I Shall Be Near To You

Soldiers and PTSD

Recently, while visiting Old Town Sacramento with The Kid and some of our friends, we were approached by a young man wearing camo pants and combat boots. He walked up to us and said, “Somebody say ‘Red Light’!” The Kid obliged, and the man stopped and stood stock-still. We watched in silence, wondering what would happen next. Time stretched. Finally the man, ventriloquist-style, said, “Somebody say ‘Green Light’!” Once released from his pose, the man asked if we’d like to see how well he could impersonate a character from Mortal Combat. Without waiting for our answer, he promptly froze in a fighting stance for perhaps a minute. When he unfroze, he told us he had done three tours in Iraq, quickly rattled off his rank and company, and gave a sharp salute.

I had no ready response. I wanted to thank him for his service, but though he was affable, it was also clear that he was troubled—he was slightly unkempt, sure– but really it was the way he approached us. Complete strangers. Two women and their young children. Later, my friend and I were both admitted we were afraid if we said anything, things might become less pleasant. Instead, we said nothing, which felt wrong too. In the face of our silence, the man asked our kids if they wanted to see how fast he could run, and he took off in a full sprint. Later that night, remembering our trip, my son said, “That guy was really nice. And he could run really fast.”

A few days later, my dad handed me a copy a friend had made of an article from The Smithsonian, written by Tony Horwitz, author of Confederates in the Attic (see below), entitled Did Civil War Soldiers Have PTSD? It’s an intriguing—if very sad—look at recent scholarship that has uncovered what happened to some of the soldiers who survived the Civil War but were unable to return smoothly to civilian life.

It’s a subject I thought about often as I was writing I Shall Be Near To You. The more I studied the Civil War, and watched soldiers coming home from the Iraq War as I wrote, the more I wondered how any soldier is ever able to return to domestic life and put aside the memories of combat. How does a soldier go from a battlefield to a grassy field in the park, sitting with women and children on a gorgeous Spring day? It’s a heavy expectation.

Civil War era physicians had almost no ability to help soldiers address that challenge. Today it still seems like we are often unable to effectively help soldiers return to the lives they left behind or pursue the dreams they once held. All too often, I feel like our collective response is the same as my friend’s and mine. The reality of a troubled soul is distressing and so very sad, and yet we’re left speechless and unable to offer anything of use. And even if we managed to say “Thank You,” it would never, ever be enough.

Third Newsletter: Henpecked

I send out a monthly-ish newsletter. This is the the third one, sans photos that accompany it when it goes straight to your inbox. If you’d like to see the whole thing, pictures and all, sign up here!


In which 5 becomes 2

I thought I knew what it meant to be henpecked. But in the span of two days, the Kid and I learned the hard way that chickens don’t just peck bugs (and maybe the occasional lizard) to death. The first casualty was one of our 5 baby chicks. On their first day out of the nursery coop– a gorgeous, sunny day, too lovely to be locked in– our Little Red Hen took her babies to join the flock for dinner. Head rooster Richard The Interloper, (who conveniently migrated over from our neighbor’s after our first neighbor-rooster Henry, got eaten by a coyote), pecked one of the babies. I thought this was the usual “pecking order” stuff. But when Richard (The Wretch) pecked the poor chick again, I swooped in, amid mama hen’s clucking, and whisked the baby away to the coop. No more of that! Unfortunately, when I put the chick back in the coop, I noticed blood on my hand. Upon closer inspection, the chick had a small puncture near its leg. It looked a bit odd, but it was small and the chick seemed mostly OK, although a bit limpy and flustered. I made sure it nestled under mama hen and hoped that come morning things would look better. Alas, in the morning, the chick was dead. We were sad.

The very next morning a mouse that made the ill-timed decision to come out of hiding as the kid and I fed the Little Red Hen and her four remaining chicks. Mama hen attacked the mouse, even as it scurried about trying to escape. I am probably not a very good chicken farmer because I couldn’t turn my back. By the time I managed to get the poor mouse out of the coop (in the feed scoop), it was bleeding from its eye. I explained to the Kid that even though it was alive, things did not look good. We found what we hoped was a safe, peaceful spot. When we checked later, the mouse was gone.

(Since then we’ve lost two more chicks– both of whom drowned in the goats’ water trough, that blurry black thing in the picture above. Two more sad days that a chicken enclosure might have prevented.)

My Caveat to Goal Setting
Sometimes goals are elusive

Last month, I shared my goal of having a revised draft of the new novel (I call it “Josie”, after the main character, but it’s working title is actually To Stay Forever) by April. There’s my “workstation” above. Oh, and that’s the Kid tackling a Lego project at the top of the screen there. We build (with varying degrees of success) at the same time, sometimes.

Anyway, April 1st is still the goal and I’m making headway, but…. Well, good news first! I was surprised by how much I liked the first half of the book when I read it in early February (I confess, it’s been hard letting go of Rosetta–she was so easy to love!– and allowing myself to fall for Josie). The bad news is right now April seems ridiculously optimistic– I’ve still got several new scenes to write and 150 more pages to rework and somehow it’s already already mid-March! Sometimes finishing this novel (any novel!) seems so overwhelming. Lately I find myself walking a tightrope between holding myself accountable and allowing myself slack.

Which, combined with a question Rachel (hi Rachel!) asked after my last missive, made me think maybe I ought to say something about how I screw my courage to the sticking point (to quote Lady Macbeth) on the days when I feel daunted. Since agonizing over my first never-to-be-seen-in-public attempt at a novel (which my very tactful father [hi Dad!] called “workmanlike”), I’ve adopted a mantra, thanks to some wise words from my college roommate and artist Michelle (hi Michelle!) who melds gorgeous, melancholy photos with poems: The important thing about art is the doing of it.

Just the act of creating– even if it’s terrible, even if it doesn’t seem remotely like art– is progress. I knew that first novel wasn’t good enough; as Ira Glass puts it here (or in this cool video representation here), there was a gap between my taste and my skill. But writing it was still important. It proved to me that I could write something novel length. It taught me what my process looks like so I don’t get quite as dismayed now when I hit the middle of a project and suddenly I’m convinced the story has turned into a terrible, muddled mess (I really wish it didn’t, but it happens every time).

Lately my mantra has a corollary, thanks to the wise words of my friend Andrea (hi Andrea!). She was one of the very first people to read scenes from I Shall Be Near To You (she also recently told me she likes Josie better than Rosetta– can you believe that?!) and her first story collection How To Pose For Hustler was just released the Tuesday before last. And she has two young children. The corollary? Lower the bar.

This means not henpecking myself when life intrudes (birthday parties and preschool board meetings and book events and a cold that won’t quit). It means not berating myself if I don’t hit my daily word count goal (500-1000 words– these days I like having a window). It means just writing one sentence. Or working for ten minutes (an idea I stole from Aimee Bender– it’s about 8 minutes into this interview, scroll down to #49). Or trying not to worry too much if a scene isn’t right yet because I can always fix it in the next draft (or try again in the one after that). Even if all I do is write one sentence, I feel better. Less disappointed in myself for not living up to my own expectations. And it’s a great way to trick myself, because many times, one sentence turns into two, turns into three… The trick is making it seem easy. Who couldn’t write just one sentence?

As for those other goals I told you about last time? Well… There was a camera/operator malfunction with the first roll of film from the 100 year old camera. Time to try, try again. As for the chicken enclosure, a site has been selected and approved by our neighbors and landlady alike. Time to break out the post pounder. But I did manage to build a goat feeder, which wasn’t even on my list! Better add it and promptly cross it off!

Is She Kidding?
It’s hard to wait (for baby goats)!

Meanwhile, here’s a picture of someone else who’s been doing a lot of work. Mama Goat is looking very pregnant these days, but she’s only just over halfway to her May 12 due date. Poor thing. On the right there is her 3 year old daughter Tricksy. She’s due to have her first kids June 1, but she’s still looking so svelte, I’m starting to wonder…

It’s hard to wait, but to give myself a little more time– to be a little less peckish with myself about this “monthly-isn” newsletter– I’ve decided to write you next when I have an announcement– a new draft or new baby goats, whichever comes first. Maybe that explains why this newsletter got so long– it might be awhile til next time (but I hope not)!

Until then,

Second Newsletter: Incubating

Here’s my second email newsletter. One of the perks of signing up for the newsletter is the pictures that originally came with it are actually included! You can sign up here, if you’re so inclined.


This hen just kept trying.

Even though, as Rosetta would say, it’s too late for getting broody, my little red hen just wouldn’t quit sitting on eggs. I’d collect her clutch when she got off the nest to go eat, but she’d just move to a different nesting box and start over (or else “borrow” someone else’s eggs). Finally she broke me, and under the cover of night two weeks ago, I moved her and the eggs into the safety of the coop and let her go into zen mode. For 14 days, she barely moved off the nest, and now, here she is with the results of her determined incubating:

If only my husband were as happy about the new baby chick surprise. His goal for this year? A chicken enclosure. As pastoral as completely free range chickens are, they’re also rather messy.

All of which is kind of a nice metaphor for the work I’ve been doing.

Just before the New Year, I wrote to you about how I was so close to reaching my goal of a New Novel for the New Year. I managed to do it! So this month I’ve been incubating my little baby novel, letting it sit, undisturbed, while I kept it warm and meditated over it. Come February, I’m going to read it through and see how well my story has hatched. I know it’s messy. There will be lots of work to do–scenes I already know I want to change or add (see below)– but I also hope there will be lots of happy surprises too– lines I read and think, “I wrote that?!”

This coming week there will be more birthdays. On the same day the kid turns four, I Shall Be Near To You turns one (the 28th is an auspicious day). Both the boy and the book are marvels to me. Just the other day, the kid figured out how to take off and put on his own shirt. He looked at me and said, “Mama, I don’t need you any more!” Oh, my heart! But that is the goal, for both him and the book.

Since the book and the boy are getting so grown up, it’s good I get to begin again, then, with the new draft of the new story and new goals. Goal number one? A complete revision by 4/1– there! I wrote it down! (Eep!) Hold me to it!

Another goal? To have photos to share with you, taken with my “new” camera. I never would have guessed when I started this new novel that my research would lead me to purchasing a 100+ year old camera off eBay (for only $8!). I just wanted to find out about the Kodak Brownie camera for this one little scene, but now I’m walking around town with a little black box (it gets all kinds of attention!). I’m having so much fun that I’m thinking the Brownie might need a bigger role in the story. Of course, maybe my opinion will change once I get the photos back. Meanwhile, I’m amazed that this simple, mostly cardboard box just keeps taking pictures.

Whatever your goals are for this New Year (want to share? here’s to keeping on and finding happy surprises, marvels, and amazements along the way.

Happy 2015!

Join me for a TwitterChat!

#HistoricalFix TwitterChats
What started as the one-time (so I thought) #IShall TwitterChat about all things historical fiction, has now (because it was so fun and people asked for more!) morphed into the #HistoricalFix TwitterChat.

What is the #HistoricalFix TwitterChat?
It’s a one-hour (more or less) discussion of historical fiction: topics, trends, time periods, research, characters and of course BOOKS. Co-hosted by some of my favorite bloggers and featuring a new line-up of guest authors each time, the chat gives historical fiction lovers (readers, bloggers, librarians, editors, agents, authors) a chance to respond to questions, participate in giveaways, recommend books, and just generally enjoy talking about the genre we all love.

When’s the next #HistoricalFix TwitterChat happening?
Tuesday, March 31, 2015
5:30-6:30 PM PST/8:30-9:30 PM EST

Cassie of The Casserole Blog
Ellice of Paper Riot

With a Cameo Appearance by:
Kelly of Belle of the Literati

Guest Authors and Giveaways:
Stacy Carlson author of Among the Wonderful (3 copies up for grabs!)

Tracy Guzeman author of The Gravity of Birds (5 copies up for grabs!)

Kelli Stanley author of City of Ghosts; City of Secrets; City of Dragons; Nox Dormienda; The Curse Maker (2 copies of a Miranda Corbie book AND 3 audio versions of Nox Dormienda up for grabs!)

What’s the best way to participate?
Add your tweets to the deluge! As long as you have a Twitter handle and remember to add our hashtag (#HistoricalFix), you’re in! It’s a bit easier to track the conversation if you use a website like Tweetchat—just log in using your Twitter account and search for #HistoricalFix. The entire conversation should load, and it will automatically include #HistoricalFix in all your tweets (because truly, remembering the hashtag is the hardest part. Well, and keeping up with all the tweets)

More questions?
The best thing to do is tweet me with any questions that aren’t answered here: @ErinLindsMcCabe (and feel free to use the hashtag so others can see your question too)

#IShall TwitterChat

What was the #IShall TwitterChat?
Inspired by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s #BSWT TwitterChat, I teamed up with four fabulously supportive and dedicated bloggers to celebrate the paperback release of I Shall Be Near To You and have a great time. Five historical fiction authors joined us and I think I can safely say that what transpired exceeded any of our wildest imaginings. I laugh now to think how nervous I was that no one would “show up.”

You can read pretty much everything about the #IShall TwitterChat experience in Hannah’s recap which includes a link to the list of the over 114 recommended books that came up in the course of the discussion.

#IShall Co-hosts:
Cassie of The Casserole Blog
Ellice of Paper Riot
Hannah of So Obsessed With
Kelly of Belle of the Literati

#IShall Featured Authors:
Ariel Lawhon author of The Wife The Maid The Mistress

Alex Myers author of Revolutionary

Ariel MacArran author of Another Man’s Bride

Mary Volmer author of Crown of Dust

Lois Leveen author of Juliet’s Nurse; The Secrets of Mary Bowser

First Newsletter: Planning Ahead

Some of you have signed up for my newsletter, but for those of you who haven’t (or for those curious about what you may have missed), here’s my very first newsletter. The original version has photos, which I haven’t quite figured out how to get to show up here. I guess for now that’s one of the perks of actually getting the newsletter delivered right to your inbox (psssst! You can sign up here). Ready? Here it is!


So, I’ve never written a newsletter before, but I thought I’d like to give it a try. I’m thinking of it as a little letter from me to you. It’ll be fun, like penpal letters back when I was 13. You can write me back if you’d like.

One of the great things about December is I start making things. I love being able to start and finish a little project, all in one day (so unlike writing a book!). Yesterday I made candied pecans (yum) and mixed up some loose leaf Chai Tea as gifts for our neighbors (they are so nice–they never complain about our chickens wandering over to forage in their yard). Today I might make some goat’s milk fudge, if I can overcome memories of last year’s fudge-tastrophe. Earlier this week I embroidered three hankies, two for the wonderful women who play with and teach and comfort and entertain my kid while I’m writing. Here’s one of the hankies. I love how it turned out!

I’m not sure I *love* embroidering, but Josie, the main character in the new novel I’m working on does (she makes really pretty stuff). Sitting down to stitch helps me connect with her in a deeper way. There’s just something about physically doing that binds me to my characters and helps me find images that express how they see their world. With Rosetta, I milked and made soap and marched battlefields. With Josie, I’m embroidering and riding bareback.

I’ve also been squeezing in time to work on that new novel. My goal, which seemed daunting (impossible, actually) when I set it at the end of the summer, was to finish a draft of the novel this year. But now the New Year is 12 (!!) days away, and the great thing is I’m fewer than 2000 words away from my goal. I kind of can’t believe it. Something about setting a goal, writing it down, and telling people about it (eep!), really motivates and focuses me. It always has (have you seen my list from 1987?).

The third great thing about December (this week!), was we started planning for spring baby goaties! I’m so excited about hopefully having two mama goats this year. The kids are just too much fun– the ones below are two of ours from spring 2014.

I hope you are able to spend cozy time with your loved ones as 2014 brings itself to a close. Come the New Year, I’ll be choosing some dreams to write down. Do you have any burning desires that you might want to put to paper and make official?

With Warmest Wishes and Gratitude,

Goal Setting

A long time ago, my Gramma Sprague told me that if I really wanted to be serious about achieving a goal, I should write it down.

I took her advice to heart. Here’s my list of goals from 1987. I was ten.

Erin's 1987 Life's Goals copy

It took me awhile to accomplish item number ten, but there it is… When I was working on I SHALL, I had no memory of writing down that goal. It was quite a surprise when I stumbled across the “Goals for Life” file in my filing cabinet. But the memory of that 20 year old goal must have been lodged somewhere in my subconscious.

I don’t know what it is about writing down a goal, but it really helps motivate me. Making a concrete goal to hit 100,000 words with my new novel by 1/1/2015 seemed ridiculous back in the summer when I set it. But I wrote down that goal, and told a friend about it, and that accountability has really helped me keep plugging away.

I know it’s a little early maybe to be thinking about New Year’s resolutions, I’d like to pass on Gramma Sprague’s advice, and if there’s something you really want to do this year, write it down. And then maybe find someone to tell about it. I’ve definitely got some new goals I’d be putting to paper.

Dear Readers

I woke up this morning to a text from my dad with surprising news: I Shall Be Near To You had gotten enough write-in votes to be among the semi-finalists for the Goodreads Choice Awards 2014. As the news sunk in (and as more official notice came–see that snazzy badge below?), I’ve felt such gratitude, over and over.

GCA badge low res

**Sappiness Alert!**

When I was writing I Shall Be Near To You, I dreamed about the book finding readers. As I cried over *certain parts* and laughed over others, I wondered if anyone would come to love Rosetta and Jeremiah (and Will) as much as I do. When the book was really going to be a book and not just a collection of pages binder-clipped together, I wondered who you all would be.

And then the book appeared on bookshelves (another dream!) and you started reaching out to me in emails and tweets, on Facebook and Goodreads and in blog posts. You showed up at bookstores and events, you met me for coffee and sent me book recs (and books!). You shared parts of your lives with me and we discovered we had lots of other things in common (goats, for one).

Today reminded me of what a marvel it is, how books bring people together, how dreams turn into reality. I’ve felt warm and fuzzy all day, just thinking about it. Just thinking about you.

So, I wanted to thank you for your votes. But really, thank you for reading my book and letting me know you love these characters just as much as I do. I feel so honored– such amazing company I get to keep because of this book! Thank you, dear readers for enriching my life in ways I never dreamed. You’re the best, and I am so very grateful.

My Very First Visit to Bull Run

A few weeks ago, in a fit of nostalgia fueled by one of my oldest friends sending me photos of notes we’d written each other all through school (don’t tell my former teachers… or students!), I decided to go through my old journals (I kept a journal from age 7-22). In the process, I ran across the journal entry where I recounted the first time I set foot on a Civil War battlefield. Here it is, from the pen of 18 year-old me:

August 12th, 1995

The 2nd day we saw the Civil War Battlefield of Manassas (Bull Run). I hadn’t really learned it as the name Manassas, so when I realized that it was the same as Bull Run, I was even more interested in seeing it because there is a beautiful love letter written by a man (Sullivan Ballou) who died there. To see a Civil War battlefield was so interesting. One can hardly believe that it was ever covered with dead bodies and soldiers. It’s so peaceful now. It really brought history to life for me, and it was really interesting to try to piece the battle together. I want to see other battlefields now too.

I wish I’d had a bit more to say (my memory of that visit is very impressionistic and yet much more emotionally resonant than the above would make it appear). My favorite part is the the reference to Sullivan Ballou’s letter, the inspiration for the title of I Shall Be Near To You. Had I not recorded that detail in my journal, I never would have remembered that I’d thought of the letter then.

An Invitation, Dear Readers

Earlier this summer, fellow Crown author Miranda Beverly-Whittemore invited me to participate in two TwitterChats about beach reads and her novel Bittersweet. It was a blast chatting about books with readers, bloggers, booksellers, authors… When I started thinking about ways to celebrate the paperback release of I Shall Be Near To You, ways that would include as many of the people who have championed Rosetta and Jeremiah as possible and also feel really fun, a TwitterChat rose to the top of my list.

And so, I’m thrilled to announce and invite you to a TwitterChat about all things historical fiction:

Tuesday, September 2nd
6:00-7:00 p.m. PST (9:00-10:00 p.m. EST)


Eagerly and enthusiastically co-hosted by book bloggers extraordinaire Cassie (Cass With Books), Hannah (So Obsessed With), Kelly (Belle of the Literati), and Ellice (Paper Riot), there’s NO WAY we won’t have tons of fun with these four gals on board. Seriously. They are the best!

I’m also beyond humbled to announce that five (5!!) historical fiction authors have agreed to lend their knowledge and talents to the discussion. Ariel Lawhon (The Wife, The Maid, The Mistress), Lois Leveen (Juliet’s Nurse, forthcoming 9/26/14; The Secrets of Mary Bowswer), Ariel MacArran (Another Man’s Bride), Alex Myers (Revolutionary), and Mary Volmer (Crown of Dust), have all written books that I love to recommend because they embody so many of the qualities that I enjoy most in reading historical fiction (What to know what I think those qualities are? That’s one of the things we’ll chat about on Tuesday!).

I hope you’ll find your way over to Twitter–or better yet, use TweetChat; it’s a super simple way to organize the chat and make sure you get that all-important hash tag (#IShall) added onto every tweet (which is truly the hardest part)– and join us for the discussion. Feel free to invite anyone you know who might enjoy participating– because in addition to stimulating conversation, there will be giveaways! Five paperback copies of I Shall Be Near To You up for grabs during the course of the hour, and copies of Mary Volmer’s Crown of Dust too!

paperback cover

A Woman at War

This article originally appeared on the New York Times Opinionator, where you can read it in its entirety. Here’s a taste!

On June 19, 1864, Pvt. Lyons Wakeman died of dysentery in the Marine U.S.A. General Hospital in New Orleans, after having marched 200 miles and seen combat at the Battle of Pleasant Hill, part of the Union’s Red River Campaign in Louisiana. But it would be years before Wakeman’s real identity was revealed: Lyons Wakeman was born a woman, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman.

The only people who knew for certain the soldier’s true identity were the parents and eight siblings Lyons left behind. But even they decided to keep the soldier’s secret, and afterwards spoke only of Lyons as their beloved brother.

How Rosetta managed to conceal her identity during her final month in the hospital is still a mystery. Perhaps those caring for her knew, but simply decided to let Rosetta carry the secret she’d kept for the entire two years she served in the 153rd New York State Volunteers to her grave in the Chalmette National Cemetery near New Orleans, where she is buried under her alias.

When Rosetta first left home in rural upstate New York, in the summer of 1862, she found employment as a canal man, agreeing “to run 4 trips from Binghamton to Utica for 20$ in money,” according to her letters home. It was on her first trip ferrying coal that Rosetta “saw some soldiers” near Utica who encouraged her to enlist for three years, gaining her “100 and 52$ in money” plus $13 a month thereafter – a substantial raise from the wages she had been earning.

Much of the money that Rosetta earned she sent home to her parents, telling them, “All the money I send you I want you should spend it for the family in clothing or something to eat.” Since her father was in debt, at least some of Rosetta’s motivation for enlisting was probably to help support her family. But she also alludes to more personal reasons, saying, “I want to drop all old affray and I want you to do the same and when i come home we will be good friends as ever,” and later remarking, “I had got tired of stay[ing] in that neighborhood. I knew that I could help you more to leave home than to stay.”

What conflict she had with her family is unclear, but perhaps the answer lies in the independent spirit that shines through Rosetta’s letters, particularly when she writes, “I will dress as I have a mind to for all anyone else [cares], and if they don’t let me Alone they will be sorry for it.” She also reveals her hopes of having her own farm, “in Wisconsin. On the Prairie,” and her utter lack of fear of “rebel bullets.”

She does not seem the kind of young woman who would be happy in a traditionally feminine role, and indeed, over a year into her military service, she wrote, “I have enjoyed myself the best since I have been gone away from home than I ever did before in my life. I have had plenty of money to spend and a good time aSoldier[ing]. I find just as good friends among Strangers as I do at home.” She goes on to suggest that she might re-enlist for five years and $800. “I can do that if I am a mind to. What do you think about that?”

How Rosetta managed to serve without discovery is one of the great questions surrounding not just her, but all 250 known female Civil War soldiers. There are clues, however.

Read the rest of the article on the New York Times Opinionator!