Saturday, October 26, 2013

Eating Stale Bread

If you heard a long and loud primal scream last Tuesday at about 5 PM, it was me opening to the first chapter of the hard copy Proof for my Create Space book. Two errors on the first page.  No, not huge, not life-threatening, but there they were.  Capital letters on the word math.  Twice!  Aaaaaaaaaaaaah!

I do know my grammar rules. (Mostly.)  And I'd given due diligence to choosing my two last minute cold readers, and I had total faith that my manuscript was error-free when I pushed submit.  But there they were, two errors on the first page.  And I knew better because I'd already changed a few "Math" to "math" in other parts of the manuscript. I thought I had them all corrected. 
I proceeded to whine.  Is it that bad?  Wouldn't they just be overlooked by a "normal" reader? (Apparently they had been.) Aren't a few mistakes OK?  Itsy bitsy ones????
Even though I was anxious to get this project done, my gut told me the answer.  Nope.  No way.
Would I have considered leaving the upper case "M's" if they'd been buried in the manuscript?  After all, the reader would be so "rapt" up in the story by then, they wouldn't care if it was a Math book or a math book, right?
Maybe it's like leaving the restroom with your skirt flipped up and tucked into the top of your panty hose.  Everything's OK, la la la, until you notice.  And once you notice, there is no reversing the embarrassment--even if you somehow managed to get the skirt flipped down before anyone saw it.
Up until I jumped into this self-publishing project, I've made it a policy never to read my books in their entirety once they're out in the world.  Probably for the same reason as what I just explained with this proof.  Some ugly error would rear up and bite me.  Also, by the time I've read a story, book, novel, poem over and over and over through all the early revisions and edits, it's like eating stale bread to read it again.
But after finding those two errors, I decided I'd better eat the stale bread one more time.  This was a proof, and changes could still be made. (for a fee)  I called Create Space the next morning.  (Have I mentioned how wonderfully responsive they have been on the phone?)  I asked about costs of changes, and for 1-10 small corrections, it was only $35.00.  Whew, I could afford that.  After all, it was half the price of an hour session with a psychiatrist. 
A deal.  And my husband was right when he said,"You'll feel better in the long run."
So the long run means, another seven day wait for Create Space to turn it back around to me.  Aggravating, but I'm still alive and breathing. 
And, once I wrapped my mind around the fact that stale bread was on the menu, I settled in to read the rest of the book one more time.
Here's what I found: a missed word, "the" and a repeated word: "a".  I also found two missing commas before the "and" in a compound sentence.  We can argue about this necessity, but I decided if I was fixing things, I put them in. I also found a quotation mark turned the wrong way, and a place in a quotation where I needed the punctuation inside the mark.  (It's the British and American thing that sometimes throws me because on some things the Brits make more sense.)
Oh, one more thing.  In the printed proof, there was a comma where a period should have been.  I checked my manuscript, and I had a period on my copy.  It was some kind of a printing fluke, I guess.  I made note of it when I sent the manuscript in for the umpteenth time and hoped for the best.
 The moral of this blog is, "Eat your stale bread." And if you happen to read the finished copy of this book and find any more errors, don't tell me about them.  Or humor me with a kind note that reads something like, "I think there was a little fluke in the printing."  I swear by the example above that it can happen.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Pudding is in the Proof

I clicked the button.  Submit.  My hand was only a little shaky this time, and if I decide to do more self-published books with Create Space I might even get used to quivery feeling in the pit of my stomach before I click.

Book Cover by Shannon Chandler Gross. 
Ask if you'd like contact info.
 In my last blog, I mentioned that the next step after approving the mock-up was the Interior Proof stage.  This is when all the samples from the mock-up are put together into a complete book with lay-out, total page count, the way it will look when it's printed. You still have an opportunity to make changes at this point, but if they are changes that greatly affect the layout, then from this point on they cost extra.

I was ready for the final read of the proof. I did mine in chunks so that I was wide awake and didn't go too fast.  I caught a few mistakes that had been overlooked when I submitted my completed manuscript, but also couldn't resist making a few word choice changes.  When I did this, I kept them to a minimum and made sure they didn't add lines or change formatting.  If, letter for letter, I could make a replacement with a better word, I felt great. Or, as in one case, "great" became "swell."  Pretty silly change, but it fit better with the time period for the book.

It was actually a surprise how many little things cropped up, and it's a testimony to the concept of how a little stress can sometimes be good.  Stress and focus!  I probably mentioned earlier that I opted not to hire a professional editor, so this is where the hand started trembling over the submit button. (I'd only had coffee to drink.)

I decided, at this point, a couple of cold reads would not be a bad idea.  Yes, it slowed things down, but I figured it was worth it.  I asked my aunt Marlene, a retired librarian and avid reader, to read for me, and another friend who'd mentioned that she was good at picking out mistakes when she reads. 

True to her word, Jane found an comma after the word you're, but that was it. And my aunt made a couple of suggestions but didn't find anything that would stop a reader.  This is not to say that it's perfect.  My husband would say I've goofed up on a few of my comma rules, but on this, we agree to disagree.

Being queen of the project, I deemed the book finished and uploaded the revisions.  It would be seven more days before the changes would be incorporated.  Tick tock.

During this time I attended a writing conference, the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the SCBWI.  A friend of mine, Nancy Jurka, had her self-published poetry book with her, and we compared notes.  I watched her thumb through the book and talk about formatting.  I kept watching her open and close the book.  Blank page, title page, poems...  Blank page, title page, poems...

That blank page at the beginning started niggling at me.  Is that something I'd taken for granted would be added?  Did I need to give instructions for it?  The first page of my book started with the title page only.

What now?  I went home and started looking through my previously published books and other books in the house.  All of them had a blank page or a pre-title page before the "real" title page.  I sent a message to the design team at Create Space asking about adding the extra page at the front.  I also asked about what kind of a delay there would be, and was told that once I received the next proof, I would have to send it back again to have the blank page added. 

Groan...   Another seven day wait, and the next proof wouldn't arrive for a few more days.

I tried my hardest to convince myself the extra page wasn't needed and even went to a book store to peruse the shelves. Many of the books there started with just the title page. I tried to convince myself that it looked OK.  But the other books looked better.  The extra page at the front gave them a more professional look.


To shorten this story, my husband and I returned from a short trip and there was a phone message from the Create Space design team.  One of the team members had seen my email message and asked if I wanted to have the blank page inserted at the beginning.  Yes!  Not only that, they added an image to the front of the blank page, dressing it up a little more.

For the next steps, the cover will be submitted, and they'll send me my first copy.  For sure any changes after this will be costly, but I'm not anticipating any. There are a few things I'd would do over from the start if I had the chance, but for now, I'm ready to go forward and see where this publishing adventure leads.  I've clicked the button and my hands have stopped shaking.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Putting the peas in a POD

I promised another post about my experiences with Create Space and why I made the decision to do more than a Kindle version of an out of print book. In my last blog, I mentioned getting started on the project and about some of the decisions that went into the re-writing.  It was the re-writing that prompted me to begin thinking about doing more than a Kindle Version. When this book was finished, it would not be the same book that was published years ago by Scholastic Canada when we lived up north. It had a whole new thread, and the story was thoroughly re-written. 

The second reason for deciding to do a POD hard copy had to do with the fact that I spend a certain amount of my "authoring" time sitting at events with my piles of books spread in front of me on a burgundy tablecloth with business cards and a little bowl of candy next to them. Why not have this book with me as well?  It would increase the odds, so to speak.  And I might as well be giving the readers another choice.

The final reason I opted for self-publishing was simple curiosity. The publishing world has changed vastly, and there are many over-the top successful "Independent" writers.  Some of them are publishing only electronically, some of them only in hard copies, or both.  For me, I wanted to see how the whole thing worked and to compare sales, marketing, and bottom line income. As they say in business, it's not what you make, it's what you keep. So after my up front expenses are met, will I need to buy pants with bigger pockets?

Those questions won't be answered for awhile. But here's where I'm at right now:

After starting in with Create Space with the intent of doing a Kindle Version, I began to read up on their other services for Print on Demand books. There were menus to choose from--everything from minimal to complete editing services, book cover designing, and interior design.  I opted for the Custom Interior Design only. My cousin, my husband, and I did the editing, and I feel like between us we covered all the bases.  (Appropriate for a baseball story.)

This is where my real learning curve started.  Create Space has a protocol for stepping through the process on their end.  I've probably taken three times longer than anyone else getting the hang of this.  Basically, they ask you to fill out some questionnaires, make a decision on cover size and download your word document.  After that, they do a mock-up and give you time to respond and give feedback.  You can take as long as you like with your feedback, but there is always a wait time of 5 to 10 days on their end until they can get back to you with their revisions.  

It took me three tries to get the mock-up to what I liked. Hindsight, being what it is, now that I know the kinds of things I can ask for, I could have had this done in only one or two steps, Some things we changed were: space between each line in the text, starting the chapter on contiguous pages, and number of lines per page....  

With that said, the design team did a wonderful job on the artistic elements and chapter heads. Warning: one thing the Create Space team DOES NOT do is read your book. I know, this is heartbreaking. But it means that being able to clearly communicate your vision is hugely important. The project is entirely in your hands.  This is both nerve-racking and exciting at the same time. The good thing is, when I made a suggestion, they listened! 

Also, the phone and email communication has been wonderful. I've used it frequently and always had timely responses. The phone support especially: real people and very little time on hold.  Amazing and refreshing.  

As I write this, I'm currently hovering over the heli-pad waiting to land. I've given my final approval on the mock-ups (they only do a few chapter on this at first) and will have a final proof to read in a couple of weeks.  At that point in time, I'll be able to make up to 200 free changes as long as they don't affect the page formatting.

Oh horrors.  I've been known to change the word "the" to "a" on a final line by line edit. Already I'm imagining myself making little tallies and agonizing over the two hundred and first change.  Is one comma worth the $199 charge?

I'll be sure to blog on the outcome.
Don't ask me why this is way down here, but this is a page from the mock-up.  You can see why it took me so long to figure out Create Space.  




Tuesday, August 20, 2013

If it doesn't fit, get a hammer

In today’s world of author branding and one liner sales pitches, I ran across a dilemma when I decided to make a Kindle version of an out of print book.  My problem wasn't the mechanics of getting a Kindle version because I have a cousin who works for a publishing company and knows all about getting books into electronic form.  She's also a wonderful artist.  Check.  She can even do the cover!

The difficulty is with branding.  All my recent books fit into a nice little package:  Nancy Oswald: "Writer of historical fiction for the young and young at heart…  All my recent books and the ones I am intending to write, for the time being anyway, fit into this genre.  So I’ve been struggling to decide what to do with a baseball story that involves a math-challenged base-ball-loving fifth grader and his science-geek sister who disrupts the harmony of the family by bringing home an insect collection.

The original publication date of this book was 1985, but I’d say the story setting is more of the late 70’s.  That’s pretty much historical to some folks, but to others it doesn’t seem that long ago.  Not that things haven’t changed.  My husband and I purchased our first computer with the royalties from this book. And now, several computers later, I get the jitters when I can’t check my email daily.  

But the big question is can I legitimately call this a work of historical fiction?
I think not.  Neither is it contemporary.  When I re-read it, the absence of cell phones, ipods, laptops and other modern paraphernalia dates the content.  It was set in small town Anyplace…in this case Canada where the book was first published by Scholastic.

So besides the “branding” issue, getting this book Kindle-ready has offered some other challenges and decisions. When I started on this project I thought, the book’s done, it’s in a publishable form, I own the rights, and without much more work it can be reissued on Kindle...

Wrong, wrong, wrong. 

First I needed a digital copy.  I had one, I was sure, because years ago I paid someone to retype it and get it on a disk. When I found that copy in a file on my computer, it came up as gibberish.  The good news is, I had started a revision of this book in 2004, and that copy was saved and  was only half gibberish—I could delete the sections that came up as numbers and symbols and go forward.

I re-formatted, deleted the extraneous data, and started in.  As I perused the first page my first thought was, “I don’t remember writing this.”   The revisions I’d started in on at some unknown time introduced the main character in an entirely different way.  

Yikes.  Unless I wanted to go back and re-type the original version myself or have an old copy scanned, it wasn’t going to be as simple as a read-through + cover art = Kindle version.

One of the things I realized quickly is that I am not the same writer today as I was all those years ago.  My style has changed, my characters have more depth, and of course there’s the genre problem.

What started out as a few simple changes became a battle with myself.  How much to leave, how much to change, what to do about the time and setting. Leave it?  Modernize the whole thing? Scrap it?  And that nasty little thread that I started at the beginning during the partial rewrite.  What should I do with it?

La la la.

In the end I decided to keep it—both the new thread and the original 70’s venue. This meant re-arranging and adding chapters, and A LOT of blending. Not the simple task I set out to accomplish. The book ended up with a complete face-lift.  And after I did all that, I thought why not do a POD issue while I was at it?  

Well, why not?

Stay tuned for adventures with Create Space…

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Pedaling through History

One of the best things about writing historical fiction is finding facts and pearls of information. It's a little bit like peeling and onion. After one layer comes off, another layer appears. My need to know about bicycles of the past arose during the writing of Rescue in Poverty Gulch when one of the main characters, Miss Sternum, arrived in the scene pedaling down Bennett Avenue. What in the world did bicycles look like in 1896 anyway? Clueless. I imagined the big wheeler bike with the little tiny seat. Probably you'd need to be about six feet tall to get on one to ride and have a parachute for the dismount.

I also thought back to movie scenes like in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when Butch or Sundance or one of them. (Robert Redford to be sure...) pedaled in circles to the tune of "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”.  Now that was a two wheeler that looked familiar!  And, it turns out, that model of bicycle (with the two wheels more or less the same size) has been around since the 1870’s.  

This was good news for me and also Miss Sternum.  Even though she had on her classy bicycle “costume” with two puffy pantaloon-style legs that tapered to fit into her boots, she didn’t have to worry about falling from a great height.  It’s a good thing, or her first meeting with Ruby and her Pa might have resulted in more than broken glasses!

Spoon brake sits on top of front wheel with levers under handlebar.

It wasn't until recently that I needed to peel another layer from the onion. How did a bicycle stop in 1896? The photo to the left came from that research and the curved piece of metal, sitting atop the front tire, did the work. It’s called a spoon brake and worked from the lever near the front handlebars.

What difference does it make to a writer of historical fiction how a bicycle looks or stops? It makes all the difference in the world. What sound does a bicycle like that make when the bike is coming to a stop? Is it a whomp whomp as the break grabs the tire? A scraping sound, grinding, or would you likely hear the tire thumping, skidding, or sliding as it rolled to a stop?

Writers make word choice decisions every day, but with historical fiction, there’s a need to dig deeper. Specific and accurate historical details render the story believable and also help to immerse the reader in time period. This research is not always visible to the reader, but without it, the fictional ride could end up with a flat tire.

For a great article on the history of bicycles, read A Technical History of the Two-Wheeler by Erick Sampson in the Colorado Central Magazine the August 2012 edition.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Next Big Thing

Today I’m hosting the Next Big Thing blog campaign. The Next Big Thing is an international campaign that began in Australia. Authors and illustrators of books for kids and young adults talk about their recently published books and/or those that are due to be released. Each author who has been nominated turns around and nominates a couple of other authors. We all answer the same questions about our work. It’s really just a great big game of “Tag, you’re it.” Today is my turn to answer The Next Big Thing’s standard questions about…well…the next big thing which for me is my current work-in-progress the sequel to “Rescue in Poverty Gulch”.  

Following me will be MG writer Elaine Pease and children’s book illustrator Cathy Morrison.  You can read a little more about them at the end of this blog.  Here goes:

What is the working title of your next book?

The working title for my book is “Trouble on the Tracks.”
Where did the idea come from for the book?

This book came to pass because at the end of Rescue in Poverty Gulch, I could not get my characters to leave Cripple Creek.  I tried twice, both on the first draft and the second.  Nope.  They wouldn't leave.  So I decided there was another book to be set in Cripple Creek with Ruby and her donkey, Maude.  The individual plot points unfolded more slowly, but Cripple Creek had two fires within a week’s time in April of 1896.  In actual fact, they had to let the prisoners out of jail to keep them from dying.  Jake Hawker, the fictional villain from Rescue in Poverty Gulch was among them
What genre does your book fall under?

MG Colorado-set historical fiction.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Well Maude, I guess would be played by a talented, well trained donkey-double.  Perhaps she’d be played by my own donkey, Daisy, who likes attention so much she would love to be a movie star.  Ruby, I’m not sure.  I think she’d be played by one of the talented 5th graders I taught before I retired from my teaching job.  I can think of a few that are both gregarious and talented with a tendency for trouble. And did I tell you there’s a cat in this book?  I think Gayle Gresham’s tiger gray would fit perfectly for this part.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Trouble for Ruby and Maude when Jake Hawker, infamous donkey kidnapper and thief escapes from jail during the second Cripple Creek fire of 1896; it turns out Hawker is more than just a donkey-napper, and Ruby, Maude and the cat play a part in re-capturing him.
Who is publishing your book?
I hope it will be FilterPressBooks  of Palmer Lake Colorado who I have worked with on my last two books and also the paperback version of a third book. 
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Hard to answer this one since the book was started when I was teaching full time.  Typically, the first draft is the hardest and takes the longest.  On the revisions, each draft gets a little quicker, but I have yet to sit down and write a draft with uninterrupted time, so it’s very hard to measure. My best guess is 4-5 months steady at it.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Maybe Anne of Green Gables with a donkey?  It’s such a hard question to answer because there are so many great children’s books out there and I do not stick to just one genre of reading.  I think, piece by piece, there are lots of characters I might compare Ruby to, but not to books as a whole.  For instance, I love the YA author Richard Peck and the way he weaves both wholesomeness, history, and humor into his stories, but I can’t say that this book compares to any of his exactly because every writer is unique.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

With this book, it was the sheer joy of “playing” with dynamic between Ruby and her donkey.  The fact that it is a sequel minimized some of the up-front work on characterization and setting, so I could just jump right in and see what kind of trouble they would get themselves into this time around.

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
I think it’s the cat named Trouble. In the first book, Maude held her own as the darling donkey in residence, and she hasn't disappointed in this book.  But Trouble adds a few new plot twists and “what if” possibilities from a writer’s standpoint, at least.  Other new characters appear, also, and old characters, including Miss Sternum and Mr. Penn offer a few surprises. Pa’s continued quest to find Ruby a “ma” remains constant…much to Ruby’s dismay.
Next up on The Next Big Thing:

Elaine Pease- June 6
Children's MG and picture book author. Elaine also loves to inspire children by making appearances at bookstores and schools to show and tell how she writes and illustrates her books.

Cathy Morrison- June 13

Cathy Morisson is a talented illustrator specializing in the juvenile market - picture books, educational publishing, magazines, games and puzzles.  She is fun and whimsical but also enjoys historical fiction.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Gettin' Too Slangy? A great writing resource.

Slang seems to be a part of our daily conversations, creeping into our language like well…a dog in a doublet.  If it hadn’t been for this wonderful book, I’d never have known what a “dog in a doublet” was.  You might want to take a moment or two to ponder that phrase while I give credit to award winning author, Randall Platt,  for sharing her list of references with me. 

Randall, like me, spends much of her writing time creating the past.  For a writer of historical fiction, this means a lot of things like researching clothing, housing, transportation, and a myriad of other details that beg to be placed correctly in time and place.  As I worked on my most recent book, set in 1896, I kept finding myself slipping into what sounded like more modern speech.  Several phrases popped up with questionable etymologies.  For a quick fix, I usually rely on an online etymological dictionary…easy to use and searchable online.  But unless I got lucky, this resource didn’t help for idioms or slang.

Randi gave me several suggestions for references to try, but the one I settled on for starters is Casell’s Dictionary of Slang.  My version is about 1500 words and expressions are listed alphabetically; it’s easy to use, and it dates everything by the first year an expression came into common use. It also gives an approximate end date if appropriate.  Example:  “dog in a doublet” [late 17C—early 19C]

As it happened, this book came into my hands during a time when I was rewriting an out of print book for the purpose of creating an electronic copy.  When I started the rewrite I was agonizing over whether to update the book to make it more contemporary or keep it as originally written…late 1960’s early 1970’s.  I decided to stick with the older dates and found myself flipping continually through “Casell’s” to determine when “high five” came into use or “far out”.  

Oddly, I lived through that era, but for the life of me never really paid much attention to the etymologies of what came out of my mouth.  This reference book turned out to be an enormous help wading through old expression and for verifying that the language for the book was targeted correctly.

So now I know you’ve been dying to find out what “dog in a doublet” means so here goes:  a daring bold person; thus proud as a dog in a doublet, very proud, amere dog in a doublet, a pitiful figure , one who shows off to no avail. [the custom in Germany and Flanders to dress the dogs used to hunt wild boar in a form of buff doublet]

I never would have known that without access to this reference book.  In fact, I think it’s such a good phrase, it stands to be revived in the 20th century!  I can think of several people it might apply to, but I'm better not to mention names...

Language is changing constantly, and one can only imagine, with the rapid changes in the world around us, what “Casell’s Dictionary of Slang” might look like in ten more years.  For now, I find it a helpful resource for any genre of writing and plan to keep it near at hand when I write.

Cheerio…  phr [1910 +]  1. Goodbye.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Equine Acupressure: Being a donkey then...and now...

Life for burros has changed!  And if you read my last blog, you learned a little about how burros were used in the mining communities of Colorado.  While burros were loved as great companions and friends, they also had very hard lives, carrying heavy loads and doing the work of many men.

Daisy meets Jan for the first time.

In comparison, my donkey, Daisy, lives a lackadaisical life. My dad always asks me why in the world do I want with a donkey if I’m not going to ride her. But that’s another subject. On the subject of Daisy, a neighbor of mine recently earned all of her credentials in equine acupressure.  She’s building her business and offered to give Daisy a treatment. It was hard to say no.  Not only was I interested in finding out more about it, but I was pretty sure Daisy wouldn't mind. 

Getting a check-over

I already had Daisy in the corral when Jan arrived and she set to work giving Daisy a thorough once over…checking head, spine, shoulders, legs…  Daisy was cooperative and inquisitive and seemed to enjoy the attention.  With no specific health problems to focus on, Jan worked with general pressure points that are helpful to all equines—an overall balancing and unblocking—much the way an acupuncturist might work to increase energy flow and promote healing in humans.

The session took about 20 minutes with a walk break in the middle when Daisy got tired of standing in one place.  After that, Jan took on the challenge of working with one of our ranch horses with a stifle.  The horse, like Daisy, was calm throughout. This time, however, Jan focused her attention on the area of the stifle.  As an onlooker, the hand motions and pressure points Jan used were difficult to detect, but could be observed by subtle movements or as Jan pointed out a change in the animal’s breathing. I’ll be anxious to see how this horse improves.   

Working with Lucky's stifle

It’s my understanding from Jan, that equine acupressure can accomplish many things such as: improved blood and lymph circulation, pain relief, increase in trust, shortened recovery time from injuries or illness, and it can be emotionally calming and mood elevation.  Jan describes herself as someone who facilitates and assists animals in maintaining a naturally healthy state.  It was great having an opportunity to learn about this art.  And I’m sure Daisy agrees.

How come that horse is getting all the attention?

You can link to Jan via :

Friday, April 5, 2013

Burros, Donkeys, Whatever...

I just finished reading an excellent book subtitled, “Bringing Civilization to Colorado”.  The book is entitled On the Backs of Burros by P. David Smith and Lyn Bezak.  It’s really interesting with great photos throughout and with the extra bonus of learning some Colorado history and how burros/donkeys contributed to the growth of my native state.
Before I share some highlights from the book, I want to put to rest the difference between a burro and a donkey.  None.  They are the same animal.  A burro is any kind of donkey—Equis asinu—the same animal that has gotten a poor “rap” and sometimes called by a more insulting name.  Or at least it has become insulting because of the way humans like to find ways to equate their fellow beings to some type of animal.

So why the difference in names?   Geography is the answer given in this book.  In most of Colorado this small beast of burden was called a burro.  But in Cripple Creek they are and always have been known as donkeys even to present day where the resident herd of Cripple Creek donkeys is well loved and protected by the community there.

As a writer, these two names for the same animal conjure up different images.  On the one hand, the word burro brings to mind the image of a teddy bear—lovable huggable, cute and cuddly.  The word donkey brings a whole different set of imaginings.  I think, ornery, mischievous, contrary, single-minded...anything but docile.  If I were to think of these critters as two different animals, I’d far prefer the donkey because of its capriciousness.

This bias of mine might explain why I was drawn to some of the anecdotes from the book that told of burros that ate laundry (including the negligees of women), opened latches to sheds, entered houses, and finagled food treats in a myriad of creative ways.

The intelligence of a donkey is often underestimated.  Historically the number of different jobs a burro did such as powering machinery, working in the mines, pulling carts, and carrying ladies side-saddle on outings is a testament to their abilities.  Many stories tell of burros warning their masters of danger, saving lives, delivering messages, and waking up their owners every morning for breakfast.  It's not known whose breakfast the early rising was for as burros became fond of “people” food. Pancakes appeared to be a favorite.

Loyalty is another quality that has been demonstrated by these sure-footed creatures.  Typically burros did not wander far from camp, but stayed nearby without the use of hobbles.  They also could be trained to follow along without the use of a lead.  This faithfulness was reciprocated by prospectors who invited their four-legged friends inside during a winter storm to share the warmth of a cabin. And according to one story the book, a donkey stood by Augustus Tabor's fire and was said to have come into her tent to lay down.

Donkeys were sometimes taken into bars, and according to the authors of the book, were reported to stand at “doors and windows of saloons and dance halls, listening to the music, intently watching the commotion inside, and obviously having a good time themselves.”

The use of burros for transporting supplies across the state of Colorado diminished as trains and other forms of transportation replaced the need for an animal that could successfully negotiate narrow mountain trails and access remote areas.  During the peak of the mining days, burros were an indispensable and vital part of the settlement of the west. 

During World War I, the use of burros experienced a short revival, but after that many burros were abandoned.  They reproduced in the wild, creating the modern day challenge of how to manage feral herds and find enough adoptive homes for them.  In Colorado organizations such as the Longhopes Donkey Shelter:, and the BLM facility east of Canon City are working to find homes for them.

Donkeys have been described as mystical and wise as well as many other expletive-deletives by people with less aptitude.  Donkeys can indeed be lovable and endearing in spite of my earlier comment and have a range talents and abilities, quirks and personalities.  The book “On the Backs of Burros” elaborates, with delightful anecdotes on the lives of burros and their historical contributions to the settlement of Colorado.  A great research resource!

To read more about how I came to have an interest in donkeys and came to be a donkey owner, visit my related web page:

Friday, March 15, 2013

Slurp and Lick: Ice Cream Cones and Donkeys

Ice cream should be added to the list of great American pastimes if it isn't already on it.  When I first decided Maude Oliver, donkey extraordinaire, from the book, Rescue in Poverty Gulch, loved ice cream, I had to decide how she ate it.  My own donkey, Daisy, I'm sure wouldn't put much thought into it. If she couldn't get it into her mouth in one large bite, she'd figure out something else. And watch out for your fingers if you're the benefactor of the treat!

I did a lot of reading about donkeys before Maude made her way to the written page. The real life donkey that gave me the idea for Maude loving ice cream was a modern day donkey.  The donkey's owner didn't go into much detail, but I imagined the donkey ate ice cream from a cone. Maude, however, being a fictional donkey, had to eat ice cream the way they did it in 1896. 

While ice cream was served many different way during the 1800's, the ice cream cone as we know it, was first sold in a push cart on the streets of New York City by a man named Italo Marchiony who is credited with the invention and production of the cone as early as 1896. 

However, the ice cream cone did not gain nationwide popularity until 1904 at the St. Louis World's Fair.  As the story goes, Ernest Hamwi, a waffle vendor had a booth next to an ice cream salesman that ran out of dishes.  Hamwi, solved the ice cream vendor's problem by rolling a waffle into a cone shape that served as an ice cream dish. The cone has undergone changes and modifications throughout the years, but still maintains is "waffly" look.

So, what would have been realistic to assume about how ice cream was served in the gold boom town of Cripple Creek in 1896?  Not ice cream cones as we know them today.  This led me to the discovery of Penny Licks.  A Penny Lick was an ice cream container used primarily by street vendors in the late 1800's.  It was a shallow stemmed glass that came in various sizes: half-penny, penny, and a two penny size.  The customer would place his order, stand near the cart, lick out the ice cream, and return the container to the vendor.  After swishing the container in water, the vendor would collect money from the next customer, scoop a new serving in, and hand the "new" dish to the streetside ice cream lover.  Sometimes the container wasn't even washed in between. It's no wonder that in London, in 1899, a law was passed to ban the use of Penny Licks as they were believed to contribute to the spread of Tuberculosis.

Luckily, donkeys don't get Tuberculosis. Or, not that we know of anyway.  Maude and Ruby shared many a Penny Lick purchased at the Palace Drug near 2nd Street and Bennett Avenue in Cripple Creek in 1896.  One would hope the containers were well washed inside the store before ice cream was served to the next customer.

As I've mentioned often, one of the things I love about writing historical fiction is the discovery of factoids about the past. It's always fun to reflect on how things were and the changes that have happened over time.  So, think about how far we've come from the pushcart days the next time you have a treat at the Cold Stone Creamery or Baskin Robins.  Slurp, lick, and enjoy.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Pen-sive: Using the Right Nib.

It’s so easy to get stuck in paradigms with historical research.  Before I needed to put a pen into a historical character’s hand, I thought there was only one type of old-time writing utensil…the carefully nibbed quill. I don’t know what I thought happened in between the quill pen and the clickable Bic, but when Miss Sternum (Rescue in Poverty Gulch) needed to pull a writing utensil from her purse at an important moment in the story, it gave me an ink-stained pause.

Like all technology, things undergo a gradual and sometimes a not so gradual change.  When I think about pens during my lifetime, I recall the fat ballpoints we were finally allowed to use when I reached junior high school.  And these were much different that the fine tipped Sharpies or gel pens in use today.  

Not my dad. High school boyfriend?

I also remember when pocket protectors were an everyday part of a business man’s wardrobe, not just the nerds, but people who went to work every day wearing a suit, like my dad. Even when he wore a sports shirt, the pocket protector was in place and a pen handy. Then, if you consider all the different styles and brands of pens, the variety is immense. 


The ball point pen itself was a huge leap forward, relying on a ball bearing at the tip of the ink tube to keep the ink from spilling out.  It’s the pressure on the ball, which releases the ink to flow out in what everyone hopes will be a smooth, even flow.  No blotters or blotting paper needed after the ballpoint replaced metal nibs for writing.  Ballpoint pens came into common use in the 1950’s and are still in use today.  (Gel  pens use a type of roller tip,too, but the consistency of the ink (the gel) is what makes the difference in how they write.)

The invention of the metal nib advanced pen technology.

So what came in between dipping and rolling?  I discovered it was the fountain pen which uses a nib, but also has a self-contained ink bottle needed. It worked on the science of capillary attraction to make work. And in case you've forgotten that science lesson, it is what allows liquid to flow into a narrow space...the little slit in the metal point.




So to back up a little, there were quill pens, then the invention of metal nibs used for dipping, and from there the fountain pen which was portable and carried around its own ink in a metal tube.

The fountain pen, which was not very reliable to begin with, evolved to the point (no pun intended) where a person could be relatively certain it could be used  without ending up with a pool of black liquid in a purse,  a pocket, or on the paper being used. 

In the 19th century, people were often judged by the quality of their penmanship,  but it makes me wonder if it became such a respected talent because of the skill it took to produce a piece of writing that was not blurred, blotted, blobbed or blackened.

Ink blotter
Judging by how often I use the delete key on the computer, I would have been hard pressed to produce an error-free letter.  I still remember writing my first published book on a typewriter (before White-out).  I’d use the little correction papers, stick them between the typewriter ribbon and keys to cover the mistake, retype so the mistake looked white and blended with the paper (sort of), and re-type again with the correction paper removed, and if I did this step correctly, I could move on.

(My typewriter was actually a little newer. than this one.)

And now, ahhhh, the computer keyboard.   Who could have imagined?

In the end, Miss Sternum did pull a fountain pen out of her purse (1896) and the important paper was signed without any pooled ink.  Or maybe I neglected to include that detail in the story.

In this case, it wasn't the most important thing. But it certainly was important that she didn't have to pull out her ink bottle and quill, uncork the bottle, dip the pen in and hand it over while the "bad" guy waited.
My final thought: be pen-sive and use the right nib. It may not be necessary to know the exact brand or design used, but an error in vintage will require a quantity of blotting paper to cover it up.  

Egyptian Reed Pens from 4th Century Egypt

Friday, February 15, 2013

Loving the Facts: Post Valentines Day Post

“Manna from Heaven.”  It’s wonderful when the historical facts surrounding an event  are so gripping that it’s hard to improve on them with a fictional account. 

This happened to me with my first published historical fiction work, “Nothing Here but Stones”.  The drama surrounding the immigration of a group of Russian Jews to a relatively isolated part of Colorado was palpable. What first began as a planned move to the United States became urgent when anti-Jewish pogroms became widespread in Poland and the Ukraine. 

Cotopaxi, Colorado about 1890
All planning aside, the immigrants left their homes and settled in an area south of Cotopaxi, Colorado. With promises of houses, farming equipment, two span of horses and other items, the Cotopaxi “colonists" set out, traveling from New York City to what must have seemed like an empty expanse of nothingness.  As they left Pueblo and headed due west, the terrain quickly shifted to steep rocky canyons, foothills, and towering rugged mountains.

When they arrived in Cotopaxi, they discovered the houses were insufficient and incomplete, the equipment and livestock less than promised, and the “farming” ground littered with rocks. Miles south of town, the small dwellings were above 8,000 feet with no water available for irrigation.

The colonists struggled to succeed, but for two consecutive years, their crops failed, yielding potatoes smaller than the seed stock they used to plant them.  To complicate things, they had hoped to own their own land. This never happened. Whether the understanding was lost in the translation from Yiddish to English or was misunderstood from the beginning is unknown.  They traveled 40 miles by wagon to Canon City to the county seat and made statements attesting to ownership, but the statements did not provide any rights of ownership.

This skeleton version offers plenty to hang a story on.  One can imagine the long, uncomfortable train trip, the difficulty getting the first crops planted, the language barrier and difficulty communicating…

And within that are the documented facts of men, three to a log, carrying huge trees down steep slopes to the river for the extension of the railroad, west from Salida over Monarch Pass, the women scavenging for coal along the railroad tracks, “marauding bears”, hungry Utes begging for food, pleas for help on bended knee, and a man fording the Arkansas at flood level to get medicine for his wife.  
And I still haven’t mentioned the love story of two of the colonists and the third colonist who tried to get the marriage annulled. When he was unsuccessful, he left the colony on foot, journeying through the back country to Denver in despair.
When the colonists began to struggle, some naysayers accused them of unrealistic expectations and lack of resolve.  Others insisted they were victims of misinformation and deceit. After two short years, the Cotopaxi Colony dissolved. Many colonists became leaders in the Denver Jewish community, and some became successful farmers in other places.  The descendants ‘success stories are numerous and varied.
 Manna from Heaven!  Who wouldn’t fall in love with this story of struggling pioneers and the things they endured to start a new life in the United States. 
I know I did.  It captured my heart, and after that, the hardest part was deciding on which details to add or subtract, or to bend or embellish in order to render the story in fictional form.  
With the recent re-release of “Nothing Here but Stones” in a paperback version, I’ve had a chance to revisit the original story that inspired me so much in the first place.
 I’m still in love with the facts as much as the fiction…still in love with the idea that people can overcome difficulties and go on to find success…even when the original vision becomes something new.