To Know & Be Known #1: Commonplace Book


Commonplace books (or commonplaces) were a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. They became significant in Early Modern Europe.

“Commonplace” is a translation of the Latin term locus communis, which means “a theme or argument of general application,” such as a statement of proverbial wisdom. In this original sense, commonplace books were collections of such sayings. Scholars have expanded this usage to include any manuscript that collects material along a common theme by an individual.

Such books were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers and legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students and humanists as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Thus, they aren’t the same as diaries.

I started keeping a commonplace a couple years ago, when I realized I had accumulated dozens of slips of paper featuring sayings and observations on various topics that I found pithy, humorous or insightful. Not wanting to lose track of this wisdom, I purchased a small notebook (pictured above), in which I recorded it. With the passage of time I have continued to jot down sayings from books, cartoons, magazines, newspaper articles and the like. As of now my commonplace includes entries from some 250 sources!

In addition to its being a volume through which I can browse on a quiet afternoon, I see my commonplace book as something that testifies to my individuality and interests. My hope is that, in the distant future, other people can, by scanning my commonplace, gain important insights into just who Rob Stone was.

Ought I have a “Bucket List”?

IMG_1191.jpgNowadays many people are in the habit of compiling “Bucket Lists,” catalogs of experiences they want to have or things they wish to accomplish before “kicking the bucket.” Curiosity about this phrase’s origin led me to delve into my favorite resource on the meaning of words, the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

The theory regarding “bucket list’s” origin favored by the OED relates to the alternate definition of a bucket as a beam or yoke that can be used to hang or carry things on. The “bucket” may refer to the beam on which slaughtered pigs were suspended. The expression came from the dying animals’ penchant for struggling on the bucket (as they, uh, “kick” it.)

The word “bucket” still can be used today to refer to such a beam in the Norfolk dialect of British English. It is thought this definition came from the French word trébuchet or buque, meaning “balance.” William Shakespeare used the word gibbet in this sense in Henry IV Part II, where he says: “Swifter than he that gibbets [balances] on the Brewers Bucket.”

Don’t get me wrong: it is laudable to work up a list of goals for one’s time on earth. I simply prefer not to associate its fulfillment with death. Is there a synonym for “bucket list” that expresses the concept in a more positive light? I think I’ve found one.

A good friend of mine refers on her blog to having a “Life List,” a checklist which enumerates desirable activities and experiences, whose purpose is to help complete her as a person. “What difference,” you ask, “does it make to substitute one name for an idea with another?”

Doing so certainly will not prevent my dying someday. However, in a society awash with words coming at us from all directions, we are apt to forget that words have power, indeed, a life of their own. For instance, in Ancient Egypt, if Person One wished ill for Person B, he wrote what he wanted to see happen on a clay pot, then smashed the pot. The act of breaking the pot “released” the wish, which then flew to the intended victim and worked its will upon him. (I don’t know how effective this technique was, but archaeology has turned up plenty of potsherds used for this purpose.)

All this being said, have I started thinking about compiling a Life List of my own? Not yet, but perhaps I ought to . . .


The way things used to be . . . perhaps: Part Two

IMG_1200How, then, have changes outlined in the first part of this blog (the introduction of personal computers and wordprocessing software, the re-definition of publishing as a commodity industry and the dawning of the Internet Age) affected the course of this honorable endeavor? Here’s my admittedly biased but informed take on each factor.

Personal computers & wordprocessing software. Perhaps you are familiar with the old adage that, if 100 monkeys were given typewriters (what is a typewriter, anyway?), they would, in time, produce the collected works of William Shakespeare. I’m no foe of modern technology but its easy availability has encouraged many (many) people to act on the maxim that “everybody has a book inside her/him.” All that is necessary is to let . . . it . . . out!

I believe that, in the past, the challenge of composing a manuscript longhand or via typewriter dissuaded many would be authors from taking the plunge. It took too long and was too difficult of an undertaking. I mean, dealing with White-Out and carbon paper were enough to make the staunchest heart flutter. On the other hand, personal computers enable even folks like yours truly (a molasses-in-January touch typist and possessor of unreadable penmanship, if ever there was one) to whip out a potential New York Times Bestseller in a flash.

The dawning of the Internet Age. Authoring a magnum opus in a limited amount of time is one thing. Utilizing the same platform to seek out potential literary agents and publishers is another, for it magnifies the problem. Since the dawn of publishing people have bemoaned the “slush pile” of unsolicited manuscripts that landed on their desks. Underlings of various kinds had the thankless job of trolling the accumulated stacks of paper, in the off chance of finding a diamond hidden within. It’s been known to happen: sometime I will write about Charles Frazier’s 1997 Civil War novel Cold Mountain.

Nowadays digital files constitute the slush pile. You’d think the fact that agents typically restrict wannabe authors’ submissions to a synopsis and/or a few chapters would dramatically cut down the amount of stuff they have to deal with. I am not sure: somebody still has to review the material, and those daggum personal computers simply ratchet up the number of requests with which literary agents (found online, naturally) are inundated.

The latest wrinkle in the tech age is SELF-PUBLISHING. (Can you hear trumpets or angelic choirs?) The ‘Net is replete with service providers in the fields of editorial, cover design and short-run manufacturing. Obtaining several boxes of your pride and joy isn’t all that costly. So, doesn’t self-publishing make the odds of realizing fame and fortune better than winning the lottery?

Uh, no. It is true that a very small number of self-published works attract readers’ attention. If enough “copies” of their book are purchased for Kindle, Nook, etc., a traditional publisher may reward the author with a multi-book contract. (Footnote: the existence of e-readers was thought to spell the doom of three-dimensional books. I’m relieved to say that, in recent years, the percentage of “content” represented by such devices has plateaued, with good ‘ole 3-D books making a comeback, albeit a modest one. No one knows what the future will bring.)

The fly in the ointment for anyone that engages in self-publishing is the unromantic industrial process called DISTRIBUTION. The author can manage the process that yields a physical object. What she cannot control is the process that results in her self-published work earning a place on a brick-and-mortar bookstore’s shelf. For the bookseller it all boils down to convenience and economics. Ordering the book from its author necessitates paying for it after it is sold. This requires cutting a separate check, likely for a modest amount of money, and mailing it to the author. All this takes time away from the myriad duties endemic to running a small business.

Booksellers have long relied on distributors, who stock titles from hundreds of publishers, to supply their needs. The essential advantage this poses for the retailer resides in packing books from a variety of sources together, so they cross the transom together. This makes it economical to ship, and affordable to purchase, even one copy of a particular work. Also, a single check pays for titles from many publishers.

No individual author can match this economy of scale. Even if she can convince a bookstore to carry her work, the burden of packing, shipping, bill collecting and – worst of all – processing returns of damaged goods and overstock returns falls squarely on her shoulders. It is possible for and like firms to handle distribution, at a cost to the author. Even in that eventuality it is still up to the author to market his work, in the hope that potential purchasers will seek it online.

Publishing as a commodity industry. Have you ever noticed that your local Costco or Sam’s Club devotes a substantial amount of square footage to towers of books? These tomes are discounted at a level that may rival online retailers; brick-and-mortar booksellers cannot match them.

Cynics in publishing may refer to this phenomenon as “books by the pound,” but it hasn’t dissuaded their companies from selling the Big Boxes truckloads of their wares, at bargain prices. Indeed, huge orders from such accounts boost print runs, whose numbers may be touted in industry publications as proof of a book’s success.

Makes you want to square your shoulders, settle down in front of a blank Microsoft Word file and get to work, doesn’t it? As my Scots grandma used to say, while rolling her eyes, “Och, aye!”

Tiny House, Big World

CaliforniaTInyHouse-Fresno-exteriorThe burgeoning “Tiny House Movement” has caught my eye. Broadly speaking, the concept involves ditching the large suburban dwellings (2 stories, 3-4 bedrooms, 2-3 bathrooms, 2-car garages, luxuriant lawn, etc.) that came into vogue in the U.S. in the boom decades following World War II, for homes whose footprints are appreciably more modest. I’ve come to believe that, for a variety of reasons, this model is no longer sustainable.

I binge-watch a series on Tiny Houses and the folks that adopt the lifestyle they require. The buildings’ square footage is so small that they don’t meet the definition of “house”in municipal codes. Generally built on trailers for ease of relocation (not for me), they feature amenities like composting toilets, solar panels and half-scale versions of kitchen appliances. From what I’ve seen, Tiny House people are often young and just starting out, with professions requiring the ability to pull up stakes, going where work takes them. They often desire to minimize their possessions, while retaining a selection of crucial cultural artifacts (Keurig machines, flatscreen televisions, Wi-Fi).

Tiny Housers cannot be stereotyped. Some are single, others of them have a child or children, a dog, and so on. They want to transition from a standalone structure to something less costly to own and maintain, something that is an outward and visible sign of their philosophy of life. Moving from a conventional home can be tough, though: I’ve watched parents hand each of their young children an empty Rubbermaid tote, with the cheery admonition to decide which of their stuffed animals they love the most. Ick. One mom and dad whose offspring didn’t get to see their Tiny House until it was completed talked endlessly about how great it was going to be and what a tremendous adventure lay in store for them. When the excited children saw the dwelling for the first time . . . their . . . faces . . . fell.

Three things in particular draw me to the potential of Tiny House living. First, I would like to have the opportunity to estimate how much space I really need to live comfortably, modestly and responsibly. (I’m lousy at conceptualizing square footage.) Next, I would benefit from prioritizing the things I value owning, disciplining myself to stay off the acquisition bandwagon. Finally, designers and builders eke out every square inch of storage space in Tiny Homes: I would like to be involved in this process. I do not believe that this is an austere way of living.

I hasten to point out that Tiny Houses are not for everyone. Even though I do not fit the profile of Tiny House mavens “as seen on TV” I would welcome occupying one . . . so long as the place had enough room for my books and Civil War re-enacting stuff . . . and Wi-Fi. Just sayin’.

Enough about my Tiny House mania: what do you think?


Writing: a process of reduction

HT_Pan-Reduction-Step-10_s4x3.jpg.rend.hgtvcom.966.725In cooking, reduction is the process of thickening and intensifying the flavor of a liquid mixture such as a soup, sauce, wine, or juice by simmering or boiling. The more I write, the more I believe something analogous to reduction takes place as I self-edit and re-write (and re-write) a manuscript.

True Confession #1: thus far I have completed three novels. Five years ago I self-published one of them and DELETED another after finishing it. I just re-worked the first book from the ground up and am on the verge of reconstructing the third in similar fashion. Sounds like a sure-fire recipe for success, doesn’t it?

People with a lot more experience than me in the craft of writing will tell you that preparing a story for the one shot it might have at attracting a literary agent’s attention requires paring it down – put another way, a process of reduction. The economy of words and the vocabulary employed by the author play a fundamental role in grabbing the reader’s attention, engaging her/him with the plot from Page One. (Imagine a small terrier that, having sunk its teeth into your ankle, refuses to let go. It is like that, but without the irksome blood and tooth marks.)

True Confession #2: I really, really enjoy the reduction process. It forces me to consider how I can use one word to communicate what is going on instead two or more of them. It encourages me to choose words that lend color and life to my story, even as it carries it forward. Not only that, it is invaluable when it comes to composing the Dreaded One-Page Synopsis required by the seeming majority of agents. Same goes for the final reduction to the “Elevator Talk,” wherein the major characters and plot are crammed into something that can be conveyed convincingly in around ONE MINUTE.

More about this writing stuff in future posts . . .

Returning the Flags – July 9, 2016

My July 11th post told how Michigan Civil War veterans donated their National colors and battle flags to the state in 1866. This time I will describe the recreation of the historic event, 150 years after the fact.

It occurred to people that re-enacting the flag return ceremony would be a fitting “bookend” to Civil War Sesquicentennial events in Michigan. A committee, made up of “Save the Flags” staff and other interested parties, undertook planning the event. The Michigan State Capitol Commission, re-enacting units, the Michigan National Guard, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and the Michigan State Police were involved in making the celebration a success.

Everything came together on a day that featured blessedly-comfortable temperatures for July. At least 80 re-enactors representing several Civil War regiments were in attendance, as well as some 150 spectators. Dignitaries were seated above the steps of the Capitol Building in Lansing. The Fifth Michigan Regimental Band and 126th Michigan National Guard Marching Band serenaded the assembly with period tunes.

RotF procession of colors being donated

Following speeches and the bestowal of several awards for historic preservation, a column of re-enactors processed to the Capitol steps. A total of nine reproduction flags were accepted on the state’s behalf by Brigadier General John Slocum (Michigan Air National Guard): I was proud to present the Seventh Michigan’s National colors. The flags donated that day had been unfurled in countless re-enactments, some of them having been in use for as long as 20 years. Thus, they were torn and stained like their predecessors in 1866.


RotF placing furled colors onto musket stacks


The event culminated in a Civil War artillery barrage and musket volleys by the infantrymen.

RtF infantry volley


All participants received a cockade that sported a reproduction Civil War-era state of Michigan button that was cast from the original die by the Waterbury Button Company (Cheshire, Connecticut).



All in all, this was a tremendous way to commemorate the memory of the Peninsula State men (yes, there were some women, too) that fought to preserve the Union from 1861-1865. It was gratifying to take part in this event.







Returning the Flags – July 4, 1866

!B6)!4pwB2k~$(KGrHqZ,!k0Ey+jCzKnQBMyZhKsL-!~~-1_35When the Civil War ended, Michigan’s Governor Henry Crapo (kray-poe) invited her veterans to donate their battle flags to the state. Over 122 regimental and National flags, many of which were torn from being in combat or were stained by their bearers’ blood, were handed in on July 4, 1866. (There were also captured Confederate banners and officers’ swords.)

The flags were stored in Detroit until the Capital Building in Lansing was completed in 1878. Some 70,000 spectators looked on as the flags, to be displayed in glass cases lining the Rotunda, were given into the state’s care. In 1941 a dozen Confederate battle flags were returned to their states of origin, as were three swords.

For over a century the Civil War flags, which had survived the rigors of the campaign, became prey to more insidious enemies: light pollution, temperature fluctuations, humidity and dust. The heavy brocade sewn to the perimeter of most flags weighed down and tore apart the silk flags themselves. Some flags were even reduced to powder.

Around the time of the Civil War Centennial the desperate condition of these irreplaceable historic relics was recognized, and steps were taken to prevent their further deteriorization. Unfortunately, preservation practices of the time, which included sewing the flags onto a mesh backing material, threatened to make things worse.

Then in 1991, under the leadership of Ms. Kerry K. Chartoff, a program was devised to assure the survival of Michigan’s Civil War flags. “Save the Flags” made it possible – at a cost of $1,000 per flag – for re-enacting units, individuals and businesses to sponsor the conservation, repair and stabilization of flags in the collection. An environmentally controlled facility was subsequently built in the basement of the Michigan History Center, located nearby the Capitol. Each flag is kept in its own drawer: they can be viewed by appointment. Ms. Chartoff is understandably proud to point out that every penny raised by Save the Flags goes to preservation. Save the Flags site

Thus far the long-term preservation of 240 banners has been assured. Save the Flags’ mandate has expanded to include flags borne by Michigan troops in the Spanish-American War and First World War.

The second part of this blog will take us forward in time, to July 9, 2016 . . .

The way things used to be . . . perhaps

IMG_1199Legend has it that, for most of the Twentieth Century, the American publishing industry worked like this: authors signed with New York houses to have their works appear in print. The writers traveled to the Big Apple to be coddled by their literary agents and publishers, whose blandishments included two-martini lunches and expensive dinners. The publisher would invest in advertising new titles in magazines and newspapers. An army of salesmen (and a few sales women) traveled to brick-and-mortar bookstores around the country, promoting and taking orders for the forthcoming tome.

Well, Toto, we ain’t in Kansas anymore. Beginning around the Eighties, it appears as though the complexion of publishing underwent a series of tsunami-like changes. To my way of thinking, the biggest “disruptive” factors since the invention of moveable type were the introduction of personal computers and wordprocessing software, the re-definition of publishing as a commodity industry and the dawning of the Internet Age.

Stay tuned for Part Two on this topic!


Proofreaders of the World, Untie!

IMG_1201I admit it: I’m a dyed-in-the-wool proofreader. When I encounter a typo in an article or print/online news report, my mind latches onto it like a limpet. In recent weeks I came across two incidents that illustrate the kind of thing that catches my eye.

First, I was reading an online article in my local newspaper. I came across a misspelt word – the same term appeared not once, but twice. I emailed the reporter, pointing out the error. I did this out of curiosity, not from a sense of moral superiority. (After all, I don’t always spell perfectly.) The reporter acknowledged what he had done; what he said next floored me. It turned out that he, not a copy editor, was responsible for proofreading his own articles. To me this is indicative of how modern “journalism” is so cost-driven that historically fundamental practices of the profession have been cast aside, to save money.

Next, a Civil War re-enactor posted to Facebook a television report concerning damage done to a Civil War veterans’ cemetery in Michigan. The video’s tagline read, “Ancestors protest damage to veterans’ graves.” Unless the reporter engaged a seance or used a Ouija board to obtain her facts, that should have been “descendants,” not “ancestors.” While a number of people commented on this video’s topic before I saw it, none of them pointed out the incorrect word use!

What lesson can be learned from these examples? In my opinion they show society’s growing unfamiliarity with how words are spelt, and the way they are used. Dear Reader, do you find yourself often stumbling across linguistic mistakes like those I’ve described?

(BTW, did you notice the typographical error in this posting’s title?)

Brave New World? Well, maybe . . .

Nowadays aspiring writers like me are counseled to put up, and contribute frequently to, a personal blog. The hope is “followers” will accumulate, so one can keep in touch with people interested in her/his forthcoming book(s). Hence the creation of Rob’s Big Blog.

Some folks will recall that, in 2010, I self-published my novel The Tower at Petite Vigne. The story concerns life in a remote, German-occupied French village during the Second World War. My years in publishing warned me that the self-publishing route is rarely successful for first time authors, but I took it anyway. The perhaps predictable result was that, once friends and family had purchased The Tower at Petite Vigne, and I had cajoled a few bookstores to stock it, my book went pfffffffft.

Having inherited my Scots grandmother’s stubbornness (see preceding paragraph), I wrote a second book – more about that in future posts – then re-wrote The Tower at Petite Vigne from the ground up. More on that next time.

Rob’s Big Blog

IMG_1111Welcome to Rob’s Big Blog! I’ve staked out this territory on the Internet to inform about, lecture or pontificate on and assess issues of interest to me. I hope you will visit frequently and choose to subscribe to my posts. Thank you!