Developing Story

Behind every story you read, there is another story of how it came to be.

If you think authors open their little notebooks and choose ideas from long lists they’ve been keeping…well, maybe some do.  But unusual and fascinating circumstances have perpetrated many of the tales we love.

When Madeleine L’Engle turned 40, she told herself she would quit writing and pay more attention to her children.  However, she reneged and completed a novel by the end of the year, submitting it to 40 publishers.   They all rejected it.  Then at a tea party she hosted for her mother, she presented one of the guests with a copy of that story (for children) which involved quantum physics.  He liked it.  In 1962 A Wrinkle in Time rolled off the presses.

Madeleine L'Engle


Bennett Cerf, whom some of us remember from the old show What’s My Line,  bet Theodore Geisel $50 he couldn’t write a book with just 50 words.  The result was Green Eggs and Ham; Geisel won the bet, but Cerf’s publishing company won the contract.  Hope he shared more of it with Geisel, whose pen name was Dr. Seuss.

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien once flipped a coin to choose new genres to write from.  While  Lewis’s space trilogy was very successful, Tolkien’s book on time travel was not.  Oh well, Bilbo made it up for him.

Successful ad writer Edmund Morris changed his focus and began writing a screenplay about Theodore Roosevelt and his ranch in the Badlands of North Dakota.  He kept finding more information, and more information, filling filing cabinets with meticulous note cards.  The resulting first book, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1980.  He followed with two more volumes of the biography, carefully choosing which notes to use at the back, which are interesting to read in and of themselves.

Several movies center around the writing process, one of which, All the President’s Men, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as green reporters, blatantly shows the guts of how a story comes into being.  Up Close and Personal, also starring Redford, deals with a young woman who becomes a network news anchor, showing how her storytelling expertise is built bit by bit.  The recent Man Who Invented Christmas with Dan Stevens unravels  how Charles Dickens created characters and the plot for A Christmas Carol.  He’d begun with the idea of exposing starved and overworked children in London.

The Man Who Invented Christmas | Kanopy

I meant to write a book called Pure Act (the title from a Henry Adams’ quote) about Theodore Roosevelt, until I discovered what Mr. Morris had done.  So I narrowed my topic to TR’s passion for natural history as a child.  I wrote a beautiful four-page outline and never used it.   I started accumulating notes, like Edmund did — and those sources led to other sources, taking on a life of their own.

I wouldn’t say that stories write themselves.  I would say that the stories are there, though, and present themselves to writers who take time to make the mistakes necessary to bring them to readers.

Some factual information from and


Two Authors, and the History of Two Centuries

This post is the complete opposite of my last one about an old time Christmas celebration, which came easily and took a short time to write.  A month’s wave of procrastination does not change the will to begin it.

You may notice, while you’re reading, that these words exist in a slightly more streamlined format.  This is I suppose in part due to the style of someone I’ve been thinking about for many weeks – a writer whom I admired greatly – Sylvia Jukes Morris.

Image result for edmund and sylvia morris

The Morrises chat with President and Mrs. Reagan in the 80s.  (NY Times)

It was a shock to learn in early January that she had passed away at her sister’s home in England,  only eight months after her husband’s death from a sudden stroke.

Sylvia was the author of three definitive biographies, one volume on Edith Roosevelt, and two on Clare Boothe Luce.  The latter, of the twentieth century elite, is probably not a household name, but her life story embodies the society and politics of the time.

Sylvia was married for fifty years to Edmund Morris, Pulitzer Prize winner and prolific biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, Ludwig von Beethoven, Ronald Reagan and Thomas Edison.  Like his wife, he found the research on Roosevelt too much to present in a single book, so ultimately he composed a trilogy.  The sum of their work adds much to our knowledge of the 1800s and the 1900s.

Sylvia and Edmund were a team unequaled in talent, poise and personality.  They invited my daughter and I to their Manhattan home in 2006.  We were doing research at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace, and I’d asked for an interview.  It helped that my husband had created a model of Sagamore Hill, the Roosevelt family home, for Mr. Morris.

I remember a spectacular, monochromatic apartment with stairs leading up to a bookcase-lined mezzanine which overlooked Central Park.  The couple pulled some of their books and autographed them for us.  My daughter identified a modern artist whose original painting hung on their dining room wall, with Edmund complimenting her,  “Good eye!”

We saw them again at a Theodore Roosevelt Association book talk in New York City a few years later.  “Margaret!” she said warmly in her beautiful British voice.  I was pleased she remembered me, and we told her we’d seen her recently on C-Span’s Book TV.

I was hoping very much to go to a book signing when Edmund’s Edison was published, but it was not to be.  The first bound book was delivered to their home in Connecticut shortly before he died.  Then, I hoped we could see her after her period of grief subsided, but that was not to be, either.  “It doesn’t get better – it gets worse,” she told a friend in the fall.

They were so close.  And perhaps it was merciful that she didn’t have to face her first Valentine’s Day without him, but instead join him where their marriage had been made.

A moving tribute to Sylvia may be found at this link:

The Gift of a Good Read

While I was growing up, there was always a book with my name on it under the tree on Christmas morning.  It might be a Nancy Drew (The Mystery of the Old Clock), a popular girls’ read (Donna Parker in Hollywood), or a classic from Louisa Mae Alcott, but no matter the title,  I spent holiday afternoons off school poring over a new story.

Later, one of the things I relished while Christmas shopping for our young daughters was choosing books for them, and these days I look for just the right ones for our grandchildren.  I still try to find books for the adults on my list, though gift certificates to Barnes and Noble or Half Price Books also serve the purpose.

Here’s one I recommend for anyone who prizes history and biography.  Edmund Morris, biographer of presidents and earner of the Pulitzer and American Book Award, compiled forty years of his work in 2012 in This Living Hand and Other Essays.  Some of the 59 pieces were previously unpublished; they range from researching Roosevelt and Reagan to describing his own journey as a writer and a naturalized American citizen.

I gifted myself the book in 2014 before we heard him speak in New York City.  I have been working on it since then, but admit I have not gotten to them all.  Absorbing individual essays is quite a bit slower than taking a joyride through a novel which keeps asking you to finish just one more chapter before putting it down.

Arranged in chronological order of the dates they were written, the first is from 1972, about a boyhood experience in Kenya when he discovered an improbable and forbitten fruit called a bumstitch.  The last is an explanation of his unorthodox point of view for Dutch, Ronald Reagan’s biography.  An illustration or photograph heralds each chapter, squeezing out more of its intent.


Morris is a master of thoughts and an artist with the words to convey them.  He writes of figures in history, music and literature: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Adams, Ludwig van Beethoven, Mark Twain, Evelyn Waugh, James Gould Cozzens, Thomas Edison…

His time at work in the Library of Congress probably transcends that of any living writer.  We read about the great institution, which he compares to Thomas Jefferson’s brain, in one chapter: serendipitous experiences like holding a William McKinley autographed piece of silk once meant for promoting a campaign, and the voluminous journals of Theodore Roosevelt.  It is a place where he discovered original musical scores composed by the father of Clare Booth Luce, something Edmund’s wife Sylvia had dreamed of finding for her own book’s research.

Sylvia Jukes Morris, biographer of Luce and Edith Roosevelt, is also the subject of a chapter, but you have to read it yourself to get an idea of the admiration and respect her husband has for her.  It is great.  He paid her a high compliment in saying that if something happened to him while writing one of his books, she could finish it herself.

Edmund Morris’s writing is both serious and funny.  It comes from many years of trying to get to the bottom of what made people do what they did.  It is for readers of books, lifelong learners like himself; and not much like the noise of bits and pieces we get from electronic media today.  This is one of those books that may be called just one thing: a gift.

Depth of Focus

A long time ago (in college) when I had a borrowed camera on which the knobs were so hard to turn that my thumbs were always red, I learned about aperture and depth of focus.  One had to do with light and the lens.  The other was the ability to transfer an object into a sharp image on paper.

I suppose, in a general way, depth of focus could also be used to label how much a body knows about something.  For me it is the growing up years of the twenty-sixth president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt.

I didn’t narrow to that topic at the beginning.  I was just interested in “the biggest character in American history,” as a recent biographer has described him.  I knew something of his Rough Rider personality, but not much about the rest of his sixty years, even what he’d done a hundred years ago as highest elected official in our country.

TR speaking in 1902 (

After tracking the places he’d lived, people he’d known, and jobs he’d held, I asked more questions.  Why was he interested in nature?  How could he have learned so much on his own?  I looked to primary sources for answers.  Mostly, I just kept reading.

I’m still amazed at how much one can learn independently by taking the time to read (Remember the Birdman of Alcatraz?).  Reliable websites instantly cough up facts for us, but sitting down with a book and reading it from cover to cover is crucial to our understanding.  Bits and pieces add up to information.  A book adds up to a conclusion of some kind, even if it isn’t the author’s.

William Henry Harbaugh artfully tells of Roosevelt’s political life.  David McCullough reveals family and social influences on a sickly little boy who metamorphosed into a leader.  Edmund Morris meticulously chronicles his drive to accomplish, but lets you make up your mind about which factors influenced him most.  Another earlier Pullitzer Prize winner, Henry Pringle, seems to have dipped his objectives in acid wash before he started to write.

There are more who used honey.  Some were TR’s contemporaries who could call upon their own memories.  Since then others have added to the list, among them Stephan Lorant (who assembled a photobiopic), Paul Cutright, Carleton Putnam, Nathan Miller, Kathleen Dalton, and Candice Millard.  The thirty-five books Theodore Roosevelt authored himself, including his autobiography, and the subjects he chose, say a lot about him, too.

Theodore at sixteen (Harvard University photograph)

I set out to tell more about “Teedie” between the ages of eight and eighteen than they had (and came pretty close).  New leads about his boyhood friends gave me more of the story.  Isn’t that true of our own friendships?  In the Houghton Library at Harvard University I read a cache of papers from the boys’ nature club which had never been published.  I also located photographs of the house he lived in from 1872 to 1884, which no one else did.

With Theodore’s life as the connecting wire, I’ve spiraled a notebook into other worlds  — of days gone by and of the outdoors — which you can see in my blog posts.  Birds are an obvious tangent.  Due to my research, I can tell you scientific names, songs, habits, and the danger they’re in today.  Looking closely at movers and shakers of the past, particularly presidents, has been enlightening.  It is much easier to remember people and events when you have stories to go with them.

The Lilly Foundation of Indiana continues to give grant funds to teachers like me to make physical searches into all kinds of things — under the headings of history, science, art, music, literature, which also adds to the sum of understanding as we pass the experiences to others.

I discovered much about an interesting American and kept looking.  Theodore Roosevelt not my idol, but he is my hero.  Looking through any lens, we need more of those.

“What Do You Think?”

I thought that rather than sending flowers, a better way to show appreciation for my high school history teacher was to go to his graveside service.

The last time I saw John Fiandt was at graduation over forty years ago.  I was fortunate to have been in his class not only for American History in the eleventh grade, but for Social Studies in junior high (not yet enlightened to the name of middle school).

I remember getting a C on his first assignment.  We had to choose a current events article and tell what we thought about it.  “This article was very newsworthy, and I learned a lot about the war in India and Pakistan that I didn’t know before.”  That was an answer for which I could have filled in the blank for anything I read.   I’m surprised he didn’t throw it in the trash.  I wasn’t used to writing opinions, at least in detail — up to then I suppose my excellent and caring teachers had been working more on the RC in RCASE (recall, comprehension, analysis, synthesis and evaluation) than on the higher order skills.

My responses gradually improved.  Good thing, because most of his tests were essays.  From class discussion (yes, it was the Socratic Method) and the books he assigned us to read, I learned a lot about history, but also that I needed to question why people acted the way they did.  I didn’t learn how to think (when someone says this it irritates me to no end) or what to think, but to just to think.  About things in my own style.  And to consider the views of others.  I liked Mr. Fiandt’s dry sense of humor, and we all knew he cared about us.

Ultimately I  taught in a fifth grade classroom for twenty-five years, only half of his long career.  I remembered his questioning, his encouragement to read, and the example of just being different.  I looked at my kids the way he used to look at us: with amusement, with understanding, with…what?  Expectation?  What would they say next?  What would they THINK next?

During a snowstorm early this year, I sent him a copy of my recent book, thinking he might appreciate that one of his students tried to write something about history.  I’m sure others of us have produced more extensive and illuminating volumes.  I got a thank you note the next week.  He’d enjoyed reading it and thought I was a good writer.  He said he’d always “trumpeted” Theodore Roosevelt’s accomplishments as president.  And that another teacher I’d mentioned as a positive influence, Thelma Hepner, had been a dear family friend.  He was interested to know about my family, and the book about World War I that I’d said I was working on.  Then, two months later, he was gone.

Mr. Fiandt never married, but judging from others’ remarks, he had a very large family: students from thirty-two years at the high school, and from twenty years at the local university.

At his service a friend told me that Mr. Fiandt had considered Edmund Morris’s trilogy of Theodore Roosevelt to be the finest biographies he’d ever read.  That is saying A LOT.  He had a legendary library, part of which he was always loaning out, especially to his young charges.  John Fiandt had several things in common with Edmund Morris: scholarship, frankness, wit, polish,  professionalism, and a generous spirit.  Always inviting others to think.  The lesson continues.

The Morrises

One writer likes to listen to stories of another, but when they’re coming from Pullitzer Prize and American Book Award winner Edmund Morris, ears upshift to a different plane.

A great storyteller, like the presidents he’s written about.  (Thornwillow Press photo)

Morris gave a book talk last Friday night in New York for members of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, something my daughter and I had looked forward to attending for several months.  The author spoke about his new collector’s volume, Nine Lives of Theodore Roosevelt, exquisitely produced by Thornwillow Press.  Who but Edmund Morris to choose nine categories profiled by Theodore’s writings?  Who but the creator of the trilogy The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, and Colonel Roosevelt, which total 2,500 pages?  Morris oughta know the essence of the twenty-sixth president: He spent thirty years of his life studying the sixty of TR’s.

In person, as in print, he didn’t disappoint us — my favorite story was of Margaret Thatcher quoting TR’s “Man in the Arena” impromptu at a party for the Reagans.  Morris described the speech as “catnip for other orators,” a metaphor which put me in mind of the times our old housecat escaped to a patch of the stuff out by the barn.  Catnip for orators!  I love his words, even the ones that keep me from speed reading his books because I have to look them up.

This Living Hand and Other Essays (Random House, 2013), is a chronological collection of Morris’s work from 1972 to 2003.  Most of them have been published elsewhere, a few haven’t, and some are talks he’s given.  He chose images for the beginning of each piece which represent his thoughts as he was composing.  You need to read this.  He was pleased to hear that I had, when I got to speak with him after the presentation.



Random House photo

One of the essays in Living Hand is “Lady of Letters,” a tribute to his wife, Sylvia Jukes Morris.  She was also at the Friday event and also a joy to speak with.  Sylvia, whose Edith Roosevelt biography is a classic, just published Price of Fame (Random House, 2014), the second half of the life of Clare Booth Luce.  I told her I had started it but that it was taking me some time to absorb.  She said, “Yes, she had so much depth, and so many layers, didn’t she?”


Sylvia Jukes Morris ( photo)

Mr. and Mrs. Morris’s depth in literature, wit and audience appeal is hard to match.  They are distinguished and down-to-earth.  I could listen to them every Friday night, but I guess I’ll have to be satisfied with reading their books.  That will not be hard.

History Buff’s Buffet

Some groan at the thought of endnotes, but much can be taken from them.  They often add explanations authors wouldn’t want one reader to miss.  After all, he or she may never pass that way again.

Edmund Morris, King of Endnotes, gives his audience two books in each biography: the primary text, and the notes in the back.  I can’t try to approach that level.  His card files have been documented on more than one C-Span interview. But I did find some tidbits at the end of The Amazing Bird Collection to share this week.

Theodore’s photograph of the Elkhorn Ranch House.

From Wilderness Writings, by Theodore Roosevelt: In post-Civil War days, photography was difficult for amateurs because of the instruments and the developing process, but when they got a bit more portable, Theodore liked to shoot with a camera as much as he did with a gun.  He developed prints himself in the cellar of his North Dakota ranch house.  His book, Through the Brazilian Wilderness, lists photography equipment and circa 1915 directions for using it.

From My Brother Theodore Roosevelt, by Corinne Roosevelt Robinson:  Soon after the Civil War ended, Theodore’s mother received a mysterious letter.  It said that a young man would wait to meet them under a certain tree at Central Park.  It turned out to be her youngest brother, Irvine Bulloch, a Confederate soldier who fought on the warship Alabama (captained by their older brother James).  They had a happy but short reunion, after which Irvine moved to a permanent home in England.


 “Teedie and Ellie” watch from a second story window.

From The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt, by Stefan Lorant: Edith Roosevelt, TR’s widow, confirmed that in a famous photograph of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession in New York City, Theodore and his brother Elliott were the two small boys looking out the window of a mansion.  Little Edie, their friend, had been watching with them at the home of the boys’ grandfather, Cornelius.  When she cried, they pushed her into a back room.  Lorant says that he was so charmed by Mrs. Roosevelt that he said, “If I were twenty years older, I’d propose to you.”  She answered, “Mr. Lorant, if I were twenty years younger, I would accept.”

From The Boy Hunters, by Mayne Reid, a book Theodore read growing up: A father sending his boys to the western frontier to hunt was described in this way.  “Like the great Audubon, he was fond of the outside world.  He was fond of drawing, his lessons came from nature itself…he combined a passion for the chase with his delicate taste for scientific pursuits.”  That could have been part of the eulogy at TR’s funeral. 

 Widely circulated cartoon of TR shooting holes in Mr. Johnson’s dictionary.

From An Autobiography, by Theodore Roosevelt: During his presidency, Theodore tried to get Congress to pass a bill on simplified spelling.  It did not pass, but the press had a lot of fun with it.  Some of the words he wanted to shorten have evolved anyway (He might have liked texting).