Native Guards of Louisiana

Native Guards of Louisiana

The men seen in this photo were all Creoles. Because they weren’t white, they were called “free men of color.” All of these men spoke French and most were well-educated and wealthy.  Its line officers, such as captains and lieutenants, were also “free men of color.”

When the Civil War started, their militia unit was part of the Confederate army defending New Orleans, as seen in the above photo. However, after New Orleans fell to Union naval forces in 1862, the men disbanded.

Louisiana-Native-Guards-Union

When General Benjamin F. Butler, New Orleans’ military governor, issued a call for black troops in August 1862, these men responded eagerly. Lots of people believe that the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, depicted in the movie Glory, was the first black unit to organize and fight. Nope! It was the Native Guards of Louisiana–first black regiment to be organized and mustered into the army, and the first to experience serious combat. They fought at Port Hudson, Louisiana in 1863. The 54th was the first black regiment organized in the North.

Also fighting alongside these men, the Third Native Guards, a regiment formed from former slaves and led by white officers.

In my book due out next year, Squire, Tales of a Mascot, I feature these brave men and their heroism during the siege of Port Hudson.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Historical Fiction Research: Newspapers

Scan_20170116 (2)These photos were taken by my father, Dr. John M. Cunningham

Many years ago, while four friends and I traveled to Tennessee during a Labor Day break from college, my car struck a huge concrete culvert head-on at sixty miles per hour. My engine erupted into flames like what we often see in the movies, and we were nearly killed.

Upon my father’s arrival at the hospital where we were recovering, he handed me a local newspaper that “told what happened.” I put this in quotes because the reporter got most everything wrong. The major thing he got wrong? He said we were sideswiped by a truck. Though in pain, I chuckled. Ours was a single-car accident due to careless driving. A passing truck driver was the one who rescued us. I learned then not to believe everything I read in a newspaper. Journalists are people; they do make factual errors.

I carry this knowledge into my historical research. Like today’s newspapers, old newspapers’ facts are sometimes either outright wrong or twisted, and they’re also biased just like our modern newspapers. Though studying old newspapers can be helpful, my motto is this: “Researcher, beware.”

What value, then, do we find by using newspapers as a source? Since my specialty is the nineteenth century, let me share some useful things we can glean from them and incorporate into our historical fiction. I’ll be using as my source The Daily Ranchero, a newspaper once published in Brownsville, Texas. I’ll be using various issues of this paper, all from the year 1865, after the Civil War ended.

1. We can learn the prices of goods sold at the time. On one of The Daily Ranchero’s broadsheets, we find a list of items that would be sold at auction along with their prices. Here’s a sample: star candles ($18-$20), quinine ($1.50 per ounce), rip saws ($1.35), etc. The list is way too long to reproduce in its entirety.

2. Weather reports for a particular day are often found in these newspapers. This helps keep our scene’s weather accurate if we’re writing about a specific day in history.

3. Advertisements in these old papers are great! Not only do they tell us which businesses were around in the era we’ve chosen, they often give street names and specific addresses. We can learn the names of restaurants, hotels, and stagecoach lines, such as Arnold & Wheeler’s, in The Daily Ranchero.

4. What kind of medicine did they use in 1865? A drug store advertisement gives us an idea. The Brownsville Drug Store advertised the arrival of new stock: citrate of magnesia, seltzer aperient, etc. It added, “Prices very much reduced in accordance with times and market.”

5. What about standard news articles? We can and should also use them, of course. However, as I mentioned earlier, “Researcher, beware.” Study these articles with a critical eye, watching out for bias and errors of fact and similar things. Always double-check these articles with other sources before using the information in our work.

Well, I hope this has given my readers a few ideas on how to use newspapers in historical research. Till next week, friends, keep on writing!

Let’s Have a Conversation

 

Placeholder ImageHas anyone ever told you that  you write like you talk? That’s a great thing to hear if they did. Indeed, it’s a compliment, because good writing carries with it a conversational, natural-sounding style, whereas poor writing is stilted and sounds forced. Stilted writing bores readers, whereas conversational writing pleases them, thus encouraging them to keep reading.

What is stilted writing?

1. Stilted writing sounds formal. It uses formal words instead of the everyday words most people use.

2. Stilted writing doesn’t use contractions.

   a. Stilted sentence: “I am sorry I was late.”

   b. More natural sentence: “I’m sorry I was late.”

3. Read your prose aloud. Better yet, read it into a voice recorder, then play back what you’ve read. Does it sound like natural conversation? If so, great! If not, more work needs to be done.

As writers, then, let’s aim for a conversational style. It should sound like we’re talking to readers from an easy chair, telling them a story. To achieve this requires lots of work and lots of practice. Here are a few tips that’ll help.

1. Use contractions. Why? Because people use contractions in their everyday speech.

2. Vary sentence lengths but be concise. Good writing makes every word count toward the reader’s understanding of a sentence no matter what the sentence’s length. If a word or phrase doesn’t contribute toward understanding a sentence’s meaning, if it’s just hanging out there serving no purpose, get rid of it.

3. Vary our sentence structures. Since sentence structure is beyond the scope of this post, I recommend finding and studying a good grammar book that discusses it.

Till next time, friends, keep on writing!