Watch Out! I See Mary Jane!

Photo by Vanessa Georgiou on

During your writing, have you ever stumbled upon Mary Jane? Who is she? Why, she’s an absolutely beautiful character (forgive the unnecessary adverb). Everything about her is flawless – her hair, her makeup, her clothes. She’s so smart, she never makes a mistake. Because she’s the epitome of perfection, she always gets along with other characters. Why, she has the answers for every situation.  I suggest we all watch out for her. Why’s that? It’s simply this. Mary Janes are so perfect, readers cannot identify with them and, worst of all, they’re boring.

A Few Tips on How to Avoid Mary Janes

Give Characters Weaknesses/Flaws/Fears

One of my favorite authors is C.S. Forrester. In his series about the fictional Napoleonic War naval hero, Horatio Hornblower, Hornblower sometimes gets seasick. This adds to his humanity. One wouldn’t expect a naval hero to get seasick, but Captain Hornblower does. Although I’ve never been seasick because I grew up on the Gulf Coast and did lots of saltwater fishing in my younger years, my friends who do get seasick can identify with him.

Let Our Characters Make Mistakes

If they’re our story’s protagonist, mistakes go a long way toward gaining reader sympathy for him/her. If they’re the villain, readers will rejoice at the villain’s error.

Hercule Poirot may be one of the mystery genre’s greatest detectives. Want to know how he died in Agatha Christie’s last Poirot novel, Curtain? He made a mistake many people, unfortunately, make. He died of a heart attack because he didn’t take his heart medicine

Give Our Character a Unique Physical Appearance

Photo by Sixyfifty on

A character may walk with a limp due to an old injury. Or, perhaps, he’s missing a finger from a chainsaw accident.

Mary Janes may wear petite size dresses and always promenade in designer clothes. However, although a more believable female character may wear a size petite dress in our story, she might also wear lots of frumpy clothes and battered tennis shoes.

A Final Word

It’s important to spend quality time thinking about our characters. Make an outline of their strengths and weaknesses and portray them as original, and believable, as we can.

Photo by Vanessa Georgiou on

And hey, watch out for Mary Jane! She lurks everywhere within manuscripts and in the pages of certain books.

The Discipline of Writing

The trade of authorship is a violent, and indestructible obsession– George Sand, penname of Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin (1804-1876), French novelist.

When I was a youngster my sister, who is five years older than me, wanted to learn how to play the piano. So, my parents bought her an upright. At around the age of nine, she began taking lessons. Me? I got tired of hearing her practice her scales and songs. She did this most every weekday. All the way through her senior year in high school, she continued playing and practicing.  Because of her discipline and hard work, she became an excellent pianist.

Likewise, we writers require self-discipline if we want to improve. This is true in every art form.

Sadly, I’ve known talented people who’ve lacked the discipline to do much, if anything, with their literary gifts. After all, we don’t have a boss leaning over our shoulder screaming, “Write! Write!” Self-discipline is a must if we want to get better. If we don’t have the “really want to” we don’t have the “really must do” in order to succeed.

Five Marks of a Self-disciplined Writer

  1. Self-disciplined writers approach their craft like a regular job –because it is. They “clock in and clock out” on a regular schedule, even on days when they don’t feel like writing. Ever worked a regular nine-to-five job when you didn’t want to but had to? That’s what self-disciplined writers do, even if for an hour or two a day.
  2. Self-disciplined writers persevere despite disappointments, such as when an editor rejects a manuscript.
  3. Self-disciplined writers cut out distractions. Some write well in noisy environments while others, such as me, don’t. Whatever environment a self-disciplined writer chooses, he/she focuses totally on their work.
  4. Self-disciplined writers live a balanced life. They know when to say no to certain activities without feeling guilty and when to say yes. I’ve learned from experience that not everyone will understand when I say no, but I’ve also learned to accept that fact. Most non-writers don’t understand serious writers, anyway.
  5. Self-disciplined writers are driven. They don’t just want to write, they have to write. True writers write because they have no choice.

To quote the Roman poet Juvenal (c. 70-c. 150): Writing is the incurable itch that possess many.

The Creek War (1813-1814), Part Thirteen, Jackson Struggles

After his November victories, Andrew Jackson fought a battle–to keep his army intact. Many of his men’s enlistments had either expired or were about to expire, so they wanted to return home. He pleaded with them, threatened them, and assured them they’d get the needed supplies.

Albert J. Pickett writes: Since the battle of Talladega, Jackson had encountered innumerable difficulties and mortifications, owing to the failure of contractors and the mutiny of his troops, who were finally reduced to one hundred men by the expiration of their times of service.

Finally, he headed his army north, toward another supply base that was situated on the Tennessee River. Coming south, however, on the same road, were the supply wagons they’d been waiting for. After they met, Jackson returned to Fort Strother, warning his men that he’d shoot any, and all, deserters.

Upon the arrival of eight hundred reinforcements in early January, and upon hearing a rumor about a British plan to land troops in Spanish West Florida, Jackson set out again. Before he could defeat the British, he needed to eliminate the Red Sticks. And, he was determined to do just that.

Albert J. Pickett writes: Well understanding the character of minute men like these, who must constantly be employed, Jackson immediately marched them across the Coosa to the late battleground of Talladega, where he was joined by two hundred Cherokees and Creeks, who evinced great alarm at the weakness which the command presented.

Battle of Emukfau Creek

On January 16, Jackson camped at a Hillabee village. The next day, his army followed trails that indicated a large force ahead of him, toward the Tallapoosa River and the hostile village of Tohopeka. He halted on the twenty-first, on Emukfau Creek, to reconnoiter.

Albert J. Pickett writes: Before dark his (Jackson’s) encampment was formed, his army thrown into a hollow square, his pickets and spies sent out, his sentinels doubled, and fires lighted some distance outside of the lines … at the hour of eleven the spies reported a large encampment three miles distant, where the savages were whooping and dancing, and, being apprised of the approach of the Americans, were sending off their women and children.

The next day, close to sunrise, one thousand Red Sticks commanded by Peter McQueen attacked Jackson’s camp. For a half hour, they fought, General Coffee and his troopers leading the charge, chasing them for two miles. Although Coffee intended to burn the Red Sticks’ camp, he found it too strongly fortified, so he retreated to bring up the artillery–a six-pounder cannon.

Suddenly, McQueen launched another attack from all sides. More fierce fighting ensued, the hostiles withdrew and despite McQueen’s pleas, they refused to attack a third time.

Albert J. Pickett writes: The brave Creeks had now been repulsed in every attempt, but they exhibited a ferocity and courage which commanded the serious consideration of Jackson, whose force was weaker than he desired …..

The next day, Jackson buried his dead then marched back toward Fort Strother, his wounded carried on litters made of deer hide.

Fight at Enitachopca Creek

During his march back to Fort Strother, Jackson engaged in another battle on January 24 when he tried to cross Enitachopca Creek. His wounded and soldiers in the advance guard made it across safely, but then, the Red Sticks attacked. Jackson’s rear guard panicked before the painted warriors. A fierce struggle for Jackson’s artillery ensued.

Albert J. Pickett writes: Discovering that, in separating the gun from the limbers, the rammer and pricker had been left tied to the latter … while Indian bullets rattled like hail around them, Constantine Perkins and Craven Jackson, two of the gunners, supplied the deficiency. Perkins took off his bayonet and rammed the cartridge home with his musket, and Jackson, drawing his ramrod, employed it as a pricker, priming with a musket cartridge. The six-pounder was thus twice charged, pouring grape among the savages, then only a few yards distant … after the second fire, the little artillery company furiously charged on the assailants, who became more cautious in their approaches ….

Finally repelling the enemy and saving the cannon, Jackson’s men, at last, reached Fort Strother. The general allowed the sixty volunteers who’d participated to go back to Huntsville, in north Alabama, for an honorable discharge.

Jackson would soon receive reinforcements from the commander of the Sixth Military District, Major General Thomas Pinckney, and Tennessee’s governor, Blount. Among these men was Sam Houston, who’d later become famous in the Texas Revolution. With these men, Jackson prepared to fight his final and most decisive battle at Horseshoe Bend.


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.

Pickett, Albert J. The History of Alabama. Republished by Birmingham Book & Magazine Co. of Birmingham, Alabama, 1962. Copyright 1878 by Mrs. Sarah S. Pickett.

The Creek War (1813-1814): Part Twelve, The Holy Ground

General Claiborne’s Offensive Begins

On a high limestone bluff overlooking the Alabama River, two hundred cabins and eighty wigwams provided a refuge for the Red Sticks after the Fort Mims massacre as well as a headquarters for Chief William Weatherford and other chiefs. In the center of the town stood a pole from which hundreds of scalps hung, trophies from Fort Mims’s dead.

Surrounded by the river, two creeks, a swamp and forests, not a single road or path led into it. Called Ecunchate (Ikanachaki) in the Creek language and the Holy Ground in the Americans’ English, Josiah Francis and his prophets did incantations over it, putting a magical barrier around it, they believed. They claimed it would protect them from every white man who dared set foot on its sacred soil. If only for a few months, the Holy Ground was a haven for them. It would soon become General Ferdinand Claiborne’s objective when he launched his offensive to avenge the massacre.

Holy Ground Battlefield Park, photo by Rivers Langley

When General Thomas Flournoy, commander of the Mississippi Territory’s Seventh Military District, ordered General Claiborne to march up the Alabama River to Weatherford’s Bluff, named for William Weatherford’s father Charles, Claiborne’s offensive started.

On November 17, Claiborne arrived at the bluff then crossed the Alabama on rafts, built another stockade (Fort Claiborne), and awaited reinforcements from Generals Floyd and Jackson. A small detachment of Choctaws under Pushmataha, who’d been given the rank of lieutenant colonel, accompanied him.

When Colonel Gilbert Russell’s Third U.S. Regiment arrived, Claiborne sought General Flournoy’s permission to advance against the Holy Ground. Although eager to attack it, many of his officers, respectfully, signed a petition in protest. The reasons they cited: no winter clothes, no shoes, no blankets, no roads. Eventually, however, Claiborne persuaded them to his way of thinking.

Sam Moniac, Weatherford’s brother-in-law who’d whacked Josiah Francis with Francis’s warclub months earlier, served as Claiborne’s guide. Due to Moniac’s service during the Creek War his son, David, would be accepted into West Point and become one of its first minority graduates.

On December 13, Claiborne resumed his march for eighty miles, built another stockade, and on December 22 headed deeper into the Creek nation. Upon spotting Claiborne’s army, Weatherford hastened back to the Holy Ground to prepare for the pending attack.  Francis and some other Creeks fled at the news, reducing the number of Creeks and escaped slaves to defend the town.

The Battle of the Holy Ground

General Claiborne’s Tactics

Claiborne planned a three-pronged attack, each column with a different objective, and he sent a fourth force across the river to cut off the Red Sticks’ retreat. Of these three columns, only the right column under Colonel Joseph Carson engaged in major fighting. He was ordered to cross Holy Ground Creek and then attack the Holy Ground’s upper town. The left column, under Major Benjamin Smoot, had the objective of capturing the Holy Ground’s lower town while General Claiborne and Colonel Russell held the center in reserve. Major Cassel’s men, the fourth force, was assigned the job of cutting off the Red Sticks’ retreat.

William Weatherford’s Tactics

When Josiah Francis ran away, Weatherford assumed command. First, he ordered that the women and children be taken across the river in canoes to the safety of the thick woods. Many prophets argued with him and protested, insisting their magic barrier would protect them. Fortunately, Weatherford asserted his authority and got his way, and the noncombatants were rushed to safety.

Next, since he anticipated an attack would come across Holy Ground Creek, he set up an ambush. Warriors with rifles, he posted behind a stream bank while others hid behind a fallen tree to await the Americans. A third body of men, wielding bows and arrows, he placed in the rear.

William Weatherford Becomes a Legend

Colonel Carson’s troops made the major attack across Holy Ground Creek. At first, due to the Red Sticks’ withering barrage and stiff resistance, their advance was slow. Men fought from behind trees and stumps, arrows flew high and beyond them to no effect. When the troops finally flanked the Red Sticks, the warriors beat a retreat back toward their town, many having fallen to the soldiers’ bullets.

Weatherford raced to his swift steed Arrow, mounted him and found himself facing Carson’s men practically alone. Surrounded. No escape. He was going to be captured. He galloped to the riverbank, to a bluff about fifteen feet high. Pretty long way down into the river. Could he make it? He had no choice. It was either leaping into it or else being captured or killed.

He turned Arrow back and moved quickly up a hollow to give his powerful horse a good running start. Then he galloped back down and leaped off the bluff, diving into the river. Arrow surfaced and swam to the other side amidst musket balls splashing around them. Both Weatherford and Arrow made it to shore, out of the range of Carson’s troops, unhurt.

Claiborne’s army spent a cold Christmas Eve camped on Weatherford’s plantation, in his cornfield, dining on boiled acorns and parched corn—all the food they had. By January 14, the general’s army had dwindled to sixty volunteers, for the other soldiers’ enlistments had expired. In Weatherford’s house, a letter from the Spanish governor of Pensacola was found, congratulating him on the victory at Fort Mims and a suggestion that he attack Mobile — clear evidence of Spain’s role in the war. What this governor did not know, however, is that Weatherford could neither read nor write because he’d had no desire to ever learn.

Did Weatherford and Arrow Really Make Their Legendary Leap?

Some people have questioned whether Weatherford and Arrow actually made their famous leap. No historian has been able to disprove it and according to Benjamin W. Griffith, Jr., in his book McIntosh and Weatherford, Creek Indian Leaders, the consensus among eyewitnesses, such as Sam Moniac and Sam Dale, and most of those who knew Weatherford is that a leap did occur. Because this feat moved William Weatherford into Alabama legend, some accounts have exaggerated certain aspects of it, such as the height from which he and Arrow jumped. According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, fifteen feet is about the true height.


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

Pickett, Albert J. The History of Alabama. Republished by Birmingham Book & Magazine Co. of Birmingham, Alabama, 1962. Copyright 1878 by Mrs. Sarah S. Pickett.

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


Government Street is one of the oldest streets in Mobile and a main artery going through its downtown section.


  1. William Faulkner: In many of his works, Faulkner set his tales in fictional Yoknapatawpha County, inspired by the Mississippi county, Lafayette, in which he lived.
  2. Winston Groom: One of Winston Groom’s early works, Gone the Sun, is partially set in the town of Bienville. However, having grown up in Mobile the same as he did, and in the same era, it was obvious to me that his fictional Bienville is— actually – Mobile!

So, Faulkner and Groom show us that it’s perfectly fine to use a real setting but give it a different name. This allows writers lots of freedom—where their characters go, where events happen, and the types of characters they use.  


  1. Research: If a writer knows his/her setting well, he or she doesn’t have to do lots of research. However, detailed research is essential if stories have a real setting with which writers aren’t familiar. That said, it’s also permissible to create fictional neighborhoods and streets in real places.
  2. Readers: Real settings help writers create places readers recognize. For example, Andy Andrews’s book, The Heart Mender, is set in Gulf Shores, Alabama, located along a peninsula at the mouth of Mobile Bay. I instantly recognized the places in his book, for I’ve visited them many a time. It is a popular tourist resort these days. Because it was so well written and recognizable, it drew me deep into his story, a true story he wrote using fiction techniques.


  1. Fictional settings: Creating these is great fun! It releases a writer’s imagination!
  2. Research Again: If a fictional town is set in a real place, writers need to be sure the topography, vegetation, wildlife, and similar things are accurate.


Lawsuits. If we use real people in our stories and portray them in a negative way, or if we’re critical of a real place such as a library or restaurant, we could be asking for a lawsuit. In my opinion, it’s safer legally to keep as much as possible fictional, even in real settings. Take Sherlock Holmes’s fictional address, for example—221B Baker Street. Although Baker Street does exist in London, and in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s day, the street didn’t go that far.

What are your thoughts on this subject?

The Creek War (1813-1814): Part Eleven, Battle of Autossee

While Generals Andrew Jackson and Ferdinand Claiborne were on the march in November of 1813 messengers from Coweta, a Lower Creek town on the Chattahoochee River, brought word to General John Floyd that Peter McQueen’s Red Sticks were besieging it. Through them, Chief William McIntosh and other chiefs asked him for help.

With a force of 950 militia, Floyd marched toward Coweta via the Federal Road. Arriving at the Chattahoochee, he learned the siege had been lifted and Peter McQueen’s warriors had fallen back to the village of Autossee, on the Tallapoosa River. After he built Fort Michell (near present-day Phenix City, Alabama) as a supply base, he continued into Alabama. Joined by friendly Creeks commanded by Chief William McIntosh, his army marched toward Autossee.  Alabama’s first recorded Jewish settler, Abraham Mordecai, served as their guide. Historian Albert J. Pickett described the event:

Brigadier General John Floyd crossed the Ocmulgee, Flint and Chattahoochie, and advanced near the Tallapoosa with an army of nine hundred and fifty militia and four hundred friendly Indians …

Though Floyd intended to surround the town, daybreak revealed a different situation which caused him to change his plan. What was it he saw? Another Red Stick camp about five hundred yards downstream from Autossee. Pickett continues:

It was now necessary to change the plan of attack, by advancing three companies of infantry to the lower town, accompanied by Merriweather’s rifles, and two troops of light dragoons commanded by Captains Irwin and Steele. The remainder of the army marched upon the upper town, and soon the battle became general. The Indians at first advanced … but the fire from the artillery, with the charge of bayonets, drove them into the out-houses and thickets, in the rear of the town. Many concealed themselves in caves cut in the bluff of the river, here thickly covered with cane.

Floyd sent McIntosh’s warriors to cross over to the Tallapoosa’s west side to cut off the Red Stick retreat, but frigid weather and high waters prevented them from doing it, so McIntosh posted his men on Calabee Creek to achieve his goal. McIntosh’s warriors fought well. By nine o’clock in the morning, the Red Sticks had abandoned the field, their homes set ablaze and the friendly Creeks pillaged the town. Peter McQueen wasn’t present at this fight. He’d left with his warriors before the battle.

Floyd suffered a wound in his kneecap, and nine of his men were killed. Three others died later from wounds. Somewhere from one hundred to three hundred Red Sticks were killed. The battle was bloodier than expected and he suffered from a shortage of supplies,, so Floyd retreated to his base at Fort Mitchell to regroup.



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

Pickett, Albert J. The History of Alabama. Republished by Birmingham Book & Magazine Co. of Birmingham, Alabama, 1962. Copyright 1878 by Mrs. Sarah S. Pickett.

Wilson, Claire M. “Battle of Autossee,” Encyclopedia of Alabama. Updated October 8, 2014.

John Floyd (1769-1839)

The Creek War (1813-1814): Part Ten, Another Massacre and a River Fight

Hillabee Massacre

It was a good thing for Jackson that he didn’t wait for reinforcements from General John Cocke, because they never would’ve arrived.

General James White, under Cocke’s command, marched toward Jackson’s army to reinforce him prior to the battle of  Talladega, till Cocke recalled him to rejoin his East Tennessee army. Likely, Cocke, jealous of Jackson, feared losing his independent command to that fiery general.

What soon followed as a consequence? Another massacre, but not by Indians this time but by General White’s men. Today it’s known as the Hillabee Massacre.

The Hillabee Creeks were ready to surrender to Andrew Jackson, but on November 18 things changed when Cocke’s men attacked a Hillabee village, killing 60 Creeks, not all of them warriors, and taking 250 prisoners. “Not a drop of Tennessee blood was spilt,” historian Albert J. Pickett wrote in his famous work, The History of Alabama. “The other Hillabee towns, viewing this as flagrant treachery on the part of Jackson, became the most relentless enemies of the Americans, and afterwards fought them with fiendish desperation.”[1]

Needless to say, this tragic event outraged Andrew Jackson.

The Canoe Fight

Another incident, though of no strategic importance, brought fame to its participants: Sam Dale, Jeremiah Austill, James Smith, and a free black man named Caesar. This incident occurred during raids by  General Claiborne’s militia when he assumed the offensive against the Red Sticks. On November 12, eighty militiamen under the command of Captain Sam Dale went on a scouting mission across the Alabama River. Dale, along with Jeremiah Austill, James Smith, and Caesar, were among the last to cross it.

However, as they crossed in a dugout, they spotted a canoe loaded with Indians so they gave chase and overtook the enemy. Shots were fired. While Caesar held the two boats together, a brief, fierce fight ensued— paddles, war clubs, knives, and bayonets swung and stabbed at each other. Two Indians dove overboard and escaped, eight were killed. This incident made Dale and his men legends in Alabama.  

[1] Pickett, Albert J. The History of Alabama. Republished by Birmingham Book & Magazine Co. of Birmingham, Alabama, 1962. Copyright 1878 by Mrs. Sarah S. Pickett.

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.

The Creek War(1813-1814), Part Six, Prelude to a Massacre

This diagram of Fort Mims is called the Claiborne Map, but in truth, we don’t know who drew it. It was probably drawn by one of General Claiborne’s men who came to bury the dead after the massacre.

The Settlers

When Samuel Mims moved to the Tensaw Region in 1780, in what would become the Mississippi Territory, he settled near Lake Tensaw just north of Spanish-held Mobile. Here he built his wealth. By 1811, he owned lots of land and cattle and a profitable ferry that crossed the Alabama River. In addition to this, he owned and sold slaves. Befitting a man of his means, his house was an expensive, one-story frame structure with ten outbuildings—not the more common log houses most pioneers lived in.

When hostilities broke out at Burnt Corn Creek, Territorial Governor Thomas Holmes ordered General Ferdinand Claiborne’s Mississippi Territorial Volunteers to the Tensaw and Tombigbee settlements.

The settlers, though, weeks before the battle, had already begun building stockades. In total, there were fifteen. After he arrived at Fort Stoddert, General Claiborne reduced this number to five and put Major Daniel Beasley in command of Fort Mims, the largest of them. Its timber pickets (sharpened stakes) enclosed Mims’ house on 1¼ acre of land. Settlers poured into it and nearby Fort Pierce. So crowded had Fort Mims become, and so close to swamps, that disease afflicted many of its inhabitants.

Prior to the Creek War Beasley had served in the Mississippi Territorial Legislature (1811-1812), and had also served as a sheriff and a justice of the peace. But he had a drinking problem too – a poor choice of a commander on Claiborne’s part.

After an inspection on August 7, General Claiborne ordered Beasley to build two more blockhouses in addition to the one already partially built and to strengthen the fort in other ways.  Beasley failed to do this, grew complacent because of numerous false reports about Red Sticks lurking nearby, and doubted he’d be attacked. He even left the main gate wide open. Over a period of time sand (or more likely clay) built up around the gate, so hard and thick, that it couldn’t be moved. This would play a major role in the fort’s demise.

The Red Sticks

In late August, after many days of hard rain, Red Stick war parties assembled on Flat Creek on the Alabama River under the overall command of William Weatherford. One thousand strong and coming from thirteen towns, the chiefs and prophets had asked him to lead the attack on Fort Mims because it had been his idea.

A small part of this army, under command of the prophet Josiah Francis, broke away from Weatherford’s force and headed to another fort, Fort Sinquefield.

Weatherford, with seven hundred warriors, proceeded to Fort Mims. On the evening of August 29, they camped near it undiscovered. With two other warriors, he scouted it out in the evening, sneaking right up to its pickets undetected. He heard the people inside it carrying on as usual. He noticed that the pickets’ rifle holes were made about four feet from the ground, which made them easy to capture. And its gate was wide open. Weatherford was convinced that no one inside expected a thing. Tomorrow, August 30, catching the fort by surprise was certain.

Upon his return to camp, it’s believed that he told his warriors to spare the women and children, but instead, capture them and make them slaves. “Only kill warriors,” he is said to have told them, referring to the white and métis males.

Sadly, tragically, no one would heed his words.


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.

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

NEXT WEEK: The Massacre at Fort Mims

The Creek War (1813-1814), Part Five: Burnt Corn Creek, The First Battle

Reenactors “fighting” the Battle of Burnt Corn Creek, not far from the site of the actual battle. Photo Credit: The author of this blog.

In the spring of 1813, the Creeks’ civil war was drawing to a close with the Red Sticks on the verge of winning. Meanwhile, the United States was fighting Great Britain a second time and Britain’s ally, Spain, threatened settlers from West Florida. Though Mobile was now in American hands, the Spanish still held Pensacola as West Florida’s capital. Along the Tensaw, Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers, settlers began building stockades.

The Red Sticks, encouraged by their prophets and the earth’s tremors Tecumseh had prophesied would hit their land,[1] raided the farms of those who opposed them. A party of hostiles under the leadership of Peter McQueen, head warrior of Tallassee, headed for Pensacola, the second such party that went to that town. On the way, when McQueen’s warriors burned plantations owned by métis planters Sam Moniac and James Cornells, word spread like a forest fire—the Red Sticks were going to get ammunition from the Spaniards to fight them!  

Colonel James Caller, commander of the region’s territorial militia, called his men to action. Six companies of riflemen and Captain Dixon Bailey’s thirty métis from the Tensaw, a total of 180 militiamen, marched to find the enemy.

On July 26, they encountered McQueen’s men returning from Pensacola with their packhorses.  At eleven o’clock, during the Creeks’ meal, Caller mounted a surprise attack.

McQueen’s warriors fled across Burnt Corn Creek into a marsh, but then counterattacked while the militiamen plundered what they’d captured. The undisciplined volunteers scattered. Not long after this, they disbanded.

Not many casualties to report in this brief battle but because of Burnt Corn Creek, panicked settlers fled into their stockades. One of these was built on an acre of land around the home of Samuel Mims. His fort, aptly named Fort Mims, would go down in history as one of America’s bloodiest massacres … and the bloodiest one in America’s Old Southwest.


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.

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

[1] This was the New Madrid earthquake that hit New Madrid, Missouri in December 1811. It was a coincidence, and it frightened settlers and Indians alike. Tecumseh also prophesied about a comet, something he knew would come because British scientists in Canada had told him he and others would see it. It came over Alabama in September of 1811.

KEEP YOUR DISTANCE. NO! GET CLOSE: Some thoughts on Narrative Distance

When beginning writers first learn the rule “show, don’t tell,” many make the mistake of never using the device of “telling.” Both techniques are important and have their purpose, but they aren’t set in granite. Tied into these guidelines is another technique useful in fiction and nonfiction alike, that of narrative distance.


Narrative distance is how far a writer is from the story. Writers can give readers both a wide view and a closeup view. Riding on a country lane, for example, a person may see farms and crops and barns and animals – that’s the wide view. For a closeup, writers will visit the farm and describe details about it and the farmer.

Fiction and Nonfiction Narrative Distance


Wide-angle: An overview or synopsis of the topic.

Closeup: Delving into the specifics of the topic.


Wide-angle:     Describing a scene or setting in an objective manner.

Closeup:          Showing a character’s emotions, motivations, personalities, etc.

Fiction and Nonfiction

Wide-angle telling is a great way to give readers a break and, although constant telling is boring, constant closeup showing is exhausting. That’s why we writers need to keep our writing balanced between the two.

So, what about your current work in progress? Is it well-balanced?

The Creek War (1813-1814), Part Four: Causes of the Creek War

The causes of Alabama’s Creek War are complex. It started as a civil war between the Lower Creeks, who lived close to the white settlements, many of whom had adopted the white man’s ways, and the Upper Creeks, who lived in a region around and near present-day Montgomery, Alabama and wanted to keep their traditional ways. Inevitably, though, the settlers got drawn into this conflict.

In this blog, I’ll try to keep the reasons as simple and concise as possible.

Westward Movement

After the American Revolution, settlers began moving into Alabama country. Many settled in the Tombigbee-Tensaw River Region just north of Spanish Mobile. These settlements put pressure on the Indians and their way of life. Indians ceded some of their lands to the settlers by treaty, but the settlers wanted more, whereas the Indians depended on the land for survival, such as deer hunting and trading deerskins.

Benjamin Hawkins

Benjamin Hawkins and the Creek Indians, circa 1805 oil on canvas, 35 7/8 x 49 7/8 inches Greenville County Museum of Art, Greenville S.C.

As the Indian agent to the Creeks during this era, Benjamin Hawkins sought to assimilate them into white culture. Though some did assimilate, others refused. This furthered the division between the tribal bands. 

The Federal Road

In late 1811, the Federal government opened a road through Creek country. It began at Milledgeville, Georgia and was built down to Fort Stoddert, on the Mobile River, with New Orleans its intended destination. Originally, it had been a post road that, in the Treaty of Washington (1805), the government had obtained permission to build. However, it was widened for military purposes in 1811 as another war with Great Britain grew imminent. This road expedited the influx of thousands of settlers into Alabama, increasing the strain between the Creek factions.


Tecumseh, a Shawnee chief who had familial ties in Alabama, visited the area in 1811 to form a pan-Indian alliance against the settlers. Though he failed to persuade the Choctaws and Chickasaws, he succeeded with many of the Upper Creeks.

At the Upper Creek capital, Tuckabatchee (near present-day Tallassee, Alabama), he gave an impassioned speech, prophesied about an earthquake and a comet and left a prophet there, Seekaboo, to train other prophets.

After he left for home, in Ohio, the earthquake and comet came to pass. This frightened and convinced many to follow their prophets and go to war. The earthquake’s epicenter was New Madrid, Missouri, the largest quake in U.S. history. It was so powerful and huge, Alabama felt its tremors. This earthquake, though, happened by chance. Regarding the comet, British scientists in Canada had told Tecumseh they expected one to pass over.

The warriors who followed the prophets and fought the settlers would become known as the Red Sticks for their red warclubs. Red was the color of war. Twenty-nine towns sided with the Red Sticks. Five towns, under the leadership of William McIntosh and Chief Big Warrior, sided with the settlers.

The War of 1812

While the British impressed sailors off American ships into their Navy and threatened the United States from Canada, Spain, a British ally, threatened settlers in the Old Southwest. Tecumseh allied himself with the British, and the Red Sticks allied themselves with Spain. When some journeyed to Spanish West Florida’s capital, Pensacola, it would be the spark that caused settlers to, at last, get involved in the conflict. But, before the war started, the Red Sticks had already killed a few settlers.

Next Week, War Begins: The Battle of Burnt Corn Creek


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.

McMillan, Malcolm C. The Land Called Alabama, Austin, TX:: Steck-Vaughn Company 1968.

Southerland, Henry DeLeon Jr, and Jerry Elijah Brown. The Federal Road through Georgia, the Creek Nation, and Alabama, 1806-1836. Tuscaloosa and London: The University of Alabama Press, 1989.

The Creek War(1813-1814), Part Three: Leaders of the Settlers

William McIntosh

When Captain William McIntosh, a Loyalist, rode into Georgia’s Lower Creek Territory to escape the wrath of Savannah’s Patriots during America’s Revolution, he met and married a prominent Creek woman named Senoya. Senoya, from the tribe’s high-status Wind Clan, gave birth to the younger William McIntosh around 1775. Destined to become a leader in the war against the Red Sticks, young William learned to read and write. Also, he spoke fluent English.

He gained prominence in his own right and formed various alliances with important people such as Indian agents like Benjamin Hawkins and deerskin traders. His influence among his people grew wider and stronger. He owned a plantation, traded in slaves, and kept an inn for weary travelers.

Among his own people, he soon became controversial. He gladly signed treaties with the white man and ceded lands to them. He became chief of Coweta and the leader of the law menders—the Creek police. These warriors enforced the Creek National Council’s laws and carried out sentences. In the past, before the National Council was established, Creek towns executed their own justice on criminals. He would play an important role in the war’s last big battle, at Horseshoe Bend.

In 1825, McIntosh was murdered by his own people, but that is a story for a later post.

Ferdinand L. Claiborne

Ferdinand L. Claiborne, born into a prominent family from Sussex County, Virginia, served as a junior officer under General Anthony Wayne in the Old Northwest Territory (Ohio and Great Lakes region) during the Indian war there. At the Battle of Fallen Timbers (August 20, 1794), he earned a promotion to lieutenant. After the war, he returned east where he became an Army recruiter and in 1802, he resigned from the service with the rank of captain.

His brother, William C.C. Claiborne, was governor of the Mississippi Territory, so he moved to Natchez, the territory’s capital. Here, he became a planter. In 1805, he joined the territorial militia as a major. As a colonel serving under General James Wilkinson, he participated in the first arrest of Aaron Burr, but Burr was released on bond and when he didn’t respond to a summons he was arrested again.

When the Creek War began, Claiborne commanded the territorial militia. Headquartered at Fort Stoddert on the Mobile River in 1813, he commanded this region when Weatherford’s Red Sticks attacked nearby Fort Mims. He also led the war’s first offensive, an invasion of the Upper Creek Nation, defeating the Red Sticks at the Battle of the Holy Ground in present-day Lowndes County, Alabama.

His poor health forced him to return to Natchez, where he died in 1815. I couldn’t find any picture of him.


In the early 1800s the Choctaw nation consisted of three geographical districts. To the northeast: the Ahepyt, or Potato Eaters District. To the west: Okla Falaya, or Long People District. And in the nation’s southern region: Okla Hannali, or Six Towns District. Within each of these districts were Choctaw towns and villages, most of them in present-day Mississippi.

Pushmataha, greatest of all Choctaw chiefs, led the Six Towns. Although not much is known about his ancestry and childhood, historians generally agree that he was born in 1764 in what is now Macon, Mississippi. He gained a reputation as a brave warrior and great fighter against other tribes, which led to him becoming the principal chief of Six Towns in 1800. However, he never fought the white man.

When the Shawnee leader Tecumseh visited the Mississippi Territory in 1811 to form an alliance with the Old Northwest’s tribes against the white settlers, he tried to get the Choctaws to join it. Although Tecumseh was a great orator, he met his match with Pushmataha’s eloquence and persuasiveness. The chieftain followed Tecumseh to different Choctaw towns and spoke against him at council meetings. In the end, the Choctaws made Tecumseh leave their nation. Tecumseh then went to the Creeks, many of whom listened to his words.

With the American military rank of lieutenant colonel, and later brigadier general, Pushmataha fought in twenty-four battles, some of them under Andrew Jackson. He died in 1824 and is one of only two Native Americans buried in Washington, D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery.

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson led the Tennessee militia during the Creek War and broke the back of Red Stick power at the famous Battle of Horseshoe Bend. This victory vaulted him to national prominence and eventually, the White House. Also participating in this battle were two future heroes of the Texas Revolution, Sam Houston and David Crockett.

At Fort Jackson, in present-day Wetumpka, Alabama, he received the surrender of the Red Stick leaders, including William Weatherford.

A Devotional: Be Careful Whom You Follow

Photo by Matt Weissinger on

My brother-in-law’s white pickup roared ahead, leading me toward his cotton farm on a warm summer day. Though I’d never driven there before, following him was easy, that is, until we reached the traffic light on the edge of town.

Seconds after he passed beneath its green light, it flicked to red. I braked and waited, and assured myself that I’d catch up. But by the time it changed to green, he’d sped well out of sight. I clenched my steering wheel tighter. Narrow country road stretched for miles ahead. There were no trucks, no cars–nothing. I had no idea where I was. “Great. Now what am I going to do?” I muttered.

I suddenly breathed easier–I saw it– a distant white pickup racing past trees and cotton fields. I accelerated; the truck accelerated. I gained more speed; so did the truck. I fumed. Why is he going so fast? I can’t afford a speeding ticket. We’re only going to a picnic.

At an intersection, the pickup made a sharp left turn. My thoughts froze and my spirits sagged. I’d never been here before, not even with my sister. My gas gauge’s needle was approaching empty. I slowed., noticed a nice neighborhood on my left, and turned down a street where I parked.

Slumped against my steering wheel, I berated myself. I’d followed the wrong white pickup. The only thing I could figure was that while I waited at the red light, that white truck had turned in front of me from a side road. And while it looked like my brother-in-law’s vehicle, it wasn’t. I’d failed to keep close to him.

I called my sister on my cell phone. “Lynn, I have no idea what happened.”

“Where are you?” she said, her voice frantic. “We’re all waiting for you.”

“I’m fine. I just have no idea where I am.” I gave her the name of the street I’d turned onto and a brief description of what had happened.

“I’ll send Myles to get you.”

“Thanks.” Sighing, I clicked off my phone.

Minutes later, my nephew Myles arrived in his truck and led me in the right direction. While I followed him, my thoughts wandered back to Paul’s warning about false teachers and how that wrong white truck reminded me of them. Paul called them “false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:13). On the outside, they look and sound like true Christians, but they preach another Jesus, a different gospel from the true one, and lead others astray.

I’d better be more careful, I thought, as I turned onto my brother-in-law’s property. As I got out of my car, I determined to walk even closer with my Savior, to be more diligent in prayer, Bible study, and obedience. I didn’t want a false teacher leading me astray as that white pickup had.

Originally published in Live: A Weekly Journal of Practical Christian Living, June 4, 2017, Gospel Publishing House, Springfield, Missouri.

Copyright 2017 Jack Cunningham

The Creek War(1813-1814), Part Two: Leaders, The Red Sticks

Let’s take a brief look at six major figures involved in the Creek War: Chief William Weatherford, Chief Menawa, Chief William McIntosh, Generals Ferdinand Claiborne and Andrew Jackson and Chief Pushmataha.

In this post, we’ll look at two Red Stick leaders. Red Sticks were those Creeks who opposed the settlers, so-called for their red warclubs, a deadly weapon. Red was the color of war in Creek society.

Red Sticks

William Weatherford

In 1780 Charles Weatherford, a Scotsman and Loyalist to Britain, rode into Alabama with his friend Samuel Mims to escape the violence and bloodshed of America’s revolution against Great Britain. Eventually, Sam Mims headed south, toward the Tensaw River and Spanish Mobile while Charles continued west to the Creek town of Coosada on the Alabama River, not far from present-day Wetumpka and Montgomery, Alabama. Here, in either 1780 or 1781, he married Sehoy, a wealthy Creek woman of the Wind clan. In 1781, Sehoy gave birth to a son who would become a legend—William Weatherford.

Nine clans (families) comprised Creek society, with the most powerful and privileged clan being Sehoy’s. Charles established a plantation, was a slave owner and slave trader, and also traded in cattle and deerskins. William Weatherford inherited this wealth.

As he grew to adulthood, Weatherford gained a reputation as a good leader as well as an excellent athlete. He was friendly to all who visited him, white men and Indian. In fact, though raised as a Creek, he dressed like a white man and adopted many of the white man’s ways.

Before the war, he advised his people to stay neutral because he knew the Creeks couldn’t win. Most of his relatives sided with the settlers, so why did he choose the Red Sticks’ side? His descendants say he joined to limit violence and save lives. Others say he was devoted to the cause. Two conflicting stories have tried to explain his decision.

Story Number One

Weatherford was returning home with his brother-in-law Sam Moniac after trading cattle when he found his wife and children being held by the Red Sticks. Their leaders, the prophet Josiah Francis and Chief Peter McQueen, told them they’d kill them in front of their families if they didn’t join their cause.

Moniac seized Francis’s warclub and whacked him on the head, stunning him long enough to gallop away. Weatherford, after warning them their fight was lost before it began, joined them because, as he was reputed to have said, “you are my people.”

Story Number Two

He returned from Pensacola and found that his family had been taken to a Red Stick village, so he went there with the intent of sneaking them out if an opportunity arose. That opportunity never came, the war’s first battle was fought and everyone assumed he’d become their leader. Thus, he joined them because he saw no other way out.

A Little-Known Fact

Gregory Waselkov, in his recent work A Conquering Spirit, writes that when Weatherford and Moniac drove their cattle to a Choctaw town, Weatherford held a “secret interview” with the town’s leader and tried to persuade him to fight in the coming war, but the Choctaw refused. Waselkov, then, is one historian who believes Weatherford was totally devoted to the Red Sticks’ cause.

Creek House, Fort Toulouse State Park, Wetumpka, Alabama Photo by Author

Whatever the truth, Weatherford would play a major role in the Creek War’s early battles and would lead one of the bloodiest massacres in American history, at a stockade built around Sam Mims’s house on the Tensaw.

Because of Fort Mims, Weatherford’s life was in constant danger from settlers who’d lost loved ones there. Till the day he died in 1824, he suffered from nightmares about the event but thanks to his family’s prominence, he was able to stay in Alabama and prosper as a plantation owner in Baldwin County, thus avoiding the infamous Trail of Tears.

Chief Menawa

Circa 1765, Menawa was born to a Creek woman and a Scottish father in the Creek town of Okfuskee. The name given him in his youth was Hothlepoya, “Crazy War Hunter,” for his raids and exploits in Tennessee where he stole American horses. These exploits made him famous.

In 1811, he became the second chief of Okfuskee. He acquired wealth through trade, cattle and hog raising, and trading horses. During the Creek War, he lost his wealth but his political prominence and influence within the tribe continued. He died in 1836 on the Trail of Tears.


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

Halbert, Henry S. and Timothy H. Ball. The Creek War of 1813 and 1814. 1895. Reprint edited by Frank L. Owsley Jr. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.

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


“Menawa,’ American Battlefield Trust,

Kathryn Braund,“Menawa,“ Encyclopedia of Alabama, updated May 16, 2019,

The Creek War(1813-1814), Part One: Background to Conflict

Today, I begin a series on the Creek War (1813-1814). Most of this war was fought in Alabama when it was still part of the Mississippi Territory, and it was part of the much larger War of 1812, as Britain and Spain were allies of the Red Stick Creeks. I’ll also share some videos along the way that will go into more detail on the subjects covered. I’ll continue sharing writing tips in other blogs, but this series ties into my novel coming out, hopefully, next year. Its working title is Circuit Riders: A Story of the Creek War.

The Geographical Setting and Settlements

Before we discuss the Creek War, it’s helpful to briefly establish some background to this conflict.

During and immediately after the American Revolution, many settlers who sided with the British (Tories) left their homes in the former colonies and migrated to Alabama, settling in the Tensaw-Tombigbee valleys just north of Mobile. Many married Indian women and became rich through trade and other means. Their offspring were called métis, French for mixed blood. Originally, France ruled Mobile, but the British took over after the French and Indian War.

In 1780 Spain, an American ally during the Revolution, captured Mobile. Some Spaniards then moved up the Tombigbee River and built a fort on a limestone bluff overlooking the river that would later become Fort St. Stephens.

Under the Treaty of Paris (1783) at the end of the Revolution, Spain was granted all of Louisiana as well as territory along the Gulf of Mexico, called East and West Florida. In 1798, Congress established the 31st parallel as the boundary between Spain and the United States and created the Mississippi Territory. It later expanded to the 32nd parallel (1802) when Georgia ceded lands to the federal government. The map below shows what the Territory, a vast region spreading from the Chattahoochee River to the Mississippi River, looked like in 1813, at the time of the Creek War.

In 1799, the federal government built Fort Stoddert on the Mobile River, and in April 1813 the American general, James Wilkinson, captured Mobile without a shot fired.

American pioneers who weren’t Tories, along with their slaves and cattle, began moving into Alabama and Mississippi country in the early 1800s.

The Tribes

Four tribes lived in the Mississippi Territory during this era: the Choctaws, the Chickasaws, the Cherokees, and the Creeks. With the exception of the Pueblos in present-day New Mexico, these tribes were more culturally advanced than all the other tribes north of Mexico.

The Creeks were a matrilineal society, which meant a child’s inheritance was passed through the mother. Women managed households and farmed. Men hunted and fought wars. Often, chiefs and headmen consulted their women when decisions had to be made on issues that concerned their towns. However, when it came to war, chiefs made the decisions.

Because their society was matrilineal, a white man who’d married a Creek woman was considered Creek. Two of the Creek War’s most prominent Creek leaders were cousins who fought on opposite sides, William Weatherford and William McIntosh, but we’ll get into that later.

The Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Cherokees were also matrilineal. Most of the members of these tribes supported the settlers. One Choctaw leader we’ll be discussing later is Pushmataha, a highly respected chief.

Next week we’ll look at two major leaders of the Red Sticks.


McMillan, Malcolm C. The Land Called Alabama, Austin, TX:: Steck-Vaughn Company 1968.

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



Use a Juxtaposition

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…” Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.

In this famous opening line to Dickens’s classic, we find that he used a literary device called juxtaposition. For example: best of time/worst of times, wisdom/foolishness, belief/incredulity, etc.

Juxtaposition uses opposites, or near opposites, to create special effects and evoke emotions in readers. We find this technique not just in writing, but in other art forms as well.  In writing, this technique can be used in both fiction and nonfiction, and poets use it a lot too.

How to Use Juxtaposition in Literature

Use it in sentences, such as Dickens used in the above example.

Use it with characters. For example, let one character be a constant worrier during a time of crisis and juxtapose him with a character who’s calm during this same crisis. In Mark Twain’s classic, The Prince and the Pauper, two lifestyles are contrasted—poor Tom Canty’s and wealthy Prince Edward’s. When we make our characters unique, it makes it easier to juxtapose them in different settings and situations.

Use it in settings. For maximum effect, don’t make the setting predictable. If Tom is in love with Carol and plans to propose to her, put them in an unpredictable place where he does this. Perhaps they’re attending a professional boxing match, and he proposes to Carol there. Fighting contrasted with romance. The boxing could be a metaphor, or foreshadowing, of future conflict in their marriage.

Using juxtapositions must be intentional, so they require some thought, but if used well, they’ll enhance your writing.

Experimental Fiction

James Joyce (1882-1941)

Three Identifiers of Experimental Fiction

Experimental fiction breaks the rules of genre fiction. Often, it doesn’t have a beginning or an end, or it may go in circles and barely have a plot.  It can be long or it can be short. It goes however and wherever it wants to go, and ends wherever and whenever it wants to end.

Experimental fiction is hard to read. If you want a nice, quick read when you go to the park or the beach, I highly suggest you don’t take an experimental novel with you.

Experimental fiction experiments with language. Authors use various literary techniques, often in the same book. They may put a new definition on a word, make up a word and even use poetry.

Experimental Fiction Tips

  1. Know the rules of good writing: grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
  2. Know the principles of good storytelling in the traditional sense, such as when to show and when to tell, dialogue and characterization, etc.
  3. Don’t break the rules just for the sake of breaking them. Be able to justify your decisions in experimenting.

A Few Famous Experimental Novels

James Joyce, Ulysses

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Henry James, The Other House

Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon

George Orwell, Animal Farm and 1984

If you want to write experimental fiction, know the rules before you break them and be able to explain why. Also, don’t forget to revise and produce the best work you can. Who buys literary fiction these days? Submitting your work to literary magazines is the best way to begin.

Publishers Who Prey, Part Three: How I Do It

The term, “self-publishing,” says how I do it. I am the publisher, which means I have total control of my work, which means I go through many of the same steps traditional publishers do.

My Nine Steps to Self-publishing

Step One       

I buy my International Standard Book Number (ISBN) from ISBNs are your book’s unique identifying number. They help buyers identify you as the author and enable places such as libraries to order your book. Bowker is the only legitimate company in the United States where these important numbers can be purchased.                        

Some self-publishers, such as Amazon KDP, will provide an ISBN for you for free. However, if Amazon provides the number, authors aren’t allowed to have their own imprint, but Amazon does give authors the option to use their own ISBN and imprint when they publish their books.   

Step Two

I write my book and revise and revise and revise till I’m happy with it. In other words, I strive to write the best book I can.

Step Three

I submit my work to beta readers, those readers who read objectively and offer sound advice. I’ve written a blog about beta readers that discusses how to find the right one. Visit it at:

Step Four

I hire a professional freelance editor to review my book and offer suggestions for improvement. Because each genre has its own rules, it’s important to find one who is knowledgeable about your genre and era. In historical fiction, for example, lots of narrative exposition is more acceptable than in other genres, such as thrillers.

Photo by Shamia Casiano on

Step Five

Taking the editor’s advice into consideration and using what’s helpful, I make more changes. Since we’re all human, it’s easy to overlook things such as punctuation and spelling errors, so I proofread again.

Step Six

I hire a good cover designer. Some of the companies I mentioned in my previous post do cover designs, but I hire my own because covers are hugely important. They’re the reader’s first impression of your book. A good cover encourages readers to look inside your book and perhaps even buy it.

I also hire a professional to format my book. A short while back, I did something I’ve never done before. I took a book I’d purchased back to the bookstore for a refund. I bought it because it dealt with a subject I had an interest in. I returned it because the formatting was bad, which led me to believe the author was an amateur. The writing wasn’t that great either.

For any who may be interested, my cover designer and the one who formats my books can be found at this website: I have used Teddi and Megan for many years.

Step Seven

Once step six is done, I proofread again, make suggestions for changes to my formatter and when  I’m happy with the result, I upload my book on Amazon  KDP.

Step Eight

After the book is published, I record it in my Bowker account beside the ISBN number I’d purchased.      

Step Nine

I send two copies of my book to the Copyright Office. Why? Because it’s the law. The Copyright Office gives authors three months to do this.

Although it’s not required, I register my book with the Copyright Office. According to copyright law, once a work is in fixed form it’s automatically copyrighted. Registration just gives the work a little more legal protection and more money if the author sues someone who plagiarized him.

Well, folks, this is how I do it. Till next week, y’all.

Publishers Who Prey, Part Two: How to Spot Predators

Although this list of red flags isn’t exhaustive, if you spot any of them during your search for a publisher, watch out!

Photo by Pixabay on

Red Flags

  • Predators charge exorbitant fees. As indicated in last week’s post, authors should not have to pay fees to publishers or agents, except for necessary things such as postage. Authors who fall victim to these predators pay thousands of dollars for their book’s publication. On the other hand, legitimate publishers and agents earn their money by taking a cut of an author’s royalties. This is explained in their contracts.
  • Predators promise to edit and proofread an author’s manuscript. Well, their editing is often shoddy, as is the proofreading, and this can embarrass authors once their book is in print.
  • Predators promise high royalties (such as 70%) and say they’ll put your book in bookstores. They’ll put it on their website’s online bookstore and on other online bookstores, but no brick-and-mortar store will carry their books. Why? Because nine times out of ten, the writing is poor. These predators accept practically every manuscript that crosses their desks. It’s how they make money—from authors, not from the reading public. They can promise high royalties because few readers will buy their books.
  • Predators promise to make an author’s book a bestseller. How many wannabes have fallen for this line? I shudder to think of a number. The fact is, no one can make this promise, not even a traditional publisher. Lots of factors must fall into place for it to become a bestseller. If a publisher promises this— beware!
  • “Publisher looking for authors.” Wow, this sort of predatory advertising is a dead giveaway—predators hunting for victims. Actually, it’s authors who look for publishers, not the other way around.
  • Predators promise to get your work registered with the copyright office. This isn’t a false promise. I’m sure they do this. Hey! I’ve registered my work with the copyright office too. It’s super-easy to do, yet it sounds complicated to inexperienced writers.

Some Legit Self-Publishers

There are legitimate self-publishing companies out there. Below, I’ve listed a few, but once again, it’s not exhaustive. I’ve only listed those I’ve had experience with and/or those I know something about.

  • Book Baby:  Book Baby does charge authors, but its prices are not exorbitant. It has a very good reputation in the self-publishing industry.
  • Amazon KDP: Amazon doesn’t charge authors to publish its books. I’ve used it for all of my self-published works.
  • Barnes & Noble Press: This press is relatively new. An earlier version of this was Barnes & Noble Nook, which was similar to Amazon Kindle.
  • Kobo:  It publishes ebooks.
  • IngramSpark: Although this company is primarily a book distributor, authors also use it to publish books. A cost is involved but again, it’s not exorbitant. The owner of a  local independent bookstore in my hometown told me she orders all of her books from IngramSpark. It’s great to use if you want your book in a brick-and-mortar store.
  • Draft2digital: This company will format and update an author’s manuscript for free. It makes its money in a manner similar to traditional publishers, that is, when a book sells it takes 10 % of the book’s retail price.

Be sure to research a company before spending your hard-earned money.

A Tip for Finding a Literary Agent

Be sure the agent is a member of AALA (American Association of Literary Agents), which used to be called AAR (Agents and Authors Representatives). The AALA is like the Better Business Bureau of literary agents in that it requires them to abide by certain ethical standards. For more information, here’s a good link:

Next Week: Self-publishing: How I Do It

Publishers Who Prey, Part One: Don’t Be a Victim

Photo by Tara Winstead on

When I began writing for publication, in the mid-1980s, serious authors (myself included) frowned upon self-publishing. Ah, but times have changed! In today’s literary world, many traditional authors have also self (indie)-published. Writers’ magazines sponsor indie contests, awards are given for indie books, and so on. No longer is it frowned upon, at least not like it was in the old typewriter days.

I applaud indie publishing. It’s opened numerous doors for authors such as me, and it’s great for those who’ve learned how to write and produce quality books. These authors take the time and effort required to study and learn the craft, and they work hard to make their books the best they can be.

However, self-publishing has a downside. What is it? Scams. Thanks to modern technology, they inundate the internet. Nowadays, most anyone can write and publish a book. Scam artists touting themselves as publishers and/or agents prey on eager, inexperienced authors who’ve longed to see their books in print. In short, these authors become victims.

Many wannabe writers think all they have to do is put words and sentences together. They don’t revise, because they haven’t studied the craft to know what to look for. They don’t edit and proofread, because they don’t know how, nor do they hire those who know how to do it. They just want a book out there. The quality of their writing is of no concern. They pay these scam artist publishers lots of money—in the thousands of dollars—and often endure emotional pain in the aftermath of publication. We’ll go into more detail on this in next week’s post.

For now, let’s learn the basic difference between vanity publishing and self-publishing.

Vanity Publishers

  1. Vanity publishers publish books in a manner similar to traditional publishers, yet unlike traditional publishers, they accept most every manuscript that crosses their desks regardless of its literary quality.
  2. Vanity publishers make money from the exorbitant fees they charge authors. Traditional publishers take a percentage of authors’ royalties, which they specify in their contracts. Traditional publishers do not charge fees.

Self-Publishers, aka Indie Publishers

  • From cover design, interior format and back copy to finished book, self-publishers have total control of their book, even in regards to pricing.
  • Self-publishers do spend money for their book’s production, but they hire qualified people to do this work. Traditional publishers have their own people they pay to do similar things: proofreading, cover design, formatting, etc. So, in a sense, a self-publisher is his/her own traditional publisher.

Are There Legitimate Self-Publishing Companies?

Yes. We’ll discuss these in another post. For now, be sure to research a potential publisher before signing a contract. Many a “wannabe author” has had his/her potential career ruined by these scam artists.

NEXT WEEK: Red Flags of a Scammer. What to look for.

Characters and Their Arcs

As you work on your story, does it have events that change your main character(s), for better or for worse? Most stories should. This change is called a character arc. There are three main kinds: positive, negative, and flat arcs.  

Why Use Character Arcs?

  • They make characters interesting and relatable.
  • They make characters three-dimensional. A perfect character with no need to change becomes boring.

Must All Characters Change?

No, but the main characters should. There is, however, an exception to this which we’ll look at later.

Three Types of Character Arcs

Positive Arc

Three main ingredients of a positive arc: (1) the character believes a lie, (2) circumstances, conflicts, and events bring the character to a realization of the truth, and (2) the character changes for the better.

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is an excellent example of this. At the beginning of the story, Scrooge is a greedy fellow who doesn’t believe in Christmas. He believes the lie about wealth’s importance and the need to constantly work and make money, even during holidays.

Then the three ghosts arrive and show him his life and its events – past, present, and future – which result in his change of heart. By the story’s end, Ebenezer Scrooge has become a pretty nice fellow!

Negative Arc

Trailer from movie Anna Karenina

In this arc, the character starts out good but by the story’s end, he’s changed for the worse. In other words, he doesn’t grow into a better person. Just as in the positive arc, the events and conflicts that change this character must be believable. Negative arcs do not end “happily ever after.”

Leo Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina, provides us a good example. This novel has lots of themes, but I’ll focus on one of them: adultery. In the beginning, Anna is a popular socialite, the perfect model of a Russian lady in the 1870s. But she has a fatal flaw: her passions. These drive her to commit adultery with a character named Vronsky, and she abandons her children. As the story ends, she kills herself by jumping in front of an oncoming train.

Flat Arc

Sherlock’s First Appearance

Although I don’t recommend this arc, it can and has been used successfully. In this arc, the main character doesn’t change. Sherlock Holmes, who is actually too perfect and too smart to be believable in my opinion, is a good example. From one story and novel to the next, Detective Sherlock never changes. These arcs may work in a series that features characters such as Sherlock, but the character must interesting and the stories must have an interesting plot.

Do your characters change, for better or for worse? Or are they flat, like ole Detective Sherlock?

Epigraphs: What They Are and How To Use Them

Troy, with walls still far from old

Had been destroyed, that noble, royal town

And many a man full worthy of renown

Had last his life—that no man can gainsay—

And all for Helen, the wife of Menelay,

When a thing’s done, it may then be no other.

John Lydgate, Troy Book, circa 1412-1420

This quote begins Margaret George’s excellent novel, Helen of Troy. She doesn’t put it in the body of her writing. Instead, it’s on a page by itself, right before the Prologue. There’s a word for such quotes—epigraph.

An epigraph can come at the beginning of a book, like George’s, or at the beginning of each section of a book, or introduce a chapter. They can also be used in both fiction and nonfiction. In a book I’m working on about the Creek War (1813-1814) in Alabama, I use epigraphs to bring historical context to my story. In my epigraphs, I briefly quote historians and others to help these readers follow and understand my tale’s historical events and tie my various plotlines together.

Chief William McIntosh (c. 1775-1825), one of the leaders of the Creek War.

Epigraphs can be funny, serious, taken from the Bible, a philosopher or theologian, or even from one of the book’s characters. Also in my Creek War novel, I’m using quotes from a character’s fictional journal.

Using Epigraphs

  • Under copyright law, if the epigraph comes from a source published after 1923, writers must get permission to use it. Before 1923, a work is in the public domain—free for everyone to use without permission. Although copyright law has a Fair Use Doctrine giving authors a little freedom to quote from copyrighted sources without permission, it also has certain guidelines to follow. We won’t get into that here. But in my opinion, it’s always best to “play it safe” and request permission from a copyrighted source.
  • The epigraph must have a connection to the book’s, section’s, or chapter’s content. In other words, epigraphs cannot be used randomly. So if you use epigraphs, choose them carefully.

A Few Novels That Use Epigraphs

Helen of Troy, by Margaret George

The Fort, by Bernard Cornwell

Farenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway.

To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Helen of Troy, by Margaret George

Hey, Let’s Get Verbal!

Authors enjoy debating writing and other literary issues. One issue up for debate is the verbs that end with -ing. Some authors don’t use these constructions, others do. Some editors don’t mind them, other editors do. So, what gives? Let’s look a little closer.

Photo by ArtHouse Studio on


What is a verb that ends with ing?  Actually, they’re not verbs. In grammar, they’re called verbals. Examples: walk/walking, jump/jumping, sing/singing, etc.

What is a verbal? It’s a verb form used as another part of speech.

  1. Verbals used as adjectives are called participles.  Here’s an example: The cackling seagulls soared in the sky.

Cackling is the participle that modifies the noun seagulls.

2. Verbals used as nouns are called gerunds. Here’s an example: Jane enjoys sewing.

Jane is the subject of the sentence, and sewing is the direct object. Sewing, then, is a gerund (i.e. a noun).

Using verbals like those above is fine. Sometimes, we have to use them. However, the debate surrounds whether authors should use participial phrases. Now, let’s look at them.

The Participial Phrase

  1. What is a phrase? It’s a group of words that, when strung together, work together to carry a certain meaning. A phrase does not have a subject or a verb. Here’s an example: the duck on the water.
  2. What is the purpose of a phrase? It modifies other parts of speech: nouns, adjectives, and verbs. It can also modify a complete sentence.
  3. Types of phrases: prepositional, infinitive, gerund, participial

Since we’re discussing participles, we’ll limit our discussion to the participial phrase.

  1. What is a participial phrase? It’s a phrase that begins with a participle, contains an object, and is used as an adjective. Here’s an example: Running toward town, the dog chased a squirrel up a tree.
  • Participle: Running
  • Object: town
  • Modifies the sentence’s object: dog
  • Possible revisions:

Some Final Thoughts and Comments

Is it possible to have too many participial phrases in our story? In my opinion, yes. That said, I also believe it’s fine to use them sparingly. No more than two per page, as recommended by editors Renni Browne and Dave King in their excellent book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.


  • Too many on a page are amateurish.
  • Too many on a page hinder the flow and smoothness of our prose.
  • They present problems in clarity and believability. For instance: Getting into her car, Mary accelerated it past the speed limit. It’s impossible for a person to get into a car and accelerate it at the same time, yet this is what that sentence implies.
  • Where is the best place in the sentence to use them? In the middle of it, or at the end, are the strongest places.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you use participial phrases or none at all?


Browne, Renni and Dave King. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print. Second Edition. New York: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2004.

Thoroughbred Racing in the “City by the Bay”

Oakdale Race Track in Mobile, Alabama. c. early 1900s.

When most folks think of Thoroughbred racing in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the Deep South, one city usually comes to mind—New Orleans. However, another city on the Gulf Coast shared equal popularity during this era—the “City by the Bay,” that is, Mobile, Alabama.

While New Orleans had its Metairie Race Track and the Fairgrounds (the nation’s third oldest track still in business), Mobile had the Bascombe, Arlington Fairgrounds, and Oakdale race courses.

Bascombe Race Course. In the American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, a popular magazine in the antebellum era, Bascombe’s 1838 racing schedule is listed, along with the names of the various horses competing, the days when different races will be held, the purse for the winner, and so on. These were the races the publication had omitted in an earlier issue. In 1860, the course was used as an encampment for volunteer troops called “Camp Montgomery.” Nowadays, Mobile uses it to train its Mounted Police Unit.

Arlington Fairgrounds. This track was located near the Bascombe Course, on a road that followed along the Mobile Bay southward for seven miles. Called the Bay Shell Road at the time, it was paved with oyster shells and to travel on it one had to pay a toll. Arlington’s track began around the 1870s, and its use for racing continued into the early twentieth century.

Oakdale. A track in this community was also in use at the turn of the twentieth century. Some local historians consider this one to have been Mobile’s best.  

In Turfmen and the Prodigal, due out this September, I use a fictional track in Spring Hill, Alabama, west of Mobile. During the antebellum era, Spring Hill was a late spring and summer refuge for many of Mobile’s wealthy citizens.


“Camp Montgomery,” Alabama Historical Quarterly 20, no. 2 (1958): 293

“Fairgrounds History Remembered in New Documentary,” Mid-City Messenger, November 18, 2014,

“Horsing Around,” Mobile Bay Magazine 37, no. 4(2021):82.

McLaurin, Melton and Michael Thomason. Mobile: The Life and Times of a Great Southern City.  Woodland Hills, CA, 1981.

“Omissions in the Racing Calendar,” American and Turf Register and Sporting Magazine 10 (January and February, 1839): 94.

Preston, Ben C. “Mobile Alabama Nostalgia Back in the Day,” Facebook, December 23. 2016,

Scott, Mike. “From Horses to Corpses: How Metairie Race Course Became Metairie Cemetery,” The Times Picayune, April 12, 2017; Updated July 22, 2019

Jimmy Winkfield, Hall of Fame Jockey

In the 1890s, an African-American jockey named Jimmy Winkfield was the last Black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby. Throughout the nineteenth century, African-Americans dominated Thoroughbred racing. Most of them in the South, before the Civil War, were slaves. Winkfield gained fame in America as well as in Europe and Czarist Russia.

Today, in Queens, New York, a race is held every year in his honor–The Jimmy Winkfield Stakes. I’ve attached a short YouTube video that tells about his fascinating life.

Turfmen and the Prodigal: A Novel of Antebellum Mobile, due for release in September, features some fictional jockeys as they train and compete against each other.

Lottie Deno: The Real Miss Kitty Russell

When Amanda Blake was chosen to play Miss Kitty Russell in Gunsmoke, it wasn’t an accident she was a redhead. The historical “Miss Kitty,” Charlotte Tompkins, was a redhead too, and she inspired Amanda Blake’s character.

But Charlotte wasn’t any ordinary saloon girl. In fact, in Kentucky where she was from, she was born into the state’s upper class. She was a well-mannered and attractive Southern belle whose wealthy father taught her how to gamble and win at cards, bet on horses in races and gamble on riverboats … all to support her sister when the need arose. During the Civil War, her family lost its fortune. So, she turned to gambling, first on riverboats.

In 1863, she went to San Antonio where a part-Cherokee gentleman named Frank Thurmond hired her to be a dealer at his University Club. He gave her a percentage of the profits.

In keeping with her upper-class breeding, she always wore nice clothes, maintained the manners with which she was raised and kept the men at her card table honest. “You gents will not swear, smoke or drink liquor at my table,” she told them while she shuffled the cards. Most players were agreeable to this.

Today, she’s known to history as Lottie Deno. No one is certain how she got this name. According to one story, when she was living in Fort Griffin, Texas she’d had a run of luck playing poker at the Bee Hive Saloon. At the end of the evening, a cowboy said to her: “Honey, with winnings like that, you oughter call yourself ‘Lotta Dinero.’” She liked the name and began using it to protect her upstanding family’s reputation.

Eventually, Lottie married Frank and they both quit gambling. She became one of the founders of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Deming, New Mexico. She used $40,000 of poker winnings in a game Doc Holliday had participated in to finance its original construction. Frank eventually became president of a bank. They were well-respected, and wealthy, citizens in their community.

Frank died in 1908. Charlotte (Lottie) died in 1934.


Lottie Deno and Mary Poindexter – POINDEXTERHISTORY

What do we know about Lottie Deno? – True West Magazine

lottie deno – Search (

TSHA | Thurmond, Charlotte Tompkins [Lottie Deno] (

Marjorie Holmes’s Perseverance

Marjorie Holmes (1910-2002)

Marjorie Holmes was a beloved Christian author. Early in my Christian walk, I became familiar with her when my sister brought home from college one of her books, now a classic, Two From Galilee. It’s a love story about Mary and Joseph and became a bestseller.

One thing about this book most may not realize is that she spent nine years working on it. For three years, she researched it. For six years, she marketed it, trying to find a publisher. Publishers told her Mary and Joseph acted too much like real people, so that’s why she had trouble finding a suitable place for it. Finally, Bantam agreed to publish it, and it’s never been out of print.

If we want to succeed as a writer, follow Marjorie Holmes’s example. Persevere!

In Defense of Fiction, Part Three: How Fiction Techniques Improve Nonfiction

In his excellent bestselling book, Sea Stories, Admiral William H. McRaven used fiction techniques to write this work of nonfiction. Such writing is called creative nonfiction, Readers love it! I highly recommend Admiral McRaven’s book.

Thirty-plus years ago, when I started writing seriously, I sought to learn everything I could about fiction and nonfiction techniques. And what did I discover? Fiction techniques used in nonfiction heighten reader interest. Let’s look at four ways nonfiction writers benefit from reading/studying fiction.

Nonfiction: Benefits of Fiction Techniques

Benefit Number One

Fiction: I’ve often had to cut out unnecessary scenes, change character POVs, add new scenes, etc. And, I’ve had to add new chapters and scenes to make my story fuller.

Nonfiction: I’ve also had to cut and add things, such as chapters, paragraphs, words, and illustrations.

Benefit: Fiction teaches us things to look for, what to add and what to cut, and the right balance between the two. This can carry over into nonfiction.

Benefit Number Two

Fiction:  In well-written fiction, writers use fiction techniques that bring their stories to life.

Nonfiction: Creative nonfiction is based on true events but uses fiction techniques.  A recent example is the bestselling book, Sea Stories, by Admiral William H. McRaven. Admiral McRaven shares stories from his life in the Navy SEALS. Although it’s nonfiction, he wrote it like fiction, filled with heart-stopping action, conflict, dialogue, and other techniques.  

Benefit: Reading and studying fiction teaches writers how to write creative nonfiction.

Benefit Number Three

Fiction: Details. Details bring a story to life and make it visual. Concrete (visual) nouns, strong action verbs, apt figures of speech.

Nonfiction: Details. Let’s do a Bible study based on Acts 16:22-40, using details to prompt reader interest while explaining the passage about Paul’s and Silas’s arrests in Philippi. To do this may require some research.

Details to Consider

  • Paul and Silas’ jail. What did it look like? Include a brief description in the Bible study.
  • Paul and Silas were beaten. How were they beaten? With rods or with a  whip? What did they look like after they were beaten? Research and try to find out, then share it with readers. It will add interest to the study.
  • Paul and Silas were released because Paul tells the magistrate he was a Roman citizen. Though Luke doesn’t mention it, Paul may have had to prove his citizenship. How? With a passport, just like foreign travelers do today. In Paul’s day, passports were wooden tablets with their owners’ names on them. We know this from archaeologists who’ve discovered lots of them in their excavations of ancient sites. Hey, I learned this from a nonfiction book mentioned in my bibliography,  and it might be of interest to readers. It interested me when I learned this.

Benefit: Fiction teaches nonfiction writers how to look for, and find, details that enhance their work.

Benefit Number Four

Fiction: It teaches writers how to establish mood and tone.

Nonfiction: Good nonfiction has certain moods and tones. Is it an angry tone, a comical tone, or a cheerful tone? Or, perhaps, a different tone. Readers gauge nonfiction authors’  attitudes by their writing’s tone and mood.

Benefit: Fiction teaches nonfiction writers how to establish the tone and mood they wish to convey in their work.

Benefit Number Five

Fiction: Fiction writers use action, conflict, and dialogue.

Nonfiction: We’ve already discussed creative nonfiction, but these techniques apply to anecdotes too. An anecdote is a brief story, usually true, that illustrates points shared in a work of nonfiction.  For some examples, check out Reader’s Digest’s  columns titled “Life in These United States” and “Humor in Uniform.”

Anecdotes are useful in various nonfiction genres— essays, Bible studies, newspaper articles … the list can go on. They’re an excellent way to grab reader interest as an opening for articles or chapters in nonfiction books.

Benefit: Learning how to write fiction enables writers to write better anecdotes in their nonfiction.

Some Final Thoughts

Fiction sometimes gets a bad rap from those who consider reading and writing it a waste of time. Trust me—it’s not. The broader we read in every form and genre— fiction, nonfiction, poetry, plays, and even screenplays— the more our writing will improve.

God has given writers a wonderful literary gift He wants His children to use for His glory and kingdom. If writing creatively wasn’t important, He would not have given such a gift to us. After all, He is, Himself, a God of majestic creativity!

Till next week, friends.


Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993.

In Defense of Fiction, Part Two: Eight Reasons to Write Fiction

“I only read nonfiction.” Great! I, too, enjoy nonfiction. However, I also read (and write) fiction. So, why do I write stories? For many reasons. Read on, to find out what they are.

Eight Reasons for Writing Fiction

  • Thousands of people enjoy good stories. Thousands will read a novel before they’ll read nonfiction. This gives fiction writers a great opportunity to reach an audience in ways nonfiction writers can’t.
  • Fiction enables novelists to share their message without sounding preachy. About his Narnia series, C.S Lewis wrote: “At first there wasn’t anything Christian about them (Narnia’s characters); that element pushed itself in of its own accord. It was part of the ‘bubbling.'” In other words, since Lewis was a Christian, he wrote Narnia from a Christian perspective. The Christian symbolism in these books “just happened.”

Like Lewis, our points of view slip into our work because what we write is part of who we are and how we view the world. Narnia, with all of its symbolism,  doesn’t preach, but Lewis’s faith is evident. So it will be with us. When we write, we share a part of ourselves and our message with the story-loving world.

  • To educate people in a fun way.  In Education of a Wandering Man (Bantam, 2008), Louis L’Amour wrote: “Historical novels are, without question, the best way of teaching history, for they offer the human stories behind the events and leave the reader with a desire to know more.”
Robert Louis Stevenson, 1850-1894

As a writer of historical fiction, I absolutely agree. I credit Robert Louis Steveson and Alexandre Dumas as two of the sparks that got me interested in history when I was in my early teens. The third spark was a nonfiction book written by Pulitzer Prize winner, Bruce Catton, which I also read in my early teenage years.

  • Jesus told His disciples, in Matthew 5:13, that they are the “salt of the earth.” Salt is a preservative. Christian writers and artists can be salt in our current culture. Through fiction, we participate in producing literature that helps restrain the onslaught of society’s ungodliness.

The Return of the Prodigal by Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787)
  • Jesus believed in and taught by example the importance of a story. His stories, called parables, are loaded with truth.  His listeners could relate to the parables’ characters: the farmer who sowed the seed, the son who left his father and went into a far country, the good Samaritan, and so on
  • Not every work of fiction carries a message. Some novels simply entertain. And to that, I say: what’s wrong with some relaxing entertainment? Everyone needs a break from life’s busyness. People attend movies or watch television or go fishing or do other things to “get away from it all.”   Reading a good novel is no different.
  • God gave some people creative minds—gifts in music, gifts in painting landscapes and portraits and sculpture, and gifts in other artistic endeavors. One endeavor is writing, which He expects His literary children to use to further His kingdom, either through fiction, nonfiction, and/or other literary genres. If God didn’t think these gifts were important, He’d have never given them.
  • God is creative. Just look around you and marvel at all the beautiful things He created: birds, fish, mammals, the stars, and the solar system. He isn’t against any form of creativity, so long as that creativity honors Him.

Creativity and writing fiction are gifts, just as other callings and skills are gifts. To despise fiction because one sees it as useless is despising this gift God had given certain authors. Fiction isn’t useless. As I hope we’ve seen, it plays an important role in our society and culture.

Having said that, it’s perfectly fine to just read nonfiction. Everyone has their own preference in literature. I prefer reading and writing both. Though I don’t write poetry, I don’t see it as useless either. God uses every gift He’s given His children if they allow Him. Let’s respect all the gifts people use for His glory.

Next Week: How Fiction Techniques Improve Nonfiction


Ryken, Leland, editor. The Christian Imagination, “Creating Narnia,” by C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1996. Ryken, 2002

In Defense of Fiction, Part One: Novels That Changed Society

Perhaps these folks aren't aware of the numerous novels that have changed society ... and the world.

I’ve often heard well-meaning people say they don’t read fiction. They believe stories and novels serve no good purpose except to entertain, and that nothing can be learned from them. As one who writes both fiction and nonfiction, I disagree. Perhaps these folks aren’t aware of the numerous novels that have changed society … and the world.

A Few Novels That Changed Society and the World

The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair

In the early 1900s, Chicago’s unsanitary stockyards posed a serious health risk to meatpackers. Sinclair, after going undercover in its meatpacking plants for several weeks to research the situation, wrote his famous novel to draw attention to these workers’ plight. Because of The Jungle, President Theodore Roosevelt launched an investigation which led to the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act (1906).

Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell

Anna Sewell loved horses and wanted England’s upper classes to quit using “bearing reins.” These reins, designed to keep the horse’s head close to its chest, abused the animal. They made it hard for the horse to breathe. Such abuse led Sewell to write her novel from the horse’s, Black Beauty’s, point of view. When people read this book, many quit using these reins. This one work of fiction, Sewell’s only book, changed a feature of nineteenth-century British society, ending this abusive practice.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

Christmas was never the same after Dickens wrote this novella. Prior to its publication, many Protestant Christians didn’t celebrate this holiday because it was too Catholic and rowdy. However, thanks to Tiny Tim and other characters in Dickens’s story, Christmas became more family-oriented. So, do you enjoy a wholesome Christmas with your family? Well, we can all thank Mr. Dickens for it.

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

This novel gave lawyers a good name in its protagonist, Atticus Finch, who defended a Black man unjustly accused in twentieth-century rural Alabama. It inspired many thousands of young men and women to pursue a legal career and become as good and honest a lawyer as Atticus.

A Final Thought

Those listed above are but a few of many novels that have impacted society in one way or another. Many others, such as Beloved (Toni Morrison), Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe), The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck) … Well, I’d best end here, because the list is long. Even in this technological society, fiction writers can influence their culture and, perhaps, change the world. Who knows, that next great, influential novelist may be you.


Ron Charles. “12 Novels That Change the Way We Live.” The Washington Post, May 7, 2020. 12 novels that changed the world – The Washington Post

Nicholas E. Barron. “How ‘Black Beauty’ Was Written and Changed History,” Bidwell Hollow(blog), July 13, 2021. How ‘Black Beauty’ Was Written and Changed History | by Nicholas E. Barron | Bidwell Hollow | Medium

Next week: In Defense of Fiction, Part Two

Dealing With Loneliness

When David, his men and their families fled King Saul, they escaped to the Philistine city of Gath for protection. Here, they joined forces with Gath’s King Achish.

After establishing a base at Ziklag, David raided the Amalekites, Geshurites, and Girzites. Then, to gain Achish’s confidence, he lied and told the king he’d raided Judah.

One day, during a march against King Saul, none of the Philistine commanders, except Achish, trusted him. Soon, they forced David to leave their army.

Three days later, David and his men arrived in Ziklag. Horror and anger shot through their veins. The Amalekites had burned it and kidnapped everyone in it, including two of David’s wives and the wives of his men.

Consequently, his men turned against him. To quote one of my favorite Old Testament passages: And David was greatly distressed; for the people spake of stoning him, because the soul of all the people were grieved, every man for his sons and for his daughters: but David encouraged himself in the LORD his God (1 Samuel 30:6, KJV).

Not only did David feel alone, he also felt distressed. His men who’d been with him throughout his ordeals now wanted to kill him. Have you ever been in a place where all your friends suddenly turn on you, or where it feels that the whole world has turned against you? I know I have. Feeling lonely is not fun.

Unfortunately, in this “all about me” society we’re living in, encouragers are rare these days. That’s why I like this verse. David shows us what to do when no one gives us comfort or encouragement during difficult times when we need it most. He encouraged himself in the Lord.

Next time you feel isolated or alone, try it. Sing songs of praise, quote scripture and pray. Tell yourself God loves you and is for you, because He does love us and He is for us!

NOTE: This blog is based on 1 Samuel 27, 29, and 30.


If your computer has a voice recorder or if you have some other type of recorder, try reading your manuscript into it. Reading aloud helps writers spot mistakes they missed through silent reading. By playing back their words and listening closely, writers hear their prose’s rhythm and pace, spot poorly written dialogue, wordiness, and numerous other stylistic errors.

An Important Writing Lesson

Photo by Skitterphoto on

Many years ago, in the early 1980s, I began taking my writing seriously after having a small article published in The Upper Room, a United Methodist publication. One of the earliest lessons I learned then was this: many folks shrugged at my desire to become a writer. Others considered me lazy when I decided to launch out on my own and try my hand at it full time. Fortunately, some of my early writing teachers taught me to expect these reactions. Had it not been for their warnings, I might have quit. As most of us know, writing at a professional level is hard work and often lonely.

On the other hand, it became such a passion that I gave up certain activities so I could pursue it. The biggest thing I gave up was my Saturday golf outings with my friends. They didn’t understand. Not many people did. But that’s all right, because the Lord has enabled me through these thirty-plus years to “roll with the punches.”

I think one reason why the average person doesn’t understand writing (or writers) is because they don’t understand the hard work that goes into writing prose and other literary works. They don’t understand that the easier a piece is to read, the harder an author worked to make it look easy.

Don’t let naysayers discourage you from your calling. Our God is good, and He will bring your literary dreams to pass if you continue to follow and obey Him, and persist toward your goal of publication.

Dr. Luke’s Missing Man

Why did Paul’s partner-in-ministry, Dr. Luke, do this? And to a fellow Gentile believer, of all things. Why didn’t he include Titus in his book of Acts? Well, I have no idea. Titus was involved in Paul’s ministry almost from the start. After all, Paul might have led him to Christ (Titus 1:4).

In Galatians, Paul writes that he and Barnabas took Titus to Jerusalem (Galatians 2:1). Perhaps Titus accompanied them when they brought relief for a famine that struck the city (Acts 11:28-30), or maybe he was present at Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) when Paul and Barnabas defended the Gentiles coming to faith in Christ.

During Paul’s third missionary tour, Titus was most active. Though Paul refers to him often in 2 Corinthians, he’s also mentioned in 2 Timothy and, of course, Galatians. Paul wrote a letter to him that bears his name, either in 64 or 66 A.D. Its date depends on whether Paul had one or two Roman imprisonments.

On his third missionary tour, Paul spent lots of time in Ephesus (Acts 20). Upon leaving that city, he sent some coworkers ahead and then traveled to Troas, on the coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) to meet Titus. Titus, however, never showed up (2 Corinthians 2:12-13).

So, Paul continued to Macedonia where he finally rejoined Titus, who’d been in Achaia (Greece) working on Paul’s behalf (2 Corinthians 7:5-7). The church at Corinth had a myriad of problems Titus was trying to deal with. We know this because he brought Paul a report about them (2 Corinthians 7:5-6, 13-15). This prompted Paul to write 2 Corinthians, which Titus probably carried back to that church.

If Paul had two Roman imprisonments, the second one not recorded in Acts, then Titus accompanied him to Crete. And Crete’s mission field was just as difficult as Corinth’s. What was Titus’s mission there? To establish and oversee its church (Titus 1:5). Paul described the Cretans as “liars, evil beasts, slow bellies “(Titus 1:12, KJV). Slow bellies is sometimes translated gluttons.

Church tradition says Titus became the first bishop of Crete. Like the Apostle John, he lived a long life. It is said he passed away peacefully at age 97, into the presence of Jesus.

Paragraphs: The Long and Short of Them

Among today’s reading pubic, most readers prefer lots of white space on the page. That is–short paragraphs.

Although I enjoy such literary classics as Ivanhoe and The Man in the Iron Mask, with their long paragraphs, I try not to write many lengthy paragraphs in my articles and stories.

Note that I said: not many. Why? Because an occasional long paragraph is acceptable. However, long paragraphs should be the exception, not the rule, because stories abounding with long paragraphs are hard to read. And face it, thanks to movies and television, today’s reading public have short attention spans.

What are the rules for an average paragraph length? There are none. Ideas are a paragraph’s central focus, not sentences. Here I share some of my thoughts on the subject.

A Few Thoughts

  • Avoid long descriptive paragraphs. Instead, work the description into the story’s action and give just enough to establish setting and/or a character.
  • Vary the length of paragraphs to establish rhythm. Just as music has rhythms and beats, so should our writing. Variety helps writers establish their “music on the page.” Want a relaxed rhythm for a while? Use long paragraphs. Want a fast rhythm? Use short paragraphs.
  • Use long paragraphs to give readers a break. If we use constant tension and short paragraphs, we exhaust readers. This may cause them to stop reading our book. Hey, everyone needs a break!
  • Use long paragraphs to give readers a “false sense of security.” That way, you can surprise them with something unexpected, such as an event or crisis.
  • Use frequent short paragraphing to create tension.
  • Use snippets of dialogue between the characters to strengthen conflict.

An Example

In Book Two of my Civil War naval series, Southern Sons-Dixie Daughters, one of my protagonists is Danny Yates, an escaped slave who’s found service aboard a Union warship in Admiral David Farragut’s West Gulf Squadron. In this brief scene, Danny gets in trouble with the ship’s steward, named Bridges, as well as his captain, Charles Vincent. The dialogue snippets are in bold type.

“Quit dragging your feet,” Bridges snapped.

“Don’t rush me,” Danny snapped back.

“Belay that back talk!”

“Belay yourself.”


Danny halted at the wardroom hatch. Captain Charles Vincent called his name, his voice an iron fist in a velvet glove.

His scowl deepening, Danny looked at the captain.

“Did Bridges tell you not to talk back to him?” Vincent said.

“Yes, sir.”

“Then why do you keep doing it?”

“Because I wanted to. I ain’t nobody’s slave no more. I ain’t in the mood.”

“You aren’t a slave on this ship.”

“I feel like one.”

Hopefully, you get the idea.

  • Use one-sentence paragraphs for emphasis. One warning is in order, though. Do not use this technique often because it will lose its effectiveness

An Example

This example comes from a work-in-progress, tentatively titled, Circuit Rider: A Novel of the Creek War. I wrote this one-sentence paragraph to emphasize Barnaby’s pending mischief because it was central to what happened in the scene.

Barnaby reached into his bulging coat pocket and gripped one.

At the same time, Reverend Phineas Able Steward strummed his violin and sang a hymn, pausing periodically with an enthusiastic gesture for his small audience to join in. Two raccoons trotted past him, and two coyotes from somewhere in the woods gave earsplitting howls.

Rigid as statues, the town’s citizens stared straight ahead at the lanky, hollow-cheeked preacher, the tension tauter than a banjo string.

I didn’t reveal what Barnaby had in his pocket here because I wanted to create some suspense and urge my readers to keep reading.


Browne, Renni, and Dave King. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. 2nd ed. New York: William Morrow, 2004.

Cheney, Theodore A. Rees. Getting the Words Right: How to Revise, Edit & Rewrite. 3rd printing. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1985.

Madden, David. Revising Fiction: A Handbook for Writers. New York and Scarborough, Ontario: New American Library, 1988.

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, 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 had rescued us. It was then that I learned not to believe everything I read in a newspaper. 

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 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 a 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!

Copy editing, Proofreading, and Style Sheets

A style sheet is an important tool for authors. Today, we’ll discuss it, as well as copy editing and proofreading.

Good copyediting is crucial to presenting an article, story, or book to the public. In traditional publishing, every piece of writing goes through the copyediting process before publication, and other edits and proofreading follow.

Good copy editing is crucial to presenting an article, story, or book to the public. In traditional publishing, every piece of writing goes through the copy editing process before publication.

However, as we shall see, copy editing and proofreading aren’t the same things. Copy editors have numerous duties when reviewing a manuscript. First, this editor looks at the book’s overall picture then he/she delves deep.

A Few Things Copy Editors Look For

  1. Readability and flow: In other words, is the writing smooth, or is it awkward and difficult to read?
  2. Omitted or misspelled words
  3. Inconsistencies: For example, consistency in characters’ descriptions throughout the book. If a character is described as having red hair in one scene and black hair in another scene, the copy editor would catch this and tell the author.
  4. Punctuation: For example, Oxford commas or serial commas. Keep all punctuation, such as this, consistent. Whichever way the author uses commas (and other punctuation), the use must be consistent throughout the manuscript.
  5. Style: Did the author follow the publisher’s style requirements? For example, a publisher may want chapter headings spelled out (Chapter One) instead of using an ordinal number (Chapter 2).
  6. Format: Did the author follow the publisher’s format? Does the publisher want all the lines double-spaced? What kind of font does the publisher want writers to use? These kinds of things can usually be found on a publisher’s website. In the pre-computer days, we writers would send publishers a self-addressed, stamped envelope(SASE) for writer’s guidelines.
  7. Fact-checks: Were the author’s facts accurate? Did the author misquote a source? And similar things.
  8. Plagiarism and Libel: Checks the author on these, and other literary legal matters, to be sure he/she didn’t break the law.

When writing our stories and books, I recommend using a style sheet. These come in handy for both nonfiction and fiction writers. I create my own style sheets, though templates are also available on the internet. By referring to them, we keep our writing consistent and make the copy editor’s job easier.

Fiction Style Sheets

Though this list is not comprehensive, here are a few things to consider when creating a style sheet for your novel or short story:

  1. Title and subtitle (if any)
  2. A brief summary of the book
  3. Style Used. Most traditional publishers use The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS)
  4. Punctuation, such as Oxford commas
  5. Unusual words/terms to keep their spelling consistent
  6. Format
  7. Characters: Names & nicknames, description, dialogue & special words they use, personality, occupation, motivations
  8. Setting(s), buildings & streets, etc.
  9. Time/Distances between settings (if needed)
  10. Dates of Events

Every writer, whether fiction or nonfiction, can (and should) design a style sheet to meet his/her own literary needs.


After a manuscript is copy edited, the next step toward publication is proofreading.

Whereas copy editors make suggestions and help improve an author’s work, proofreaders don’t do this. Proofreaders review a manuscript’s proofs—a manuscript’s final copy before it goes to print.

Proofreaders look for such things as grammar, punctuation, syntax, and typos. In other words, the small thing before the work is published.  

The Creek War (1813-1814), Part 14, Horseshoe Bend

Tohopeka, a Creek village consisting of three hundred hastily built cabins, sat on the toe of a sharp bend in the Tallapoosa River that resembled a horseshoe. The village was temporary, meant to protect Red Stick women and children. Some one-thousand warriors guarded it under the leadership of a fearless chief, Menawa.

Across this peninsula’s four-hundred-yard-wide neck, the Red Sticks had erected a log barricade five to eight feet high, with loopholes for muskets. It was built in such a way that their guns could catch the Americans in a cross-fire if, and when, they attacked. These warriors were the Red Sticks’ best, the last great hope for victory over General Jackson.

With his army now reinforced with regular soldiers—the Thirty-ninth Infantry, Tennessee militia, friendly Cherokees and Creeks (under the command of William McIntosh) and two small cannon. Jackson left his base on the Coosa River on March 21, 1814. To get to Horseshoe Bend, his men cut a road over fifty miles long across ridges. His force consisted of 2,000 infantry, 700 cavalry, and 600 Indians. Lieutenant Sam Houston, later of Texas Revolution fame, was an officer in the Thirty-ninth. Also, Major Lemuel P. Montgomery, for whom Alabama’s Montgomery County would be named.

By March 26, Jackson’s army camped within six miles of the Bend. On March 27, he gave his orders and his men prepared for their attack.

Jackson’s Battle Order

  1. Coffee’s Cavalry and Indians: positioned three miles below Tohopeka, surrounding it to cut off the Red Sticks’ retreat.
  2. Jackson’s artillery: positioned on a hill to pound the breastworks. 
  3. Jackson’s infantry: make a frontal assault after the artillery’s bombardment.

The Battle of Horseshoe Bend

By 10:30 A.M. Jackson arrived at the Horseshoe. Soon after, Coffee’s troopers and Indians positioned themselves across the Tallapoosa.

Some Cherokees under the command of Colonel Gideon Morgan swam across the river without orders and stole the enemy’s canoes. To compensate for this, Coffee shifted part of his force to the tip of the Bend and kept other men in reserve.

Using the stolen canoes, the Cherokees and friendly Creeks began crossing the Tallapoosa in increasing numbers. Three hundred men, including some Indians, attacked Tohopeka during Jackson’s artillery barrage. Fierce fighting ensued. Tohopeka was burned.

Meanwhile, for two hours, Jackson’s cannons kept roaring and pounding the barricade to no effect. Then he ordered a frontal assault. The Thirty-ninth Infantry led the attack, Lemuel P. Montgomery and Sam Houston running toward the barricade ahead of everyone else. Montgomery scaled the barricade and was shot down. Houston scaled it next. An arrow flew into his thigh, two rifle balls smashed his shoulder later.

Although the Thirty-ninth did most of the fighting, the Tennessee militia supported it. It was a brutal battle—hand to hand, musket to musket.

At last, Jackson gained control of the situation and headed toward the Bend. After five hours of conflict, with darkness settling over the battlefield, the fighting ended.

Coffee’s men shot those who’d tried to escape across the river.


Chief Menawa, though wounded seven times in the battle, survived by playing dead till nightfall. He then crawled to the river and made his escape in a canoe. During Jackson’s presidency, he was sent to Oklahoma on the infamous Trail of Tears.

To get a proper casualty count after the battle, Jackson ordered his men to cut off the tips of the dead Red Sticks’ noses after the battle.

Fighting continued in other sectors, but the war was won. This fight vaulted Andrew Jackson to national prominence. It was the first step on his road to the Presidency of the United States.


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

Holland, James W. Victory at the Horseshoe: Andrew Jackson and the Creek War. Eastern National with the cooperation of the University of Alabama Press and Horseshoe Bend National Military Park, 2004

Waselkov, Gregory A. A Conquering Spirit: Fort Mims and the Redstick War of 1813-14. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006.

Contented as a Dog

One day this past summer, I watched my dog lay beneath my fig tree. She rested her gold-colored head between her forepaws and shut her eyes. I laughed to myself, thinking how easy she had it. I fed her every day, gave her water, took her on walks, played with her–essentially, I provided for her every need, and she was contented.

We who know God have it made, too, if we would just learn to be content. But it’s hard to be content with the world hawking its luxuries. Every time we visit a shopping mall or turn on the TV, we’re bombarded with temptations to buy things we don’t need. Don’t misunderstand me. Nothing’s wrong with owning a few luxuries, so long as we’re not discontented with God’s provision. It’s the grasping hand God frowns upon, the compulsion to want more. “And if we have food and covering, with these we shall be content,” Paul said in 1 Timothy 6:8 (NAS). If this is true of animals like my dog, how much more should it be true of us.

Copyright Jack Cunningham. Originally published in Evangel, August 9, 1999. Free Methodist Church, Light and Life Communications.