the creativity that went into the titles of the articles published as reminiscences on the subject, most of which were published in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Here are some examples:

  • “A Girl’s Experience in the Siege of Vicksburg” (Lucy McRae Bell)
  • “A Child at the Siege of Vicksburg” (William W. Lord, Jr.)
  • “A Woman’s Experiences During the Siege of Vicksburg” (Lida Lord Reed)
  • “A Woman’s Diary of the Siege of Vicksburg” (Dora Richards Miller)

At least the Miller article is subtitled “Under Fire from the Gunboats.” Slightly more creative is Vicksburg, A City Under Siege: Diary of Emma Balfour, but it still contains many of the same elements.

The best-known eyewitness account of civilian life in Vicksburg during the siege does have a more unique title. Mary Ann Webster Loughborough’s book is called My Cave Life in Vicksburg. Even that, however, was published with the subtitle “A Woman’s Account of the Siege of Vicksburg in 1863.”

No wonder I’m having so much trouble coming up with a title. All the good ones are taken.

Obviously, there’s some sarcasm there. Still, some of the best descriptive words are “siege” and “cave life,” and both have been used, especially when you factor in more recent children’s books such as Lucy’s Cave and Under Siege.

Fortunately, I have plenty of time before I have to come up with a title, and inspiration will probably strike before then.

It was easy to come up with titles a century ago.

But I’d rather be creative.

Broken Traditions

Monday, November 13, 2017


This year brought two broken Christmas traditions. The first we can resume next year, but the other is literally broken.

When it snowed Friday morning, I blamed Roland. I joked that it was his fault for breaking the first tradition, which is to put up the tree the day after Thanksgiving. I’m not sure when we started doing it on that specific day, although it probably began when the children were young. Roland had the day off and my company let us out early, so it seemed like a good time to do it. Before that, we probably bought the tree sometime in December. We have NEVER put it up before Thanksgiving.

Until this year. Roland bought a new tree, and it arrived on Thursday. So rather than taking it to the storage locker for two weeks, he put it up. Actually, we broke tradition in 2011 when we purchased our first artificial one. The house was on the market and had to be kept pristine for showings, and we weren’t sure how well a real tree would work in the condo we wanted to (and did) buy. Since we were empty nesters by that time, I allowed Roland to persuade me to get one that was more practical. I do like the convenience, but I miss the sentiment. Oh well.

Since we already had the tree up, there was no sense leaving it bare. So Roland retrieved the decorations from the storage locker and I began sorting through the ornaments to see which ones I wanted to put on our new—and narrower—tree. A few are not optional—they simply must get hung. One of the required ornaments is the little plastic mouse that I bought in Chicago in 1972 from a bin at Woolworths. I had just graduated from college, it was my first year on my own, and the mouse was my first ornament. He has been on my tree ever since, and the children love him. In fact, I think Caroline expects to inherit him eventually.

But here’s where, or how, the second tradition got broken. When I opened the box of ornaments, the mouse was missing his legs. I didn’t even know he was fragile, but I suppose anything can happen after 45 years. I can’t put him back together, but I can, and did, hang him on my tree in his broken state. If you don’t know what he looked like before and don’t look at him from underneath to see the ragged edges, you wouldn’t know he is damaged. But I was heartsick and still am.

The mouse ornament reminds me that memories are fragile, too. They can be lost if they aren’t written down. Once I’m gone, will my children remember that I bought my first Christmas ornament from Woolworths, which is also gone now? Or will they even know that in those days of living in Chicago I used to buy a real, full-sized tree from a nearby lot and drag it along the sidewalk and up the stairs to my apartment? My roommates helped, but none of us had a car.

Traditions are nice, but broken ones can’t ruin Christmas. The only way to ruin Christmas is to celebrate it without Christ.

Even so, traditions bring us closer, and I like having them.

So I’ve salvaged as much of the mouse as I can.

Falling Off the Mountain

Monday, November 6, 2017


When I was a child, we used to play a game called “King of the Mountain,” where somebody stood on top of a mound or other raised area and the other children tried, one at a time, to shove the King (or Queen) off. Actually, I probably watched more than I played since I would have had no chance at winning. I don’t know if children still play it, but adults do. And one of the places they play is on a TV game show called “Divided.”

“Divided” used to be shown on the Game Show Network during prime time, but GSN recently moved it to midnight Eastern time, which is 11:00 p.m. Central Time. I don’t know why they made the change, although presumably the show received lower ratings than the “Family Feud” episodes that replaced it. My biggest problem with the change is that eleven is my bedtime—except, now, for those nights when new episodes of “Divided” air.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the show, four strangers work as a team to earn money but, as the host explains, in the end they are playing for themselves. They increase their bank when they answer questions correctly and lose it when they get the answer wrong. They must agree on the answer before they can lock it in, and time and money wind dwindle until they do. Or, if they have either of their two takeovers left, one person can lock his or her answer in for everyone before the others agree. The contestants vote one person off in the middle of the show, but the biggest drama comes at the end. The final winnings are divided into three amounts—60% (A), 40% (B), and 10% (C), and the players must agree to each take a different amount. As with the answers to the questions, time and money disappear while the contestants are debating who gets what share of the pot.

I enjoy guessing the answers to the questions. But as a former psychology major, I’m most interested in the group dynamics, especially at the end.

Sometimes the final three contestants work well together and walk away with significant amounts of money. At other times their teamwork is shaky but they still leave with something, often because a person who deserves more agrees to take the least. Then there are the few times when the contestants let the clock wind down to zero and walk away with nothing. This is where the King of the Mountain analogy comes in.

The most common scenario for a zero recovery is where two players hold out for the highest amount and neither will budge. Usually, they both claim to have earned it. In one episode, however, a man admitted that he didn’t deserve the most but was determined to leave with 60% or nothing. When the clock stopped on nothing, the other two contestants blamed him and called him a jerk. In fact, in most situations where the contestants end up with nothing, at least one of the two deadlocked players blames the other. That’s when I want to yell at the TV and tell them that it takes two to make a stalemate. If you want money, you can’t let your ego stand in the way. If you were part of the stalemate and end up with nothing, blame yourself.

That’s how the normal scenario goes when the contestants end up with nothing. But Thursday night/Friday morning (depending on the time zone) it played out differently. The two women (and I) agreed that the man deserved the most, but they both thought they deserved the middle amount. As the money ticked down, the male contestant changed his vote to take the lowest amount so that they would all walk away with something. Then the two women both changed their votes to take the highest and the money disappeared anyway.

I don’t feel sorry for the women. They were two cats who were so intent on scratching each other’s eyes out that they both ended up blind. Or maybe they started blind, because surely they didn’t want the viewing audience to see them as fools. But that’s what happened.

But I don’t feel sorry for the man, either. Yes, it would have been nice if he had gotten some money, especially since he wanted to use it to buy an engagement ring. But he was still a winner. He showed the viewing audience that he was a classy guy whose self-worth didn’t depend on being at the top of the heap.

And that’s how to be the real King of the Mountain.

__________

I took the picture along the Shenandoah stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway in 2012.

Reformation Poem

Monday, October 30, 2017


Five hundred years ago tomorrow, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, shown in the picture. I wrote a modest poem to celebrate this momentous event. There are a few inaccuracies (yes, I know that the catechism and the 95 theses are not the same) and some near rhymes, but that’s the beauty of poetic license. If you call me a heretic, I’m in good company. Isn’t that so, Martin?

In fifteen thousand and seventeen,
Luther crossed the village green.
He had no thought of vandalism
As he nailed up his catechism.


The 95 theses attached to a door
Were statements the Pope was bound to abhor.
Who was this upstart who fought with tradition
Using the Word as his only weapon?


As Luther preached salvation by grace,
He was put on trial to plead his case.
But though he sought to reform with reason,
The Pope and the Emperor both cried “Treason.”


Martin Luther’s plight looked grim
When the Pope excommunicated him.
And to Luther’s firm words, “Here I stand,”
The Emperor responded, “Banned!”


Five hundred years have come and gone
And Luther’s writings still live on.
So as we celebrate Reformation
Remember his message of salvation.


Saved by grace.
__________

The poem is © 2017 by Kathryn Page Camp, and the photo is © 2016 by Kathryn Page Camp.

Viewing the World from a Child's Perspective

Monday, October 23, 2017

On Saturday I attended a writers’ conference sponsored by the Indiana Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The conference was held at an elementary school, and most of the chairs were too small for the adult writers who participated. Yes, we sat in them, but we also complained about how uncomfortable they were and how hard it would be for us to get out of a seat that was so low to the ground. And I was as guilty as everyone else.

After I returned home and got a good night’s rest, I realized I was looking at the situation from the wrong perspective.

Children see the world differently than adults do. Of course we know that, but we don’t always remember it. When sitting in a lower chair, I had to physically look up farther to see the presenter’s face. And for children, that physical difference is also a difference in authority. As a three-year-old peeking out from behind my grandfather Page’s chair, I knew very little of the world, while my grandparents had the wisdom of experience. Children’s writers, like parents, need to remember and understand that earlier innocence when conveying our adult wisdom. If we don’t, children won’t learn from the story.

Most of us have heard the old Native American adage that you shouldn’t judge people until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. We can’t understand someone’s actions and reactions if we haven’t gone through the same things. That applies to writing for children, too, although in a slightly different way. We’ve all been children, so we have all walked in childhood’s shoes. But how well do we remember the experience? Sitting in a child-sized chair can help.

But not entirely. When I sat in a child’s chair, I was uncomfortable because it was too small for me. Children have a different reaction. For them, it’s a perfect fit. So we can’t bring our current perspective into our stories. We must reach back to the feelings we experienced in the past.

Author Ursula K. LeGuin once said, “Sure, it’s simple writing for kids . . . Just as simple as bringing them up.”

Writing for children is simple. Just as simple as viewing the world from a child’s perspective.

And just as hard.

Creating Sympathy for Characters with Unsympathetic Belifs

Monday, October 16, 2017


Our Mississippi River cruise spent a day at Vicksburg, Mississippi, where I visited two museums with steamboat displays as part of the research for my current work-in-progress. But the stop also had a second, unintended, result. During the 1863 siege of Vicksburg, the residents dug and lived in caves that served as bomb shelters. I had heard of the Vicksburg caves before, but the visit ignited my interest in writing a story about living in one. So that will probably be my next book.

Unfortunately, there were few, if any, abolitionists in Vicksburg at the time. I came up with several ideas of how I might make my character and her family secret abolitionists, but Roland wasn’t sure that even closet abolitionists existed in the deep South then. I’ll research it further, but if they didn’t, how do I make a character sympathetic when she condones slavery?

This isn’t an unusual situation for a writer to be in. Many stories start out with an unsympathetic protagonist, whose change in character or beliefs or even in situation is at the crux of the story. Think of Ebenezer Scrooge, who starts out as a people-hating miser and ends up as an open-hearted and generous person. Or Jay Gatsby, who appears in the beginning of the story as a rich, flamboyant socialite; turns out to have obtained his riches illegally; and ends up getting blamed—and shot dead—for something he didn’t do. Then there is Heathcliff, anti-social and cruel throughout the entire story.

But readers don’t usually identify with unsympathetic characters, and they don’t like to read about people they don’t identify with. We must catch their interest at the beginning of the book, or they won’t read on. That means that one of our tasks as writers is to generate sympathy for unsympathetic characters or for otherwise likeable characters with unsympathetic beliefs.

Charles Dickens did it with humor; F. Scott Fitzgerald diverted our attention to the people around Gatsby; and Charlotte Bronte generated sympathy through backstory. Although, to be honest, I never did like Wuthering Heights.

Generating sympathy for a main character with unsympathetic beliefs is just part of the job.

So I’ll figure it out.

__________

The drawing at the head of this post comes from Harper’s Encyclopedia of United States History (vol. 10), John Lossing Benson, ed. (New York, NY, Harper and Brothers, 1912). It is in the public domain because of its age.

Cruising the Mississippi

Monday, October 9, 2017



I just returned from a research trip aboard the American Queen, a Mississippi steamboat designed to imitate the ones that plied the river in the middle of the 18th Century. Obviously, there are many modern amenities these days, but I looked for—and hopefully found—the boat and the cruise that provided the most authentic experience.

My current work-in-progress is a middle-grade historical novel that involves a steamboat explosion, which was a common occurrence in the 18th Century. My main character, Lizzie, and her family sail downriver from Iowa to Louisiana in the autumn and back upriver in the spring, which is when the tragedy occurs. I didn’t want to experience a boiler explosion, of course, but I was hoping to get a general feel for what the trip might have been like.

I wasn’t just looking for the experience, however. During the trip I visited three museums that had ties to steamboat history. And Lizzie and her family spend the winter on a bayou in Louisiana, so Roland and I took a bayou tour at one of our stops. Still, it was the time spent cruising the river that was the most helpful.

It isn’t just steamboats that have changed in the last century and a half. The Mississippi River itself is different. In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain notes that it can change in days, let alone years. Still, I got a general idea of what the banks south of Memphis might have been like when Lizzie would have traveled the river. For example, Mark Twain talks about trees hanging over the river with roots exposed by the action of the Mississippi wearing away the banks, and I am using that in my story. I can picture those banks when I imagine how the landscape in the second photo would have looked without the manmade barrier to prevent erosion.


It’s impossible to get the full historical experience on a present-day research trip.

But every little bit helps.