Saturday, July 25, 2015

Remnants of the Past: Songs of the Slaves

I have always been fascinated by the Civil War: what caused it, why were the differences in philosophies so great, so important, that they literally forced brother to fight against brother. The greatest emphasis, of course, was always on the issue of slavery and the rights, or non-rights, of people of color to be free.

I began my historical novel for kids, The Freedom Thief, in 2008, and with every intention of the focus of the story being on the Underground Railroad. But between 2008 and when the novel was released in 2015, it had changed a great deal. I think that happens to a lot of writers...what starts out as one story ends up being another one entirely.

Nevertheless, when my husband and I took our historic barge trip...yes, on a real barge...down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, for research on Thief, my ideas about the story focusing on the Underground Railroad were still in place.

Was the Underground Railroad a real railroad? Well, of course, it wasn't. There are several theories as to why the escape routes of fleeing slaves came to be called that, but the one most historians use is this: Tice Davis was an escaping slave, fleeing from a plantation in Kentucky. Slave hunters were hot on his heels. When he came to the Ohio River, he dove in and managed to swim across. This was quite a feat, as the Ohio has never been known to be quiet enough for people to swim in. Once on the other side, Tice ran into the woods, and vanished. He was never seen again. When the slave hunters reached the other side of the Ohio, there was no indication of Tice ever having been there, or gone into the woods. No footprints in the sand coming out of the river. Not a single broken tree branch, not a single stepped upon weed. The forest was pristine. It was as though no one had ever been there. One of the slave hunters was heard to say, "It's as if he disappeared into some underground railroad."

When the slave hunters returned home and told their tale, the term "underground railroad" caught on. From that day forward, the Quakers and Abolitionists who helped escaping slaves used that name for their secret network.

An important part of the Underground Railroad was the songs the slaves sang. Supposedly hymns, each one carried an important message that helped the slaves in planning their escapes. Perhaps the most famous of these is Follow the Drinking Gourd. This refers to the Big Dipper and its gourd-like shape. When the sun comes back, and the first quail calls, follow the drinking gourd. This sentence tells the slaves to begin their journey around the Winter Solstice, and to follow the drinking gourd. The "pointer" star on this constellation points almost directly north. Winter was the best time for escape, as most slaves needed to cross the Ohio River, and in the winter time, the river froze over, so escaping across the ice was much easier than trying to swim across, or even trying to steal a boat and row across.

The second part of the song was: The river bank makes a mighty fine road. Dead trees show you the way. And it's left foot, peg foot, traveling on. "Dead trees show you the way" because moss on a dead tree only grows on the north side. The river bank referred to the Tombigbee River, which began in Tennessee and flowed all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Dead trees were littered all along those banks, and on several of them, slaves had made left foot prints and peg foot prints to show others this was the right river. Following it to the north would lead them to the Ohio River.

Another important song that played a part in the Underground Railroad was Go Down Moses. The African American community has  always known the story of Moses, and in the days of slavery felt that his story echoed their own. This was a song that the slaves could sing in front of their masters, and only they would know the truth of it. In the lyrics: Go down Moses, go down Moses, Way down in Egypt's Land, and tell old Pharaoh to let my people go. Let my people go, let my people go to the Promised land, there were code words for the slaves.

Moses was the Underground Railroad conductor who would help them get to freedom, and often this was either Harriet Tubman or John Brown. Egypt's Land referred to slavery and bondage, and the Pharaoh was the slave owner. The Promised Land was, of course, wherever freedom lay.

Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus. Steal away, steal away steal away home, 'cause I ain't got long to stay here, was another Sunday hymn that meant considerably more than what the slave owners thought. It meant that the person or persons singing it were planning an escape, and soon. It meant that plans had already been made. Sometimes it meant that others in the group could join in the escape, and sometimes it meant the time was not yet right and those not already in the plan should wait until it was safer. How the slaves knew exactly which of these was right, no one except the slaves themselves ever seemed to know.

This has been a long post, and I hope not too boring. Next month I'll tell you about some of the safe houses we visited on that barge trip, and some of the ways in which slaves were transported from one safe place to another. I spent a little time in some of those 'modes' of travel, and all I can say is, I'm sure glad I didn't have to be in any one for very long!

 You can find more about my books at my website:


Friday, July 24, 2015

The English Domestic Servant, by Diane Scott Lewis


In the eighteenth century, a time when domestic service was seen as easier than toiling in a shop or factory, a poor farmer’s sons and daughters would go happily into this type of work. Even a parson’s family did not look down on the occupation.

However, the English domestics thought of themselves as a cut above.
The English servant was quite independent and rarely satisfied with low wages. Instead of being content in the early part of the century with £2 a year, they were demanding as much as £6 and £8. Writer Daniel Defoe wanted to see wages fixed at no more than £5, or soon this rabble would insist on as much as £20.

Lord Fermanagh, when writing to a friend about his butler, who had the audacity to ask for £10, said: “I would have a sightly fellow and one that has had the smallpox, and an honest man, for he is entrusted with store of plate, and can shave, but I will give no such wages as this.”

The English servant stood up for himself, giving notice or running away if ill-treated. One servant, after being struck by his master, turned on the man and killed him with a pitchfork.

Foreigners were amazed—since they treated their servants like slaves—to see a nobleman like Lord Ferrers hanged in 1760 for the murder of his steward.

In the earlier part of the century there was a scarcity of women servants, but later, after years of bad harvests, starvation sent many girls into service. One lady, upon advertising for another housemaid, had over 200 applicants.
If wages were low, servants in a large house could supplement their pay with vails (tips). One foreigner complained after dining with a friend at his home: “You’ll find all the servants drawn up in the passage like a file of musqueteers from the house steward, down to the lowest liveried servant, and each of them holds out his hand to you in as deliberate a manner as the servants in our inns on the like occasion.”

One clergyman reported that when he dined with his Bishop, he spent more in vails than would have fed his family for a week.
At lease the Duke of Ormonde, when inviting a poor relation to dine, always sent him a guinea ahead of time for the vails.
A movement, rumored to have started in Scotland, was put forth to abolish vails (tips) but nothing came of it.
If servants believed themselves independent, striving for respect, their employers often demanded too much from them for little pay. Mrs. Purefoy advertised for a coachman, who can not only drive four horses, but must understand husbandry business and cattle, plus he’d also be expected to plough. She also required a footman who could “work in the garden, lay the cloth, wait at table, go to the cart with Thomas, and do any other business that he is ordered to do and not too large sized a man, that he may not be too great a load for the horse when he rides.”

Servants were derided by their “betters” as being lazy and selfish, especially when they’d leave their positions for higher wages and vails.

Of course, many servants during the eighteenth century—especially in the larger towns and cities—were mistreated and far underpaid, if paid at all.

Still, some servants were honored and treated as members of the family, as shown by this epitaph on a coachman’s headstone: Coachman the foe to drink and heart sincere; Of manners gentle and of judgment clear; Safe through the chequered track of life he drove; And gained the treasure of his master’s love...

To learn more about Diane's eighteenth-century novels, please visit her website:

Source: English Country Life in the Eighteenth Century, by Rosamond Bayne-Powell, 1937

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Almack's Assembly Rooms by Victoria Chatham

Fans of Regency romances will all be familiar with that most famous London location, Almack’s Assembly Rooms where ladies could see and be seen, and where mothers launched their marriageable daughters into society.

Originally built in the Palladian style, the Rooms were opened by William Macall in King Street, London in February 1765. It is reputed that being Scottish, Macall thought the English might consider his name too foreign sounding, so reversed it to become Almack’s.

It was one of the first establishments where both sexes could meet openly and became the place to be for upper class society during the season, that period in London from April to August each year. The most exclusive events were held at the town mansions of the leading members of the aristocracy, especially of those engaged in politics. The season closed at the end of July, when families returned to their country seats not only to escape the city smells and possible health issues, but also in readiness for the grouse shooting which began on August 12th.

Money alone could not get you a voucher to Almack’s, but good breeding and manners did. Vouchers were ten guineas and were non-transferable. To not have an Almack’s voucher meant either that you had not applied for one, or you had applied and been found wanting in one way or another, a social disaster to those dedicated to the ton  - pronounced tone  from the French word for taste, or more accurately le bon ton.

Seven of the most influential ladies of upper society presided over Almack’s and included Lady Sarah (Sally) Jersey, Lady Emily Cowper, Countess Esterhazy, the Honorary Mrs. Drummond Burrell, Viscountess Castlereagh and Countess Maria Sefton. They were known as the Lady Patronesses and met every Monday evening to review new applications and the actions of the current membership. Membership could be cancelled, as in the case of Lady Caroline Lamb after her scandalous affair with the poet Lord Byron. Inappropriate dress could also have you turned away from Almack’s doors, as the Duke of Wellington found to his cost when he arrived wearing trousers and not the formal knee breeches required.

There were rooms for gambling and card games and a very plain supper was served in the upper rooms by the Macall’s at 11.00 pm. So they could not be accused of trying to compete with expensive private balls, the supper consisted of thinly sliced, probably day old bread and fresh butter followed by dry cake which would be similar to today’s pound cake. Presumably to avoid drunkenness only tea and lemonade were served.

Almack’s popularity began to decline after 1824, when manners became less strict. The last ball was held in 1863 and it closed its doors in 1871 when it was sold. The new owner renamed it Willis’s Rooms after himself. The building was damaged during bombing in 1940 and completely destroyed in 1944. Today an office building known as Almack House occupies the site and bears a brass plaque commemorating the original Rooms.   

Sources:  Wikipedia, Regency Manor, Candice Hearn Romance Author and Jane Austen’s World.  

More from Victoria Chatham at:

Born in Clifton, Bristol, England, an area rife with the elegance of Regency architecture, Victoria has always enjoyed everything to do with the Regency era. Her favorite Georgette Heyer title is Frederica, but she also enjoys titles by Jo Beverley, Julia Quinn and Mary Balogh.

Being an army brat meant being constantly on the move so books became her best friends. Now resident in Canada, she frequently returns to the UK to visit family and friends.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

What A Whole Load Of Nonsense

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What A Whole Load Of Nonsense

In all of the writing groups I have involved with, there were always certain questions posed. The most common being, "Excuse me where are the washrooms?" Or if you are from south of the border, the restrooms. Then there's the good old Brit who'd ask for the bog or the loo.
Yeah, the bog I get, but the loo? The English have different names for everything, but considering they've been around six or seven years longer than the entire North American Continent has been discovered and they've got the Queen on their side, which overrules everyone.
But I digress, otherwise my title does begin to make total sense. A very common question is, "how do I pull my readers in, lock them up and throw away the key." Well the last bit I just made up. So if I said the following;
From atop the plateau overlooking Machu Picchu the couple gazed. The old stone buildings glinting in the sunlight. Air so rarified it was hard to breathe. Overhead eagles cried out. Julia-Rae licked the salty sweat from her lips, as his calloused hand brushed along her arm, sending a shiver through her. She inhaled, smelling that pungent, masculine aroma oozing out of his pores.
Did that pull you in? If not, stop reading and beat it, I'm wasting your time and mine. But, if yes, then what did I do to engage the reader? ..... waiting!
Some are probably now thinking, is this guy crazy? Yup. Does he drive his wife and his publisher crazy? Yup, and double yup. Does he make much or any sense at all?
Bang. You've got it. Senses. I used all of them in that paragraph; sight, taste, touch, smell and hearing to engage the reader. If you can make the reader experience all of those in a scene, you've got them involved. And if this doesn't work for you, try gardening; then it's just you, dirt and weeds. Doesn't get more basic than that.
Or you could use my next favorite tactic to engage the reader, grab your book and whack them on the forehead with its spine. They'll either be engaged or unconscious and when they come to, you will definitely have their (and most likely their lawyers as well), attention.
Oh, before I finish and just in case you're wondering, Loo? Where the hell did that come from? Some say it came from the shortened term - Waterloo- the English bathroom company that manufactured toilets and urinals. Or, I really like this one, and no, I didn't make this up. In the late eighteen hundreds the Earl of Lichfield loved to entertain people, only he had a most miserable wife, "Lady Louisa." After meeting her, many guests replied with, "nice chap but she's anything but a lady." Back then, the posh people would put the visitor's name on their bedroom doors. Two rather inebriated gentlemen decided to switch her name plate with the bathrooms. Later guests laughingly told everyone of "going to visit Lady Louisa" or today "going to the loo."

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Was it serendipity or a higher power? By Sandy Semerad

As I reflect on certain events in my life, I can't help but wonder. Did these things occur by chance or was a higher power at work?

Tell me what you think after you've read this:

 Years ago, I worked as a reporter for the Marietta Daily Journal. The phone rang in the newsroom, and I grabbed it.

“Where can I turn to for help?” a woman asked. “It’s almost Christmas and my children still believe in Santa. We’re running out of money for shelter and food. I’ve called the United Way and all the churches. No one will help us,” she said.

I listened to her plea. Her husband and two young children had driven across country to relocate for her husband’s job, she said. He’d been offered a better position, as a trucker for a local transport company.

On the long drive to Atlanta, their car broke down. They spent most of their savings on repairs, she said.

When they arrived in the city, they found a motel they could afford. The room was grimy and scary, but she told herself, it was only temporary. Once her husband started his job, they'd be able to afford a better, more permanent home.

Her husband, being protective, didn’t want to leave his family alone and unsafe. So he took them along with him in his truck. When the company found out, he was fired.

“We have never asked for a handout before,” she said. “I used to criticize people who begged for handouts. Now I know I was wrong to judge.”

Her story touched me. It rang true.

I wrote a feature article about her family’s dilemma. The story ran, with their photo, in the next issue.

The following day, I was in my kitchen, and the phone rang. I started to let the machine get it, but something told me to answer the call.

“Are you the lady who wrote the article about that poor family?” a man asked, and then described in detail what he'd read.

“Yes,” I said.

“Do you think these people are dependable?” He asked.


 “I have an apartment, and I’m thinking of letting them live in it for free until they can get on their feet,” he said.

“That would be great,” I said.

A year passed. I was working as an editor for American Health Consultants in Atlanta. Christmas was approaching.

The phone rang in my office. I answered it.

It was the desperate woman, who had called me a year ago. She said she got my new work number from the Marietta Daily Journal. “I had to call and thank you and let you know, we’re going to have a wonderful Christmas this year.”

Her words touched me to tears, but it was years later when I began to wonder. Why was I in that exact spot when the phone rang in the newsroom? Why did I decide to write the story? And why did I answer the phone when that generous man, with the apartment, called?

I don’t know.

There have been many other examples I could share. I’ve included at least one of those instances in A MESSAGE IN THE ROSES, a novel based on a murder trial I covered in Atlanta. The book is primarily fiction, but as a professor once told me, “Fiction is the lie that tells the truth.”

Truth is a relative term, I know. We strive for truth, but don’t always achieve it. As to the truth about what causes certain events to occur, I’m still wondering. Do these things happen by chance—serendipity--or is a higher power at work?

What do you think? 

To find out more, visit my website: 

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Monday, July 20, 2015

Life and Lingerie by Ginger Simpson
Lingerie has certainly changed over the years.  Now, the more skimpy the better, but I can't fathom wearing a thong at my age, or ever.  I'm bad about even flossing my teeth.

  Back in the old west women were modest, but now things have really turned to the opposite side.  You just aren't hip if you panties and bra don't match, and of course that old adage, never go out without having on clean panties, is still a rule of thumb.  You never know when you might be in an accident...or fall as I recently did.  I'm changing several times a day, just in case.

While I'm sitting here picturing women of the old west in their bloomers, camisoles and sometimes even a corset, another story comes to mind.  I've shared this one before on my own blog, but it certainly bears repeating.  Watch how you say things to your friends.  :)

Don't the women in the picture to the right look comfy?  Well, remember  the ladies often wore bustles and hoop skirts.  Yuk.  I can't imagine wearing those these days since I trip on air.  You know, they didn't have hip replacements back then.  I'd be in big trouble.  I don't walk well with a cane let alone an aid fashioned from a tree branch.

But on with the post and the reason I choose this topic:
My friend , Rita,shared a joke today about sayings...
things you wish you could take back.

I was reminded  NOT of something I'd said, but
 something that was said TO me.
 I can laugh about it now, but at the time,
it wasn't all that funny. :)

I'd worked with a woman for years,
discussing her recent shopping trip and
 all the year-end bargains she'd found.
While discussing her purchases, the topic turned
 to the panties she bought.
Her dialog went something like this:

"I bought the same panties I've been
 getting for years. Same size as always,
 and I got them home, took a shower and
 put on a pair. I was shocked, absolutely shocked.
 I checked the label twice to make sure
 they were my size, but although the tag said they were, they hung on me. They were huge.
 The legs gapped, the seat sagged, and the waistband was evidently made to fit
 someone obese. I should have held them up before I bought them. I certainly would
 have noticed something wrong, because I don't think I've ever seen anything soooo big in my life."

Without blinking an eye, she turned to me.

 "Do you think you could wear them?"

Although I was taken aback by her comment, I came up with a pretty smart answer.

 "Well, if I can't, I can probably cover my car with them."

The sad ending to the story: They fit!!!  Note to readers:  They weren't
the size of those shown in the picture, just described in that fashion.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Perception: A Formidable Writing Weapon by Stuart R. West

Perception’s a funny thing. It fascinates me when people are confronted with the same visual, audio or mental stimuli and interpret it differently.

Recently, I had dinner with my brother and his daughters. We had a heated discussion about the approximate size of Mickey Mouse. Yes, we both need to get out more.

He insisted Mickey Mouse is the size of a real mouse. Defiantly, I stood my ground and patiently explained that Mickey Mouse is about five feet tall.

Let's weigh the evidence. Mickey has a dog named Pluto. Mickey's larger than Pluto, keeps him on a leash and appears to be a relatively good dog-owner. At least he doesn't dress Pluto in Halloween costumes. Plus, I believe I've seen Mickey drive a car in cartoons.

My brother's defense? He said Mickey Mouse on Ice is not indicative of the character’s size. He stared at me disbelievingly and said, "Those guys on skates aren't real. You KNOW that, don't you?" He said this in the solemn way one tells a child Santa’s not real, a dark and sad secret unveiled.

(I didn’t even bring up the paradox of Goofy. He's a dog as well. I think. Yet, he walks upright, speaks (unlike Pluto) and appears to be a well-adjusted--yet, slightly stupid--individual.)

This argument has thrown everything I thought I knew into a tizzy. I lay awake at night, pondering the size of Mickey Mouse. Surely, a sentient mouse who walks a dog is human size. the back of my mind, I find myself questioning it. 

Perception. A peculiar concept, particularly on how it forms people’s personalities. Was my brother wrong? Depends on which side of the argument you land on, I suppose. But how can anyone’s perception be declared definitively wrong when, to them, they’re right? You can't change people's perceptions, particularly when they involve anything regarding religion, politics or Game of Thrones, I've discovered.

One of the last standing monuments in Picher, Oklahoma, the basis for my book, Ghosts of Gannaway.

As a writer, I like using perception to form characters. In my new suspense thriller, Ghosts of Gannaway, the mining magnate villain, Kyle Gannaway, perceives himself as a hero of sorts, the savior of the little town he founded. Which is true in a way. But Kyle justifies his actions which include murder, perceives it as a means to an end, for the greater good of everyone. Is he wrong? Well, yes. But not in his mind. Perception can be a writer’s secret weapon, something to bring what might be a clichéd character to vivid life.

Dennis Lipstein is the hero in the 1969 portion of the novel (yep, there’re two different timelines), an environmental scientist tasked with studying the now ravaged wastelands of Gannaway, Kansas. Even though Dennis is confronted with empirical evidence of ghosts and a haunting, he refuses to believe, chalking it all up to science. A matter of perception, a writer’s source of conflict. 

In 1935, Tommy Donnelly, hero extraordinaire, has his perception muddied by rose-colored glasses. He’ll do anything to help his men in the mines, naively refusing to believe that anyone could possibly be evil. Noble to a fault, it’s a hard lesson Tommy learns. Because of his misperception.

Finally, there’s Claire, Tommy’s wife, a truly ferocious force of nature who’ll do anything to protect her family. She makes some bad decisions to attain her goal. Which have consequences. Is she wrong in her perception that nothing matters beyond her family? Absolutely not, not to her.

Comedies (particularly romantic ones) are built upon a series of misperceptions. Suspense thrillers rely on misperception as well, sometimes to have humanly flawed characters make very bad (and dangerous) mistakes. Perception’s a great way to unbind characters trapped with one foot into cliché-land, a writer’s secret weapon.

But I’m still pondering the size of Mickey Mouse.

Ghosts of Gannaway can be purchased now for the limited sales price of .99!

Brand spanking new and creeptacular trailer:

 Stuart R. West's BWL author page.

Stuart R. West's Blog: Twisted Tales From Tornado Alley

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