A Veteran/Writer Looks at History: Fort C.F. Smith


I went to Fort C.F. Smith the same day I did Fort Ward.  It was such a nice day, and it was near the library, so I stopped over.  I really wanted to get some more of the sunshine.

First up, this Civil War fort is hard to find.  For some reason, the state or county inexplicably has a sign that points to a right turn, and then no signs indicating where to turn again unless you coming from the opposite direction.

The fort is smack in the middle of a suburban area, so it’s on a shady little street.  Without the sign, I wouldn’t know this had once been a Civil War fort.  It’s a basic park.  Green grass, trees.

Map of Fort C.F. Smith

So here’s the handy dandy map of what it used to look like.  Farmland was used to build the fort in 1863.  This was one of three forts that protected the Aqueduct bridge of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

Fort C.F. Smith was named after General Charles Ferguson Smith.  He was commandant of the the U.S. Military Academy while Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman were there.

It was a lunette fort, which was apparently pretty unusual.  I had to look the word up to see what it meant.  It’s a fort that that has two faces.  This fort’s two faces are on the southern and western side.

The fort came with:

  • Barracks (got to have some places for the soldiers to stay)
  • Mess hall (that’s the place the soldiers eat)
  • Officer’s quarters (that would have been a little fancier than the barracks)
  • Barn (probably for horses)
  • Headquarters building (where the officers did their planning)

Two stone pillars mark the entrance to Fort C.F. Smith Park

This was one of the entrances to the park.  It’s not the entrance to the fort.

Off for a bit of walking.

Park area marking the original entrance of Fort C.F. Smith

This is the original entrance to the fort.  Can’t really tell much looking at it.  in the upper left third of the photo, there’s a post sticking out of the ground.  That marks the entrance.  It’s just a numbered post–if you visit this park, download the brochure before you go or you will have no context whatsoever.

Meadow of flowers and butterflies

There was a bench here so I sat down and looked at the flowers.  This is a meadow as it might have looked to the farmers of the time.  You can’t see it in the photo, but there were little yellow butterflies bouncing above the flowers.

As I sat here, I could hear the freeway on the other side of the meadow.  The roar of jets drowned out the thrilling of the birds.  The park was under the flight path of Ronald Reagan Airport.

Cannon

This was one of the cannons.  There were supposed to be eight, but it looked like the others had been removed.  The hill was a ramp to help move the equipment around.  Artillery is heavy!  During Desert Storm, we hauled shells for artillery to the front line and the trucks were always running on fumes because of the loads.

Stone well

The land was turned back over to the original owners after the fort was decommissioned and they used this well for their water.  I’m from Southern California, so I’ve never seen a well in person.  How I would picture it is those illustrated drawings that make them look rickety.  This was about 30 inches high (measuring by where it hit me on my legs), and the top was sealed up.

Can you imagine lowering a bucket with it’s own weight into that well, then getting filled with water, and hauling it back up?  Takes some serious muscle!

As you can see, there’s not a lot left here.  Why wasn’t more preserved?

The answer is the military.  The buildings were removed when the fort was decommissioned in 1865.   We’re lucky to have this much preservation because it could have disappeared as the world changed.

More of the story about this fort is on the park website.

Details a Matter of Character


I wrote this post on having trouble with details over a year ago.  It was really hard for me for quite a long time getting even basic details into my stories.  In fact, I had to keep hitting at it with a battering ram.  Sometimes I have to hear something that seems obvious to everyone else before it starts to make sense (though, in this case, I think that a lot of people don’t get that obvious piece).

I’ve found that a lot of the writing advice approaches description from the outside looking in, and often portrays it as frippery, something that is always excessive and should be deleted.  I’ve heard this from the writers on message boards:

“I hate description.”

“All description is boring.”

“I’d rather leave it to the reader’s imagination.”

And from a recent blog:

“Editors hate description.”

That one was from a published writer with three or four books out.

The message seems to be that description isn’t important to the story.

What’s missing from pretty much all of the advice is that the description is done through the character’s eyes and is a function of the characterization itself.  It shows who the character is and where they are at that point in the story.  How could that get left out of everything about description?

Maybe it’s because description is often treated as an exercise, rather than a functioning part of the story.  I’m not sure how much of that steeped into my brain over the years and influenced the dysfunction.  But understanding this at least helped give me a better foundation for getting the specific details into the story.

To find the details, I do some research — not extensive.  If I know there’s going to be outdoor scenes, I try to get names of some of the local plants and trees that most people would know.  That’s actually harder than it sounds, because most sites and books focus on the scientific side and list everything.  Tour books can sometimes be helpful, and sometimes be terribly unhelpful, so it’s like a gold mine when I find something.  A visit to local Fort C.F. Smith mentioned White Pines and Magnolia trees, so I grabbed that for a future story set in Virginia.  If I can get three names, I’m happy, though I may search for additional ones as I write.

I also look at photographs.  I was writing a scene on a Hawaiian trailhead with a waterfall at the end of it, so naturally, I headed for waterfalls.  If I have a specific picture, I can build the details better; if it’s just a picture in my head, it’s very easy for me to go vague and fuzzy.  When I was originally doing the scene, I planted this waterfall in front of the characters and had a stream flowing out, and that was about it.  There was also a kind of a clearing because I needed a place to have a fight scene.

Once I got a picture I liked — I was focusing on terrain — then I started building the details in based on the main character’s situation.  This is an incredibly beautiful place, and he’s thinking about the danger that’s coming.  How does that play into how he describes it?

Indoor locations are a lot harder for me.  Rooms tend to go fuzzy for me.  I’m working on a scene in a living room, and I keep wanting to leave it at “sofa, some chairs, and there’s a door to another room on the left.”  It’s really forcing me to stop and think about what this character has in this room and why.  What kind of art does he like?  Does he like heavy furniture or modern furniture?  If you watched Star Trek: The Next Generation, we’d go into most of the character’s quarters, and they’d be pretty spartan.  White room, neutral colors, clean lines.  Then we’d go to Worf’s quarters, and it looked like a dungeons.  Dark, weapons on the wall, flickering candles.

I also don’t necessarily try to get all of it at once.  I move back and forth in scenes, adding to them as I do more research, or just get further into the story and realize something else is needed. (Breaking another rule here: I continue to make changes all over my story as I create.)

So the details are a matter of a bit of research, but mainly a matter of the character.