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A Christmas Carol: 19th Century Writing and Publishing

Enjoying “A Christmas Carol” with Family

Christmas at our house just isn’t complete without a fairly large dose of Scrooge, the Cratchits, and the various ghosts that accompany them. In fact, we consider it necessary to watch/listen to several versions of A Christmas Carol throughout the month of December. Some our favorites include: the version with George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart’s version, the Muppets Christmas Carol, Henry Winkler in An American Christmas Carol, and the Focus on the Family audio version.

“The Man Who Invented Christmas”

So, it should come as no surprise that I find the story behind Dickens writing his 28,000 word novella to be fascinating. For those of you who haven’t seen it (and you really should), The Man Who Invented Christmas depicts Charles Dickens as he struggles to write A Christmas Carol. (And while we really can’t credit Dickens with “inventing” Christmas, he was instrumental in solidifying many Christmas traditions.)

Dickens’ Process for Writing his Novella

The movie fascinated me from another perspective – watching the process (albeit a fictionalized version of it) of Dickens writing his famous story. Much of the movie involves him having conversations with his characters as he works through the story he is trying to write. I have only written historical fiction at this point, so I don’t have the same opportunity to make up an entire cast of fictional characters – but it was fun to watch the process he was going through, deciding who would be in his story, what their character traits would be, and even what he would call them.

And in other scenes he sits at his desk with multiple pages of his handwritten story laid out in front of him, scratching things out, adding things in. Even though much of my writing is done on a laptop these days, I do follow some of Dickens’ process. I often use a notebook or a legal pad to sketch out ideas when I’m away from my computer. And I often have pages spread out in front of me as I try to figure out where I’m going with certain aspects of my story. And while my pages are usually printed on a laser printer before I get to the editing stage we saw Charles performing, I make the same kind of additions and deletions that he was doing.

Dickens and Self-Publishing

One of my favorite aspects of the movie is that Charles Dickens, a well-known popular author of his day on both sides of the Atlantic – basically had to self-publish this Christmas story when he first wrote it. And not the inexpensive, print on demand self-publishing that I’ve been doing for the last seven years, but a much more expensive, almost “vanity-style” publishing that predated print on demand, where the author picks up the tab for getting his story in print.

Now Dickens did have an advantage over most of us, with one or more bookstores that were willing to take pre-orders on his new book, and to sell it in the store once it was printed. So, he wasn’t spending all that out of pocket money so that he could have a garage full of books that he was then trying to sell, a book or two at a time, as he found the buyers.

Our Process versus His Process

Sadly, that’s not quite the situation most self-published authors find themselves in today. I just finished the rough draft of my most recent novel (#6 in the da Vinci series). Now I send it off to beta readers who will give me feedback on everything from what doesn’t work in the story, to typos or grammatical mistakes.

In a few weeks, maybe I’ll have received all that feedback and have made the changes and corrections that need to be made. Meanwhile I’ll hire someone to design the cover. Dickens hired an illustrator who took care of the inside pictures, but at least from the movie, it looks like Dickens himself planned out his cover – much simpler than covers of today – but he wasn’t in need of the same type of “grab the readers” type of cover that authors generally need today to be noticed by potential readers in an increasingly crowded market.

The Dickens’ Masterpiece

But, regardless, Charles Dickens went from story idea to printed book in six weeks, spent the money along the way to hire an illustrator and the first printing of his book – which proceeded to sell out in the first five days. The book would continue through countless printings, later be translated into numerous languages, and has not been out of print since its original 1843 printing. And more than 150 years later, we are still watching, reading, or listening to Dicken’s little Christmas tale.

“God bless us everyone.”


My Da Vinci Deadline Looms

The writing continues as I press ahead to finish the rough draft of my next da Vinci novel. As I mentioned in a post in mid-October,  my new goal for finishing this rough draft is the end of November. I’m not quite at the end of the story, or at the end of the month, so the race is on.

Enjoying the Research

As always, it is easy to get caught up in the research. Learning new things about Leonardo and the era and areas in which he lived is always fascinating to me.

This particular novel covers the period in time when he is back and forth between Florence and Milan several times. Those are both cities that I have entire books set in, since in earlier periods of his life, he spent many years at a time in each of them.

Needless to say, I’ve already studied Renaissance Florence and Renaissance Milan quite a bit.  But that never stops me from further studying.

Renaissance Milan

Map of 16th Century Milan

Some of the things I learned recently about Milan:

  • It was larger and richer than Florence during the Reniassance.
  • It was the gateway between the Italian peninsula and Northern Europe, particularly France and Germany.
  • Milanese armorers were so important to Milan that they had special privileges, much like the glassmakers of Venice.
  • It was the first region in western Europe to build navigable canals

Renaissance Florence

Map of 15th Century Florence

Florence on the other hand had these qualities at that time:

  • A large industrial city with much trade and manufacturing
  • The guilds there were particularly important, and each had their own officers and their own churches.
  • The top 7 guilds there were: bankers, druggists, furriers, notaries, silk weavers, and wool merchants.
  • In fact, the quality of wool in Florence was the highest in Europe.
  • Other important guilds in Florence included: bakers, blacksmiths, carpenters, innkeepers, grocers, and shoemakers (and 8 others).
  • Florence spent much of this time period (actually from 1498 – 1509) fighting their neighbors, the Pisans.
  • The oldest bridge across the Arno River, the Ponte Vecchio, was crowded with shops, including butchers and tanners.

Leonardo, our Renaissance Man

And, of course, I’ve continued learning about Leonardo’s life during this time period. Some of the following may or may not make it into this novel, but they were interesting tidbits, nonetheless.

  • When Leonardo left Florence in the summer of 1506 with his battle painting incomplete, the Signoria (City Fathers) required him to leave 150 florins – money he would lose if he didn’t return from Milan by the end of the three months they were giving him.
  • In July 1507 King Louis referred to Leonardo as “our dear and good friend, our painter and engineer.”
  • Sometime in 1507 Leonardo started his painting, the St. Anne Madonna, and he completed it sometime in 1508.

Preview from the Draft Below

For any who are interested, I’ve included a preview from the current version of my story, where Leonardo gets the message that he needs to leave Florence and head to Milan.

Happy writing and reading!


As Leonardo took the message the servant stood straight again. “I have been instructed to wait for a response. I actually bring you two messages that are somewhat connected to each other. The first is that the friars at the Chapel of the Franciscan Brotherhood are unhappy about an altarpiece that you did for them with the de Predis brothers. They are requesting that Governor d’Amboise require you to come back to Milan and complete the altarpiece to their satisfaction.”

The servant stopped, looking for a response from Leonardo. But Leonardo merely stood there, considering the implications of this message. The altarpiece in question had been his first commission in Milan. A commission that went back more than twenty years. He had not thought about the Madonna of the Rocks in years. But he had completed that painting. Why were the friars bringing up it after so long?

Leonardo thought about the money the three artists had been promised for completing the altarpiece. Now that he stopped to think about it, he wasn’t sure whether they had ever been paid in full. He had started working for the Duke of Milan soon after they had completed the altarpiece and he had left the final financial details with the brothers. Suddenly Leonardo realized that the French servant was standing silently in front of him, as if waiting for Leonardo’s full attention to deliver the rest of his message.

“I’m sorry,” Leonardo mumbled. “I was thinking about the altarpiece. Did you say there was a second part to your message?”

The servant smiled and continued, “Governor d’Amboise requests your presence at his Milanese court.”

35 Great Writing Quotes

Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post with quotes about traveling and warned that more  might follow. And sure enough, here I am today with more quotes. This week they are all about writing. And you may notice that almost every one of these is from authors. I think you will admit that there are some great writing quotes here, for both writers and readers. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did:

  • “If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.”   Martin Luther (1483 – 1546)
  • “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”  Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826)
  • “There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.”  Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870)
  • “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”  Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862)
  • “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’Tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”  Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)
  • “My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel–it is, before all, to make you see.”  Joseph Conrad (1857 – 1924)
  • “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”  Anton Chekhov (1860 – 1904)
  •  “There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they’ll take you.”  Beatrix Potter (1866 – 1943)
  •  “A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.  G. K. Chesterton (1874 – 1936)
  • “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”  Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973)
  • “Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.”  Frank Kafka (1883 – 1924)
  • “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”  Agatha Christie (1890 – 1976)
  •  “Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”  F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896 – 1940)
  • “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”  William Faulkner (1897 – 1962)
  •  “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”  Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961)
  • “My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.”  Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961)
  • “The hard part about writing a novel is finishing it.”  Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961)
  • “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.”  E. B. White (1899 – 1985)
  • “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”  John Steinbeck (1902 – 1968)
  • “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”  Graham Greene (1904 – 1991)
  • “A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.”  Roald Dahl (1916 – 1990)
  • “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”  Madeleine L’Engle (1918 – 2007)
  •  “There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”  Frank Herbert (1920 – 1986)
  •  “Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way.”  Ray Bradbury (1920 – 2012)
  •  “You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”  Ray Bradbury (1920 – 2012)
  • “The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words.” William H. Gass (1924 – )
  •  “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”  Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014)
  • “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”  Toni Morrison (1931 – )
  • “Perhaps I write for no one. Perhaps for the same person children are writing for when they scrawl their names in the snow.”  Margaret Atwood (1939 – )
  • “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” Louis L’Amour (1942 – )
  • “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” Stephen King (1947 – )
  •  “The scariest moment is always just before you start.” Stephen King (1947 – )
  •  “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” Stephen King (1947 – )
  •  “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” Stephen King (1947 – )
  •  “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” Douglas Adams (1952 – 2001)

Again, I hope some of these quotes got you thinking!

Happy writing and reading!


35 Great Travel Quotes

It’s that time of year when my other responsibilities make blog posts difficult to write. (Between coaching Mock Trial and working hard on the next da Vinci novel, there just aren’t a lot of spare moments in late October and early November.)

So I’m going to “cheat” a bit this week and make another blog post based on quotes (last week’s Creative Learning Connection post was quotes about education). Quotes about travel sound like a good choice on a blog that focuses on writing, history, and travel. (And yes, I reserve the right to make the next post on here a list of quotes on one of the other two topics if the need arises!)

So, here are some great writing quotes to celebrate travel in a month I actually didn’t travel in. (In all of 2017, this will likely be the only month that I don’t travel away from Alabama at least once.) You may notice that many of the quotes are from authors, though philosophers, inventors, and explorers also made the list.

  1. “Adventure is worthwhile.” Aesop (c.620 B.C. – 564 B.C.)
  2. “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Lao-Tzu (c.6th century B.C. – 531 B.C.)
  3. “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.” Confucius (551 B.C. – 479 B.C.)
  4. “Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” Seneca (c.4 B.C. – A.D. 65)
  5. “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” Augustine (354 – 430)
  6. “I did not tell half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed.” Marco Polo (1254 – 1324)
  7. “For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.” Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519)
  8. “Take only memories, leave only footprints.” Chief Seattle (1786 – 1866)
  9. “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.” Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882)
  10. “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882)
  11. “To travel is to live.” Hans Christian Andersen (1805 – 1875)
  12. “It is not down in any map; true places never are.” Herman Melville (1819 – 1891)
  13. “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” Gustave Flaubert (1821 – 1880)
  14. “The gladdest moment in human life, methinks, is a departure into unknown lands.” Sir Richard Burton (1821 – 1890)
  15. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)
  16. “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)
  17. “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841 – 1935)
  18. “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894)
  19. “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894)
  20. “A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.” George A. Moore (1852 – 1933)
  21. “Live life with no excuses, travel with no regret.” Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)
  22. “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Marcel Proust (1871 – 1922)
  23. “The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.” K. Chesterton (1874 – 1936)
  1. “Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by.” Robert Frost (1874 – 1963)
  2. “The most beautiful in the world is, of course, the world itself.” Wallace Stevens (1879 – 1955)
  3. “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” Helen Keller (1880 – 1968)
  4. “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” S. Eliot (1888 – 1965)
  5. “All that is gold does not glitter. Not all those who wander are lost.” R.R. Tolkien (1892 – 1973)
  6. “In wisdom gathered over time I have found that every experience is a form of exploration.” Ansel Adams (1902 – 1984)
  7. “Oh the places you’ll go.” Seuss (1904 – 1991)
  8. “Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection.” Lawrence Durrell (1912 – 1990)
  9. “I don’t know what you could say about a day in which you have seen four beautiful sunsets.” John Glenn (1921 – 2016)
  10. “Live your life by a compass not a clock.” Stephen Covey (1932 – 2012)
  11. “Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs.” Susan Sontag (1933 – 2004)
  12. “Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.” Anita Desai (1937 – )

I hope these gave you something to think about.

Happy traveling, whenever and however the opportunity presents itself!


Back to My Writing

In mid-August I wrote two blog posts on my ongoing work on the next da Vinci novel – Working on my Da Vinci Series and The Joys of Researching. At that point I was about 20,000 words into my current novel (or almost half way through the rough draft, since my novels are more “novella” length – in the 40,000 word range).

My Progress Since August

Since I can generally write 1,000 words/day or more, at that time I fully expected to have the rough draft done by sometime in September – maybe the beginning of October if I really got bogged down. Alas, plans are great, but as is so often the case – life intervenes. So here I am in mid-October, a full 60 days since I wrote those posts. Any guesses as to how far along I am on Leonardo da Vinci book #6? If you guessed still at 20,000 words you would be correct.

What Excuses Do I Have?

Sadly, until a few days ago I hadn’t touched my novel since mid-August. There are all kinds of reasons/explanations/excuses I could give for the lack of progress. But ultimately, it doesn’t much matter. Here I am in mid-October with half a book left to write.

I could get mad at myself, tell myself it will never get finished, and I should just give up. Or I could dust off my computer and my notes and just get back to work. Which, of course, is what I’m doing (otherwise, I wouldn’t bother to tell you!).

Time For a New Deadline

Since I missed my original deadline, I need to set another one. I would love to say I’m going to knock out the second half in the next three weeks, but at this point, I doubt that’s a reasonable goal. I’ll give myself some extra time for research (part of what had stopped by my forward progress this summer) as well as the other responsibilities I have right now (primarily coaching Mock Trial and helping my students prepare for the Mock Trial competition in early November).

So now, let’s make the new goal the end of November, more like six weeks away. If all goes well, I’ll have a rough draft by then. (Of course, that will still leave the editing stage, so the book still won’t be done – but again, if all goes well, it will finally be well on its way.)

Progress Reports to Come

I’ll keep you posted on whether I succeed with this deadline. In the meantime, it’s back to trying to continue figuring out how many trips Leonardo actually made between Florence and Milan during this time frame. How much interaction did he have with Raphael and/or Machiavelli when he was back in Florence? How much detail do I want to include about the autopsy he did on the 100-year-old man, on the gala he organized in Milan, or on his newest painting commissions? And of course, the list goes on.

So, to myself, and other writers reading this, I say:

Happy writing! And keep going, you can do this!


The First Few Paragraphs

In case you’re interested, here’s a small taste of what the first few paragraphs of the story currently look like.  I hope you enjoy them. (Always subject to change, of course!):

Florence, Italy, May 1506

Leonardo walked into the spacious room without seeming to notice Salai and Tommaso huddled in the far corner. Absentmindedly he picked up a small notebook, flipping quickly through the pages. Without a word, he threw the notebook on a nearby table and stormed out of the room.

Salai and Tommaso heard the outside door slam, but for a long moment they both remained in their places, speechless. In the years they had worked for Master Leonardo they had both seen him angry on a few occasions. But never like this. And certainly never for this long. It had already been more than a week since he had walked away from his battle painting in the City Hall. Machiavelli had stopped by almost every day in an attempt to converse with the Master, but as of yet Leonardo had been unwilling to see or talk to anyone. Maybe Machiavelli’s last visit had pushed Leonardo too far.

Finally breaking the silence, Salai asked quietly, “Do you think one of us should try to talk to him when he returns?”

“Not me. No way.” Tommaso replied, with fear practically dripping from his voice. “You are certainly welcome to try. But I am not going near the Master until he calls for us. There is no telling what he might do.”

Salai pondered their options before speaking again. “We can’t continue trying to avoid him for much longer. There is only so much we can do without instructions.”

Book Review: Isaac’s Storm

Reminder – Schedule Change

A friendly reminder (that I think I failed to add to the last post here!) that I’ve recently changed to one blog post a week instead of two – so a new post should appear on this blog every other Monday, and a new one should appear on my other website, www.CreativeLearningConnection, on the alternate Mondays.

Last Post – Audibles and History

Two weeks ago I did a post on Audibles and history (a topic that combines two of my favorite interests!). And I really thought I would be going a totally different direction with today’s post. But as so often happens, my plans got modified along the way. (One of the many reasons I very seldom taught from any sort of pre-done syllabus, and even when I did, it always got changed before the semester was out.)

Hurricanes – Recent and Past

This week’s change is for a variety of reasons. First the quick background. I just returned from my latest cruise (this was my 10th, maybe I’ll do an entire post on why I love cruising so much, but, clearly, no promises on when!). We sailed out of Galveston, Texas, just a couple of weeks after Hurricane Harvey came through that general area and did some significant damage (more in the area of Rockport and Houston than Galveston itself).

Isaac’s Storm

I mentioned my then upcoming trip to a woman at the pool just before we left.  She asked if I had ever read the book, Isaac’s Storm. I had not and she strongly encouraged me to do so. As I so often do when people recommend books to me, I went looking for it on Audible. It was there, I immediately purchased it, and downloaded it to my phone just before the trip. I thought maybe I could convince my daughters to listen to it as we traveled to or from Texas. Sadly, they weren’t as interested in it as I was and I didn’t get a chance to listen to it until we returned home last week.

But, since I managed to come home fighting a losing battle against a cold, I actually had plenty of time to listen to the book while I was spending lots of time in my room (trying not to share my germs) and without much energy to do much else.

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria

Hurricane Irma

In the midst of all the recent damage done by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, it was fascinating to listen to the story of the 1900 hurricane that almost destroyed Galveston, Texas. The story gave me much more insight into to what those in the path of the recent storms would have suffered though during the hurricane itself and what many of them are continuing to suffer through in its aftermath.

The author, Erik Larson, does a good job bringing to life the days leading up to the hurricane, as well as making a reader feel the pain of those who were in Galveston on that fateful day. The subtitle of the book, A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, gives a good idea of what the book is about.  As Mr. Larson explains so well in the book, in the year 1900 Americans thought they were on the top of the world in almost every imaginable category – including weather predictions (even though the Weather Bureau was a brand new entity at the time, with very little practice at accurately predicting storms such as this one).

A Historic Narrative of Galveston’s Big Storm

After the 1900 Hurricane in Galveston

If you read or listen to the book, give it a little bit of time to get going. Mr. Larson describes his book as “a historic narrative” (and I honestly never determined whether it was classified as historic fiction or non-fiction), and he does spend some serious time in the beginning setting the stage for what occurred. My biggest complaint was not actually that, but the going back and forth between the time period just before the storm and much further back, when he gives us some of Isaac’s background including his time in the Signal Corps (the original weather folks). As an author, I can understand Mr. Larson’s desire to get readers hooked right away with the storm itself, but as a reader I prefer things laid out in a more straightforward manner. (But, really a small complaint about a very informative and interesting book.)

Isaac Cline was a late 19th/ early 20th century scientist and meteorologist who thought he had a true grasp of the limitations of nature. Living and working in Galveston before the hurricane struck, Isaac was one of many who that it impossible that a hurricane could do any significant damage to his city. His attitude before and even as the storm began reminded me a lot of the attitudes about the Titanic that would contribute to that disaster a mere twelve years later. But to put those two disasters into perspective, less than 2,000 people died when the Titanic hit the iceberg and more than 10,000 people died when the hurricane hit Galveston. (And it can be argued in both cases, the foolishness of men to take the true dangers into account made those numbers much worse than they should have been.)

Recommendation for Isaac’s Storm

If you like history, have an interest in storms, and/or want to better understand the physical and economic effects of the hurricanes that just roared across the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, I can strongly recommend Isaac’s Storm.

Happy learning, reading, and listening!


Audibles and History

I’ve written many times about my love of history and also about how much I enjoy Audible books. Recently a friend with a new Audible account asked me for recommendations. After confirming that she liked history-related books, it was fun to go through my massive Audible library (400 books and counting) to find recommendations that met three conditions:

  1. They were history-related.
  2. I had finished them.
  3. I enjoyed them. (Generally if I finish a book, it’s because I enjoyed it, but there have been a few exceptions!)

Some of my Favorites

Several of these books, like the first two, are ones that I went looking for intentionally, either for research or because I had recently heard about them somewhere. Many others were ones I discovered through one of Audible’s many sales. As you can see, while there are several topics I come back to again and again, I read and listen to a wide variety of history-related books.

These are the titles that rose to the top of my history list, in the order that I listened to them:

This book on the history of the Biltmore was actually the first Audible book I ever bought! I’ve listened to it at least twice.

I listened to this book after reading the original book on The Monuments Men; both are great looks at what happened to many pieces of important art work during WWII.

The subtitle says it all: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps. 

Again, the subtitle explains it well: New York’s Most Notorious Rare Book Ring and the Man Who Stopped It 

A different type of WWII story – The Incredible True Story of a WWII Airman and the Four-Legged Hero Who Flew at His Side”

An excellent Civil Rights book – How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed”

Another good Civil Rights book – this one primarily about a black doctor who “dared” to buy a house in a “white section” of Detroit – and the events that surrounded that basic decision.

I had mixed feelings about this book. It’s a story of the Titanic – told from LOTS of different perspectives. Overall it was good; I liked seeing what was happening from the viewpoint of such a variety of people. But there were two “characters” we could have done without – the rat and the iceberg. Listening to both of those “speak” throughout the story took away from the overall book for both my daughter and I when we listened to it. (I think if I had been reading it instead of listening, I would have started skipping those parts – but that doesn’t work so well with an audio book!)

This Civil Rights book covers The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation” – and includes a side of the Civil Rights (the press) that I had never thought about.

A great story of a special dog serving alongside the Marines – a great story for those who enjoy stories about the military or about dogs!

I vaguely remember reading this biographical story when I was in high school, but I know I got much more of it listening to it as an adult. Mr. Griffin recounts the months he spent in the segregated South of the 1960’s as “a black man.” It is really powerful (and sad) to see, feel, and hear his experiences throughout his work and travels across the South.  I noticed that a recent reviewer had said of the book that “it didn’t age well” – and was no longer relevant. I have to humbly disagree!

A fascinating story of George Washington’s spy ring during the American Revolution

Another wonderful Civil Rights book that I only discovered because it was a daily deal – “The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”

From what I could tell this book is not technically historical fiction – but it’s a very good story that’s been placed in a historical setting – late 17th century New England. For a feel of the time and the location, while enjoying a compelling story, I can strongly recommend this book.

This nonfiction book has another great subtitle to give you an idea what it’s about:  A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley.”

Okay, so this one is probably pushing it to be on a list of recommended history books. Like Crow Hollow it is really just historically set – only this one is set in 1950’s England. But I did enjoy the story and it still felt historical, so I’ve included it anyway.

  • Basilica by R.A. Scotti – Subtitle: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter’s”

Maybe just a tad too much emphasis on Michelangelo (what can I say, I’m not a Michelangelo fan!). But, I’ve listened to it all the way through twice so I obviously didn’t hate it. If you are interested in the history of St. Peter’s in Rome, this is a great place to start!

A powerful biographical story of a professor that brings Shakespeare to a maximum security prison. As someone who loves Shakespeare as much as history, it is encouraging to see prisoners relating to Shakespeare.

Again, the subtitle pretty much tells it all – “The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo.” Another great book for anyone who likes stories of animals AND military.

The three different books in this trilogy are amazing. They follow three slaves (related by blood or circumstances) during the American Revolution – and give us a completely different perspective on the war than what we normally see. (I got Chains as a special deal at some point, and couldn’t wait to buy the second and third books as soon as I had finished each of the previous ones!)

Okay, so maybe this is another one on my list that isn’t strictly history. But it has history in it, as Olsen does an amazing job unpacking Tolkien’s work, how he came up with his characters, and much of what he was doing in his well loved story.  If you like The Hobbit at all, you should really consider listening to this book!

This book gives an international perspective of history and economics. I enjoyed listening to it very much!

Such a good book! Describing the work done by the speech therapist that helped King George VI overcome the speech defect that had threatened to ruin his ability to lead his country before and during WWII.

  • Anything by Jeff Shaara if you like war related books

I have read at least a dozen of Shaara’s book, on everything from the Mexican War to the American Revolution, World War I and World War II. All were exceptional! The first one I listened to was A Blaze of Glory . It was at least as good as all of the ones I had read.

This series takes place throughout Europe, but it is mainly set in England, in the years between WWI and WWII. (Again, I don’t think it  is technically historical fiction, though it has quite a bit of history throughout.) The series starts with Her Royal Spyness (I have listened to them all, usually as soon as they are released!)

My Recommendations are for Other Adults

Because I only write family-friendly books, and am always on the lookout for other family-friendly books, I do feel the need to include the following caveat – I am NOT recommending these books for students. I haven’t listened to most of them in quite a while, so I just can’t say one way or another about that category of listeners or readers. I don’t have much of a tolerance for violence, bad language, or “bedroom scenes,” so I can guarantee that all of these titles are either lacking completely in those, or they are pretty close to it.  But I generally listen to these on my own or with adult children – so I am not prepared to recommend them for younger folks!

The Great Courses and History

I listen to a fairly eclectic selection of books – a variety of fiction and non-fiction, and have a special place in the reading portion of my heart for the various lecture series that Great Courses produces. So I’ve include a variety of those below that meet the above guidelines:

Helpful Suggestions?

My hope is that one or more of these titles will interest you. (Most of them are available as Kindle and paperback versions, too, in case you don’t consume your books in audio form as much as I tend to do.)

Happy reading and listening!


Remembering 9/11

I had started another blog post for this week. But when I thought about what date it would be published, I changed my mind. The other topic can  wait.

The Assassinations of the 60s

It’s always interesting to recall where we were and what we were doing when certain key events happened.  I’ve talked to people from my generation that remember some of the assassinations from the 60’s that way – JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr, or Robert Kennedy to name a few. I was in the Canal Zone (Panama) when John F. Kennedy was killed and have no recollection of that.  Based on when we moved, I must have been in Massachusetts when King and the younger Kennedy were shot, but I don’t recall either of those.

The Challenger Explosion

But I do remember where I was and what I was doing when the Challenger Shuttle exploded and when 9/11 happened. In fact, both of those times I was home with my children, and my husband called me from work to tell me the news. Before the Challenger explosion my family had actually watched the live broadcasting of several shuttle liftoffs, but “happened” not to be watching that one. I was thankful that I was able to give the kids some information about what had happened before we turned the news on to see what they were discussing. I’m sure we spent most of that day watching the news as they tried to analyze the tragedy that had just occurred.

The 9/11 Attacks

The television was also off when the first airplane struck the tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11. After my husband called, we prayed for the people in the tower, and then like so many other people across the country, turned the TV on and tuned into the news. And like so many others, we were watching when the second tower was struck, and we were watching when the towers started to collapse. We spent much of that morning praying for those who had been injured, those who were trying to get out of the towers (as well as those who were rushing in to help), and the families of the increasing number of people who were dying that day.  I think it would be safe to say that 9/11 brought our country to its knees – to the knees of those in prayer.

People Who Were Directly Affected

It would be several years before I would actually speak with people who had been in D.C. and New York City when the attacks happened.  A good friend in D.C. was in the Navy at the time, and working at the Pentagon. She was actually away from her office, and returned right after the plane had struck.  But when I visited her in D.C. a few years later we dined with another Navy friend who was at the Pentagon that morning. In fact her office was very close to where the plane struck. I listened intently as she described their hasty departure from the building, and the massive amounts of damage that had been caused. And, of course, she knew many of those who died in the Pentagon that morning.

Many years later I attended a dinner in New York City connected to my son’s graduation from law school. There were several people at our table that evening that had been in New York City on 9/11. They described the chaos in the streets and the debris in the air as they ran with countless others away from the disaster.  Many lives were lost that day, and many others were forever changed.

The Smoke Could Even Be Seen From Space

When I was looking for some pictures I could use for today’s blog post, I ran across many that I was familiar with, photographs of the towers on fire and of the aftermath. But I also discovered a photo I had never seen before – the one taken from the International Space Station (ISS) showing the smoke from the towers that the astronauts could even see from space. The ISS Commander, Frank L. Culbertson, wrote that day: “The world changed today. What I say or do is very minor compared to the significance of what happened to our country today when it was attacked.”

Sixteen Years Later

Sixteen years have passed since that tragic day, and it is very easy for those of us who were not directly effected by that day to forget. (My oldest son was unable to fly back overseas that day after flights were cancelled and I had to pick up my niece at school that day when the schools choose to release students early). Other than that we were only impacted as Americans.

And today, sixteen years later, I have students who only know of 9/11 as part of our country’s collective history – but they have no personal memories of that day.  I hope that as a nation we can keep alive the memories of those who perished in those attacks – particularly the first responders who willingly ran towards the disaster rather than away from it.

Praying for those Affected by the Hurricanes and 9/11

Today with much of our country’s focus on the current path and recent damage of Hurricane Irma (and Harvey), may we also remember those who’s lives were forever changed by 9/11.



Relaxing with Family

Fun at Family Reunions

I spent this past weekend attending a family reunion. The reunion itself, with our extended family members, was only about two hours long. But, for the second year in a row, attending the reunion gave my sisters and I an excuse to spend extended time together with each other and with our mom. In theory, we shouldn’t need such excuses, and we have worked hard at getting the four of us together at least once a year for a few days for quite some time now. But with the four of us now living in four different parts of the country, we will take all the excuses we can find.

In addition to spending more time with each other we spent additional time with my mom’s only surviving sister and the cousin that we’re all closest to (who both live in a fifth state).  All of that extended the “reunion time” by several days in each direction – giving us the “excuse” to spend a week away from our respective jobs and just enjoying each other’s company.

A Great Way to Spend a Weekend

It was a great weekend – fairly low key, with little planned outside the reunion time itself. But around that we ate together and played together (we’re all big board game and card game players!). And we swam together and walked together.

No History Lessons This Time

And while I am a historian by nature, and love learning the history of the areas I visit, I don’t have to turn every trip into a history lesson. (My children may have doubted that fact when they were growing up, but that was a different time with different priorities!) I certainly want to become immersed in the history related to many of my trips, but this wasn’t one of those times.  This was just a trip to relax and to enjoy each other’s company.

Family Games

I was struck by one comment that was made at the reunion. With twelve children, I’m accustomed to being the outlier when it comes to family size. But I do have a cousin who also has a large family. When the topic of a conversation turned to games my cousin mentioned that because of the younger children they didn’t play many games with the older children. Since the youngest ones would either want to play with the games that were above their heads and would likely get ahold of the pieces and ruin the games.

Legos v. Duplos

The comment reminded me of a friend in Germany many years ago that didn’t plan to buy actual Legos (instead of Duplos) until her youngest child was old enough to safely play with Legos. Since there is a twenty-one year gap between my oldest and youngest, my oldest children would never have played with Legos.  And they would never have played some really great games had I waited on those. (You can see some of our favorites on my other blog,  at For us, dealing with the ramifications of Legos and games aimed at older kids and adults was worth it.

The Value of Games

Throughout my life, games have been a big part of how our family relaxed and related. And that’s something I have happily passed on to my children, and as they get older, hope to help pass on to the grandchildren. This week’s reunion time has been another wonderful reminder of how much joy families can get from engaging in games together.

Happy playing!


Atlanta or Bust!

Warning, this is an unusually long post for this blog – but I couldn’t figure out how to share this story with less words:

Choosing the “Best” Airport

We live in an area of the country where flight prices can literally be all over the map. At times, it makes the most sense to fly from the airport that’s practically around the corner from us; at other times, we willingly drive 100 miles north or south to use Nashville or Birmingham’s airports. (And on even rarer occasions we go 100 miles northeast to the Chattanooga airport.)

But every once in a while, we actually fly people in or out of Atlanta instead. Needless to say, at 250 miles each direction, that has to result in BIG savings to be worth the time and gas. But especially with international flights, that can sometimes be the case. And when we’re talking multiple people flying from there, the savings can add up quickly.

Choosing to Fly From Atlanta

Last week was just such a time. My son’s family of five was heading overseas. Flying out of Atlanta was going to save them time and money – at least that was the idea when they made their reservations.  The original plan was simple: the rest of us said our goodbyes early Tuesday afternoon, and my oldest took off for Atlanta with the five travelers in the family minivan. They left the house at 1:30 p.m., in plenty of time to make the four-hour drive, add in a couple of stops, and still arrive early for the flight that was due to depart eight hours later.

The Unexpected Flat Tire

Imagine my surprise when my daughter called 45 minutes after they had departed to say that they were sitting by the side of the interstate with a blown tire. Our insurance company had been called, since we have free towing through them. They had promised help within three hours. Oh yes, meanwhile three adults and three small children are camped out on the grass by the side of the interstate – in temperatures that were topping 90 degrees again. Never mind that at that point there would be no way to make their flight.

Fortunately, we also have free towing through AAA, so that was their next phone call. AAA promised a tow truck could be there in more like 30 minutes. Sold, to the lowest bidder.

Trying to Come Up with another Van

Meanwhile I had been called too. Immediately, the idea of renting a van from our (then) favorite rental company came to mind. Fortunately, Enterprise has three locations that were convenient to their location and mine. In hopes of tracking down the closest minivan in the shortest amount of time, my son called the one closest to our home, while I called the 1-800 number.  No minivans were available in Madison or Huntsville, but she could put one on hold at the Decatur location for us. Fortunately, another daughter was home (having not yet left to take care of her plans for the day). The two of us were soon on our way to Decatur.

Thirty minutes later my son called back. They weren’t going to make it to the airport, so we should not spend the money on a rental car, just return home to pick up a second vehicle, so that we could get them picked up and back home sooner rather than later.

We considered his new request, but quickly decided against it. We were much closer to the Decatur Enterprise than to home and getting a rental vehicle would at least get them off the road quicker. My daughter dropped me off and headed to their location, figuring she could either transport some of the group, or at least increase the adult to child ratio.

Enterprise and the Elusive MiniVan

Meanwhile I rushed into the Enterprise building to pick up the minivan that was being held for me. We had already decided that, worst case, if this van wasn’t as big as our Toyota Sienna, we could put some of the luggage and people in the rental and some in the Toyota Echo my daughter was driving, and get everyone to the airport that way.

But, there was a new problem. The Decatur Enterprise had no minivan for me – they had no idea what I was talking about, or why the lady at the 1-800 number would have thought they did.

Enterprise and NO Rental Vehicles

Me: Okay, I’ll take a smaller vehicle, maybe we can squeeze everyone and everything into two regular cars. Enterprise: No, sorry, we have nothing on the lot right now, of any size. All I could think of at that point was getting my family safely picked up. Enterprise: We could call someone else for you. Me: I have no way to get anywhere else; I was dropped off and my ride has long gone. By the way, what time do you guys close? Because at this rate, I may be here until then.

What Else Could We Do?

At that point I sat down across from their counter, trying to maintain my composure, while prayerfully considering our other options. But I was coming up with nothing. I passed on the bad news to the family members along the highway and then contacted my youngest daughter, the only other family member that was in town and not tied up with school and/or work. Me to her: Please go home and trade vehicles, it looks like we may need you to help get folks picked up. I don’t know what else we can do. And after you get them, please stop by the Decatur Enterprise and pick me up.

The Costs of Not Getting There in Time

Meanwhile my son had discovered that they would be delayed two weeks before they could get another flight overseas, and they would be charged hundreds of dollars for changing their tickets because of this. Needless to say, if they didn’t make their flight, the stakes were high and tempers were in danger of moving that direction, too.

Oh, and the tow truck folks were having trouble even accessing the small, donut-sized spare tire we had hiding in the van.  So, towing the van was going to be their only option. My oldest agreed to go with the tow truck when the time came and see what could be done about replacing the tire.

So, there I sat, unable to do anything – stranded at a car rental place without a vehicle of my own and apparently no way to rent one of any size – large or small. An hour had already passed since the tire had blown, and I knew that every minute that passed increase their risk and decreased any chance they had of making it to Atlanta on time.

The Mysterious 15-Passenger Van

I continued to pray, and tried not to fret. (Enough people were currently engaged in that activity.) Suddenly the young man behind the counter looked at me, “Can you drive a 15 passenger van?” Me: Yes, I’ve owned one and driven several others. Why? Enterprise: “Okay, we’ll have one of those available for you in a few minutes.”

I still don’t know if one had mysteriously appeared while I sat there, or if he suddenly remembered one hiding in the back of their lot, but at that point I didn’t really care. I let the family members know I was working on getting a 15-passenger van as quickly as possible. Doing the math, I knew it might not matter in the quest to get them to Atlanta; we were about out of time.

I let my youngest know we wouldn’t be needing her services and I waited, watching another ten minutes pass by before I held the keys to the 15 passenger van. Right at 4:00 p.m. I joined the caravan along the side of the road. My oldest was about to depart with the tow truck and the minivan. Thinking that we were all heading home, she didn’t say much in the way of goodbyes – better to just get everyone on their way as quickly as possible. My son locked and loaded three car seats and then started throwing the luggage in anywhere and everywhere. Did I mention that in addition to the 5 of them they had 10 suitcases and a large stroller? Having a large van meant things would actually fit easily, without the careful packing plan that had been used at home that morning.

Giving It Our Best Shot

Rather than send a couple of people in the Echo with my other daughter we made the quick decision to head south with the travelers and prayerfully make a final attempt to make it to Atlanta. As soon as we were on our way, my son and I were both doing the calculations. It was clear that he didn’t want to give up too quickly, but he was also reluctant to have us drive all the way to Atlanta if they weren’t going to be able to get on their flight anyway.

I insisted that we had to try and I kept moving south as quickly as I could safely and legally go. Because it was a rental van, I had suddenly become the only driver. I knew we were going to hit Birmingham right at rush hour and if we had any type of delays at all, that would be the end of any chance of making the flight. Even without delays or unnecessary stops it was unclear whether we were doing this all for nothing – in spite of several phone calls, my son couldn’t get a straight answer as to what the absolute latest they would be allowed to check in. All we knew was that since it was an international flight, the expectation was that they be there two to three hours before the flight. We knew there was no possibility of that, even with only two quick stops – one at the first rest area we encountered and one on the other side of Birmingham when we had to admit that the 3/8 of a tank we had started with was not going to get us all the way to the airport.

What Type of Delays Lay Ahead of Us?

But ultimately, this would all come down to whether we hit any delays at all along our route, and whether the folks at the check in counter would allow them to check in a mere one and a half hours (or less) before the flight. We pulled up to the curb at almost exactly 8:00 p.m. our time, so 9:00 p.m. Atlanta time. I helped them unload as best I could and then left them with their mound of stuff, three tired children, and two wiped out adults.

Checking In?

I pulled around to the parking garage and then came inside to find them. They were still in line at the counter. They weren’t quite the last people in line, but they were close – and the two gentlemen behind them didn’t even look like they had bags to check.

We all held our collective breaths as they waited to see what the counter person would say when their turn came. Now they were barely an hour before flight time. But as he started checking their bags we could all breathe normally again. Once those bags had gone on the conveyer belt there wasn’t much chance they were going to be turned around.

Through Security

I walked with them to security at 9:30, where the young lady rushed them through the crew’s path –  a much more direct one than what they “should” have taken, and they were on their way to the gate, undoubtedly the last ones there.

Heading Home?

Now it was my turn to depart. My son thought I was planning to drop them off and check into a hotel. We had talked about that option days before when we thought it might take two vehicles to get them and all their stuff to Atlanta.

But all this had happened so quickly that I had left home without anything I would have wanted for an overnight stay somewhere, including my CPAP machine. I contacted my oldest daughter and told her I was going to attempt to make it home that night. I would keep her posted. If I got tired, I would stop. I wasn’t planning to do anything foolish. And we both knew I usually turn into a pumpkin by midnight.

I made my first stop an hour from the airport. I needed more gas and I needed food. It was now 9:30 p.m. at home and I had yet to eat dinner. (When my son’s family was dining on granola bars in the van I hadn’t wanted to deprive them of snacks they could very well need later on their trip.)

On the Road Again

After the van was full, and I had purchased food and another Mountain Dew, I was back on the road. Only 200 miles or so still to go. But now I had at least figured out how to work the cruise control and I had turned on an Audible book that still had many hours of listening on it. I had also turned on and then turned back off my map program, since I had no intention of going any way except the one I knew the best – I20 to I65 and then home.

But the map program came in handy a little while later when I came upon traffic that was standing still. I thanked the Lord again that we had encountered nothing like this on the way to Atlanta. I followed the map program’s suggestion and got off at the next exit, following several big trucks and just a few smaller cars who clearly had the same information and the same alternative directions.

Thirty minutes later we were back on the interstate, getting closer to Birmingham. I had decided I would need to stop at least two more times on my way home, but was trying to get through Birmingham before I stopped again. Soon after I sailed back through the city and got on 65 my daughter called to see how I was doing. It was midnight and I was heading north on 65. So far so good on not feeling tired. (I attributed that to the caffeine and the prayers of those who knew I was still on the road.) By the time we got off the phone I realized I was almost to the rest area. I stopped there, making it my second stop of the return trip, rather than the third I had expected it to be. By 1:15 I was back on the road with two snacks, a Gatorade, and my book.

Ten Hours From Decatur to Atlanta and Home

I pulled into my driveway and parked in front of our house at 2:00 a.m. Only at that moment did I realize how exhausted I was. I had not yawned once since getting behind the wheel of the van 10 hours before. After making sure my alarm for swimming the next morning was truly turned off, I said goodnight to my daughter, stumbled up the stairs and crawled into my bed – thankful to be home, and thankful that my family was on their way across the Atlantic.

Almost a week later my knee has almost fully recovered from the drive and I think I’ve about caught up on my sleep again. We could never have pulled it off without the prayers, the answers to prayers, and the help and cooperation of several family members. As one of my other sons said, “Go team Jaime!”

Here’s hoping our next trip (later this week) will not be so exciting!

Happy traveling, and may your adventures be equally blessed (but maybe not so stressed!)


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