Subject: Writing and Research (WriteStuff 5-06)
Date: Wed, 24 May 2006 12:56:23 -0400

The Electronic Write Stuff

Writing News for the Sunshine State & the Solar System

North Florida Writers * May 2006

In this issue:

Hammond to Speak at June Meeting

The Ugly, the Bad, the Good, and the Great -- Tom Lane

The Adventurous Trails of Research - Myrtle Archer

Quote from a Writer's Quill -- Lillian Hellman

Writers Born in May - Joseph Heller, James Barrie, Daphne DuMaurier, Lorraine Hansberry, Arthur Conan Doyle, and many others

Calendar of Events


The naturalist-poet John Hammond will speak to the North Florida Writers at 2 p.m. Saturday, June 10.

The site of the meeting will be confirmed later.



She didn't strike me as strange when she handed out copies of her manuscript for the class to read and critique. At the introductory class session, she said with pride that she had published several times in the New Yorker Magazine. Despite the magazine's literary reputation, the remark didn't impress me, except for making me think her a competent writer. Almost everyone, relatively unknown, who publishes in the New Yorker, I believe, does so through a connection, but a connection alone can't give someone the competency needed for publishing in a successful, commercial magazine. When I examined her work, however, I almost fell out of my chair.

Calling it terrible would have been kind. I think it dealt with a bourgeois woman, misunderstood. The unsightliness of the manuscript precluded me from knowing for sure. It abounded in misspellings, fused words, run-ons, smudges, and erasures. Single, double, and triple spacing appeared on every page along with illegible pen and ink additions.

Stating the manuscript's appearance unimportant, she'd only discuss content, but took offense at anyone critical of it. Only under pain of death, or loss of livelihood, would a working editor at any publication spend more than a few seconds with such a manuscript.

Word processing systems like Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect have done much to do away with unsightly manuscripts through their spelling and grammar checks, and their formatting menus. However, they are not foolproof, and are powerless against bad writing. Typing 'mint' for 'mind' as in, 'Robert's of sound mint' will go undetected through the spelling checkers because 'mint' and 'mind' are both words in their own right. Grammar checks are rigid, and restrict free expression. For example, a sentence fragment cannot be used creatively as a sentence with out the grammar check telling the writer that his grammar is faulty.

In short story composition, computers are powerless against many bad writing defects, including a lack of focus. If, in a short story, a recovering addict, who starts fistfights in fast-food restaurants, is presented as well-adjusted, the writing is implausible, a defect. Joe Smith, a songwriter, wrote a song in the seventies called, "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden." The words were little more than a string of clichés, but a skillful arrangement, and a capable vocalist, Lynn Anderson, made it into a hit. Avoid cliché ridden writing. It's defective, and, in most cases, a skillful arrangement and a capable vocalist will not be on hand to save it.

If a story's point is only that arthritis is a painful condition, then the writing is trite, another defect. Predictability, wherein the reader knows throughout the read everything that's going to happen before it does, is also a defect. The silliness defect emerges when the improbable and the comedic clash like in a story having a blind owl as hero who through the use of its wits escapes vivisection.

Other defects include, but are not limited to melodrama, scant development, and asking excessive questions.

The traditional short story revolves around a central point or theme. Writers often dilute their stories by adding material that fails to advance the theme. Often the added material appeals to them in idiosyncratic ways that blinds them from seeing that it's not related. Writers who guard against such material, and who avoid defects will write better stories. Some will write great ones. Such an approach will help all writers to penetrate the shroud under which lies the great story's dynamics.©



When you throw your writing out onto the world, you never know what will come of it. For instance, once I wrote a sentence to be engraved on a trophy for a testimonial dinner for a creative writing teacher, the famed writer, Howard Pease. He was delighted with my words on the trophy, A Teacher Opens Up The Sky, and years later his son had my words engraved on his father's gravestone.

That was one wee, but wondrous, adventure in writing.

I wish to really share with you a bigger, ongoing adventure to illustrate how you can parlay research into chains of sales and writing adventures.

This adventure began when I heard, "The driver of the Wells Fargo stagecoach, seen in bank openings, parades, a presidential inaugural parade and a movie, is not a man. She's a woman." I interviewed the driver and sold her story to Open Road and later sold reprints of it to The Senior Spectrum and Small Farmer's Journal.

She'd said, "In the earliest Gold Rush days a woman stagecoach driver disguised herself as a man. Her real sex was discovered on her death." and so at the University of California in Berkeley I started researching the lively Charley Parkhurst of Gold Rush Days. Wild West published my article on her.

Parkhurst drove for the inaugural stagecoach line in California, which, despite Hollywood, was not a Wells Fargo line, but one launched by Jim Birch, an enterprising, young gentleman from Swansea, Massachusetts. I started researching Jim Birch, who'd launched his line with a wagon. The academic Journal of the West published my article on him.

While scanning 1857 newspapers for mention of Birch, I learned that he, at age 27, drowned in the sinking of the paddle wheel steamer the S. S. Central America, as the steamer fought a storm, about 160 miles off the coast of South Carolina. About 425 men, including Jim, then married and a father, drowned and I realized that this was as important and dramatic a sinking as the sinking of the Titanic. I also realized that nobody is writing about it.

Twenty-nine children, thirty-one women, youths, two honeymooning couples, an aged man, a gutsy Sea Captain, among others, had boarded as passengers and the steamer also carried millions in gold bricks and coins and gold, carried by the passengers, many of whom were headed home after years of successful gold mining in California. Nearly-broke miners also headed toward home on the steamer. The 476 passengers, except for a very few, boarded in San Francisco, crossed the Isthmus of Panama and boarded the steamer at Aspinwall, on the Atlantic Ocean. After the steamer left Havana, Cuba, a fearful storm erupted, which 1857 newspapers described as a "rotary storm." The steamer sprang a leak. Men bailed. Water soaked the coal, vital for fuel. The storm tossed the steamer about. The pumps worked but briefly. In the code of the day men kept the knowledge that the steamer would sink from the women and children. The foremast, when cut away, shot under the steamer and produced more damage. Furious winds tore sails into tatters. Some men despaired and took to their bunks; some drank themselves into intoxication. The women and children realized that the steamer would sink.

A storm-damaged brig saw distress signals and neared, but, because of its own damage, drifted over a mile away. With extreme difficulty in the pounding seas, lifeboats rowed the woman and all but one of the children to the damaged Marine. Even through the dust and the years of time, in the research one could feel the anguish of the male passengers and of the remaining crew, who realized that they probably never would see loved ones again. To better their chances at swimming, countless men threw their gold into the crashing waves.

At the Marine numerous crewmen refused to row back to the steamer for a try at saving more lives. Some returned crew and lifeboats, with men fighting to get into them but with other men stoic, saved a few men. A schooner sailed within hailing distance but had no lifeboats. The Captain stood on the wheelhouse. The steamer sank and the waves turned black with heads and debris. The Captain went down with his ship. Some men swam on, on, on, or grabbed onto debris, and eventually other ships picked up about 52 of them. Much, much happened and anyone would need days to tell anyone all of the known about it. But in this ship's sinking there reposed nearly the entire human drama.

My article about the steamer's sinking appeared in the California Highway Patrol, which publishes articles on California's history, and I also wrote a book The Sinking of the Central America.

Since I had been researching stagecoaches and scanning aged newspapers for mention of them, in this same research I'd come upon news of several stagecoaches in California, which Confederate soldiers had robbed so that the gold on the stagecoaches could be funneled into the Confederacy and their War of Secession. The result of that research I called The California Stagecoach Skirmish and True West published it.

Of course, I can sell all of these published articles again and again, as anyone writing should sell reprint rights on articles for which the writer has retained the reprint rights.

Unbeknownst to me and to the world at the time, Tommy Thompson, a brilliant, visionary youth and an engineering graduate was researching sunken ships, for which he might search. He visualized that the technology could now be fashioned and be available to find sunken ships, which never before had been accessible to discovery or salvage. Evidently, in research among 1857 newspapers and more recent articles on ships' sinkings, etc., someone in a small group he formed, came upon my article in The California Highway Patrol. In as much secrecy as possible, Tommy Thompson and his partners searched for the Central America.

They found it! At a depth of nearly eight thousand feet!

Soon the news that this King-Solomon's-mine's-rich steamer had been found erupted and one day in my newspaper I read the stunning news that the ship's bell from the Central America had been raised. Naturally elation nearly dizzied me, but I thought the finding had nothing to do with me. Shortly the phone rang and a Judy Conrad, the historian/archivist, of the Columbus-America Discovery Group, the group that had found the steamer, talked briefly to me about their discovery and asked if I would do some paying research for them, "particularly on Jim Birch."

Naturally I was thrilled to have even a tenuous, minute connection to such a fabulous adventure and at Bancroft Library, a superb research source, I searched the newspapers of 1857 again and, though of course by now The Group knew almost everything in available print in the newspapers, magazines, etc. of the time, I found some of what had been requested and sent it on.

The Group recovered over a ton of gold, worth more than one hundred million dollars at current prices and with its value to collectors far overtopping that. Enough artifacts to fill a museum have been recovered. They recovered a trunk with one of the brides' trousseau clothing inside it and well-preserved. Today it can be seen that Addie Easton's waist measured less than twenty inches around.

The treasure immediately engendered legal battles. Lloyds of London, which had insured much of the gold and had paid off on its loss, claimed rights, as did other insurance companies; the State of New York, even reportedly an order of Capuchin monks, battled for rights to the salvage.

Judy Conrad, on behalf of The Group sent me Christmas cards, bits of news of their legal battles, news of exhibits of artifacts, photos, and urged me to keep in touch with them. Oh, how I wished I could have flown to Columbus, Ohio, and seen an exhibit, but I could not go. I may yet get there.

In newspapers, articles and in a long documentary on television I followed The Group's findings and legal battles. Books and articles, both engendered in house by The Group and by others, have appeared on the steamer and/or its discovery. Reader's Digest published The Quest for the Ship of Gold in its book section. How I wish I had written that! In the book, The Final Voyage of the Central America, 1857, by Normand E. Klare, my article in The California Highway Patrolman is cited as a source.

I am proud to be a minute part of this fabulous, ongoing adventure.

So I urge all writers to turn one batch of research into an article or book and into another and another and see where their research leads them.

Even if you, as a writer, do not have such a fabulous adventure, radiating from your writing, there will be the adventure of touching the lives of strings of enchanting personalities and times and reprint articles to sell again and again.©


Nothing you write, if you hope to be any good, will ever come out as you first hoped.

-- Lilian Hellman


1--Joseph Addison (1672), Joseph Heller (1923), Terry Southern (1924), and Bobbie Ann Masons (1940); 3--Niccolb Machiavelli (1469) and William Inge (1913); 4--Lincoln Kirstein (1907), Heloise (1919), and Graham Swift (1949);

5--Karl Marx (1828), Robert Browning (1812), Thomas Edward Brown (1830), Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Cochrane) (1867), and Richard Eberhart (1904); 6--Sigmund Freud (1856), Orson Welles (1915); 7--Dániel Berzsenyi (1776), José Valentim Fialho de Almeida (1857), Archibald MacLeish (1892), Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1927), Angela Carter (1940), and Peter Carey (1943); 8--Henry Baker (1698), Thomas B. Costain (1885), Gary Snyder (1930), and Thomas Pynchon (1937); 9--James M. Barrie (1860) and Austin Clarke (1896);

10--Ivan Cankar (1876); 11--Henry Cuyler Bunner (1855), Irving Berlin (1888), and Stanley Elkin (1930); 12--Andrei Voznesensky (1933); 13--Daphne DuMaurier (1907), Bruce Chatwin (1940), Armistead Maupin (1944); 14--Sir Hall Caine (1853) and George Lucas (1944);

15--Melchiorre Cesarotti (1730), L. Frank Baum (1856), Edwin Muir (1887), Katherine Anne Porter (1890), and Max Frisch (1911); 16--Randall Jarrell (1914) and Adrienne Rich (1929); 17--Henri Barbusse (1873); 19--Lorraine Hansberry (1930);

20--Honoré de Balzac (1799), Sigrid Undset (1882), Margery Allingham (1904); 21--Alexander Pope (1688) and Robert Creeley (1926); 22--Arthur Conan Doyle (1859) and Peter Mathiessen (1927); 23--John Bartram (1699) and Theodore Roethke (1907); 24--William Trevor (1928) and Bob Dylan (1941);

25--John Stuart Mill (1713), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803), Jocob Christoph Burckhardt (1818), Jean Richard Bloch (1884), Robert Ludlum (1927), John Gregory Dunne (1932), and Raymond Carver (1938); 27--Arnold Bennett (1867), Max Brod (1884), Dashiell Hammett (1894), John Cheever (1912), Herman Wouk (1915), Tony Hillerman (1925), John Barth (1930), Harlan Ellison (1934); 28--Ian Fleming (1908), Patrick White (1912), and Walker Percy (1916); 29--Patrick Henry (1736), G. K. Chesterton (1874), Max Brand (1892), and André Brink (1935);

30--Alfred Austin (1835), Cornelia Otis Skinner (1901), and Countee Cullen (1903); 31--Georg Herwegh (1817), Walt Whitman (1819) and Norman Vincent Peale (1898).


Meetings of NFW are held at 2 p.m. on the second Saturday of each month.

You may receive feedback from specific individuals by mailing the manuscript and return postage to the above address.

Past speakers have included novelists Jack Hunter, David Poyer, Page Edwards, Ruth Coe Chambers, William Kerr, Tom Lashley; poets, William Slaughter, Mary Baron, Mary Sue Koeppel, Dorothy Fletcher, George Gilpatrick; columnists Vic Smith, Tom Ivines, and Robert Blade; editors Buford Brinlee and Nan Ramey; agent Debbie Fine; magazine editor Sara Summers; medical writers Elizabeth Tate and Michael Pranzatelli; oral historian Robert Gentry; plus many others.


The Write Staff

Richard Levine, President (

Carrol Wolverton, Vice President (

Kathy Marsh, Secretary (

Howard Denson, Treasurer and newsletter editor (

Joel Young, Public Relations (

Doris Cass, Hospitality (

Presidents Emeritus

Frank Green, Dan Murphy, Howard Denson, Nate Tolar, Joyce Davidson (, Margaret Gloag (, Richard Levine, Bob Alexander, Jo Ann Harter, Carrol Wolverton

Newsletter address 

The Write Stuff

FCCJ North, Box 21

4501 Capper Rd.

Jacksonville, FL 32218

Homepage address

Homepage editor

Richard Levine

Submissions to the newsletter should generally be about writing or publishing. We pay in copies to the contributors, with modest compensation for postage and copying. We pay $5-10 for submissions accepted.


If you are writing a story or poem, you will need some expert feedback -- the sort that you will receive at a meeting of the North Florida Writers.

You won't profit from automatic praise that a close friend or relative might give or jealous criticism from others who may feel threatened by your writing.

The NFW specializes in CONSTRUCTIVE feedback that will enable your manuscript to stand on its own two feet and demand that it be accepted by an editor or agent. Hence, you need the NFW.

The North Florida Writers is a writer's best friend because we help members to rid manuscripts of defects and to identify when a work is exciting and captivating.

Membership is $15 for students, $25 for individuals, and $40 for a family. (Make out checks to WRITERS.)

Is your membership current? To find out, check the mailing label. If it says "0106" next to your last name, your membership expired in January 2006. You do not have to pay back dues to activate your members, so, if you last paid in 1998 or 2002, don't worry about the months you were inactive.

Won't you join today?

The following is an application. Mail your check to WRITERS, Box 21, FCCJ North, 4501 Capper Rd., Jacksonville, FL 32218.


St. address____________________________________

Apt. No. ______________________________________

City ________________State _____ Zip __________

E-mail address(es) ___________________________________


When you attend a meeting of the North Florida Writers, you eventually discover that NO ONE has ever died while his or her manuscript was being read and critiqued. You may be ready to face the ordeal yourself . . . or, reading this, you may wonder what exactly takes place during a critiquing.

First, you pitch your manuscript into a stack with others' works-in-progress. Then one of the NFW members hands out each piece to volunteer readers, taking care NOT to give you back your own manuscript to read.

Second, as the reading begins, each author is instructed NOT to identify himself or herself and especially NOT to explain or defend the work. The writer may never have heard the piece read aloud by another's voice, so the writer needs to focus on the sound of his or her sentences.

Third, at the finish of each selection, the NFW members try to offer constructive advice about how to make the story better. 

If a section was confusing or boring, that information may be helpful to the author.

The NFW will listen to 10 pages (double-spaced) of prose (usually a short story or a chapter).


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