Sick Days in Retirement: If a Woman Sneezes at Home, Does Anyone Hear?

This is a self-pity post. I’ve had a cold or the flu for the last week, and I’ve been miserable. If the news reports of the flu epidemic are true, then many other people out there are sick also, and many are sicker than I am. But at the moment, I’m pitying myself, not others.

I got my flu shot, so I shouldn’t be sick. I breezed through Christmas without any exposure (that I knew of) to illness.

But on New Year’s Eve I awoke with a scratchy throat. For the next two days, I didn’t feel well, but I didn’t think it was too bad. I kept up with my normal activities, even going to the gym on Tuesday. I took some cold medicine to help me sleep, but I figured the flu shot would do its thing and I would improve quickly.

This isn’t me, but I have a blue robe like this that I’ve been spending a lot of time in.

Then Wednesday hit. Congestion. Coughing. Fatigue. The proverbial freight train slammed into my body, and I didn’t want to move.

Ditto Thursday. And Friday, though Friday was a little better than Thursday. And Saturday a little better still.

Nevertheless, since my gym visit Tuesday, I haven’t left the house, and I don’t plan to until a meeting scheduled this coming Tuesday.

It has been a long time since I was sick enough to decide to cancel all non-home-based activities for a week.

Of course, while I was working, I generally couldn’t cancel everything. I never took a full week off for illness in twenty-seven years of corporate life. I don’t think I ever took more than two days. There were too many bosses and judges putting meetings on my calendar and imposing non-negotiable deadlines, too many people requiring input and output from me. Too much peer pressure to keep going strong even after the freight train struck.

So I think of taking sick days as a luxury. As a self-employed writer and community volunteer, I can decide for myself whether my presence at meetings is necessary or whether the risk of infecting others outweighs the contributions I could bring to a discussion. I can be self-pitying, and no one can chastise me.

Not me either. This woman looks how I feel, but I don’t have a teddy bear to keep me company.

But the ability to take sick days also means I’m expendable. No one relies on me for anything that can’t be postponed. Even my husband could manage to feed himself if I didn’t fix dinner (though I have been doing that through my illness).

I’m fortunate that I am currently at a point in my writing project that takes very little creativity. I’m doing a final polish on Forever Mine, which doesn’t require much more than the ability to spot typos. I’m pretty good at that, and even my fog-filled brain can handle that mindless activity.

Still, I wonder if I will regret this lost week, if it will set the tone for the coming year. And, in my self-pitying mode, I wonder who besides myself would care if I don’t meet my self-imposed goals.

When have you wallowed in self-pity? What got you out of it?

Happy New Year!

Here’s a link to my January 1, 2018, newsletter. I send this out monthly with updates on my writing. I hope you’ll check it out. If you like it, I hope you’ll subscribe (if you haven’t already). I provide different content in the newsletter than on this blog, so there are reasons to follow both.

This month, the newsletter announces the launch date for my next novel, Forever Mine.

I hope your 2018 begins well and improves through the year.

Happy New Year!

The Charles Preuss Maps of the Oregon Trail

In Lead Me Home, and again in my about-to-be-published novel Forever Mine, I make frequent mention of what my characters call “the Frémont maps.” In fact, these maps were created by Charles Preuss, a German cartographer who accompanied John Frémont on his explorations of the West in 1842 and 1843. The maps were first published in Frémont’s reports to Congress in 1845 and 1846, so my fictional characters could have obtained copies by early 1847.

Preuss’s seven maps are available online

On the 1842 expedition, Frémont, Preuss and their companions followed what would become the main route to Oregon—along the Platte River through what is now Nebraska and Wyoming, crossing to the Sweetwater River, then to South Pass where they crossed the Continental Divide, and then searching for the Snake River, which they followed as far as the Columbia River. Preuss’s maps stop at Fort Walla Walla, where the Snake joins the Columbia. That’s where the 1842 Frémont expedition turned around.

Preuss created seven maps depicting their travels on the 1842 trek. These were later published with Frémont’s report to Congress, and the maps became guideposts for many travelers to Oregon.

Here is the first of Preuss’s maps, showing the trail from Westport to the Little Blue River in Kansas, where the emigrants headed north toward the Platte.

I used the Preuss maps extensively in my research about the Oregon Trail. I often triangulated Preuss’s maps, pioneer journals, and Google Maps to decide where to have my fictional wagon train camp each night along the way. I had to be realistic in how far oxen-pulled wagons could travel (compared to the lighter Frémont convoy), and I had to make sure I thought about what changes to the terrain might have occurred between the 1840s and when Google’s satellite images were prepared. Many of the rivers have been dammed in the intervening 170+ years.

Here is an image from Google Maps reflecting my research into where my wagon train camped in Missouri and Kansas. This private Google Map shows all the waypoints I identified along the trail. I used this as a guide for where to place the emigrants each night of their journey.

Writers, what are some of the unusual research techniques you’ve used?


Thoughts on Writing, from Before I Started Writing

I recently reread my journal from December 2002, trying to find the exact dates we’d traveled to Aruba that month. I came across an entry about writing.

In 2002, writing was still a pipe dream of mine. I thought I wanted to write when I retired, but I hadn’t made any decisions. I wasn’t even sure I would retire when I became eligible at age 50, though that was my hope.

My journal

Here’s what I wrote about writing as of December 15, 2002:

“I’ve been doing some thinking about writing as I’ve [browsed in] libraries and bookstores. There are so many books—most with really cockamamie plots or poorly written. Surely I can do at least that well. I’ve also read an interview with a writer—talking about the difficulty of staring at blank paper and of editing. Surely I am no different, and surely I can overcome.”

It’s now fifteen years later, December 2017. I’ve added three more books to those so many books, with a fourth about to be published. I read recently that there are over 1 million books published each year. The competition is fierce. In 2002, ebooks were only a theory, now they are the majority of new books published. These days, there’s a publishing overload, and I’m part of it.

Some readers probably think my novels have cockamamie plots also. I think my plots are (mostly) plausible, but I’ve learned as I’ve been writing that realistic writing is in the eye of the writer . . . And the reader.

I also think my novels are written at least as well as half of those that are published. I don’t pretend to be a great literary writer, but I think I can tell a good story with reasonably strong prose.

And through it all, I have learned for myself the difficulty of staring at a blank page (though I stare at a screen, not at paper). It’s a challenge to figure out how to translate the scenes I see in my head into words. I am more forgiving of other writers now than I was in 2002.

Some days I write well. Some days I write poorly. I try to always remember Anne Lamott’s advice in Bird by Bird—shitty first drafts are the norm. I think it was Ernest Hemingway who first said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” Anne Lamott then expanded on shitty first drafts: “All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.”

Along with many writers before me, I’ve learned to overcome the blank page and get that first draft written so I have something to work with.

I’ve also learned for myself the difficulty of editing. Once that first draft is done, the real work begins. It’s only through editing—sculpting the work to approximate ever closer what I see in my head—that the novel takes shape.

Over and over I edit. For me, it takes several more than three drafts to get to something I can call terrific. . . . Or even acceptable.

I’m in the constant revision stage with my work in progress, Forever Mine. On the whole, I’m pleased with it. But I still see rough spots. So I’m still editing. Like with sandpaper, each pass gets finer. Soon, I hope I’ll have done all I can.

I will overcome the difficulty of editing this book, as I overcame the blank page.

And then I’ll start with another blank page on another book.

Writers, what’s your biggest challenge in your current work in progress?

P.S. My apologies to readers offended by the language in this post. Hemingway started it.

The Development of Time Zones in the Nineteenth Century

One of my challenges in writing about the 19th century has been trying to determine how to account for time of day. In my descriptions of travel along the Oregon Trail, I mostly refer to time in generalities—midmorning, noon, sunset, and the like. I rarely give a precise hour.

My grandfather’s pocket watch

The captain of my fictional wagon train has a pocket watch, and he occasionally refers to it. But, of course, as the emigrants travel west across the continent, the captain and others with watches would have to adjust their timepieces so they continue to read 12:00 pm when the sun is directly overhead. That’s how time was kept in the 19th century—each community set its clocks so noon coincided with when the sun was at its highest point.

In my novels, I don’t depict the captain or any other character changing a watch, and as I write this post, I wonder how often the emigrants bothered. They moved an average of about fifteen miles per day, so it probably took them a few weeks of travel for the discrepancy between a watch and the sun to be noticeable.

Clock in Union Station, Kansas City (clock is 6 feet in diameter)

But as railroads developed and the pace of travel speeded up, the need for a uniform system of setting the time became more important. Railroads needed to develop a uniform schedule. Before they did, their timetables were a nightmare to maintain—each station abided by its local time, and therefore each station needed its own printed version of the railroad timetable. But many railroads published their schedules based on where their main office was.

Great Britain set a standard time across that nation in December 1847. (Note that this was two months after my fictional wagon train arrived in Oregon City.) But although the clocks were mostly standardized, England did not legally adopt Greenwich Mean Time until 1880.

Great Britain was relatively easy—one time zone sufficed. The problem was more acute across vast spaces, such as the continent of North America.

Time zones in the United States and Canada were not standardized until 1883. The major railroads of North America facilitated the process of setting those standard zones. Having a common time across a latitude of several hundred miles was not as precise as setting noon at the sun’s apex at every locality, but the time zones were a compromise that allowed wider regions to follow a common schedule.

And so the railroads established four time zones for the contiguous United States and Canada. Those time zones survive today—Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific—though there have been some changes at the edges over the years.

Once the zones were communicated, on November 18, 1883, telegraph lines transmitted time signals to all major cities across the nation. And from that point on, the continent has had standardized time settings, even if they were not universally or legally recognized.

A year later in October 1884, Greenwich Mean Time was set as the world’s time standard. GMT lasted until 1960, when it was superseded by the more precise (but almost identical) Coordinated Universal Time (or UTC).

Congress did not legally adopt the time zones until 1918. (The 1918 Calder Act that established legal time in the United States also established Daylight Savings Time, but the debate over Daylight Savings Time is a topic for another post.) Other nations took even longer to legally set their time zones.

I have always set my watch a few minutes fast so that I can avoid being late. Now that I rely primarily on a cell phone and other web-based clocks for the time, I don’t have that crutch. I must get myself ready with a few minutes to spare.

Are you someone who is regularly early or late? Why?

Our Fortieth Anniversary: Memories and Treasures Through Generations

This year I’ve posted several times about my husband’s and my courtship forty years ago. (See here and here and here.) Yesterday, November 26, 2017, was our fortieth wedding anniversary. As we did the year we were married, we celebrated throughout the Thanksgiving weekend.

This Thursday we hosted my husband’s mother, sister, and brother-in-law for Thanksgiving dinner. It was a smaller, older crowd than our holiday dinner forty years ago. Then, my parents hosted the entire wedding party and three generations of family members at two tables. My husband-to-be-in-two-days, at age 28, was the oldest person at the kids’ table in the basement. My parents, at age 44, were the youngest people at the grown-ups’ table in the dining room.

This Friday, we rested after our meal preparation for Thanksgiving. Forty years ago on Friday of the holiday weekend, we had the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner.

This past Saturday evening, my husband and I went to a Christmas music show at the Quality Hill Playhouse in Kansas City. On Saturday afternoon of Thanksgiving weekend forty years ago, we were married, followed by a low-key reception at a local hotel in my hometown. Late that Saturday, my husband and I flew to San Francisco, where we stayed at the Mark Hopkins Hotel.

On Sunday—our actual fortieth anniversary—my husband worked and I dealt with a temporary crown that popped off. But in the evening we celebrated with dinner at Piropos, a premier restaurant near our home (though to accommodate my tooth, I ordered soup and seafood ravioli instead of salad and steak, as I had planned). On Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend forty years ago, we had brunch at the Top of the Mark, then headed back to Stanford to prepare for our Monday law school classes.

On June 25, 1955, almost twenty-two years before my husband and I were married, my parents also stayed at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco, driving there from Klamath Falls, Oregon, after their wedding. My mother wrote her parents a lovely thank-you note on June 27, 1955, while on their two-week honeymoon in Carmel. My grandmother saved the note, and I have it now.

I was a less grateful daughter and didn’t write my parents while on my brief one-night honeymoon. Nor did I contact them anytime in the week after the wedding. When I did first call my parents the following weekend, there were some hints that they should have heard from me earlier. My only excuse is that I had classes on Monday and a law review note to rewrite in three weeks. That, and I am less thoughtful than my parents were.

As I was going through our good china and silver (most of which we received as our wedding presents) to set the table for Thanksgiving dinner last week, I came across a box with a silver tray in it. The tray falls into the category of “things I forgot I had.”

In the box with the tray was a note from my mother to my husband and me:

“Dear Theresa and Al,
Happy 25th Anniversary! As a silver keepsake-memento for this occasion in your life, this silver tray Nanny Winnie and Papa Gene [my mother’s parents] received from a group of their friends in Klamath Falls on their 25th anniversary at a surprise party (I believe) in 1954.
With our love and prayers, Mother and Dad.
November 26, 2002 — Have a wonderful trip to Aruba.”

My parents were as thoughtful in their choice of gift for our twenty-fifth anniversary as they were after their own wedding, by then almost fifty years in the past. I’m sure I wrote them a thank-you note after receiving the tray, though there is no evidence to prove it. And I’ve never used the silver tray from my grandparents, which is why it became a “thing I forgot I had.” It seems too nice to leave out, plus it would then need polishing on occasion.

This post rambles from events commemorating our fortieth anniversary this year, our twenty-fifth anniversary in 2002, our wedding in 1977, my parents’ wedding in 1955, and my grandparents’ twenty-fifth anniversary in 1954—which happened before I was born. Some of these events are part of my memory. Some were not my memories, but those of my parents and grandparents, and they survive now only as recorded in letters. Or in my blog posts.

Family memories live on through the ages, as long as we keep them alive. By writing them down, I do what I can to keep my family’s memories alive.

Perhaps I will pull out that silver tray from my grandparents this year to hold the Christmas cards we will receive over the next few weeks. That, too, will help me keep alive the memories that are mine, my parents, and my grandparents. And maybe I’ll even build some new memories, so that the silver tray becomes mine as much it was as my grandparents.’

What treasures are part of your family’s memories?

The Power & Limits of Scrivener (for me)

As I try to polish and publish my third historical novel over the next couple of months, I thought it would be worthwhile to step back and take a look at the tools I’ve used in writing this draft, particularly Scrivener. I’m surprised that I haven’t written about Scrivener in almost a year.

For nonwriters and nonusers of Scrivener, this post will sound like Greek. My apologies.

And for Scrivener users, let me be clear that I’m using the Windows 1.9 version. I’m told the current Mac version has better features than the Windows version. (More on Scrivener updates at the end of this post.)

My history with Scrivener:

This current work-in-progress, Forever Mine, was the first novel I drafted in Scrivener. In the past, I drafted my novels in Word. I started using Scrivener in the summer of 2014 to write and organize my blog posts (I’m in Scrivener as I draft this post). Writing short documents (mostly 500-1000 word posts) turned out to be a really good way to get comfortable in Scrivener.

When I completed Lead Me Home in 2105 and Now I’m Found in 2016, I dumped the Word documents I’d used to create the print-on-demand (POD) versions for CreateSpace into Scrivener. I broke up the documents into chapters in Scrivener, and then compiled the resulting Scrivener files into ebook formats for Amazon (MOBI format) and Barnes & Noble (EPUB format). I learned a lot about the compile function in Scrivener doing the ebooks.

Drafting my current book:

When I started my current work-in-progress, I had two goals: First, I wanted to outline the book in more detail than I’d managed when writing my earlier novels. Scrivener, I knew, had better outlining tools than Word. Second, I wanted to see how far I could get drafting in Scrivener—would it prove an acceptable substitute for Word?

I found several advantages to outlining and drafting in Scrivener:

  • I could in fact outline, starting with a list of key scenes and turning points in the book, then building more scenes around these crucial points
  • I could move not only chapters around, but also scenes
  • I could label each scene by which character had the point of view
  • I could check the word count of each scene (and, if I worked at it, by chapter and total manuscript also)
  • I could import an 1847 calendar and other research tools, including character sketches, into Scrivener’s “Research” folder, for immediate reference
  • I could outline the novel using a three-act structure and various plot points, as described in a variety of novel-writing resources (this would be the first novel I tried to plot in advance, rather than shaping after a draft was done)
  • I could add a date field, so I could keep a running timeline going
  • I even imported the entire text of Lead Me Home into my Forever Mine Research folder, because the plots of the two novels are so intricately woven (same people on the same journey, but focused on different points of view)

But there were some disadvantages to using Scrivener:

Each week I had to spit out about ten pages to send to my critique partners, most of whom do not use Scrivener. At first, those pages were pretty ugly (Courier font), but over time, I learned to “compile” the chapters I wanted from Scrivener into a decent-looking Word document using settings that I saved to use week after week.

I don’t like Scrivener’s formatting features, which aren’t nearly as sophisticated as Word’s. However, the formatting was adequate for a rough draft, and I developed some “preset” formats that worked for me. I couldn’t divide the scenes with an image as I do in the published books, so that was another ugly aspect of what my critique partners had to see each week. But they’re patient.

As I worked, however, I decided that at some point I would have to dump the whole manuscript into Word and reformat it into the CreateSpace template for the POD. The compile feature in Scrivener simply wouldn’t get me where I wanted to go with the formatting.

I periodically did dump the manuscript into a PDF, so I could read through it on my Android tablet, but then I took the comments I’d made on the PDF and had to enter them into the Scrivener file. (Scrivener has an iOS version for Mac tablets, but not for Android.) I learned how to take the manuscript from Scrivener into the CreateSpace template with minimal fuss—as long as I complied using Header 1 and Normal styles, Word could interpret those and give me something I could work with.

Screenshot of my novel in Scrivener

Revising the novel:

I wrote the whole first draft if this novel in Scrivener, then started revising. I went through all the comments from my two critique groups and edited the manuscript, based on what they told me. I also did a lot of my own rewriting and correcting, and filled in what I’d left blank or sketchy on the first draft. All this, I did in Scrivener.

I also looked at the novel through each character’s scenes separately. This was a real advantage of Scrivener. Forever Mine uses six points of view, so I got to see how each character developed through the book. Scrivener lets the user create “collections” of scenes, which I did for each point-of-view character. I could have done more with this tool, and I might use it more on future books.

Converting to Word to polish:

Each run-through in Scrivener got easier, but I still thought Scrivener’s usefulness would end at some point. Many expert users of Scrivener stay in the program all the way through creating the POD and ebook versions. But I’m not that good at compiling, and I prefer the precision I can get in Word.

So about a month ago I “compiled” the entire manuscript as a Word document and switched from editing in Scrivener to editing in Word.

From this point forward, I’ll follow the process I used with my earlier novels—polishing and formatting in Word, then I’ll take it back into a new Scrivener file to convert to ebook format.

As a final note, Scrivener is about to launch a big update for its Mac version any day now. And users are told that the new Windows version will launch in a few months. I will likely update my Scrivener software when the new Windows version is available, but not until after the ebook versions of Forever Mine are published! Managing a software update and publication of a novel at the same time is probably more stress than I need.

For my earlier posts on Scrivener, see here and here and here.

Writers, what has your experience been with Scrivener?