Postage Costs in the 1840s

I wrote a post last year about the difficulties of mail service during the California Gold Rush years. I was thinking about this issue again recently when I bought first-class stamps at our local Post Office. I typically wait until I’m almost out of stamps (which I was last week), then I buy 100 stamps. I paid $49.00 for my five sheets of twenty stamps, or 49 cents per stamp. These stamps will last me until Christmas time, when I’ll have to stock up again with Christmas stamps.

1850s letter showing 40 cents paid for postage

In 1847, it cost five cents to send a letter less than 300 miles within the United States, ten cents to mail it over 300 miles (but still within the States), and 40 cents to mail it from Oregon or California to the States.

So in the past 170 years, the cost of mailing a letter from the West Coast to the East Coast has increased nine cents. Just think about that the next time you complain about postage costs.

Of course, because of inflation, one dollar in 1847 would be worth $28.14 in 2017. So the forty-cent cost of mailing the letter in 1847 would be equivalent to $11.26 today. In other words, our forty-nine cent price of a first-class stamp is a real bargain.

The fact that we can transport letters in mere days—using airplanes and automated sorting machines—at a price far below the cost our ancestors paid shows the miracle of technology.

Another 1850s letter showing postage paid

And the fact that our pioneer ancestors could transport letters at any cost from a frontier that didn’t even have roads shows the miracle of human tenacity and desire to maintain relationships and communications.

In my novel Lead Me Home, I had one character send a letter from a campsite in what is now Nebraska (Ash Hollow) to his parents in Boston. According to David Dary, author of The Oregon Trail: An American Saga (2004), in 1846 someone constructed small log cabin at the Ash Hollow spring, and the cabin served as an informal post office until 1850. So I had my character leave his letter in this cabin for someone headed back East to pick up and carry back to the States.

But as I wrote the scene, I was curious about how the emigrants paid postage on the letters. I didn’t think they would leave their letters with coins for postage attached, so I wondered how their correspondence actually reached their loved ones back home.

Then I learned that letters could be mailed “collect,” meaning that postage was due from the recipient when delivered. In some years during our nation’s history, collect letters cost more than those with prepaid postage, but a letter could be mailed with postage due. Prepayment of postage did not become mandatory until 1855.

So now I picture some kind-hearted mountain man on his way back East picking up a packet of letters at Ash Hollow and dropping them at the Post Office in Independence or St. Louis. From an official Post Office, the letters would make their way—just as ours do today—to the appropriate location. But the postman would only deliver the letter to my character’s parents in Boston if they paid the ten cents for delivery from Missouri. Of course, my character came from a wealthy family, so the ten cent cost would not have been a problem for them to pay.

What technological advances in the last 200 years do you think are the most important?

A Tale of Two New Computers

I wrote in January 2013 about having to replace two computers and an e-reader within a few short months. Four-and-a-half years later, I’m in a similar situation. After replacing my husband’s and my cell phones last December and our printer in February, I am now in the middle of upgrading our two computers.

The keyboard and a USB port on my old laptop—the sweet little laptop that produced my two novels—were going bad. The computer worked fine with an external keyboard, but it wasn’t reliable as a true laptop any longer. And I worried that if the one remaining USB port stopped working, I wouldn’t be able to back up my data to the external hard drive.

Meanwhile, the desktop my husband uses has become painfully slow, despite a full overhaul last summer. Booting up takes forever. I click on the Quicken icon and can go downstairs for a Diet Coke before the program loads. My husband has tolerated this glacial speed, but I can no longer stand it.

The time has come. These machines have done yeoman’s work. They deserve a rest. They deserve another home with someone who will appreciate them the way I no longer can. So in March I ordered two computers.

My new laptop arrived—a 13-inch convertible HP Spectre with a touchscreen, tons of RAM, and a solid-state hard drive. It’s essentially a souped-up version of the little laptop that has been my partner for the past several years.

New laptop

I love the device, but I hate the set-up. I’ve had the new laptop almost two weeks now, and it still doesn’t operate the way I want. I can do most things, but finding files I moved to its hard drive takes a little work (mostly because I’m trying to organize my data more rationally than on the old laptop). Even programs aren’t always where I expect them to be.

I’ve switched to Microsoft Office 365. I don’t like subscription plans for software, but Microsoft sets their prices so that the 365 plan makes the most sense financially if you have more than one device you want to load Office on. Plus you get tons of cloud storage. Thankfully, this version of Office looks enough like the old that I can type. But I had to install the custom fonts I used on my novels again, and I’m not sure I have them all yet. I’ll need to inspect everything before I can format my new novel to look like the others in the series (though that is months down the road).

I’ve downloaded Scrivener and Evernote and my backup software. I’ve loaded the Kindle and Nook apps and made Chrome my default browser. But I found out that my photo editing preference—Picasa—is no longer available. So that was a huge disappointment, until I moved it from my old computer to the new one (it’s working at this point).

The backup software I’ve used with my external hard drive to back up continuously doesn’t work on this laptop. The software that backs up hourly seems to work fine, but not the continuous backup. Western Digital can’t explain why, though they have offered telephone assistance, which I have yet to take advantage of.

Recently I had to use the laptop without the external keyboard and mouse, and I realized I’m going to have to make some changes in the trackpad.

Every day I find a new issue.

But even more frustrating than my set-up issues on the laptop is that HP lost the new desktop I ordered for over three weeks. I ordered it on March 17, and it was supposed to ship on March 20 and be delivered on March 24.

When there was no update to my order status page by March 25, I filed a complaint. I was told the computer had shipped on March 24. When several days later my order status page still said it would ship on March 20, I emailed HP again. I was told it would be shipped by April 6.

No change.

On April 7, I called HP’s customer service line. I was not given a firm ship date, but I was given a discount off the purchase price. Then finally, on April 8, I had an email from HP stating that the desktop had shipped. I now have a FedEx tracking number, and my order status page says the computer should arrive on April 11.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that I’ll have to go through the whole set-up process again. With my husband breathing down my neck (like he did the last time), wondering why it doesn’t work exactly like the old one. In addition to all the issues I described with the laptop, it will have Windows 10 instead of Windows 7, so it will look very different to him. But I bet he’ll be happier with its speed.

We are so reliant on technology these days. And yet, have things changed that much from when the horseless carriage replaced the wagon? We still have to fight our new devices and we lose productivity while we figure them out. We have the entire knowledge-base of the world at our fingertips, and yet a mechanically malfunctioning key can keep us from entering the password that allows us to access this knowledge. That was never a problem with the encyclopedia on the bookshelf.

What do you hate most about replacing a computer?

Back to Square One: My New Work in Progress and Scrivener

NIF front cover 9-2-16After I published Now I’m Found in late September 2016, I found myself at loose ends with my writing. I still had to draft regular posts for this blog and for another blog I author, but for the first time in ten years, I didn’t have a novel that I was in the process of writing.

On each of the three novels I’ve published (the two historical fiction I’ve written under my own name and the contemporary thriller I wrote under a pseudonym), I wrote a draft, put it aside, started another book, put it aside, went back to an earlier book for another edit . . . and the cycle continued until each book felt ready to publish. And finally, all three novels were published.

I learned as I went—how to craft a story arc, how to deepen emotions through dialogue, internal monologues, and even descriptions of the setting, how to foreshadow later developments in the plot. I also learned about self-publishing—how to format both print-on-demand paperbacks and e-books.

But as of October 2016, I was back to square one. A blank page.

I decided to write another book about the Oregon Trail. In fact, I am using some of the minor characters from Lead Me Home as the protagonists in this novel. Mac and Jenny, the protagonists in the earlier two historical novels, are the minor characters in this new story.

This work-in-progress is both easy and difficult. It’s easy, because I know the timeline—the overall plot was set in Lead Me Home, though the focus in this story is much different. And I’ve done most of the historical research that I need for this novel. For the most part, I’m having fun confronting the blank page—I know where I’m going, even if my characters don’t.

But I am seeing the trek to Oregon through an entirely different lens. Actually, I’m seeing it through six lenses. I have (at the moment—this might change) six point-of-view characters. In Lead Me Home, Mac and Jenny were the only POV characters, so this new story is more complicated. Who should have the POV in each scene? Do I have to rotate consistently? Have I forgotten to let one of them have a voice? I’m still working on the answers to these questions, but I had many POV characters in my thriller, so I have some experience with the technique.

scrivener-logoI am also trying to work almost entirely in Scrivener. I’ve drafted my blogs in Scrivener for over two years now, and I used Scrivener to convert Lead Me Home and Now I’m Found into MOBI and EPUB formats for e-books. I know the basics of the program. But I am determined to learn more about Scrivener’s capabilities as I write this new work-in-progress—that’s part of my motivation in taking on a project that doesn’t require a lot of new research.

I want to do a better job of outlining my story arc in this book, rather than having to sculpt the story into an arc after I’ve written a draft or two, as I’ve had to do with my prior novels. Scrivener’s outlining and corkboard features are a big help. I already have the major turning points in the novel set, and I’m filling in each section ahead of my drafting.

Scrivener is also helping with the POV tracking. I can use different colors and labels for scenes in each POV.

I’m also learning a lot about Scrivener’s compile feature, because each week I have to export a chapter from Scrivener into Word to send to my critique partners. I don’t have it down pat yet, mostly because of my carelessness. But my group isn’t complaining too much, and I am at the point where I can compile a decent product to Word with a few clicks. Then I just need a little clean-up before emailing it to my colleagues.

When I get to the point of formatting for print-on-demand, I will probably switch to Word for the detailed work. I know many authors export from Scrivener directly to a PDF for CreateSpace, but I am not confident enough of my formatting knowledge in Scrivener, and I know Word very well.

But then, formatting to publish is a long way down the road—I’ve only drafted the story from Independence, Missouri, to around Grand Island, Nebraska, on the Platte River at this point. That’s about 25% of the book. And I know how far along I am, because so far I’ve stuck to my outline pretty well. I’ve just passed the first turning point in the story.

I guess I have learned something about story arc in the last ten years, if I can recognize a turning point on the first draft.

Writers, do you use Scrivener, and what do you think of it?

Pixels and PEBKAC

t-shopping-for-cell-phone-img_20161118_180303

Me buying a new cell phone

My husband and I recently began having cell phone problems. My phone was almost three years old, and its storage capacity was exhausted. I periodically had to delete apps and empty caches and the like so I could download my email. I couldn’t take more than a few pictures before I needed to offload them to my PC. I had already replaced the battery once, and it seemed to be discharging more quickly.

My husband’s phone was a generation newer than mine. He bought it six months after I got mine, and it had just passed its two-year contract expiration. But his screen randomly flashed and went black. He could get the visuals back, but all signs indicated a developing illness in his phone. Probably fatal.

So I decided it was time to buy new phones. I did some Internet research and identified several acceptable options. Then I read that Verizon (our provider) was offering a BOGO50 sale. My husband wasn’t eager to upgrade, but he knew we had to do something soon. I convinced him to set a shopping date for a recent Friday afternoon.

That Friday I raced home after my lunch appointment to meet him. He wasn’t there. A note on our kitchen table revealed he had a hastily scheduled meeting and might miss our phone excursion.

He showed up about 4:30pm. We decided there was still time to head to the Verizon store, though I warned him it was likely to take until about 6:00 or so to handle all the paperwork and phone setup. Neither of us does well with extended shopping events. I also emphasized that we didn’t have to buy anything that day, if we didn’t like their choices and prices.

When we pulled into the parking lot, I saw a TV camera inside the store. Uh, oh. I was afraid the salespeople would be tied up with publicity and wouldn’t focus on us. But we’d made it this far, so in we went.

A very nice sales clerk talked us through our options and showed us how all their deals could be “stacked” (as she put it) to allow us to get two latest-technology Google Pixel phones—the second for around $200. She said for the same monthly bill we’d been paying, with the same shared data level, we could get two brand new Google Pixel phones with protection plans.

Of the options I had identified, the Google Pixel was the phone I secretly wanted, so I was happy. We proceeded to pick colors, cases, etc., and she transferred all our old data to the phones.

Meanwhile, the TV cameraman asked my husband and me if we would be willing to be interviewed about our phone-buying experience. We didn’t want to be curmudgeons, so we agreed.

And about 6:15pm, interviews recorded, we walked out of the store with a box of chargers and our new Pixels still downloading the apps we’d had on the old phones. We went to out to dinner, ran another errand, and got home just before 8:00pm, phones still downloading apps.

“We’ve used 75% of our monthly data already!” I exclaimed. “And we’re only two days into our billing cycle.”

I immediately logged both phones onto our home wi-fi to stanch the data bleed. Then I texted our kids, proud to report we had brand new Google Pixels. We’re rarely the coolest people in the family, but I thought this might upgrade our status with the next generation.

Our daughter called me back. It took me five swipes to figure out how to answer the phone.

Two days later I was on my way to the airport to retrieve our son. He called me, and I still couldn’t answer my phone. Of course, I was driving so I couldn’t look at the screen for instructions.

And when I later tried to hook up the Pixel to my car via Bluetooth, it didn’t work.

I had to install the fingerprint reader on my Pixel, because pushing the power button every time the phone went into screen saver mode hurt my thumb.

Then I read a November 20 article in The Wall Street Journal on the language of start-ups and found the term PEBCAK—an acronym I’d never heard before. It stands for “Problem Exists Between Chair and Keyboard” or “Problems Emerge Between Chair and Keyboard.” A variation is PIBCAK (”Problem Is Between Chair and Keyboard”). According to The Wall Street Journal, these phrases are a “programmer term for what happens when users are too dumb to use software correctly.” Though I think it applies to hardware as well.

Count me as a PEBCAK when it comes to cell phones.

I don’t like telephones, and my dislike of faceless oral communication has extended to cell phones. I like smart phones as data devices—for checking email, giving me driving directions, and taking pictures. I like having the safety of a phone for emergency calls.

But I don’t want to be accessible to anyone anywhere anytime the other person wants to contact me. I only want my smart phone for my convenience.

So call me PEBCAK about cell phones. Just don’t call me on the phone.

Still, I’m getting to like the Google Pixel. It’s taken days of playing with screen savers and apps and home screens to get the Pixel to look almost the way I want. I managed to turn on the Safe Mode to avoid data surcharges until I decide whether to buy more data for this month. It took three tries, but I figured out how to connect the phone to my car.

Soon I may be functional with my phone again. As functional as I want to be.

What PEBCAK experiences have you had with technology?

Embrace Your Geekness Day

Embrace Your Geekness DayAccording to the Days of the Year website, July 13 is “Embrace Your Geekness Day.” The point, the site says, is that we have to be a little geeky in today’s world, and on Embrace Your Geekness Day, we are told to go “show the world how intelligent, technically savvy and clever you really are!”

Well.

I admit it, I’ve always been a geek. Since about the time the word was invented. (The Online Etymology Dictionary says that “geek,” meaning to people without social graces and who are obsessed with new technology and computers, began to be used in about 1983).

My experience of being “without social graces” dates back longer than 1983, but as a kid I was never obsessed with technology. I didn’t have to have the latest stereo equipment or tape deck. I didn’t have a fancy calculator, because I stopped math after Algebra II. I did learn how to use a slide rule, but I used one of my father’s—I didn’t have a shiny new one.

IBM XT

An IBM XT – remember these?

But once I saw the utility of computers, I was hooked as a geek. I was one of only two attorneys in my legal group to use a word processor. I taught myself how to use it in 1982 or 1983. By 1984, I had moved on to an early PC, and I bought my first PC for home use in 1985.

Back in that era, I knew as much about PCs as the Hallmark “Management Information Systems” group—the predecessor of the IT folks. They had all built their careers on mainframes and were slow to see the utility of these picayune desktop machines. I, however, was all in favor of anything that permitted the cutting and pasting of words, rather than retyping. If learning DOS was a requirement to make the thing work reliably, then I would learn DOS.

WordPerfect 5.1 and Grandview were my favorite programs. With them, I could do anything with words—from outline to finished brief to a macro-generated project list. I still think Grandview is a better outlining program than Scrivener, though Scrivener has other advantages for writers. The worst part of one of my job changes was the overnight transition from WordPerfect to Word. Thank goodness I didn’t have to write as much in the new job.

I was a lousy typist back in the mid-80s. The clerical staff in my group laughed at how I typed all in caps (easier than shifting) and at the frequent errors I made. I relied on them to do my real typing. I only typed documents that would never be made public.

Over time, however, I improved at typing. While I’m still not that accurate, I can draft and edit on a screen better than I ever thought possible thirty years ago.

But I’ve lost my understanding of PCs. Now, I have only a slim notion of what makes my computer work. I can troubleshoot a lot of things, but only by Googling the error message and following instructions.

I’ve made every error possible, lost many documents, crashed a couple of hard drives. But I’m not afraid of computers as so many people are. What’s the worst that can happen? I lose my novel-in-progress? It’s backed up.

I hope.

How do you display your inner geekness?

Salvaging Nooks and Books

I’ve written before about my love/hate relationship with technology. That post recently showed up on my Facebook memories, so I reposted it on Facebook with a comment:

“Unfortunately, it’s been three years since this post. More computer upgrades can’t be too far in my future.”

That was on January 23, 2016, at 5:54pm.

About 9:30 that evening, as I was multitasking between PBS’s Mercy Street and a game of Solitaire on my Nook HD, the Nook began sending weird messages.

“Process X broken.”

“Process Y broken.”

There must have been about twenty of those messages, one after another.

Though, of course, the processes weren’t labeled neatly X or Y. They weren’t labeled with English words either. They were labeled with some unintelligible strings of mixed letters and numbers.

I knew it couldn’t be good.

In fact, my Nook HD froze. I couldn’t do anything with it. I powered off. I powered back on. Nothing. It got to the 99% rebooted mark and froze again.

Repeatedly.

I went to bed, knowing I would have to deal with the problem. After all, the Nook is my remedy for insomnia.

When I wake in the middle of the night, I read email. Or read Wall Street Journal editorials. Or a few pages of the current novel I am reading. All in an effort to turn off the to-do list scrolling through my head faster than I can scroll down the Nook screen.

That night, instead of reading my now-defunct Nook, I used my middle-of-the-night hours to develop a plan. My first course of action would be to activate my father’s Nook HD, which I helped him buy just a few months before his death. It had far less wear and tear on it than mine, which I’ve used for several hours each day for the three years I have owned it.

I turned on his Nook in the morning. Dead. I recharged the battery. When that was completed, I set up my email accounts on it as well as Overdrive (the app I use to download books from the local library). With email and something to read, I could function, if only at a kindergarten level.

But I discovered my dad’s Nook was of limited use to me. I would not be able to access the Nook books I had downloaded through my Barnes & Noble account unless I deregistered his Nook in his name and reregistered it in mine. Unlike a paper book, ebooks cannot be handed from person to person.

I decided to wait awhile to see if I could figure out a work-around to deregistering his Nook. In the meantime, I began the second step in my plan—a factory reset on my Nook HD. I knew this would be drastic. All personalization would be wiped out. More than the wallpaper backgound picture of Langley, all my files would be deleted. I would have to set up a blank device.

But I pulled the plug. Or rather, I pushed the Power button and the Home button at the same time until the device was nuked.

And then I set up my email and Overdrive on my Nook HD, just like I had on my dad’s. Once I had logged back in to my Barnes & Noble account, all my Nook books and Nook apps were out there, waiting for me to download.

I’ve chosen to be judicious about what I download. I don’t need half the stuff I had on my Nook HD, and I suspect part of the problem with it had been that it was chock full. Crammed. No bytes left to swallow more apps or data.

2 nooks 20160201_132834I’m semi-functional on both Nook HDs at the moment. And I’m in the market for a new tablet. I have loved Nooks for the past five years—first my Nook Color and then my Nook HD. But I think the market has moved beyond dedicated e-readers. In fact, the Nook HD is now essentially an Android tablet with close ties to Barnes & Noble. So close that Barnes & Noble refuses to let users download the Android B&N app to the Nook HD, though we can download the Kindle app.

Still, although I have loved my Nook HD, I have been less than impressed with Barnes & Noble as an ebook provider—both as an author and as a reader. As an author, I have found that almost all of my ebook sales have been Kindle sales, not Nook. Reader traffic is flocking to the Kindle. Amazon is better at providing support to authors than Barnes & Noble.

As a reader, I have not found Barnes & Noble to be very accommodating in helping me to manage my account and ebook purchases. As an example, my son gave me two Nook books for Christmas via one of my email addresses. I redeemed the books, then found I could not open them on my Nook HD, because it was registered under another of my email addresses. When I contacted Barnes & Noble for help, they said essentially “sorry, we can’t switch your books to your other email.” So I can read the books on my cell phone, where I have downloaded the Nook app, but I cannot read the books on the larger Nook HD screen.

So I think I am about to abandon my loyalty to Barnes & Noble and the five-year history I’ve had with Nooks. An open Android tablet is in my future. I won’t be precipitous about making the decision, because I have two semi-functional Nooks on which I can limp along.

But I can’t wait too long—I worry about which of my three-year-old computing devices will go bad next. It’s time.

What technological problems have you faced recently?

Scrivener: Software for Writers

I recently started using Scrivener, a software program designed for writers. I’ve used WriteWay Pro off and on for several years, but Scrivener is touted as the latest and greatest program for writers, and I wanted to give it a try.

A screen shot of my Scrivener file for this blog

A screen shot of my Scrivener file for this blog

Scrivener, WriteWay Pro, and similar writing programs are designed to take writers from the research and outlining stage through drafts to a final manuscript . . . and even to ebook publishing. Learning these program can be daunting, but the results are impressive. The programs help writers move back and forth between the big picture of an entire book to the details of each scene and sentence.

I do not pretend to be an expert after two weeks. But here are some of the things I’ve done since I started using Scrivener:

  • Set up a Scrivener project file for each of the two blogs I write. Each file contains pages for each of the next few posts I need to write, a place to park future ideas, a generic monthly plan for that blog (topics I want to write on each month), research on potential topics, and an archive of past posts (this will grow over time—I haven’t imported all my past posts, though I could).
  • Imported the novel I am currently working on from Word into a Scrivener project, divided the text into separate chapters in Scrivener, and labeled each chapter with the point of view character. I’m working on dividing it further into scenes, and I want to figure out how to identify each scene by subplot and characters. I think “keywords” is the appropriate tool, but I’m not sure. My goal is to be able to track how each subplot progresses through the book, so I can see where there are holes in the current draft for my next revision.
  • Set up another Scrivener project for short pieces I want to write—essays and short stories, etc.
  • And set up yet another Scrivener project to outline a novel idea I have. I have sworn that the next novel I write will be planned in advance—not written ad hoc and then edited into a story structure. Maybe I will finally learn to write a novel without countless revisions!

As I’m working through the learning curve, I’ve come across a few good resources for writers trying to master Scrivener. One is Joseph Michael’s Scrivener Coach training program. I have not purchased the program, but I have participated in a couple of webinars Mr. Michael has done, and he is a pretty good trainer.

Another resource is Gwen Hernandez. She also sells a training program on Scrivener, and has written a book called Scrivener for Dummies. I have not seen her training program or book, but her blog has wonderful Scrivener tips that I have found useful.

Finally, the Google Play Store has an Android app that is a Scrivener tutorial, with several videos on how to use Scrivener. I downloaded the app, and the tutorials are easy to follow.

Although I am finding Scrivener very helpful in organizing my writing, I also want to put in a plug for WriteWay Pro. Its author has kept it up to date over the years, and there isn’t much I’ve found in Scrivener that WriteWay Pro won’t also do. The templates for character sketches, scenes, conflict, etc., in WriteWay Pro are better than those that come with Scrivener.

Both Scrivener and WriteWay Pro offer thirty-day trial periods, and the purchase prices are comparable.

Of course, none of these programs does the writing for you. You still have to put butt in chair and words on paper (or screen).

Writers, do you use a writing program? If so, which one, and why? What’s your favorite feature?