About S. D. Banks
Welcome to my website. I assume you are here because you want to know a little more about me, or about my writing, so . . . Here Goes!
I am a native Texan and long-time resident of Austin -- the "Live Music Capital of the World," and home to a vibrant writing community as well. It seems that I have been writing for as long as I can remember. In fact, it could be argued that my “writing career” started while I was still in grade school. I would carefully write out stories, draw “book covers” for them, and then staple or lace the pages together to form books. I had a secret drawer full of them. (Yes, I was a very peculiar child.)
I started collecting books as a child, as well, and still have a number of the children's literary classics I collected. They were passed down to my son when he was a child, and will likely be passed down again to grand-nieces and grand-nephews who show an interest. The library was always one of my favorite places to be.
It was much later that my passion for history emerged. I had always enjoyed my history classes in school and tended to favor either historical fiction or non-fiction for my reading. But, when I got to college, it became a passion. I graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in history from Texas State University, where I also studied writing under some very fine writers.
I credit my history professors at Texas State with demonstrating that an understanding of history can give us the key we need to understand the present. Many of the trials, conflicts, and dilemmas we face today are either continuations of situations that have gone on for centuries, or are so similar to past events that the relevance of the parallels cannot be ignored. Knowing these things – understanding the ramifications of how they played out in the past – can keep us as a society from being manipulated or misled, and can help make us as individuals better citizens and wiser voters. If, through my novels, I manage to impart a few nuggets of historical knowledge in an entertaining way, then I feel I’ve been successful. If I had a mission statement, I suppose that would be it.
Reading good books was a big part of my development as a writer - both in the sense of making me want to write and showing me how it is done. Not that I've been able to live up to the best examples, but I am working at it! When I read Little Women, I wanted to be Jo March. When I read Jane Austen's novels, I wanted to write books like that. Later, Dorothy Dunnett's novels showed me how historical fiction could be literature, and the novels of Bernard Cornwell showed me how they could be exciting crowd pleasers that are still historically faithful.
“If, through my novels, I manage to impart a few nuggets of historical knowledge in an entertaining way, then I feel I’ve been successful.”
All of that passion got put on the back burner for many years as the necessities of life (little things like having to pay the bills) took precedence, not to mention a supreme lack of confidence (sadly, Jo March I am not). Always though, family, friends, and professors kept poking at me to give it a try. I feel so fortunate that I have finally arrived at a place in life where I have the time and space to sit down and just do it.
I am also blessed to be surrounded by supportive family and friends. Without a husband who understands that I need to go off into my little room for large blocks of time to write, this could not happen. Nor would it happen without wonderful friends who are not only encouraging, but who are willing to help with tedious tasks like proof-reading! There are many writers who can operate in a vacuum. I am not one of them.
Because environment shapes us, as well, I have included a couple of galleries designed to share images of my environment with you. Austin is a lovely city (except for the traffic) and, though my house is just the typical suburban house, my garden is something of a sanctuary for me.
These terrific photos are courtesy of Linda Nickell. You can see more of her fantastic photography and follow her on Instagram (@coznlinda) and Facebook.
My garden changes from day to day, month to month, and year to year, never quite the same but always a place that offers me a sense of sanctuary. Unlike Linda's excellent photos, these were snapped with my camera phone -- as if you couldn't tell!
Sometimes, the most dangerous enemies emerge from friendship, and the most difficult choices are born of conscience.
Review Rating: Five Stars
Reviewed By Cheryl E. Rodriguez for Readers’ Favorite
“S.D. Banks writes an eloquent piece of historical literature in Transcendent Loyalties: A Novel of the American Revolution. With brilliant word usage, the narrative is exceptionally written. Metaphors float across the pages, painting vivid scenes and portraying the thoughts and intentions of the characters. Battle scenes surge with adrenaline, placing the reader in the thick of the fight. History comes alive! The characterization is refined and balanced, creating a fluid plot progression. The main characters are bold and intelligent. Yet, equally compassionate and caring, they buffer each other’s strengths and flaws, making them a dynamic heroic duo. The villainess is a master of deception, growing in her narcissism, unleashing sociopathic tendencies.
The obvious conflict is between the Loyalists and the Patriots; however, the real conflict emerges from this primary divergence. The conflict of loyalty to preferential political causes and devotion to friendship between the narrative’s characters is the driving force of the story. Banks exposes the nature of fear as an underlying theme. Fear is dangerous; it causes the worst to surface from deep within a soul, resulting in unspeakable acts of violence, especially on the battlefield. But more importantly, fear is also a powerful mechanism for survival. Fear causes men and women to rise up to face insurmountable challenges. One of my favorite concepts in the book is: “America is not to be a nation of nobility, but a nation of ordinary folks. To be a great nation ... ordinary folks will have to be willing to step up and do the extraordinary from time to time ... to put down their plows and pick up a sword or musket.” I love this statement. I pray that it remains as true and meaningful today as it was then.”
The years 1770 through 1775 witnessed a dramatic spike in the long simmering tensions between King George III and his American colonies, and nowhere was the growing crisis more acute than in Boston. During the course of those five years, Bostonians witnessed and participated in a series of extraordinary events that would not only herald the coming Revolution, but would resonate into the 21st Century. Transcendent Loyalties views those years, from the streets of Boston to the salons of London, from meeting hall to battlefield, through the eyes of Anna Somerset and Daniel Garrett.
Having grown up in the household of her Tory uncle, Anna believes herself to be unwaveringly loyal to the king. Her raffish friend Daniel, on the other hand, is drawn toward the firebrand oratory of Samuel Adams and the vision for the future espoused by the Sons of Liberty. Still in their teens in March of 1770, Anna and Daniel believe they have seen the worst as they witness the horrific moment when a regiment of British Regulars fires into a mob of Boston’s citizens. Anna and Daniel cannot know how much more they will experience and endure over the course of the next five years, or that their journey to adulthood will culminate at the bloody fight for control of a hilltop known as Bunker Hill. Nor can they imagine that their journey will be made more perilous by an unsuspected enemy whose jealousy, hatred, and ambition has become all-consuming.
For them both, it is a time for making hard choices: A time for deciding who they are. A time for deciding what they want to be. A time for deciding which of their loyalties transcends all others.
. . . and Offhand Observations
Constitution Day and James Madison
Having just marked Constitution Day off the calendar, I seem to have James Madison on the brain and, so, thought I’d jot down a few of my thoughts. On a trip to northern Virginia last year, we made an unplanned stop at Montpelier, home of James and Dolley Madison, which is where I took the adjacent photo (the estate was undergoing major restoration at the time of our visit). Like anyone else who visits the area, we had set aside a day to visit Jefferson’s Monticello but – despite the fact that I am firmly in the camp of Team Madison when it comes to choosing among our Founding Fathers – I did not know Montpelier was open to visitors until I picked up a brochure in our hotel lobby. So, something else got moved down the agenda and off to Montpelier we went. And what a fine bit of serendipity it was! Though Montpelier lacks the innovative touches that have helped to make Monticello famous, it is a very fine example of period architecture, beautifully restored and curated, and the on-site museum and exhibits are first-rate. If you’re traveling to northern Virginia, put Montpelier on your list of must-sees. For my money it is as valuable an experience as Monticello, if not more so.
Despite his wishes, for he did not feel he alone deserved the appellation, Madison (who was also our fourth president) is probably most well-known to us as the “Father of the Constitution.” Possessed of one of the finest minds of his generation, he handled diplomacy with a deft hand, and seems to have been mostly immune to overweening indulgences. His approach to politics was both pragmatic and academically informed. Madison understood the mechanics of government better than most of his peers, and he applied that understanding to all he did once he entered the political arena. A young rising star in local politics during the pre-revolutionary period, he was elected to the Virginia legislature in 1776 where he formed personal and professional ties with Thomas Jefferson. Then, in 1780, he was elected to the Continental Congress.
So, once he “had arrived,” why the trouble of a Constitution and a brand new form of government? Why not sit back and enjoy his political success, relax at his beautiful home with wife Dolley, and just generally refrain from rocking the boat while he parlayed his position into personal gain? Why not do what so many in his position choose to do? Well, in a nutshell, because he was a genuine Statesman (such a concept!). Madison had become increasingly uneasy with the direction the nation was taking under the loose Articles of Confederation. He saw that the nation was becoming a crazy quilt of conflicting laws enacted by individual states – many of which blatantly favored the powerful few, risked taking the nation back to what it had rebelled against to begin with, or were flat-out unjust. The immoderate form of democracy that had emerged from the Revolution was, in fact, creating conflict rather than reducing it. Furthermore, the central government couldn’t require states to contribute to the common treasury, meaning that it could not fulfill those responsibilities incumbent upon it. In Madison’s view, the new nation was already in danger of the very failure many critics had predicted. A higher-level, over-arching approach was needed.
Scots and America
So, what do these two books have to do with each other? Well, readers of Diana Gabaldon’s fantastic Outlander series may recall a passage in which Jamie Fraser notes the similarities between the Scottish Declaration of Arbroath and the American Declaration of Independence. When I read that passage, it brought a smile of recognition to my face for I had only recently read Arthur Herman’s How the Scots Invented the Modern World.* While the title of Herman’s book may seem like deliberate, attention-getting hyperbole, his thesis is not so far-fetched – particularly as regards the founding of our own nation. For example, as early as the 1600s, Scottish merchants were a driving force behind early economic exploration and settlement of what would become Virginia and other southern colonies. Beyond their mercantile interests, they provided the clergy, teachers, and tutors who would form the foundation for religious and secular belief in the region. In the next century, the Scottish influence on New England became more pronounced. Young men who would grow into revolutionaries were being taught at schools like Princeton and its attendant grammar school, which were under the leadership of John Witherspoon, a notable product of the Scottish Enlightenment. The Continental Congress was populated with a disproportionate number of Scots or men of Scottish descent, as was the roster of signatories to the Declaration of Independence and, likewise, many of George Washington’s most outstanding officers.
While she never hits us over the head with history lessons, Gabaldon’s novels are rife with allusions to the influence of Scottish immigrants on Colonial America and the Revolution itself. Gabaldon does not limit the influences to the pro-revolution variety, however, and rightfully so. Many Scottish immigrants were opposed to the Revolution. Some, as Gabaldon so vividly illustrates, were displaced Highlanders who had taken an oath of loyalty to the king in order to save themselves and their families. (Oaths were more serious business back then, and not so easily broken as they are today.) Others had more pragmatic reasons, many of which had to do with security and economic stability. Either way, the experiences of Scots under English rule, and their attitudes about the English in general or the king in particular helped shape colonial attitudes about revolution and government. Like all large immigrations and diasporas throughout history, the greater part of Scottish immigrants – common men and women who were too busy trying to eke out a living to spend time on lofty thoughts about Enlightenment philosophy – had a major cultural impact on the developing nation. They brought their religion and language, foods and music, and their place names and family names. They brought common sense, an ethic of hard work, and a practical (some would say hardheaded) outlook on life. Independence and self-reliance was in their DNA, and (we like to think) has been passed down through American generations.
Of course, there were other contributors to the early development of our nation, as well. The Irish and Germans spring quickly to mind, as do the Spanish. But, there were many more, not all of them European. I suppose I got particularly interested in the Scots and Scottish history because many of my own ancestors were Scots, and because I am a Texan. Texans have a particular affinity for Scots, I think. In part, it is a sense of kinship with those characteristics we think of as being “Scottish.” (Particularly the independence and hardheadedness.) Like early America, Texas was heavily influenced by its Scottish settlers. In central Texas, where I live, there is a swath of geography that bears the stamp of its early German settlers. Place names, a preponderance of Lutheran churches, the architecture, and even the layout of the few remaining family farms all say, “the earliest European settlers here were German.” Just north of that swath, one hits another band of geography where the churches become predominately Methodist and Presbyterian, and towns are named things like “Edinburg.” (Yes, we spell it wrong. We pronounce it wrong, too.) Old family names are by-in-large Scottish, and small towns host festivals and fairs that would be somewhat recognizable to a Highlander. In fact, more than one high school adopts the Highlander as their mascot for, who wouldn’t bet on a Highlander in a battle against a dragon, maverick horse, wildcat, or Spartan?
If you are interested in American history at all, or if you’re just a fan of the Outlander books, I urge you to explore this tangential area of study. The Scots may not have single-handedly invented the modern world, but they sure played a major, and interesting role!
*Note that there are many very good books on the same topic. This just happens to be the one I had read.
In preparation for the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Madison sat down and, calling upon his unparalleled knowledge of political philosophy, history, and prior forms of republican government, drafted the document that would provide the framework for the U.S. Constitution. It was called the “Virginia Plan,” and it represented a masterful blueprint for a central government structured in such a way as to prevent any one of its three branches from wielding too much power. It strove to make the government beholden to the broader population as opposed to only the most vocal or economically powerful constituencies. The envisioned government would be the first of its kind. And it would be a hard sell. Thirty-six year old Madison had his work cut out for him.
Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay joined forces to produce a series of eighty-five newspaper articles in which they explained in eloquent but accessible language exactly how the proposed Constitution would work. The articles, known to us as the “Federalist Papers,” carried the same persuasive impact that Thomas Paine’s Common Sense had exerted during the early days of the Revolution, and are considered “some of the most groundbreaking political philosophy of all time.” The proposed Constitution was signed by thirty-nine delegates on September 17, 1787. After intensive debates at state conventions, during which the promise of a Bill of Rights was made, the Constitution was finally ratified on June 21, 1788.
James Madison’s many contributions to the early success of our nation go beyond the extraordinary achievement that is our Constitution. Eventually I’ll probably touch on more of them because, as I said, he is my “favorite.” But on this day, when we mark the signing of that document, it seemed apropos to visit this topic. The fact that we have in so many ways diverged from Madison’s original vision is for another discussion. Significantly, the U.S. Constitution has been one of the world’s most emulated political documents, and it is one of the world’s oldest constitutions (I’ll ignore things like the Magna Carta and Declaration of Arbroath for the moment – note that I said “one of” the oldest). The Constitution is flexible enough to be adapted to each new age, broad enough to protect without intruding, and is endowed with a preamble that is surely one of the most graceful and moving bits of writing outside of Shakespeare.
And, in my view, it is a very fair reflection of its essential creator, James Madison.
Put Boston On Your Bucket List
My husband and I visited the Boston area in May of 2014 and absolutely loved it. I had begun work on Transcendent Loyalties and wanted to get the lay of the land – though the land of modern Boston “lays” considerably differently from the way it did in the 18th century! Back then, Boston was practically an island, connected to the mainland by only a thin neck of land. The fens were a swampy place one did not want to spend time in and, even if some 18th century Bostonian could have envisioned air travel, it seems unlikely that the vision would have included sleepy little Noodle Island as a site for one of the country’s busiest airports!
We walked the Freedom Trail, constantly marveling at the deftness with which historic sites are mingled among modern buildings and commerce. I work in downtown Austin, Texas in a building that is right on famous (or infamous) 6th Street, so I have a particular affinity for a well-handled balance between the needs of visitors and the folks who live and work there on a daily basis. I’d have to give Boston five glowing stars for how it handles this difficult balance, and the same enthusiastic thumbs up to the people we met who were friendly and helpful at every turn.
Driving out to visit Lexington and Concord, I fell in love with the countryside. Tired as I was at the time of our deep drought and extended periods of triple-digit summer temperatures at home, the green hills and trails were like balm to the spirit. I kept thinking, “if only I could win the lottery,” for that is what it would surely take for me to be able to afford to live up there!
I feel inspired whenever I stand in a place of particular historic significance, but standing in Faneuil Hall or on that bridge north of Concord, I practically got goosebumps! Can you imagine the tremendous courage it took for those men and women to not only stand up to the world’s greatest army, but to simply make that leap of faith away from all that was familiar into the uncertainty of a republic? In my view, it would have been like that first step away from home when we are young people – but thousands of times scarier because there were no models to follow, no friends to lean on, no guidebooks or YouTube videos or Google maps to show the way.
Those first steps toward independence were a terrible risk, and a huge shouldering of personal responsibility unlike just about anything before or since. I sometimes think we would be better as a society if we had not forgotten those things, particularly the part about the responsibility we each have as American citizens.
There ought to be a list of places in America that every American should visit. Places like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the Redwood Forest, the Big Bend country, of course. Everyone should see the Mississippi River and Niagara Falls, the Rocky Mountains and Monument Valley, Gettysburg and Wounded Knee, and probably fifty other such sites. For me, though, among cities, Boston would top the list.
Remembering My Son
Transcendent Loyalties was dedicated to my husband, and to our son. Travis was bright and personable, tall and handsome like his father, and more athletic than either of us. He had earned a black belt in Tae-Kwon-Do by the time he was eleven, and he started swimming competitively when he was ten, quickly becoming quite good. He kept swimming until he graduated from high school, participating on both club teams and school teams. That is a lot of swimming. The smell of chlorine still takes me back to hours spent either watching him practice or attending his meets!
When I think on it, though, it astonishes that so many of my memories of my son – whether mental images or remembered moments and conversations – are linked to reading and books. When Travis was a little boy, he loved to be read to, and also liked for me to make up stories for him. I still have all of those books we read together. The memory of sitting and reading to him, seeing how engaged he was in the story so strong with me that I still cannot bring myself to part with those books.
When Travis got old enough to read himself, he became quite the reading addict. He liked it when I read the books he was reading so that we could discuss them, and he would often read a book I had chosen. Travis read every sort of book, but Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series was a favorite, as were George R. R. Martin’s books. I remember that A Feast For Crows came out while Travis was stationed in Korea, and he could not get the book on base, so he asked me to send him a copy. It was with his things when they were shipped home to us.
When he returned from Korea, he was assigned to Fort Polk in Louisiana. Less than a week later, an army chaplain appeared at our front door to tell us our twenty-one year old son was gone – a “training accident” that should never have happened. It is the most difficult thing in the world to lose the center of your universe. It has been thirteen years now, and the pain is no less, the missing him still just as acute.
Over the years, whenever I got after him about not living up to his potential, he would sometimes throw back at me the question, “Why aren’t you writing? We all think you’re a great writer, but you’re not doing THAT! You don't even try!” It pains me that I waited until after he was gone to make a serious stab at being a novelist. I tried to write a book I believe he would have liked, and I like to think he would be pleased and proud of my effort.
I can tell you that his pride, no matter how great, would never match the pride I felt in him, however.
While I am not suggesting that my writing comes anywhere close to the level of Scottish author Dorothy Dunnett, her work is constantly in the back of my mind when I write, serving as inspiration and example. When I first started reading Dunnett’s Game of Kings, I have to admit that I found it tough sledding. I felt that I had to fight my way through every sentence and, as a result, soon wearied of the whole thing and put the book aside. Later, on the theory that I had paid money for it and should therefore read the thing, I tried again. In time I realized that the biggest part of my problem in my earlier attempt had been my misconception that I had picked up a work of “popular fiction,” when what I actually had on my hands was “literature.” This was going to take more than casual effort, so I buckled down.
I’m not even sure what made me buy the book. I have long been intensely interested in Scottish history and, as I sometimes do, I probably put “Scottish history” in my search terms when I was looking for a novel to read. However it came into my hands, it ended up being a very fine piece of serendipity for, once I got into the groove, I began to realize what a wonderful writer I had happened upon. By the end of the book, I was absolutely hooked and could not wait to read the next in the series, then the next, and the next, and so on until I had finished all six of the “Lymond Chronicles.” And then, I started over again at the beginning.
As is generally the case with any piece of good art, every time one returns to it, one sees something new. Even after several readings of the novels, I still find new things to appreciate. The deeper I dug, the more I realized that I needed help to fully appreciate what was going on here. Though I had no trouble grasping the complex, compelling, often swashbuckling story she weaves in the novels, some of the literary elements were eluding me. And so, I bought the Dorothy Dunnett Companion in which author Elspeth Morrison leads readers like a dauntless literature professor through the rich tapestry of innovation, complex language, and intriguing metaphors that are Dunnett’s work, and I was off on my adventure.
Still, I wanted more. I wanted someone with whom I could discuss this brilliant author. I found a wonderful bulletin board on which avid and knowledgeable Dunnett readers discoursed on every conceivable facet of the author’s many complex novels. That led to membership in the Dorothy Dunnett Society. The society was formed to “help its members enjoy, discuss and promote the works of Dorothy Dunnett and the historical periods in which they were set,” and it fulfills that mission admirably. For me, the chief benefit is the magazine they produce four times a year, which contains articles about or relevant to Dunnett’s works. You can find out more about this terrific organization at their website: http://dunnettcentral.org/.
Becoming Soldiers – April 19, 1775
When we visited that famous bridge north of Concord, I was struck by a number of emotions. First, there was amazement at the courage it must have taken for those colonial militiamen to stand up to an army they considered to be nigh on to unbeatable. It had happened before in various places around the world, has happened since, and will no doubt happen again – that moment when common folks become united enough in their opposition to a government, philosophy, or social inequity that they will risk all to make a stand. It could have been no less terrifying to those militiamen facing muskets than it would be to modern men facing a tank. I wondered if I am made of such stern stuff, and feel ashamed to admit that I am probably not.
On the other hand, the British Regulars – professional and experienced though they may have been – were by and large very young men who were exhausted, facing an enemy they did not fully view as an enemy, and not expecting any sort of significant action that day. When the firing started, their confusion must have been overwhelming, which would have opened the door for fear and panic. The consequences were disastrous. There is a marker for three of the Regulars who died that day. On it is carved this stanza from a poem called “Lines” by James Russell Lowell:
They came three thousand miles and died,
To keep the past upon its throne.
Unheard beyond the ocean tide,
Their English mother made her moan.
The timelessness of the sentiment cannot be lost on us.
The society was formed to “help its members enjoy, discuss and promote the works of Dorothy Dunnett and the historical periods in which they were set,” and it fulfills that mission admirably. For me, the chief benefit is the magazine they produce four times a year, which contains articles about or relevant to Dunnett’s works. You can find out more about this terrific organization at their website: http://dunnettcentral.org/.
Dorothy Dunnett was born in 1923 in Scotland. During WWII, she served as a press officer for various government departments in Edinburgh. She had studied art and was an accomplished portrait painter, but did not turn to writing novels until age 38. That moment came about because, according to Dunnett, she complained to her husband that she had nothing good to read, so he suggested that she try writing something herself. Her first novel was a success that was followed by 22 other books. She died in 2001 at the age of 78.
Increasingly, many of Dunnett’s novels are the subject of doctoral dissertations, and literature professors have begun adding sections on Dunnett to their curriculum. Scott Richardson, Professor of Classics in the Languages and Cultures at St. John’s University has added The Game of Kings to his list of 100 “great books” taught in his honors literature seminar. The book supplanted the work of an author whose name is far more familiar to most of us than Dorothy Dunnett’s. What I’m suggesting is that this is a growing trend of which you can be an early member! Buy a copy of The Game of Kings today and stick with it until you’ve finished. If you find it a bit obtuse, purchase the Companion to help you out. I suspect you will feel richly rewarded.