Monday, April 28, 2014

Capris Pants and Stockings

I have always loved writing, and very slowly I think I’ve become moderately tolerable at the whole business of storytelling! Whenever I describe my writing to anyone, most notably when talking about LINCOLN’S BODYGUARD, I get questions about writing historical fiction.

Did you always want to write historicals? What about other genres? Science Fiction?

The truth is, I have no idea! I love reading everything—especially anything really well written. But when I first sat down to write, I somehow landed on historical fiction. I’ve thought quite a bit about this, and at first I came to the conclusion that I was lazy, or scared. Historical fiction gives me a backdrop that my story has to fit into…like finding how the jigsaw puzzle fits back together when you only have the edges built. There are rules with a world already pre-built that your characters and their struggles might somehow mesh with. But with that comes great responsibility—research!

When I’m wading through my fourth or fifth book trying to dig up enough background to fully understand the time period, I’m really envious of those writing science fiction. They can just put a warp drive wherever they need, bend the rules of physics around their story, and otherwise form a world they need to make the story perfect. Us poor saps writing historical fiction don’t have it so lucky.

Don’t get me wrong—while I love not having to invent my own world I also love the research end of things, even taking field trips to museums and other grand historical locales to get the setting right. You might be able to do some of that in Science Fiction, but you quickly have to start using your imagination. And since I only have so much of that fairy dust in my back pocket (that’s where I keep it), I like saving it for my characters and their main conflicts.

But there’s a unique element in writing Historical Fiction, and that’s the way the present world, the modern world, views the past. If I truly wrote a story exactly like it would have occurred in the past, chances are no one would like it. Pick up Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage. The writing is so very different. Even though I think it’s an amazing piece of literature, my bet is that it would 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. You want to write it to convince all of us readers that we’re in that time period, while still relating to the world of today. It’s bad enough that I can’t stick a random warp drive into my next thriller set in the Revolutionary War, but now I’ve got to figure out how to make Paul Revere not seem like a ninny in stockings. Even with all the research I still haven’t figured out why the capris pants, powdered wigs and the stockings were all the rage back in the day…I think I’d even take bell bottoms over those things!

I should have written vampire love stories. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

So you want to be a writer?

“Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?
It took me years to write, will you take a look?
It's based on a novel by a man named Lear
And I need a job, so I want to be a paperback writer, Paperback writer.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the question…so you want to be a writer? Sometimes it’s followed by an expression of support, sometimes by a kindred soul who knows the same tortured feeling of trying to squeeze a story onto paper such that it sounds as good on the written page as it does in our heads, but more often than not it’s followed by someone who wants to tell me exactly how tough that dream will be!

“Everyone wants to be a writer,” they’ll say… “It’s not easy to get published,” they’ll tell you. “Why don’t you try something easier,” mom chimes in.

“Well then, my backup plan is to be an astronaut.”

That usually shuts them up. (Editorial note: I actually tried to become an astronaut, but getting sick on a roller coaster doesn’t bode well for a career of intergalactic exploration).

What’s fascinating is that so many of the naysayers, the folks who like to point out how high the hurdles will be to see your book land on the shelves of Barnes and Nobles, or on the front page of Amazon…those people, they’ll turn right around and pitch you their book idea! They either tried but couldn’t figure out how to put it together, or they were scared to start.

It’s a page at a time, that’s all it is. It’s about finding interesting things to do in life and having plenty to write about. It’s about long hours in front of a screen pecking away (I only use three fingers!) to make a story come alive not knowing if anyone else will ever read it. It’s about making it to conferences to learn to write better. It’s about knocking down the doors of agents until you find a good one (or if you’re lucky enough, a GREAT one—Liz Kracht!). It’s about reading, so that you’re a consumer of the written word while you learn how other authors put it all together. It’s about all those things. But more than anything, it’s all about starting. It’s also about knowing when to let go, and when to start again.

I’ve written three novels. The first will stay in my desk drawer, or in that encrypted file that I will never give up! I’d be embarrassed to read it again (it did have an astronaut as a character, though). The second might get dusted off soon, edited and revised to incorporate all that I’ve learned and experienced along the way. The third…well, you can read a bit more about it here.

Though I had been writing my entire life, I decided I wanted to be a writer while lying in a mud puddle in the bottom of a concrete bunker in Afghanistan. And six short years, two more deployments in between, an additional pair of kids, and a crazy collie later, that third novel has landed in front of interested editors. I should have been a damn astronaut!

“If you really like it you can have the rights,
It could make a million for you overnight.
If you must return it, you can send it here
But I need a break and I want to be a paperback writer, Paperback writer.”

- Lyrics by Paul McCartney…the music in my head while typing this…the Beatles.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

John Frederick Parker who?

Do you know the name? Does anyone remember him? I certainly didn’t, even as I set out to research Lincoln’s Bodyguard. I had heard rumors of him before, but I never knew the name. It was a small historical fact, something dwarfed by the events surrounding it. But John Frederick Parker was Abraham Lincoln’s bodyguard. President Lincoln had a bodyguard, even at Ford’s Theater on April 14th 1865! Incredible!

In our world it seems crazy that we wouldn’t have bodyguards surrounding the President. We’ve grown used to the machinery that is the Secret Service. The limo nicknamed “Beast”, the well fortified helicopter “Marine-1”, and even the ubiquitous “Air Force-1” that only Harrison Ford has managed to destroy (obscure movie reference: But back in the land of Lincoln, even as the nation’s one and only Civil War was wrapping up, we had no organization like the Secret Service. The White House lawn was open, individuals (not just the wealthy political donators), walked right into the President’s office to petition the man himself. It’s amazing Lincoln made it to a second term.

Late in 1864, the Metropolitan Police Force of Washington DC created a special unit of four officers to guard the president. John Frederick Parker was among them. He was well distinguished for the blemishes on his record, for sleeping on duty, for visiting brothels, and for conduct unbecoming an officer. But he remained not only on the police force, but even on Lincoln’s detail! He must have been related to someone important.

On that fateful night in Ford’s theater, he was there, stationed right outside the door to the Presidential box. During the first act he left his post in order to take a seat in the gallery where he could see the play. And then at intermission he joined Lincoln’s footman in the Star Saloon for drinks! No one knows for sure where Parker was when Booth crept into the Presidential box that night. We only know where he wasn’t! To be fair though, we don’t even know if he would have stopped Booth. In those days actors like Booth, the Hamlet of his day, were like our A-list movie stars. Parker may just have let Brad Pitt in to see the President. But we all remember John Wilkes Booth’s name. Can you imagine if Parker had been where he was supposed to be sitting, and if he had been good at his job? You and I and everyone else would know the name John Frederick Parker.

In a fitting bit of historical irony, there isn’t even a single photograph of the man. He’s even buried in an unmarked grave. He’s lost to history, as if history herself wants to forget him. The only thing he’ll ever be remembered for is his greatest failing, leaving us to always wonder…what would have happened if President Lincoln had a real bodyguard?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


What’s a Vice-President for?

With the passing of Dec 11th, the nation once again focused on a fateful anniversary—the assassination of JFK. Fifty years had passed since the last President died in office at hands of a lone gunman, or the CIA, or someone on the grassy knoll, or take your pick of any of the hundreds of conspiracy theories. And JFK is hardly alone. We’re up to 44 presidents now, and there have been over 20 assassination attempts over the years, with four presidents lost! I’m not certain I’d like those odds.
I'm not certain who thought a convertible was a good idea...

As awful as these events are, our system of government has planned for them. We have an order of succession, something like sixteen positions deep. (Did you know the Secretary of Agriculture could become the President!? They’re only 8th on the list!) Given the time period when the Constitution was drafted, where life expectancy was much lower and a bad cold could send you to your maker, the founders may not have anticipated assassination as the principal means of requiring a new leader. But of the eight presidents who have died in office, half of them met their fate at the end of an assassin’s bullet. And two more are still undetermined and theories abound that they were poisoned! Being the president is bad for one’s health.

Assassination, especially in today’s political reality, is a poor means to political change. For the last fifty years or more, the vice-president comes from the same political party as the president. That wasn’t always the case, but modern politics have evolved in that manner. So with the death of a president and the subsequent ascension of the vice-president, little is likely to change politically. And if we have a vice-president, then why do we care? That’s what they’re for, right? Most presidents have such a pitiful approval rating that you’d think America would cheer a turnover at the top. But that’s hardly the case.

There’s something visceral for a nation about losing the man (or woman—one of these day’s America will get around to this!) at the top. Even if they were despised while in office, in death they are mourned. Take President Lincoln. Many point to him as the greatest president the nation has had. Real historians debate such titles, but at the very least if you were to take that position you’d have ample support for your stance. During his presidency, even though George Gallup hadn’t introduced approval polls until the 1930s, Lincoln is generally considered to have some of the lowest approval ratings of any sitting president. (It could have something to do with a raging war on US soil). But the nation mourned his loss. Millions of Americans came out to see the train that carried his casket home to Illinois. There’s just something about losing the person at the top.

So as we watched December 11th come and go, and a resurgence of interest in JFK rises to the forefront, we’re reminded of the volatile nature of politics in our nation and beyond. Where a single gunman can change the course of history. And a year from now, next April, we’ll once again encounter a significant anniversary. Once that will surely rise to the same level of interest and hype as the assassination of JFK. April 15th 2015 will mark the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death, during what should inarguably be considered the time of most upheaval in our nation’s history. And while unlike modern politics where perhaps very little will change with a fallen leader, the death of Lincoln forever forged a new path in our nation, and perhaps was the single event that ended our Civil War…but more on that later!