Neshnala’s Saga: Prolog

Every writer hopes to create a “character” that takes over his or her writing, that in effect writes itself; that’s what has happened to me with Neshnala.

Neshnala isn’t a human character, it’s a tree; to be exact, a three-hundred-year-old great white oak tree located in Five Falls State Park that is first introduced in “Ro’s Handle.” While it is a relatively minor character in that novel, it does play a role to help demonstrate Ro’s special connection with trees and her respect for tradition – there is also an element of “setting-up” involved, as Neshnala will be a recurring character and will take on a more significant role in some future Ro Delahanty novels I have in mind.

So, as part of my ongoing goal in this blog to provide more background on Ro novel characters than can actually fit in the books, I thought I’d do a series of posts on Neshnala − my initial assumption was it might involve a half-dozen or so.

I began drafting the first post by posing what I thought was a simple question: How can a tree survive to be three centuries old? What unique and unexpected circumstances can forestall it from falling victim to threats, both natural and human, for that long?

And what I found in answering that question proved to be a whole lot more fascinating, to say nothing of complicated, than I thought, and those presumed half-dozen posts have now ballooned into twenty-seven chapters, and, at not quite seventeen-thousand words, would now qualify as a novella…

In other words, the Neshnala Saga literally ran away with me, much to my delight.

(For those not familiar with literary conventions, anything under ten-thousand words is considered a short story; anything between fifteen and twenty-five-thousand words is a novella; and anything over thirty-thousand words is a novel. And yes, I suppose there is some possibility the Neshnala Saga may someday be published.)

So, I’ll begin posting the much-richer-and-more-colorful-than-expected chapters of the Neshnala Saga this coming Wednesday, and will add a new one every few days for roughly the next couple of months.

I hope you find it as much fun to read as I had writing it…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

First professional review of “Ro’s Handle”

Werner Lind, the moderator of the Action Heroine Fans discussion group on Goodreads, has done a professional review of “Ro’s Handle,” my first Ro Delahanty novel. Here’s the link:

While it was, you might say, “a mixed review,” I do believe it was fair and balanced.

I’m pleased with the parts of the book he was enthusiastic about, and I understand (as the expression goes) “where he was coming from” with regard to those parts he was not comfortable with.

But I’m encouraged that he did end the review by saying he’s looking forward to the next Ro novel.

How the Meadows on Shadowbrook Golf Course got its name (part two)

During the first decade of the 1900s Charles Sturdevant, working in partnership with Jacob Daring III, Livy’s brother and head of the Daring farm implement company, developed a practical gasoline powered tractor that enjoyed widespread popularity – the tractor line even acquired the unofficial nickname of “The Sturdy.”

In the teens, under a separate partnership arrangement, Sturdevant and Daring formed Sturdevant Engine Co., which soon became a major supplier of engines for motorcycles, boats and all kinds of trucks built by others.

At this same time, Livy’s brother asked her to take over the charitable activities of the then newly incorporated Jacob Daring Wagoneer; she became the first executive director of the Jacob Daring Foundation, a position she held for more than thirty years.

In 1932, when Charles Sturdevant died from tuberculosis, Livy inherited his stock in Sturdevant Engine and, along with her own wealth as one of the descendants of Jacob Daring, ended up among the richest women in America. Over the next several decades Livy Sturdevant became a kind of “rock star” in the Illowa region as a generous patron of community activities, especially in the arts.

In her later years she was a short, round woman with a shock of white hair she wore in a kind of halo around her head. With an ebullient personality, she was frequently featured in the newspapers or on TV, and regularly made appearances at schools and other community events.

Upon her death in 1965, Livy left the entire Meadows Estate to the City of Lee’s Landing. The Cottage was to be used as a community center; she even established an endowment to maintain it. The majority of the property, however, was to be developed by the city as a community golf course, with the old stables converted into the course clubhouse; the golf course was named The Meadows on Shadowbrook.

To help pay for the golf course, the estate’s old orchard along the south edge of the property was sold to a developer for housing, and what had been an on-property driveway leading to the gazebo was turned into a cul de sac extension of the city’s existing York Ridge Road.

As a child, Ro, her brother Patrick and their cousin Justin, along with other neighborhood kids, frequently played in the woodsy tree line that separated the houses from the golf course. A great shagbark hickory in the grove was probably the beginning of Ro’s lifelong “thing” for trees.

As a teenager, she regularly rode her bike, or later ran on the Shadowbrook Bike Path that paralleled its namesake creek.

And as a young adult, Ro and her first serious boyfriend, Sonny Colletta, once sneaked onto the golf course in the middle of the night and made love on its practice green; they barely escaped getting caught by a night watchman who patrolled the course on a golf cart several times a night by scrambling into a nearby sand trap.

(C) 2017 Dave Lager

How the Meadows on Shadowbrook Golf Course got its name (part one)

In my last post I shared how Livy Sturdevant, as one of the principal founders of the Illowa Symphony Orchestra, had an indirect, but nonetheless meaningful effect on Ro Delahanty and her father Mike’s musical lives, who for nearly a dozen years were ISO season ticket holders.

This is the story how Livy Sturdevant had an even more profound impact on their family, as in pretty much determining where they lived, and where Ro played as a child.

The Delahanty’s home is a 70s-era split-level at 3230 East York Ridge Lane; it, along with more than two dozen virtually identical homes, is on the north side of a cul de sac. Behind them is the city’s Meadows on Shadowbrook Golf Course.

The golf course was once the pastures section of the sprawling, nearly 300-acre estate of Charles and Livy Sturdevant; the Delahanty’s specific house lot was a part of the estate’s orchard.

When Olivia “Livy” Daring graduated from Wisconsin’s Ripon College in 1895, like a great many privileged young people at the time, her graduation gift was a summer grand tour of Europe with her mother as chaperone.

While crossing the Atlantic aboard the White Star Line’s “Majestic,” Livy met Charles S. Sturdevant, who was also on a grand tour, and it was love at first sight. Sturdevant even revised his own tour itinerary to be with Livy while they were in Europe. By the time they returned to the U.S. that fall they were engaged; they married early the next year.

Charles Sturdevant was from Detroit, Michigan, the son of Simon Sturdevant, founder of the Sturdevant Department Stores in Detroit, Chicago and Indianapolis. As a teenager Charles was fascinated by the early experiments in building automobiles and motorcycles; on his grand tour he even arranged visits with Gottlieb Daimler, Wilhelm Maybach and Karl Benz, early pioneers in automobile design.

After they were married, Livy and Charles bought nearly three-hundred acres of woods and open fields on top of the bluff along Shadowbrook in what was then Fort Armstrong County just outside of Lee’s Landing city limits.

Charles built what they called The Cottage for them to live in, although it was anything but. A beautiful Beaux-Arts design, it had fourteen rooms, including five bedrooms, four bathrooms, a formal living room, an informal parlor, kitchen, dining room for up to twenty-four, a solarium and a music room for as many as fifty guests. The Cottage was surrounded by an acre of formal gardens.

Most of the rest of the three-hundred acres was used as pasture for the great Percheron draft horses that Livy raised as part of preserving the Jacob Daring Wagoneer tradition – three hitched pairs of matched gray Percherons pulling an original Daring freight wagon would make frequent appearances in parades around the country. Along the south edge of the property was an orchard, with a gazebo overlooking the Mississippi River from atop the bluff.

The entire estate was called The Meadows.

To be continued…

(C) 2017 Dave Lager

How the Illowa Region got its name

The Ro Delahanty novels are located in a fictional city and county about mid-state in eastern Iowa along the Mississippi River. There are two major cities on the Iowa side, Lee’s Landing (the largest city in the area at a little over 100,000), and Gilbert (38,000), which sits just upstream (to the east) of Lee’s Landing.

On the opposite side of the river, in Illinois, are Stevenson (35,000 population) downstream (to the west), directly opposite downtown Lee’s Landing, and Grand Island (50,000 plus) just upstream, opposite the east end of Lee’s Landing and Gilbert.

The corporate headquarters of Jacob Daring Wagoneer, the world-wide manufacturer of farm and heavy construction equipment that is the major employer in the area – Mike Delahanty, Ro’s father, works for them − is a modernistic 15-story high rise built in the 1950s. It is this Jacob Daring connection that was indirectly instrumental in how the area came to be known as the Illowa Region.

Olivia “Livy” Adelle Daring Sturdevant (1874-1965) was Jacob Daring’s grand-daughter. From an early age Livy displayed what was to become a lifelong keen interest in the arts in general and music in particular.

A competent amateur violinist, in the 1890s and early 1900s she regularly organized small ensembles – trios, quartets, sextets – for informal concerts for friends and family. However, she was also perceptive enough to know she did not have the native talent, let alone the fire in the belly, to be a professional musician. So, she would also host recitals by visiting professional musicians.

Over the years the ensembles grew in size and by 1910 had become a small chamber orchestra. In 1911 the idea surfaced to establish a professional symphony orchestra for the area. It took two years of planning and negotiating to resolve the many problems and issues involved, like recruiting a conductor and coming up with a name.

The orchestra’s first season was to be a series of four concerts in the fall of 1913 and the spring of 1914. Early in 1912 they hired as their first conductor, Gilles Surre, an associate professor of music from Chicago’s Northwestern University’s School of Music, who had several times performed as a guest artist for one of the recitals Livy Sturdevant had sponsored.

But it was coming up with a name that became the stickiest issue.

The orchestra was going to be based out of Sturdevant Hall – yes, named for Livy Sturdevant, who was a major contributor towards its construction − on the campus of St. Cecelia’s College in Lee’s Landing, so the idea was floated of calling it the St. Cecelia’s Symphony. Another proposal was to call it the Surre Ensemble, after its first conductor, or maybe the Sturdevant Orchestra, after its principal founder. Some wanted to call it the Lee’s Landing Orchestra, while the suggestion of Eastern Iowa Symphony had its proponents. There were even suggestions for whimsical names, like Pro Musica Apollo, after the Greek god of music.

While no one said it publicly, it was made abundantly clear that any name that was clearly associated to either side of the river would be a significant discouragement for ticket sales from the opposite side. If it was to be a truly regional institution, it had to have a truly regional name.

Livy Sturdevant was, of course, a member of the orchestra’s newly formed board of directors – she, in fact, served on the board for more than forty years, until she retired in 1953, ironically having never served as its chairman, although she was asked many times.

At a board meeting early in 1913, when it was imperative that they make a decision on a name in order to start developing promotional materials for ticket sales for the coming fall, name after name failed to get more than a few votes; no one could agree.

When someone suggested a rather cumbersome “Iowa-Illinois Community Symphony Orchestra,” it was Livy Sturdevant – an instinctive marketer – who suggested the more memorable contraction “Illowa Community Orchestra.” Perhaps because she was by far the single largest financial supporter of the orchestra; or maybe because everyone was very aware of her powerful family connections; or maybe because she was already respected as a leader in the arts community; or simply because it just made sense – the name acknowledged both the localness of the orchestra’s roots, yet was not specific to either side of the river – it was readily accepted. Years later the “community” was dropped, and it became the Illowa Symphony Orchestra, or for short the ISO; Mike and Ro were season ticket holders for nearly a dozen years.

It was the first time the term “Illowa” was used that anyone knows of; over the years many other organizations and businesses began using it in their names to signify they served the entire area, and so by common use it was pretty much universally adopted as the generic designation for the region.

(C) 2017 Dave Lager

On writing…

“Drawing characters from life does not mean transferring real people into fiction exactly as you saw them. So, I use parts of real people — a gesture here, a mannerism there, a certain kind of jawline, and put them together to make something new and interesting.”

– Margaret (Meg) Chittenden (1935-  ) Retired mystery and romance author

As I said in the introduction to “Ro’s Handle,” Ro’s hometown, Lee’s Landing, and Fort Armstrong County, which she patrols each night as a deputy, are loosely based on a real place: “loosely” meaning I have taken lots of liberties with local history, geography and place names.

How Grand Island got its name


In the locale for the Ro Delahanty novels, Grand Island is on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River channel between the cities of Lee’s Landing in Iowa and Stevenson and Grand Island in Illinois. The island serves as the anchor for one of several major bridges between the two states and for one of the locks that facilitates towboat navigation on the river. Here’s how it got its name:

In 1673, the explorers Marquette and Jolliet were the first documented white men to visit what would soon acquire the translated version of what they thought was the Native American “name” for the river, Mississippi,

However, what the explorers, and for that matter many subsequent white men, failed to realize is that Native Americans didn’t “name” things in the same sense we do, that is, by assigning a proper noun to designate that specific thing. The Native American word “Misizubii,” which thanks to the French interpretation became “Mississippi,” is actually a descriptive term that means “large water.” When any Native American mentioned “large water,” every other Native American within a hundred or more miles knew they were referring to the very large river that flowed more or less from north to south through their hunting grounds, since there was no other “large water” it could be referring to.

Marquette and Jolliet kept both a journal and a rough map of their travels on the river and recorded a variety of names and/or descriptive phrases for noteworthy landmarks along the way. They passed by literally hundreds of islands on their journey downriver, most of which they hardly bothered to note because they weren’t much more than tree-covered mudbanks.

However, there were a few that did warrant special attention. One of those was a long and noticeably rocky island on the south side of the river – yes, they did note on their map that the river had made a rather spectacular turn to the southwest – beside an unusually rough section of river, characterized by lots of rapids that were very difficult to navigate.

They called it “grande ile,” which in French means “big island,” and which later got anglicized simply as Grand Island.

Not only did Grand Island “stick” as the name of the river landmark, but it was later adopted as the name of the settlement (eventually both a city and county) that grew up on the mainland shore in what would eventually become the State of Illinois.

(C) 2017 Dave Lager

Early Ro (eleven): Year Twelve – Illowa Symphony

This is the third in a series of background posts about Ro’s twelfth year.

It is the end of June, 1994, and since Mike and Ro both liked breakfast foods, and since they were eating alone tonight, for dinner Mike had made them from-scratch waffles.

“Where’s mom this trip?” Ro had asked as they sat down at the dining room table and started their meal.

Kate, the founder and president of Kate Delahanty Design (KDD), a commercial interior design firm, had over the last couple of years been going out of town more and more frequently checking on the progress of current projects and/or making contacts for new projects: With almost half the year yet to go she had proudly shared with the family they were on track to bill out more than a million dollars.

Her not quite two-year old red Ford Explorer – which in a few years Ro would be given as her first car − already had nearly forty thousand miles on it.

“Peoria,” Mike said. “She just landed a new client, the Wynd Brothers from Des Moines. They’re building a big apartment complex in Peoria and her firm is doing the central clubhouse and office building.”

What none of them knew at the time was that over the years the Wynds would build major apartment complexes in Madison, Wisconsin; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; several in the Chicago area; and one on the west edge of Lee’s Landing, all of which KDD would do the clubhouses for, and the latter one being where Ro would eventually have her own apartment.

“Is Patrick dating Kendra?” Mike asked, changing the subject. Patrick, Ro’s older brother by two years, had called earlier to say he wouldn’t be home for dinner as he was out on the river water skiing with the Nolans, family friends of the Delahanties. Kendra Nolan was a ninth grade classmate of Patrick’s.

“No, they’re just friends. I think Kendra’s sort of dating Clay Holt. He’s a wrestler and she kind of goes for the jocks.”

“Ah. Just wondering. It’s sometimes hard to keep track of Patrick’s friends and girlfriends,” Mike said. Patrick took after his mother; he was very social and very charming and had lots of friends (and girlfriends).

Ro just rolled her eyes in agreement. She was the opposite side of the coin from her brother; she had just a couple of close friends and never even considered the idea of starting to date.

With one of his typically devilish Irish grins, Mike reached across the table to a pile of mail, pulled out a colorful oversize brochure and slid it toward Ro. She recognized the Illowa Symphony Orchestra’s stylized G clef logo on the front below a large headline; “1994-’95: Our Eighty-First Season.”

The Illowa Symphony Orchestra gave six concerts a year, in October. November, December, February, March and April, with performances on Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon. Mike had been going to an occasional Sunday afternoon concert, depending on the program, for almost ten years. Ro had been accompanying him for the last two years.

Flipping open the brochure, he started reading the highlights of the season’s programs: “Look, they’re doing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ and the Ninth.” He didn’t have to specify he was talking about Beethoven’s great Ninth Symphony; while there were lots of various composer’s ninth symphonies, there was only one “the Ninth.”

Thinking they were still in the “one or two concerts a year” mode, Ro said, “It’s hard to choose between Gershwin, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven.”

Mike smiled mysteriously. “What if you didn’t have to? Maybe we could go to all of them.”

Ro frowned, not quite understanding yet.

Then Mike explained: “They’re having a special promotion. If you buy a season ticket for Sunday, you can get a second one for half price. How would you feel about going on a regular date with your old man?”

His daughter’s huge grin was all the answer Mike needed. And that was the beginning of a regular father-daughter “date” tradition that would endure for a dozen years.

(C) 2017 Dave Lager

Thanks Sheila!

Thanks Sheila Hargrave at The BookWorm in Bellevue, Iowa, for hosting a very successful book signing Saturday afternoon. I signed a bunch of copies of “Ro’s Handle” for her customers – even including one for my grand-daughter, Bella Penniston.

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