Friday, December 26, 2014

The Road to Published – Part II: How to Survive A Rocket Attack

As I sit and write this, I am seated at the same exact table at my parent’s house where I started Lincoln’s Bodyguard 4 years ago. When I say it out loud, it seems like such a long time ago. But in reality it’s been a whirlwind. Of course, the current novel is the third I’ve written, so I’ve been hacking away at this writing gig for a lot longer than 4-years…a lot longer!

A Russian 107mm Rocket with the optional launching kit!

So where to begin? How about with a rocket, one of the lethal variety? The picture above is of a 107mm rocket, a nasty little bugger that wakes you up in the middle of the night with sirens scratching and makes you leave the comfort of a nice warm bed to find a concrete bunker.  You may be asking: what the hell does that have to do with writing, or even getting published? Well, it has everything and nothing to do with my writing—at the same time. After Nancy taunted me to start my first novel, I was in the enviable position of receiving orders for the first of my taxpayer-funded vacations to Afghanistan. It was on that very first tour that I finished that manuscript. And in typical rookie writer fashion, I expected the literary world would soon come crashing my door to see the masterpiece. I had no idea how the publishing world worked. I couldn’t even spell literary agent, let alone know what use I might have for one. In short, I had no idea how to get published. And that was where Nancy kicked again. She discovered that I needed a publisher (I told you I was publishing stupid), and that there was this intermediate broker who facilitated finding publishers, called a literary agent! I didn’t quite know what one was, but I knew I wanted one (in the end I got the best literary agent in the whole world, but that’s a whole different story). 

So back to the rocket… Since I had no idea what to do after finishing my first novel, but suspecting that I had made the magical first and second steps in both STARTING and FINISHING a manuscript, I knew I needed to show it to someone who didn’t love me. That’s actually a great THIRD step along the publishing lines…seek out honest feedback. And once again Nancy, ever so more in-tune with the literary world than I, realized that the Antioch Writer’s Workshop took place right in our hometown of Yellow Springs. As luck would have it, they had scholarships available through a competitive process. And that is where the confidence drained…I would have to send a sample of my glorious writing (trust me, I use the term in mocking derision to the work I pecked out at the time—maybe even now!) I must have filled out that application twenty times, writing and re-writing to get it just perfect. Each time I re-read what I had written, it some how devolved and became even more amateurish in my mind. In fact, I had just given up my literary aspirations (not for the last time, I might add) and thrown the application in the burn bin when the first rocket struck.

I'm super biased as this is where I started...but I love this workshop!

A 107mm rocket attack is an interesting thing. And by interesting, that’s a relative term depending on how far away you happen to be standing when it lands. Sometimes you can hear them launch, and then if the night is just right (they almost always come at night), you can hear the whistling as they pass overhead. We used to say, if you hear the boom on landing, then you’re going to be okay! But that night was my very first rocket attack. Back then I was still naïve enough to run to the bunkers—now I’m more resigned that if it’s my time to go then it’s just my time. But run I did, just about the same time as the alarms sounded and more booms echoed across base. I made it into the bunker, and as luck would have it, I was the only one who reached that particular concrete monstrosity. Everyone else was smarter and chose the bunker across the camp, which did not have six inches of standing water. To understand what happened next, you have to realize that the bunkers are inverted concrete forms in the shape of a “U”, which we then cover in sand bags for extra protection. But they’re only about four feet tall. So in my enthusiasm to get inside, I forgot to duck. Yep, I clear knocked myself flat on my back, staring up at a dull concrete ceiling, laying in stale muddy water. And that was when I thought:

“Fuck it, I’m turning that application in!”

Make sure to DUCK! Or wear your helmet...or both!

Although I didn’t know for months that I had landed one of those scholarships to the very best writer’s workshop I have ever attended, I credit that rocket attack with yet another kick in the ass that will shortly land Lincoln’s Bodyguard on bookshelves in real live book stores.  

To be continued…

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Road to Published – Part I: A Swift Kick in the Ass

Over the past few weeks I’ve been so busy tackling edits on my current manuscript, researching the next one, and even trying to sneak in writing time, that I’ve completely abandoned trying to keep up with the blog posts. Life is a circus, and I have no idea where all my monkeys are—literally. 

But as of today, my final edits for Lincoln’s Bodyguard are in. They’re actually incorporated into the final manuscript! That’s an awesome feeling, but it also leaves me uneasy, knowing all the other things that I have to get back to while I no longer have the pending publication as an excuse. So I figured I would start by writing some posts answering the most common question I get when people find out I write, and that my first novel is due out in April. After I get past the standard questions about my manuscript, it seems most folks want to know how I got to this point—how did I get a book in front of a publisher?

Out in April 2015 from Oceanview Publishing! 

There are two types of people asking this question. First, there are those who are genuinely curious and appear to believe that getting published is impossible. Then there are those who have their own book idea brewing (which they may or may not have started) and think that getting published is umpossible. Notice the trend here, besides my inability to spell? Well, as that old annoying saying goes, I have good news and bad. 

First the good: If I can get published, ANYONE can! And I truly mean that. I never trained as a writer—I’m an engineer (see the note above about my spelling). And engineers are notoriously poor writers, maybe only worse than cops. Then to pile it on and make things worse, I’m also a federal agent. So now I’ve got two strikes against me. But here’s what I’ve learned: The most important thing to getting published is to START. The second most important thing is to FINISH! I know that’s not much advice, no epiphany to lead you to the publishing gods.  But it’s true. And an important thing to keep in mind is that you don’t have to know the ending in order to start, you just have to be curious enough to start the story (Authentic Curiosity). In fact, Lincoln’s Bodyguard started with nothing more than a title, something I heard Terry Gross say on NPR’s Fresh Air. The inspiration can come from anywhere.

Now the bad: I have no idea how to get published. I know, that sounds umpossible. I have a book about to be launched, so I should know how to get it done. Here’s the catch. I know how I got published (or will be shortly), but in general I still have no idea how it all works. Everyone’s path from story inception to seeing the book on the shelf is just so different. I love asking my author friends how it happened for them. Each has different twists along the way—different choices they made to land on Amazon or the shelves of their favorite local independent bookstore. And most of us have at least one book in the bottom of a desk drawer (or on an encrypted hard drive), which will never see the light of day. That was our first book (or the first and second in my case), which taught us that we could start AND finish a novel. 

So what’s the takeaway from my good and bad news? Easy—anyone can do it and we all do it differently! (I may have to caveat that more carefully or you’ll start to think this isn’t a blog about writing). Getting back to the original question then—how I came upon publishing a novel—the only thing I can do is to share my story. Hopefully that will be enough to fulfill most people’s questions on the subject, and if I’m really lucky, push one or two of you over to edge to actually starting on your own publishing journey. 

In the beginning…there was a sharp kick from my wife, Nancy. It wasn’t so much a kick as it was a taunting. Actually, it may not have even been a taunting, it was more like a minor dismissive statement in passing that made me start this crazy writing business. You see, after finishing up grad school and writing a 300+ page dissertation on Surface Roughening in AA7050 T7451 Thick Rolled Aluminum Plate, I felt out of balance. It was pure technical writing, devoid of any creative flourish. When I tried to put in some creativity, my academic advisor quickly tore it from the pages and stomped on it with the vigor that only comes from one trained as an NFL lineman (he actually played 6 years in the NFL…no joke!) So I had been thinking up this crazy idea, and even contemplating the start of a novel when I casually floated the idea to Nancy. I think I may have done it in a subtle manner, not because I was trying to slip it past her, but because I wanted an out if she laughed at me. I was looking for her reaction, and what I got was not quite what I hoped for, or feared. 

“Can you pass the ketchup? I’m thinking of writing a novel.”

“We’re out of ketchup. We only have mustard. You can’t write a novel. That’s hard.”

That was it. No laughing on her part, which may have actually dissuaded me through sheer embarrassment. I don’t even recall her changing her tone of voice. She just dismissed the suggestion casually and left no room for re-attack—nothing I could grab hold of to further float my crazy notion of becoming a writer. If she had ignored the statement and not addressed it, I might have been too embarrassed to ever put it out there again. Maybe she had heard and chose to ignore it? But this was the worst, and most beautiful, response I could ever imagine, though it didn’t feel like it at the time. It fueled me forward like nothing else. I was going to write a novel, and I was going to show her that I could do it. What other option did I have in order to preserve my manly dignity? After all, we were out of ketchup. 

To think what would have been if we only had ketchup...
And now twelve years after that first conversation I’m left wondering…did she do it on purpose? Occasionally she drops a hint like she tells me that I can’t do something just to modify my behavior (though she still won’t let me do the wash). Maybe she did, and her genius was in the perfect response at the right time, landing directly in my derrière. Whatever the truth is, sometimes a kick in the ass is a step forward!

To be continued…

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Authentic Curiosity

It’s a mystery that people need stories. We don’t know where that element of human nature comes from, but our fascination with books, and movies is clear evidence that it is true. There is some deep inner need to the human psyche that demands them. But where do they come from? To me, (and hopefully many people reading these posts) that need is best fulfilled through the written word, through the writer.

In my last post I talked about Pulling the Plug, or really, getting to know and believe in your self as a writer. And I dug up a great example from Andre Dubus III, who happened to deliver the keynote and Master Class at the Antioch Writer’s Workshop this year. I was lucky enough to be there to hear him talk first hand, and he used the same example for us. Andre posed it as a simple question: If you can go a whole year without writing, then you’re probably not a writer and you need to go find what you were meant to be.

Andre Dubus III delivering the Keynote Address at the 2014Anitoch Writer's Workshop

Well, I’m guessing most people who read these posts had a solid answer to that question (and if not they’re probably not still here!) So after you’ve made the decision and still dove headfirst into the writing life, where do you begin? If you ask a hundred different authors you’ll get just as many answers. And all of us want to get to that moment Joe Clifford so deftly captures as he runs downstairs pantless (with a poodle) to find his first box of books (The Day My First Box of Books Arrived). Even if that is a sad moment for Joe (and by reading his post you’ll understand), it’s magical nonetheless. So, how do we get there?

As I alluded to in my last post, Andre’s advice for writers didn’t just stop at finally standing back and calling yourself a writer. He delivered some poignant advice that in truth I have not fully digested even weeks after the workshop. In re-creating his words I may be distorting them with my own lens of interpretation, but I think the value outweighs the danger of the messenger inserting himself into the message.

Andre with Amazing Poet Tobin Terry
Authentic Curiosity—that was the term that Andre left us with during his Master Class. As a writer, if you want to reach deep and truly touch other people with your story, then you need authentic curiosity. Writing is a labor. Even if you love it, it’s hard work. All of us who have hit the keyboard know that, but we keep at it. What we’re hoping to do is to reach another person at some level, to write something so fantastic that they discover their own meaning in the story—a meaning shaped by who they are and their collective life experience.

Andre’s advice is to write what you are curious about, maybe something you don’t know yet that just tugs at your imagination. If you can find that thing, that storyline, that character, that conflict…then you have a shot of writing truly genuine prose that may reach out and touch another person. It’s that simple. Andre identifies himself as a character driven writer, and as such he finds the plot and the conflict from deep within his characters. He likes to go deep into the characters, to really be curious what they are about, and then find the story that the character wants you to tell. Writing from deep within a character like that causes the outward sequence of events that drives the story forward and creates the conflict.

Andre walked us through the conception of his novel, House of Sand and Fog. It was a fascinating tale. First, he wrote long hand, something I can’t imagine trying. Next, he wrote only 15 minutes a day while sitting in his car before work. One day he was driven off the street where he normally parked by a police officer, and wound up parking in a cemetery to write undisturbed. He did that for three years and the story developed, a story that started with a single character. He dreamed what that character’s life was like, and then started finding other characters she would interact with. Those characters had their own desires and goals, and when those were at odds with his main character, he had created a story with tremendous conflict. The story literally found him, and he scribed it into notebooks to capture the magic before it left him. Because he was curious about his main character—about what she was like, why she had wound up at this point in her life, what was happening to her—the entire novel developed.

Andre advised us to give ourselves permission to find our story, to never plot too soon. I admit that this is a completely different manner of writing for me, but it is something that has been a tremendous help as I have started my next project. In fact, imagining the main character and being curious about his life is how I landed on the whole next novel I’ve started crafting. I let the characters walk me through their story, the one they want me to see. And by asking the questions, being curious about their world, the story builds itself around me and all I have to be is a great observer.

I think that Eliza Cross did a great job in her post yesterday (20 Great Books that Sparked an Early Love of Reading). She had no idea what I was writing about today, but in truth they fit together very well. Go back to those first books you read, those books you were curious about. When we were all innocent readers, finding those stories that touched us most deeply was simply due to the same phenomenon that Andre talks about—Authentic Curiosity. If you can remember what it felt like to read something like that, or maybe you’ve encountered the same feeling recently. That’s what I am striving for in my writing, and I think that’s exactly what Andre Dubus III was talking about when he suggested that we dive deep into our characters. Be curious about them, or find characters you are curious about, and they will lead you to the story.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Pulling the Plug

When you think of an author, what is the picture that comes to mind? I’ve asked that of a few folks, and what I hear about is the hard work—the slaving over a notebook, or typewriter, or a keyboard. So it gives us a picture of a solitary individual, and as we all know, the more tortured they are the better the writing is! (Sarcasm is hard to hear over the interweb). But is that really true?

In writing the acknowledgements for my upcoming novel, the first time I’ve ever had to do this particular writing exercise, I was struck by just how many people have helped me along the way. I started my writing career during the middle of a rocket attack while lying face down in a puddle of muddy water inside a concrete bunker in Afghanistan. It wasn’t that I started writing then, I had been writing for a long time, but at that particular moment I decided I really WANTED to write. And for me that meant dropping an application in the mail for a scholarship at the Antioch Writer’sWorkshop (AWW). At the time I couldn’t afford to go without a scholarship, or more to the point, I couldn’t tell my wife that I was going to take precious dollars from our account to pursue this pipe dream of writing. As luck would have it, I won one of those scholarships and attended what would be a transformative week of writing. And so my writing career truly began not as a solitary act of sitting behind a keyboard, but rather at a workshop surrounded by many people like me…people who loved to write but still had one nagging question: were we actually writers?

That is a question that I long struggled with before my novel sold. How do I explain to other people what I’m trying to do? How do I describe myself to my parents, my siblings, my wife? I’m taking hours of my life to sit alone and do the solitary act of writing, and then hours more in meeting with other writers, trusted readers, and to make it to conferences. How do I justify it, especially when I had no idea if this whole writing thing would work out anyway? How do I tell when it’s pointless and time to pull the plug, throw in the towel, (insert overly used cliché here)…

Well, it took several years to truly come face to face with a good answer. This year at the Antioch Writer’s Workshop, we hosted AndreDubus III as our Keynote speaker and Master Class teacher. I had no idea what to expect from Dubus (pronounced like “abuse” with a “D” in front). So I did a little Google sleuthing, and I was amazed to find the perfect answer to that old question: Am I really a writer?

The video link above is less than two-minutes long and well worth the click. I know I’m not the only one who struggles with this same question. Even after selling my first novel I worry about it still. Will I pull it together for a second novel? Can I call myself a writer with just one book on the shelf? Well, if I listen to Andre, I was a writer long before I ever acknowledged it. “If you can go a year without writing”, he says, “and feel just fine. You’re not a writer. So what? It’s actually a good piece of news because now you’re free to find out what the hell you’re supposed to do.” But if you can’t, if you need to get in front of the keyboard and put the word onto paper, to dream a story and watch it take shape—you’re a writer, with or without the publications.

Dubus went on in his master class to give a unique outlook on writing (one I might try to capture in a future post), but he also revealed a broader perspective. “We are on this planet to find out who we are and to be it—to lead an authentic life.”

And so with a book deal in hand it might be easier to explain to Nancy why I still haven’t come to bed, it doesn’t actually change anything. I am a writer because I write, because I love to write even though I don’t always like to. I am a writer because I need to write. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Top 20 Movies Based on Historical Fiction

For my last couple of posts I discussed the relevance of Historical Fiction (Faking it…the Importance of Historical Fiction) and (5 Steps to NailHistorical Fiction—Faking it Right). But after reading Garret Calcaterra’s recent post (On the Originof Zombies: 7 Must-See Zombie Films), it got me a little jealous. I love the Walking Dead, and I love me some zombie movies, but what could I possibly offer up for all us Historical Fiction aficionados to compete with that? Then Holly West came along in her last post (Book, Movie, Both) and inspired me to dig deeper. Holly writes, "As a story lover, I'm also enamored of movies. They entertain and inspire me differently, but no less so than books."

To my surprise, it’s actually quite easy to research exactly which movies were made from Historical Fiction novels. And it was even easier to find out how much money each had earned at the box-office! I hate to make money the sole means to rank these movies, but in at least some sense, that’s important, too. The more Historical Fiction rakes in at the box office as novels are converted to screen plays, the more readers we may pull into our shared love of books. In addition, it shows the entire publishing industry, and the movie executives, just how important Historical Fiction can be. So using the total World-Wide Box office haul as our sole discriminator, here are the top 20 grossing movies based on Historical Fiction!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

5 Steps to Nail Historical Fiction—Faking it Right

In my last post I talked about why I love Historical Fiction—a great novel in the genre can teach us not only who we are, but also who we were. I love the brackish headwaters where history and fiction collide and transform into something magical. But there’s an art to the genre, the art of faking it so no one realizes!

That’s right, you’ve got to sell it as good, or better, than Meg Ryan as she embarrasses the hell out of Billy Crystal. Just like the old lady at the end of that scene, you want your readers to raise their hands and say: “I’ll have what she’s having!”

But how do we get there?

To me, there are 5 critical elements to writing a great historical. Whenever I pick up a novel in the genre and something doesn’t feel right, I can almost always trace it back to one of these few issues.

1. A Captivating Story and Good (if not Great) Writing

I know what you’re thinking right now, “What a load of crap! Every great work of fiction needs a great story and great writing.” And you’re right! Historical fiction is no different than any other work of fiction, that’s the point. The story needs to rock and it needs to keep rocking. All too often I’ll pick up an example where the author thinks their unique setting, or something quirky about the time period can carry the story. IT CAN’T! Those things are important, but from page one you’ve got to be hooked. Take Charles Portis’s amazing novel True Grit. That has one of the best opening paragraphs of any novel anywhere.

“People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.”

BAM! I’m hooked. Mattie Ross is going to go an-ass kicking, and I can’t wait to be there with her!

So how about great writing? There’s the cliché of our writing generation, as if anyone strives for bad writing. But it happens…and it gets published. Here’s the secret: You don’t need great writing as long as you don’t have bad writing. Great writing—you notice. Bad writing—you notice. But if you thread the needle and write an awesome story, you can get away with plain old good writing. As Tom Pitts said in his recent post (NeverJoin a Club That Would Have You As A Member):

“The idiosyncrasies of word choice and the distraction of paragraph placement ultimately goes unnoticed by most readers. They just want the damn thing to move.”

Of course we all want to be Hemmingway and write beautiful literature, but in truth, as long as we stay away from bad writing your readers will love it IF the story works. So what is bad writing? When you read it to yourself out loud, and you NOTICE the writing, it’s either good or bad. And from there it's easy to tell. The best example of good writing I can give, try out Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried—there are pages I just re-read again and again…that’s how I know it’s good.

2. Setting

Finally! This is what makes a historical novel, well, a historical novel. It takes place in yester-year! I’m sure we could be picky about the definition, as in how many years had to have passed before the author first picks up his/her pen…but honestly, who cares. Some things we consider historical today (or at least some things that I consider historical fiction) were actually written long ago and were contemporary fiction at the time. Take Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage. I call it historical fiction, and you can find it on Amazon in the historical category. (It’s also in the Classics section, but I’m claiming it for all of us Historical Fiction junkies!) But the point is that the novel is set at some point in the past. A unique device that many historicals then utilize is turning the setting into character. While this isn’t a device only used in historical fiction, I think it comes about more often in historicals because authors are already so invested in describing the setting to build authenticity, that the natural extension is for setting to take on a life of its own. And it’s a great way to get all that good research onto the page without the reader noticing (i.e. without bad writing!).

So where do we start on setting? There are so many places to choose from! I like to set my stories in Americana—somewhere, sometime. Think of all the crazy time periods we have had: the Revolution, the Wild West, the Civil War, the list just goes on an on. And it doesn't have to be set around a war, although those periods do come equipped with plenty of drama and tension. But your reader needs something to keep them motivated, to keep them loving the setting as much as the story. They're there to learn as well as to be entertained—even if they don't know it!

A great example is The Help by Kathryn Stockett, writing about the South in 1962. Amazing setting, right? Plenty of drama to be had in a time where the nation is divided on race and other social issues. Stockett chose a setting that remains relevant today, is educational as you read, and is damn entertaining.

African American Children in the South Looking in at an All-White Playground 
3. Interesting POV Character

Again, another cop-out! Of course you need interesting characters. This is true for all fiction. But in historical fiction, your characters need to sell their setting for you. I guess the same could be said of every other genre, but when I pick up an unconvincing historical, sometimes it boils down to the fact that the character seems out of place, not in the right time period even. They are the actors, and they have to interact correctly with their environment in order to sell the story. Mattie Ross from True Grit, or Inman in Charles Frazier's monumental Cold Mountain are excellent examples. They know how to live in their world, how to act, what to wear, how to speak the lingo. Sometimes where the character leaves off and the setting takes over is a blurry line, and the character can teach the reader as much about the world they are immersed in as any other element of the story. They need to be rich, emotionally complex, and hopefully a few are even at odds with one another to ratchet up the tension. But above all they need to be REAL! Mattie Ross pushes the boundary of this in True Grit, as a girl who tracks down her father's killer. But Charles Portis sells it through the setting, and the great story, and of course, through an obstinate and intelligent 14-year old full of sass and hell bent on revenge. Or how about Laurie Halse Anderson's Chains trilogy (Chains, Forge, and TBD), where we see the Revolution through the eyes of two slaves, 13-year old Isabel and the slightly older Curzon. Interesting setting, and then Anderson piles it on with amazing characters. No wonder she was a National Book Award Finalist!

4. Research

That's a terrible word, isn't it? It strikes fear into the hearts of high-school students everywhere. Why would you have to do research if you're writing fiction? It's all made up, right?

WRONG! Sure, the story, the characters, the plot, even parts of the setting can all be the creative genius of the author, but in a historical it has to fit on the scaffolding of History. It has to make sense with the time. That's the big picture. As you narrow in, there are all sorts of details you have to get right. Let's say you write a western thriller—as in a thriller set in the Old West. What kinds of guns did they carry? Do they have five or six shells in the cylinders? How long does it take to ride a train from Atlanta to Chattanooga? If they go by horse, how long can a horse go for without food and water? You just can't have a good believable historical if your main character is Bruce Willis from Die Hard who never runs out of bullets. I mean, come on, he’s shooting a Beretta 92 for like 20 minutes without a single mag change.

There are plenty of places to do research, and it's easier than ever with the trusty Interweb thingy. Just fire up Google, and the resources are almost limitless. But nothing beats a boots on the ground approach. If you're going to write about the foothills of Tennessee, then go get out there! See them for yourself. Visit the battlefields, the old houses, or if you're Arthur Kerns, (author of The African Contract) travel to Africa to do your research! From One of Arthur's latest posts (Africa Can Be A Dangerous Place):

While doing research for my latest novel, The African Contract, I ran across an entry in one of my travel journals. It recorded a visit to a friend’s village miles away from the nearest African city. Strolling among the homes, Dingane introduced me to his relatives and friends, while giving me a history of the region.

Okay, you don't HAVE to travel to Africa, but think of the adventures you can go get into all in the excuse that you're doing research for your great American novel.

5. The Lens of History

Finally, this one of the unique elements to Historical Fiction. It all has to do with how the present world, the modern world, views the past. If I truly wrote a story exactly like it would have occurred, chances are no one would like it. Pick up the Red Badge of Courage. It was penned (literally) in 1893, and the writing is so very different. Even though it’s an amazing piece of literature, it might not have enjoyed the same success if it were published today—if it could even get published (that’s a whole other conversation). So there’s a trick to writing historical fiction. You don’t necessarily want to write in the style of days long ago, in fact, you can't! (I know, that kind of contradicts everything I said above). But what you really want to do is to convince all of us readers that we’re in that yesteryear time period, while still relating to the world of today. So the writer needs to take that lens of history, to warp the story enough that those of us reading it today find it believable, even though the very act of doing so distorts how the action would have played out if the story were real. Joe Clifford brings that point home in his latest post (Planting the Clues in Crime Fiction):

All art is contrived. We make it up. The trick is to keep those strings tugged safely behind the curtain, out of sight, and making the work seem effortless.

And while Joe is talking about writing mysteries, that is also the magic in writing Historical Fiction—the art of faking it just enough to be believable while still capturing the essence of the time, educating the reader, and at all times providing the entertainment.

Tj Turner is a scientist, a federal agent, a military officer, and a writer. His first novel, Lincoln's Bodyguard, is due out from Oceanview Publishing in April 2015. He can be reached at, or through his amazing Literary Agent, Elizabeth Kracht at Learn more at

Monday, June 9, 2014

Faking it…the Importance of Historical Fiction

In the last few days our nation, and large parts of Europe, gave pause to remember a monument in the history of the 20th century—D-Day. I’m sure there is little need to revisit the event in any detail, especially with the amount of press coverage for the past few days as we mark 70th anniversary this year. At first, making a spectacle of the 70th anniversary seems a bit mute, it doesn’t ring out like the 50th anniversary, or even the 100th. But as far as marking great events in terms of decades, this year holds extra significance. Few veterans from that day are left among us, and more take their leave of our world with every passing sunset. When we come to celebrating the 80th anniversary, it’s quite possible it will be a remembrance only, with no first-hand stories to hear. Living history is passing as I write this.

I’m sure someone out there is scratching their head and wondering what any of this has to do with writing. It’s actually pretty simple. Several of the earlier posts on The Prose & Cons have talked about the importance of books (PeterHogenkamp) or why Science Fiction and Fantasy Matter (Garrett Calcaterra). So true! I’m just adding another genre to the list of things that matter, Historical Fiction. That’s what chose me as a writer—history. And I’m not talking about the type of history we learn in school. I’m talking about the antidote to those history lessons—the real living parts of history that are forgotten unless someone puts pen to paper.

Can you imagine standing on a troop transport off the Normandy shore 70 years ago? Let’s close our eyes and see if we can…(okay, don’t close your eyes because then you can’t read). No high-tech fabrics to protect against the wind whipping up across the English Channel—just cotton and wool, and leather boots with a heavy steel helmet. Your hands clutched the wooden stock of a rifle, not the lightweight carbines the military sports today, but solid wood to absorb the recoil of a large caliber cartridge. With each step to the landing craft the sea spray soaks the air and loosens the clutch on your weapon, the one thing you know you’ll need if you make it on shore. Then there’s the intolerable ride to the beach, the boat pitching and heaving (sorry Liz!) all the way to the surf line. Finally, the landing doors drop…

Those little details, the smallest things that were so important to those who experienced them, are lost by the time the June 6th 1944 was pressed into a history text. And in 10 or 20 years it’s possible that no one will be around to share them with us. So what will we have left? What will resurrect the texture of life that time erases?

Of course, there is plenty of historical non-fiction (and not just about D-Day!) There are amazing books in that genre, like Manhunt by James Swanson, recounting the chase for President Lincoln’s killers and the other conspirators. These books are also antidotes to the history texts of our youth, but all too often even the great writing they contain may not truly address the human part of the equation. They have to stick to the script that History wrote for them no matter what. And that’s where Historical Fiction enters the stage—a beautiful mix of reality and illusion—stories that illuminate the human condition while teaching us about History in all those glorious little details. In essence, we fake it! But we have to fake it well. To borrow from JoeClifford’s earlier post, “We are architects manifesting an illusion…”

And so like every other genre, Historical Fiction deserves its well-earned shelf-space. I couldn’t say it any better than Susan Clayton Goldner who just a few days ago wrote, “Stories allow us to spend time with the living and the dead. In the acts of telling, reading and writing them, we discover truths--things we didn't know we knew.” And while Susan is talking about writing in general, a good historical can teach us not only who we are, but also who we were.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014


I’ve been remiss with keeping up with the blog over the past couple of weeks. Even though I hate excuses, I have a pretty good one all the same! Even though I posted it on Facebook a few times, my super stellar literary agent sold LINCOLN’S BODYGUARD to Oceanview Publishing. It is due out April 2015, just in time for the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s assassination. For those who don’t know, the novel is an alternative look at history, where Lincoln survives John Wilkes Booth’s assassination attempt.

In any event, I’ve been busy trying to finalize edits to the manuscript, and getting the incredible Oceanview staff all the background they need. But last night I turned in a big packet of information, and I’m back to the keyboard!

One of the exciting things I was asked to supply my publisher was an acknowledgements for the novel. I’ve secretly dreamed of getting the chance to write them, but never dared take a stab at it until asked. I didn’t want to risk ruining any publishing Karma! Actually sitting down to write the acknowledgments was humbling. For years I’ve read that section in every book I’ve picked up, mostly out of jealousy. But in writing mine for LINCOLN’S BODYGUARD, I’m humbled by how much help I’ve had along the way. To that end, I’ll post those acknowledgements here, just to show my appreciation to all those that have lent a hand. Thanks!

Writing may be a solitary act, but no writer can go it alone. I know there is no way I can adequately thank everyone who has inspired, pushed, cajoled or sometimes kicked me forward, but I will at least try to account for all those who have helped see LINCOLN’S BODYGUARD into print. In trying to remember all those involved I am humbled by the realization that telling Joseph and Molly’s story was truly a community effort.

First I must thank my beautiful wife. Nancy taunted me into writing my first novel, not realizing the many nights she would go to bed without me as I stayed up behind my keyboard. My children, Cheyan, Jia, and Sierra (Boo), who all think it’s normal for Daddy to spend so much time behind the computer. To my parents, Connie and Jim, and my brothers Nick and Erik, who suffered through those early drafts and meandering storylines. I also have to thank Gwyn Sundell for reading many, many drafts, and Basil Blank for testing out the final version. Then there are the readers of the “Yellow Springs Wine Sipping Club with a Book Problem” who pulled no punches: Jen Clark (and Jason Clark who came for the wine), Karla Horvath, Kathleen Galarza, Eden Matteson, Nan Meekin, Melissa Tinker and Betty Tinker.

The Antioch Writer’s Workshop and the Bill Baker Award got me started on this writing career.  Thank you Sharon Short, Becky Morean, Lee Huntington, and Wendy Hart-Beckman for helping me fine-tune the story, and Jane Baker and family for establishing the award named after her husband. I also have Colonel (ret.) Vic Brown, Carol Callicotte, Jim Satterfield, and Peter Hogenkamp to thank for lending their perspective, as well as Bill Phillips who pushed me toward writing this story. Thanks also to Maddee James for a fantastic website in an age where authors and social media are impossible to separate.

My amazing Literary Agent Elizabeth Kracht (Kimberley Cameron & Associates) is the kind of agent who is in it for the long haul with all her writers, honing their craft while she guides their careers. I will be forever indebted to Liz for the guidance and all her hard work. Lincoln’s Bodyguard would never have wound up in front of Liz if not for Mary Moore who read that early draft and believed in the story. Finally, I have to thank Pat and Bob Gussin at Oceanview Publishing for taking a chance on a debut author!