Inspiration Part Deux

Inspiration

Dear Readers,

I wanted to expand a bit on the topic of last week’s post and go into a bit more detail. I’m happy to report that my current work in progress is half completed. I’ve written half a novel in fourteen days. The next fourteen will see me finish the first draft. In other news, you may also obtain a copy of my first book on Kindle for a mere .99 cents up through June 9th in order to mark the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. So if you haven’t read it, now’s a good time.

But on to the subject of today’s post. You can see in last week’s post where I talked about the photo that helped launch my current book, but allow me to go into a bit more detail. So as I was looking at the photo and pondering those questions, the lyrics to Runaway Train by Soul Asylum came to mind. Particularly the lines “Can you help me remember how to smile/Make it somehow all seem worthwhile/How on earth did I get so jaded/Life’s mystery seems so faded”. Wow, I thought, I could definitely see a young woman in 1864 trafficked into prostitution as my main character Molly was appreciating those lyrics. Like all 90s kids, I know this song, but I did not have it downloaded on my phone as its never been one of my favorites.

I wanted to listen to it as I looked at the photograph, so I fired up the AppleTV, opened up YouTube, and watched the original video. Though you may not believe me when I say this, I had NEVER seen the video before! It was released in 1993 and we didn’t have cable and I wouldn’t have watched MTV anyway, even if we did. As the video started, Dear Readers, I was absolutely awestruck. I had no idea the subject of the music video was runaway children, going so far as to show photos of actual missing children. Now, Molly did not run away from home. She was sent to America, but through circumstances that you’ll just have to wait to read about, she finds herself forced into prostitution just as runaway teens today are sometimes compelled into those exact same circumstances by traffickers. (And others are outright kidnapped by the same.)

Later that day, I got in the car to run down the corner store to buy my daily green apple slushy. In the truck, I tuned into the Pop Rocks station on SiriusXM, and guess what song came on? If that’s not a sign, dear readers, I don’t know what is. I made the photo/lyric sheet that appears at the top of this post and printed it out to keep next to my computer. I need only look at it and the words come pouring from my head as if they were floodwaters through a breached levee.

So follow the posted link above and watch the original video if you’ve never seen it. Absolutely haunting. That I can tell you.

L.H.

The Photo That Launched 90,000 Words

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Dear Readers,

It is said that Helen of Troy had a face that launched 1,000 ships. My current work in progress, tentatively titled Molly’s Song was launched by a face as well. Or, to be more accurate, by a black and white photograph of a young woman. As the image is copyrighted, I cannot include the picture itself in this post, but you may visit the article here and see it for yourself. Scroll all the way to the end of the article, as it is the last photograph, though check out the others and read the article too. It’s quite interesting. Then return to my humble page and read on. Note that the photo is risque, but it is not lewd. It was taken in the 19th Century, so view it in that light.

It’s a fairly straightforward photograph. A young woman is seated in a chair (or possibly a stool) and looking at a photograph. But it is anything but simple, Dear Reader, for you see, the woman is a woman of ill repute (harlot, scarlet woman, woman of ill fame, hooker, whore, ceiling expert, fallen woman, prostitute, or whatever term people use), though today we use the word sex worker. Granted, the photo was taken about twenty-five years or so after the time period I decided to write about in my novel. (Civil War as opposed to late Gilded Age), but while looking at the photograph, I wanted to know the answers to several questions, and the answers I dreamed up formed the basis of my novel.

  1. What was her name?
  2. Where was she from originally?
  3. What color was her hair? (Red, of course!!!!)
  4. What circumstances led to her employment in a bordello?
  5. How old was she?
  6. Who is in that picture she is looking at?
  7. Who gave her the locket she wears around her neck?
  8. What does she dream of at night?
  9. What are her fears?
  10. What does she do in her down time? Does she have any?
  11. Does she ever wonder how her life might have been different?
  12. Is she comfortable with her circumstances? Or does she want out of sex work?
  13. Where is she? City? State? Country?
  14. Does she ever think of slipping off into the night and starting a new life elsewhere?
  15. If she does, will she actually do it? Or merely think about it?
  16. Is she religious?
  17. Does she have friends? Enemies? Regular customers? Customers she hates?
  18. What does she do when she gets angry? Sad? Happy?
  19. When was the last time she cried? Laughed?
  20. Has she ever been in love? When? With Who? What happened?

So there you have it, Dear Readers. I wanted to know the answers to these questions, and so I set out to figure these things out and thus I got a novel out of it. Or will have one once all the steps have been completed.

For the record, I named her Molly O’Sullivan, of County Galway, residing on Mott Street in Manhattan in the Summer and Fall of 1864.

What’s Up Next?

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Eight enemy agents slip across the border and make their way to New York City. Their goal? To launch an attack on the city to disrupt the presidential election. It’s a story ripped from the headlines. Of 1864.

That Dear Readers, sums up the plot of my next novel. The first draft is 2/3rds completed, but the more I write, the more I realize that, despite this being a sprawling Civil War epic, I’m painting on too broad a canvas. The original story follows four characters; Patrick, a New York City fireman, Frank, a NYPD detective, Molly, a prostitute, and Thomas, a Confederate agent. All four of the characters end up interacting with one another at various points as the story moves forward, but I came to realize something. Molly is truly the linchpin of the story. In fact, it’s her story.

A recent immigrant to New York City from Ireland, she finds herself compelled into a life of prostitution and vice. Her tale is part tragic, part heroic, and she comes to find it within herself to escape the prison that her life has become. Writing her character allows me to give voice to all the victims of sex trafficking in the 19th Century and today. Though we tend to think of human trafficking as a recent phenomenon, it isn’t. Not by a long shot. Her 1864 story could very well be the story of a person in 2019.

So where does that leave us? I’m dropping Thomas and Frank’s separate story lines as they will appear in Molly’s anyway, and I’m sticking with just her and Patrick. It’s going to require a massive re-write which I will start once the semester ends. The bigger question is this: can I write primarily from the viewpoint of an 18 year old Irishwoman living in 1864 New York and make it believable? I suppose time and the critics will tell.

Stay tuned for more updates.

L.H.

Dickens on the Strand

Dear Readers,

Yesterday I made the drive down to Galveston for the 45th Annual Dickens on the Strand event. Growing up, my parents would take us every year, rain or shine, and some of my fondest childhood memories are of spending the day walking around The Strand and looking at all the people in Victorian Era Costumes. Later, as an adult, I would go with my late friend Robert and we would set up a table and talk to people about Civil War Galveston whilst dressed in Union Navy uniforms. (One year a group of Victorian “working girls” came up to us and said “We love seamen!”)

But I haven’t been down there since Robert passed away as I thought the memories would be too difficult for me. I decided to break my ten year long absence and sally forth to occupy the city in the name of the United States Navy, circa 1862. With me on this trip were my wife and my friend Mike. I wore my US Naval surgeon uniform and with me I had licenses to pass out to women of the town. The US military establishment during the Civil War required working girls to have a health certificate and a license to operate in occupied areas, so I was only doing my part to ensure the health and well being of our soldiers and sailors.

The weather was perfect and the crowd was one of the largest I’ve seen attend. Also, I was particularly happy to see so many young people dressed up. There were tons of pirates there (which isn’t really a Victorian thing, so I’m not sure what is up with that). I also liked all the suffragettes who wore sashes which said “Votes for Women”. A particularly attractive one even asked if she could get a picture with us, which we readily agreed to! Words do not exist to describe the all the wonderful foods available! We had lunch at a German beer garden (at my German wife’s insistence). I’ve never had sauerkraut balls before and Holy Crap they were good! And funnel cakes……how I love thee.

It was a great day and I had a ton of fun. So much fun that my wife had to drive us home….

L.H.

Mightier Than the Sword: My Favorite Civil War Novels

Dear Readers,

To sort of piggyback off of yesterday’s post, today I shall endeavor to discuss my favorite works of Civil War fiction. Keep in mind, that all I am saying is that these are my favorites. I am not saying that they are the best. Whether or not a person likes a book or not is a personal thing. I’ve read bestsellers that I did not like and I’ve read obscure books with only a few hundred copies published that I think are, or should be, classics. My personal collection of books is well over 2,000 volumes and around 500 of them are Civil War specific, so I’ve read every standard work and a whole lot of non-standard works, fiction and non, on the subject. I shall endeavor to tell you a little bit about why I like each of the books described below and where I was in life when I read them, as that may have something to do with why I enjoy them so much.

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Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith was the first Civil War novel I read. The winner of the 1958 Newbery Medal was published the previous year. As I remember, I read the book when I was in third grade which would put it around 1985. This is a young adult novel and the protagonist is sixteen years old. What I enjoyed about this book is that you got to meet a large cross section of people; from Union soldiers to Cherokee Confederates, to civilians caught in the middle. Since the novel involves action in and around the Indian Territory, it covers something left out of the vast body of Civil War literature which tends to focus on things further east. I can longer recall what brought me to read Rifles for Watie. I have a vague memory of doing a book report on it, but I don’t know why I selected it. If I had to guess, it was probably a combination of the cover and the fact that it was about the Civil War.

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Love and War by John Jakes. This is book two of his North and South trilogy and this is the volume that covers the actual war itself. (North and South covers the Mexican War through the Secession Crisis while Heaven and Hell covers Reconstruction.) Though to be honest, you should really read all three in order. Jakes paints on a vast canvas. Too vast, I think, for me to truly capture the essence of it. The novels provide an in depth look at the events of the day through the eyes of two families, the Hazards and the Mains. There are a few differences between the mini-series (which was good in an 80s miniseries sort of way) and the novels. But honestly, they are so significant as to detract from the story. My introduction to these books came from television. I remember when the first miniseries aired in 85 and the second in 86. My grandfather recorded them on the VCR, and I watched them quite a few times. I did not read the books until I was in high school in the early 90s. I found them at a library book sale for a quarter apiece. It was pocket change well spent. As I mentioned yesterday, this book taught me that when writing about the Civil War, try to go for the lesser told tale rather than rehashing the same things that have been written about a million times. I also learned that well written historical fiction can be as educational as it is entertaining. Finally, Jakes taught me how to write complex characters that accurately reflect the temperament and mindset of the era in which your books is set. Jakes wrote quite a few other books. I have copies of all of his historical novels and I cannot recommend them enough. He is my biggest inspiration as a writer of historical fiction.

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Look Away & Until the End by Harold Coyle tell the story of two brothers separated by war and forced onto opposite sides by circumstances largely outside their control. Coyle was an Army officer and is best known for his World War Three novel Team Yankee. I read his Civil War novels when I was in high school and identified with the main characters, largely because they were of similar age to me. One common theme you might see here is that I read a lot of books in high school. I rarely read things that were assigned for a class, preferring to find my own books instead. My teachers, thankfully, largely tolerated this since I read a whole lot more than most of my classmates. Though these books do contain the usual Civil War clichés, the action sequences are well written and the characters are believable. The situation which separates the brothers and sets them down the path to end up opposing one another in the war is plausible as well. These are not dense, heavy reads. In fact, if you are a fast reader, you could probably finish one of them in a night. I would also suggest that if there is a young person in your family who likes to read, and who you would like to get interested in the Civil War, give them both of these books. They will no doubt find them interesting. Who knows, said young person might become the next great Civil War historian or novelist.

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The Black Flower by Howard Bahr tells the tale of the Battle of Franklin and its aftermath. This was among the most horrendous engagements of the entire war, though it is largely forgotten outside of enthusiasts of the Western Theater. Bahr was an English professor, and this novel is, what I would classify, as a literary novel. It’s written in a way that I could never dream of doing myself. It won the WY Boyd Award for military fiction in 1998. The funny thing is that it came out around the same time as Cold Mountain. While Cold Mountain won the National Book Award and was eventually made into a movie, not to mention being mentioned on national television programs, The Black Flower got no major media coverage at all, despite being (in my opinion) a much better book. I will admit to a certain bias though. As I’ve written about before, I’ve had a reoccurring dream of the Battle of Franklin for most of my life and so I am pre-disposed to like ANY book written about the battle, fiction or non. Lastly, the one thing that I enjoyed the most about this book is that it manages to show both the horrific and the absurd, both present on Civil War battlefields. You can find the account of my recurring dream about the Battle of Franklin here.

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I saved the best for last. Paradise Alley (2002) by Kevin Baker is one of the finest Civil War novels ever written, though the events on the battlefield are somewhat removed from the story itself. Instead, it tells the story of the worst instance of urban unrest in American History. It has entered our lexicon as the “New York City Draft Riots” though, as I discuss here, it was really a full scale urban insurrection. To call it a mere riot does not do it justice. It seems as if the Draft Riots are known outside of Civil War circles merely because of the movie Gangs of New York. While the movie nails the setting and costumes of 1863 Manhattan, it falls flat on the history itself. Still, some knowledge is better than no knowledge. Back to the novel. Baker does an incredible job describing the environs of lower Manhattan in the summer of 1863, along with those who inhabit it. We see a cross section of people, so the reader is exposed to various viewpoints both political and social, all accurate for the time period. His descriptions of the Great Hunger in Ireland are among the best I’ve ever read in a novel. One of the ways this book inspired me is that the author goes for all of the senses. He describes how things look, feel, and smell. (Smell often gets left out of fictional descriptions.) For this reason, it my own writing, I try and make sure the nose is duly assaulted by the odors of the past. As an Irish-American, I feel that Baker does justice to both our triumphs and our tragedies. Though discriminated against themselves, the Irish in this country could be quite racist in the 19th Century, though no more so than society at large. Paradise Alley is a book I have recommended to people time and time again. I’ll continue to do so in the future. If you’d like to read a post I wrote about the Draft Riots, you can do so here.

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I am aware, Dear Readers, that I have left The Red Badge of Courage, The Killer Angels, and Gone With the Wind off the list. Yes, I have read them all. Yes, I own copies of them all. In fact, I have a first edition Gone With the Wind. These books are classics and I do not seek to diminish them in the slightest. They are simply not my favorite Civil War novels. As this list describes my favorites, those three do not make the cut. I’d be happy to hear what your favorites are, especially if they are lesser known titles. I’m always on the hunt for more things to read. In fact, I’m presently reading This Scorched Earth by William Gear. I’m enjoying it because one of the characters is a Civil War era doctor and during my time as a reenactor, I portrayed, among other things, a Civil War surgeon (both Army and Navy). His novel doesn’t shy away from the more brutal aspects of the war either. So add that one to your list if you enjoy Civil War fiction.

Happy Reading!

L.H.

An UnCivil War

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My “trick” for multiple viewpoint novels is to make a storyboard. This one is part one of my novel.

Dear Readers,

As my World War Two novel goes through the final edits and I decide whether to publish traditionally or not, I have been working on the background for my next novel. The research for it was done years ago, so I’m lucky in that regard. So Others May Live did not start out as a National Novel Writing Month project, but I did finish it during November of 2017. Going into NaNoWriMo 2018, I thought it might be nice to start a novel and we’ll see where it leads. I have my character sketches and I have made my storyboards for the novel. I gained enough confidence in writing So Others May Live to attempt another multi-viewpoint novel. It is set in Canada and New York in the summer and fall of 1864. The outline is done. The first chapter written. Character sketches drawn up. And I have my music playlist to go along with my writing, so I’m about as ready as one can be.

I’ll not say too much else about the plot at the moment, but I will say that it is a Civil War novel that does not take place on the battlefield, or at least not on the traditional battlefields. You’ll find no tales of battlefields and brigades, but rather of men and women torn by conflicting ideals, shifting loyalties, and uncertain futures. There are no bands, bugles, and bags of glory. Instead, you get a glimpse of the “dirty war”; a war fought in the shadows by men of questionable repute pursued by lawmen who in another time might have been criminals themselves. You’ll find no Gettysburgs or Shilohs within its pages.

I’m a HUGE fan of the writer John Jakes. He is the Godfather of historical fiction. His North and South trilogy is masterful as is his American Bicentennial series. Not only can he craft a good story, but you can learn quite a bit of history from him too. In the Author’s Note at the end of Love and War, the second book of the North and South trilogy, he said that he kept a sign over his writing desk whilst working on it which said “Not Gettysburg Again!” Though his characters are, of course, involved in the war, the book focuses on little known or little written about aspects of it like the Confederate Torpedo Bureau. I took this to heart myself and strove to do the same.

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This is how I organize the research.

The Civil War is my first love, it was only later that I developed my affinity for redheads. I’ve always known that I would write a Civil War novel. It’s as inevitable as sunrise tomorrow. My love of the Civil War comes from one of my great-grandmothers. She was born in 1898, a mere thirty-three years after the end of the War. Incidentally, I was born in 1978, thirty-three years after the end of World War Two. Just as I spent my childhood around World War Two veterans like my grandfathers, she spent hers surrounded by Civil War veterans. Both of her grandfathers, their brothers, and her grandmothers’ brothers all fought in the War. She was very interested in it as a child and they told her their stories, which she then passed on to me. As a teenager, she danced with elderly veterans at reunions. Hearing about the Civil War from a person who talked to veterans herself is an experience I’ll never forget. When you think about it, the 1860s weren’t really all that long ago. We are only a few generations removed from it.

The Civil War was the American Iliad. Perhaps that is why it still captivates so many people. I studied the War in college and graduate school. I spent 16 years as a Civil War reenactor. I even helped edit a published volume of correspondence from Jefferson Davis. I could, if I desired, call myself a Civil War expert. But I do not like terms like “expert” because, though my Civil War knowledge could fill many volumes, there is always more for me to learn. And there is always more for me to write.

As a child, I looked on the Civil War as a time of glory and great feats of heroism. Sure, the war did create many a hero. But there is no glory in seeing a friend decapitated by a cannonball, or listening to the screams of wounded comrades. There is no glory in dying from dysentery or undergoing an amputation. To write or talk about the war, we must tell it as it was, not as we wish it was. That is the obligation of both the historian and the novelist.

So until next time, Dear Readers, double canister and give them hell!

L.H.

 

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.