Storm of 1821 struck fishing village of Chincoteague

An old woodcut that depicts the storm of 1821 that struck the Delmarva coast.

An old woodcut that depicts the storm of 1821 that struck the Delmarva coast.

In writing GREAT STORMS OF THE CHESAPEAKE I came across many accounts of old storms that have mostly been forgotten over time, but which were devastating to the people who lived through them.

One such storm struck the Atlantic coast of the Delmarva Peninsula in 1821, when the region was only sparsely populated. From descriptions of the time, the storm was almost certainly a hurricane. The storm devastated both Assateague and Chincoteague. Here is one contemporary account:

“In the early morning the terrified inhabitants, looking from their windows facing the ocean, saw an awful sight: the waters had receded toward the southward, and where the Atlantic had rolled the night before, miles of sandbars lay bare to the gloomy light, as the bottom of the Red Sea to the Israelites; then how a dull roar came near and nearer, and suddenly a solid mass of wind and rain and salt spray leaped upon the devoted island with a scream. Great pines bent for a moment, and then, groaning and shrieking, were torn from their centuried growth like wisps of straw and hurled one against another; houses were cut from their foundations and thrown headlong …”

The account goes on to note how one man and his grandson were swept six miles inland by the storm surge, but somehow managed to survive.

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Summertime book events and signings

I have a few more events coming up and I’m excited about them because it gets me out from behind the keyboard. I read recently about how a writer is a recluse addicted to hot drinks … that sounds like me to a tea … I mean T. Anyhow, maybe I will see you at one of these events in the weeks and months ahead. I certainly hope so!

July 9-12 ThrillerFest in NYC. I’m on the Friday morning historical fiction roundtable with some pretty amazing thriller writers, including Steve Berry, David Morrell, Anne Perry, Kay Kendall, Jerry Americ, Ann Parker, Anne Cleeland, and Francine Mathews. I am busy reading all of their newest books and I am in awe!

July 21 6:30 pm “Heroes and Villains of 1812″ talk at the North East Library, North East, MD. Surprisingly, not all the villains were Redcoats. I’ll be sharing stories from this “Forgotten War” on Chesapeake Bay.

Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach.

Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach.

July 25 4 pm Book signing at Browseabout Books, Rehoboth Avenue, Rehoboth Beach. Thank you to Browseabout for featuring “Beach Bodies.” If you are at the beach this summer, a visit to Browseabout and a slice of Grotto’s pizza are mandatory.

August 29 10 am Book signing at the Old Gray Mare, Bohemia Avenue, in historic Chesapeake City. I’ll be on the front porch that day for as long as they let me hang around!

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On eve of hurricane season, recalling George Washington’s Storm

clipper ship in hurricane for blog

Library of Congress image

Hurricane season officially begins June 1. While in some ways this is an arbitrary date because nature sets its own rules and does not follow a man-made calendar, let’s just say it’s time to keep a weather eye out!

In the last 400 years there have been some tremendous storms on the Chesapeake Bay, including this one from the 1700s that became known as “George Washington’s Storm.” Although Washington could not have known the science behind hurricanes, he certainly understood that this storm was something out of the ordinary, and he chronicled the storm in detail.

And so, as we gear up for another Chesapeake Bay hurricane season, here’s looking back at “George Washington’s Storm.”

Excerpted from Great Storms of the Chesapeake:

He may have led the Continental Army through the Revolutionary War, but before George Washington became a Founding Father, he was first and foremost a farmer. And like any good farmer, he kept an eye on the weather that affected his vast estate at Mount Vernon, Virginia. The mansion overlooks the Potomac River, not far from Chesapeake Bay. While majestic, the view also left Washington’s home vulnerable to the Chesapeake’s fiercest storm—the hurricane.

On July 19, 1788, a storm began forming near Bermuda that would become known as “George Washington’s Hurricane.” The storm that struck the lower Chesapeake full-on would be detailed in Washington’s journal when the eye passed directly over Mount Vernon.

At a little after midnight on July 23, the storm pounced upon the Chesapeake region and “blew a perfect hurricane, tearing down chimneys, fences, etc.” Accounts say the winds felled large trees, leveled crops and even shifted houses off their foundations.

A storm like that coming at harvest time was particularly devastating to the farms and orchards of the region. Trees heavy with fruit were blown down or their weighted limbs snapped. Corn was flattened and the last of kitchen gardens shredded.

The storm was just as bad on the water. Ships of all sizes that attempted to ride out the storm sank or were pounded to splinters at their moorings. In Portsmouth, Va., accounts say a large ship was floated by the storm surge into the center of town.

It came to be known as “George Washington’s Storm” because of his detailed journal descriptions of the storm and its aftermath. As always, Washington was focused not only on observation, but on the impact the storm would have on the roughly 8,000 acres he owned surrounding his home.

On July 24, Washington wrote: “Thermometer at 70 in the morning, 71 at noon and 74 at night. A very high N.E. wind all night which this morning being accompanied with rain became a hurricane driving the miniature ship Federalist from her moorings and sinking her; blowing down some trees in the groves and about the houses, loosning the roots & forcing many others to yield and dismantling most in a greater or lesser degree of their Bows, and doing other and great mischief to the grain, grass &c. and not a little to my mill race; in a word it was violent and severe more so titan has happened for many years. About noon the wind suddenly shifted from N.E. to S.W. and blew the remaining part of the day as violently from that quarter. The tide about this time rose near or quite 4 feet higher than it was ever known to do driving Boats &c. into fields where no tide had ever been heard of before, and must it is apprehended have done infinite damage on their Wharves at Alexandria, Norfolk, Baltimore &c.”

According to weather records, the 1788 hurricane followed a path—and shared an intensity—very similar to the 1933 storm that would carve Ocean City’s inlet. Consequently, this makes “George Washington’s Hurricane” one of the more intense storm on Chesapeake Bay—and we have the Founding Father himself to thank in part of keeping good records of the storm.

 

 

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Replay of the WINTER SNIPER book trailer

In case you missed it, here is the WINTER SNIPER book trailer.

 

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Takeaways from the Bay to Ocean Writers’ Conference

Bay to Ocean imageOn a crisp winter’s day, writers from across the region gathered at Chesapeake College in Wye Mills for the 18th annual Bay to Ocean Writers Conference, organized by the Eastern Shore Writers Associaton. Days and weeks after the end of the conference, I am still looking back at my notes and processing what I learned and what thoughts came to mind. This is an attempt to sum up some of the key takeaways from the conference, based on the sessions I attended with notebook in hand.

• The conference was a great way to connect with other writers. Some might call this networking, but I would call it reassuring. Isn’t it nice to know that there are so many others who wrestle with words and stories? It helps to have affirmation that you are not the only crazy one! Connecting with other writers on social media is a good start, but you can’t split a giant chocolate chip cookie with someone on Facebook.

• Laura Oliver is a teacher of writers at St. Johns College in Annapolis, and she conducted a wonderful workshop based around her craft book, “The Story Within.” One of the fascinating points she made was that as human beings we are “wired for story” in that we crave stories not only for entertainment, but as a way to learn. It is also a way to experience and learn vicariously, or even to experience the intimacy we crave as humans. She quoted Robert Frost: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Of course, I picked up a copy of her book, which is now being read and marked up with notes in the margins.

• Author Kathryn Johnson is known for her historical novels and thrillers, some of which are set on the Delmarva Peninsula. Although she is a veteran author whose books have been in print for many years, it is clear she still has a sense of wonder about writing. Not that she is a soft touch. “Write down everything that will make your characters miserable,” she advised with a glint in her eye that made you feel concerned for her main characters.

For her, plot comes down to what happens next. “Make up something that’s really important to the character that can carry the story.”

These approaches helped her write one of her more recent novels, “The Gentleman Poet,” a story centered around the real-life shipwreck that inspired Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” There is now a copy on my trusty Kindle, waiting for some time to be read.

As a writer of historical novels, she said that good ideas are sometimes a tough sell to younger editors who don’t know their history. It was an observation about the realities of publishing rather than a complaint. Maybe this is why we need historical novels, to bring to life the people and events that have shaped our own times?

• Robert Bidinotto is an accomplished thriller writer, but it’s his own story of success with independent publishing that many writers find thrilling. Having lost his job as a magazine editor, and entering his sixties, things were looking bleak financially. That’s when, with the encouragement of his wife, he finally wrote a novel. The result was “Hunter,” a self-published Amazon bestseller. The author has been a tireless supporter of other writers with his “how to” advice on his popular website http://www.bidinotto.com/.

For self-published writers, Bidinotto stressed the importance of writing the best books possible by using advance readers, volunteer editors to stop every typo in its tracks, and great cover design.

At the conference, Bidinotto focused on tips for thriller writers, starting with classic examples of great thrillers, including Peter Benchley’s “Jaws” and “Where Eagles Dare” by Alistair MacLean and Wilbur Smith’s “Hungry as the Sea.”  He also noted the thriller elements of classic films like “High Noon.”

Thrillers come in all shapes and settings, but they have a common thread of often larger-than-life characters who overcome impossible odds, whether it is stopping a killer shark or the gang of killers due to arrive in town on the 12 o’clock train.

“Your job is to keep the reader riveted in that world,” Bidinotto said. He quoted Lee Child: “Write the slow stuff fast and the fast stuff slow.”

• What’s a conference without the swag? At BTO the literal takeaways included a green tote bag that my wife called “kind of girlie” (which meant she had her eye on it), copies of Writers Digest, Poets & Writers, and the Eastern Shore Writers Association’s own anthology, “The Delmarva Review.” Plus, there was a blank membership form to the ESWA.

And did I mention the extra chocolate chip cookie I smuggled home? It was just the right accompaniment to a mug of tea and my trusty Mac laptop as I got reinspired with my own writing.

See you next year at the Bay to Ocean Writers Conference!

The above post first appeared over at the Words Between Bays blog, published by the Eastern Shore Writers’ Association.

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New look for Winter Sniper cover

coverOn the publishing front, it’s worth noting that Winter Sniper has a new cover that shows a German soldier in winter camouflage taking aim with his rifle at an unseen target. The title in red type really pops off the page and matches the look of another World War II story, Ghost Sniper.

This is the third cover design for Winter Sniper since it was published back in 2010. It’s not that the other designs were “bad,” but this iteration really seems to capture the atmosphere of the story.

This is a story, after all, about a crack German sniper sent on a secret mission to assassinate General Eisenhower as World War II enters its end game. The sniper embarks on a bleak mission against impossible odds, and the white winter landscape reflects that. He is also a cold and calculating assassin, and frankly something of an SOB, so the wintry background reflects his personality.

While the main character is a real tough guy, one of the secondary characters is a German who learns most of his English from watching movies and reading Westerns by Zane Grey. He can’t wait for the war to be over so that he can live his dream of traveling to the American West and meeting actual cowboys.

Along with the new cover, some revisions were also made to the text of the ebook to improve the overall formatting.

Winter Sniper is available in ebook format only at this time, but with any luck there will be a print version someday soon.

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Celebrate St. Patrick’s day with history

Glendalough in County Wicklough. Courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.

Glendalough in County Wicklough. Courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.

St. Patrick’s Day is a holiday known for green beer and corned beef, “Kiss me I’m Irish” buttons and ties with shamrocks. In bars the patrons will toast all things Irish and you won’t have to go far on the radio dial to hear “Danny Boy” or maybe something by The Chieftains.

What, then, is the best way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day?   The answer to that question lies with another, harder one: what does it mean to be Irish-American?

Let’s face it, the Irish have a tough time with their identity, considering their most famous characteristic as an ethnic group is a fondness for drink and a gift for blarney.   That said, St. Patrick’s Day shouldn’t be all about drinking, although the beer merchants and bars might have us believe otherwise.   It should be a celebration of Irish heritage and of a triumph over terrible adversity.

The Irish never have had it easy. Invaded first by Vikings and then conquered by the English hundreds of years ago, the Irish always have been underdogs.

Being Irish-American in the 1800s and early 1900s often meant being poor and living on the margins of society. It meant suffering the small indignities of poverty, such as walking to save the bus fare or a family living on top of one another in a cramped tenement or never having quite enough to eat. That hard life has fallen to a new wave of immigrants.

Even so, the Irish and Irish-Americans are only now getting over their impoverished past.   As best-selling Irish novelist Maeve Binchy put it, “We don’t have to write about deprivation and loss anymore.   Ireland is a country that has come out into the sunshine.”

The past wasn’t always so sunny.   The bleakest chapter in Irish history may have been The Great Hunger, or An Gorta Mor, as it’s called in Gaelic. It was also The Great Hunger that launched the huge wave of Irish emigration to America.

In 1845, an event of cataclysmic magnitude struck Ireland, and that was the failure of the potato crop.   At that time, rural Irish families subsisted almost entirely on potatoes grown in tiny plots. When a disease called blight rotted the potatoes in the ground and in storage, entire villages literally starved to death. Ironically, there was plenty of food to go around in the form of grain, but English landlords chose to export those crops instead of feeding the peasants. Through what some historians now claim was a conscious act of genocide on the part of the English, one million Irish died of starvation and disease and another million were forced to emigrate between 1845 and 1852.   My own great-great-grandfather, Matthew Healey, was among those who crowded aboard the “coffin ships” to survive the cruel voyage as best they could.

The emigration didn’t stop with the famine.   People became Ireland’s leading export.   (How times have changed: Ireland is now a world leader in the export of computer software, second only to the United States.)   By 1900, Ireland’s population had dropped from 8 million before the famine to 4.5 million.

Millions of those Irish came to America.   In fact, roughly one-fifth of today’s United States population can claim Irish descent.   That percentage soars in areas like Boston, of course.

Recently, a memorial to The Great Hunger was unveiled in Boston. Another memorial to Irish immigration and the “potato famine” should be completed at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia this spring.

St. Patrick’s Day is an appropriate time for those of Irish heritage to remember the suffering their ancestors endured.   However, what we should celebrate isn’t tragedy but triumph. Millions of Irish came to America with nothing and made a name — and a holiday — for themselves.

In our family, for just this reason, we want St. Patrick’s Day to have special meaning, to be a reminder of where we come from.   We are creating traditions of our own that have nothing to do with a bar stool.

Growing up, St. Patrick’s Day was always a major event.   There was green beer in quantity, of course, for the grownups and green ginger ale for the kids.   Irish music spun on the record player all day.   Everyone had to wear something green or risk being pinched.   Dinner was corned beef and cabbage with plenty of potatoes on the side.

We’re changing the rules a bit in our own house.   Maybe we’ll read aloud a poem by William Butler Yeats or Seamus Heaney, the Irish Nobel Prize winner. There will be time, too, for family stories — some funny, some sad.

Then bring on some music and Guinness stout and corned beef with colcannon on the side. A meal is always a fine tradition and what better way to celebrate than to transform St. Patrick’s Day into an Irish-American Thanksgiving? We all have many things to be thankful for, thanks to the hardiness of our immigrant ancestors.

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Chesapeake Bay’s last War of 1812 battle

Battle of the Ice Mound was last War of 1812 battle on Chesapeake Bay

for david's siteHere is a chapter from Delmarva Legends & Lore to mark the anniversary of the last War of 1812 battle in Maryland, which took place at Taylor’s Island, Maryland

When American and British forces clashed at Parson’s Creek near Cambridge, they didn’t realize that the War of 1812 had been over for several weeks.
Peace commissioners had signed the Treaty of Ghent on Christmas Eve, 1814. The British, weary of their long war in Europe against Napoleon, were eager to end hostilities. And the young United States had found it wasn’t so easy to achieve a clear victory. Both nations were glad to put the conflict aside. Unfortunately, it would take weeks for word of the treaty to reach North America, considering that news only traveled as swiftly as the swiftest ship.

The news came too late to prevent the Battle of New Orleans on January 15. Thousands of British would be killed or wounded in a battle that cost fewer than one hundred American lives. This victory would eventually propel Andrew Jackson to the White House.

For the British and Americans still fighting on Delmarva, news of the peace would also come to late to stop a battle — although one on a much smaller scale than at New Orleans.

The winter had been a hard one on Chesapeake Bay, with ice clogging the creeks and rivers. On February 7, 1815, that ice proved to be the undoing of a British vessel and its young commander.

Lt. Matthew Phipps was probably foraging for supplies or else on a scouting expedition to keep an eye on American activities. The two vessels under his command were “tenders” or ship’s launches from the HMS Dauntless. But these were no mere rowboats. Phipps’ launch was equipped with a twelve-pound cannon and a smaller swivel gun. Accompanying Lt. Phipps were a midshipman, twelve sailors, three Royal Marines, and an African-American cook named Becky.

At some point, this British expedition ran into trouble when it became stranded in ice that had been built up by the wind and tide to form the “Ice Mound” that gave the battle its name. Watching from shore, Americans saw that the British were ensnared. Quickly, they assembled the 48th Regiment of Maryland militia, commanded by Lt. Col. John Jones.

Trapped in the ice, the British must have made an easy target for the Americans firing from shore. The British fought back, but Lt. Phipps must have realized the futility of his position, exposed in open boats while the Americans picked them off. He surrendered to save the lives of his men.

It must have felt like a tremendous victory to beleaguered American forces. The captured British were marched victoriously to Easton, with the cannon dragged along as a trophy of war. Seven days later, word finally arrived that the War of 1812 was over.

The British were released, but the Americans kept the cannon. It was nicknamed “Becky” for the cook and “Phipps” for the hapless Royal Navy lieutenant who had been captured. The “Becky Phipps” cannon was fired on special occasions over the years, until it finally exploded when too much powder was loaded at the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson (or possibly Grover Cleveland). A local family retrieved the shattered pieces and reconstructed the cannon, where it can be seen today under a pavilion at Taylor’s Bridge. These days, the cannon isn’t fired anymore, but it serves as a reminder of that final War of 1812 battle on Chesapeake Bay.

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The good kind of writer’s block

Thank you to Harford Heart magazine and writer Vonnie Winslow Crist for the wonderful article! You can read it at the link here: https://flipflashpages.uniflip.com/3/16985/345494/p

Harford Heart article pic

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Eastern Shore Writers to offer $1,000 book prize

State of DelmarvapageThe Eastern Shore Writers Association announces that it will award a $1000 prize for the best book written by a Delmarva writer in 2015. The award is open to all categories and genre of books including fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Two Honorable Mention Awards will also be cited. Participants must be full-time or seasonal residents of the peninsula.

The organization’s president Gerald Sweeney says, “The Delmarva Book Award has been designed to honor and encourage local authors. That aligns with the mission of the Eastern Shore Writers Association to enhance the quality of writing from the bay to the ocean. The prize should spur new works of art.”

The contest’s judge is a lifetime resident of the Eastern Shore, David Harper Jr. who grew up on a small family farm near Preston, where he is grateful to be raising two children with his wife, Christy.  Educated at The University of Richmond and at Washington College, for the past ten years David has taught English literature and composition at Chesapeake College. In addition to directing the Honors Program, he serves as Co-Advisor for The Beacon, a student-published literary magazine that celebrates the artistic expressions of local students. In choosing a winner he will be assisted by a group of readers

Enduring themes in David’s teaching include encouraging students to draw inspiration for writing from Shore life, while also challenging students to engage with divers texts in order to better understand their unique personal histories and perspectives.

“Subject matter will not be limited to works about Delmarva,” Sweeney said. “Our Shore is home to an astonishing array of people and global influences, yet I suspect the winning entry might contain a salty flavor.”

The contest will open on January 1, 2015 and close on November 15. Awards will be made in December of next year.

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