Friday, August 8, 2014

My Family's History Across North America

As historian of the Orr Reunion Association of Mount Vernon, Missouri, each year I do a short talk on some aspect of our family's 180-year history on this continent. There is a lot of grist for the mill, so to speak, and last year I talked about the many families that had operated grain mills.

This year I looked at our immigration patterns, which were quite varied. The first two families came from Aghadowey Parish in Londonderry (in Northern Ireland, or Ulster if you live there) in the very early 1830s, and came as complete family groups. These were the two oldest sons, and they had enough money to pay for their passage, though not much when they arrived. However, relatively inexpensive land was being offered for sale in several new states, and hard work let them save money for farms (William and Jenny Orr in Missouri and James and Jane Orr in Indiana).

Both of these families landed "at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River," so their first, brief, taste of North America was in Canada. People often ask me if they came through Ellis Island, but it wasn't established until 1892 and America didn't limit immigration when most of our families came. As far as I know, the only records of our ancestors’ arrivals are ship passenger lists. I have not found all of them.

Other families came decades later – from the 1860s to the early 1890s. Without exception, they went where earlier families had settled. The third family (George and Elizabeth Orr) came in 1860, just six months before the Civil War started. They were said to have arrived at the Port of New Orleans and traveled to Missouri. They arrived in Mount Vernon with modest personal wealth and quickly bought land. George had taught school for 30 years, and had tired of working in Ireland's schools. To be fair to the school system there, he was considered very hard to get along with. In any event, his family quickly scattered, with three adult sons going to Colorado. Only two daughters, who married into Mount Vernon families, stayed near the other Orr families.

These first three families came for opportunity and religious freedom. Presbyterians in Northern Ireland were sometimes locked out of their churches for years and forced to worship in the Church of Ireland (Anglican).  The fourth family (Isabelle Orr Campbell and husband Ephraim) likely came for those reasons as well. Ephraim, who died en route and was buried at sea, was a blacksmith. The Campbells brought a bag of money with them, but it was apparently stolen when they were on the ship. 

Mother and children were impoverished on arrival at Castle Gardens in New York City in 1863, and went to the home of her brother George in Mount Vernon. Isabelle died within weeks. This group of six immigrant children were lucky to have made it to an area with relatives before they were orphaned. They took good care of each other.

The next two families came in very small groups, and they sent teenage children before the parents came. Immigration was an economic necessity for them.

The family of Ann Orr Shirley and husband Valentine Shirley arrived over a thirty-five year period.  They had worked in the linen industry, and steam-powered looms made home looms obsolete. For a time Ann and her daughters supported the family with needlework, but Valentine and his sons needed other jobs, and rural Ireland had few.

Daughter Isabella Shirley must have been a very brave woman, for in 1857 (at age 17) she became the first of the Shirley family to sail to the U.S. She went to the Philadelphia area, where she had Shirley cousins, and worked as a servant. Her sister Jane came in 1859 at age twenty-eight. Valentine and Ann did not come until 1870, and their daughter Sarah Shirley Forsythe and husband John did not come until 1895. While the children of Sarah’s siblings were all born in the U.S., all of Sarah’s were born in Ireland, and several of them came before their parents. The Shirley family stayed on the east coast, largely in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Early on, many men worked in coal mines and steel mills.
Lizzie Knox in America

Martha was a sister of William, James, George, Ann, and Isabelle, but she never came. Instead, two of her grandchildren (Sam and Lizzie Knox) wrote to Uncle George to ask for financial assistance to come. Sam and Lizzie were born long after William and James left Ireland (in fact, soon after George and family left), and the Knox family had fallen on very hard times. The Knox siblings came in 1883 and worked hard, Sam in the fields and at the Adams Mill in Jasper County, which was owned by Campbell descendants. Lizzie worked as a servant for a farm family in Lawrence County. Eventually they were able to pay back great Uncle George and send for siblings and their widowed mother, who came in 1887. This is especially impressive when you think that that Sam and Lizzie left Ireland at about age seventeen.

It is interesting that George had a reputation for being ill-tempered, yet he lent money to a number of the Knox children and sent money monthly to a cousin in Aghadowey. That’s where Sam and Lizzie got his address.

Education levels varied widely among the Orr families. The two brothers who came in the 1830s raised their children in a newly settled Indiana or Missouri, and there were not well developed schools. Much is made of the fact that William sent one son for higher education—and only one. George taught school, so his children were schooled in Ireland.

The Campbell family came when their children were young, but by that time there were well established schools in Lawrence and Jasper Counties.  Many members of succeeding generations (even women in the 1930s!) went to college. William’s college-educated son (John Adams Orr) was very close to his Campbell cousins.

Did the Orr family work hard when they got to America?  They did.  But they also had some luck. They were able to come without question, and a young country welcomed them. I often wonder what would happen if we tried to come today. The welcome mat would likely be smaller, and even our small numbers of the nineteenth century would far exceed the immigration quotas of the 21st century. Would we try to sneak in, or be content with the lack of jobs in Ireland today?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Food in Fiction

As a child, I remember bringing a book home from the library, finding an apple, and sitting sideways in the living room chair to read. When I could get away with it, I had a couple of potato chips. Or cookie dough. Raw cookie dough was a no-no, so I had to sneak it when my mom left the mixing bowl alone for a minute.

As an adult who writes, I think a lot about food in my own books as well as those I read. Sue Grafton has Kinsey Milhone eat hot hard boiled egg sandwiches with mayo.  I thought it was gross until I made one. Mostly, Kinsey eats fast food and the
Sweets at my family reunion. No wonder I like food.
bread her landlord makes, and she eats regularly.  Janet Evanovich has Stephanie Plum stop often for donuts and chicken, the latter at Cluck in a Bucket. We won't talk about what Lula eats.


Lots of cozy mysteries feature food. There is a group of cozy writers who have a blog about food and mysteries -- www.mysteryloverskitchen.com. This isn't a passing thing, July 2014 is their fifth anniversary. Though my protagonist is a lousy cook, Aunt Madge makes muffins in my Jolie Gentil series.


Meals are not regular components of all fiction. You don't see Jason Bourne remembering to grab a sandwich when he stays a step ahead of assassins. For that matter, he doesn't remember who he is, so why remember to eat? Yes, he eats, but it's hardly on a schedule.  Nor would it make sense if he did.

The ones I don't get are the characters who forget to eat. Who does that? I'm listening to 14 by Peter Clines, which is described as an apocalyptic mystery.  (Who knew?) I get that when there is a lot going on food is not first in one's mind. But at the end of a bad day the lead character, Nate, is climbing into bed and remembers he hasn't eaten since breakfast. And he still goes to bed.  I'd be up all night thinking I'm hungry. On the other hand, when the apocalypse is on the doorstep they do inventory their food.

I am not big on description other than venue and weather, and even then I'm sparse. I've finally added food to a list of things to check as I edit a first draft. I seem to remember breakfast and coffee, not so much lunch. However, readers have said my books make them hungry because Jolie and friends are always eating. They seem to have adopted my snacking habit.

Food is fun, when you have enough of it. Since some people don't, Jolie chairs a food pantry committee at a local church. A book can't lecture readers, they put it down. Jolie and friends stage inane fundraisers. Mostly people don't get murdered at them.

As I work on the eighth book in the series, I'm debating whether to kill someone in a coffee shop. Jolie and friends hang out there a lot, so that probably would not be good for business.  I'll have to noodle it.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Linda Rae and the Nellie Chronicles

Linda, Fred & Mary Doris
My cousin Linda Rae started a book about our grandmother, Nellie.  She was always going to find the time to finish it. 

You can see she was a happy baby.  She is laughing in almost every photo, a precursor to her later ability to chat up and charm anyone.  If you walked with her through her family's neighborhood in Topeka it was immediately clear she knew everyone who walked by.

Linda was a cheerleader at Hayden High school and Kansas State.  She used to laugh as she said that her K State cheerleading was the achievement her mom was most proud of.  We acknowledged that it represented a life our mothers, who did most of their growing up during the Depression, could not have dreamed of.  Yes, she earned some of her own spending money and did volunteer work, but she had time to have fun and she had dozens of friends.  Friends she maintained throughout her life.

She was on a teen advisory board at a Topeka department store, something my mother (who sent me to the Wendy Ward School of Charm because I was a cross between a klutz and a tomboy)  noted often. When her family visited mine in  the mid-1960s, I was nervous.  How did an awkward thirteen-year old even stand next to a polished sixteen-year old?  No worries.  Though the many outfits she and her mom had on hangers in the back seat of the car (complete with hats) mystified me, Linda was her same friendly self.  As we walked through my Maryland neighborhood she'd pound on the door of the city bus to wave at the driver, and she was as interested in the White House or the cannons at Gettysburg as my brothers and sister and I.  Or was polite enough to say she was.

Tom, Mary Doris & Linda
Though she had no children, Linda was often with her brother Tom (the orneriest brother on the planet) and his family.   Her two nieces lived near her as adults, so she didn't just "see them," she was involved in their lives.  Okay, maybe she gave Amanda and Melissa too much advice sometimes, but they loved her to pieces, as did her nephew, Tony.

Linda had a busy career as an investment adviser and spent a lot of time visiting Sante Fe to collect Native American pottery, which is displayed throughout her house.  Some of it is on the very knick-knack stand she long ago knocked over in our grandmother's house, breaking everything on it but one item.

In rural New Mexico with Dick and Mary Doris.
The meticulous Linda could also get down and, well, not dirty.  She took many road trips with her mother, Mary Doris, and her husband, Dick.  That included helping build a house (really), visits to pueblos (think more pottery), camping, and taking care of various pets.

We had a memorable trip to Disneyland with her brother and assorted kids, including recording some songs at Universal Studios theme park.  We would likely all pay to have that tape destroyed.

Colon cancer sneaks up on you.  For months Linda thought she had a gall bladder problem and she carried Milk of Magnesia with her.  Her mom, who had Alzheimer's, was dying and Linda traveled between Denver and Lake Havesu City often. I bugged her about it when we were at her mom's funeral.  Yes, she would get it looked at, she had been too busy to have a silly stomach problem checked.  If she had had colonoscopies she would not have had to worry about that seemingly innocuous problem.  When she did get it checked the month after her mom died in 2010, she had stage 4 colon cancer that had metastasized to her liver.  The doctor said she had likely had it for ten years. You can wage a good fight, but you can't beat that kind of cancer.


Kansas friends for life. Linda 2nd from L. July 2011
She did fight.  She had surgeries and chemo, lost forty pounds, and at times spent a lot of hours on the couch with her dog.  Linda was grateful for the care and attention of family and friends. She also kept gardening, read books I (and many others) wrote, spent time with friends, and continued to bug her nieces and brother and his wife as appropriate (or not).  Linda also kept her sense of humor, wondering whether getting a two-year lease on a car her brother insisted she get was perhaps not optimistic.

She worked on the Nellie Chronicles.  And then she lost her battle with the cancer she didn't need to die of.

Life is about a lot more than finishing a book.  You know what your passions are -- family, friends, writing, fitness, your church, traveling, a career.  Get on with them.  Before you know it, time's up. Don't let your life end before it should because you didn't have time for a cancer screening.  Do it. Now.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Reading and Thinking

Everyone observes what's going on around them. Writers are different. We think we should comment on it. In fiction, we do this through our characters. However, if it appears they are simply spouting opinions about the world around them, those observations go largely unread.

I have a few ideas about the next book in the Jolie Gentil series, and have made notes on several other books. Some of the latter have been rattling in my brain for years.

Anytime I start something new I think, "Really? Why would someone want to read this?" In fact, they don't know if they want to. They need to be convinced. You can draw them in with a book description, but in our world of short attention spans, few people get past two or three chapters unless they are immediately drawn to the characters.

As I write opening paragraphs for several books (my way of starting), I veer off course to read. It's not just a diversion.  It's learning. I owe it to my readers.

“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

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Getting Another Book Out the Door

After a crazy spring of finalizing a move and finishing a book, I'm happy to say that Vague Images will be available for purchase on June 26th. It is the seventh in the Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series, and provides another chance to see Jolie and friends track a murderer in their Jersey shore town.

Here's a brief description of Vague Images:
Bad enough that Jolie ends up in the emergency room because she tried to avoid hitting a deer. Worse to find a dead woman in the hospital restroom after Jolie gets patched up. As the chief budget cutter at the hospital, Tanya Weiss was unpopular, especially in the Radiology Department, where Scoobie works.

In between appraising houses and feeding her pet skunk, Jolie’s on the lookout for a runaway teenager and whoever planted the dead woman in her path. Thanks to Scoobie, she’s also planning another crazy fundraiser for the food pantry—this one a Corn Hole Contest. It’s sort of a bean bag game for grown-ups, and the polite term is Corn Toss Contest. So of course, Scoobie prepares to name winners in the Harvest for All Corn Hole Contest.
Just when Jolie’s ready to leave the murder investigation to the police, she gets a surprise—and it’s not a good one. Will her need to know see her hurt—or worse? 
 It's a challenge to keep a series interesting, but I still love the characters, so there will likely be an eighth book. I already have some ideas...

Vague Images is available from Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and all booksellers in the U.S and overseas. See here for all links.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Reaching Readers with Hashtags

I did a couple of blog posts about using Twitter, and had quite a bit of feedback. Since I'm a writer, the result was a new book -- 500+ Hashtags for Writers.

The key for me has always been to use Twitter efficiently--meaning ten minutes a day or less. It took more than ten minutes to write this book but, like the techniques I use, it grew over time. The book (in ebook and paperback) discusses how to use Twitter, but only briefly. It's largely lists of hashtags specifically geared to getting your books to readers.

What's a hashtag? It’s a way to send tweets to people who have similar interests.  For example, you can send to writers or readers by putting the pound sign in front of the terms: #writers  #readers.  A hashtag counts as part of your 140-character limit, but links to websites do not contribute to that limit. 
Amazon US link
http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00K2N87VO 

Kindle Boards link, which has all Amazon sites  
www.kboards.com/book/?asin=B00K2N87VO 
Paperback 
http://www.amazon.com/dp/1500320552

Thursday, May 8, 2014

That Pesky First Paragraph Starts the Trouble

I wrote previously about sitting in a class and hearing an instructor discuss the importance of the opening paragraph, and then rewriting the first paragraph of the first book in my Jolie Gentil series. The new version was much better, and a couple of reviewers commented on it.  One said it really drew them in, another said it was the best part of the book. Ouch.

Here is the first part of the seventh book, Vague Images, which I have been very slow to finish. I'm beyond all reasonable excuses.
  • If it hadn’t been for the deer that ran in front of my car I wouldn’t have hurt my foot jamming on the brakes. If I hadn’t hurt my foot I wouldn’t have gone to Ocean Alley’s hospital. If I hadn’t been in the hospital I wouldn’t have seen him. Not that I could follow him. I was on my butt in the emergency room.
Several thoughts could come to mind when someone reads this. The obvious one is who has Jolie seen and why does she seem to want to follow him? Then there's what happened to the deer? And finally, who is so clumsy they hurt their foot jamming on the brakes?

I do quickly make it clear the deer escaped Jolie's car. Hurting an animal in a book is kind of like a horse getting shot in a western movie. Both are major turn-offs, and the first few paragraphs are meant to entice readers, not make them feel sorry for an animal or be mad at me for hurting one. 

Jolie doesn't immediately find the person she wants to pursue. She does find a body pretty quickly, and the book works on two tracks from there. They converge, but my struggle has been bringing the two plot lines together seamlessly. Several times I've thought I was 'there,' only to find my solution was too clumsy.

A couple of days ago the link became less ungainly, and the final chapter is coming together. It has to, because I've written the opening paragraph for the next book.

No animal was harmed in writing this blog post. And I'm the dork who sprained a foot jamming on the brakes.