Thomas Jefferson’s Literary Advice

The most valuable of talents is never using two words when one will do. – Thomas Jefferson

An Example: The Declaration of Independence, First Paragraph

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Granted, Jefferson’s sentence is longer that those most twenty-first century authors write. It’s eighty-one words. Despite its length, though, every word is strong and counts toward clarity. The sentence length is just part of his literary style. That’s what being concise means: using strong words that make it easy for readers to understand a writer’s message. In other words—CLARITY.

Modern writers do well to abide by Jefferson’s sound advice. For tips on how to do this, visit my blog series, “Cut the Clutter.”

The Creek War (1813-1814): Part Nine, Fort Mims Aftermath/Andrew Jackson Gets Involved

During the massacre at Fort Mims, Chief William McIntosh wasn’t idle. The Indian agent to the Creeks, Benjamin Hawkins, sent him to the northern part of Alabama to recruit Cherokees to join the war. McIntosh succeeded in his task.

One consequence of the massacre at Fort Mims was that the Choctaw chief, Pushmataha, traveled to Mobile with George Gaines from St. Stephens, where he offered his warriors to General Thomas Flournoy, commander of the Seventh Military District. At first, Flournoy refused the chief’s offer. Enraged, Pushmataha headed back to St. Stephens with Gaines when a courier overtook them on the road and said the general had changed his mind. At a council, Pushmataha gave an impassioned speech to some five thousand braves.  He’d lost many friends at Fort Mims. He said they needed to avenge their deaths. Almost all of them responded in the affirmative – war! So now, the Americans had another ally.


Credit: Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1964

When word of the massacre reached Nashville, demands for vengeance spread throughout Tennessee. The month before, the federal government had authorized the governors of Tennessee and Georgia to raise troops to fight the Red Sticks, and the Nashville Courier used Fort Mims as a reason to “exterminate the Creek nation.” Soon, four armies took to the field.

Armies and Commanders

Andrew Jackson: West Tennessee // John Cocke:: East Tennessee

John Floyd: Georgia// Ferdinand Claiborne:   U.S. Army regulars & militiamen

Allies: Friendly Creeks, Choctaws, and Cherokees

Jackson Marches South

One of Jackson’s closest friends was John Coffee, in command of his cavalry. In October Colonel Coffee’s men rode to Huntsville, in north Alabama. A few days later, Major General Jackson and his militia joined him. They built two supply depots, one of them at the end of the fifty-mile road they cut in six days. Then Jackson continued his march south, determined to destroy every Red Stick village he encountered and cut a highway through their country clear down to Mobile.

For a time, his march stopped on the Coosa River, where he built Fort Strother. Upon learning of a nearby Red Stick town, Tallushatchee, he dispatched Coffee and their Cherokee allies to destroy it. To distinguish themselves from the Red Sticks, the Cherokees wore white feathers and deer tails on their heads. The future hero of the Alamo, Davy Crockett, also participated in this battle.

In the predawn hours of November 3, Coffee’s nine hundred troopers and the Cherokees advanced on Tallushatchee within a mile, and then surrounded it. Detachments of scouts were sent in to draw the Red Sticks out.

The Red Sticks took the bait and charged out of their village, where Coffee’s men caught them in a crossfire. Remembering this fight, Crockett reported that he and others chased forty-six warriors into a house. He wrote: “We shot them like dogs, and then set the house on fire, and burned it up with the forty-six warriors in it.”

Within a mere half hour, 186 Indians were killed, including women and children.

Coffee regretted the deaths of the women and their children, saying in his report that killing them had been an accident due to the warriors fleeing into their homes.

A few days later, Jackson received word from a friendly chief that Weatherford’s 1,000 warriors had surrounded, and was besieging, the village of Talladega some thirty miles from Fort Strother. To slip through Weatherford’s lines, the chief had disguised himself as a hog—put on hogskin, grunted, and walked on his hands and feet in the evening till he made it through the Red Sticks’ camps.

When Jackson learned of this threat to Talladega he, due to his sick and wounded which had depleted his force, first wanted to be reinforced by John Cocke’s men but then decided he couldn’t wait. So, while leaving a token force to guard Fort Strother, Jackson marched to Talladega’s rescue and defeated Weatherford in a decisive victory using Coffee’s tactics. Jackson’s men also captured a Spanish flag at Talladega–evidence of Spain’s alliance with England in supporting the Red Sticks, some seven hundred of whom escaped Jackson’s army. So, the fighting continued.

After this battle, Jackson spent the winter doing battle on a different front: the hunger his troops suffered, many of them now mutinous, and a massacre led by General Cocke’s men that made life ever more difficult for him.


Bunn, Mike and Clay Williams. Battle for the Southern Frontier: The Creek War and the War of 1812. First Printing. Charleston: The History Press, 2008.

Griffith, Benjamin W. Jr. McIntosh and Weatherford, Creek Indian Leaders, Tuscaloosa and London: The University of Alabama Press, 1988.

Benefits of a Five Second Courtesy

“Ready.” James looked at his stopwatch then glanced up at Harold and raised his finger. “Get set. Go!”

“Thank you,” Harold said, grinning.

“Ah, now that wasn’t so hard was it., Harold?”

“Nah! It took less than five seconds to say it.”

James put his arm around his friend’s shoulders and steered him toward the snack bar. “Exactly.”

Obviously, James believes saying “thank you” is important. And he’s right! Those two little words carry lots of power. What makes them so powerful?

  1. They express appreciation for whoever we’re thanking and tells them we don’t take them for granted. This feeling of worth is a good motivator for a person to continue doing good deeds for others.
  2. From a business perspective, it can also open doors for wonderful opportunities which may not have opened otherwise. Saying “thank you” is so rare these days, those who say it stand out from the crowd. People remember the “thankers” easier than they do the ungrateful.
  3. Saying “thank you” helps people live happier lives. When we speak these words, we’re focused on others instead of ourselves. Cultivate a habit of gratitude. According to scientific research, those who say “thank you” have better mental and physical health.

So, thank you for reading this short blog. Remember, words of gratitude only takes five seconds.

The Creek War (1813-1814): Part Eight, Fort Sinquefield

Josiah Francis self-portrait, 1815

Like Fort Mims, Fort Sinquefield was a hastily built stockade on an acre of land with just one blockhouse. Unlike Fort Mims, just a few families sought refuge in it when the war broke out. Two of these families – the Ranson Kimbell and Abner James families – left the fort after the Fort Mims massacre in the mistaken (and fatal) belief that the Red Stick threat had ended.

On the afternoon of September 1, a party of Red Sticks attacked Ranson Kimbell’s home where these families had relocated. With the exception of Abner James’s daughter Sarah Merrill and her infant son, all who were present were killed. Other family members avoided death because they weren’t present during the attack. Although Sarah was scalped and left for dead and her son severely injured, she managed to make it back to the fort with him, survived her scalping and her son eventually survived his wounds.

The next day, September 2, some ladies went to a spring about three hundred yards from the stockade to wash clothes when, suddenly, Josiah Francis and one hundred whooping, painted warriors rushed them and the fort. Had it not been for Isaac Hayden’s hunting dogs, all of these ladies might have been killed. When he turned his hounds loose, they sprinted out the fort’s gate and into the attacking Red Sticks, which bought time for them to flee back into the fort. Only one lady was killed in this episode.

With its gate closed, Fort Sinquefield’s residents put up a stout and effective defense. After a two-hour battle, they repulsed the Red Sticks with only one man killed.

Young Jeremiah Austill, who’d soon gain a measure of fame, was sent to General Claiborne’s headquarters at Mount Vernon to deliver a report of the victory.


Bunn, Mike, “Fort Sinquefield,” Encyclopedia of Alabama. Updated September 26, 2018. Fort Sinquefield | Encyclopedia of Alabama

Bunn, Mike and Clay Williams. Battle for the Southern Frontier: The Creek War and the War of 1812. First Printing. Charleston: The History Press, 2008.

Halbert, Henry S. and Timothy H. Ball. The Creek War of 1813 and 1814. Chicago: Donohue and Henneberry, 1895.

Crutch Words

We writers all have little words we tend to overuse. In literary lingo, these are called crutch words. They’re trite, uninteresting, and are usually the first words that come to mind in a rough draft. Although writing them in a rough draft is fine we must, in our revision, try to limit their use. I’ve listed a few here to watch out for, but it is far from exhaustive,

A Few Crutch Words


















The Creek War (1813-1814), Part Seven, Massacre at Fort Mims

1858 Engraving of the Fort Mims massacre. Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

When I first saw this picture in a 4th-grade history textbook, it sparked my interest in this conflict. So, I’ve had an interest in it for a very long time

On August 29, 1813, two slaves owned by Josiah Fletcher were dispatched from Fort Mims to check on Samuel Mims’s cattle, but they weren’t gone long. They ran back to the fort and reported seeing Indians. However, when Major Beasley sent out a patrol to investigate, none were found. Consequently, he whipped one of the slaves for giving a false alarm.

The next morning, a similar thing happened. Fletcher’s slave, the one who’d been whipped, was sent out with another slave to check on the cattle. But instead, Fletcher’s slave went to nearby Fort Pierce, two miles southeast of Fort Mims and closer to Mobile. The other slave returned and said he’d seen Indians too.

Soon after this James Cornells, a métis, galloped into the fort alerting the garrison that the Creeks were on their way. Beasley, according to Cornells after the war, was drunk and said, “You saw red cows, man.”

At noon, Weatherford’s warriors attacked from the north, south, and east. They poured through the east gate, killing Beasley when he vainly tried shutting it. A militia company, guarding the gate, was wiped out.

Warriors from the northern sector rushed through the open west gate but encountered a locked inner gate. Upon capturing its guardhouse, they scaled the pickets and occupied the blockhouse.

From the south, warriors dominated the southern pickets’ rifle holes, felling one person after another.  

Along the northern sector, however, Captain Dixon Bailey, the garrison’s most competent officer, put up a stout defense. None of his pickets’ loopholes were captured, and his men were well-disciplined.

Then, suddenly, the Creeks retreated because some of their prophets, who’d boasted that no bullet could kill them, had indeed been killed. During this lull, Weatherford’s warriors conferred at a nearby house regarding their next move. In the meantime, Captain Bailey took command of the fort.

At the Red Stick conference, Weatherford advised against a renewed attack, but no one listened. So he and his slaves rode to his half-brother David Tate’s house not far from the tragic scene. He’d had enough of the fighting and bloodshed for the day. No one listened to him. Women and children had been killed. He knew what would come next. He hated it.

About an hour after their withdrawal, the Indians resumed their attack, slaughtering and scalping, and burning Mims’ house and surrounding buildings. When it was all over, 250 people inside the fort were killed and about 100 were captured.

A few defenders, however, managed to escape the carnage. Some went to Fort Stoddert. One of them, a slave named Hester, found a canoe on the Tensaw River. Despite being shot, she managed to row to the fort, the first person to bring news of the disaster.

This massacre led Andrew Jackson, up in Tennessee, to get involved. We’ll discuss his role in a later post.  


Bunn, Mike and Clay Williams. Battle for the Southern Frontier: The Creek War and the War of 1812. Fourth Printing. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2013.

Gregory A. Waselkov, “Fort Mims and Massacre,” updated January 11, 2018, Fort Mims Battle and Massacre | Encyclopedia of Alabama.

Waselkov, Gregory A. A Conquering Spirit: Fort Mims and the Redstick War of 1813-1814, Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 2006.

Stop, Look and Listen

Photo by Pixabay on

Many writers tend to be introverted, but I don’t know if a person can say that about me. Well, maybe to a certain degree when I’m in strange crowds, but I reckon I’m actually somewhere between the two extremes. After all, I often got in trouble in school for being the class clown, even though nobody, especially teachers, thought I was funny.

As writers, however, we need to be willing to crawl out of our literary shells from time to time and get around people. Early in my career, I often visited shopping malls. There, I’d sit on a bench, observe and listen to shoppers. I’d even have a notebook with me on occasion and took notes. Some may consider this a waste of time. Even strange. It wasn’t. I was studying people – how they walked, how they talked, their body language, and their reactions to different situations. It came in handy later on when I began writing fiction.

How does studying people come in handy? Let’s look at one example. If we observe how a person gets angry, we can then use the way he/she demonstrated anger for one of our story’s angry characters. Not everyone yells when they’re angry, not everyone stomps their foot, and so on. Everyone is unique and thus, everyone shows his/her emotion in different ways. So, observation is one way we learn to improve our craft.

Listening is also important, especially for dialogue.  In addition to reading, study dialogue in movies and television. Movie scripts are, after all, primarily speech. Just as in novels, good dialogue is one of the hallmarks of a good movie or television show.

Of course, when we’re around people we can learn dialogue by engaging them in conversation. What are some unique expressions people use? Do they talk fast, speak slowly or use clipped sentences? Try to imitate these and other patterns in your characters’ dialogue. Also, observe peoples’ body language. Our stories will be all the better for it.

So take time to get out among the crowds. Take time to stop, look, and listen.