Of Books and Burns

Friends,

As I’ve previously written posts about my favorite books on topics as diverse as the Old West and the great works of Russian Literature, I thought I would turn my attention to another subject near and dear to my heart; the fire service. Novels about firefighting are not all that common, and indeed, only one makes my list here. Part of it is because the job isn’t simply rushing from one emergency to the next, which does make for exciting reading. For a novel to be realistic, it would have to cover training time, meals, and sleeping. Hardly compelling stuff. Furthermore, raging structure fires are not as common as they once were, and professional firefighters today spend more time running EMS calls than they do putting out fires. So the books that follow are mostly non-fiction memoir type books, with the exception mentioned above. These are not technical books about the job, but rather books about either the history of the fire service or the experiences of someone in it.

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The Bronx was burning before I was born. The men of Engine Company 82 fought a never ending battle against the red devil, responding to numerous fires each shift. Dennis Smith, a firefighter on Engine 82 also happened to be a talented wordsmith. His memoir, Report From Engine Co. 82 is a firefighting classic. Imagine if, rather than writing about World War One, Remarque wrote about life at what was, at the time, one of the busiest engine companies in the world. And that’s what this book is like. It is, perhaps, the greatest of all the firefighting memoirs and rises to the level of true literature. Smith wrote many books, including a novel called A Song For Mary which tells his story before he joined the fire department. He has also made contributions to fire service history. His History of Firefighting in America is an excellent, if somewhat hard to find these days, book. Recently, he penned a great book on the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. But Report rises to the top of the crowded field of fire department memoirs.

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In graduate school, my research focused on the German Civil Defense system during World War Two.  I had the opportunity to interview German firefighters who worked during the firebombing raids from 1943-45. This ignited, pardon the pun, in me a lifelong interest in how fire departments cope with the strain of wartime conditions when they find themselves on the front lines. Burning Issues is a unique account because it describes the activities of the Belfast Fire Brigade during the early years of The Troubles. No other fire service in Europe or America has had to cope with what the Fire Service of Northern Ireland has. For thirty years, terrorism tore their relatively small country apart. As part of the establishment, the fire brigade tried to stay above the sectarian issues which divided the country, and responded to calls from both communities. The author does an excellent job writing about what it was like working in that kind of environment. This is a tough book to get a copy of now, but if you can find one, buy it.

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Larry Brown was a retired firefighter turned novelist from Oxford, Mississippi. His non-fiction book On Fire is a short but very interesting account of his time as a firefighter. It consists of a series of short vignettes which move from the humorous to the tragic, a fact which I think all of us current or retired firefighters can relate to. With a novelist’s skill, he tells stories which induce laughter and/or tears. Reading this book is rather like sitting around a campfire and listening to the author tell stories. It’s personal and engaging. Sadly, the author passed away several years ago, but he has left us with a great account of firefighting in the Deep South in the 70s and 80s. I’m sure William Faulkner would approve of this book.

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If you are in the market for a more scholarly look at the development of the American Fire Service, look no further than Crucible of Fire. The author describes some of the great conflagrations of the 19th Century and explores how they impacted fire departments of the 20th Century. It’s about lessons learned and applied. As such, it might not appeal to the general reader, though firefighters, historians, or both will find much to like about it. Firefighting in the United States is long on tradition unimpeded by progress, so sometimes it is nice to see where some of those traditions came from. Fire departments are made up of humans, and as such, we tend to learn from our mistakes, thus finding things out “the hard way”. This book is a great read for young firefighters, who I think need to know some of our shared history, no matter how boring it might seem to them. The fundamental goal of firefighting, putting the wet stuff on the red stuff, has never changed, even though our apparatus and gear has.

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3000 Degrees is the best book written on a single fire and the men who fought it. The author tells the tragic story of the 6 firefighters killed in the Worcester Cold Storage Fire in December of 1999. I was a young firefighter in Texas at the time, and I remember watching the news coverage of this fire. What the author does particularly well, is introduce you to the lives of the six men, so that when the unfortunate events occur, you can really feel the loss suffered by their families. It’s far more than just the story of a fire, it is an ode to those who answer the alarms, even knowing the risks they face. Not a terribly long read, it can be easily digested. It is also available as an Audiobook with an excellent narrator, so if that is more your cup of tea, you can enjoy it that way.

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My final book is the only work of fiction on the list. Chicago 1871 is both a science fiction novel and a historical one. The science fiction angle comes from the fact that the protagonist travels back in time to Chicago on the eve of the Great Fire. While I actually don’t much care for time travel books, this one is the exception. Once we arrive in the past, the author does an incredible job painting a portrait of the Chicago Fire Department in the 19th Century. The information about how they lived and fought fires is well researched enough to be like reading entertaining non-fiction. The action scenes are very well done, and you can almost taste the smoke. I’m a first generation firefighter, and my son has no desire to enter the profession and so I’ll be the only generation, and I have no personal connection with the firefighters of old, other than a shared job. Sometimes, the book made me wish I had worked back then instead of when I did. But to work back then, I’d have to live back then, and I rather like having access to antibiotics. There aren’t many firefighting novels out there, but this one is the best I’ve read. Feel free to check out the author’s page here.

So there you have it, Dear Readers. Hopefully you’ll check out some of these books and find them as interesting as I did. Being a firefighter is the toughest job you’ll ever love. My years on the job made me the person I am today, for better or worse. Until next time, enjoy your holidays and I’ll see you at the big one.

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L.H.

 

Writing Off Into the Sunset

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Howdy Partners,

I must say that Red Dead Redemption 2 is turning out to be quite the gaming experience. It’s a bit more involved than the first game was, but that isn’t a bad thing…as long as you remember to feed your horse. I’ve always been a fan of Westerns, both print and screen. Perhaps that comes from growing up in Texas. I drive a truck. I have a nice pair of rattlesnake skin boots. We even had a horse when I was a kid. I love riding horses. I draw the line at wearing a cowboy hat, though when I worked for Texas Parks and Wildlife, I had to as it was part of the uniform. I grew up watching old westerns on TV, mostly B movies with thin scripts and bad acting. But at least you could tell who the good guys were. They wore the white hats! Who hasn’t dreamed of galloping off into the sunset on a trusty steed with a redheaded saloon girl sitting behind you in the saddle. Okay, maybe that’s just me. Before I digress further, I will now give you my favorite western novels.

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Lonesome Dove. What can I say about it that hasn’t already been said. If you want to learn how to create vivid characters, read this book. Captains Woodrow F. Call and Augustus McCrae leap off the page and into reality. In my mind, they are real people. (Note: I see myself as being more like Augustus, but my wife insists I am like Woodrow F. Call…..something about being stubborn……). I first read the book in the late 80s, after I watched the mini-series. I think I was 10 years old or thereabouts. It is a relatively straightforward story about a journey from Texas to Montana, but three is nothing simple about the complex web of characters that populate the pages. I remember sitting in an undergraduate creative writing class and the professor asked us what we thought the greatest American novel was. I gave my opinion that it was Lonesome Dove. The professor sneered and said “Westerns aren’t literature.” I replied “Well the Pulitzer Prize committee disagrees with you.” Needless to say, my grade suffered as a result. The fact that the professor who so readily dismissed the greatness of Lonesome Dove had not published anything himself was not lost on me. If you only read one western in your life, read this book. If you only watch one western movie or television show, watch this one.

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The Son is a remarkable book that follows story lines set in three eras. 1840s Texas. 1915 Texas, when Anglo ranchers fought a nasty border war with Mexican rebels. 1980s Texas, where oil reigned supreme. This book doesn’t skip over the violence, and it is full of action. It is also the best fictional description of life among the Comanche that I have ever read. You’ll learn quite a bit about their life and beliefs from this novel. The chapters that deal with the Texas/Mexico border during the Mexican Revolution shed light on a little known conflict that still affects the relationship between the United States and Mexico today. The patriarch of the family, and the driving force of the narrative, is an all around badass. It is a book that tells the history of a state, a family, and a people. As an added bonus, A&E made a television version as well which is pretty faithful to the book. I’d classify this as a must read for all Texans or those who wish they were Texans.

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Ralph Compton was one of the godfathers of the western genre. His Dawn of Fury (and the subsequent sequels) are among my favorites. They are perhaps not quite as literary as the two books above, but they are action packed and a throwback to the old dime novels. The story involves a former Confederate soldier and his search for those responsible for killing his family in the waning days of the Civil War. With his trusty hound Cotton Blossom, he roams the West dishing out revenge and meeting all sorts of interesting characters, some of them historical (such as Doc Holiday). Admittedly, the books do stretch credibility a little bit, especially when the main character manages to get shot just about every third chapter and yet always manages to survive, despite living in the era before antibiotics. However, that is a small fault and does not detract from the story. The novels in this series are an immerse tale that gets you lost along the dusty trails and boom towns of the Old West.

So, partner, saddle up your horse and gallop, don’t trot, to your local library and read these books. They are perfect company on those lonely nights out on the trail. Just be careful that some low down varmint doesn’t steal them from your saddlebags!

I realize that there are many other wonderful westerns. (The Virginian, True Grit, Riders of the Purple Sage, Blood Meridian, etc) I do not mean to detract from any of them. My top three is exactly that, mine. Your mileage may vary.

Until next time, Happy Trails,

LH

 

Two Classics Express the Human Condition

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A woman loves two men and loses them both amidst a catastrophic war which sweeps away an entire way of life. A man loves two women and loses them both amidst a war and ensuring revolution which ushers in a world unlike that which existed before. Sound familiar? The first is the basic plot (boiled down for simplicity) of Gone With the Wind while the second is the main plot (also boiled down) of Dr. Zhivago. The films are classics, of course, but the novels are as well. Russian literature in particular has great depth to it. I’ve been able to read Zhivago in the original language, as well as the English translation. And I am proud to own a first edition of Gone With the Wind which belonged to my great-grandmother’s sister.

What interests me about these books when compared to one another is that they explore similar themes, though they were written in different times and places. Gone With the Wind was published first, in 1936, but it is nearly impossible that Pasternak could have read it because it was not published in the Soviet Union until 1982 and the movie was not released there until 1990. The fact that love and loss amidst the backdrop of war serves both books so well speaks to universal human condition and emotion. Just as the Civil War transformed the American South, so too did World War One, the Russian Revolution (really a Civil War of its own), followed by the Red Terror transformed Russia. In both books, you have people trying their best to survive amidst terrible hardships.
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I love epics, be they of screen or page. There’s something about a sweeping story which catches you up and brings you along for the ride which appeals to me. Sadly, not everyone feels this way. When I was a young single man, I invited a girl to my apartment to watch a movie and popped in Dr. Zhivago. That was our third date. She declined a fourth. 😊

If you want to take this one step further, Sholokov’s masterpiece Quiet Flows the Don can be compared to the two as well. It is a magnificent epic of Cossack life starting in 1912 and ending in the early 1920s. It also involves the story of a man in love with two women who loses them both. Forbidden love. War. Revolution. Death. They are all present. Whereas Mitchell probably never read Sholokov before she wrote Gone With the Wind (though it is remotely possible as the first English translation was in 1934), it is highly likely that Pasternak read it at some point. But how much it influenced his own work is anyone’s guess.

Dramatic times make for dramatic fiction which is why I think historical fiction will always appeal to people. Not only is it escapism into the past, but it can flesh out the traditional history that you get in school where you may only be served up a litany of names, dates, and facts but without any life. You can learn as much from a good historical novel (by that I mean well written and researched) as you can from an academic book.

Of course there are differences between the books as well, but the purpose of this was to mention what they had in common. Also, as a final note, in 2015 Russian television filmed a 14 part masterpiece based on Quiet Flows the Don. You can find it free on YouTube here Be warned that it is not subtitled, but you don’t have to be a Russian speaker to enjoy the breathtaking scenery and you can pick up on the basic plot line too.

And there you have my thoughts, Dear Reader.

L.H.

The Learning Curve

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Dear Readers,

Today I finished the first round of edits to my novel. Technically, I think it is the second round since my wife reads each chapter and marks it up as I finish. What I’ve really been doing is going back through it and mixing her suggestions with a few of my own and also putting it together in one file. Normally when I am working on a project, I make a folder with the project name and each chapter gets its own sub folder. When it is complete, I merge them all into one. I’m sending it out to Beta readers now. Some are reading it for subject matter content (ie: any historical anachronisms, etc) while others are reading it for general flow, characterization, and overall story. Once I receive their feedback, I’ll incorporate it into the next draft. I hope to pass it off to the professional editor in August. Then will come more changes and more drafts. Hopefully it will be ready to submit to agents by the first of the year.

After I finished today’s work, I began to ponder what I’d learned in the year that has gone by between the first typed word and the finished draft. This isn’t my first completed novel, but it is the first that I feel somewhat comfortable with though I know it still needs quite a bit of work. I’m not qualified to give writing advice to anyone, but here are the lessons I’ve learned while I devoted myself to this book. Some of it might be of use to you.

1. Your first draft isn’t going to be perfect! And do you know what? That’s perfectly fine. The trick is to get it down on paper. When I took creative writing courses in college, my instructors always said that good books are not written, they are re-written. Your first draft simply provides the bones. Sure, good bones are important, but you can flesh them out when you start working on revisions.

2. Good research is essential for historical fiction, but don’t get bogged down. I love research. I love diving into the archives, reading old newspapers, interviewing people, and watching old films. This book has its genesis in an interview I conducted in graduate school. The elderly man I spoke with had been a teenage firefighter in Germany during World War Two. After he described a horrific experience to me, I asked him how one gets over something like that. He looked me dead in the eye and said “You don’t.” The dozens of interviews and hundreds of books prepared me to write, but I still found things I didn’t know as I was writing. Rather than stop and go back to the books, I just made a note to myself to fact check the items and kept on getting the draft pounded out. If I had stopped each time to do more research, I’d still be researching and would have no completed novel.

3. Immersion helps with historical fiction. What do I mean? My book is set during World War Two. While I worked on it, I only listened to 1940s music, watched movies from the 1940s, and even listened to baseball games from the 40s. I turned my bedroom into what looks like a squadron ready room (I write in the bedroom). Since I wear 1940s clothes anyway, I got inside the time period as best I could. I do know that this would not work for every historical time period, but for the more recent ones, it is a way to get caught up in the world inhabited by your characters.

4. Bounce ideas off of people. The internet is a wonderful place for writers to meet and exchange ideas and support. There are some excellent Facebook groups for writers in general, writers of historical fiction, and even writers of World War Two fiction specifically. What you’ll find is that other writers will be quick to offer help, encouragement, or ideas. The only person who knows what struggles you go through both internally and externally as a writer is another writer! Writing does not have to be a solitary task. Certainly you are the one putting finger to keyboard, but let others cheer you on. I’ve written stories since I was in elementary school and up until a few years ago, only my closest relatives (and by that I pretty much just mean my wife and cats) knew that I liked to write. I don’t think I was ashamed of it, I just didn’t want people thinking I was…..I don’t know…..weird or something. Well, I got over that and now have no problem “coming out” of the writing closet.

5. But Social Media can be a double edged sword. It is nice to make new friends and interact with other writers, but take care lest social media consume your world. I once lived on Facebook. Now I visit a few times a day, but I take time out for other things too. In fact, when I set out to finish the last 40K words of my novel, I did it in November. To aid me in that endeavor, I took a social media vacation wherein I did not post for the month. I did keep up my cat Anastasia’s page (since she has more followers than I do), but I made no personal posts. The withdrawal ended after the first week or so and rather than spending my time reading stuff, I spent it writing stuff. I met my goal of finishing the book in the nick of time, as it turned out.

6. Life happens, so be prepared. Write what you can while you can. The day after I finished my first draft was Thanksgiving. That evening I ended up in the Emergency Room with a bowel obstruction and spent the next six days in the hospital. I got out, only to return on January 15th with the same problem. This next trip, I had an emergency surgery and spent 19 days in a hospital bed. As it turns out, the surgery didn’t work and I was once again in the hospital for a week in early March. I need a second surgery, a much bigger one this time. Right now it is planned for May when my semester ends, but the problem could reoccur at any time and necessitate an immediate surgery. This is why I was pushing so hard to finish my revisions and ship it off to the Beta Readers. Now I don’t have to worry about that while I worry about my surgery. So my advice is to take advantage of good writing days/times whenever you can. They won’t always be there.

7. Take time for yourself too. Even though you are hard at work trying to write a book, you need some “me” time. Don’t become so wrapped up in your project that you forgo food or human companionship. Step away from the keyboard every now and then. Go for a walk. Go to the library. Play with your kids or pets. The exercise will do you good and help clear your head. Since I’m a college professor, my lecture days provide me with an outlet to move around and interact with others. Writing is important, but so is your family. I’m fortunate that my redheaded wife supports my creative endeavors, but that doesn’t mean I can lock myself in my room 24 hours a day. No matter how many words I’d written that day, each evening at around 6pm, we’d sit on the front porch of our 1932 bungalow a few blocks from Galveston Bay and discuss our day. Sometimes we’d discuss my writing, but more often we talked about anything but writing.

8. Try to limit the self doubt. Easier said than done, I know. I’m the world’s worst at laying in bed at night and thinking of all the things I suck at and replaying every negative event in my life. It is tempting when reading a well written to novel to think “I’ll never write as good as this. I should just give it up.” If you have a sliver of talent, you’ll get better every day. Writing, like anything else, takes practice to master. If you read authors who write numerous books, often you can chart their own development across the years. As a writer, all you have to fear is your own mind. Don’t engage in negative self talk and pull yourself down. That doesn’t mean you should travel with an admiring entourage either. Be realistic but be realistic. If you are just starting out, don’t assume that because you don’t write like [insert your favorite author here] that you’ll never amount to anything. I’d be willing to be that your favorite author probably felt the same when they started out.

9. Finishing the book is a success. Am I working towards getting my novel published? Absolutely. Will I cry in my beer if it doesn’t? No, for two reasons. First, I don’t drink alcohol. Second, by finishing the book I’ve already accomplished more than most who start out to write a novel. If it never leaves the binder I place the printed pages in on my bookshelf, I’ve still done something worthwhile. I don’t write for fame, money, or adoring fans. I’m actually a fairly private person. I write because I don’t know how to not write. The urge to write/tell stories comes from deep within my psyche and has been there as long as I can remember. I finished the novel, anything that comes after that is simply a bonus.

10. When you finish one, start a new one! I finished So Others May Live in November and set it aside for several months. I wanted to be able to look at it with fresh eyes for the editing round. That doesn’t meant I twiddled my thumbs. I had already plotted out another novel and so I started on that one. It is also historical fiction, though not WW2 era. When that one ends, I have a mystery novel plotted. I’ll keep writing as long as I have the strength to tap the keys. Someone out there in this big old world is waiting to read your story, so don’t let them down.

So that’s it, Dear Readers. I hope that you might find what I learned to be useful. Good luck and happy writing.

L.H.

 

A Reader’s Life

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Dear Readers,

As I was contemplating my personal library today, I began to ponder the influential books I’ve read in my life; books that have changed the way I see the world around me. Now, my own books number around 2,000 physical volumes with several hundred more on the Kindle. I’ve read them all, and I’ve read many more that I don’t have personal copies of. Some have been good, some have been bad, some have been ugly, and some have been in between. That said, a select handful have had such an impact on me that I still think of them and the lessons they taught me.

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The first great book I remember reading when I was in 4th grade was the award winning young adult classic Rifles For Watie by Harold Keith. It is an excellent Civil War story set in the Trans-Mississippi Theater. Though I was already a Civil War enthusiast by this point in my life, this was the first Civil War novel that I remember reading. It taught me how a novelist can teach you as much as a historian can. I found myself drawn into the story and though I’ve read the book many times since then, I’ll never forget the first reading.

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When I was in tenth grade, I came across a copy of Piece of Cake by Derek Robinson in my high school library. In my opinion, it is one of the greatest World War Two novels ever written. What I like about it is how he manages to capture but the humorous and the tragic scenes that war brings. The back and forth banter between the young RAF pilots is so skillfully done that you don’t catch all of it the first time you read the book. It takes a second or even third reading to pick up on all the one liners. If I had to pick a writer who has influenced my own writing the most, I’d probably say it is Derek Robinson, not just because of this book, which I consider his best, but because of all the books in his RAF and also his RFC series.

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In college, I first read the three volume Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote. Yes, I know that Civil War historians take great issue with much of what you can find inside these volumes, but as a freshman in college, that was far from my mind as I read through Foote’s weighty tomes. Foote was a novelist writing history, and in his hands, the lives, loves, tragedies, and triumphs of those who lived through this tumultuous era in American history leapt from the pages and came to live within my head. Foote once said that historians can learn a lot from novelists. I took this to heart. Yes, I have a graduate degree in history and I guess technically I’m a historian (though I consider myself first and foremost to be a storyteller), I am first and foremost, a writer. As such, Foote’s ability to bring these long dead individuals to life had an impact not just on my own writing, but on my teaching as well.

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Several years ago, I came across Bomber by Len Deighton. I was already familiar with both he and his work, but I had not read this particular book. It takes place in a 24 hour time frame as pilots prepare to bomb a German town. The town and its inhabitants also factor into the story and it builds to a terrifying crescendo. This novel taught me quite a bit about pacing and how to create and build suspense, even in novels that are not mysteries or thrillers. It also taught me the importance of careful research. Deighton made sure to get his facts right, and as a writer of historical fiction, I strive to do the same in my own work.

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I first read Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry when I was in junior high. This book taught me how to create characters that appear real. When we think of Augustus McRae and Woodrow F. Call, we think of them as real people, not fictional characters. McMurtry was a master of creating a world and inhabiting it with realistic, believable characters. Far from being “just a western”, as my creative writing professor dismissed it as being, this Pulitzer Prize winner shows us that a book about a simple journey from Point A to Point B can be a masterpiece, which Lonesome Dove definitely is.

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The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War by Peter Englund serves as a vivid reminder that history happens to real people, just like us. Also like us, they share all of the same emotions that we do. Though times may chance, human emotions do not and they are the link between us and those who came before. This book paints a portrait of ordinary lives disrupted by the Great War and does so on a broad canvas. The author also uses, whenever possible, the words of the individuals themselves to tell their stories. From this book, I learned the importance of letting the participants speak for themselves as they saw the events, I did not.

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Payback by Gert Ledig is a long out of print novel by a German veteran of the Second World War. The book begins like this: “When the first bomb fell, the blast hurled the dead children against the wall.” It takes place over the space of an hour in a nameless German town and consists of very short chapters, each a vignette, of how a resident experiences an Allied air attack. It is at times humorous, but more often tragic and stomach churning. This book taught me the importance of not shying away from the more horrific aspects of writing about warfare. By sanitizing our history or cleaning it up, we do absolutely no justice to those who lived through the events.

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Antietam: The Soldier’s Battle by John Michael Priest is, in my humble opinion, the best book written about a Civil War battle. The author delved deep into many an archive and though the book may appear disjointed to those who are not already familiar with the ebb and flow of the fighting around Antietam Creek, the reader experiences the battle in “real time” from the standpoint of the soldiers on both sides. If it is confusing at times, well, so was the battle. This book provides a valuable view from the ground, as it were. It is chock full of great quotes such as the Confederate artillery officer who, while under heavy fire, said to his aid “If I am killed, tell my wife I’ve never been happier in my life!” With this book, you really get a glimpse at the chaos and carnage of the Civil War battlefield.

This is not an all inclusive list, Dear Reader, as there are many others, but the above list are the best of the best. As you can see, some are fiction and some are not. So I ask you this: What books have influenced you as a writer, a reader, or as a person?

L.H.