Tuesday, May 31, 2011

#trust30 - Day 1

As promised, here's the Day 1 prompt for #trust30:

Gwen Bell – 15 Minutes to Live

We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other. Our age yields no great and perfect persons. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
You just discovered you have fifteen minutes to live.
1. Set a timer for fifteen minutes.
2. Write the story that has to be written.
(Author: Gwen Bell)

And my response. It isn't a story. May that be the first of many mistakes to come.


It's always about fear, isn't it? Fear is the thing, more than any other, that holds us back. It's that little nagging voice at the back of the mind that says what makes you think you can do that? It's the doubt that keeps us from trying. It's what keeps us from discovering who we really are, what we can be. Because what if we're wrong? What if we're not all we believe ourselves to be? What if someone laughs at us, or makes fun of us?

Well, what if they do? Here I am, fifteen minutes to live--what do I care about what everyone thinks? If I'm to leave a legacy, here's the legacy I would leave: 1) He chose love as often as he could. 2) He failed often because he tried many things--not because he was afraid to try.

Because if we are willing to try, willing to step out of our fear-shells and take a risk--above all, willing to fail on the way to success--who can stop us? What, other than death, can keep us from reaching our goals? After all, every one of us will die one of these days. Will I die on the way to my goal, or worrying about how hard it will be to get there? Will my end come as I am reaching with all my heart for what I know I can be--or will it catch me cringing, avoiding the discomfort of reaching?

Anybody who knows me knows I've spent much of my life cringing. I'm done with that now. I will be known for the mistakes I made--or for the victories I won because I was willing to make mistakes--not for the chances I missed. Or ignored.

Fifteen minutes to live? Let this be my legacy. In those fifteen minutes, I lived.

Care to share yours?

Something New

We'll start with a status update. I'm just over 600 words into Chapter 20 of my Civil War drummer story right now. With a little luck, I'll finish my first draft by the middle of June. My plan is to have it done before I head to the Historical Novel Society conference on June 17th. I've got a lot of writing to do between now and then--but it's manageable.

And speaking of writing: today I signed up for a challenge. The Domino Project, a new publishing venture headed by Seth Godin, one of the world's greatest Internet marketers, sent me the link to a 30-day writing challenge: #trust30. Each day, a new writing prompt will be posted on the challenge web site; participants are to write something based on that prompt and Tweet about it using the #trust30 hashtag when they're finished.

To be honest, this is quite a stretch for me. But it's by stretching, forcing ourselves past the boundaries we think constrain us, that we grow. A tree's roots can shatter a sidewalk or the foundation of a house if the tree is allowed to grow as its nature directs--why do we constrain ourselves to do only those things at which we're sure we won't fail? How much more could we accomplish if we could see past our own fear?

Well, I'm going to try to find out. I'll be responding to as many prompts as I can and posting the responses here.

Stand by for the first. I'll be posting it tonight.


Monday, May 30, 2011

What Is Memorial Day For?

For most of us, today is the unofficial first day of summer. It's a day for barbecue and beer and hanging out at the lake, or by the pool, or watching the kids run through the backyard sprinklers. Maybe it's the extra day you needed to get some stuff done around the house. Or maybe it's just a day to relax and be glad you don't have to go to work.

All those are fine things. But they are not what Memorial Day is about.

The world has changed since my childhood. But we are still a long way from a world without war.

As long as there are people and organizations and governments who would impose their will and whims on others by force, others must be willing to resist. By force.

And where force resists force, people die. Violently. Often horribly. Such is the way of war.

We honor those who come home with medals and parades. We meet them at the airport, cheer them, shake their hands. When we learn someone has served, we thank them.

Memorial Day is for those who don't come home. It's our way of remembering our country's sons and daughters who have died violently, often horribly, in our wars. Those for whom love of country, or freedom, or home, or their friends demanded the highest price they could pay. Those who died exhausted, filthy, terrified, and far, far from home.

Those whose blood has purchased our freedom, extended our lease on this dream of a better life, a better world for a little while longer.

Spend a moment today remembering someone you knew who went to war and didn't come back. If you can't think of a name, ask your parents. If they can't, ask your grandparents. If you still can't come up with a name--remember Tommy Folks. Or find another name online. Or go to a military cemetery near you and spend fifteen minutes walking among the gravestones. Plant a flag at one. Let our war dead know, let their families know, that we honor their sacrifice.

It's worth a few minutes of your time.

You can learn more about Memorial Day at this site: http://www.usmemorialday.org/.


Saturday, May 28, 2011

Checking In

I've been out of touch for a few weeks.

My first excuse: I'm trying to finish the first draft of my new novel in the next two weeks, before I head to the Historical Novel Society conference in California. It's going well...but I've got some work to do. Finished Chapter 19 (of probably 25 to 28) on Thursday night.

My second excuse: my day job has had me traveling to Jacksonville, Florida for the last three weeks--and I'm going back for the next two. Busy days, getting a lot done, but it really cuts into the writing time.

That said, I'll try to get back on before the end of the weekend to do an entry for Memorial Day. Last year I blogged about Tommy Folks. This year's entry will be a little broader in scope, and not quite so personal.

In the meantime, here's a cool Civil War link: Civil War 150. Like everything else from the History Channel, it's pretty basic information--but there's some good stuff there, in a format that's easy to digest quickly. You could call it a Civil War snack, one that might inspire you to go back for a meal later. Be sure to look at the other topics and vote for your favorites!

That's all I've got for now. Now go get your nerd on!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Great Map

One of the dangers of writing historical fiction is that sometimes you can get distracted by research when you should be writing. Wondering where the railroad junction in Washington, D.C., was in 1861, I typed "map washington dc 1861" into my Google search bar--and found a map of Washington in 1861 overlaid on a map of the city today. I promptly got lost exploring the map.

But I still can't find the railroad junction. Argh!

You can check out the map here and get your nerd on!


Monday, May 2, 2011

The Enemy Is Dead

Let me make my position clear: Osama Bin Laden is dead. U.S. Navy SEALs killed him yesterday. That is a good thing.

But seeing my countrymen celebrating in the streets at a man's death left me with some unfamiliar emotions. See, on the one hand, a man who desperately needed killing--a man whose hands are stained with the blood of more than three thousand Americans, and thousands more Iraqis and Afghans and Pakistanis and Arabs and Muslims and others from all around the world--got what he needed. On the other hand, Americans were celebrating in the streets that a man was dead. It's not something I expected to see in this country. It's the sort of thing we saw in the news after the 9-11 attack, except then it was people who had been taught to hate us celebrating our tragedy.

I'm not sure how I expected Americans to react. Honestly, I never expected we would learn of it this way. I had pretty much given up on such a decisive victory; I figued if he was still alive, he would die in a hole somewhere quietly and we would never know of it until years after the fact. And I know I wasn't the only one. So a decisive, unambiguous victory came as quite a surprise.

I wonder if that wasn't what the celebration was really about. In this war in which we have been conditioned not to expect victory, only a long hard slog to the next difficult step, we suddenly had a victory. A big one.

And when you get a big victory in the middle of a long hard slog, you celebrate.

But let's make no mistake: the slog is not over. The greatest danger to our country two days ago was that Bin Laden and Al Qaeda would discover another weakness in our national defense and would strike us again, perhaps even worse than before. The greatest danger today? That we decide the war is over, lower our defenses and relax--and Al Qaeda or one of its murderous partners takes advantage of the weakness we have created and strikes us again, perhaps even worse than before.

Because Al Qaeda is still out there, and even if Bin Laden's death destroys his organization, there are still plenty of people out there who want to kill Americans. Yes, we may have the capacity to kill them all, but what must we become to do it? And how many new enemies will we make in doing it? Military force, even assassination--the word nobody is using--should remain options. But they can't be our only options. The days are long gone when a conquering army could level a city and sow the ground with salt.

How do we win this war? First, we stand ready to kill the Bin Ladens of the world, and we put them on notice that we have both the capacity and the will to do it. We just did that.

Second, we identify the people who would stand against the Bin Ladens in their nations, and we help them. The people of the Middle East who want the chance to choose their own destinies, the people who this year are rising up in their thousands to reject dictators and terror, are our best hope to strangle and smother the Al Qaedas of the world. Because when people have the chance to improve their own lives, when they can roll up their sleeves and make better lives for their families without having to blame someone else for their lot, that's what they do. And they are too busy doing that to worry about killing Americans. And their lives become better, and we trade with them. And war between trading partners is rare.

So we stand behind those who reject dictators and terror. If we can do that, we win.

And here's the really great part: so do they.

The enemy is dead. May we never know his like again.


Sunday, May 1, 2011

How Many Wars Have There Been, Dad?

I asked my son what question he thought I should answer next in this blog. His response: "How many wars have there been in human history?"

Hmph. So much for throwing me a softball! He might as well have asked me how many died on the Eastern Front in World War II. Or how many fought for the Persians at Thermopylae. Or how many bullets were fired in the Civil War. The numbers are unknowable--we can estimate them based on what we do know, but we'll never know for certain.

Still, the question deserves a little attention. The main problem, as I see it, is in the terms: if we could know the numbers, we would still have to define what we mean by war and human history.

Now, HN, that's just stupid, you say. Everybody knows what a war is, and everybody knows what human history is.

Well, maybe. But bear with me. Someone with unlimited time and patience, with access to all the world's existing records, might be able to pore through book after book in library after library and find every recorded instance of war. That would be a complete list, as far as the records go--after all, if it isn't written down, it isn't really part of history. But would it really answer the question? It seems to me an approach like this ignores a huge part of our past. More on that in a bit.

So how should we define a war? You'd think we could say for certain, but a quick glance at our headlines shows we still don't agree on what a war is. Most news outlets will tell you the U.S. is involved in two wars right now--but the military considers Iraq and Afghanistan to be two fronts in the same war, the Global War on Terrorism. Who is right?

And what about the conflicts in Libya and Syria right now? What about Egypt, or Yemen, or Bahrain, or Tunisia? Are those wars? Insurrections? Rebellions? Revolutions? If the rebels lose, will they have been wars, or something else? To the rebels, I think it's safe to say most of these "Arab Spring" movements are wars. To the dictators they seek to throw down, probably not so much--unless the rebels win.

The past gives us plenty of examples, too, as far back as we care to look. What about Israel's incursion into Gaza in 2008-09? What about our own wars against the American Indians--should we count each campaign, or the destruction of each tribe, or each uprising as a single war, or was the whole bloody mess one war from 1865 to 1891? Was France's war in Indochina distinct from ours in Vietnam, or were they parts of the same war?

We can ask the question as far back as Alexander. Should we consider his conquests--of Asia Minor, Persia, Afghanistan, and western India--separate wars? I suspect he would have regarded the whole long march a single glorious string of conquests. I also suspect his adversaries would have considered each of their parts distinct from the others.

But let's say we can reconcile all those. Let's say we can reckon the number of wars of one sort or another during an average year of human history at one. It's probably a low guess, to be honest, but it makes the math easier--and after all, I'm a Histry Nerd, not a math nerd.

So the average number of wars is one--for how many years? We have hard historical evidence of war as far back as the pharaohs of Egypt; the five-thousand-year-old Narmer Palette appears to depict the pharaoh in the act of killing a captive, and another part of the palette shows a row of decapitated corpses. The cultures of the Fertile Crescent--the Sumerians, Assyrians, Hittites, and Babylonians--left similar records.

But archeology places war's origins even farther back. Jericho had walls and a tower, all of stone, eight thousand years ago; even if we don't know who threatened the city, we can be sure it was a who rather than a what. If your enemies are wild beasts, walls of earth or timber or thorns will suffice, and you don't need a tower.

And just so we don't leave the question unasked: how many walls of timber or earth already existed before Jericho built its walls of stone? We can't know that answer, either--but we can bet they weren't all for keeping animals out.

So if we take the earlier date, we get eight thousand years with one war apiece. Eight thousand wars in human history. If that sounds like a high number, consider this: the wars I've mentioned in this post--in fact, all the wars I've mentioned in this blog--don't even scratch the surface. For every year in which we can't count a single war in Europe, we can surely find a year with more than one. And that's only in Europe. I haven't even mentioned Africa, or South America, or Australia, or most of North America, or any but the tiniest slice of Asia. If anything, eight thousand is probably a conservative number.

War is part of the human experience. Our need to protect ourselves, or to improve our family's lot, or to seek more than we have--even if it means someone else, or many someones, must die--is universal. Whatever progress we have made in the last decades or centuries does not yet amount to an eyeblink in the scope of our history--and let's not forget the last century was the most violent in history in spite of that progress. It is wishful thinking at its most dangerous to believe we are anywhere near the end of war.

All the more reason to understand our past; perhaps understanding what we have fought over, and why, and how, will help us find ways not to fight over those things in the future. I remain hopeful we can figure it out, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. I believe courage is the highest of human qualities, and I have to believe one day we will discover the highest form of courage in something other than killing each other.

So eight thousand, by my very rough estimate, and counting. Let's hope the count ends one day.

Now go get your nerd on!