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Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction (Part Two)

At the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this past weekend where I was signing my book Finding Billy Battles, I was asked several times about the research process for writing historical fiction novels.
           I explained that researching the first book in the Finding Billy Battles trilogy began with my own memories. I grew up in Kansas listening to the way my great-grandparents, my grandparents and my parents spoke. Everybody in my family grew up in Kansas, so it is no stretch to say that I was immersed in "Kansas-speak" from an early age.
Signing Books at the L.A. Book Festival

Nevertheless, even though I grew up in Kansas and I know the places where my characters live and work very well, I didn't know what those places were like between 1878 and 1894--the time span in which the first book in the Finding Billy Battles trilogy takes place. So I had to do significant research and I am glad I did. It helped me write a book that I believe is historically accurate.

Luckily, I was able to do a lot of research online. I spent a lot time mining the website of the Kansas Historical Society as well as the Ford County and Douglas County Historical Societies. There were many other places I found useful information of the period, including the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.
I am a relentless researcher. That comes from my 27 years as a journalist with the Chicago Tribune. During that time I learned how important accuracy is for the credibility of a journalist and the news organization he or she works for. Your stories MUST be accurate in every detail, otherwise it, you and the company that employs you lose credibility.
Similarly, I believe authors who write historical fiction owe it to their readers to be accurate about the time and place they have put their characters in. That means you MUST do good research. You cannot rely on watching a movie about Bleeding Kansas in the 1850s and 1860s and then write a book based on how that film depicted the time, the places and the events.
As I mentioned, you can do a lot of that research on line, but NOT all of it. Libraries are still the best places to find the kind of books that will tell you what a place looked and sounded like in the 1890s. Luckily for me, I have amassed a large library of books during the past couple of decades on 19th Century America, Asia and Latin America--the main locales for my characters in the Finding Billy Battles trilogy. I have old maps of countries, cities and territories that have proved invaluable in creating accurate settings in the book.
Another challenge was getting the patois or the dialect of the time and place right. People spoke differently in 19th Century Kansas than they do today. They dressed differently. They interacted with one another differently. It was a time of face to face communication. Telephones were a rarity and of course social media back then meant meeting at church, at a barn dance--or, in the case of some people--in a saloon.
Curious Readers Lined up for Billy Battles

Transportation was an adventure. Trains were the fastest way to get from point A to point B--IF there were tracks. Horses were the most common means of moving about. I had to get all of that right down to the sounds, the smells, etc.
Historical fiction demands accuracy. Otherwise your readers will not believe your story. We all suspend belief when we read fiction, but even when we do, we want the story to have a true ring to it. You cannot achieve that if you aren't accurate with the construction of your setting, the behavior of your characters and the vernacular of the era. Those were all challenges I faced, but I enjoyed facing them--just as I enjoyed facing the long line of curious readers who came to have their Billy Battles books signed at the L.A. Times Festival of Books.
In book two of the Finding Billy Battles trilogy, I will face even more challenges because Billy finds himself in French Indochina, The Philippines, Hong Kong and Singapore of the 1890s--and those places were a veritable paradise for polyglots, miscreants, spies, and people running away from something, just as Billy Battles is.
I cannot emphasize enough how important accuracy is in developing the historical novel. Readers need to trust you when you describe a place, a city, an event. They almost want you to have been there so you can present them with an accurate picture of the place and time. For me, recreating 19th Century Lawrence, Denver, Chicago, New Mexico, etc. was part of the fun of writing. I want my readers to "see" what I am seeing and what my characters are seeing, hearing, feeling.
As I said in Part One of this blog topic, I like to call my writing "Faction." It is a blend of the journalist's ability to gather accurate information and the fiction writer's ability to imagine and create compelling characters and stories. 
(Next: (Part Three) Three Things I Learned While Writing Billy Battles)

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction (Part One)

I am often asked what challenges I face when writing historical fiction. There are many challenges to writing historical fiction and to deal with them all in one post would be too much.

So I will break the challenges down into several parts which I will share with you over the next several blog posts. I hope you find these posts interesting and if you do, PLEASE FEEL FREE TO COMMENT. I would love to know what you think.

This first post deals with one the greatest challenges when it comes to writing historical fiction:  How to balance accuracy and artistic license.

I spent 27 years as a foreign correspondent, national correspondent, metro and national editor for the Chicago Tribune. Working as a journalist taught me some basic skills regarding reporting, which is the journalist's word for research. Journalism is an empirical discipline. That means, like science, it is a search for truth and you use trial and error, observation and analysis to find that truth.

A Dormatory of the Wadsworth Old Soldiers Home
where Billy Battles meets his Great Grandson
For the scientist or scholar or historian, empiricism means arriving at a truth via observation and experimentation.  For the journalist the empirical tools are: Observation and  Interviewing. I believe any successful journalist, author or scholar must master both of those skills--along with the ability to respect the language and write compellingly.

If you are using the empirical tools of observation and interviewing correctly and skillfully, you will find that the information you are gathering is mostly accurate.

Accuracy when writing historical fiction is critical. That may sound like a paradox. It is not. A critical element in historical fiction is the way people communicate with one another. You want to make sure your characters, if they are in the 19th Century (as mine are when the Finding Billy Battles trilogy begins) are using the correct lingua franca.

You don't want your protagonists and antagonists using 21st Century colloquial speech or slang in 1880s Kansas. For one thing that destroys the sense of time and place and for another, it reveals to the reader that the author simply has not researched the era enough or is too lazy to have characters speaking in the vernacular of the time. I see this mistake all the time especially in American films that are set in earlier periods. 

When a character in a book or film set in the 19th Century says something like: "This sucks" or "Are you nuts?" or "Give me a break." I am immediately turned off to the story. Yet it happens all the time--maybe not as obviously as those examples, but you get what I mean. I am sure you have heard or read similar out of time and place comments.

So that is a big issue for me. Another is in making sure places are properly described. For example, in writing Finding Billy Battles I had to describe both Lawrence, Kansas and Denver, Colorado as they looked in the 1880a and 1890s. I used the Kansas Historical Society to find old maps of Lawrence. I did the same with an historical group in describing Denver. I also had to describe the Wadsworth Old Soldiers Home in Leavenworth, Kansas where Billy Battles first meets his great-grandson. 

I think it is important to establish historical credibility with readers. Once that is done, then you can allow fiction to run rampant in your story. I believe readers are willing to suspend belief in things that a character does IF the author has nailed the time and place of an event accurately.

People, for the most part, behaved differently in the 1880s and 1890s. Having them do and say things that people do and say in 2014 is to ignore accuracy and precision. Relationships between men and women were very different (at least in public) in 1890 than they are today. Men--at least most men--demonstrated a certain deference toward women. It was simply the gentlemanly thing to do. Those that didn't observe such conventions were regarded as cads, brutes or beasts--to use the patois of the time.

Women did not wear pants in 1890--at least not on the streets of places like Denver or Lawrence, Kansas. They did not carry handguns and shoot villains on sight--at least not frequently. In fact, most women who wanted to dispatch an abusive man did so with poison--at least that is what my research of 19th Century crime records found--the legend of Lizzie Borden notwithstanding.
Haute Couture in the 1890s

Yet, if you want your heroine or female antagonist to blow the brains out of a brutish man or to give him 40 whacks with an ax, you can certainly write it that way IF you have established historical accuracy and trust with your reader.

In my mind that is how you balance accuracy and artistic license in historical fiction. The reader must trust that the time, the place, and the conduct of your characters are all consistent with the era you are writing about. Can your protagonist or antagonist act out of character within the epoch in which your book is set? Absolutely. But if they do it is seen as an anomaly and not something the reader (or people alive at that time) would expect. 

That is not a bad thing. It can give your story tension, even texture. But you must use it sparingly because you don't want it to become commonplace throughout the story.

Another area that is critical to good historical fiction is the way things smelled, they way things felt and the way things sounded in the period you are writing about. For example, when describing Dodge City, Kansas when Billy Battles arrives there as an 18-year-old newspaper apprentice, I wanted to make sure the reader knew how the place smelled because of the thousands of Texas cattle in pens on the outskirts of town waiting to be loaded into boxcars for Kansas City and Chicago. Then there were the stinking buffalo hides that were piled 30 and 40 feet high south of the Arkansas River. Streets in those days were not paved and were usually littered with horse apples, garbage, stagnant water and road kill. 

Not a very pleasant sight--or smell.

Clothing in the 19th Century, especially women's clothing, was often uncomfortable. Cloth was abrasive, irritating and heavy; buildings were often unpainted and built from coarse wood; and food was not always fresh or prepared with the greatest attention to sanitation and safety. In my book, Nellie Cashman (a real Irish woman who operated the Russ House Restaurant) runs an ad in the Tombstone Epitaph that proclaims to her potential customers: "My kitchen is clean and free of cockroaches." I found that ad looking through old copies of the Epitaph.

All of these things, and I am sure I haven't included everything here, need to be considered when balancing accuracy with artistic license. For me, this is kind of second nature. Paying attention to accuracy is what I did for a quarter century as a journalist. Artistic license didn't come into play until just recently when I began writing fiction--or what I like to call "FACTION."

Sunday, March 23, 2014

What do you like most about the historical fiction genre?

Historical fiction is one of the most popular forms of fiction being written today--along with young adult, zombies, romance novels and sci-fi. 

I am interested in learning why people like historical fiction books. I have a few theories, but I would like to know what others think. 

As an author, I enjoyed writing a book that is set in 19th Century Kansas and then moves (in book 2 of the trilogy) to the colonial Far East. As a reader (or writer) what is it that draws you to this kind of fiction?

I enjoy doing the research necessary to create an accurate portrayal of the people, places and events of other eras, such as the 19th Century. I like "slowing" down the pace of life.

What I find appealing about eras BSM (before social media), smart phones, i-pads, etc. is that you actually had time to THINK rather than simply react

As a foreign correspondent I can recall telling my office (via telex) when I was covering Vietnam, Cambodia, El Salvador etc. in the 70s & 80s that I would be out of touch for several days. Then I would go to some remote area and spend time talking with people, analyzing what I was hearing and what I was seeing and then return to write a story that wasn't filled with "instant wisdom" as we so often see today with journalists who "parachute" in to cover a story. 

Writing about the 19th Century, as I am doing now in my trilogy, allows me to slow the pace down, provide historical context and give my characters time to think.

Today, we are all in such a hurry to do things, to pack in as much as we can in a single day. When I think about my characters in Finding Billy Battles, I envy the fact that they were not sped up by "galloping technology" as we are so often today.

Feel free to comment

Friday, February 14, 2014

Why Am I Giving My New Book Away For Free?

It's a good question. But the answer is simple. Giving away my book, Finding Billy Battles, is an excellent marketing strategy.

It is also the way things work in today's hugely competitive book universe.

For example, in return for a free book via Story Cartel:
I am asking that recipients write an honest review of the book at one of the following online book retailers Amazon, Goodreads, Barnes & Noble, etc. These don't have to be exhaustive--just a couple of hundred words is fine.

Of course, if you want to write more, there is no limit on length.

Since my book hit Amazon and other retail outlets in early December, I have discovered there is no better form of advertising than the comments provided by satisfied readers.

And so far, those readers have been satisfied, which is, I can tell you, a wonderful feeling for an author! It means that the story is connecting to readers, that readers have empathy for one's characters and that they find the story line compelling enough to read to the end.

Authors cannot ask more than that unless of course, they ask (as I do) for an honest review of the book.

I think if you were to ask most authors why they write most would tell you it is NOT to make money.
OK, earning a nice return on the immense investment of time that writing takes out of your life; the agonizing bouts of writer's block;  and the fear that one's work will face universal rejection by the reading public, is not a bad thing.

But I believe most writers of fiction want their books to excite readers and give them pleasure. After all, who wants to read a novel that gives us a headache or indigestion?

We want a book that pulls us along into the story, that establishes credibility with readers and allows them to identify with its characters. 

In short, readers want a good story. And good stories are produced by good storytellers, which is what successful writers are.

So, if you haven't read Finding Billy Battles yet, here's a chance to do so for free. All Story Cartel and I ask is that you dash off an honest review and post it on the book's Amazon, or Goodreads or Barnes & Noble page.

It's as simple as that.

Now I have to get back to writing the second book in the Billy Battles trilogy. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

New Direction for My Blog

It has been way too long since I lasted posted on my blog. One reason is that I have spent most the past 90 days working out the fine points of publishing my new book, Finding Billy Battles.
Cover of my new book

Then, there was the marketing! As I learned with my last book, which was published with a traditional publisher, marketing is critical for a book's success if your name isn't a household word like Snooki, Barack Obama or Martha Stewart. Marketing for my last book began with a whimper and ended with a whimper.

For this book I used an independent publisher (Xlibris) and took control of the marketing myself. Well, at least I thought I took control of the marketing. What I discovered is that there is a vast universe of book sites (Goodreads, Smashwords, Createspace, Google Books, and of course, the big gorillas: Amazon and Barnes & Noble) where books are sold.

But that isn't all. I then discovered another parallel universe of thousands of book bloggers--book lovers and avid readers who maintain websites where new books are featured, reviewed and authors are taken on "virtual book tours."

'Wow,' I thought to myself, 'this is really impressive." (My virtual book tour begins Feb. 3 and runs til Feb. 14. Here is a link to it in case you want to join the tour) 

As it turned out, I was only scratching the surface of this new publishing universe. As I lurched ahead through this seemingly infinite book publishing and marketing cosmos I discovered other places where my book could be marketed, reviewed and discussed.

Places such as BookBub, NetGalley, the Independent Book Publishers Association, the Historical Novel Society, Story Cartel, Books and Writers, and Kirkus Reviews, to name a few. (I am discovering more of these websites everyday).

In the good old days, authors and publishers would seek reviews in newspapers. They still do. There is nothing like a review in the Sunday New York Times or Publishers Weekly to kick start sales of a book.
But the fact is, many newspapers have either killed their book sections or simply stopped reviewing books all-together. Initially I contacted perhaps 8-10 newspapers--many located in the locales where my book takes place. Only three have responded with any interest. The rest informed me they don't run book reviews unless they are syndicated.

At first this seemed like a crushing blow. Then I realized that newspapers are no longer the best places to get your book reviewed.

In today's interconnected world of social media (Facebook, Twitter, Google-plus, Linkedin, Wayn, etc.) and that cosmic universe of book bloggers an author can reach millions of potential readers without every talking to a newspaper book reviewer.

You can talk to readers directly about everything from your books to how you write. You can discuss new titles that you will be publishing and most of all, you can create a loyal following of readers.

You can do all of this PLUS, you will have control over the way your book looks--its cover design, its interior layout and even the font you want to use.

Finally, YOU, not the publisher set the price for your book as well as the formats you want it published in: traditional hardback, soft cover or e-book.

In case you were not aware of this, e-books account for almost 70% of Amazon's books sales these days. Why? For one thing they are much less expensive than printed versions.

For example, the hardback version of Finding Billy Battles sells for $26.99 on Amazon, while the soft cover version is priced at $13.49 and the Kindle e-book version sells for $3.99.

I realize there are still a lot of people out there who want to hold a real book in their hands and not a digital version inside of a Kindle, Nook or I-pad. My question, however, is why pay $22.00 more for a hardback or $9.50 more for a soft cover version when you can download the book for just $3.99?
You might think an author would earn more by selling a book for $26.99 or $13.49 than for $3.99. In the short term, perhaps that is true. 

However, if a book takes off and acquires a large global readership of several hundred thousand, which hundreds of e-books that sell anywhere from 99 cents to $5.99 do, the author normally earns 70% of the sales price.

I will let you do the math. But let's say your e-book which is priced at $2.99 gets 100,000 digital downloads globally (not too far-fetched, but definitely not the norm). That means you, the author would walk away with $2.10 per book, or $210,000 BEFORE taxes.

As places like Costco, Sams Club, Wal-Mart, Target, etc. have discovered, you can earn more selling cheaper and with a higher volume than you can selling your merchandise at higher prices with a lower volume of sales.

So there you have it. The new world of book publishing. It is still evolving, to be sure. And traditional publishers are getting in on the act. Many have spun off what are known as "indie" publishing houses to gain access to this huge market in digital and publish on demand books.

As for me. Well, I have noticed a downside to this new universe of book publishing and marketing.
Because I have spent the past two months or so getting my book to press and on all of these digital book sites, blogs, etc. I have hardly written a word on the next book in the Finding Billy Battles trilogy.

And then there is this blog which I allowed to sit fallow for far too long--a cardinal sin for any serious blogger or author. The upside is that my blog will now incorporate a lot more new about books and book publishing. I hope you will like it.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Is it Government of the People, by the People and for the People? Or is it People of the Government, by the Government and for the Government?

In his November 19, 1863 Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln said "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Were he still around today he might conclude that what the Civil War couldn't accomplish, today's politicians are close to doing--that is, destroying a government from within that was established to serve the people, not the other way around.

In a recent poll 88 percent of Americans said that 'the government is in charge of the people.'  That includes 83 percent of Democrats, 88 percent of independents and 94 percent of Republicans.  

Only 8 percent feel 'the people are in charge of the government.'

Lincoln must be spinning in his tomb.

What happened? Well, for one thing, another recent survey revealed that two of every five Americans today say the United States is evolving into a socialist state. That's 40 percent of the population; not a bunch of fanatics out on the political fringes.

It is just one of many indicators that show Americans are worried that the federal government is growing too large.

To be fair, 36 percent disagreed that the U.S. is turning into a socialist nation and about 25 percent of respondents expressed a neutral view or said they were unsure.

Nevertheless, when you have 88 percent of a scientific survey saying that government is charge of the people and another 40 percent saying the nation is plummeting into socialism, that should get your attention.

It certainly got mine. Not that I wasn't already sensing this anyway.

After all, with our forced march into socialized medicine (which is what Obamacare is) we are allowing one-fifth of our economy to be controlled by Big Government. Add to that the fact that most of us pay at least 50%-60% of every dollar we earn in taxes (federal, state, local, etc.) is it any wonder that 88 percent of us feel we are being hosed by Big Brother?

Does the phrase: "Jeder nach seinen Fähigkeiten, jedem nach seinen Bedürfnissen!" ring a bell? Perhaps it will in English: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

It is the basic tenet of Communism as espoused by Karl Marx in his 1875 treatise. If you listen to Obama long enough this is what he says over and over--though not in those exact words.

He talks about the need to redistribute wealth by raising taxes on the wealthy because, he says, the wealthy do not pay their fair share. Never mind that Congressional Budget Office recently revealed that the top 1 percent of income earners paid 39 percent of all federal income taxes--three times their share of income at 13 percent.

Meanwhile, the middle 20 percent of income earners (the REAL middle class) paid only 2.7 percent of total federal income taxes while earning 15 percent of all income.

Fair? Hmmm. Let's do the math. Those numbers mean that the top 1% (those Obama and his socialist minions believe are NOT paying their fair share) paid about 15 times as much in federal taxes as the entire middle 20 percent even though the middle 20 percent earned more income.

Fair? Let's look at the bottom 40 percent (those Obama loves and who LOVE Obama). The CBO and IRS (OK, I know the IRS is not the most reliable source these days) say that the bottom 40 percent of income earners, instead of paying some income taxes to support the federal government, were actually PAID cash by the IRS equal to 10 percent of federal income taxes as a group.

Fair? Or unfair? Any reasonable person would conclude that this system seems more than fair.  But Obama is NOT reasonable.

In fact, he and Karl Marx think very much alike. To Karl Marx and to Marxists such as Obama, the very fact that the top 1 percent earn more income than the bottom 99 percent is not fair--no matter how they earn it.

As Marx said: capitalists are greedy. Obama apparently agrees. Therefore, the state must take more from the top 1 percent until they are left only with what they NEED. That way the bottom feeders and others who refuse to work can gorge themselves at the government trough.

Census figures show that more than one in three Americans live in households that receive means-based government assistance. In return they continue to vote for politicians who give them stuff--i.e. food stamps, welfare, grants, loans, unemployment, etc. Incentive, self-reliance and self-respect are relentlessly weakened and eventually destroyed by such overreliance on government handouts.

Sadly, a too many Americans are simply blinded to this fact. They don't see (or refuse to see) that Obama is leading us in an inexorable stride toward socialism with Obamacare and his refusal to reign in government spending two shining examples of this stratagem.

I know that right now the United States may not meet the classic definition of socialism which describes it is the collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods. So far that hasn't happened here. Not yet.

But when a capitalist nation's economy is controlled more and more by colossal and inefficient government rather than by savvy private sector investment and robust competition that is a recipe for disaster.

Don't believe me? Consider the disastrous $600 million rollout of Obamacare in the past few weeks.
If you are satisfied with THAT kind of performance, then you, Karl Marx and Obama should get along quite well in a socialist state.

As for me, I'll take my chances in a nation that rewards, as Thomas Edison once said, inspiration and perspiration--and allows you to keep most of what you lawfully earn. What is unfair about that?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Australian Student Assassinated by Black Teenager: Where's the Outrage?

This will be short. In case you haven't heard, Australian college student Christopher Lane, 22, was shot in the back as he jogged down a road in the middle of the afternoon last Friday in Duncan, Okla. He died at the scene.

The perpetrators, two black and one white teenager, have been arrested and are facing first degree murder charges.
Three Teenagers Charged in Lane Murder

When they were arrested 16-year-old Chancey Allen Luna and 15-year-old James Francis Edwards Jr. (both black) allegedly told police they shot Lane 'because they were bored.' Michael Jones, 17, (white) who allegedly drove the vehicle carrying Luna and Edwards was charged with accessory to murder after the fact. Jones identified Luna as the shooter.

It is interesting how quickly the media and the race hustlers have decided this shooting of a white man by two black teenagers was not racially motivated.

So far our president, himself half black and half white, has not spoken out about the crime. He hasn't said, for example, that if he had a son he would look like Lane. Why not? Isn't Obama half white? Yet he did say that about Trayvon Martin
Oh, I forgot. The only kind of racism or hate crimes that exist in America today are the kinds in which blacks are murdered by whites, not the other way around.

What about it Al Sharpton? Where is your outrage? What about you Jesse Jackson? Oh wait a minute, Jesse Jackson did issue a statement in which he said such violence is 'frowned upon' in America.

'Frowned upon?' Really? Why not condemn these young thugs for what they did? They have already admitted they shot Lane. Of course he won't do that. After all, they are the wrong, or should I say, right race.

And what about you Mr. President. You had no compunction about speaking out before the Zimmerman trial in what was a blatant attempt to portray Martin as an innocent victim of racial violence. Will you not do the same in this case?

I am not holding my breath.

And what about Oprah, who has equated Trayvon Martin's death with that of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American boy who was tortured and murdered in Mississippi in 1955 in what was obviously a racially motivated hate crime.

Lane and American Girl Friend Sarah Harper
As Oprah well knows, race was never the issue in the Zimmerman trial, and race was never presented by the prosecution as a motive, yet the race hustlers still want us to believe the crime was somehow racially motivated.

With what crime will Oprah equate this senseless murder of a young white Australian student in Oklahoma on a college baseball scholarship?

Think of the cruel irony here. An innocent Australian comes to America to play baseball, our national pastime, and winds up murdered by three kids who should have been playing baseball rather than looking for someone to kill because they were 'bored.'

Naturally, the knee-jerk reaction of some in the media, such as oily and captious British pseudo-journalist Piers Morgan, is to call for the banning of all guns in America--the Second Amendment be damned.

In Australia, where just about all guns are banned, former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer, a noted advocate of gun control, is telling people to stay away from America.

'Tourists thinking of going to the USA should think twice,' Fischer said Monday.

Of course they should. Of the 1.1 million Australian tourists who visited the U.S. in 2012 none was killed. I'd say the U.S. is a pretty dangerous destination for Aussies.