Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Yeoman Patriots

“As late as June 1776 two-thirds of Continental regiments under Washington’s command were New Englanders. Yankee farmers and mechanics turned out in large numbers. . . . In 1776, these Yankee regiments may have been the most literate army in the world. Nearly all New England privates could read and write. Even young recruits such as [Joseph Plumb] Martin, who was just sixteen, were caught up in the great public questions that were debated in kitchens, taverns, and town meetings. ‘During the winter of 1775-76, by hearing the conversation and disputes of the good old farmer politicians of the times, I collected pretty correct ideas of the contest between this country and the mother country (as it was then called)’ he wrote. ‘I thought I was as warm as patriot as the best of them.’ These new England men were raised to a unique idea of liberty as independence, freedom as the right of belonging to a community, and reights as entailing a sense of mutual obligation.” David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing, pp. 20-21.

When I reread this passage this evening, I began to wonder how many of our young people today would claim to be “warm patriots.” How many have the education in government and politics and the serious attitude about life the yeomen of the Revolution did? How many of the young people you know are regularly caught up in the great public questions we face in this country today and can speak with intelligence about the issues?

Although there are surely many exceptions, I don’t see much evidence of Fischer’s description in the teenagers I have contact with—or in their parents, for that matter. Instead, a preoccupation with sports, the newest electronic devices, texting and hanging out with their friends, the opposite sex, popular music, TV, movies, web-surfing, and other trivial pursuits occupy every minute when they aren’t in school. And I can’t blame them. They’re simply imitating the example set by the adults in their lives.

A while back I read an article that talked about how parents and grandparents are no longer handing down to the current generation the wisdom they gained from their elders and from their own experience. That’s something I’ve observed too, and it troubles me when I think of what that neglect holds for the future. To be fair, in too many families both parents work. Often they’re burdened with demanding jobs and long commutes that suck away the precious hours of their children’s lives. They’re exhausted and frustrated by the time they come home, and they see their children as just another burden. Those who are unemployed or underemployed face other challenges that rob them of quality family time just as surely. And at many schools teachers spend so much time enforcing discipline that there’s limited time to teach.

The bottom line is that today a troubling number of our young people neither know nor care about the history of the country they live in, and they’re equally ignorant of and indifferent to what’s currently going on in the world around them. Their major concern is entertainment, not fulfilling place in a local, state, and national community.

Unless we take seriously the task of nurturing in all our young people the attitudes of our yeoman forefathers, we’ll soon be on the way to losing our precious heritage of liberty—if we haven’t already. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Plotting with Calendars

I’m sure that many authors, whether writing historical fiction or another genre, create calendars to help them keep events straight in their stories. When you’re dealing with characters in a historical period who interact with real people of the time, you find out very quickly that you’re going to have to chart out the historical action or you’re going to shipwreck your plot on the shoals of fact.

I wouldn’t be able to write this series without keeping track of exactly when and where real historical events occurred. I create very detailed calendars on which I enter every event that could possibly affect my characters or that might arise in their conversation with others. Often these details don't show up in the story, but I don’t want to set a scene that involves my characters’ personal affairs at a time when some important event happened that they would be aware of or that would impact them in some way. Obviously I also need to make sure they’re at the right place at the right time to participate in historical events I include them in.

Another benefit of using calendars to plot the action of a novel is that they can lead to the development of a scene or even an entire chapter. Calendars allow you to quickly see the connections between events that happen in different places at the same time or within a short period of time. Fascinating little-known events or a sequence of events that I suddenly realize relate to each other in a way not immediately apparent sometimes lead me onto a detour that adds insight and authenticity to the storyline. The unexpected is always lots fun even when it wreaks a bit of havoc with how I expected my story to develop.

When a battle looms, I refer to the relevant calendar a lot. But for complex battles, I’ve found it necessary to build even more detailed timelines, breaking the action down hour by hour, with different columns for different corps or detachments that participated, and noting where my characters were at critical points.

There are software programs available for creating calendars, but I’ve found it easy to create my calendars using the Word table feature. The rows of a table expand or contract to accommodate the amount of text I need to include, and I don’t have to buy special software.

Creating detailed calendars for each month covered in each volume is time consuming, to be sure, but it’s paid off by saving me the time spent fixing scenes that don’t work or are wrongly placed. What I’ve discovered is that a detailed calendar actually helps me build my plot.

If you’re a writer, do you create calendars for the storyline, whether real or fictional? If so, do you have a special program for creating them? How detailed do you make them, and how do you use them as you build your story?