Thanksgiving – The History Behind the History

As an incessant student of history, I often discover gems that have been omitted from historSilhouette fedoray books. Since this is Thanksgiving week, we often think about the Mayflower pilgrims and the challenges they faced almost four hundred years ago.
The plight of those pilgrims began long before they landed at Plymouth Rock. King James, who was notorious for re-organizing the Church of England for his own convenience, was out to persecute any individual or church who went against his desires. A number of devoted believers immigrated to Holland in hopes of establishing a Christian community. However, about forty of these Christians were still not happy with the situation and decided to take the dangerous journey across the ocean, where they believed they could openly worship God and, perhaps, create a better life.
So, on August 1, 1620, 102 passengers, including William Bradford and the forty Christians, left the comforts of European civilization for the vast unknown of the New World. During the voyage, Bradford drew up a contract—the Mayflower Compact—for all members of the new community, irrespective of their religious beliefs. The new society would be ruled by majority and based on equal ownership of all supplies.
The Mayflower finally dropped anchor on November 11, 1620. The ship was supposed to have landed in Virginia, but due to a storm it missed its mark and landed in Massachusetts. The first winter devastated the travelers, who were already weakened by the seven week crossing. By spring, only 46 of the original 102 travelers were still alive.
Most of us know the next part of the story—the part where many of the pilgrims died and how Squanto, an English-speaking Indian, lived with the pilgrims for several months. And how the Wampanoag Indians taught the settlers how to fish, plant vegetables, and skin beaver for coats, among other survival skills.
However, what you may not know is that the pilgrims who survived that first difficult year learned something else important, something that somehow got left out of history books. The survivors discovered that equal ownership—equal distribution of food and supplies— wasn’t working. On paper, it sounded good. Everyone worked for the common good of all. All the land was owned by the community, all the crops were owned by the community, all of everything was owned by the community. It sounded like it should’ve been a utopian society. But in actual practice, it just didn’t work. They nearly starved and no one prospered. Eventually, the hard workers resented that others sat idle yet had the same benefits.
Bradford, now the governor of the colony, verbalized what the community had learned—no matter how industrious a man was, he had no incentive to work harder than anyone else.
Bradford devised a new plan. Instead of the community at-large owning the land and everything on the land, he divided into it sections and assigned a section to each family. Instead of the results of their labor going into a common area to be shared by all, they would retain their own goods.
The new landowners became very industrious. Soon they were bartering among themselves and with the Indians. Their output soared.
By the autumn of 1621, the harvest was so bountiful that the colonists called for a feast. And you know the rest of that story.
Do you have any “stories behind the story” you’d like to share? I’m always eager to hear the history that doesn’t make it into the text books.
Whether you do or you don’t, I hope you enjoy an abundant Thanksgiving.

November 22

Anybody who was born before the mid-1950s has that date tattooed on their brain. We remember where we were on that day at that time.

As for me, I was in third grade at Emerson Grade School in Parkersburg, WV. I had received permission from my teacher to go down the hall to the restroom. On my way back to class, I overheard two upset teachers in the hallway talking.

“President Kennedy has been shot.”

I went springing back into the classroom and made the announcement. My third grade teacher reprimanded me and put me back in the hall for telling a terrible lie.

In life, President Kennedy’s legacy was no different than any other President’s; there was some good and some bad. But due to Kennedy’s untimely death, many look at his presidency through rose-colored glasses. However, without question, through President Kennedy’s diplomacy, by giving Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev something in return for removing the missiles from Cuba, the world walked back from potential nuclear confrontation.

Many refer to that day as the day that began the end of the innocence for our society. The Warren Commission was set up to investigate and provide answers to the American public about what happened on that fateful day. How could our President be shot in broad daylight before a horrified public?

That can be explained by watching the old film from that day; an open top vehicle, people hanging out windows and on rooftops all along the way, Secret Service agents in the vehicle behind the President’s Lincoln, then the slow, 120-degree turn from Houston Street onto Elm Street, and the stage was set for that ugly day. The route was changed on November 19th and published in both Dallas city newspapers to include this turn and to pass many large buildings, in order to give more people the chance to view the President.

The conclusion of the Warren Commission, consisting of high-level government officials, was that Lee Harvey Oswald was the single gunman who was able to fire three shots, and one of those bullets killed President John F. Kennedy. Their conclusion only led to more questions with many conspiracies emerging as a result. For the moment, I will sidestep all of the theories or conspiracies. Whether or not you believe them, clearly, the investigation into President John F. Kennedy’s assassination was the beginning of the American public questioning the United States Government.

Still it is hard to believe that one bullet killed the President of the United States and changed society forever.

Where were you, and what were you doing on that fateful day? I would love to hear!

Story Immersion: When the Heart Becomes Involved

by Don Kesterson

I’ve never been to the Philippines. For many years, I researched the country, their government, the lay of the land and the culture. I immersed myself in studies of the Filipino way of life, of popular music, clothing styles and food choices. I read about their country’s devout religious faith and was impressed. I even searched for recipes of Filipino dishes I could make at home, so I could cook and eat as a native Filipina might. As best as I could from a distance of over eight thousand miles away, I enjoyed the Philippines.

You can understand, then, why my heart sank when I read of the devastation caused there by Typhoon Haiyan. Tacloban wasn’t my hometown, though the tiny island of Leyte was the subject of some of my research. Yet just as an author doesn’t have to live in an area to write about it, anyone with the tiniest grain of compassion in their heart doesn’t have to experience first-hand storm destruction to feel empathy and sympathy for those who have lost homes, jobs and loved ones in such a disaster.

The death toll sits near two thousand. It is expected to top ten thousand. Over two hundred thousand are now homeless. Over 200,000! I can’t wrap my mind around a figure like that.

I think of what I have learned about Leyte when researching the area for my novel. I picture the tropical foliage surrounded by blue water. I visualize the bustling city with high-rises, busy freeways, packed sidewalks. I imagine shoppers strolling the malls and mega-stores and mom-and-pop convenience marts.

I can’t imagine it gone.

The United Nations is sending $25M in aid. The US Government is sending $20M more. We are told it won’t arrive fast enough to save many of the lives of those in immediate need of medicine, clean water and food. And we are told that when it does arrive, it won’t be nearly enough.

The Philippines isn’t my home. My home is—and I pray always will be—on American soil. But for those who call Tacloban, Leyte and the Philippines home, I am touched by your pain.

Would you like to help those affected by this catastrophic disaster? Doctors Without Borders and The International Committee of the Red Cross are accepting contributions by check, credit card or PayPal, earmarked for Typhoon Haiyan relief efforts. Just as you don’t have to live in an area to write about it, you don’t have to be hurt to feel the need to ease the suffering of another. Please do what you can to help someone in need today.

My (First) First Draft


I’m currently hard at work revising my third novel and outlining my fourth. Lately, when I’ve told anyone I’m a writer it seems every other person asks me, “Are you participating in NaNoWriMo?”

I have to admit, I feel a bit guilty when I tell them No. I go on to explain that, before I wrote three novels, I wrote a history book that took me several years to write, and each of my novels requires about a year of my time to complete. Some find that remarkable, perhaps because they’re surprised that a geologist by day creates fictional characters at night, or perhaps it’s because I don’t do it in thirty days.

Anyone who completes—or even gives a wholehearted attempt toward writing—the first draft of a book-length manuscript deserves resounding applause. It’s a difficult task to develop important story questions that pique a reader’s interest, create a rounded character, instill voice, set a visual scene and build tension—and that’s just what’s required on the first page of a good story!

As we roll into November, the chatter among writers about the growing phenomenon of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo can put undue pressure on those of us who have a slower first-draft writing process. NaNoWriMo, in case you aren’t familiar with it, is a challenge in which participants strive to complete the first draft of a novel during the thirty days of November. As impressive and lofty as the challenge sounds, it’s something in which you won’t find me participating.


Let me tell you about my first draft process—specifically, my first first draft—and you’ll understand my reasons.

After I spent considerable time (years) researching material for my history book, the next logical step (in my mind) was to place all that research into a reasonable format: a Microsoft Word document. I sat surrounded by notebooks, computer printouts, articles, and scraps of paper with scribbled (sometimes indiscernible) quotations I’d copied. It hit me then that I would need to cite these resources.  “Where did I read that?” became a familiar wail coming from my office.

As I researched the sources of these quotes and snippets of information, I came across new information, and my mind would springboard to a different idea or topic that required more research. Can you guess where this led me? It led me to more than 1,000 pages of typed information. Single-spaced.

Yes, my first draft—ever—ended up clocking in at over 500,000 words. Five hundred thousand!

My supportive wife—an angel if ever there was one—read every page. She marked typos, pointed out redundancies and offered suggestions. When she returned the tome to me, I was frustrated beyond measure. I’d spent what felt like a lifetime on this project, and now it was covered in red ink!

I needed help. Professional help.

What does a researcher do when they need help? They research a solution, of course, which led me to Inspiration for Writers, Inc., a professional editing service that placed my baby (my first draft) into a caring editor’s arms, and that editor whittled and nurtured and revised my history book into a manageable manuscript that’s currently making the rounds with university presses.

Since then, I’ve branched into fiction, writing a series of political thrillers that make excellent use of all that historical data I spent years collecting. While I still don’t work from an outline, I do work from a focus statement. Writing a focus statement before I begin a novel keeps me centered on the main plot, and keeps my researcher’s brain from straying down a rabbit hole. And yes, I still place each first draft into the arms of my Inspirations For Writers, Inc. team of professional editors.

If you’d told me when I sat down to write that (first) first draft that soon I’d have finished not only a history book worthy of university publication, but that I’d also be the author of a fiction series, I wouldn’t have believed you. But here I am. And it’s only because I did what all writers must do: I sat down, and I wrote.

What is your first-draft process? Do you work from an outline? Do you refer to a focus statement to stay on track? How long does it take you to complete a first draft? And, since it’s November, you know I’m going to ask: are you participating in NaNoWriMo?