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Sunday, April 27, 2014

From Journalist to Writer: How Difficult is the Transition?

In a recent interview with several book bloggers about my book Finding Billy Battles, I was asked if the transition from journalist to writer was difficult. Here is how I answered:

It was not as difficult as some people might think. For one thing, journalists ARE writers. In fact, writing compelling nonfiction is in some ways even more difficult than writing fiction. For one thing, you are constrained by the facts, the people you talk with and the events you cover, whereas authors of fiction are allowed to invent facts, people and events.

Some of the writing I am most proud of during my days as a foreign correspondent with the Chicago Tribune were my longer form cover stories I wrote for the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine. These were 3,000-5,000 word profiles of people and events and places.

For example, I once did a cover piece on Bangkok's Klongs (canals) and the people who live and work along them. I did another on the Amazon River basin and yet another on late Total Quality Management guru W. Edwards Deming. I still look at those pieces and marvel that I even wrote them.

I consider my 27 years as a journalist the best training ground I could have had for writing fiction. I learned how to gather information, how to organize it and how to write it compellingly. Reporting is the journalist's word for Research. 

And research is critical to anybody who writes historical fiction--or any fiction for that matter, even science fiction. If you don't have a command of some science, scientific theory, physics, or some other facet of scientific thought when attempting to create an imagined world or universe, your readers will not be able to suspend belief. For one thing, they won't trust you.

As I learned during my life covering war, revolution and other forms of mayhem from S.E. Asia to China to El Salvador and Nicaragua, trust is critical for a journalist. It is a key measure of one's credibility. Without credibility a journalist is nothing more than a hack.

Today hundreds of thousands of hacks populate the blogosphere spewing forth whatever they want with little or no credibility to back them up. Many have no idea how to do accurate news gathering and instead grab whatever they can from secondary or tertiary sources to support whatever political agenda they may adhere to or are intent on promoting.

That is NOT journalism. That is "Hackery." I think the same can be said for lazy authors who fail to do requisite research for their books.

So, for me the transition from journalist to author of fiction was fairly seamless. Granted, writing fiction requires a different form of creativity. You are, after all, creating people, events, places, conflict, etc. from some inner place. 

In my case, I have attempted to do my creating not only from my inner muse, but from my own experiences and interactions with the broad array of both good and bad but always fascinating people I came to know during my days traveling the world for the Chicago Tribune. That is why I call my book a work of "Faction." 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Three things I learned while writing "Finding Billy Battles"

During a recent "virtual book tour" with several book bloggers, I was asked what three things I learned while writing Finding Billy Battles. It was a good question because it caused me to stop and think about the fiction-writing process in a way I never had before.

Here are the answers I provided...

 NUMBER ONE:  When I was teaching journalism as a Dean and Professor at the University of Illinois, I learned more from teaching than I ever thought possible. The same goes for writing fiction. I spent most of my professional life as a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune in Asia and Latin America. That work required me to deal with facts, real people, real events and real human emotion. I couldn't make up what I was reporting. I had to stick to the what I saw, what I heard, what people told me, etc.  And I had to do my best to write compelling stories using only those facts. I generally succeeded, but it was often hard work.

When I began writing Finding Billy Battles, I found myself in a strange new world where I could create the facts, the people, the events, the human emotion. At first it was a wonderful sense of freedom--especially for a journalist previously confined to a life of non-fiction. Then I realized that with freedom comes a need for discipline in one's writing. You need to keep the story "real" even as you make it up. In historical fiction, which is what I classify my book as, you need to understand the boundaries of the time and place in which you are writing. Otherwise, you are forcing your readers, many of whom may be more knowledgeable about the time and place in which you have set your story, to suspend their beliefs  beyond what they should.

NUMBER TWO:  So I learned that if I was going to do this correctly, I needed to do the kind of research that would allow me to create accurate representations of people, places, events, as well as the senses that all authors need to engage readers with when writing--smell, sound, sight, touch, and taste. I spent a lot of time trying to get 19th Century Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, etc. right. I worked hard on getting the lingua franca of the time and place right. I used a lot of the colloquial speech I grew up hearing my great-grandparents, my grandparents and my parents use. I incorporated a lot of the idiomatic expressions that were intrinsic to Kansas and the American West of the 19th Century.

NUMBER THREE:  Finally, I learned that writing the book is the least of the job. Once the book is finished you have to get it out to potential readers, reviewers, etc. Marketing your book is quite possibly even more difficult than writing it. I have learned that there is an enormous universe out there of book bloggers, reviewers, book websites like Goodreads, Smashwords, Independent Author Network, Historical Novel Society, Createspace, NetGalley, Story Cartel, Book Daily, Authors Den, iAuthor, etc.

I have spent 85 percent of my time engaging with book bloggers, reviewers and the aforementioned websites and only about 15 percent of my time actually writing. So marketing your finished work is a colossal investment in time--and money. My previous books have been with traditional publishers so I didn't get involved in the marketing process. 

I like the Indie route simply because you have more control over the way the book looks, the content and the various venues for selling it. However, it does take time and if you are not ready to make that kind of investment of time, you need to think twice before going the Indie publishing route. As for me, I plan to continue along the Indie path now that I know the lay of the new publishing landscape.

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."