True Bits: Lemonade

Recently a reader asked me whether the lemonade that shows up twice in I Shall Be Near To You was historically accurate. The short answer is yes! The longer answer is a little more complicated.

The account of the soldiers being offered lemonade by citizens of Maryland as they marched toward Antietam comes straight out of Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam by Stephen W. Sears, the main source I relied on for my information about Antietam. In it, Major John M. Gould of the 10th Maine is quoted as having written in his diary, “The women and young ladies opened their doors and windows to give us bread and butter, meat, apples, peaches, and preserves!” Sears adds that, “There were washtubs of cold water and lemonade at front gates along the roadside…” That little tidbit became the inspiration for the scene in the novel. Interestingly, while working on the answer to this question, I did more research (better late than never!) and came across the Civil War diary of Private Charles C. Perkins, a bugler in the 1st Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, written while he was on the Peninsula Campaign in June 1862. He recounts several purchases of lemons (at a price of two for 25 cents on one occasion and three for 17 cents on another) and sugar to make lemonade.

Now, the accuracy of the lemonade that Rosetta’s mama makes during haying is a bit more slippery. The honest answer is that I made it up. That said, according to The Land Where Lemons Grow: The story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit by Helena Atlee, by 1862 there were regular steamships transporting lemons from Italy to New York. Now, would any of those lemons actually made it out to Flat Creek? Well, with the canal nearby in Utica, it’s possible, and the nice thing about historical fiction is I can deal in possibilities. Would Rosetta’s family have spent the money to buy lemons? That seems less likely. I prefer to imagine that they might have had a lemon tree planted in a protected spot in the kitchen garden. It’s possible, right?

Who would ever have thought there was so much research behind such a simple detail like lemonade! It’s a perfect example of how, when writing historical fiction, you never know what you don’t know until you’re in the middle of a scene.

Fourth Newsletter: An Announcement

I send out a monthly-ish newsletter. This is the the fourth one, from May 2015, 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!

Mama Goat is Capacious! or, Waiting is rewarded!

I promised I’d send the next newsletter when I had an announcement, either about baby goats or the next novel draft. I had high hopes I’d beat Mama Goat on my end of the bargain, but alas, no. I also had hoped Mama Goat would deliver on her promise on Mother’s Day, but alas, she waited until the day after. But never mind that! The (human) Kid and I spent all afternoon sitting with Mama Goat while she labored, petting her, giving her compliments, and waiting. The wait was worth it.
It’s really hard to get a good picture of so many moving targets (because, wow, are they already bouncing around a lot), but here are Mama Goat’s five (5!!) baby girls, at almost exactly 24 hours old. I’m having a hard time getting much of anything done (uh oh) because they’re just so fun to watch. And it’s also fun to watch this other kid… petting a still-wet baby, and in the next picture, a day-old baby (“I’m holding my first baby!” he said), boinging along with the goaties as they test out their acrobatic abilities.

Inspiration: It comes from so many places

While we were waiting for Mama Goat’s babies, The Kid and I put to use some things we learned while reading Kate DiCamillo’s book Leroy Ninker Saddles Up last week. Oh my goodness, what a sweet, funny, adorable book! We both loved it. In it, Maybelline the horse “enjoys the heck out of a compliment” and “is the kind of horse who gets lonesome quick.” We tried to make sure Mama Goat wasn’t lonely during her hours of labor (we sat with her from 2:30 PM until 9 PM, until everyone was dry and fed), and we complimented the heck out of her. She rewarded us with lots of licks (until the babies arrived and then she was really busy licking them) and lots of talking to us when we had to leave for water breaks from the hose.

Last week, I also watched Kate DiCamillo’s Newbery-Caldecott Award acceptance speech for her book Flora & Ulysses, which we haven’t read yet but which I at least am really looking forward to. (The Kid is a teensy bit worried about the pants-eating and squirrel-sucking vacuum). What a lovely, inspiring tribute to the capaciousness of a mother and daughter’s love. I hope you’ll get the chance to watch the video (the goods start at almost 3 minutes), but be forewarned– it will make you laugh and tear up.

Mama Goat and her babies have been making us all feel more capacious– “lifted up by surprise and gratitude and joy,” as Kate DiCamillo says. I hope your Spring too is full of such wonder and openness.

Witness Trees

(**I’ve tried to minimize any Spoilers here, but if you haven’t finished reading I Shall Be Near To You yet, SPOILER ALERT**)

In honor of Arbor Day, I thought I’d write a little bit about trees…

In November of 2008, I came across Bob Hicok’s poem “What I Know For Sure” in that month’s edition of Oprah magazine and was introduced to the idea of the witness trees at Antietam and Appomattox. I had not yet written the battle scenes in I Shall Be Near To You, but I knew they were coming, and I knew some of what would happen– had already written much of *that* scene at Antietam, in fact– although I didn’t yet know it would happen at Antietam. But the idea of witness trees stuck with me. Reading Hicok’s poem was the first I’d heard that phrase, in fact, and I tore the poem out and posted it to the bulletin board that was above my desk at the time. When I finally got to *that* scene at Antietam, the idea of a witness tree had taken root, and I have Bob Hicok’s poem to thank for the idea of Jeremiah’s tree.

In my search for a link to the poem, I also came across photographer Nate Larson’s poignant series of portraits of the remaining Witness Trees— the only survivors of the Civil War still living. Aren’t they beautiful?

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!

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.

Speaking of Characters

My agent is brilliant. He knows how stories work because he reads a ton (as in, he recently tweeted that he was reading 67 books at once), and he is great at wading through the murk and honing in on what is most important in a story.

In our recent conversation about my novel in progress, he made the point that every character needs to have a want or a desire that is separate from the story. Meaning, each character needs something she would go after, whether the events of the story happen or not. That’s what gives each character her own life and makes her multi-dimensional.

For Rosetta, in I Shall Be Near To You, that want was her own farm. She would have pursued and dreamt of that farm whether she ever met Jeremiah or whether the Civil War happened or not.

It seems like an obvious point when I write it here, but it felt a bit like an epiphany to me– the missing piece of the puzzle, despite all the outlining and drive lines and strengths and weaknesses I had brainstormed for the characters in my new project.

Rosetta-isms: For my part

One of Rosetta’s little linguistic tics is the phrase “for my part”. Here’s a sampling:

From a letter dated August 19, 1863
“…I don’t believe this war will be over as long as there is a man left, and for my part I don’t Care how long it does last. I hope that our regiment will have to go into the field before it is over. Then I shall be satisfied and not until we have to go.”

(Of course I love this for how brave and brazen Rosetta is here.)

From a letter dated September 20, 1863
“…I don’t think that it would be my luck to get a furlough to come home this fall. For my part I shan’t try for it. If I did the officers Would say, ‘No, you must let the married men go home first.'”

(It makes me smile how she doesn’t even acknowledge that she could come home any time she wanted, if she revealed her true identity!)

From a letter dated October 13, 1863
For my part, I hope we Shall go to South Carolina, for there is nothing so lovely as the Southern Sun. WHen it rises over the virginia hills and Shines into the vales of South Carolina, I then like to be a Soldier. The hotter the Sun Shines, the better I like it in the army.”

(I just love her description of the Southern sun!)

From a letter dated January 20, 1864
For my part, I see the principle of the men in this regiment and I have chosen the better part.” And “…for my part, I haven’t been punished Since I have been in the service.”

When I was writing the novel, I had no idea just how many times it appeared in Rosetta’s letters, but it must’ve lodged itself in my subconscious because when Rosetta’s voice came to me, this little phrase came too. I love the personality and flavor it adds.

A semi-True Bit: Walt Whitman’s “The Wound Dresser”

This isn’t exactly a True Bit, because I didn’t read Walt Whitman’s poem “The Wound Dresser” about his work as a nurse in the Civil War hospitals in Washington DC until after I’d already written the scene where Jennie takes Rosetta to the Armory Square Hospital. (And I guess, technically, a poem isn’t “true”?) When I did finally read it, I was shocked at the ways in which the novel and the poem overlapped, especially starting in the middle of the second stanza.

The Wound-Dresser

An old man bending I come among new faces,
Years looking backward resuming in answer to children,
Come tell us old man, as from young men and maidens that love me,
(Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead;)
Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions, these chances,
Of unsurpass’d heroes, (was one side so brave? the other was equally brave;)
Now be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth,
Of those armies so rapid so wondrous what saw you to tell us?
What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,
Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest remains?


O maidens and young men I love and that love me,
What you ask of my days those the strangest and sudden your talking recalls,
Soldier alert I arrive after a long march cover’d with sweat and dust,
In the nick of time I come, plunge in the fight, loudly shout in the rush of successful charge,
Enter the captur’d works—yet lo, like a swift running river they fade,
Pass and are gone they fade—I dwell not on soldiers’ perils or soldiers’ joys,
(Both I remember well—many of the hardships, few the joys, yet I was content.)

But in silence, in dreams’ projections,
While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,
So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand,
With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, (while for you up there,
Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.)

Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.

I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.


On, on I go, (open doors of time! open hospital doors!)
The crush’d head I dress, (poor crazed hand tear not the bandage away,)
The neck of the cavalry-man with the bullet through and through I examine,
Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard,
(Come sweet death! be persuaded O beautiful death!
In mercy come quickly.)

From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood,
Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv’d neck and side falling head,
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump,
And has not yet look’d on it.

I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep,
But a day or two more, for see the frame all wasted and sinking,
And the yellow-blue countenance see.

I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet-wound,
Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive,
While the attendant stands behind aside me holding the tray and pail.

I am faithful, I do not give out,
The fractur’d thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,
These and more I dress with impassive hand, (yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame.)


Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
(Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)

True Bits: Rebel spies

Several events from the real Rosetta’s letters really intrigued me when I first read about them. One of the most fascinating was her brief account of the female soldier and rebel spies she guarded while on prison duty:

“Over to Carroll Prison they have got three women that is confined to their Rooms. One of them was a Major in the union army and she went into battle with her men. When the Rebels bullets was acoming like a hail storm, she rode her horse and gave orders to the men. Now She is in Prison for not doing aCcordingly to the regulation of war. The other two is rebel Spies and they have Catch them and Put them in Prison. They are Smart looking women and [have] good education.”

Who were those women? Did they realize they were being guarded by a woman? How did Rosetta feel guarding a soldier who was imprisoned for doing exactly what she was doing? How did Rosetta get these details about the female Major? This little paragraph is all we know! I wish Rosetta had said more, but because she didn’t, I was free to imagine the scene where the character Rosetta guards and meets Mrs. Greenhow, also known as Rebel Rose.